Thursday, September 22, 2011

Books: How "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is Changing My Life

A much younger Motown Maiden helping her Grandpa Doak feed the cows
(In Loving Memory of Lloyd and Geneva Doak)
Very rarely have I read a book that has motivated me to change.  What I'm writing in today's entry I consider to be a big deal as over the past couple of months, I have been driven to modify my behavior and become better aware of my consumer habits.  Yes, it's all because of a book.  And this is quite a good thing. 

Over our summer beach vacation I finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  I had actually purchased it over a year ago where it sat unassumingly on my bookshelf, just waiting for me to garner up the motivation and free time to read it.  I'm a little sad it took me that long to do so, but as if to make up for lost time, once I picked the book up I did not put it down.  During the several days of reading, I'm sure Jonathan was getting tired of me sharing quotes out of the book.  But I truly found the entire work completely fascinating (as well as a little embarassing since I discovered just how uneducated I am about where the food I consume comes from...I should have known more given my family history).   
My Mom and Dad were raised on sprawling farms in in Northwest Missouri about an hour north of Kansas City.  Their parents produced enough to make an honest living, growing vegetables to feed their families and raising cattle that they sold for a primary source of income.  As a child I remember visiting my grandparents' farms, riding on the John Deere to deliver hay to the cattle, watching the pigs squeal with delight while rolling around in mud puddles, fishing for catfish in the ponds on their property, and eating eggs that were laid by chickens in the building behind the house.  Little did I know these things I experienced are such a rareity by today's standards; that so few people get to experience where the food they eat was grown and/or raised.  

Growing up in a family with farming heritage, one of our annual treats was a gift from my father's parents.  Every Christmas we received a sizeable portion of a cow that had been processed, packages and packages of rectangular parcels wrapped in white butcher paper and labeled with red stamps indicating the different cuts of beef.  It was guaranteed that over the Holiday you'd hear my Dad on the phone calling around to find a local place that sold dry ice since we had to transport our precious gift all the way back to Ohio.  This was a gift that stocked our deep freeze with high quality, superbly cared for beef.  A gift that truly kept on giving throughout the year, providing nourishment to my family and our friends.  People who ate hamburgers at our house always thought they had such an amazing flavor.  I never realized why that was until I read this book.  Then it all made sense.   

I suppose, witnessing cattle on my grandparents' farms as a child, I've blindly always thought all livestock was raised roaming wide open, green pastures.  But in reality this is very different than how it works on industrial farms.  I had no idea how many hamburgers or slices of ham or chicken breasts I likely consumed that came from animals who were "raised" in extremely crowded and poor conditions, often sick and pumped with antibiotics to keep them "healthy."   Or that many industrially raised animals are fed things that we wouldn't consider to be a normal diet - no grass, large quantities of dry corn (something they would have never selected in nature) and even scraps from their fellow sibling's bodies.  All to fatten them up to process them much sooner than what we would think to be a mature state. Raising animals the right way is a labor of love and it's really hard work.  And unfortunately as Americans many of us have forgotten why that way was the better way to do things.  We just see the dollar signs.  Why is it we are so focused on buying the cheapest thing when it's something we put into our bodies to nourish ourselves?  Isn't it amazing that we often go along our daily lives and if something's always been that way, we never ask why it was that way to begin with?  (BTW, as I was writing this entry I noticed a timely article in the Wall Street Journal about antibiotics in pork drawing more scrutiny from inspectors.) 

In learning how heavily processed foods can be harmful to our bodies and our environments and how industrial agriculture has lessened the quality of meat that we consume and how the meat in our grocery stores was likely treated when it was once a live animal, you could see how some people would just make the snap decision to become a vegetarian.  But as an omnivore and someone who has farming in her family history, I don't want to cut it out of my diet.  So what I can do is take a little more effort to make sure I make smart purchases and do things that are not only better for my body but for those around me as well.    

I found a conversation with Michael Pollan discussing the book and thought this quote to be of particular interest.  Pollan states: "The majority of us, though, can afford to spend more for honestly price food. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food—less than any people on earth (the French spend 20 percent; the Chinese 50 percent), less in fact than any people in history. Why is it we understand “quality” when it comes to a car or television set but not when it comes to something as important as what we eat?"  It is puzzling for sure because I know most of us seek out quality and freshness in the produce we purchase.  For example, we wouldn't purchase a shriveled up vegetable or one that had mold on it.  But we always take the word that things in packages are just as fresh and pure.  They say not to judge a book by its cover but why do we judge boxes of food that way?

Over the past month I've been researching ways to better source my food and noting what I'm buying with more scrutiny (are the ingredients in my food really "natural?").  Some things I had already begun doing on my own without realizing why it was good, just that I enjoyed doing it.  For example, growing my own tomatoes and peppers, buying free range brown eggs from cage free chickens, and growing my own wild yeast with my sourdough starter in the fridge.  I'm discovering local farms who deliver meat to my area, and catering groups who create prepared meals from only local ingredients, and a company called Grass Point Farms who supplies certified pasture milk to several of my local grocery stores.      

So if you're reading this blog post, I encourage you to find out more about the food you are consuming on a regular basis.  You might be surprised what you learn.   In my case, I've discovered an entirely new world of healthfulness.  And I can't think of a better way to place my vote for my food suppliers than to change my spending and sourcing habits.  I know that some of it may seem to be a hassle in the initial phases until I build up a better pantry/freezer stash and learn about better local sources for shopping.  But I see the process as a great experience that will benefit myself and my family in the long run.  Besides it'll be a great lesson to teach my children some day and one that would do my grandparents proud.   
Socializing with the ponies at
Grandma Joy and Grandpa John's farm in Missouri

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