A Universal Experience: How We Can Learn Sustainability from Food

By: LAUREN D’SOUZA (CMC-’18), Web & Social Media Coordinator

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” –James Beard

In early March, the five other students in my study abroad program and I sat down in a classroom, just downstairs from our flats next to the University of Cape Town. We were to meet with our course professor, Eduardo Shimahara, or “Shima” as we all called him, for the first time to talk about his passion: food.

He began class with this quote: “Food is the revolution. There is no other.” He began to take us on what we all saw as more of a journey than a lecture, describing why he believes that food is the best means through which we can transform our relationship with the environment.

His narrative was simple: food presented a great opportunity for reconnection, sustainability, and entrepreneurship.

Reconnection: According to British journalist Raj Patel, “We are increasingly disconnected both from the production of our food and from the joy of eating it.” Studying, growing, and cooking food gives us the chance to restore and foster our bonds with nature and with each other. Every culture and country has unique traditions around food that we can share with each other—it can be intercultural learning in the most intimate of forms.

Oranjezicht City Farm, an urban farm in the upper suburbs of Cape Town.

Oranjezicht City Farm, an urban farm in the upper suburbs of Cape Town.

Sustainability: When done right, food production is a way to move beyond just sustainable, human-made systems, and into regenerative, nature-driven practices. Shima floated the idea that “an ecosystem is a community without waste,” challenging us to ask ourselves how we might fit into the ecosystem of which we strive to be a part.

Entrepreneurship: It’s easy to list all of the problems that plague our current food system: the obesity epidemic, food deserts, soil degradation, overfishing, the carbon footprint of food miles, and many more. However, these problems all stem from the underlying fact that most of the world’s food comes from ten huge corporations. While this may seem daunting, it also creates the perfect space for entrepreneurship to disrupt this system. Food startups today are creating faux-meat that looks, feels, and tastes just like real meat, or delivering fresh ingredients and recipes right to your door to encourage you to cook with your family.

In this article, Shima goes in-depth into the above topics; I highly recommend reading it to understand Shima’s fantastic life stories and insights.

The six of us were left stunned and inspired by Shima’s lecture. He had planted a sprout in each of us that would continue to grow in the four months that we were all together. Throughout the semester, we learned about ecosystem services, food, farming, and justice in many ways—through visiting local farms, volunteering at a farmer’s market, and getting our hands dirty by planting turnips.

On a beautiful, clear Tuesday in May, Shima invited us to his house on the hill to celebrate one of our final evenings together through food and wine.

It seemed only fitting that the natural arc of our learning would culminate at Shima’s house, with us observing his own biodynamic herb garden while his big black dogs, Maya and Leelo, chased us around the grass. Shima’s adorable eight-year-old daughter Zoe was right beside him, eager to show off her skills at chopping vegetables.

He handed out two recipes to the six of us, having us divide into two teams and conquer the potjies (pronounced “poy-keys”, a South African stew-like dish cooked in a cast iron pot over an open fire). Kevin, Devonta, and I began making the ostrich potjie, while Emily, Else, and Darcy started on the tomato potjie. Shima and his wife Tatiana helped us find knives, cutting boards, bowls, and all of our necessary ingredients, while we joyfully sipped wine, chopped vegetables, and measured spices.

GSE cooking together. Left to right: Kevin, Devonta, me, Zoe, Shima, Emily, Else.

GSE cooking together. Left to right: Kevin, Devonta, me, Zoe, Shima, Emily, Else.

Shima once shared with us that cooking is the best way to heal the spirit, bond with others, and connect with your food—and I think we all learned that lesson in spades that night. By that point in the program, we had all become the best of friends, and we had no problem laughing the evening away, telling stories, and cooking together.

We began to cook our stews, watching Shima skillfully light the brandy in the potjie and shielding our eyes from the intense heat of the open fire.

Once the ingredients were in and the stews were cooking, Darcy and I gave our photo presentations – an assignment in which we had to choose one picture from South Africa and one picture from our home in the U.S. and compare them. Darcy talked about green spaces and nature in the city, comparing Boulders Beach and the abundance of national parks in Cape Town to the nature and birding walks she led for young girls at Tulane University, speaking to her experience with and passion for environmental biology. I compared urban sprawl in Cape Town and Phoenix, discussing the differences between the density of townships and the inefficiency of American suburbs in relation to urban planning.

A comparison of Ahwatukee and Nyanga, a township in Cape Town

A comparison of Ahwatukee, my home suburb, (left) and Nyanga, a township in Cape Town (right).

Afterwards, we engaged in a lively discussion about our topics as the sun set, connecting the ideas we presented to other things we had learned throughout the semester in all of our classes—but as all of our sessions with Shima went, none of us felt like we were in class. Rather, it felt like an intellectual conversation among friends, telling stories, thinking about the big picture – anything from Black Mirror to Rudolf Steiner.

When our food was ready, Tatiana brought out pap (South African cornmeal) and fresh bread, and we feasted on our delicious food. Usually in Shima’s house, the chef sits at the head of the table, but since all six of us couldn’t sit at the head, we ceded the place to Zoe. We easily polished off 3 kilos of pap and two stews between the ten of us.

After dinner, we relaxed and continued talking, completely stuffed and happy, as the night began to cool down. Shima lamented that he forgot to put the malva pudding in the oven, so we unfortunately didn’t have dessert – but I thought of a perfect after-dinner treat, something we always make in my house after dinner when we have guests over. I asked Shima if he had the requisite ingredients to make masala chai for everyone, tweaking it a little bit for our context – using almond milk instead of regular milk, and using rooibos tea instead of orange pekoe (it seemed appropriate for our setting, as rooibos is a South African staple).

My dad loves to make chai for our guests when we have people over—he calls it a labor of love, and it really is. First, you have to measure out all the spices (stick cinnamon, cardamom pods, and cloves) and smash them in a mortar and pestle. Then, you have to measure out the right ratio of milk and water, and constantly stir the mixture so that it doesn’t boil over. The most rewarding part is waiting for the milk to get that creamy, rich, maple color—then pouring it into mugs and watching everyone inhale the delicious scent the spices create and get the same dreamy look that I always get while drinking chai. It felt so special to share something from my culture and home with my new friends, and have a new South African spin to share with my family when I went home.

Needless to say, that evening was one of the most memorable in Cape Town—not just the most memorable night, but the most memorable meal and class as well.

Shima showed us what education can be in its best form; it’s not just sitting in a classroom, but it’s getting your hands dirty, talking, laughing, cooking, and learning from each other.

GSE after climbing Chapman's Peak.

GSE after climbing Chapman’s Peak.

In the field of sustainability, so much can seem hopeless and pessimistic—every documentary you watch, news article you read, or conversation you have about climate change might make you wonder why we should even try to make change. But on my Global Sustainability program in Cape Town, we all learned that not only do we need to be hopeful, but there is much to be hopeful about. When we reconnect with concepts as simple as ecosystem services, the beauty of the outdoors, and the joy of cooking and growing food, sustainable behavior becomes ingrained in our daily routines, rather than a mindset we force on ourselves. To me, this is the key to facilitating a paradigm shift: show, don’t tell, the real value of the earth.