Monday, September 27, 2010

Go meet your local farmers!

I gave you plenty of tips the other day on how to shop at the supermarket, and today we're going to talk about your local farmers market.

As I've mentioned before, Nick and I are lucky in that the State Farmers Market is about 20 minutes from our house. It's open seven days a week all year long and there's always a wide variety of produce to choose from. If you're unsure where a farmers market is near you, go to and type in your zip code.

When buying fruit and vegetables from your farmers market, don't stock up unless you plan to can/freeze/otherwise preserve these items immediately. The produce available is usually picked when it's at its ripest, and won't be able to sit on your kitchen counter for as long as produce from the supermarket. Plan on using within the next day. Try not to discriminate against the not-so-perfect looking tomato or apple -- it most likely tastes even better than the bloated ones at the grocery store.

Again, you should keep track of what produce is in season in your region. There are a couple of vendors at our farmers market that provide avocados, pears, and strawberries year-round. Strawberries don't grow in North Carolina year round, and it's difficult at best to keep an avocado tree alive here. It pains me to admit it, but these vendors aren't being honest about where they obtain their fruit, and I may as well just buy these things directly from the supermarket because that's where they came from.

You will have sticker-shock when it comes to the local milk. At our farmers market, a half-gallon of milk costs nearly two dollars more than a full gallon of milk at the store. For a lot of people, buying a full gallon of organic milk is much more cost-effective than buying a half-gallon of milk at the farmers market. At least consider buying the local milk, however, for a couple of reasons: your money directly supports a local family; you can easily find out the living conditions of the dairy cattle in question; and the local milk often comes in reusable glass bottles, which is more environmentally friendly than plastic jugs.

Have a Chat
Finding out the living conditions of any animal involved in producing your food is crucial. Strike up a conversation with people selling meat and dairy products. Ask them about their farm, the kind of food their livestock eats, and their practices. Often, the farmer will invite you out to see their farm or let you know when tours are run. If they don't offer, you can always say something like, "I'd really love to show my kids happy animals on a farm!" It doesn't matter whether you have kids, or any intention of visiting the farm -- you're looking for a reaction. If the farmer balks, don't buy from him. He's most likely not confident that conditions will be up to your standards.

Things to listen for in conversations with farmers:
"Practicing organic"
"Corn/soy/wheat free"
"Animal-Welfare Approved"

That last one might seem like a contradiction -- in an earlier post, I said that 'free-range' means nothing. Well, let me clarify: 'free-range' means nothing when large corporations are involved. However, 'free-range' means a lot when talking to a farmer who has no problem letting you see his farm. To be perfectly honest, those two words may not even enter the conversation -- it might not occur to the farmer that his chickens/pigs/cattle will live any other way.

The meat at the farmers market is a little more expensive than conventional meat. However, you should be comforted in knowing that your money does NOT go toward unnecessary antibiotics, hormones, or fillers. Because of a lack of fillers, you may feel satiated more quickly with less meat than when you eat conventional meat. So really, you're saving money.

Also, farmers market meat is almost always nitrate-free (the seller will specify when it's not), which is a plus for those of us who can't concentrate as well after eating processed meat. Nitrates cause a 'fuzzy' feeling in some people (including me), and after switching to organic, minimally processed, and/or local meat, that 'fuzzy' feeling will be gone. Rejoice!

I'll be writing individual posts in the future on eggs, beef, 'practicing organic', etc. For now, I'm putting off writing about factory farms, but it's critical in understanding why a change in our food culture is so important.

Happy shopping!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Not Exactly on Topic

I don't know anyone that would be rude or inappropriate to someone in the service industry, but I thought I'd bring up standing up for waitresses when they're being harassed.

I work in a small, Southern restaurant during the lunch shift. The majority of our customers are regulars and we get to know them pretty well. It's also kind of cramped, so conversations are easily overheard from one table to the next.

When Nick and I were first married, one of the other waitresses was gushing over my wedding to a customer. Gushing was her thing, and weddings, babies, and birthdays really got her going. I was called over to the table and, upon seeing how young I am, the customer said, "So, how many children do you have?"

