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Deciding what’s for dinner: Its more important than you may think

August 17, 2015

For millennia, the hunting, gathering, harvesting, and preparing of food has been the focus of everyday life for humankind. In many countries around the world, the selection, preparation, and consumption of food is still a defining aspect of culture. Why is it, then, that in many households in the United States, food is merely an afterthought, selected more for its convenience than for its benefits, nutritional or otherwise? Why have we become a nation known for its fast food and fatness?

I won’t attempt to answer the question above because it would require a treatise. Instead, I aim to argue that the thoughtful selection of food should regain its central role in the lives of anyone who claims to care about the environment, the landscape, the economy, personal and public health, and the future of our planet.

Yes, I think what we eat for dinner (and for breakfast, lunch, and everything else) is that important. So important that I consider purchasing food a political action more effectual than voting (although I do still vote).

Why is food so important? Because what we grow, how we grow it, and how we transport it (and how far we transport it) have far-reaching impacts. Consider the wisdom of agro-ecologist Nicole Masters, who points out that our soils, which have an unfathomable capacity to sequester carbon, are instead losing carbon to the atmosphere due to their terrible mismanagement by mainstream farmers. If we want to minimize global warming, she advises, we shouldn’t be buying Priuses—we should be buying food from local farmers and ranchers who maintain healthy soil practices.

Our food choices are also important because they matter to local families. Do we want our dollars leaving town and landing in the pockets of millionaires who run huge multinational agribusinesses, or do we want our dollars to stay nearby, to be reinvested in working landscapes in our own communities?

Some folks counter that local food is too expensive, and for those with extremely limited incomes that is indeed a legitimate concern. But for the rest of us, what we buy is simply a matter of priorities. In any case, I would argue that buying well-raised local (or at least regional) foods works out to be cheaper in the long run. Why? Because food grown in well managed soils and transported across lesser distances packs a greater nutritional punch than food grown (or raised, in the case of animals) conventionally via large-scale agriculture in far-off places. Healthier food makes for healthier bodies, which makes for fewer visits to the doctor, fewer work days missed due to illness, fewer medicines and supplements, and so on.

Doctors don’t tell us this, likely because it isn’t a focus of their coursework in medical school, but what we eat can impact everything from our immune systems to our physical energy to our mental stability. I cleared up my daughter’s eczema and asthma not through the use of topical steroids and antihistamines but through a carefully selected diet. I know mothers who have nipped ADHD and autism in the bud by changing their children’s diets. My own issues with dry skin cleared up once I altered my diet to include fewer carbohydrates and greater amounts of fat from grass-fed animals and high-quality oils (olive and coconut). The money I used to spend on creams and ointments now goes to deliciously nutritious food! Plus, I haven’t had to rely on an ounce of caffeine to keep me awake and alert during the first years of each of my daughter’s lives, when they both refused to sleep through the night until drastic cry-it-out tactics were employed.

What we eat matters in so many ways that deciding what’s for dinner shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be at the forefront of our thoughts every day, as if our lives and our planet depended on it—because they do.

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