Creating a New Food System: Community, Conscious Choice and Local Farms
Our systems are broken. You can ask almost anyone and get the same answer. The financial system, the political system, the healthcare system, the food system – all in a state of disarray and dysfunction that benefits only the powerful, wealthy, elite few and leaves the rest of us falling farther behind, getting poorer and sicker with each passing day. And we’re powerless to fix it because “they” hold all the cards. It’s a pretty bleak picture.
But what if we step away from the victim mentality for a few minutes and look at the situation with new eyes. Consider this: What if this seeming collapse of our systems is nothing more than a transition to a new way of living and being human? What if these are all signs not of coming apocalypse, but of evolving consciousness? What if “they” are just as unnerved and afraid as the rest of us? What if the solutions to our problems don’t really rely on “them” getting it (whether “them” is the government, Wall Street or major corporations), but reside within each of us? What if we’re the ones with the power?
Let’s look at the food system. Monsanto is shoving genetically modified organisms at us and suing farmers who find their fields have been cross-pollinated with the unwelcome new hybrids. A handful of huge corporations control most of the meat processing in the country and treat the animals and workers as cheap commodities. Massive farms pour petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides on monocrops that end up pervading most of the food we eat and even fuel the vehicles we drive. One-third of our children are obese, and diabetes is approaching epidemic proportions. How can we possibly fix the mess?
While all of this is going on, there’s another movement springing to life, and it’s one that each of us can join. Small farms and ranches, after thirty-plus years of decline, are coming back. The number of farmers markets doubled between 1998 and 2009 and they happen every day of the week in huge urban centers and small towns across the country. According to the USDA, the local foods market experienced sales of almost five billion dollars in 2008, much of that to grocery stores and restaurants. And since that time, hospitals, prisons and school districts across the country have instituted buying programs that include more local food as part of their menus. Is it a drop in the bucket compared to total agricultural sales? Absolutely. But is there plenty of room for growth? You bet.
Big agriculture and big food are starting to not only pay attention, but to worry. The National Farm and Ranch Alliance, a marketing collaboration of agriculture associations and their corporate partners including Monsanto, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland, among others, is trying to drive the dialogue about how food is raised in this country, substituting the organic, local, sustainable message with one about enhancing public trust in agriculture. The Sensible Food Policy Coalition, an organization made up of major food processors, fast food corporations and the media, is lobbying Congress to avoid enacting voluntary guidelines that would reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in foods marketed to children. Their worry? That kids will eat more fruit and vegetables and quit eating the processed junk that gets pushed at them in the commercials bombarding them when they watch Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob.
The fact that these organizations are starting to fret is good news for the rest of us. It means that we, the people, are having an impact. And it’s one more sign that the revolution/evolution is happening as we speak. So how do we play an active part and take charge of our own destinies?
Become a conscious consumer. Ignore the incessant buzz of the industrial media complex and pay attention instead to what’s happening in your own community. Learn about how food is produced, about eating seasonally, about how animals are raised. Ask questions. Educate yourself and share your knowledge with others. Make conscious choices.
Plenty of on-line resources exist to help you learn. Animal Welfare Approved (www.animalwelfareapproved.org) just released Food Labeling for Dummies, a guide to food labels and what they really mean. The American Grassfed Association (www.americangrassfed.org) is a resource for finding ranchers who raise grassfed and pastured meats in a humane and environmentally healthy way. Civil Eats (www.civileats.com) is a resource for news about the world of agriculture and food and provides links to dozens of other organizations that promote sustainable and healthy eating. Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org), along with local chapters across the country, is part of an international, grassroots movement toward good, clean and fair food.
Build your own food community. Get to know your neighbors and start a community garden or form a cooking co-op. Shop at the farmers market. Visit a local farm or two and build relationships with the people who feed you. Most farmers are happy to share their stories with their customers and friends. Community is the key – learning to share time, knowledge, produce and even money with the people around us makes us all stronger.
Learn to cook and teach your kids. You don’t have to get a culinary degree from the Cordon Bleu – just learn a few basics like how to use a knife and how to make an omelet or a pot of soup. Buy fresh, local food and avoid the processed Frankenfoods that line the shelves at the local grocery. Cooking doesn’t need to be a chore – it can be an opportunity to slow down at the end of the day and reconnect with yourself and your loved ones. Making dinner can be a family affair, and if you don’t have time during the week, spend a Saturday afternoon making easy dishes you can heat and serve all week. Mark Bittman’s classic book, How to Cook Everything is a must-have for anyone who wants to learn the basics and then expand on them.
Grow your own (and teach your kids). There’s nothing like a radish right out of the ground or a tomato fresh off the vine. Gardening is a fun family activity that, like cooking, helps reconnect you to your source.
Even if you live in an apartment, you can still be an active gardener. Britta Riley was frustrated by the non-existent outdoor space in her Manhattanapartment, so she developed a vertical, hydroponic window farm system, which she shares on her web site, www.windowfarms.org. The idea took off, and now Riley has an open-source community of more than twenty-three thousand window farmers from around the world who share their ideas and knowledge. She calls is R&D-I-Y, or Research and Develop It Yourself.
Start where you are, but start. If you’ve never cooked before, don’t think you have to prepare every meal this week. If you’ve never grown so much as a geranium, don’t plan to dig up your yard and plant a half-acre garden. Learn. Take baby steps. If you’re already making conscious choices about your food, what else can you do? Could you share what you know with others by teaching a class? In addition to cooking, could you start canning and preserving? There’s always one more step on the path.
Turn loose of excuses. It’s easy to get caught in the “I don’t haves.” Does this take time? Yes. Will you spend a little more money? Yes, possibly. You may have to give up some quality tv-watching time or a couple of the daily lattes every week. It’s all about priorities. But changing the world doesn’t come without a commitment of time and money.
Give up the guilt. Do as much as you can and don’t worry about the rest. If you feed your kids some fast food once in a while, the world won’t end. Just be sure it’s a conscious choice and not a slip back into old habits.
Strong communities of local farms and conscious eaters are one way we can all work to fix our broken food system. And as we create a new paradigm for food, solutions for the other broken systems will begin to evolve too. It really is up to us, each of us, to make a difference. Power to the people.
Marilyn Noble is a freelance writer, editor and food activist. Her latest book, Southwest Comfort Food: Slow and Savory is available at bookstores everywhere.