Friday, April 22, 2011

Some Thoughts, on Earth Day

Today is Earth Day.

I talk a lot about food and what to do with it and how delicious it can be.  I don't talk a lot about where it comes from.  I do, however, think about it quite a bit.

The fact is, day by day we are becoming more removed from the food we consume, more removed from the stuff we put in our bodies to keep us alive.  We think of chickens in terms of prepackaged pieces, not animals with beaks and feathers.  In our minds lettuce comes pre-washed in plastic bags, rather than pulled dirty from the ground.  We buy our food from companies, not from people.

We are all suffering from this mindset.  Our eating habits reflect this.  But there are some who are suffering more than others: the farmers.  Their very livelihoods are being threatened.  Small, family-owned farms are closing at an unbelievable rate.  Instead, we buy our food from the same corporations that manufacture industrial pesticides.  I won't get into all of the sticky politics here, but it is largely because of a government that institutes policies that are detrimental to local farms while rewarding corporations with large subsidies to make nutritionless food.

I encourage everyone to read this account from Stillman's Farm to see just a glimpse of what these farms are up against.

While at times it may seem like a losing battle, it is not lost yet.  Here are some things we can all do:

  • Sign up for a CSA:  CSA means Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically how it works is that at the beginning of the season, you pay a lump sum for a food 'subscription'.  Most CSA's consist of vegetables and fruit (though meat and dairy are sometimes available) that you pick up on a weekly basis.  Contents of the box are generally pre-determined based on what is growing on the farm at the moment.  It is beneficial for the farmers because they get guaranteed business and strong ties to the community.  It is beneficial for the patrons because you get the freshest produce possible and are challenged to eat seasonally and try new produce.  It is also inexpensive: last year I paid around $8 a week for a bounty of vegetables.  Do your research about the CSA before you sign up: there are many, many reputable CSA's in existence, but there are a few with lose definitions of the word 'local'.
  • Get thee to a farmers' market:  There is nothing inherently 'wrong' with going to a grocery store.  There is something better about going to a farmers' market.  The produce at farmers' markets will generally be much fresher, usually picked that very morning, and also of greater seasonal variety.  You are also giving your money right to a farm, rather than a middle man, so the people working to grow this food will benefit more.  In fact, you often get to meet those very people, getting a reminder that actual human beings are responsible for making that food exist.  Like with CSA's, become informed about the farms at your local market.  The internet is a great resource and you can also just talk to the actual people.  Where is their farm located?  Do they source any of their produce from other areas?  Reselling is, unfortunately, a fairly common practice; it's not always a negative, but it can be.  What are their policies with regard to pesticides, GMO's, etc.?  Is this a farm that's knowledgeable and conscientious about their practices, or is this a large factory farm with a cute booth?
  • Buy seasonally and locally:  Do you really need tomatoes in January?  Strawberries in November?  We've become pretty spoiled with the ability to buy just about any produce, anywhere, at any time of the year.  But it has its costs: it's probably not very good, it's usually more expensive, it very likely isn't coming from a local farm,  it took a lot more resources to get it to you, and you're probably ignoring a host of other produce options to reach for the same few items.  Look, I'm not claiming I am anywhere near perfect on this front (see the mango smoothies in the post below) nor would I admonish anyone else who isn't.  However, I encourage everyone to train themselves to break some bad habits and think for a moment before putting something in their grocery basket.  Make buying out of season the exception rather than the rule.  Start by identifying a few items that are off limits when out of season: for example, I have not bought tomatoes since the farmers' market closed last year.  Research when items are actually in season and what items grow in your region and try to feature those.  Even just modifying your shopping list by a few items makes a difference.  Also seek out local businesses that make their own products.  Find a good bakery that makes their bread in-house, a locally owned fish market or butcher, or even local ice cream.
  • Get Busy:  If you have any bit of sunny space outside, grow something!  You don't have to turn into a master gardener; growing even just a few edibles is wonderful.  Not only will it result in a few items less that have to be shipped to you, (and if everybody grew something, it would certainly add up), it will remind you to appreciate the people who do this on a large scale for a living.  For beginners, I recommend Swiss Chard, Cherry Tomatoes, Arugula, and Basil.  All of these can be grown in a pot.  Even if you don't have the space to grow anything, try making from scratch some food you usually buy.  Try making your own pastacrackers, or mayonnaise.  Even just trying it once will give you an appreciation for that food and for the people who make it.  It also helps us remember that we don't actually need those factories and those convenience meals.
  • Get Informed and Involved:  There is tons of literature available about the state of our food system.  The internet is a great source for a wide variety of opinions (do look into their reliability).  Personally, I recommend picking up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by (usually fiction) author Barbara Kingsolver and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  You certainly may not agree with everything they say, but the important part is to think about it and have engaged discussion.  Involve the people you know in this discussion: it doesn't have to be a heated debate, but even casual conversation about farms and food keeps the topic from being pushed to the back of our minds.  Stay informed about legislation affecting farms and food policies.  With RSS feeds it's pretty easy.  Contact your political representatives and voice your opinions.  Put your money where your mouth is.
Nothing will fix this problem overnight, but that doesn't mean it's not worth fixing.  I challenge everybody to make this an issue that you hold to be important.  And with that, I will step down from my soapbox

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