Wednesday, May 18, 2011

It All Starts With Food

Local and organic. New buzzwords, movements, often called "elitist" because supposedly only middle to upper class people can afford it. I won't go into that in depth because others have done so sufficiently. However, I will say that yes, buying organic food in the manner that most food is bought today, namely in packages and with numerous ingredients, is often prohibitively expensive. Boxes of cookies, bags of chips, frozen dinners, etc.... you're still paying for the brand and manufacturing on top of the added costs of organic. Part of moving toward an affordable organic diet means leaving behind many of the packages in favor of whole food.

I'm grouping organic and local together here because they are often one and the same, but a quick definition of each:

  • Local*: not the Safeway, Albertson's or Fry's around the corner. Local means not just operated locally but owned locally as well. Even chains that are franchised like McDonald's and Subway are not local. They are run on a formula, no matter their locale, and the bulk of the money leaves the community and goes to the corporation. Local are your mom and pop, independently owned businesses.

  • Organic: the term often confuses people, but it's not confusing at all. Think of organic as the way your grandparents, great-grandparents and before them grew and ate their food. Organic uses natural inputs rather than chemical. Instead of chemical fertilizers, manure and compost is used. Instead of chemical pesticides, companion planting with pest-averting plants is done, along with growing bio-diverse crops. The healthier the plant naturally, the better it can fight off pests and disease. Instead of growth hormones and antibiotics, animals are allowed to grow and eat naturally. There's no mystery here, no smoke and mirrors. Just naturally grown and raised food.

The reasons local and organic are important (not a complete list):
  1. Good for the environment. I was talking with my kiddos the other day about how becoming interested in truly healthy food (not about reading labels but getting away from labels) naturally led me to environmentalism. The two are so closely linked on many levels. A few years ago I watched a video of a cow being slaughtered in a rather inhumane but commonly done way. It led to me thinking about not just the meat on my plate but the living being it was before. I started reading books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Fast Food Nation, and watching movies like Food Inc. Becoming aware of progressive yet old-school (seemingly paradoxical) farmers like Joel Salatin.

    Thoughts led to action, and I changed the way I shopped and ate.

    Food, what kind we buy, where it comes from, how it was grown, the packaging it comes in if any, and how we dispose of it all affects the planet. Organic is better for the planet because it relies on natural inputs rather than chemical which leads to less pollution in our rivers. Local farms (and by local I don't mean the Con-Agra place doused in Monstanto chemicals with Monsanto GMO crops that's down the road) are more visible and therefore accountable to the community. When our local environment is degraded by industry we are much more likely to be aware of it, to speak up, to take action and to have an effect.

    For example: rainforests are clear cut every day for cattle grazing land, coffee, palm and soy production. Most of us would care if it was "our" rainforest being destroyed. The truth is, it is our rainforest. Distance might remove it from our daily thoughts, but the effects of its deforestation are felt around the world. The oxygen the rainforest provides is essential to the planet as a whole, along with it being part of our global climate control.

    We've been trying to "save" the rainforests for decades now but with little effect. Why is that? Because our actions and habits do not reflect a real commitment to conservation. We have not changed the message that we send to corporations which propels them to clear cut the rainforests. Scaling back our meat consumption and keeping our ranches small and accountable where we can see them is one (of many**) excellent way to protect the rainforests. We need the air they provide more than we need that quarter-pounder with cheese.

  2. Good for our health. This one needs very little explanation! Food that was picked yesterday and eaten today is far more rich in nutrients than food that had to travel. The rule for local is within a 150 mile radius. Food that is organic is better for you because it has not been doused in chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. A good website for local food in your area is Local Harvest.

  3. Good for the community. Here's where it all ties together.

    What's good for the environment is good for the community. It goes without saying that the healthier our planet on a global scale, the healthier our ecosystems on a local scale.

    What's good for personal health is good for the community. Medicare. Universal healthcare. Taxes to pay for both. Healthy people are less of a "burden" and remove a great deal of need for these debates.

    In addition, local businesses are good for the community, both economically and for that "sense of community" that we talk a lot about but no longer really experience. How many of us wish that the Mom and Pop stores were not going out of business? But, how many of us shop at those stores rather than at Target or Walmart or large grocery chains ? Probably not many, which is exactly why they are closing. It's not some evil corporate conspiracy to go after the Mom and Pop. Well... it is but... they have accomplices.


    We are lured by cheaper prices, larger selections, and convenience. At the end of the day, our money, after paying a few minimum wage workers, leaves town. Gone. Plus, these stores often don't stock local goods, so local artisans and farmers are not supported by these places as they would more likely be in locally owned stores.

    When I first started shopping at a little local grocery here, I was stunned at how small the place was. They had nothing, or so I thought. But I kept going back, determined to like it. And now, I do. I love it. They have everything I need, and when they don't, I go without and I manage to survive. No asparagus in September? That's ok... it's not in season then anyway. On the rare occasion when I go to the larger stores, I wander aimlessly, gazing undecidedly at all the packages, just as I did when these were the places I did my shopping. Shopping was always a huge ordeal and I hated it. So many isles, so much needless choice.. people staring in confusion at labels.

    Now I find there isn't even anything I want there anyway. Nothing is local. The organic fruits and veggies, largely ignored by most shoppers there, are old and squishy. The packaged organic stuff is.. well, where does it come from anyway? Safeway's brand "O," for example, is made by Lucerne. Buying organic from them mostly goes on to fund the rest of their operation, which is decidedly not organic, and not local, not even in Pleasanton where it's based.

    I find that somehow, somewhere along the way, I've lost my taste for the post-1970's grocery store, and prefer those places which, like Salatin, offer us a wonderful paradox: progressive and old-school.

* a word on coffee and other things that can't be grown locally. Most of the food we eat can be found locally. For those that never can, I say buy them! Local eating isn't about never eating another banana again. Of course some people take it to that extreme, but I think extremes set us up for failure. In the case with coffee, it can still be roasted locally, offering both a better cup of coffee and money to local roasters.

** a word on rainforests... and coffee! Coffee is one of the reasons the rainforests are being clear cut. If you've ever wondered what the term "shade grown" is, it's coffee that is grown without the need for clear cutting. To drink your brew guilt free and even do some good, buy it fair trade and shade grown from a local roaster (you guessed it: not Starbucks!). It's interesting to note that buying coffee organic actually hurts the farmers because they are typically too poor to buy the organic certification but also too poor to buy the chemicals... so they are likely to be organic anyway, just without the label. This is true for most small-farm crops in Mexico, South America and Africa.

More on the reasons rainforests are clear cut and what you can do about it can be found here