Personal is Political: On what I eat


I posted a quick link a few weeks back to the new documentary Food Inc.
I finally got to see it last week. In one word, it left me nauseated.
Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years back, I became much more interested in the politics of food. It made me think more about ingredient lists, industrialized agriculture and the mass production of meat.
Well Food Inc took the whole scenario to another level entirely. The visual element, coupled with a really wholistic view of how our highly industrialized food system is impacting us, really hit me. They hit on so many issues: health, poverty, worker’s rights, immigration, environment, big business, government subsidies.
The way we eat is not a small problem. In fact, its connected to almost every other problem we work toward solving. The message of the movie is that you can make a difference, and what you choose to eat matters. I take that to heart, not just because of how it impacts my personal health, but how it might impact the health of my community, my environment, my economy.
I’m privileged. I live in a city with plentiful access to farmer’s markets during most of the year. There are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, as well as a few co-ops and other locally grown natural food options. After seeing this movie, I’ve recommitted to buying exclusively from these venues. I can do it, because I don’t live in poverty and because I don’t live in a food desert as some do. Others can’t make this choice, because they can’t afford farmer’s market prices, because they need to feed their large families. But I can spend the extra money to support food that is wholesome and ethically grown and raised. I can eat meat once a week, rather than a few times a week, and pay more for animals not grown in a factory or shipped thousands of miles. I can make more foods from scratch, rather than buying prepackaged mixes with preservatives and chemicals. I can try my hand at gardening, even in my urban environment. I can support local farmers, bakers, cheese makers.
It’s amazing that something as fundamental as how we feed ourselves is only beginning to be scrutinized from a social justice perspective.
Do you garden? Participate in a CSA? Shop at farmer’s markets? Is the way you eat part of your activism?
If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, check it out. You’ll never be able to eat the same way again.

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100 Comments

  1. alice-paul
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for all the tips. I like the idea for a rice cooker, crockpot, and slow cooker.
    One important question: Is it labor intensive to clean these items?

  2. preppy
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    no! it’s not labor intensive. i just soak the rice cooker pan overnight in water and it all washes out instantly the next day. and that’s it!

  3. Shy Mox
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    While hunting is more humane than even so called free range or “humane” happy meat, its still pretty unnecessary for people to eat meat and still a waste of resources, plus our planet just can’t support the meat eating habits of six billion people (and that population is getting near seven billion soon). Plus vegetarian and vegan diets are so healthy, the time and energy wasted in hunting is just unnecessary.

  4. Tara K.
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    FYI — if you spray the rice cooker with nonstick first, I find that almost NONE of the rice sticks. I think you can get organic nonstick…

  5. Tara K.
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Some say. In fact, I used to say. I was vegetarian for five years and it wasn’t really healthier for me. Some people can do it without problems, but no dietary supplements or adjustments ever got it to work for me. I had no energy and lots of blood sugar problems. I found that incorporating meat into my diet helped tremendously.
    I preached all the pros of the veg lifestyle myself, but I don’t think they’re universally true for all people, all bodies. The eco-benefits are important, but I think it’s better to stress responsible meat consumption (as in meat from appropriate sources and the appropriate amount in our diets).

  6. Abby B.
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I understand the concern, really, I do, but I eventually came to the decision that I don’t have enough time in my day to decide what is or isn’t a moral decision for each person amongst my friends and family. At the base of it, I honestly believe that if my sister comes to a decision that she should and will eat meat, then I’m happy she’s taken the time to make that decision. And if she hasn’t taken the time to make that decision for herself, then I feel that by discussing with her the reasons I chose to become a vegetarian, I might prompt her to think about her choices more carefully. In this, I feel it’s my responsibility to educate and not to dictate.

  7. Peepers
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear! I wish there was an “ethical practices” box right next to the “nutrition information” box to help me understand the “true cost” of products I consume. Until than, I can’t wait for this movie to release in my town.

  8. Peepers
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    No foolin’, kat! It’s similar for me. A prerequisite for sustainability is availability in most people’s real lives.

