Friday, May 15, 2009

The Perils of the Icebox

I eat local whenever I can.  In the summer, when farm stands everywhere are overflowing with gorgeous produce and other locally produced fare, this is easy.  In the depths of the Boston winter, however, when the words "fresh" and "local" can't coexist in the same sentence, when you barely get to see the sun because you work 10 hour days in an office building, when the wind chill is makes you feel like you might break into 1,000 pieces...well, on those days, sometimes you just want dinner to be easy and hot.  These are the days when that frozen lasagna at the back of the freezer comes in oh so handy.  Does it taste as good as a homemade lasagna would?  Clearly not.  But all you have to do is pop it in the oven, and an hour later you're snug under a blanket with a piping hot plate of comfort food and a glass of red wine.  

This, of course, is a guilty pleasure.  Whenever I do indulge in a quick, easy (and processed) meal, a chorus of voices speaks softly as I eat, reminding me of the petroleum trail that such foods leave in their wake, the local producers who struggle to compete against big business, and the sometimes mysterious ingredients listed on the back of the box.  And now, there is yet another reason that such foods aren't really a pleasure after all.  An article from the Business section of the New York Times explains that it's growing more and more difficult for processors to ensure the safety of their food.  Under growing pressure to keep prices down, manufacturers get their ingredients from an increasingly murky global supply chain--some can't even tell you who their suppliers are, and they certainly can't tell you what sorts of safety precautions those suppliers take...or don't.  For this reason, even the most unlikely ingredients--from peanuts to spices--can now play host to dangerous microbes.  The frozen foods aisle, because products there so often contain long ingredient lists, is now a prime concern.  And producers are placing the onus on consumers to ensure that frozen food is safe by using a food thermometer to monitor temperature, something that most Americans rarely do.  Not so quick and easy after all.

This year, between my farm share and some late season trips to the farmers markets, I hope to stock my freezer with options that are healthier for my body and for the planet.  That way, when the cold and fatigue of February roll around again, I can reach for some local butternut squash instead of a mystery box.  That will be a true pleasure.

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