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Why It’s Important To Know Where Your Food Comes From

Let’s be honest with each other, just for a minute.  When this subject matter (the state of our environment) comes up, it creates guilt all around.  If I’m recycling, I expect you to recycle.  If you’re using energy-saving light bulbs, and I’m not, you’re miffed.  It’s really not conducive to a working relationship.

So, I propose that we look at this problem pragmatically–with no finger pointing.  Then I’ll make my decision.  You’ll make yours.  And we’ll both know that each person is doing what he or she can.  Agreed?

Imagine: you’ve read books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, and you’re wondering what to do with all this excellent, well-laid-out information you’ve been given.  To be honest, the whole food situation seems a little hopeless.  Your local grocery store (which looks like it’s full of products from hundreds of companies) is really “owned” by four or five major corporations who aren’t going anywhere soon.  They provide gross amounts of food cheap and fast, and they don’t care where or how they get it.  They’ll cut corners and bypass laws in order to make a quick buck.  And if you think the FDA or the USDA will be there to hold up a STOP sign, you’re mistaken.  Many of the people serving on the boards of these large corporations are also serving in a FDA or USDA capacity.  How does that work exactly?  It doesn’t.  We get E. coli breakouts, and plants are not shut down.  We have factory farms that are producing chickens that can’t walk (they’re genetically engineered to grow too fast) and cows standing in hills of manure.

So, we sit back and breathe…and say, “So what?  There’s really nothing I can do to solve this problem.  It’s gone rogue.”

Well, yes.  It has.

But I’ll tell you another little story that will intersect with where we’re headed in this conversation.  Once upon a time, when Dan and I had to spend a year in Houston, we attended a lecture given by Jane Goodall, the “chimp lady.”  [That term does not do her justice; she’s a brilliant scientist and human being.]  At one point in her talk, she said, “You know, there are so many people out there thinking, ‘I’m only me.  How can I change the world?’  Tonight, I’m here to tell you that if all of those people changed their minds one hundred and eighty degrees and said, ‘I’m only one person, but I’ll make one change,’ think of the possibilities!”  She got a rousing standing ovation.

Back to our food dilemma.  It really is bad, and you must see Food, Inc. to understand.  Did you know Monsanto, the soybean seed producer, can actually sue a farmer if he cleans the debris off his seed and reuses it the following year?  They have “detectives” that keep tabs on farmers, even farmers who’ve never bought their seed, but the seed has blown in from surrounding farms.  Did you know that the surplus of corn in our country is subsidized by the government, since over 90% of our food products contain corn in some form (mostly high fructose syrup)?  Did you know some of the surplus is sent to countries like Haiti and other third-world countries to provide them with cheap food?  You’d think this would be a good thing.  Problem is: Haiti used to be comprised of farmers growing corn and wheat, and now they can’t produce those crops for cheaper than they can buy them, so fields are being vacated, and the farmers and their families are moving into Port au Prince to try to make a living, but, oh no, there are no jobs.  Poverty ensues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  You’d think Cargill, which is the big supplier to Haiti, would stop doing this, perhaps set up programs to help farmers get back on track, but no, they’re only interested in the bottom line.

Are you exhausted yet?  Do you need simple things that you can do on a daily basis?

Me, too.

Here’s a fact to remember: You vote every time you go to the grocery store. It’s really that simple.

“But,” you exclaim.  “I’m only one person.  If I’m the only person cutting back my meat intake, what about the next person who keeps buying the stuff in bulk?”

Okay, now we’re back to the whole guilt thing (and eyeing the other person), and yes, it plays a huge part in our decision-making.  If we are to decide to make the following decisions (or only one of them), we have to make it (them) for ourselves, not for our family member or our friend or our neighbor.  Our decisions cannot be foisted upon anyone else.  And if you choose not to make certain choices, then that’s all right, too.  There can be no judgment.

[It’s funny.  I was vegetarian for a while, after reading John Robbins’ book Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World (really, it was quite disgusting…I’m not sure how anyone could read it and not think otherwise) and I was flabbergasted at the number of people who took offense when they noticed I didn’t eat meat at a dinner party or at a dinner out.  They immediately began telling me why they weren’t vegetarian or why they couldn’t be vegetarian, when in reality, I didn’t care.  I was making the decision for myself.  It was quite uncomfortable.]

Back to our fact: You vote every time you go to the grocery store.

Some people can’t vote in the way they’d like, because they don’t have oodles of money lying around.  [And this is true.  Good food–organic vegetables, fruit, and meat cost more.  Fast food and junk food cost pennies.]  Some people just want to maintain status quo.  If you fit into either of those categories, it will be difficult to make any changes, unless you actively choose to cut costs elsewhere…or unless you begin caring enough to do one thing.

Let’s get started.  If you want to help, choose only one thing from this list.  Remember, it’s all about baby steps.  You have to educate yourself, and do what you feel comfortable with.  If you like meat too much, then simply cut back.  If you don’t want to do research on where you might find good local meat, ask your local food coop.  You pick up the phone, push the buttons, and viola, you have your answer!  Easy, isn’t it?

Just one thing, for starters.

  1. Read one of the books mentioned above.  Any of them will rock your world.
  2. See Food, Inc.
  3. Pay a visit to your local food coop and ask questions about where your meat or milk or eggs come from.  How are the animals treated?  Are the cows fed grass and not corn?  Do they give their animals antibiotics or hormones?
  4. Buy things in season.  [There is one thing I love above all else, and that is these bunches of red, seedless, globe–and when I say globe, they’re HUGE!–grapes from Chile.  They arrive in my supermarket about Thanksgiving time, and they are the sweetest, juiciest things, I cannot resist.  This could be my one sacrifice.  After all, they are coming all the way from Chile.  Think of the diesel fuel, the transportation costs…]
  5. Buy local as much as you can.  This requires a little research.  Again, a food coop makes this easy for you, since they’re trying to do the same thing you’re doing.
  6. Frequent your local farmer’s market during the summer months.  [“But I can’t cook,” you say.  Oh, they’ll have plenty of ideas for you.  Just ask.]
  7. Buy a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) share.  In the winter or spring months, you purchase the ability to get a box of produce every week of the summer.  It’s full of whatever’s in season, and it usually comes with a newsletter on great ways to use these unusual vegetables that are foreign to you.  It’s great fun.
  8. Access Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life, chockfull of information on home and beauty and clothing products that are kind to the environment and kind to animals.
  9. Invest in these cool shopping bags from Envirosax.  I get compliments on them each time I pull them out of my purse.  The holder contains five bags and takes up minimal space in my purse.  Of course I have to refold them when I’m done unloading my groceries, but I feel darn good not wasting all those plastic bags, let me tell you.  Oops, I don’t mean that to impose guilt.  I’m just saying I feel good.
  10. Take a vegetarian cooking class just so you know your options and just so you can be more creative.
  11. Find restaurants whose chefs buy locally.  There are quite a few in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where we eat.
  12. Before you shop for seafood, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium site.  They offer free downloadable seafood watch guides, to help you make good seafood choices.  There’s even a sushi guide.

Now, that was pretty painless, wasn’t it?  No one’s asking you to bake three loaves of bread daily or make fresh fish tacos (with loads of vegetables you have to chop) every night.

Baby steps, baby steps.

If you and I make one change, think of how it’ll change the world!

[Post image: Food, Inc. poster]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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