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Off-The-Farm Follies: A Homeless Woman And a Pigeon

s6000286.JPG The summer after my freshman year of college, I had an internship in Washington D.C. with USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service in the Livestock and Seed Program. I was 19 years old, fresh off the farm and living away from home in a big city for the first time. I moved into a dorm room at George Washington University, my home away from home for the summer. I was assigned a random roommate, and I was so excited to meet her and start getting acquainted with the world’s most powerful city. Imagine my surprise when I met my roommate Mary and discovered she was a vegetarian, the kind who conveniently chose to forego meat in the diet to follow the latest foodie trend.

I was overwhelmed at the idea of living with someone so completely different from myself. I was a country girl; she was a sophisticated urbanite. I had rural values and morals. I knew how to work hard and get dirty. I had chipped nails; she had a manicure. The highlights in my hair were from spending long days in the sun, and hers were freshly applied at the salon. We were both studying political science but were on total opposite ends of the spectrum. Despite our differences, I was determined to make the best of my situation and learn from the experience. After all, I was a National Beef Ambassador; I was trained to discuss the benefits of meat in the diet. I could do this.

However, what I underestimated were our core differences. It was the weekend before we were set to start our new internships. After unloading our bags, we headed out to explore the city, take in the Memorial Day parade and practice riding the subway to our places of work. It was during our walk through the grand memorials in the city that I was presented with some interesting food for thought.

Mary and I were walking along when we saw a tattered homeless woman sitting on a park bench. I had been told prior to moving to the city that many of the homeless residents in D.C. were war veterans and should be treated with respect. Mary and I spotted the woman at the same time. A group of pigeons suddenly flew around her park bench, and the woman kicked at the birds. Suddenly, Mary grabbed my arm and stopped dead in her tracks.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“That woman!” Mary exclaimed.

“I know she is homeless; how sad,” I replied.

“No, she just kicked at that poor bird!” Mary explained.

I didn’t know what to say. My first thought was about the woman; my roommate's was about the bird. I thought to myself, “Huh? You mean the pigeons are more important than a woman’s troubles? Animals take precedence over humanity? I’m confused.”

While I certainly don't condone abuse of any of God's creatures, I learned a very important lesson that day. I learned that we can’t assume our consumers come from the same experiences that we do, just as we can’t expect them to understand our perspectives on food production. It’s our obligation to bridge the gap, clear up differences and regain consumer trust about where their food comes from.

Have you ever had an interesting conversation with a consumer? Have you ever had your differences come to a head? After 10 weeks of living together, Mary and I had some intense, educational conversations. I even got her to try some lean ground beef instead of her tired, old veggie burgers! While she learned some new things about farming and ranching, I gained some new perspectives, as well. I learned that each of us has an influential power to make a difference in the world. All it takes is one conversation to ignite a chain of events. Have you reached out today?

Do you have a telling story to share of your own?