My journey with food has been a long time in the making. Growing up with strong food traditions and sitting at the dinner table every night with my family nurtured a sense of belonging and stability in my childhood. When my three children were born, I wanted to pass on the food traditions and culinary rituals of my childhood. I wanted to re-create the comfort foods that my mother so expertly prepared to delight and nourish my own children.
I was concerned about the proliferation of food allergies, childhood obesity, ADHD/ADD, increasing incidences of autism, Bisphenol A (BPA), nutrition in a fast-food world, childhood diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and the ubiquitous amount of sugar peddled to my children on a regular basis. I intuitively knew I had to do something different than what was being touted as “normal” is our culture.
My journey with food took a dramatic turn when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. He showed what’s really in fast food, what’s happening to animals on factory farms, and the dangers of our unsustainable agricultural practices.
My husband and I wanted to make changes in order to ensure our family’s good health and to help make the world a better place. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we feel blessed to be in the epicenter of the “food revolution” taking place in this country. We made the following 6 changes.
1. Patronize Farmers’ Markets: We buy organic, locally grown food as much as possible to support local communities and regions, and to promote small farmers producing a variety of crops that are more sustainable for the land and water systems. We currently shop every week at farmers markets in the San Francisco Bay Area, and are grateful for this resource that allows us to stay in our local community to do our food shopping. Our three children enjoy the farmers market too: they get to run around the plaza park, see people they know, and spend the $5 we give them on things like kettle korn, cookies, lemonade, and face painting. Sometimes they even surprise me and buy fruit! And they know to ask whether it’s organic.
Meanwhile, I ask questions of the vendors and farmers about the methods used to grow their crops, whether their produce is organic or grown without pesticides, how they deal with pests, and how they treat their soil. So I get to know a few of the farmers and have been able to ask for professional advice about problems with my garden and fruit trees.
The best part about the farmers’ market is the sense of community. We see our friends and neighbors, meet new people, and strike up conversations with complete strangers. We pick out healthy, fresh, and appealing fruits and vegetables that inspire me to cook the traditional foods I grew up with, or to try new recipes with the exotic-looking fruits and vegetables. The farmers’ market is full of beauty and brings out the best in our community. It just feels so good for my entire family to be a part of this endeavor!
2. Participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): We joined a bay area farm and we financially support the farmers, Matt and Lily. My husband and I appreciate their philosophy about farming and their chosen way of life. We get a box of food each week along with a letter describing each vegetable, some recipes, and a note from Matt regarding something about his relationship with the land or with the food he is growing. The CSA pick-up is the same day every week and at the same location. We love the CSA and we are very happy with the quality and variety of produce we get in our box.
One important reason we decided to go organic is because of pesticide use in conventional agriculture. 23 million tons of fertilizers are used on crops in U.S. each year. Run-off gets into water systems and pollutes drinking water. Because pesticides are designed to disrupt the nervous system of insects, I fear that the pesticide residue on the fruits and vegetables can also affect the nervous systems of humans.
3. Grass-Fed Beef: Because of what I learned about the cruel factory farming of animals on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), we made the switch to grass-fed beef about a year ago. Because cows in factory farms are surrounded by their waste and live in stressful conditions, they are given antibiotics to prevent epidemics. 70% of antibiotics in this country are used for animal food production! Antibiotic resistance in humans is related to the overuse of these medicines in factory farms.
I buy beef, lamb, pork, chickens, and eggs from a local rancher who sells their products at several SF Bay Area farmers markets. When I first started buying grass-fed beef, I bought individual cuts, sticking mostly to the cheaper ground beef, fajita meat, and stew meat. My husband and I eventually decided it made sense to buy meat in bulk, so we took the plunge and bought a side of beef with another family. I love buying beef this way and plan to do it again when my current supply runs low. It does not take up a prohibitive amount of space in the freezer, and we saved a lot of money buying our beef in bulk (paying only $5.99 per pound for everything). The meat is packaged in shrink-wrap with the ranch's label that identifies the cut of meat and the weight. It looks just like what you would get in a grocery store.
