Food for Thought

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Here in the Sacramento region, socially conscious people are starting to ask pointed questions about the food they eat. Their concerns about animal welfare, the environment, fair trade and farm workers’ rights may affect what you find at your local grocery store and favorite restaurant. What it means to be an ethical eater.

For Laura Hart, food shopping means more than filling the fridge and packing the pantry. It also means trying to do the right thing politically and ethically, a quest that sends her to three or four grocery stores and a farmers market.

Hart, an East Sacramento resident and mother of two, shops at her local Compton’s Market because, she says, I believe in the little guy. She tends to purchase fish and meat from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. I think they make a point of researching [whether the animals are treated well], she explains. I don’t have to do the work. At least once a week, she stops by Trader Joe’s&emdash;it has a lot of affordable organics. As for the produce she buys at a Sunday-morning farmers market, she notes, I’m fairly sure it’s all locally grown.

Her multistop approach to shopping is far from unique. Hart and others like her agree: Eating is not simply a matter of convenience and taste. Today’s conscientious consumers care about a multitude of issues: how the food they buy is grown; whether their meat comes from animals that are humanely raised; how much the farm workers who pick their produce are paid and how they are treated; what distance their food travels to the market. Such people believe that their food choices have an impact on the world. In a sense, as these consumers vote with their dollars, they are engaging in the politics of food.

Nationwide, interest in the subject of ethical eating is surging, thanks in large part to The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Berkeley author Michael Pollan’s best-selling, behind-the-scenes look at the complicated journey food takes from farm to dinner plate. A few years ago, Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, prompted many readers to reassess their fondness for chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, which also took a hit from Morgan Spurlock’s popular 2004 documentary, Super Size Me. Meanwhile, book authors, magazine writers and newspaper columnists are attacking the subject with a gusto usually reserved for the pie-eating contest at the county fair.

Ethical eating may have more of a resonance in California&emdash;and here in the Sacramento region&emdash;than in less agriculturally blessed states. Capay Valley, less than an hour’s drive northwest of Sacramento in northwestern Yolo County, is home to a high concentration of organic farms and ranching operations and is a trendsetter in terms of socially responsible food production and distribution. Sacramento, with its recent proliferation of restaurants that stress fresh, seasonal ingredients from regional farmers, is certainly ripe for discussion about the repercussions of our food choices.

Hart, for example, expends some of her food-shopping energies on determining how much fossil fuel’s been burned to transport her food. The shorter the distance between farm and store, the better as far as she’s concerned.

Don Knutson, a local vegan who is a dedicated co-op shopper, shares Hart’s aversion to well-traveled food. I gave up maple syrup a year or so ago because it has to come from Canada or the Northeast, he says. It’s not harvested in California. So I use agave nectar instead, because agave comes from the cactus, which is much more regional.

Edwin Alagozian, another frequent co-op shopper, went to the trouble of visiting the source of his meat purchases: Prather Ranch, a 34,000-acre operation near Mount Shasta that, according to its website, has a low-stress approach to animal handling. Alagozian says his first imperative is to seek out and support sustainable farming.

Janet Krovoza, an assistant dean in UC Davis’ engineering department and the mother of two teenagers, is very sensitive to the political and environmental impact that her food choices make. Every week, she picks up a box of organic produce that’s dropped off near her home by Full Belly Farm, an all-organic operation in Capay Valley. Full Belly and the other organic farms I’ve purchased CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes from produce weekly newsletters that commonly mention their workers by name, and it is quite obvious they are highly valued members of their farming family, she says.

• Paying for Your Convictions

On a recent afternoon at Whole Foods Market in Sacramento, Arden Park resident Marilyn Holland is picking up some ground chuck and other items at the meat counter. Above the display cases, a ticker-tape-style scroll reads, All natural . . . Raised humanely . . . Never given antibiotics . . . Free of added hormones . . . Another sign proclaims, Natural grasses provide a majority of our cattle’s feed for 14–18 months.

Do those ethical claims draw Holland to Whole Foods? Somewhat, she says. But for her, the main factor is the meat is better. She also appreciates the clean, tidy presentation, even though it adds to the cost.

