Articles in Sustainability

Roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

I eased my shopping cart along the meat counter in a national chain grocery store to buy a whole chicken. Roast poultry for dinner seemed like a simple enough proposition. But like so many of us making food-purchasing decisions these days, I was stopped in my tracks by the range of choices.

Should I buy free-range or pasture-raised? Is organic better? Or is the best choice a brand like Foster Farms’ Simply Raised (whatever that means, exactly)?

Confused by all of the labels and marketing claims, I gave up. My family ate a meatless stir-fry for dinner that night.

Later, I learned about a new online resource called Buyingpoultry.com designed to help consumers navigate the supermarket. Could the site guide conscious consumers like me to more sustainable chicken?

Chicken production in a nutshell

Anyone hoping to buy a chicken that truly free-ranged on pastoral farmlands at a grocery store is generally out of luck.

The fact is that 99 percent of all chickens raised for meat (called broilers) in the U.S. come from factory farms. Through consolidation and high-tech breeding practices, the poultry industry has made chicken the most efficient and cheapest animal protein available.

Since 2010, broiler production has increased by more than 10 percent, according to statistics from the USDA. This graph looks surprisingly like the steep climb section on a Stairmaster program. Chicken production, which reached almost 9 billion birds in 2015, is still on the rise. Meanwhile, nationwide demand for barbecued-chicken pizza, chicken Caesar salad and General Tso’s chicken keeps in step.

Trouble is, while making chicken America’s favorite meat, the industrialized production system has incurred an untold debt to human health, the environment and the conditions of its own workers, not to forget the chickens themselves.

Consumers demand healthier chicken

Amid a stream of salmonella-superbug outbreaks and public-health concerns over the routine use of human antibiotics, the USDA announced its plan for stricter regulations and testing in 2015. Two of the largest chicken producers, Tyson and Purdue, pledged to stop using human antibiotics to prevent disease in hatcheries and as growth promoters during maturation. Major food corporations, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Subway, then vowed to shift toward purchasing chicken produced without human antibiotics.

Still, such improvements in the poultry market do not guarantee better animal welfare. According to whistleblower reports about the chicken industry and data from the ASPCA, cage-free chickens are still crammed into windowless barns for their short, dung-filled lives. These Cornish Cross birds, the main hybrid strain for the industry, grow three times as big in two-thirds the time as heritage breeds. Such fast fattening causes bone disorders, cardiovascular issues and other health issues over their roughly 45 days of life.

A sustainable buying guide

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

This chart can help you navigate the supermarket poultry case. Credit: Copyright 2016 Buyingpoultry.com

After returning from my shopping fail, I Googled Buyingpoultry.com. Created by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Farm Forward, it is the country’s largest online database of poultry brands, products and retailers (including eggs and turkeys).

In the search field I typed in “Open Nature” and then “Foster Farms,” two of the brands I’d considered. “Avoid,” read the bold red graphic on my screen, and below that, “Birds likely suffer from the lowest levels of animal welfare.” The fine print detailed how both brands received an F grade because they did not have any regulated animal-welfare claims or third-party certifications.

“Buyingpoultry.com lets you go to the store with experts,” said Andrew deCoriolis, the website’s architect, when I reached him by phone.

Helpfully, the search results page offered links to the highest-welfare poultry products available as well as to a glossary of labels that clearly illustrates just how obfuscating and, in some cases, downright misleading the claims “free-range,” “pasture-raised” and “humanely raised” actually are.

“Like Seafood Watch, Buyingpoultry.com can be a standard of sustainability and create more transparency,” deCoriolis said.

Buying better poultry

One of the most upsetting experiences for the site’s 5,000 to 10,000 monthly users, according to deCoriolis, is discovering how USDA-certified organic products rank. Browsing Buyingpoultry.com, they’re shocked to see organic products with a D grade. DeCoriolis explained, “Organic is better but not necessarily for the animals.” For one thing, the USDA’s definition of “outdoor access” is ill-defined and does not stipulate indoor enrichments, including perches, or space for natural behaviors such as dust bathing.

