Seattle taught me to ‘eat like I give a damn’

Organic fruit on the breakfast bar at Portage Bay Cafe. (Photo by Irene Lu)
Organic fruit on the breakfast bar at Portage Bay Cafe. (Photo by Irene Lu)

Portage Bay Cafe is one of the best known brunch places in Seattle. As soon as I walked into this organic café for the first time last year, the smell of pancakes and the bowl ablaze with bright red strawberries turned me into a loyal customer.

It didn’t take long to notice the slogan “Eat Like You Give A Damn” on mugs, aprons, and on the top right corner of their menu, right next to the missions of servince local, organic, and sustainable foods.

As an international student from Taiwan, I was surprised by the devotion to organic foods here in Seattle, from the farmers’ markets that pop up around the city each weekend, to the big numbers of organic restaurants with four star Yelp ratings.

Back home in Taiwan I’d grown desensitized to stories about expired meat at local McDonald’spigs that died from disease sent to butcher shops, and even soy sauce made out of human hair.

These kinds of food scandals sprung up shockingly often during my childhood, and they haven’t stopped.

The most recent one broke out during mid-Autumn harvest festival in 2014, when Chinese families spend the full moon giving thanks and eating moon cakes together. The use of cheap gutter oil in Taiwan lead to millions of moon cakes and pineapple cakes going to waste all over East Asia. Gutter oil is a mixture of waste oil and animal byproducts, used by suppliers to save money over standard oil. Many popular brands such as Hong Kong’s largest food corporation Maxim, and China’s largest instant noodle maker Ting Hsin were involved in the scandal.

All these food safety scandals point to a big problem — we don’t give a damn about what we eat. We’d rather buy food that’s cheap than food we know is safe, and unscrupulous merchants exploit that for profit.

Pens in an industrial hog farm. (Photo from EPA)
Pens in an industrial hog farm. (Photo from EPA)

In many developing countries in Asia, having enough food to eat isn’t taken for granted like it is here. Consumers will prioritize quantity over quality, and not think much about health. Concepts like organic, sustainable and local have just started to appear in recent years, and aren’t widespread the way they are in the U.S.

“In order to enforce sustainability, we have to do businesses with conscience,” said Yu-Lung Chuang, the chair of Taiwan Farmers Management Association. “The government can’t just look at the output. They should focus on protecting and taking care of the land, so our generations can live here forever.”

‘Conscience’ is the keyword that everyone in the food businesses should keep in mind — and so should consumers like you and I.

“The concept will continue to develop,” says Jeff Smith, the manager of Portage Bay Cafe. “We have a great number of places now that are catching on. Even some of the cooperative gardens are looking to sell us produce because they’ve gotten their stuff to be grown organically.”

There are plenty of local farms ready to supply conscientious restaurants and diners in Washington, from Uli’s sausages from the Pike Place Market, to Fonte coffee in downtown Seattle, or Full Circle Farms in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cutting out the middle man and long distance shipping not only improves the quality of foods, but also gives us a better connection to our meals and how they’re grown.

“This is a national movement,” says Lucy Norris, the director of the Puget Sound Food Hub, a community network for farmers and businesses that aggregates and distributes local products and promotes sustainable farming in the Pacific Northwest, “It goes beyond farmer’s market.”

Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a $52 million budget to support local and organic farming. Although the organic market remains a very small portion of the entire foods market, it’s growing fast.

Packed tables filled with customers seeking organic, locally sourced brunch. (Photo by Irene Lu)
Packed tables filled with customers seeking organic, locally sourced brunch. (Photo by Irene Lu)

The long lines outside Portage Bay Cafe every morning are a testament to the growing numbers of people in the Northwest who value health over savings. Ting Lee, a fellow international student from Taiwan who is regular customer of the cafe, drools over the signature breakfast bar with seasonal fruits and whipped cream.

“The use of organic foods [does] make me feel safer,” said Lee, “you know, there are a lot of genetically-modified foods in the states,”

She might have been remembering a GMO wheat scare in Eastern Oregon in 2013 that aroused fear as far away as Japan and Korea.

Even if Washington isn’t ready to pass a genetically modified food labeling requirement, here in the Northwest, Norris says, farmers don’t have to try too hard persuade people to buy local, organic foods.

If Asian countries are willing to set higher standards for food and embrace the concept of sustainability, food safety scandals like the ones I experienced growing up could be prevented. Many of these same countries demonstrated their commitment to protecting domestic farmers and agribusiness when they recently banned imports of Washington poultry after a bird-flu scare. Now if only they could take the same strong stance when it came to protecting consumers.

Focusing on short term profits is not only damaging to people’s health, it is also damaging their reputation as food suppliers.

“’Eat like you give a damn.’ It simply means you are aware of what kinds of food you’re putting into your body,” Smith said, “It’s greater than just organics. It’s more of the idea of trying to live in harmony with the environment.“