Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shortening the Supply Chain

Do you know where your dinner came from? Today, I do. I made a delicious pasta dish using homemade ravioli from the Madison farmers' market. It's fresh, I recognize every ingredient on the label, and-- best of all-- it's relatively local. The pesto sauce was made from the basil on my back deck, and the cherry tomato garnish was also harvested from a plant out back. I would have taken a picture of the meal itself (which was served with a side of locally grown greens) but it was in my belly before the thought ever occurred to me.

I wish I could eat meals such as this every day; it's fresh, it's flavorful, and (from a broad environmental standpoint, if not a personal one) it's frugal. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to prepare healthy meals from unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods. If you shop at a grocery store, this task becomes next to impossible. The foods on the inner shelves-- the juice boxes, cake mixes, and snacks-- have been almost entirely created in a laboratory somewhere; the meats come from animals that were drugged, sickened, and tortured during their short and miserable lives; the eggs are six to nine months old by the time they reach us while the other dairy products have had the nutrients pasteurized right out of them; and even the produce has been genetically modified, saturated with a myriad of pesticides, or both! And to top it all off, the vast majority of these items have been trucked in from some distance away; the average fruit or vegetable travels about 1,500 miles to get to our plate.

I will admit that there are some things I like about the current food chain; I can get fresh produce (like citrus, avocados, and other tropical fruits) that we just can't grow here-- they would never survive Chicago's temperamental climate. But why ship tomatoes from Mexico when there is an abundance of them grown right here in the Midwest? It just doesn't make any sense to me. Also, some of the products manufactured by this country's food scientists (microwave dinners, instant oatmeal, packaged cookies, condensed soups and the like)-- even though they are nutritionally worthless-- can be convenient in a pinch. The problem is that most Americans eat this garbage on a daily basis; and some rely on these items for each and every meal!

The third factor is the cost; government subsidies and the overwhelming imbalance between supply and demand have driven prices down to the point where industrial farmers will never be able to turn a profit. To pay a fair price for meats (for example) that were responsibly and naturally raised is a sticker shock for some, while completely cost prohibitive for others. I saw on a news broadcast the other night that, despite recent price hikes on grocery essentials, Americans on average are only spending 5% of their income on food, compared with the 10% our grandparents doled out just 50 years ago! I'd be willing to bet that they ate a lot better, too.

While I would love to go off the grid entirely, to plant a huge garden, make everything from scratch, and only buy my food from local farmers, that simply isn't realistic for me at the moment. So I splurge on real food whenever and wherever I can, and when I do make a meal using entirely fresh ingredients, I savor the fruits of my labor.

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