What are People For?
Many people think that the American food supply is the best in the world — the most abundant and the safest, featuring the lowest cost and the greatest convenience, the widest choice and the highest nutritional value. So why are so many of us going to the trouble of growing our own food, or seeking it from known producers close to home?
For my wife, Ellen, and me, the answer is simple. We think the food we grow ourselves or buy from local farmers is far superior in taste and nutrition to the food found in most grocery stores. I estimate that 85 percent of the food we eat is either grown in our own back yard, or purchased face-to-face from local farmers we know personally.
We are fortunate to have enough land for a large garden, but even if you don’t live in the country, you can enjoy the flavor and nutrition of homegrown produce. Many urban dwellers have the opportunity to grow a small portion of their food in community gardens or patio pots — a tomato plant or two, some herbs, lettuces and scallions. Most can also find farmers markets where the vendors sell what they grow. In the suburbs, many people have space for real gardens. With planning and careful management, even small gardens can be amazingly productive. And those who live in the country have maximum opportunity to do as we do: create a productive homestead that provides an increasing amount of the family’s food with each passing season, and to seek out like-minded local producers who can supply those foods we are unable to produce ourselves.
To understand what’s so worthwhile about homegrown food, it’s helpful to take a closer look at what’s amiss in conventional large-scale food production.
Concerns about food safety. Although we live in an era of ultrapasteurization and high-tech processing, food-borne illness is common in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness — including 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 associated deaths — occur in the United States. That’s more than a quarter of the population suffering from food-borne illnesses each year.
Concerns about food quality. It’s hard to believe there are people who — having the choice between meals prepared “from scratch” with basic ingredients, or prepackaged or franchise fare — would prefer the latter. But there are. Ellen and I once gave one of our roasting chickens to an elderly neighbor. “Oh, my!” she later assured us, “that was chicken like we used to eat when I was growing up.” But when we offered her another, she sadly declined: “No, my family didn’t like it — too much flavor.”
Perhaps an interesting experiment for many people would be the following: For six weeks, eat anything you like — so long as it has been made from whole, unprocessed primary ingredients, and has been prepared by your own hands. Whatever your tastes at the moment, at the end of the six weeks I predict you will have a wholly different notion about what you’re looking for on your plate.