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Progressive Eaters, Unite!

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Progressive Eaters, Unite!

By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life

America’s food industry is in the midst of a dramatic culture shift that’s challenging everything we’ve been taught about eating. Here’s how to take advantage of this exciting new movement and eat more healthfully than ever before.

If, on some beautiful summer morning, you decide to head to your local farmers’ market, chances are good that you’ll have your pick of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: green zebras, Brandywines, yellow pear or sugar plum. Maybe you’ll grab a cup of fair-trade coffee to enjoy while you chat with growers. On your way back you could stop at the local food co-op for a few more staples: a carton of organic milk, some spelt pasta. Pulling up in front of the house on your bike, you gratefully contemplate how easy it is to eat well close to home.

Later in the week, however, you’re just as likely to find yourself in the center aisles of the mega-market, surrounded by bags of salty snacks and temptingly easy-to-make (and heavily processed) prepackaged meals. Your youngest child, fresh from daycare, is howling for the toaster tarts with her favorite cartoon heroes on the box. Hungry and ready to flee, you grab a frozen pizza, submit to the demand for toaster tarts, and drive home through rush-hour traffic, munching a bag of cheese curls as you go. Pulling up in front of your house, you consider how easy it is to be distracted from your goals to eat better food.

America’s food culture has never been so polarized. Locally grown heirloom crops square off with mass-produced frozen pizzas. Organic seeds compete with genetically modified ones. Pasture-fed cattle are shadowed by crowded feedlots. While Italy’s Slow Food Movement catches on across the country, our addiction to fast food shows no signs of abating.

Clearly, our food system is heading in two radically different directions, and the decisions we make as eaters play a vital role in determining its fate. Read on for a glimpse of the current state of our food culture and some tips on how you can help create a food movement that’s moving in the right direction for your tastes.

Positive Trends, Challenging Realities
Our industrial food system is undergoing a seismic shift. Walmart is the country’s largest purveyor of organic milk, and Whole Foods Market has become a household name. The number of farmers’ markets has doubled in the last decade. And demand for organic food rises at an annual rate of 20 percent.

Meanwhile, books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2008) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007) have become bestsellers. In 2007, editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore,” a term for people who exclusively buy foods grown close to home, as their word of the year.

What’s more, the participants in today’s food movement are not just back-to-the-land vegetarians or “health food nuts,” as your grandma might’ve called them. These movers and shakers come in all stripes — from the urban farmer to the suburban mom who can deconstruct a food label in record time. City folks are heading to the country to volunteer in community-supported agriculture (CSA) partnerships, and celebrity chefs are building public alliances with local farmers. Consumers aren’t just grabbing the local apples at the grocery store; they’re purchasing them directly from farmers at markets or through shares of a CSA.

“This is an industry born of activism,” says Whole Foods copresident Walter Robb, whose company has grown from a tiny natural foods store in Texas in 1978 into a Fortune 500 giant that grossed $6.6 billion in 2007. Robb readily acknowledges that many of the company’s directives, like its animal compassion standards and parking-lot farmers’ markets, come directly from community input and consumer demand for more sustainably produced food.

In short, consumers are playing a central role in shaping a new American food culture. And they’re beginning to see how their activism is translating into better land management and animal treatment, a healthier bottom line for small farmers, and a renaissance of delicious and healthful food.

That’s not to say we’ve seen the end of commodity-based industrial agriculture. The vast majority of American food producers continue to reap most of their profits from the sale of highly processed foods based on ingredients (like corn, wheat, soy and sugar) that spell trouble for both human and environmental health. And outdated federal legislation continues to support mass-production farming and monoculture crops, stacking the deck against small-scale growers and sweetening the profit margin for big agricultural outfits that grow commodities instead of food.

Today, organics still comprise only 2 percent of total U.S. food production. Small, diverse growing operations remain the exception to the rule of the corporate-controlled “factory” farm. In 2005, farmers devoted 4 million acres to organic crops in the United States, while federally subsidized corn, the bedrock of the processed-food and fast-food industries, occupied 81.6 million acres.

