25 September 2009

Food Inc

I love this town.

No, I really do. Whenever there is a need, the entire town comes together to support that need. And the need last night was to support Colchester Farm, CSA, the place where so many of us get our food from June to October. The evening started with a cocktail hour, featuring delicious local foods (I went back for the roasted pepper ravioli several times), most of it made by local chefs, including Kent County High School, and several of the Colchester Farm board members. This was followed by a showing of Food, Inc., which, if you haven’t seen yet, you should. Soon.

I wanted to start by praising our town though- we’ve kind of taken food on as our issue, for whatever reason. Possibly its just because we have access to so many wonderful local foods, grown by so many wonderful people who are such a part of the community. We’re proud of our food, proud of the fact that we’re a town in the so called middle of nowhere, which in reality is the middle of a cornucopia of delicious things to eat. And so fortunately we don’t constantly have to look the full brunt of the realities of the industrial food system right in the eye. We at least have other options.

So in some ways Food, Inc. didn’t have much to do with Chestertown. But in others, it hit a point very close to home. Most of the farming done on the Eastern Shore is in commodity crops- corn, grain, soybeans- and most of it goes to feed chickens down on the lower shore. Actually, there are plenty of chickens up this way too. If you sit out on 213 late, late at night you can watch the empty trucks go north toward Galena, and if you wait long enough, you can watch them come back again, full of chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse.

The movie isn’t for the faint of heart. If you don’t want to see the inside of a chicken house (and I have to say, this was a pretty decent chicken house, as far as they go- there were no cages and it actually had windows), don’t watch this movie. If you want to continue to eat industrial food completely unawares of what you’re putting in your body, of the horrors you’re supporting by eating that cheap chicken, don’t watch this movie. But if you’re interested in what plagues our food system- what plagues us, right here, on the Eastern Shore, then watch this movie.

I’ve talked so much about what’s wrong with the food system on this blog that I don’t currently feel the need to reiterate. The movie didn’t reveal anything to me that I didn’t know- but I’ve also made it my life’s work to take on the industrial food system, so I’d be curious to hear the reaction of someone who actually (for some reason?) still eats fast food. But the movie made a good point- not only do most people not know what’s going on behind the scenes in the places their food comes from, they’re not allowed to know.

If you want to trace your food back to the source, good luck to you. I hope you have a lot of time and a lot of money. We aren’t allowed to see inside those chicken houses- we definitely aren’t allowed to see inside the slaughterhouses. If we were- as sustainable farmer Joel Salatin says in the movie- our food system would be something rather different. That’s why he slaughters his chickens in an open sided shed, and invites all the people who buy food from his farm to come and watch and participate.

There was also a strong theme of better regulations for food in the movie. But at the same time, a lot of us are struggling locally to be able to get access to local meats and dairy because of the overbearing regulations of the state of MD. The contradiction came up during the Q&A, but I personally don’t think it’s a contradiction at all. I believe they even said, in the movie, that when you’re selling to a place like WalMart you need those regulations, you need to have had your food inspected and carefully labeled and have the assurance that it doesn’t contain E. coli, because the consumer has no other way of knowing. The shopper at WalMart can’t go out to the farm and meet the farmer and take a look around, because likely the farm is on the other side of the world- and likely the process that food item took to get from that farm to the WalMart would be more than enough to stop the consumer buying the item, anyway.

But in the case of local foods, you have the option of seeing what you’re buying produced first hand. Not everyone wants to watch their chickens get slaughtered- but when I talked to the guy who I plan to get chicken from last night, he invited me right on out to the farm to meet the chickens, allowing me to feel a little bit better about consuming meat. Locally, it really is a case of buyer beware- if you choose to buy locally, you are responsible for checking out the person you are buying from, not USDA. A farmer last night pointed out that this is a big risk for farmers- they could easily get sued- but I’ve heard a great suggestion that would solve that problem all around. What if we were allowed to opt out of the conventional food system? What if, as we do in so many other areas of our life, we were allowed to sign a waiver that said, we don’t want to participate in the conventional food system, thanks so much, and we hereby take responsibility for our food choices upon ourselves, swearing never to sue our local farmers, because we’re part of a community, and its our responsibility as well as theirs to double check on the process and make sure our food is safe?

Can you imagine what WalMart would say to that?

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