As winter has settled in, and baskets of warm tomatoes and fresh-picked lettuce seem so far away, I can't help but think that my desire to eat local, in-season foods is only a part-time interest. More and more, I'm shopping exclusively at the grocery store, stocking up for the holidays, buying recherché ingredients for grand feasts, blindly throwing Mexican-grown strawberries and mango into my cart rather than trying to eat seasonal produce grown in the Hudson Valley.
But, doing my dash through the grocery store this week, something went wrong with my autopilot. All of a sudden, every single aisle seemed to throb with new and different threats and I was reminded why I’ve become interested in eating locally grown food. Every random news article, Facebook post, email and conversation I’ve ever had regarding food seemed to team up to haunt me. As the mother of two young boys, I think I’m your typical mom who just wants to feed them healthy and unpolluted foods. I’m not a raw foodist, or even a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake.
But food seems to get more dangerous every day.
I started in the hectically bright Produce section, where piles of bright, perfect fruits and veggies called out to be purchased. I picked up a lemon, but its shiny, flawless rind made me wonder how much wax and artificial color coated it. How toxic would it be if I grated a scant tablespoon of peel into my apple crisp topping? I could just use lemon essence. Of course, that’s just fake flavoring -- wouldn't real be better? I put the lemon back and wheeled over to the leafy green section. Wait, though, wasn’t bagged spinach recalled recently? Or was that years ago? And what about that article I read somewhere about the baby carrots we eat by the pound being dipped in swimming pool chlorine? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I rolled my cart over to the fish department and stood paralyzed in front of the foggy case. Is farmed better than wild? Farmed fish, I know, have higher levels of carcinogenic chemical pollutants, like PCBs, than wild. They’re also generally treated with massive amounts of antibiotics to counteract their crowded and filthy conditions, which is probably contributing to the increase in antibiotic resistance. (I think of how quickly my son recovered from his bout with pneumonia last winter and wonder if penicillin will still be working in five years.) But wild-caught fish are no safer, thanks in part to the mercury in the waters (1,600 plus tons of mercury are dumped into the Gulf of Mexico every year.)
Then there’s shrimp. Almost all the shrimp we eat here is imported from Asia or South America, and most of that is farmed. With only 1 – 2% of the imported seafood inspected by the FDA, who’s to know if banned antibiotics and chemicals were used? My boys love salmon, but the farmed stuff is treated with dyes (probably carcinogenic) and, in this particular grocery store, it’s often hard to tell the farmed from the wild-caught. Plus, most of the wild-caught is dangerously over-fished. My Seafood Watch wallet card from the Monterey Bay Aquarium tells me that Arctic Char is okay, but there’s none here. I pass it all by.
The meat cases just seem to teem with danger. Is there a recall this week? Do I dare buy ground beef, or would lamb from Australia be safer? But I should be trying to eat locally! Oh, remember the “Mad Cow” controversy over cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)? Didn’t Oprah get sued by the Texas Cattlemen’s Association a while back for saying she’d never eat a burger again? And wasn’t there a particularly gruesome beef recall that had something to do with downer cows (most likely affected with BSE) being fork lifted into the killing rooms? Ick. But can I really afford to spend $30 for a steak from the farmer’s market on Saturday?
Gliding through the Meat department over to Dairy, I gratefully reach out of for the organic milk (at $5 per gallon!) Can’t go wrong there, right? At least I know this milk doesn’t contain the Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH) that makes cows sick and may also increase incidences of breast and prostate cancer in humans. And by buying organic, at least I know that the cows enjoy a decent life. Oh wait, actually I read somewhere that some of the largest “organic” companies actually produce milk under factory-farm conditions that are against organic regulations. I’ve even heard that their so-called organic cows are being fed a diet of genetically modified grains, slaughterhouse waste and chicken manure. So what does organic even mean nowadays? Am I just being fleeced? What about eggs? I pay the premium for eggs from cage free, humanly raised chickens, but learned a while ago that you have to read the boxes carefully – if it doesn’t say “organic” then you’re probably getting eggs from chickens living in cramped and crowded cages where they’re are starved to force them to lay eggs on a factory timetable. Yeah, maybe I’ll just go up to Ancram and visit Ronnybrook Farms after the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. Or drive over to Hemlock Hill Farms in Croton and see if they have any eggs. Sure, I’ve got the time.
Down the canned foods aisle, I browse the stacks of tuna cans. Which one is safe to buy? There’s that mercury question again. Is it chunk light I’m supposed to get now? And what about the dolphins? Don’t dolphins get caught in the tuna nets and killed in alarming numbers? And then isn’t there bisphenol A in the lining of aluminum cans? Oh, just forget it.
My cart is still empty, but I turn up the snack aisle to buy a treat for the boys, Veggie Booty, which we haven’t had in forever. Hmm, why was that anyway? We used to eat a bag a week. Oh, right, recall – this one was, I think, over salmonella? I stand in the middle of the aisle grasping the cheery, foil bag. If it’s on the shelves again, it must be okay, right? Hmm, it's just not very appetizing anymore. Plus, it's over $3 a bag. I put it back.
A continent-sized mass of garbage floats through my head. I’ve read that the Eastern Garbage Patch fills an area approximately one and half times the size of the US and up to 100 feet deep in parts of the North Atlantic Ocean. Fish in the area have been cut open and shown to be stuffed full of bits of plastic. And that doesn’t even begin to address the other toxins they ingest, which we in turn ingest (see Fish Department above.) And then the plankton are being wiped out, so the fish populations are dwindling. Good Lord, is there anything we can eat?
My mind wanders farther -- phthalates in plastics, should you microwave Tupperware? And what about those fancy Nalgene water bottles that were all the rage, but now probably leach BPA into our daily 64 oz of water? And then is that can thing also true about the liners of aluminum water bottles? Oh, God, and what ever became of the Teflon quandary?
I recently re-read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, his 1906 book about the desperate state of the American workers within the corrupt and filthy meat packing industry. But things hardly seem to have changed -- there are so many aspects of our food chain that have become de-regulated over the past decade. Food and other items are periodically recalled, but no real changes seem to be made to address the problems. Gag orders are put into effect so that no one can speak out (see Oprah above.) Meat is recalled, whole companies go out of business only to reform under new names, and downer cows are still being forklifted into your child’s school lunch.
Does eating locally address any of these issues? For me it does. I feel better knowing the farmer who grew my produce, who raised my beef and chickens, who gathered my eggs. Visiting the farms and seeing the way the animals are housed and treated gives me back a small sense of control and the belief that I'm supporting hard-working individuals. We must eat to live -- shouldn't we pay close attention to the provenance of the food we put into our bodies?
I look at my watch and see that it’s almost time for the school bus drop-off. I walk away from my empty cart, leaving it abandoned in the snack food aisle and glad that I don’t have to go through the check-out and get my BPA encrusted receipt (thanks for that nugget of information, Huffington Post.)
But wait, what’s for dinner?