Friday, August 5, 2011

Eating is a Celebration of Life?

We've always been relatively healthy eaters in our house. I have a good relationship with food, which I realize is not always the case for many adults. Food serves two purposes for me: fuel for my body and an opportunity to enjoy my relationships. I've always believed that eating can be an expression of gratitude for life's gifts and pleasures. But lately, I'm starting to wonder. Don't get me wrong, I still find joy in food: preparing it, sharing it, and eating it! It's just that lately, the more I read about food - where it comes from, how much it is changed before it reaches my local grocery store, and how those changes can affect our health - the more I begin to freak out!

Ever since joining our meat CSA last March, the issue of how our family's food is "handled" has become pretty interesting to me. It's not that we've completely confined our focus to meat - we've been trying to buy organic or hormone-free milk for a few years now. We really do try to minimize processed foods, too. Just yesterday, the Talker announced over a picnic lunch that he does not eat store-bought cookies anymore. "I just don't like them," he said. I don't like them, either, and I've only occasionally bought cookies over the last few years. All those preservatives gross me out! Do we just go without cookies, you ask? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I make them, and we eat them with great pleasure! Yes, I realize that many of the ingredients in homemade cookies have been processed in one way or another, but it's the freshness factor that makes it okay for me. The thing that gets to me is all the marketing by food companies to tout their products' health benefits, when really, we should just choose an apple with peanut butter over that FiberOne bar! The poor apple doesn't have the help of advertising gurus slapping labels all over its skin to tell you about its health benefits.

So, when I was contacted by Stonyfield Farm to attend a luncheon with mom and food activist Robyn O'Brien, I jumped at the chance. Thanks to my new Kindle, I was able to read about half of her book, The Unhealthy Truth, before meeting her last week at NAHA in Chicago.  Her story is incredible, really.  As a mother of four small children, Robyn was forced to pay attention to toxins in her family's foods when her youngest child had an allergic reaction to eggs.   Distressed that her child would have to be protected from a food that she had assumed was safe, Robyn began researching food allergies.  Tapping into her experiences as an equity analyst, she dove in to the world of corporate profits and government oversight (or lack of it).  She is clear in her understanding of what drives the food industry (money!), and because of her background she has a healthy respect for capitalism.  She gets that corporations are all about the bottom line, and that it is the consumers’ right and responsibility to be informed about food products before buying them.  It’s the lack of information that irritates her.

Think: Can you identify and recognize all ingredients are in your sandwich bread?  How about the hormones and antibiotics in your glass of cold milk?  (The hormones are to increase milk production and the antibiotics are for when the hormones make the cows sick. They tend to get mastitis. Yep, cows get it, too!)  Oh, my: what about your coffee creamer? I was an International Delight addict until I gave the stuff up for Lent this spring. That was a tough one!  I thought I was all good with my White Chocolate Macadamia Nut creamer because it was transfat free.  Nope, it’s full of high-sugar soy, which, interestingly, is fed to pigs to fatten them quickly for slaughter.  My plain ol’ half-and-half tastes quite good these days, thank you very much.
Now think again: of those ingredients you can identify as corn or soy based (because they are in almost everything that has been processed in one way or another), how many can you identify as genetically modified foods?  Yeah, none?  Me, neither.  That’s because the FDA doesn’t require food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods as such.  I suppose that would be okay, if the safety of genetically modified foods had been proven, which, you guess it: it hasn’t.

As I think and write about this, I realize that it sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory.  For the longest time I thought the whole “organic thing” was a load of bull.  I mean, a peach is a peach, right?  But the more I discover about the current state of conventional farming, the scarier it all gets.

Last weekend I was driving out to our meat farm, Walnut Acres, in central Illinois.  Walnut Acres is a small livestock farm thriving in the shadow of conventional corn and soybean farms.  As much as I enjoyed driving through the nation’s breadbasket, a few scenes gave me pause. The most dramatic was the low-flying airplane that was about 25 feet above our car.  A crop-sprayer, no doubt.  When I was a kid, I thought crop-sprayers were super cool; it was a job that looked fun!  But at that moment, all I could think about was the pesticides that were being sprayed on corn that had been genetically modified to withstand giant doses of incesticide. Pesticides that could, in all reality, end up in the small bodies of the sweet children all strapped in behind me. Besides feeling grossed out, I also felt guilty for the toxins that are, in all likelihood, already floating around under their soft skin.

So, what now?  Honestly, I don’t know.  As I mentioned, we’re already doing our best to eliminate as many processed foods as possible. At the very least, we’re committed to buying milk with the rBGH-free farmer pledge. Last week, I bought organic half-and-half for my coffee, and at this moment we have only organic yogurt in the fridge. Our favorite pasta is an organic, whole wheat variety, and we stock up when it goes on sale at the grocery store. We try to stick to meat and eggs from Walnut Acres, though we do buy conventional meat on occasion. So I suppose we’re off to a good start. 

Despite all the health and environmental benefits of going organic, such a commitment is still an expensive one.  Believe me, that is a concern for us!  I am still trying to figure out how to budget for organic food in our life, but at the same time, in the face of all this information, I’m not sure how I can turn away from such a commitment.  If it were just me, then maybe I wouldn’t worry so much.  But with three small kids who have their whole beautiful lives ahead of them, I know we owe it to them to give them safe foods to eat.
And lest you think, “Hey, I grew up on conventional produce and regular milk! What’s the big deal??” I get that. I was thinking the same thing until I read Robyn’s book. As it turns out, cows weren’t given hormones until the mid-1990s, and I’d done most of my growing by then. Genetically modified corn and soy are recent additions to the fields, too. So yes, we DID grow up on conventionally farmed foods – but folks, those seem to be long-gone.  We all know there are issues in our American food landscape: obesity, allergies, childhood disorders like autism and ADHD – issues that are on the rise just in the last 15 years.  Is it coincidence that all of these altered foods hit the shelves beginning around this time? Though it’s impossible to prove causation, I’m not sure I want to take chances with my kids’ futures.