It's time to connect with our food

In 1990, when I was 18 years old I became a vegetarian resulting from a concern I had with how animals were treated, from political punk music I listened to at the time and many friends who were going through a similar transition. Within a year, I had made the journey to veganism and began working in the health food industry. For a number of years I worked in natural foods grocery stores (Natures Fresh Northwest and Food Front Cooperative, both in Portland, Oregon), which is where I first encountered descriptions for food such as “healthy”, “natural” and “organic.”

Up until these new words entered my world, food was just food. I mean I knew there was junk food and food that was healthier but I didn’t pay much attention to it. However, being around health food made me begin to understand the importance of knowing what goes into your body and how it is grown and created. I found it amazing that often we appear to care more about what we feed to our pets (pure food, no processing, natural ingredients) than what we ourselves consume. Further, I began to understand that in society’s attempt to make things more fast and convenient, we simply as consumers have no knowledge, no connection to the process by which our food reaches the marketplace.

As a society we understand meat to be something wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store that we bring home to cook. Traditional milk simply is a whitish liquid that comes in a quart, half gallon or gallon size that we bring home and put on our cereal, which itself is largely poured out of a plastic bag and cardboard box. Soda such as Coca Cola or Pepsi, is simply a dark colored carbonated drink that comes in plastic containers and with which we believe our thirst will be quenched. Soups and beans come out of cans, bread appears on a shelf in a plastic bag and chips and crackers are in boxes, often neatly “faced” (using a bit of the old grocery store lingo) along the market shelves. Even the produce we purchase now often is bagged in plastic or prepared and sold in large plastic clamshell type containers.

There has been a purposeful disconnect from our food, alienating us from the process by which it is created. The meat sold neatly in the cellophane packaging was once a living, breathing animal that typically suffered a horrific life only to be slaughtered and bled out. The conditions of the slaughter are horrific in the act itself, but the carelessness to life is only further signified by the filthy conditions of the processing plants. The meat is typically so contaminated that it requires the use of ammonia to kill the harmful bacteria existing within it. While most in society can easily purchase the clean, neatly wrapped meat from the grocery store, few could withstand the entire process of raising a life, taking care of that living being, and then slaughtering it and preparing its flesh simply for the pleasure of consumption.

Similar to the meat industry, the dairy industry disguises much behind its containers of bright white milk with labels featuring happy cows frolicking in pastures. Similar to humans, cows only naturally produce milk for their offspring. And to achieve this constant supply of milk, cows are forcefully impregnated every year, with calves ripped away from their mothers shortly after birth. The calves are then typically kept isolated where they are either raised simply to be killed for meat or to suffer the same fate as their mothers in the dairy industry. Of the estimated 9.3 million milk cows currently comprising the U.S. dairy industry, some 90% of these are kept indoors, connected round the clock by their necks to the tiny stalls they exist in. And when their milk production dries up, they too are sent to slaughter.

If the ethical implications are not enough to avoid supporting the meat and dairy industries, consider the impact these two industries have on the environment. More than 83% of global farmland is used for livestock, and yet this produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of the world’s protein. Natural habitats around the world continue to be destroyed to make room for additional cattle and this loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

Further, the meat and dairy industries are significant contributors to the growing climate crisis. These industries account for an estimated 14.5% of the global greenhouse emissions according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. To put it in perspective, this is roughly the same as the emissions from all cars, trucks, and airplanes combined in the world today. In comparison, emissions from plant based foods are an average 10-50 times smaller than those from animal products.

Animal welfare and environmental concerns aside, your own health should also be a motivating factor to consider. According to leading medical professionals and scientists, including those at Harvard and the National Institutes of Health, meat consumption is linked to increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and premature death. With dairy, research has linked the high saturated fat content and hormones in milk, cheese, and other dairy products to breast cancer and heart disease. And the worry over calcium intake from dairy milk has also been one of the effective marketing ploys of the industry. What the message fails to reveal is that yes, calcium is found in dairy milk, however it is abundant, according to nutritionists at Harvard and the Cleveland Clinic, in many foods including fruits, leafy greens, beans, nuts, and starchy vegetables. Tofu (processed with calcium), for instance, has nearly as much calcium per serving as a cup of cow milk.

With the ethical, environmental, and health reasons combined it should be a no brainer to stop supporting these industries. But our dietary and consumer choices and obligations don’t end there. The disconnect we have from our food supply also pertains to the packaging our food comes in, the process by which it is grown, the impact the production of our food has on farmworkers globally and the climate impact of supply chains distributing and transporting consumer goods thousands of miles around the world. We want to believe that our dietary and lifestyle choices are not political. But it is quite the opposite. Every amount of currency spent is a vote of support for each step in the process of producing or extracting raw materials, refining them, manufacturing goods and shipping those goods to end up eventually in our homes. This is why it is important to care about what we buy, who we buy it from, how it is packaged, the means by which it was grown or made, and whether it is local or was transported from across the world. To blindly purchase items based solely on conveniences or slick and misleading advertisements ignores the great injustices surrounding our food chain.

By making a conscious choice to connect with our food and become aware of the process by which it comes to our tables, we have the ability to support ethical people and companies who are trying to do the right thing - protecting the environment and combating climate change, protecting animals and wildlife, caring for the workers who are growing the food, and prioritizing our own health.