Monday, December 20, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part Three)

For the past couple of months, I have been co-teaching a course on how to use social media (mainly blogs and Facebook) to report on issues of food, sustainability, and health. The culmination of the course was for each student to research some aspect of these issues and compose a journalistic blog post. You can read their articles at the Naked Bear Blog (they are students from Cal – the Golden Bears – hence, the name).

Although the course was proposed, organized, and taught by Cal students as part of the DeCal program, we were required to have a faculty sponsor. In our case, we had Michael Pollan.

Along with the other student teachers, I met with Michael early in the semester to discuss the details of the course. Since his books were the motivating factor for me adopting an ethical food lifestyle as well as for starting this blog, having a sit-down with the man himself was quite a thrill. He was warm and friendly and lent me two books: The End of Food by Paul Roberts and Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel (one of the speakers at the Food Movements Unite event I covered in Part 1).

Michael also assured us that he would visit the class sometime during the semester to meet the students and answer their questions. And, as promised, he attended the last lecture of the semester. To prepare for this special visit, we had the students submit questions and then vote; the top questions led our discussion with Michael.

"What role do you see the US health care system playing in the transformation of national food policy? Do you expect a turn towards preventative care and healthy eating as a way to lower overall health care costs?" ~Keli

As Pollan explained to our class (and in The New York Times), the food system and the health care system are inextricably linked. Treating Type 2 diabetes, that’s the kind of diabetes caused by diet, can cost health insurers $400,000 over the lifetime of each diabetic they insure. And with additional government policies making it harder for insurers to deny coverage, there will be an increasing financial incentive for big health care companies to fight for food reform.

Once a rich, powerful corporate interest wants people eating more fresh vegetables and consuming less soda, food reform becomes more politically tenable. As Pollan said to our class “if all the powerful interests are on the same side, nothing happens.

Similar to the way health insurers became invested in getting people to quit smoking or companies that pay for their workers’ coverage started subsidizing gym memberships, the vilified health insurance company may be our best chance at serious change.

"We are told to vote with our dollar but many people do not have access to good food or cannot afford it. How do we solve this discrepancy and what do you suggest for families that cannot afford to eat healthily and sustainably?" ~Emily

Pollan’s first point in response to this question was that the perception that healthy food is expensive or inaccessible may no longer be an accurate one for many people. The astounding increase in the number of farmers markets and CSAs cropping up all over the country has done a lot to bring farmers and consumers closer together, generally resulting in lower prices and easier access. For some, it is just a matter of looking up the nearest farmers market or CSA farm and being willing to put time into planning and cooking healthy meals.

In my personal experience, I found that the produce stand near my house had a much wider variety of organic (not to mention hyper-local) fruits and vegetables for less money than at the grocery store. As I reported in a previous post, my food costs put me in the lowest tier of food spending even though I purchase pasture-raised meat and eggs and organic, local produce.

His second point was that there certainly are places in this country in which access and cost are very real problems. West Oakland, he pointed out, has 53 liquor stores and zero full-service grocery stores. Zero. Recently, there has been work to bring a grocery store to West Oakland, but community organizers are concerned that they will get stuck with a low-quality, budget retailer that won’t improve the type of food available to residents.

Nikki Henderson from People’s Grocery in West Oakland described the type of market system she envisions for the area: one that provides local organic produce and helps the local economy. There are a few new markets cropping up in West Oakland that are owned by local residents and committed to bringing local food to Oakland residents, but the City of Oakland is also pushing hard for a large retail chain to set up shop. The debate as to which option is better for the residents of West Oakland is nicely laid out in an article by Eric Holt Gimenez, the director of Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, which created and runs the Oakland Food Policy Council. Also, one of the students in our class researched food deserts, including Oakland, for her article.

In general, Pollan pointed out, there are measures we could adopt that would enable more poor people to buy healthy food. Accepting food stamps and WIC at farmers markets would be one option, and working to bring farmers markets to urban areas would provide better access to healthy foods.

"You wrote that letter to the next president in the New York Times giving some good ideas about what he can do to really help our food issues. What sorts of little things do you think we can all do to make our food system better from day to day?" ~Keith

The easiest thing we can all do is to be conscious eaters. As Michael Pollan put it, we ought to make choices that we’ve considered. He doesn’t advocate scrutinizing every decision or driving yourself crazy trying to find a certain local vegetable to complete tonight’s dinner recipe. Rather, think about what choices you are making. Already, you are likely to make better ones.

Next up, be aware of the debates and legislation going on in your country, state, or even city council. Pollan recommended the site Food Democracy Now for keeping up with current food-related events; I’ve been following the National Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture’s blog for my policy news. And just as important as knowing what is going on, you need to be willing to weigh in. “Vote with your fork”, says Pollan, but also, vote with your vote!

Michael described working with Senators to help along the Food Safety bill and to promote the Tester-Hagan amendment in an article he wrote with Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation and Food Inc. producer), which appeared in The New York Times. I took a moment to explain to the class my recent experience of calling Senator Boxer’s office to comment on the Food Safety Bill and the Tester-Hagan amendment. Pollan assured me that these actions really do matter. If you care about an issue, you have to call. And it seems like not very many people take these opportunities to vote on policy even though the big changes come from these votes – more so, one could argue, than votes cast at the ballot box.

“Vote with your fork!” ~Michael Pollan

We had a terrific time with Michael Pollan and were so appreciative that he could attend our class. I even snuck out with him at the end, and yes, he agreed to sign my copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. What a guy!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part Two)

The second event I attended was a panel discussion at The Commonwealth Club entitled The Conscientious Carnivore: A Guide to Humane and Sustainable Meat Eating. As the name implies, this event covered how slaughter animals are raised and “processed” both conventionally and ethically, how to find ethical meat, and how to cook ethically as well. The panelists included a grass-fed cattle rancher named Mac Magruder, food writer Deborah Krasner, author and butcher Marissa Guggiana, and executive chef Chris Cosentini.

From farm to butcher.

Mac Magruder is a fourth generation cattle rancher in Mendocino County, CA. In a great video from Oliveto, we get to see the ranch, the animals, and Mac’s family. He explains the importance of raising cattle on grass and letting all of his animals roam on pasture. You can see more pics of the Magruder Ranch residents on their Facebook page.

At the panel discussion, Mac described his process of raising grass-fed cattle on pasture in contrast to confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in which cows stand about in their own manure and are force-fed corn. CAFOs depend on corn made cheap through crop subsidies, which means the whole feedlot system is dependent on non-renewable resources such as water, fossil fuels, and phosphorous that are used to grow commodity corn as well as the tax-payer dollars that make monoculture commodity corn farming economically viable. The fumes and runoff from CAFOs - a stew of animal waste, hormones, and antibiotics used to control the spread of disease and combat corn-related digestive problems that would otherwise prove fatal for the cows – contaminate ground water and add to pollution and even climate change. As Mac stated at the panel, “feedlot is not a sustainable industry".

Even good ranchers often sell their cattle to feedlots rather than to consumers. Mac’s animals never go to feedlots, but getting the meat to consumers is harder than you might think. In fact, according to the panel, one of the biggest challenges in linking local, sustainable meat producers with consumers is that, for Mac to sell his meat, he has to have the animals slaughtered and “processed” at a USDA-certified facility.

Like much of the meat industry, consolidation has reduced the number of meat processors. And the increased volume of meat production and meat-related food-borne illnesses, has led the USDA to add many more regulations to reduce contamination and hazard within the process. Unfortunately, when regulations intended for large-scale facilities are applied to all facilities, small-scale processors are often driven out of business. Nowadays, a local cattle rancher like Mac may have to transport his animals hundreds of miles to a certified processor in order to sell them within the community.

