Tag Archives: local food

Investing in Your (Food) Economy

13 Jun

As I begin my preparations for yet another move (this will be my seventh in as many years), and begin the process of integrating myself into yet another new community, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of investment. The various paths to community.

The very first thing I do now when I know my new location is search out the good food options — is there a co-op? What’s the farmer’s market situation? What kind of CSA options might exist in my price range? My favorite resource to start looking (as I tend to also move great distances, and so must take the first steps remotely) is the great website Local Harvest, with a complex searchable database.

My new location appears to have a lot to offer by way of good food opportunities — no co-op, but lots of markets in the area, all of which run into the fall and offer links to local producers who offer shares into the winter months as well. I’m excited by the prospects and availability. I’m thrilled to get to buy meat directly from producers, to once again have my choices of leafy greens, to taste what the grass of Pennsylvania tastes like (via the cheeses!).

And I’m feeling somewhere in my chest the best and least tangible of all the benefits of local food — the ways in which participating in a local food economy makes you feel a part of the community.

Some of it is simple and direct, in that you meet more people at a farmer’s market than in a grocery store. And of course, you feel safer knowing and seeing where your food came from. You feel you’ve made less of an environmental impact. But there is a pride to handing your money over to another member of the community that immediately draws you into that intricate web of people and place.

There is a very real economic benefit to spending your food dollars locally. Local spending boosts a community’s overall income level, as it helps create local jobs, and as local producers will tend to spend their profits locally, too. And this time, I’m finding that my tendency to support local food markets is drawing me further into the community overall.

I research local food options in advance of a move so that  I don’t become complacent — so that I don’t just make that first grocery trip, quick and easy, to the mega-chain in town. And now, this time, I don’t want to let myself do that anywhere. It’s so easy, when you move, to stick to the familiar. To run to Target for those basics, instead of checking out the local Main Street general store (yes, those places do still exist!), or to swing by Best Buy or Barnes & Noble instead of finding the local — even if used! — book or record store. To open your new bank account at the national for-profit institution that played a crucial role in the current global recession rather than joining a credit union.

Nowhere do we fall more prey to this than food. On road trips, we stop at rest area McDonald’s, rather than drive off the beaten path to find a local diner. We eat at Applebee’s and call it “the neighborhood bar and grill.” But we rob ourselves of the opportunity to discover the wonderful specificity of our place by directing our investments to the branded, the familiar.

The financial rewards of a local investment — in food or music, books or banking — pay emotional dividends. The joy of discovering the character of your community, the taste of the soil, the personalities of zip codes. I know it all sounds very old-world romantic, very Little House on the Prairie, but it’s true. You may never become friends with the people of your co-op, but you leave that store with a purchase knowing you have invested in more than a profit. You have invested in a place, and that makes it  yours.

Organic Spinach Recall

1 Jun

The other day, I was checking out at the grocery store, and when I swiped my shopper’s club card, the cashier told me there was a recall notice that would print out on my receipt.

When I got the receipt, it turned out that the brand of packaged organic baby spinach I buy on pretty much every trip was being recalled for a potential salmonella contamination. I could bring the package back to the store for a full refund.

By the time I got the recall notice, the package of spinach was already empty and in my trash, so as you may guess based on the measured nature of this post, I did not, in fact, get salmonella. Since the contamination can cause nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, etc. I think I would have noticed. But of course, this brings up some interesting issues to ponder here.

First, yes, even organic vegetables are in danger of becoming contaminated. For those who haven’t heard about the salmonella spinach, listeria cantaloupe, etc. of the last year or so, a brief refresher: many packaged produce products are handled at the same facilities, or shipped in the same trucks, that transmit contaminated meat products or animals, which are rarely cleaned. All it takes is one trip for potential contamination to occur.

Second, and larger, this is an important wake-up call for someone like me. I’m stuck in a situation where I resort to buying pre-packaged organic produce shipped in from distant ports (or, you know, California). And it’s important to remember that’s truly not the same thing as buying organic, local produce. Produce from a small-scale farm that doesn’t use chemicals. A farm with a small staff and easily-observable hygiene standards. A farm far from the potential contamints of the larger food industry because it’s not a part of that industry, but rather a part of a local foodshed. Produce from people whose hands I can shake.

Oh, how I wish all the produce was that kind of produce. Until we get there as a nation, let’s all of us, individually, remember to prioritize the local and transparent above all else, and not be lulled into the false sense of security a USDA organic label can give us. Organic is vitally important, especially from a larger environmental perspective, but organic can still be industrial.

