The problem with food

I’ve been thinking a lot about food. More than normal, and not just the normal fantasizing about food because I’m always starving, because I’m producing milk for the ever-feeding-hungriest-baby-ever who nurses every 2 hours. I’ve noted that, for me and for many people I know … food has become problematic. And I want to help reverse this. The American diet has undergone a lot of changes, most of which aren’t good.

So, let’s begin with the basics. What do you eat? Are you a vegan, an omnivore? Something in between? Do you pay attention to the food you buy, or are you just blissfully sailing through the aisles at your local grocery store, unconsciously voting for the status quo? Do you snicker at the hippies buying the organic food? Where are you on the food awareness spectrum?

I ask because I’m looking for fellow agents of change. There’s a food revolution happening quietly. The Western diet is under fire. Some of the food we* eat is killing us or, at the least, making us less healthy while at the same time, bankrupting the American farmer and making a very few people rich. If your response to this is “Well, we DO have a free market in this country” then just move along and read someone else’s blog. Thanks! *waves*

Every time you purchase a product in the supermarket store to feed yourself or your family, you are voting. You are telling the producers of our food just what you want to be eating. And those food producers are more than happy to comply. Not because they’re good chaps, but because that’s just good business. The problem is that the business model for the American food production industry is broken.

The script that big multi-million dollar food producers are following says, in effect, “Make what people want. Make it cheaply. Continue to make it as cheaply as possible in order to get even bigger profits.” Our food has become industrialized, produced in factories, with little attention to quality, and mass marketed to you via commercialization and lies. Worst of all, we can’t even turn to the FDA as the beacon of truth about the safety of our food because it’s a puppet farm infiltrated by special interest groups and lobbyists. When you actually follow the dollar, it goes into the pockets of a small handful of corporations who control a vast majority of what we* eat.

So, what do you do about it? If any of this is at all news to you, the first step is to get informed. Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Find out what’s in your food and who profits. Turn off your TV and stop the marketing message from entering your house. Make up your own mind about how you want to eat, and stop being influenced by commercials and ads.

The next step is to start voting. Buy from companies that have a different business plan. Read ingredients and stop buying food that has questionable content. Consider buying a meat share from a local farmer. Look into community supported agriculture. Go here to find a participating farm near you. Get involved in farms and food companies that promote sustainable agriculture practices.

Try to find alternate resources for the foods you eat. Grow tomatoes on your back porch. Start a garden. Go to the Farmer’s Market. The prices will be higher, because they reflect the care and attention it takes real farmers to produce real food that really FEEDS you, food grown without chemicals and toxins. Beef fed in pastures instead of being fed indigestible food in disgusting living conditions. Don’t be the guy sucking down the $5 latte, complaining about the cost of a dozen eggs from free range chickens. Think about how you are spending your money.

Start reading articles from sources that aren’t being paid by the industry. Check out writers like Leah Bloom, the sustainable food examiner at the Boston Examiner, for things you can do on a small scale to make big changes in your eating habits. Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for eye-opening treatises on the food industry in America. For more info on sustainability, pick up a copy of Living Green: A Practical Guide to Simple Sustainablity by Greg Horn. I don’t agree with everything Horn says about how to live “green”, but he gives some good basic information. Watch Supersize Me or Food Inc for more motivation. Finally, join the revolution and make some noise about it.

I like the way Pollan sums up how to eat. He writes in In Defense of Food that we should “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”  To really solve the problem of food, we need to change from being a country of soda-swilling, fast-food horking, indifferent consumers of processed foods, and start thinking of how our food is produced, making sure it is worthy for our bodies, and using our collective power to effect change. Your dollars will tell the food producers what you want. The message you send will be clear: I want to eat food that is healthy and tastes good, produced with respect for the farmer. There is an ethics to food production that has been lost. And it’s time to find it again.

I have smart readers. You know that when Velma or Daphne removes the mask from the bad guy/gal in every episode of Scooby Doo, the villain always says that he/she would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling/pesky/ kids. Stop letting them get away with it!

*by “we” I am basically pointing to the average American consumer. And my mother.

