Photo by The Consumerist, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Among the reasons I will be glad to be home soon, is food.  Here in Korea I have two choices for groceries: brave the Korean supermarkets, or shop the American market near where I’m living.  In Germany I did fine shopping at the German markets, but here in Korea, I’ll admit, I’m less than adventurous!

I couldn’t even begin to read a food label, and I have no idea if Korea even values things like “organic”, “local”, or “pesticide-free”.  So I’ve chosen to go with the American market, full to the brim with food that comes from the centralized, conglomerated corporate American food system.  It’s totally not my choice – how I miss my Sunday farmer’s market!  But I’m making the best of it for now.

Walking the aisles and reading the labels has got me thinking again about something I heard Michael Pollan say, in a speech he gave at the UC Davis Mondavi Center a few years ago.  (It’s an hour long, but if you have the time I highly recommend it.)

In the speech he talked about our centralized food system, and unexpected consequences of consolidating our sources of sustenance.  This quote sums up one such consequence:

“Our government knows better than we the eaters the risk of a highly centralized food system. Tommy Thompson, when he left the Department of Homeland Security, in his last press conference, said something very interesting. He said, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” When all your hamburgers are being ground in the same factory, when all your salad is being washed in the same sink it is a very precarious way to eat.” -Michael Pollan, Beyond the Bar Code: The Local Food Revolution

Pollan goes on to address many other dangers of a centralized food system, and he advocates strongly for a return to local food economies.  In plain English: eat locally.  Although he would love for the government to take bold steps in this direction, I don’t know that I’ll see huge governmental change in my lifetime.  Why?  Well, watch Food, Inc. and then get back to me.

So, what’s a girl to do when she lives in a country (and I’m talking here about the U.S.) with her congress in Monsanto’s pocket?  I’ve decided to de-centralize my own family’s food system.

Over the last several years I’ve been taking baby steps toward this end, and I have to say that it’s been more satisfying than I could have imagined!  I still shop Safeway once in a great while, but honestly it’s so much less than it used to be, and I love that.  I’m so thankful to have a partner who also values eating locally (and probably more than that he values my happiness and supports me in this pursuit that does indeed make me happy).

Steps we’ve taken to de-centralize our family’s food system:

1. Join a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Or two!  Seven years ago I joined my first CSA for produce, and last year we also joined a meat CSA.  Every week we pick up a box of freshly-picked produce from a farm that we support directly, and once a month we pick up a box of meats from a rancher who coordinates a multi-ranch share so that we get a range of types and cuts of meat.  The bottom line?  We know where the food was grown.  We know who grew it.  We can visit anytime.  That kind of transparency is essential to a healthy food system.  And I think it’s geeky-cool.

2. Buy local. We regularly make use of three places: our Sunday farmer’s market, or local food co-operative, and our neighborhood butcher.  At the farmer’s market we can find pastured eggs for $5 a flat; the co-op fills in the gaps that our CSA’s leave, like dried goods and dairy alternatives.  The butcher gives me invaluable advice about what cuts are best and how to cook them.  (As a former vegetarian of 17 years, I’m still learning!)  It’s worth looking around in your area to see what resources are available to you.

3. Buy raw materials and make your own. Processed foods are where I lose clarity and understanding about what I’m actually eating (remember what I said about transparency?), so I’m trying to minimize the processed foods I eat.  Will I ever eliminate them completely?  Well, I consider chocolate to be a processed food so immediately I’ll have to say no.  But really, the more you can make your own foods, the more you can stay local and free of the centralized food system.  Don’t buy processed peanut butter; grind peanuts (or better, almonds) in the bulk section of your co-op or in your food processor.  Mayonnaise is surprisingly easy to make, and once you taste the real thing you will ask it where it’s been all your life.  When you do buy processed foods, try to buy as locally as you can.  Read labels.  Stop buying anything made with high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated vegetable oils, period.  Buy food made from – wait for it – real food.  Support the smaller businesses that make artisan goods.  Small-batch marshmallows?  YES.

It really doesn’t take much to de-centralize your food system, and if you take baby steps like this it’s painless.  In a year it will be second-nature, and you’ll love being off the food grid!

Resources to help you find local goods:

Directory of Food Co-ops by State

Local Harvest

Eat Wild

Eat Well Guide

Sustainable Table