The Vanderbilt RepublicCreatives Engaging the World
Photography by Miroslav Vajdic.
Real Food: Real Options
By Meg Cotner

The quality of food in America has recently generated inquiry and concern in minds of today’s consumers. The question “what’s in this food?” is common and understandable. “Where does this food come from?” illustrates a person’s desire to know the source of their food. However, the more tragic and troubling question is “is this food safe?” This last question is a sad reflection on the current state of the Standard American Diet.

As a result of questioning the status quo, more and more Americans are demanding that the food they buy and feed to themselves and their family meet certain nutritional requirements and a level of ethical standards superseding that found in most food at the average supermarket. Men and women—young and old—are also rejecting the conventional food distribution system, which spans thousands of miles, for locally-based sources to satisfy their meal-based wants and desires.

Believing that better, healthier food can be found in their own region, consumers seek out food grown and produced by local farmers, fisherman, and ranchers. This food goes by official labels such as the familiar “organic” and its related colloquial label “beyond organic”—this means that the food is grown or raised in a way that is harmonious with natural processes, but it not certified organic by governmental offices. Becoming officially “certified organic” is a costly and laborious process for the small farmer, and is not realistic for many. Additional informal labels include “sustainable,” “humanely raised,” and “locally grown.”

Friends, this is real food.

To those of a certain (younger) age, this food and its accompanying distribution mechanism could be considered revolutionary, or even subversive, since it does not follow convention. Ironically this food is more like that which was prevalent and abundant in the US in the earlier part of the previous century (and even before that). Our grandparents would have recognized it.

In the past, vegetables, fruits, and grains were grown without pesticides, animals were pasture raised, fish was wild, and milk was whole, non-homogenized and raw. This is a far cry from the heated, refined and processed foods that line the aisles in your neighborhood supermarket. And even raw isn’t raw sometimes – for instance, “raw” almonds are still pasteurized. Some commercial purveyors are even threatening to pasteurize meat.

Nowadays, where does one find this real food—that which is truly raw, unrefined, nutrient dense, and above all nourishing? To be fair, some supermarkets in this country carry organic produce, raw milk (in some states), and whole grains and flours. In urban areas, various ethnic markets are places to find whole foods in bulk and even things like unrefined sugars.

Slightly more informal and under-the-radar access points include private buying clubs, CSAs, cow or goat shares, and sharing networks like community gardens and food swaps. Usually, word of mouth from friend to trusted friend is the way by which people find out about the availability of this food. And why is this? Because there are some in our society that would like to deprive people of their right to buy and share the food they want to gather to nourish their family.

Raw milk is the most common food that is at risk. Considered by some to be a nutrient dense food, others believe it’s an environment for deadly diseases like campylobacter, listeria and the infamous e.coli 0157. Many would like to outlaw raw milk altogether, and there are regular and consistent efforts to make that so.

This antagonism towards raw milk exhibits itself through laws limiting easy access to raw dairy and through numerous raids by governmental entities on law abiding citizens. These actions terrorize the people who facilitate access to real food.

So, why do people risk their sense of well-being and personal comfort to purchase and eat this food? They believe strongly that individuals have a right to eat what they want, regardless of any potential negative physical effects that might result from eating that food—though when it comes to raw milk, problems have been found with pasteurized milk more often than raw milk. For most people, the consumption of real, nutrient-dense food outweighs the risks.

Along with embracing such foods is the rejection of the industrial food system. This is the system many Americans have grown up with, and accept as normal. It includes processed foods full of refined grains and sugars, dairy from confinement cows, pasteurization, irradiated meats, and GMO produce.

Much of this food is no longer in its natural state. It also involves a lot of petroleum products (gasoline and fertilizer) and time to truck or ship the food from far away. It’s also usually not truly fresh—a tomato picked green so that it can arrive at its exotic destination without bruising; rice that is white and polished so that it won’t go rancid; orange juice that has been de-oxygenated and later reconstituted with “flavor packs.”

But the good news is that we have alternatives—as the title of this article says, real food is a real option. Apart from the public co-ops and green markets, private buying clubs and the capability of some to grown their own food, it just takes a little investigating and asking around to find the sources for real food. It is out there and accessible for most of us. At this point, part of the deal is asking questions. Your mind, and especially your body will thank you for doing just that.

Stay tuned for the next article, in which I take a look at one of the informal and under-the-radar systems for finding real food: the food swap.