It helps to have a personal relationship with your next meal
Sitting down to supper as a 4-year-old, I recall my sisters' ardent concerns about who was on their plates. Yes, you read that correctly: who.
"This isn't Bluebell, is it?" they'd yell in unison. I was not old enough to have my own 4-H club livestock, but I was aware that Bluebell was a creature that days earlier I'd petted and loved. We lived on a little farm outside of Denver and knew many of our meals. We cleaned our plates, because it was good and because we did not wish to waste our friends' lives.
Some of you might recoil at the idea of being on a first-name basis with your dinner. I understand that reaction. However, I think being intimately involved with your food is important and far more empowering than buying factory-farmed meat or produce shipped from another hemisphere. In the world of our family farm, eating was all part of the great circle of life. We fed our plants and animals so they could feed us.
The impact of growing up on a farm has served me well. I'm loath to waste food since I respect its source. I don't take food for granted. I'm able to use almost everything from a plant or animal that's usable. And I know the difference in the quality of local vs. trucked or shipped foods. I invite you to share those standards if you don't already.
Remember the saying, "What you don't know can't hurt you?" Rubbish! What you don't know about your food can certainly harm you, and a lot of us. Recently, the horrendous conditions for laying hens in Iowa caused a salmonella outbreak, massive egg recall and scandal. What is it about Iowa? Iowa is also the state that had kosher slaughterhouse corruption where the conditions were horrific, not only for the animals but people too.
The kosher designation is not only vital to observant Jews, but to those of us who believe in a spiritual or moral component to food preparation and consumption. OK, so there was apparently one bad rabbinical apple in that Iowa barrel; I still respect kosher as a consumer guidepost. But again, I must caution there's a lot of skullduggery -- an underused word that means deception and trickery -- with our food producers and processors. Just because it says something on the label doesn't mean it's true.
Consumers still have enormous power in society, especially in the world of food. Since food is something we use to survive, we've all got a major steak -- err, stake -- in its sources. As a huge example of how we could really make a difference quickly, consider Costco.
If you like shopping at Costco, insist they only buy fish that is sustainable. Join the Greenpeace effort to hold Costco to account for its part in endangering fish stocks. Same thing with their meats and produce. Believe me, if Costco adopts a sustainable approach to the suppliers they use, we'll see a huge shift in this country's food supplies. And Costco is a great place to start because they have a reputation for being socially responsible. I vote them "Most Likely to Respond."
Need fuel for your outrage? Read books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," by Michael Pollan (or any of his books), or by watching the excellent documentary "Food, Inc." Another author passionate about our food is Jonathan Safran Foer, who has just released "Eating Animals." You may become a vegetarian from your research, or you may be like me, an often-conflicted yet steady omnivore deeply concerned about the care of our food sources. I go out of my way to "do the right thing," to buy "organic" or "free range," and I'm furious because, according to Safran Foer, consumers who try to be conscientious are being duped over what "cage free" or "free range" often means. Since there are no government standards for these terms, they can be abused.
While both Pollan and Safran Foer acknowledge that many of us won't become strict vegetarians, what we can do is be more demanding about our food. A great way to get moral about food quickly is to educate your kids, if you have them. They'll often keep you honest faster than any influence I know. Teach them about Alice Waters, the famous Bay Area chef, who has been the reigning queen of growing and eating locally for decades.
Use the Web to find local farmers markets and shop at them. And even with farmer's markets things are not always as they seem; verify that the food at these markets is actually coming from real farms... not simply re-packaged food that's normally supplied to the big grocery chains. A good starting place is pasadenafarmersmarket.org. Insist that the milk, eggs and meats you use carry the Certified Humane designation. A "certified humane" stamp means the food "meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors." Visit the Certified Humane site to see who your humane providers are.
If you can handle being vegan, do it. So far, I can't, but you can certainly learn to make vegan dishes for your vegan loved ones. Meanwhile, I continue to thank Bluebell and every sentient being that has ever helped me grow and live.
Note: This post appears both here and in my column in the October 14, 2010 issue of the Pasadena Weekly, for which it was written.