Not all of the sustainably-minded processors have disappeared quite yet. Panelist Marissa Guggiana runs Sonoma Direct, a USDA-certified processor, butcher, and wholesaler that deals exclusively with local ranchers. Their goal is to follow the philosophy of famed butcher Dario Cecchini: to provide an animal with a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook. The idea is to, in the end, create a meal that pays homage to not only the animal being eaten but also all of the people who labored to raise that animal and bring it to us in the form of food.

Marissa recently wrote a book about butchers and meat processing called Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers. The book highlights some of the unsung heroes of the sustainable meat market. Marissa pointed out that butchery is a diminishing field of study, and without people willing to do this work, we can’t expect to revitalize local markets for ethical meat.

Supporting local ranches like Magruder’s and processors like Sonoma Direct is obviously important, but working to create a scale-dependent regulatory system for processors is also necessary. One potential solution currently operating in Washington is mobile processing facilities that would be eligible for certification and could travel to small farms and ranches. The USDA is also providing assistance for small processors to develop action plans so they can meet the regulations. More work needs to be done, however, before the local, sustainable meat industry can really have a fair shot at consumers.

From market to plate.

Farmers markets and CSAs have been growing in popularity in recent years. It’s now feasible for most consumers to purchase local, ethical meat. Eat Wild maintains a database of grass-fed animal farms, searchable by state, and has a lot of great information on the benefits on grass-fed meat; Local Harvest compiles searchable lists of farmers markets and CSAs.

Although sourcing ethical meat is becoming easier, most people still think of purchasing meat the same way they have for years – buying only a few cuts of meat with only the next meal or few meals in mind. The panel suggested a different approach. Deborah Krasner explained how she purchases meat in terms of whole, half, or quarters of an animal and takes care to use all the parts of the animal she receives. Her philosophy is that "you have an obligation to eat everything that's edible".

In her book, Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat, Krasner goes into exquisite detail on the subject of purchasing animals and having them processed by a butcher into different cuts of meat. She then includes recipes for everything from the familiar steaks and roasts to the more obscure cuts such as sweetbreads (generally glands) and tongue. The book covers beef, lamb, pork, poultry, rabbit, and eggs and is filled with pictures of animals that Deborah raised herself.

Cooking less-familiar cuts of meat is currently going through a bit of a renaissance. These used to be the cheaper cuts of meat so there are traditional methods and recipes; we just have to relearn them. Deborah made the point that cooking is an integral part of eating sustainably saying, “all of us who are invested in sustainable meat want you to learn how to cook meat beautifully".

Offal, the internal organs such as liver and brains, are also being incorporated into modern fare. At San Francisco restaurant Incanto, executive chef Chris Cosentino combines offal with more familiar cuts to create amazing edible experiences. In addition to his work at Incanto (and a hobby of endurance mountain biking), Chris maintains Offal Good, an educational website and blog all about offal.

Chris and Deborah agreed that sourcing animals that are grass-fed and pasture-raised is even more important when using these cuts. The flavors are completely different and do not contain chemicals that can linger in the organs of conventionally-raised animals.

They also recommended that people reprioritize cooking within their lives. Planning ahead of time can make many more recipes fit into a busy lifestyle. Even a dish that takes hours to cook often takes much less time to prepare, and the time the food spends in the oven or the slow-cooker can be time for the chef to do chores, work, or even yoga. Buying in bulk reduces both time for shopping and the cost of meat per meal. While this type of sourcing and cooking may still prove unrealistic for struggling families, for many people, it really is a matter of organization and priorities.

From audience to participant.

My mother’s recipe for thanksgiving stuffing uses chicken livers, which elicited quite the negative response from my husband the first year I tried to make it. Every year since, much to his chagrin, I have made this stuffing because it reminds me of my childhood although it never seems to come out quite right. After attending the Conscientious Carnivore event, it occurred to me that perhaps one reason the dish never tastes right is because I use conventional chicken livers from the grocery store and use water with beef bullion cubes to make the broth.

This year, I got serious and picked up chicken livers and beef bones, which my husband used to make an incredible broth, from Marin Sun Farms. I also used bread from a bakery and local organic vegetables. The stuffing turned out fantastic. All my guests raved about it and were surprised to hear that liver was the unfamiliar flavor that carried the dish.

My commitment to eating ethically, the information I learned from the panelists, and my positive experiences from thanksgiving have inspired me to go even more outside my comfort zone. My husband and I have often been wary of lesser-known cuts of meat available at the farmers market because we wouldn’t know how to prepare them. After the panel event, I purchased Good Meats as a guide to help us expand our repertoire. Eating more cuts of meat means that we are really using the whole animal, a more sustainable and ethical way of eating.

Next up, a Q&A between Berkeley students and author, Michael Pollan. Then, a synthesis of my three experiences and how they fit into the bigger picture of sustainable food systems.

Additional sources:
USDA meat regulations: Taylor DA 2008. Does One Size Fit All?: Small Farms and U.S. Meat Regulations. Environ Health Perspect 116:A529-A531. doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a528
More on Deborah Krasner
More on Marissa Guggiana
Special thanks to Tess McEnulty for supplying me with quotes. I must learn to take better notes!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part One)

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend three food-related events: two panel discussions and a Q&A with Michael Pollan.

The first event was the Food Movements Unite panel discussion with Raj Patel, Nikki Henderson, and Nora KcKeon. The panel was organized by Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, so it wasn’t surprising that the panel focused on food access for the poor both in urban areas of the US and in developing countries around the world.

“What the corporate food system is producing in Global North and Global South… is, above all, a politics that prevents us from addressing the real causes of the problem.” ~Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a Food First Policy Fellow and has written several books including Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. Raj pointed out that, to understand the current state of the global food system, we need to understand the history of colonialism and development of the 19th century. Often referencing the book Late Victorian Holocaust by Mike Davis, Raj explained that what we now view as the Global North (of plenty) and Global South (of poverty) was not a natural evolution of these regions. Instead, the Global South and the Third World were created by violence and imperialism on the part of the Global North through, in large part, the development of the global food system.

We are now left with a food system that wreaks havoc on the environment, contributes to poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, and provides food in such novel forms that it makes people sick. Despite having reduced the number of food insecure people in the world by nearly a million since 2009, there are still an estimated 925 million people who suffer from chronic hunger [1]. Hunger and malnutrition persist even as economies improve, and food prices are fairly low, because of inequities in the structure of the food system [1]. The novel foods introduced in places like India are now thought to be responsible for the profound increase in the prevalence of diabetes. An estimated one million people in India die each year from diabetes, and health care costs for treating the disease now comprise 2% of the GDP.

“The minute we step into supermarkets, the minute that we allow ourselves to be seduced by this idea that individual consumerism will transform the planet, we have fallen into one of the traps that… corporate globalization and the corporate food system has already set for us.” ~Raj Patel

When addressing solutions to global food problems, Raj was critical of personal food choices as an avenue for change. He seemed most concerned with people making different food choices but still working within the same corporate system. Simply purchasing well-marketed products (“pro-bunny-rabbit”, to use his words) cannot solve the underlying problems stemming from inequity in the global food system or the lack of access to food for impoverished people throughout the world. Rather, we have to change the food system itself and, as Raj stated in his conclusion, we may need to change a great deal else as well.

“All hail the turnip!” ~ Raj Patel

During the question and answer session, Raj had some cautionary words for local food movements in the US. Politics and the position of a local effort in the larger global food movement need to be considered. Becoming hyper-focused on eating locally, for example, may stall the effectiveness of a food movement. Understanding the role of businesses like Walmart and McDonald’s – that they provide a social safety net in the form of cheap food – is necessary before a local movement ought to, say, work against a new Walmart in their community. It’s easy, as people with means or even as a country with means, to forget about the people who can’t afford to make choices.

“Who are you? What do you want to do? Where does your humility sit when you do this work?” ~Nikki Henderson

The second panelist was Nikki Henderson from People’s Grocery, an organization that works to bring fresh, healthy food and health education to West Oakland. Their larger concerns are food justice - the idea that people have an inherent right to healthy food - and changing the food system to prioritize access for the poor in urban areas.

