When I was growing up, we believed in family dinners at my house. We all sat down, ate what was in front of us and were members of the “clean plate club.” This was a long-standing tradition in my family; my parents were members of the clean plate club just like their parents were member of the clean plate club. My mother describes her childhood dinners as “your basic farmers’ plate” of meat, potatoes, a piece of bread with jam, and lots of vegetables. My childhood dinners weren’t that different.
By the time I was in high school, every meal I sat down to at the dinner table made me sick. It wasn’t terrible, just uncomfortable. I found out that I had sensitivities to dairy, wheat, egg yolks, and red meat. That sounded like the whole menu to me, and so, overwhelmed, I ignored The List when I went to college a few months later.
By senior year of college, most of my friends were vegetarian or vegan, and I decided to try eating pescetarian (no meat except fish). To no one’s surprise but my own, I felt better after only a couple of weeks. I had unwittingly cut from my diet all of the food that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I stopped eating food just because it was cheap, or offered to me in the cafeteria, or part of a family meal. I stopped trying to be a member of the clean plate club and became a member of the clean food club.
After undergrad, I moved from Michigan to California to Mississippi to Washington, D.C. to Massachusetts all inside of five years. It was hard to stick with my clean, whole, pescetarian diet while bouncing around the country. I struggled deeply with finding access to whole foods and eating healthy while living in both rural Mississippi (grocery store was far to drive to) and urban D.C. (grocery store was far to walk to). My new eating habits began to slide, and I ate items from The List again in favor of getting something in my stomach. While in D.C., after a year of eating whatever I wanted, I had an ulcer. Three years later I was diagnosed with chronic gastritis, after over 10 years of feeling sick all the time. Today, I stick to a diet of no alcohol, no caffeine or chocolate, no fried foods, no acidic foods like oranges and tomatoes, and no red meat. Most days I feel fine, but there are still bad days.
There are many people out there who have food issues much worse than mine: while some people have severe food allergies or gastrointestinal problems, others live in food insecure households and struggle with not knowing where their next meal is coming from. With all the places I’ve lived across the country, I’ve seen all of these issues firsthand. Food access and food security issues look different in different parts of the country, but they’re really all the same.
I realized that I am interested in people’s relationship to food: we all have a relationship to food because we all eat. There are still times when I feel as if I could do more for myself, my family, and my community because we all struggle with food. So through The Clean Food Club, I am examining my own relationship to food, and I invite you to do the same. I am not writing from a place of knowledge but from a place of discovery.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist based in Boston, MA. She created The Clean Food Club on May 1, 2016, and previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.