You Are What You Eat

This past year we've watched three powerful films about the food we eat: Supersize Me, King Corn and Food, Inc. They've given me a lot to think about lately, so pardon the jump from thought to though, here.

Supersize Me, King Corn and Food, Inc. are tough films to deal with--because you do have to deal with them; you can't just ignore them. They're tough for me because I grew up on a farm. I know the people whose livelihood depends on farming. Farming practices get blamed for a lot of things--and it's true that there are a lot of harmful practices out there. But it's largely a systemic failure--practices that the government has encouraged since at least the 1940s--and some of it that has been encouraged since farming became a capitalistic venture and not just a way to merely feed your family.

There are a lot of factors about deciding what to eat: unprocessed? hormone-free? organic? free-range? local? global? fair trade? from places that don't exploit their workers? from companies that don't hire illegal immigrants? Some things seem obvious: that it's better to eat local foods that aren't laced with chemicals and are as "natural" as can be. (Yet I acknowledge that some will say that we should be enhancing our foods and making them "better".) And while eating local and in season makes sense, the fact is I live in the north. I have six months where nothing is in season. And I like bananas. And avocados. And pomegranates. And other foods that can't be grown around here.

I heard a report on NPR today that said that recent research shows that being able to supply schools with locally grown foods is healthier for the students and better for the local economy. That seems obvious to me--like, why do we need to pay for research that pays for an obvious outcome?

I was reading a book--A Good Neighbor: Benedict's Guide to Community--in which the author responded to a quote by Annie Dillard. The Annie Dillard quote is, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."

The author, Robert Benson, points out how the statement is obvious, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious. We all know the obvious (like we need to love one another or that homegrown veggies are healthier for us than corn-syrup laden processed snacks), but way too often we neglect to let the obvious work out in our lives.

That's part of the point with food. We do sometimes need to be reminded of the obvious: eat more fruits and veggies, less processed food, more local, less chemicals, etc. Part of the obvious is knowing where our food comes from. It used to be obvious that milk came from a cow on a dairy farm, orange juice came squeezed from fruit trees in Florida and lunch meat came from the animal it was named after. It's not that obvious anymore (nor is it always true). It should be obvious that a head of broccoli at the grocery store should cost less than a Big Mac at McDonald's. Part of things being obvious is being educated.

I have more questions than I have answers. I'm for growing as much produce as I can. I do like foods that aren't able to be grown in Minnesota. I'd love to buy meat direct from small farmers who don't raise their animals in confinement lots, but that meat is expensive and when your budget is stretched as it is, sometimes you end up having to choose between buying enough food or buying one expensive thing that is of the best quality. I wish I had the money to buy better. The sad part is that the cheapest food is often the worst food for you. For some reason it has a lot of ingredients and spends a lot of time being processed, but it's still cheaper than one piece of produce. That doesn't make sense. The simplest (and healthiest) should be the most affordable.

I don't think it's bad to not have things figured out. It's bad if we're not thinking about it. And I know there are a lot of other issues we can focus our attentions on, so I don't expect anyone to spend all of their time solely thinking through food issues. But we do need to think about some of them.

So I encourage you, if you haven't, to at least check out Supersize Me, King Corn or Food, Inc. And I'm fully aware that there are other sides to the stories, that the films don't tell everything. But the do tell a lot that we seldom hear about. Let's at least keep the discussions going...

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