Chew on this: happiness and health

I've been organizing myself a bit this summer, sorting through my closet, putting order to the items stored in my basement, and filing all of the accumulating papers within my desk drawers. Within the old notebooks that I cannot throw away (it is a curse), I've come across some notes I've made, reflections and ideas I've had and jotted down, and have also found some of the people and quotes that inspired the notes initially. Food for thought:

"Since researchers started trying to measure such things in the years after World War II, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves 'very happy' with their lives has remained the steady, even though the material standard of living has tripled in the same period. More stuff is not making us happier-- but we can't break out of the cycle that offers more stuff as the only real goal."

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and extraordinary writer from Vermont, reported that in his article "A Deeper Shade of Green," published in National Geographic in August 2006.  After reading his pragmatic and applicable advice and the hard-hitting facts he reports about society and happiness, I decided to read his book Deep Economy, which was a thought-provoking and startling account of the things we are doing to ourselves and our planet, and several ways we can work on repairing the damage. His main thesis is that community is key. While is something of an anti-globalization flag-waver, he doesn't just ramble about how we are doomed, and how Walmart is ruining the world. Now, he does present the case against Walmart very well, but he also stresses other, smaller things within a community that could create a more reasonable balance between local and international communities.

I have since become more aware of the foods I am putting in my body. McKibben dedicates an entire section of his book to the idea of "eating locally," and not only presents his theory but attempts it himself, eating foods only produced in and around his state for an entire year. That means no grocery stores, making his own bread, canning his own vegetables and making his own preservatives for the winter season. It meant, for him, eating things that were currently growing in his region at that time, and not going to the local grocery metropolis for strawberries and oranges in February. Admirable as his case is, it would, granted, be quite difficult for us all to apply to the same system.

But on a smaller scale, farmer's markets and organic foods present healthier choices, and better conditions for everyone involved. Organic foods are made with no additives, which are bad for both you and any animals that were used. Eggs, for example, are much better organic (and also cage-free). Foods found in farmer's markets also give a huge margin of the profits to the actual farmers, making sure enough of them stay in their business and keep us fed, and also allowing for the eventual return to more localized farming (which is better for you AND the environment, what with less fossil fuel used to transport foods and items that simply taste better and come fresher). Most important for a healthy diet and life, organic and natural foods (i.e. sans the corn syrups, chemicals, and preservatives) simple ensure that you are putting better things into your body. Isn't that worth it?

I used to be reluctant to believe that organic was anything besides a more-expensive version of what I could buy at Walmart, that it was a trend for elitists. I would make fun of my roommate (in a kind way) for buying cage-free eggs, organic milk and baked beans, and sodas made with pure cane sugar. The fact is though, the eggs come from chickens that received no growth hormones (which are passed to you), your milk will be chemical-free, your beans will not have been sprayed with the heaviest pesticides, and your soda pop will be void of the competitors high-fructose corn syrup.

One thing that I used to use against the case for local and organic food was that it is more expensive, and not visibly worth the difference. But as I have illustrated the more long-term and less outwardly visible benefits, let me report something I learned in McKibben's book:

"The deepest problem that local-food efforts face, however, is that we've gotten used to paying so little for food. It may be expensive in terms of how much oil it requires, and how much greenhouse gas it pours into the atmosphere, and how much tax subsidy it receives, and how much damage it does to local communities, and how many migrant workers it maims, and how much sewage it piles up, and how many miles of highway it requires-- but boy, when you pull your cart up to the register, it's pretty cheap.

"In the 1930s a family might have spent a third of its income on food; middle-class Americans now spend more like a tenth. And food is cheap not just in terms of money, but time. Mostly we eat processed food; cooking is something that happens on the Food Network."

He goes on to quip about the quality of grocery store lettuce, asking how you might feel after making a trip across country: "A little tired and limp and warm... well, that's how the lettuce feels."

I cannot provide every point, example, and answer that McKibben does. All I can do is claim my own conversion to the case for locally grown foods and organic products. I have been cooking much more, using Harry's Farmer's Market, and buying all the fresh vegetables and ingredients to make the things I used to make from boxes or frozen items. I avoid processed foods, corn syrups, and chemically altered dairy items. What difference it makes is nearly immeasurable, but the impact in my own life feels great.

I highly recommend McKibben's book, if you want to learn a little more about some of the practical means of going local and going organic, and also if you want to learn more about some of his awesome proposals for sustainable and community living.