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HUISMAN: Serving up food politics at the family table

• Feb 28, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Over the past couple years, I've taken an active and sometimes obsessive interest in the foods I consume. My goal is to incorporate more local, real (minimally processed) foods into my family’s diet.

I’m driven by the possibility of improving our health, the environment and the local economy.

What spurred my mission of healthier eating was becoming aware of organic food practices. I then dove into a multitude of books and documentaries, and continue to do so. Some of the statistics are staggering.

Changing what your family eats is not easy. I struggle with my own past habits, my husband's expectations and our children's preferences. But I refuse to continue to fill mega-corporations' pockets at our expense.

My husband and I grew up in the era of convenience foods. Our mothers worked outside the home and oftentimes took advantage of the packaged, processed foods that allowed them to feed their family swiftly. Our parents were blissfully unaware of the negative aspects of these foods would later have on our nation’s health.

I fondly recall consuming Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, SpaghettiOs, Fruity Pebbles, Velveeta, Kool-Aid and Cheez Balls. These tasty, additive-laden, nutritionally questionable foods were as common as the harvest gold and avocado green décor surrounding us Gen Xers during that era.

It seems the majority of my generation was ignorant regarding our nation’s processed foods for a long while. I never gave much thought to how a packaged food was prepared or what ingredients it contained until later in life.

I was aware that I should limit "junk” foods such as sweets and potato chips. I just hadn't yet realized that the majority of packaged foods from containers of yogurt to bags of frozen chicken were most likely junk food, too.

I continued the unhealthy tradition by feeding many of these overly processed foods to my own children. Now my kids' preferences (tainted by my previous ignorance when they were younger) are the biggest battle I face.

So many of today’s foods are engineered for maximum profit for the corporation while providing an addictive, nearly impossible to naturally duplicate taste and appearance for the consumer.

I know I’m providing my family with some different groceries that are better for our bodies, the Earth and local businesses. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change my family’s expectations of how something should taste.

My family does actually like some of the things I’ve introduced. Real butter wins over margarine. Other than the first time I made taco seasoning and almost burned my son’s and his friend’s taste buds off, it’s been great.

We’ve all gotten accustomed to 100 percent whole wheat breads and pastas. I struggle with making time for many other things though. We prefer the texture of self-shredded cheese, but rarely take the time to do so. I've made my own bread, jam, soup and done some canning, but never on a regular basis.

Some food replacement attempts they’ve hated. I guess organic cheese crackers just can’t rival CheezIts.

On a positive note, we don’t normally have pop or tons of junk food in the house. We enjoy our small backyard garden and we eat together at the dinner table more often than not.

I think the biggest challenge is overcoming conflicting information and messages when shopping. Organic food, which must follow sustainable practices and is GMO-free, is not always healthy. It can still be laden with organic cane sugar and many other organic ingredients where too much is not a good thing.

Vegan diets, while environmentally friendly in terms of avoiding animal consumption, can easily rely on highly processed foods (Oreos or Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos anyone?)

If you're curious, and are prepared to be more aware of what you consume, do some research and form your own conclusions. I recommend reading “Food, Inc” by Eric Schlosser, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, “Mad Cowboy” by Howard F. Lyman and “100 Days of Real Food” by Lisa Leake. Some documentaries you should watch are “Fed Up” and “Farmageddon.”

If we don’t self-educate and change our buying habits, we won’t change our eating habits. It's difficult, but necessary.

We are fortunate to have major grocery chains right around the corner that label local foods and even carry affordable organic store brand versions of many packaged foods. There are numerous farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms that allow you to purchase a share of their bounty) nearby. We also have many neighborhood stores that sell local foods, as well as restaurants that use local ingredients.

My favorite indoor option this time of year is the Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Norton Shores, which upholds high vendor standards in terms of how the food is grown, raised and prepared. You can research a multitude of locally farmed options at www.localharvest.org.

The greedy role that industry and government play in our foods is alarming. As overwhelming and discouraging as it can seem, it's not too late to back up a bit. We need to take the time and effort to revert back to simpler foods produced closer to home. We place a vote every time we make a food purchase. Make yours count.

— By Elizabeth Huisman, Tribune community columnist

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