First published for last year’s Challenge, on Mahlzeit
Ready for the Real Food Challenge, starting tomorrow? Here’s an 8-step guide to getting back control of your own food supply, from the simplest to the most obsessed.
Easiest: Stop shopping at the big chains like Safeway
Buy your groceries from the locally-owned neighborhood grocery store, if you’ve still got one. In big cities, you’ll find these in every Polish, Chinese, and Mexican neighborhood, although less and less in the other immigrant areas. Don’t be intimidated by the language or the comparative messiness of these stores. They have to abide by the same health laws as the chains. But you’ll be putting money in the pocket of a local, family merchant, rather than a multinational several states away.
A little more challenging. Seek local brands.
You may need a couple of trips to the market, to write down brands so you can research them (or check them out on your smart phone if you’ve got one). A lot of packaging now will say “product of STATE” and/or product of COUNTRY. Careful though. They play games like shipping California milk to Wisconsin and bottling it there, then calling it Wisconsin milk. Dairy labels have a code that allow you to track not just where they were bottled, but which farm the product came from.
Still with me? Read some labels.
Buy certified organic. Many shops now carry organic brands, especially the chains, if you don’t have a local family grocer. Check ingredients, too. If it’s got high fructose corn syrup in it, don’t buy it. Let’s get rid of our dependence on King Corn. Even refined sugar is better for you and better for the planet, plus, it tastes better. Look for “cane” sugar. If it just says sugar, it’s beet sugar and almost certainly from a genetically modified plant. Yes, this means you’ll have to stop buying soda. Don’t worry, I’ve been working on a homemade syrup that tastes like Coke! As soon as I figure it out, I’ll share it with you! (So far, some combination of citrus , coffee, and caramel seems most promising…puts on mad scientist coat and goes back to work.)
A little harder, because now you’re denying yourself stuff
Only buy in season. This means no fresh fruit in the dark of winter in my area. But I’ll let you buy locally-grown preserved fruit and vegetables, including jams, canned, frozen, pickled, etc. You’ll also have to relearn what’s in-season when. You can’t tell anymore by what’s on the shelves.
Do you have some time left?
Don’t buy things with ingredients (this is straight out of Michael Pollan). And I don’t just mean frozen pizzas and pre-prepared meals, or soup in a can. I mean jam, salsa, bread, crackers, granola and other breakfast cereals, desserts, etc. Make them yourself. Soup is easy and cheap. Making jam is rolling off a log. Ditto tomato sauce and paste. Don’t know what you’re doing? I seldom baked before I started trying to eat like this. I thought it was hard. I thought it was boring. Turns out it took exactly 3 weeks to figure out how to make all those baked goods. Even your mistakes will taste better than the corn-syrup and salt-laden imitations they’re forcing down our gullets.
Now it gets challenging. Plan ahead.
I don’t mean plan what you’re going to eat on Friday. I mean plan in July for what you’re going to eat in February. If you want locally grown, organic jams, pies, tomato sauce, and vegetables when snow is on the ground, buy it at the farmer’s market in the summer, and “put it up.” This will be a lot of work in July and August, but basically you won’t have to cook in January, February and March, because you’ll have done it already.
In pretty deep? Plant a vegetable garden.
Start with the things you know you eat a lot. Produce only what you need for the summer at first, then start adding within the constraints of your time and space. If you don’t have a yard, put some pots on your porch. If you don’t have a porch, put some herbs on a sunny windowsill. Don’t worry about budget. You’ve saved so much money taking the steps above that you have plenty to start a garden. What you can’t grow, buy at the farmer’s market.
Meat, dry goods, dairy
Look on line at FamilyFarmed.com or localharvest.com for merchants, farmers, and markets near you that have these things that are difficult to find locally.
Finally, give yourself a break.
We live in an interconnected, global society. I firmly believe you should eat in season (including imported fruits like oranges), and make things that make sense to make (bread, jam, main dishes) but that you can carry it too far. Humans have always traded. Get your cinnamon from the east, and coffee, and chocolate. Don’t deny yourself oranges in Canada, or rice in Illinois. But seek out fair trade brands, and locally-owned distributors. If you want to eat out or order in, try to find a restaurant that buys locally-grown foods, but the next best thing is to just go to a one-off, family owned business instead of the national chain. For the goddess’ sake stay out of MacDonald’s, can you do that for me?
If we all follow these steps as far as our time, energy, and budget allow, even if we never get past step one, we’ll go a long way toward repairing the damage that our profligate and blindered life style has gotten the planet into.