1. Do Your Homework
As organics take off and multinational food companies acquire small producers, consumer research becomes more important than ever. (For a graph displaying who owns what in the organic foods industry, visit www.msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustry.html.) Check out labels through nonindustry sources like the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) or Sustainable Table (www.sustainabletable.org) — they’ll explain which food producers uphold the highest standards of land management, labor practices and animal treatment. (See Web Extra! for more on the intricacies of the burgeoning organics industry.)
You can also take your pick of books like Kingsolver’s and Pollan’s, or Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill (University of California Press, 2007). Plus, two documentaries — King Corn (2007) and The Future of Food (2004) — will help you better understand the dangers of monoculture crops and genetically modified seeds. For a clever, but strongly positioned, lesson about factory-farmed eggs, milk and meat, check out the flash animation films at The Meatrix (www.themeatrix.com).
2. Get Involved
Find your local food co-op and become a member. (You can track down the nearest one at www.sustainabletable.org.) Start a weekend ritual of visiting a nearby farmers’ market. Buy a share in a CSA (find one at www.localharvest.org) and get weekly deliveries of fresh produce from a local farmer; some CSAs even offer fresh eggs and chicken. (For more on eating local, see “Closer to Home: 5 Steps Toward Eating Local” in the April 2008 archives.)
Get involved with urban farming or spend a day volunteering at a nearby farm, especially great activities to do with kids. See if you can get your school hooked up with a local farm for the lunch program. Or consider donating to good food causes, like the People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif., or the folks at Urban Farming, who are working to increase urban food security by turning empty city lots into farms (www.urbanfarming.org).
Finally, don’t be intimidated by legislation — Call and write your legislators (www.congress.org) to press for a better “food bill” that supports a more sustainable food system. Meanwhile, you can continue to “vote with your fork” by shopping for local, sustainable whole foods.
3. Choose Your Battles
Here are a few modest changes that can make a big impact:
- Become a “whole-food-avore.” Strive to incorporate into your diet more fresh foods that look pretty much as they did in nature, and you’ll not only be healthier, you’ll bypass many of the problems associated with the food system: The worst agricultural sins are not committed in the name of fruits and vegetables.
- Know the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, and buy the organic varieties. Peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes carry the worst pesticide load, according to a 2007 study by the Environmental Working Group. Read more about the study at www.foodnews.org.
- Stick with grass-fed dairy and meat products and avoid any food raised in a commercial feedlot. Supporting grass-fed operations is not only more humane for animals and significantly easier on the environment, it’s also much better for your health. Visit www.eatwild.com for more information and to find your nearest sources of pastured meat and milk.
4. Follow the Foodies
When you find yourself too busy to hit the farmers’ market or weed the vegetable gardens at a CSA, you can still support a healthier food economy by choosing farm-to-table restaurants when you eat out. (The Eat Well Guide at www.eatwellguide.org will help you find them.)
Today’s food activists are helping bring our food systems and eating habits full circle: When we eat more local, seasonal, whole foods, we are eating much like our ancestors.
“In the history of European cooking, preparing local food was more of a necessity,” says Mike Phillips, head chef at the Minneapolis restaurant The Craftsman, one of hundreds nationwide that support local growers of whole foods. “There weren’t means to refrigerate or ship food thousands of miles, so traditional cooking and preserving techniques evolved out of using foods locally. There’s also a strong pride taken in regional foods — only wine grown in the Burgundy region can carry that name — and I want to support farmers who are developing those traditions of quality here.”
Indeed, there is pleasure and a sense of pride in knowing where our food comes from — and a deeper connection with our food is born out of appreciation for the labor that brought it to our plate. Familiarizing ourselves with what we eat and buying whole, local foods sustains our food culture and promotes dignity in food production and consumption.
This more mindful approach to food — and the food system at large — transforms an everyday act of consumption into an act of grace. And who doesn’t want a bigger serving of that?
Courtney Helgoe is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
Here are some of the positive highlights of today’s consumer-driven food revolution:
Save the Seeds. The Web has given new life to a host of seed-saving organizations that help farmers and gardeners learn how to save seeds from their heirloom crops and to trade them with each other. This underground network is helping to protect farmer self-sufficiency and maintain a healthy variety of food crops for future generations. See www.seedsavers.org.
Farm-to-School. Forty-three states now host farm-to-school programs, where local farms supply schools’ cafeterias with fresh produce for lunches, and students learn about food production and nutrition. To find out about a program near you, visit www.farmtoschool.org.
Urban Farms. Farms are sprouting up in cities across the United States and Canada. They transform empty lots and rooftops into sources of fresh food (notably lacking in most inner-city neighborhoods), create local food self-sufficiency, and beautify urban spaces, which deters crime.
Organics Galore. Sales of organics are increasing by 20 percent annually. And while this rising demand can be a mixed blessing — the small, local aspect of organic farming often gets lost in production — it does mean a huge number of acres are being turned over to more sustainable land and livestock management.
Eat Local. “Locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year. More and more people are starting to see the drawbacks of food that’s built to travel and have begun to eat closer to home, building local economies as they shop and dine. You can learn about the “eat local challenge” at www.eatlocal.net.
Grass-Fed and Proud. As awareness spreads about inhumane feedlot practices and the taste and nutritional benefits of grass-fed animal products, sales are rising fast. Even some members of the fast-food industry are catching on. In 2005, McDonald’s Chipotle Mexican restaurant chain began sourcing all their pork from Niman Ranch, a cooperative for organic and pasture-fed meats.
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 www.experiencelifemag.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter.