Round up the usual suspects….

Added fats and sugars are in the news again, and as usual, the message can be summed up very simply: cook and eat whole foods in moderation; avoid highly processed foods with lots of fats and sugars.

A few pieces worth checking out:

Civil Eats: Where Do Americans Get Their Calories? – a super-cool interactive graphic looks at our collective plate from the 70s to today.

The Civil Eats chart is dissected a bit on Grist: The American diet in one chart, with lots of fats and sugars.

And more on the role of sugar in our diets (looooong but very worth the read!): NYT Magazine’s Is Sugar Toxic?

What’s your image of a farmer?

I have spent a lot of my life living in major urban areas (Chicago, Los Angeles). One of my saddest moments while living in the cities was when I realized that my children had to go to the zoo to see farm animals and that they had no idea what a vegetable garden looked like. (Full disclosure: I have a brown thumb – if you want any houseplants killed, ask me to house-sit!)

Now we live in Michigan, the state with the second highest crop diversity in the nation (after California). We buy our produce, meat, poultry, and eggs from local farmers. My kids have seen where their food comes from and have held a chick (that may have fed them at a later date!) I’m learning to garden – hoping last year’s minor success was not a total fluke/beginner’s luck! And I work for a very successful nonprofit, Fair Food Network, the President/CEO of which started out as an organic farmer in California a few decades ago. (From the department of shameless self-promotion, check out our main website at www.fairfoodnetwork.org, our signature project site at www.doubleupfoodbucks.org, and the site for Oran’s new book at www.fairfoodbook.org.)

In the past 18 months I’ve probably come into contact with more farmers than I have since I was growing up in Vermont, so I was intrigued to see this post on Grist.org: “When are we going to stop seeing farmers as rubes and hayseeds?”

Is it coincidence that Wendell Berry received a National Humanities medal from President Obama’s hands this week? If you want to be amazed, amused, and moved, pick up some of Berry’s writing (at your local public library or indie bookseller, of course!)

And just as I was pondering this happy coincidence, I got the Winter 2011 newsletter from one of “my” farmers – the Dolls of Back Forty Acres. Want to know more about what a farmer does in a day’s work? Check out the editorial on pp. 7-8. I’d like to think that Wendell Berry accepted the medal on behalf of all of our farmers/friends!

Central Paradox in the Central Valley

“Food Desert” is a term that’s quickly becoming familiar to those interested in the so-called “good food movement.” (If you’re interested in learning more about the problem of food deserts, check out this 2009 report by the USDA: “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food.”)

Most people imagine that food deserts are something one finds in America’s inner cities (think Chicago and Detroit), but at Grist.org, writer Beth Hoffman describes the existence of a seemingly paradoxical food desert in the heart of California’s produce country: “The ‘food desert’ in the heart of California’s farming region.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Central Valley of California, which reportedly produces up to 1/2 of the produce grown in America, going without fresh produce, but that is exactly what is happening. Kudos to Hoffman for writing so eloquently and concisely about the problem and raising our awareness of another facet of the food system’s problems, the question of social justice.

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

A scary map on dead zones from EcoCentric: can’t be a coincidence that most are right around the U.S.,….

A great article introducing the idea that we must collectively get involved with public policy surrounding our national (and global!) “food fight”: “America’s good food fight.”

And, finally, a cheerily tongue-in-cheek (I hope!) advice column, “How to date a vegan.” I particularly like the word “vegangelical,” to go right along with “vegeterrorist!”

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

A great piece by Al Jazeera on America’s food crisis and about some of the people fighting back:

And an interview with one of the mothers of the sustainable food movement: The (not so) New Agtivist.

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Lots going on this holiday season – so much so that it’s been hard to keep up on the food news! I’ve been most interested in following the intersection of food and politics lately – this topic also made the Atlantic‘s “Top 10 Food Stories of 2010.”

While the Child Nutrition Act seems to be laid to rest for now (and happily so, for the most part), the debate about the Food Safety Modernization Act continues.

Amid all the hullabaloo that surrounds the definitions of “farms” and “facilities,” FDA oversight or exemption from it, I can’t help but think (or maybe that should be “hope”?) that any small farmer who is making a go of farming in this day and age is probably doing so because of two simple practices:

  • s/he already uses a system similar to HACCP (dare we call it good old common sense?) to ensure that the food provided to customers is safe;
  • s/he already does business with all the necessary certifications and licenses in place (aka honesty);

The FDA budget is stretched so thin, it’s highly unlikely that inspectors will be visiting each and every farm – but then again, I’m much more certain that those who feed my family are doing a better job policing themselves than the FDA would do – they’re in it to make a living, after all!