Basically, the reminder here is to wash your veggies, even if you buy organic (whether for this reason, or just ot rinse of the lovely local dirt that comes with fresh farmer’s market produce!), and to keep yourself in the loop to advocate for stricter health and safety standards on a food industry way out of control.

Artist as Activist

25 May

A recent interview in The New York Times with world-known chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz has caused a bit of a ruckus in the good food movement. For within this article, the two chefs suggest that for them, perfecting their craft of foodsmanship comes before any efforts towards improved sourcing or sustainability of that food. An example:

“Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control?” [Keller] asked. “I don’t think so.”

“I agree completely, and it is a brave answer,” came immediately from Mr. Aduriz. “Of course I buy as many things as I can nearby,” he said. “But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

Paula Crossfield has a strong rebuttal to that notion over at Civil Eats, wherein she argues that “the locavore movement is not a trend easily dismissed, but part of a greater paradigm shift around how we view and value resources.”

But here in this post, I would like to look at Aduriz’ accusation that locavorism limits chefs. By aligning “complacent” with “limited,” it sounds to me as if these chefs believe that the constraints of sourcing locally, or with a small carbon footprint (and, we could presumably add, with an eye towards the humane treatment of animals), places constraints on the chef-as-artist. Limited, as in, it limits our creativity. Our ability to achieve wondrous and spectacular things on the plate.

I absolutely think that great chefs are artists. I come from a family with three daughters — I am a writer, and my sisters are a photographer and a pastry chef. We are, all three of us, artists. Caitlin, the chef, (who works at this awesome farm-to-table restaurant in San Diego’s little Italy neighborhood!) can create shapes with fondant that I cannot with words.

And any good artist will tell you that often, our best work is done within constraints.

This is why poets experiment in sijo and ghazals and sonnets. This is why I try lyric and collage style essays, why I limit myself to writing nonfiction.

Anyone can create when you have all of the world’s resources at your fingertips, an endless amount of money, and a blank canvas — because anything you put on that canvas will be art. True artists thrive within boundaries, adhering to prompts. Because that is when creating art becomes a challenge, which is the only reason any of us make art.

The absolute best meals I’ve ever eaten were at locally-sourced restaurants (although, to be fair, Keller’s French Laundry is way above my pay-grade, so this isn’t a direct comparison). Of course, the food was delicious — I almost wept when I took the first bite of my lamb bolognese at Minneapolis’ Craftsman restaurant. But the meal was more wonderful because of the fact that it was locally sourced and sustainable. They made rabbit delicious! There were pickled ramps in the slaw! The salted caramel ice cream had been made right there in house!

This was food as art made more impressive by the limitations and constraints, the boundaries the chefs had been forced to challenge, the ways in which they had stretched themselves, and improved their craft by virtue of working within those limitations.

Nothing complacent about it.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Hope & Fear in the New Food World

14 Mar

The weather’s turning warm here, warm enough that it’s actually freaking me out a little. Kansan temperatures will get into the 80s this week, and for a child of New England, with its April snow days, a girl of the mountains with snow caps all year round — I can’t help but feel the warmth as a harbinger of the new world, the post-climate change world, in which the havoc we have wrecked is upon us.

But still, there is so much joy in warm weather, in windows open, rolled down, sleeves up, legs bare. As I walked home from school this afternoon, sweating lightly in my short-sleeved dress, I thought about holding on to this dual sense of hope and doom, the equal promise of spring and the fear of global warming. And I thought about food.

I thought of how food offers us both the same reasons to be both hopeful and afraid. Nearly every day, stories pass in front of my eyes that give me cause to shake my head with indignation. Stories about pink slime (demystified well here) and locust-like plagues of corn rootworm from GE seeds. This is the stuff of apocalypse — and that statement grows less hyperbolic each day, in a world where whole countries are relocating to avoid the effects of climate change.

But there is cause for hope, too. There are myriad stories of good news, like the slow and long-overdue phasing-out of the pork gestation crate. But more than tangible, hard news, I see mounting evidence of a sea change in the way people think of food.

I see hope in Seattle, where the city plans to construct a seven-acre public-access food forest.

I see hope in central Iowa, where customers at my old co-op can now buy locally-grown aquaponic tilapia, and the greens fertilized with their waste.

I even see hope in the Twitter debate over banning pink slime from school lunches — where even those from the beef industry are forced to refer to the substance as pink slime, which they would prefer we call “lean finely-texture beef.” Just as with the — in my view — failure of the corn industry’s rebranding campaign of high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar, people are no longer fooled.

