Friday, March 22, 2013

where my food comes from

At my old job at the food bank, I had a conversation with a coworker about how food was the cool thing to care about these days. Supporting local farmers, improving food deserts, buying organic- perhaps spurred by Michelle Obama’s work, food-related issues are on everyone’s mind right now. This coworker pointed out that social issues are cyclical in how much they engender public interest and action. The respective fights against AIDS and breast cancer have had their spotlights (and have not disappeared, of course; red ribbons and pink ribbons are everywhere). Still, it stands to reason that food will not always be this big- something else will suddenly step to the front of public consciousness (um, I vote global warming).

So, I’ll use this minute, this day, to share my feelings about where food comes from. For me, it can mean a lot of different things.

First and foremost, I don’t want a lot of human beings to have experienced suffering for my food to come to me.

Truthfully, the diet I eat is one of privilege and affluence that is better than most Americans and many citizens of other countries. I often feel guilty eating my organic, fancy products when I know what the money spent on them could mean to someone else. I try to take these drop-in-the-bucket steps to keep myself from being wracked with guilt about my purchases.

- I try to buy from local farms, making a weekly trip to the farmer’s market. This will come up again, but here’s an ethical reason it’s important to me- being a farm worker is AWFUL. Perhaps you have heard some of the awful news stories about pregnant women dying of dehydration in the fields because the food companies weren’t enforcing labor laws. DRAMATIC underpaying is rampant, which I learned when I read this thoroughly insightful book, The American Way of Eating, written by an undercover reporter who worked as a farm worker; Applebees chef, and Walmart employee. And, lest you think that buying organic improves conditions for the workers instead of the soil, that same book reports that a farm implement banned from conventional agricultural farms because of the damage it does to workers’ backs is still permitted on organic farms.

That looks backbreaking. Source here.

So, I meet the people who pick my food. (One of my favorite vendors at the farmer’s market sold me a sweet potato and then said, “Yeah, I cook one of those and keep it in my pocket while I’m out picking. It keeps me warm and then I get a snack on the field). I see pictures of the conditions on the farms. And yeah, farmer’s market food costs more in part because organic, small-scale farming is way way way more labor intensive. Large scale farming gives us agriculture that’s cheap (though we tend to see that more in the absurdly low priced junk food and soda because of the government subsidies for corn). Large scale agriculture also offers myriad points in their supply procurement pyramid for worker abuse. When possible, I buy small scale.
After saying all this, I’ll confessed that I am wracked with guilt at the thought of the fact that I eat bananas. Banana plantations are the WORST. I have no moral ground to stand on at all. Yes, bananas are healthy and filling and cheap, yes, I buy the ones in the reduced produce bags which otherwise might get thrown away. But I repeat: I have no moral ground to stand on with regards to bananas. I need to phase them out. Hold me to this, guys. Any advice welcome. (Sidebar: we had a family friend in my hometown who owned a house with a skylight that created an arboretum-like area. Where they kept- the banana plant! And harvested their own bananas. This is my dream.)

- I don’t shop at Walmart. I think all workers (even part-time ones; and many are stuck in part-time work in our current economy) should be paid a living wage and have benefits, including good health care. Obviously, Walmart is not the only employer who does not provide the full extent of those opportunities to their workers, but as one of the nation’s biggest corporations- and employers- they could cause a sea change if they improved their workers’ compensation and rights.
For a counterexample, a store I am proud to shop at is Costco. Their comprehensive benefits are considered the gold standard for the industry, and people recognize that, based on the massive and enthusiastic turnout for jobs at their first Washington D.C. store, in a neighborhood that could really use it. Their employees typically make at least $17 an hour. Stating the obvious, Costco is a successful company that makes profits. They simply do it in, as I see it, a more ethical manner.
A quote I read and loved was, “The Best Customer of American Industry is the Well-Paid Worker”. FDR said that!
A reality check: the grocery stores closest to me are Safeway and Giant, and I shop at both of them... because they’re the closest to me. Safeway’s benefits sound good, Giant’s do too, though they are a little vague, and I can’t tell whether they apply to part-time employees. Obviously, I don’t have perfect information. In another example, I am a big fan of Harris Teeter for the philanthropic work they do, which I saw firsthand at the food bank. They were VERY generous to our children’s feeding program. That being said, their stores are far from my house and cost a LOT more than the other ones nearby, so I don’t shop at their stores often.
I also do not want to come across as judging anyone who does shop at Walmart. Yes, they have low prices on some items and being able to vote with your dollar is a luxury for people with sufficient dollars. In addition, many neighborhoods offer few options other than Walmart, like where my sister goes to school.
The bottom line is that this is something I’ve spent some time thinking about and it’s a choice I’m able to make at this point.

