Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Food Revolution

Our family has undergone nothing less than a Food Revolution in the last six months. (And I don't use the word Revolution lightly.) Ours began with a trip to Montana that I took last September with a small group of law school girlfriends. The holiday was one of my best in many years for several reasons including a lot of really loud laughter with people who know you better than you know yourself. Anyway, I returned home with a long list (yes, a literal list) of "take aways" of books to read, movies to see, recipes to try, etc. One of the recommended books was called The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O'Brien and I inhaled the book like I inhaled a daily Mango Smoothie while pregnant with my 2nd child.

So many things I had never heard of before: genetically modified food, industrial farming, Mon.santo, high fructose corn syrup, etc. My husband and I both have had a fondness for Wendell Berry and have always connected with his "back to the farm" sentiments, but more from a land conservation perspective than one of actual food origination. Frankly, I am a little embarrassed now as to how ignorant I was about something so. . . . common. We are regular local farmer's market shoppers and last summer, we also joined a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in order to avail ourselves of fresh local vegetables delivered to us once a week. I wasn't reluctant to then participate in the CSA, per se, because we were already reasonably good vegetable eaters, and as I said, it made sense given our passions around land conservation and supporting local farmers. I will confess, however, that I was (am?) intimidated by how to cook, say, eggplant and there were legitimately one or two things in our CSA bucket during the summer/fall that I completely didn't recognize.

But back to the books. So throughout the fall and winter thus far, I scarfed book after book about healthier eating, industrial food systems, etc. I believe that I counted at New Years that I had read 9 different food books since the Montana trip, including three by Michael Pollan, Animal Vegetable Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver, Bringing it to the Table by Wendell Berry, in addition to Food Inc (book and movie) and the Robyn O'Brien one mentioned above. Not to mention the countless blogs in my Google Reader about food issues. I made several mentions on Facebook about this or that food issue and was so intrigued by the responses from friends who clearly had already been down the path I am now traveling and were so encouraging to me.

So what has been so revolutionary about a bunch of books, blogs, and a CSA? Even without absolute causation links, there are just too many unanswered, unresearched and untested questions about the effects of chemical additives and GM food for me to feel comfortable putting them into those beautiful little bodies of my children. We also want to "put our money where our mouth is" in terms of supporting local farmers which, one hopes, leads to greater farmland preservation, not to mention a stronger local economy. We have made changes in our eating and living habits--some radical and some not so much.

1) While we usually bought organic milk and eggs already (really just because I thought I "should" without knowing exactly why), we now also buy these from a local store and local dairy. Less petrol miles to travel which is consistent with our environmental values as well.

2) We bought a composter for Christmas so we can begin composting. It is hilarious to see my husband gleefully check the compost jar on the counter to see what we've added that day, "Yeah! Coffee grounds!" "Wow! Look at all the egg shells and apple peels! MK, have another pear!"

3) I have now pretty much cleared out the high fructose corn syrup and the vast majority of the processed foods in our house. There were a few months of transition where we were sort of panicked about what CAN we eat if we can't eat the only stuff we know how to cook (frozen waffles, Hamburger Helper, frozen pizza, mac n cheese, etc.), but we are gradually moving into a different, less panicked sphere. Gradually, I say.

4) We have switched to organic for much of our food. I recognize that this may become more expensive and I am prepared to print out the last 6 months of our grocery outlays on Quickbooks to compare "before" and "after" expenditures in terms of buying organics. I think it helps though that instead of doing all of my grocery shopping at our one main grocery store in town, we now--believe it or not--shop at four or five different places: the, our local organic grocery, our splendid local "farm" store, as well as our Farmer's Market, depending on what we're buying. It takes more organization, for sure, but so far, we're managing. And at first, I still bought frozen pizza, but thought it better to switch to Organic Frozen Pizza, but now we've gone the next step and sort of eliminated (I add the "sort of" because I don't want to overcommit in case we need one in a babysitter pinch) even the organic frozen pizza, because it's still processed junk, even if it's slightly healthier, more organically grown junk, and surely we can make a pizza in the oven, a la Barbara Kingsolver's Friday night pizzas?!

5) We will again join our CSA this spring, and this time with far more confidence in how to cook the basics and how to build your meals around eating locally and eating seasonally. (My friend Katie gave me this Simply in Season cookbook that is seasonally divided and I have completely enjoyed it.) I really get into the idea of eating seasonally, even as I have had to stop buying "fresh" strawberries through the winter.

