Perhaps more than any time in the past, Americans are aggressively asking where their food comes from and whether it's been produced justly. Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is hosting public forums this fall to debate the politics, controversy and confusion surrounding food and health.

It seems we can't stop asking about the provenance of our food -- and comedians have started to poke fun.

Consider this exchange between a diner and server in the comedy "Portlandia."

Waiter: So here is the chicken you will be enjoying tonight. Here are his papers. His name was Colin.

Diner: He looks like a happy chicken. Did he have lots of friends?

"Portlandia" may exaggerate, but for some people, there is a lot to think about before taking your first bite. Just some of the considerations are organic, sustainable, local GMO-free.

"I think the labels are very confusing and I think often times they are meant to be," said farmer and meat purveyor Dean Carlson. "So I would rather market our product directly from the farm so people can make up their own mind."

Carlson raises pork, chicken and beef on Wyebrook Farm, 360 acres in Honey Brook, Chester County. He says he produces food in ways that tax natural resources less than conventional farming.

"Conscious of the fact that we have a very limited amount of resources on this planet, unless we find another one, we are going to exhaust what we have," Carlson said.

The changing concept of 'sustainable'

Carlson says Wyebrook Farm is "sustainable" but that the concept is shifting.

"Sustainable is a word that's going to be corrupted," he said. "Monsanto uses sustainable in their marketing. So even to build what I'm trying to do around a word like that is sort of pointless because that word will mean less over time."

That fact, small farmers say, makes it more important than ever to find clear and clever ways to market the difference they offer.

Rich Lescavage, a West Brandywine, Pa., resident, shops at Wyebrook Farm every weekend. On a recent trip he spent nearly $50 for local, pasture-fed meat, which comes with a "directly from the farm" experience and some amazing views.

"You look at the chickens here, they're up walking in the fields versus 'OK, they had a door in their pen open.' If you go local, you know the people where you get your food from, and trust 'em," Lescavage said. "What can be simpler than that? Sure, if you go to the grocery store, you need a bunch of labels. Your food got trucked in from where? I don't know. Most people don't know."

In Lancaster County, Sweet Stem Farm uses a parody of British songstress Adele's song "Rolling in the Deep" to advertise its "happy meat." A YouTube video, featuring playful pigs and hard working farmers, extols the benefits of "Eating Cheek to Cheek."

Kristian Holbrook, the dairy manager at Doe Run Farm in Coatesville, Pa., said if local, small farmers don't find a way to differentiate what they are doing, sales goes to the cheapest product.

"I have 18 cows I milk," Holbrook said. "I make every wheel of cheese from start to finish. Then I take it to the festivals, cut it for them and talk to them about it. People don't get how much work it takes. It's hard, it's expensive and people don't want to pay for it either."

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has invited local experts, as well as national pundit James McWilliams, to speak.

Confronting difficult questions

"If we are going to have a frank discussion about agriculture then we have to be just as critical about these alternatives as we do about industrial agriculture as we do about the conventional factory farms," said McWilliams, author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly."

McWilliams says the images used to sell "sustainability" rarely let consumers glimpse the waste in animal agriculture or the ties that even small, local producers sometimes have to what many now call "factory farming."

The vast majority of the environmental problems related to the food-industry come from "industrial agriculture," McWilliams said. But, he asks, what if the "small, local sustainable farms" catch on?

"What if they start producing 20, 30, 40 percent of the animals products that we eat?" he said. "Then I think you're going to see some environmental problems and ethical problems with these small-scale systems as well."

Self-proclaimed "sustainable" farmers often get a pass in popular media, McWilliams said. Any sustainable food discussion should include questions about the basic ethics of raising and treating animals well, then butchering them for food, he said.

McWilliams, who is a vegan, said purveyors of "humanely raised" meat argue that keeping animals in the food production loop is a sustainable practice that puts animal waste to good use.

"Hey, if you really feel that strongly about manure as the best form of fertilizer, then let the animal be a manure-producing machine," McWilliams said. "But, of course, the animal is only a manure-producing machine until it gets fat enough to be slaughtered and become food on somebody's plate."

Killing an animal at year two, instead of letting it live out 20 years of potential life, is a "waste" of a natural resource, he argues.

Education outreach

Inside Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, workers at the Fair Food Farmstand educate people about the food system, said Ann Karlen, executive director of the nonprofit group.

"We are not the local food police," Karlen said. "People define what makes sense to them."

Fair Food works with food producers in a 150-mile radius and Karlen says the stand provides choices for people shopping with different budgets.

Eggs for $7 a dozen aren't for everyone.

"I think it's awesome that we have a farmer in this region that's raising Araucana chickens that lay blue eggs, and we are here to sell them, but the $3.50 eggs are wonderful, healthy very high-quality eggs," Karlen said.

Organic and local fruits and vegetables have become a staple around the region, but Karlen says her shop carries "sustainable, humanely raised animal products," which she says are harder to find.

Karlen says Fair Food helps keep farmers on their land by connecting them with markets around Philadelphia. In recent months, she's realized that part of that goal requires getting better at "selling sustainability."

"We're thrilled when Safeway does it," Karlen said. "We're thrilled when other people are taking what we have learned to do and doing it in a more mainstream setting. Our goal is not to create the most awesome niche market, our goal is to make local food available to everybody."

The Academy's food forums continue through November.


Watch Sweet Stem Farm's version of "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele.