Seed to plate: Care where your food comes from

By Heather Gibbons

“You can’t grow a pizza!” said my three year old daughter at dinner one night. She thought that in the movie WALL-E, the captain of the Axiom had made a mistake when, excited by the prospect of returning to a blighted Earth, he said, “You kids are gonna grow all kinds of plants! Vegetable plants, pizza plants!” Since my daughter helps in the garden and in the kitchen, a quick review of how we make a pizza helped her understand that the captain meant the kids would grow wheat, tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for making pizza.

That conversation reminded me of one I wanted to have a few years ago with the young grocery checker who scanned my organic sandwich cookies and looked at me, perplexed. “How do you get organic Oreos,” she asked. I mumbled something about flour and sugar as I grabbed my bags and headed to the car, but I wish I had taken the time to talk more with her about where our food comes from.

There really is a generation of people who believe carrots come from the produce aisle instead of the ground. Thankfully, that’s changing. Unfortunately, it’s taken food scares, increased food allergies, concern over pesticides, and near environmental catastrophe to wake us out of our blissful ignorance.

We can no longer afford to take for granted where our food comes from or how many stops it makes along the way.

The term “food system” is a modern necessity. Until the 1950s, people didn’t need a name for how they got their food. They had gardens, livestock, neighbors. Producing their own food and sharing it was a way of life, not just a way to eat.

When farmer Bret Farhmier explains the food system, he puts it in the simplest of terms: “seed to plate,” but it takes some mental work to consider every aspect of our current complex system. Off the top of my head, I can name fifteen steps or contributors, each which has it’s own list of people and processes: seed companies, farm equipment makers, fertilizer companies, water supplies and irrigation, pest controls, harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing and advertising, selling (to a grocery store), buying (as a consumer), cooking, and eating.

It’s true that the system feeds lots of people on the cheap, but at a dire cost — it has distanced us from the origins of what we eat, making us less concerned about how it’s grown, what it’s made of, and how it got here.

At my daughter’s Montessori school, three rules guide every action: 1. Take care of your environment; 2. Take care of yourself;  and 3. Take care of your friends. In the classroom it means washing your hands, putting away games or composting food waste, and covering your cough.

Here’s what it means in localized or regionalized, sustainable food system:

Taking care of the environment: Farmers who use sustainable methods enrich the soil, choose crops that will thrive without help from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers that eventually end up in the water supply. They typically grow a wide variety of foods, saving heirloom varieties or heritage breeds from extinction.

Taking care of yourself: Local, sustainably grown foods are the freshest and most nutritious foods you can get. Your exposure to chemicals is reduced, and if there were a salmonella or e-coli outbreak, it could be quickly contained.

Taking care of your friends: The local food system bolsters communities by strengthening social bonds. When you buy locally grown foods, you are making connections with people who you might not meet in an ordinary day. You are also providing income to support the farmers’ livelihoods.

It’s also a much more direct path from seed to plate than the industrial quagmire. Imagine actually being on a first name basis with the person who grew your pizza, or even inviting them to help you eat it. This would never happen with Oreos, organic or not.

Here are some things you can do, read and see to get back in touch with where your food comes from:

Choose foods that come from the Earth, not a lab.

Can you imagine your breakfast growing in the sunshine, nourished by the soil? If you ate a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, milk, and maple syrup, you’ll have an easier time of it than if you ate a strawberry flavored Pop Tart. That’s because “natural” strawberry flavoring is made from about 40 ingredients (no strawberries), and artificial flavoring, also used in Pop Tarts, is made from about 50 ingredients. Watch the movie King Corn, to see how two guys make high fructose corn syrup in their kitchen.

Eat your values.

Yesterday I had to choose between organic bananas and fair trade, non-organic bananas. Fair trade may mean a little extra money for third world farmers, but critics argue it makes them dependent on Western shoppers; organic doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical free,” but workers on conventional banana farms can have a high rate of testicular cancer. I wasn’t sure which was the better moral choice, but I think at least having an awareness is a good start. When I need hard facts, I read What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, which sheds light on the politics behind the labels, plus marketing ploys and health claims.

Pay for good food.

The next time you see kiwi at four for a dollar, consider how far that kiwi had to travel from New Zealand, and how many workers helped grow it and get it to you. Yes, there are economies of scale, but in general, the prices we pay for our food are artificially low. When we’re willing to pay real prices for fresh food, we’re contributing to a more stable, more sustainable food system. Watch Sierra Club’s animated movie, The True Cost of Food to learn about the hidden costs of food:

Buy local.

You can make a big difference by replacing just one or two of your regular grocery items with local alternatives. Many metro grocery stores carry products from Shatto Milk Company and eggs from Campo Lindo Farms. Good Natured Family Farms is a cooperative that supplies Hen House Market with goods sold under the Buy Fresh, Buy Local brand. Or you can choose from a number of Community Supported Agriculture programs where “eaters” pay up front for a season’s worth of locally grown, sustainable raised fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and honey. And of course, farmers markets make food buying fun for everyone in the family.

At the Eat Local! Exhibition of Farmers, you can buy food and seedlings, sign up for a CSA, and pick up a directory of local growers. The expo is scheduled for two dates at two locations: March 28 at the Shawnee Civic Center in Shawnee, Kansas, 9 a.m to 2 p.m. and April 4th at the Roger T. Sermon Community Center in Independence, Missouri, 9:15 to 2 p.m.(

Grow something.

If you’re new to gardening, start with a few herbs in a sunny patch. If you already grow herbs, try cherry tomatoes (you’re half way to a pizza!). When you grow things, you’re much more aware of just what it takes to put food on the table. The weather is important for reasons beyond your picnic plans, and you’ll have a great conversation starter the next time you meet a farmer. Kansas City Community Gardens offers support for gardeners, and for inspiration (and lots of good information), you can read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.



  1. Emily said

    Great article, Heather! This is a great reminder to be grateful for the people who grow my pizza and my cookies. And I love the clarity and simplicity of the Montessori rules applied to a food system.

    Can’t wait for the season to start!

  2. claudia said

    This was a wonderful piece of writing, very informative. Just a great job all around!

  3. Great…

  4. sandi said

    Fantastic piece of writing Heather. You’ve provided a basic understanding of awareness needed to begin making choices in buying and/or growing food. I also appreciate the book reccomendations…thank you for this!

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