My next consideration is that I don’t want my food choices to totally screw over the planet.

- I don’t eat a lot of meat. It’s healthier, and we all know by now the ABSURD mathematics of meat- pounds upon pounds of corn and soy feed to produce a single pound of meat. Eating less meat is healthier, cheaper, and kinder on the planet. Going back to the worker argument above, one of the most striking segments of Food, Inc., for me, was seeing the deal pork processing makes with the INS where they get a steady supply of illegal immigrant labor to exploit in exchange for regularly turning in their labor supply for not having papers. You’ve seen Food, Inc., right?!
When I do buy meat, I get it at the farmer’s market, or my beloved Lebanese Butcher. Lebanese Butcher sells halal meat, score (it’s the Muslim equivalent of kosher, basically). They also sell organic meat, score. Best of all, one time I asked, “Where is your meat from?” and the guy went, “… My farm”, as if it was the most obvious thing ever. And when I inquired where his farm was, said Warrenton, a town not forty minutes away.
I want to emphasize that part of the decision I made to only procure meat from those sources is that Food, Inc. scared me. There is almost no regulation of the meat industry in our country, and based on the fact that their response to frightening, antibiotic resistant bacteria in their beef was to create the now-infamous “pink slime”, I am not confident that they’ll police themselves.
So, I buy meat at my trustworthy places, and yeah it costs more. Fortunately, I eat meat maybe twice a week, and often even less because my Orthodox Christian religion has long periods of meatlessness built into the year, like during Lent and Advent. When I eat meat, I prefer it in dishes like ground beef stuffed cabbage (where the meat’s mixed with rice and stuffed into cabbage, served with tomato sauce) or ground bison meatloaf (where the meat’s mixed with mushrooms, eggs, and breadcrumbs). Cooking meat that way means a pound can last my family a week.

Greek Style Nonfat Plain Yogurt
Source here.

- I try to buy organic dairy. I have whacked out hormones as it is and don’t need any more of them in my system from cows. I’m also in a microbiology course and am petrified of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Healthy cows don’t need antibiotics. I’m scared of all the antibiotics- and new germs who aren’t bothered by them in the slightest- we’re introducing into our biosphere. That being said, while organic milk and yogurt are easy to find (Trader Joes seems to only sell organic yogurt at this point, which delights me), they are, of course, more costly. And organic cheese definitely does NOT seem to’ve hit a tipping point where enough people want to buy it yet cause lord you can only find it at crazy expensive places. So cheese is my compromise where I don’t screen for organic-ness. If you know a cheese guy, holla at me. I’d love to know.

- Local farms. Smaller scale systems, crop rotation… less havoc on the environment.
Typically organic in practice if not in name (getting organic certification is $$$$!). That being said, I am not as much of a stickler on buying organic produce as I could (should?) be. Probably if I got pregnant I would (which I wont be ever so this is a moot point). I’ve also actually read some thoroughly disarming things in this well-researched Science Daily article about organic pesticides- the non-synthetic substances with which it’s legal to treat organic crops. So the jury is still out for me. Thoughts, friends?

- I try to eat sustainable seafood. I find it really difficult to find adequate information about seafood, and this is something I’m still working on. That being said, I cannot eat Chilean Sea Bass. I just can’t. How is it still allowed to be on menus?! If I’m buying seafood, I’m generally getting it at Whole Paycheck Foods and hoping their seafood ranking system is as honest as it appears to be. If I get cod, I want it to be from the Pacific. If I get salmon, I want it to be Alaskan- this Eating Well magazine article about fishing for wild salmon in Alaska was a delightful read.
When I go out to eat, this all becomes a lot more murky and confusing. So I go, “NO CHILEAN SEA BASS” and cross my fingers that I’m not exploiting the environment. If anyone has a handy tip sheet for restaurants (can you use that Monterey Bay Aquarium guide there? Is it too obnoxious and Portlandia-y to interrogate your server about whether your fish was farmed. And if it was, if it was decent farming, like I hear steelhead’s okay?
Also, I haven’t eaten shrimp in a long time except from Whole Paycheck Foods because man that situation in Thailand bums me out.

