If you ask, you will find that people who truly care about the food they eat always have a story. Because our culture has largely de-emphasized the connection between food and health over the last few decades, many people will go their entire lives never thinking about the effect their food has on their bodies, and will proceed with consuming possibly toxic, nutrient-sparse food day after day. To highlight these stories, we’ve created this series on the Real Food Journey, to tell those stories of how and why we began to shift our own diets.
Here’s the Real Food Journey of our ’15 Spring Semester Local Food Intern, Sarah Schenck:
Pop, Pop, Pop: The familiar memory of a fork puncturing tight plastic encasing a frozen chicken teriyaki bowl pre-microwave rotations took form in my mind as my sister and I began reminiscing.
“Ohh, do you remember those little frozen pizzas?”
Greasy pepperonis and rubbery dough, flavorless and mushy when pulled, sizzling from the microwave. Packaged in individual cardboard boxes that transformed into heating plates when folded. How could I forget the pungent, sometimes slimy packaged turkey that was a staple of my school lunches?
And of course, “When it’s burning it’s cooking. When it’s black it’s done,” the Schenck family motto that served as a humorous excuse for the charred hot dogs my dad served up on a regular basis.
These were the textures, packages, and ultimately, memories that shaped my childhood. The familiar brands you can still find at the warehouse club store are what we bond over fondly because they are the tastes of our collective history, no matter how unappetizing we now find them.
This, as you can probably tell, was before I began my real food journey. I can’t say there was any one defining moment, more so, it was a series of building blocks. The trail of small discoveries and subtle influences, that when I look back, all contributed to a significant lifestyle change for the better.
During my freshman year of college, on the first day of a class called Sustainable World, we split into groups and chose a topic we’d research for the semester: food. I found myself alongside three other young women. Discussion poured forth. Each of these unique, intelligent, and interesting individuals was either vegan or vegetarian, driven by compelling personal reasons. I was relatively new to the matter, despite my sister who had announced she was vegetarian a few years prior. I had ignorantly poked fun at her in response.
The conditions of factory farming, animal welfare, pink slime, hormones, antibiotics, pollution, food miles, and greenhouse gas emissions were all buzzwords I’d heard mentioned before, but never cared to lean about until suddenly they took weight as I saw the connections of the dietary choices of my vegetarian classmates.
That evening, I went to the campus dining hall where I ordered a chicken pita. Halfway through, I bit into a piece of poultry, and in that moment, I put down the wrap and knew I too would give up eating meat or at least the conventionally raised meat that dominates America’s food system.
Throughout that semester, bits came together to form a bigger picture. Friends recommended documentaries: Forks Over Knives, Dirt, Fast Food Nation, Food Inc. I ate them up. Over the next few years of college, as my course studies delved further into concepts of sustainability and how people, the planet that supports us, and our economy are intricately linked, I learned you cannot look at one without seeing implications on the others. The matter of food was no exception.
This influx of information left me feeling angry and deceived. I had been eating food laced with pesticides and herbicides and food that was genetically modified. There were all of these different chemical inputs and alterations to my food, and essentially to my body, that had been taking their toll on my health without my knowledge. I felt poisoned and furious that I had grown up for 19 years, unaware. For a short while, I was upset about my upbringing and that I had been raised on primarily processed foods (if you can even call them food) full of preservatives, artificial coloring, and little to no nutritional value.
With time, I realized my feelings were misdirected. This was a product of my environment and the society we’re in, and before, I had no reason to question it. How could I expect anyone else to? I also realized that anger didn’t do me any good, but awareness did. I found myself in a system where I seemingly had no control, but I was hungry for knowledge and change.
There are bigger forces at play in the global food system, influenced by politics and money. This can be overwhelming, but also compelling. With this discovery, I chose empowerment. I began gardening. I learned to fight off aphids naturally, without chemicals that would hurt the soil, put toxins in my body, and pollute the water. I transitioned from loving the trendy labeled lattes in my hand to choosing locally roasted, shade-grown coffee beans, raised with ethical practices that provide fair wages to the farmers who devote their livelihoods to my daily Cup of Joe. I went from eating at chain restaurants to choosing local businesses run by ambitious individuals who are building a vibrant, connected community.
I shared my discoveries with those I loved, hoping to empower them as well. For instance, the importance of reading ingredients, because even seemingly healthy foods like whole wheat breads can have secrets lying in their labels. It’s shocking, really! The ingredients are listed right there for us to see, but the majority of us are unaware that we should bother to look out for those preservatives or weird chemicals we can scarcely pronounce. I helped teach my dad the difference between “natural,” “organic, “grass fed,” “free range,” and all of these terms that have the potential to overwhelm and confuse. Suddenly, the phrase, “Is it local?” became more than a fun quote from Portlandia when I learned how shopping locally not only keeps 2-4 times more money circulating in the community, but how you can find foods that are tastier, brighter, crisper, and more nutritious when you buy locally and in-season as well. I shed light on these benefits when my dad wanted to know why his out-of-season tomato tasted mealy or why his Florida oranges were bland and watery. The norm in our food system is to pick fruits before they’re ripe, ship them thousands of miles, and allow them to sit in cold storage where they are ripened artificially with gases before making it to the grocery store where they’re available year-round. At this point, you’re ultimately paying for a dead piece of fruit with little nutritive value remaining. This, I felt, was something everyone should know.
Looking back, I’ve come a long way from frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, but not just in the way I eat. Ultimately, I have embarked upon a journey: a journey of gathering resources and learning from like-minded individuals with knowledge and stories to share. It is a journey that led to my passion in baking sourdough bread with local grains and ingredients I can pronounce, a journey of viewing food as the power source to my body, with the ability to build me up or break me down. It is a journey of learning to appreciate slow-cooked meals, allowing flavors to develop rather than zapping a frozen meal in the microwave. Even now, I continue to recognize potential for improvements. It wasn’t until I began this position as a Local Food Intern that I began to really give farmers’ markets a chance. It was hard for me to break my habit of buying what I was familiar with: packaged bags of carrots and potatoes from my regular grocery stores. One week I decided to choose cauliflower at the outdoor market instead. It was a struggle to overcome the stereotype in my mind that farmers’ markets are more expensive. But on this day, I realized many of the prices are the same, if not cheaper, and even when they are a smidgen more pricey, it’s worth it to purchase foods that were harvested recently, that are more nutritious, and to meet the faces that my money will support. Each week, I challenge myself to buy more at the market, to contribute a little less to packaging and greenhouse gas emissions, and to enjoy what’s in season.
It is a journey of humble discoveries, and gradual change, improving where I can, and admitting that it’s not about perfection, but rather awareness and action. If there is one thing I hope you take away, it is recognition that everything works in a system. I challenge you to seek the bigger picture, to look at things holistically, to explore where your food begins, the process along the way, and where it winds up when you throw it “away.” I challenge you to continue down a path of discovery, because by reading this, you have already begun your own real food journey.