Esther Cepeda: Farmers markets, here I come
CHICAGO -- After back-to-back readings of three books chronicling the state of food production in the United States, I’ve realized that except for a few childhood trips to South America during which I drank warm goat’s milk and ate freshly picked corn, beans, potatoes, rice and fruits, I’m not truly familiar with what real food tastes like.
I’ve done a lot of carbohydrate, fat and fiber monitoring over the past 15 years, attempting to fend off the dreaded Type 2 diabetes, which runs in my family.
But like most people, I shop at the local chain grocery store on a budget that doesn’t afford certified organic products. Not only am I not a foodie, but I’ve never so much as stepped inside a Whole Foods supermarket.
Even so, I’ve just learned that shopping at pricey food stores doesn’t guarantee that what I buy hasn’t been farmed for portability rather than taste, been highly processed, fed any number of antibiotics and hormones or grown in poor soil full of synthetic fertilizers.
At least this is what I took away from three recently published books that take us behind the scenes of food trends, modern agriculture and livestock production systems, the giant industrial complexes most of us rarely give a thought to.
“The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue” by David Sax gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the chef-adulation culture in this country drives what shows up on our plates and how quality and wholesomeness are sacrificed by corporations pushing the next food novelty. The short history of the American South’s nearly extinct grain culture is not to be missed if you can get past all the tiresome (though blessedly scornful) cupcake talk.
Both Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” and Christopher Leonard’s “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business” detail the gritty realities of what it takes to get animals from their natural habitats to our plates.
Prepare yourself for deep questions about the ethics of allowing our insatiable desire for certain cuts of meat and fish to shape both the physical landscape and our political one. These complementary books graphically illustrate how Americans tend to idealize the small farmer yet trample over his or her right to make a living wage.
For extensive explanation about how contemporary, Big Ag chicken farming ruins American and immigrant farmers’ lives, “The Meat Racket” will forever color your trip to the poultry section of the grocery store. Not because of gory animal welfare treatment, but because of the cost to the people who raise our chickens.
Pick up “The Third Plate” to understand how the power of consumer demand for trendy foods enables corporations, markets and governments to give us what we want at far too high a price.
Explaining how America offloads all our nonbreast, nonwing parts of chickens on other countries, Barber writes, “In 2008, [Mexico] eliminated tariff protection on imports, opening the floodgates to hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken legs. The decision immediately wreaked havoc on small states like Jalisco, one of Mexico’s largest areas for poultry farming. Some Mexican farmers were forced to consolidate to lower their costs. … In the meantime, Jalisco’s poultry workers, displaced from their communities, began entering the United States illegally in larger numbers. And they have found employment where they have skills to match: at [American] poultry-processing facilities. … Wouldn’t it be easier to cook every part of the bird?”
Environmental, social and political impact aside, my biggest takeaway was that in the rush to win big sales by being trendy or “healthy,” harvested and slaughtered food is designed primarily to travel and last. Taste isn’t much of a consideration because it can be added in during processing or cooking. And rarely does anyone notice.
I’ve not done justice to these three fascinating investigative exposés, but they’ve motivated me to seek out a farmers market so I can taste real small-farm produce and bread.
If any of these books can get you to think about what you’re putting into your body and why, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by reading them.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.