If you want to dodge obesity, avoid chemicals, and reawaken your taste buds, take a pass on industrial food and think flavorful free-range chicken; lean, grass-fed beef; tomatoes that still smell of the garden. There's a growing movement that's transforming what we put in our mouths.
Every day, at least a hundred times, you open your mouth and put something in it: a French fry, yogurt, lasagna, chocolate.
Whatever it is, it links you tangibly to the natural world because food is made up of things—potatoes, cocoa beans, meat, salt—that were once plants, animals, or minerals. As Anna Lappé, a co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, says, "You don't have to hike in the mountains to commune with nature. You just have to eat."
But if you happen to eat like a typical 21st-century American, the food that crosses your lips probably bears about as much resemblance to its natural state as a chicken nugget does to a barnyard hen. And that difference has everything to do with the vast, complex, and often highly toxic industrial food system. Although for decades the only voices of protest were coming from the fringe, now there's a full-fledged revolution going on, and all you have to do to join is pass up the chips and nuggets and eat a locally grown, organic carrot instead.
It may not seem like protest—it doesn't exactly call to mind the giant marches that heralded the civil rights or antiwar movements of the 1960s, for example. But the food movement is all the more powerful for its grassroots ubiquity. Because with food, you don't have to bang your head against Washington's inert bureaucracy or picket an indifferent multinational agribusiness in hopes of making a difference. You can just shop at a farmers' market, buy local and organic, or participate in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, where, in exchange for paying a portion of a farmer's costs each season, you'll receive a portion of his harvest.
Better yet, you can pick up a hoe. At the heart of the movement are kids just out of college who want to devote their lives to growing good food. Tom Philpott left a job as a finance reporter in 2004 to take over a farm in the Appalachian Mountains. "I was very happy to get away from finance and get my hands into the dirt," he says. Two years later, his Maverick Farms harvested 10,000 pounds of produce, supported nearly 40 CSA shares, and sponsored more than 50 volunteers. "I think we're seeing a wave of young people going into farming," says Philpott. "We get so many phone calls from people who want to come volunteer that we turn away most of them. These are kids who want to put their bodies on the line for sustainable farming. It's clear that people are yearning to reconnect with their food."
Craig Haney, the livestock manager at Stone Barns—a sustainable farm and educational center in Pocantico Hills, New York, where this story was photographed—studied to be a lawyer but kept postponing graduation to take time off and work as an interpreter at a living-history farm museum. Eventually, he realized his calling. "Farming just seems like who I am," he says. Adriane Tillman, who worked for a newspaper before joining the farm apprentice program at Stone Barns, agrees. She says, "A lot of my friends would like to quit their jobs and do this."
City dwellers are getting involved too. Jen Griffith, a Columbia graduate who recently completed an ecological horticulture program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is working with a nonprofit group called Just Food to bring sustainably grown produce directly from regional farms into New York City neighborhoods that wouldn't otherwise have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In Berkeley, California, Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant, started a foundation with a School Lunch Initiative that has succeeded in replacing nearly all the processed foods in Berkeley public schools with fresh, local ingredients and has trained cafeteria staff to cook them. Organic Near You Whether you are a farmer or a farm-stand shopper, there are hundreds of remarkable organizations and resources to help you make smart, sustainable choices. Here are a few.
For the best local sources of grass-fed beef or organic produce, check out LocalHarvest (LocalHarvest.org) and the Eat Well Guide (EatWellGuide.org).
Knowledge Is Power To understand the impact of your shopping choices, visit the Organic Consumers Association site (OrganicConsumers.org).
Do It Yourself Kitchen Gardeners International (KitchenGardeners.org) helps backyard gardeners increase their food self-reliance and link up with a worldwide community of people who grow their own ingredients.
Preserving the Future The Seed Savers Exchange (SeedSavers.org) gives tips on harvesting and preserving your own seeds—one way to fight back against the genetically modified (GM) seeds patented by multinational corporations.
Turning Green Farmers considering switching to organic will find valuable information and resources at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (www.Leopold.IAState.edu) and the Rodale Institute (RodaleInstitute.org), which has a crop conversion calculator that can estimate the profits and expenses involved.
Vacations to Remember The next time you're planning a vacation, consider a stint as a volunteer on an organic farm, through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOFUSA.org).
Take Action! To keep up with government policies and learn how to pressure Congress and other agencies to ensure a sustainable, healthy food supply, check out the Center for Food Safety (CenterforFoodSafety.org); its new initiative, Cool Foods, is working to clarify the link between food choices and global warming. And Food & Water Watch (FoodandWaterWatch.org) is a nonprofit consumer group that strives to ensure clean water and safe food worldwide.
