At the end of June, 2009, I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle
. I was flying to Boston for a trip with my mom, and I read a big chunk of the book on the plane. I remember thinking “I should try to do a little more of that.” Not that I ever entertained the idea that I could do it 100% like she did, but I had recently signed up with the Monroe Farm Market
, receiving deliveries of fresh vegetables weekly. I made up my mind to give it a try, and while I didn’t really sit down and write out some goals, I had a rough idea where I wanted to go with this undertaking.
As somewhat of a habitual dieter and the daughter of a school nurse, I felt like I knew more than the average person about eating healthy: eat salads with low fat dressing, boneless kinless chicken breasts and brown rice, etc.
I also had become a bit of a foodie over the past few years. It started when I was a second-year law student. My aunt bought me an Italian cookbook (no idea why. I had never really expressed a great love of cooking, just eating!) and I lived with my boyfriend (now husband) in a one-bedroom apartment. The apartment had the tiniest kitchen ever, but I had so much fun making those recipes and eating them. Before long, I started to branch out, and over the years, here I am, a self-proclaimed bona fide “food snob.”
So, anyway, late June, 2009, on a trip to Boston… Luckily, Boston has one of the best local seafood scenes of anyplace I’ve ever been. I began looking at menus closer and asking servers if the seafood was local. I would say 90% of it was. It was nice to sit down to a delicious meal in a lovely environment and think of some crusy old fisherman hauling in lobsters or whatever earlier that morning that I was eating right then. Yeah, I know. A little naive and cheesy, but oh well.
So, I come back to good ‘ol West Virginia, where the local food scene is a little more, well, boring. What I knew about eating local was canning tomatoes and greenbeans and picking berries.
A lot of what I knew about eating local was influenced by my grandparents. My Pawpaw raised a huge garden of tomatoes, corn, green beans, gourds, squash, cucumbers and tons of other stuff. They had a cherry tree and blueberry bushes in their yard and a neighbor had a mulberry tree and apple trees. My Pawpaw hunted squirrel and they would buy a pig in the fall to last them through the winter. They didn’t buy much at the grocery store–and they couldn’t. The closest medium-sized grocery store was an hour and half away.
When I was little, I kinda thought all this canning and eating what you grew was kinda “hokey” and made me want to scrunch up my nose in disgust. “Mom, why can’t we just eat out today?!?” or “The stuff at the store is sooo much better!” It’s crazy how as I’ve gotten older, I have the complete opposite perspective.
Over the past year, I’ve learned VOLUMES about food policy. It was perfect timing, too. The Food Revolution was just beginning to take root. I challenged myself to do better at the grocery store, in restaurants and at home. I feel like I’ve met my goals 90%, and I’m chalking that up as a huge success!
1. No more CAFO animal products.
This idea resonated with me more than any other. I’m not a PETA follower or anything, but I’ve always had a soft spot for animals. I vowed to stop buying eggs and meat from CAFO animals, and for the most part, I haven’t, save for a few times.
It has been frustrating in ways I didn’t expect. I realize how lacking my grocery store, and my community is, for that matter, when it comes to alternatives to CAFO products. I haven’t found a reliable source for cheese, cottage cheese, or stick butter yet. Sometimes my grocery store carries Horizon-brand products, sometimes not. And, Horizon is not completely without issues either. Sure it’s organic, but it’s still industrial agriculture.
And, when you’re eating out, some restaurants simply have very few or no options for “conscientious omnivores.” Now I understand how hard a time vegetarians have. Bob Evans, you need to step it up. Pizza Hut, too. You can only eat so many veggie lovers pizzas. I like to frequent non-chain restaurants, but when you’re in a crowd, chain restaurants usually win because they have something (almost) everyone likes.
Here’s what I learned: grass-fed beef is MONEY. And pasture raised eggs are far superior in taste to what you can buy at your local Krogers. Granted you pay more, but in the category of taste, I’ll take the stuff from the farmer’s market.
2. Cut back on commodity crop consumption and processed foods.
This one is tough. I don’t think you could cut back 100%, just because they’re everywhere, and most of the time you don’t even know it. Anytime you eat CAFO meat certainly, and sometime when you pick alternatively-raised meats, you’re eating something that ate a commodity crop. Just watch Food, Inc.
and get an idea how many common food items have corn in them that you’d never expect. (And, by the way, if you haven’t watched that movie yet, you need to STAT!) I wasn’t a big fast food eater to begin with, and I can’t recall a single time in the past year I’ve eaten at a “traditional fast food joint” (I’m not counting Taco Bell or Subway because they make it relatively easy to avoid CAFO products). In November, I set out to give up artificial sweeteners. I stopped drinking diet soda, because supposedly it would help me loose weight if I cut out aspartame. I haven’t noticed a difference on that front, but life without soda is definitely CHEAPER and I think I feel better. Now, it tastes weird to me (chemicals???) and I don’t even miss it. I still get a little HFCS from the balsalmic vinegar salad dressing I keep in the fridge at work and some corn syrup from coffee creamer. At home I have fallen in love with homemade oil and vinegar dressing for salads, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do about the coffee creamer. I ‘m not ready to give it up.