At a different grocery store on another day, I opened Buyingpoultry.com on my phone’s browser to check on a regional brand, Draper Valley, for sale. All products in this brand rated “Better Choices,” and the organic line earned a C+. Since this was the best I could get in my area without visiting a small-scale farm, I nabbed this passing-grade chicken for our supper.

So what does it take to rate as a “Best Choices” chicken? According to Buyingpoultry.com’s criteria, these are heritage-breed chickens raised by producers abiding by the highest standards of animal welfare, with their claims certified by third-party groups such as Animal Welfare Approved. 

There’s only a limited supply from retailers in certain markets, including Natural Grocers in Denver, Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and some Whole Foods stores — but none at all at Trader Joe’s or other national chains.

Persistent consumer advocacy is putting pressure on the poultry industry, however. “The big companies are paying attention,” said deCoriolis. In March 2016, Whole Foods committed to stop selling fast-growing breeds by 2024. Starbucks and Nestlé soon followed, joining the animal-welfare initiative toward slower-growing chicken breeds raised in conditions where they can behave and interact like, well, actual all-natural chickens.

Main photo: Buying chicken can be more complicated than roasting it. Credit: Copyright 2016 iStock

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Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chefs can play an important role in the fight against climate change by helping to reduce carbon emissions and sourcing local foods, even when working in luxury hotels.

Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for the eco-award-winning Indian group ITC Hotels, is a champion for a sustainable, greener approach to dining. He oversees the food for all 11 of the company’s Luxury Collection hotels, many of which have multiple restaurants within them.

Showcasing traditional ingredients

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the breakfast menu at the ITC hotels, Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the ITC hotel breakfast menu in Delhi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Each ITC hotel maintains a connection to its region through food and architecture,” he says. “In the case of our local foods, we are working alongside Slow Food to showcase forgotten grains and traditional ingredients that can be sourced nearby. In Delhi, for instance, our breakfast offering includes finger millet and charoli nut pancakes with aloe vera and black currant relish, as well as a complex porridge made from seven ancient grains. You can’t be competitive today if you’re not practicing sustainability.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the last in a series. Previous stories:

»  Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

»  The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» In India, remote villages hold fast to food traditions

ITC is the world’s largest green luxury company and has achieved platinum-level status with the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The hotels recycle their water and solid waste while producing 70 percent of their energy from wind, sun and other renewables.

Gill, a Sikh and lifelong vegetarian, recently participated in Indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong, in the northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya. The event brought together representatives from food-making communities around the globe to share knowledge and strengthen connections. He was there with other Indian members of Slow Food’s Chefs’ Alliance, a network of international chefs committed to biodiversity and local food sourcing.

“Food can feed our minds, bodies and souls, but only if it’s ethically sourced,” he says. “In India we also believe that food can’t be nutritious if it’s not tasty, and that it should be a balance of the six tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You must have some of each at every meal. That’s why it’s important to know how to use spices, working with whole spices and only grinding them as they are needed to retain maximum flavor.”

Luxury and sustainability

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Gill has plenty of opportunity to expand these ideas in his busy schedule. In Delhi, where the group has several high-end hotels, Gill works closely with the executive chefs of each hotel, as well as with ITC’s state-of-the art training facility.

Not only does the Hospitality Management Institute have full amenities — from teaching kitchens to lecture halls and IT rooms — but trainees get to fine-tune their skills at the five-star Grand Bharat hotel that opened in 2014 in the countryside just south of Delhi. It is already considered one of the world’s top luxury hotels.

“The Grand Bharat was a dream project. It was designed from the ground up, with lots of space, so we were able to include a large farm for growing herbs and vegetables for our own use, as well as construct windmills and solar power stations to supply its energy,” Gill said. Other projects support women in the hotel business, local farmers and animal husbandry practices.

Chef focuses on modern fusion, traditional cuisine

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The food within the hotel restaurants varies in style. The Grand Bharat’s four restaurants showcase modern fusion dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine, like the succulent Mewati barbecue specialities. At the Hotel Maurya, in the heart of New Delhi, Bukhara restaurant has won numerous awards — including a place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — for traditional Indian food cooked in tandoor ovens. Bukhara, which has been open for 35 years, also offers a complex lentil dal that is simmered for 18 hours and some of the city’s greatest naan breads.

