In October, we found ourselves at Keachi Acres, the homestead of Mary and Tom Nesbitt, about 45 minutes south of Shreveport, LA. I had thought, after reading their farm profile on WWOOF, that Tom and Mary might be hippies, that they’d have long hair and loads of tie-dye. Although they did drop out of “mainstream life” and spent more than 7 years living on a sailboat, my expectations could not have been further off-base!
Keachi Acres is a nature camp with two bunkhouses straight out of a 70’s coming of age flick, a walking trail through the woods, the classic wood plank pier reaching out into a small pond and a small garden. The 200 acre property lies just outside of the tiny (and strangely intriguing) town of Keachi, surrounded by fields and forest and pine tree farms. On your way to the main house (a spacious timber frame built by Tom in healthier days), you pass through storybook pastures of tall grass, a non-descript double-wide trailer, a pair of pampered horses, and an unbelievably adorable pony grazing beneath a sizable array of solar panels.
Most of our time there was spent preparing for a camp Mary was hosting towards the end of our stay. Mary’s daughter had arranged for 8-10 teenage boys from a church-based program in Shreveport to stay over one night. Initially, Mary had some concerns. She worried about having enough for them to eat and enough for older kids to do. I also think there was some trepidation about being out of her element – she was used to hosting camps for tween girls and boys and she wasn’t quite sure if she could manage a bunch of “under-served” 16- and 17-year olds from the city.
The campers arrived early on a Saturday morning beneath clouds threatening rain. We stood out in a field by the road as Mary and the guys raised the flag. A multi-colored patchwork amidst tall green grass, with faces tilted upward, we dutifully recited the pledge of allegiance. (And wow, that was weird! When was the last time I said the pledge?!) Then we split into groups. JC took half the guys fishing at the pond and Annabelle, Mary’s horseback riding companion, helped the rest get in the saddle for a short trot around the horse pen.
The campers at the pond were having a terrific time, so proud of themselves for catching fish, their faces lighting up with the same amazed pleasure that mine had when I caught my first mackerel in Maine. After the two groups switched activities, there was lunch, candy coating of apples and some job-related educational talks about the solar and timber industries from working professionals.
The rain had come in fits and starts, spraying just enough to wet the campfire wood and throw a damp chill over everything. Through it all the campers forged on, overly polite, upbeat, affable. JC and I were in charge of leading groups in Camp Craft – pitching a tent, building a fire, etc. – while Mary took the other group on a walk to identify trees, plants and animals on the trail. We pitched the tents in the large bunkhouse, out of the rain. Many of the guys had been camping before (and fishing and horseback riding, as well) but everyone still wanted to get into the tents once they were up.
With intense persistence, the campers did manage to get the fire going eventually, despite the rain. We sat around the campfire at dinnertime, roasting hot dogs and heating beans. JC and I tried to explain what we were doing with the Good Foot Project and our journey learning about organic food and sustainability. The guys were quiet as they happily devoured their Ballpark franks cradled in impossibly white buns and beans that had, only a few moments ago, been in a very large can. I’m pretty sure they thought we were absolutely nuts. I mean, why would anyone ever leave a nice house and a comfy life in LA to work for free growing vegetables and living out of a camper? We might as well have been talking about living on Mars.
I often think about the bubble we enjoyed on our farmstays where almost everyone agreed on the importance of eating food grown without chemicals, respecting animals and conserving our precious natural resources (and had the money / time / inclination to do something about it.). Yes, it takes extra effort to live in this way. It’s also really difficult to talk about these choices with people who haven’t made that sort of commitment. There are such strong emotional, cultural and social forces affecting what people eat. (More on this in a later post.)
I mean the whole objective of the Good Foot Project is to share what we learn about organic food production, sustainability and resource management. I can post article after article, but when I have the opportunity to actually connect with a 16-year old face-to-face, how do I raise their awareness about the many problems in our food system?
What makes it harder for me is that I don’t want to run around telling people what to do or how to live. I respect an adult’s personal choices (as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else.) But kids are another story, especially those on the brink of becoming adults.
Food is so sensual. And it clicks on a primal, survival level. When you are feeding someone, you have a terrific opportunity to evangelize to him or her with very few words. When I stay with my mother, I make quick, simple meals out of whole foods (organic whenever possible) to show her how easy and affordable clean food can be. Programs at schools that offer kids a chance to grow their own food are right on target. As Ron Finley said in his blockbuster TED talk, “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. But when none of this is presented to them, if they’re not shown how food affects the mind and the body, they blindly eat whatever you put in front of them.”
Now, please don’t get me wrong; I’m not faulting Mary in the slightest. She did a great thing hosting the camp and bought all of the food out of her own pocket. Obviously, she had to have a reasonable budget and a plan for keeping things manageable. She also wanted the kids to be happy. She did what she thought was right for the campers and herself. I get it.
I just think we can do better. Wait, let me rephrase that – I think I can do better. At the camp dinner, I could’ve taken it upon myself to make a veggie filled side dish out of my own pocket and used that as a jumping off point for a conversation. I could’ve spent more time asking questions than trying to “educate” or “broaden horizons”.
Learning how to start a fire was clearly thrilling for the campers. Every single one of them was fully engaged, committed to getting that campfire started. I think they will carry that experience with them for the rest of their lives. One day, I hope, we can figure out how to ignite that kind of commitment to sustainable food in more and more of those outside of our bubble. Our world depends on it.