Whole Foods’ produce department poses a dilemma for ethically concerned shoppers. Here, the choice isn’t paper or plastic; it’s organic or conventional. All fresh fruits and vegetables are identified as being one or the other, and where the food was grown also is indicated. Organic Fuji apples come from New Zealand. Conventional shallots originate in Canada. Signs on produce bins proclaim that many items are Grown in California, but a few, such as organic yellow seedless watermelons, are pinpointed more specifically: Locally grown in Esparto, Ca.

Generally, organic foods are 20 to 30 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts. That extra cost can represent an obstacle for budget-conscious shoppers. Knutson’s rule of thumb: Opt for conventional food if the organic option is more than twice as expensive.

I buy organic produce at least 95 percent of the time&emdash;whenever I can&emdash;to avoid unnecessary exposure to man-made chemicals and to support agricultural practices that are the least damaging to the environment, says Krovoza, who shops at the Davis Food Co-op, the local farmers market and, for high-quality breads, Nugget Markets.

David Green and Ashley Jackson, both 21-year-old journalism majors at Sacramento State, do not have the money or time to pursue organic products or pay much attention to the ethics of eating. Maybe I’ll look at the nutritional facts later, says Green, who works part time as a Starbucks supervisor.

Jackson says she would like to give more thought to the consequences of her food shopping, but organic food is so expensive, and it’s easier to go to your grocery store and buy regular milk rather than soy milk . . . I prefer milk, but I’m sure soy milk is better for you. It’s just that things that are better for you cost more.
Many people don’t understand why organic food costs more than conventional, says Julia Thomas, the Sacramento co-op’s educational coordinator. Food is something that is expected to be cheap, but cheap food carries with it a lot of costs&emdash;environmental, political and nutritional&emdash;that are not reflected in the price tag.

• Can a Carnivore Be an Ethical Eater?

Meat is another player in the ethics of eating. Juana Rogers, longtime president of the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, chose to distance herself from the meat industry because, she explains, I don’t want anything to die for my pleasure.

Knutson, another SVS member who as a vegan neither eats nor wears animal products of any kind, says he urges meat eaters, ‘Go out and kill an animal, once a year, with your own hands, to confirm that this is OK with you.’

Most people don’t have the opportunity or inclination to hunt for their food. Krovoza, the Davis mother of two, is content if her meat comes from animals raised and slaughtered with compassion and respect. She also opts for sustainably harvested fish and dairy products from free-range, pastured cows fed with organic feed.

 

Knutson says that to apply labels such as organic, free-range or grass-fed to meat is a form of manipulative marketing. It’s done to assuage guilt, he says. The term ‘organic’ may say something about the producers, but in the end, exploitation is the sole purpose of engaging in the animal trade.

Amy Alfaro is less militant about her vegetarian diet. A few years ago, she grudgingly allowed her mother to feed chicken to her three vegetarian-raised boys; Grandma wanted to make sure they were receiving enough protein. A while later, however, a chicken wandered down her East Sac street and into the Alfaro family’s lives. They named her Lucy and let her sleep on top of the living room armoire. Youngsters Matt, Quinn and Vincent would fight over who would get to eat her eggs. The boys’ exposure to their new pet made them lose their appetite for Grandma’s chicken dinners.

Restaurants are starting to cater to consumers such as the Alfaros. In 2005, Andy Nguyen’s on Broadway became the Sacramento area’s only sit-down vegetarian restaurant. Its owner, Vietnam native Lien Thi Nguyen, was motivated by her Buddhist beliefs in having compassion for all living things.

We’re quite happy with the change, says her daughter, Jennine Tran, who manages the Vietnamese restaurant. Vegetarianism is health, but it’s beyond that. It’s cherishing the life of others. She believes that farm animals know that they are doomed to be slaughtered, and that the anxiety and anger they feel is transferred to the meat people buy. Bad karma, in other words.

• Are We in Denial?

Knutson’s hard-core attitude, Krovoza’s interest in humane treatment, Alfaro’s more laid-back approach and Andy Nguyen’s decision to go vege-tarian represent different points along the ethical-eating spectrum. Yet Mike Dunne, The Sacramento Bee’s food editor and restaurant reviewer, believes the issue does not yet have much traction with Americans.