And while Americans have more access than ever to fresh, whole and organic foods, those living in low-income communities have fewer options. In these areas, people without reliable transportation are forced to buy their groceries at neighborhood gas stations and convenience stores, purveyors of what Pollan calls “food products” — shelf-stable, highly refined goods that are only distantly related to recognizable crops.

This particular inequity may seem less urgent than the broader economic and political realities from which it springs, but the lack of access to fresh, healthy food is linked to some of our most worrisome public health trends. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four U.S. adults is medically obese, and one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will contract diet-related type 2 diabetes by 2050 — both conditions related to consuming highly processed food.

What’s more, many of our government’s policies support the production of highly refined, high-glycemic products through outdated farm subsidy programs. The U.S. government originally subsidized farmers who grew corn and other storable crops to protect Americans against starvation after the Great Depression, but today that subsidized corn appears as corn syrup in almost all our processed food and, indirectly, as livestock feed in our fast-food meals.

By making these foods artificially cheap, those subsidies effectively underwrite the obesity and diabetes epidemics. In addition, they discourage the planting of health-promoting vegetables by making corn the only crop most farmers feel they can afford to grow.

The 2007 Farm Bill contained new incentives for environmental stewardship, funding to support more farmers’ markets and urban farms, and a farm-to-school program for better school lunches — all in response to citizen demand. Subsidies for corporate farms and commodity crops remained untouched, but for the first time since the industrialization of the food system after World War II, legislation is beginning to reflect consumer desire for a healthier food system.

Time to Eat
The good news is it really doesn’t take much to lend your support to the positive trends in today’s food movement. And doing so will build a healthier, more soul-satisfying relationship with your food. One the next page, you can find a few simple ways to help revolutionize our food system for the better.

Next: 4 Ways to Revolutionize Eating

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

7 comments

+ add your own
8:13AM PDT on Aug 24, 2009

I hope this isn't toooo off topic. I understand how many are trapped with having to rely on factory grown meats and produce, due to distance, only I don't agree that the higher cost of organically grown foodstuffs is any reason for purchasing factory productions. I have grown my own veggies for about 30 years..beginning with large terra-cotta pots, by a sunny apartment window, to the larger spaces I have now. Canadians are often faced with learning how to conserve foods, throughout the winter months, via preserving or pickling. Natural methods still ensure healthier eats, and at a very conservative cost. Yes, time is needed, only if it were an option to buy organically grown foodstuffs, isn't it reasonable to agree that organic's prices will eventually drop? I find that organic, or my own home grown has so much more flavor that I have no need to pack masses of food into my mouth. Meals are simply more enjoyable. I find fast food influences turn my stomach, as commercials promote healthier eating now, yet don't mention where their meat supplies come from. In the long run..once a person tastes the clean flavor of organic foods, they would gladly do what ever they can to avoid feeding the mass grocery markets pocket books. All it takes is one person at a time to eventually finance a growing interest in organic consumption. In time people may realize that massive amounts of meats in their diets are actually killing them.

4:53PM PDT on Aug 18, 2009

Most of this article was great, full of good information and web links; with one exception. This paragraph:
"If, on some beautiful summer morning, you decide to head to your local farmers’ market, chances are good that you’ll have your pick of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: green zebras, Brandywines, yellow pear or sugar plum. Maybe you’ll grab a cup of fair-trade coffee to enjoy while you chat with growers. On your way back you could stop at the local food co-op for a few more staples: a carton of organic milk, some spelt pasta. Pulling up in front of the house on your bike, you gratefully contemplate how easy it is to eat well close to home." What? Who lives within easy biking distance of a farmers market (that also sells fair trade coffee) and a local food co-op? I live in a semi-rural area and it's 9 miles to the regular grocery store, around 30 to the Whole Foods Store! Even in the urbanized areas that senario is seriously unlikely. If you want people to pay attention and take what you're saying seriously leave out the fantasy senarios.