  9. lyndorr
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    “I hate to see moral choices being billed as just preferences. There are all sorts of other moral choices we don’t do this with, so why food? But it seems definitely possible to go too for down the road of “We all just do what works for us…”"
    It really depends on the person someone is talking to. I have older family members who are convinced it’s impossible to be healthy on a vegetarian diet. For them, I just want them to leave me alone. But even for others, I’d sooner recommend this documentary than make any sort of comment about what they’re eating. I’ll encourage people to get information and they can do what they want with that information.

  10. Peepers
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    That’s the thing about this local stuff. It’s so local. In my experience, the strategies that work vary immensely from one community to the next.
    Where I used to live, I could eat inexpensively and healthfully by visiting the farmer’s market each week. I long for those days. Where I am now, the best I can do is to try to avoid the most notorious national big-box store and to grow a little of my own food in my yard. When my plants succeed, I share the food and information with friends and neighbors. Three friends are growing a little food in their yards too now. That’s how we get to have affordable, fresh, organic herbs in our community. Now there are eggplants and tomatoes. Next year, who knows. The hitch in my method is that you have to 1) talk to your neighbors and 2) share.

  11. Peepers
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Chickens are so practical if you can have them! My mom had chickens. I’m gonna tell her I saw someone advocating it online so she can feel years ahead of her time :)

  12. Tara K.
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I feel you. When I lived in Kentucky, I could buy BASKETS of fresh veggies from the farmer’s market. Now that I live in a bigger city, Columbus, OH, I find that the farmer’s markets here are double the price. They’re a little more hip to marketing their green-friendliness and so on. It’s frustrating.

  13. vegkitty
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Oh goodness. This is a HUGE cause for me. I’m always looking at ways to get healthy foods to be more affordable for lower-income people… I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that processed, non-organic, non-local foods cost less than whole, organic, local foods. A lot of this has to do with crop subsidies, which is another comment for another day.
    On an individual basis, I tend towards the most eco-friendly, local foods. I’m a poor starving college student, so cost is an issue for me. Lately, I’ve noticed that soymilk and certain brands of fake meats have gone down in price, so I’m trying to buy some each time I go shopping to encourage the price drop/sales. I’ve also been a vegetarian for 6 years, so my food choices, by default, tend to be more eco-friendly. Finally, I’m attempting to grow a fall vegetable garden at my house (I live with my parents) to protest subsidized foods and become more self-sustainable.
    Question to fellow eco-conscious shoppers: Is Starbucks “green” or not? I’ve heard conflicting info.

  14. JoanOfArc
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    It isn’t hard to clean a crockpot. Just spray it with cooking spray before and it will be a breeze to clean.
    Joan

  15. JoanOfArc
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    They aren’t meat hens; when they die I bury them and cry. The hens are as much pets as egg producers.
    Joan

  16. arielariel
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    I think you raise a valid point, especially about what we eat these days is so often “processed food product” rather than just, well, food. Access to good food is really key to learning how to eat well.
    I just wish this movement wasn’t so classist, and so wrapped up in another version of “good” and “bad” food. Especially given (as other people say on this thread) the way in which organic food hasn’t in fact been proven to be better for you, I think it’s kind of messy that it has so quickly been valued so much higher. It makes some logical sense, but I am still skeptical.
    The localvore idea — eat seasonal food grown close to where you live — does make more sense to me because of its obvious other benefits, ie, knowing your farmer, not polluting so much, eating in a way that supports the world around you. I am still wary of calling that better, though. Something about that kind of evaluation makes me very wary when it comes to food in particular.

  17. kisekileia
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    No, actually, eating meat is not unnecessary for everyone. See my comments earlier in the thread–a person who can’t eat legumes or nuts, such as me, can’t safely be vegetarian.

  18. kisekileia
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Thank you.

  19. laurend
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    wondering if anyone knows whether or not this film is playing overseas? in the netherlands, specifically?

  20. Sehnsucht
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    One way you can eat more healthfully is to eat more whole and raw foods and much less prepackaged and processed foods. While it might be harder to handle the ethical part of it, considering even organically grown foods can be grown in very unethical ways, purposefully choosing to eat more healthily will still send a message to the agri-corps who want to keep everything quick and cheap but grossly unhealthy.

