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Wisconsin

At a service station in Wisconsin today, I was intrigued by a logo and slogan proclaiming, "SQUAWKERS(R): WHERE THE CHICKEN ALWAYS COMES FIRST.(R)"

"Could it really be?" I thought. "A brand that's trying to bring ethically raised meat into the mainstream?" Not so much, at least from what I can discern over at the Squawkers (R) web site. Turns out what's meant by "chicken" is not the animal, nor even the meat, but it must be new corporate slang for: MONEY! Apparently, the brand simply serves as a way to move more prepared foods out the door. "Why branding?" you ask. Well...

Over the weekend in Sheboygan, we stayed with our friends Chris and Amy Nonhof, along with their children Alex, Sam and Chloe. We had a wonderful time visiting with them and exploring what their region of Wisconsin has to offer in the way of locally produced food. The Nonhofs are members of Oostburg Christian Reformed Church in a small hamlet just south of Sheboygan.

One of the things Oostburg CRC has organized to help address hunger issues in their area is a monthly Harvest Outreach Sunday. Basically, they realized that food pantries really struggle after the boom months of November and December when many congregations remember the hungry alongside their holiday feasting. In response, Oostburg CRC holds a food drive on the first Sunday of every month. The Sunday before, there's an announcement about what the pantry needs and the following Sunday, the congregation responds with gifts out of their abundance.

Chris and Amy, who are members of a local CSA and maintain a small back yard garden, hope to figure out this year how they can contribute fresh produce for the food pantry.

Natascha MalloyOn Saturday afternoon, Rob and I wandered around the Sheboygan farmer's market with a video camera, interviewing several folks about how their values influence their food choices. People were at the market for a variety of reasons; physical health, animal ethics, community, environmental justice and flavor all made the collective list. Some had been shopping farmer's markets for years, while others were just starting out. One woman we talked to had just read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and was trying to put what she'd learned into practice. Another woman expressed her desire to integrate healthy eating with the practice of yoga and her faith as a member of a local Catholic church.

One very interesting quality of the Sheboygan farmer's market is that approximately three-quarters of the sellers come out of the local Laotian community. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong people who had sided with U.S. forces fled their country as refugees and ended up in southeastern Wisconsin. In fact, the first Hmong Christian Reformed Church is located in Sheboygan and many local CRC congregations financially support the Hmong church's outreach to the immigrant community. Our best guess as to the high percentage of Hmong farmers at the market is that the refugees started growing traditional foods they couldn't find in Wisconsin supermarkets in the 70s and with the resurgence of farmer's markets, they've found a money-making outlet that intersects with their agricultural tradition.

The longest, most in-depth conversation we had at the market on Saturday was with Natasha Molloy, who was at a corner booth selling bread. Her husband Dean bakes artisan sourdough loaves loaded with seeds, nuts and other organic, healthful ingredients, while Natasha helps with other aspects of their business, called RealBread. She and Dean actually met at an ayurvedic institute where Dean was cooking. Today, in addition to raising two children and holding down other jobs, the Malloys run RealBread, selling at several area farmer's markets and maintaining a bread share program modeled on Community Supported Agriculture.

Born and raised in India, Natasha said that her upbringing taught her the values of eating a variety of foods and eating foods that take a lot of time to prepare. She and her family regularly attend a Unitarian church, while adhering to traditional principles of Veda, which is not a formal religion, but a way of life. Practices that emerge from this way of life include yoga, which aligns the body, mind and soul in preparation for long periods of meditation. Eating a wide variety of whole, organic foods is also a practice the Malloys take very seriously--seriously enough to start a business as a way of inviting others into more conscious, healthy living.

Even though we were coming to eating well from quite different angles, we found a lot of overlap in our desires for a healthy earth, creative preparation and loving stewardship of the body. I also appreciated her perspective on the interconnectedness of mind, body and soul, which I think we Christians sometimes tend to neglect in spite of Jesus' example and our understanding of our created nature. The gorp bread--with raisins and a variety of seeds and nuts--that we bought from Natasha was delicious and made a great addition to the snacks at the workshop we conducted the next evening at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Sheboygan. In many ways, food is something that can unite diverse people in love and hospitality for conversation, encouragement and imagination.

A murmur rippled through the crowd perched on the tractor-drawn wagon. "That's Joe Leibham. In the red shirt. He's a state senator." As the wagon rounded the corner on the way from the parking field to the farm, Senator Leibham waved. Suddenly, I had a much better understanding of how the annual Dairy Breakfast functions in Wisconsin.

When we scheduled our stop in Sheboygan for the Eat Well Food Tour, we didn't realize we'd be there over Father's Day weekend. We also didn't realize we'd be in Sheboygan County on the weekend of the Dairy Breakfast, which draws thousands of people and moves from farm to farm each year, celebrating local agriculture throughout the state.

Community is a primary theme at the breakfast. Originally a means of connecting people with the sources of their food, the organizers maintain that goal by serving Wisconsin dairy products and hosting farm tours and other interactive events for families. While karaoke in the breakfast tent was an attempt to involve more folks in the morning's entertainment, the blaring music ironically inhibited conversation and was probably none too pleasant for the nearby cows, who were mostly massed in one corner as far away from the crowds as possible.