Even at the bargain price of $5.99 per pound, grass-fed beef costs more than factory-farmed beef, so we tend to eat less of it. We have lots of vegetables, salads, or bread to round out the meal. I have been experimenting with cooking cuts of meat that I have never prepared before, like roasts. A roast can feed my family for several days. I have found many recipes on the internet, along with advice and tips. Sometimes we invite friends over for dinner to be “guinea pigs” for new recipes. Our friends bravely try each new dish, and so far, everything has been tender, flavorful and delicious. Grass-fed beef is much healthier than the corn-fed beef, with high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and less saturated fat.
4. Pastured Chickens and Eggs: Factory-farmed chickens are housed in huge warehouses in which they never see the outdoors during their short six-week life. Factory farmed chickens are given antibiotics in their genetically modified corn feed and growth hormones to make their breasts grow unnaturally large. Laying chickens have the worst living conditions, packed into nesting cages stacked on top of one another. The larger operations have hundreds of thousands of chickens; a few facilities have a million chickens.
My family recently took a tour of small chicken operation in Vacaville, CA. Unlike conventional chicken and egg production companies whose operations are kept secret, the owners, Alexis and Eric, let their customers see every facet of their business. They have 8,000 meat and laying chickens, and we went through every chicken house looking at the difference between the birds, from one week to nine weeks. We gathered up dozens of eggs in the laying houses. My children loved the tour and appreciated how Alexis and Eric treat their animals.
The whole chickens I buy from these farmers are more expensive, but I'm paying the true cost of what it takes to raise chickens and produce eggs. I can usually get two to three meals out of one chicken. Leftover chicken meat goes into salads or quesadillas for a later meal. Chickens bones are like gold to me. I store the bones in freezer until I have about a set of six or more bones. Then I simmer them for 12-24 hours in a large stock-pot to make the most amazing chicken stock, which I freeze until I’m ready to use it in soup or risotto.
5. Organic Milk and Dairy: We have enjoyed experimenting with raw milk and cheese and have found a raw milk vendor at a local farmers market. Most of the time we buy organic milk in glass bottles from specialty grocery stores. I prefer glass bottles because of the concerns about the BPA in plastic and the disruption of hormone function that has been attributed to the chemical. We also buy organic butter, yogurt, sour cream, and cheese from also.
In my research about organic foods, I learned that some experts recommend buying organic dairy. The reason is that dairy cows are given antibiotics in their feed, and they are given hormones to keep the cows lactating year-round, but because the milk is produced constantly, these medications go directly into the cow’s milk. Food products made from this milk will have a much greater residual amount of antibiotic and growth hormones in them.
6. Teach Our Children: Because they are so eager and interested in what I do in the kitchen, I am also teaching them how to cook and to be grateful for the bounty and blessings in their lives. We do this in several ways; one is a ritual of saying a prayer of gratitude before dinner. The family member whose turn it is to say the prayer expresses what it is that they are grateful for that day. I love to hear them thanking me for making dinner, or the farmer for growing the food, or the animal who gave us the meat.
According to the USDA, Americans spend about 9% of their income on food, down from 18% in 1966. We may have cheap food, but we are paying the price for it with our health and environmental damage.
The way our family eats has many benefits and paybacks. It’s like having an all-natural pharmaceutical company in the refrigerator providing us with all the nutrition we need to be healthy and protect us from disease and illness. It’s also a life insurance policy for my children in terms of a longer and better quality of life. It’s also helping to fuel a movement that will hopefully help address issues of global warming and environmental damage created in part by industrial agriculture.
Buying food the way I do gives me the pleasure of cooking most all of our meals. One of the intangible benefits of cooking is that we eat dinner together every evening. We discuss the events of the day, talk about what’s coming up in the week, or share issues/problems. At the dinner table my husband and I have everyone’s attention, so we use it as a strategic time to communicate our values and expectations. Because we talk about where our food comes from, the dinner table is the place we have introduced the topic of factory farming in an age appropriate and non-graphic way. It seems like the right thing to do since we are also talking about how much we appreciate the farmers who raise the animals and food that we are eating.
(If you live in the SF Bay Area, and would like more information about the ranchers and farmers in this article, please let me know and I'll share that information.)