AFTER CHECKING OUT a few more documentaries and reading several books, I started to feel overwhelmed. Yes, the US has serious food production problems. But what can we do to fix it?
At the end of their doc Food, Inc., Robert Kenner (director) and Eric Schlosser (co-producer) list several ways US citizens can change the way food is produced in their country. These changes benefit the environment, food industry workers, and personal health.
1. Vote with your money.
Buy food from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect. This is absolutely easier said than done, because regardless of what market or grocery store you visit or restaurant you dine at, chances are high your food is ultimately coming from the same massive industrial farm.
For example, in the 1970s the top five beef packers in the US — John Morrell, Swift, IBP, MBPXL, and Armour — controlled about 25% of the market.
As of 2008, the top four beef packers — Tyson (formerly IBP), Swift, Cargill, and National Beef — controlled 80% +. So even if you rarely eat at fast food restaurants, you’re mostly likely still eating the same meat they use.
2. Buy in season.
The average grocery store in the US has no seasons. Most fruits and vegetables are not harvested year round, yet we buy whatever we want, no matter what the season.
Take tomatoes — they certainly aren’t ripe on the vine in winter, yet you can find them at your supermarket in December because they’re picked while green and ripened with ethylene gas in storage. Visit Sustainable Table to find out what produce is in season in your area.
3. Buy organic.
It’s funny that buying organic / grass-fed / sustainable food is often seen as pretentious. Sure, our great-grandparents didn’t have to shop for organic food — because everything was organic. As of 2007, the EPA reports that the US uses over one billion pounds of pesticides on its crops a year — 22% of total world pesticide use, and an amount unprecedented in human history.
Buying organic absolutely invokes change, because companies listen to consumers — the increased interest in eating organic over the last few years is the reason Wal-Mart now sells a large selection of organic products. Eat Well Guide has a great database of organic markets, restaurants, bakeries, and co-ops all over the US.
4. Know what’s in your food.
Is your juice actually juice? It’s kind of mind-boggling what companies can get away with when it comes to labeling their products. Sunny D is “orange juice” that actually contains only 5% juice — they label it as juice because there’s no law requiring food products to contain a specific amount of juice to be labeled as such.
“Whole grain” — yeah, that makes a bowl of choco-sugar-puff-things healthy. Not. The FDA has never established a legal definition of what “whole grain” is in terms of labels, which is why the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently petitioned them, requesting that they stop allowing companies to falsely label their foods as whole grain, or requiring them to include a percentage on the label.
The word “natural” isn’t regulated by the FDA at all, so don’t be fooled by “natural” chips, candy, and other processed crap — it’s just another marketing tactic that has nothing to do with the nutritional value of the food. If we stop buying it, they’ll stop making it.
5. Read labels.
The nutritional labels, not the advertisements. How little food is in our food? Xanthan gum, ethyl lactate, cellulose, xylitol, maltodextrin…it’s not that these things are lethal, but if the majority of your diet is processed foods, your body is getting way too many chemicals and not enough nutrients.
My personal tactic (and this is in no way professional advice) is to make sure the majority of what I buy doesn’t have a label, or if it does, that it consists of three ingredients or fewer. Apples, spinach, nuts, rice, fish…when people say “whole foods,” this is what they’re talking about.
6. Buy foods that are grown locally.
This ties in with seasonal eating, but there’s another benefit besides your health. The average meal in the US travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the supermarket. And agriculture in this country accounts 20% of all fossil fuel we use — even more than Americans burn with their cars.
Eating food grown locally goes a long way toward protecting the environment and reducing your carbon footprint.
7. Shop at farmers markets.
“But farmers markets are so much more expensive!”
I used to make this excuse. Never again. Poverty among farm workers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees in the US.
Let’s talk subsidies. Between 1995 and 2010, the Environmental Working Group reported, 10% of US farms received 70% of government subsidies. Take Part broke it down:
Top 10% of US farms: $30,751 average per year (1995-2010)
Bottom 10% of US farms: $587 average per year (1995-2010)
In addition, 90% of all subsidies go to just five crops: corn, wheat, cotton, soy, and rice. Wondering why Fritos are cheaper than strawberries? Now you know.
Farmers get to keep 80 to 90 cents of every dollar spent by consumers at farmers markets. So while a dozen eggs might cost you a dollar or two more, you’re not only getting a higher-quality product, you’re keeping the people responsible for providing us with real food in business.
8. Make sure your farmers market takes food stamps.
The subsidy issue is the reason one of the biggest predictors of obesity is income level. Most of the high-calorie junk food and fast food in the US is made from those five subsidized crops.
Ask your farmers market if they accept food stamps — they should. Healthy food needs to be an affordable option for everyone, no matter their income.
9. Plant a garden.
Think tomatoes are too expensive? For under $10, you can have your own tomato plant that keeps producing (and tastes infinitely better than the gas-ripened supermarket stuff).
Maybe your neighborhood has a community garden, or maybe you have a backyard perfect for growing your own vegetables. Even if you live in an urban area, keeping a few easy herbs or greens in an edible container garden can help you save money, as well as eat healthier.
10. Cook a meal with your family and eat together.
Children consume almost twice as many calories when eating food made outside the home. Cooking at home is time consuming and requires some schedule adjusting, but we’re talking about our bodies’ fuel and our families’ health – it’s worth it.
11. Ask your school board to provide healthy school lunches.
As a kid, I didn’t think much about cafeteria food. As a teacher, it shocked me. There’s no color — everything offered is that fried beigish-brown. “Chicken” nuggets, burgers, pizza, chicken-fried steak with a ladle of white gravy (I grew up in Texas)…it’s incredible what we’re feeding our kids, and no surprise that in the last 20 years, obesity rates among those aged 6 to 19 has tripled.
Many schools have taken out or limited use of their vending machines. If your kid’s school hasn’t, raise the issue at the next PTA meeting. Talk about what the cafeteria serves. See if the school can start a garden, so kids can not only eat healthier, but actually get involved in the food production process.
12. Write to your representatives.
Demand that Congress enforce food safety standards. Demand that they sponsor the 2012 Farm Bill, which will help sustainable farmers better compete with industrial farm conglomerates.
Ask that they re-introduce H.R. 3160, also known as Kevin’s Law, named after two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk, who died in 2001 after eating a burger contaminated with E. coli. The bill would help to strengthen the government’s ability to stop this kind of contaminated meat from getting into our food supply.