This summer I went to the Orange County Fair with my youngest daughter. The OC Fair is still pretty much a small town event, with lots of exhibit halls full of home-made baked goods, preserves, sewing crafts and competitive themed table setting displays. The animal barns are close by, and you can watch pig races while downing the usual selection of ultra-fatty fried foods. The OC Fair is housed on a large complex that is the original site of a real farm, which operates year round in miniature as an exhibition for visitors and school tours. We went to the farm to see the draft horses and the garden plots, and were treated to educational information about farming that included the following “facts:” young calves are taken away from their mothers at birth because it is better for the calf (and the cow) because baby calves can actually die from drinking too much milk; it is better for chickens to be kept indoors and fed a prepared diet because a) they are safe from predators, and b) they can eat god-know-what off the ground if they are left to wander free in the great outdoors. Really? It is unsafe for a newborn calf to nurse on its mother’s milk, and confined (factory farmed) chickens are safer and healthier than free range chickens? Says who? The absentee farmer from the demonstration farm? Fortunately, my daughter and I both agreed that the helpful information was a complete crock, and a clear justification for industrial farming. But who is getting which message? Bad information works on both sides of the producer-consumer equation. Retail corporate food interests want to foster the image of safe, abundant and cheap food. But they steadfastly refuse to comply with “Country of Origin Labeling” (COL) Agribusiness has been so cagey about disclosure of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in staple crops like wheat, oats, rice and soy that fully 60 percent of many staples in the American diet are already genetically modified. And the Dairy Council forces non-BST milk producers to put a disclaimer on each container of dairy product sold that BST (bovine growth hormones) do not significantly alter the quality of the milk product. On the consumer side, customers want food cheap food that is available year round without the inconvenience of seasonal supply cycles. True, they rarely if ever take a drive through the last remaining stand of dairy farms in Southern California. But if they did, they would see nothing but miles of feedlots without a blade of green grass in sight. Yet they cherish the television ads that show happy cows lolling and wise cracking in rolling pastures of verdant green. Turns out that the government, which sponsors the dairy ads, is not required to stick to facts when selling its product so it can show dairy cows at pasture when no real modern dairy cow has ever been so lucky. In the race to the bottom in the fast food marketplace, prices are so low that they are at first unbelievable – until they become the new standard for cheap and the downward spiral continues. This becomes commonplace, and it takes a highbrow publication like the New Yorker magazine, guaranteed to be read by a tiny minority of the public, to publish a heartbreaking profile of the virtual slave labor conditions in the tomato fields of Florida to understand how a forty-nine cent taco is even possible. Do consumers even care? Just as important, do they even know? Has anyone figured out yet that all this cheap food may be the cause of the obesity epidemic that is the cause of so much public outcry and institutional hand-wringing?So, first, let us educate ourselves so we can teach our children well. Chicken nuggets, pizza, chips and soda are not a good diet, even if they are consumed at school. Food service institutions must be challenged to do better. It has already happened in the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, where each campus now offers a fresh from the farmers’ market salad bar every day of the week. Recreational snack foods, which cost more per pound than the most expensive filet mignon, can be replaced with healthy, unprocessed snacks that can be inventively packaged to appeal to young children. (Note to moms – save those TV dinner trays and serve your kids’ meals in them. Take a clue from the big corporations: packaging is everything.) Consider the source of the food you are eating and serving. Do you know where it came from? When it was picked and processed? If not, why are you eating it?As for the children, it is never too soon to start teaching them to think outside of the (themed fun meal) box. The school students I teach at our farmers’ market tours are treated to green tomatoes, purple potatoes, red carrots, dinosaur kale, extra-terrestrial-looking kohlrabi and giant daikon radish. If they manage to sample everything they are cajoled into sampling, they may be rewarded with a familiar strawberry, but not without tasting the difference between the commercially grown and the organic one. We learn through diversity and choice, not conformity and lack of imagination. Let’s all start acting like adults and teach our children well.
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