"Lisa! I could never be a vegetarian! I like the taste of death too much!" - Bart SimpsonI tried to put on an old pair of jeans today, and realized that, without a belt, I would soon be exposing myself to the world. Knowing that the world probably didn't want to see that, I opted to switch them out for another pair of jeans that are a size smaller.
I've evidently lost a little weight. Just under two weeks ago, I started a new diet - vegetarian. I haven't had meat (except on Sundays) for the last two weeks, and it's been an interesting adjustment.
I'll be honest, the first week, I felt terrible. I felt like I just couldn't get full, and at one point, I would have given my left eye for any sort of meat, even a Big Mac. And I *hate* Big Macs. I sent out a plea to my vegetarian friends, and after (an already planned) trip to Austin that included a stop at a Co-Op near UT to get some vegetarian and vegan products, my diet has balanced out.
Instead of eating mostly carbs - which was all I had - I've now added apples, salads, carrots and veggie-burgers/nuggets to my diet. As a result, I get to eat things that taste like meat, but are probably more nutritious for me. And on Sundays, I've been having delicious meat curry dinners (for the last two Sundays at least), so I've been ensured of protein nutrition on my days off.
But I'm not writing this blog to tell you about my woes and trials as a new vegetarian, though I could probably spend a lot of time talking about it. Not eating meat is such a new thing for me, but thinking about how my food gets to my plate is much more important.
Coming from South Dakota, I'm reasonably more familiar with the farming industry than most of urban America. I have a group of cousins who run a family farm just outside of Sioux Falls, and they are my family's main source of meat. Indeed, I don't think my family buys any beef products at the store anymore, because the bottom half of our large freezer (it's one of those large enough to fit a body in) is always lined with packages of steak and ground beef from my aunt Dianna and uncle Dave (and yes, I'm named after her).
In our late teen years, my farmer cousin who is two weeks older than me started his own little "crop" of chickens, raising them to eventually butcher and sell. From what I understand, he had a neat little business going, and it was a good skill for him to learn.
Family farmers are fast fading from the food market in America. In favor of efficiency, our farms have become bigger, and more resembling factories than they old image of the family farm anymore. What we see in the grocery store when shopping is hardly a representation of what actually happens.
In contrast to my cousins' farm, which holds pleasant memories of outdoor activities, cows roaming about within their pens, eating grass, and large fields of grain and corn, I also have the background image in my head of the John Morrell's factory on the Northeast side of Sioux Falls. Just north of Sioux Falls' famous Falls Park (which contains the city's namesake, the waterfalls of the Big Sioux River), the big white building has been a major employer of Sioux Falls residents for years and years. On days when the wind is right, the smell of meat can waft over a lot of the city, and often makes one want to cover his or her nose in disgust. I grew up with both of these images of the way of getting food, but never connected it to what I was putting into my body. This was probably because my parents' (along with most Americans) policy was just not questioning it.
I'm finally beginning to do just that: question. In thinking about how my clothes got to my closet, I'm also thinking about how my food got to my fridge. In going through the supermarket, we're presented with these images of farmers gazing over amber waves of grain, probably knowing each cow by name, and slaughtering them in the most humane way possible. I think if we really saw how our meat got to be boneless, skinless and HUGE, sitting in a neatly wrapped plastic tray in the frozen food section, we probably wouldn't like what we saw.
NOTE: Over the last few weeks, I've been reading Eating Animals by J.S. Foer, a book about factory farming and the stories we tell ourselves about our food. And last night, I watched "Food, Inc.", a film about the business of our food. If you want more information, pick up/watch either of these two things.
There were two things I learned in watching "Food, Inc." last night that I found particularly striking.
First, we've overproduced on corn. I'd heard of farmer subsidizing before, but never really knew what it meant. Essentially, the government has paid farmers for overproduction of crops, and corn is now being used and molded into thousands of different products everyday, high fructose corn syrup being the most common. Producing so much corn allows farmers to sell it at less than the price of production, creating an American corn market that does better than any other market in the world. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law, Mexican farmers couldn't compete with the cheap price of corn, and therefore were pushed out of jobs. Over a million Mexican farmers lost their farms to competition with the stronger American corn market. These leads me to point two:
The way the American food economy is run encourages human trafficking.
Follow me on this. When the Mexican farmers lost their jobs, lots of meat processing plants started advertising for jobs in America. Meat processing is one of the most dangerous jobs in existence today: the worker does the same action day in and day out, with sharp implements, and with high risk of injury. At the dirt cheap wages they are paid, and because they are not necessarily skilled, an injured worker can easily be replaced, like parts or cogs in a machine. In other words, it's a job perfectly primed for someone already off the radar, and thus with few legal rights -- the illegal immigrant. Some meat processing plants even set up a bus service to get immigrants to their factories from Mexico.
The most shocking thing I learned, however, was that the Smithfield pork factory (think Smithfield Hams, a longtime Christmas staple), apparently has a deal with local immigration authority to allow 15 worker arrests a day so that no major raids are conducted that hurt the production line.
The people bringing in the illegal immigrants are not being punished.
The people who are literally trafficking in workers for the factories go unpunished. We are subsidizing trafficking with the food that we eat. Why do these factories use undocumented workers? Hey, if the worker is undocumented, they have no rights to unionize, they don't have to provide insurance because the worker has no legal right to sue, and they can be paid what is easiest for the company, not what is best for the person.
All in the name of efficiency and cheap prices for the consumer.
I'll be honest, I'm not too big on animal rights. You'll never see me standing on a corner with a PETA sign, yelling about fur coats that people are wearing. I am, however, big on human rights, and, in the food industry, the two are interlocked. Farmers are under the thumb of corporations to keep their mouths shut about the food they produce. Undocumented workers are slicing apart the meat for your plate. Our market is causing fledgling markets in developing countries to collapse because it actually costs less to get food flown over from America than it does to buy local crops. There is a direct correlation between poverty and obesity in America because the cheapest foods are the most fattening, due to the overproduction and efficiency of fast food empires. Diabetes is on the rise, and showing up earlier and earlier.
So this morning, when I realized that my size 10 jeans no longer fit properly, I felt okay about that. It meant that my eating habits were probably getting healthier. I also noticed today that I feel better. Yesterday, I was able to concentrate for 3 hours on editing my thesis, and this morning, I graded three papers in a row (then took a break to write this). My energy level is already improving, and I feel a lot healthier.
Granted, the downside of this is that my grocery bill has gone up. What is normally about a $20-$25 trip shot up to $53 this last week, because I added veggie burgers, carrots and lettuce/salad dressing, along with a few other new items, this last week. The pricing as it stands is skewed toward the more unhealthy foods. It would be a lot easier to just buy 5 frozen pizzas at 90 cents each than it is to go select a good head of lettuce and some tofu.
I don't know how I can go about solving this problem, but not eating meat has already taught me a lot of different things, and I look forward to sharing more of them with you.