Note to Teachers
Student readers of the best-selling Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will find that it goes down like salty candy, as compelling as a novel. But this book--the first full-length nonfiction narrative from award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver--also volleys a searing journalistic investigation into the U.S. food system, laying bare a host of unprecedented challenges that today's high school and college students will have to resolve during their adult lives.
"A lot of people at once are waking up to a troublesome truth about cheap fossil fuels: we're going to run out of them. Our jet-age dependence on petroleum to feed our faces is a limited-time-only proposition. . . By the time my children are my age, this version of dinner [that has traveled the world to get to us] will surely be an unthinkable extravagance."
Over-dependence on petroleum, loss of diversity in the wild and in the world's seed stocks, an epidemic of diet-related diseases that portend our children will be the first generation with less longevity than their parents, and more: Kingsolver and her family deepen readers' understanding of how American food culture (or a lack of it) has failed us. But unlike so many modern investigations that discourage an audience beyond all hope, this one sweeps readers along on the family's personal journey to a better way, with good humor and ready optimism. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes a passionate, believable case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life and diversified farms at the center of the American diet.
"Doing the right thing, in this case, is not about abstinence-only, throwing out the bread, tightening your belt, wearing a fake leather belt, or dragging around feeling righteous and gloomy. Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure. Why resist that?"
Questions for Class Discussion
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle opens with the Kingsolver family's decision to live in a place that can nourish them, and to eat food grown as close to home as possible for the recorded year. Their reasons for the decision are many, both personal and global, but one is succinctly stated in this carefully researched formula: "If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week" (Steven L. Hopp, p. 5). What are the some of the ways fossil fuels are used to produce food, even before transport? Discuss some of the differences, in terms of fuel use and environmental impact, between industrial and small-scale, local agricultural systems? How can a consumer's choices affect agriculture? What might you predict about our food systems as petroleum grows more costly and scarce?
"If you ask a person from Italy, India, Mexico, Japan, or Sweden what food the United States has exported to them, they will all give the same answer and it starts with a Mc." (p. 155). How would you define a food culture? Can it be packaged and sold? What is required for families to shift away from making decisions about food based largely on convenience? What is your idea of a healthy family food culture?
In a chapter about diminishing seed varieties, the book notes: "Six companies--Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis, and Dow--now control 98 percent of the world's seed sales. These companies invest heavily in research whose purpose is to increase food production capacity only in ways that can be controlled strictly." (p. 51). Why are disappearing seed collections a matter of concern for the future? What is the role of genetic diversity in natural selection, and artificial selection (breeding programs) How are locally-adapted, native crop varieties important to global food security?
"The most difficult requirements [of eating in season] are patience and a pinch of restraint . . . We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires" (p. 31). Why do you think U.S. consumers have come to expect access to tomatoes in January and all fruits out of season? What foods are in season now, where you live? How do you know?
"In our daily fare, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it's cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy, and such. . . Budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food--in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement" (p. 115). When you examine your own financial priorities, is quality food near the top, or the bottom? How does it rank against clothing, entertainment, technology, etc.? In ten years, which will matter more: what you've put inside your body, or worn on the outside?
"People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them. Children have been targeted especially; food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids, and it isn't broccoli they're pushing" (p. 15). How does U.S. food marketing relate to the U.S. obesity crisis? Should junk-food advertising and sales be regulated in the same manner as, for example, tobacco and alcohol?
"All stories, they say, begin in one of two ways: 'A stranger came to town,' or else, 'I set out upon a journey.' The rest is all just metaphor and simile. In Moby Dick. . . the whale was not just an aquatic mammal. In our case, the heirloom turkeys are not just large birds but symbols of a precarious hold on a vanishing honesty" (p. 335). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the first full-length narrative nonfiction by an author best known for her novels. How is the structure similar to a novel? How does she use the elements of character, suspense, plot and resolution?
"In 1999, over 70 percent of [Federal Farm Bill] subsidies went for just two commodity crops: corn and soybeans. These supports promote industrial-scale production, not small diversified farms, and in fact create an environment of competition in which subsidized commodity producers get help crowding the little guys out of business" (Steven L. Hopp, p. 206). Why do you think the U.S. government offers so little support for environmentally sound growing practices, sustainable techniques, limited pesticide use, etc.? What are the implications for the food supply? How might this change in coming decades?
"Multivitamins are obviously a clunky substitute for the countless, subtle combinations of phytochemicals and enzymes that whole foods contain. One way to think of these pills might be as emergency medication for lifestyle-induced malnutrition. I'm coming of age in a society where the majority of adults are medically compromised by that particular disease. Not some, but most; that's a scary reality for a young person" (Camille Kingsolver, p. 60). What are your sources of information about nutrition? (Family, school, medical professionals, television?) How do you judge their credibility? How would you propose improving nutrition education?
"The antipathy in our culture between the urban and non-urban is so durable, it has its own vocabulary: A) city slicker, tenderfoot. B) hick, redneck, hayseed, bumpkin, rube, yokel, clodhopper, hoecake, hillbilly, Dogpatch, Daisy Mae, farmer's daughter, from the provinces, something out of Deliverance. . . The list is lopsided. I don't think there's much doubt, on either side, as to which class is winning the culture wars" (p. 207). In your experience, how does our culture portray the people who grow food? Are they valued and respected? Why or why not?
Topics For Research And Writing Projects
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Steven L. Hopp writes about Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who ran afoul of the law when genetic material developed by Monsanto drifted on the wind into his canola fields. Though he couldn't have controlled the rogue pollen, he was in violation of patent law by saving and planting the seeds that resulted. Write an essay about the ramifications of patenting genetic material, especially for food crops.
"Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food" (p. 5). Examine the relationship between fossil fuel costs and our nation's agricultural economy. Predict trends for a future in which petroleum is extremely expensive.
"USDA studies found much lower levels of saturated fats and higher vitamin E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 levels in meat from cattle fattened on pasture grasses (their natural diet), compared with CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operations] animals" (p. 239). Discuss recent research on the nutritional differences between industrially raised vs. grass-finished beef cattle, poultry, or eggs, OR new studies of nutritional differences between organic and conventional vegetables.
"Eternal is the right frame of mind for making food for a family. . ..From the ground up, everything about nourishment steadies my soul" (p. 125). Evaluate Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in terms of its narrative arc. How is the year of a growing season shaped into plot and resolution? How do the three different co-authors frame their contributions?
Prepare a meal from as many local ingredients as you can find. Write about the process: sources of the ingredients (farmer's market, farms, grocery store), the sociology and politics of your search, and your aesthetic evaluation of the results.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Books by Barbara Kingsolver
The Bean Trees
Homeland and Other Stories
The Poisonwood Bible
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
High Tide in Tucson
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
The Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner
The Omnimore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Eat Here: Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket by Brian Hailweil
What Are People For? by Wendell Berry
Ecological Farming Association
Farm to School
The Land Institute
True Cost of Food