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.
By Celia Barbour
Photo: Ditte Isager
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.