Nikki told a personal story of her journey into food justice activism and described how poised we are as a movement to truly make changes. She mentioned the White House garden and the push, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, to promote fresh, healthy food. And she emphasized how important it is that we learn the history of the movements and communities in which we work, and that we collaborate across different sectors within the food movement in order to yoke the power of the people and support the leaders who could actually make the changes we are fighting for.

Unexpectedly, Nikki highlighted the Tea Party as a successful model for mobilizing people within a movement. In only two years, the Tea Party has gone from non-existent to having lawmakers in office. If all of the people working on the many important issues within food systems could come together, we too could make significant progress.

Nikki’s talk was engaging and motivating. She made me want to jump out of my seat and fix the food system all on my own. All of the panelists’ remarks are available on Vimeo, but I am sharing this one specifically because I thought it was so good.

Nikki Henderson from Food First on Vimeo.

“…the road to ending hunger in Africa leads in the same direction as the road to ending obesity, food deserts, [and] salmonella in the US, and now is the time to take it.” ~Nora McKeon

The final speaker was Nora McKeon of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the leading international organization working to assess and defeat world hunger, and author of The United Nations and Civil Society. The FAO now has a Committee on Food Security that works with governments to secure access to healthy food for all the people of the world.

Hers was a message of hope. After more than three decades of work toward food system change, she expressed optimism saying, “This is easily the most exciting moment of political opportunity that I’ve encountered in all these many years.”

Structural adjustment policies, previously required by international assistance programs, are now widely accepted as destructive. In addition to peasant farmer movements in the Global South, initially spawned as a reaction to such adjustment policies, we now have alternative food systems cropping up even in the developed world. According to Nora, the intersection of food and health as well as the influence of industrial agriculture on climate change, have also contributed to food movements becoming mainstream concerns. People are interested. At present, our best chance to substantially change food systems is by linking local and global food movements – by getting all of the people who are passionate about food systems to work together.

Who am I?

I’ve often shied away from global food issues because, frankly, they’re intimidating. It all sounds too big for me. With so many competing interests, ideas, and voices, how could I ever hope to figure out not only what is going on but also the best solutions? And how can I fight for what is right if I can’t figure out what that is?

Even through some amount of avoidance on my part, I have begun learning about the global food system, the history of exploitation and unintended consequences that led to its formation, and how our policies and practices here in the US contribute to a food system that leaves nearly a billion people starving or malnourished.

Avoiding participation in the conventional food system whenever I can, educating those around me, and speaking up when food legislation is being considered are all ways that I can contribute. And these local and national-scale efforts support even more widespread changes because, as I learned from these panelists, local and global food movements go hand-in-hand. I’m still no expert, but I’m beginning to learn that even I can contribute to the betterment of the global food system if I am willing to try; attending this panel discussion was merely a first step.

Stay tuned for commentary on The Conscientious Carnivore panel discussion and the Q&A with Michael Pollan in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turkey with a side of gratitude.

When did you last eat a piece of chicken? Do you remember the taste? The texture? Did you enjoy it? If you’d asked me a few years ago, my answer would have been something like “Uh, I think there was some on my pizza last night…” or maybe I’d recall the spicy taste of the fast food chicken sandwich I had for lunch. That was before I learned where our food comes from, before I learned the true price of the 99¢ chicken sandwich.

Now I only eat meat that I purchase from farms that incorporate good animal welfare and environmental sustainability practices. Most of my home-cooked meals are vegetarian or include some seafood. At restaurants, they all are. I thought it would be hard to reduce the amount of meat I was accustomed to eating. I thought that I would miss it. What I found out is that I’d really been missing out all along.

The last time I ate chicken was at Adagia – a high end Berkeley restaurant known for sourcing local organic ingredients. Usually, I would still opt for a vegetarian dish, but I was enjoying an evening out with friends and decided to take them at their word. I told the waitress to bring me whatever the chef thought was the best dish on the menu. The whole chicken breast I received was cooked perfectly: moist and tender with a slightly crispy skin. I savored every bite. I remember it not only because of the friendly company, lively discussion, or fancy ambiance, but because I so rarely eat meat. I have a new appreciation that, I think, is more appropriate given that an animal had to be killed for me to consume that wonderful meal.

These feelings have changed the way I experience home-cooked meals as well. My husband and I pay a lot more for each cut of meat we buy, so we take extra care in preparing them. Rather than carelessly throwing some “weekly special” ground beef into our pasta sauce to add a little protein, we make a date night out of preparing and eating our dinner. We chop vegetables while discussing our day, pour some wine while the aromas from the stove or oven begin to permeate the house. It’s a time to reconnect and relax. And when we finally sit down to enjoy our dinner, the care we put into the meal really comes through.

This week we have the special opportunity to host a Thanksgiving dinner for our friends and family. At a time set aside for gratitude and appreciation, we feel strongly about how this meal should be created. Our turkey was raised on a pasture, cared for by Bill and Nicolette Niman, the original owners of Niman Ranch – and the people responsible for the good reputation that perhaps no longer applies. BN Ranch worked with Marin Sun Farms to make ethically-raised heritage turkeys available to the public.

We picked up our turkey at the Marin Sun Farms booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco on Saturday along with beef bones we used to make broth and chicken livers for my mother’s traditional stuffing. We also bought mixed greens, squash, potatoes, and other root vegetables from Heirloom Organic Gardens, and Brussels sprouts, apples, and turnips from various other vendors from farms located within about 100 miles of the city. Eggs and additional veggies were delivered in our first CSA box from Eatwell Farms. We rounded out our list with a trip to J.E. Perry Farms, then Trader Joe’s, and finally to Safeway for cornstarch and allspice berries.

When we sit down for our Thanksgiving meal tomorrow, I’m sure we will feel grateful for the many good things we are lucky enough to have in our lives. Moreover, we can thank the farmers responsible for providing us with such a bountiful harvest. We can thank them because we know who they are and how hard they worked to create this food. And isn’t that the true spirit of Thanksgiving after all?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vote early; vote often.

How often do you vote? Every four years? Every two? How confident do you feel, when you walk up to your polling place, that you are making the best choices - the ones that most accurately reflect your values?

If you’re like me, the answer is “not very”. When it comes to candidate races, in which the choice generally comes down to only two people, it’s a lot easier to decide who gets my vote. Ballot propositions often leave me in a quandary though. I use my best judgment, but really, the only thing that makes me comfortable voting yes or no is the knowledge that my vote is only a tiny contribution to the decision.

I have spent the past year learning about food: where our food comes from, how our system affects our health and environment, and even the ramifications of our global trade policies and subsidized food system on the developing world. I have blogged about food, taught a class about food, and attended panel discussions. I completely changed the way I eat. These are ways in which I vote every day. Perhaps they are useful, but they are still only tiny contributions.

Could I do more?

Despite the seemingly endless commercials for and against ballot measures, most policy changes are made between elections – in the Senate and the House of Representatives. More important than which particular congressperson happens to be in office, is how that person votes on any given piece of legislation, when they choose to compromise, and which issues they concede. It is at these points that my voice could be more than noise – that my passion and concern could have an impact.

Am I ready to do more?

Fighting for what I think is right takes confidence and courage – two things I’m not sure I have! Before dialing up my congressperson to assert my views and call for action, I need to know what I’m asking for.

Recently, I read about a new bill to enhance food safety by, among other things, allowing the FDA to recall tainted food. Currently, recalls are voluntary and determined by the producers or manufacturers of the food in question. I read about the food safety bill in an article in The Washington Post, in which Michael Pollan explains the bill and why he is strongly in favor of its passage, and in several posts on Civil Eats.

The most comprehensive look at this piece of legislation came from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a group that “advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities”. They currently have an action alert about the food safety bill, which includes an explanation of key points in the bill, a link to a full report by NSAC, and helpful instructions on how to contact your Senator and advice on what to say. This piece of legislation and its amendments are currently being debated in the Senate. And I could be a part of that conversation, if only I would pick up the phone and call.

