1.24.2008

As I start braiding my hair into dreadlocks

Just read the book Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, the people behind the 100 Mile Diet website.


It's about a couple in Vancouver who decided to eat only foods produced within a 100 mile radius for one year. And they were way hard core about it, too (no sugar, no chocolate, etc). It was a good read, and not just because they talked about food pretty much the whole time. If a book is about food, it's almost guaranteed to be a winner with me. And lately if it's about local food then it's even better. You remember how much I loved Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The thing that hits me about these books is how well these people are eating. Yes, they have to do more work and more research and maybe pay more money. And they make choices that I will possibly never make (like the chocolate thing). But man. It just sounds so, soooo good.

Am also slowly getting through Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Have told myself I have to finish it before I can start on his new In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

The other day I read a few pages of Omnivore's Dilemma before bed and came to a paragraph that made my mind explode, but in a good way. Pollan stayed a week at Polyface Farm in Virginia, following around the owner, Joel Salatin, to see how his operation works. At one point they talk about how organic food (or sustainable food, or local food, or whatever) is seen as elitist and only affordable for the rich. And then Salatin said this:

“. . . whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illness, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and to the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.” (p.243)

The more I thought about it, the more this made sense. There are costs to running down to Wal-Mart to get whatever is cheapest. We just won’t necessarily be paying them at the register.

Instead we pay them in the form of taxes to subsidize farmers who are paid to produce more corn than we can ever use.

We pay with the pollutants in our water from all the nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow that much corn year after year on the same bits of land.

We pay with the extra calories in all of our processed foods (thank you, high-fructose corn syrup).

We pay in the form of medical bills for obesity-related illnesses, Type II Diabetes, and heart disease.

We pay with the e. coli in our spinach and the mad cow disease in our beef and every other time our food is tainted in some way (results of large-scale production practices).

We pay with the lack of nutritional value in our foods.

We pay when we have no local food options left because they’ve all been muscled out.

We pay when the farmers (or would-be farmers) in our communities fail because there isn’t enough demand for local goods.

We pay with the needless burning of fossil fuels required to transport foods in from thousands of miles away—foods that could be (and possibly are) grown in our own towns.

Does anyone else think this is crazy? But even so, it's hard to decide to pay more now and go to the extra work of finding non-mass-produced food sources. Especially when money is tight and a cheaper alternative is right in front of us. And when we're so unconnected from the big picture of what's behind our food, and where we'll be if things keep going the way they are.

Michael Pollan acknowledges this and says that as the system stands in our country, with “cheap industrial food” being heavily subsidized, many Americans don’t feel they can afford to buy non-industrial food. But, he makes this very good point, I think:

“As a society we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves—about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world. This suggests that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food
if we chose to. After all, it isn’t only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones (now owned by more than half the U.S. population, children included) or television, which close to 90 percent of all U.S. households now pay for. Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?” (p.243)

Does anyone else have any thoughts about this stuff? Catfights are fine as long as you leave my mom out of it.

23 comments:

Cicada said... [reply]

Okay, I only noticed the title of your post after I read it and it made me snort.

I think that as a goal, I'll start buying at the farmer's market when it opens up. I think that what you shared just now is very eye opening.

Also, I hate that Walmart is so close to where I live. Why can't it be more inconvenient??

jeri said... [reply]

I agree that WalMart is annoyingly convenient. Every time I go there I feel like I got suckered into waiting in a really long line, dealing with some insolent teenage cashier and forking money over to some billionaire just to end up with some tomatoes that have the taste and feel of a softball.

One thing I did decide is to not buy bottled water anymore. My husband works for the state doing drinking water quality and I've learned a few interesting things. The FDA actually has lower requirements for "clean" water than the EPA. So you're just paying a REALLY inflated cost for water that probably comes out of a hose in some warehouse. Plus some of the water is from other countries so we're using unimaginable amouts of fuel shipping WATER across the ocean. Also by purchasing single-serving containers of water we're adding, literally, tons of garbage every year. So my goal for now is to kick the bottle. Oh and to support those awesome farmer's markets. Jenny and I just got done discussing our plans to bottle lots and lots of fruit in the fall.

miranda said... [reply]

We got a water filter for our drinking water so we don't buy the bottled stuff anymore.

I think it's important to remember all the "hidden" costs of what we do.

