Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Food for Thought

My reading has slowed down over the past week or two, due to the other projects I've been working on, but I've really been savoring the latest read, Eat Here by Brian Halweil. Although I plan to review this book more fully for the reading group, I'll summarize briefly:

Why do we allow our farms to be held in thrall to big corporations that take the food, transport it long distances, process and package it to a high degree, and then sell it far away... instead of encouraging small local farms to produce and SELL locally so that each region is supported largely by its own agriculture and animal husbandry in a manner that sustains not only the local economy but also the environment? And what can we do about it?

As you can imagine, there's a lot of information packed into this relatively small book, but it's an eye-opener and will really get you thinking hard about what you eat and where it comes from. The issues include supporting smaller farms with a more diversified production and an interest in supporting biodiversity (instead of limiting the field to a small handful of species and cultivars per fruit, vegetable, or animal). As the author so succinctly states, "If there is no choice in the crop fields, then there is no choice in the kitchen and no choice on the table" (p. 149).

Phoenix and I were discussing this book in tandem with the recent BBC article about a USDA study claiming that a vegan diet is harmful to children, and we agreed the question of diet content was not so critical as these three factors:

1. Is the food largely unprocessed, retaining most of its useful nutrients, or highly refined, thus stripped of vitamins and minerals and more likely to cause health problems?

2. Is the food organically produced, so as to reduce as much as possible the accumulation of harmful chemicals in the body?

3. Is the food locally produced, thus reducing the need for additional preservatives and processing, as well as reducing the costs and pollution of transportation?

Given our convenience-oriented society in which most people don't feel they have the time to prepare a good, healthy meal from scratch (let alone to do it justice in the eating), these are difficult questions to ask and sometimes to answer. But I'm coming to learn that questions of nutrition cannot be isolated from cultural, social, economic, and environmental issues.

Eating food that is locally grown and produced brings you closer to the source and helps you develop an appreciation for the work that goes into it. Whether you grow your own food and understand the fickle nature of the garden... or you get the chance to talk with the farmer who brings her produce to the local farmers' market... or you develop an supportive relationship with the local co-op, you learn to understand how what you eat has an impact on the world. (The question of eating locally is one that shows up on the Ecological Footprint Quiz, something I encourage you to try!)

Halweil quotes Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, as saying at a recent conference that "the gastronome who is not aware of the environmental implications of his food is stupid, and the environmentalist who is naive of gastronomy is sad" (p. 148). Strong words, but true. And believe me, now that I'm more aware of the issues involved, I plan to make even greater efforts to support local growers, to eat more unprocessed food, and to grow and preserve more of my own vegetables. (I'm thinking about heirloom tomatoes this year!)

Now you understand why my page is green.

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