I’m still nervous about taking this next step. But come Monday morning, I am going to call Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and explain to them why I think this bill is important. Both these senators are likely to vote yes on the bill along with the two amendments that make it feasible for small or family farms. Even so, picking up the phone shows these senators that their constituency cares about food policy. Perhaps hearing from me will make them more willing to fight for my interests in the future and less likely to concede to other interests. Despite my self-doubt, I think this is something I have to do. If there is a topic you are passionate about, I encourage you to educate yourself about current legislation and vote with your telephone. Vote early; vote often.

And for those of you less passionate about food…

Obviously, food policy is what motivates me to participate in the legislative process. However, there are easy ways of learning about legislation on any topic. Reading or subscribing to blogs and news articles is a good way to learn about upcoming bills. Another way is to keep up with the legislation being written, debated, and voted for in the Senate and the House. Thomas records current and past legislation (since 1989), Congressional activities day-by-day, voting records, and more. The Library of Congress runs Thomas with the purpose of making the legislative process accessible to the public. I used the “bill text search” to find legislation related to food that is being debated, amended, or voted on – in other words, bills with floor action – in the 2009/2010 Congressional year.

Thomas found over 400 entries. The first three are versions of the House’s Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749). I can see that this bill has passed. The fourth entry is the Senate version of the bill: the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), which was the topic of this post. From here, I can access a PDF of the actual text of the bill – a 266-page document containing language that will be removed from the current law followed by the new regulations. Following the link to S. 510’s page, I can also navigate to a summary of the bill and it’s history and current status. This is a great way to learn about legislation you are passionate about.

GovTrack is non-governmental site that covers current and past legislation. Informed by Thomas, this site also provides commentary and allows users to ask and answer questions. The interface is a little more user-friendly than Thomas as you can see in their S. 510 page. Finally, lists the contact information for elected officials by zip code. The only commentary appears to be user-generated; they also allow users to post content such as their letters to Congress or calls-to-action by different advocacy groups.

I hope this information will help you identify the legislation you most care about and give you the tools to participate in the process. Good luck!

[Special thanks go to Eric M. Huff for providing the link to the Washington Post article, helping me identify sources of information on S. 510, and encouraging me to participate!]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

From farm to Fremont.

There is a chill in the air and the scent of fireplaces in use. The sweaters have come out of the back of the closet. The leaves on the tree outside my building have changed color and dropped to the ground. Yes, winter is coming up fast. And while there are many things to love about wintertime – pumpkins, egg nog, snuggling, and snowboarding – there is one significant downside. The J.E. Perry Farms produce stand is closing for the winter, and my main source for local, organic, and surprisingly affordable produce is going away.

Before I found the produce stand, I purchased most of my fruits and veggies at the Newark farmers market and the rest from Trader Joe’s. The farmers market is still a good option, but it takes a lot of effort to vet the farmers. Unlike the Ferry Plaza farmers market in SF or the Berkeley farmers market, these vendors are not expected to follow any particular practices or farming philosophy (although local and small farms are given some preference, and GMOs are not allowed). That means it’s up to me to ask lots of questions, and I have to simply trust that the vendors know the answers and are telling me the truth.

Relying on a farmers market also means I have to shop during specific hours, usually only one day a week. If I have something else to do that day, or I’m sick, or it’s Tuesday at 6pm – well, I’m stuck with Trader Joe’s or maybe even Safeway. While it’s better than not having access to produce at all, I’m no longer satisfied with industrial organic produce, heralding from distant lands, and shrink-wrapped in plastic.

An option I have not yet tried is joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A farmer or group of farmers can choose to sell shares in their harvest as part of a CSA program. Members pay in advance to receive boxes of fresh produce - and possibly also eggs, meat, or other farm goods - over a specified length of time. This gives farmers a steadier source of income and helps mitigate unforeseen problems like bad weather. CSA members get fresh, local produce from a farm that fits their needs and values. Farms that participate in CSAs are generally small, family-owned, polycultures that use sustainable practices. These are the farms rarely represented in a grocery store because they do not produce a vast quantity of one or two crops. Building strong relationships between growers and eaters is beneficial for both parties, and CSA participation is on the rise.

Local Harvest, a site devoted to helping consumers find sustainable farms, farmers markets, and other resources, maintains a list of CSA programs throughout the United States. The site claims to have over 2,500 CSA farms in their database with the number growing all the time. I used the CSA search tool on Local Harvest to find a program in my area: Fremont, California. (I also used it to find a delicious nearby restaurant that uses locally-sourced ingredients!)

Out of the 20 (!) listings on Living Harvest for CSA programs in my area, I narrowed it down to three and finally one: the Eatwell Farm CSA. I picked this program because it has a drop-off near my work on Thursday evenings, which totally fits into my schedule. They offer a wide variety of veggies and fruits even in winter. And they have eggs. Incredible, ethical eggs! Also, I have seen Eatwell Farm’s produce and eggs at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market so I know they are high quality goods and that the farm uses sustainable practices, as that market requires. They also had a nice website with a lot of information about the farm, member feedback, and even a farm blog. I just signed up for their 4-week trial subscription, which will include a half dozen eggs and a whole lot of produce for $108. That’s $27 per week, which is about what I spend now. I’m also opting to receive a box every other week to start with.

Given that I have to pick up my box on a certain day and time window, this option may not be much better than the farmers market. However, picking up my CSA box is a lot faster than shopping! Plus, I know I am supporting a farm that I can be proud of. I guess I'll just have to test it out and see. For now, though, I’m looking forward to my first mystery box from Eatwell Farm and a carton of beautiful eggs!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Organic II: Things that make you go eww.

When researching my last post on organic agriculture, I came across one restriction that I didn’t quite understand: no use of sewage sludge. I’ll admit that the words “sewage sludge” have a serious nose wrinkling effect on me, but should they? What is sewage sludge, and how is it used in conventional agriculture?

Also called biosolids, probably to reduce the aforementioned nose wrinkling, sewage sludge is the material removed from wastewater during its treatment. The residential component of wastewater is everything we flush down the toilet or pour down the drain. Human waste contains substances like nitrogen and phosphorous, which can be extremely valuable for fertilizing crops. Thus, using human waste that is removed from treated wastewater for agriculture could conceivably provide a disposal method for the ever-growing pile of human waste while simultaneously providing a natural and sustainable source of chemicals used for fertilizer. Despite the “yuck-factor”, it seems like utilizing biosolids in agriculture could be a good thing. So why is it banned under the National Organic Program?

The trouble is that human waste isn’t the only type of material that contributes to sewage sludge. Industrial waste products are combined with residential wastewater when entering the treatment facility. In addition, not all residential waste is natural, human waste. These additional sources can result in potentially harmful substances persisting through the treatment process and making it into sewage sludge.

According to a nationwide EPA study of sewage sludge [1], samples from all 74 treatment plants tested contained heavy metals, carcinogens, industrial chemicals like flame retardants, and even antibiotics, steroids, and hormones. Little is known about the affects of combining all of these substances in a vat of sludge and, when applied to farmland used for growing food or grazing land for animals that are eventually sent to slaughter, there is potential for food contamination. In addition, these materials may adversely affect farm workers and people living near farms in which sewage sludge is applied.

Concrete evidence is difficult to find mainly because there is little research (or even funding for research) on the direct or indirect health effects of using sewage sludge in agriculture. In addition, there is no standard method for reporting or compiling health complaints related to sewage sludge. Lack of research has led to a lack of evidence that sewage sludge negatively impacts human health, which is often used to justify weak regulation and a lack of comprehensive testing. Complaints about health effects from sewage sludge are often dismissed because there is no evidence that the sludge causes people to get sick. Of course, there is no evidence that sewage sludge is safe either.

