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In 1985, I spent the year living in Israel on a kibbutz. A kibbutz is a communal farm where every person works the fields, the kitchen, and the laundry, and every resident is supported for life. Israel was, and is, a complicated, conflicted place. The year was not easy for me. I returned to the U.S. confused and concerned about consumption, sustainability, and individual responsibility in a world that is in a constant state of change.
After college, I found my way into the kitchen quickly. For me, it represented a way to make individual and community impact. I had come to recognize that food is at the core of health — personal, community, and environmental — and that our choices about how we get that food, and how much we consume, have everything to do with sustaining health of people and earth.
In 1996, my best friend and I opened a farm-to-table restaurant, before that was ‘a thing’. The Good Life Cafe, with “whole foods” and a bakery, was a community space, serving food sourced directly from farmers and producers. The restaurant celebrated creative, delicious, plant-forward food and the community who chose it.
In that process, I learned that there was a disconnect for most people between what they ate, their own health, and the health of the planet. In the U.S., we had become accustomed to eating whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it, and for cheap. There was no reason to think beyond this pattern.
While I have seen great changes in the last two decades in our awareness about food, and our desire to be healthy, in general people still don’t tend to ask questions like: How has this food been produced? What are the conditions for the people producing it? How does it get from the farm to the grocery store or restaurant? Is wholesome food available to everyone? Why is some food cheap and the ‘healthy’ stuff more expensive? What IS a food system, and why should I care?
Like any system, food comes to us through a series of connections between various interdependent and unique parts. There is production, processing, distribution, procurement/ consumption, and disposal. For a long time, this was a natural process, and was simply how things worked.
As our nation became industrialized, we began to change the way we produced and processed food. There was great money to be made and power to be gained by controlling various aspects of the food system, especially ownership and use of land.
Currently, most of the food that is produced and consumed is inexpensive. In order to make it cheaply, it is highly processed in a way that depletes the
nutrients in the soil, and that damages the land for future production because of things like chemical pesticide use and monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop in an area).
Crops are raised in dangerous settings for workers, who are rarely compensated fairly, are often minimized in legal status, and are at risk of long-term health consequences.
To be a truly educated consumer, it is important to understand that one label or description of a product is not enough information. In our industrial food system, it is often the case that there is a massive, large-scale operation, with unsustainable practices, that fulfills the general definition of organic.
According to the USDA, produce can be called organic if it goes through the process of certification to verify that it was grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. This might simply mean that they use only organic fertilizers on their mono crop lettuce fields, but tells us nothing about their farming or labor practices that lends itself to sustainability.
The educated consumer needs to know where, how, and by whom the food was raised or produced. Who is benefitting from its production and sale? How healthy is the land on which the food is produced? How healthy are the people who are producing it?
For example, did you know that conventional meat production is the most water-intensive farming that exists? Water is a finite resource, and agriculture requires significant amounts. Yet there are many approaches to farming that DO offer responsible, sustainable and regenerative practices, such as reasonable water use.
I understand — as a busy woman and mother myself — how overwhelming it can be to make this information a priority, especially in light of everything else that demands our attention. It’s also true that the more you know, the more stuck you can feel making choices between less-than-perfect options. Yet the more detached we are about the food system we support, the less information food producers will feel they need to share with us as consumers.
Once we learn to ask questions of ourselves and others, with so many information-gathering technologies at our disposal, we can build on what we know and make healthier choices.
When I teach, I point out that purity is not a thing. Believing there is one perfect solution is not realistic — and it sets ourselves up for failure. I teach undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota about making healthy meals on a budget, and co-teach a class with a doctor about how food choices physiologically impact our health. What I tell my students is that we can do only our best to take care of ourselves and choose food that will nourish us AND the environment.
Jenny Breen has been a professional chef and advocate for local and sustainably raised foods since the mid 1980s. She teaches three courses at the University of Minnesota and contracts as a food and nutrition public health educator with local health departments, school districts and nonprofit food and farming organizations. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two teenage daughters.