Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma when I was too young to read it — honestly I may still be too young to read it at thirteen. The new version, the Young Readers Edition, is written for us kids. The book begins with a really great introduction that puts into words what you might be thinking: “I never gave much thought to where my food came from. I didn’t spend much time worrying about what I should and shouldn’t eat. Food came from the supermarket and as long as it tasted good, I ate it.” I felt that way in the beginning, too. It’s food, why worry about it. ‘People’ wouldn’t let us eat food that is bad for us, right? Unfortunately this is not the case, and Mr. Pollan’s book can help kids understand why.
The main section of the book discusses four very different kinds of meals and where the ingredients come from for each meal. You’ll be shocked after reading about where that meat comes from in your fast food cheeseburger. It’s gross. I bet in your mind you’re imagining a field where cows meander about eating grass. But all of the ingredients in that meal come from the “industrial” food system. What is an “industrial food system?” Good question. “This industry doesn’t look much like farming the way most people imagine it,” writes Mr. Pollan. “It’s more like a series of factories that turn raw materials into food products. It’s a giant food chain, the one that supplies most of the food Americans eat today.”
To me the worst part in the book describes how the “industrial” system treats animals. Because the industrial system is basically a factory, a machine, it treats the animals as if they were objects, not animals. Take scrambled eggs: the chickens that produced the eggs for those delish scrambled eggs are raised in a wire cage with barely enough space to turn around. There is no sunlight in the huge barn and there is no way for them to do the things that chickens do, like perch, scratch in the dirt, dust bathe, and spread their wings. Also because the birds are so cramped and stressed in this unnatural setting they tend to do things chickens don’t normally do. Mr. Pollan writes, “Pain, Suffering? Madness? Whatever you want to call it, some of the hens simply can’t take it.”
The next section of book is about “industrial organic” food. This is food grown on a massive industrial “farm” (I’d call it a factory), one of the main things that is different from non-organic industrial farming is that the crops are fertilized naturally instead of with synthetics. You might think after reading that, “well that’s not a lot better.” You are right, but at least with organic you aren’t eating pesticides or antibiotics! “I know the dinner I prepared contained little or no pesticides. Those chemicals have been proven to cause cancer, damage nerve cells and disrupt your endocrine system — your hormones,” writes Mr. Pollan. Think about it. If you are a teen I don’t think you want your food messing with your hormones. What’s best about industrial organic is that it makes more people think about the quality and impact of their food. Organic isn’t perfect, but it is better.
For the third meal Mr. Pollan travels to Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, where they raise chickens, cows, turkeys and pigs on 450 acres. This section just makes sense to me. Mr. Salatin respects all parts of his farm, the animals, the slaughter, the environment, the shoppers and the natural way things work. From the book: “It’s all connected… This farm is more like an organism than a machine.” Mr. Salatin’s animals do their natural thing and follow a cycle. For example he has his cows eat the grass in one field, then he moves them over to a new field and the chickens come in and help break the cow manure down, which fertilizes the grasses. This was my favorite section.
The fourth meal and section is called “Hunters and Gatherers.” This is a chapter on “finding” ingredients for a meal in nature. The idea can be intimidating. Like Mr. Pollan, who hunts his meat and collects wild mushrooms, I have gone to the local clam flats to dig up clams, collected warm blackberries from a secret spot, eaten a little bit of hunted venison, and gathered buckets of blueberries. It is really satisfying. Somehow when you work very hard to collect that ingredient it just tastes better.