You go out to that hot new restaurant with the tattooed chef who’s putting on a whole-animal, nose-to-tail pricy special dinner. You bliss out on highfalutin’ pork rinds, braised pigs feet, rustic paté, and porchetta.
Later that weekend, you nibble on small bites as you stroll down the city street, blocked off for a weekend “foodie” festival.
Then you go back to your Monday-Friday workaday routine, ordering pizza and buying some frozen chicken breasts at Costco (“Hey, at least they’re ‘organic’!”) to get you through your hectic week. (You make time for at least two hours a day of reality TV.) You manage to get to a farmers market about once a month, but the rest of the time your eggs and meat come from Costco, Trader Joe’s, and maybe Whole Paycheck now and again.
Guess what? You are NOT changing the food system. Not even close.
You’re no better or different than the average American. You pat yourself on the back, you brag about your lunch on Twitter, you pity your Midwestern relatives eating their chicken-fried steak and ambrosia salad, but you secretly loathe your grocery store bill — which consumes only 8 percent of your income while your car devours 30 percent. Your bananas and coffee may be Fair Trade, but everything else is Far From It. The dozen eggs you splurge on once a month may be from local, outdoor-roaming birds, but all the other eggs you eat come from a giant egg conglomerate in either Petaluma, Calif., or Pennsylvania.
And even that pig in that nose-to-tail fancy dinner came from a poor farmer in Kansas or Iowa because the restaurant is too cheap or lazy to find local, pastured pork. And the ingredients for that foodie festival touting itself as local and sustainable? They mostly came from other states except a few ingredients they highlight as being “local.” But those restaurants, caterers, and food trucks just go back to using the low-cost distributor once the event is over.
So. Want to make a difference?
Here’s what a sustainable food system actually needs you to do, in no particular order:
- Don’t take anything at face value — read, listen, observe, research. Look at both sides of an issue and all points in between.
- Read not just the Omnivore’s Dilemma, but also Silent Spring, Sand County Almanac, and anything you can find by Wendell Berry.
- Learn why farmers and ranchers who don’t earn enough to cover their costs are not sustainable and that something has to suffer as a result, whether it be quality, animal welfare, land stewardship, wages, health care, mental & physical health, or family life.
- Understand why sustainable food should actually cost 50 to 100 percent more than industrial, conventional food. Figure out how to buy food more directly from farmers and ranchers, if you want to avoid some of the transportation/distribution/retail markup costs.
- Know the names of more farmers and ranchers than celebrity chefs, including at least one you can call by first name — and ask how their kids are doing.
- Understand that if you want to see working conditions and wages come up for farming and food processing workers, that you will have to pay more for food. Be OK with that.
- Learn about the Farm Bill and plan to write a letter/make a phone call when it comes up for re-authorization.
- Don’t expect a farmer to have year-round availability and selection. Alter your diet to match the seasonal harvests in your area. Get used to not eating tomatoes until at least July, apples in late August to December, citrus in winter, greens in spring. Don’t complain.
- Realize that even animal products are seasonal because animals have biological cycles. Know that chickens produce much less eggs in winter when days are shorter and even come to a complete stop when they are replacing their feathers (molting). Consequently you may have to eat less eggs and pay more for them during that time. Don’t complain.
- Don’t expect the farmer/rancher to sacrifice the health and welfare of the animal for your particular fad diet du jour (no corn, no soy, no wheat, no grains, no antibiotics ever, even if the animal will die, no irrigation, no hybrid breeds, no castrating, no vaccines … what is it this week?)
- Understand that the tenderloin/filet is the most expensive muscle on the animal and that there is very little of it. Don’t expect there to be filet every time you go to market. There are finite parts to an animal. Be OK with that. Embrace it. Learn to cook other parts.
- Understand that there are not enough USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities, which makes special orders difficult and limits how the meat can be processed. If you want a particular cut, organ meat, or process, then buy a half- or whole animal so you can ask the butcher to make that happen yourself.
