I recently went to a food lecture on practical and healthy eating. When I learned of the event, my first reaction was that this was going to be a completely one-sided “discussion” given by judgmental tree hugging vegan preachers or pretentious urban elitists regurgitating something they read on-line. Most of these events don’t just put out information, they shove it down our bloody throats. They assume we are half-witted consumers so thusly they feel justified in their attempts to convert us to their brand of flavor-free truths.

At first I wasn’t planning on attending but then I thought this could be an opportunity to bring up some practical food issues even in the presence of the organic cosa nostra.  After all, when was the last time you went to a food event and everyone there said we’re not eating enough processed sugar and bacon.

Buying exclusively organic is not cheap these days.  Not everyone has the budget to buy organic, nor the time to figure out what the heck all the labeling really means.  For those of us with families that have two working parents, young kids who need to picked up from school, then driven to soccer practice, then bath and bed by 8 o’clock, the last thing on my mind is whether my steak was from cows that were grass or corn fed.  Most of us don’t have the luxury of spending an hour at the store, reading about the farmer that grew my carrots, how long Japanese cows get massaged or how much play time chickens get outside their cages.  For me, it’s in-out, nobody gets hurt.

Sign Up for E-News

Our food universe is inundated with grayish definitions of cage free, grass fed, free range, anti-biotic this, non-GMO that.  Misinformation is pervasive and it’s everywhere in our communities; in our stores, restaurants and even scarier, in our schools.  What are we to do?  Just trust that our government knows best and just simply buy everything that’s labeled USDA Organic?  Get a second job so I can afford to buy food that comes directly from New Jersey farms?  Me thinks not.

To my surprise and delight, the panelists were actually smart, balanced, and presented facts with a fair amount of common sense and a large dose of reality.  I was greatly impressed with each of their presentations and perspectives on food safety and sustainability.  They didn’t shout fire and brimstone or try to convert me from my love of meat, butter and the occasional fast-food taco to the vegan dark side.  This was one of those rare occasions where I wanted the evening to last longer because there seemed to be a lot of wisdom about and I wanted to hear more. 

The speakers included nutritionist and author Stephanie Sacks, Leith Hill of Ellary’s Greens restaurant in Manhattan and Dr. Karen Rezach of the Kent Place School.  Each brought interesting and informative perspectives on how to navigate the food landscape from the pitfalls of proprietary marketing, poor food labeling and the ethical consequences of the choices we make as everyday consumers.

The event was sponsored by Common Ground Speaks, a consortium of parent associations of independent schools in New Jersey and was held at the Far Brook School in Short Hills.

I didn’t hear any concepts or ideas that were revolutionary, except that Monsanto may be the devil incarnate.  The event was a brilliant reminder of how important our food is, where is comes from and how misled we could be from “Big Food” conglomerates that are more concerned with the bottom line than our health.  If these corporations were smarter, they could have done both. 

It was actually quite reassuring to know that there are several independent third party verifiers, much more than I had expected, rating the quality of the food products we buy each day.   I went to some of the websites that Sacks recommended (A Greener World, EWG, Seafood Watch) and discovered plenty of useful information.

I took the title for this article from Sacks’ book What The Fork Are You Eating? because she asks a very germane question, and in a very clever manner I might add, that we should be asking ourselves every time we eat.  It’s often too easy to let the burdens of daily life trump healthy eating, particularly when the majority of the food supply so readily caters to our busy schedules.  But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying. 

Here a few take-aways:

Buy Local:  Not because we have some sort of obligation to support local farmers but local food generally requires less travel to get to the marketplace.  This means that fruits and vegetables may have had more time to mature on the vine or in the ground, providing more nutritional value and certainly better taste.  If it is local, it’s likely that it’s from a small organic farm as well.

Buy Organic:  Organic foods have relatively the same nutritional value as non-organic.  However, do we really want to eat food grown with pesticides and other chemicals that were intentionally developed to kill living organisms?  What are the long-term effects?  There is no doubt that organic food is better for you.

Buy Smart:  If buying any food product that markets itself with the latest buzz words, I would not rely solely on the USDA or FDA labels but consider third party verifiers who can independently validate claims.  Support reliable and trusted purveyors, stores and restaurants to encourage others to follow.

Be Practical:  Focusing on good nutrition doesn’t have to mean that every meal has to be a gluten and anti-biotic free, massaged cow, farmed raised, Pope blessed dish.  The panelists agreed that one has to be practical and that eating well most of the time is more than okay.  Talk about food with the family, get them involved in the shopping and cooking and keep a lot of easy-to-prepare snacks (cut up veg, hummus, fruit) around the house.

Don’t Waste Food:  There are no federal standards for expiration dates on food.  Most products are fine well beyond the dates provided.  This again is more bad labeling to get us to spend more money.  If it smells, looks and tastes good, it probably is.

I encourage everyone to learn more about the food you eat and where it comes from.  Whether you agree or care is not as important as knowing the truth.  A good place to start is with our presenters.

Stephanie Sacks, stephaniesacks.com

Leith Hill, ellarysgreens.com

Dr. Karen Rezach, kentplace.org