Wholesome Wave Foundation
To try a recipe for wild mushroom, bacon, and arugula fritatta from Michel's upcoming cookbook, Sustainably Delicious, click here.
You could open the garage door of our prefab house in Des Plaines, Illinois, during the early '60s and see neat stacks of meticulously marked cases of Ball Mason jars labeled banana peppers, tomatoes, green beans, apples, pickled peaches, beets, and so on. The maker was my mom, a displaced farmer from Scott County, Missouri, who torch-sang her way north when it became apparent that life on a south-central Midwest farm was no longer an option for a living. The "terroir" was our backyard garden at 9301 Noel Street, and what was left of a few farm stands on Golf Road. The "consumers" were our family of six—Mom, Dad, and us four kids.
The context that created the garden and all those boxes of wonderful food was significant: our family had very limited income and was managed by parents who had lived through the Great Depression. That both parents had to work full-time to make ends barely meet would explain their belief that the "next Depression" was imminent.
Times got better—then, in the end, not so good, as my dad finished his life opening, sweeping, and closing a small-town laundromat to keep the mortgage paid. A very good man who struggled until the very end. But for all the struggles endured, the food was always good—and my mom always fed the neighborhood kids, no matter how many. My dad, concerned, would ask mom why she fed so many when we had so little. Mom would answer, "They're kids and they're hungry." I now understand the pressures my parents felt and deeply appreciate what they were able to provide while protecting us from their significant challenges.
I grew up knowing not only what a ripe tomato was but also what kind, when it was ripe-and-ready, or if it was best for canning or pickling. We were relatively poor, but never hungry. What I did not realize until I grew older and became a chef was just how lucky we kids were to grow up knowing real food.
After decades as a chef and sustainability advocate, I consider with awe how my mom made things work in an environment increasingly hostile to food independence. I spent years grappling with the guilt of being able to provide locally and regionally grown food only to folks who can afford fine living. I've had serious difficulties reconciling that good food, once doable for low-income families, was now only available to affluent communities or the lucky few who have land and gumption to grow their own.
In short, our food system has gone horribly wrong. While I don't believe this happened by intent, the results are dire for most Americans. In considering a solution, we looked to America's most forgotten neighborhoods—where heroes are not assumed to exist. Surprisingly, wholesome food is in demand in these areas popularly referred to as "food deserts." These communities, because of poverty and culture, have a sense of frugality that is unmatched—a powerful tool for change. Much to the surprise and chagrin of occasional detractors, folks in these communities actually want to feed their families wholesome food. Unfortunately, in the scant few cases where it is available, it is not affordable.