Sunday, July 09, 2006

Got Grub?

A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by the person featured as Grist's InterActivist for the week: Bryant Terry, chef and founding director of b-healthy! (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth).

Since I've been turning over in my head ways that a concerned citizen can raise the issues of food security and promote local and organic foods as well as healthy eating in schools and other community institutions, the interview with Terry caught my eye and inspired me. And when I found out that he has recently co-authored a book with Anna Lappé called Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

About a week or so later, Grub appeared on my library's hold shelf, and I have been devouring it ever since. I've read some pretty good books on what's wrong with industrial agriculture and the food industry, but this book pulls it all together to give you the facts in an eye-opening, matter-of-fact way (along with talking points to convince the naysayers in your clique). And on top of that, it gives you some pretty tasty sounding recipes and meal plans to highlight seasonal produce.

The authors declare that since the word "food" has become so ubiquitous to describe products so highly processed that they barely resemble food any more (though we ingest it anyway), they claim the word "Grub" to describe whole and locally and sustainably grown foods that supports fairness for all the workers who bring that Grub to the table... and that should be made universal, available to everyone regardless of income (p.xii).

Lappé wrote the first three sections of the book, detailing what's wrong with the current food industry and explaining what we can do to reclaim Grub to nourish our bodies and spirits. She describes the six illusions upon which our current food and farming industry is built: the illusions of choice, safe and clean, efficiency, cheap, fairness, and progress (p.5). When the vast majority of the food industry is controlled by a very small handful of enormous corporations that ultimately have the single goal of profit in mind, each of these illusions is undercut by that determination to keep input costs as low as possible in order to make the big bucks from the consumer.

But as I've mentioned before, these costs couldn't be kept so low were it not for government subsidies that promote industrial agriculture, low wages or prices paid to farmers and farmworkers, and the hidden costs of environmental degradation. When you buy food, particularly processed goods, at the grocery store, most of your money goes back not to the farmers but to the corporations, who in turn spend that money on marketing more products and lobbying legislators for favorable subsidies, laws, and regulations (pp 41, 46).

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound right to me... right as in sustainable, ethical, or healthy. And I would agree with Lappé in that despite that enormous variety of products at the supermarket (on average, 35,000 items), we are losing the real choice of "diverse varieties of safe, locally grown fresh food" (p.6).

Fortunately, with farmers' markets and co-ops and CSAs and community and personal gardens, we still have that choice, though admittedly it's better in some areas than others. After all,

Eating is the most essential act of every living creature. And in virtually every human culture, growing, eating, and sharing food has a spiritual dimension, too. Today, eating is also unquestionably a political act. Our food choices, conscious or not, shape our world. ...

...choosing Grub -- making the most common sense choices about our food -- improves our own health and that of the planet, farmers, and farmworkers, all at the same time.

Will everyone choose Grub all of the time? No, probably not. But as we begin to open our eyes to the reality of our food and what impacts the growing and processing of that food has on our bodies, other people, our economy, and our planet, we can develop the habits that keep us leaning toward the good, healthy Grub that truly sustains us.

The latter section of the book, written by Terry, introduces a collection of vibrant, fun seasonal menus built around different themes so that readers can host their own Grub dinner parties to share the goodness of Grub with others, complete with music, poetry, and wine suggestions. Terry brings a very down-to-earth attitude toward personal food choices to this section in order to focus on making healthy choices for each person:

We all have specific body constitutions, cultural foodways, and personal tastes that determine which foods work for us; no single way of eating is perfect for everyone. In fact, because our bodies are so dynamic, no single diet is perfect for any one of us throughout our life. Our relationship with food should be fluid, shifting as we change (p.129).

If we did away with artificial boundaries around what we eat, what would eating healthy mean? Ultimately, each individual needs to answer this question by closely examining how certain foods make her or him feel spiritually and emotionally as well as physically (p.130).

My sole nitpick about the book is that some of the recipes use slightly more exotic ingredients that I would question as being truly local or sustainable, but perhaps that depends your location and what you can find. (Coconut oil is definitely not high on my list of local availability!) But I will agree that they can inspire you to try some new things.

In short (I know, too late for that), this book has really inspired me to take a good look at how I'm eating now and how I can eat in a way that is even more supportive of my personal health as well as the health of my community. And you know what? I'm pretty amazed with how far I've come!

Because of my upbringing -– the Chef Mother teaching me to cook so much from scratch and preserve so much of the season's harvest for winter -– I find that my kitchen cupboards actually contain very little processed food. Sure, there are some canned goods of vegetables I don't can (or that I've already eaten up from last year's harvest) and beans (though I'm switching more to dried beans), some baking ingredients, and definitely some chocolate. But look at those home-canned fruits on the top shelf! The local grains on the second shelf!

And here on the other side, there are plenty of store-bought spices (though more and more come from the co-op, where they're fresher and cheaper), but there are multiple jars of dried herbs harvested from my garden, herbal tisanes mixed from those same herbs, jam made with fruit from the farmers' market or the local fruit farm, and other preserves.

Seeing how easily I've made that transition to Grub, I find I'm energized to keep stocking the cabinets with dried produce and herbs, home-canned fruits (yet to come this summer), and homemade goodies like fresh granola (I just pulled a new batch out of the oven!). My freezer is gradually filling up again with local berries and veggies, and I am thoroughly enjoying cooking with so much fresh goodness and sharing it with my friends.

I hope over the past year and a half I've given you many ideas to support local food producers and to take advantage of the season's harvest to enjoy good, healthy food. But if you need a little extra inspiration, I can highly recommend Grub to you.

And you know I love good Grub!

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