Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two mores shorts from this week's food news

In an article descrying the children's menu and chicken fingers/nuggets in today's NY Times, David Kamp says
"We accept that it’s bad not to read to young children lest it affect their "wiring," and that it’s bad to let them slack off on exercise lest their muscles not develop, but we’re kind of lazy on the palate front. And really, discovering new foods and flavors is one of the most delightful experiences that childhood can offer. Personally, I far preferred it to reading and exercising."

Part of me says amen - it's time we got away from awful food for children. Part of me thinks my childhood was a balanced trinity of reading, eating and playing outdoors.

And I also learned that the Governator proclaimed January California Dried Plum Digestive Health Month. How many layers of euphemism is that removed from prunes?

I just don't eat out enough at the right places...

So I didn't know that some of the hipper ones are just saying no to bottled water and going tap - or tap filtered on their premises, or homemade seltzer water.

One thing that the NY Times article by Marian Burros does not mention is that bottled water is another way of privatizing as commodity something which should be accessible to all in the community.
But still, this is a step in the right direction.

And frankly, a restaurant which depends on the profit it makes from bottled water should rethink its values. I'm glad some have. See the link in the sites list to the right.

To market, to market

I've been thinking a lot recently about industrial organic, and who buys (can afford) organic food. Several articles this week have converged on this topic.

A friend sent me a link to a Globe and Mail article - another person, this time a Canadian sociologist, questioning what happened to the environmental and economic justice values of the organic farming movement. She suggests that most organics are really "yuppie chow." (I like that!)

Irena Knezevick writes in her paper (as quoted by the G&M)
"Organic foods have less and less to do with the ethics of environmentalism, anti-globalization and social justice, indeed less to do with organic agriculture as a concept, but more and more with hip consumerism, cultural and economic capital and the moral pedestals of those who have the luxury to make such purchasing choices."

This brought to mind my own modest consumer research project last week. I decided that if we are having an Oliver's Market (high end local rising chain) in my neighborhood, I had better overcome my reverse snobbery and try once again shopping there. I had to pass by the one in Cotati between my book group and a potluck, so I stopped in. The people - not the staff, the people who shop there - really do seem part of the yuppie chow crowd, a group with which I would prefer not to identify. But focusing on the merchandise, what I saw was that there was a lot of local food, things were well labeled, and the specials were worth shopping. Standard prices are high, but when something is on sale it really is. And 60+ get a 10% discount on Wednesdays.

The Globe and Mail article also touches on a lot of the problems we hope our U.S. Farm Bill will address: declining numbers of farmers, loss of small diversified farms, erosion of quality in rural life, excessive subsidies for industrial agriculture. It reminded me of meeting with some rural folks from Saskatchewan when I went to the Anglican Church's General Synod in 1989. Amazing that there is just beginning to be some wider recognition (outside of those who live and minister in rural North America) of the problems almost 20 years later.

Read about it here:

Back to organics. There was also an interesting article in the news feed I get from the BBC earlier in the week. The modest proposal of the Soil Association, which certifies organics, is to remove the certification from food stuffs flown into Britain, since clearly food miles are part of the equation if one really cares about the planet. (Rather than just one's own personal health - when any organic, even one that's travelled halfway around the world will do.)

Here's the story:
The accompanying video clip is worth watching. Apparently part of the problem is that most organic produce is imported, and most of the UK produce on offer in supermarkets is conventionally grown. A basket of local seasonal produce racked up a total of 1100 food miles; while a basket of organics rang up 32,000 food miles. No - no mistake on those zeroes - organic asparagus flown from Thailand to Britain will do that, especially if you throw in lots of fruit from Israel and South America.

One more note: I finally saw both in print and on television (what was I watching? reading?) ads for Target's "Archer Farms" line. Talk about greenwashing! It's like they watched the Meatrix and created a caricature of the caricature of the happy farm shown there.
See and hear it here:
Aw shucks!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Why didn't I think of this?

I'm spending time with the web today, reviewing and updating resources for the upcoming inaugural meeting of our diocesan ecological network on June 2.

Here's one thing I stumbled upon - an acronym that makes sense:

Locally produced
Organically grown
Animal friendly
Fairly traded

If you read the article below you'll have to do a little Brit to American translating, but it's quite an interesting and balanced piece. And how about that acronym?

On the same site I read about supermarket tours. What a concept. Helping people to read labels, ask questions, and pursue the LOAF principles when they shop.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Beef Prices Going Up

Well, the guys I overheard on a plane bemoaning the fact that ethanol production was going to raise meat prices have now been vindicated by an article in Wednesday's New York Times.

