Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Review and Rant involving Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

With a few minor changes this recently  appeared as an article I wrote for my garden club and I wanted to share it with my blog readers because I really believe that EVERYONE should read this book.

I have to start off my admitting my bias; I love Barbara Kingsolver. I love her fiction, her essays, her…well, her everything. The next thing I have to admit is that I’m a person who loves convenience. I love to cook but I don’t usually start thinking about dinner until 6pm and two of my three kids are supposed to be in bed at 7pm. That means that on a busy night, on occasion, my kids have had spaghetti-o-s for dinner. I know; it’s shameful.

That being said, this book has changed how my family and I live. It hasn’t changed everything about the way we eat (there are still spaghetti-o-s in my pantry), but it has changed things none the less. Most importantly I read it a couple of months ago and I think about it every day. The book is written with her husband, Steven L. Hopp and her daughters; Camille Kingsolver and Lily Hopp (although Lily is not given credit on the cover due to her age, she turns up all over the book).

One thing you should beware of while reading this book are the chickens. While I like birds in theory, I think they’re messy and dirty in reality and I have some childhood memories of being pecked while gathering eggs that don’t really help. My husband has wanted chickens since we moved here (for no reason other than he’s just weird). I told him I’d divorce him if he brought home a live chicken. Well, I finished this book and not only do I want chickens, I kind of want some heirloom turkeys! So be careful, you may find yourself building a coop. And, no; heirloom varieties are not just for veggies.

The book is a year in the food life of the Hopp/Kinsolver family. They had lived splitting time between Arizona and Kentucky for quite a while. They planned this experiment well ahead of time and were environmentally conscious before the experiment began. They put a lot of work into planning the whole thing, including getting a sizeable garden up and running while spending summers in Kentucky. They moved full time to Kentucky mostly because when you live in the desert it is nearly impossible to eat locally; everything (including water) must be brought in. So they moved onto Steven’s farm and took nearly a year to settle before they began the experiment in late March with the asparagus harvest. Basically they decided on a set of rules for dropping off the non-sustainable food grid; if something came from outside the county or state they would need “an extraordinary reason to buy it”. They each had a luxury item but even that they needed to research to find it from the closest place possible and it had to be produced in a conscientious way with fair payment to the farmer. Barbara picked spices, Steven picked coffee, Lily picked hot chocolate and Camille picked dried-fruit. The point was to see if a “normalish” family could eat more locally and with consciousness.

Most people haven’t taken the time to think about how many fossil fuels go into the most basic of our pantry staples (I certainly never had). According to the book, “the average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations.” Costs involved in getting the food to the store include transport, refrigeration, and processing. We consume, as a nation, 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen just to get food to us. It’s nearly as much oil as we use for vehicles. Getting a crop from seed to harvest only uses about a fifth of that oil, the rest is used in equipment, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides!

Another issue is seasonality. Most people from the baby boomers on don’t even know when things are in season! We need to bring back the victory garden! Ask your kids when tomatoes are in season and they will probably not know. We’re so used to the convenience of the grocery store, we go in January and we get tomatoes and we probably don’t even realize that they are awful. I always here people remark when eating a home grown tomato “It’s red!” Tomatoes are supposed to be red, when did we forget that? Anyone who has eaten a tomato in August knows that the tomato you find in January is not the same. But, do they know the reason is twofold? The January tomato is not really grown for its taste. It’s grown for transportability and appearance. It takes 5 days minimum to get that tomato from California to Batavia; that tomato can’t be beat up when it gets there because we’re trained not to like “imperfect” produce. We’ve been brainwashed to want “pretty” tomatoes, a uniform shape and color. Anyone who has ever grown an heirloom tomato knows they are ugly but, boy, do they taste good. Isn’t that really what matters? If the tomato only has to go onto the farmer’s truck and into a basket at a farmer’s market or local grocery store it doesn’t need to be grown for transportability and appearance, it can be grown for (wait for it)….taste.

Commercial food growers have created an industry to make money and in doing so are wiping out heirloom varieties of food plants and the family farmer. Genetically modified seeds don’t pass their traits down so the seeds need to be re-purchased every year. $$$$! Big companies are offering you one kind of pumpkin, one kind of tomato; they’re offering you what they want you to have! There is a story in the book about a farmer who lost everything because some patented genetically modified canola seeds blew onto his property or were cross pollinated by bees (through no fault of his own) and grew. I know, the nerve. The big company, sued for $145,000.00; the farmer lost. The things you learn in this book are staggering. That same big company grows seeds that can not be killed with products such as Round-Up. Guess who owns Round-Up? You guessed it, the same big company.

I could just rewrite the book for you but you should just read it. The ridiculousness that we Americans accept as the “norm” are just that; ridiculous. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are amazing. Just like the seed companies, they are growing genetically modified food. They are also wiping out heirloom varieties. Some of the animals can’t stand up or turn around; many have never seen the sun. Animals that are herbivores are fed meat, sometimes they are cannibalized (just wait until you read about America and it’s handling of mad cow disease). And here is a point that should not be missed; even if you don’t care that the animals are not treated humanely (you should care), go buy a chicken at the store (pick one with “a percent of a solution”) and buy a vegetarian fed (you do know chickens in nature don’t actually eat meat, right?), cage free chicken and cook them both the same way. Taste them both, I’d like to tell you I’d pay for the chicken if you like the first one better, but I’m broke! Vegetarian fed, cage free chickens TASTE BETTER than the garbage the CAFOs want to sell you. They cost more because they’ve been fed correctly, cared for and allowed to act like the animal they are. The extra money you spend will go to the farmer or small farm, not to some CEO’s expensive shoe habit.

