May 2010

I have so much to learn about food systems it makes me dizzy!

After slogging through the nightmare of industrialized agriculture and factory farming, I have reached the light in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Chapter 10, “Grass, 13 Different Ways of Looking at Pasture” has left me feeling so excited and inspired by the possibilities of a “closed-loop” farming practice that I probably shouldn’t write about it right now for fear of being too gushy and coming across as a high-pitched enthusiastic woman who doesn’t really know much about what she is trying to talk about.

Which I am.

But I just had to write a little bit.

I wrote in my last post about the high price of local food and wanted to add this to the discussion.

In the pages of my book, Michael Pollan has just courageously taken part in a chicken slaughter at Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm in Virginia, and is driving South with Joel to meet one of the folks responsible for some of the distribution of said chickens in their path from farm to plate. This following of the path, of food from farm to plate, is Pollan’s MO for the book, and I am seeing more and more clearly that the shorter that path is, the better the outcome for all involved (accept of course the business men at the top of the corporate ladder.) On the drive, Pollan and Salatin get into talking about “the growing local-food movement, the challenges it faces, and the whole sticky issue of price.”

I’ll let Pollan, who is not a gushy, high-pitched woman who doesn’t know what she is talking about, take over:

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive it is inherently elitist.

“I don’t accept the premise. First off, those weren’t any elitists you met on the farm this morning (members of the local community who had come to pick up their freshly plucked chickens.) We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – off all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

It’s true that cheap industrial food is heavily subsidized in many ways such that its price in the supermarket does not reflect its real cost. But until the rules that govern our food system change, organic or sustainable food is going to cost more at the register, more than some people can afford. Yet for the great majority of us the story is not quite so simple. As a society we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves – about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, that any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world. This suggests that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we chose to. After all, it isn’t only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones (now owned by more than half the U.S. population, children included) or television, which close to 90 percent of all U.S. households now pay for. Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability of priority?

As things stand, artisanal producers like Joel compete not on price but quality, which, oddly enough, is still a somewhat novel idea when it comes to food.

“When someone drives up to the farm in a BMW and asks me why our eggs cost more,…well, first I try not to get mad. Frankly, any city person who doesn’t think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn’t deserve my special food. Let them eat E.coli. But I don’t say that. Instead, I take him outside and point at his car. ‘Sir, you clearly understand quality and are willing to pay for it. Well, food is no different: You get what you pay for.’

Gushy woman taking back over now: I’m glad Michael of Foxglove farm didn’t tell David and I to go eat E.coli that day at the market when we brought up the topic of pricey local food.

I can often fall into believing the argument of “well, not everyone can afford this so it can’t be a solution.” This is so clearly not true for a number of reasons! I forget that I could easily be someone who could not afford good quality food if I had different priorities.

I know very intimately that my family’s choice to buy good quality food means that I don’t have a new pair of shoes every other week. We don’t own a house, a T.V., a cell phone, a new car, or have the latest style of jeans.

Yes, we do spend about one half of our disposable income on food, much more than the current average of one tenth, but this is a choice I am happy to make. The benefits are immeasurable, and you know something is worth the dollar when you can’t measure the good that comes from it. And while I do like nice clothes, how I dress my body from the inside is more important to me than what I put on the outside of it.

I am feeling very humble when I say this, and so I hope it does not come across as self-righteous, but I can afford to buy good quality food because I choose to. I am very grateful to have the ability to make this choice.

I can afford to buy good quality food because I believe it is more important to feed my daughter well than to dress her well. I can afford to buy good quality food because I believe in farmers who are nurturing the fertility of the land instead of depleting it. I can afford to buy good quality food because I want to remain healthy and to be able to enjoy my good quality food when I am at the end of my life!!

Good quality food is worth it to me. So, lets get out there and buy some honestly priced food! (I much prefer the view of honestly priced over highly priced!)

BTW, if you haven’t yet read Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, it comes highly recommend by this book-worm.

Onwards with the learning!

Yours in amazing health, Katrina.


The Saturday Market is back! After a winter without it, we are very happy to see it back.

Oh what a joy to have such abundance of fresh, local produce again!

We had a brief conversation with Michael of Foxglove Farm about the economics of local food, squeezed into a moment between people waiting to buy his vibrant fresh produce.

We live on an island with some of the most expensive real-estate in the world, and so we also end up paying a premium for our local food. David and I have discussed this to no end, and mulled over the dilemma of local organic greens that can cost up to a whopping $16.00 per pound compared to organic greens shipped from California that can cost as little as $4.00 per pound. How can it be, we wonder, that a pound of greens grown 1590 km away (or 988 miles), a distance that includes crossing a body of water on a car-ferry, and pre-packaged in a plastic clam-shell be so much cheaper than the pound of greens grown right here on the island and served up in a pile that I have to bag myself?!

Sadly, when you look at dollars per calorie on this island, it makes no sense to buy local. (Not yet, anyhow!)

$16 for the 100 calories that are found in a pound of leafy greens is not a viable answer to the question “how do we wean ourselves off of the oil teat?” Almost no one can afford to pay $16 for 100 calories, even if it is incredible, nutrient-dense greens!

Granted, there are other locally produced foods that provide a better calorie per dollar reality, such as our local cheese factory where you can get close to 1,056 calories for $16.00.

Even better are our local organic eggs, $4-7 per dozen, at 960 calories per dozen.

Still, there is no way that most people can eat locally on this island with the system as it is right now. And that system is even more complex and layered than I ever could have imagined!

Michael brought up things that both David and I were already aware of, the main thing being the fact that there are more people living in the state of California than in the entire country of Canada, which means much less labor for hire at a much higher price. The land is more expensive, the equipment is more expensive (by 200% in some cases), the market for purchase is not as big, and so our local greens are 4 times as pricey.

And, I’m sure, far more than 4 times as nutrient dense. It still leaves most local food a boutique item not accessible to or even desirable to most inhabitants of our fair isle.

Micheal’s greens, by the way, are not $16 per pound, they are $10. We happily bought $10 worth of delicious spring greens and $10 worth of tender asparagus from him, and came home to further mull over a beautiful salad.

So far, all of our mulling has brought more questions than answers. And why is it that when you know more about something, you feel like you know less well what to do about it? Just a few short years ago I thought that if only most people would switch to eating mostly raw, organic food, most or all of the world’s problems could be solved. I want to cringe at the naivety of this now, but oh what a glorious feeling it was, to think that there was an answer to it all!

There never will be just one answer. Smart Cars, Vegan, recycled paper napkins, Raw, veggie oil cars, eco-wheat, corn based styrofoam, none of these things is going to “save the planet.”   There will be millions of answers (the ones that truly make a difference have nothing to do with the economy or consumer goods) and all I have to do is find the ones that work for me and those close to me, while also making sure that the choices I make best support the ability of others, the globe over, to make good choices for themselves.

My friend Courtney said it well:

We can truly opt out of the continuously morphing “what is right/healthy living” wars by daring to know ourselves so intimately that all of our choices are simply an opportunity to explore ourselves and life more deeply. Then we can more enjoyably share our experiences, because we’re liberated of the belief that all others should have the same experience.

It is indeed liberating, and I hope you know that I will love you no matter what you may have in your larder.