Monday, March 1, 2010

A fork in the road: 14 ways to start eating sustainably

A version of this article appeared in Brava magazine, March 2010.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

The journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single bite.

Many of us think we need to change the way we eat: that we should eat less processed food, less junk food, less food on the run, and maybe just plain less food.

But increasingly, it seems the entire food system could use some serious adjustment.

More and more, we’re taking notice of some troubling facts. Too much our food comes from thousands of miles away, so that it takes lavish amounts of petroleum just to get it to our plates. Too much of it is elaborately packaged, generating lots of trash. Too much of it is produced by agribusiness operating on an enormous scale, even as our own Wisconsin family farms continue to shut down. Too much of it is peppered with pesticides and herbicides, and grown in biologically “dead” soil soaked in chemical fertilizer. And too much of it comes from animals that really could be treated better.

A lot of people – many of them right here in southern Wisconsin – have been working very hard for decades to change this dismally inefficient, environmentally devastating, unhealthful shape of things. Recently, movies like Food, Inc. and author Michael Pollan’s bestselling books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have brought mainstream attention to these issues. Sustainable eating, a phrase being heard more and more these days, is one popular description of the multi-featured groundswell of grassroots response by concerned eaters and growers to all these issues.

“I like to say ‘ethical eating,’” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP), the Madison-based organization behind efforts like Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, which brings locally produced food into schools, Buy Fresh Buy Local, which helps forge relationships between restaurateurs and farmers, and the Farm Fresh Atlas, which maps sustainable food producers throughout the state. “‘Ethical’ gets people thinking about all the things we’re talking about a little more quickly, like fair trade. Organic is an important issue, for instance, but it’s not the only issue.”

Here in Madison, with the nation’s largest farmers market, world-class restaurants that make a point of pride of naming the farms that supply their ingredients, and an abundance of organic and artisanal farms, cheese makers, breweries, bakeries and more all around us, we’ve long been at the epicenter of what many see as a revolutionary movement. In September, when Michael Pollan gave a series of talks here that drew crowds of up to 5,000, he described our town as “one of the important fronts in [the] battle to change the American way of eating and growing food.”

Pretty weighty stuff.

In fact, it might seem a bit overwhelming, wondering how to start. You might worry: Is this just one more thing for me to feel guilty about not doing right? Do I have to give up my favorite foods? Can I still shop at the supermarket? Can I ever eat out? Do I have to slave for hours in the kitchen? Do I have to start a garden and get dirty? What if I don’t have time to shop at the farmers’ market – and what would I do with the weird stuff I bought there, anyway? And the expense! Will I go broke trying to live on whole, fresh, natural, locally produced food?

Relax. Breathe. That’s not what this trip is about. If you want to change the way you eat, some of the area’s sustainable food leaders have shared their insights and advice for making some tasty transitions, one forkful at a time. 

1.Pay attention. The first step is just to increase your awareness. Let yourself wonder all sorts of things whenever you shop or order out. Where did it come from? How did it get to you? Who handled it? How did it get to look the way it does? Could your great-grandmother have made this out of raw ingredients? Or does it look like a factory and lots of patented technology is required to make it? Where will the packaging and the scraps go after you’re done with your meal? Let your mind become accustomed to drifting along these directions. Any concrete measures you decide upon will connect naturally and easily to your train of thought.
“When you go to a supermarket, don’t just go in a daze,” suggests Barbara Wright, owner of The Dardanelles restaurant and a past president of Madison Originals, an association of independent restaurants. “Don’t throw things into your cart in zombie mode. Look around. You might notice, ‘Oh, those red peppers, that looks good to me.’”

2. Start small, and make delicious discoveries along the way. “Don’t try to change everything overnight,” advises chef Leah Caplan, the chief food officer at Metcalfe’s Market at Hilldale and that store’s local-food liaison. “You can start up with one meal a week using ingredients from this area. If on Wednesday night [you] usually have roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with some spinach, come to the grocery store, buy a local chicken, some local potatoes and spinach. You’ll notice a definite quality difference. Snug Haven grows spinach year-round in hoop houses. This time of year, with the frost, it’s candy sweet. If you taste that side by side with spinach from California or South America this time of year, there’s virtually no flavor to the shipped spinach.”

3. Read labels. Make it a habit not to put anything in your cart until you’ve consciously chosen to accept each ingredient. You can go a long way by choosing just two or three key offenders to avoid, without needing a chemistry degree.  Try crossing these two off your shopping list: monosodium glutamate (MSG) – which adds a quality known as umami, or “tastiness,” but also makes you crave more food while deadening  your palate –  and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a highly refined substance metabolized differently from traditional sugar that’s drawing fire for possibly contributing directly to today’s obesity epidemic.

4. Shop for ingredients, not meals. If you’re concerned about price, this is the best way to turn the equation around to your favor. For instance, if you take microwave-ready lunches to work, the “all-natural” equivalents will be pricier. But if you prepare meals from scratch – say, a chef’s salad, pasta salad or lasagna – you’ll be able to swap in the finest local ingredients and come out even or ahead.

5. Learn to cook. Treat yourself to sturdy pans and quality knives, a cutting board you find beautiful, whatever will make it easier and more enjoyable to create your own fantastic food. “Take some lessons if you’re jazzed by that idea. Get cookbooks, if that’s what you like. There are so many great angles for getting into this,” says Terese Allen, food editor at Organic Valley Cooperative, who’s written several cookbooks celebrating the pleasures of local food, most recently co-authoring The Flavor of Wisconsin. “Give yourself permission to keep it simple. I like to think in terms of what I call repertoire dishes: an omelet, a pizza, a rice dish, a soup. I can think, ‘OK, this is pasta night,’ and any week of the year I can make a dish using seasonal ingredients. It doesn’t take that much more time to smash some cherry tomatoes in the pan and add some basil leaves, rather than serving something with added ingredients and a shelf life of thousands of years – and sometimes is not all that convenient.”  

