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The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO'L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“What is cooking?” This was the central question being asked — and answered — at the latest edition of one of the world’s most stimulating food events, the MAD Food Symposium. Now in its fourth edition, the two-day event is held in a circus tent pitched on the outer reaches of Copenhagen’s harbor and attracts the brightest stars of modern cuisine, young and old. MAD draws speakers in all aspects of food culture: chefs who have made lasting contributions to the art, scientists and historians with specialized knowledge, and activists trying to change the way food is produced, sold or eaten.

Organized by René Redzepi, the Danish chef at the helm of Noma – No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — MAD was this year co-curated by Alex Atala, the highest ranking chef in South America. The event aims to broaden the gastronomic horizons of young chefs from around the world. The 400-strong audience also included local farmers, scientists, thinkers and a smattering of journalists.

“Our business has changed in the last 30 years,” Atala said as he introduced the symposium. “Restaurants are no longer the model of excess they were back then. MAD4 examines different aspects of what’s happening, away from the glamour of the limelight. What’s working? Food is about expressing ourselves, about reflection, and above all, food is about getting together. Food is life.”

If last year’s theme, “Guts,” provoked strong, sometimes visceral reactions from its list of speakers, this year’s mood inspired reflection. It began in silence. The audience watched transfixed as Japanese udon master Tatsuru Rai set about creating his iconic noodles: mixing, kneading and rolling the dough before folding, slicing, cooking and serving a few symbolic portions of the dish. The seemingly simple act of combining flour and water, choreographed over time, took on ritual significance.

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

 

“We didn’t want to repeat the high drama of last year’s theme, but instead to shout silently about the importance of craft, gesture, economy and offering in cooking,” Redzepi said. “We also want to tackle problems that take away from the pleasures of the table.”

MAD about wasted food

One of the most inspiring of the activists was Isabel Soares, a 30-something environmental engineer from Portugal. Incensed that half of the food produced in the world is thrown away, Soares has found an innovative way to fight that waste. In 2013, she founded Fruta Feia, meaning “Ugly Fruit,” a nonprofit, farm-to-table cooperative. “Each year 1.3 billion tons of food are discarded, an ethical problem with a huge environmental impact on climate change,” she began. “In Europe, 30% of fresh produce is left to rot in the fields just because the fruit or vegetables’ size does not conform to the European Union’s ‘aesthetic’ regulations.” Thirty farmers sell produce that the supermarkets would reject because of size or blemishes to 420 consumers, at a fair price. The cooperative’s role is to collect the food from the farms, sort it into mixed boxes twice weekly and offer a collection point. In its first year, Fruta Feia reports it saved 41 tons of food in Portugal from being wasted. Soares says she plans to expand to other cities.

Urban guerrilla gardens

Ron Finley, a self-styled “eco-lutionary game changer provocateur” from Los Angeles, launched right into his presentation. “Gardening is the most defiant thing you can do in South Central — plus you get strawberries,” he proclaimed. “Change your food, change your life.” His reaction to living in a food desert was to plant his own garden, on the abandoned sidewalk strips around his home. Initially, the city of L.A. wagged a citation at him and demanded he remove the unpermitted plants, but since then Finley’s story has helped compel the city to change its parkway ordinance. After a TED talk that went viral, Finley is creating urban garden projects in L.A.

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Evolution as seen by Ron Finley. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brazil’s jails turn to the kitchen

Atala introduced several healing food projects from Brazil. Working with Atala on one were Jayme Santos Junior, a criminal court judge in Sao Paulo, and chef David Hertz, who runs a cooking project in some of Brazil’s most notorious jails. “Cooking can be an effective tool to change the dynamics of the prison system and facilitate social reintegration,” the judge said. “By becoming members of a group in the kitchen, prisoners feel less isolated and learn life-affirming skills.” Hertz started the nonprofit Gastromotiva to help young people who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. Another of Atala’s projects through his foundation, Instituto ATÀ, involves distributing portable water filters for use in the Amazon and other rural areas where clean drinking water is not available.

LOCO’L takes on fast-food industry

Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, and Los Angeles chef and activist Roy Choi used MAD4 to officially announce their ambitious new food venture, LOCO’L, which will start in 2015. “We’re going to go toe to toe with the fast food industry in the U.S., to challenge the status quo,” said Choi, who cooked an impressive “food truck” lunch at MAD for the audience. Patterson explained: “We have an eating problem in the States. It’s taken one generation to lose healthy eating habits, and it will take one generation to fix that.”

All 24 talks will be available to watch on MAD’s site in the coming months, including those by veteran master chefs Alain Senderens (on wine and food pairing); Olivier Roellinger (on biodiversity and giving back his 3 Michelin stars); Fulvio Pierangelini (on humble ingredients and the travails of being a chef); and Pierre Koffmann (on how to make an omelet). The conference closed with chef Albert Adrià — formerly of elBulli — who owns four restaurants in Barcelona. His disarming admission that it is fear, as much as talent, that drives his creativity was an inspiration to everyone present.

