There are a lot of philosophies out there surrounding food, and a lot of argument over what’s right, what’s feasible, and what makes economic sense.  I will try to avoid mindlessly repeating what other authors and food commentators have said, but there will inevitably be overlap.  Below I will outline the way I approach food, and learning about our options.  It drives a lot of my choices, and influences where I spend my money.

As far as strict eating goes, Michael Pollan outlines plenty of good rules should you choose to follow them.  I personally try to eat mostly vegetarian, and vegan where I can.  I know that many of my posts include pictures of incredible carnivorous dishes, but I love meat.  Big deal.  I eat sustainably sourced meat, and avoid CAFO meat whenever possible.  However most of the time, I eat vegetables.  Lots of them.  From my local farmer’s market when things are in season.  I don’t eat 100% organic and don’t always follow my own rules.  I’ll readily admit this, and will not claim to be perfect.  But I make an effort.

I also am not a pain when it comes to my friends and family.  If they’re cooking dinner, I won’t ask where it came from.  I hate wasting food, and they were kind enough to prepare it for me.  While it’s true that people are starving in Africa NOT because of food shortages but because of bad policy by the developed world, I still hate wasting food.  Tara Parker-Pope writes an excellent article in the NYTimes describing food waste and its cost to the normal American family.  Outrageous!

My aim, then, is not to preach but to inform.  Make your own choices for yourself and your family, and feel free to use this as a (tasty) guide along the way.  I’d ask that you keep my three tenants in mind as you do.  Enjoy, and happy cooking!

1 – Recognize that we’re all in this together.

We are inextricably linked to our food chain, whether we act accordingly or not.  What we put into our bodies is one of the most basic, most instinctual activities we do each day.  If you must eat that McDonald’s cheeseburger, it doesn’t just affect you.  It affects the workers at the factory where those cows are raised, the “butchers” at the factory where those cows are processed, and every single member of society to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year in obesity related medical costs.  Click on that link and read about how much of that is paid for by Medicaid and Medicare, and then visualize that coming out of your next paycheck.

Let’s go back to those workers I just mentioned.  In 2008, a plant in Iowa run by AgriProcessors, a kosher meat supplier was shut down after it was discovered that almost 400 illegal immigrants were employed there.  About 30 were underage at that.  While the manager was eventually acquitted of charges that he KNEW illegal activity was going on, the immigrants were still in the country illegally and employed illegally.  Do you really want to support companies that hire workers that are neither allowed to BE nor WORK in our country legally?

The only way around this really is to know where your meat comes from.  This can be done either through a local butcher or farmer’s market.  Yes it’s more labor intensive initially, because you have to take the time to find out who’s providing what you’re buying.  But once you figured it out, you’re done.  And if you make friends with your butcher/rancher they’ll occasionally throw you a bone.  Sometimes this bone will have a ribeye attached to it.  Pretty sure your “guy” at your local Safeway supermarket won’t ever do that.

Same principle applies to your fruit and vegetables.  One need only read up on the cases of salmonella appearing in spinach and tomatoes recently to know our food system isn’t as safe as we think it is.  It’s difficult for a tomato growing in your backyard to contract salmonella.

One more story before principle #2.  For a long time there was uproar over the fact that Nalgene used BPA in its water bottles.  After some research I decided to stop buying water bottles that were made with BPA.  Not necessarily because I was afraid I’d get cancer because of my use.  You have to basically melt the bottles down and drink the stuff for a while before it gets harmful.  But the workers in the factory where the bottles are processed are subjected to it constantly, and the environment where the factory is gets poisoned by the chemical daily.

It’s not all about you or me.  We’re all in this together.  That’s the truth, whether we accept it or not.  Hopefully one day we’ll start acting like it is.

2 – Little things CAN make a difference.

When Green City Market started in Chicago, it was a small operation with a handful of farmers.  By now it serves over 200,000 shoppers and employes over 50 farmers annually.  It supports local producers, local bakers, and helps provide employment for numerous people tasked with getting all that food to market twice a week.  This growth didn’t happen overnight, but by a slow and steady persistence in the community.  These people knew that small changes do add up and do shift market behavior.

It’s the basic law of supply and demand here.  The market and companies will respond to what consumers want.  Your chain grocery store has started stocking more organic produce and organic products because that’s what consumers are demanding.  So anytime someone says “it’s just one, what difference does it make?” know that they’re wrong.  One does make a difference, because every action is felt in the overall market.  Sometimes the ripples are smaller than others, but those small ripples eventually add up.

Your actions are important, no matter how small.

3 – Stay Informed!

Are you aware that the majority of the chicken producers in this country feed them an arsenic-based additive?  This additive causes all sorts of long-term health problems in humans, most likely because arsenic is poison, in case there was any question about that.

If you did, and you chose to eat non-organic chicken anyway, that’s your prerogative.  It’s no one’s job to tell you exactly what to eat and what not to eat.  But you do have an obligation to yourself and your family to know what goes into your food.

Do you really want to feed your kids animals that have been fed poison?  Or serve them beef when the cows have spent the majority of their lives standing in manure, and aren’t cleaned before they’re processed?  Yes those animals are cheaper up front.  But the long-term costs far outweigh any benefit you gain now.

Still, each one of us is faced with a choice about what to feed ourselves and our families.  Why would you spend hours researching which car to buy, or where to go on vacation, and spend virtually no time understanding where your food comes from?  Only when you understand our food system, and understand the effects your choices have can you really be said to be making informed decisions.

We are confronted with tradeoffs every single day.  Sure that McDonald’s hamburger is cheap and quick.  But it’s unhealthy, full of empty calories, and is so cheap because YOUR TAX DOLLARS are used to subsidize much of that production chain.  So less money comes out of your wallet at the point of sale, but more came out this past year in taxes and more will come out in future years to pay for health care costs associated with an unhealthy life style.

You know what?  That’s your choice.  I’m not even asking to make a good choice.  Just an informed one.  That’s all.

Bonus round: If you would riot over a food item, you should probably make sure you grow enough of it yourself.

I’m referring here of course to the famous Mexican tortilla riots.  Short story – corn in the US got more expensive, but it was the kind of corn Mexican farmers fed their cows.  Suddenly their own corn – normally used for personal consumption – became cheap in comparison.  So they fed that to their cows instead.  Overall demand for their corn grew, and voila, the price went up.

Then people started to riot.

So for the safety of everyone involved – grow some of your own veggies please.