If you are reading this blog, you most likely have done some research into the issues that currently plague the American food system. A person who starts with a concern over the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that our foods are grown with, might then learn of the hormones and antibiotics given to the animals we breed, after which they hear word of the genetic modification of organisms (GMOs), and finally end up panic stricken by the understanding of the harmful chemicals in the packaging that seep into our food. With this knowledge, how can we eat anything at all? Starting this last January, I began my own quest to eat right, or what some food advocates describe as “real food”, and found that while it can be trying, it’s more about finding the good in our food system than simply making a complicated diet with a list of foods you can’t eat.
Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, I always longed to eat food that was grown sustainably and from nearby. The suburbs being a fairly strong antithesis to the sustainable mindset, I soon gave up on the notion without even starting a personal garden. While studying abroad in Bologna, Italy this last year, the dream of eating locally, organically, sustainably, deliciously, you name it, suddenly became a reality. For those of you familiar with the Slow Food movement, it was started in Italy, and in Bologna the group runs an enormous weekly farmers market. Not only was this a farmers market, but an Italian farmers market; selling the freshest of high quality Italian products for half of what they would cost in America. The beauty of it wasn’t just in the tastes, but the wide variety of products. You could buy all of your in-season fruits and vegetables, all types of flour, pasta, eggs (goose, duck, and chicken), meat (poultry, pig, cow, water buffalo), grains (rice, farro, barley), olive oil, wines, beers, herbs, and more – all of it organic and from a stone’s throw away. I didn’t have to worry about my foods being contaminated by a big food industry; I could buy all of my groceries directly from the farmers. On top of that, GMOs don’t exist in that region of Italy, and have to be labeled if they are ever imported and sold. After a year of eating “real”, healthy foods with ease, I knew that it was a realistic goal. I no longer just dreamed of one day not worrying about my food poisoning me, I knew it was attainable. But being able to eat thusly became much more difficult upon my return to the States.
In the United States, one of the major issues for people that want to eat properly, for themselves and the environment, is the lack of proper labeling, especially of GMO products. Could I trust labels such as “all natural” or “70% organic”? How could I know what was good for me? So my first bit of advice for Americans is to download the True Food Shoppers Guide Mobile App. It’s a smart phone application that lists what brands sell non-GMO products, what crops tend to be genetically modified (such as corn and wheat), and what new GM crops the industry has in the works. This mobile app is a must for the beginner, and a helpful tool for when you need to pick up something quick from a super market.
The next step to finding good food is to start visiting your local farmers markets. In Austin the Sustainable Food Center runs four great markets throughout the week in different parts of the city. You won’t be able to find everything you’re looking for, but you’ll find some great things you might not have considered buying before (like kombucha or hemp seed), and they have all of the fresh vegetables you could want. If you are in doubt about the quality of the produce, ask the farmer selling it. They can tell you if anyone’s been playing with your food’s genetics or spraying it with toxins.
For more regular shopping solutions, check out local co-ops and health food stores. Austin has a plethora, and while I’m not a huge fan because of their high costs, they can be good for acquiring organic versions of harder to find products. The trouble with some of these larger stores is that they might still carry some non-organic/GMO/antibiotic laden products, so you must remain wary. However, there is one option that I highly recommend. In.gredients is a new grocery store that just opened up in East Austin that’s dedicated to only selling “true food”. There are no GMOs, it is all organic, anti-biotic and hormone free milk and meat, free range eggs and poultry. The best part is; they do their best to avoid packaging. They sell the ingredients, you bring the containers. No waste, plus there is no need to worry about BPA or other chemicals in the packaging. I’m a big proponent of this particular store and their mission; there’s a sense of tranquility that comes with knowing that nothing you buy in the store is going to poison you.
And last, but probably most importantly, start growing your own food. You’re not going to be able to grow everything you need, but you can cut out a part of the problem. There are tons of good reasons to start a garden, but knowing exactly where your food has come from, from seed to your plate is a great reason to start. If you don’t like pesticides, don’t use them. If you want to compost with your own organic trash, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t want hybrid produce, make sure to buy heirloom seeds. The same goes for raising your own livestock. You can take control of the production process by doing it yourself. That’s what this is all about, taking control of what we are putting into our bodies. Most Americans have absolutely no control over what they consume. Sure, you don’t have to buy this product or that one, but when things aren’t labeled properly, and we only have access to one type of food, we lose our ability to choose.
So stay vigilant. Don’t get bogged down by the quantity of foods that can harm you, but search for the solutions. Keep in contact with people and organizations that are trying to eat right too, because this issue is larger than just your diet, we’re all fighting this together. Finally, remember to enjoy yourself, because real food tastes better, especially when you actually have a choice.