In most situations, giving up processed food is easy. Processed foods are all about convenience. Planning menus and a shopping list make it easy for the most part. But, one thing I have had trouble with, is packing lunches for me and Jeremy. Particuarly Jeremy, because he doesn’t always have access to a fridge if he is on the road at work, and that’s a challenge. He likes bananas and PB&J, but what else can you throw in a lunch that’s not perishable and isn’t processed for someone who’s a bit of a picky eater? Cut vegetables? He says “ehhh.” I’m open for any suggestions. I usually put a granola bar and a piece of Cabot snack cheese and some chips in there. As for me, I like to take leftovers from dinner for lunch. I have a fridge at my office. But when I don’t have any leftovers or don’t have time to pack something, it SUCKS. The cafeteria here is crap. I usually get a salad off the salad bar when I eat down there. They offer absolutely ZERO healthy options other than the salad bar. And it’s exorbitantly priced. But that’s another issue for later. We have a Wendy’s close by my office, and two mom and pop lunch joints, that actually serve local, free-range meats. Woo hoo!
3. Eat Seasonally (if not, at least, buy organic) .
As in, don’t buy bell peppers in January. I actually enjoyed doing this because I’m a big “food around occassions” person. I like to celebrate with food. Many of the celebrations we take part in today are tied to food seasons. The easiest example is Thanksgiving. It was a celebration of the harvest of the pilgrims, although the first Thanksgiving table would have been vastly different than what we’re used to. This year, I set out to have a mostly local Thanksgiving meal with things that were in season: potatoes, chestnuts, pumpkin, sweet potatoes. There’s a reason these foods are part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. In October I did the Eat Local Challenge
, and beginning in November, I participated in the Dark Days Challenge
. Both were a lot of fun, and I look forward to continuing the pattern on my own. I will admit though, by late winter, if I would have eating one more winter squash or sweet potato, I might have snapped!
But, being an “eater,” I like associating seasons with food, and I look forward to dishes that I’ll make and enjoy certain times of year. Early fall is apples, pears and peppers. July means blackberries to me. And I CANNOT WAIT for the first batch of fresh caprese this summer. It isn’t even worth eating if it’s not made from garden-fresh tomatoes.
There probably was a couple times in late winter that I bought produce at the grocery store. I couldn’t stand it about March or so, and bought some salad greens a few times. But now, if I need to, which isn’t that often, I buy the organic version. Sometimes it costs a lot more, sometimes only a little more. Either way, you just get used to it and it doesn’t bother you. It’s not a matter of health for me as much as it is environment. Pesticides fertilizer are made from fossil fuels, and their runoff is hugely detrimental, not only to the surrounding land, but on a large scale, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of runoff.
4. Convince other people how important the food revoultion is.
Well, Jeremy’s drinkin’ the Kool-Aid now. I thought he’d be hard to win over, but he really wasn’t. He’s a hunter and stocked the freezer with enough ground deer burger to feed a small army last fall, so he’s happy I’m using more of it, and it in creative ways. But not just that, he loves the steaks I buy from the farmer’s market and agrees wholeheartedly with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution about the unhealthy food that kids eat today. He has even started to work on his parents and sister to join the Food Revoultion a little bit. I convinced my mom to switch over a few things, but somethings she’s just not going to give up. She’s a pretty healthy eater to begin with, and doesn’t each much red meat or fast food, so it’s not too bad.
The hardest thing is to not lecture people about what they’re doing wrong. That often has the opposite effect of convincing someone to change. I just have to lead by example and learn as much as I can in the mean time, so that I am armed with information if someone wants to engage me in conversation about food policy. It has become “my” cause, and I’m always ready to spread the word any chance I get. Ofcourse, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution brought the message into Main Street when it aired on ABC. That alone was huge. I think people are more aware of the issue now, and more receptive to changing our old ways.
So, what’s next?
I guess I’m just impatient. I was telling Jeremy the other day, that everyone says what we can do for the Food Revolution is to “vote with our forks.” Well, I’ve been voting with my fork for a year now, and I wanna see some results. Why doesn’t my grocery store offer more dairy products from pastured cows? Maybe there aren’t any producers? Who knows? Why do I HAVE to buy meat and eggs from the Monroe Farm Market (not that I mind)? My local farmer’s market only occassionally offers local meat and eggs. And why don’t restaurants use more local producers? Sure, it would take a bit of logistics and some effort, but I think it would boost their sales. People like me don’t like to eat at chain restaurants because it seems so standardized (exactly what chain restaurants are aiming for). If they offered more local meats and produce on their menus and took part in supporting the local farming community, I think people would appreciate that.
I think the Food Revolution is still gaining steam. Blogs like Mrs. Q’s Fed Up with School Lunch and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign are bringing these issues to light for parents. Hopefully, the next generation will be more acclimated to this idea like my generation is with computers. It’s just something that’s a part of your life. But, I think everyone can agree, we still have a long, long way to go.
Here’s my first swiss chard harvest, June, 2010.