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The Evolving Diet by Eva Southwood

One of the first questions we pondered when our family moved to the Hudson Valley from Atlanta a few years ago was, “Where are all the fast food places?” We have since found a few clustered here and there in some of the larger towns, usually near a large shopping area with a mall; but generally, a person can drive a good portion of a day around the Hudson Valley and see only one or two.

Thinking back to our life in the city, I remember how tempting it was to “grab a burger” for lunch, stop for a fast snack while out shopping, or occasionally go out for a quick dinner that was also inexpensive. Life with two working parents and two busy kids navigating through rush hour traffic every day left us exhausted and looking for cheap and easy solutions to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

Moving to the Hudson Valley, and the resulting culture shock to our eating habits, was the first step in the ongoing evolution of my family’s diet. Admittedly, I was not always the most discerning about the quality of the food I provided when it came to feeding my family. While my husband and I included fresh fruit and vegetables in the daily family diet, with home cooked dinners with fresh ingredients most of the time, we also brought home marshmallow fluff, cookies, chips, soda, candy, and pre-packaged “treats.” In short, junk.

Like many people of my age, I was raised on junk food. Young people leaving the family farms in the ‘50s and ‘60s to move to the cities also left behind their relationship to their food traditions and traded them for a pre-packaged, cheap, and quickly available food system that they didn’t have to think about. My parents were among those, leaving their rural roots to move to the city and take white-collar jobs. Like so many others, I was raised with canned corn, canned cheese, canned pasta, frozen dinners, and white bread. My childhood also saw the rise of the multinational fast food franchises. And all this was marketed to us daily as the symbol of our great way of life—everyone smiling and happy.

In many parts of the country, this attitude towards food as a cheap and convenient commodity is still revered as progress and is not only accepted as such, it is in fact very much the norm. Very few people spend their time thinking about where or how their food is produced. In fact, my conversations at work with other working parents were very rarely on the source of the food, or even the quality. The main point to the conversation was always, “Where could you buy the most food for the least cost?” While keeping food costs affordable is a worthwhile goal, often the trade-off has been the exchange of nutrition and health for empty calories.

Twelve years ago, like many Americans, I was more than just a little overweight. I was also sluggish, grouchy, and was starting to have chest pains and problems with my sugar levels—and I was only 35 years old. Both of my children were on inhalers for asthma. My husband had a nagging, persistent cough and was also gaining weight. I knew that our diet, along with the high stress and polluted city environment we were living in was contributing to our bad health. We made a major change and decided to move to the Hudson Valley to have a better quality of life—better air, less traffic, beautiful scenery, and unknown to us at the time, a better approach to eating and diet.

The Hudson Valley is a bastion of progressiveness in comparison to much of the country with regards to awareness of food and food production, with access to Community Suppported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers’ markets, locally and organically produced meat, cheese, dairy, and produce. We have locally produced grains again, after an absence of several generations. Even the larger grocery stores have local produce and prominent sections devoted to organic and vegetarian foods, as do many local restaurants. With so many choices around, it’s easy to try new things, even those that may seem off-putting at first (I’m talking to you, tofu).

So you think to yourself, sure, I want my family to eat a healthier diet, but I can’t afford the healthier choices. My husband and I had once thought the same thing. We have a teenage son in the house. Anytime a friend urged me to buy more organic foods, I would throw up my hands in exasperation. With my son’s appetite, I was barely able to keep enough food around as it was—how was I going to be able to spend more money for more expensive food? (I know you parents of teenage sons are nodding your heads in understanding.) And then I discovered something no one had bothered to tell me before: when you eat healthier food, you eat…less. Amazing. I can say that as we have increased our organic and locally produced food consumption, my family’s food intake as a whole has dropped. We have all slimmed down. The health problems have cleared up. Even our moods have improved, dramatically. The total weekly cost of our groceries has stayed the same while our nutrition and health have improved. We have also started buying as much as we can from local farmers and CSAs, which also helps the local economy and helps to keep the costs down.

So over the past few years, our family diet has evolved. Having the children turn into teenagers who decide that they are suddenly vegetarian helped, as did a budding awareness of what we eat and how that makes us feel. Since our move away from the city life, our food choices have become approximately 90% vegetarian, 50% organic, and 30% locally sourced. While we still have much room for improvement, we also recognize that changes to life-long habits can take a while to fully integrate. My point is that you can evolve your diet to one that is healthier and better for the environment. Don’t let the initial cost deter you from making choices that are better for you and your family. You may just be surprised in a few years at how good you look and feel.

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