RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Building Our Own Pyramid

A note from a longtime reader suggests it's been a while since we talked about eating "in season," and in this season of abundance, we should re-visit the subject. At the same time, the US Department of Agriculture is updating the misleading, industry-based "food pyramid" we grew up with to replace it with a new misleading, industry-based "food pyramid." USDA needs some citizen input.

The new food pyramid should feature a broad base of locally-produced foods. If you buy foods raised locally, you can ask the farmers what chemicals were used, or whether the food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that aren't labeled on industrial foods. Look for fruits and vegetables from farmers who live within a reasonable distance of your house. If you live in the city, the distance may be larger than the circle rural folks draw.

In rural mid-Missouri, I can get almost everything from my county, and when I find an excellent nearby source to replace an excellent far-off source, I support my neighbor. The booming local-foods market has meant that this year I can buy chickens from a farmer 30 miles away to replace the one 100 miles away. And there's a new U-Pick berry place just 15 miles from my house; last year I drove 150 miles round-trip!

Also in the broad base of the pyramid would be foods you raise yourself. This is where urban people get lucky because the community garden movement is alive and well. While many community gardens have sprung up on vacant lots, which become endangered as urban areas are revitalized and developers look for land, other community gardens are part of school yards, church lots and city parks. Anywhere there's a lawn mower at work there's potential for a community garden.

Gardens require land, water and sunshine, but they also take time and expertise. If you can't work one, you can buy from the people who are already involved. In community gardens, the means of production are in the hands of average people and, if they raise a surplus, it belongs to them. They can sell it, trade it, give it away. So, people have a way to increase household income while buying from the Big Box stores only increases household debt.

And you, Dear Buyer, can ask the growers how the food was raised.

Which brings us to the subject of "eating in-season." While it's easy to find veggies in the midwest in summer, it's impossible in the winter. How can you preserve the local foods so you can eat year-round the foods you know and trust?

There are many answers. Canning foods makes me feel productive and smart. I look forward to evenings with the pressure cooker. Call it therapy, I can't explain it. I also take advantage of Missouri's hot August days to dehydrate herbs, vegetables and fruits laid out on clean sheets on the car roof. My neighbor, Linda, thinks I'm silly. She freezes everything.

There are also, in our county, several people who preserve food professionally. One woman makes jellies to sell all over the world from ingredients raised right here. A stay-at-home dad makes jellies from family recipes, and another makes salsas and pasta sauces. I support them because the products are excellent, I know how they were made, and I enjoy the good humor and friendship of the makers. So, for me, "eating in season" happens all year round.

So that's the base of the food pyramid -- eating local and in-season. Let's give that increasing amounts of our food dollar every year.

For the next portion of the pyramid, choose foods labeled "organic." At least for the time-being, organic foods include fewer unknowns like GMOs. Personally, I doubt that industry's "organic" foods benefit the planet. Industrial organic foods are raised in monocultures, trucked thousands of miles to get to the store and they're fertilized with effluent from confined animal feeding operations and with fish emulsion that comes from the over-fished oceans.

Industrial organic fields are also worked by labor that includes the most helpless women and children on the planet, people with no educational options and little joy in their lives. "Fair-trade" foods, which are increasingly available, ensure that the growers get a better deal.

At the very top of the food pyramid there's a wee little dot. Occasionally, let's face it, you'll be trapped. At a church picnic, a late-night stop for gasoline, or a visit to your grandma's, you'll ingest some semi-digestible industrially-raised logo-embellished food from Phillip-Morris, Con Agra, Cargill, Tyson, Murphy, Unilever or one of the other bad boys. Look at their web pages to see how many brands they control and you'll see that it's occasionally unavoidable even though you usually stop for gas at the place that sells local candies and cookies, and almost always carry a cooler of your own stuff in the car.

By replacing the old USDA food pyramid with the local, in-season food pyramid, you'll be supporting people you can look in the eye, and building options for the future. It's the right thing to do.

Note from the Department of Spoke Too Soon: In a recent column, I said citizen action had stopped the Missouri Legislature from passing a really bad bill that gave giant hog factories the right to sneak into rural neighborhoods. True, we stopped one bill, but the Industry snuck in another the day before the legislative session ended. Once again, citizens acted with phone calls and letters to the governor who, we hope, will veto.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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