Farm Fresh Perspectives: Knowing what you’re made of…literally

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and the heart-shaped candy boxes are lying nearly empty on the counter or coffee table. Any chance that you temporarily forgot that diet-related New Year’s resolution? Well, it’s high time we all start thinking about what we are eating, but I’m not just talking about counting calories, carbs or grams of saturated fat. These things are important, of course, and should be taken into consideration as part of a healthy diet, but I want you to look deeper into your food. I want you to consider what your food represents and what went into getting it from a farm to your dinner table. After all, you don’t know what you’re made of until you know what your food is made of.

First, where did your food come from? I bet some of you just looked at whatever is perched at the business end of your eating utensil and chuckled to yourself, “The store; it was on sale.” All right, smartypants, but really test yourself for a minute. As an agricultural product, where did your food originate; that is, where was it grown? Some of you are looking at packages, others at little labels stuck on with food-grade adhesive that say California, Canada, Argentina, Israel… but I want specifics.

Some of you may be able to make an educated guess about which region in the country of origin produces, say, tomatoes in February, or perhaps a particular red table wine. Others may find a food label that names a river valley, or even a township. Not bad, but go deeper. What is the name of the farm? What does it look like? Have you seen the animals grazing or the crops growing? Have you shaken the calloused hand of the man or woman who is providing the fundamental nutritional building blocks that you and your family are going to use to live and grow and nourish yourselves? No? Why not?

How did your food get to you? The distribution chain is often long and arduous, involving many players. Research at Iowa State University suggests the average piece of conventional produce traveled nearly 1,500 miles from when it left the field to the point of consumer purchase, all within the continental United States. Now, if you consider all the people who are being paid to pick, pack and transport that produce, all the fuel burned to move it from place to place, and the infrastructure required to handle such shipments, you start running into some serious work and expense. Add to that all the ingredients and manufacturing and packaging that go into a processed product, and you may start to wonder how in the world you can buy that TV dinner for so little.

With the absolute logistical complexity of our current conventional food system, it’s no small feat that it got there at all. However, that same study showed that an average piece of “locally grown” produce traveled an average of 56 miles from the field to the point of sale in Iowa; that’s 27 times less than the conventional produce.

Of course, all of these costs are going to vary from item to item and from season to season, but the point I’m trying to make is that you can know more about how and where your food was grown while reducing your overall environmental footprint by simply buying as much of your food as possible locally.

Some of you probably travel 56 miles to go to work and back. Well, while you’re out there, take the time to meet the farmer who grew your cabbage, or your sweet corn, or your squash. And no, I don’t expect you to take it upon yourself to visit every farm that grew every item on your table, but you can certainly obtain a great diversity of local food by visiting a nearby farmers’ market, a natural food store that sources products locally, or by purchasing a subscription to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that will deliver a box of farm-fresh produce to you every week during the growing season.

These are all considerations I want you to keep in mind this year as you try to genuinely improve the quality of your diet. Eating local is possible, even during the winter, to some extent, and you’ll be amazed by the amount of satisfaction you get from sitting down to a meal and giving thanks for the work of a person you know helped provide the food that is about to become part of you.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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