Those who know me are aware I enjoy cooking and baking. Whether it's making strawberry jam in an attempt to save the berries from spoiling, making ravioli, or putting together a pizza, I usually cook something three or four nights a week. Over the last year and a half, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to my food choices. It started out as just looking at the nutrition info on boxes, but it’s slowly evolved into a life style change that I’m happy I made. Along with my lifestyle change, I’ve started to think more and more about how our food system works. I hope to share some of my viewpoints in this post.
Trying to eat healthy started almost two years ago. I finally decided I wanted to lose some of the freshman fifteen I gained in college and started changing my diet. After years of eating processed dinners and very few fruits and vegetables, I almost completely changed my diet in the course of a three-month period. I went from eating an English muffin for breakfast, to eating whole grain cereals, fresh fruit, or eggs on a daily basis. I stopped buying cheap white bread and focused on getting bread with plenty of whole grain and fiber.
By the end of last summer, I had lost almost twenty pounds. Weight loss wasn’t the only benefit I saw. I stopped having to take Tums or Xantac whenever I ate anything remotely spicy or drank too much. I had more energy, was sleeping better, and this started before I lost a single pound. The noticeable health improvement was shocking to me. This led me to make further changes in my lifestyle.
The more I cooked the more frequently I found myself reading food blogs. I started reading about sustainable agriculture, organic produce, local food, and other terms that are becoming more and more prevalent in our culture. This Christmas my brother bought me The Omnivores Dilemma. I really enjoyed it and after finishing it, I started looking even closer at my food choices. Unlike most cries to change the food system, Pollan didn’t just take up a cause and say “save the animals”, “buy locally”, or “support the little guy,” instead he researched his topics and presented the evidence and his viewpoint but in the end he left it up to the reader to draw their own conclusion.
Along with things I’ve read, my food philosophy is colored in many ways by how and where I grew up. I grew up on a family farm. We raised chickens, pigs, and cows. We grew durum and some feed grain. I've experienced butchering cattle, pigs, and chickens. I've picked eggs, bottle-fed calves and piglets, baled hay, and branded calves. We had a small farm but it was just a cog in the wheel of big agriculture. We shipped the cows and pigs to a feedlot and the durum ended up in some other state. The chickens on the other hand were a local product. We butchered them ourselves and kept the meat, we picked the eggs daily and my mom spent many afternoons delivering eggs around town.
I’ve seen how hard it is for a small farmer to make it. The one thing I’ve come to realize is that small farms that focus on growing a variety of produce can survive. However, these can only survive if there is demand, and in most areas where agriculture is the main economic driver, there are not enough people to buy the products from the farmers. There isn’t enough farmable land in Minnesota to feed the people in the Metro, and we live in a very large state, New York couldn’t come close to feeding it’s entire population. This isn’t to say we can’t all buy some things locally. Our food problems won’t be solves just by purchasing our food from a local producer, this isn’t the magic bullet. .
That being said, I don’t have a solution to the food crisis, and we do have a crisis, it’s evident in the obesity “epidemic” we’ve declared in our country, in the increase in food related diseases, and the panic that a single bad batch of ground beef causes. Food production and distribution uses more fossil fuel than home heating does. We need a solution that puts the environment and our national health first. When our economy isn’t floundering most of our country feels health care is our greatest problem. Why can’t we focus on cleaning up our food system? The health benefits of moving away from a system based on corn and fast food would make the problems solved by a single payer system seem minuscule.
Buy locally: As I said before I do not think this is something that can solve all of our problems. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt. Even if it is just one or two items, decide to buy something only from local farmers. Personally, I consider items grown in state or in a bordering state as locally produced. For starters, I suggest buying your meat, eggs, and milk locally. I think the difference in quality is noticeable and makes spending the extra money worth it.
Buy whole foods: I don’t mean shop at Whole Foods, in fact I don’t shop at Whole Foods at all, I don’t think they are doing the world any favors, I’ll buy organic produce from Target or Cub if I want to buy organically from a huge grocer. At least I know my dollars are going back to an MN corporation. By whole foods, I mean not processed beyond a certain point. That point is kind of up to you. Buy whole chickens and cut them up yourself, buy whole heads of lettuce instead of bagged and washed, buy carrots that haven’t been peeled, and yogurt that hasn’t been flavored. Try making your own yogurt, tortillas, or bread. Force yourself to do more with your food, it’s rewarding and it’s usually cheaper.
Go Vegetarian: I don’t think you should go completely vegetarian but I do think most people have too much meat in their diet. Try going a few weeks without eating meat. Doniree gave up meat for Lent and her experience was fun to follow. Some people choose one day a week on which they don’t eat meat. I don’t think there is anything wrong with eating meat but learning to prepare other forms of protein and supplementing your diet with them is a positive step.
Eat Whole Grains: This one is tough for me; things like tortillas and pasta just don’t taste right unless they are made from white flour. Still, I stopped buying cheap white bread a while ago, I usually buy Brownberry 12 grain bread, and if I want another type of bread I buy it from the Wedge where they use simple ingredients, usually just flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and water. Increasing your fiber intake is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Stop buying processed foods: This is one of the more difficult things to do. It means no more Mac N’ Cheese, no more frozen dinners, and no more Chef Boyardee. You can still buy prepared foods using this mentality. I don’t know how I define processed foods, the FDA probably has a definition, but the FDA’s definitions usually suck. I think it pretty much comes down to being able to look at the ingredient list and pronounce or know what every ingredient is.
Grow your own food: Even if you live in an apartment, you can at least grow some of your own food. I currently have a bunch of different herbs growing and can’t wait to start using them. You can grow tomatoes, potatoes, and many other things indoors using the amazing knowledge of the Internet.
try to follow most of what I suggested, but I also give in occasionally and completely disregard the things I mention here. Part of it is that when I have a bad day the last thing I want to do it put any effort into cooking, but part of it is a comfort food thing. My mom used to make me Mac N Cheese and frozen pizza so it makes me feel better when I eat them. I hope that if and when I have children that instead of reaching for white bread and Kraft American cheese they turn to whole grain bread and locally produced cheese and make themselves a, if not healthy, at least healthier grilled cheese.
This post isn’t meant to preach to you about how bad big agriculture or how you should never shop at Cub or any other big grocer. I’m just hoping you do some research and make your own decisions. We focus too much energy in the country worrying about calories, fat, carbohydrates, and other numbers. We need to train ourselves to worry less about those things and more about what our food is and where it came from.