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BOOM! Landmines in the World of Food Choices

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by Michelle A.L. Singer

Food is just one of many landmines that pepper the battlefield of my life as a parent in twenty-first century America. Health care, screen time, education, chores and allowances are just some of the topics I pore over and research. When I asked my mom how today is different from when she raised me, she said, “You think about everything so much more than we did.” Case in point: a photo of me, not one year old, grinning ear to ear with half an Oreo clenched in my fist and the other half smeared across my face. Times have changed.

The messages are loud and clear: don’t eat fast food, don’t eat processed food, don’t eat anything your grandparents didn’t eat, don’t eat pesticides or GMOs, watch out for all those antibiotics in meats and dairy products, don’t buy mass-produced meat that is the result of cruel treatment of animals, don’t eat fish from polluted waters, and maybe you should consider gluten-free. I hear them all.

When I shop at Price Chopper once a week (I go there because I get ten cents off a gallon of gas for every one hundred dollars I spend, and because I can feed my family for the week within my budget), I’m aware of issues around food and the compromises I’m making because of what I can afford. Like landmines, choices explode as I make my way through the aisles.

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Coming through the doors, the produce section is where every shopping trip begins. In front are the items on sale, and that’s good but…BOOM! The first landmine is hit. It might be on sale but it’s not organic. Never. I have a list of the “dirty dozen”: the twelve most important foods to buy organic because of their high levels of pesticides. As I pick the staples that we always eat, another BOOM! As far as I can tell, I can’t ever buy too many bananas for my household to consume. But I know they come from far away, and there is a cost to the fuel and transportation is takes to get them to me, every week. Food within a 100-mile radius? Not even close.

Just behind produce is the bakery. I sidestep the landmine of sweets with only a little boom for eyeing the apple turnovers. I’m not too tempted. I also may or may not buy deli lunchmeat, sidestepping an explosion of preservatives and nitrates. I buy the bread they bake at Price Chopper; I like it and so do the kids. But, BOOM! It’s not local (and there are a lot of great local breads) and it’s white. I know that white flour, white sugar and many white foods are processed, stripped of whole grains and any nutrients they might have had.

From here, every aisle in the grocery store is one big BOOM! I hear Michael Pollan in my mind: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” I believe it. But the reality of feeding three kids, packing lunches and making healthy food that will actually get eaten in such volume is too much of a burden for eating mostly plants to bear. For every time I pack cucumber slices or blueberries, there are Goldfish and graham crackers. For every dinner with Brussels sprouts, there is macaroni and cheese. I am resigned to compromises.

At Price Chopper I feel like I strike a middle road. I buy ground turkey instead of ground beef for homemade meatballs because spaghetti and meatballs are something everyone can always agree on. But BOOM! The meat is not local, and I wonder if the ground turkey was processed humanely, or was raised with hormones and antibiotics. It says natural but that could mean anything. The same goes for the dairy section: BOOM! There is organic milk, but a half-gallon is more expensive than a whole gallon of nonorganic. I have to think in terms of enough for the whole week.

I buy fish, which has its very own special set of landmines. BOOM! BOOM! We should eat fish to get those essential omega-3 fatty acids. I have a guide that lists “clean” and “dirty” fish, or those that have more or less pollution and toxins from the ocean (that we humans put there). So I try to buy wild Alaskan salmon. That’s what I can remember from the list that I don’t carry anymore, and I know that we all like it. We also eat Tilapia which I hope, rather than know, is clean.

Finally there is the frozen section where I make decisions like BOOM! frozen pizza because I know that we make dinner at home every night, and there are nights when pizza is all I can muster up the energy to make. I diffuse the landmine by getting American Flatbread. I will decide how many other meals are going to involve frozen shortcuts, and grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to ease the end of what I know will be a long week making as much healthy food as I can for my family, while sometimes taking a less healthy but easier way out just because I’m exhausted.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com