What’s for dinner?

What should we have for dinner? It’s a question that enters many minds as the dinner hour approaches.

Should we pick up sandwiches on the way home from work? Or order pizza? Or make a quick run to the grocery store to buy ingredients? Is there anything in the refrigerator? Or the garden?

In the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan depicts the predicament we face at mealtime. How can we possibly choose among so many food options?

To help make the choice, Pollan follows four food chains from their origins to his dinner plate. He factors in the ethical, political, and ecological factors, as well as taste and feasibility.

I’m going to describe to you each of these four food chains: industrial, organic, local, and personal … and tell you why buying local is best.

Industrial food chain
The vast majority of American meals start in the cornfields of Iowa. But the corn that grows among the 80 million acres of farmland across the country is not necessarily the wholesome, tasty, nutritious corn you may be picturing.

Humans have domesticated corn to increase productivity and lower costs. We’ve added chemicals to make it bigger and stronger and sprayed it with nitrogen fertilizers to keep pests away.

Over time, industrialized corn has lost its nutritional value. In fact, Pollan blames corn for the reason why three-fifths of Americans are overweight.

The dilemma is that corn-based food is cheap and convenient. It’s in fast food hamburgers and breakfast cereals. It supplies the high fructose corn syrup found in soft drinks and the feed given to animals that make up the proteins we eat such as chicken and pork.

Which brings me to another issue of the industrial food chain – cheap meat is also in high demand, and so large feedlots were created to meet the needs. Animals live in close quarters, are fed corn (which is not ideal for their digestive systems), and pumped with antibiotics. All of this then becomes part of us.

Consider this: how many ingredients do you think are in a chicken nugget? …
There are 37, and about 30 of them are made from corn. Besides that there are synthetic ingredients, emulsifiers, and fillers.

Even if you avoid fast food restaurants, you still can’t escape corn. Nearly 20% of all products in the grocery store contain corn.

Recently, however, grocery stores have begun to stock their shelves with foods from a different chain – the organic one.

But really, how different is it?

Organic food chain
What started as an alternative option, has become mainstream. Consequently, “organic” no longer means what it originally did. It was once considered to be a hippy or liberal choice, and then it became elitist. Eating organic was thought to be a luxury of the upper middle class. But today you can buy organic produce and meat at Wal-Mart.

So what happened?

The demand for organic food grew, and farmers saw opportunity. To meet consumer needs, they adopted industrial methods to produce more organic food to sell to retailers like Wal-Mart.

Organic food is still food that is not processed and does not contain synthetic additives. But it is no longer guaranteed to be ethical, sustainable, and humane.

Consider the carton of eggs that reads “cage-free.” This may actually mean that the bird had access to one square foot of grass for the last week of its life. Is that what you had in mind when you bought the more expensive option?

The organic food chain has also gone global. In the grocery store, you can now find organic asparagus from Argentina and organic milk from New Zealand. But what are the environmental costs to transporting the food?

Local food chain
This brings me to the third of the four food chains – the local food chain.

Local means that the food was harvested within 200 miles of its selling point.

While, on average, food travels 1500 miles to reach your dinner plate.

In his book, Pollan details his weeklong stay at Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Swope’s is a small-scale sustainable and rotational farm where grass is the most important element.

The cows eat the grass and leave their waste behind when they move onto the next pasture. Enter the chickens. They eat the larva on the waste that in turn makes their eggs more rich and dense and their meat more meaty. They then leave behind their own waste, which replenishes the grass for the next rotation of cattle.

Similar small-scale sustainable farms can be found right here in Centre County.

Over the summer I toured several local farms that practice sustainable agriculture. They don’t inject the cattle with hormones or antibiotics, and the pigs provide compost for the rest of the farm. The hens hang out with the cows on lush green pastures and return to the “Egg Mobile” each night to lay large brown eggs. It was a beautiful sight — just the way a farm should be.

And more and more consumers are beginning to agree.

There’s sentimental motivation. Don’t you like the idea of keeping our farmers and their wisdom close to home?

There’s also the social consideration. Farmers markets have become social hubs. They’re energetic and vibrant. People gather to talk about food and family.

And, of course, there are also more concrete considerations.

Buying local reduces our consumption of fossil fuel (note that 17 percent of U.S. fossil fuel currently goes to feeding ourselves). Buying local also increases our national independence and security.

Not only that but food grown locally and eaten in the appropriate season is tastier and healthier. It’s fresher and riper when eaten immediately after harvest.

The only other option is to forage from your own backyard.

Personal food chain
In the final chapter, Pollan attempts to prepare a meal using only ingredients he hunted, gathered, or foraged on his own.

This food chain takes us back to the roots of humanity’s agricultural development. But, really, it is not a feasible option.

It took Pollan three months to assemble the ingredients for his meal, which is not realistic. But it does connect us to the food we eat like no other food chain. It represents the time and labor involved with food production and demonstrates a conscious relationship with the food we eat.

In conclusion, my message to you is to know what you’re eating. And what better way to do that than to visit local farms and farmers markets. Meet the folks that grow your food. And volunteer your own efforts to prepare food for consumption.

Join me in the locavore movement. That is the movement to eat foods grown or produced locally.

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