With help from my saint-husband...
“Are tomatoes safe to eat yet?” “Which peppers can we eat?” “Is the spinach still okay?”
These are not unreasonable questions to ask in the wake of our more recent food dilemmas, but they offer us no answers as to why these bacterial episodes keep disrupting our lives. And that’s the key: the questions shouldn’t be when or which, but why. And not an ordinary why, but a probing, brass-tacks, root-of-the-issue why.
The mainstream media has reported on these events ad nauseam. But for all the minutiae they bombard us with, they never get around to addressing the big picture. And the big picture is this: Our food system is broken. That’s why our tomatoes and peppers and spinach are poisoned. Industrial agriculture is, plain and simple, not the way we should be growing vegetables. It’s a waste of fuel, a waste of water; and it’s destroying our soil and draining our aquifers dry.
But thankfully, there are solutions to this conundrum – three, in fact. And I would like to outline those for you tonight. They are: home gardening, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture.
The first solution, home gardening, is a major part of the overall fix. Of course, it can't take the place of all crops, especially calorie crops like grains (which are not typically grown in California anyway). But consider the wide variety of produce in your grocery store- tomatoes, lettuces, leafy greens, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet corn, cabbage, and herbs- all of which can be grown on a surprisingly small plot of land.
Think about it: in the space of the average American lawn, you can easily lay in three seasons' worth of vegetables and have plenty left over to preserve or pickle for winter. You can take this further if you like- If you set up a beehive in the corner of the yard to pollinate your own crops, you can also harvest your own honey- another very heavy product to transport-- and, bonus-- it’s been recently discovered that keeping home hives just might help with our ongoing global bee crisis.
And by growing some of your own food, you also get a lot of exercise, you get to turn off the TV, and maybe you can have a conversation with the family or your neighbors. And you get to eat the best food that money can't buy.
There are other options for local and seasonal food, too, if you don’t have a yard or you can’t garden, which brings me to the second solution: farmer’s markets.
True fact: vegetables are 90% water. Water is heavy. Heavy stuff is expensive to move. We’re spending $5.00 per gallon plus now on diesel for refrigerated tractor-trailers to send little bags of water an average of 1400 miles across the US so folks can have tasteless, mealy tomatoes or bland strawberries year ‘round. But there’s more: these vegetables are mainly grown in California, with Colorado River water. Southern California is actually a semi-arid desert, not a food-growing oasis. Growing industrial quantities of vegetables in California is only made possible by stealing vast amounts of water from the Colorado River system. By the time the Colorado reaches its delta, there isn’t any water left. And it’s all for the sake of having out-of-season, tasteless vegetables, year round- and these are vegetables selected by growers for their abilities to withstand shipping. As you might have noticed, they are definitely not selected for their taste.
But mercifully, there are Farmer’s Markets cropping up all over Detroit metro, and many sell food grown right in the city. Other fresh, seasonal offerings come from small specialty farms in rural Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. Contrast this with long-distance industrial agriculture, which not only comes from far away, but make many stops en route to your plate. Each stop along the way is an opportunity for contamination. The food is then sent to many thousands of local distribution sites all across the US, and then on to stores. That’s why multiple states have to issue recalls, and the recalls are so confusing. Local food from regional farmers to the farmer’s market makes far fewer stops- as few as just one- and if there does happen to be a rare contamination, and it is very rare indeed, it stays quite local and is much easier to trace.
The third solution is community supported agriculture, or CSAs for short. CSAs are the new wave in the local food movement, and operate very simply: they grow many different vegetable crops, and as the weeks in the growing season progress, CSA members pick up a box of whatever crop has come up that week. Some of these little farms also sell their own bread, meat, milk, and eggs, too. And CSAs usually practice organic farming, so you don't have to worry about pesticides and chemicals on your food. The food is always local and seasonal; you get to know your very own local farmer, and get to know other families that support your farmer. Most CSAs will even let you to work in the field, to lower your membership price.
Ok, so here’s the rundown-- We’re transporting little bags of endangered river water from a region of the country that cannot afford to give up water, with fuel we can't pay for anymore. Like the great ecology and farming writer Wendell Berry said, though I’m paraphrasing- we took a system that wasn’t broken, and broke it.
But I promise you-- home-cooked, in-season food, made with simple, super-fresh ingredients, is the answer to our shared food dilemma. And besides, learning to cook with whatever happens to be in season is easy and fun, and gives you a whole new appreciation for the natural cycles of seasonal food: the 2 months of spring lettuce, and the 2 weeks of blueberries and cherries, and the 6 weeks of tomatoes. So give it a shot. Start small. Try it next year with just one tomato plant and a single pot of basil. You’ll probably get hooked. And you’ll never again have to worry if the tomatoes or spinach or peppers are safe to eat.