Friday, September 13, 2013

Healthy Compromise? Food Philosophies of a Thinking Eater

Disclaimer: the content below is highly editorial. I’m pretty much ranting in this post, so if you don’t care to hear my thoughts on the food industry and standing up to “The Man” of big agribusiness, maybe you should scroll down to a fluffier post, like my end of summer lemonade. Thanks.

Let me be the first to say, I’m not good at meal planning. I’m also pretty terrible at adhering to a strict budget; instead I find myself trying to spend no money ever, and each purchase feels like a concession to the fact that life costs money. When I have the good fortune to receive food or goods for free, it feels like: “Yes, this is how it should be! Money— why bother? It just runs out.”

Ah, to live in a dream world. But I don’t, so I must cope with reality and do so cheerfully.


The conflict inside me lately has been how to resolve my unchanging budget restrictions with the very incompatible demands of healthy eating. Good food is not cheap.

One resolution has been advised by Paleo guru Robb Wolf, who suggests that although not ideal, “healthy” can mean feedlot meats and standard petro-grown produce, as long as you’re not eating grains and refined sugars.

Um, really? Because all that bacon you say we should be eating… have you ever seen what they feed those pigs? And pigs just soak up garbage, they don’t filter it out with multiple stomachs like cows. Now if I can eat bacon from a pig that was pastured and fed naturally, then yes PLEASE, bring on the bacon. But grocery-store-brand, nitrate-cured, low-grade bacon at $2.99/lb… I’m not wagering on the health roulette that that’s good for me.

And what about E. coli and other super-bugs growing in the unhealthy environment of the feedlot?  How about the under-regulated, mass-slaughtered cattle that are so caked with feces, and so quickly slaughtered side by side, that the transfer of that feces to the meat is practically inevitable, and with it, all these antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Some folks have actually died from eating infected meat. Mostly children. Perhaps the logic is that you only have a chance of contracting one of those antibiotic-resistant strains of deadly bacteria from feedlot meats, but if you’re eating a grain-based diet, you’re definitely going to have problems with your insulin and other metabolizing hormones and wind up either diabetic or rife with Western diseases.

Where is the compromise for the everyday person between eating a “perfect” diet that costs a fortune (not to mention all the planning-ahead it seems to require), and eating a “standard American” diet which is ignorant of its food’s quality, sustainability, or healthfulness? If you follow Nutritionists’ advice, every food seems to be a villain, and every food a hero, depending on which nutrition fad you’re listening to at the moment.

I suppose these thoughts relate back to an earlier post, in which I came to the conclusion that fad diets and too-strict food dogmas don’t really solve the problem. What most of these trends boil down to is “Nutritionism,” a style of food phobia only capable of such widespread acceptance in a place like modern day America.

How I’d really thrive, is finding a way to practically, affordably, and naturally receive food from the small farms and culinary artisans in my area, without ever having to access any arm of the huge agri-business machine that feeds the common American. Wouldn’t we all benefit from that kind of arrangement? The only things I’d really miss are the few imported items I can’t resist buying because they are inexpensive and just plain good: avocados, European cheeses, etc.

I can visualize how different the agricultural countryside would look in our country if every farm was a small, traditional farm, with multiple crops and a variety of animals to complete each farm’s small ecological loop. Driving down I35 through Iowa would look (and smell!) a whole lot more like the pastoral-romantic countryside depicted on our hydrogenated-butter-style-spread containers, and a lot less like the monotonous corn, soy, and meat factories (CAFOs) represented there now.

In this kind of system, we wouldn’t need so many nutrition experts. They would not need to tell us if our food was healthy or not, because we would know, the way our ancestors did in the early formation of The United States, and we could simply enjoy our food and live our lives. The Lord’s Prayer asking “Give us this day our daily bread” would not need to be understood symbolically, because our bread would be real bread, milled from fresh grains, risen through natural yeast, and nourishing us the way bread should. Our food would be food, not a product.

We would need to have lots more farmers, however, and tons and tons of the farms we now have would have to be overhauled from the soil up to make them fertile places for crops again, because of all the destruction of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Could we ever restore the land for small farms again? I don’t know. I dream of that. But I also see, in my cynical, pessimistic understanding of the culture at large, that money moves everything, and the average person is simply too comfortable in their ignorance to vote with their dollar for such a massive change in the way things work. People like to spend as little money on food as possible, and in our country, that’s Walmart, McDonalds, and processed (corn and soy-heavy) foods.

Here are some small solutions I’m following to help make my own family’s provision more local, sustainable, and affordable at the same time:

Buy produce for a whole week in one trip to the farmer’s market

By taking your budgeted amount to the Farmer’s Market and buying what’s the most cost-effective, you buy the most local, fresh, and in-season vegetables at the same or much lower prices than the standard grocery store produce fare. I’ll often receive free produce from these local farmers, like when I only have $2 left of my shopping budget and they throw in some extra pounds of apples anyway, or when I’m eyeing a purple cabbage and the farmer just wants me to try it so he gives it to me for free (these both happened to me recently.)

Research sources of meat from a farm nearby

You can save a ton by buying meat in bulk straight from the farm, especially if you’re used to buying organic pastured meat from the store. When buying produce at the farmers market, ask the growers if they happen to raise meat as well, and sometimes, if you make a connection, they will be willing to sell you part of their families’ meat. Or you’ll meet farmers whose specialty is pasture-raised meat—score! I just found a local farmer who does pastured pork at a very good rate, even if you don’t buy a whole hog at once.

Find friends who hunt/forage

If you know someone who loves the sport of hunting, they may have their hands on more meat by the end of hunting season than they want or need, and would be willing to sell or even give it to you for the cost of processing at a butcher’s shop. And if you know someone who is skilled at foraging, ask them to take you along and learn what wild foods can be picked, and how to eat them. Nature still provides food for all. And wild game isn’t scary, because after all, you know exactly where it came from and how it was processed into cuts of meat, unlike the mysterious “meats” you buy at the grocery store. It’s really fun to learn new dishes that can be made from unique game meat. Rabbit, as I’ve mentioned, is a favorite of mine.

Cook from scratch

When you eat meals you made yourself, you control the ingredients, and you save money. The better you get at cooking, the more you enjoy the potential for homemade delicacies, and the less you’re even interested or feel dependent on those drive-through meal sources. David and I eat out so rarely now, and it’s not just a budget thing. We just don’t consider fast food or even most restaurants as providing food worth spending our money. Now when we eat out, we choose nicer places that offer real food, cooked with skill and creativity, and transparent about where it came from. Many restaurants now are jumping on the local foods bandwagon, and that’s a good thing. I want to spend my money at a restaurant where the ingredients are the freshest and most seasonal.

I feel like I have much more to say, but I have to go to work now. And I have a feeling I’ll have plenty more foodie rants in later posts.

P.S. Here is a blog I just discovered that is from a family that totally exemplifies my ideals. They DO exist!

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