Chef Gill is particularly excited about the Royal Vega restaurant in ITC’s recently opened Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. “As a committed vegetarian, I’ve finally had the opportunity to create a high-end vegetarian restaurant, something I had always dreamed of doing,” he said. “Many Indians from all walks of life are vegetarian, yet ambitious vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. So this project is providing me with great happiness.”

Main photo: Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Villagers dance at the Beh Dienkhlam festival in Mosakhia as men carry a life-sized oxen effigy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya is rich in native food traditions. Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and with Myanmar to its east, Meghalaya is a lush, hilly area of forests and lakes, with high rainfall, spectacular waterfalls and “living” bridges woven from trees that attract local tourism. Yet many of its villages are remote, with few main roads or other means of access.

Their inaccessibility has helped preserve many traditional food customs, from rice growing to beekeeping.

Keeping the traditional ways

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Our region has been proud to host this year’s Indigenous Terra Madre,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). The event brought 600 members of international indigenous food-making communities together in the city of Shillong for a five-day meeting. “It offered us a chance to showcase the many foods and traditions of the indigenous Khasi communities that are still well-preserved in Meghalaya and its neighboring region, Nagaland.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the third in a series.

» Part 1: Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

» Part 2: The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» Part 4: How Slow Food’s philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India’s "greenest" luxury hotel group

During the conference, the delegates were invited to visit some of the villages to experience these customs firsthand.

In Mosakhia, a village of 94 households in the Jaintia Hills so small it’s not on Google maps, a large crowd gathered to greet the visitors. They re-enacted Beh Dienkhlam, a colorful food festival that is usually held in July. During the festival, two life-size oxen effigies are raised on a large wooden platform and carried in increasingly rapid circles as the population rushes behind them, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of loud drumbeats.

“Its purpose is to drive away epidemics during the rainy growing season,” explained H.H. Morhmen, a NESFAS director in that area. “With their brooms the villagers sweep the evil spirits away.”

A native variety of nutritious brown rice, rymbai, is grown in the small rice terraces around Mosakhia that the villagers harvest in November, the women cutting it and the men threshing it by hand.

An ancient method of beekeeping

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong demonstrated his unusual hives. Made of hollowed-out sections of tree trunks (of dieng maleng or dieng shyrngang wood), the hives are positioned in the surrounding forests and in natural rock crevices. They attract local varieties of yellow or black bees.

Khongiong, a cheerful, sprightly 50-something, has been a beekeeper for 37 years but never uses any protection when working with his bee families. He pulled a large chunk of honeycomb from one of the hives barehanded, simply blowing the bees that were on it gently away. The honey was exquisite: With the delicate floral notes of a citrus honey, it maintained its depth and mineral intensity long after it was eaten. Only 12 people still continue this ancient method of beekeeping.

Fish that’s a delicacy

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Nearby, the equally rural village of Umladkhur is reached by a dirt road through rice paddies and forests. Alma Mulat squats outside her house by a hose of clean, running water as she washes a batch of fish. When she’s satisfied they’re cleanly gutted, she drives a pointed bamboo stake through each fish, attaching them firmly with cane knots. She carries the fish down to the smokehouse behind her dwelling and smokes them for three to four hours using wood from the local otsyiah tree.

“We call these khabah in our native language,” she said, pointing to chunky fish in the carp family. “My grandmother and ancestors did this smoking too, back when our rivers were clean. But 40 years ago surface coal mining began in this area, and our rivers became poisoned and the fish died. Now we buy fish from a nearby region, though the mining has recently been stopped and river life is gradually returning.”

Smoked fish from this and Thangbuli village are a delicacy in Meghalaya, and Mulat and other women take them to market at Jowai to supplement their families’ incomes.

Going to market

Shillong has one of India's largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Shillong has one of India’s largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Back in Shillong, we visit one of India’s largest and most fascinating food markets. Built in colonial times, it covers a hill in the town with steep, narrow alleys, each filled with boxed stalls of local produce vendors. They come to a pinnacle in the large, open square at the top where brightly colored foods and fabrics compete for the visitor’s eye.

