May 15, 2008 -- The bumper sticker says it all: "If I am what I eat, than I'm fast, cheap and easy."
Last year, Americans spent more than a half-trillion dollars dining out. Thirty-eight percent of that sum — more than $138 billion — was spent on fast food raised on massive factory farms, shot full of preservatives, often fried and served in large portions. Drive-through windows encourage a mindless consumption of that food, often alone and on the run.
"We're moving to a culture of 24/7 snacking and eating in front of the television and eating in the car," says Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food." "One study suggests that 20 percent of American food eaten out of the house is eaten in the car. Isn't that outrageous?"
So the first suggestion most nutritionists make is to skip the fast food and eat more "slow" food. In other words, when possible take the time to prepare a meal yourself, sit down with others and savor it. This simple act can improve both your digestion and your social life.
"People don't wolf their food when they're eating with other people," says Pollan. "It leads to people having family dinners again, which is one of the most important social institutions we have."
According to a recent Columbia University survey, teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school and much less likely to have substance abuse problems. Cultures that encourage long, home-cooked meals like Italy and France have lower obesity rates.
And savoring leads to craving fresh ingredients, and our second powerful tip: Whenever possible, eat more local food produced within 150 miles of your home.
"It connects us to a desire to know where our food is coming from," says renowned New York chef Dan Barber as he strolls through a green market in lower Manhattan. "I think it's a desire that's hard-wired. It's been with us since we were hunter/gatherers. We were searching around for food that was tasty and food that wasn't poisonous for our children and food that was healthy."
Barber stocks both of his Blue Hill restaurants with meat and vegetables produced by local farmers in the area. He describes their superior flavor and nutritional value with an evangelical zeal, acknowledging that fresher food comes with a higher cost.
"As my friend the farmer says, 'You can either pay me or pay the doctor,'" Barber says.
While food from small farms can be more expensive, there are hidden costs in cheap supermarket fare. The average grocery item travels 1,500 miles, driving up the demand and price of gas. A typical American meal contains food from five different countries, while each year this country loses a million acres of farmland to development.
"Sure, my garlic is a bit more expensive," says New Jersey farmer Ron Binaghi, III. "Where's the garlic coming from in a big chain? You don't know, neither do I, neither does the customer and you ask the person with the apron on. They don't know."
Binaghi manages to grow 60 types of herbs, vegetables and flowers on his 18 acres. Since you can see the Empire State Building from the roof of his barn, he could sell his land to developers for millions.
But more houses would mean more roads, sewers, cops and schools, and all of his neighbor's property taxes would go up. Supporting small local farmers keeps taxes down, while preserving precious open space.
Duncan L. Hilchey, an agriculture development specialist with the Community and Rural Development Institute at Cornell University, says that supermarkets may have a relative price advantage because of economies of scale — but he adds, "When you add up all the external costs, such as environmental damage, the pollution generated by long-haul transport, water supply subsidies to Western farmers [who are large suppliers of supermarket produce], and the social costs of poorly treated farm labor, I believe you will find that food purchased from your local farmers market is much cheaper."
A recent study by the Maine Organic Farms and Gardeners Association estimates that by encouraging Maine residents to spend just $10 per week on local food, $100 million would be invested back into farmer's pockets and the Maine economy each growing season.
But macroeconomics aside, chef Barber believes that taste alone will be enough to save small farms and improve life for everyone.
"I have an interest in [eating local], not just for the environmental benefits and the health benefits and the economic benefits — that's all bonus," he says. "I do this because it tastes good. This is hedonism, pure and simple."
Five things to keep in mind before making your dashboard your dining table:
Car food equals hand food equals more carbohydrates in a meal.
If your eye is on the road, your foot on the accelerator and your hands are on the wheel, your mind can't be on nutrition.
Car cuisine seldom has a plate — the universal measuring stick for food portion size.
Healthy meals such as salads come with a knife and fork, something you can't use if both hands are on the wheel.
Saving time rarely saves calories.