Monday, March 1, 2010

Compassionate, Conscientious Consumerism

Have you seen Food, Inc.? Up until today, I had not watched the documentary in which producer-director Robert Kenner and his cohorts investigate the inner workings of the American food industry. I must admit -- I came away from my viewing feeling very shocked.

Was I shocked at the appalling images of animals living in squalor being killed in gross and inhumane manners? Yes, of course. Was I surprised at learning of how, in 2001, two year old Kevin Kowalyck ate a hamburger and died of E. coli 12 days later, and that thousands of Americans continue to die every year from preventable foodborne illnesses contracted through contaminated supermarket products? Yes, of course. Did I cringe upon learning that 70% of processed foods have some genetically modified ingredient? Yes, of course. But mostly I was shocked that I felt shocked at all.

I am not ignorant of America's slaughterhouse practices, nor of the fact that our supermarkets stock every product all the time (more or less) instead of rotating seasonally. I know that our food is produced in a way that is considered most economically efficient, and that as a result it contains chemicals, hormones, filler ingredients, and other unsavory modifications that I would rather not put into my body (at least, not without knowing about it). I see how junk foods are the cheapest products on the shelves, predisposing low-income families to obesity and diabetes. I know all these things, I am not naive about the United States food industry -- and yet Food, Inc. affected me quite a bit.

What I found most interesting is that not only is our assembly line-based food production system cruel to the animals whose meat finds its way into our grocery stores, and that the additives introduced to our foods to increase their longevity and perceived marketability unhealthful -- but also that our country's current food industry exploits people. Farmers are required by the handful of companies that dominate food production to make expensive (and often inhumane) upgrades to their facilities, but are not compensated adequately for their work-related expenses. Illegal immigration is simultaneously encouraged and abused by the large food corporations. Poor consumers are forced to choose between nutritious products and cheap products. The CDC estimates that about 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness.

Nobody knows about a lot of that aspect of our food industry. I know that I sure didn't. Ethical food production isn't just about animal rights or environmental protection (which I'm all for, by the way). It's about consumers needing to inform themselves in order to protect themselves and their families, because the unsavory effects of our food industry are far closer to home than I ever realized.

So what's a consumer to do? You know, I'm really not sure. Suffice it to say that Food, Inc. has given me a great deal to think about. I highly recommend watching this film, especially if a lot of what I mentioned is completely new to you. Judging from my personal knowledge base, Food, Inc. is both accurate and eye-opening. I'm not a vegetarian or vegan, but I must admit that I'm seriously considering changing that now.

Barring becoming fruitarians (which I am not necessarily endorsing), can we change our habits and cultivate more conscientious consumerism? I think so. Some of the least daunting, home-front-based changes recommended on the Food, Inc. website are not unfamiliar to healthy food bloggers and their readers, but are worth repeating:
  • Eat at home/pack a lunch instead of depending on restaurants/take-out for the majority of your meals.
  • If you can, buy organic or sustainable food with little or no pesticides.
  • Buy whatever you can from local farmer's markets.
  • Inform yourself about what's going into your mouth (and your family's mouths) by taking a few moments to read labels.
  • Try a Meatless Monday or Vegan Thursday. If those aren't enough of a challenge, you could always trying a Raw Wednesday. (Actually, I'm pretty intrigued by all the raw food tidbits I'm seeing around the blogosphere -- anyone interested in having a little raw-some fun with me?)
Those aren't too scary, right? The more adventurous can get involved in advocacy on the political level, lobbying for job protection for farmers and food processors, as well as improved measures for preventing foodborne illness outbreaks. The official Food, Inc. site has a great deal of information as well as more ideas for making changes locally and nationally.

So what are we going to do here in the Kitchen Courage household? As I already mentioned, I'm not really sure at this point. I definitely want to be a more compassionate and mindful consumer. We, the buyers, wield in what we do and do not purchase. I was encouraged to hear these words coming from Tony Airosa, Wal-Mart's chief dairy purchaser:
Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.
Cool, right? Change is possible, starting at the check-out line. And for me, change started today in my kitchen. Watching Food, Inc. left me feeling understandably icky (that's a technical term), so I decided to make some 100% whole wheat bread from my favorite cookbook, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. And when I say 100% whole wheat, that's exactly what I mean -- this beautifully crusty loaf contained only wheat flour, vital wheat gluten, yeast, a bit of salt, and water. How's that for conscientious consumerism? Conscientious consumerism smells and tastes yummy. Mmm.

Have you seen Food, Inc.? What did you think? Did it change your buying and eating habits? I am eager to hear your stories and opinions!

Speaking of stories, I am enjoying answering your questions. There have been some good ones! If you're wondering about . . . well, just about anything (within reason), I'd love to hear about it and take a stab at satisfying your curiosity. Ask me [almost] anything here.


  1. I've been reading about this movie for a long time now and I'm afraid to watch it. I'll never want to eat again!

  2. Hey, thanks for using our loaf as an example!Jeff Hertzberg

  3. Yeah, I need to rewatch this. I am kind of anti raw but that's just me :) I'm very pro vegetarian/vegan and I hope that I can be more veggie in the near future!! (Once hormones get sorted out)

  4. i havent watched this but am very passionate about these issues. i recently read a great book that im gonna review soon on my blog and giveaway too, called the compassionate carnivore. thanks for sharing your thoughts and i hope we can keep the dialog open about these issues!

  5. Food, Inc affected me in much the same way that it affected you. I already knew the horrors of the industrial meat, dairy, and egg industries, but was appalled to learn how much of an impact this has on the small farmers. I already buy almost all of my produce and eggs from a local farm, bake my own bread, and eat meat only once or twice a month. After watching the movie I have been tempted to go completely vegetarian, or find a local source for sustainably raised meat.

  6. Food Inc was SUCH a great movie, it really opened my eyes to a lot and reminded me of much I already knew! I saw it a month ago and haven't had time to review it! And, on a side note, I LOVE your comment about your vision of writing and income, super awesome! ;)

  7. Hip Mom's GuideMarch 5, 2010 at 5:52 AM

    Great post! I felt much the same way after reading In Defense of Food. Not because of the slaughterhouse horrors, but the connection between what we eat, what it does to and for us, and where it comes from. With three growing boys, I try very hard to stay out of the "middle aisles" as much as possible. It's hard sometimes, and expensive, but I think it's worth the effort.

  8. Hi Beth,We took our teenage kids (13 and 15) to see this as soon as it came out in theaters. Shortly afterward, my husband bought me a chest freezer and I started to learn how to butcher my own meat so we could buy large primal and subprimal cuts from local farmers. You could say it had an impact! ;)


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