The maket — and the street-food vendors who surround it — showcase the many local and native plants and grains that contribute to the diets of the people of Meghalaya.

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Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

With ubiquitous food porn and hyped health headlines, 2015 was the year of sizzle over substance. At Oldways, a 25-year-old nonprofit celebrating cultural food traditions, we predict 2016 will reverse that formula with these six food trends for the new year that will affect what we put on our plates.

Our appetite for healthy food continues to grow

The movement toward healthier food choices continues to gain momentum. A recent Euromonitor survey projects global sales of healthy food products will hit $1 trillion by 2017, almost doubling the figure from 2007. It’s no wonder as consumers are now exposed to, and educated about, food choices practically everywhere: restaurants, grocery stores, TV food shows and schools. Based on Nielsen data, with nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, this provides significant incentive and opportunity for manufacturers developing new products.

Sustainable diets move to the center plate

Plant-based diets are good for your health, as well as the planet. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

Plant-based diets are good for your health, as well as the planet. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

One diet does not fit all, but research points to plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean Diet and Vegetarian Diet as the gold standard for good health and sustainability. In unexpected places like the airport (e.g., San Francisco International Airport’s Napa Farms Market) and the strip mall (e.g., LYFE Kitchen, Sweetgreen), food establishments are increasingly touting a twofold mission to offer healthy and sustainable fare. Despite being struck from the Dietary Guidelines, sustainability, for many scientists, tops the list of priorities for a healthy diet. “A plant-based diet presents major advantages for health, the environment, use of resources and animal welfare,” said Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and featured presenter at Oldways Finding Common Ground, a conference devoted to clarifying distorted nutrition messages.

Food literacy finally catches hold

The term “food literacy” is gaining currency. Thanks to the 75 million members of the experiential millennial generation, and technology, the youngest American adults connect good health with knowing where their food comes from and who produces it. As Eve Turow, author of “A Taste of Generation Yum,” said in an interview in The Atlantic, “food is also allowing us to access the globe, so we can find out what harissa is made with and how to prepare something with it, in two seconds on our phones.” This extends to appreciation for personal food traditions and a desire to reconnect with the culture of one’s ancestors. That’s good news, as heritage is an ever more powerful motivator for healthier eating, inspiring home cooking, which saves an average of 200 calories per meal.

Supermarkets are the new health hubs

According to the Food Marketing Institute, a food retail trade group, Americans make 1.5 trips to the grocery store each week. That far outstrips visits to health care providers. To help customers make balanced food choices, supermarkets like Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Giant Eagle are hiring registered dietitians in their stores. These RDs will bring good health to consumers (and financial health to the grocery business) by demonstrating how to move healthier choices from shelf to table.

Raw milk cheese is hot

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses and purchase them regularly. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses and purchase them regularly. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

More than half of all cheese lovers say they prefer raw milk cheeses (think Le Gruyère AOP, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort, Grafton Village Cheddar, and Pont-l’Évêque, a favorite of Prince Charles) and purchase them regularly, according to the Oldways Cheese Coalition 2015 Raw Milk Cheese Consumption and Attitudes Survey.

However, the FDA is looking carefully at unpasteurized cheese, and new regulations could limit availability of traditional cheeses in the United States. Still, 90 percent of U.S. cheese lovers believe they should be able to choose raw milk cheeses. This may be the impetus to give these products, created through the old ways of cheese making, the attention they deserve.

Increased consensus on what to eat

A study in the Journal of Health Communication showed contradictory nutrition news creates consumer confusion, leading people to doubt health and nutrition recommendations. But that may change.

With the imminent release of the updated Dietary Guidelines, along with movements such as Oldways Common Ground — launched with a gathering of 75 top nutrition scientists, medical experts and media members to reach consensus on what Americans should be eating — and the True Health Initiative, started by Yale University Prevention Research Center’s founding director David Katz, which enlists hundreds of experts to spread evidence-based truths about lifestyle as medicine, clarity will begin to trump confusion.

