Sunday, November 01, 2009

Being Kind to My Food

by Zinta Aistars

Because before it is my food, it is a living animal or a living plant. Being kind to the animal that sacrifices its life for my intake of protein means I have become increasingly concerned about the inhumane treatment of livestock in our food factories. Being kind to the plant on my plate means caring about the way that it is grown, by natural and organic means, without polluting the earth, the water, the air.

I’ve always cared about these things … or, I thought I cared. But it is only recently, when I accepted an assignment to work on an article for an alumni magazine about food production, that I really became aware of what happens behind the scenes. I’m not nearly done learning about this topic; I’ve only gotten started with a few lectures I’ve attended, a book I am currently reading, and a growing file of research. I will be talking to a half dozen people before this article is finished, and not all of them will be on the side of sustainable farming. One or two will give me perspective on industrialized food production, and for good measure, I have a chef on my interview list to throw into the soup, too. But an alumni magazine is about the education these people received, not investigative journalism or an expose, so I get to have an opinion as I learn about my subject matter.

My opinion: I’ve been a bad eater. And not a very nice person when it comes to respecting other living beings. I’ve been boycotting veal for more years than I can remember, and I abhor eating lamb. It took only one photo of a tiny calf boxed into a crate to prevent it from any movement whatsoever, and learning that this is the way veal is kept tender—by not allowing the poor little animal to develop any muscle, to turn me off veal forever.

I wasn’t completely stupid about slaughterhouses. I knew just enough to make me contemplate going vegetarian from time to time. Never lasted. I don’t eat a lot of meat—I eat red meat perhaps two or three times a month. Mostly I eat chicken or fish. But eating plants alone just wouldn’t satisfy. I believe a human being is a carnivore, and being a healthy vegetarian required more work than I was willing to invest in shopping for and preparing meals on a daily basis. Now and then, let's face it, I really want a burger.

Education changes people. I am currently in the process of being educated. One of the aspects I love most about being a writer is that my job is as new as the writing assignment. For a curious mind, there is surely no better vocation. I get an education and I don’t pay tuition—the editor pays me! And how do you close your eyes once you’ve been made to see?

I am beginning to see. As I read, as I listen, as I do my interviews and make my notes, I am fast realizing the cruelty and unethical behavior required to put that food on my plate. I didn’t know that one of greatest environmental threats was—agriculture. The nontraditional kind, that is. I didn’t know the extent of the garbage going into animal feed: the growth hormones, the antibiotics, the drugs, the animal feces that is actually used as feed for the next group of fish to be killed. And this is what I am eating? I didn’t know the incredible quantities of liquefied manure being channeled into our water, our rivers, our lakes out of these food factories. I didn’t realize the stink of these animal barracks was so bad that people living nearby would on occasion have to vomit from the ammonia and other toxic gasses in the air.

I knew, kind of, and yet I didn’t. I had compartmentalized what I did know, pushing it out of my consciousness every time I sat down at the table, walked through the supermarket, or ordered at a restaurant. I didn’t really want to know. I've heard it said that to do the wrong thing, to abandon one's own value system, one must compartmentalize first. Compartmentalizing our thinking is the first necessary step to living against our own values.

I know now. And I am learning more every day. I can’t forget anymore. I refuse to compartmentalize my own reckless eating anymore. I can no longer claim ignorance. All that’s left is for me to change my old habits.

Off to the local organic food market I go. Oh, I’ve been there before. Bought a few items, tsk-tsked at the high prices, and returned to the neighborhood supermarket. Yet it is one thing to think budget and another to know the suffering and damage my food dollar causes—to other animals, to traditional farmers, to our environment, to all of us, sooner or later (and that’s probably sooner).

With a much more educated perspective, I return to the organic food market and take a very slow stroll through the aisles. This time, I am really paying attention. I take it all in: even the other shoppers. They seem ... different. Less hurried, less harried. Everyone seems intent on reading food labels and choosing items, rather than grabbing random boxes and bags off the shelf. I notice that the grocery carts here are smaller, as if the people eating organic have lost their gluttony in their careful consideration of the food they choose to eat. Hm, I don’t see any of our famously obese Americans here …

I notice the fruit and vegetable selection. Oranges have a little green to their orange. No orange dyes. Apples are not so gargantuan in size. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The greens, however, are bright green and fresh. There is great variety. Labels tell me much of this produce is grown locally. There is a long, wide aisle of bulk items, and I realize I don’t even know what to do with some of these grains and seeds and kernels and such. I realize… I don’t know all that much about … food. Real food. It is a stunning thing to take in. It reminds me of the time I lived in the countryside of Latvia, my ancestral home on the Baltic Sea, and I shopped there at the open market, buying directly from the farmers. The meat came from animals they had slaughtered that same morning. It actually steamed in the morning chill. The potatoes were piled into great heaps, clods of soil still stuck to them. The rice still had pebbles in it that I would have to rinse away first.

Something about this got my heart beating faster. I was excited. I love to learn. I love to learn something that will be good for me, and for others. I chose my food items carefully, just like everyone else here, with a growing appreciation. Yes, I saw the price tags, too. But was I really paying more? I thought about the cost of good health, about clean water, about keeping my world in good health for my children and theirs. I thought about the calf who would never know the freedom of movement, about the hens who lived their entire lives in wire cages so crowded they would never, not once, stretch out their wings. I thought about the turkeys we eat at Thanksgiving that have become so large breasted from being fed growth hormones that they are not able to walk properly, can no longer mate because their misshapen bodies are genetically mutated, would not be able to survive even if someone opened the cage door. Those turkeys are ... freaks, and not of nature.

I thought about the last time I offered my chow dog a bit of ground turkey, thinking I was eating healthy, and wondered at why my dog sniffed at the proffered meat and turned away. Even he knew better. Even he knew there was something wrong with this “meat.”

I thought about how often I heard my mother wonder aloud why they were seeing so many people die of cancer even though they seemed to live healthy lifestyles, and why so many people today are riddled with odd and inexplicable allergies. It didn't used to be that way, she would shrug, recalling her youth.

I thought about the family farm that was going bankrupt because it was not able to compete with food factories supported by government subsidies. And I thought about sustainable farming, with animals being treated humanely, allowed to graze on an open range, allowed to raise their own young, allowed to live before they die. The circle of life is not inhumane. How we treat living things during their lives is important. In the end, we all pay the price.

The price tag seemed fair. I bought less, because I realized I really didn’t need that much. I wasn't shopping blindly or on impulse. I was considering carefully, because I enjoy good food. There was only one package of meat in my cart, and it came from farm-raised livestock.

When I checked out ($55 for two bags of groceries), carrying the two bags to my car, I had this oddly elated feeling.

I still felt elated as I unpacked my purchases in my kitchen at home. I still felt elated as I prepared my dinner: pasta with zucchini, red and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, kale and tomatoes. And I still felt so elated after my dinner that I took my chow pup for an extra walk in the cool autumn evening. He was very elated about that.

Then it hit me: I felt so good because I was doing the right thing. I was casting a vote with my food purchases. I was speaking up for the humane and ethical treatment of animals, for the natural world I so love to enjoy, for cleaner air to breath, for farming families to keep their homes and their land, for better health. It felt good to do the right thing. My conscience was clear.

And it all tasted very good going down.

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