If you want to buy local during the winter in CV (or other times of the year), I suggest going to Sweet Peas. She tries really hard to go as local as possible with the produce. We enjoy it because it tastes better and we feel better.

abby said... [reply]

There was an cover article last year in Time Magazine about the local food movement. It talked to person who worked for Whole Foods. The cost you pay to eat organic is that it has to be shipped from across the country which wastes fuel. Michael Pollen has given me a fear of high fructose corn syrup. It's in everything. If they didn't give you so much, I'd join a local food co-op. For a single person a bag of zucchini is just too much.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Cicada, I'm really excited about the farmer's markets this year too. Last year I was kind of getting the feel of the thing for the first time and it seemed a bit overwhelming. This year I'll have a better plan, I think.

Jeri, I hear you on the bottled water thing. I don't even BUY bottled water and yet when I did a run through of my bedroom and office and car I found something like 12 empty and partially-filled bottles. They're everywhere. And I hope I'm invited to your canning adventures this fall!

Miranda, thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely go check this place out!

Abby, yes. It's interesting how misleading the organic label can be. Because it could still be getting shipped across the country from a place where the farming practices aren't necessarily any better than the ones of their non-organic counterparts. Crazy stuff.

jeri said... [reply]

One other thing I read about buying local produce is that it eliminates the use of chemicals or techniques used to stabilize the product. A grower has to pick a tomato while it's unripe and ship it that way, so that it doesn't get squished during transport. Once it arrives it gets sprayed with a "ripening agent" which is really just a chemical that makes the skin turn red. So now you have a red, old, unripe tomato. Yummo. Organic foods might not use the chemicals but if they're being shipped you still have the not-ripe issue.

Alton Brown (from the Food Network) suggested that if you can't buy from a local stand, then canned or frozen is your next best option. Most foods are canned or flash-frozen on site so you get better-quality produce. And even if they're shipped, it can be a slower and more cost-effective method of transport.

But all this is making me really happy about my resolution to can and bottle more things. And heck yes you're invited.

FoxyJ said... [reply]

I love those new Subway commercials that show people asking fast food "what does that come with" and the cashier replies "obesity, heart disease, bloating, low self-esteem, oh and fries". They make me crack up.

I can brag about Seattle because here I am surrounded by farms and cool fresh produce and all that jazz. I even have several companies here that deliver fresh, local, organic, produce to your home :)

To be contrary, though, there are a few articles out there about how the push to only buy local can sometimes have backwards effects. For example, it's actually somewhat better to raise lamb in New Zealand and ship it to England that to invest all the fertilizer and energy into raising lamb on site in England. There was an article in the NY Times about it a few months ago--maybe you can find it :)

Also, I've been meaning to blog about some of the dilemmas we can find ourselves in. For example, I'm supposed to be eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, right? But if I limit myself only to local stuff, I don't get that kind of variety in my diet at all. Especially in winter (I suppose that's when canning and freezing are good, huh?). Also, I have a grocery store in walking distance of my house. I don't have to use my car. However, most of the produce isn't local and the organic stuff isn't cheap. It is good quality and their sale prices are cheap. So I can use up a ton of fossil fuel and time to drive all over and find cheap organic stuff at the Farmers Markets and local farms, or I can leave my car at home and walk to the store. Hmmm...

bawb said... [reply]

FYI, the negative effects we all suffer from factory farming is a classic example of an externality in economic theory. If you believe that society benefits every time someone switches to buying locally-produced, organic food, you should be agitating for taxes on pesticides, fertilizer, and gas. (As well as against sheer idiocy like corn subsidies and sugar tariffs, of course.)

Nemesis said... [reply]

Abby, could you join a co-op with a couple of friends, though? And maybe split the zucchini bag between you?

Foxyj, I've heard that statistic too. If I were asked on the fly to argue against the New Zealand imports, I would probably say that although the system of importing from New Zealand is cheaper and uses less energy, it's not necessarily sustainable. It assumes that things will always continue to work the way they work now, which isn't necessarily true. New Zealand could get swallowed by the ocean (not that I'm wishing that, my Kiwi friends. Health and prosperity to you always!). Or all their lambs might die. Or New Zealand and England might declare war on each other. And then the UK's lamb eaters will be up a creek, and the demand will shift to the UK lamb farmers, who won't be able to keep up. So yes, that relationship is working for now. But it might be wiser for the long-term to invest the money and energy to build the UK's lamb industry. This would create jobs for UK residents and create a supply that is not dependent upon the continued success of a global infrastructure. Whew!

