Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps Country Director recently opined in the New York Times that “For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.” He argued that the Peace Corps sends too many recent college grads who lack the skills to do their jobs. I disagree with Strauss and wrote the following response. Other letters both agreed and disagreed with his assessment. Perhaps it’s not fair to generalize from one’s own experience–which goes for Strauss and me.
I pride myself on being an omnivore–at least I did until I read Michael Pollan’s,"The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." In it, he explains how the food that’s on our plates–whether it’s a Big Mac from McDonald’s, an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods, a local meal produced by a sustainable farm or one that you might hunt for yourself makes it to the table. The book lives up to the dictionary definition of dilemma, "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives." The story of how food arrives on our plates is complex–but Pollan explains it in heartbreaking detail–the amount of carbon fuel required to produce organic crops, the bushels of corn required to fatten a chicken to the guilty pleasure he gets from hunting–it’s all in there, in wonderful, engrossing detail.
Having read the book, I almost wish that I had not eaten from Pollan’s tree of knowledge–I want back into my ignorant Garden of Eatin’ where I was happy with the stories I purchased from Whole Foods or the convenience of my McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Though I must continue eating, it’s impossible to revert to ignorance–instead, I have to live in denial. It won’t be the first time. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived close to Pollan’s ideal. My family had a garden, kept animals, and prided themselves on growing everything without chemicals and preserving foods through natural processes. When I wanted a turkey for an American style Thanksgiving celebration, they introduced me to my neighbors who introduced me to the turkeys. I thought, "I didn’t want to meet and greet you, I just wanted to eat you." but there I was holding the squirming bird to see if he was big enough. (He was.) I must admit, those were some of the most delectable birds I’ve tasted, but still I longed for the familiar seemingly antiseptic Butterball. They were so much less messy.
All of the sudden those folks who are trying to eat local seem a little bit more rational, and I’m longing for the days when my Lithuanian hosts would go out and grab the eggs from the chicken coop in the morning. I used to fret when I met an animal, and they told me when he was going to expire–"oh, the pig? Easter." I was still living in my saran wrapped cocoon of ignorance. Now my cozy cocoon’s been torn again–and I’m thinking, heh, isn’t New Jersey the Garden State? Maybe there’s an answer on a local farm…