  21. Sehnsucht
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Have you tried hemp seed? It has ALL of the amino acids that make up protein; not even just the 8 essential ones, but ALL OF THEM! Problem is, it can be hard to come across and the government sure as hell won’t let you grow your own. :(

  22. Sehnsucht
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    I still ate fish for about a month after I became “vegetarian” until I learned about all the nasty stuff that gets into the fish from our grossly over-polluted waterways. The amount of mercury alone makes my brain hurt.

  23. Sehnsucht
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    Did you know that the way we have been abusing agriculture to feed our overpopulated earth has already killed 1/3 of the Earth’s topsoil?
    Maybe if we made a much greater push for pregnancy prevention and birth control, we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding so many people.

  24. Sehnsucht
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    You do realize there is protein in, like, everything, right? It’s not just nuts and legumes.
    Barley, potatoes, avocados, spinach, hemp, etc. all have protein in them. Of course, some things have more protein than others, but you don’t really need a whole lot to begin with and it’s not hard to get the amount that you do need.

  25. kisekileia
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    Interesting! I’m in Canada, and I think it is probably legal here. I’d just have to figure out what to do with it cooking-wise.

  26. davenj
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Good luck with that. The kind of population change necessary to switch over to wholly organic growing methods is so tremendous it’ll take MANY generations to achieve, if at all.
    All things can’t be done at all times without avoiding side effects. One of the huge side effects here is that using land to produce significantly less food will contribute to rising food prices worldwide.
    Easy for us to shrug off here, not so easy in the developing world.
    Maybe if we don’t try to boil things down to black/white or yes/no problems we’ll find fairer, more equitable solutions that use a variety of strategies and actually correlate to reality.

  27. Pharaoh Katt
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I can’t safely be vegetarian either because my body has trouble absorbing iron and iron suppliments do bad things to my gut. The amount of iron in green leafy vegetables just doesn’t compare to the amount of iron in red meat, and the iron in red meat is easier to absorb.
    And for anyone else who has iron troubles: eat lots of green, leafy vegetables. The copper in them helps with iron absorbtion.

  28. kat
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I do believe there is an element of class-ism in it too (though read the article I posted from the NYT below, about this guy who is doing great work in the inner-city of Milwaukee.)
    I can’t cry that in my case though, becuase we can definitely afford to buy expensive food. I just don’t have the time to cook it every day. I try when I can, but I can’t beat myself up when I don’t have the time.
    Your comment also made me think of an article I read recently about a farmer who wasn’t going all-organic, but had adopted some technique so he was using 20% as much chemicals as a typical farmer, but getting yields equivalent to industrial farming. He wasn’t getting any support from the organic/sustainable crowd, but all the “traditional” farmers thought he was nuts too. This is exactly the kind of thing we need to support though.

  29. maidden
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Preservatives and “chemicals”? Good luck avoiding dihydrogen monoxide, that stuff is all over.

  30. davenj
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    But the issue isn’t just food prices. That’s part of the issue, but there are also other problems.
    Time is a huge thing here. Even you, a college student home for summer in a family of three, cops to not always having the time to prepare meals. Imagine, then, how your average person pulling ten hours a day for five days a week and commuting using public transport feels about the prospects of preparing a meal when they get home.
    Then add to the mix the portability issue. Organic food doesn’t just come pre-packaged. You can’t go buy it off a lunch stand. So folks who work and eat lunch at their job, or perhaps two meals, don’t really have many great options in this regard.
    The article is great, but he’s not self-sufficient, and while he helps bring some better food to urban areas there are still issues of preparation and transport that are far from being solved. Historically poorer folks don’t eat as well, and for a variety of reasons. That’s not going to change overnight, so I think that reps of this food movement ought to take that into account.
    This is not simply an education issue. In many ways it’s tied to finances, time, and one’s job.
    As for using fewer chemicals, it’s great for smaller folks who can do it and have the time, but I’ve yet to see anything in the journals that indicates a departure from current pyrithroids and neonicitinoids and the doses we use for large-scale farming.
    It’s a double-bind. Modern agriculture may not be sustainable, but it’s the only way to support the global population.

  31. Interior_League
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Would you eat them if
    They weren’t potty trainable
    or “intelligent?”
    A tiny rabbit
    lives in the backyard at work.
    He’s too cute to eat.