About Terry L. Holt

Writer. Mother. Goddess. President of the Save the Dandelions Club. Climber of trees.
This entry was posted in Food, Journal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The problem with food

  1. If you eat seafood, you will want to have a look at this: http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521

  2. Nicole says:

    Yes to all of this. You know me from Cambridge & LJ (I'm a friend of Majes over there) and I'm amazed at the food revolution happening. I'm part of it. You're part of it. And more and more people are part of it every day. I'm blogging about it now and trying to organize more people as part of it. Come check it out, and I'm looking forward to reading more about your movement along this path as well.

  3. DocOrion says:

    Be aware that this model doesn't scale well. By which I mean that feeding large populations, currently, requires some amount of industrial farming, or people *will* starve.

    We're seeing some of this in Africa now. This is a place where industrial farming would work quite well, but funders, overtaken by the local and slow mantra, are cutting off funds for big farming in favor of small farming, which already exists and doesn't work. (Have a look here for an idea of what I mean).

    I'm not ready to completely eliminate industrial farms and techniques. Adapt so they're safer, yes. A lot of that is being done by the farmers themselves; spraying fertilizer indiscriminately is wasteful of their cash, and so they are trying to be more careful about it, for instance. But the wholesale condemnation of techniques which have fed the world in a very real sense is not helpful overall. Grow more local, but have long-distance options. Pay farmers more for better foods (where better may mean, for instance, grown without pesticides). But industrial farming has given us a significant bounty, which we have then distributed poorly. That isn't the farmer's fault.

  4. carl says:

    Hear hear! When I started seeking out and buying organic and local foods 18 years ago, it was still a radical choice. Selection was terribly limited, the price premium was even higher than it is now, and the quality often suffered ( and I found myself making the “voting with my dollars” point a lot in defense of that choice. Now we have publications like Consumer Reports advising its readers to buy organically-grown food as much as possible, with few exceptions. Their conclusions were based strictly on the presumption that food produced with fewer chemicals is healthier for the people who eat it and worth the extra price for that reason alone, not even considering the overall environmental cost/benefit analysis (which can appear to be highly variable (good ro bad) depending on who's measuring and what models you use).
    More recently, the local food movement is bringing more attention to the larger environmental picture which I think also moves us toward higher quality and safer food in most cases. So the candidates change over time, but the importance of voting for the most thoughtful choice (as opposed to the most convenient one) continues.

    Having just finished washing about a pound of 8 different kinds of greens from the backyard (organic) garden which will be consumed with dinner tonight, I'm very aware of the much-overlooked opportunities for healthier and more local food options and the cost in time and energy that it takes to get there. Most people in the developed world have been seduced by the lure of cheap and/or easy food (compared to what previous generations had to pay). I'm also aware that I can't really place a price on the value we get from growing it ourselves, or on the tastiness of fresher-than-farmers-market produce. We sure think the effort is worth it!

    As for the argument that the Green Revolution brought about by industrialized agriculture has enabled the world population to grow to its present size, and therefore we can't ethically choose safer/healthier/more expensive methods to produce food on a wide scale even if we wanted to, one should also consider that never before in history has food been as cheap relative to incomes as it is today. It got that way through business decisions that optimized for cost and convenience above all other economic considerations. Only by voting for more balanced alternatives with our money will those business decisions change in a significant way. And I predict that farmers and the food business as a whole will somehow find ways to produce healthier food, and less energy-intensive food (increasing energy prices are already helping with this), at reasonable cost (historically speaking), without causing even greater harm to the world's poor or to the environment.

  5. Tracy CB says:

    We're still omnivores here, but I could fairly easy return to vegetarianism, and even to veganism with a few little whimpers. I was vegetarian through early college (early 90's) and then went vegan for a few years (mid-90's) before returning to being omnivorous at some point. I enjoyed those days and felt better on a number of counts. I am personally working back towards that end of the spectrum and even my husband is.