5:50PM PDT on Aug 16, 2009

About 20 years ago I heard a lecture by an agronomist criticizing the practice of growing corn (maize) in semi-arid areas instead of
grains such as wheat and oats that require less water. Then other
farmers do the reverse and plant grains where the water virtually drowns them. Then to that remark wherever that comes from "There is not enough grassland to feed 300000000
people on grass fed animals. What about all that grass in Suburbia that just gets mowed and thrown away? There is so much that the community can do if we want to do.

11:37AM PDT on Aug 16, 2009

This is a great article and I heartily disagree with Brad King's statement and criticism that "There is simply not enough space for a country of 300 million to eat animal products that are grass-fed." and "Recommending grass-fed animal products is elitist and goes against everything Care2 stands for when it comes to environmental, welfare & health issues. I hope in future you will better consider the ethical implications of your reccommendations and ensure that your ideas are sustainable, economically feasible, environmentally friendly & healthy."

PLEASE read Michael Polin's Omnivore's Dilemma, or go see Food, Inc, and PLEASE check out what Polyface Farm is doing. I have been a vegetarian nearly all my life but the humane treatment of farm animals raised for food is not only possible but can be economically more sustainable than factory farming and this needs to be known and supported.

People don't know. Until they do nothing will change. People need to understand not only the horrors of what is happening now in the the meat and dairy industry, but that there are alternatives to it and the "grass fed" and "organic" movements, while not perfect, are viable alternatives that should be supported.

Your dollar is your vote in this country - I vote for the happiest healthiest food I can buy each day. This is not elitist - this is my commitment to supporting these movements and the sooner these become mainstream the sooner they will be accessible to everyone.

9:31AM PDT on Aug 16, 2009

Well said, Brad King. I couldn't have said it better. As long as the commercial meat and dairy industry receive huge subsidies, the prices on those items will remain low---while prices for healthy organic fruits and veggies will continue to be expensive. Ditto for subsidies to the huge factory monoculture corn and soy farms.

And while "grass fed" is more healthy and the animals may (or may not) be treated and killed more humanely, you are still eating at the top of the food chain when you consume meat and dairy. And that is not sustainable. Grass fed requires pasture land--land which could be used to grow organic fruits, veggies and grains for humans.

7:34AM PDT on Aug 16, 2009

What an insipid example of "you should eat like I eat". Subsidies for corn pale into insigificance in comparison to the subsidies paid to meat and dairy farmers (dairy farms currently produce 25% more milk than the market demands their subsidies are so great).

The government is coming under increased pressure to free up national lands and reserves for so-called "grass-fed" animal products. There is simply not enough space for a country of 300 million to eat animal products that are grass-fed. The grass-fed industry can only exist when most people are eating factory-farmed products.

Meat and dairy are a disaster for the environment, consume massive amounts of grains for a diminished return, are a disaster for human health, and are incredibly cruel industries no matter how green the pasture.

Your valuable column inches would have been much better used advocating for the transfer subsidies from dairy & meat to fruits, grains & vegetables. Then, everybody would have access to healthy whole foods in the corner store and be able to afford them.

Recommending grass-fed animal products is elitist and goes against everything Care2 stands for when it comes to environmental, welfare & health issues. I hope in future you will better consider the ethical implications of your reccommendations and ensure that your ideas are sustainable, economically feasible, environmentally friendly & healthy.

In add

7:32AM PDT on Aug 16, 2009

Until the cost of "organic" becomes comparable to regular retail grocers prices there are those that won't be shopping in any of the "health" food stores. Not everyone can afford such prices as seems standard for organic and other health related products. While I do agree that a lot of the food offered in regular retail today has been over-processed, over chemicaled with additives/preservatives, sadly they are the only option for many.

Since the government always has "our best interests at heart" maybe it's time for gov't to put a stop to the additives which (are really unnecessary) may lead to physical ailments if continually consumed over a period of time.

Till that time/day comes I will continue to buy the 'fresh' produce at the grocery. It may not have been grown in "organic" soils somewhere--but at least it hasn't been canned up with all sorts of harmful chemicals to insure it has a long shelf life either.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

people are talking

I agree with John C. The one you have and love is the friendliest one. Just ask my Yorkie!

thanks for sharing.

Thanks for sharing

Thank you, I'll try this, I have two little bubble blowers to try this out on :)

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