Eating Well is for Everybody
The last few weeks have been filled with anticipation and a whirlwind of events around the publication of my latest cookbook, Vegan Family Meals. Right now, seems like a good time as any to take pause. Just sitting here at my desk, breathing slow and deep gives my mind more room to contemplate some of bigger issues that we face in our food revolution. I keep hearing Lee Hightower say, “Let’s put the culture back in agri-culture.” Below is a piece that I wrote earlier this month and ran on Happy Cow. I hope you’ll find some ‘food for thought’ in reading this.
Is it elitist to want to eat well? It’s a question that often comes up, because food choices are so personal and people like to take sides. People are influenced by their personal and cultural history, as well as taste buds and impulses when it comes to making food choices. And for many people, it is their financial status that plays the biggest factor. When a conservative like David Frum praises Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey for his free-market views and when another conservative, Zachary Adam Cohen, producer of the movie Farm to Table: The Emerging American Meal praises small scale, local family farms, you know being a proponent for food grown organically isn’t just for people who wear Birkenstocks. I believe that good food grown cleanly and safely is for everyone. There are many people who do not support the argument of growing organic food for the masses. However, it is not necessarily because they disagree that nutritious food should be available for everyone, but rather, that it is not a possible goal to achieve, nor is it worth it to challenge the powerful industrial farms that dominate the market place.
First, there’s the argument that organically grown foods are more expensive than mass-produced supermarket foods and all families just can’t go organic. However, farmers’ markets can bring you the best choices for the best prices, super-thrifty places like Trader Joe’s are starting to carry more organic, and my local food co-op has reasonable prices for top quality organically grown produce and ingredients. It’s true, many people are more comfortable with cheap rather than good food, fast instead of healthy, processed instead of organic. But when you step back and look at the big picture, no matter who you are and how you eat, you can’t miss the fact that as a society, we could save on current and future medical bills if we eat better now. The real cost of mass-produced factory farmed food is hidden because of government subsidies. In America, we have a surplus of grain that only becomes edible once heavily processed. As a result, in order to control the price of grain and produce, the government will often pay farmers so that they will not grown their crop. It seems peculiar that although there are thousands of starving American citizens, our government continues to tell farmers not to grow food. Clearly, growing healthy produce needs to be placed much higher on our government’s list of priorities. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has pointed out that some of the people who need healthy food the most are the people who grow it and harvest it. Pesticides are poisons and millions of farm workers are coming into contact with pesticides when they pick our food by hand. That’s the way almost all the fresh fruits and vegetables are harvested in the US. When I think about this weighty issue of cheap farm labor breaking their backs to get food on everyone else’s table, it puts me closer to growing my own family garden in my front yard. It’s downright cruel to ignore the cheap labor that makes so much of our food available. We hardly think of that when we are eating.
There’s a huge health benefit in eating and growing organic, yet there are more arguments like the one “When trying to feed the world – nine billion people – organic just isn’t going to make it.” — That’s one of the big arguments against organic that still swings hard. It requires too much land, some experts say, and the crop yield isn’t good enough. This is a tough one, and covered very well on NPR in a recent story. But the fact is producing meat takes up more resources than producing vegetables and grains, so I would say that a plant-based diet might hold some of the answer to feeding the world sustainably. I think you can turn this elitist argument on its head, and say that the “elite” is really the food industry, whose lobbyists are working hard to pass so called “Ag-gag” laws, that stop activists from photographing or otherwise exposing animal cruelty on farms. These laws have been proposed or passed in Iowa, Florida and Minnesota. As Paula Crossfield wrote in Civil Eats, “Elitism has been one of the hardest critiques for the good food movement to shake.” I see her point. But I also believe this: Food is personal. Food is family. The way change will come is one family at a time. We really can’t do much to change the bigger issues, until we change what we put on our plates everyday. Regardless if you are vegan or not, by being aware of the food you eat, where it comes from and how it gets to your plate, step-by-step, you are helping to create a more ecologically and socially conscience world.
Photographs taken by one of my favorite farmers, Havilah McGrath of McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, CA.