I’ve been on something of a “food journey” lately, kicked off by my “concern of keeping my family fed” as Barbara Kingsolver pledges in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, and fueled by the eagerness to be sure I gave them the most healthful and sustaining foods possible.  Little did I know what an eye-opening journey it would turn out to be.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a feeling there were problems with the way our food system worked, but I had conveniently put it there thinking there was nothing I could do about it.  But it wouldn’t stay put.  That feeling crept into my conscious when I heard about another salmonella or e-coli outbreak or when I read articles about the amount of residual pesticides in foods.  So instead of ignoring the facts I faced them.  Being the provider of food for my family and also someone who really loved to cook and eat,  I felt that there must be a way I could use those roles to make some kind of difference.

I began to research things such as organic produce and hormone and antibiotic-free meat and dairy – were these things too good to be true or just some popular fad?  I stumbled across Lia Huber’s Nourish Network website where these issues are really broken down in a way I could understand.  Wanting to further my understanding and knowledge, I began Lia’s My Nourish Mentor program where I’m being guided through the process of delving into the good, bad and ugly of our current food system and fleshing out my priorities in my relationship with food.  Looking for a kick-start yourself?  Watch Food, Inc.

In one of those funny coincidences our online book group The Kitchen Reader has made each of its last three choices books that are particularly relevant in my quest for knowledge about our food system.  The first, Mark Bittman’s Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, focuses on the effect industrial meat production has on the environment (“In terms of energy consumption, serving a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home”).  His point is not to give up meat, but to eat less of it from better, preferably local, sources, and fill the empty space on your plate with plants – vegetables, fruits, and grains.

The next book on our list was In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto, by Michael Pollan.  After delving into the industrialized food production scene, Pollan has discovered that the things we have given over freely to the government and industries are the very things that are hurting us and our Earth.  Things like pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, genetically modified plants, over-crowded animal containment factories and more are making or food less healthy and even sometimes dangerous.  How do we make a difference?  With our food dollars, he suggests.  Purchase most of your food from farmers markets or farm stands and look for sources of meat that are more natural, local if at all possible.  Then, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The culmination of all this information I found in this month’s selection, the book I chose for our group to read.  In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver does what most people on a similar food journey would like to do – moves to a farm with her family and lives only on local, seasonal food grown on her land or on nearby farms.  Her husband and two children, one a teenager and the other much younger, agree to make this their goal for one year to see if it can be done.  As Kingsolver recounts in a lighthearted but at the same time serious tone the month-by-month progress her family makes, she addresses her reasoning behind making the choice to live locally – to avoid harmful chemicals in their foods, to bring back heirloom varieties of produce and meats, to support other local farmers being weeded out by industrialization, to protect the environment, and to raise children to do the same – and along the way “keeping her family fed”.

Of course the majority of us can’t pick up and move to a farm and grow all the food we need, but we can take small steps to bring a similar change as Kingsolver puts it:

“I share with almost every adult I know this crazy quilt of optimism and worries, feeling locked into certain habits but keen to change them in the right direction.  And the tendency to feel like a jerk for falling short of absolute conversion. . . These earnest efforts might just get us past the train-wreck of the daily news, or the anguish of standing behind a child, looking with her at the road ahead, searching out redemption where we can find it: recycling or carpooling or growing a garden or saving a species or something.  Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial.  Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.”

I’m voting for change with my food dollars , one small step at a time.  Here’s how you can get started, too.

1. Purchase some locally grown, seasonal produce from a farmers market or farm that offers a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

2. Reduce the amount of meat you prepare by half, and look for the most naturally-grown, local meat you can find.

3. Plant something – in a pot, in the yard, anywhere.