And yes, I hear you on the dilemmas. I would be willing to bet that the gas you burn going around to all the local suppliers is less than the gas burned to bring your food to you, but you have a point. The "eating local" lifestyle is supposed to benefit us as well ask the environment, and I think for most of us to actually feel okay we need a kind of balance there. Can't wait to read what you have to say about this.

Check Bawb out with the cool points of view. 2007 U.S. Farm Bill, anyone?

MadMadameMim said... [reply]

I just have to jump in with my little plug for farmers markets. I love them. I nearly lived at them in the spring, summer, fall where we USED to live. Unfortunatly we recently moved to a land of potatoes! Yes, that's right we dwell in dear old potatoe land. I was so disapointed when I went to the local farmers market this summer I just quit going. My children actually cry about missing the old famers market. It's sad!
I want to say that the truely sad thing is that there are so many goverment and society programs in place that it really does seem imposible to break through the bureaucracy in order to give local farmers and their supporters a fighting chance. I know it sounds a little doom and gloom but honetly how hard is it really to buy only local, or even mostly local, or even some local. It can be really hard.
But I do LOVE those farmers market fruits and vegies, but look out, even some of those aren't local.

.::still blinking::. said... [reply]

madmad-my aunt lives in potato land as well. I visit her now and then, in the summer she has the most enormous garden with a huge variety of vegetables, spices, and melons. I keep picturing cabbages as big as your head. Perhaps that is why there are not farmers markets there, everyone is a farmer, even on a small scale.

Also, I remember her swapping time in other peoples patches of fruit. There was one summer her neighbor (by neighbor, I mean she lived in the next county over) let her and anyone else who wanted to, come and pick raspberries all day. I went with my aunt, my mom and several of my cousins. We all filled buckets and went home and froze the berries, so we could do what we wanted with them when we got home. That was my first experience with picking, processing and eating something.

Jimmy said... [reply]

I run into some trouble with things like this, because it seems like there's a constant cycle in this country where today something is the precise way to do something, and 6 months from now it's taboo!
I try to use a common-sense approach to things, and I know full-well that nothing at Walmart has anything to do with what's good for us.

I just wonder when the heck there are going to be some farmers' markets run around here on a regular basis! I'd shop there

coolmom said... [reply]

I wonder how we would fair here in AK if we did that. We would only eat for about three months out of the year for starters. I know, I am annoying with all the AK talk. I guess in the winter we could eat lots of mooose road kill, if you can get on the list, or spend a lot of money on arms to kill them yourself. There is a farmers market as well here in Anchorage in the summer, very expensive. We think of Costco as our market. I did eat salmon last night that I caught myself. That must count for something.

Maggie said... [reply]

I agree in buying locally when you can. If you live in Cashe Valley it's easy, and cheap (sometimes cheaper) to buy locally. I think it's the responsible thing to do as a consumer and I think you get better food when it's grown closer to you. What about people that live in New York city? What about Los Angeles? What about Seattle? When you think of areas like that there's not enough local farmers that grow enough food (and enough varieties of food) to support all those masses. In order for a vast population of Americans to eat locally we would have to change the entire system (not that it couldn't be done). Food Science and the food idustry works the way they do because people that live in dense areas wouldn't be able to eat produce if they didn't. Can we do better as consumers? Yes. Can the industry do better as producers? Yes. All I'm saying is take a look at why the system is what it is.

Maggie said... [reply]

One of the hardest things about living in San Antonio is that there are not many options for local produce. That leaves places like Whole Foods or the supermarket for produce. It's a dilemma.

I have a cousin that runs a small farm (a farmette) and she and her family raise chickens, goats, produce, etc. She's part of a co-op and I think that's awesome but she spends all her time running the farm. They're lucky enough to have to means for her to stay home and do that.

Anyway, I have no answers but I like discussions like this. It's so easy to take the path of least resistance and I feel inspired to take the more challenging road when I read stuff like this.

BTW--this is a different Maggie than the one above me. I'm the second Maggie. :)

Nemesis said... [reply]

Mad Madame, I'm sorry you're in potato land. I know of someone who lived in the middle of potato land. She and all her friends had gardens and would borrow some guy's huge barn and process all the food she and her neighbors were growing. It sounds like it was tons of work, but by fall they all these pantries full of local stuff. I don't think I could be that hard-core, but for them that WAS the supermarket since their town was so remote.

Blinking, can I please go visit your aunt? That all sounds wonderful.

