* * *Life is a journey, ups and downs included. Along that way, sudden realizations spring across your path, and there is no other option but to experience and consequently be changed by them. One of those striking moments happened to me at Farm and Wilderness camp last summer, when I slaughtered a chicken.
My family's car rattled out of sight down the bumpy dirt road leading away from Farm and Wilderness camp in Vermont. Without electricity and not much contact with the outside world, growing our own food was a necessity, and that included slaughtering our own meat. Doubtfully, I scribbled my name on a list spotted with grimy fingerprints, feeling like it was my own death sentence instead of a bird's. One misty Sunday later I stood under a tent, watching others kill, pluck, and butcher their chickens. The line shortened, and suddenly I was next. The chicken was on the stump, its fiery plumage dully gleaming with the glare of midday. My axe was raised, and I swung. I will never forget what it felt like. The axe burrowed deep into the wood, and where a living thing stood before there was now just unprocessed meat.
"Good job. There's no going back now", my partner said. With tears on my face, he and I went through the process, and in less than 10 minutes, a living chicken was turned into one of the carcasses that are kept in the refrigerated meats section at a grocery store. This was the true price of food, a lesson hard learned but important. After, I saw the food on my plate with more gratitude and respect than before.
Even before I went to camp, I knew the chicken harvest was going to happen, but I didn't know if I was going to participate. In the end I decided that, as a chicken eater, I should experience how it gets on my plate. Before camp, I had never made the connection between "farm and fork." Chickens, as well as other meats and produce, went into one end of the agribusiness factories as raw materials and came out the other end as things I could eat. I had read the Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids many times, but to see what was so meticulously described was completely different. I realized what the true price of food was and it isn't $3.99 a pound. It is hours of work, having to get up at 6:00 am on cold rainy mornings to feed the chickens, and, ultimately, an animal's life. To quote Michael Pollen, "meat doesn't come in sealed plastic bags." But with that understanding came another feeling, a feeling of pride. Not because I had killed a chicken, but because I had taken responsibility for eating it. I had no longer averted by eyes while someone else slaughtered the chicken I ate, and no longer paid someone else for taking care of it for four months. I took full responsibility for that chicken's life and I had every right to eat it. Before I felt guilty because I had benefitted in the results of others work while never doing the work myself, but now I was as qualified as anyone.
It took hours of work, countless mornings getting up at still-dark hours, and the life of a chicken for me to feel proud about what I eat and learn the true price of food. It is a lesson that should be learned by all people living on Earth, because it's what is keeping us alive. For now, my conscience and my stomach are both satisfied.
Noah Kopf is a 12 year old boy living in Newton, MA. He takes weekly cooking lessons and is one of the younger members of Slow Food USA.