Seems like unhelpful weather in the Midwest and the amount of corn going to first generation biofuels have combined for less animal feed at a higher price. Cattle are spending less time on feedlots, and that richly marbled meat that human carnivores love and their cardiovascular systems don't is in short supply at skyrocketing prices.

This should be good news for the health of people and planet. Though of course we are still stuck with the fossil fuel inputs and soil erosion of industrial corn production for ethanol.

And I have been wondering about the insatiable demand for beef of the fast food industry. Will they be forced to turn to even more imported beef, driving yet more habitat destruction to create grazing land?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Garden Progress

I've been devoting a fair amount of time to gardening this past week, which may explain why I haven't entered much here. There were things in my small backyard that couldn't be ignored any longer, though now most of them are done. The over winter chard is gone, the arugula has bolted and the parsley, too - but now the basil and tomato are in.

I say tomato, singular, because I have so little sun in the back yard it is really tricky to grow many. I have one heirloom plant in a giant pot on wheels (with some red rubin basil tucked in), so I can chase the sun a bit as the seasons shift and the sun moves.

Sometimes it feels like such an exercise in futility, compounded last year by someone eating all the cherry tomatoes. Birds, possums, skunks? or even rats, which someone in another unit complained of last year?

The shade is a boon for the native woodland strawberries - eating a few of the little devils is a reward for getting the late spring chores done. And I do seem to get as many as the birds do.

Over at the community garden we have scaled back expectations, settling on a demonstration garden for this year. The small plot of green manure we planted late last fall has been tilled in, thanks to Pastor Flak. Karen and some helpers spread a layer of compost on it. But the soil is still miserable clay - it's going to take years of growing, digging and adding compost to turn this vast empty plot into a fruitful garden - but it clearly is the best act of stewardship. Just managing the weeds - for fire abatement - is a continuing headache, so if we can make a community garden spot out of it, at least the labor involved will seem rewarding, not a repetitive thankless chore.

For this year double digging the whole demo plot (which in future will be about the right size for two allotments) would have been impossible. This is partly due to labor available (mostly mine for double digging) and partly due to the very dry winter. Clearly the rain is over now, and digging in the clay will just get more and more difficult.

So we (Marilyn and Stan and I) are gopher proofing one bed along the north side - which will be planted in pole beans and sunflowers. Then we are digging holes/hills and using improv gopher baskets (no - the gophers are not collected in the baskets - the baskets are wire around the plant roots, so the gophers don't take 'em down) for tomato plants and hills of squash and pumpkins. Planting this late we are going for a splash of things that do well in heat and take up space. We want people to know that we are at work, transforming this field.

I'm going to begin slowly putting in some perennials, with an emphasis on it in the fall. Marilyn and I both want to try some rhubarb. I swear it's the Swedish genes!

This week we've been working in the evenings, and hope to have a couple of boys from the congregation help us finish up the digging and some of the planting. It's a blessing to be out there as the day begins to cool. We have California Quail for company, ducks and geese flying over. Did I mention we are near a creek that runs toward the Laguna main channel?

There are also real possibilities for community. The 12-Step groups which use the church weekday evenings have lots of people, and surely some of them must be interested in gardening?

If we can do a little Tom Sawyer action with the garden (actually we don't really need to try to make it look fun - it is fun - and good exercise) the goal is to have four times the area next year, with eight to ten gardeners. Think of the possibilities!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Biofuels and Food Security

I've been reading the UN report Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers and have been overwhelmed by the complexities of the issues.

Since the report is 60 pages and pretty dense, I'm going to focus on the implications for food security in these reflections.

The basic challenge is how to make the these three things - food, feed, and fuel - work together. (The report doesn't list fiber, as it might, or we'd be talking about the four Fs of crops.)

One thing I learned: as development increases, there is an increased demand for dairy and meat, which increases the need for animal feed production, thus causing even greater competition among the 3 Fs when we look at the global picture. Already 30% of the world grain supply is used to feed livestock.

Another framework to think about: food security involves four major dimensions: availability of enough food, access, particularly for low income people, stability of the food supply over time, and utilization, meaning people's ability to use the nutrients in the available food.

If land, water and other resources are used to produce biofuels rather than food, availability could diminish.

If the use of food crops for biofuels (corn) increases, commodity prices will increase, making these crops less accessible to the poor. And the poor depend on cereals and the like for most of their calories.

But it's also true that growing biofuel feedstocks could improve the income of rural folks and thus contribute to better food access. This may come into play more with second generation biofuels (not ethanol).