Anecdotal evidence and one small scientific study [2] suggest that people in close proximity to farms that apply sewage sludge do experience adverse affects including skin ulcers, upper respiratory infections, and gastrointestinal issues – just to name a few. The study dealt with exposure to the less treated (Class B) type of sewage sludge, but even the better-treated version (Class A) may cause health problems, and both types are being used in agriculture.

Recently, sewage sludge made waves in the San Francisco Bay Area when the SF Public Utilities Commission gave away free fertilizer described as “organic biosolids compost” that was actually treated sewage sludge [3]. The use of the word organic was considered misleading because it could be interpreted as being related to organic agriculture rather than simply including organic matter. The program was suspended after the Organic Consumers Association organized a protest at City Hall on March 4th, 2010. I checked the SFPUC website for more information on the biosolids program. No upcoming giveaways were mentioned, and I found no references to “organic” – merely free biosolids compost. They also note that biosolids are currently used on agricultural land in Solano and Sonoma counties in addition to the giveaways. The FAQ was an interesting read; they explain that biosolids are safe because they comply with EPA testing requirements. Unfortunately, the myriad substances found in the nationwide EPA study discussed above show that current regulations may be woefully inadequate in determining the safety of biosolids because many potentially harmful substances that are present in sewage sludge are unrestricted. In addition, the FAQ describes the biosolids program as strictly monitored and regulated, but many other sources suggest otherwise.

At present, to be certified organic, foods cannot be produced with sewage sludge. Until more research is done into the potentially harmful side effects of additional contaminants, or human wastewater is collected separately for use in creating biosolids, I’m glad there is an option to avoid food grown with sewage sludge. And with that, I’m off to the farmers market for some local, organic produce - sans sludge!

Sources (cited or summarized):
[1] EPA study website
[2] S. Khuder et al., 2007. Health Survey of Residents Living near Farm Fields Permitted to Receive Biosolids. Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health 62 (1): 5–11. doi:10.3200/AEOH.62.1.5-11
[3] Sourcewatch article on sewage sludge
NY Times article on the barriers to biosolids research
Science magazine article on EPA study
SFPUC website
A good summary of sludge including several of the sources cited here can be found on the Wikipedia page on sludge.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

To organic and beyond!

Every time I visit the produce stand at J.E. Perry Farms, I find something new and interesting to try. Last week, it was this prehistoric looking vegetable, which is apparently a member of the broccoli family. Despite going to the same produce stand week after week, I had never seen this particular vegetable before because, unlike at the grocery store, the landscape is constantly changing as new crops and varieties come into season. A stunning array of pumpkins and squash has just arrived (I had no idea there were so many kinds), while the heirloom tomatoes are on their way out.

At first, the inconsistency was challenging because I was used to picking a recipe and then holding fast to my list as I trolled the supermarket aisles for that all-important asparagus that I needed for dinner. Pretty quickly, however, I realized that most vegetables can be substituted. Plus, it can be a lot more fun to grab a bunch of weird looking veggies and then come up with something to do with them. I keep staples like pasta, beans, rice, and vegetable broth in the house so I can whip up a stir-fry or vegetable-laden pasta dish or even a quick veggie-chili just by combining my produce stand finds with ingredients I have on hand. And instead of deciding in advance that we will have green beans with our pork chops, we just add “something green” to the grocery list and pick when we get to the produce stand. This free-form version of food preparation is a major departure from my old habits and has brought me into a different food culture: one that values food diversity and sustainability over uniformity.

Isn’t there a label for that?

Although we now regulate the word “organic” through the National Organic Program (NOP), its original connotation was of low (or no) input, biodynamic, small-scale farming that was grown for local, seasonal eaters. This type of farming improves the connection between farmers and consumers and gives people a better understanding of where their food comes from. Food produced in this way is less of an environmental burden and uses fewer resources. It keeps people and the environment free of pesticides and other chemicals that are used as inputs in conventional agriculture. But is the official version of organic still representative of this type of farming?

Defining a philosophy is always difficult, and often you end up with a list of regulations or defining principles that can be followed to the letter without embodying the true nature of that philosophy. The National Organic Program created just such a list to standardize the meaning of organic. While a national standard can assure consumers of what they are actually getting when they buy organic, there are many elements of the organic philosophy that are not guaranteed through the NOP. I had trouble identifying the right document on the USDA NOP website, but I did find their documentation in the Federal Register and the list of approved substances. I also found several third-party summaries that seem to be in agreement.

To carry the certified organic seal, a product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, and the other 5% must adhere to additional regulations. Organic foods (whole or processed) must be produced without synthetic substances such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides, with some specific exceptions. It cannot include genetically modified organisms, irradiated ingredients, or come from farms that use sewage sludge as fertilizer. Farmers are also required to use practices that maintain soil quality and help prevent soil erosion, practice intercropping and perform crop rotations, and use natural fertilizers like compost or manure. If you want food that is free from pesticides and many other chemicals and isn’t genetically-modified, look for the USDA Certified Organic label, and that’s what you will find.

And now for the fine print.

What the NOP does not guarantee is that your food was produced with minimal inputs, that the farm on which it was grown is small or family-owned or mimics a natural ecosystem, or that the food was locally-grown. I’ll leave a detailed discussion of organic animal operations for another day, but organic cows for example can still be confined and fed (organic) corn although perhaps to a lesser extent since antibiotics are not allowed. The inputs on an organic farm can be purchased elsewhere, and can mimic industrial agriculture in many ways just with fewer synthetic inputs. And they can be huge.

According to a study of certified organic producers in California, in 2005, more than 75% of organic sales came from producers making more than $1M in annual organic sales [1]. In 2006, the largest 5% (by acreage) of California’s organic operations contributed 70% of the state’s organically-grown food [2]. In contrast, 45% of producers made less than $10K per year in organic sales and constituted less than 1% of the market [2]. Packaged, processed, or nationally distributed organic foods bring in additional questionable elements because the companies associated with each of these sectors have been steadily consolidated and bought up by conventional companies. The following graphic from Phil Howard’s website shows the organic brands acquired by the top 30 food producers in North America as of June 2009. Organic food distributors and retailers are also becoming increasingly consolidated (see Howard’s website for neat graphics on these other areas).

The pros of large organic growing operations, conventional distribution methods, and selling to large retail grocery and warehouse stores, are that they lead to cheaper prices and more widespread access for consumers. There is a larger market for organic food so more people can eat food that is free from pesticides and more food is produced with fewer harmful environmental effects. The cons of this type of production are that it gives producers who stick to the letter of the law more access to consumers than those who adhere to the spirit of organic farming. It means food still travels great distances and adds to the perception that food comes from the grocery store rather than the farm. Furthermore, buying organic food from a company owned by, say General Mills, means you are inadvertently supporting their conventional practices along with their organic ones. And giving conventional food companies a bigger piece of the pie may also give them more ability to lobby for less restriction on organics and allow things like GMOs to be included.

Organic or bust.

So what is an ethical eater to do? For starters, buy organic food. Big or small, corporate or family-owned, organic is safer, healthier, and better for the environment whether you buy it from Costco, Trader Joe’s, or the farm down the street. That being said, if you want to be a part of a truly sustainable farming system, find a farmers market and start asking questions. Look for a farm that reflects your own values and priorities whether they are buying local, farm worker rights, or supporting a biodynamic polyculture. You probably won’t see a certified organic seal on the produce, but producers making less than $5K per year in sales can say they are organic without being certified as long as they adhere to the NOP regulations. And despite the national definition, organic farming is a philosophy and a movement not just a word. Make sure the food you buy, whether labeled organic or not, meets with your standards for sustainability.

Sources: This post was both inspired and informed by a lecture by Christy Getz, a professor in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. The quoted statistics are from [1] Klonsky and Richter, “Statistical Review of California’s Organic Agriculture 2000-2005” and [2] from Christy Getz, determined using primary data “obtained from the Registry of Certified Organic Operations, California Department of Food and Agriculture (2006)”. Several of the figures came from the website of Phil Howard, an assistant professor in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. Additional discussion on the pros and cons of Big Organic can be found in chapter 9 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Football for foodies.