Main photo: Consumers globally are willing to pay more for foods with health attributes, according to a recent study. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

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Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Climate change and political borders are just two of the challenges facing the world’s 200 million to 500 million pastoralists — women and men practicing animal husbandry, be they nomadic, transhumant or sedentarized.

Herders from five continents recently came together in Shillong, northeastern India, at the second Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) to discuss these issues and their solutions (the first event was held in Sweden in 2011).

A diverse meeting

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The ITM session meeting on pastoralists and their challenges regarding pastureland was attended by a colorful mix of people, including yak herders from northeastern India and Mongolia, Bedouin camel herders from Jordan, and sheep farmers from near Siberia and Georgia. The session began with a tribal dance by a Kenyan tribe and ended with one from two Mongolian throat singers.

The Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 when Carlo Petrini, the food activist and founder of Slow Food, invited dozens of food-producing communities from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to meet and share their experiences in a groundbreaking format. Since then, the network has expanded and become a powerful lobbying voice for indigenous people in 158 countries.

Political obstacles

Amina Duba of Kenya's Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Amina Duba of Kenya’s Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“We keep animals; they’re our daily bread,” said Amina Duba of the Borana tribe in northern Kenya, which works primarily with cattle. “We have helped conserve nature for thousands of years, yet we’re often told that our lifestyle is backward. We’ve been socially and politically marginalized too often.”

Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the second in a series.

»  Part One: Native cultures push for sustainable solutions

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and rich food-making culture.

»  Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's 'greenest' luxury hotel group.

Ol-Johan Sikku, a reindeer herder from the Sami community (formerly also known as Laplanders) that stretches across several Arctic countries, and a member of the Sami parliament, agreed. “We are always surrounded by decisions others have made for us. For example, Russia colonized part of our territory in a move of land-grabbing. They have colonized our lands but also our minds, and we’re now realizing to what extent. When you’ve been colonized like this, you look down on yourself, seeing yourself from the outside. We must give value to our own cultures and ancestral wisdom, and put them first.”

Many indigenous pastoralists are faced with the paradoxical situation of finding their traditional pasturelands off-limits because they have been declared national parks or wildlife reserves by their governments. Others are no longer able to steer their animals to winter or summer pastures because of new political borders, main roads or desertification due to global warming.

Losing their land

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabs. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabbing. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

“The landscape that indigenous people value most is being taken away from them, either through land-grabbing or wildlife conservation,” said Hassan Roba of the Christensen Fund, a California-based, nonprofit private foundation that backs the stewards of cultural and biological diversity and supported the ITM event.

“In the past, herders and wildlife co-existed and shared access to water points and grazing resources,” Roba said. “The major problem now is that the government policymakers don’t understand how this unique balance, this fragile ecosystem, works. They impose their plans for ‘development’ from the outside, without consulting or taking note of the people who have lived on those lands for centuries, if not millennia.”

In recent years, pastoralists have gained some bargaining power. The 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists focused on their rights and their main demands: customary laws, accessing water and pastures, improving marketing strategies for their produce, and getting better health care and education. Through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub has been set up as a platform for indigenous pastoralists to exchange information and improve lobbying and development. But there’s more to be done.

Women remain vulnerable

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

As is often the case, women remain particularly vulnerable in these situations. Despite women often doing the lion’s share of the manual and agricultural labor in indigenous communities, including the milking and cheese-making or cultivating crops, as well as bringing up the family, they are just as often deprived of their land and human rights. Many are trying to survive in war-torn countries.

“In our societies it’s not always permitted for women to be part of the decision-making process, or to own land or control the household money,” said Duba. That’s why microfinancing groups, and events such as the Global Gathering of Women Pastoralists in Gujarat, India, in 2010, are so important. “There’s a huge need for animal protein in the world, and we can provide it naturally, with free-roaming animals without the need for industrialization.”

“The world is changing, and so are pastoralists,” said Sikku. “They want the Internet, cars and other commodities too. So the question for our communities is how to renew our culture without losing the traditions. How to see the past and take it into the future. We should listen to our traditional knowledge about how to administer the land and think 10 to 25 years ahead. We can’t go backwards.”

Main photo: Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Six hundred representatives of native communities around the world recently gathered in Shillong, northeastern India, for  Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM), an event that helps forge a global network of indigenous peoples, activists and their supporters.

