I engaged in the official Ag Day celebrations in the nation’s Capital this month and even took home a copy of USDA Secretary Vilsack’s National Agriculture Day Proclamation with excerpts such as “….whereas American agriculture builds on centuries of progress by constantly seeking advances in science, research, technology, production, and marketing to meet the demands of changing consumer needs and complex world markets; and whereas American agriculture helps feed the world…”
It was a day of celebrations and events across the country with Twitter aflutter with “what are you doing to celebrate Ag Day?” While I was fortunate to participate in the Washington, D.C. events, I found a greater appreciation of our country's agricultural history in my recent, three-day ethereal connection in Ponca State Park, Nebraska. My original retreat purpose was designed to exploit the extraordinary spring-like weather in March and become a “birder” observing a plethora of diverse migrating bird species affectionately facilitating “Marsh Madness.” I witnessed over 30 species of birds (this is a big deal to me because I’m not sure I can even identify my backyard birds let alone Great Plains migrations!). Though hardly my “Big Year,” my “big weekend” included witnessing a Great Horned Owl guarding eggs on a nest and other native birds like the American Kestrel, Northern Shoveler, Hooded Merganser, Blue AND Green Winged Teals, Northern Flicker and, of course, our patriotic emblem: Bald Eagles.
The experience was unforgettable and I now consider myself an amateur birder, but the weekend also touched me in another way. I was completely awestruck by the sweeping vistas of the mighty Missouri and all of its massive contributions to American agriculture, farming and industrialization over hundreds and even thousands of years of American history.
My favorite landscape in Ponca is the Buffalo Bluff, where Native Americans once herded stampedes of the sacred buffalo over the cliffs as an innovative solution to provide food and resources for their people. And, as pictured in one of the many sculptures in Ponca’s Towers of Time, the Plains Native Americans were some of our first agrarians and curators of our land. You can’t help but feel a connection when you stand right where they did and take in the great legacy.
As many of the stops along the Missouri behold, one cannot help but be in sheer of awe of our Lewis & Clark -- curious scientists for a curious President seeking new species, new land and new passages. In fact, the Corps of Discovery’s impact on our scientific and agriculture history cannot be overstated. Their expedition led the world to hundreds of new varieties of plants and animals, new native tribes, and an accurate mapping of passage to the Pacific Ocean. The magnitude of their undertaking to seek out new science and discoveries is breathtaking.
Indeed, I can’t think of a more fitting way to reflect on AgDay then by honoring it every day. Spend time learning about our great land and what it has to offer, reflect daily on our connection to nature and its bounty, be grateful for the agriculture contributions from farmers, ranchers, producers and more! But perhaps most importantly, like Lewis & Clark and those Plains Indians that came long before them, we must be continuously curious in our pursuit of new science, new discoveries, new technological advances, and be innovative in our methods to feed ourselves and the world.
I volunteered at my daughter’s 5th grade school party this week, and having spent the latter half of my life involved in food policy issues, I was especially intrigued by the new local school party policy mandating that outside treats are no longer allowed to be brought in to the classroom.
Longing to hang on to old school parenting styles, I wanted to bake those marshmallow rice crispy bars or purchase red & pink heart-shaped themed cupcakes. But we’re not living in an old school parenting society—parents of our generation must learn to govern texting interactions and recognize cyber bullying, just to cite a few of the latest challenges. And so it goes with food, in today’s classrooms, we worry about food allergies, food safety, and heaven forbid, product tampering. Having worked intimately in all three of these critical food issues, I am fully equipped to understand new times calls for new policies.
However, brace yourself, the “safe” snack is a fresh Krispy Kreme donut --every party, every child! Hypocrisy in action? Yes. Mortal sin that will further progress the epidemic of childhood obesity? I am not so sure.
Stepping back a month, I personally applauded the recent actions to make school lunches healthier. In fact, First Lady Michelle Obama stated, "when we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them when they're at home." What parent could argue that? Moreover, when you review statistics of the National School Lunch Program, over 31 million students served, and the fact that for many children, the school lunch is, singlehandedly, the most important meal of their entire day, providing up to ½ of their daily nutritional intake-- It seems to make perfect sense.
But recall the intense and often brutal debate of which food was in and which was out! It was mom versus mom, food policy wonk verus Capitol Hill, nutritionist versus producer-- a bloody battle about potatoes in fries, tomato sauce on pizza, and chocolate flavored milks. So how does one reckon this healthy lunch food policy with the not-so-healthy snack policy of a scrumptious, sugary cake? I’m not sure one can. But I’m not so eager to protest.
Indulging in life’s food pleasures is a teachable moment in the importance of choice, moderation, and personal responsibility. Some of my fondest memories in childhood were trips to the candy store with Grandpa, a surprise HoHo from mom, and when those plastic 2 liters of soda were introduced to households across America. Times are challenging now, no denying the plethora of quick and empty calorie snacks combined with the crunch for time in governing our kid’s choices. But demonstrating that it’s okay to enjoy all foods in moderation is just as important and vital to developing healthy children --mind, body, and soul, as is teaching healthy eating and exercise habits. Life is not filled with perfectly packaged trinkets of good and bad, it’s a journey of choices, engagement, and lifelong learning. So, I end with the small notion that we might lighten up a little when it comes to life’s bounty of nourishment, all of it, yes, even including the occasional Krispy Kreme for kids.
Making a green and inviting space outside So Others Might Eat in Washington, D.C.
What if everyone included "paying it forward" in their 2012 resolutions? Volunteer at a local food pantry, show off your agricultural street smarts while honoring J. Sterling Morton and plant a tree, speak to your child's class about your profession, teach English as a second language. You name it, there are endless ways to exploit your own skills in a way that benefits society.
February is a good time to recalibrate and reflect on those pesky and often rote tasks you're determined to make a reality...I will lose x number of pounds, I will spend more time with family, I will cut coupons, etc! Fitness memberships & organized weight loss programs realize their activity peaks each January. What if we resolved to make charitable efforts peak as well?
What ideas do you have for leveraging your talent to help others?