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How Can I Eat Real Food?

Some of you like what you're reading here and have asked for tips on how to eat more real food as a consumer in this society of industrialized agriculture. I hope to give some good tips here.

Some of it can be boiled down to common sense. The closer the food is to the earth the better it is going to be for you. As a general rule if you are shopping in a supermarket, stick to the perimeter. All you are going to find in the middle aisles are super processed foods that are derived from primarily corn and soybeans. Something from the produce section is preferable to something out of a box from a factory.  But you can do way better than a grocery store without much effort.

Local food really is the way to go for good health and for the planet. If you still need convincing go back and read "Why I Want to be a Real Farmer." Luckily there is a whole movement coming out of the industrial fog and local food is becoming more and more accessible. Here are a few ways you can get local food that you can feel good about eating and feeding your family with:

CSAs- Community Supported Agriculture- This is one of the best ways to support local farmers while getting a huge return. How it works is, a farmer plans out his season and anticipates what he will harvest. Then he figures out how many units of food he can supply a family or individual with each week during that season. Say it's 100. He opens up 100 CSA Shares for purchase before the season starts. 100 brilliant people pay that farmer upfront to get  a share of the harvest for that whole season.
What this does is gives the farmer capital to purchase seeds and supplies for the season without breaking the bank and provides the share holders with a bounty of the freshest, in season, produce every week.
Many CSAs will deliver these shares to one or more locations in a city on a set day each week. The share holders will go to these locations and pick up their share. Some CSAs are more flexible than others. Some allow you to pick what you want each week while others pre-assemble a box and everyone gets the same thing. Some allow you to purchase half shares if a full share is too much.

There is also a level of risk sharing in a CSA. If a farmer has a particularly fruitful season, the CSA shares will be bountiful. If the farmer faces difficulties with disease or weather, the CSA shares may not be as full. No two years are alike and the security of a CSA can mean the difference between a farmer weathering a bad year or going out of business. Of course their goal will be to keep their shareholders happy so that they will sign up again next season.

If you live in Atlanta Sign Up for the Burge Organic Farm CSA Here. Or you can just check out the page to see how a real CSA works. 

Farmers Markets - In 2011 there were 7,175 Farmer's Markets operating in the US. That's a 17% increase since 2010. This is one of the most flexible options for getting local food since you can pick out and buy just exactly what you want and need. Many communities have Farmer's Markets several days out of the week.  Weekend mornings are popular but I've seen a lot of weekday markets in big cities (New York, San Francisco, Nashville, Dallas, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston to name a few) that are convenient for lunch breaks and after work stops.

These markets allow direct marketing of farm products from producers to consumers. This is a big boon to local farmers since they get to keep most of the profit by avoiding the middleman. This way farmers can make enough to stay in business and consumers don't have to pay for shipping and distribution while getting a superior product.

One of the nicest things about Farmers Markets has to be that you get to meet the actual farmer who is growing your food. You can ask (and should) where the food comes from, how it is fertilized, if it is organic certified (*if not then ask why, this doesn't have to be a deal breaker), how pests are controlled, which crops the farmer recommends that day and does she have any suggestions on how to prepare it, or any other question you may have.

Always ask if the food is local. Some markets allow produce distributors who will have food on display from all over the world and may or may not have it labeled. Once you have frequented the market a few times you will be able to spot these pretty quickly.

Coops- I am not as well versed in coops as I could be but here’s what I know. There are 2 kinds, one is set up with consumer members and one with producer members.

A consumer member coop will ask some sort of commitment from you. It may be that you volunteer in the store a few hours a year or that you pay an annual fee. In exchange the prices are lower because they have to hire less labor to run the store. This way you are able to get good local food without paying for a mega grocery store’s overhead.

Farmer coops are groups that collect produce from lost of local farmers and then sell it in a populated area. The are a middle man and make a little money doing this but often provide a convenience that is worth paying for. You should be able to find one or more of these in your area. In Atlanta we have several including Sevananda in Little 5 Points

Whole Foods- As well as some other "green" grocery stores have special sections or tags that designate local food. However, even if the food is from 20 miles away, chances are it was shipped farther to a distribution center and then shipped back. This is still better than nothing but buying direct from the farmer eliminates that extra shipping and lowers the cost.

The Web- Search for local food in your area. A lot of communities have local food groups and local business movements. Here is one website that has been helpful while traveling and is a great place to start:

Ask For It- Tell your local grocery stores or farm markets that you want to be able to purchase local, sustainable, organic food. If enough customers ask they may try to provide it.

Meat/Dairy/Eggs and other animal products- I won't go into all of the issues of raising animals for meat here. I will just suggest that you educate yourselves on what you are eating. Look out for hormones, antibiotics, and unnatural diets in your food's food. Again, the closer to the earth the better. That is to say, the more a cow lives and acts like a cow (ie is allowed to graze and eat grass) the healthier it will be and the healthier you will be for eating it. Not to mention it will taste far superior.

Purchase meat from farmers who you can talk to and whose farms you can visit. A real farmer will have nothing to hide. Try visiting a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) or Industrial Slaughterhouse. These places are more heavily defended than some military bases. They know that once you see what they are doing you'll never purchase from them again. If you don't believe me, do a quick YouTube search and then try to eat a McDonald's Hamburger.

Eggs are tricky. Most eggs in grocery stores come from miserable hens living in deplorable conditions. Even the ones labeled "Cage Free" and "Free Range". There are no real regulations on these labels and often they mean little to nothing in the lives of those hens. Again, buy from local farmers with open door policies. Or, if you have some extra space in your yard, and your locality allows it, start a small laying flock. Even just 2 good laying hens could make you an omelet every day.

There are many local meat suppliers at Butcher Shops, Farmers Markets, and Coops. Ask them any questions you have on how their animals lived and died. They should be able to look you in the eye and answer you with pride. Once you try their meat (I'm told) you'll never go back.

Here are a few meat resources:

For more reading check out Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

* Organic Certification is a lengthy bureaucratic process that involves a lot of paperwork and inspections. Farmers operating on a small budget and with limited staff may not have the time to deal with this. Others opt out because of the erosion of the meaning of the Organic Label as more Big Ag businesses put the label on unworthy products.

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