OPINION: Why we’re seeing the fine print price for cheap food (and what we can do about it)

This piece was originally posted to Chef Rigato’s Facebook page.

The world of food production, distribution and foodservice continues to face challenges and disruptions from many factors. There’s currently a distribution issue with Sysco in southeastern Michigan. Many people like to say “Sysco sucks, buy local” and while I ultimately agree, Sysco provides a lifeline to restaurants outside of metropolitan areas as well as provides the product for tons of low cost operations.

Jimmy John’s, your local pizza place, so and so’s pub, rely on the iceberg, canned tomatoes, frozen chicken, dough balls, paper towels and so on from big box distributors. Not getting their delivery means they’ll be out of food, closing early or sourcing elsewhere for more money. With the heatwave in the west and staffing shortages coming out of a pandemic, these issues will continue.

There’s always been a huge fine print price to be paid for cheap food and we’re seeing it unravel in real-time. I encourage everyone to understand the sourcing, seasonality, supply chain and relationships you/we have with food. Summer in Michigan is a very plentiful time. Eating vegan or vegetarian even just one meal a day or one day a week is so easy this time of year.

Research fermentation, pickling, freezing, utilizing all parts of your food. Did you know shaved broccoli stems are delicious? Did you know the woody ends of asparagus can be used in a vegetable stock? Buy a whole chicken and try to see how many meals you can get out of it. Use the wings and neck in a pasta sauce. Pound the breast and make a schnitzel or Milanese. Cook the excess skin in the oven until crispy, chop and mix with breadcrumbs for a satisfying topping to your sautéed broccoli and broccoli stems.

Brine/spice/grill your chicken legs and thighs. Make a stock from the body and bones and mince/chop your less than perfect produce into the seasoned broth the next day for a summer soup. Pull and fold in any leftover meat from the legs and thighs. Thicken with a little cheese, roux or slurry if you like a richer consistently. Scoop some cooked rice or roasted potatoes into it to make it a meal. Whenever trimming fat from the meat you buy, set it aside and slowly render it in the oven, strain and save for cooking.

Schmaltz, duck fat, lard and beef fat have all been used for years. Don’t think highly processed vegetable oils are much better for you. Use any fats and oils in moderation. But mostly, waste and consume less. Buy seasonally, reduce your reliance on the wildly broken food system, continue to enhance your cooking and food literacy, diversify your shopping and cooking, be kind and generous to workers when eating out or shopping. The planet produces more than enough food for everyone on it.

We just need to right side the system. A tall and seemingly impossible ask, but we can all lead by example and vote with our dollars.


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