Food, Inc. in Birmingham

My mom maintains that the greatest blessing of having grown up on a farm is that she learned “where food comes from.” Personally, I have preferred not to know.

I’ve been content to think chicken just materializes at the grocery store in portion-controlled strips with a touch of solution for preservative. Ditto the rolls of ground beef and sausage; don’t patties of anything seem perfectly natural? I have flinched occasionally at baloney and hot dogs – especially those bright red weenies – but that’s only because I’d prefer a big burger instead.

As someone too squeamish to debone a chicken (the giblets, the stretchy skin, and the popping sounds are just too grizzly), I know that I have come too far from the source of my food and am missing the connection it should have. I’ve been repulsed by organ meats and turned my nose up at cow’s tongue and pigs’ feet, eschewing anything that is too identifiable with a living animal. Yet, as I’ve read one chef quoted, “If you’re going to be willing to kill it, you should be willing to eat all of it,” I have felt sort of ashamed (hey,isn’t this where those hot dogs come into play?).

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I am becoming more aware of some of the paradoxes in food production, national policy, and our consumption in general. I consider that it takes seven pounds of grain to raise one pound of beef, that most commercially prepared sauces list corn syrup as a major ingredient, and that obesity and diabetes are epidemic in our nation and especially our state (are you aware of the Jefferson County Childhood Obesity Task Force?). The industry says it’s not the corn syrup, it’s the portion size. But how can processed food cost so much less than its original ingredients, the raw produce itself? There’s more to the story.

I seek discussion about the story of our food in the upcoming screening of Food, Inc. Food, Inc. is a documentary about the food industry and its impact on the economy, workers, our health, etc. Screenings will take place over Labor Day weekend at BottleTree Cafe and proceeds will benefit the Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners. The Sunday evening screening includes a locally-sourced Sunday Supper and a panel discussion. I feel sort of hypocritical even attending, what with the possibility of an empty breakfast bar or a potato chip wrapper littering my back seat, but I need to know more about what’s going on behind my chicken nuggets. (Buy tickets here).

Documentaries do tend to get me riled and I almost dread being confronted with the details of where food comes from these days. Although I’d love to serve only the best local fresh food, as a busy mom, convenience and price are as critical as nutrition, taste and quality. Besides, I can’t ethically lobby the school to get rid of french fries if I’m ordering fast-food combo meals all around on the way to karate. How can I condemn sodas if I let the kids drink them on my watch? I’m not the only BirminghamMom who’s conflicted. At the last school event, word spread quickly among us volunteers that we might get our Diet Coke fix if we just got to the vending machine locked in the teacher’s lounge. The caveat: Don’t let the kids see. I sympathize with the teachers. I wouldn’t wish a soda-free workday on anyone.

So I know that the discussion needs to go beyond what agribusiness and its lobbyists are doing and move on to practical application, like what are my options? I’ve tried and it’s so discouraging! I once took a crate of clementines for snack after a ballgame and the kids looked at me like I’d stolen Christmas. The parents didn’t know what they would do with the peels (don’t cookies also come in packaging that must be disposed of somehow?). My husband is still laughing over that faux pas, since he saved our reputation that day by having bags of chips ready. I know I’ll never recover cool mom points with that group. 

I’m ready to take a more purposeful approach to food. For tonight, though, I’ll have one more oblivious dinner. We’re having the fried chicken that materializes in buckets.

Note: Check out Food Revival for a broad range of information on local food and resources from a former Cooking Light food staffer