Really, Do You Know Where that Food Came From?

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Learn How to Focus, it’ll Give You More Energy

Do you ever come home from a long day of school, work, bicycling around, hanging with your friends, or you know, generally doing interesting and tiring things, and feel really burnt out but still feel the need to immerse yourself in the internet or otherwise generally waste time?  And do you later realize that the time wasting made you feel more tired?  It’s because when you waste time by watching TV, poking around the internet, or getting sucked into some other form of entertainment, you’re burning up limited cognitive resources.  You’re burning the candle at both ends, friend, and it’s probably why you feel so tired all the time.

Energy is a limited resource.  What’s the point of working an 8+ hour day, getting to and from work, if you get home just to watch TV, end up exhausted, and not have enough energy to cook dinner, see friends, or do things that you really enjoy?  I think there’s very little point.  Then you’re living only for the weekend and 5/7 of your life is lived in an information clogged stupor.

So how do you avoid it?  Realize that you have a limited supply of cognitive resources.  When you spend several hours surfing blogs, checking Facebook, Googling endlessly, you’re burning up your energy supply which means that later you won’t have as much energy to see friends, exercise, cook dinner, or generally do healthy and fulfilling things.  If you realize that your energy is limited, you will begin to understand that spending your time in certain ways prevents you from spending your time in other ways.

Prioritize.  Set limits for yourself.  I personally installed an app to Google Chrome called StayFocusd.  You can mark certain sites as ‘blocked’ and allot yourself only a certain amount of time for each of them.  I get 25 minutes per day for Facebook, Twitter, and the Mr. Money Mustache Forum (what can I say? I’m a frugality nerd).  When I began this, my mind fought against it wanting to waste time and goof around.  The longer I’ve had it (I even cut down from 30 minutes), the less I feel the need to go on those time-suck websites since every time I’m on there I constantly remember that I shouldn’t be.  I also decided to make my bedroom a computer-free zone.  This means that my computer now lives in the living room and is much less available for casual time-wasting, especially since its battery life is terrible.

Energy management is also very important in work settings.  When you interrupt yourself to visit various websites or check your phone, you’re burning up resources that otherwise could have been spent finishing tasks more quickly.  If you’re feeling burnt out at work, do you really think that reading something online is going to make you feel refreshed?  When I’m feeling burnt out at work I do a couple of things, depending on where I am and how much time I have.  If I have a little time I like to take a walk, or go to a private area and do 10-15 minutes of yoga.  If I don’t have much time, I’ll simply sit still and meditate on my breath for a couple of minutes to focus myself, and then return to the task at hand refreshed.

Mindfulness practice can help you refresh your energy and make better energy decisions.  Since I’ve started monitoring how my energy is spent, I sometimes can really see the forces at work in my body.  Recently I came home from a busy day and felt very strongly that I wanted to go read some blogs and watch a couple TV shows on my computer.  I thought, “Man, I’m tired, I want to waste time.”  I actually thought that!  I was able to catch myself then and say, “Okay, I’m tired.  Wasting time probably won’t make me feel better.  Maybe I’ll take a nap!”  And nap I did and it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and able to have a great evening with friends.

I now tend to generally plan out my free time a little.  I think about the day and schedule in bicycling, yoga, cooking, and friend time.  It doesn’t give me a lot of left over time to spend on the computer and I feel much better about how I’m spending my time.  I certainly feel like it’s a journey, and no effort is too small.  Once you start focusing more in one area of your life, it will become easier to keep the ball rolling in other areas.  Certainly a regular mindfulness or meditation practice helps, as it trains the mind to become calmer and more centered, but any small effort to make your mind less tumultuous will bring you more peace and energy.