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.