- Don’t call a farmer a week before you’re having a pig roast to ask for a dressed-out pig, delivered fresh to you, for under $300. We are not magicians, just farmers.
Get your hands dirty:
- Sweat on a farm sometime.
- Participate in the death of an animal that you consume.
- Successfully cook a roast. You don’t need steaks and chops to make an amazing meal.
- Get a chest freezer and put some food away in it
- Cook and enjoy at least one of the following: chicken feet, gizzards, liver, heart, kidney, sweet breads, head cheese, or tripe.
- Save your bones for soup, beans, stock, or your doggies!
- If you own land that’s not being farmed, tell some farmers about it. If you rent land to farmers, offer a fair rental price or fair lease (long-term is better), and then stay out of the way and don’t meddle or hinder the farmers. They are not your pet farmers nor your landscapers.
- Throw your consumer dollar behind a couple beginning farmers or lower-income farmers. Be concerned about how landless, lower-income producers are going to compete with the increasing numbers of wealthy landowners getting into farming as a hobby.
Help your local farmers do their job:
- Bring your kids/grandkids/nieces & nephews to the farmers market and to real farms as often as possible
- If you ask to visit the farm, also offer to help out or spend some decent money while you are there. Otherwise, wait patiently until the next group farm tour. Don’t expect a farmer to drop everything just to give you a special tour.
- Consider making a low-interest loan, grant, or pre-payment to a farmer to help her cover her operating expenses. Stick with that farmer for the long haul, as long as he continues to supply quality product and can stay in business.
- Give more than just money to a farmer or rancher — maybe a Christmas card, invitation to a party, offer to spiff up their website, or watch their kid for an hour at the farmers’ market.
Really put your money where your mouth is:
- Don’t complain about prices. If price is an issue for you on something, ask the farmer nicely if he has any less expensive cuts (or cosmetically challenged “seconds”), bulk discounts, or volunteer opportunities. But don’t ask the farmer to earn less money for his hard work.
- Don’t compare prices between farmers
who are trying to do this for a living and those that do it only as a hobby (and don’t have to make a living from what they produce and sell).
- Share in a farmer’s risk by putting up some money and faith up front via a Community Supported Agriculture share. And then suck it up when you don’t get to eat something that you paid for because there was a crop failure or an animal illness.
- Buy local when available, but also make a point of supporting certified Fair Trade, Organic products when buying something grown in tropical countries
- Buy organic not just for your health, but for the health of the land, waterways, wildlife, and the workers in those fields
- Figure out the handful of restaurants that buy and serve truly sustainable food and become loyal to them. Occasionally give them feedback and thank them.
- If your budget doesn’t allow you to eat out often, eat out infrequently but at the places with the best integrity that may be more costly.
- Ask the waiter where the restaurant’s meat or fish comes from, and how it was raised before you order it. If the waiter gives an insufficient answer, order vegetarian and tell them what you want to see next time if they want your business again.
- Don’t buy meat from chain grocery stores, not even Whole Paycheck. Understand that for them to get meat in volume with year-round selection and availability, they have to work with large distribution networks and often international suppliers, and don’t pay enough to the producers for them to even cover their costs.
- Get the majority of your produce, meat, eggs, dairy, bread, dried fruit, nuts, and olive oil from farmers markets, CSAs, U-pick farms, and on-farm stands. Try to buy from the actual farmer, not a middleman. Get the rest of your food from the bulk section, dairy case, or bakery of your local independent grocer.
- Pay for your values. If it hurts, don’t have fewer values, just eat less food (sorry, but most Americans could stand to do a bit of this)
I admit, this is a lot to digest.
What I am saying is that we can’t be casual about the food system we want to see. If more people don’t show some commitment, and take part in some of the hard work that farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers do on a daily basis, then we cannot build a sustainable food system.
You don’t have to be a passive consumer. You are part of this system, too. Don’t just eat, do something more!
A version of this post first appeared on Honest Meat.