I was a vegetarian for 7 years, beginning in high school. My senior year I babysat a five-year-old girl every day after school. She was fascinated by my vegetarianism and often asked me about it. My reasons for vegetarianism were environmental in nature, and somewhat complicated to explain to a five-year-old. Once when she asked why I was a vegetarian I said, “Because I don’t like eating animals.” To which she replied, “Meat doesn’t come from animals, it comes from the grocery store.”
It’s a cute anecdote, but it reflects a growing distance in our society between food sources and the average person’s belly. I recently stopped being a vegetarian, partly due to ridiculous and unexpected meat cravings and partly due to the fact that I felt confident now in the food landscape to be able to choose meat options that allayed my environmental concerns. I’ve been getting my meat from the co-op and farmer’s market and have been asking questions about where it came from and how it was raised.
However, meat is not the only animal product that can have less than ideal origins. Last week I was very fortunate to take a class through the Public Health Institute at the U of M called Farm to Table Study Program. We spent three days touring farms and food production facilities in southern Minnesota. It really drove home for me the importance of being constantly curious about where your food comes from. I’ve always eaten eggs, milk, and other dairy products and, despite being a vegetarian for so long, had not considered the potential environmental and animal welfare components of eating these things.
We toured two egg production facilities and two dairy facilities, and let me tell you, there were stark differences. The first dairy we toured was not bad by any means. They had over 3,000 cows in the facility that were not able to go outside at all. But honestly, they were well taken care of and not skittish around us as we walked by.
But the next day we toured Cedar Summit dairy. It’s an organic, free-range dairy. It felt right. The calves were not taken away from their mothers right away and kept isolated, like they were at the other. The cows were able to graze and roam, and all of the facility felt less industrial. The rancher was very invested in the health of his cows, and it made me feel quite certain that I will be buying their milk exclusively from now on even though it’s twice as expensive as regular milk (plus it’s sold in returnable glass bottles for extra environmental incentive).
The egg laying facilities were a much more stark contrast. I was extremely disgusted by the conventional egg laying facility. We were not allowed to take pictures, but there were about three large warehouses housing 1.2 million chickens, so you can imagine the crowding, small cages, and industrial feel of the place. We saw the assembly line where the eggs are washed and packed, and many of us noted poor working conditions for the mainly immigrant workers. The thing that was so striking there was that the sole intent of those chickens lives was to produce eggs, there was no inherent chickenness to them, no ability to peck at the ground or stretch their legs. I don’t mean to anthropomorphize the chickens there, but there is a visceral animal reaction I had to seeing them housed in tiny cages, the same way I would feel about seeing a human or mammal enclosed in such a confined space. It felt very wrong.
The free-range egg facility was much better. The chickens were able to roam and graze and peck at the ground and catch bugs. There were a few things that people noticed which weren’t ideal, but the overall feeling of the place was so much better. It felt like a farm, and if you ask me, that’s where I want my food to be coming from.
One interesting thing we saw at Cedar Summit was the contrast between the pastures there and the neighbor’s conventional agriculture fields. There was about a three-foot drop between the two fields due to soil erosion on the conventional side. The rancher was very concerned about what conventional agriculture is doing to the quality of our topsoil. This is another reason to be concerned about where your food came from and how it was produced. Did you buy conventional vegetables, or processed products derived from conventional crops? You might be contributing to increasingly poor soil health by supporting these producers.
So what can you do? Actually get out in your farming community! Many local, family farms offer tours or even volunteer days. Get to know a farmer and develop a relationship. Many farms around the Twin Cities offer CSA shares for vegetables, or even offer shares for meat, eggs, and dairy products that they’ll deliver. At True Cost Farm you can order meat ala carte and it will be delivered. The Land Stewardship Project has a CSA directory where you can look up local farms and find ones you might like to visit, or support next year by buying a CSA share.
When you know and support the source of your food, it will be more expensive. I’ve already discussed here how to insource to save money when it comes to food, and you can cut down in other areas as well. I figure that eating well and ethically is well worth a little extra work or sacrifice, especially after the things I saw last week.