Articles in Sustainability
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
As a kid, I’d follow close on my dad’s heels when he went to the local fishing hole, where he’d spend the day reeling in crappie and bluegill. We’d share peanut butter sandwiches and catch crawdaddies and garter snakes while waiting for the fish to bite. At some point in the day, we’d always hunt for wild asparagus, which also grew around the pond.
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My father will tell anyone who will listen that the asparagus doesn’t grow until the thunder shakes it from the ground. He has a full head of white hair now, and people sit in rapture of his wisdom. Me? I’m not so sure. I picked my first asparagus this year between snowstorms. It made its debut almost seven weeks later than last year.
That might sound frustrating, but it is actually part of the appeal. I only eat wild asparagus, which grows during a narrow window in the spring.
For me, store-bought asparagus will never do. I don’t ever want to see it on my plate at the end of summer, or at Thanksgiving. The fact that it only appears once a year, and in a way that is highly variable, only adds to its charm. When the asparagus finally arrives, it is a herald of the season, and it is marked with a feast. Part of the joy of foraging is only eating foods during the short window of time that they are in season. It makes for an endless series of celebrations.
The wild asparagus I forage, Asparagus officinalis, is the same that Euell Gibbons made famous in his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It is also the same species as the one sold commercially. This means that once you know how to find it in the wild, it is readily recognized.
The surest way to find asparagus is to find the overgrown fern-like mature plants from the previous year. For the most part, it grows in the same place from year to year. Old, dried asparagus has a distinctive orange-yellow tone that stands out against the new green growth of spring. Wild asparagus seems to really love fence lines, railroads and drainage ditches, but don’t be surprised to see it growing in the middle of a field.
Some people will try to tell you that only thin asparagus is good. Don’t believe them. Thick or thin, wild asparagus tastes the same. I prefer the thicker ones simply because they provide a more substantial bite of asparagus goodness. The most important factor in picking wild asparagus is to choose stalks that still have tightly closed heads, no matter how tall or thick they should grow.
Wild Asparagus Bites
I prefer to serve these gluten-free nibbles at room temperature, but they are equally delicious eaten hot or cold.
12 spears wild asparagus
1 shallot, sliced into half moons
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 ounces goat cheese chevre
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Clean the wild asparagus and prepare them by snapping off the tough ends.
3. Toss the asparagus and shallots with olive oil, salt and pepper, making certain the asparagus and shallots are coated with oil.
4. Place the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until the thickest asparagus spear can easily be pierced with a knife. After removing the asparagus and shallots, reduce the oven temperature to 300 F.
5 While the asparagus is roasting, prepare the cheesy base. Mix together the ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, cornstarch, salt and pepper until they are evenly combined.
6. Carefully cut off the tips of the roasted asparagus and set them aside.
7. Chop the remaining asparagus and shallots. You can do this roughly with a knife. Just make certain the pieces end up at least a quarter-inch thick or smaller.
8. Stir the chopped asparagus and shallots into the egg and cheese mixture.
9. Fill 12 greased mini muffin cups three-quarters full with the asparagus mixture. Place an asparagus tip atop each filled cup.
10. Bake the wild asparagus bites at 300 F for 20 minutes.
Wild asparagus bites. Credit: Wendy Petty
I was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 45% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
Today more than half of American farmers, roughly 2.2 million individuals, are near or past retirement age and there are few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 28 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 340 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
Let’s take a poll. If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind? From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.
As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.
Everyone should learn to preserve their own food
Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.
When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.
In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families. The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.
In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable
Benefits of preserving your own food
Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.
Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.
Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.
Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.
Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food. (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.) It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.
Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
I was part of a conversation recently with colleagues in the food world who were griping that nothing much had changed in the health food movement since Adelle Davis’ books, “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Cook It Right.” Both books had raised a new public awareness in the 1960s to the fact that unprocessed organic food, grown without pesticides and herbicides, can determine our health. What about Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappé, Mark Bittman, Robert Kenner, Paul Newman, A.E. Hotchner and Wendell Berry, to name a few contemporary food activists? Or even more recently, Anna Lappé, Bryant Terry, Jeremiath Gettle, Daniel Salatin, Katrina Blair or Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney.
I’m also frustrated that there is so much work to be done, but everywhere I look I see evidence of how far we’ve come on the issue.
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I argued that things had dramatically changed in simple ways. For instance, yesterday I wanted to make a chicken tagine with plums and olives. The recipe called for chicken thighs, onions, butter, dried plums and lemons. I needed some lamb for another recipe and some hamburger. I also needed milk, half and half, and yogurt. It was midweek, and I didn’t have time to go down to the farmers market so I shopped at my corner market.
I was able to get full-fat yogurt, a coup these days because in the last 20 years almost everything has become either non-fat or low-fat. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Fat-free foods may also have added thickeners, flour, sugar or salt. Also you don’t want to avoid all kinds of fat because there’s a decent argument to be made that foods contain both “good” fats and “bad” fats. In the meat department, I was able to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic grass-fed lamb, beef and free-range chicken. I also noticed they had organic, grass-fed bison. In the produce department, I was able to get organic lettuces, organic berries, avocados, apples, pears and bananas. In the dairy case, I had a choice of free-range eggs from three farms, and I also found organic milk, organic half and half, and butter. There are farms all over the United States that sell raw milk. Laws regarding raw milk vary by state, but it is available if you want it. I found dried plums that had not been sprayed with sulphur dioxide, which is great because I definitely didn’t want any of that pesticide on my food because children in my family are allergic to sulphur. I know, of course, our future begins with our children and grandchildren. And I remind my friends that in 1996, Alice Waters created her first edible schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. Since then the program has expanded to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The health food movement goes mainstream
When President Obama was elected, Michelle Obama told the world she was going to grow a garden. When he ran for reelection in 2012, the First Lady was promoting her new book, “American Grown” about the White House garden.