I love Sundays. Why? Because of football. Maybe it’s the excitement of the game or the thrill of rooting for a team or simply because it reminds me of watching NY Giants football with my grandfather when I was a little girl. In any case, I love this game. Yesterday, my team (the Giants) won and Tony Gonzalez, a tight end for the Atlanta Falcons, caught two touchdown passes. Anyone who knows me quickly learns about my inherited love of the NY Giants, but they would probably be surprised that I keep track of Gonzalez’ stats. Tony has quickly become one of my favorite NFL players and not because he’s on my fantasy football team. Nope, it’s because Tony is an ethical eater.

During a preseason game, I happened to catch an interview with a supposedly vegan football player: Tony Gonzalez. I had never heard of him but was quickly absorbed in what he had to say! Gonzalez was quick to point out that he is not actually vegan, but he is picky about his meat sources, buying only grass-fed beef and free-range chicken. I found the interviewer very dismissive and rather rude about the whole thing, but it was enough to get me hooked. I had to find out more about this guy!

Tony Gonzalez played sports all through high school and college, excelling at both football and basketball while studying at Cal, and was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1997 NFL draft. He never paid much attention to his diet or to the advice of the team’s nutritionist, Mitzi Dulan. However, after two major health scares, Gonzalez began to worry about life after football and the long-term damage he might be doing to his body by neglecting his nutritional needs. In an interesting twist of fate, it was during this time that Tony learned of The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, a controversial book about a research study supposedly linking meat consumption to poor health. Although the methodology used to draw conclusions in the study and book has been the focus of much criticism and debate, it really spurred Gonzalez to learn more about food, nutrition, and health. He finally approached Mitzi, the Chief’s nutritionist, and asked for some help. I couldn’t help but smile when I learned her advice: read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, both books by Michael Pollan. After learning about our food system, Tony committed to an ethical food lifestyle and worked with Mitzi to create a diet that would keep him healthy and fit. After adopting his new diet, Tony’s health improved and so did his on-field performance. He led the NFL in most career receptions and most receiving yards for a tight end and went to his 9th consecutive Pro Bowl.

The diet is laid out in Tony and Mitzi’s new book, The All Pro Diet. In it, he explains why it is so important to eat whole, unprocessed foods, avoid sugary drinks and snacks, buy organic fresh fruits and vegetables, and only eat meat from animals raised humanely without antibiotics and hormones. In the book, Tony talks about checking out farms with Mitzi and taking his family shopping at farmers markets. It even includes recipes! Although I knew a lot of the background presented in the book, I still got a kick out of reading about ethical eating and the merits of organic food from a football player. He doesn’t exactly fit into the yuppie stereotype often associated with people who consider these issues when determining what to eat. I think it is further evidence of the universal importance of eating well, for yourself and the planet.

The All Pro Diet is available on Amazon. It's an easy and worthwhile read, and would probably be a great gift for someone who is just learning about our food system and looking for practical advice and inspiration. For more on nutrition and health, you may want to check out Mitzi's food blog.

The All Pro Diet
Tony Gonzalez' profile on
Wikipedia: Tony Gonzalez (and references therein)
Stats from Pro-Football-Reference

Sunday, September 26, 2010

We are what we eat.

The book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, describes different food lifestyles and expenditures of families all over the world along with terrific photos of the families with all of the food they eat in a week. You can check it out on Google Books or just look at the photos (with credits). I thought this was a really intriguing idea so this week, after finishing up our grocery shopping, my husband took a picture of me with all the food we bought for the week. We expect this food to provide us with two servings each of seven breakfasts, five (or six) lunches, and six dinners. On the dinner menu for this week is Garden salad and homemade baked beans with wild boar bacon and a side of fresh-baked corn bread (Sun/Mon), Baked salmon with green beans and baked sweet potato (Wed/Thurs), and Portabella mushroom sliders with grilled corn on the cob (Fri/Sat).

How much for how much?

For all the food you see in the picture, we spent $82.97 total. Organic food grown within four miles of our house cost us $8.97 (front row, right); food from our garden we counted as zero cost. The rest of our organic products cost $39.51 (front row, left), and we spent $39.55 on non-organic foods including our wild boar bacon and wild-caught salmon (back row). The U.S. Census Bureau reports estimates of the amount spent weekly by a family of two, aged 19 – 50, for four different diet plans determined by income. The diets, called thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal, are determined by the USDA based on a combination of the types of foods that people in different income ranges report eating and federal guidelines for a nutritious diet. The U.S. Census reported that, in December 2008, the “Weekly Food Cost of a Nutritious Diet” for the thrifty diet was $83 whereas the low-cost plan was $105.60. For August 2010, the most recent report available from the USDA, the “Cost of food at home” for the thrifty diet was $80 and low-cost was $101.90. That means our food expenditure, despite including many organic products, is right around the thrifty estimate. That makes it seem like our diet would be considered affordable to the people for whom the USDA designed the thrifty plan. However, buying organic is usually considered a luxury that low-income families simply cannot afford. Perhaps the thrifty diet calculations are off, or maybe the people reporting what they eat make very different choices that turn out to be about as expensive as ours. Or maybe it's an issue of access?

How typical is this number?

This week, we ate a little less meat than normal. The meat products we will eat in upcoming weeks are more expensive by $4 - $18. That would put us in between the thrifty and low-cost plans. We also did not include foods we already had in our house, such as olive oil, even if we plan use them in meals this week. We assume the cost will balance out since we also don’t expect to finish every product we purchased by the end of this week. Coffee is the only product we purchased for which we adjusted the price; we generally drink a canister of coffee in two weeks, so the cost was cut in half.

The Census and USDA numbers are calculated with the assumption that all food consumed during the week is eaten at home. For us, this is true for all but one dinner and one or two lunches. Thus, while our total food expenditure for the week will be a little higher than our grocery purchases for this week, it’s still a valid comparison given that most people don’t eat all their food at home either.

What this picture says to me.

My husband and I have changed our diets a lot over the last five years, and it is quite evident in this photo! People used to refer to me as the girl with the Dr. Pepper because I was seemingly never without a can or bottle of the stuff. I haven’t regularly consumed soda in over a year now so you won’t find any of it in this picture! I also see a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than I would have a few years back, and all of it is organically grown and pesticide-free. Our animal product purchases have greatly decreased. I’m lactose-intolerant so no cheese, butter, or milk makes it into our house. We only buy eggs from ethical farms and are currently out. And of course, we only use a small amount of meat, none of it conventional! Along with our dietary changes, there have been significant physical changes. Since adopting a diet low in animal products and processed foods but high in whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, I have run a half-marathon, completed a sprint triathlon, and dropped two dress sizes. I would say the sacrifice is worthwhile, but I don’t actually feel like I’ve sacrificed anything. I enjoy my food more now and really love my active, healthy life.

How do you compare?

I would be very curious to see how my family’s expenditures really measure up. That’s where you come in. Just like the book, I’d like to put together a collection of photos of people with a week’s worth of their groceries and the cost of that food. I’m curious to see what types of food choices lead to lower food costs. Given restrictions on photo uploading within comments, I’ll ask anyone interested in participating to please upload their photo and cost estimate to my companion page on Facebook (use the FB widget in the sidebar to access it or search for An Omnivore’s Decision from within Facebook). You will have to “like” the page to contribute, but then you will also get to see all of the shorter tidbits I post there and connect with other people interested in these issues. If you have trouble accessing or posting to the FB page (or if you’d rather send me your info via email), please leave me a comment.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Baron of Meat.

