I only eat local meat.
It may sound ridiculous. You might be gasping right now, wondering how I can go without the irresistible crunchy-chicken-y goodness of a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, or the juiciness of a Big Mac, both irreplaceable staples of any ordinary teenager’s diet. You might be wondering how I can get all of the nutrients a growing boy like me needs and avoid some kind of nutrient deficiency in the absence of everyday meat. You’re also probably thinking, “So he’s that guy”, the one who would be horrible dinner company, casting down judgment upon anyone eating “lesser” or “tainted” meat. But regardless of what you’re thinking, hold your thoughts for a moment and indulge me as I explain my food choices in the context of modern American agriculture – believe me, the benefits of eating locally go beyond helping to answer last year’s AP English essay question.
I will start off by saying that the decision to do away with any non-local meat was by no means a simple one. Though I did have my semester at Chewonki to aid me in the transition, the constant allure of meat in our food supply – from fast food chains to family dinners – proved hard to resist upon my return. As a person who enjoys meat, it wasn’t easy to accept the fact that because local meat was harder to find, I wouldn’t be able to consume as much. And it was also difficult and frustrating at time for my mother, who rearranged menus to accommodate her newly returned son’s special diet. So, yes, there certainly are obstacles in the path to consuming only local meat. But once you push through the initial resistance to fast-food urges and make a few small changes to your diet, it isn’t all that bad.
It’s all about your “food conscience.” In short, I decided to become a local meat eater to promote animal rights, support small organic farms, reduce my carbon footprint, and make sure I’m eating as healthily as possible. Each of these factors is essential in the impact that eating locally – meat or not – makes.
Many of you are probably aware of the less than ideal conditions in the factory farms across the country that contribute to the vast majority of the meat supply in America. Though it’s easy to be fooled by the adorable toddlers in a Tyson chicken nugget commercial, the face of the American meat industry is not charming. Dominated by CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), the industry neglects even basic animal rights. Laying hens on large egg farms are often enclosed in cages so small that they do not even have room to lift their wings. Because of the close quarters and subpar hygienic conditions of these large-scale farms, disease is prevalent – salmonella, e coli, and swine flu, to name a few. Instead of improving conditions, these farms compensate by injecting persistent heavy doses of antibiotics into their animals. This is about as effective as throwing water on a grease fire.
Many of you have also probably seen movies such as Supersize Me or Food, Inc., which pay special attention to mistreatment within the McDonalds factory system. McDonald’s has become infamous for their use of the rGBH hormone and force-feeding techniques to yield faster cow growth. This combination causes McDonalds cows to gain weight far faster than their bodies can naturally support. Because of this, it is common for these animals’ legs to break under the weight, and they spend the rest of their lives lying on the ground in their stalls, which are never cleaned.
These are jarring images. I have a much sounder conscience eating a cow that I know grazed on some open green pasture in the rolling hills of north Georgia (what could be more natural?) as opposed to one from a CAFO. For me, eating locally, sustainably, and humanely raised meat shows an important and deserved respect for domesticated animals.
This leads me to my second point: supporting local farms. I had the wonderful opportunity during my junior year to organize a “35 Mile Meal” with a few of my Chewonki classmates. We planned out and cooked a dinner consisting only of ingredients from within a 35-mile radius of the Chewonki campus, located in mid-coast Maine. On our big pickup run for the meal, we spent an entire day driving to eight different local organic farms, collecting the food and spending some time talking to each farmer. At each stop I was struck by the passion of the farmers; from a young Furman graduate running a three-acre vegetable garden to a 74-year-old goat cheese farmer from Canada. Building relationships with the people who had grown our food – further understanding the story behind what we were eating – made the meal all that more meaningful.
With the 21st century movement towards sustainable agriculture, more and more organic farms are appearing across the country and are becoming much more accessible to the consumer. I urge all of you to try to go to at least one farmers market this spring and summer – the Peachtree Road, Morningside, and Decatur markets are all fantastic options. Engage in these opportunities to meet the people behind what’s on your plate.
Eating locally also allows you to reduce your carbon footprint, or your contribution to pollution. I am not inclined to support food that has had to travel thousands of miles to get to me. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver states that the average item on the American dinner plate at any given time of the year has traveled about 1,500 miles to get there. 1,500 miles! Though I understand that this is the result of a modernized industry, it is mind-boggling to me to think that at any given meal I could be sampling ingredients from multiple continents at once. In the same book Kingsolver also states that thirteen percent of our nation’s energy use is attributed to the transportation and distribution of agriculture. Think of how much energy we could save – both in pollutants and costs – if instead of buying a tomato from Chile, we grew one in our backyard, or bought it from a local farmer?
In the end, it is important to remember that food choices are personal. Though it may seem strange to draw parallels between food habits and religion, each individual is entitled to his or her own eating habits just as they are to their spiritual beliefs. I promise, I’m not “that guy,” and no one has the right to cast judgment on another’s diet. However, I implore you all to ask yourselves questions about your eating habits. See what feels “right” to your dietary conscience. In the meantime, visit a farmers’ market one Saturday morning, or eat at a restaurant that serves locally grown ingredients (there are plenty around – YeahBurger, Local Three, or Urban Plate, for example). Though it may be hard to believe, it really does make a difference towards shifting the way we as a society approach what we eat. It benefits the natural, honest work that grows our food, the earth that sustains it, and, of course, our taste palette. And if you are what you eat, why not be a happily grazing cow on an organic farm, with plenty of fresh air and space to roam?
To find local farms, farmers markets, or restaurants serving locally produced ingredients, visit www.localharvest.org or www.eatwellguide.org.