Not, "What colors did you use?" or, "How did you and your husband meet?" No. Instead, she decided to assume things about me and back me into a corner. The nicest thing I could possibly say: "I've never been pregnant."

I smiled and walked away, seething. What I had really wanted to say was, "I know it's unconventional, but we got married for love -- weird, right?" but I value my job. I know other people heard this conversation and decided to stay quiet.

Today, a guy that we've had trouble with before was ordering to-go, and my manager was very close by. He was joking around and said that he'd need to get the employee discount because he's the dishwasher. I joked back, saying, "I know the dishwasher and you aren't him". He got this look on his face and said, "Oh, I'm sure you do. I'm sure you know him real well."

I stopped what I was doing and focused all my attention on him. "I am married," I spat, "And you can not talk about me like that."

My manager completely ignored the situation, but other waitresses might not be so fortunate. Working at another place, I could have been written up or even lost my job for responding.

Now, I know waitresses can be rude sometimes, and if you notice someone berating a waitress for her behavior or service, it is best to stay out of it or alert a manager. But if you hear inappropriate, personal things being said to a waitress, please stand up for her and say the things she can't. If a manager gets involved, let them know the truth about the situation. The waitress will be forever grateful and you'll have done your good deed for the day.

OK, we'll return to normal posts this weekend. Just needed to rant a little =)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Grocery Shopping with Confidence

This post is exciting because now you can put your new vocabulary to work!

I decided to talk about the grocery store before talking about farmers markets because there isn't always a convenient and large farmers market close by. Nick and I are lucky in that we have the state farmers market about 25 minutes from our house, and it's open year-long. Even so, we still have to supplement our groceries with items from the supermarket.

In most grocery stores, the produce section is closest to the door. This is where your knowledge of in-season fruits and vegetables comes into play. You can skip over the organic fruits and vegetables that you know are in season in your area and instead buy them at the farmers market, where all your money will directly profit the farmer. If you buy these products at the supermarket, your money will be split at least three ways: between the supermarket itself, transportation, and the farmer, with the farmer making an average of 20 cents for each dollar you spend.

Since you're already hugging the outer edges of the store, don't be tempted to wander into the inner aisles! These aisles are typically the most nutritionally vacant, tricked out with high levels of fat, sodium, and high-fructose corn syrup. Occasionally, though, you do need to venture into these aisles for items such as flour, sugar, coffee, nuts, etc. Proceed with caution! The packaging on processed foods looks attractive for a reason -- to attract your attention! Remember that this packaging also means the majority of your money isn't going to the rightful recipient: the producer.

In my most-frequented grocery store, the deli is next to the produce. The goat cheese may look good here, but it tastes better coming from a local farmer. Buy cheese that isn't produced in your area, like mozzarella or Parmesan, and read the labels! There should be few ingredients and the majority of them recognizable (although 'rennet' might throw you for a loop, this is a crucial ingredient to making most cheese).

Next is the meat and seafood counter. We buy the majority of our meat from the farmers market. We wish we could buy local seafood, but must be too far away from the ocean to be able to do so. I keep track of the Super Green List on Seafood Watch, to be sure I'm not purchasing fish whose capture is harmful to the environment. Unfortunately for me, my favorite sushi item is on the 'avoid' list.

I buy eggs exclusively at the farmers market these days, especially after the salmonella scare. If you want, buy a half dozen conventional eggs at the store and 'splurge' on eggs at the farmers market. Once you get them home, crack one of each side by side. It won't seem like a splurge after that, especially after learning 'free range' means squat. 'Vegetarian', too, but that's for another time.

Let's talk dairy for a moment. In a future post, tentatively named 'hierarchy of purchasing organic food', organic dairy products are the most important things to spend your money on. When a carton of milk is labeled "USDA Certified Organic", it means the cow was NOT treated with growth hormones or antibiotics, and her pasture was pesticide-free. This is great for the health and safety of dairy cattle and for consumers. Organic milk also has higher levels of omega-3s and antioxidants than conventional milk. You might have sticker-shock when comparing the price of organic milk versus conventional, but keep in mind organic milk has a longer shelf life. If you find yourself throwing out quarter gallons of milk each week because your family can't drink them fast enough, switching to organic is a logical choice.