6) Husband of Mine is reading articles and looking at heirloom seed catalogues and swears he is going to start a small garden of our own this year. I am tentative about the bugs and the worms, but intrigued.

7) We have not been big eat-outers because we have three little kids and it's just easier to eat at home still. And we are blessed to live in a town that has no commercial fast food (No worries, it's not through exclusionary zoning. Our ordinance simply doesn't allow drive-thrus which discourages most fast food joints to locate here.) I'm still uncertain how to handle "eating out" particularly of the "Old McDonald" variety with processed food with no known origin and cheap plastic toys which the kids pitch fits for (and then promptly forget once we arrive home). Luckily, though, the fast food stuff is a bit "out of sight, out of mind" for them and they know what an enormous treat it is to eat there once a month or so if running errands in the neighboring town.

8) Above all, the books, the blogs, and the CSA have forced me into the kitchen to really learn how to cook. At age 37. Don't for a minute think I am "there" yet. I have so many culinary failures that I find myself wondering if "real" cooks fail this often. But I am cooking. From scratch. With ingredients I have never chopped before and with spices I have never used before. And ocassionally, it is pretty tasty. I am still afraid of yeast, so I haven't ventured into breads and am not reducing or blanching, when really I'm not even sure what those words mean yet. But we ARE figuring it out, and mostly keeping it simple. There are little tricks that help: making bran muffins on Sunday night for Monday and doubling the recipe to freeze half, putting honey on the real oatmeal for a better sell to the kids, a little tiny bit of sugar on the frozen raspberries, etc. and the children are totally buying into it. BB loves to smash garlic in the garlic press and DS is the best carrot peeler and parmesan grater you have ever met in the under-4 division. I have to say that the only major push-back that the children have given me was the substitution of real maple syrup instead of the other stuff on their pancakes. I decided to pick my battles and on that one thing, just switched to the Log Ca.bin which at least advertises to have no HFCS--even if it is still high in sugar. Oh and they did complain about giving up the Nemo "fruit" snacks, but I sort of made it into a joke and now they know that snack time usually involves real fruit or nuts or plain popcorn.

And no, I'm not flipping out when they eat a Pop.Ta.rt at a friend's house or a cupcake or Goldfish at preschool. I think Robyn O'Brien's 80-20 rule seems completely reasonable, i.e. try for the good stuff 80% of the time and then you have 20% of the time to eat the junk. And no, I haven't seen any real changes in behaviour as some folks said I might once we laid off the additives and food dyes, etc. However, I like the idea of the good stuff flowing through their little bodies. And I love to hear DS talk about the Farmer's Market or BB picking something up in the grocery store and asking, "Is this a healthy choice?" Note, however, that I do occasionally hear Jon Stewart in the back of my head in one of his monologues saying directly to the TV camera, "There was always the one kid who brought carrots in his lunchbox. Don't be that kid's mom."

More than anything, though, I feel empowered. I feel more in control of what we are eating and why we are eating it. I feel more connected to my husband as this was all a "project" that he has bought into equally as much as I have, and it has become a project to share and learn together. And if for a second you think there is an ounce of self-righteousness in my voice, remember that I spent 15 years in my teens and twenties eating low-fat heaven-knows-what processed food, complemented by, bagels and frozen yogurt. I think the Revolution was oddly harder on me than on anyone in the household because I actually had the worst eating habits--picky toddlers included. And to think that same girl made a (simple) butternut squash orzo and lemon herb chicken for dinner last night?! BB had a second helping. A Revolution indeed.

Ciao a tutti.


  1. yeast phobia:
    stacy LOVES this recipe and swears it's easy. And I can vouch for it's deliciousness. The only problem is that you end up eating the whole thing while it hot!:

    He hasn't made this variation yet but I'm guessing it's good too:

    # of weeks in 2010: 2
    # of blogs in 2010: 3 So far you're winning!

  2. I am so impressed. What you are doing is a win for everyone--healthier for you and your family and the planet.

    Thanks for reading my blog, by the way.

  3. Wow. This was one jam packed post! Thanks! I am traveling a similar road and went back to (modified, admittedly) vegetarianism a little over a year ago. I appreciate your efforts and the process of transitioning the family to healthier eating.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this with me and the rest of us, Autumn. This was much-needed inspiration, especially as we gear up for the spring CSA.

  5. Hi Autumn - I'm back again. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on my recent posts! I have 3 kids too, close in age. I'm contemplating a 4th, but it's still very much up for debate. I too, started this to document the early years without all the sappy stuff that fills my personal journal. We're talking accountability.

    So...anyway...sounds like there's lots to comment on. (: