It started out like any other day. A simple to-do list: Bring dog to groomer, pick up laundry, buy some eggs. It was only when I arrived at the dairy aisle that it got more complicated. Here were my options:
A. Cage Free
B. Free Range
C. Farm Fresh
I like the idea of 'as close to natural as possible' so I purchased Cage Free. What could be more natural than a hen roaming aimlessly and pecking away to her heart's content. But why so many labels? In the span of 30 minutes of research I uncovered a disturbing truth, A, B and C (above) are essentially deceptive marketing tactics. Hens that are 'Cage Free' or 'Free Range' don't necessarily ever make it outside and an egg by definition is from a farm of some sort. What I really wanted was 'Pastured' eggs from hens that are allowed to roam in the sun, eating grass and bugs, that make for a healthier bird and a healthier, tastier egg. 'Organic' doesn't necessarily mean pasture-fed, but it probably does as it requires a certain amount of outdoor time for the hens and a prohibition on the use of hormones and antibiotics.
Still confused? So am I but the good news is that a lot more of us are scrutinizing the food we eat and the process involved in producing that food. Its important for our health, the health and humane treatment of animals, and the overall health of the planet. One of my goals this year is to become more educated about, and connected to, what I consume and I was thrilled to see that various members of the mySomeday community share this passion: Get to Know My Food Better, Learn About Making Cheese in Vermont, Create A Vegetable Garden.
Below are five tips from my own research and from members of the mySomeday community:
1. Ask About the Source
At a group dinner, asking the waiter where the meat comes from and how it was raised may subject you to raised eyebrows or downright ridicule. The first caveman to cook with fire probably got some push back when he insisted that his cave mates try his fire-grilled buffalo burger. Galileo was convicted of heresy and imprisoned after he published numerous papers declaring that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. It's not easy being the progressive or debunking a widely held belief, but think about how satisfied you'll be when in 10 years the majority of meat is locally supplied or restaurants are required to provide sourcing information. Things might be different if we had trustworthy sources, but unfortunately, large industrial farms control much of the meat supply. In the name of maximum return on their investment, they routinely inject hormones and feed animals food they aren't meant to digest (i.e. corn-fed cattle). This, of course, leads to sick animals which is why antibiotics are regularly administered to keep the animals alive. So, if like me, you live in NYC and prefer animals raised as nature intended, here are a couple of great resources. Localfork is a guide to local providers and CENYC is a guide to greenmarkets. Live outside of NYC? There is always Google or Bing to get you sorted.
2. Follow a European Model
Picture this, you take a lazy stroll down a cobblestone street tossing hellos to and fro to your neighbors as you bump into Sam, the local butcher, who tells you all about the day's fresh slaughter. Today's equivalent: a farmer's market. By changing buying habits, you'll support local farmers who actually care about the quality of their products and you'll probably learn a lot more about the food on your plate. If possible, avoid supermarket chains unless they have a stated commitment to offering organic, local products. If not and the supermarket is your only choice, ask the manager to stock local, organic products.
3. Read Labels
Food writer Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, offers some great advice: Don't eat anything that consists of more than five ingredients. Also avoid products with additives that you can't easily pronounce. By law, food manufacturers must list ingredients, so unless you're eating food grown directly from the ground, check the label. Consider putting it back on the shelf if it contains partially hydrogenated oil of any kind, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavors or coloring.
4. Eat What's in Season
This can be difficult as most of us probably grew up having access to products from all over the globe. Is it wrong to occasionally enjoy a mango from Central America? Of course not but by and large, try to eat seasonally. You might be surprised at the fantastic foods that you encounter and if you buy from a farmer's market you'll get some great recipe ideas from true experts: farmers. The following books helped me understand this step better: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Simply Organic: A Cookbook for Sustainable, Seasonal, and Local Ingredients, by Jesse Ziff Cool and France Ruffenach.
5. Do it Yourself
If it's feasible, grow some of your own food, even if that means just herbs on a windowsill. A Slice of Organic Life, by Alice Waters, offers easy instructions on getting started gardening, or you could join a community garden. Farmers markets, CSAs, and food co-ops are also great ways to get connected to local food. And you could always follow BK Farmyards Expert Plan to Plant An Organic Vegetable Garden (even in an urban environment).
If you know of any additional resources, please comment to this post so readers can benefit from some collective expertise.