RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Summer, Still Reading

Last month, we looked at books that give an overview of the history and problems in the current American food system. So, now you know that the system is broken. Humans, animals, plants, and the planet are abused to create the average American diet. We're as dependent on food imports as we are on petroleum imports, and, with gas prices artificially low for decades and then artificially high, we wonder what our budgets will look like if the food producers decide they need more profit.

Our veggies come from fields that were rain forests 50 years ago and will be deserts 50 years from now. To keep them growing, crops are regularly doused with chemicals, and sometimes genetically altered to resist the chemical wash.

Our meats come from a system dominated by multinational corporations that confine animals in cruel and unhealthy conditions. Animals are fed and watered with mixtures of chemicals that range from antibiotics and arsenic to zinc.

In all these food systems, humans are employed only as accessories to machines: driving, filling, emptying, attaching, detaching, ducking, and picking up after machines. Food processing is controlled by industry from seed to shelf, and all this takes a toll on independent farmers, agricultural workers, air, water and soil.

So you may be thinking that the only way to achieve a diet that's wholesome and raised without injustice is to leave home and join an eco-village where everything's raised with an eye on sustainability and the cycles of the universe.

Well, true.

But you're not going to leave home, and you shouldn't have to. And there are ways to cut from the system.

Three of last month's list of "problem" books suggest solutions. The Forgotten Pollinators concludes with "Call for a National Policy" that brings together the interests of foodies, farmers, policy makers and food producers.

World Hunger: Twelve Myths has an excellent -- EXCELLENT -- resource list. Stolen Harvest outlines some of the programs that are working in India.

These resources are public knowledge, so why is our political-industrial system so hell-bent on ignoring them? Well, dear Consumer and Voter, we've heard this often: when we point a finger at the problem there are three fingers pointing back at us.

We have eaten our way to this problem one bite at a time, so many bites that we need big, dramatic answers. In response, our government programs are huge. National school breakfast and lunch programs. Food bailouts to third-world countries. Our politicians love the big, dramatic programs that provide feel-good political photo ops.

But big programs subsidize industry's profitable and processed convenience foods. In contrast, the real answers to this puzzle are small and obvious. Support local communities. Pay a fair price for resources when you take them. Use less. Eat foods in season and local. Find a sustainable lifestyle. Boring . . . Zzz-zzz.

Fixing the system isn't as much fun to read (or write) about as explanations about how the system is broken. So there aren't as many writers in the "fix-it" field.

The old standard, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe, was re-issued in 1991 with a new introduction by the author. She's corrected some of the misunderstandings of the 1971 book, even suggesting that a better title would be "Diet for an Abundant Planet," and incorporating findings explored in depth in World Hunger: Twelve Myths. So even if you read Diet back in the '70s, it's worth another look. Published by Ballantine. IBSN 0-345-32130-0.

And as far as books that deal exclusively with what you can do to improve your own food system, that's about it.

I've read and re-read a dozen other books for this column, and rejected them as books I can recommend. I rejected two because the writers forgot how much contribution to the economy, especially food, comes from women. A food system that excludes women is a food system doomed to dependence on corporations. I rejected another because, although it stressed a thrifty lifestyle the author confused cheap with thrifty, and cheap corporate food costs us more in the long run.

I rejected regional books because farms near San Francisco don't raise the same things as farms near Chicago and vice versa. Your best hope for eating locally and in season is to find a really old cookbook for your region -- a cookbook that includes no brand names -- and learn to use it to prepare foods raised by your neighboring farmers.

I also rejected books by people who found independence and peace by moving to the country and growing their own. Raising and cooking everything you eat is obviously the best way to control your food supply. At the same time, it's very hard, and not practical or feasible for most people, and romanticizing about an impossible way of life isn't going to solve anything.

And, finally, I rejected books that concluded that if government would just take appropriate steps, the corporates will obey the laws and make things right.

Ain't gonna happen. Just follow the antics of one corporation -- and you pick the corporation -- and you'll see an industry bent on making money at whatever cost to the environment, workers, and eaters. If they can make a profit, they'll sell products shipped from abroad, raised in a place with no laws to insure worker safety, sprayed with insecticides and herbicides, processed by major corporations, genetically altered, nutritionally added to, subtracted from, treated with preservatives and/or radiated.

As a contrast to convenience food products, a famous chef once named the four qualities of excellent food: Pure, simple, fresh and clean. And that's not just the lock on good flavor, that's the lock on fresh, local, sustainable production.

The food system, like other economic systems, is consumer-driven, and we consumers hold the keys. So let's look at books that help us become wise consumers.

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin is the 1992 consumer masterpiece, spawning hundreds of Simplicity Circles where people come together, read, evaluate their financial lives, and begin to cut away from the industrial web. It's the math that stumps us. The book asks that you add assets and liabilities, figure out the energy spent commuting, and so forth. Even if you don't run the spread sheets, you'll benefit from the advice to be honest about buying from the corporates, trying to impress people, and getting a life. Published by Penguin ISBN 0-14-01.6715.

I asked several of my food activist friends to recommend their favorite books, and, sadly, everyone was stumped. Finally, Lori from Wisconsin came up with a good one: Whole Life Economics: Revaluing Daily Life by Barbara Brandt, published by New Society Publishers, ISBN USA 0-86571-266-2. Brandt argues that we create the economy we choose to live in, and most of us have chosen an "addictive economy ... in which people who already have enough -- and more than enough -- are constantly increasing their consumption." She recommends other ways to empower ourselves.

And, finally, we must believe that our personal commitment has something to do with changing the system as a whole. Paul Rogat Loeb's Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time is packed with stories of people doing personal things that resulted in lifelong changes for themselves and others. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-20435-3.

It is amazing to see the differences we can make simply by taking a stand, refusing to participate in the system that we feel is wrong. People build their own diet plans every day, seeking to lower cholesterol, lose weight, or balance their food with their genetic heritage.

Changing our food choices to choose sustainability, clean water, and social justice is the best diet we can strive for!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 The Progressive Populist