Friday, February 26, 2010

Clarifying Food Goals

When I started down the real foods path I had no idea what I was getting myself into. On the surface, it sounded pretty simple. Stop buying processed crap and replace that with natural whole foods. No problem. Well, let me tell you, ignorance truly is bliss.

Anti-nutrients? Phytic acid? SCOBY? Find a local farmer and grill him on pasture raising animals and organic practices. Learn to ferment foods. Learn to like fermented foods. Learn to freaking plan ahead.

Making a commitment to a real foods diet requires not just an ideological shift, but also an actual lifestyle change. It requires more time in the kitchen, at least initially and probably long term. It requires significant changes to one's shopping habits and significant up-front research time devoted to locating real foods. And it requires an ongoing food ethics conversation, even if that conversation takes place only in your own mind.

I have found myself debating the ethics of potential food choices from several angles. Produce is pretty easy. Is it organic? If it's not organic, is it one of the less-sprayed options? Is it local or relatively local? If it's not organic and not local is there something I could substitute?

Meat, however, has caused me some serious mental wrangling. My family eats meat and it doesn't look like that's going to change. I've been vegetarian and it's not for me. My kids have the option, but neither of them seem inclined that way. So, I try to make the best meat-buying decisions I can. And it's not that easy. Local pastured meat is pretty expensive. At least twice, and often three or four times, as expensive as grocery store meat. We have cut waaaay back on our meat consumption (and it was never as high as the "average") lately in order to be able to afford to purchase local, pastured meat. And while I am happy to support local farmers raising animals ethically, I am also more than a little pissed off that the values of the society in which I live have become so skewed that choosing to eat ethically equates to taking a financial hit for those of us who are not in a position to raise all our own food (which, I suspect, is most of us). Shouldn't the norm be ethical eating standards? If it was the norm, perhaps we could all afford to eat ethically.

And then, of course, there's the "eat local" dilemma. At this point in my food journey, I'm shooting for an 80/20 solution. If I can purchase 80% of my family's food from local sources, I'll be happy. There are just certain things I don't see myself giving up. For example, I live on the East Coast and have access to some relatively local seafood. But not Pacific wild-caught salmon. I'm not going to buy farm-raised salmon, so I'll continue to purchase the flown-in variety. And while I can grow and save my most-used spices and seasonings (basil, oregano, and garlic in my kitchen), there are plenty that are not produced locally that I don't see giving up (salt, pepper, vanilla...). I think I will eventually be able to procure more than 80% of my family's food locally; but for now, that's a number I can live with.

For me, the result of these mental food wranglings has been the slowly emerging outline of my personal food values.

1. My family's health and nutrition is foremost. So this translates into an emphasis on nutrient dense whole foods produced without harmful pesticides or other contaminants.

2. By necessity, my budget needs to come in second. But to stay in line with my first priority, this really translates into two possibilities: find less expensive foods that meet the above rule, or reduce our overall consumption. So far, I've done a little of both.

3. My next priority is to purchase local foods in keeping with the first two rules. I do this, incorporating my 80/20 philosophy on the matter. But another part of the "buy local" idea, for me, is to lobby for greater access to local foods. I've been back and forth in my mind about the role of grocery stores in the real foods/local foods movement. But I know for sure that my life would be simpler right now if I had greater access to local, ethically produced foods in my grocery store.

4. My last priority, due primarily to time constraints (but also, somewhat, to budget constraints) is to practice ways of food preparation that allow for optimal nutrient utilization. Mastering these new (to me) techniques is a huge time sink. For now, I can only test the waters and hope to slowly develop competence.

I'm sure other people's priority lists would be different from mine. And I'm sure I left out some important considerations. But for now, I'm comfortable with the way my ideas about food are evolving. This is where I'm at right now. Where are you?

This post is a part of Fight Back Friday, hosted by Food Renegade.


  1. I think 80/20 is admirable, and likely better than my own choices! There are, like you, choices I will not give up. Olive oil produced here in Michigan? Pretty sure, no. Chocolate? Not here either. And wild caught salmon? Well, there IS salmon here, but I'm not too sure I want to eat what is caught in the Grand River!!!
    I do what I can, with the resources I have, and am impatiently waiting for the first fruits of summer from the farmers market...fresh baby lettuces, spring onions, etc!

  2. 80/20 is a great goal. I live in PA and we have a very short growing season so I try to make sure what I can't get local is atleast from the east coast. There are things like bannannas and vanilla that I will never give up even if they cant come from the east coast

  3. 80/20 is an excellent goal! I could never give up bananas, so I'll never be an all local eater either. Or peanut butter - I'm pretty sure that's not local to me either :)

  4. Maggie, excellent post! You really hit the nail on the head with the dilemmas and struggles to overcome them. Your priorities are are excellent as well. I find that just having my priorities set in my mind is a great help.

  5. Cindy, I hear you on the first fruits of summer! And olive oil. And chocolate, although I don't eat much of that anymore. This time of year I always get terribly antsy to start planting, and once I've planted I'm a wreck until I can harvest something. I think it's some primal throwback reaction to long winters. :)

    Jennielee226, You know, fruit is one of the things I've thought a lot about recently. There's an abundance locally "in season" but winter is really a challenge with regard to buying local. I'm going to try my hand at preserving some this summer. But I'm sure I'll still buy citrus in winter.

    Allison, It's funny you mention peanut butter. One of the seed catalogs that came recently is offering peanuts to gardeners. They're a long season plant, so around here they would need to be started indoors and transplanted- but it sounded like a fun project to try.

    Leigh, I think lately I have really been struggling to get a firm grasp on exactly what my new priorities are. But you're right, once you know what they are they work as a useful guide in decision-making.

  6. Thank you for so clearly articulating exactly what I've been feeling! I'm trying to be content with making progress because it can be so overwhelming!

  7. Heather, You are very welcome. I still struggle with this too- but I try to remember that the reason all this seems so hard to me is because our society has strayed so far from sane food, and then I channel my frustration into activism to try to help turn the tide. :)