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Friday, April 25, 2008

EATING HAS NEVER SEEMED SO COMPLICATED

Intern Tom and I have been making the rounds after work to the small farms of Central New Jersey – several organic vegetable farms, an orchard, and two grass-raised cattle ranches among them.

I've enjoyed our trips. They've reminded me what a beautiful place my home state remains to be in its most pastoral pockets. I've been all across the country and I think its green hills and fields are outshone by none.

These visits (in addition to my recent reading, and the natural observations that come with living on a farm for the first time) have also caused me to think more about the food I consume.

I've never been a vegetarian, and I doubt I ever will be, but I don't really like the alternative either – continuing to eat meat from cows, pigs, and chickens that live unhealthy lives in factory-like conditions. I bought my first pound of grass-fed ground beef a few weeks ago from a local cattle farmer, and this is what I think I purchased:

- The knowledge that the cow I was eating lived in a way that seems decent to me. It roamed a pasture eating grass, which is exactly what a cow will do when it is left to do as it pleases.

- The hope that the beef I was eating was healthier than the beef I would get from a cow raised in a feedlot and forced to gorge on corn and often worse.

- The further knowledge that my money was going to support a local farmer, whose farm might otherwise become a cement factory or something other than the beautiful natural vista it currently is.

In my idealized future, I'd like all the meat I consume to come from local, organic farmers who raise their animals humanely. Maybe one day I will follow through on this. But even in the last week, I've eaten many servings of the "other" meat. Why would I do this?

Two of the biggest reasons are certainly cost and convenience. The pound of ground beef I purchased fetched about $6. That's expensive, especially on an intern's salary. I could afford it if I was dearly committed to the notion of eating Good, but so far the temptations of Cheap have won out. The other factor is Easy. Meat that comes from factory-raised animals is nearly ubiquitous. Especially when I feel like grabbing a quick bite at a restaurant, or I have the option to eat a free sandwich lying around the farm, the convenience of just shoving the food in my mouth and chewing often wins out over some vague moral misgivings floating around the old Superego.

So, clearly, I'll be need to make a decision one of these days either to man up and eat only Moral Meat, or else strike some sort of balance that may at least be better than nothing.

Some of the same eating dilemmas trouble me as I browse the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket these days. I know that the cheapest vegetables are often the ones grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This produce is then shipped across the country, sometimes the world, in order to reach my supermarket -- using up valuable fossil fuels and contributing to global warming. The local organic stuff? Once again, it's often the most expensive. I've heard that subscriptions to some local CSAs run more than $700 a year.

I'm still trying to figure out what is the most responsible yet reasonable way to make my food-buying choices. There are many variables to consider, and economics is certainly one of them. I was talking to Tom today about this, and the ideology he's arrived at is roughly this:

Buying local does the most good. Organic local is best. Falling short of that, when choosing between local non-organic, and non-local organic, go with the locally grown food.

That sounds reasonable to me.

Better yet, if you can: Tend your own garden.

One other thought that didn't seem to fit anywhere else: The pigs we are raising on the farm seem so friendly and doglike to me that I might just have to give up pork altogether.

4 comments:

Chris said...

One thing to consider would be eating less meat ... and then when you do eat meat, buy only the Good (locally grown, organic) stuff. This would have two health benefits: the health benefit you mentioned from eating this Better meat, PLUS I'm under the impression that we would have better health in the long term (perhaps less risk of cancer) if we ate less meat altogether.

And I don't think CSAs cost that much. Dani and I joined one for much less than that (although it was halfway through the season). I'd look into it if I were you. I love our CSA. And if it's too expensive to do on your own, see about splitting it with a roommate!

Dani said...

I hear you, Jared. I'm still struggling with making better eating choices. Since Chris and I started obtaining food via the CSA, the farmer's market, and Whole Foods, our grocery bills have increased ~33%. This pains a lifelong skinflint like myself.

But even in the weeks when we've spent $120+ on food, I know I can't go back to shopping at Safeway (where we routinely fed ourselves for a week on <$90). Once you've convinced yourself that you are doing the Good thing, it's hard to slip back to Cheap and Easy. (Just think how hard it is to throw a glass container in the trash can instead of the recycle bin.) Guilt makes a terrible sauce.

And for the sake of accuracy, membership in our CSA costs ~$800 per year.

Dani said...

*But note that our food budget, even during the time of Safeway, was $5200 a year. $800 is a lot of money, but food in general is a lot of money.

Jared said...

Thank you both for your thoughts on all this. A few thoughts on your thoughts:

-One thing that always crosses my mind whenever I pay an extra dollar or two for something organic at Whole Foods is whether what I'm getting is actually any better for me or grown more healthily. I read something somewhere recently in which a farmer said that what he's selling his organic customers is really just a good feeling. (I don't want a good feeling, I want good food.) And at least according to Michael Pollan, a lot of the organic food you buy at Whole Foods is little better in the way it's raised or grown than foods you can buy from big, regular old supermarkets.

-A few years ago when I still lived at home, my mother bought a half side of beef from a local farmer because it seemed like a good thing to do. We even bought a new deep freezer. But after one year, the novelty wore off and the Fleshers went back to buying one steak at a time. Part of the problem was that with a side of beef, we paid for a lot of cuts we didn't want, like liver. Do you think the same thing could happen with your CSA enthusiasm? After a year of getting strange varieties of radishes you can't for the life of you figure out how to use, do you think you might have second thoughts about the CSA and its cost?