Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Sustainable Food on a Large Scale?
Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of going to a dinner function at a local organization that has decided, under the leadership of their newly elected social chairpersons, that the club as a whole is going to make a more concerted effort to source their food locally. This dinner was the kick off event to that end. I supplied pastured broilers and Clear Conscience veal for the meal, and then was kindly asked to come for dinner and take part in a panel discussion about local food. (Side note: a sincere thank you to the members of MCC and especially G.O. for requesting my attendance there!)
At the very end of the panel discussion, a member asked, "How do we make our food production systems more sustainable as a nation?" She directed the question more to the other members present instead of the panel, and the question was left largely unanswered.
I've spent the last week or so thinking about the answers to that question, and here's what I've come up with...
1. Buy American: To me, this is the absolute first step in any effort towards sustainable, local food production, and it should be non negotiable.
Recently, after years of stalling and ignoring it, the food industry has finally begun to comply with federal law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). When you go to the supermarket, almost everything is now required to have the country where that food was produced listed on the label, which makes "buying American" easier.
The meat department gets tricky though. You will see labels like "Origin: USA, Mexico, and Canada." That doesn't cut it folks. Leave the meat in the case, and head out to your local farmer, where you can see the animals in a field that is mere miles from your home, and buy your meat from them.
In the produce section, I'd take it one step further--try to buy produce grown on the same side of the Mississippi river as where you are. Nothing infuriates me more to be standing in a supermarket in the number one apple producing county in the number 4 apple producing state and pick up an apple that has "Washington State" on the label, while our local fruit growers push out orchards to grow row crops, or simply sell them for development, out of financial necessity.
In both cases, on your way out the door, be sure to tell the supermarket manager that you are not buying these things, and why. Fruit and meat are high profit items to a supermarket, and it won't take too many people leaving the store without these things in their carts before somebody starts to take notice.
As you learn where different foods come from, start to buy items that are grown closer to you geographically. It may be difficult to figure out what state this lettuce or that radish came from, and in that case, opt for ultra local (see numbers 2 and 3).
2. Grow your own: Take a greater role in your own nourishment. You don't have to produce 100% of the food you eat, or 50%, or even 1%. Just grow something with as few chemical inputs as possible, and then eat it. Tomatoes in a pot on your apartment balcony or herbs in a window box would be a good place to start. For those with larger residential lots, maybe you can go a little further and plant a few rows of beans or some cucumbers. You could get really serious and even try to raise a few pastured broilers, or maybe some meat rabbits.
The point is, anything you grow in your own personal space will be that much less that needs to be transported to you from elsewhere.
3. Shop Farmers Markets: And farm stands. And CSAs. And Farm Members Clubs. Farmers markets, in all their various forms, are popping up everywhere. The food you buy there will be unequaled by anything you buy at any supermarket, in both freshness and sustainability. The more people that buy their food from these sources, the more diverse and stable the market will become. However, without solid, continuous customer support even the best market will fail.
4. Eat in Season: Learn to pass up asparagus in December, and watermelons in April. Forgo the tomatoes when there is still snow on the ground, and the ears of corn on Valentines Day. By learning when certain foods are in season in your area, and buying them only during that window of time, you will almost guarantee that that food is grown somewhere close by.
5. Learn to Cook: Starting with one night per week, cook a meal. From scratch. Open a cookbook, find a recipe for something that sounds tasty, assemble the ingredients, and COOK IT. Make a whole meal without opening a cardboard box and stirring in a "seasoning mix" or "cheese packet".
After you've done this for awhile, move on to using some ingredient that you've never used before, preferably one that is not derived from corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, or potatoes. Make your children turn off the TV and the video games and come help you. By doing so, you will begin to influence their food preferences that will not only have a positive effect on their health in the future, but will create future consumers of sustainably produced food.
6. Make Food a Priority: I know all of these things take more time and effort than many busy families think they can afford, but in order to improve the sustainability of our food systems on a large scale, we must all take action as individuals.
Yes, it's inconvenient to have to buy your meat and produce from somewhere other than the supermarket, but take the extra 5 minutes and hit the farmers market on the way home.
No, it's just not innate for most of us to know what to do with parsnips, or swiss chard, or beef tongue, or smoked ham hocks, but buy them anyway, and research a way to prepare them. By doing so, you'll be making positive, incremental changes in food production systems encouraging people to continue growing these things the right way. As an added bonus, they will be absolutely delicious.
Take the time to research different foods, the farmers who produce them, and their methods of doing so. Develop your own philosophy about what issues are important to you, whether it is carbon footprint, pasture based, animal welfare, water quality, chemical use, etc. Once you have made these decisions, start to seek out food sources that meet your priorities, and reward them with regular purchases.
The Bottom Line: As consumers, we wield the most powerful tool in the struggle to change our food systems: the purse strings. By voting for our food preferences with dollars, we will do more to alter the way our food is produced than we ever will with hot air and spilled ink.
Changing our current food system to more sustainable models will not be either easy or quick, but it is critically important that we try.