Stability is an interesting one. Apparently, and this makes sense to me as I thought about it, prices for biofuels move with petroleum prices. So volatility in biofuel prices could be one more variable affecting the agriculture sector, even when the agriculture in question is not dependent on inputs from fossil fuels. And of course, if you have less money and no wealth, as the poor do, you have a lot harder time adjusting to rapid shifts in prices.

Utilization is dependent on other health factors, particularly water supplies. Where biofuel feedstock production competes for water, health of people in those areas could be threatened.

BUT - if biofuels replace more expensive and more polluting fuels locally, cooking could be more efficient, and food utilization greater.

All this is just a taste of the no-simple-answers content of this paper.

Factoid - no - metafactoid: Even though the percentage of hungry people in the world has declined, the number has stayed the same. More people around the world die of hunger than of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

What are the new philanthropists doing about global hunger?

It appears that one key piece of biofuel development will involve how quickly we can move to the second generation of biofuels - away from the liquid biofuels being produced in quantity today.

There are even some possibilities of positive synergy, for example, if nitrogen fixing legumes used for biofuels production were to be rotated with food crops - enriching the soil over time. On the other hand, there could be a push to plow up rangelands and the like , to plant switchgrass and other proposed crops, with the attendant environmental damage. And, of course, those rangelands can feed livestock without additional feed, so the pressure on raising feed for meat would be greater.

Clearly a lot of analysis needs to happen to model and undertand the effects of biofuel production on food security. Will policy makers - in governments and global corporations - take the time to do this? know how to do this? care enough about the poor to do this? There is also a need to come up not with one plan or solution, but with a range of schemes that will suit different contexts, cultures, and environments.

Here's a loaded sentence from the report:

"Agricultural research aimed at improving productivity, conserving water, and building soil fertility can lessen the tension between food, feed, and fuel production by increasing overall agricultural output in a sustainable manner."

But will the research (increased funding for biofuel research is proposed for the Farm Bill) on biofuels proceed with sustainability as the highest value? or growth and profit?

And will the research funding be directed at small scale local possibilities - or only integrated agribusiness?

Silly footnote: When I was making some notes on "biofuels" in wordperfect, the spell check suggested "beefaloes" as the proper spelling. Let's use that rangeland for ruminants!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Trinity Institute Retreat - Soul of the Earth: Justice, Ecology & Contemplation

Trinity Institute Retreat
Soul of the Earth: Justice, Ecology & Contemplation
with Majora Carter and Barbara Crafton

Explore how our passion for the earth meets the love of God in the human community.

Friday, August 3 – Sunday, August 5, 2007
Trinity Conference Center
West Cornwall, Connecticut

Majora Carter

Social justice environmentalist, MacArthur Fellow and founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, an emergent community organization dedicated to the implementation of sustainable development projects for the South Bronx that are informed by the needs of the community and the values of environmental justice. She has been featured on Now (PBS), Speaking of Faith (NPR), and at major conferences in the United States and internationally.
More Info.

Barbara Crafton

Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and founder of The Geranium Farm. Her books include The Sewing Room: Uncommon Reflections on Life, Love, and Work; Finding Time for Serenity; and Yes, We’ll Gather at the River. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Christian Century, New Woman, and many other periodicals.
More info.

The Trinity Conference Center is located on a bend in the Housatonic River, just a half-mile from the covered bridge in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, on 500 forested acres. Renowned for its comfortable rooms and gourmet cuisine that accommodates virtually all possible dietary restriction, the Center is two hours from New York, an hour-and-a-half from Albany, three hours from Boston, and an hour from Hartford and Bradley International Airport (BDL).
See photos and get directions.

Like all living things, human beings had a beginning and will one day have an end. As individuals, we leave part of ourselves behind when we leave this life, for the building of what comes next.

What does come next? Will our choices slow it down or help it along? The earth and all that is in it will survive. Will we survive with it, or will we insist on our own early death, leaving the earth to begin again without us? Join us for contemplation and communal action. Group work will be complemented by time for individual reflection, refreshment, and opportunities for worship.

Participants will return home more confident in their ability to make a difference in the future of the earth, as individuals and in their communities.

Schedule: The retreat begins with lunch at noon on Friday, August 3 and runs through lunch on Sunday, August 5.

Trinity Institute
74 Trinity Place
New York, NY 10006
ATTN: Soul of the Earth

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dairy in the news

The New York Times food news feed is filled with dairy related articles this weekend.

