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December 09, 2006

The Vegetable Conundrum

My only complaint about Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I blogged about last week, is that Pollan focuses on meat and animal proteins, discussing grains and vegetables only in passing. Granted, he does devote the first third of his book to corn, but he discusses corn as an animal feed and as a raw material for the food industry, rather than as a grain or as a vegetable (which it isn't, anyway). Protein is important, but our bodies also need carbohydrates and a number of micronutrients, which only come from grains and produce.

Pollan does spend quite a bit of time on Earthbound Farm (the inventors of salad-in-a-bag) in his "Big Organic" chapter, but he doesn't explore any alternatives to industrial organic when it comes to fruits and vegetables. So what are the problems with the organic produce available at Whole Foods? To begin with, the label "organic" doesn't mean much anymore. It used to signify food that was grown naturally and sustainably, but the official standards in place today only prohibit chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They say nothing about the sustainability of either the growing methods, which involve monocultures that drain the soil and factory farms that require diesel power to harvest, or the methods of distribution, which waste huge amounts of energy moving produce from the factory farms in California or South America to local stores, especially when that produce must be refrigerated en route.

Pollan says many times how ridiculous it is for us to expect to be able to eat tomatoes or asparagus in January, but doesn't spend much time on the alternatives. He implies that it is always better to buy from local farmers at farmers' markets, but never addresses the fact that most of these markets dry up during the winter. Perhaps this oversight is a result of the fact that Pollan lives in Northern California, where he can find a healthy variety of local produce all year at the farmers' markets. But what about the rest of us? Should we give up vegetables? If we are unwilling to do that, what is better -- shipped in fresh, canned, or frozen?

Having had my consciousness raised by Pollen last week, I went to the People's Food Co-op on Thursday curious about where exactly my veggies were coming from. The only local vegetable available was turnips, so I bought several pounds. Disappointed with the selection, I went to the farmers' market this morning, hoping to find beets and carrots. No such luck, but I did find cauliflower, brussels sprouts, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. Those were quite a surprise, and they will probably taste like cardboard, but I bought them anyway. Who knew you could grow a tomato in Michigan in December? Unfortunately, however, the guy with the tomatoes, potatoes, and onions told me it was his last week for the season. As the fall turns into winter, the vegetable sellers at the farmers' market rapidly give way to the decorative greenery, the pastries, and the preserves. Even apples are becoming fewer and farther between.

Posted by eklanche at December 9, 2006 01:52 PM

Comments

You should can or freeze your own vegetables in the summer, like farmer's wives used to do. ;-)

Sadly, I let about a half bushel of tomatoes freeze on the vine when the first hard frost came, and now I'm reduced to canned tomatoes for chili and the like.

Seriously, I would think canned or frozen (depending on the quality of the vegetable and how well it preserves) is much more environmentally sound than shipping fresh. Especially if you recycle the container and buy produce that was produced in the US, if not Michigan. And dried apples are quite good - dried fruit in general is lightweight, healthy, etc.

One part in Pollan's book that really struck me was the CAFO egg production. It takes a little planning, but I'm going to be buying eggs locally now - there's a place up on N. Maple on the outskirts of town that I pass by often, where a friend of friend used to do carpentry, that I'm going to check out next week. Supposedly eggs like this are much tastier and a lot fresher (and thus last longer, too).

Posted by: sdunavan@verizon.net at December 9, 2006 04:46 PM

Thanks for the tips. As for local eggs, there is this guy named Farmer John (I believe his full name is John Harnois) who sells fabulous eggs at the Fresh Seasons produce market (on Liberty, just west of Stadium).

Posted by: eklanche at December 10, 2006 08:06 AM

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