Growing Our Own Food

           Oh, how I wish I had paid attention to everything my parents knew about gardening when I was growing up!  They planted a huge garden every year, growing far more than we could eat or even put up, so Mom would beg friends, relatives and neighbors to come get some produce when it became overwhelming.  She canned all the beans, corn, tomatoes and cucumber pickles we would eat for the year and put potatoes and onions in the root cellar.  How the weather was affecting the gardens was a major topic of conversation among friends and neighbors all spring and summer.

            Just in the course of my lifetime—and I’m not that old!—our entire food system has changed dramatically.  Most of the things we eat now are highly processed and travel an average of 1500 miles to our plate.  Whereas the corn on the cob I ate as a child was picked a couple of hours earlier and 20 yards away, the corn chips we consume now started in an enormous corn field far away, then passed through several “middle men” and lots of processing before being put in bags, sold to a national chain, and trucked to the store where we buy them.  In this food system, a bushel of corn produces some 440 two-ounce bags of 99-cent chips.  The farmer grosses $3.70 for the bushel of corn, while Doritos earns more than $400. 

            This industrial model has given us lots of cheap food; Americans spend only thirteen cents of every dollar to feed themselves, far less than people elsewhere and far less than we did 50 years ago.  This “green revolution” was considered a mark of amazing progress and the answer to world hunger.  However, we now see the flaws in the industrial model—topsoil is eroding and losing its fertility; chemical fertilizers and pesticides run into our streams and rivers (and ultimately our drinking water); and highly processed food has led to epidemics of obesity and diabetes.

            One of the things we need to get back to, then, is knowledge of where our food comes from.  If you read ingredient labels, you know that many unpronounceable substances are added to what we may think is in the product.  Some of these are preservatives, the reason you can keep something in the pantry for years and then eat it.  One of the interesting facts I’ve learned about marketing processed food to the public is that women initially rejected cake mixes in the 1950’s.  Research showed that they considered it cheating to just add water and bake.  So the companies began to require the addition of an egg, rather than just putting dehydrated egg in the mix.  This seemed to overcome the objections and make homemakers feel they were still baking “from scratch.”  So the next time you add an egg to a cake mix, realize that you are participating in a marketing ploy to make you feel more capable!

            Michael Pollan has written extensively on this subject.  After years of research, he recommends that we “eat food (not food-like substances), not too much, mostly plants.”  I hope you will join me in trying to eat closer to the source and shop in a way that rewards farmers and gardeners for their hard work and expertise.