Two decades ago, Waters wrote an essay bemoaning the fact that the gourmand and the small-scale farmer were at opposite ends of the food spectrum—the former liked his dinner highly refined, ultra-fussy, and as dissimilar as possible from the raw components that comprised it; the latter took pride in growing lovely pears or fennel or lamb. But that gap has all but disappeared. Dan Barber, whose influential role in the locavore movement (which promotes eating and cooking with local and seasonal ingredients) has made him the heir apparent to Waters, is executive chef at a restaurant situated smack in the middle of Stone Barns' 28 acres of organic gardens and pastures. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he is proving that the most luxurious food in the world may be a ripe tomato or apricot grown in nutrient-rich soil, simply and elegantly prepared, and eaten within hours of being picked.
You might discover that once you start paying attention to what you eat, the changes snowball and there's no going back. Every time you slip a quarter into a vending machine or buy groceries, you impact everything from the vacant lot down the street to the water in the Gulf of Mexico, from childhood obesity to global warming. According to a recent study by the Nielsen Company and the Natural Marketing Institute, so-called "green" consumers pay whatever it takes to buy organic and local foods even in a weak economy. Indeed, consumers may prove to be the true renewable resource of the food revolution, for rather than becoming frustrated and apathetic, as has tended to happen with past movements, they seem to grow more committed, powerful, and knowledgeable every year.
It happened to Wende Elliott. She landed a plum job in book publishing in New York City after graduating from Princeton. But when she and her husband had their first child, they started shopping organically and educating themselves about the food system. Within two years, they had decided to move to Iowa and start an organic livestock farm. At first their aims were humble. "We wanted to raise food for our family," says Elliott. But the couple soon discovered the power of collaborating with others, and in 2001 established Wholesome Harvest, a coalition of family farmers that markets its own meats, all raised according to higher standards than even those set by the USDA for organic meat.
Before long, Elliott began noticing that her organic farm stood out—literally—from the surrounding fields. "Our land is about three feet higher than our neighbors'," she says, a fact she attributes to age-old farming methods—such as crop rotation—that strengthen and nourish the soil. "They say the soil here in Iowa is the most fertile in the world," she says. "But row cropping has exposed it so much that it just washes or blows away. Nearly half the topsoil is estimated to be gone."
For Elliot, there's a reason even more fundamental than dirt to farm as she does. "The chemical approach to farming is that it's a war," she says. "It's you against the bugs. With organic, it's not about control. It's about participating in natural systems more complex and symbiotic than we realize. We see stewardship of the land as a spiritual practice. You can't control when it rains. It's a practice of faith."
Going organic turns out to make good economic sense, too, according to the Rodale Institute, which has conducted a 27-year study into the benefits and costs of organic farming. And a recent survey by the Leopold Center at Iowa State University finds that the average net return per acre for a CSA farm in the Midwest is $2,467, compared with $172 for a conventional corn crop or $38 for wheat.
This all comes as no surprise to Barber, who understands the logic of an agricultural system based on natural interrelationships between plants and animals. For starters, he points out, traditional livestock farming is based on free solar energy, converted into calories in the form of grass, which in turn is consumed by sheep and chickens. "From an ecological standpoint, feeding grain to sheep or cows has always been absolutely the craziest thing," he says. "They're ruminants; they don't process grain very well. But the system was perpetuated by subsidies, cheap oil, and cheap grain."
At Stone Barns, the sheep's manure fertilizes the pastures and attracts bugs, which the chickens adore. It is also added to the compost heap, along with plants and kitchen scraps. The mature compost, as black as coffee grounds, is rich with nutrients that are absorbed by the carrots, green beans, and zucchini. The vegetables harvested at Stone Barns are not only more nutritious than conventional crops—a $20 million study by the European Union found that organic vegetables have 40 percent more antioxidants and higher levels of beneficial minerals—but also taste better. "The best flavor comes from the best ecological decisions," says Barber. "This isn't just quaint and nostalgic. And it isn't just delicious. It's also a smart, savvy business decision."
But perhaps you're still not convinced it's worth the trouble to change your eating habits. So here's one more reason: your weight. The American industrial agriculture system produces enough calories for every man, woman, and child to consume 4,000 a day (the average man needs 2,500 a day; the average woman 2,000). And despite "lite" and "low fat" claims to the contrary, food marketers don't care whether those calories wind up in the trash or on your hips, as long as they can convince you to purchase your share. Meanwhile, according to the National Institutes of Health, the cost of America's obesity epidemic now exceeds $100 billion a year.
"When I started eating more consciously," says Anna Lappé, "I lost more than 10 pounds. If you pay attention to the food you eat, you start to hear what your body is saying. We're so bombarded with messages about food it's no wonder our internal voice—'I'm full, I want a plum, give me some broccoli'—gets drowned out."
So there it is: a huge, deeply entrenched problem—the American industrial food system—and a million solutions that occur every time you decide what to put in your mouth. Says Jen Griffith, "Eating organically and sustainably is a quiet, daily form of protest. But instead of getting all riled up, you can do something productive and creative and satisfying about it." Or, as Alice Waters puts it, "It's a delicious revolution."