Of course, the bounty of fresh, delicious, local produce at this time of year makes such a challenge about as easy as it could be in Minnesota. (Ooh, have you noticed that Grisim's sweet corn stand is now open on Water St. in Northfield?!) But it's not superfluous, because even for those who would be eating a lot of their food from local sources in midsummer anyway, the challenge nudges us to consider why we eat what we eat and how we think about food.
My own thinking about food has come quite a long way in the last couple of years. My very first Penelopedia post spoke of the inspiration I'd gained from Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and my feeling that by eating more locally, organically, and sustainably, I could "do some good for the local land, the global environment, and the local economy." I still believe that.
But I've learned more. In particular, I've learned about the benefits of grass.
To make a long and very interesting story short*, the evidence is powerful that when cows eat primarily grass (their natural food), not corn and other grains, they are healthier. Their meat is healthier for us to eat. The fats in their meat and milk are healthier - downright good for a body, in fact. (Really!) And the land, air, and water where they are raised is healthier (natural fertilizer is automatically provided, no need to raise lots of pesticide-intensive corn, more natural and diverse ecosystems to support birds and other creatures, and so on).
As I've quoted before and will doubtless quote again, "Eating is an agricultural act." (Wendell Berry) Where you buy your food and what you eat have effects far beyond your own household. Cheap industrial food comes at a real cost. Especially in the area of meat, dairy, and other animal products, I now find the hidden costs of "cheap" food unacceptable for myself. The high rate of production and resulting low price of meat or milk come at the cost of the animals' quality of life, the waste-disposal challenges caused by large concentrated animal production facilities, and a significant portion of the traditional healthfulness of the meat or milk itself. It's not a trade-off I can routinely make in good conscience anymore.
If you haven't put much thought into where your food comes from and how it is produced, perhaps the annual Eat Local Challenge is a good time to give it some thought. Consider cooking more whole foods from scratch, so you have more control over your ingredients. Buy from a farmers' market or a co-op or other source where you can determine something about how and where the food was raised. If you eat meat, choose meat from animals raised humanely and provided a traditional diet for which they are biologically suited. Seek out dairy products and beef from grass-fed cows. Favor traditional foods, raised well, over industrial foods.
And enjoy some wonderful local food this August.
*If you want longer versions of the story, here are some books I recommend:
- Real Food - Nina Plank (a book that may well turn your ideas about dairy products and about traditional fats like butter and lard on their heads)
- The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
- In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan
- The Compassionate Carnivore - Catherine Friend (a local farmer and author)