Our Pre-Occupied Food Industry: Can America Become a 'Good Food' Nation?

My Thanksgiving turkey is occupied. Not by stuffing, because my sister bakes the stuffing in a separate pan. Not by antibiotics, because it had a free range, organic life before it found itself in the oven, roasting while my teenage niece makes the crust for her homemade apple pie.

In addition to the pink Hawai'ian rock salt with which my mother (who raised us on Butterball turkeys, Potato Buds, and Spam), seasons the organically fed bird, the hen is occupied by its price. Ten times more expensive than its Butterball counterpart, is it a one percenter?

Or is it just not pre-occupied, as the Butterballs are, with our tax dollars?

Butterball turkeys are only generically reminiscent of the turkeys that roamed the continent before our European forebears stumbled on our shores. Turkeys could never fly but now most of them can't walk either, as they are now bred to have such enormously productive breasts that they collapse under their own weight. Quantity over quality characterizes the industry, as it does so much of our food system. Turkeys, chickens, cattle and pork are farmed in factory conditions that produce 130 times more waste than those of us who eat them; the EPA reports that runoff from factory farming is the biggest source of pollution to our waterways. The meat produced from factory farming is also less nutritious and not always safe; the 29 million pounds of antibiotics fed to factory-farmed animals is creating resistant strains of bacteria.

Most vegetables fare no differently. Pumped full of fertilizer and water to grow the crops fast, the average tomato is on a veggie version of steroids. The faster a plant is grown, the less optimal its nutrient level.

The price of cheap is enormous.

This big price of cheap is a paradox that is familiar to many, but in this season, the nested ironies are worth remembering: apples cost $.99 to $2.99 per pound, a price for which you can get an entire meal of burger, fries, and a soda at a fast food chain. Why is that? Because the burger, fries and soda have been pre-occupied with our tax dollars, starting with the subsidized water that it took to grow the alfalfa and the 17,000 pounds of subsidized corn to feed just one factory farmed cow, to the subsidized wheat in the bun, and the subsidized sugar in the soda.

A California family of three trying to make do on $23,000 a year will not qualify for food stamps, but a farm couple making over $1 million can still get tax dollar-created subsidies if they grow commodity crops. Not as many of those subsidies come to Southern California, though we are the largest producer of the nation's fruits and vegetables (specialty crops, they are called in the Farm Bill). Even with recent increases, less than 1% of the 300 billion taxpayer dollars in the farm bill, has been spent to support specialty crop production. That is a modern day turkey, indeed.

My family is lucky enough to be able to find and afford good food; this is not so for many. In 2009, one in every ten Angelenos received some form of food assistance, forty percent of whom were children; the USDA has characterized the Los Angeles region as the "epicenter of hunger" because of the lack of food security for over one million Angelenos. At the same time, many in our low-income communities suffer from the chronic ailments brought on by obesity caused by too much cheap fast food, and not enough good food. The cheap food is high calorie, low nutrient, highly processed and often shipped from far away and grown by unsustainable practices.

Before we have a chance to naturally sunset the warm orange tones that decorate autumn, the red/green and blue/white twinkles of a winter wonderland of shopping sprang up in the malls, eager to trigger the autonomic spending compulsion of what has become Christmas. There is an awful lot of stuff in those decked mall halls.

Free range or factory made; hand made or Hallmark. Should it really have to be one or the other? When I was six, all I wanted for Christmas were my two front teeth and a doll. Now my wish for Christmas is not that we have less, but more.

More quality over quantity. More consciousness of what it takes to make things, and what it takes to get them to us. More support in the farm bill for specialty crops and for conservation practices, so we can have more quality food production based on farming practices that place more value on stewardship of the land and water. More ability of those in need to find good fresh food in their neighborhoods, and to be able to use food stamps at farmer's markets. In 2008, Los Angeles County spent $25.4 billion on food; what if we voted with our food dollars for more sustainably produced food?

Can we one day be a good food, instead of fast food, nation? When the turkey leftovers are done, I will hang a star on the highest bough, and wish for it to be so.