  32. Kristin
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    This is my first time commenting here. I live with my husband (and soon son) in the “suburbs” of a small town in central Pennsylvania. We have a decent sized back yard, and about two years ago we started gardening. We grow our own herbs as well as lettuce, tomatoes, summer squash, and we experiment with other foods. It’s very satisfying to watch everything grow, and then to be able to pick it out of the ground and eat it immediately. All it cost was the build the beds (soil mix and some wood) and the cost of the plants every year. I would pay $3.50 per week at least for decent lettuce in the grocery store; for $3.50 we can get 6 lettuce plants that will last us for weeks, and we usually have so much we give some away. Even if you don’t have a back yard, you can grow a few things…I see those topsy turvey tomato growers on porches and balconies all over the city I work in. It not only cuts down on grocery bills, but it provides fresh basic ingredients with much more nutrition than the store bought variety has. Our region does have a few CSAs, but the buy-in cost is over $400/yr, which is really out of the budget range of most families. We have more than enough goodies coming from our small garden, and it probably costs less than $25-50/year.
    Regarding meat, my husband is a hunter. I was a vegetarian myself for about 8 years so it took a lot of getting used to. The two or so deer that he shoots each fall feeds our family for an entire year…no need to buy red meat at all. I know everything that happened to that animal from the time my husband spotted it until it shows up on my plate, which is a very rare thing these days. You can’t get anymore “organic” than that. I understand the arguments against meat eating, but I have come to feel that if I’m going to eat it at all, there’s nothing healthier or really more humane for the animal than hunting.
    Also regarding hunting, there are people all over the country that hunt because they have to due to financial reasons and many hunters I know share “extra” deer with friends or family who don’t/can’t hunt themselves but struggle financially. There is also a program for hunters to donate their deer to soup kitchens (I think it’s called Share the Harvest?).

  33. Dykonoclast
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    In November when I confronted my mom with some facts about the corporate meat industry and what it does to the world, she told me that declining to eat skeletal muscular tissue was ‘countercultural.’
    In March she went vegan.
    [Maybe I'm just a big jerk, but I didn't really learn much from Food Inc. I didn't already know-- I'm delighted it's having an impact on people, though!]

  34. Dykonoclast
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Boston Organics rules!!! Thanks to them, I was able to eat local all winter long. I still have one of the boxes coming in, but I cancelled the local one to better support farmers markets.

  35. kisekileia
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    No, I don’t think I would. They are definitely too cute to eat!

  36. kisekileia
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Not whole proteins. My understanding is that foods containing various types of proteins have to be combined carefully in a vegetarian diet, and I can eat so few of those foods that it really wouldn’t work.

  37. borrow_tunnel
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I am SO excited to watch that documentary. I was asked by mnn (shameless self promotion: http://mnn.com/users/nkonen) to do a survey on the trailer and I guess I didn’t figure the movie would be online. I just got done watching Supersize Me with my boyfriend last night after he brought home McDonalds and it’s just awful what I eat sometimes. You wouldn’t think of food as an issue beyond health, but it is a social problem. As a jobless college student, I currently live in a low-income neighborhood, and it’s sad to see a McDonalds smack-dab in the middle of the neighborhood. It is literally 2 blocks away from me. I mean, these people that don’t have a lot of money to buy a car or use a lot of gas can just walk over to McDonalds. It’s made too easy for them to ruin their health. It’s really sad, but my hope is that in this new century, McD’s and other fast food restaurants won’t be such big powers.

  38. Interior_League
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Just save all the ones
    you pick out of that fat bag
    of sticky green shit.

  39. Tracey T
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    I try to eat as ethically as possible and have been vegetarian for over a year now, but I am not economically priviledged and a lot of things depend on location. For example, I have farmer’s markets near me that are actually cheaper than stores, but farmer’s markets do not accept food stamps(at least none I know of), and that is how I buy the vast majority of my food.
    Also, I use to live somewhere where tofu was $1 cheaper than my current location and you could purchase tempeh for $1.50 a pound (more in bulk). So I am pretty much limited to beans,rice,noodles, TVP, and frozen vegetables (the only kind I really buy fresh regulary are peppers), usually under $35/mo. I get so frustrated with the restrictions on food sometimes. Not only are time and access problematic for some people, but there are situations where you are literally living from day to day and do not have enough money at one time to shop on a weekly/monthly basis.