Most importantly, read the labels! Stay away from high fructose corn syrup, a bunch of science-y words you don't understand, and an ingredient list a mile long. Stick to simple ingredients with few preservatives. The new five line by Haagen-Dazs is a great choice -- there are only five ingredients, and each of them is recognizable.

Happy shopping!

Monday, September 13, 2010

CAFOs and American Greed

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.
--Albert Schweitzer

It all kind of starts with corn.

The subsidization of corn, to be more specific.

The current price of corn is artificially low, thanks to outdated government policies. And corn is a grain with the power to fatten up livestock more quickly than the grass they're meant to consume. Since time is money, it's obviously more attractive to get livestock up to market weight as quickly as possible. This is the starting point for greed.

And while we're considering the easiest ways to make fast cash, it's logical to assume that space is also money. And this is where the CAFOs come in.

CAFO: Confined Animal Feeding Operations, also known as factory farms and feedlots. Feedlots are depressing, to put it mildly -- part of the definition reads: "there is no grass or vegetation in the confinement area"(emphasis mine). Animals are confined in as little space as possible, crammed in amongst each other to the point where natural behaviors cannot be expressed. It is important to cattle, for instance, to spend the majority of the day resting, foraging, and chewing their cud. There is no room for these behaviors on a feedlot and stress runs rampant. 'No room' in CAFOs means 'standing room only'.
Pigs, subjected to these cramped quarters, tend to bite the tails of the pigs around them out of frustration and boredom. Instead of giving them more room (and relieving their stress) the solution instead is to dock the tails of all pigs, without anesthesia and rarely without follow-up treatment.

I suppose it's unfair to say that the pigs (or any other CAFO animal) receive little medical care. As a matter of fact, the majority of factory-farmed animals are grossly over medicated. There are a few reasons for this:
1. Stressed animals are usually sick animals.
2. Within such cramped conditions, if one animal is sick, it stands to reason that the rest will follow suit quickly. Sick animals lead to dead animals, and you can't get rich off that.
3. Antibiotics also happen to promote rapid growth, and, as I said earlier, time is money.

When we eat medicated meat, we ingest the medications the animal ingested. These antibiotics are not meant for direct human consumption, at the very least. This is why I've been stressing the importance of organic animal products -- you don't have to worry about antibiotics that weren't meant for your health entering your body.

Here's something you certainly need to worry about, though:
The deputy director of the FDA has admitted that no one is monitoring the use of antibiotics in factory farms.

NO ONE is sticking up for your right not to consume antibiotics meant for livestock! And if no one is sticking up for you, no one is sticking up for the animals.

Please, please, PLEASE do not search for videos concerning factory farms. That is a one-way ticket to nightmares and temporary vegetarianism*.

Who knew corn could lead to such cruelty?

*There is nothing inherently wrong with eating animals, and nothing 'elitist' or 'demanding' about being a vegetarian. The issue is changing conditions for animals, not refusing to eat them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let's Define Some Stuff: 'Conventional' vs. Local, Organic, Grass-Finished, All-natural, and posts for the future

In order to understand the current climate surrounding food, some jargon has to be explained.

The majority of food you'll see in your local supermarket is considered 'conventional'. It's mass-produced and insanely cheap, often using pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics where applicable. In order to be sold in your supermarket, it has to meet certain restrictions set down by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA from here on out). However, for a growing population of Americans, these restrictions are no longer good enough.

Animals are subjected to inhumane and crowded conditions, are over-medicated, and are fed grains that keeps them in a constant state of indigestion. We'll discuss the negative effects of corn in later posts, but for now it should be made clear that corn-fed cattle are fat cattle. Fat cattle make for fatty cuts of beef, and fatty cuts of beef make for fat consumers.

