Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

When I was a kid I didn’t care where my food was from as long as it wasn’t from off the floor.  Food falling on the floor is one of the worst things that can happen to you in elementary school.  In later years we would learn about the “five second rule,” which I once mixed up with the “five minute rule” and almost got left back for poor attendance.  But in elementary school, if there had been a little more room on those menus magneted to every refrigerator in the land, the description of the lunches would say something like “Not Dropped On the Floor Sloppy Joe.”

At restaurants today it is taken for granted that food is not dropped on the floor, or that if it is, no one will tell you about it.  Instead, the menus emphasize the geographic origin of the ingredients.  Everyone wants to know if the vegetables are locally grown, or if the chickens were raised on local farms, enjoying the fresh local air and tasty local feed, taking in the local theater and shopping at the local boutiques, before their necks were wrung ever so humanely.

Wikipedia describes the local food movement as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”  There is a Taco Bell five minutes from my home that I’ve often relied upon, parking my car behind the dumpster so that my wife wouldn’t see it while she shops for fresh vegetables and couscous.  But I don’t think that’s what they mean.

My first exposure to the local food movement was when my wife and I attended a farmer’s market near our home.  The vendors had set up tables with their wares, and offered so many free samples of local tomatoes, local cheese, local bread, and local meat, that it was not long before I was looking for the local bathroom.

One table was offering locally made gourmet peanut butter.  The options were far beyond the traditional chunky and smooth.  There was chocolate-pretzel peanut butter, cookie-dough fudge peanut butter, jalapeño peanut butter.  We were impressed.  Then I looked at the price tag, and realized why choosy moms choose Jif.  Panko-crusted animal-cracker peanut butter mixed with goat cheese and leeks may be great for dinner parties, but I had to conserve my cash for the parking attendant.

Local food, however, is about much more than nutrition and economics.  There is controversy about what constitutes “local.”  The United States Congress, in the 2008 Farm Act, defined “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin.  That means that “local” covers an area of 502,655 square miles, or, as Tom Hanks’s character in “Cast Away” would have put it, “twice the size of Texas.”  Under that definition, I could secure a lot more free time by telling my wife I’m going out to run a few local errands.

I’m no member of Congress, but, to me, “local” implies that a chicken could have its head cut off and still be running around in my shopping cart when I’m swiping my frequent shopper card.  Politics is truly the art of compromise.

But these lofty concepts and global disputes rarely affect my daily life.  I eat whatever food I can find in the refrigerator or cupboard, with no thought of the journey it took to my gullet, and whether it paid tolls with E-Z Pass.  The only time the local movement enters my decision-making process is when I’m at a restaurant, and I am given the choice between meats raised on local farms or meats from origins unknown.  It is such a hard decision to make, that I already know I’m going to be reaching for antacids later on that night…antacids that are, fortunately, the most local food of all—right on the nightstand, next to my bed.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “Remember When No One Cared Where Their Food Was From?

  1. and how about the days that never-have-yet-been when we could pay a fair price for all this healthy food?

  2. Remember when you didn’t have to worry about what was in your food? I do. We slaughtered our own beef, and swapped meat with the neighbors, who raised pigs. We knew what the cattle ate because we could see it growing in our 20-acre yard. No hormones or chemicals there. Our vegetables came from Momma’s garden, and GMO’s were science fiction.

    We were not unusual for our community, and there was not a single person with a food allergy in sight. I was fifteen before I ever heard of a peanut allergy, and the peanut capital of the world was only 20 miles south of our house. It was so remarkable in our community that it was talked about for years.

    With globalization of the food industry and no enforceable standards for food production, we have no flaming idea what’s going into our bodies. That makes “local” look pretty good to this country girl because even if it’s 400 miles away, at least it’s subject to American regulations.

    It makes me sad that young people think a meat, vegetable and whole grain diet sounds disgusting when the truth is that REAL food that hasn’t been messed with is very tasty. I remember it, and I don’t find it often any more.

    Lol. Ok. Rant over. Thanks for a great blog, Mark. Makes me hungry for some organic apples, but I’m guessing they won’t have been grown locally at this time of year. 🙂

    • And thank you, Piper, for the intriguing and relevant comment. You provide some real-life context to the some of the real benefits of eating locally or regionally, as opposed to eating food that has sailed the seven seas, so to speak. I’ve never had the experience of eating food that was grown or raised on my own property, but when you say it was very tasty, I believe you. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. I have an almost-four-year-old at home who asks me almost daily what meat is. Then when I tell him, he refuses to believe me. I am at once horrified at the thought that my son doesn’t have a grasp on where his food comes from and simultaneously horrified at the thought that I’m the one that has to tell him. Over and over again, every day.