    We are pretty much a no-fast-food and minimally-processed household now. Exceptions include: 1) supply we already have in the house, and 2) occasionally an ingredient for some oddball sort of dish. I'm thinking of the taco salad I will likely make for a work potluck. I would go buy processed tortilla chips for that. Forces that shaped these choices (beyond common sense and a desire for simplicity in general which colors all our food choices) include things like Pollan's books (and quite a few others), concepts/movements like SlowFood and quite strongly Fast Food Nation by Schlosser. When I picked this book up, I expected something along the lines of Super Size Me or Don't Eat This Book (the book from/after Super Size Me). It was not what I expected. It delved all the more into the politics of industry and government regulation and ethical treatment of workers. Concepts I was familiar with, but just took it to an entirely new level. I cried through many sections and was appalled at just how bad things were. Like selling advertising space in schools. To Coke and McDonald's all sorts of other processed food companies. It sickened me. If you haven't read that one, I highly recommend it and think you would love (and hate) it. Although we avoided fast food in the past, this just put multiple nails in that choice's coffin. Basically, we're trying to follow Pollan's simple “eat food” advice. So to make that happen…

    We have a CSA and get most of our veggies from there. Additional veggies are organic, usually from the Farmer's Market, but Chatham Marketplace, Whole Foods and even Harris Teeter provide extra. I try to buy local and from “small organic”, but certainly have purchased my share from “Big organic” particularly when in a pinch (forgetting I needed carrots for a dish, running out to Harris Teeter at the last minute and buying some Big Organic/California carrots, for example).

    We didn't subscribe to fruit in our CSA as I wanted much more variety and for some reason am more fickle about picking out fruit for the week. So, those are purchases from sources above as well.

    Eggs are from pastured/free range chickens from our CSA. When we need more, we buy pastured from Farmer's Market or Whole Foods (who also stocks local options, too). Eggs, particularly so fresh, are one of the areas I would whimper about if I went vegan again. I have come to love them of late and certainly enjoy cooking/baking with them, too.

    Cheese is from our CSA as well as other local suppliers/farmers and then some real specialty stuff from Whole Foods every now and again. I could give up cheese, but it would involve whimpering again. In my vegan days, I tried soy options but they mostly sucked back then. I understand they have improved. I may try them again just to see.

    Milk…I drink milk/”milk” from various sources including cow and goat as well as rice, almonds, etc. Mike drinks cow's milk and would like to try goat's milk. We have local dairies here, but even their practices aren't perfect in my mind so our selections come from a few different places. We are researching the very best milk choices available to us. I could give this up fairly easily on my return to veganland.

    Meats… We have quite a stock in our freezer, so have slowly been getting through those. I am aiming to be awfully close to vegetarian when that stock is gone. Hubby feels similar, but probably not near as strongly as I do. For fish, we aim for sustainable with help from places like edf or seafood watch to guide our choices. For chicken, pastured only and our favorite vendor is at the Farmer's Market. It's positively delicious chicken and reminds one of what it is actually supposed to taste like. For beef, it is a rarity, but we go for grass fed local pastured beef and have a number of options via the Farmer's Market. There are other choices available, too, like rabbit and goat and lamb. These are also rarities, but come from locally raised, humanely treated, “come tour the farm” places.

    All in all, we're trying to balance taste and animal welfare and environment and workers rights and free trade and social justice and…etc. etc. We also try to vote with every dollar we spend and make ethical choices. Is local always best? Is organic always best? What if it's shipped across the country? What if across the ocean? Should I give my dollars/votes to a local non-organic producer using fossil fuels to power their farm that also involves me spending fossil fuel on driving to pick it up? Or should I give my dollars/votes to the organic farm on the other side of the planet using minimal fossil fuels on the farm itself that funds sustainability and helps support developing economies and social justice? Etc. etc. Just a few million permutations of choices to make every day. I'm reading _The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter_ right now and this book particularly highlights pros and cons of each decision and just how much each choice impacts what. I love it, but I also find it overwhelming at times and wish I could become a ruminant so I could just go munch on the clover, fescue and dandelions in my yard and be done with it. Argh, the omnivore's dilemma, indeed.

