The Truth About Food

Know your farmer. Know your food.

It seems like a simple fix to the food system that we eat from today, where live animals can be shipped to our borders, slaughtered, packaged, and labeled “Product of USA.” It’s no wonder, then, that consumers are disconnected and confused. We eat from a system that produces highly processed “foods,” filled with chemicals, preservatives, sodium, and sugar, and with each bite we risk illness, both because of the ingredients and also due to an industrial system where one mistake can lead to millions of pounds of tainted food. Or, worse, where one deceptive multinational corporation can unleash diseased and rotten meat onto American grocery store shelves, unbeknownst to U.S. consumers and to our government, which is unable to inspect or regulate food that is grown offshore. Add to that already troubled recipe the fact that our current administration is quietly weakening food safety regulations throughout the U.S., allowing corporations to self-police the quality of their food. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth, doesn’t it?

Today, we dine from an industrial-sized potluck that produces an alarming number of food recalls—we’ve had more in the past two years than ever before. We purchase our food from a system that encourages customer confusion. It causes unprecedented environmental degradation. It has wiped out our country’s small towns and rural well-being. And, thanks to the industrial production of food, family farmers now receive the lowest share of the food dollar (14.6 cents of every dollar) they’ve ever received in history. That’s saying something.

It isn’t so simple, I realize, to just know your farmer so you can know your food. What feels like forever ago, I wrote a blog about how consumers can learn more about food and also how they can get involved. For more on that, I’m in the process of developing an advocacy workshop that we will deliver in coming months. I like to talk about food almost as much as I like to eat it, and so I’d posted a few things on Facebook recently about food labels. A couple days ago, a friend asked me to offer tips on how to better identify sources of food.

I’m obliging that request, but only after I’ve asked around. Greg Gunthorp, of Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, suggests letting technology help. “Check out their (farmers’) social media and website,” Gunthorp says. “Be highly skeptical if there aren’t pictures of their animals.”

Gunthorp also suggests downloading USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service app, which allows users to check the establishment number on meat and poultry packages. “If it’s one of the big players, be highly skeptical,” he says. And if you need help figuring out who the big players are? This can help.

Lastly, if you know the name of the farm where your meat was raised, Gunthorp suggests heading over to Google Earth online. “Take a quick tour of the operation (from overhead),” he says. “It doesn’t take an animal science degree to decipher a satellite picture of an operation and to see if it’s a factory or a farm.”

The deception isn’t only in the grocery store. My friend Carrie Balkcom, executive director of American Grassfed Association, recently told me about a conversation she had about menu mislabeling. Claims of “local” and “grassfed” are common at restaurants, and even more commonly untrue. Friend, farmer, and fellow advocate Mike Callicrate offers a primer on dealing with restaurants in this insightful interview.

Know your farmer. Know your food. There’s plenty of research you can do to learn more about what you eat, but, when it comes to buying meat, knowing your farmer is truly the best thing for you.

— Sherri Dugger