We are no longer fooled and we no longer want to be. We know there is much to be afraid of in the world of food – or in this unseasonably warm March weather. But we refuse any longer to turn away from what those dangerous signs are telling us. That is cause for hope — but soon, we must turn it into action.

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!


What’s Coming for Food in 2012?

10 Jan

Welcome to 2012, We*Meat*Again! Sorry for my lapse in posting, all. The holiday hiatus was more all-consuming than I thought it would be, and I’ve missed a lot of food news. Rather than try to cover it all, I wanted to catch us up with a post about what I think is coming for the food movement over the course of the next year. There is both good and bad news, and in some ways, the two go hand-in-hand.

Food Consciousness Goes Mainstream

I’ve been engaging in a mini personal research project for my book, investigating how and why the average person has become more food conscious, and the answers I’ve been receiving have been remarkable, compelling, and truly important. What I’m hearing is that people like you and me, people with regular jobs and regular incomes, large or small, are finding the many, many ways in which food affects their lives. Their reasons include health & fitness, parenting, economic limitations, social justice concerns, and community investment.

NPR recently had a great piece echoing this on a larger scale, the notion that we’re interested in local food as a source of authenticity in an increasingly out-of-control world. And to me, that’s a very promising trend.

Government Still Behind the Curve

The end of 2011 was mired, for me, by a decision by the FDA that demonstrate what is still wrong with the government’s positions on food policy, especially in terms of changing large-scale corporate agricultural practices to improve health & safety.

Late in the day on December 22, the FDA quietly issued an announcement that it would abandon its pursuit of (again, voluntary) regulation of the use of antibiotics in livestock. The FDA has been pursuing this mission since the late 1970s, and we’ve covered here on the blog before why this is important for the health of consumers. The fact that the FDA backed off this mission can be seen as nothing other than giving in to very real industry pressure, just at the time when more and more meat is contaminated with diseases that are dangerous to our health, after a year of at least one major meat recall per month.

We have more people becoming aware of the importance of a food revolution — and a government still shying away from doing anything about it. So I think…

2012 is the Year of People Power

TIME magazine’s person of the year was The Protester. We’re angry. We’re exhausted. We’re broke. And we are prepared to do something about it. In 2011, we saw floods of people globally taking to the streets to begin to try. Mark Bittman’s column last week was a wonderful examination of the ways in which food is a part of this larger trend. Perhaps 2012 can be the year we harness the power of the local food movement to protest the government’s failures to act on our behalf.

Giving the Gift of Food

22 Dec

As we begin the slow descent into the haze of holidays today, I know all our lives will get busier, mine included, so less blog time is good for all. I promise I won’t forget about you all, and will be posting family recipes of all kinds, and keeping you in the loop on the latest food news.

For now, let’s have a low-key quiet blog day honoring the spirit of giving that this season is all about, whatever holidays you celebrate. In both his regular column, and on his blog this week, Mark Bittman has many wonderful food-related gift ideas that would work for anyone on your list still in need of a gift.

I’ll highlight this one first: his blog post rounds up a number of worthy and reliable food-related charities for giving. These are organizations working for systematic change, the kinds of real, large-scale change that will be necessary to transform our food system into the local, sustainable one we all envision as our future. They deserve our support.

Bittman’s regular column includes some wonderful ideas to give the gift of food to non-cooks. As so many of you, in whatever various stages of changing your diet, eating, or buying habits know, the switch to a healthier, whole-foods based eating style is tricky, especially if you don’t think of yourself as a kitchen talent. These ideas will help bring more of your loved ones into the foodie fold.

I especially love the suggestions for the joint cooking & shopping lesson, and for the CSA share. These are gifts that last more than just a day, or a meal, gifts that teach something in the process, and often times, gifts that give to more than just the recipient, but also to their local food-shed, who has well earned our support this year.

Happy, Happy Solstice everyone. The light is beginning to return.

Once the New Year hits, I plan to do some post tackling typical resolution ideas, too — the kind that will help you make sustainable life changes, rather than take up temporary fads, so if you have any resolutions you’re thinking about taking on that you’d like to share to see me write a future post on, leave a comment or drop me an email anytime.

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week 12/15

16 Dec

I owe all you We*Meat*Again readers an apology. In the whirlwind of new job, new place and new revisions on the book that has been this semester, and especially the last month or so, my blogging performance has been spotty. As I head into winter “break” (during which I have to plan three new classes for spring semester and continue said revisions) I promise to focus on quality, even if that means a solid, consistent three posts a week instead of five short, fragmented ones.

If you haven’t noticed a change in the blog, well, then, nevermind.