Each morning, I grab a steaming cup of coffee and sit down before my laptop to check email. Ah innovation… Oh wait, it’s mostly junk. I probably receive about a dozen emails from various online retailers whose little “send me offers” checkbox I mysteriously forgot to deselect, multiple reminders about the weekly department seminar, and so on. I generally follow the practice of massive check and delete without even reading them. However, one morning I noticed an email from a retailer I was surprised to hear from: David Samiljan, the owner of Baron’s Meats and Poultry in Alameda, CA. Baron’s is a small butcher shop that carries a wide variety of foods mainly from smaller, more sustainable farms (some of which are even local). Along with providing better options for ethical eaters, Baron’s provides an invaluable resource, Dave himself.

Knowing that his customers value more ethical choices, Dave doesn’t just stop at cuts of meat and wine pairings; he also knows how the farms from which he sources his goods operate. And if he doesn’t know the answer to a customer’s question, he’ll “make a call and find out the answer”. When I visited Baron’s a few weeks ago in search of ethical meat with better store hours than the farmers market, Dave spent about 20 minutes talking to me, explaining the different practices of each farm, and answering my questions about general sustainable practices. If the polyculture eco-minded Marin Sun Farms is on one end of the spectrum, and on the other is the massive monoculture Harris Ranch (drive south on I5 – when you hit the stench of cow manure, look east and check out the seemingly unending fencerows filled with cows laying in muck), where did these other farms fall? While Baron’s does carry some Marin Sun Farms products, most of the farms, Dave explained, fall about in the middle of the spectrum. They are much less diversified than Marin Sun, and many do send their cows to small feedlots where their diets are supplemented with grain. However, the amount of time spent on the feedlot eating grain is generally a much smaller fraction of the animal’s lives than in most conventional operations. Also, for the meat to be called organic, the animals must not be given antibiotics, so those feedlots have to be small to avoid illness taking out the entire group. Dave also confirmed my suspicions about Niman Ranch: that although it used to be an icon in animal welfare and sustainability, it is now a bit closer to the Harris Ranch side of the spectrum than the other farms from which he sources meat and poultry. Dave should know – he worked for Niman Ranch before opening Baron’s. After our chat, I decided to buy meat from Marin Sun Farms (of course), and Eel River (offering 100% grass-fed, organic, and pasture-raised beef). Dave also recommended Five Dot Ranch as a good, sustainable option. Since it would be impractical for me to visit every farm from which I purchase animal products, having a trustworthy and knowledgeable butcher gives me piece of mind that I am making responsible and ethical choices. It also gives me the opportunity to provide feedback that might actually matter. In fact, it is this type of unusual communication that struck me about Dave’s email, or more specifically, the Baron’s Meat and Poultry Newsletter.

The first thing mentioned in the email newsletter was their selection of antibiotic, hormone, and nitrate-free lunchmeat. And then a question… Are there any lunchmeats that we, the customers, would like to see Baron’s add to their stock? The email went on to ask about interest in grass-fed beef as well. Having a vendor ask what type of meat I would prefer to eat was certainly a first for me! In a subsequent newsletter, Dave shared the excellent news that he will be bringing in more grass-fed beef and pointed out that it will only be free range, pastured, green-grass-fed beef. Merely being called grass-fed, which could mean a diet of hay and alfalfa fed to cows confined in a closed shed, will not be good enough for Dave and wouldn’t be for me either! Finally, the email mentioned a unique opportunity to pick up some sustainably-raised lamb that was coming in soon from an organic walnut orchard where sheep have replaced tractors and their manure has replaced fertilizer. The farmer had only three lambs to sell, which is enough to feed many people but not enough to appeal to a large grocery store, which highlights yet another perk of working with a small, independent butcher.

The lessons of my experience with Baron’s Meat and Poultry are two-fold. First, having a butcher who is knowledgeable about sustainability and ethical farming practices takes a lot of the stress and hassle out of purchasing animal products. Seeking out someone like Dave and a place like Baron’s will save you a ton of time and effort in the long run, and may allow you access to a wider variety of foods as well. The second lesson is the power of communication when it comes to improving your access to ethical foods. Marin Sun Farms, Baron’s Meat and Poultry, and many other smaller eco-minded farms and businesses now maintain pages on Facebook and Twitter. By following these pages, you have the opportunity to show your support, offer feedback, and get information about unique offers and special events. It’s an easy way to be a part of the food solution.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

22 Square Feet Farm

There is something truly amazing about growing your own food. Watching an unremarkable leafy plant suddenly sprout a big, beautiful vegetable that you can simply pluck off and eat... It’s as fresh and local as possible and infinitely more satisfying than a trip to the grocery store. The first time a tomato appeared on our vine, I felt like a little kid, full of wonder and excitement. I had never thought much of tomatoes. My main experience with them was the dinky, flavorless slice on my fast food chicken sandwich or as the main ingredient (usually) in a jar of pasta sauce. But we grew these tomatoes – we GREW them – from nothing but dirt and water and a little green plant. My husband had assured me that a fresh, homegrown tomato would be something completely different from my previous tomato experiences, but when we plucked and sliced the very first tomato from our vine - and he handed it to me like a slice of apple, as though tomato could be enjoyed all on its own - well, I was skeptical to say the least. He was completely and totally right. That first tomato was sweet and juicy and delicious! AND WE MADE IT!


My husband and I both grew up in Arizona. For those of you who have never visited, the desert is quite a beautiful place with lots of amazing, water-thrifty plants and unique wildlife. However, as a child, I was never very successful at growing things under the hot, Arizona sun. No... For me, food was something that came from the grocery store. And, as the daughter of a single teacher, it often came from the drive-through. Although my mother was an avid label-reader and enjoyed cooking, her busy life and later battle with cancer tended to get in the way of wholesome food.

When we relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, my husband and I realized that perhaps a real garden was at last possible - until we saw the amount of patio space available to us. Both the front patio and back porch of our townhouse were cemented over, with only a small raised planter in the back measuring a measly 22 square feet. One spring, though, my husband decided to try planting tomatoes and zucchini. The tomatoes were a success, but the zucchini was an abysmal failure. Apparently, zucchini is among the easiest vegetables to grow, which suggests something about the quality of the soil in our aged planter. The next year, we managed to grow precisely one bell pepper and a couple of onions in addition to the tomatoes. But, after a couple of seasons and a drip system and automatic watering timer that my husband was able to install in only one weekend of work, we finally started producing a garden full of food. This year, we have successfully grown spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, chard, parsley, cilantro, mint, and even blackberries! We also just planted a cucumber plant and are making another attempt at the dreaded zucchini. We get most of our gardening advice from the internet. Different plants require different treatment, but once you know the tricks, food just pops up all over the place. It’s really a lot easier than I ever imagined. One of the most interesting things about growing food has been learning how different fruits and vegetables actually grow. Broccoli, for example, had me completely baffled. Here is a picture of a broccoli plant from our garden:

The little baby broccoli spears eventually grow into larger florets. The baby broccoli, full-grown florets, and broccoli flowers are all edible and delicious!


When I eat fruits and vegetables from my garden, I think of all the food problems I am avoiding. I have full control over this food. I can determine the fertilizer, pest control method, and brand of seed/plant that eventually makes its way into my body. I also have a supply of cheap, healthy food, and I don’t even have to put shoes on to go get it! Gardening has other advantages as well. It is a hobby that, once set up, takes little time but provides a good reason to go outside and work with the Earth and watch things grow rather than laying on the couch. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to garden with kids.

The merits of small-scale gardening have lead to increased programs throughout the US to promote community gardens, urban farming, and school farming projects in which students grow food in campus gardens that is then incorporated into school lunches. These programs give people the opportunity to learn about food, gain more control over their access to nutritious food, and engage with other members of the community in a positive, healthful setting. Getting involved is really easy. A quick web search can show you community gardens and other gardening programs in your area. If there isn’t a community garden near you, maybe you could start one! Volunteering to establish or assist an urban, community, or school gardening project is a great way to give back to your community. Check out The American Community Gardening Association for more info on community gardens, volunteering or starting a program, or simply locating a garden near you. For tips on gardening in a small space, you might want to check out Urban Gardens.

In closing, here are a few pics of 22 Square Feet Farm. I hope our tiny backyard farm will inspire you to take control of your food supply as well and create a little garden of your own.

The left side of the garden.

The right side of the garden.

Our cucumber plant just starting out!

One teeny zucchini hiding in our giant zucchini plant.

Tomatoes. Yum.

We added a couple of small planters on the front patio for chard and a big one for the blackberry bush. We got about 100 blackberries this year but the bush has been trimmed back for the fall. Maybe I can get a good picture of it next year!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pasta Perry.

The produce stand run by J. E. Perry Farms (Fremont, CA – 880 & Decoto Rd.) is my new favorite place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables! They grow most of the organic produce on-site so it’s about as “fresh & local” as you can get! Plus, they have a wide variety of organic and conventional produce so customers can still get all the produce they need in one place. One thing I especially appreciate is the labeling. They clearly mark all organic produce and those items grown on the farm. The boxes holding the fruit are from the farms that grew them so it’s easy to know how far the food traveled. Another perk is that the produce stand is open normal store hours: 9am – 7pm everyday from June 1st – Nov. 29th (those dates may vary year-to-year, I’m not sure). This means I can pop in on my way home from work or whenever I can fit in my weekend grocery shopping. The prices are reasonable and the variety is outstanding! On my most recent trip to the produce stand, I purchased all of the following:

Organic -
White peaches
Lemon cucumber – Tastes like a regular cucumber but juicier.
Zucchini, yellow, and grey squash - The grey was a first for me!
Cheddar cauliflower – It’s orange and, when added to a sauce or casserole, makes everything taste sort of cheesy. Yum!
Red bell pepper


With all these awesome veggies, I decided to whip-up an impromptu pasta dinner. Here’s what I made using all organic vegetables from the produce stand:

Pasta Perry

This easy pasta dish uses long-lasting vegetables so it can be made up to a week after a trip to the grocery store. Makes 4-6 servings.

Timing: 30 min. or less
Type: (Mostly) pantry meal

3 small squash
1 small onion
1 head cheddar cauliflower
1-2 T olive oil
1 pkg. Whole Wheat Fettuccine (from Trader Joe’s)
1 jar Roasted Garlic Spaghetti Sauce (also TJs)

I also added a ½ lb of baked organic chicken from Marin Sun Farms that I had leftover from the night before. This dish is hearty enough without meat, but the chicken was fine and sausage would probably go well too. If you use fully cooked meat, add it at the end of step 2. Otherwise, cook it first (step 0), then go through the following steps and either add it to the sauce while the pasta is cooking or just top the off the bowl with meat. Additional veggies that would blend well are bell peppers or mushrooms added at step 1.

1. Wash all vegetables. Remove the leafy bits on the bottom of the cauliflower and discard. Chop the squash, onion, and cauliflower. Begin heating oil over medium heat in a skillet.

2. Add veggies to skillet. Let cook ~5 minutes or until the onions become translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the pasta sauce, mix well, and reduce heat to low.

3. Boil the water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. Continue to occasionally stir the veggies.

4. When the pasta is done, drain and rinse. Put some in a bowl, top with veggie sauce, and enjoy!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


In my last post, I mentioned stumbling upon a certification program for farms that seemed to have stricter animal welfare standards than most I had seen: Animal Welfare Approved. I decided to check it out. What I found made me want to jump for joy. Seriously.

Animal Welfare Approved is a program run by the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute through which they evaluate and certify family farms. I’ve read a lot of fact sheets on the standards for different certification programs (such as Certified Humane, which I discussed last time), but this one seems fundamentally different. Reading through the AWA program guidelines, I felt like some very smart people sat down and figured out how to describe the ideal happy farm that I have in my head, one in which the cows roam grassy hills munching as they go, the pigs play happily in the mud, and the chickens run around pecking at seeds in front of the farm house. It sounds a bit cheesy, I know, but that is the farm from which I want to buy my food. Most other programs seem to start with the conventional status quo and then add or extend restrictions to improve the welfare of the animals or the environmental impact or the working conditions of the farm staff. All of those programs and certifications thus improve upon conventional agriculture, and perhaps do identify farms that would fit into my ideal, but I can also envision farms that are only a little better than conventional, with the same mentality of profit over animal welfare, that could technically meet the requirements. With AWA, I have a hard time coming up with a farm that could simultaneously meet all of their requirements and not measure up to my fantasy farm. Here are a few things that really jumped out at me while going through their website:

Truly happy farms. You would have to go read through their standards to know all of what AWA requires, but the end result appears to be the idealized family farm you would want to take your kids to visit. No CAFOs or battery cages or tail docking. No overcrowding or use of antibiotics solely to alleviate the distress of an unnatural environment. No forced molting. Basically, AWA farms are at the other end of the ethical spectrum from conventional animal operations.

Birth-to-slaughter evaluation and no dual production! One of the things that annoys me most about a lot of conventional meats is that they are often labeled specifically to mislead consumers. Beef labels that say “pasture-raised” or even “grass-fed”, as opposed to “100% grass-fed”, can be referring to the time the cow spent on a ranch from just after its birth until it was sent to the CAFO where it was force-fed corn and pumped full of antibiotics and laid around in its own manure because it had no where else to roam! These labels describe only a small part of the animal’s life and intentionally leave out the worst parts. However, along with several other certification programs, AWA evaluates the entire life of the animal from birth to slaughter. Also, AWA does not allow dual production, in which some animals on the farm are raised to meet one set of standards (organic, humane, AWA, etc.) while elsewhere on the same farm the animals are raised conventionally. Back in January, I mentioned that duBrenton, a company that sells mostly-ethical pork to Chipotle, appears to be a dual-production company that raises pigs using different methods so their pork can be sold under a variety of labels. What bothers me about dual production operations is that they are obviously okay with the conventional animal handling standards, which I refer to as torture. Their participation in ethical programs is just a way of tapping into an additional market. I have a hard time trusting a company that isn’t bothered by the way we conventionally treat animals to provide me with ethical meat. The fact that AWA considers the animal’s welfare through its entire life cycle and disallows dual production farms assures me that I am supporting only those farms that completely comply with my standards for ethical animal products.

Consideration of factors beyond animal welfare. Restricting farm operations to the point that a farm simply cannot profit is obviously counter-productive, so profitability was considered in the development of the AWA standards. The environmental impact of raising farm animals using different methods has also been taken into account such that AWA-approved farms are environmentally sustainable. For me, ethical eating is not just about the welfare of animals, but also the welfare of the environment and the people affected by conventional agriculture, so this combined approach is just what I’ve been looking for. Finally, although the AWA standards were created to ensure the highest level of welfare for farm animals, it is possible that for a specific farm there are actually different methods that are better for the animals. I was impressed by the statements on the AWA website that farmers are encouraged to discuss such issues with the AWA and that approval can still be granted for these farms.

It’s free (for farms, that is). Although it is likely an involved process, farms don’t pay to be evaluated or to maintain their certifications, which hopefully means more farms can participate in the program.

If you find the AWA certification program as compelling as I do, you will now want to know where to find AWA products. Their website has a search tool under the Consumers tab that allows you to find farms and products that are Animal Welfare Approved. Some AWA meat and dairy can actually be found at Whole Foods! The only tricky thing is that many of the products themselves are not labeled so you have to know which brands to look for – information you can easily find using the search tool. I was a little disappointed that neither Marin Sun Farms nor Llano Seco came up as AWA. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t qualify, of course, but I’d be interested to know why they aren’t AWA. Once again, I see, I will need to be put myself out there and ask questions! In the meantime, I am very pleased to have found a program that seems to encapsulate all of things I am looking for. I hope more farms will choose to participate so we can all enjoy eating ethically!