I love to read and tend to gravitate towards novels. Yet it’s the non-fiction books that have changed my life and way of thinking. The Omnivore’s Dilemma (OD) is one of those books.
I first read the OD when it was published almost 15 years ago. If you are looking to understand the terms “free-range eggs,” “grass-fed beef,” or “antibiotic-free chicken,” you should start here. Pollan explained these methods to the every day person, in a a way I had never heard before. He also taught me why we should eat locally and support small farms, rather than buying from a factory. Before I started the OD, I was very disconnected from my food. I knew I should eat a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables, but didn’t think about much else. I was raised in NYC and had never visited a working farm. (Things are different in NYC now – farmer’s markets etc abound – but those didn’t exist in the 1980s and 90s, or at least not where I lived.) The OD taught me about the “farm to table” process (also a term that hadn’t existed in my circles) and how the choices I made affected the Earth.
To be clear, this book does not try to make you adapt a vegetarian diet or say goodbye to beef. Instead, it helps you think about the power of your money and how can use your consumer choices to help the environment. That can be tricky, however, and I understand that practicality can sometimes force us to buy the cheapest option (which usually isn’t the standard described in this book). When I read the OD over ten years ago, I was living in NYC, single and working for an art non-profit. My budget was tight and I couldn’t afford $7 for a carton of organic milk. Things have somewhat changed, and now you can find more feasibly priced options, but that can still be difficult when you’re watching your money. Here are some tricks I used:
I picked one item each shopping trip that would mesh with the principles I wanted to follow. Maybe that would mean buying cage-free eggs but choosing conventional chicken. Or maybe that would mean purchasing antibiotic-free milk, but compromising with regular eggs. You get the point. Even a little bit at a time could make a difference.
I stocked-up when things were on sale. Again, cash flow was tight, but if I could find quality meat on special, I’d buy a few extra packs and freeze them for later.
I’d go out of my way and shop at stores that had better prices. There were many times I’d walk past the Key Food and go to Trader Joe’s, where I could find all of these items for less. While there, I would buy as much as I could.
To be clear, this process still wasn’t perfect. It likely would’ve been better to buy directly from a local, environmentally-aware farm, and reduce my meat consumption, in order to keep my costs the same. However that wasn’t an option for me at the time. As Mark Bittman says “the average person still shops at the supermarket.” It’s sometimes useful to think in realistic terms.
People in my life started noticing my buying choices. Some would scoff at the prices and think it was ridiculous to spend so much money on food. However I would take five minutes, cite some information I had learned from the OD, and help them understand why this type of choice matters. Our food affects everything from the environment to our health. (Regardless of how you feel about cows, it’s not a good idea to ingest anything that’s chock full of unneeded antibiotics.) If you’re looking to start your environmental journey, or even want learn about farming in the United States, the OD should definitely be on your to- read list.