Jimmy, you're absolutely right. I was just reading that as Americans we don't seem to have a real history of national foods, and so maybe that's why we tend to get swayed with every new fad diet that comes along. I'm hoping that the "eat local, eat simple, eat real food" thing can kind of bypass all the fad diets. I suppose there could be some secret market near you, but since I'm not sure where you live my sleuthing skills are no help there. :-)

Coolmom, I thought about you. Didn't you have that deal one summer with the girl from Palmer who brought us veggies every week? I'd look for something like that. Living near the Valley I'm betting you do have some options.

Maggie, excellent, excellent point about the people who live in places like NYC and LA and such. I mean, Seattle has it a tiny bit better but you're right. I guess those are the people who have to do the 250-mile diet and pray that not everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

Thanks, Maggie the Second! I like discussions like this too. Like you said, not everyone has the same options/resources/inclinations, but it's nice to at least feel like there's support and encouragement out there when you want to try something new. :-)

Science Teacher Mommy said... [reply]

This is such a good post. There is a cool radio show here called Alternative Radio that is a little out there, but has some interesting stuff. There was a piece a few weeks back called "The Cornification of America" that made me laugh until my sides hurt when I wasn't shuddering from the mistakes our society has made. I think all you've written about here today is so enlightened and correct, but until there is a critical mass of people willing to make some, well, quite MAJOR changes . . . .

I don't know; sometimes I just feel like my head is going to explode from thinking about all of this and wondering what kind of a world we're going to hand off. In the 20th century, our consumerism outstripped our knowledge too fast. Our parents think global warming is a hoax and their generation controls most of the politics; our generation believes that global warming is real, but we've been raised to consume and know little else; our children will have to be the next phase in social evolution--the ones who believe absolutely in the human power to harm, but whose parents had the sense to encourage a simpler life-style for them.

But as I watch the glaciers recede, Polar bears go homeless, local farm land subdivided, and the price of everything rise and rise. . . it is hard not to despair. I think there just aren't enough of us who believe in the human capacity to heal too.

Shawn Econo said... [reply]

Since you've been enjoying books about eating locally, a title I can recommend is Coming Home To Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan. It documents a year of eating locally (and indigenously) in the Tucson, Arizona area.

Did you know that there's a term for local eaters? Locavore! It was picked as word of the year by the Oxford University Press last year. Here's a good roundup of onlince articles and resources for locavores:

http://www.squidoo.com/locavores

For quite some time, I've been reading and collecting books about some of the topics you've been touching on recently: localism, voluntary simplicity, sustainability, etc. I'd be happy to pass along a list of some of the better titles if you're interested.

Thanks for writing about your experiences at the curious intersection of traditional, "old" ways and the consumer-based culture that's infiltrated the Mormon world as thoroughly as it's taken over mainstream American life. It's been refreshing and enlightening!

Nemesis said... [reply]

Thanks, Shawn. I've heard of Coming Home to Eat but now that you've recommended it I'll be sure to read it. Would love to see what else is on your list, actually!

MamaMelodrama said... [reply]

You just wrote the post I've been wanting to write but am too busy reading all the same books to get around to it. If you don't mind, I'll link my readers over here instead. I'm so glad my friend sent me your link, it's fun to find kindred spirits in strangers.

Laura said... [reply]

Hey, I'm a first-timer to this blog, recommended by my friend, mamamelodrama. We live in Los Angeles, and I would just like to add that there are TONS of farmer's markets here. Almost every town has one and they are very popular and really great, full of seasonal veggies and fruits and home-canned and baked goods. It is nice to live in a place like So-Cal where that kind of thing is more part of the culture than where we used to live in Utah.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Welcome, Mama Melodrama and Laura! Laura, those farmer's markets sound fabulous, especially since you probably have a nice long growing season. Jealous . . .

Lisbun said... [reply]

Hi there Nemesis,
My cousin is Mamamelodrama. I of course read her posts, thus bringing me to yours.
I live in the Vancouver of USA and know and somewhat frequent a local organic farmer. I recognize the benefits but have not fully opportunized my ability to create the best of meals for my family. I have however made gradual changes so there is no real shock to anyone's system.
I think education is one key of many that helps us understand the importance of "basic" nutrition and its simple cost.
If I may. I am going to put in a plug for a master gardner and his method that will revolutionize everyones ability to add a little fresh into thier diets without leaving their own backyard or patio. I thank my in-laws for his recent book. Check out...http://www.squarefootgardening.com/
Happy Eating!

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