    I grew up growing our own veggies, plus our full-time farmer friends frequently gave us extra (it was common for a boy to come courting one of my sisters by bringing over a crate of vegetables. We moved to suburbia by the time I was of dating age, otherwise this would have been my romantic fate as well). We had fruit trees (citrus) and neighbors had other trees (plums, cherries, apples, etc.). We swapped fruit. We fished for our seafood, mostly trout but I definitely recall others like bass and flounder and catfish as well. There were also dairy and meat farmers all around us, and our freezer was stocked with whole chickens and sides of beef. I think we were much more self-sufficient. I would like to return closer to this. Ideally, we'd like a little bit of land. Enough to grow our own vegetables and have some to share with friends, too. I'd love fruit trees again. If I stay non-vegan, then I'd love to have chickens for the eggs and goats for the milk. And maybe either for the meat, particularly to keep my “I'd consider close to vegetarian but really don't think I could do vegan at all” husband on the happier side.

    It is oddly a very big issue for us right now and we're in the middle of making some changes. Each change we have made has led to discussion of other changes we feel we need to make, so now we feel like we're looking at years worth of slow changes ahead. It is a good thing, but as I mentioned earlier, overwhelming at times. Again, Pollan's advice that you mentioned above is a good summary of the main forces/points we're working on with all kinds of offshoots from that which go a little further and get into the multifaceted topics of food ethics. We've made some great changes, but there are many more to come. Baby steps is working best for us right now as it gives us time to integrate what we have changed and explore additional possible changes. To go too fast feels that we could easily bite off more than we could chew, so to speak, and have the system/our choices collapse in on us.

    I'm glad to hear it is a topic in your household as well, and certainly love that these various movements are becoming more apparent to so many. Even my mom is so impressed with our CSA and is reading some books related to all this and has contemplated having her neighborhood of retirees do things like subscribe to a CSA all together or try to eat only local for a month, etc. It's very neat to watch and I hope it is a sign of wonderful things to come.

  6. Tracy CB says:

    We're still omnivores here, but I could fairly easy return to vegetarianism, and even to veganism with a few little whimpers. I was vegetarian through early college (early 90's) and then went vegan for a few years (mid-90's) before returning to being omnivorous at some point. I enjoyed those days and felt better on a number of counts. I am personally working back towards that end of the spectrum and even my husband is.

    We are pretty much a no-fast-food and minimally-processed household now. Exceptions include: 1) supply we already have in the house, and 2) occasionally an ingredient for some oddball sort of dish. I'm thinking of the taco salad I will likely make for a work potluck. I would go buy processed tortilla chips for that. Forces that shaped these choices (beyond common sense and a desire for simplicity in general which colors all our food choices) include things like Pollan's books (and quite a few others), concepts/movements like SlowFood and quite strongly Fast Food Nation by Schlosser. When I picked this book up, I expected something along the lines of Super Size Me or Don't Eat This Book (the book from/after Super Size Me). It was not what I expected. It delved all the more into the politics of industry and government regulation and ethical treatment of workers. Concepts I was familiar with, but just took it to an entirely new level. I cried through many sections and was appalled at just how bad things were. Like selling advertising space in schools. To Coke and McDonald's all sorts of other processed food companies. It sickened me. If you haven't read that one, I highly recommend it and think you would love (and hate) it. Although we avoided fast food in the past, this just put multiple nails in that choice's coffin. Basically, we're trying to follow Pollan's simple “eat food” advice. So to make that happen…

    We have a CSA and get most of our veggies from there. Additional veggies are organic, usually from the Farmer's Market, but Chatham Marketplace, Whole Foods and even Harris Teeter provide extra. I try to buy local and from “small organic”, but certainly have purchased my share from “Big organic” particularly when in a pinch (forgetting I needed carrots for a dish, running out to Harris Teeter at the last minute and buying some Big Organic/California carrots, for example).

    We didn't subscribe to fruit in our CSA as I wanted much more variety and for some reason am more fickle about picking out fruit for the week. So, those are purchases from sources above as well.

    Eggs are from pastured/free range chickens from our CSA. When we need more, we buy pastured from Farmer's Market or Whole Foods (who also stocks local options, too). Eggs, particularly so fresh, are one of the areas I would whimper about if I went vegan again. I have come to love them of late and certainly enjoy cooking/baking with them, too.