The dairy industry will no longer be able to make weight loss claims for a diet containing low fat dairy products. Frankly, the claims did seem really silly to me, but what do I know.

All of this plays into the ongoing difference of opinion between dairy promoters and dairy detractors.

There are lots of things to object to in the American way of dairy. The cramped cows, the subsidized feed, the methane, the hormones. The Meatrix II - the mootrix? Is it really necessary to suggest three servings of dairy per day for everybody as the new food pyramid (which is so much better in other ways than its predecessors) does?

At the same time, adolescents and women of a certain age have been told just how great their calcium need is to grow/maintain healthy bones.

There seems to be a bit of a sea change, though. This year when I saw the nurse practitioner who provides my women's health care, she didn't harp on calcium in my diet, but vitamin D. Sunscreen and aging both reduce the amount of it one makes from sunshine - and that's assuming one gets away from the computer and climate-controlled auto and house interiors and gets some sunshine. Doctors and nutritionist are advocating a lowering of the calcium recommendations (to 600 or 700 mg per day), but vitamin D supplements for older folks. And it is possible, with care, to get the calcium from non-dairy, even non-soy, non-fortified sources.

I probably eat too many dairy products, even though I do not drink milk. No football fan, I'm still a cheese head. Cheese, bread and wine - those three great combos of natural processes and human ingenuity. Why do we bless God for bread and wine and not cheese? My challenge is to limit myself to 1 ounce of good cheese worth eating (not low fat) per day. I've always loved ice cream, but can convince myself that low (not non) fat yogurt and fruit "sundaes" are just as good, maybe better. And sometimes I want a breakfast egg cooked in a little butter. So, not eating meat, dairy is the major source of saturated fat in my diet.

In other dairy news, Stonyfield Farms will be bringing an organic yogurt product to Europe. I have to say that I've been finding good prices on local organic yogurt here lately and really enjoying it. It doesn't have that extra stuff added to make it stiff, and it tastes good.

But I have a reuse problem - the one quart yogurt containers. I follow the rule of thumb of using plastics five times before putting them in the recycling. I reuse pint containers all the time to freeze portions of soups, stews and chilis. When there's no more room left to write the contents on the lid, in the recycling they go. They are usually a little weird by then anyway. But I don't freeze large portions, so the quart containers just accumulate. I've been scratching my head to find a creative use for them, but no luck. Suddenly it dawned on me: it is time to buy another yogurt maker. I've had two in the past - the big simple one burnt out, and the little jars one I gave away - too fussy. So I need to get a new one - a simple one that will make a quart or more at a time, from the good local milk that is available to me.

And then I might make yogurt cheese for my fresh cheese needs. Another article talks of a return to plain foods, and identifies ricotta as one of the best of the lot. I love ricotta - but need to search out a local one that might be fresher or tastier - or make my own, or a reasonable substitute. I've linked the plain food/ricotta article, because I wanted to try every recipe in it. Especially the coeur a la creme with rhubarb sauce.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

More on the Sustainable Enterprise Conference

I've been mulling over some of what I learned last weekend, and am somewhat surprised by the connections. I think it started when in the workshop on Web 2.0 our leader said there were many common values between geeks and greens, and it was time environmental activists got over their anti-technology attitude. I don't think I've ever been there, but I certainly saw what he meant. And when you add in the challenges of re-localization, which we heard about on the second day, you really have something: a renewing of the local economy and community combined with greater global communication and trans-local networking and collaboration through the wiki-world.

(Is wiki-world an amusement park?)

It also seems to me that local ministry development fits into this picture - the revitalization of the local congregation in its context, with its resources, combined with greater connectivity with the wider church no longer mediated by a professional clergy class.

What does this have to do with food?

Well, perhaps food is the place where can begin to live into relocalization and enhanced communication, and also one place where we can sign that reality.

Suppose our congregations put more of emphasis on the seasonal and the local in our feeding and food distribution programs, with gleaners, and community gardens, and the like? And suppose we could then build a network of churches doing this, to share vision and information, and maybe even to work together to get some grants - to redistribute money to local projects - not just in one locale, but in national or even international networks.

And suppose a locavore meal were not something we did once a year at church - but that every Sunday the coffee hour, the flowers, the potluck, reflected the beauty of the local season in that place?

Then there's the whole notion of sharing. Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute suggested we need to bring back sharing. Why are our congregations not sharing networks? We don't need to go to the extreme of challenging the concept of private property (though some of us might like to) to see that there are many things some own that could be shared by everyone. There might even be some things - tools or equipment or ??? - I need to do more imagining here - that we could hold in common and then "rent" from the church to members.