  40. The Geek
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that foods containing various types of proteins have to be combined carefully in a vegetarian diet

    This 70s-era theory has been discredited. Provided that one does not subsist solely on junk food, and provided that one eats enough calories overall, there is simply no reason to worry about protein (whether total intake or “combining”) on a vegan or other plant-based diet.
    From Dr Weil: “You may have heard that vegetable sources of protein are “incomplete” and become “complete” only when correctly combined. Research has discredited that notion so you don’t have to worry that you won’t get enough usable protein if you don’t put together some magical combination of foods at each meal.”
    From The Vegan Society: “Diets based solely on plant foods easily supply the recommended amounts of all the indispensable amino acids, and protein combining at each meal is unnecessary. Soya protein is actually equivalent in biological value to animal protein.”
    From the Vegetarian Resource Group: “It is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein, as long as calorie intake is adequte. Strict protein combining is not necessary; it is more important to eat a varied diet throughout the day.”

  41. bifemmefatale
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    No harder than washing a mixing bowl, for the crockpot.

  42. Woodsy Pete
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I am a conservation biologist and you beat me to the argument I was going to make. I try to shop at as many farmer’s markets as I can, and try to buy local chicken and dairy products (which isn’t always easy, but I do try). I still eat venison, though, because I’d rather see deer meat on my plate than in front of my car. People don’t necessarily have to eat meat, but if they want to, then hunting an overpopulated as well as tasty species is a good way to do so.

  43. Woodsy Pete
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I am a conservation biologist and you beat me to the argument I was going to make. I try to shop at as many farmer’s markets as I can, and try to buy local chicken and dairy products (which isn’t always easy, but I do try). I still eat venison, though, because I’d rather see deer meat on my plate than in front of my car. People don’t necessarily have to eat meat, but if they want to, then hunting an overpopulated as well as tasty species is a good way to do so.

  44. Judith
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I consider my vegetarianism a part of my activism. Money keeps me from buying organic very often, and living situation keeps me from gardening. Timing has been a bar to joining a CSA, but I’m hoping to be able to do it next year. I do shop at farmer’s markets when I can afford it.

  45. Judith
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I consider my vegetarianism a part of my activism. Money keeps me from buying organic very often, and living situation keeps me from gardening. Timing has been a bar to joining a CSA, but I’m hoping to be able to do it next year. I do shop at farmer’s markets when I can afford it.

  46. joanneod
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post: this is a very important issue and really hits the boundary where the personal becomes political. On films, “We Feed the World” (Austrian production) was released here in Europe a couple of years ago along similar lines and I also found it quite shocking. That was when I definitively stopped eating any chicken I wasn’t 100% sure came from an ethical source…
    Check it out:
    http://www.we-feed-the-world.at/en/film.htm

  47. blue
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    ? ? ? ?

  48. kisekileia
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    None of those are sources I would trust without verification from impartial medical sources. But regardless of that, my diet is already extremely restricted and it would not be healthy to restrict it further.

  49. The Geek
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that the protein-combining theory was popularized in Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 Diet for a Small Planet. Lappe withdrew support for the theory as early as 1982, writing:

    “In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually it is much easier than I thought.”

    I was hard-pressed to find any further sources addressing whether dietary protein combining is necessary. There seems to be a dearth of research. The thought comes to mind that if protein combining were truly “necessary”, there would be some syndrome or set of symptoms that emerges in its absence among the millions of vegetarians and vegans in the world, and that perhaps no one has studied it because there is no such disease.
    That said, there is plenty of evidence which demonstrates that eating too much protein is a health hazard, and most people in industrialized countries who eat animal flesh or products do indeed ingest too much.
    Since quality of information is important to you: which reliable source(s) influenced your belief that protein combining is necessary?

  50. MsMay
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Hey Miriam — as a neighbor of yours, I would like to speak to the efforts of the farmer’s market in our neighborhood to reach out to those who may not consider going to farmer’s markets in the first place. In addition to one (or multiple?) CSAs, some of the farmer’s markets in our city also accept WIC (formerly known food stamps) and are usually accessible by public transportation. I was really impressed to see these outreach efforts, and can only hope that we can think of other ways to make healthier and sustainable food more accessible to everyone.
    See you at the farmer’s market!

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