If you haven't yet read The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, I highly recommend it. This book changed the way I understand our "industrial food system" - which, since I grew up in this system, I always thought of as natural and benign. Now I realize just how much our society's eating habits have changed, and how much the components and processes that go into our basic foodstuffs have changed. This is what inspired me to make some major changes in my own life - by sourcing produce through Boston Organics and joining a "Meat CSA" operated by Stillman's Farm.
In particular, the way we raise livestock has changed immensely. Industrial farms rely on corn to fatten up cattle who evolved to eat grass, pushing them to reach adult proportions in just 1.5 years. The acres and acres of corn needed to support this system rely on petroleum-based fertilizers to continue growing in immense monocultures, without the diversity of plant and animal life that would naturally replace nutrients in the soil. And the cattle are kept "healthy" despite their close quarters and unnatural diet through a constant supply of antibiotics. Rather than working within an ecological cycle, the synthetic fertilizers and poor bovine diets produce toxic waste streams - something that doesn't have to happen on a small diversified farm.
Eating "industrial" produce and meat that stripped the land of its nutrients, polluted the waterways, and contained all kinds of unnatural growth accelerators, pesticides and antibiotics... this wasn't what my parents and grandparents grew up eating, and I wasn't so sure that I could live a long and healthy life by eating it myself. Besides, it was causing massive ecological destruction, and to the best of my ability I want to avoid being a co-conspirator on that.
Around the same time, my fiance read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (also a great book) and came to the same conclusion: we had to change the way we ate.
First, we explored the idea of CSA's - Community Supported Agriculture shares. There are so many in the Boston area, and they are great for both procuring local produce and for supporting local farmers who might otherwise struggle to compete against their large industrial rivals. As it was already late in the season, we decided to buy a CSA share from a local farm next summer, and in the meantime to go with Boston Organics, which tries to incorporate as much locally-grown produce as possible. For $27/week, they drop off a big box of fruits and vegetables. This week we got locally-grown acorn squash and apples, and remotely-sourced organic lettuce, pears, avocado, tomatoes, cantalope, celery, etc.
Next, we tried to reduce our meat-eating. At one point, I was running marathons and needed a lot of protein. But now I have a normal human diet, and we Americans really don't need as much meat as we tend to consume. At first, this was a process of noticing how much meat we really were eating - much more than we had realized. Then we struggled to come up with vegetarian meals, despite having a habit of building a meal around the central meat-product. Eventually, we discovered hearty eggplant dishes, vegetable curries, creative lasagnes, and a delicious curried squash soup. We're still building our repetoire of recipes, so suggestions from readers are welcome!
Finally, and this is perhaps what I'm most excited about, we found a local "Meat CSA" - a share of a local farm's monthly meat products. The farmers are Kate and Aidan Stillman, who recently bought their own farm near the one run by Kate's parents. The couple met while working at a farmer's market, and shares a deep commitment to local farming. Our first box of frozen meat from Stillman's Farm contained a porterhouse, a flank steak, hamburger, hotdogs, italian pork sausage, a leg of lamb, and some soup bones. The farm also has chickens, but it's a small operation and so the deliveries depend on the slaughtering schedule. Everything is basically free-range and grass-fed, with the pigs also being fed old produce, in the traditional small-farming style. This is great, in my mind, because I think if eating meat as "natural" - but know that the industrial agricultural system is anything but.
Beyond my desire to change my own eating habits, and my impact on the environment and animal welfare via my food choices, I'm also intrigued by the way in which a book caused me to make real changes in my life. The Omnivore's Dilemma doesn't provide easy answers, but it does tell a compelling story that the reader can really get interested in, and in the process become educated by. With that knowledge in hand, we can find our own solutions to complex challenges. This is the same basic interaction that I'm striving for with my own book project, and it's interesting to see how Michael Pollan accomplished it.