Yes, more people are thinking more about how animals are treated, and more are thinking and acting in line with their concerns about how farm laborers are treated and paid, but it’s still a relatively small group that is concerned, he says. Most people, I suspect, don’t give it much thought, and certainly don’t buy ingredients and order certain dishes out of concern for animal welfare. It’s an exaggeration, but it sure seems that some people think their tri-tip comes from a supermarket and not from a steer. Denial is all about us, even in this here newspaper office, where you aren’t going to get a photo in the paper of a lamb when you’re writing a story about lamb.

A former vegetarian, Dunne is skeptical that the politics of food and the ethics of eating represent a hot topic beyond what he calls the foodie world, which is to say people for whom cooking and eating play major roles in their lives.

I doubt whether most people are interested in the subject at all, and [I think most people] still base their purchasing decisions on cost, flavor and marketing instead of whether the ground beef is from a sustainably managed ranch or the coffee is from a fair-labor plantation.

Chef Patrick Mulvaney, who runs Mulvaney’s Building & Loan restaurant in midtown Sacramento and Culinary Specialists catering company&emdash;and also is a blogger for Sacramento magazine’s website&emdash;disagrees, to an extent. Awareness of what we eat and where it comes from is increasing, he says. Does that amount of play mean it has reached a tipping point? I don’t know, but I think consciousness of what we eat, where it comes from and its impact on the planet is an important thing.

Mulvaney’s restaurant reflects his political and ethical concerns. It’s a union house, for starters. All the pork on the menu comes from a sustainable ranch in Yolo County, the beef from a herd in Idaho that grazes freely. Mulvaney says he designed his menu to highlight local, seasonal food.  

Many of our products come from responsible stewards of the Earth, who are concerned about the generations to come, he continues. They are frequently small, family farmers, struggling to make the world a better place, and so I think you can view our support of them as applauding their determination. There are easier ways to make a living.

The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op pays close attention to farm labor issues, says the co-op’s Thomas. Many of the small farms we support offer their employees year-round employment, and some even offer health benefits, she says. We believe in paying the farmers their asking price for their products&emdash;rather than telling them what we will pay, like some other stores do&emdash;so that they can afford to take care of their employees.

• Wal-Mart Takes Notice

The co-op’s produce department has been all-organic for several years. The trend toward organics has extended well past such locally owned cooperatives, however; grocery retail giant Wal-Mart announced earlier this year that it plans to at least double its selection of organic products. Other mainstream stores, such as Safeway, pitch their organic lines in weekly newspaper ads.

Paul Underhill, co-owner of the all-organic Terra Firma Farm just west of Winters, is leery of the way organic foods are being mass-produced. You get organic corn syrup and organic cheese doodles, he says. In my opinion, most processed organic food is the same crap as conventional processed food, but with more politically correct ingredients, such as ‘brown rice syrup’ instead of corn syrup.

• The Bottom Line: What To Eat?

So what’s a socially responsible food shopper to do? And what is the ideal diet?

The ideal diet from our farm’s perspective includes a diverse selection of minimally packaged and processed, locally grown fruits, vegetables, eggs, grains, meat or tofu, and beans, says Trini Campbell, co-owner of Riverdog Farm, an organic operation in Capay Valley. Preferably, the food is grown organically, picked at the peak of ripeness and raised without antibiotics or hormones.

Look for products produced and labeled as organic, or produced by sustainable or biodynamic agricultural practices, says The Bee’s Dunne. Learn to read back labels, even if it’s just the nutrition box. Urge markets to clearly label where their products are from.

I think local is more important than organic, says restaurateur Mulvaney.

The co-op’s Thomas agrees. I always recommend eating local, seasonal produce, she says. Underhill weighs in with this opinion: People need to cook their own food more. The best diet for the environment, farmers and consumers is based on raw ingredients they buy and prepare for themselves.

According to Emily Webber, a vegan who supervises the local Whole Foods’ culinary school, A thoughtful and educated diet is an important first step. After reading a few well-written books, articles and essays, whether one decides to be an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, I think we can all agree that choosing to eat more local and organic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans&emdash;and less sugar and processed food&emdash;is the right choice.   

Note: Michael Pollan, author of
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,
will lecture at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center Nov. 29. For tickets, call (866) 754-2787 or go to mondavi
arts.org