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

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 Check out labels through nonindustry sources like the Environmental Working Group ( or Sustainable Table ( — 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 (

2. Get Involved
Find your local food co-op and become a member. (You can track down the nearest one at Start a weekend ritual of visiting a nearby farmers’ market. Buy a share in a CSA (find one at 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 (

Finally, don’t be intimidated by legislation — Call and write your legislators ( 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
  • 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 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 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.

Hopeful Signs
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

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

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

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 to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter.


Laurie T.
Laurie T8 years ago

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.

Teresa T.
Teresa T8 years ago

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.

Frank Lornitzo
Frank Lornitzo8 years ago

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.

Jorin Hawley
Jorin Hawley8 years ago

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.

Roxanne N.
Roxanne N8 years ago

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.

Brad King
Brad King8 years ago

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

Barbara K.
.8 years ago

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.