In order to use the word 'organic' in any context, certain requirements of the USDA must be met. 'Organic' can mean that only 70% of ingredients in the container, bag, or box are organic. Look for labels that say '100% organic' or 'USDA Certified Organic'. However, it should be noted that an $11,000 fine is a drop in the bucket for mega-corporations that control the majority of products available in supermarkets, whether they falsely label products as 'organic' or 'healthy'. Take heart, though: the term 'organic' means that no cloned animals are part of your meal! But that doesn't necessarily mean you won't be eating the offspring of cloned animals, and the FDA has ruled that you don't have to be informed of cloned products in your food.

'All-natural' doesn't necessarily mean anything, and isn't required to by the FDA. 'Free Range', in reference to chickens, also doesn't necessarily mean that much. All that is required by the FDA is that the chickens have access to an outdoor area. The FDA doesn't specify a minimum amount of time the animals have to spend outside. That means that while there is a door the chickens can use to leave the coop, the door doesn't ever have to be open.

I promise we'll talk about grass-finished beef and conventional beef later, but for now you should know that beef labeled 'grass-finished' is one of your best choices. 'Grass-fed' simply means that cattle were fed grass (their natural diet) at the start of their lives. As they grew older, they were moved to feed lots, which fed them grain. 'Grass-finished', however, means that they were fed their natural diet their whole lives. Remember how corn=fatty beef, and fatty beef=fat consumers? Well, cattle fed their natural diet of grass the entirety of their lives are slimmer and healthier than their grain-fed siblings. So what do slim cattle mean for consumers?

I think I've gotten you started on plenty of talking points.

Your New-Found Food Limitations and Not Being Pretentious

After allowing it to die a slow and painful death last year, I've re-purposed this blog.

This blog is now about local and organic eating practices, and the confusion surrounding what's alright to put on your plate. I'm going to try my best not to scare you into submission -- I hope to instead provide accurate information that can lead to healthy, environmentally friendly decisions. This is about supporting local, organic, and humane practices while NOT supporting Big Agriculture or Big Pharma.

I will try to hold to my promise, and in return you have to make a promise to me.

Repeat after me: I will not be pretentious. I will not be pretentious.

I've been in that position, you see. I've been that jerk on her high horse when someone brings up high fructose corn syrup, 'health' food, and Big Ag. The looks I've received range from confusion to contempt. I want to save you from the embarrassment. Just because you're educated about food doesn't mean you have the right to berate your friends and family over their grocery list.

Struggling with my addiction, I choose to keep my mouth shut and instead write about what I know and what I continue to learn.

My life has changed dramatically since researching the current state of mass food production in the United States and the 'alternative' ways to eat, which are really the ways our not-too-distant ancestors ate regularly. These are my house rules, mostly adapted from Michael Pollan:

Attempt to buy 90% of meat from the local farmer's market. For us, this means all our beef and pork comes from local producers. Most of the time, chicken is either unavailable or insanely expensive (due to strict and difficult-to-obtain regulations, which we'll discuss later). Chicken has to be purchased at the grocery store, but only the kind labeled "USDA Certified Organic".
On that note, buy eggs locally.
Keep track of what is in season and buy produce accordingly.
Realize the term 'all-natural' doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Stay away from convenience food. A great incentive in my state to do this is the 'convenience tax' found on frozen meals and bagged salads.
Don't be afraid to try a new recipe with your 'expensive' meat, cheese, produce, whatever. How else will you enjoy it?
Try to avoid restaurants that have a corporate office.
Avoid high-fructose corn syrup like the plague. This means reading EVERY label and most likely putting the item back on the shelf. There will probably be several posts devoted exclusively to high-fructose corn syrup in the future.
Recognize the label 'organic' is not synonymous with 'low-fat'.
Don't be discouraged when "Meatless Monday" turns into "Pizza Monday".
Keep in mind that flash-frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as their fresh cousins. HOWEVER, be certain that ALL that is in the bag is the produce you expect -- the ingredient list should be one item long.
Feed your pets high-quality food. It might all look like kibble to you, but there's a huge difference between, say, Iams and Blue Buffalo.
Keep in mind that commercials serve to entice you to buy, not to keep you well-informed. With that, if a commercial is extolling the health benefits of a product, it's most likely not good for you. (Exception: The Incredible Edible Egg commercials, but we'll talk about that in more detail at another time).
Continue researching and cooking. And don't be pretentious!