Too often we Americans make our food choices for the wrong reasons. We choose convenience over nutrition, cheap instead of safe. And the mileage on any given food product rarely weighs into our purchases. Furthermore, Americans increasingly make their food choices to satisfy their never-ending appetite for sugar and caffeine. When it comes to food, there seems to be a new American motto: Fill the belly, spare the wallet.
This motto, thanks to our food industry, can now be achieved. Today, Americans spend less of their discretionary money on food than just a couple of generations ago. This means that proportionally speaking, food is cheaper than ever. How can feeding our families and ourselves take a smaller percentage of our income than it did for our grandparents? Keep in mind that cheap food refers to the sticker price. Just as a television’s sticker price doesn’t include the satellite or cable service required to watch TV, neither does the sticker price on food include the price our health or our environment pays.
One reason food is so cheap is crop subsidies. In a nutshell, crop subsidies are tax dollars paid to farmers for growing certain staple crops like corn and soy. The result? Food products loaded with corn – like soda or ketchup or pancake syrup – can be priced ridiculously low. Taxpayers have subsidized the bill. Whether we consume the product or not.
But that’s not all. The food industry has other means for keeping down the sticker price of our food—namely foreign labor. Just like our clothes, electronics, and textiles, our food is increasingly produced overseas where labor is cheap. Of course we expect food like bananas to come from say Costa Rica. But it unbelievable that food like Seattle’s King Crab is sent to China to be shelled and packaged before shipping them back to—yes—Seattle, among other places. Of course this begs the question, how can our food be shipped literally around the world and back and yet still have a relatively cheap sticker price? Easy. Fuel for transportation is subsidized, too.
Feeding a family on a small budget is easier than ever, but it isn’t necessarily wiser. While our parents or grandparents did things like plant a garden to help feed a family on a small budget, today we are more likely to shop at Wal-Mart instead. It’s true that growing your own food is harder than simply buying it, but there are plenty of reasons to get your hands dirty. Aside from the bonus that it is hard to get fat eating the food you sweat and toil over in your own backyard, planting a garden deserves consideration. Nutrition, safety, and efficiency are just a few reasons.
Let’s start with nutrition since that is the obvious objective of food. The fresher the food, the more nutrition it contains. For example, to pull a carrot from the ground, wash it off, and take a bite is to capture the most nutrition a carrot has to offer. While vegetables from the produce aisle are more nutritional than vegetables from the canned aisle, homegrown vegetables are a clear front runner. Generally speaking, the more food is processed, the less alive the food becomes and the less nutrition it offers. Moreover, instead of spraying your strawberries and potatoes, hand pick the unwanted bugs off the plants and throw them in a bucket of soapy water. No need for pesticides.
Food Safety is another good reason to grow your own food. Whether it’s listeria in cantaloupes, or E. coli on spinach greens, growing your own food takes a lot of the guesswork out of food safety. Of course, it is still possible to have homegrown produce contaminated, especially if there is livestock within close proximity to the garden. Still, it is easier to control the growing environment in small operations. The family garden, for example, will likely be safe when it comes to food borne pathogens. And when there is a food borne illness outbreak, it is nice to know where your food came from.
Efficiency is yet one more reason to grow your own food. If you can grow your own tomatoes rather than have them shipped from hundreds –maybe thousands—of miles away, it is certainly more efficient. Why burn petroleum when you can burn calories? Speaking of tomatoes, eating the grocery store variety is akin to eating cardboard. There’s a reason for this. For one thing, grocery store tomatoes are loaded onto trucks green. If the tomatoes were actually ripe, they would be mush by the time they reached the store—never mind your salad plate. Ethylene gas is pumped into the truck while in route to the store. By the time the tomatoes have reached the destination—WALLAH—the tomatoes are red…well, sort of. More like reddish. They’ve not had adequate time or the environment to fully ripen leaving us deprived of the flavor we were seeking when we purchased the tomato in the first place. The adjective” fresh” applies loosely to this type of grocery store tomato only when considered alongside its canned counterpart.
Still, if growing your own food just isn’t happening, there is an alternative: purchase your food from someone in your community. That’s right—shop locally. From your local farmers’ market to a roadside vegetable stand, truly fresh produce is often times just around the corner. And while fresh local food isn’t always cheap—nor should it be when you consider the required time and labor it took to produce it—it isn’t necessarily always expensive either. Sometimes you many even have a neighbor selling his extra produce for pennies on the dollar. I’ve met many a local grower that is practically giving away their produce. They would rather give it away than see it go to waste.
When it comes to meat, most of us are not going to raise our own. So the question of where to purchase poultry, beef and more applies to many. Buying industrial meat ought to be the last choice. Industrial meat comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and has many inherent dangers. [See The Whole Cow Part 1 and Part 2] Even if eating industrial meat doesn’t make you sick, it is making our world sick. From the cesspools created by thousands upon thousands of confined animals to the diseases that run ramped in such filthy living conditions, nothing positive comes from cheap meat. The alternative? Find a local farmer who pastures his cows, pigs, and chickens. There are men and women putting in the hard work necessary to produce meat the right way—the way it was done before food became an industry. Food raised this way will cost more, so beef up on the vegetables—not the beef. It wouldn’t hurt our waistlines either.
I agree with Wendell Berry when he said that eating is an agricultural act. Every time we use our dollars to purchase factory meat, we’re going along with food industry practices which jeopardize nutrition, safety and efficiency. Instead use your money—or better yet—your energy to feed yourself and your family. While cheap, fast, and easy are tempting when it comes to food, challenge yourself to make food choices for reasons that benefit your body –and maybe even the world. And if that isn’t enough reason to eat fresh, local food, then here is the icing on the cake: it tastes good too. Imagine that.