6. Choose local products. Many Madison grocers identify these. Metcalfe’s has won national awards for its “Food Miles” program locating “anything within Wisconsin or in a 150-mile radius from Madison,” explains Caplan, with signs like highway markets. “For instance, Capital Brewery is 5 miles.” Similarly, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative names the local farms that grow its produce and labels local items throughout the store. If your supermarket doesn’t highlight local products, talk with the manager or drop a note in the suggestion box.

7. Join a CSA. Purchase a share of a farm’s annual harvest through community-supported agriculture (CSA), and you’ll get a weekly box of fruits and vegetables for nearly half the year.  Some programs provide add-ons of local meat, cheese, eggs, honey and fair-trade coffee. “This food is picked within 24 hours,” says Keira Mulvey, director of Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), which helps consumers and farmers find one another. “It’s the connection between you and the grower that’s important to us, You  get a whole bunch of newsletters with recipes and a little bit of a deeper understanding of what’s going on at your farm, what kind of drama is going on with the animals and the machinery. You can visit and be a part of on-farm events – pesto festos, corn boils. It’s not just a farm visit; it’s a visit to the farm that’s producing food for your family. That’s a fun way to engage with your food.”
If you don’t cook much, “you can split a share” with a friend or neighbor, Mulvey suggests. MACSAC’s cookbook, From Asparagus to Zucchini, will help you figure out what to do with that kohlrabi, or fennel, or whatever unfamiliar treasure might be in season. “The beautiful thing about CSAs is, it pushes you to try things you might not otherwise,” Grunes says.
Incredibly, Physician’s Plus, Dean, Unity and GHC pay you up to $200 in cash when you present your CSA receipt. “That’s a recipe for good health,” Grunes says. Interested in learning more? Visit MACSAC’s CSA Open House March 14 at the Monona Terrace.

8. Shop at farmers’ markets. A cornerstone of the local food movement, this is the place to find food diversity like you’ve never imagined and bright, fresh flavors unmatched by foods bred for long storage life and shipping hardiness. “When my sister had carrots right out of the field, she said, ‘Wow, this is a carrot, but it tastes so much better.’ Even within the simple potato, you can find a wide variety of flavors and textures. You’ll be able to find that typical Russet, but also purple, blue, fingerling, Yukon gold.” says Claire Strader, the farmer at Community GroundWorks, an educational facility on Madison’s Northside that includes a certified organic farm producing food for a vendor stall at the Northside Farmers’ Market, a CSA and several grocery stores.  “People might not realize they can find a wide range of food,” Strader says. “Why not go shopping at the farmers’ market first and then swing by the grocery on the way home for everything you didn’t find? You can get meat, honey, eggs, milk, cheese, fish, baked goods there. You’re not going to get Pop Tarts there.”
New to the scene? “Ask to go with a friend who’s familiar with that market, as a sort of tour guide. People have favorite foods and favorite vendors,”  Strader says. During the growing season, there’s a market every day of the week somewhere in or near Madison. REAP’s Farm Fresh Atlas, available online and in print, will help you find one that’s convenient to you.

9. Cook with friends. “If you’re working on it together and it’s kind of a social thing, it’s just so much fun,” Allen says. “I have neighbors who are in a vegetarian cooking group, and they make meals for each other. Make it a group thing!”

10. Grow something to eat. “Gardening is my favorite thing to do, but it isn’t for everybody,” Grunes admits. If you want to dip a toe in, “herbs are a great way to start. You can do it in a window box. Just snip off what you need; you won’t have a whole cilantro package going bad in the fridge.” Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow, also, and the payoff is big. “A warm tomato from right out of the yard – it doesn’t get much better than that.” Or any more local.

11. Visit a farm. Make an outing of it. Take the kids; go with friends. Several local farms offer “U-Pick” apples, strawberries, pumpkins and more. “I’ll take a vacation and go to Bayfield and pick blueberries with friends,” says Allen. “I may spend more money to get blueberries that way, but I’m getting so much more out of it. It’s not a dollar-for-dollar item-for-item kind of thing.”

12. Patronize independent restaurants serving local food. Chuck Taylor, president of Madison Originals and owner of The Blue Marlin, says, “You’re supporting your neighbors” when you choose an indie eatery, especially one that makes food from scratch and deals directly with farms. “The money stays local. It’s not going to a prescribed purveyor or to buy sauces made in some group kitchen somewhere. We would like to see that money stay in the community.”
But do we, as a nation eat out too much? Barbara Wright says, “If you’re eating out because you want to spend time together laughing about things, enjoying each other’s company, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, ever. Even if it’s at McDonald’s.” The problem, she says, is in “disordered eating.” She explains, “People ordering something and bolting it down while on their way to the next thing, shoveling food into their stomachs, that’s the problem.”

13. Get informed. Read books like In Defense of Food or Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. Get on the e- mailing lists of organizations like REAP and Community GroundWorks so you can take advantage of upcoming events where you can learn about and enjoy local foods, and even find volunteer opportunities.

14. Have fun! “This is one of the few habits you can change that can be really, really  deliciously enjoyable,” says Allen. “You don’t have to give up anything. There’s so much potential and variety in the world of food. The goal isn’t to get to 100 percent sustainable, or local, or seasonal. It’s to add that in. It’s not all or nothing. That’s not life. That’s not what this movement is about.”