one of my biggest sources of inspiration these days is our weekly family trips to the green city market, a farmers market near the lakefront in chicago. we walk, hand in hand, admiring the vibrant produce that heralds each season, chatting with the friendly local farmers, and sampling tasty bites from eco-minded entrepreneurs selling everything from artisan cheeses to piping hot cider cinnamon donut holes, grass-fed burgers with butterkase cheese, homemade rosemary honey ice cream, decadent crepes and smoking hot tamales. here in this giant city of nearly 3 million, people actually smile at each other as they pass by. tails wag in unison as dogs of all shapes and sizes exchange curious sniffs and playful barks. tempting aromas waft, blooms burst with color, and kids beam with sticky fingers and berry stained lips.
besides the delicious ritual of it all, i've come to appreciate so much more about this weekly trek than i ever realized when we first started going to the market several years ago. i guess you could say i've been on a journey…and in the process, i've realized that the market is not simply about a place to hang out on a saturday morning as the city starts to stir. it's about a lifestyle, a change of mindset, an idea, and a movement that you can actually believe in.
in the past, there have always been certain things about food or politics or the environment that have bugged me, but generally speaking, life was good and i never felt like i had the time nor the inclination to dwell too long on these massive issues. it's not that i didn't care--i simply felt overwhelmed. sadly, i felt pretty darned accomplished if my day included waking up to the alarm (without hitting snooze), figuring out what to wear, getting the kids ready for school, orchestrating my days filled with work, deciding what to make for dinner, squeezing in errands and whatever me-time i could muster. as a working mom with two kids, that's about all the head space i had left.
but the little drips of exposure to news headlines and to friends and family dealing with health issues started to chip away at my complacency. when i finally watched "food inc.," everything came to a head. i was at a tipping point.
a documentary by robert kenner, "food inc." takes a scathing look at the u.s. food industry, revealing how our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations who put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the american farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. the movie isn't a michael moore-esque sensational tirade; rather it asks some basic questions that most of us probably haven't thought about:
- why is the food we eat--especially fast food--so cheap?
- how is it possible that all the bright shiny products in the grocery aisles: the flawless fruits, plump chickens, perfect pork chops, don't make us stronger and healthier, but rather bafflingly sicker?
- how, with modern science and technology, are we seeing new strains and countless epidemics of e. coli—the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually.
- why do more and more people we know, and worst of all kids, suffer from cancer and diabetes, rampant allergies, ADHD, autism and obesity?
until food inc., i never realized how little control we as consumers have when it comes to our food, how unregulated the industry is, how little choice we actually have--despite the aisles and aisles of products that line the shelves. on this journey, my personal journey, this movie pushed me over the edge.
all this depressing news could lead one to feel even more overwhelmed than ever before. but rather than close my eyes, stick my head in the sand, i actually felt empowered. to make a change. the one choice we all have is this: we can make smarter, more informed choices. we can seek out the freshest ingredients at our local farmers market. we can make little changes that have a huge impact on our health and well-being, starting by simply being aware.
for the longest time, there were a lot of buzzwords that were an enigma to me. organic, sustainable--it all seemed like clever marketing, an excuse to charge a premium at "whole paycheck" (aka whole foods) without a clear benefit. "sure it might taste a little bit better," i rationalized, "but i don't mind the occasional bruise on my apple or tough piece of meat. it's worth it for the cost savings."
but what i didn't realize is that what i was supposedly saving in terms of dollars up front, was costing me and my family in the form of health risks later---from pesticides on produce to steroids given to sickly livestock to cancer-causing, genetically modified crops. sound extreme? to that, i'd say watch the film and decide for yourself. and if you're still not convinced, i would only ask this: if there were even a remote possibility that any of these things were linked to health issues, and you actually had the power to do something--to avoid them--wouldn't it be worth it to try? especially if it were much easier than you ever thought?
on this journey, i came to find out that the words bandied about actually have critical meaning.
why local? locally grown fruits and vegetables are usually sold within 24 hours of being harvested, versus weeks or months like the ones at the grocery store. produce that is in season and picked at the height of ripeness has exceptional flavor and the most nutrients. finally rather than lining the pockets of mega-corporations, who aim for the cheapest (aka poorest quality) food and build in costs for packaging, preserving and shipping your food, you're directly supporting the little guy--small farmers who bring food to our tables with passion and integrity, rather than simply for profit.
why sustainable? "to sustain" means "to keep in existence"--for ourselves, for our children and for future generations. sustainable farming is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. it's about rotating crops to preserve nutrients in the soil, not using toxic pesticides, serving as stewards rather than solely acting in self-interest.
do i still eat out at restaurants, have an occasional cocktail or three, snarf up a double char dog at the wiener's circle, or take a trip to the vending machine for a reese's peanut butter cup when the craving hits? sure. i'm hardly ready to swap out the blahniks for a pair of birkenstocks. but, at the very least, most of the time, i eat in a way that makes me feel good, inside and out. and that feels right: physically, emotionally and ethically...there are few other things i can think of in this crazy world that fit that bill.