    • In the movie, “Masters of the Universe,” the Hollywood production of the popular cartoon “He-Man,” there is a scene where the earthlings are sharing some meat with He-Man’s friends from Eternia. As they chow down in the woods, Tela asks how they get the meat on the little “white sticks,” and her father and the earthlings have to explain to her that those white sticks are bones that came, along with the meat, from an animal that was once alive. Tela is mortified and cannot finish. Your son’s inquisitive mind reminded me of that scene. I hope you’ll remember to bring it up when he’s older.

      • dad

        And then there was the time I took you and Jay to see “Alive”, the movie based on the book by Piers Paul Read. After that, the two of you couldn’t bring yourselves to eat meat for about ten hours or so.

      • I do remember that, Dad. Our aversion to meat (especially meat wrapped in rugby socks) was so intense that we had to cut straight to the ice cream. Someday I’ll write the incredible story of how Jay and I survived for ten hours on just ice cream.

      • Hmmm…Maybe I can forego my parenting responsibilities altogether and just rent that movie?

      • Redbox it tonight! The book is also really good, too, but lacks the visuals required for full alimentary effect.

  4. This is why the laws of kashrut actually make sense. This is why we are supposed to be mindful of what we put into our bodies. It would just be nice if everyone could afford hood healthy food.

    And by the way, I still eat off the floor. Building better antibodies is what I say. 😉

    • That’s a really good point, Renee. A good marketing slogan for producers of kosher meat could be “We Started That Whole Free-Range Thing Two-Thousand Years Before It Was Cool.”

      And it’s refreshing to see such a healthy attitude about eating food off the floor.

  5. You might enjoy Portlandia’s treatment of this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LBICPEK6w Relevant bit starts at :30

  6. I’m old enough to actually remember when food tasted good! Also, I have no hangups about eating food that has fallen on the floor. 🙂

    • There seems to be a good deal of tolerance out there for food that has fallen on the floor. And to that I say, Thank heavens for this thundering answer to the germophobes. ‘Course, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m old enough to remember when food that wasn’t nutritious, but tasted good, didn’t make me regret indulging my taste buds. Thanks for stopping by, Amy.

  7. Exactly. And remember when people actually wrote LETTERS to inform them of what was happening in their lives instead of sending bland emails? Remember the excitement, butterflies in the stomach, angst, magic of waiting for the postman? Remember your sweaty-palm joy in opening a letter from your witty grandmother, your parents, or friends? Remember how you could tell how they were feeling by the slant of their handwriting? And remember how the mail came exactly during the time when you were watching He-Man/Thundercats/Transformers/Care Bears/My Little Pony/Rainbow Brite….or even later, during Knight Rider? Am I getting old?

  8. “Politics is truly the art of compromise.” A classic statement, no doubt!!

    While out for a celebratory dinner with friends, we were told of where and how the “steak-special” was raised. Also, it was flown in from Montana especially for us!!!!! Wow… I felt uncomfortably “special” about all the many details, so much so that I had to decline the special, as I felt that I now had a personal relationship with it! I even named it Herb…. got a few laughs, but the waiter was not finding me to be very funny, oh well.

    Local, smocal…. I prefer it fresh.

    • I’ve heard of “bone-in” steak, but never “flown-in” steak. I wonder if the steak had to wait long at the security line. That’s hilarious that you named a piece of meat, “Herb.” Your waiter must have been a vegan. Thanks for stopping by again, Carol.

  9. Love this post. If I lived off the 100 mile diet, I’d be dead by spring. That is all.

  10. I’m struggling with the grow-it-yourself movement: more people in cities growing herb and vegetable gardens on rooftops and postage stamp-sized plots like my backyard. Every year I fall victim to the romance of growing my own tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli. After a season of careful watering and fertilizing, my harvest consists of a handful of bug-eaten, moldy veggies. I make another trip to the produce section, think fondly about those meaty imported tomatoes grown with pesticides that I’m told will kill me. I guess there’s the organic section…Oh yeah, expensive.

    • Andy Rooney once wrote about how he tried to save money by growing vegetables in his own garden. He calculated that each tomato had cost him $300. I guess if you want to beat the corporate food producers, you have to become a corporation yourself. Thanks for sharing your story of the real cost of going local.

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