The first things I want to shape up are my sadly out-of-date “What I’m Reading” page, which I will tackle this weekend, and to get into a more consistent rhythm with the end of the week links roundup posts. There is a lot of great writing out there on food, and when I miss a links post, you all miss a lot, too.

So here are some things worth checking out between/instead of holiday shopping this weekend.

A cool NPR feature on an increasing focus on the local in America — while not exclusively a food-related story, I think the food movement deserves a lion’s share of credit for re-popularizing small, local businesses.

Related: a reminder from the USDA blog that many farmers’ markets are still open throughout the winter (maybe even at a different/indoor location) so check your local listings.

In rabble-rouser news, AlterNet has good coverage of the food movement on Occupy Wall Street that I wrote about earlier this week. Barry Estabrook’s (always) gorgeous prose in the latest Gastronomica describes some of the ecological innovations of the San Joaquin Valley.

And in rabbles that need rousing news, Perennial Plate continues its online documentary series with a subtle, powerful photo essay of tomato workers in Florida.

Food Safety News’ Michele Simon writes on Grist in response to the First Lady’s recent decision to shift the “Let’s Move” campaign focus back onto exercise and away from eating habits (a decision I personally feel is largely motivated by politics–rather than engage in a national conversation, the Obama administration wants to shy away from accusations of becoming a “nanny state” during an election cycle).

This is particularly relevant in light of recent findings detailing just how cozy the national school lunch program is with the food processing industry, and the serious health consequences this relationship is having on our children. I’m ALL for increased activity in youth, but to very pointedly ignore diet in favor of exercise only is disingenuous.

Why Local Food Works (And Doesn’t)

6 Dec

When you spend as much time reading food news coverage, you start to see the same stories cycling through over and over again. Not through any fault of the food writers or activists, but from persistant misconceptions about local/organic/vegetarian issues. One of the stories that just won’t seem to die is the myth that organic sustainable agriculture can’t feed the world. But as I reported last week, local food gets a similar bad rap. So I thought I would gather together some of the information available from food policy experts to explain why local food does work as a systematic means for feeding many.

First, let’s look at the basics of demand, the backbone of any sound economic decision. The USDA reports a consistent rise in the number of farmer’s markets operating across the nation, which certainly has risen to meet demand.

Given this reality, the USDA has commissioned some recent great research as to the limitations of local food markets. Why, the research asks, if demand is increasing, does local food still account for a relatively small segment of the food market? First, the report discovers that the share of the market is growing even more exponentially than the number of markets (so the number of markets are increasing, but so is the amount of money spent per market).

The smaller trends that emerge from this report, however, are where the most promising aspects of local food systems live:

  • 81 percent of the farm selling directly to consumers are small farms (making less than $50,000 a year) — so locally spent food dollars are more likely to support a small business
  • Farms that sell locally employ an average of 13 fulltime employees for every $1 million in sales, as opposed to just 3 fulltime employees per million in a globally-producing farm. So locally spent food dollars support four times as many workers (who, given the above, are also more likely to be members of the local spending economy as well).
  • Vegetable, fruit and nut farms dominate the local food markets. Not corn farms. Or soybean operations. So a locally spent food dollar is more likely to be spent on actual food, not global commodities trading.

Finally, the USDA report also addresses the main causes of hinderance on the local food economy, all of which can be addressed, and many of which would have additional positive economic and environmental benefits. Primary among these are access issues. Local producers are hampered by a shortage of processing facilities — an issue that especially affects local meat producers who often have standards for their meat processing. But potential customers for local foods are hindered both by an absence of information networks to find the local food and of transportation to the market or farm stand.

Which means local food has the potential to expand into other local industries, to encourage investment in the local economy and to increase community connection and involvement. These are the “inefficiencies” that concern local food nonbelievers–but they are actually opportunities.

Mark Bittman’s column this week illustrates a great example of how all this potential can come together to begin to shape an entirely new way of thinking about food. Local sourcing gives us the ability to reimagine our food system — to find new models for producer and consumer communication, or to work with integrative, biodynamic growing practices. These new models of buying and selling and growing food will be the future of a world with less oil.

I think the people who assert that local food can’t possibly be a solution are the same people who say we shouldn’t invest in renewable alternative sources of energy because none of them are efficient, affordable, or high-yielding enough to replace fossil fuels. We’re dealing with a paridigm disconnect. I don’t want the industrial food system to just be replace with a locally-source food system that produces and distributes the same products in the same way anymore than I want enough solar panels to power the entire United States.

Local food activists, just as renewable energy researchers, want a new system, a decentralized, smaller-scale system that never has to utter the phrase “too big to fail.”


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