Food as a Love Language: How I Learned to Channel My Health Challenges Into Opportunities

Food is a language we all speak, in giving and receiving. In times of joy and in times of sadness, food is there; a unifying factor if only because none of us can go without it. Food is a language that transcends words. We all speak it differently, in the flavors of our diverse cultures; but, though we tell different stories, we all write with the same pen, in the medium of fruits and vegetables, meats and grains.

I often say that food is my love language. I love to cook and eat with others. I rarely show up anywhere without a dish to share (and just try doing something moderately nice for me without a tray or jar of something seasonal showing up within the week!) I love to get my hands in the dirt and connect to where my food comes from. I love to peruse food blogs and cookbooks. I love to read and learn about different aspects of the food system. I have enjoyed the opportunity to share my love of all things food with others in teaching gardening, nutrition, and cooking classes, in volunteering and working within my local food system, and in pursuing a graduate degree in policy with the hopes of making that food system better for all.  

But food wasn’t always a language I could understand. When I was nineteen years old in my freshman year of college, I began to develop symptoms of an illness that would go undiagnosed for almost four years, four years in which I would experience excruciating pain, immune system dysfunction, and general weariness at the apparent diminishing of my physical ability and the consideration of what that meant for my future.

After six months of steadily increasing pain, I decided to try to eat better to see if that would help. I had grown up with a genuine love of fruits and vegetables, but knew I could improve and really commit to my health. I was willing to change my habits, and over the course of the next two years, I went from eating vegetarian at home, to eating strictly vegan, to vegetarian. With each change to my diet, I renewed my effort, thinking I could feel better if I just found the right thing.

I did everything I could to feel better, and nothing worked. But I discovered a love for cooking and eating vegetarian, even if it didn’t make me feel better physically.

Then, after nearly four years of unknown, ever increasing pain, I was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease, and am now in my third year of treatment. After a year on antibiotics, my doctor became alarmed about some of my bloodwork, and, after spending some time trying to figure this out with supplements and adjustments to my vegetarian diet, she suggested/insisted that I either start eating red meat or take a supplement that would cost me $50/week, more than I could afford in my first year post-grad.

As much as I had come to love eating with the planet and my local food system in mind, and as much as I loved being a vegetarian, my dietary changes had been motivated by how horribly I was feeling. Now my doctor was telling me that I could feel better if I ate meat – of course I had to try. It’s been about a year, and I’m still in the waiting stages to see if this will work with my other treatments to help me improve. I’m also hunting for other possible solutions. There are no quick fixes. My chronic illness is primarily characterized by pain and patience, and I work on managing both on a daily basis.

During this period of food frustration, I wanted to channel my love for food in another direction. I’ve always loved to cook and eat, but my deep love for food as my life’s work also came about while I was in college. I had always volunteered widely, but my service work in college gave me greater intention in this service and led me to discover the food justice movement. One spring break, after leading a volunteer trip focused on issues of hunger and homelessness, I began to ask why these issues existed and how I could work to address them. A friend of mine had led a trip focused on food justice issues; she shared her experience with me and I was hooked. I found food issues to be connected to so many of the challenges that we face in our world – addressing problems through the lens of food just made sense. I spent a year planning my own food justice-focused trip, and haven’t stopped pursuing food systems work since. From local internships, to two years of FoodCorps service, to now pursuing a graduate degree, I’ve found my place.  

It seems a strange parallel to draw, the progression of my Lyme disease with my path towards work in the food system. But, in a way, I think I probably latched onto these ideas of food justice because in a time when I was in so much pain, and eating well wasn’t helping me, I needed to find a way to continue to love food. Food couldn’t help me feel better physically, it couldn’t keep me from getting sick, it couldn’t slow down the progression of my pain, but it could give me something to learn about, to grow a passion for, and a way to give of myself meaningfully. Food couldn’t give that to me, so I learned to give to it.

Some days I feel like a hypocrite. Teaching garden and nutrition classes, I’d talk about the benefits of eating well and sometimes find myself in a negative thought stream, knowing that eating well didn’t prevent an uninvited bacteria from destroying my body. In those times, I’d try to catch myself and give some extra love through food: go to dinner with a friend, bring someone a homemade treat, have lunch with one of my garden classes.

My story is one of parallels and intersections, a web of lines drawn between my challenges and my opportunities, lines I have often drawn myself in a search for the meaning within my challenges, lines that may seem incongruous, but lines which construct a web of life where no event is isolated, and therefore no challenge is disconnected from potential opportunity. I think life is like that. You have a challenge in your life at the same time you have a wonderful opportunity. And if you can connect the two, if you can find the opportunity within the challenge, if you can pull it out and build your story around it, you win, If even in some small way. My challenges are not the only things in my life, they are not all-consuming, but they are deeply woven into the web of who I am; to assume they are separate would be to discount the fact that they have led me to where I am today.

I want to devote my life to ensuring equitable access to fresh and nutritious food for everyone, to educating people about the food system, to cooking and eating with others. Somewhere along the way, in food’s lost ability to help me physically, it helped me in other ways. Food became my love language. In the times when food could not give to me, when it became a language I couldn’t understand, I chose to speak it to others instead, to give in that moment what I could not receive. For, in this magical language that we speak without words, we can always change the story.

Author: Elizabeth Esparaza | @elizabethhanna










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