There was not just a rush of self-righteous frugality, but real joy, when I lived in Los Angeles and the Horstmans brought a big bag of lemons to share from their very old back yard tree. Ditto in congregations around here when excess fall persimmons find their way to church. How could we see this sharing of bounty as sign and invitation to get creative and do more?

Another message for our churches I took away from the relocalization address was that limits are good. Too often, I think, our churches have bought into the American way of Growth Is Good. Thirty-five years ago on those early Earth Days, I thought about limits, and what a theology of limits might look like. It is time to revisit this, and draw out of our bag of tricks those Christian virtues which respect the limits of nature, and the limits which justice requires.

Okay - one last heavy thought. Darley said that relocalization is inevitable. That feels like both a statement of doom and a challenge to get started now, and do it right, in ways that are creative and adventursome, not cramped and painful.

Monday, May 7, 2007


Here's a NY Times opinion piece on the rush to appear green.

This seems to relate to some of my musings about the Sustainable Enterprise conference which I'll be posting later today or tomorrow. Specifically - one of my activities at the conference was looking for the inconsistencies in the presentations and pitches. There are lots bigger ones in this article.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Whatever happened to economic justice for its own sake?

Over the next few days I will be posting my reflections on the Sustainable Enterprise Conference which I just attended. But right now I am troubled by a trend I see, and want to comment on it.

I've known for some time that neither major political party cares about the poor, but I didn't realize that this trend had taken over the discourse about poverty.

Most of the people who attended SEC2007 are privileged, and somewhat myopic with it, but I didn't realize this could be willful until I began to weigh the evidence.

Our speaker late morning today, Carol Misseldine, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Oakland, said, "The resentment and restlessness of the poor is a barrier to sustainability."

Seems to me the poor have a right to be resentful and restless, and we have an obligation as fellow human beings to address their plight in its own right, not because it gets in the way of sustainability.

It's funny, you know - I am one in church circles who is always asking why we are looking at only human issues and ignoring the concerns of the rest of creation. But in groups like the SEC crowd, I end up being the one angry about neglecting human need, class inequalities, etc., as we attempt to address systemic problems.

I found a similar thought expressed in the introduction to Food Fight by Fred Kirschenmann. He writes that a reason for sound agricultural policy is a stable society. "Malnutrition and starvation breed terrorism and social unrest."

Well, malnutrition and starvation are just plain unconscionable. They are wrong in their own right, not because they cause behaviors and movements which upset our comfortable lives.

(But - don't let that stop you from reading Food Fight. It has great information on why the farm bill matters to all of us.)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Seafood Guidelines

I realize that I still have lots of material to post here - I just keep getting caught up with new information.

So - I've added two links on seafood choices. One from World Watch is very simple - just 3 rules of thumb to help in choosing which fish to eat and how much.

The second is probably the best and most comprehensive resource for such information, the Seafood Watch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here you can get all kinds of information about an array of species, and download and print one of the regional guides, handy for pocket or purse when you go shopping. The information here is updated regularly, so be sure to check back from time to time. It's a great place and a great sight.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Biofuels, if you can get past the sponsor

I'm not going to post this site in my links list

because it's pretty lame.

First, it's still labeled the global warming "debate". It's not a debate, though what to do about it is a wide ranging discussion at times.

Second, you're unlikely to see anything about links between the food system and global warming, since much of the content is sponsored by ADM. Greenwashing writ large.

But yesterday's coverage of Steven Chu and colleagues' work at UC Berkeley dealt with a lot of the important questions and questionable dynamics around biofuels (though light on the international ones), and I commend it for your listening.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

how far is 100 miles?

I've just added a link to the "100 mile diet" web site, companion to the book of the same name. There is a radius finder here - you can see where your 100 mile foodshed falls. And then you can redefine it if you like. For example, I know that it makes my life easier to stretch mine south a few miles to Salinas, Watsonville and Castroville, whence much green produce comes. I also consider our whole diocese within my food shed if I'm traveling there anyway - buying cheese when traveling to Humboldt and Del Norte counties is a good thing.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Web portal worth checking

I've just posted a new link, to the companion web site for Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Thanks to Susan for this. I've been hoping to see the author when her tour comes through Santa Rosa, as there's a benefit for OAEC at the Wells Fargo Center. (which used to be the Luther Burbank Center, and still should be!)

The site has something for everyone, including the recipes from the book, but also extensive links on local, seasonal eating, and with promises of more to come. It's really both site and portal.