· Illustration by Tadeusz Majewski
America’s food industry is in the midst of a dramatic culture shift that’s challenging everything we’ve been taught about eating. Here’s how to take advantage of this exciting new movement and eat more healthfully than ever before.
If, on some beautiful summer morning, you decide to head to your local farmers’ market, chances are good that you’ll have your pick of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: green zebras, Brandywines, yellow pear or sugar plum. Maybe you’ll grab a cup of fair-trade coffee to enjoy while you chat with growers. On your way back you could stop at the local food co-op for a few more staples: a carton of organic milk, some spelt pasta. Pulling up in front of the house on your bike, you gratefully contemplate how easy it is to eat well close to home.
Later in the week, however, you’re just as likely to find yourself in the center aisles of the mega-market, surrounded by bags of salty snacks and temptingly easy-to-make (and heavily processed) prepackaged meals. Your youngest child, fresh from daycare, is howling for the toaster tarts with her favorite cartoon heroes on the box. Hungry and ready to flee, you grab a frozen pizza, submit to the demand for toaster tarts, and drive home through rush-hour traffic, munching a bag of cheese curls as you go. Pulling up in front of your house, you consider how easy it is to be distracted from your goals to eat better food.
America’s food culture has never been so polarized. Locally grown heirloom crops square off with mass-produced frozen pizzas. Organic seeds compete with genetically modified ones. Pasture-fed cattle are shadowed by crowded feedlots. While Italy’s Slow Food Movement catches on across the country, our addiction to fast food shows no signs of abating.
Clearly, our food system is heading in two radically different directions, and the decisions we make as eaters play a vital role in determining its fate. Read on for a glimpse of the current state of our food culture and some tips on how you can help create a food movement that’s moving in the right direction for your tastes.
Positive Trends, Challenging Realities
Our industrial food system is undergoing a seismic shift. Walmart is the country’s largest purveyor of organic milk, and Whole Foods Market has become a household name. The number of farmers’ markets has doubled in the last decade. And demand for organic food rises at an annual rate of 20 percent.
Meanwhile, books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2008) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007) have become bestsellers. In 2007, editors of the Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore,” a term for people who exclusively buy foods grown close to home, as their word of the year.
What’s more, the participants in today’s food movement are not just back-to-the-land vegetarians or “health food nuts,” as your grandma might’ve called them. These movers and shakers come in all stripes — from the urban farmer to the suburban mom who can deconstruct a food label in record time. City folks are heading to the country to volunteer in community-supported agriculture (CSA) partnerships, and celebrity chefs are building public alliances with local farmers. Consumers aren’t just grabbing the local apples at the grocery store; they’re purchasing them directly from farmers at markets or through shares of a CSA.
“This is an industry born of activism,” says Whole Foods copresident Walter Robb, whose company has grown from a tiny natural foods store in Texas in 1978 into a Fortune 500 giant that grossed $6.6 billion in 2007. Robb readily acknowledges that many of the company’s directives, like its animal compassion standards and parking-lot farmers’ markets, come directly from community input and consumer demand for more sustainably produced food.
In short, consumers are playing a central role in shaping a new American food culture. And they’re beginning to see how their activism is translating into better land management and animal treatment, a healthier bottom line for small farmers, and a renaissance of delicious and healthful food.
That’s not to say we’ve seen the end of commodity-based industrial agriculture. The vast majority of American food producers continue to reap most of their profits from the sale of highly processed foods based on ingredients (like corn, wheat, soy and sugar) that spell trouble for both human and environmental health. And outdated federal legislation continues to support mass-production farming and monoculture crops, stacking the deck against small-scale growers and sweetening the profit margin for big agricultural outfits that grow commodities instead of food.
Today, organics still comprise only 2 percent of total U.S. food production. Small, diverse growing operations remain the exception to the rule of the corporate-controlled “factory” farm. In 2005, farmers devoted 4 million acres to organic crops in the United States, while federally subsidized corn, the bedrock of the processed-food and fast-food industries, occupied 81.6 million acres.
And while Americans have more access than ever to fresh, whole and organic foods, those living in low-income communities have fewer options. In these areas, people without reliable transportation are forced to buy their groceries at neighborhood gas stations and convenience stores, purveyors of what Pollan calls “food products” — shelf-stable, highly refined goods that are only distantly related to recognizable crops.
This particular inequity may seem less urgent than the broader economic and political realities from which it springs, but the lack of access to fresh, healthy food is linked to some of our most worrisome public health trends. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four U.S. adults is medically obese, and one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will contract diet-related type 2 diabetes by 2050 — both conditions related to consuming highly processed food.
What’s more, many of our government’s policies support the production of highly refined, high-glycemic products through outdated farm subsidy programs. The U.S. government originally subsidized farmers who grew corn and other storable crops to protect Americans against starvation after the Great Depression, but today that subsidized corn appears as corn syrup in almost all our processed food and, indirectly, as livestock feed in our fast-food meals.
By making these foods artificially cheap, those subsidies effectively underwrite the obesity and diabetes epidemics. In addition, they discourage the planting of health-promoting vegetables by making corn the only crop most farmers feel they can afford to grow.
The 2007 Farm Bill contained new incentives for environmental stewardship, funding to support more farmers’ markets and urban farms, and a farm-to-school program for better school lunches — all in response to citizen demand. Subsidies for corporate farms and commodity crops remained untouched, but for the first time since the industrialization of the food system after World War II, legislation is beginning to reflect consumer desire for a healthier food system.