- I am exceedingly skeeved out by genetically modified food. On the one hand, science hasn’t proven it’s bad for us (yet). On the other hand, do we want to be guinea pigs so food and chemical corporations can make even MORE profit? On the other hand, if we start labeling genetically modified foods, does it mean that a class system will emerge where lower-income folks will have to eat all the genetically modified Frankenfood while the wealthier get the “pure” stuff? And can we feed the planet on the large scale we need without using it?
Here’s my current compromise: for the millionth time, local farmers don’t do things on an industrial scale and frequently offer heirloom and/or offbeat varieties of various vegetables. Love me some local farmers. Also, I buy organic tofu and edamame, because Food, Inc. gave me a particular hatred for Monsanto.
The thing that’s thoroughly irking me with this is oil. I’ve bought canola oil lately because it’s not soybean oil (see above hatred for Monsanto). But I’m learning more that canola oil is just as GMO’d out. So if I want a heart-healthy, neutrally flavored oil, what do I get? Suggestions welcome.

The final statement in my credo- I don’t reject hospitality

Icon from my religion: Abraham and Sarah inadvertently inviting angels in for dinner. Hospitality is sacred! Source here.

No one will ever change the food system by being rude to their friends and families. If I go to someone’s house and they are kind enough to offer me food, I will eat it. Period. My individual purchasing power is what I vote with, but I don’t condemn anyone else’s choices. I also think hospitality is one of the most sacred things we have as human beings, and am thrilled to receive it :)

Questions of the day:

- Do you follow some of these rules? Less? More? Am I doing anything wrong?

- Do you come from the dumpster-diving school of philosophy, where any food is okay as long as you eat it to prevent it from getting thrown away? (I say yes! Providing food safety standards are met).

- Are you a stickler about eating what’s put in front of you like I am, or do you occasionally (or often) take eating with friends as a chance to take a stand?


Lydia said...

I've been feeling like this so often lately! Especially as I've been making many trips to Target to outfit my new apartment. I almost bought a rug there because it was on sale for $60.. but then I started thinking about the horrifying conditions that led to it being only $60, and now I am still rug-less. I am trying now to only go to Target for those annoying things like extension cords and aluminum foil.

Regarding bananas and oil: buy Equal Exchange!! They are a great company based in Boston, they're a co-op, and their products are all fair trade. Brian has worked with them in the past (actually, they wanted to hire him) and I know other people who work for them and it is a really good place. You can definitely buy EE bananas at the Mom's in Merrifield. You can probably get their (co-op, Palestinian) olive oil there as well (and though it is quite expensive, the money is well spent). They also sell fair trade nuts, coffee, tea, and chocolate. Not everything, certainly, but it's a start.

Though if you're irked about oil for the non-local-ness of it, I remember when some people at college were doing an all-local semester.. they ate a ton of butter and lard. So you could do that! Kidding.

Anyway, I think about this stuff all. the. time. I read a (nonfiction) book once where a couple wanted to start a winery because they inherited some land, I think in Washington state. They toured around different organic vineyards, mostly in California. They realized that instead of pesticides, those vineyards were just using undoc'd/exploited immigrants. And you are right, while exposing workers to carcinogenic pesticides in the fields is truly terrible, there are terrible practices on large, monocropping organic farms as well. Sigh.

It's the amount of time that we spend thinking about this stuff that makes us such fun girls to be around ;)

Astra Libris said...

Amen!! You echo my thoughts exactly!! Thank you for writing them, so I know I am not alone...

katecooks said...

I too think about this a lot...I have stopped eating meat but could be better in other areas. It's hard...with all the options we have available, eating "clean" or "fresh" is much harder than it sounds!!

Alicia said...

I've seen Food, Inc. and similar documentaries and I definitely want to be more aware of where my food comes from and such. I've only recently moved back to the US after living in Korea for almost 6 years (where it was impossible to track where my food was coming from even with speaking the language) so I definitely need to put in more of an effort here. Thankfully, there's a Trader Joe's just a short 10 minute drive away and there is a pretty large farmer's market downtown that I want to start frequenting.

I would also like to find a co-op to get veggies from, and thus, force myself to start eating more veggies. :)