The event, under the auspices of Slow Food, takes place every four years. This ITM was held in cooperation with the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (supported by the Christensen Fund) and was hosted by the Indian region of Meghalaya and the North East Slow Food Agrobiodiversity Society. Their individual stories vary but are closely linked.

Focus on food sovereignty

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan is a member of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand. His people have lived there for centuries, yet the current Thai government does not recognize them as citizens. Maria Bautista Leon, from the Tzeltal indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, and a descendant of the Mayans, is protesting the increase of monoculture and the threat of genetically modified corn in her country. Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice as she fights for tribal land claims.

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the first in a series.

»  Part Two: At Indigenous Terra Madre, members of international pastoralist communities show and tell.

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and a rich food-making culture.

» Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's "greenest" luxury hotel group.

The focus at ITM is on environmental, biodiversity, food sovereignty and other sustainability issues linked to these communities’ way of life, many of which are increasingly under threat. Members of 140 tribes from 58 countries on five continents attended the 5-day event. Open meetings were arranged by themes, including: learning about food systems from matriarchal societies; building bridges between the private sector and indigenous communities; oral history; pastoralists and their challenges; and the future of food.

Prince Charles, who has long been a champion of these kinds of issues, sent a video message for the inauguration. “In our modern world, we are totally disconnected from indigenous knowledge,” he said. “The essential unity of things as reflected in nature has become dangerously fragmented. The modern world has shifted away from the holistic indigenous cosmology of seeing ourselves within nature to us standing apart from it. We must look after the earth and help it maintain its health and balance.” He suggests we listen to indigenous wisdom for the guidance we need to live in harmony with our planet.

Uniting voices for change

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food 30 years ago in Italy and later created Terra Madre to bring together food-making communities from all corners of the globe, also spoke at the meeting. “Our planet is suffering from the greed of those who want to steal its resources,” he began. “We hope the Climate Change conference in Paris will make constructive decisions about this disaster. Our food has lost its value. It has been turned into a commodity to be paid as little as possible for. The truth is that 500 million small household food communities feed 70 percent of the world, yet they are treated the worst of all. The large multinationals claim ownership of their seeds and promote intensive, genetically modified farming and monocultures that are destroying the lives of these indigenous food-producing communities. There can be no sustainability if we don’t change this model.”

With most delegates attending in their native dress, the get-together was colorful, musical and emotional. At large communal meals hosted by local chefs (the most memorable was an invitation to dinner for everyone at the Shillong Sikh’s Gurdwara temple), there was plenty of time for people to share stories, problems and solutions.

“My people’s history was written in song, in folk tales and by calling the mountains and rivers names in our language,” said Suwichan, one of 500,000 Karen in northern Thailand. “We used traditional natural farming, with a seven-year rotation for our rice and other crops. But since the government has declared our area a national park we are no longer allowed to practice this kind of farming, which has forced us to use chemical fertilizers. We lived in symbiosis with the forest and relied on it for wild plants and foods as we protected it. Now our forest has been designated a wildlife reserve and we are no longer allowed to take anything out of it. But they never consulted us about this, they never consulted our ancestors or our community leaders. My parents say we are now like orphan chickens, that we each have a small voice, but together with the others at ITM it may become louder.”

‘A universal language’

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people's local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“As Carlo Petrini says, we need to defend our native plants and animal breeds, our flavors and methods, for they are a universal language,” LaDuke said. “We have fought to reject the patents industrial agriculture has tried to put on our indigenous varieties. Our food is pre-colonial, pre-GMO and pre-petroleum. We are part of a movement to stop the theft of our seeds and land, and the theft of our economies. We fight against the politics of those who try to oppress us, and the closer the links between all of our tribes can get, the stronger our resistance will be.”

Main photo: Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. The regular sights and sounds of the street unfold: sirens blasting, students playing in a courtyard, construction workers hammering away, and the homeless and hungry lining up outside the Lowell Transitional Living Center.

