Top | Health+Food

How to find real food

(article, Marissa Lippert)

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“I’ve been hearing so much about local food recently and it’s got me thoroughly confused. What exactly is the difference between local, organic, and sustainable food, and how does urban farming tie into all of this? What should I be eating and focusing on for health purposes?”

Even Wal-Mart is trying to get in on the local-and-sustainable agriculture movement these days, attempting to make its produce selection feel a bit more home-grown by partnering with local farmers. (The company plans to spend $400 million on this effort in 2008 alone.) But what do “local,” “organic,” “sustainable,” and “urban farming” really mean in relation to what ends up on our plates? Read on to decipher these terms and learn some simple steps you can take to actively choose tastier, healthier, and “greener” food. 

In his thought-provoking books, the bestselling journalist Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma) has exposed the inner workings of the U.S. food industry, highlighting why big business, genetic engineering, and factory farming aren’t always best when it comes to health, nutrition, animal rights, energy, pollution, and climate change. The tagline of his most recent book, In Defense of Food, says it all: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Are your tomatoes local, organic, and sustainable?"]

By “eat food,” Pollan means eating real food, fresh from the earth. It doesn’t have to be organic or super-expensive; ideally, it’s grown as close to home and as cleanly as possible. Food that’s local, pesticide-free, and raised in natural environs without hormones, antibiotics, or additives will taste better and, because it’s fresher, have more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. In fact, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill just kicked off a two-year study assessing the health impacts of moving toward a more local and sustainable food system.  

Earlier this month, I went to hear Pollan speak at the PF1 Urban Farm exhibit at the PS1 modern-art museum in New York City. The theme of the talk came from one of his earlier books, The Botany of Desire: seeing the natural world and how it works from the perspective of plants. He encouraged us all to eat real food, since factory food is hardly natural. 

My favorite line of the evening? “There are ways to get what we need and leave nature in better shape than when we found it.” Pollan, of course, will be one of the main speakers at this weekend’s Slow Food Nation, a massive celebration of authentic, honest American food and farming.

So how do we get real food, and how does it really benefit us — our health, our taste buds, our communities, and our wallets? Here’s a quick list of real-food buzzwords. 

h4. Community-supported agriculture

Better known by its acronym, CSA, community-supported agriculture is a system in which consumers support a local farm by paying in advance for produce and other food products. This reduces the financial risks for the farmer because the costs of seed and planting are covered in advance by consumers. 

Throughout the growing season, CSA members receive a portion of the farm’s harvest each week. Members share the financial risks and the bounty of the harvest — if the growing season is successful, members share in the bounty, but if not, not. 

To find a CSA in your neighborhood, check out the searchable databases maintained by Local Harvest and the USDA. 

h4. Local

Better known as the locavore movement, the local-food crowd tries not just to eat locally (diehard locavores try to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile radius) but to create more locally based, independent food economies. The goal here is to boost economic, environmental, and social health via food production, distribution, and consumption. 

A recent New York Times article quoted the primary reasons consumers are starting to seek local foods: “Freshness and taste; keeping farmland in the community and having open spaces; a desire to be close to the food source and know where it comes from; support of local farmers and keeping money in the community.”

h4. Organic

To be stamped with the official “organic” label, a product (and its producer or farmer) must meet the USDA’s organic standards and must be certified by a USDA-approved food-certifying agency. 

Organic foods must be grown without synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or pesticides, and can’t be genetically modified. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors and pastures. 

h4. Sustainable

According to Sustainable Table, sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.

h4. Urban farming

Urban agriculture increases the food security, safety, and health of urban areas. As defined by the USDA, urban farming can take the form of rooftop, vacant-lot, hydroponic, or community gardening; roadside agriculture on the fringes of cities; field-to-direct-sale farmers’ markets; and livestock grazing in parks and feedlots. 

Urban farming increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. Urban agriculture also saves energy and transportation costs and improves the quality of urban areas through greening and reduced pollution.

Urban farms are popping up in cities across the country, from Detroit to Manhattan, Philly to Oakland. Check out the international Urban Farming, New York’s Just Food, and the Midwestern Growing Power.

Finally, here’s how to go about getting this good stuff on your plate:

# Find a farmers’ market (or even, sometimes, an urban farm) in your neighborhood and go shopping; these places are one of the best sources of fresh, local fruit and vegetables, eggs, breads, meats, seafood, and cheese. Find a farmers’ market near you with Culinate’s new farmers’ market pages.  
# Join a CSA in your area to support your local farming community and automatically boost your intake of nutrient-rich, disease-preventing fruit and vegetables. Find a CSA near you at Local Harvest or the USDA.
# No urban farms, farmers’ markets, or CSAs near you? Seek out locally grown items at your neighborhood grocery store. If they don’t carry them, ask for them. How else will they know you want them?

p(bio). Marissa Lippert is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant in New York City.

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