Going the organic way

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Photographs by Shammi Nanda

The organic food Mess at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune) can be viewed as an example by other institutes.

I came back to the Film and Television Institute of Pune ten years after I graduated from here. The purpose was to screen my documentary film ‘Leap of Faith’ which is about three families who are trying to live more sustainable lives; one by emphasizing on home-learning and not sending their kids to school, the other by practicing self-healing, home-birthing and not vaccinating their children and the third, a family that is growing their food organically.

In the discussions that followed the screening, Ganesh, a student here, suggested that we should try making the boys’ hostel-mess organic. I was skeptical about film school students making any efforts towards this goal, but nevertheless decided to give it a shot.

We began by sourcing the organic rations. Along with the then student mess secretary, Vikrant, we began exploring the city. We met Gita Tai who has been supplying organic rations from a small shop for more than ten years now. She used to carry heavy sacks of organic unpolished rice in crowded state transport buses to bring them to Pune. There was also Vasudha Tai from Daund (80 kms from Pune) who recently began supplying organic vegetables to a few housing societies in Pune. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer and was told by the doctor not to eat salads as they had harmful pesticides. She was shocked that despite having a 70 acre farm, her husband couldn’t eat the healthy food that he needed; this incident made her move consciously towards organic farming. ‘We serve organic meals in the mess at an average of Rs. 20 per meal, with almost all our dry rations and more than 50 percent of our vegetables organic. If anything, running this mess has confirmed that ‘’organic is expensive’’ is a myth’

Our next step was to request the manager to let us try making organic food in the canteen; we assured him that if there were any losses we would bear it. Our organic rations were priced a bit higher, but cooking ‘zero-oil’ food in the same mess where they easily used about three litres of oil a day, helped us offset that cost. It was difficult for many of the students to adapt to this food, so we began including cold-pressed oil in our cooking.

People by and large are attached to their style of food which is itself a cultural thing and one has to make space for that too. At times ‘Zero Oil’, with its emphasis on the term ‘Zero’ can make one exclusivist. I began feeling that not using oil in cooking actually stopped many from joining us, simply because they had never cooked without oil and therefore couldn’t share their recipes. This also meant that I was missing out on a lot of inputs and diversity of cooking. So I began opening that up, and now our policy is to use minimal oil. Besides, it was my personal decision not to have any oil and I didn’t think it was right to impose it on others.

There were other lessons to learn. I don’t eat meat but some of the students do, and I realised that if one is serving one has to accept that too. I went to the markets, and with the help of a Goan friend Sandra, picked up some meat to include in our cooking. She would put into practice her repertoire of interesting Goan recipes when non-vegetarian meals were to be cooked.

We serve organic meals in the mess at an average of Rs. 20 per meal, with almost all our dry rations and more than 50 percent of our vegetables organic. If anything, running this mess has confirmed that “organic is expensive’’ is a myth. We also have some raw foods by way of salads and steam all our veggies, which keeps the diet healthy too. We have replaced sugar with organic jaggery and some of the students simply love it. Even in organic rice we serve hand-pounded red rice for the more conscious and use semi-polished white rice for those who are not used to brown rice.

When one cooks for so many people it is difficult to satisfy everyone, one needs to be open to negative feedbacks too. Initially, when any criticisms came it was difficult for me to hear them and I would get defensive. But getting defensive does not really help, it just makes people withdraw. I now practise being more open to people’s criticisms about the food and try to work on their suggestions.

Evolution of ‘a space’

On Sunday evenings the Mess is closed so we have opened it to students who are interested in making their dinner; they chop, cook, serve and clean the utensils. On one such evening, some students took the tables out into the verandah outside the dining hall to have their food there. After that those tables never went inside and the verandah has been evolving as an interesting meeting space.

Slowly this space has opened up: some students brought their old books to share and put them on a shelf outside the mess, this has become a small reading space and a community library. Though the books have slowly disappeared, the verandah is still there as a hangout space and interestingly, at times, even the General Body Meetings of the students are being held there.

We have begun to make some herbal tea to be had after meals. The proceeds from it are going for the welfare of the mess staff as their present salaries are very low. Some of us even got together and made beds of mint, coriander, lemon grass and tulsi outside the mess; the mint and coriander is used for the salads while the tulsi and lemon grass make for excellent herbal tea. There are a few beds of aloevera, green chillies, paan and peppermint too. Babu, one of the mess staff, threw in some pumpkin seeds in the beds as well and now we have a very healthy pumpkin creeper growing in it. Some of the kitchen waste is used for mulching these beds and the rest for making vermi-compost. While the pumpkins haven’t appeared yet, Pierre, a student is using the creeper threads to make a beautiful living sculpture.

While these small beds aren’t enough for a Mess of 100 students, they have inspired us to take up farming more seriously in the campus. We are now planning to grow more food in some of the bigger open spaces. We recently took some of the Institute’s gardeners for an exposure trip to other organic farms nearby, after which they’ve become more eager to try it out.

Planting food has a lot to do with appreciating Nature and its abilities. How they’re sown, how they grow, how they form: understanding all of this adds so much more meaning to the food on the plate. Food ceases to become merely items on the plate but something with which one creates a communion. When Gloria, the matron of the girls’ hostel wanted some spinach in her garden, my friend Nirali suggested while we were planting the seeds, that we make beds in the shape of Yin and Yang as she felt that plants also need beauty, which in turn helps them grow.

Political is spiritual

For me, eating organic is a political as well as spiritual act. I sometimes tell the students who have Che Guevara painted on their rooms and T-Shirts that if Che was alive now he would be challenging the increasing control of corporations over our food through chemical farming among other things and would have campaigned for organic food too. By choosing to eat organic, I am simultaneously opting for soil that has not been poisoned to grow my food. We are just trustees of this planet and it also belongs to other species as well as the generations that will come after us, and we have no right to poison it for our short term gains. I also feel organic farming is a way of respectfully connecting with nature and thereby to one’s self. As Wendell Berry says “what we do to the earth we do to ourselves” or “we pass through the earth and the earth passes through us”.

Food is community

There are many reasons why this experiment has been possible: the kitchen staff is very supportive, open and flexible to new practices. There are also the people who’ve opened the space to try out this initiative; those who support it by regularly eating at the mess, going shopping or sharing recipes, and even volunteer to wash utensils.

But it’s not all smooth running; one issue that I am struggling with in the Mess right now, is the low numbers of students who are coming forward to take responsibility of running it. When we started there were many who were actively involved so it was more like a team. To some extent I can understand students being too busy with their course work, I also remember that I didn’t ever cook or help in the mess when I was studying there. Our modern education system seems to be taking us away from doing any physical work, treating it as something to be looked down upon.

I feel I am becoming more of a manager who provides organic food while the students have become mere consumers of it. They are in a comfortable space and are getting it without too much effort. Apart from this, my personal calling right now is to farm and I would like to work closely on a piece of land. We are now working to let the students themselves take charge of the mess and see if they can invest their energies into sustaining this year-long experiment. After all, such practices can be introduced but eventually have to be left to initiative of the community.