Main photo: Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO’L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.

“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).

Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.

The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.

These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”

“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”

Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:

  1. Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
  2. Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
  3. If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report  concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.

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Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.

Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.

Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.

“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”

As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”

Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods

This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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Japanese Knotweed. Credit: maljalen / iStockphoto

Tama Matsuoka Wong is a lawyer turned professional forager who is working to get people to think differently about plants that are often dismissed, or denigrated, as weeds. Rather than focus on the bounty that home gardeners traditionally celebrate, she spoke about foraging for wild plants at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See her talk on YouTube at the end of this story.)

Wong said her interest in this abundant source of nutritious and delicious ingredients began with a failed attempt at gardening, which she tried after moving back to New Jersey following several years in Hong Kong. “Gardening was a lot harder than I remembered it,” she said. “There are a lot of rules.”

Tama Matsuoka Wong. Credit: Thomas Schauer

Tama Matsuoka Wong. Credit: Thomas Schauer

Instead, she began learning about native plants, including many varieties that the average homeowner regards as intruders. The turning point came, Wong said, when a visitor from Japan told her that the plant known here as knotweed, considered an invasive species because it can damage building foundations, is viewed as a delicacy in Japan, where it’s known as itadori.

“That was the moment,” Wong said. “The weeds I was trying to battle are great food. Why is it that all this great food is around us and we don’t recognize it?”

In addition to being plentiful, wild plants are nutrient and flavor dense. “They haven’t been bred for shelf life or yield,” she said.

Wong began to research which wild plants are not just edible but delicious, a category that for her includes daylilies, chickweed, wild cress, wild garlic and creeping jenny. She began working with chefs interested in foraging to develop recipes, and today works with such heavy hitters as Eddy Leroux, head chef de cuisine at Restaurant Daniel, and Mads Refslund of ACME. She and Leroux teamed up on a cookbook, “Foraged Flavor,” which includes recipes as well as tips on finding and identifying edible wild plants.

Wong’s business, Meadows and More, provides foraging workshops. Her latest project is a wild sumac farm, which she successfully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year. She is planting 500-plus wild sumac trees on about an acre of unusable farmland preserved and owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Sumac is used to make za’atar, an increasingly popular spice traditionally used in Middle Eastern cooking.

In Wong’s words, “the wild farm crop will exist not only as part of a natural landscape that supports the health of the soil, water, air, pollinators and larger community but also actively restores it, without the need for irrigation, fertilizer, tillage or pesticides.”

Foraging tips to live by

Wong has several tips for anyone interested in foraging for wild plants, some of which she shared recently on NPR’s “Science Friday”:

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

— It’s critical to identify plants properly. Meadows and More offers help on its website, including a seasonal foraging calendar with helpful photos, and a plant identification forum where users can post photos of plants and have them identified by a botanist.

— Make sure you’re not picking in a place with heavy industrial use, which can contaminate the soil and water and, ultimately, the plants.

— Get permission from whoever owns the land on which you plan to forage. Not only is it more polite, but you’ll also be able to find out if there is any risk from pollution or pesticide use.

— Be environmentally responsible. Some native plants are very connected with the local ecology, and over-harvesting can lead to problems. For example, there is concern that ramps are suffering from their popularity, with an estimated 2 million ramps now being harvested annually. If you want to harvest ramps, Wong recommends clipping the top of the plant and leaving the root so it can regenerate.

— Some wild plants are “garden worthy.” You can plant them, as Wong is doing with the wild sumac farm.

Those looking for recipes for foraged plants have several resources in addition to Wong’s cookbook. There are recipes on the Meadows and More website, and Wong has contributed recipes to Serious Eats and Food52.

Wong firmly believes that wild plants will become a more important part of how we eat. “Weeds are the ultimate opportunistic, sustainable plants all over the world,” she said. “I don’t think we can top Mother Nature.”

In addition, Wong said, foraging for wild plants has benefits that go beyond the kitchen. Looking for plants in a meadow or in the woods, “you will notice things that are beautiful that you never noticed before,” she said. “We spend our lives chasing after fulfillment, and we can find it literally under our feet.”

Main photo: Japanese knotweed. Credit: maljalen / iStockphoto

This piece was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food.

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A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.

Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.

In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.

Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.

What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.

Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms

Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.

Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.

Real danger lies with industrial operations

It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.

The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.

The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.

The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.

When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.

Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.

Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.

Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

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In La Semilla, New Mexico, FoodCorps service members are learning to help students love kale in salad and tacos. Credit: Courtesy of School Meals That Rock Pinterest board

Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, was not happy. That was clear from the moment she began her presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s “Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids” initiative May 8 in San Antonio. In the morning she had watched Katie Couric, on national television, present a 10-minute clip from her new film “Fed Up” that detailed the nutritional horrors of the school lunch program.

“This information is out of date! It only tells half the story!” Hayes said.

Hayes is the founder of School Meals That Rock, a blog whose purpose is to communicate the positive developments in school lunch programs across the country. Presenting at a session titled “Best Practices for Increasing Participation: Making the Most of Social Media and Social Marketing,” she then exhorted the participants at the conference to put online their photos of salad bars and nutritionally sound school lunches. “Post it, Pin it, Tweet it, Eat it!!!” she told participants, most of whom either administer or cook for school lunch programs and have made it their mission to improve the diets of young Americans through their programs.

“We are in competition with a lot of Mommy bloggers who only see the negative side of school lunches. And “Fed Up” is going to be huge. We need to show the good work that we are doing. Take pictures in your cafeterias and send them to me so that I can post them on School Meals That Rock — but please, make sure they’re in focus! Post your menus online. Use social media!”

School Meals That Rock has a Facebook page that Hayes describes as “a place to share and celebrate what is RIGHT with school nutrition in America. It is a counter-revolution to the media bashing of school meals and a tribute to every lunch lady (and gentleman) working to do amazing things for kids’ nutrition.”

On May 12, School Meals That Rock launched a “Dear Katie Couric, Let’s Do School Lunch” campaign. (#InviteKatieCouricToSchoolLunch). Starting on the West Coast and moving east every few days, Hayes has invited her followers to post invitations to Katie Couric to visit their lunch programs on the Facebook page, on Twitter, on the School Meals That Rock Pinterest board and on the School Meals That Rock website.

Within 24 hours, Couric and @SchoolMealsRock were engaged in a lively conversation on Twitter, and lunch programs from school districts in Alaska, Washington and Oregon had posted invitations with winning photos from their schools and links to their sites. The next day California came on board. On May 15, Hayes posted a call-out to Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arizona.

From the Pinterest board for School Meals That Rock: #Katie Couric: We "mustache" that you visit us for lunch here in Provo, Utah where we bring fun to the fresh!

From the Pinterest board for School Meals That Rock: #Katie Couric: We “mustache” that you visit us for lunch here in Provo, Utah where we bring fun to the fresh!

More invitations have gone up by the hour on the Facebook page. Each virtual invitation has a great photo — kids on a farmers market salad bar line, kids making food, plated good food in school cafeterias — overlaid with the invitation to Couric and a link to the specific school lunch program site or school district site.

Overlays of the small yellow invitation photo give a little information about what the school district is doing, and you can scroll down the post to get more information. Here are just a few examples of the invitations that have gone out since the campaign began:

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

They make some delicious soups from scratch in Walla Walla, Washington.”

* * *

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

In Solvang, California, they ‘rescue’ organic veggies and kids love them on the daily salad bar at lunch!”

* * *

“Dear Katie Couric,

Let’s do school lunch!

Rosa might make you some of her famous Oregon roasted red potatoes with rosemary at the Bethel School District in Eugene, Oregon.”

* * *

I love scrolling down this page and reading about what the school districts are doing, because it is truly impressive and it gives me some hope. In Lodi, Calif., the food service department teams up with Food for Thought and brings fresh produce from local farms to elementary school students.

They teach students about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, and students use “school bucks” to shop for fresh produce. Another small California school district, El Monte, posts that they have “rock star status because they work closely with the Clinton Foundation and The Alliance for a Healthier Generation.” That district also makes “AWESOME fresh whole grain sub rolls!” A small school in the Santa Ynez Valley of California works with the Santa Ynez Valley Fruit & Vegetable Rescue and offers items such as roasted organic fennel and kale chips. In Haines, Alaska, they’re serving “fresh boat-to-school crab cakes.”

I hope that Couric and Laurie David, one of the film’s producers, visit some of these schools. Many school districts in this country have a long way to go, but thanks to the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, dedicated school nutrition professionals now have access to healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and quality dairy products such as yogurt. This is especially true of districts that provide subsidized school lunches. After reading about the crab cakes in Haines, I thought a virtual visit would not be good enough for me — If I were Katie Couric I’d make a beeline for Alaska.

Main photo: In La Semilla, New Mexico, FoodCorps service members are learning to help students love kale in salad and tacos. Credit: Courtesy of School Meals That Rock Pinterest board

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Dandelion greens with warm bacon vinaigrette. Credit: Wendy Petty

As a forager, I suspect the fact that world-class chefs are gaga for wild foods at once glamorizes them and makes them seem inaccessible to the home cook.

