Today is the Fourth of July... US Independence Day. This has become the day for Americans to crank up the BBQ, pile on the potato salad and enjoy a summertime feast before the fireworks start. In recognition of the food-centric way in which we tend to celebrate occasions, and what seems to be a fair amount of buzz around exposing the dirty little secrets of the food industry lately, I thought I would take a conscious look at how the way we shop for food and the choices we make at the market affect our health and the environment.
Living in Seattle, I recognize my good food fortune in that I can walk to the country’s best farmers’ market, Pike Place Market (internationally recognized as “America's premier farmers' market,” attracting over 10 million visitors a year) within 10 minutes. The easy access we have here in Seattle to local, organic, and seasonal farm-fresh produce and dairy products as well as knowing the seafood offered at the local fishmongers is usually guaranteed wild and fished responsibly from nearby waters makes choosing healthful, natural and locally-sourced foods almost effortless. In most of the country, however, food options are dominated by whatever is offered in the local corporate grocery chain. Unfortunately, these large chains often emphasize size (bigger is better) and reduced cost (via mass manufacturing, industrial farming, genetic engineering, other technological “innovations”) over quality, natural growing techniques, or support of local farm operations.
Luckily, we seem to be in the midst of a tipping point with respect to recognizing the adverse health and environmental effects of supporting such a mass-produced, genetically- and synthetically-engineered food system. Recently, the unappetizing horrors within the modern commercialized food chain have been exposed in books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Recent documentaries such as King Corn highlights the frustrating system of governmental subsidies to corn farmers and high fructose corn syrup as the insidious culprit behind America’s obesity and diabetes epidemic, and Food Inc, which I have not yet seen but is high on my list, is reviewed by the New York Times as “an informative, sometimes infuriating, activist documentary about the big business of feeding or, more to the political point, force-feeding, Americans all the junk that multinational corporate money can buy” both cast a spotlight on the previously shadowy world of food manufacturing. As long as food tastes good, most people are happy to remain blissfully unaware of what is involved in getting it that way, or to their table. But no longer.
The sustainable food movement is gaining more momentum, rolling all the way up to Washington, via the political and environmental symbolic statement made by Michelle Obama's planting of the very first Presidential vegetable garden. Although starting a farm in your backyard or rooftop may not be immediately feasible (typical and immediate responses include: “I don’t have a green thumb!” “I don’t have time to tend a garden!” “I don’t have the space for that!” and/or “I wouldn’t know how to start a garden!”); technically, we do have the power to grow our own food. This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features Will Allen, an urban-farming expert of Growing Power Farming who has pioneered a local-farming movement to help educate people to do just that, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.
Each of us really does have the power to make a difference in the kinds of foods that are stocked in our markets. Choosing locally sourced foods from small, independent growers helps our health as well as the environment. Chances are the foods will be fresher, with less or no chemical preservatives since they were likely on the vine or in the ground as recently as a day ago, and the carbon footprint required to transport the foods to the market is minimized. In addition, every time we buy groceries and the scanner registers the bar codes of the products we buy, a marketing company registers our purchasing preferences, and the more we buy locally, the more locally sourced items we'll see.
Think about the following the next time you’re in the grocery store or at a restaurant:
1) Check to see where the produce you are buying is from. In my local Whole Foods, there are signs that proudly advertise “Locally grown WA Rainier cherries!” “Lady Washington apples from Snoqualmie…” etc., and I notice that often these local items are cheaper than others that have been transported from other states or countries. If there aren’t signs, the produce stickers usually contains location information: “product of Chile, Mexico,” etc. (I avoid these!)
2) Ask your produce manager if they carry fruits and vegetables from local farmers. The more you ask for it, and the more people who request it, the greater the chances they will start carrying it.
3) Print off and carry with you the “Seafood Watch List,” listing the seafood choices that are sustainably fished, abundant, and/or farmed in environmentally-friendly ways. You can view the guide online, or download a wallet-sized version. Try to avoid ordering or buying fish such as Chilean Sea Bass, Atlantic Cod, and others that are either overfished or unsustainably harvested. The list is long and surprising, but there are also many kinds of fish on the “best choices” list for abundance and responsible fishing.
4) Recognize that many label claims such as “natural,” “naturally raised,” “Raised without antibiotics,” and the use of “Organic” for seafood and personal care products are unregulated, misleading and basically meaningless.
5) Check out Food Democracy Now, a grassroots movement initiated by farmers, writers, chefs, eaters and policy advocates to: “implement real and significant change in our nation’s food, agricultural and environmental policies through advancing best practices in food production, animal husbandry, conservation of natural resources, renewable energy and soil preservation.” Sign the petition to make your voice heard for a sustainable USDA!
6) Consider signing the petition on Food Independence Day.Org, launched by Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International, who earlier this year petitioned the Obama administration to plant a Victory Garden on the White House lawn. Part of this effort was to gain the commitment of individuals to include local foods in their menu and to encourage support of locally grown food and local eating on the Fourth of July.
7) Remember that every small change is still helpful, in a large way at an individual wellness level, as well as becoming part of the aggregate contribution to our global health.
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead