This American Meal: A Tale of Two Dinners

Dishing up the facts—good and bad—behind one supper in Boston

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Industrial Supper 

Factory farm chicken: Four companies produce 50 percent of the broiler chickens sold in the United States. One of them, Goldkist, made headlines two years ago when it processed diseased chicken into nuggets for school lunches. Industrial chickens are inhumanely crowded into cages and raised indoors. To keep disease levels down and promote growth, factory managers give the birds antibiotics, whether they’re sick or not. The result? Increasing numbers of bacteria such as salmonella that are resistant to antibiotics. When harmful bacteria slip onto your plate from an undercooked chicken breast, you can get sick—and the antibiotics you expect to cure you can’t always do the job. Right now, these bugs produce an estimated 3.3 million cases of foodborne illnesses and 652 deaths in the United States each year. But there’s some good news brewing: Recognizing these problems, the poultry industry is beginning to decrease its use of antibiotics.

Organic California lettuce: Can organics be industrial? You bet! In California, some large companies produce both organic and conventional lettuce. Consumers see the “organic” label and think it’s the same as “homegrown organic” lettuce. Far from it. California’s lettuce industry is built on exploited, low-wage migrant workers. The price in the store may be lower than local lettuce, but the social costs are much higher.

Conventional local potatoes: With their heavy reliance on soil fumigants, as well as herbicides and pesticides during the growing season, conventional potatoes might pose health concerns and are certainly costly to raise. Maine potato farmers lost money eight years in a row because of low produce prices and the high price of chemicals. Many don’t want to be on the chemical treadmill—but the low margins make it difficult to convert to organic, which takes three years.

Big dairy milk: Around 75 percent of the milk sold in southern New England comes from Dean Foods, a Dallas-based corporation—and there’s a good chance the cows producing the milk were treated with rBGH, a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. rBGH is injected twice monthly into 30 percent of the nation’s dairy herd to increase milk production. Banned in Canada and Europe, rBGH makes cows susceptible to health problems including infertility, infections, and diseases. It also generates the production of a powerful hormone, Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which we also produce in our bodies. Elevated levels of IGF-1 increase the risk of some cancers. Do our IGF-1 levels go up when we drink milk from rBGH-injected cows? No one knows.

Conventional strawberries from California: Big and red, but sometimes tasteless and hard, they’re bred to withstand long journeys and often are picked before they’re ripe to make the 3,200-mile trek to Boston. Tagging along are residues from the average of 142 pounds of pesticides applied per acre to California strawberry crops. These neurotoxins, carcinogens, and developmental toxins are not appealing additions to strawberry shortcake, and they’re even worse for the farmworkers exposed to them. Coming soon: a genetically modified strawberry that incorporates DNA from a flounder to make it frost-resistant.

Sustainable Supper

Organic chicken: Organic chickens roam freely, eat organic grain free of genetically modified organisms, receive no growth hormones, and get antibiotics only when they need them. Organic certifiers monitor the farms where the chickens are raised as well as the processing plants where they are killed. And taste? The Washington Post voted Eberly’s, an organic Pennsylvania brand available in Boston, number one in taste in 2000. Unfortunately, local farmers find it hard to break into the Boston market. No poultry processor in Massachusetts will take the smaller number of birds that many sustainable and organic farmers raise.

Organic local lettuce: For 22 weeks, red and green leaf, romaine, and Boston lettuces are bursting from New England fields. While they cost a little more, local lettuces can stay fresh in the refrigerator two weeks, while lettuces that make a cross-country trip may last only a week. One of the best ways to get local lettuce is through a CSA (the common abbreviation for community-supported agriculture)—a subscription farm that delivers produce weekly to a specific group of “shareholders.”

Organic local potatoes: All Blues, Kennebecs, and Katahdins are the varieties—some old, some new—that the Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative sells in Boston. Instead of using chemical fertilizers, these farmers enrich the soil with clover, field peas, and ground fish meal. They rotate their crops to cut down on infections and burn the weeds before planting. And if potato plants are plagued by disease or pests, they use organic control methods, often removing insect eggs by hand.

Family dairy milk: Eight thousand lucky families in the Boston area get weekly home milk deliveries from Crescent Ridge Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts, a third-generation family dairy that produces and bottles milk from cows free of rBGH injections. Demand has grown so fast that Crescent Ridge now also provides milk from a Vermont dairy farm cooperative. By marketing directly to loyal customers, Crescent Ridge avoids the costly fees charged by grocery stores for shelf space—and gives the upcoming cookies-and-milk generation a better understanding of where food comes from.

IPM (integrated pest management) Strawberries: Red Tomato, a Boston produce broker, puts fresh local strawberries on co-op and family-owned grocery store shelves at prices higher than California organic strawberries—and they sell. While California berries can be in transit anywhere from 3 to 6 days, New England strawberries, picked ripe, are available in 24 to 36 hours. Farmers follow integrated pest management practices—organic berry production is very difficult in the Northeast—that reduce the amount of chemicals they apply. But the secret is the flavor—one whiff of these strawberries, and another quart is headed to the dinner table.

Karen Lehman, currently a Bush Leadership Fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, has 20 years of experience researching and organizing local and international food systems in both Latin America and the United States. She's served as the Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota and as co-founder of the Youth Farm and Market Project in Minneapolis, a gardening program involving inner-city kids. Special thanks to Mark Smith at Farm Aid for his research help with this article.