Another theme of the breakfast was abundance, as participants revel in the rich agricultural potential of the local region. The breakfast itself consisted of a huge helping of ham and cheese eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese cubes, bagels with cream cheese, donut holes, coffee and, of course, milk. The line between gluttony and feasting is pretty fine sometimes and I certainly can't make a call on that issue on behalf of everyone at the breakfast. I was mindful of a statistic I heard recently: the number of obese people in the world has just surpassed the number of malnourished people in the world, which begs the question of whether we in North America feast all too often.

Commerce is also a huge theme of the breakfast, in both positive and negative ways. As the current Alice in Dairyland suggested, buying food produced in the state helps maintain a healthy economy and support family farms. But I wasn't seeing much in the way of celebrating how eating local represents good stewardship of the earth by cutting down on transportation resources and encouraging seasonal habits. Pioneer had sponsored the paper plates and Ulta Genetics had branded the Styrofoam cups. Culver's was giving out custard for dessert (can you have dessert after breakfast?) in plastic cups with no recycling option available that I could see. (In case you're wondering, Rob and I brought our re-usable camp dishes along.)

Garrit and Muriel Ledeboer

Before we left, we had the opportunity to talk with Garrit and Muriel Ledeboer, the patriarch and matriarch of the family that runs the farm where this year's breakfast was held. A long-time member of First Reformed Church in Oostburg, Mrs. Ledeboer emphasized the family's dependence on God for everything, from sun to rain to good soil to healthy animals. The family has strived to honor the created rhythms of nature, as well as the rhythm of work and rest revealed at the very beginning of the Christian story. One year, she says, they even lost a crop because they didn't bring the hay in on a Sunday before it rained, but they trusted God to provide if they honored the Sabbath. Mrs. Ledeboer still cooks hearty breakfasts and lunches for the farm crew and sees that her children and grandchildren are increasingly conscious about the sources of their food.

I would have liked to talk to one of the Ledeboer sons before we left, but we had to get back to Sheboygan in time to make the farmer's market. My hope would be that the younger generation of this farming family would be able to further articulate how Christian faith distinguishes their specific farming practices, perhaps in contrast to other "faiths" that shape commercial agriculture today, including consumerism and rationalism, to the peril of the animals caught up in the system.

Gary Lee Farms

This weekend in Sheboygan has been a smorgasbord of local goodies. There seems to be an awareness, at least in this part of Wisconsin, that eating locally is good for the state's business, good for our bodies and good for the earth.

Of course, it's not perfect. Eating too much locally crafted cheese or drinking too much locally brewed beer might stimulate the state economy, while clogging up, uh, certain other necessary functions. Also, we've seen very few enterprises that have it all together (like a local food celebration that produces tons of disposable food service waste). That said, at least the local options exist with active state support, unlike many other areas of the country, which I anticipate leads to less dependence on food from far-away states and countries.

I've already written about Field to Fork; we also enjoyed visiting Hops Haven Brew Haus, where you can purchase micro brews from the tap in half-gallon, re-usable jugs called growlers.

Breakfast on the Farm

Then, this morning, we headed out to the annual Sheboygan County Dairy Breakfast at the Gary Lee Farm, owned and operated by the Ledeboer family. Started in 1982, the breakfast was and is still a way of connecting people with the sources of their food. Since then, the breakfast has rotated to various farms, drawing thousands of people for a feast of Wisconsin specialties. They weren't kidding about it being a "dairy" breakfast: the menu included eggs with ham and cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese cubes, bagels with cream cheese, chocolate milk and even Culver's custard for dessert. In looking for information about the breakfast online, I stumbled on a listing at EatLocalEatDairy.com, which has a plethora of resources for eating closer to home.

And what's so great about eating local? What does it have to do with Christian faith? What we're hearing in interviews and informal conversations is a distinct regard for healthy, personal relationships as the foundation of a good food system. Cultivating those kinds of relationships with our food choices is congruous with other areas of our lives in which relationships matter: knowing if our neighbor is hungry and acting on a responsibility to help, wanting our selection of things like coffee and chocolate to help not hurt farmers around the world, hoping our children grow up with a healthy regard for our call to care for the earth's creatures. There's a recognition that caring for the health of one's own body is just a starting point; being healthy also involves right relationship, seeking others' welfare in conjunction with honoring ourselves as children of God.

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While visiting our friend John at Kinnikinnick Farm yesterday (more to come on that visit), the farmers recommended Stefano Viglietti's family of Italian restaurants in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. When we mentioned Stefano's to our friend Chris, who's hosting us in Sheboygan, his eyes lit up. Apparently, Stefano has quite a following in the area, with one of only a handful of U.S. restaurants certified by a Neopolitan pizza organization from Italy. We made the pilgrimage downtown to Field to Fork, the little grocery attached to the restaurants, to pick up some fresh, crusty bread to go with the lasagna Amy made for dinner and also grabbed some local chocolate milk and lady finger popcorn as treats. Field to Fork is one of those "I'll take one of everything" kinds of places with a delightful blend of international gourmet goods and locally-produced, organic goods like milk, cheese, produce and preserves. It reminds me of the importance of holding mindfulness of those who are hungry in tension with the abundance present in the creative, aesthetic delight of really good good.