Several years ago I had the opportunity to take part in the Slow Food International’s Terra Madre gathering. It was a place where farmers, chefs, market managers, and all stripes of people involved in the good food movement came together to hear each other’s stories and conspire to preserve and create an alternative to the industrial food system.

Carlo Petrini, the man who started the Slow Food movement after protesting the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome, was one of the keynote speakers of the event. It has been years since I heard the speech, but one word that keeps echoing in my mind from what Petrini said is this: co-producers. We need to stop thinking of ourselves in terms of producers and consumers, he explained. Instead, in a good food economy, a customer should be a co-producer with a farmer. They should both be invested in the process and the product; the people, land, and animals necessary to grow good food.

That might seem like a high ideal, but in Italy it isn’t so hard to imagine. There food is a serious business and people are involved in it for generations. I met balsamic vinegar makers, for instance, that were selling vinegars that had been aging since the time their great grandparents first put them in a cask.  Customers have relationships with the people who make and grow their food and so they are willing to pay a little more to support a friend and neighbor rather than going for the cheapest or most convenient product.

In a place where supermarkets dominate and fast food is still easier to find than farmer’s markets, the idea of being a co-producer rather than a consumer requires a bit more work and imagination.  Here are some suggestions that I try to practice:

  1. Become a member. Find some way to commit to a farm or group of small farmers. Refuse to simply be a part of the anonymous food economy and instead be a part of an effort to provide for a sustainable livelihood for farmers who are caring for the land. For all you conscientious omnivores, a good place to start is with a Grass Roots membership, a subscription service that brings you a regular delivery of responsibly raised meats.
  2. Learn as much as you can about food production. The more you know about how food is raised and raised well the more you will appreciate the food you eat and the farmers who grew it. Farming is hard work, no one is getting rich growing food, and yet it is essential. Raise a couple of backyard chickens to understand, in a small way, the difficulties of animal husbandry. Grow a garden to gain some sense of the wide variables that must be taken into consideration with the growth of any plant. Read a few farming how-to books. All of these small acts will give you a greater appreciation of the food you eat and the profound skill and intelligence required to grow good food.
  3. Say thanks. Our lives are gifts and good food is a gift. If you enjoy a good meal offer thanks to the people who helped make it possible. Make a gesture of thanks to the animal from whose life your own life now finds strength. It may seems strange at first, but with practice it will help make you aware of the many lives that go into growing good food.

Membership, learning, thanksgiving—with those three things we can begin to move toward partnership with the farmers who grow our food and the land and animals upon which such good food is dependent.   Though it will prove difficult at first, perhaps, it will prove so much for satisfying when you eat a burger and know that you are not simply its consumer, but its co-producer in cooperation with all of the lives that intersect with that meal.