With spring promising to appear in the next few weeks in Central NY, we’re going to make some real effort toward eating locally-grown food. This means the farmers markets here in Camillus and in Syracuse, as well as hopefully joining a nearby cooperative. There’s also a farm about 30 minutes away where we can buy some meat for the kids. All that said, I’m sure that our supermarket, Wegmans, will still get a fair share of our money. I know there’s a lot of eye-rolling at the presumed angst of being white and over-educated that supposedly drives this kind of decision-making. Add vegetarianism into the mix and one immediately assumes a holier-than-thou attitude is about to appear.
However, for me, the eating local thing comes more from curiosity and a desire to experiment. What would it mean to rely primarily on the what is nearby for food? Will the food be better? fresher? Will it be monotonous? (Looking at the list of produce at the local CSA, I’d have to say no to that last one. In fact, I’ll be faced with figuring out how to prepare some new things.)
There is no doubt that part of this choice comes out of environmental concerns. With my kids a little older, having tenure, and having two incomes in the house, there’s more mental space for other things. There are also personal/family health issues, though all of that is so murky. I certainly cannot say what the effects of industrial farming are/will be on our planet or our individual bodies. I don’t know that anyone does. My intuition however is that the giant monoculture of corn that Michael Pollan describes so well can hardly be a good thing. Transcontinental salad can’t be much better.
It turns out that ethics are as complicated as nutrition… and also as simple. If you lived in simpler times, it was probably easier to figure out what to eat and how to act, not always, but usually. I can’t really defend my ethico-nutritional decision to become a vegetarian. Fortunately, I don’t have to. I can explain it, and I can explain why I am not a strict vegetarian (or strict anything for that matter). But I can’t defend it. The one thing that bothered me about Omnivore’s Dilemma was Pollan’s treatment of vegetarianism. He clearly objected to vegetarianism as an ideology and as a moral code. I can understand this objection to moralistic, ideological discourses of the vegetarian or any other variety.
Where I do come to agree with Pollan on this matter is when he states, "what’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle." This to me is a useful way of understanding the difference between ethics and morality. On this basis, Pollan decides that it is ok to eat meat, provided, presumably, that one ate meat in an ethical way. In fact, as he notes elsewhere, domesticated animals are an integral part of farming. At some point they need to be eaten (I guess). Obviously I don’t have any problem with him or anyone else eating meat. My kids eat (a little) meat every week, so do I, though rarely. However, I see the same equation and decide to be essentially vegetarian. In principal it may be acceptable, even necessary, to eat meat; in practice, there are so many Americans eating so much meat that there is certainly no necessity for me to do so. And the industrial practices surrounding meat production are so questionable on so many levels that I can’t participate in that. Also, I’ve been vegetarian for several years, I enjoy my diet, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been as an adult. So for me it’s a choice that is ethical, aesthetic, and nutritional. But to me these are not values that can be transferred to others. Like meditation and daily exercise, vegetarianism works for me, and I’d never take it further than that.
The other part of this equation is processed foods. And I’m still working on that. One of the interesting things in Pollan’s book is the issue of food culture. In my house we’ve been doing a little better recently with dinner, though it is hard with the adults being vegetarian and the kids getting different meals. However breakfast and lunch are functionally impossible. We eat these meals separately, especially on school days and this tends to mean convenience foods: cereals, yogurts, soups, veggie burgers, and so on. I’m hoping we can make a dent in that practice with the spring meaning more local foods and the summer meaning the possibility of more meals together.