The Novice Foodie Isn't a Slow-Food Novice

Dec 15, 2009 at 3:15 pm
click to enlarge There's a good chance your food didn't come from anyone like her.
There's a good chance your food didn't come from anyone like her.
If there's one area of food where the Novice Foodie isn't such a novice, it's local, organic and sustainable foods -- a.k.a. Slow Food. I've been digging around to learn where my food comes from since I saw Canadian farmer/activist Percy Schmeiser speak while I was in graduate school. When I was a high-school teacher, I taught a class on environmental sustainability, and one major unit was food systems. I learned that the average teenager has little to no idea where their food comes from.

Judging by the lady I saw at Whole Foods complaining that there was blood in her package of chicken, I'd wager that most adults don't, either. So let's talk about where food comes from.

Don't worry, I'm not going to get all preachy on your ass. Food choices are intensely personal. Nor am I here to tell you, fair readers, that you should become a vegan or a vegetarian. But I am here to tell you that you can easily inform yourself about our questionable industrial food system and make your own choices about what you put in your mouth.

A great place to start -- particularly if you're starting from square one -- is the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. This film, co-produced by Eric Schlosser, author of the seminal Fast Food Nation, covers everything from our problematic, massive Farm Bill to the conditions behind animal production to the systematic destruction of family farms by agribusiness (featuring a not-so-flattering supporting role by St. Louis' own Monsanto). It's out on DVD right now, and if you're a Netflix subscriber, it's available to stream.

Want to dig deeper? I'd recommend the aforementioned Fast Food Nation as well as two other books: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Peter Singer's The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Both take what's explored in Food, Inc. and go much deeper. Singer, an ethicist, provides one of the most compelling and convincing arguments about why our food choices, particularly in terms of animal agriculture, are important.

How do you move from information into action? My recommendation is to start slowly and explore the resources the St Louis area has to offer. You don't have to change everything you eat right away. We've been chipping away at what we buy from the industrial food chain for a while, incrementally disengaging from big-business food.

There are four simple steps you can take:

1. Eat lower on the food chain. Quit eating highly-processed foods. Eat mostly fruits, veggies and grains supplemented by small quantities of animal products like meat, eggs and dairy. I find myself shopping on the perimeter of grocery stores, where these items are located, instead of the inner aisles, where processed "food" is displayed. Less processing means less additives and less resources going into your food production.

2. Eat seasonally. There's a reason why tomatoes and strawberries taste like Styrofoam in December. They were probably grown in South American while they were green and then ripened by ethylene gas during the shipping process. How does that make sense? Eat what's in season, and your food will probably have traveled less of a distance, meaning you are getting it fresher. Fresher food = better taste and less impact on the environment. Not sure what's seasonal? Check out the National Resources Defense Council's Eat Local guide to find out what's growing here now.

3. Eat locally. While December isn't the greatest month to buy directly from farmers, Local Harvest Grocery has the best selection of locally-produced food in St. Louis and can get you started until the growers' markets are in full swing again in the spring. Even better, start planning a garden. What's more local than your own backyard?

We've added more and more plants to our expanding garden because there's not much better than food you grew yourself. We grow lots of food in our tiny yard in South City using raised beds and containers, and we order seeds from Baker Creek in Mansfield and Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Trust me, once you grow your own heirloom tomatoes, you won't ever go back to store-bought. Even if you're an apartment dweller, if you have a sunny windowsill, you can grow herbs, lettuce or hot peppers.

4. Eat organically.
Organics have grown so much that you can find them in almost any grocery store, and many are quite reasonably priced. Organics are grown without use of most synthetic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, which, besides often being petroleum-based, can leach into the water supply and are energy-intensive. (Sidenote: Food, Inc. does a great job of highlighting how major food conglomerates are buying up organic companies. Do your homework.)

Another helpful local resource is the St. Louis chapter of Slow Food. They've compiled resources on where to eat and shop in St. Louis.

Our food choices matter, and we all have the power to vote with our dollars. Check out the resources here as a starting point, and I hope to see many of you at the farmers' markets this spring.

Kelli Best-Oliver is on a quest to become a full-fledged foodie. She chronicles her adventures every Tuesday. She writes about any damn thing she pleases at South City Confidential.