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the Chicago Tribune

We Chow Down on a Diet Salted With Mystery

Julie Deardorff

Most of us have absolutely no idea where -- or from whom -- our food is coming, which is exactly how we like it.

Factory farming isn't pretty, even when slaughterhouses obey regulations. And who cares whether pineapples grow high on trees or low to the ground as long as they're available in February?

But last week's massive beef recall, sparked by an unpalatable video showing workers using forklifts and electric shocks to move sick animals to slaughter, shows the importance of knowing the source of your sustenance.

The way food is grown and harvested directly affects our health. But we've become so divorced from the process that we're unable to make logical or intuitive food choices.

Instead we read confusing labels, we listen to food marketers, we buy into so-called health claims. Our mechanized system of food production, meanwhile, is not necessarily in sync with the Earth; it relies on antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification.

The result -- food ignorance and an explosion of diet-related health problems -- has prompted two leading thinkers and best-selling writers to propose radical reforms.

What if, wondered Barbara Kingsolver in "Animal Vegetable Miracle," we mandated agriculture classes in schools, along with reading and writing?

"Is the story of bread, from tilled ground to our table, less relevant to our lives than the history of the 13 colonies?" she asks in the richly themed book, which recounts her family's attempt to be locavores for a year, eating nothing but locally produced food.

"Isn't ignorance of our food sources causing problems as diverse as overdependence on petroleum and an epidemic of diet-related diseases?"

And writer Michael Pollan, who eloquently argues that 30 years of nutritional advice from food scientists and industry has only made us sicker, suggests that we should do three extremely crazy things: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"Most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it -- in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone -- is not really eating," he wrote in "In Defense of Food," his compelling follow-up to "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which explores the ethical and ecological issues surrounding food choices.

Kingsolver and Pollan agree that the best way to reclaim our health is to eat local, thereby establishing a relationship with food and the people who grow it. We should also cook. And plant a garden, even if that means potting just one herb on a sunny windowsill.

Nourishing ourselves the old-fashioned way requires some effort, especially in winter, but it's possible. Nearly half of U.S. citizens live within striking distance of a farmers market, Kingsolver writes, while CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes that offer produce from local farms can be regularly delivered to your door. By shopping at a farmers market rather than the grocery store, where nearly every product contains high-fructose corn syrup, you're forced to eat food in season, when it is more nutritious. Unbeknownst to most consumers, the nutrient levels in some crops is declining; we'd have to eat three of today's apples, for example, to get the same amount of iron as one apple from the 1940s.

One of the most important outgrowths of farmers markets, however, is the growing popularity of farm-to-school programs, which are popping up all over the country, including Chicago, Oak Park, Grayslake and the northwest suburbs.

Some of the efforts link local growers to school food-service companies so fresh food can be used in school lunches. It's a timely idea, given that the Agriculture Department recalled 143 million pounds of factory-farmed beef, after some of it had already been eaten in school lunch programs.

As Kingsolver optimistically writes, "We'd surely do better, if only we knew any better."

E-mail Julie Deardorff at jdeardorff@

Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune

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