As I fried up a couple of pan-steaks for my dinner, I had a brief moment of panic. I remembered yet another massive beef recall earlier this week, millions of pounds of meat from diseased animals that apparently passed uninspected through our food production and distribution system.
But, I thought, that's not for me. I bought my meat at the farmer's market, from a woman who's been selling me pastured pork and grass-fed beef for years. She and her husband run a locally well-respected farm, supplying beef, pork and poultry to restaurants and families. Like many of the other merchants at the farmer's market, they'll tell you all about their methods and their practices, answer your questions, and look you in the eye when they sell you the food they raised for you.
Much of the year, especially during the summer, I get my produce from local farmers. I participate in a weekly Community Supported Agriculture delivery from a local family farm for part of the year, and shop at the farmer's market or a local co-op when I'm able to (time does not always permit, but the good news is that several of the grocery stores in my area stock locally raised produce). I have built a friendly relationship with the farmers, and we greet one another by name.
I come from farm stock. My grandparents were farmers and I spent my adolescent summers eating fresh produce from my grandmother's garden. When I was in college, my mother remarried and moved to her second husband's family farm. Despite not being certified or labeled in any way, my stepfather practiced the sort of ethical animal management I think everyone should observe: free-roaming grass-fed cattle, uncrowded hogs, no hormones or prophylactic antibiotics. His animals were happy, healthy, and well-tended.
But everyone doesn't observe it. Factory farming has made it easier for disease or other problems to spread through our food supply, and there's a general outcry for more regulation, more oversight.
I don't think the answer is more oversight. I think the answer is more connection. I think that the answer is more people eating like I eat, more people having what I have.
What I have is choice. I live in a city with a thriving local food movement, I have access to multiple farmers markets and local food producers, and I have sufficient income to afford the much higher cost of ethically, locally produced food. As a child I was taught to prepare fresh foods, and I have the tools and time sufficient to cook regular healthy meals for myself. I can choose restaurants that source local food and ethically raised meat, and I can afford to eat in them. For more than a decade, continuously, I have had food security. I have a doctor who tells me that I am anemic and should eat more of some foods, that I do not have concerns with my cholesterol or blood pressure so I don't need to worry about fat, how much fiber and water and sugar and alcohol is healthy for me. All of these combine so that for me, food is a pleasure and a medicine, a support to my lifestyle and a thing I am able to enjoy.
When people talk about healthy eating, there's a lot of "How I eat is the RIGHT way." My paleo, my locavore, my slow food. I went gluten free/low carb/low fat and it worked for me so you should do it too. My complicated set of food needs and requirements must be universal, or my faith in it will be challenged. The reality is that there is no one right way to eat, but there are tens of thousands of people eating the wrong way.
The wrong way? If you have no access to fresh food, that's wrong. If you cannot afford to choose the foods that are best for you and your family, that's wrong. If you have no understanding of nutrition and how to prepare a balanced meal, that's wrong. If the only vegetables available to you were picked a thousand miles away, force-ripened, and transported in massive trailer-trucks, that's wrong. We live in a system where we're so desperately disconnected from the source of our food that we can't have any real understanding of what's involved in producing it. Especially in impoverished areas, food deserts create a cultural divide of choice based around class, race, and economic status.
If I were brilliant, this would end with an answer, but the only answer I can offer is that we need to be working to localize food, to support and protect family farming operations, to educate people about good nutrition, balanced diets, and healthy attitudes towards eating. We need to be working to break down the divides that prevent everyone from having the same privilege and the same choices I have. We need a serious examination of whether it's better to mass-produce cheap food and waste 40% of it or produce smaller amounts of more expensive food and waste less.
The wrong way to eat has nothing to do with the choices you make, and everything to do with the ones available to you, but we spend all our energy trying to change people's choices without giving them any new ones. Maybe that's the best place to start.