Vote with your forks

The way our complicated farm bill is written every five years encourages the promotion of unhealthy food production, environmental damage and depressed world crop prices, because we dump our surplus corn on developing nations.

by Lynn O’Neill — 

In this country, there are stirrings of a quiet revolution when it comes to how we think about and purchase our food. People are starting to “vote with their forks,” a term coined by farmer and writer, Wendell Berry, and made more recently famous by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

For the last 60 years, if you’ve relied on the Standard American Diet, you have likely been shielded from its dubious origins and been fed propaganda, chemicals and corn syrup. Because of this corporate system, many of us are becoming numb, sick and fat.

The nutshell summary of Pollan’s inspiring book is that food production in this country is now very lopsidedly centralized and factory farm-based.

“… corn, soybeans and wheat — [are] three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of $25 billion a year.” Corn and soy are oversupplied in all of our processed foods. Our bodies were designed to receive as many calories as we can consume, which no longer jibes with healthy eating, because you will get more calories from a Twinkie than a carrot. We are hardwired to reach for the highest concentration of calories from a single source.

The way our complicated farm bill is written every five years encourages the promotion of unhealthy food production, environmental damage and depressed world crop prices, because we dump our surplus corn on developing nations.

Consider industrial meat production alone. Incredibly, grazing animals are allowed to graze for just a fraction of their lifespan, and instead are crowded into filthy feedlots and fed subsidized corn, which wreaks havoc on their digestion; they are then kept alive with a plethora of pharmaceuticals. So many head of cattle are slaughtered per hour that it is impossible to keep the manure off the carcasses and deadly bacteria off your dinner plate.

Consumers are starting to awaken from their zombie-slumber of addiction to cheap, unhealthy, pesticide-laden food, which began its march to our store shelves in the late 1940s. The influx of pesticides was partly due to a surplus of raw materials used for munitions manufacturing during World War II.

A food revolution now begins, as many of us take the first steps by asking questions. Indeed, ask yourself what you value, even when it feels inconvenient.

I recently went to a farmers’ market and purchased organic lettuce. The package read “Fresh Organic Baby Lettuce. Whole Heads.” When I opened the plastic container and realized I would actually have to rinse, dry and tear the lettuce, I thought to myself, “I don’t have time!” Yet feeling the supple little leaves in my hands, I appreciated how strong and full of prana they were — I was ashamed. To atone for my bad attitude, I e-mailed the grower and thanked her for the lettuce. She wrote back. Small growers, who value their customers, do that sort of thing.

A friend of mine recently had her “light bulb moment” at Thanksgiving when she went to purchase the family turkey. She reflected, “In nature, turkeys only get to maybe 14 pounds, yet industrial farmers add enough drugs to make a Butterball turkey 26 pounds. How many hormones does it take to double the size of an animal?” She ended up purchasing two natural turkeys instead of one mutant, beginning a new tradition for her family.

Pollan has been decried a food elitist for asking people who can, to at least consider spending more money for better food. His rebuttal is right on: Twenty years ago, U.S. families spent less than 15 percent of their disposable income on food. In 2007, that figure has dropped to 9 percent, yet he acknowledges that about 10 percent of the U.S. population cannot afford organic food because “the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories … the only ones the poor can afford.” There is much work to be done, and in some states such as New York and California, legislation is in place to help the poor eat healthier.

That leaves 90 percent of us who can afford some organic and/or local food. Pollan also suggests that it would have been inconceivable 20 years ago that we would spend money on cable TV and cell phones, yet most of us willingly pay those bills.

There is light on the horizon. Pollan points out that “… it was the consumer who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmers’ markets in the last few years.” We have the power. We can “vote in” healthier food with our wallets.

My advice is to at least try. Learn to cook and teach your kids — if just a few wholesome meals you can repeat. Buy less meat at Wal-Mart; instead, purchase a grass-finished roast from Sunflower or Whole Foods, or an organic orange this winter from a local farmer. Drink organic wine. Ask your store managers to carry healthier food. And every morning ask yourself, “Where do I want my money going today?”


Interview of Pollan, M. by Boudway, I. We are what we eat. Salon. 2006 Apr 8. Available at

Koppelman, A. What’s wrong with our food? Salon. 2006 Dec 7. Available at pollan_bad_food/index.html?source=search&aim=/news/feature

Pollan, M. “You Are What You Grow.” New York Times. 2007 Apr 22. Available at

Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals


Lynn O’Neill is a native Arizonan living in California. She is a freelance fiction writer, editor and essayist.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 6, December 2007/January 2008.

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