Adjacent to the shelter, tucked into a previously vacant lot, is a scene uncommon in most urban areas. Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread is harvesting arugula, kale, radishes and strawberries to create a fresh salad later in the day with our students. As a member of FoodCorps, I’m helping. People often stop to inquire about our small but productive urban garden oasis. The quick response is, “We’re growing food in Lowell for our community and schools.” But that is just scratching the surface of what we do.

Teaching children

Christopher Horne teaches a class Bartlett Community STEM School in Lowell, Massachusetts. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

Christopher Horne teaches a class Bartlett Community STEM School in Lowell, Massachusetts. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

Lowell is a uniquely diverse city. The birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell is also home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the country. We continue to welcome refugee families into our community while also recognizing our historic roots.

While Lowell celebrates the cultural identities that make up the fabric of our city, the challenges our families face regarding food access and finding food that is culturally relevant are real and urgent. More than 40% of Lowell residents are unable to find culturally appropriate food near their homes, and more than one in three neighborhood stores do not sell any produce at all, according to the Lowell Community Food Assessment. Moreover, nearly 80% of Lowell students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 36% of our students are overweight or obese, according to a report, The Status of Childhood Weight in Massachusetts.

Beginning with one garden

Kids gets some last-minute pointers before working a garden at Stoklosa Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

Kids gets some last-minute pointers before working a garden at Stoklosa Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

In 2011, Mill City Grows’ founders Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson started working with the idea that Lowell could be a place known for its innovative approach to food production and food justice. Mill City Grows (MCG) launched with the creation of a community garden hidden away in an abandoned park.

The success of that garden created buy-in at multiple levels within the community — from residents to city officials to schools. Soon, the Lowell Public School district was requesting assistance from MCG to build school gardens and provide programming for students across the city. The demand for school gardens is high in Lowell as gardens continue to prove how powerful they are in tackling childhood hunger locally.

The grassroots efforts that MCG embraces are successful. What began as a single community garden has grown into four community gardens located across Lowell, two urban farms, eight school gardens and a Mobile Farmers Market that makes eight stops around the city.

A growing garden program

FoodCorps members plant seeds. The organization works to bring children closer to "real food." Credit: Copyright Whitney Kidder, for FoodCorps

FoodCorps members plant seeds. The organization works to bring children closer to “real food.” Credit: Copyright Whitney Kidder, for FoodCorps

To sustain this movement and continue deepening its scope, Slater and Sisson realized that they needed to reach out to a national organization to help build their capacity. In 2014, MCG became a FoodCorps service site to support the expanding school garden program in the Lowell Public Schools system, which is expected to grow from eight to 12 schools next year.

FoodCorps is a nationwide team of leaders working to bring children closer to “real food.” As the FoodCorps service member for MCG this year, I have worked with nearly 2,000 Lowell students from grades preK-12 and built three school gardens.

Looking for long-term change

Christopher Horne is joined by Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread at Robinson Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

Christopher Horne is joined by Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread at Robinson Middle School. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

This past September, we created a free farmers market outside one of our schools, sponsored by a local hospital. For eight weeks, we provided beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, apples and tomatoes to hundreds of families, along with information about how to cook with these ingredients. Every week we heard about how grateful families were and how they discovered that their children actually like fruits and vegetables. This fall, we will launch family cooking classes and introduce children and their families to simple and delicious recipes that utilize fresh seasonal vegetables available from their garden plots or our Mobile Market.

The partnership between FoodCorps and Mill City Grows is the recipe for long-term change impacting childhood hunger and food sovereignty in Lowell. The movement that MCG started and FoodCorps is strengthening is integral to increasing food security for our families. The pieces are there for Lowell to be the food-secure community Mill City Grows envisioned it could be four years ago. With FoodCorps, we are starting to put those pieces together.

FoodCorps Service Member Christopher Horne won the 2015 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for his service site, Mill City Grows, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.

Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg FoundationAmeriCorps and a diverse array of private and public donors. FoodCorps’ host in Massachusetts, The Food Project, works with local partners in Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Gloucester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and Chicopee.  Find out more about The Food Project and the FoodCorps team in Massachusetts at https://foodcorps.org/where-we-work/massachusetts

Main photo: Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps

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Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company in Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” -- but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.

In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”

Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.

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Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,”misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

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