March 11, 2013

Maine Voices: For a more satisfying food experience, know the hand that feeds you

To put major corporations in charge of what you eat is to trust a system whose practices may shock you.

I saw the inside of a moose when I was 9 years old. I was sitting in the back seat of our parked pickup truck with its double doors wide open, staring as my dad and brother tossed the guts of their kill into a streambed somewhere in northern Maine.

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Read the USDA report, "How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?": http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib86.aspx

Information about Portland's farmers markets: http://www.portlandmaine farmersmarket.org

Talk about getting familiar with your food. And your food's food.

Most people in the United States never know their food this well. As a population, we are largely disengaged from its production.

About 2 million American farmers feed the other 300 million of us. Half of the money we spend on food is spent at restaurants, primarily for fast food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2011 report "How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?," the average adult spends only 33 minutes per day on food preparation, including cleanup.

In some ways, that's kind of nice. It can be hard to argue with our food system when you're a beneficiary of it. How convenient is it that other people grow our food, pick it, transport it, turn it into our favorite goodies, package it up and put it all in one convenient location for us to purchase rather cheaply?

As convenient as it may be, however, we can't ignore the fact that we're making some major trade-offs. For all of the time and money we gain, we lose knowledge of and control over how our food is produced and how it gets to our dinner tables.

People make this trade to various degrees and on various levels of consciousness. There is, after all, a wide spectrum of possibility between hunting your own moose in the woods of Maine and buying any old pack of chicken wings in a Hannaford grocery store.

I have no issue with the fact that this spectrum of engagement exists; nothing is black and white.

What I don't like is the fact that most people do not actively choose where they fall on the spectrum. Instead, our level of engagement is usually a consequence of where we live, how we were raised and what we like to eat by habit.

Most of us are disengaged because our food is not a priority; Americans spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation. So we hand the control over to major corporations and sit back to enjoy a fairly passive food experience. Consequently, we put an enormous amount of trust in our food system.

Since we don't put in the time or money required to be fully engaged with our food, we trust that others are doing it well for us, just like we trust that the water from our tap is good to drink. However, I bet that if you were put in charge of the assembly line that produces your food, you would do it differently.

You would not clean your raw chicken in water contaminated with feces (and then pump it full of flavored broth to cover up the taste), feed beef tallow to your cows or spray your garden with chemicals that require a mask and full-body protective suit. But your food industry often does.

While they save you time and money, their methods might surprise you.

I urge you to make an active decision about whether or not these trade-offs are worth it to you. Consciously decide where you want to fall on the engagement spectrum.

I'm not saying that you need to start slaughtering your own meat; that's the beauty of a spectrum.

Instead, next time you fill your shopping cart or your order arrives in a restaurant, start by taking a second to think about the fact that you had to put trust in a lot of other people for it to get there. Do you know how they grew your food? Where it came from? If those people love what they do?

Get in touch with your local food environment. Portland has a year-round farmers market featuring tons of locally grown foods. Identify a regional farmer with whom you can start a customer relationship. Buy the apple from the neighboring county instead of the one from New Zealand. Pot a veggie plant for yourself. Engage.

You don't have to put your hands in a moose, but you can find out who's doing it for you.

Natalie Norton, originally from the central Maine town of China, is an undergraduate studying human biology at Stanford University, focusing on public health and food systems.

 

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