You go out to that hot, new restaurant with the tattooed chef that is putting on a whole animal, nose to tail special dinner. You bliss out on highfalutin pork rinds, braised pigs feet, rustic pate, and porchetta. A few months later you nibble on small bites as you stroll down the city street, blocked off for some weekend 'foodie' festival. You go back to your Monday-Friday workaday routine ordering pizza, buying some frozen chicken breasts at Costco ("hey, at least they are 'organic'"), subsisting through your hectic week (although you still have time for at least 2 hours a day of 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 a blend of Costco, Trader Joe's, and maybe Whole Paycheck now and again. You like to think of yourself as a 'foodie', you watched Food Inc. with your mouth aghast, you own a few cookbooks. Guess what? You are NOT changing the food system, not even close. You are no better or different than the average American. Your bananas and coffee may be Fair Trade but everything else is Far From It. The dozen eggs you splurge on one time a month may be from local, outdoor-roaming birds, but all the other eggs you eat come from one giant egg conglomerate in either Petaluma, CA or Pennsylvania. Guess what, even that pig in the first dinner came from a poor farmer in Kansas because the restaurant is too cheap or lazy to find local, pastured pork. The ingredients for that foodie festival touting itself as local and sustainable mostly come 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. You pat yourself on the back, you brag while Tweeting, you pity your Midwestern relatives eating their chicken fried steak and ambrosia salad, but you secretly loathe your grocery store bill that consumes only 8% of your income while your car carves out 30% and you roll no eyes.
What does a sustainable food system need? Not you, but they do need YOU:
YOU (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
-Have not only read Omnivore's Dilemma, but also Silent Spring, Sand County Almanac, & anything by Wendell Berry
-Have sweated on a farm before
-Have participated in the death of an animal that you consumed
-Know a farmer by their first name and how all their kids are doing
-Shared in a farmers risk by putting up some $ and faith up front
-Did not get to eat something that you paid for because their was a crop failure or an animal illness
-Buy local when available, but also make a point of supporting Fair Trade, Organic products whenever buying something grown in tropical countries
-Know the names of more farmers and ranchers than celebrity chefs
-Buy organic not just for your health, but for the health of the land, waterways, wildlife, and the workers in those fields
-Don't complain about prices. If price is an issue for you on something, you kindly ask the farmer if they have any less expensive cuts (or #2s), bulk discounts, or volunteer opportunities. You don't ask the farmer to earn less money for their hard work.
-Bring your kids/grandkids/nieces & nephews to the farmers market and to real farms as often as possible
-Consider making a low-interest loan, grant, or pre-payment to help a farmer cover their operating expenses
-Don't expect a farmer to have year-round availability and selection. You alter your diet accordingly.
-Realize that even animal products are seasonal because animals have biological cycles
-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 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, you buy a 1/2 or whole animal so you can make that happen yourself.
-Don't call a farmer one week before you are having a pig roast to ask for a dressed out pig, delivered fresh to you, for under $300. We are not magicians, just farmers.
-Stick with that farmer for the long haul as long as they continue to supply quality product and are still in business
-If you ask to visit the farm, you also offer to help out or spend some decent $ while you are there. Otherwise you just wait patiently until their next farm tour. You don't expect a farmer to drop everything just to give you a special tour.
-Have successfully cooked a roast. You don't always need steaks and chops to make an amazing meal.
-Own a chest freezer and have some food put away in it
-Have given more than just $ 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.
-Have heard of the Farm Bill and plan to write a letter/make a phone call when it comes up for re-authorization
-Ask the waiter where the meat or fish comes from or how it was raised before you order it. If the waiter gives an insufficient answer, you order vegetarian and you tell them what you want to see next time if they want your business again.
-Figure out the handful of restaurants buying and serving sustainable food and you become loyal to them. You occasionally give them feedback and thank them.
-Get the majority of your produce, meat, eggs, dairy, bread, dried fruit, nuts, olive oil from Farmers Markets, CSAs, U-Pick, On-Farm Stands. You 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 grocer.
-Have eaten and enjoyed at least 1 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 is not being farmed, you tell some farmers about it. If you rent land to farmers, you offer a fair rental price, fair lease (long-term is better) and then you stay out of the way and don't meddle or hinder the farmers. They are not your pet farmers nor your landscapers.
-If your budget does not allow you to eat out often, eat out infrequently but at the places with the best integrity that may be more costly.
-Understand that sustainable food should actually cost 50-100% more than industrial, conventional food. However, you know ways to buy food more direct from farmers & ranchers so you can avoid some of the transportation/distribution/retail mark up.
-Don't buy meat from chain grocery stores, not even Whole Paycheck. You understand that for them to get meat in volume with year-round selection and availability they are having to work with large distribution networks, international suppliers, and don't pay enough to the producers for them to even cover their costs.
-Understand that 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.
-You don't expect farmers to lower their prices to meet your budget. You figure out how to reallocate your spending to meet those prices.
-Have gotten used to not eating tomatoes until at least July, apples in late August to December, citrus in winter, greens in spring. You don't complain.
-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. You don't complain.
-Know the tenderloin/filet is the most expensive muscle on the animal and that there is very little of it. You don't expect there to be filet everytime you go to market. There are finite parts to an animal. You are OK with that. You embrace it. You learn to cook other parts.
-Like to throw your consumer dollar behind a couple beginning farmers or lower-income farmers and you are concerned about how landless, lower-income producers are going to compete with the increasing numbers of wealthy landownerss getting into farming as a hobby.
-Don't compare prices between farmers who are trying to do this for a living and those that do it only as a hobby (& don't have to make a living from what they produce & sell)
-Understand that if you want to see working conditions and wages come up for farming & food processing workers, that you will have to pay more for food. You are OK with that.
-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 we don't show some committment, if we don't display some of the same level of hard work that farmers, rancherss, & farmworkers display on a daily basis, than we cannot build a sustainable food system. You are not a passive consumer. You are part of this system too. Don't just eat, do something more...
(P.S. This is a picture of a gentleman who was sick of being a passive eater of industrial, low-quality food. He put his ideals to action and volunteered. He sweated a lot, got in shape, and has a new passion for all things food-related. He is an example of the YOU I refer to above)