Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Discussion Questions

I’m still reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.

While I am not reading this for a book club I still enjoy keeping in mind discussion questions as I read, so I thought I’d share some discussion questions (courtesy of Harper Collins — the publisher):

  1. What was your perception of America’s food industry prior to reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? What did you learn from this book? How has it altered your views on the way food is acquired and consumed?
  2. In what ways, if any, have you changed your eating habits since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Depending on where you live—in an urban, suburban, or rural environment—what other steps would you like to take to modify your lifestyle with regard to eating local?
  3. “It had felt arbitrary when we sat around the table with our shopping list, making our rules. It felt almost silly to us in fact, as it may now seem to you. Why impose restrictions on ourselves? Who cares?” asks Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Did you, in fact, care about Kingsolver’s story and find it to be compelling? Why or why not? What was the family’s aim for their year-long initiative, and did they accomplish that goal?
  4. The writing of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a family affair, with Kingsolver’s husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributing factual sidebars and her daughter, Camille Kingsolver, serving up commentary and recipes. Did you find that these additional elements enhanced the book? How so? What facts or statistics in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle surprised you the most?
  5. How does each member of the Kingsolver-Hopp family contribute during their year-long eating adventure? Were you surprised that the author’s children not only participated in the endeavor but that they did so with such enthusiasm? Why or why not?
  6. “A majority of North Americans do understand, at some level, that our food choices are politically charged,” says Kingsolver, “affecting arenas from rural culture to international oil cartels and global climate change.” How do politics affect America’s food production and consumption? What global ramifications are there for the food choices we make?
  7. Kingsolver advocates the pleasures of seasonal eating, but she acknowledges that many people would view this as deprivation “because we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything always.” Do you believe that American society can—or will— overcome the need for instant gratification in order to be able to eat seasonally? How does Kingsolver present this aspect in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Did you get the sense that she and her family ever felt deprived in their eating options?
  8. Kingsolver points out that eating what we want, when we want comes “at a price.” The cost, she says, “is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravelings, and global climate change.” What responsibility do we bear for keeping the environment safe for future generations? How does eating locally factor in to this?
  9. Kingsolver asserts that “we have dealt to today’s kids the statistical hand of a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which would be us, the ones taking care of them.” How is our “thrown-away food culture” a detriment to children’s health? She also says, “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.” What responsibility do parents have to teach their children about the value and necessity of a local food culture?
  10. In what ways do Kingsolver’s descriptions of the places she visited on her travels—Italy, New England, Montreal, and Ohio—enhance her portrayal of local and seasonal eating?
  11. “Marketing jingles from every angle lure patrons to turn our backs on our locally owned stores, restaurants, and farms,” says Kingsolver. “And nobody considers that unpatriotic.” How much of a role do the media play in determining what Americans eat? Discuss the decline of America’s diversified family farms, and what it means for the country as a whole.
  12. 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?
  13. “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?
  14. 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?
  15. “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?
  16. “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?
  17. “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?
  18. “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?
  19. “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?
  20. “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?
  21. “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?

I will write more about my thoughts about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle later this week or next week. Though I will say this, the recipes sound delicious and I’m excited to try some of them!

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