Thursday, October 20, 2011

Salatin on the Value of Real Food

Before I became a "real food crusader" of sorts, before I was utterly sold-out and committed "all in" to real food, I was a food snob.  Ah, I can hear some groans now.  Terrible habit, some may say...hard on the pocket-book!  Not so, I say...Pay now or pay later.  Yes, I was first a health nut, then a food snob.  The lure of gourmet was simply too great.  I just love food; and I believed, before I even understood all the implications of a real food lifestyle, that food should nourish and it should taste good.  Food is more than sustenance, it is medicine...and it is one of the physical joys of the human experience.  At least, it should be.  Hence, the food snobbery.  

And now we enter the "real foodie" realm; while the labels may change and nuances of underlying motivations evolve, the desire for quality food remains.  Some people, as they shift from their S.A.D industrial food habits toward a nourishing food lifestyle, bemoan the cost of real food.  I can sympathize.  The fact is that certain categories of real food cost more.  It really isn't the fruits and veggies that cause financial pain, it is the animal foods and the premade/processed foods.  We can save money simply by creating meals at home from scratch using whole food ingredients...otherwise known as cooking.  (ie: Don't buy from the "hot food" deli at Whole Foods.)  When we reclaim the kitchen, we save in our food budgets.  But, yes, even with home-cooked meals using simple, natural ingredients, the prices for real meat, fish, poultry, milk, eggs and butter exceed those of their bastardized counterparts.

American consumers, comfortably accustomed to the typical American diet, are somewhat anesthetized to the real cost of food.  It isn't all our fault, either.  Our government, using taxpayer money, has created unrealistic consumer expectations.  Government subsidies of commodity crops and big-ag farming has artificially deflated food prices for years.  Ultimately, this is an unsustainable ruse; if current economic conditions are an indicator, the charade won't last forever.  Nevertheless, Americans are used to cheap food, and they experience sticker shock when entering the realm of real food.  Ironically, some consumers cannot seem to grasp the quality/cost analysis.  My husband likes to relay Joel Salatin's story of a farmer's market customer who scoffed at paying $3 for a dozen organic, pastured eggs while she sipped her $.75 can of bubbly corn syrup poison (my summary of the story).

Frankly, all that "cheap" food is not cheap at is quite costly.  The human body cannot be sustained on junk; at some point, somehow, the physical reaping will occur.  [I define junk as any industrial/conventionally/chemically produced food and processed/adulterated foods.]  In the end, we save money by living a real food lifestyle, because we have fewer long-term health problems.  Think of all the drugs, supplements, procedures, etc. that people spend money on (not to mention the suffering caused by the ailments)...  Now, imagine how that can dissipate as people eat pure food meant to nourish and heal.  Five dollars a pound for organic, grass-fed beef doesn't seem so bad weighed against bottles of pills in the medicine cabinet.  As a society, we spend millions on health care...for ailments directly related to the way we eat...and we complain about the cost of real food?  We need to understand and accept that real food may cost more, but it is worth more.  

Aside from the legitimate value of real food, we need to become comfortable with paying real food farmers a living wage.  The people who produce the food that sustains, nourishes and heals us deserve to be paid for their labor.  As a group, farmers are woefully under-compensated.  [I can promise you, as a fledgling "homesteader," that raising real food is extremely difficult and costly work.]  One of the hidden costs of American's cheap industrial food is the financial plight of farmers.  It seems we want our food, we want it cheap, and we don't care about the ourselves, to the environment, to the farmers...  This is an insupportable perspective.  We are far too removed from the production of our food, especially our animal foods.  I like to believe that if consumers knew the truth about how their food was raised and processed (what the animals eat, the conditions in which they live, how they are killed/processed)...everything that was done to it before it entered their mouths (sometimes including being irradiated and pumped full of ammonia)...they would never purchase industrial food.  The truth is downright scary and disgusting...don't tell your kids before bed or discuss it at dinner!  (LOL)

None of us is perfect; we all cheat once in a while...  But cheating with industrial food is far different from a lifetime of eating it.  The deleterious effects are innumerable.  And the more ugly truths we learn about industrial food, the less inclined we are to cheat.  In the end, real food doesn't cost is just a matter of time, perspective and priorities.  If I were struggling to afford real food for my family, I would eliminate every possible extraneous expense...I would change any and every financial outlay before I would compromise on the health, vitality and nourishment of my family.  It's just that important.  I'm not claiming this is always an easy practice, but that we a re-examine how we think about food and its true costs.

But enough of my thoughts on the matter...

A year ago (or so), I wrote to food crusader and real food farmer Joel Salatin and asked him if he would share some pearls of wisdom regarding the costs of real food.  For anyone not "in the know," Salatin is the sustainable, eco-ag, pasture-based Virginia farmer made famous by Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.  A seasoned farmer, prolific author, speaker and real food activist, Salatin has the experience and passion to stand at the fore of our current cultural food fight.