I’m going to give you some personal information here; my family is on food stamps. They really don’t buy everything, but they help. $243 a month does not feed a family of five. The system is a little broken in the sense that the point is to get as much as you can with your $243 and that would mean filling my kids with processed foods and corn syrup because they are cheap. That is unacceptable. I shop at Woodman’s because for my family’s needs I have found them to be the lowest priced store around. I also like that because they are smaller than some of the other grocery stores around and they are based in nearby Wisconsin, they carry a lot of local products. Many are from Wisconsin or Illinois.

So here are some things I have changed as a result of reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

  • I pay about $2.60 for a dozen of Phil’s Fresh Eggs, they are Grade A, Extra Large and they are from Forreston, Illinois. They are also certified Humane in how the chickens are raised and also how the eggs are handled. They are even laid in a nest; that’s weird, right? The average price for a dozen Grade A large, white eggs is $2.00, the price goes up to $2.87 for cage free, vegetarian fed making the extra large humane eggs for $2.60 a bargain.
  • I switched from the brand of whole wheat bread I had been buying for a long time because I read the label; it was produced far away and had a lot of corn syrup in it. I switched to Koepplingers; it’s made in Indiana and has no corn syrup. Not one of my picky kids has mentioned the switch.
  • I am shopping at farmer’s markets whenever possible.
  • I have three kids and two of them are girls. I am very disturbed that many girls are now getting their periods at ten and eleven years of age. Twenty five years ago the average age was 13; do not tell me that adding hormones through animals into people does not affect us. For a long time in Illinois organic dairies or other dairies not willing to use artificial growth hormones were not allowed to label their milk “no artificial growth hormones” because of dairy lobbyists. Now they can label AGH free, but they have to include a disclaimer on the label basically saying that the FDA has found no affect from artificial growth hormones. That is just crazy to me, I hope it’s crazy to you. I want labels that say the opposite; the FDA has allowed artificial growth hormones to be added to your food, drink at your own risk! I checked out organic milk and couldn’t afford it; my family goes through about 6 gallons a week. It would be more than twice what I pay now. The organic available at Woodman’s is either Horizon (based in Colorado) or Organic Valley right next door in Wisconsin. If I could afford it, I would by the Organic Valley. What I was able to do was switch from the cheapest brand they had (a gallon of skim $1.99) to Dean’s which pledges that its farmers use no added growth hormones of any kind. It costs about $.40 more a gallon. That’s about $2.40 more a week; that I can do.
I spent only about 15 extra minutes reading labels on my first grocery trip after reading the book. Something I did notice is that it is often very hard to figure out where the products really came from, many packages tell you where they were packaged or processed but who knows what that means? At the same time I’ve noticed several “local” signs pop up at Woodman’s. Much of the produce at least says U.S.A. on the sign. I think if we, as consumers, ask for it, they will get it for us. Stop by the customer service desk and leave a note for the manager. Let them know you want more local products and if you're willing to pay a little more to get them. There is a movement in the country to buy locally, now companies will use it as a marketing tool and that’s fine with me. It’s much easier to find something when it’s printed right on the label. One point of the book that has stuck with me is this; if we all eat just one meal a week from local sources we can bring the CAFOs and corporate farms down. Enough food is grown on this planet to make everyone on it over weight, it’s not that people don’t have access to food; it’s that they don’t have the financial means to procure it and that’s an entirely different problem. We don’t need CAFOs and corporate farms; we need small diversified, local farms. The money you pay for grapes from Costa Rica gets the farmer about $6.00 a day; you don’t want to know what the CEO of that company is getting a day!

I encourage you to read the book, eat locally when possible, and grow some of your own food. Take some time to think about what you eat, which is more important to you, local or organic? What is a good compromise? You must decide. My own back yard doesn’t provide space for a traditional vegetable garden so I just throw them in my front yard with my perennials. I’m pretty lazy and I have greens, strawberries, pumpkins, tomatoes, asparagus, beans, peas, carrots (while I would have if something didn’t eat ALL of them), squash and zucchini. My kids eat it (or at least try it) if we grow it together. Most importantly to me, because of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle it has occurred to me to talk with my kids about where food comes from and how it gets on their plate!


Dan Juhnke said...

You are correct in your observations as is the author. Another good watch is Food, Inc (its on netflix as well). Raising your own food won't save you money but at least you know what you are feeding your animals (by the way did you know they add arsenic to chicken feed in poultry barns..keeps worms down). If you want to raise turkeys (or chickens) they can be abit noisy and do fly abit. Also every raccoon, possum and skunk will try to kill them. Good luck.

Shawna said...

I knew you would want birds after u read it.:)

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