“The garden is the way to begin the conversation [about healthy food decisions],” she told the National Review. “I learned, in changing my kids’ habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”
All over New York City public schools now have roof-top gardens or other areas set aside for gardens. The students at Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street give guided tours of their rooftop gardens.
Most colleges and universities offer programs in sustainability and integrated nutrition. We have new words in our vocabulary and dictionary that apply to quality food produced responsibly, such as locavore and sustainability. Most everyone knows about fermentation now because of Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and nominated for a James Beard Award. Although California voters didn’t approve Proposition 37, which would have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory, the big news is that Whole Foods, the grocery chain with 339 stores across the nation became the first retailer in the United States to require GMO labeling on all foods sold in their stores.
Genetically modified ingredients are in much of the food we eat on a daily basis. Food labels give us information about nearly everything else we need to know about the food we’re eating, but there is generally no information about food grown with GMOs. Now, at least at Whole Foods, all foods will be labeled if they contain GMOs.
There are many more ways in which the food movement in the United States has dramatically changed. But in a way, my colleagues are right. Although we’ve done a lot, there is still more to do to protect our good food. And next we need to turn our full attention toward the issue of hunger, and getting that good food to those in need.
Organic produce at Eli’s Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton
The holidays were nearing when I eagerly skipped down the yellow-brick road into Dr. Mehmet Oz’s world of “What To Eat Now: The Anti-Food-Snob Diet.” His opener — that “some of the tastiest and healthiest food around is also the least expensive and most ordinary” — was indisputably welcoming.
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Finally, I sighed with relief, our nation’s favorite star doctor will set the record straight. Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. OK, yes, all the Google-smart news-speak mavens can choose to buy their fresh foods at the most expensive markets and thereby confirm their conspira-stories that healthy, local food is elitist.
But now, finally, we would get the straight dope on how we can eat well without breaking the bank.
I happily entered Dr. Oz’s world of bright and colorful frozen green peas and carrots. I read that we can enjoy some of our favorite foods — tacos, peanut butter, salsa and guacamole — and we can also “eat frozen and never feel that you are shortchanging yourself.” Hallelujah!
An egg is an egg?
But when Dr. Oz said “organic is great, it’s just not very democratic,” I stopped skipping. What he means by organic is revealed in his next sentence: “truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.” No mention of everyday organic foods like apples, peas, carrots, beans. A bit later he confesses that he’s doing a “public-health service” to folks who are “alienated and dejected” because “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.” His public health service includes telling us there is no difference between organic and conventional foods. “An egg is an egg,” he says. What’s more, there’s “not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.”
Let me get this straight: Organic is not democratic because … not everyone can afford truffle oil or European cheeses? The only organic food is the kind he shops for? Following that logic, if the only British car I bought was a Rolls-Royce, I could soundly conclude that British cars are not democratic because not everyone can afford a Rolls. That is, of course, ridiculous.
Affordable organic food is available
A real public health service from Oz would be giving devotees the low-down on organic: telling them that eating organic doesn’t mean buying truffle oil. Eating organic can mean consuming affordable, common foods. And eating organic can mean eating more nutritious food. This is where I get to thank Wal-Mart, which, like Dr. Oz, positions itself as serving the common person. Last November, Wal-Mart’s Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its “natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.” This is not truffle oil. This is everyday organic and affordable food.
A real public health service was this recent study, “Is Local Food Affordable to Local Folks?,” which overturned many assumptions about the affordability of local and organic. Comparing prices between supermarkets and 24 farmers markets in 19 communities across six states in Appalachia and the Southeast, the study found that in 74% of the communities, local farmers markets produce was actually less expensive on average by 22%. In 88% of the communities, even organic produce was less expensive, on average by 16%. Overall, although local meats and eggs tended to be more expensive on average, when the costs of similar items were compared, the local food found at farmers markets was either the same or less expensive than in supermarkets in 74% of all cases, with an average of 12% lower cost. What’s more, the great news is that farmers markets are proliferating, meaning more affordable local and organic foods are available to low-income folks. Since 1994, according to a USDA report, farmers markets in the U.S. have more than quadrupled to 7,864 to date, with no end in sight.
Let’s not forget the nutrition argument. An important study showed grass-fed beef is nothing like conventional beef: it’s hugely healthier! Less fat overall, more healthy fats, more minerals, 300% more vitamin E, 400% more vitamin A and 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, which combats cancer, body fat, heart disease and diabetes. Yet another recent study by Penn State revealed striking differences between organic and conventional chicken eggs, with organic boasting twice the healthy fats, 38% more vitamin A and twice the vitamin E.
In my world, a real public health service would spread information not rumors. It would showcase the multiple benefits, including higher nutrition, of organic food. And it would show that, thanks to providers ranging from local farmers markets to Wal-Mart, more and more low-income people now can find — and afford – more healthy, nutritious, organic foods.
I applaud Dr. Oz for addressing the topic of affordable healthy food. Making healthy food more accessible to all is the right goal. But we don’t ridicule those who buy the latest smartphone as snobs and tell the rest to be happy with a rotary dial. Low-income folks don’t want rotary dial phones any more than they want sub-par food. So, Dr. Oz, please come back to the real world where everyone deserves to know the real dope on food: healthier, nutritious food can indeed mean organic foods — and if we look they’re becoming more available and affordable to us all.
Photo: Tanya Denckla Cobb. Credit: Dan Addison