Joel was kind enough to reply to my request, but did not have the time to write an original piece.  He did, however, give me permission to share an article he wrote on the subject, originally published by Flavor Magazine.  So without further ado, I present to you:

Foodie Elitism ... Rebel with a Cause
by Joel Salatin

Because high quality local food often carries a higher price tag, the charge of elitism is often vitriolic (from the industrial foodists) and agonizingly embarrassing (from the foodies). Instead of cowering in self-guilt, let’s confront this higher sticker price head on.

First, it’s better food. It tastes better. It handles better. It’s safer. Anyone buying chemicalized, drug-infused food is engaging in risky behavior. But it’s also nutritionally superior. For those willing to see, the science of conjugated linoleic acid, vitamins, minerals, brix readings, omega 3-omega 6 ratios, and polyunsatured fat profiles are empirically superior. Better stuff is worth more.

Second, economies of scale will continue to progress as more people patronize local food. The collaborative aggregation and distribution networks fine-tuned by mega-food companies can and will be duplicated locally as volume and creativity work their magic.

Third, eating unprocessed is the best way to combat high food prices, regardless of source. You can buy a 10 pound bag of potatoes for the price of a pound of potato chips. Cultivating domestic culinary arts and actually discovering the kitchens we’ve sacrificially remodeled and gadgetized can wean all of us away from expensive processed food. A whole pound of our farm’s grass-finished ground beef costs less than a Happy Meal. Guess which one has more nutrition?

Fourth, nonscalable government regulations inordinately discriminate against smaller processing businesses (abattoirs, kitchens, canneries) because inappropriate paperwork and infrastructure requirements cannot be spread over as much volume. This creates price prejudice at the community-based scale and inhibits entrepreneurs from entering local food commerce.

Fifth, diversified farms like ours do not receive government subsidies. And our food production, processing, and marketing do not create collateral damage. What is the value of a Rhode Island-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? Who pays for the cleanup? Who pays for MRSA? Type II diabetes? Stinky rural neighborhoods?

Sixth—and this is where I wanted to head with this discussion—plenty of money exists in the system to pay for good food. Can you think of anything people buy that doesn’t have to be purchased? Tobacco, $100 designer jeans with holes already in the knees, KFC, high fructose corn syrup soft drinks, Disney vacations, TVs, baby food. I won’t belabor the list, but if you took all the unnecessary baubles and junk food people buy, it would total plenty for everyone to eat like kings. We could all be elitists.

We could create a suburb of Lake Wobegon, where all the people ate food that was above average. Almost everyone I know who owns a Community Supported Agriculture share could purchase an extra one for an impoverished family. And if you had to give up a few $4 lattes to do it, what a pity.

This winter, the Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute invited me to come to Ft. Collins, Colorado, and do a community speech as a fundraiser. They filled a huge community theater with people that paid my travel and honorarium . . . with enough left over to buy 40 CSA shares for poor families in their community. They didn’t wait for a government program. What a wonderfully empowering local effort. Perhaps nothing would reduce elitism perceptions faster than foodies buying CSA shares for impoverished families.

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, I think we need to quit being victims and change ourselves. Don’t complain about being unable to buy high quality local food when your grocery cart is full of beer, cigarettes, and People magazine. Most people are more connected to the celebrities in People than the food that will become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bones at the next meal.

We can all do better. If we can find money for movies, ski trips, and recreational cruises, surely we can find the money to purchase integrity food. The fact is that most of us scrounge together enough pennies to fund the passion of our hearts. If we would cultivate a passion for food like we’ve cultivated it for clothes, cars, and entertainment, perhaps we would ultimately live healthier, happier lives.

The other day I saw precooked bacon in a box at the supermarket—for $30 a pound. Do we really have to buy precooked bacon? If you took the average shopping cart and tossed out all the processed food—everything with a label item you can’t pronounce or make in your kitchen, and everything that won’t rot—and substituted instead locally sourced, fresh items, you would be money ahead and immensely healthier.

To suggest that such a change makes me an elitist is to disparage positive decision making and behavior. Indeed, if that’s elitism, I want it. The victim mentality our culture encourages actually induces guilt into people making progress. That’s crazy. We should applaud positive behavior and encourage others to follow suit, not demonize and discourage it. Would it be better to applaud people who buy amalgamated, reconstituted, fumigated, irradiated, genetically modified industrial garbage?

The charge of elitism is both unfair and silly. We foodies are cultural change agents, positive innovators, integrity seekers. So hold your head high and don’t apologize for making noble decisions.

More of Joel's thoughts regarding the real costs of food can be gleaned from his book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.