Notes from above ground

I've been a member of the clean-plate club since age 5. It was drilled into me at a very young age never to waste food. ''You eat every bit of food on your plate,'' rang the voice of authority, for my parents sounded as if they knew exactly what they were talking about. The final incentive came, however, with those guilt-inducing words, ''What will all the starving people in China think of you wasting all those peas?''

Neighborhood friends received similar promptings. No one ever explained to us who those people were. They were pealess, lima beanless people somewhere across the vast ocean, and our parents seemed to know them pretty well.

So twenty years later, after a nearly flawless history as a faithful member of the clean-plate club, I found myself committing a radical gesture that defied all my childhood training.

It began late one midterm while cramming for an exam. Littered about me were candy wrappers, corn chips, and cups of ginger ale. My task for the evening: wade through two hundred pages of a book called Food First, scan another book called Food for People, Not for Profit, and plow through a gruesome stack of notes. Thank goodness the book was interesting -- downright fascinating, to be more exact -- but nowhere tantalizing enough to keep me from the refrigerator door.

I wandered into the kitchen and attacked the fridge with seasoned expertise. Barren shelves gave me a cold welcome. A bottle of ketchup, some baking soda, lettuce browned around the edges, and some lemon juice -- the thought of tossing these ingredients together in a bowl left my lower lip shriveling like an old balloon.

I approached the cupboard. Two cans of cat food eyed me from the corner, a box of cornstarch, and, lo and behold, some canned fruit. My hand moved in for the catch, but suddenly dark images shook my senses. My taste buds wilted.

I'd just read about that very corporation in my textbook! The company suppressed peasants in Latin America by owning fifty-seven thousand acres of land, planting only nine thousand acres, leaving the rest idle, keeping peasants landless. In another country, the same company was ''bulldozing people right off the land'' to make room for plantations, claimed an American priest.

''If I eat this fruit,'' I reasoned, ''I'll be supporting a system of suppression. Even eating this company's peas and lima beans indirectly supports hunger and starvation.'' My parents, despite their good intentions, had not divided things up correctly.

My stomach growled in defense. A little voice nagged that I was foolishly emotional, irrational, tired, overworked, in a state of overexamination. Yet I defied every suggestion, snatched the can off the shelf, and tossed the sugar-coated peaches, pears, cherries, and grapes into the trash barrel.

Sugarplums danced through my head. I knew this was the beginning of some major change.

I joined one international boycott, then followed with my own by excluding certain brands of bananas, coffee, chocolate, peas, and lima beans (I must confess, the latter two were not great sacrifices) from my grocery cart.

For a short while I empathized with peasants and adopted a diet of rice and beans.

As for canned goods, every brand was selected with USDA choice, while grocery boys were lectured on the integrity of their produce.

I gave up sugar.

I gave up meat.

My bookshelf acquired suspicious writings that would raise the brows of most high school teachers. I lounged in my hammock to read fresh copies of Mother Jones, Rules for Radicals, Jerry Rubin's Do It, and Thoreau (of course) on Civil Disobedience.

Most wonderful of all, I found a whole culture of people doing similar things.

Finally one day, deep in thought about these issues, I found myself weeping over my spaghetti dinner; I was committed.

As I look back on those days of anti-pea demonstrations, I must give myself credit for that year of sheer, determined resolve to fight a single-handed battle against the multinationals of the world. This activism of my past, these little deeds and sacrifices, set down steppingstones for a stronger foundation essential to my activism today. It was the exchange of habits and desires for principles and justice. And although my approach today is somewhat different (my friends say I'm more rational), actually I'm hammering at the same stone, but with stronger tools.

Yet every so often, just as a reminder of how far I've come, I leave some beans crusted around the edge of my plate.

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