Food for Thought…and for Action

After enjoying a truly delicious turkey for the second year in a row (this year’s holiday menu mostly from Food & Wine‘s article about Joanne Chang – although I stopped short of the Peking-duck inspired turkey!), I was amused and amazed to read several friends’ posts on Facebook to the effect that turkey  is most definitely not their favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner – some pass it up for the side dishes, others go as far as to eliminate the bird entirely and have seafood for their feast. Everyone in my family loves turkey, but in previous years, I’ve often entertained the same thoughts about the tasteless, dry turkeys I’ve been served at other people’s homes and also cooked myself. Having learned that the secret to amazing turkey is, as with most other dishes, starting with the best ingredients one can afford (we are lucky enough to be able to purchase local, pastured heritage turkeys that have never been frozen) and knowing how to cook them (brining overnight, adding a layer of herbed butter between the breast and the skin, keeping the stuffing separate from the bird, not overcooking), I can understand these critics’ point of view: if I had to buy a conventionally raised, chemical-injected bird from a grocery store, I’d be just as likely to go vegetarian for Thanksgiving.

But living in Southeast Michigan has made me more conscious than ever of the disparity between most of my neighbors and myself  in Ann Arbor and the low-income residents of nearby areas, both rural and urban. Many low-income people would be thrilled to have one of those turkeys at which we, in our privilege, turn up our noses. And during this time of year, the media does occasionally cover the dark side of the holidays (when, ironically, it is not concerned with promoting the rampant consumerism of Cyber Thursday and Black Friday).  So my enjoyment of delicious, abundant food is always tinged with sadness – am I doing enough to promote much-needed change in the food system simply by buying locally, sustainably grown food? It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there are so many critical issues out there surrounding our food system that won’t be solved by baby steps taken by individuals. Depressing? Maybe. But perhaps a bit inspiring as well. Educating yourself about good food (meaning food that is good for your personal health, the health of the environment, and the health of your community) is the first step – the next is to become active. There are so many ways to get involved with food these days.

Cooking at home

We spent last weekend at a hotel in Lansing, where my son competed in a TaeKwonDo competition. Part of the thrill of a hotel for my kids is tv – we don’t watch it at home (and getting a dose of it on occasion makes me grateful for that – talk about 57 channels and nothing on!) We came across a food channel and were mesmerized for a while. Then my husband said, “Why does it have to be so crazy? What’s the point of making it so quickly? I’ll bet you anything that most of that food tastes awful!”

He’s right – when DID it become necessary to make food complicated and superfast? I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s comment in an interview with Bill Moyers: “We watch cooking shows like crazy on television. We’ve turned cooking into a spectator sport. If you would merely invest the time you spend watching cooking shows in actually cooking, you would find you’ve got plenty of time to put a meal on the table.” Simply turning off the television (and the ipod and the computer and the video games) would give us so much more time to do something as rewarding as cooking from scratch. Or look at it another way – if you must spend hours on the computer, why not let something cook slowly on the stovetop during those hours?

Social justice

It’s true that many low-income consumers choose to purchase calorie-dense yet nutritionally inadequate (i.e. junk) food exactly because it is filling, but when the Wall Street Journal reports that 84% of parents fed their children fast food in any given week, I have to shudder because so many consumers who are NOT considered low-income are falling for the fast food conglomerates’ advertising campaigns.

Much of what I said about the privileged versus the food insecure is put much more eloquently in “Divided We Eat.” While the article speaks somewhat vaguely about solutions to the problem of disparity in access to food, I do appreciate the quote from Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

[T]he answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”

Adding another layer of complexity (that of race) to the issue is Natasha Bowens’ post on Food Justice on Grist.com. Bowens’ article does helpfully mention a number of Detroit organizations to get involved with around the issue.

Supporting your local (food) economy

Senate bill S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act was scheduled for a vote before Thanksgiving, but it’s been stalled, which means that you can still weigh in with your Senators about your feelings on the matter. Of major importance to local food economies is the Tester Hagan Amendment. There is a lot of good information on this in a debate on Grist.com and an easy way to contact your Senators at Food Democracy Now. I hate speaking on the phone to people I don’t know, but these are easy calls to make and won’t require more than a few minutes of your time.

And as we enter the season of holiday shopping, here’s a thought from Treehugger.com as you buy: “There is more to the local movement than just food.”