Time to Eat
The good news is it really doesn’t take much to lend your support to the positive trends in today’s food movement. And doing so will build a healthier, more soul-satisfying relationship with your food. Here are a few simple ways you can help revolutionize our food system for the better:
1. Do Your Homework
As organics take off and multinational food companies acquire small producers, consumer research becomes more important than ever. (For a graph displaying who owns what in the organic foods industry, visit www.msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustry.html.) Check out labels through nonindustry sources like the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) or Sustainable Table (www.sustainabletable.org) — they’ll explain which food producers uphold the highest standards of land management, labor practices and animal treatment. (See Web Extra! for more on the intricacies of the burgeoning organics industry.)
You can also take your pick of books like Kingsolver’s and Pollan’s, or Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill (University of California Press, 2007). Plus, two recent documentaries — King Corn (2007) and The Future of Food (2004) — will help you better understand the dangers of monoculture crops and genetically modified seeds. For a clever, but strongly positioned, lesson about factory-farmed eggs, milk and meat, check out the flash animation films at The Meatrix (www.themeatrix.com).
2. Get Involved
Find your local food co-op and become a member. (You can track down the nearest one at www.sustainabletable.org.) Start a weekend ritual of visiting a nearby farmers’ market. Buy a share in a CSA (find one at www.localharvest.org) and get weekly deliveries of fresh produce from a local farmer; some CSAs even offer fresh eggs and chicken. (For more on eating local, see “Closer to Home: 5 Steps Toward Eating Local” in the April 2008 archives.)
Get involved with urban farming or spend a day volunteering at a nearby farm, especially great activities to do with kids. See if you can get your school hooked up with a local farm for the lunch program. Or consider donating to good food causes, like the People’s Grocery in Oakland, Calif., or the folks at Urban Farming, who are working to increase urban food security by turning empty city lots into farms (www.urbanfarming.org).
Finally, don’t be intimidated by legislation — there are plenty of primers on the Farm Bill (see Imhoff’s Food Fight) that will get you up to speed on the basic issues. Call and write your legislators (www.congress.org) to press for a better “food bill” that supports a more sustainable food system. Meanwhile, you can continue to “vote with your fork” by shopping for local, sustainable whole foods.
3. Choose Your Battles
Here are a few modest changes that can make a big impact:
- Become a “whole-food-avore.” Strive to incorporate into your diet more fresh foods that look pretty much as they did in nature, and you’ll not only be healthier, you’ll bypass many of the problems associated with the food system: The worst agricultural sins are not committed in the name of fruits and vegetables.
- Know the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, and buy the organic varieties. Peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes carry the worst pesticide load, according to a 2007 study by the Environmental Working Group. Read more about the study at www.foodnews.org.
- Stick with grass-fed dairy and meat products and avoid any food raised in a commercial feedlot. Supporting grass-fed operations is not only more humane for animals and significantly easier on the environment, it’s also much better for your health. Visit www.eatwild.com for more information and to find your nearest sources of pastured meat and milk.
4. Follow the Foodies
When you find yourself too busy to hit the farmers’ market or weed the vegetable gardens at a CSA, you can still support a healthier food economy by choosing farm-to-table restaurants when you eat out. (The Eat Well Guide at www.eatwellguide.org will help you find them.)
Today’s food activists are helping bring our food systems and eating habits full circle: When we eat more local, seasonal, whole foods, we are eating much like our ancestors.
“In the history of European cooking, preparing local food was more of a necessity,” says Mike Phillips, head chef at the Minneapolis restaurant The Craftsman, one of hundreds nationwide that support local growers of whole foods. “There weren’t means to refrigerate or ship food thousands of miles, so traditional cooking and preserving techniques evolved out of using foods locally. There’s also a strong pride taken in regional foods — only wine grown in the Burgundy region can carry that name — and I want to support farmers who are developing those traditions of quality here.”
Indeed, there is pleasure and a sense of pride in knowing where our food comes from — and a deeper connection with our food is born out of appreciation for the labor that brought it to our plate. Familiarizing ourselves with what we eat and buying whole, local foods sustains our food culture and promotes dignity in food production and consumption.
This more mindful approach to food — and the food system at large — transforms an everyday act of consumption into an act of grace. And who doesn’t want a bigger serving of that?
When is organic really organic? For more intricacies of the new food system, see the Web Extra! below.
Is Organic Really Organic?
Plenty of consumers are already “voting with their forks” in favor of a new sustainable food system by buying organic and local whole foods in record numbers. And this newly honed interest in how food is produced will serve us well as the organics market becomes larger and more complicated.
The good news: As giant food companies jockey for their share of the organics market, more and more farmers are abandoning chemically intensive farming methods and treating their livestock with greater compassion. Sizable farm cooperatives like Organic Valley and Niman Ranch provide a stable market for small organic producers, helping more of them stay in business.
On the flip side, as multinational food companies get into the organics game, some bend the rules, following technicalities instead of traditions. In 2005, when Wal-Mart and other big retailers began carrying organic milk, for instance, demand increased beyond the means of small-scale farms to meet it. So, some larger milk producers ramped up production by taking their cows off pasture and grain feeding them instead.
Three years later, as much as 30 percent of organic milk now comes from grain-fed cows in confined conditions, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Technically, it’s still organic, because labeling standards require that animals be raised hormone- and antibiotic-free but not be grass-fed. Still, the traditional practice — pasturing cows on grass — is one of the main reasons why organic milk is better for you than conventional milk. A green-grass diet increases the amount of vitamin A, omega-3s and beta-carotene in a cow’s milk, and pasturing provides a low-stress environment that keeps milk and meat free from stress hormones like cortisol.
Such industry contradictions are troubling — and confusing — but alone they’re no reason to give up on big organic producers. They just demonstrate why it’s necessary to do background research on your favorite organic labels to see who’s walking their talk. (You can start with the directory for pastured milk and meat products at www.eatwild.com.) Don’t bypass the uncertified stands at your local farmers’ market either, as many small sustainable producers forgo the labeling system because of its expense.