Soylent Green. That has to be what they're selling in grocery stores now. Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat says there are more than 30,000 different products in any good-sized grocery. Our ridiculous laws about information on food packaging mean that as a consumer you can't really know what exactly is inside. It might well be Soylent Green. You should look and try to find out. Where do Doritos come from and what exactly are the origins of the things that grew to make them? Except for the produce aisle (where you can be pretty sure that almost nothing was grown in your area), it seems like everything comes in a package filled with corn syrup, or it comes from China, or it is covered in plastic wrap completely indiscernible from its original form. There is something wrong with the picture when what's behind the scenes at the grocery is not a farm but a giant corporate and transportation machine whose only goal is resource extraction to make a giant profit. And there is something very wrong when that giant machine prevents you from knowing where your food comes from and how it was treated along the way to your grocery cart. Since ground truth about why is hidden, ask "Who benefits?"
Well, supposedly we all benefit, right? We must, since food is dirt cheap and we spend a smaller percentage on it than any other country in the developed world. And we have the life-enhancing convenience of apples and carrots and lettuce that have been pre-washed and pre-cut, pretty much everything but pre-chewed. I have long assumed that the current food system is the way it has to be, that the laws and government inspections are looking out for my health and well-being, and that it's normal and OK for each food item to travel an average of 1500 miles before it reaches my plate. There are certainly beneficiaries in this setup - and one of them is my convenience. If I want convenience, I pay for it with intentional ignorance and by conspiring with the interests who make the profit, perhaps protesting that I was uninformed that Soylent Green was actually people.
A New Deal?
What's changing is noticing that the long-term price for convenience doesn't make it a very good deal. It may now be the perfect moment to reject ignorance and assumptions about food and choose something different. It's funny how subversive and empowering it is - I can vote with my dollars and my feet in a very direct way on this issue. Much more directly than with almost any other civic activity I'm involved in. While it started with wanting to know where the food comes from, it's now about knowing who produced it. Finding and choosing a way to get food produced in alignment with my values is ultimately about claiming a community to care about and finding a willingness to see rather than ignore how the food system currently works.
The act of claiming this pretty and overlooked corner of the world as my home place motivates me to learn that, hidden in the geography outside the bubble of my small city, there is a food system, still. The secret is that I can know exactly where my food comes from and what happened to it before it got to my plate IF I want to look. That's a big if. Because then I come face to face with the reality that my pork chop was once part of a living creature's body, that my carrot grew in actual dirt, and that my egg popped out of a chicken's nether regions. Maybe it's weird that I LOVE this. But as someone who lives to eat, knowing the chicken who laid the egg is a great thrill.
What's odd is how one can live to eat, (note the rise of the "foodie" here in the States) but still be totally in the dark about how the whole national food and supermarket system works. That we're so far from anything that is healthy for our economy, our security, our morality and especially our bodies is deeply depressing. If you just look at one example, the Farm Bill, it's all about how big corporations, with huge government subsidies funded by you and me, havve taken over a crucial aspect of daily life (eating!) in a way that is demoralizing and disempowering, but almost no one notices or says anything about it! My remedy for this depressing knowledge has been to investigate our increasingly vibrant local food community.
One of the most hopeful and informative things I've done recently was to organize a Slow Food Farm Tour. Visiting the three farms on the tour, (one that raises animals humanely for meat, an organic blueberry u-pick, and an organic CSA farm) and meeting people (and in some cases characters) who are growing food sustainably was inspiring. I CAN know where my food comes from, even here in my northern climate.
Old Pine Farm - firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the things that I've spent the most time examining in my food habits is the morality and economics of eating meat. We don't eat a lot of meat, but when we do we want to be conscientious about it. Especially regarding the treatment of animals who are raised for meat in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs or factory farms. Because these places are immoral, polluting and hazardous (and because CAFOs are where most of the meat now sold cheaply in stores come from), we've stopped buying meat and chicken from traditional groceries. So it was wonderful to learn that there is an alternative that is both sustainable and humane. Old Pine Farm is on a tree-lined country road in Manchester. Kris Hirth raises chickens, cows, pigs, and emu for meat and offers a meat CSA - a monthly box of 13 pounds of meat.
