In my last post I talked about the reality of the seafood industry, and the ultimate conclusion that There Is No Such Thing As Sustainable Seafood. After reading the post, a reader commented that it seemed as though no food was safe from the ill fate of a damning article.
It is true that if you follow health and wellness websites on the internet, you can find an article blasting just about every single food known to man. Some are warranted (those writing against animal products from an ecological, health, and animal rights perspective) and others, I would argue, are much more misguided (“Gluten: Cause of All Health Problems Today!”).
However the comment held a lot of truth. The reader expressed an all-too-common frustration these days that it seemed impossible to know what is safe to eat anymore! You hear great things about seafood for your health, so to hear about the environmental catastrophe that it causes is disheartening!
Is no food safe?
While any food that has its origins in the industrial food system likely has at least one blemish on its record, there are places to start and rules to follow for safe, clean, healthy eating. So in the interest of a more positive discussion this week, let’s talk about foods you can (and should!) eat with pride.
By a mile, the safest foods you can possibly eat are foods you’ve grown yourself, in your own backyard. In no other setting can you have the level of control that you do in your own backyard. Don’t like supporting foods grown with pesticides and artificial fertilizers? Don’t buy them or spray your plants!
Don’t want to exploit animals? Grow fruits and vegetables without the help of horses to till your garden!
Don’t want to exploit migrant farmworkers? Pick your own produce!
Yes, the least controversial place on planet Earth to eat from is your own garden. If you have any — and I mean ANY — space on which you could place a garden, do so. (If you don’t check out public gardens in your area and apply for a plot!).
Growing your own food is close to printing money, and it will be the freshest, best tasting, and possibly most nutritious food you’ll ever eat!
The next least controversial (and most safe) location to purchase food is from a local farm. There are two main ways to do this: farmers markets and joining a CSA (community supported agriculture).
Chances are you have been to a farmers market in your life so I won’t go into too much detail. The benefit here is you can select the items you want and talk to the actual people who grew them. The food is fresher, in season, and generally more nutritious. Most farmers markets are organic (though not all!). You can always ask the farmer how the food was grown.
A CSA may be less familiar to you. In this model, you pledge a certain amount of money to a farm (along with other members) at the beginning of the growing season, usually in early Spring. The farmer uses this money to purchase the items necessary to grow food, and every week during the growing season, you pick up a box overflowing with whatever is ripe!
The positives here are for the farmer. You support the farm no matter what happens (if tragedy strikes and crops are ruined, they already have your money). This also means you may get surprises — things you didn’t plan on and don’t even know what they are! For some this is the big drawback — no choice. But for others it can be a truly rewarding culinary adventure! Just how do you prepare kohlrabi…
Finally, most pickup locations are at farmers markets or community centers, so it is a nice way to connect not only with the farmers that grew your food but the fellow consumers who are supporting your farm!
The Grocery Store: Part 1
Beyond growing your own food or supporting farmers nearby that do, your next option is to venture into the supermarket. This option is decidedly varied, running the gamut from an organic food coop to your local chain or big box store.
I won’t go into detail on the difference between these stores, but merely will point out that the safest products in the grocery store are whole plant foods — this means the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
These items are the least processed, which means the least chance for contamination. They are also the least controversial, since they generally don’t exploit animals to reach your store. There are still issues of pesticides on conventional produce and migrant farmworkers rights to muddy the waters, but without a doubt these products are still safer than the alternative. Which leads me to…
The Grocery Store: Part 2
The least safe items for purchase are processed foods and animal products. These are the most likely to support some for of exploitation, be that of the animal or the farmworker. They are without question the most likely to be detrimental to your health. And their ecological footprint is embarrassing at best.
Steer clear of these foods if you want to avoid the shame of supporting a dirty industry!
Restaurants and Fast Food
I’ll just quickly mention these final two eating options, as they are more and more increasing in popularity. As restaurants are businesses, and businesses exist to maximize the bottom line, chances are really good that the ingredients being used in these establishments were the cheapest source, meaning the lowest quality. This is by no means true across the board, and if you can find a farm to table restaurant that sources local organic foods, go for it.
But most restaurants will choose the cheapest ingredients possible, meaning red label seafood, factory farmed animals and animal products, and conventional produce. You are most likely to consume the least healthy meals in these settings, adding to the reasons to avoid them. Not to mention the added cost.
I am not saying you can’t ever eat out, I am merely saying that on the food safety continuum, these places rank low.
So there you have it
From your own garden to farmers markets and CSAs, all the way down to your local McDonald’s, where you buy your food matters. If you want to avoid animal suffering, worker exploitation, health detriments, and ecological catastrophes, eat as much as you can from the first two categories. Then supplement whatever is left with whole plant foods from the grocery store!
Happy (safe) eating!