    Cheese is from our CSA as well as other local suppliers/farmers and then some real specialty stuff from Whole Foods every now and again. I could give up cheese, but it would involve whimpering again. In my vegan days, I tried soy options but they mostly sucked back then. I understand they have improved. I may try them again just to see.

    Milk…I drink milk/”milk” from various sources including cow and goat as well as rice, almonds, etc. Mike drinks cow's milk and would like to try goat's milk. We have local dairies here, but even their practices aren't perfect in my mind so our selections come from a few different places. We are researching the very best milk choices available to us. I could give this up fairly easily on my return to veganland.

    Meats… We have quite a stock in our freezer, so have slowly been getting through those. I am aiming to be awfully close to vegetarian when that stock is gone. Hubby feels similar, but probably not near as strongly as I do. For fish, we aim for sustainable with help from places like edf or seafood watch to guide our choices. For chicken, pastured only and our favorite vendor is at the Farmer's Market. It's positively delicious chicken and reminds one of what it is actually supposed to taste like. For beef, it is a rarity, but we go for grass fed local pastured beef and have a number of options via the Farmer's Market. There are other choices available, too, like rabbit and goat and lamb. These are also rarities, but come from locally raised, humanely treated, “come tour the farm” places.

    All in all, we're trying to balance taste and animal welfare and environment and workers rights and free trade and social justice and…etc. etc. We also try to vote with every dollar we spend and make ethical choices. Is local always best? Is organic always best? What if it's shipped across the country? What if across the ocean? Should I give my dollars/votes to a local non-organic producer using fossil fuels to power their farm that also involves me spending fossil fuel on driving to pick it up? Or should I give my dollars/votes to the organic farm on the other side of the planet using minimal fossil fuels on the farm itself that funds sustainability and helps support developing economies and social justice? Etc. etc. Just a few million permutations of choices to make every day. I'm reading _The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter_ right now and this book particularly highlights pros and cons of each decision and just how much each choice impacts what. I love it, but I also find it overwhelming at times and wish I could become a ruminant so I could just go munch on the clover, fescue and dandelions in my yard and be done with it. Argh, the omnivore's dilemma, indeed.

    I grew up growing our own veggies, plus our full-time farmer friends frequently gave us extra (it was common for a boy to come courting one of my sisters by bringing over a crate of vegetables. We moved to suburbia by the time I was of dating age, otherwise this would have been my romantic fate as well). We had fruit trees (citrus) and neighbors had other trees (plums, cherries, apples, etc.). We swapped fruit. We fished for our seafood, mostly trout but I definitely recall others like bass and flounder and catfish as well. There were also dairy and meat farmers all around us, and our freezer was stocked with whole chickens and sides of beef. I think we were much more self-sufficient. I would like to return closer to this. Ideally, we'd like a little bit of land. Enough to grow our own vegetables and have some to share with friends, too. I'd love fruit trees again. If I stay non-vegan, then I'd love to have chickens for the eggs and goats for the milk. And maybe either for the meat, particularly to keep my “I'd consider close to vegetarian but really don't think I could do vegan at all” husband on the happier side.

    It is oddly a very big issue for us right now and we're in the middle of making some changes. Each change we have made has led to discussion of other changes we feel we need to make, so now we feel like we're looking at years worth of slow changes ahead. It is a good thing, but as I mentioned earlier, overwhelming at times. Again, Pollan's advice that you mentioned above is a good summary of the main forces/points we're working on with all kinds of offshoots from that which go a little further and get into the multifaceted topics of food ethics. We've made some great changes, but there are many more to come. Baby steps is working best for us right now as it gives us time to integrate what we have changed and explore additional possible changes. To go too fast feels that we could easily bite off more than we could chew, so to speak, and have the system/our choices collapse in on us.

    I'm glad to hear it is a topic in your household as well, and certainly love that these various movements are becoming more apparent to so many. Even my mom is so impressed with our CSA and is reading some books related to all this and has contemplated having her neighborhood of retirees do things like subscribe to a CSA all together or try to eat only local for a month, etc. It's very neat to watch and I hope it is a sign of wonderful things to come.

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