Scratching the back of a pig with an old corncob, Kris' regard for and connection with her animals is undeniable. She raises these animals with care for their well-being and with feed grown on her family's farm. She demonstrates her care for her animals by giving them comfortable conditions both during and at the end of their lives. Believing that it's kinder to them when it's quick and they don't know it's coming, Kris hires an expert butcher come to the farm to slaughter the animals. It's important to her to avoid the stress animals feel when traveling to an unfamiliar place and waiting in the harsh conditions at a slaughterhouse - usually without shade, food or water. So Kris doesn't allow her animals to be sent to a USDA processing facility, even though it would be cheaper for her and she could sell the meat in local groceries if she did. According to Kris, the main thing the USDA inspection does is verify that an animal is alive before it is slaughtered, for which the criteria "alive" is demonstrated by the ability to blink.
The Blueberry Patch - (517) 522-4796
Like Kris Hirth, Steve Toth could sell his beautiful organic blueberries for twice the price if he were willing to work within the established food system. But he doesn't want to deal with the hassle. So if you want delicious organic blueberries, you have to go to his farm in Grass Lake and pick them yourself. For $3.50 a pound you strap on a berry bucket and walk into berry heaven. His forty-year old blueberry bushes are at least 8 feet high. The entire patch is covered in berries and completely netted to protect it from birds. I heard one woman exclaim that she had heard about having berry-picking experiences like this, but had never seen such a gorgeous profusion before. It truly is blueberry nirvana. And Steve is a character with a Grizzly Adams beard and silly stories that will entertain the kids.
As great as it is, the Blueberry Patch is just a sideline. Steve's main business is de-constructing ancient barns to rescue wood that we don't have any more - oak planks 3 inches thick and 15 feet long, mahogany boards an inch thick and 3 feet wide, things like that. He talks about the ancient forests that once covered Michigan, with trees that rivaled the redwoods and were probably 3000 years old when the first European settlers arrived here. He says that by the 1850s those trees had all been cut down, and now only the oldest barns still have remnants of those lost and mighty giants. Steve and his brother re-purpose the wood to make furniture and mantle-pieces. They don't use stains because the wood color is so dark and rich by itself. So visiting the Blueberry Patch was really a 2 for 1 deal, getting great berries and learning a little bit about Michigan history in the process.
Tantre Farm - email@example.com
Around a bend in Hayes Road in Chelsea around 15 years ago, Richard Andres bought 50 acres of land, owned by spinster sisters, that had long lain fallow. He quickly got organic certification and started Tantre Farm, growing mostly potatoes and peppers for sale in local markets. When he and Deb Lentz married around 5 years later, they were able to expand the operation of the farm to grow even more produce and start an organic CSA. The Tantre Farm CSA now has about 240 members who, each week, get a box of gorgeous, locally grown organic produce from June until mid-October.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and participating is like getting a subscription to a particular farm for a "farm share." You pay a fee at the beginning of the season and then share in the seasonal produce from the farm as it comes. Lettuce, asparagus and lots of greens in late spring and early summer; tomatoes, melon, corn and basil in high summer; and finally things like brussels sprouts, root crops and hard winter squashes as the season ends.
Along with flowers, herbs, and a few u-pick berries Richard and Deb grow about 80 different food crops that go in the weekly CSA boxes. Although Deb sends an email alerting members about what will be included, each week is a fun surprise to see what will be there. Deb sends recipes along with her weekly update to give ideas for what to do with things like kohlrabi and extra summer squash.
Deb and Richard welcome their members to come to the farm almost any time and for almost any reason. They just ask that you call ahead. You can visit to help out with whatever is happening that day, or just to have a picnic in a lovely, bucolic setting. The people who seem to love it the most are the scores of kids who get to run around barefoot, feed the cows and the goats, swing on the high, high tree swing, sit in the hammock, or hide in a sunflower teepee.
It has taken a little bit of effort to avoid participating in a ubiquitous food system that has been so convenient for me but that is also utterly damaging in so many dimensions. Mainly the effort to change has been that of playing junior Sherlock Holmes - asking and looking for where my food was produced - and then finding out where to go for what our family needs. When a visiting relative reflected recently that I know personally the family who grows our vegetables, the man who provides our meat, and the lady who get us our eggs, I was surprised and happy to agree. I hadn't thought about it like that exactly. The unexpected bonus of this adventure to avoid whatever that Soylent Green stuff is and eat sustainable and real food has been learning the faces and knowing the names of real people and nearby places where our food comes from. It's all connected. As I read in the paper this morning, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I think the food system is included in there.
To find more contact information for these farms and others in our area, look on the wonderful Local Harvest website: