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.