Our country is out of touch with our food system. Can we shift the tide here in Maine?


To be honest, I didn’t want to learn more about the recent recall on romaine lettuce because I knew once I did, I’d have to toss the five beautiful romaine hearts dwelling in my fridge. But it was the responsible thing to do. So on Saturday morning, with the sun streaming in my windows, I finally read the news story, checked out packages and tossed them into the kitchen garbage.

What a waste.

The romaine lettuce recall was issued more than a week ago and stems from a multi-state outbreak of E.coli illnesses tracked to romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the recall spans all brands selling lettuce grown there. 

Lettuce packages now contain labels that indicate where it has been grown, an industry improvement made after a previous lettuce recall. 

While it’s a bummer to see the shelves with depleted — or completely missing — stocks of romaine, the risks of eating contaminated food far outweigh any perceived inconvenience.

But it should do more than that. 

This should serve as a reminder (or perhaps a red flag) that our food systems in the United States have some serious challenges. When this country traded local farms for corporate farms and seasonal eating for trucking tomatoes across the country in the middle of winter, we also sacrificed a personal connection to the food we eat.

Don’t misunderstand me though: Here in Maine there are plenty of people like me who either grow their own produce or shop farmers markets for it. And though the amount of farmland in Maine is shrinking, there are still many markets and farms operating in the state. 

In the summertime, my family’s produce comes primarily from our kitchen garden at the Bangor Community Garden and from the farmers market. If we aren’t growing something, we’re getting it from farmers I am acquainted with. Those farmers set up tables at farmers markets in Orono and Bangor and have farms that aren’t that far from my home. Even as the weather turns cold and the ground freezes, there are still local options for produce here in Maine — it’s up to us to utilize them. 

Storage crops like potatoes, carrots, apples and onions, along with some greens grown in high tunnels and hoop houses, are available year-round. We even have year-round farmers markets to help us shop for them. 

We don’t have to buy produce grown across the country or around the world, if we are willing to eat seasonally — and accept that sometimes the lettuce we want isn’t the lettuce we can have.

But our reliance on large-scale farms and produce as a commodity illuminates another thing for us: how out of touch we are with our food systems these days. Most people — perhaps not so much here in Maine, but overall nationally — don’t want to grow their own food. And farmers markets, though growing in popularity and frequency, aren’t the go-to for produce for many shoppers. I could tell you again and again in this column about the year-round availability of Maine-grown food from smaller farms, but will you actually find a local farmers market and go? 

And yet, when we shop local, we are doing more than just eating food grown closer to home. We are honoring our local food systems and strengthening it by spending our money there. We are saving not just carbon emissions but our local economy. And we’re eating in a way that is more natural. 

Hundreds of years ago, indigenous people weren’t buying avocados from Mexico and lettuce from California. They were eating what the land provided. When Europeans arrived on the shores of New England, they followed suit. And though European livestock and crops were eventually brought to North America, food was still eaten on a seasonal basis. Storage crops were the foods that sustained people through the cold and harsh winters.

As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And that’s the lesson here — perhaps. The food systems weren’t broken, per se. And the “fix” of transcontinental shipping that gave way to large-scale factory farming operations didn’t necessarily improve how we eat. In fact, it probably hurt us more than it helped.

It probably sounds like I am vilifying grocery shopping in grocery stores and I don’t mean to. There is value in these institutions for feeding the masses, especially as we’ve lost our connection to the land and the skills for working it that were once passed down through generations. 

And the truth is that sometimes I just really want something specific — like a romaine heart roasted with the most succulent roasted tomatoes, creamy stilton cheese and delightful apple cider vinaigrette (that’s an actual dish I had at The Fiddlehead recently, and it was divine. I was planning to recreate it at home but alas …). And when that happens, it can seem like a solution to just go buy the ingredients where they are available.

But what if we shifted our norm? What if we prioritized shopping at the farmers market and left grocery store produce for a fall back? What if we took all that money we spend on food we throw out and instead spent a little more on better food — and just ate it.

It wouldn’t stretch the grocery budget if we wasted less. (And truth: farmers market prices are competitive with the grocery store oftentimes.) 

This country has changed how we’ve eaten in the past. Maybe it’s time for a new shift — one that brings us back to our communities, our land, our neighbors. And perhaps, while we’re at it, we should extend this to our holiday shopping, too. 

When we spend at locally owned businesses — whether it’s farms or retail shops — our communities thrive. 

And isn’t that better than big businesses across the country lining the pockets of folks who never get their hands dirty — and have the power to make us all sick?

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