Like so many others, I’m inspired by the imaginative and innovative cooking techniques that top-level chefs such as Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson use with foraged foods, showcasing ingredients that some mock as sticks and berries to their full potential. The downside is that there seems to be a disconnect between people who are interested in eating foraged goods, and their ability to actually incorporate these wild foods into their kitchens.

When all is said and done, we’re still talking about eating weeds. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating weeds. I’m obsessed with seeking out and collecting them to eat. They are the backbone of my kitchen. Although foraging can certainly be an adventure, the meat of it has more to do with being able to cook with the plants I see every day than any exotic or obscure finds. These aren’t the sexy plants that make foodies drivel and drool, the deep-forest mushrooms and delicate gem-like flowers. They are humble leafy greens, dock, dandelions or invasive species of mustard. These are the same weeds reviled by gardeners, cities and farmers alike.

Know your wild plants

When I teach, I encourage people to let go of their desire to have an encyclopedic knowledge of wild edibles. Instead, I talk about getting to know 10 plants very well, seeing them at every stage of growth,  and knowing how to cook them at many stages. After all, I gained my own knowledge of wild plants one at a time. In some cases, it has taken me years to really understand a particular species. For an aspiring forager, it’s  better to know a few wild plants well and eat them on a regular basis than it is to know how to identify hundreds of plants without ever getting comfortable enough to actually eat them. If one is to know only a few foraged foods, it makes sense that they should be ones that are close at hand.

Dandelions. Credit:Wendy Petty

Dandelions. Credit: Wendy Petty

Just as the majority of car accidents happen within five miles of home, simply because that is where people spend most of their time driving, most of the foods I forage are outside my door. I’m particularly fond of foraging an old irrigation ditch, which makes for a pleasant bike ride from my home to an area that used to be an apple farm 100 years ago. It’s a route I’ve traveled a few times per week over the several years.

There’s a particular joy and intimacy that comes in interacting with the same small strip of land over time. I watch the seasons progress, and know when to expect certain crops. I also get to closely monitor spraying, mowing and other man-made dangers. In that one small area, I’ve witnessed years of drought, and the shocking flood that followed. Still, I’m still surprised to see new things along my favorite ditch all the time, plants I never knew were there, new nesting birds and predators that had previously remained hidden. Knowing that place well informs how I harvest, when each plant peaks, which of them needs to be harvested immediately, and which of them needs to be protected.

No Disney characters

I sometimes get the impression that people envision foraging to involve tip-toeing through dappled light with a basket over one’s arm, birds singing background music like Disney characters in the trees. The truth is that there’s little glamor in my daily walks or rides along my ditch. In fact, foraging in this way is often sweaty and backbreaking. I wear out several pairs of shoes every year. It takes careful consideration not to damage plant populations or ecosystems. Often, it involves selecting individual leaves from plants, or visiting many locations to harvest enough of a particular plant to make a recipe. Still, I’m an awestruck witness to a quiet beauty that is both constant and ever-changing. At its best, foraging is about developing a relationship, a connection, with a place. It is the ultimate act of local eating.

All good relationships are based upon respect. In this case, respect ensures that the same plants will be available to harvest for many years, and hopefully many generations, to come. My hope is that foraged foods can gain the same celebrity as food darlings such as kale. It can start with a combination of inspiration from dazzling chefs and a deep appreciation of the weedy and abundant wild foods that grow close to home.

Dandelion Greens With Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

Serves 4
Ingredients

8 slices cooked bacon, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil 2 shallots, finely chopped

¼ cup sherry vinegar pepper

4 eggs

8 cups dandelion greens, washed and torn into 3-inch pieces salt

Directions

1. In a skillet, brown the bacon in olive oil over medium high heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon pieces and set them aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium, add the shallots, and sauté until they become translucent but not browned.

3. Add the sherry vinegar and stand back as it bubbles away for 30 seconds to a minute. Remove the vinaigrette from the heat, then stir in a pinch of black pepper.

4. In a saucepan, bring 2 inches of water to a boil and then reduce it to a bare simmer, so that a few bubbles are rising. Break each egg first into a tea cup and then gently pour it  into the water. Poach the eggs for two minutes, or until the whites have set and the yolks are still soft when you push them with your finger.

5. In a large bowl, pour the vinaigrette over the dandelion greens. Give them a quick toss before transferring them to plates. Top each salad with crispy bacon pieces and a poached egg that has been blotted dry with a towel. Give each egg a sprinkling of salt and pepper before serving immediately.

Main story: Dandelion greens with warm bacon vinaigrette. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis / iStockphoto

Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?

Neu sees an opportunity.

She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is Deputy Director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”

So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.

For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:

— Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.

— Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.

The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.

The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.

There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.

Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.

“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”

(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)

The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.

Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday

For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:

1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.

2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.

3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.

4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.

6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.

7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.

8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.

9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.

10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.

Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”

Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto

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