Last week I had the chance to talk with Ben, and in mentioning that as part of my day on Facebook some of you asked what exactly we chatted about. It wasn't an interview, although our conversation was so fun and easy that I'm thinking a proper interview related to his upcoming book, The Nourishing Homestead, would be a great idea. I would have to figure out how to record that (and Ben would have to be interested) in order to share it with you all. Seems like a good time though.
Anyway, we talked a lot about food, homesteading, Vermont, family, scratching a livelihood in this new economy... and food some more. We share very similar ideas about food, though Ben and his wife Penny are about a decade further along in producing the majority of their food than we are. In total, about 90% of the Hewitts' daily caloric intake comes from their own land. That's something to think about, isn't it?
The most significant thing my education in nutrition and wellness has taught me is that today's food industry is the tobacco industry of yesteryear, and that the further away we can get from it, the healthier we will be. Considering this idea, Ben's thoughts today resonated with me.
"My general sense is that a lot of people are really confused about food. My other general sense is that the dominant food industry likes us to be confused. And maybe a little afraid. It likes us to think we’ll die of some horrible disease if we make a batch of sauerkraut or butcher a pig at home or drink unpasteurized milk. It likes us to skip from one diet to another, because each skip represents an opportunity to sell us more things we don’t much need.
I also suspect that the first step toward eating a truly healthy diet is to listen to whatever government nutrition professionals tell you about eating a truly healthy diet.
And then do exactly the opposite."
In recent years, the big sell has been to "eat from the perimeter of the grocery store," which has never sat well with me. There is a lot of engineered food, and food like substances, lurking in the perimeter. Yes, even in the produce department. Honestly, my professional recommendation would be to get out of the grocery store altogether. And therein lies the challenge.
Farmers' Markets, natural food coops and land to grow our own food are not currently in the cards for many people. It can feel elitist to suggest such things. But here's the thing. Aside from breathing, drinking water, and hopefully sleeping, eating food is the one thing that each and every one of us will do every day for the rest of our lives. Why are we so willing to surrender on this issue? Rather than succumb to the defeat of our current circumstances as a permanent life path, why not make a one, two, or five year plan to make the change? In other words, maybe all we can do on this very day is switch from corn flakes to organically grown oats, but with careful planning (and perhaps a lot of work, sacrifice and discipline), maybe in five years time we can swap the oats for home grown eggs with sauteed greens and backyard berries. This kind of thinking may seem radical and out of the box, but dial the clock back to a time when people were healthier, as well as more connected to family and community, and it's actually a pretty normal thing to do.
Taking back control of the family food supply is not on everyone's priority list, and that's okay. We're all doing our own thing in this life and each path should be honored. So please don't think I'm suggesting we all hop on this one particular train, I'm not. But for those who desire to put quality of food at the top of their list, is it really as far out of reach as we tell ourselves? Or more importantly, as we are taught to believe?
Many years ago I took a hard look at our grocery budget. Wanting to utilize local farms and our food coop more and more, the numbers weren't adding up in my favor to do so. But I forced myself to get real honest about it. How much of a difference were we talking, exactly? Because when looking to switch our purchasing habits, I wasn't starting from square one. I wasn't looking to buy coconut oil on top of pre-packaged granola bars... I wanted to get rid of the granola bars altogether. So really, I didn't need a secondary grocery budget on top of my current one. It was the difference between the two that I needed to think about.
Talking specific numbers regarding grocery budgets is a very sensitive subject, and farm/market prices vary wildly depending on geographic location (my area being one of the highest in the country). For easy explanation, let's just say that we were budgeting $100 weekly for groceries. Looking to switch our purchasing habits did not mean I needed an additional budget on top of the $100. Remember, I wanted to replace foods, not buy organic/local food on top of what we already bought. The new grocery habits I was looking to adopt would require about $125 weekly. The difference was my point of concern, I was already spending the $100. I felt like the difference was within reach, that there was something I could do to make it up. Surely I could figure out a way to earn an extra $25 weekly.
Not long after, I was talking about this idea with a friend, who happened to be a single mom. She suggested that she would love a chance to get out of the house (solo) for a few hours each week - would I watch her kids in exchange for $25? Of course! Emily was a toddler at the time and she came along with me. That extra bit of money rounded out my grocery budget to the point of supporting our weekly trip to the food coop. And that was the beginning of me being able to "afford" quality food.
Life is hard and full of challenges. And while I prefer not to think of it as a battle, the truth is, in its most primitive, historical examples, life was often about sheer survival. Perhaps it still is, but now it is softened by the illusion of glossy aisles in climate controlled grocery stores with reassuring messages of health when you "shop the perimeter." Through the challenges, there is also opportunity for freedom and abundance. Years ago, around the time I took a hard look at our grocery budget, I developed a mantra for living through hard times (ask my family members, they'll tell you this is true), and it goes like this... am I doing all that I can?
Simple, right? It's my way of not playing the external blame game (the economy! job market! taxes! land prices! health care costs!) and bringing the work of life, the actions I am actually in control of, back to myself.
Am I dong all that I can, is the question I come back to again and again. It's the question that motivates me out of self-pity when times are hard, and spawns busy hands and resourcefulness when they are most needed. Still, there have been times through the years when it felt like I was doing all I could but it still wasn't enough. During those times I would not hesitate to ask my parents for gift certificates to our food coop when they wanted a few ideas for Christmas gifts. Grocery gift cards are one of the most helpful and appreciated things.
A Whole Food Kitchen participant once shared that she and her husband always use birthday or other gift money to stock up on certain more expensive pantry items such honey, maple syrup, olive oil, bushels of apples from the farm, etc. I love that idea so much. I've started doing this myself. This year, my parents gave us a little money for our anniversary and it went toward our winter CSA. This might not sound like a fun use of gift money to some people, but to me it is the perfect example of freedom and abundance... which is kind of wicked fun.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was a whole foods, Monsanto-free kitchen. Each day we can indeed take small steps in the direction of our gmo-free dreams. Ever the Virgo, I'm always operating with a 2-5 year plan. The key is to remain open to the plan evolving, while knowing that creating and following steps toward family food goals can make all the difference between living an intended life and simply going through the motions of a life I don't recognize as my own.
I don't have the answers for replacing our national food system. Honestly, the problem is so monumental (and employs thousands if not millions of people) that I'm not sure how it could ever be dismantled at this point. But I do believe that this one little life I've been given is in my hands... and I will continue to ask myself, sometimes on a near daily basis, in terms of quality of life and keeping my family healthy... am I doing all that I can?