Many years ago, 34, I think, I spent two weeks visiting my brother who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa.
A year later I spent two weeks with another brother, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines.
Things I witnessed and experienced during both of those adventures continue to influence the way I think about survival—especially regarding a person’s ability to find food—and about how fortunate most Americans are to have the abundance, variety and healthy food choices as close as a nearby supermarket.
That’s not to imply that every American is well-fed. We know that’s not the case. Poverty stalks too large a segment of our population, and hunger is its most visible and devastating symptom. We have work to do on that front.
But I recall visiting villages in both Sierra Leone and the Philippines where folks spent most of their day gathering, hunting, fishing or begging for food. I remember long lines waiting to buy a limited supply of bread. Contrast that to standing in front of a 50-foot long, multi-tiered shelf packed with every kind of bread you can think of: white bread, whole wheat, multi-grain, rye, pumpernickel, potato bread, low calorie, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, buns with sesame seeds and buns without.
And that doesn’t consider the selections at the bakery where one can find French bread, brown bread, hard bread, soft bread—all freshly baked a few feet away and still holding onto that aroma that only fresh-baked bread can emit.
And then there is the half-acre section where one can find just about any fruit or vegetable grown just about anywhere—guavas, mangoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, lemons, limes, ginger root, peppers, artichokes and items for which I have no name and no idea how they would be prepared.
Canned goods, frozen foods, fresh and canned meats, dairy products fresh and frozen, butter and butter-like concoctions, more yogurt flavors than can be believed, all are available. Candy, cookies and drinks—hard and soft—take up several aisles.
We don’t have to hunt—except for the correct aisle where we might be able to find canned tuna or chili with or without beans. We don’t have to fish, except to choose whether we want salmon—wild or farm-raised—scrod, tilapia, catfish or about a dozen other fish or seafood items that people in the villages of Sierra Leone or at a far remove from Manila have never heard of.
I recall eating things in each of those countries that I likely would never try again—unless I get really hungry. After tasting fish heads and rice and boiled octopus, I have no desire to make sushi a regular part of my diet. But I still enjoy collard greens, even after eating boiled sweet potato leaves.
I remember seeing rice fields, stunted plants pushing through burned over brush. I recall rice terraces in the Philippines—step-like slivers stretching from the bottom of a mountain to beyond visibility, where farmers have grown rice for millennia. They bring rice down balanced on each end of a long pole borne on the harvester’s shoulders. Rice dries on rooftops before being threshed by hand.
Today I think about how fortunate I am, and I think about why it’s possible for me to spend my day writing instead of scrounging for food. I’m thankful that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population provides enough food for the rest of us. And that they supply cotton, leather and wool for clothing and comfort.
Today, March 8, is National Agriculture Day. And anyone who eats today or anyone who has comfortable clothes to wear or anyone who slept in a bed with cotton sheets last night owes a debt of gratitude to the farmers and ranchers who make all that possible.
Thank you, so much!