Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hunt For "All Natural": Navigating Food Labels

There is no denying that it is more difficult than ever to be truly aware of what we are eating. Reading nutrition labels can be an exercise in frustration, to say the least.

It doesn't help that the food industry takes labels that were originally designed to help consumers make more conscious, informed decisions about their food, and uses them to tart up less than desirable products. Terms like "grass-fed" or "cage free" are often peddled by those who are more interested in getting their slice of the growing organic sector than in actually selling grass-fed or cage free foods, which take considerably more money, effort and time to grow/raise than their conventional counterparts.*

A major part of the problem is that these terms, by and large, are not backed up by any government regulations. And even if the USDA or FDA have defined a term, there are usually some gaping loopholes.

Take, for example, the word "natural". According to Marion Nestle, the FDA has a definition dating back to 1993. According to the FDA, in order to be considered "natural" the food must not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. As Nestle points out, this means that products like high fructose corn syrup are considered "natural".

Take this as an example. A few weeks ago, I found this "natural" product in the aisle of an organic grocery store in Washington DC:

Turn the bottle over, and what did I see?

Hate to break it to you, guys, but real maple syrup comes out of trees. With organic corn syrup as their first ingredient, I fail to see how this product is "the natural choice", as they claim on the front of the bottle.

This is but one example of a company using such a term in a less-than-appropriate way. So while the folks over at Shady Maple Farms might put a horse-drawn sled cavorting through a snowy maple grove on their bottle, and while the FDA can claim that they are following the letter of the law, I very much question whether their use "natural" is really all that accurate. Not to mention, I'd love to see the "farm" that makes anything with corn syrup as its base. Somehow, I doubt it looks anything like the bucolic scene displayed above.

This is why reading nutrition information is so important, instead of blindly taking everything that's printed on the label at face value.

That being said, Animal Welfare Approved (or AWA) has put out a comprehensive food labeling guide called Food Labels for Dummies, which is available on their website to download for free. Having a good grasp on what food labels and terms you're likely to see, and whether they really mean what they say, is an important first step to understanding exactly what it is we're eating.

So what does all this mean? It means that today, it is harder than ever to be a conscious consumer - if you're buying from grocery stores, that is. In my opinion, the easiest and most conscious way to be sure you're eating food that was raised the way you want it - whether that's organically, free range, "all natural", or what have you - is to grow it yourself or to purchase your food directly from the farmer, either at a farmers market or by purchasing a CSA share.

That doesn't mean that it makes you a terrible person to buy food from a grocery store. It just takes a lot more work to find out where your food came from.

*It's not dissimilar to the fate of the term "gourmet", which once upon a time meant that something was of exceptionally high quality. Now? Not so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Hello all. It has been a few weeks - and quite an action-packed few weeks, chock full of holiday goodness, job hunting, and the ever enjoyable task of whittling away at the small mountain of my childhood stuff.

2011 is coming to a close. Rapidly. It's been a year of enormous change - for me, and for my family. Both my grandmothers and my great grandmother passed away. My grandfather is losing ground with his health, and fast. My mom accepted a job in Atlanta, which means that my childhood home will soon no longer be available to me. On a practical level, that means I need to move my butt and all my belongings somewhere in the next year (the timing for grad school couldn't be better), but on an emotional level... well, I've been avoiding thinking about it, to be honest.

But then, I've also learned so much about farming and food. I've learned about what I want to do, where I want to go, and who I want to be. And miracle of miracles! I fell in love. Didn't see that one coming.

I have yet to make any resolutions for 2012. Frankly, I've never been so great at that. I think I'd do much better to continue what I've started this year - writing this blog, for example.

So my resolution - such as it may be - is to improve my blog. I've been nursing a few ideas with that in mind.

Pictures. Lots of 'em.
With my shiny, (almost) new dSLR strapped to my back, this should be no problem. Or so one hopes.

Updating once a week, at least, should be a good baseline.

Finding my focus.
In 2011, I worked on a farm. Plenty of fodder right there. (Like the pun? Thank you, thank you.) But it looks like that is not what I'll be doing in 2012 - not unless I end up WWOOF-ing, at any rate. So what direction will I be taking this blog? Food policy? Recipes? Articles and interviews showcasing local food and local farms? Documentation of my own bumbling attempts to "live green"? Or some combination thereof? (Of course, the question is somewhat moot until I find out where I'll be and what I'll be doing between January and August... but another goal is to have that figured out quite soon.)

Anyways, these are the directions in which my mind currently wanders. I would greatly appreciate any ideas and/or feedback from those of you who check this blog out periodically.

A happy new year to all - I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back To Square One. Again.

What does a head of cabbage have to do with job searching, you ask? Absolutely nothing.

Hello all. It's been a couple weeks... and what an eventful two weeks it has been, between Thanksgiving, helping my parents do some home renovation work, and excavating my pit of a room as Step One of the "I'm Going to Grad School Next Year and Need to Move Out" plan*...all of which helped to distract me from the email I got right after arriving home.

The email, from the Sieberts of Clear Spring Creamery fame (remember them?) basically told me that while they like me, they can't afford to have a full-time, paid intern who will be leaving in August. They did offer me an unpaid but full room/board sort of situation - not unlike being a WWOOF-er - for a few days a week, which would allow me to find a part-time job off farm. It's not ideal, but what is?

It is, however, a plan fully dependent on my ability to find some sort of part time work. Which I definitely could, but I am picky, and I'm the first to admit it. Also, said part time work would likely be in Baltimore or DC, which would be a lot of driving.

This is unfortunately the same story I've heard from multiple farms - "We'd like to hire you, but we need someone here the full season. Sorry." So while I'm not totally back at Square One... I'm sort of back at Square One.Which has me re-evaluating my situation. After some thought, I've come up with the following three options:

Continue the Farm Search
Just because I keep coming up empty doesn't mean it will happen forever. I actually sent in a farm application just this morning. Who knows? It never hurts.

WWOOF-ing Galore
Not gonna lie... I find this a very attractive idea. It gives me the chance to travel around, to work on a variety of different farms, meet a ton of people, and to continue learning. It allows me to be as flexible as I want with my schedule, which is handy. And wonder of wonders... one of my AmeriCorps friends emailed me just yesterday asking if I'd like to WWOOF with her in California for a month, starting in late January. Serendipity? Perhaps.

There are some cons, however. A big one is money. I saved a few thousand this past year, which is not too shabby, but I was planning on keeping it back for grad school. So before I go haring off into the Wide World of WWOOF, I will need to do some calculating and some budgeting.

Another con is that, in an ideal world, I'd like to stick close to DC for (ahem) personal reasons. At any rate, the idea bears some thought.

Other Job Options
Although farm work is pretty high on my list of what I'd like to do, there are a lot of other opportunities out there that could be very valuable learning experiences. There's a lot to be said for working in a nonprofit or for an agency where I can learn about grassroots organizing, the legislative process, media/communications work, or other skills useful for advocacy.

I've been checking Idealist and Good Food Jobs regularly for internship opportunities - sent in two applications this morning, as a matter of fact. A lot of those jobs happen to be unpaid, however, and if I'm going to be unpaid, it will be while WWOOF-ing.

So that is where I am. Updates to follow, of course. And any thoughts or ideas are appreciated, naturally.

*No judgment, please. I have 25 years worth of stuff in there.