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By now we’ve all heard about the record-setting recall of a 143 million pounds of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing company and seen the deeply disturbing Humane Society video that prompted it. "I don't have reason to believe this is widespread." said USDA assistant administrator Kenneth Petersen in USA Today, referring to the images of workers torturing so-called “downer” cows in an attempt to get them to stand up and move to the slaughter line. While that particular practice may or may not be common, others like it are and conditions in giant industrial meat plants are generally dismal. Over the weekend, for example, White Rhino sent me this account about one man’s tale of life on a meat “production” line. It’s extremely difficult to swallow in more ways than one. While this kind of story tends to languish in unfortunate obscurity for reasons probably related to people’s desires to keep the suspected truth about their food at arms length, the beef recall was too big to bury. Now, as we always do after events like this, we’re having a national conversation to answer the question, “how do we make sure this never happens again?” What we should really be asking is “how did this happen in the first place?”
The answer is simple: because our food supply and the system that provides it is horribly, terminally, irredeemably broken. Whether your evidence of choice is mad cows being ground-up for school burgers or the experiences of people like David trapped in a dystopian food machine or pesticide-drenched fields of this crop or that, or any of the other terrible symptoms, it’s clear that we cannot eat this way any longer. It just doesn’t work. We never should have done it to begin with. But we did, and now the time has come to undo the great damage on our land, our bodies, and our souls that factory food in all its forms has wrought. The solution is to know where our food comes from, who made it, who grew it, who raised it, who processed it, what they added, what they didn’t, how it came to be and how it came to be on our table. That mostly means local food, which is generally defined as food produced within about 100 miles of where one lives. I wrote last week about research that claimed that “food miles,” the distance our food travels from field to table are not always clear cut. Even if that’s so, there are lots of other ways in which local foods are a clear winner. They’re likely produced by smaller operations that create fewer environmental impacts. They’re often organic. And if not they almost certainly use less pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified seed, and other unsavory things. They’re also fresher, which means they’re likely more nutritious. They usually taste better. They boost the local economy. They support family farms, which helps preserve rural landscapes and valuable agricultural lands. And on and on. Eating locally is a process. It’s a journey through the seasons and an adventure in ferreting out local sources for this and that and the other. It’s about doing the best that we can. Is everything in my fridge local? No. But a lot of it is. My wife and I seek out local alternatives. We shop at farmers markets, the local co-op, the nearby natural food store, and even at our neighbors, who raise livestock, and make cheese and bread and other necessities. We don’t try to be perfect. That’s too much pressure, too much impossibility. We just try to be better and work our way slowly, item by item and meal by meal toward a reinvention of our own food system and the restoration our personal food supply to something much closer to that which nature intended And that’s the point: As long as each of us is thinking about foods issues and doing what we can where we can when we can, we’re already halfway home to a healthier world and a better dinner, too. With that in mind, I’ve hunted down this list of resources to use a starting point. Explore these sites and the links they offer. Taken together, they’re a good introduction to the how our food supply is broken and how we each can fix it. The Organic Consumers Association is a great place to catch up on important healthy food news Slow Food USA is the one of the oldest and best organizations dedicated to a better way to eat Eat Local Challenge is a great blog on local eating issues and a great source of local eating inspiration Take the Eat Local Challenge and start your own journey. The Hundred Mile Diet is another pioneering resource. Food Routes asks the essential question: Where does your food come from? Scared of beef these days? I don’t blame you. My family hasn’t eaten beef in well over a decade. It’s like Halloween on a grill. Spooky in oh so many ways. We eat bison instead. An indigenous species, bison evolved to range freely in North America, which is how most of it is still raised today. It’s hormone and antibiotic-free and compared to beef is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol and higher in protein and many key nutrients. And while it’s most certainly red meat, beef can only wish it tasted this good. Really. Give it try. You’ll never go back. Visit the National Bison Association to learn more. Finally, read Michael Pollan’s outstanding essay, Unhappy Meals, from the January 28, 2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine, which concludes with 9 rules for healthier eating that every family should live by. We’ve pointed to this article before, but it’s a keeper worth highlighting again in case you haven’t read it.