Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One of the challenges of our Sonoma County Food System Alliance is getting enough representation from workers in our meetings. Though many members of the Alliance work with and speak for low wage earners and the poor, it's a pretty elite group. So I was interested today to read an article in our Press-Democrat about an invention designed to benefit the laborers in the vineyards, a device for cooling folks off in hot weather.

It uses mist and shade to create a cooler environment - just like the outdoor seating at posh restaurants.

This is in part a response to the death of a young woman in 2008 due to heat stroke. Some growers ignore regulations to provide shade and drinking water. And according to the article there is a standoff between unions and growers about proposed CalOSHA regulations. Should the temperature at which heat stress requirements for the growers go into effect be 75F or 85F?

(Personally I always hark back to a Finnish study I read about when working in an office without AC in Los Angeles, that brain function begins to be impaired at 78F. I bet the medical reality for heat stress is somewhere in the middle of those two figures being debated, though closer to 75, especially for physical labor under the sun.)

Whatever. The effort of a Napa Valley guy to do invent something to help with this situation is to be applauded.

I've got a couple of questions, though.

Is there some way other than heavy water use to achieve a cooling environment for workers? The grapes are already using so much of our water, and misting people cools them, but doesn't do much to rehydrate them.

The other thing I question is some of the language used in the article.

"Patterson [the inventor] characterizes his trailer is[sic] an 'asset protection tool' for businesses whose employees labor in the sun because the penalties for failing to properly care for workers can far outweigh the Cooling Station's $20,000 price tag."
So this is not about respecting the lives and health of workers, it's about covering your ass[ets].

"The Cooling Station was named as one of the top 10 products of 2010 by World Ag Expo in Tulare County for its potential to advance agricultural production." Again, it's about producing more, not really about concern for people at all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"the inexorability of excrement"

What a line! the high-falutin' version of "s - - t happens", or perhaps "compost happens".

In the science section of the NY Times there's an article with pictures about manure management at industrial dairies.

The pictures are better than the article (except for the one captioned lactating Holsteins with three critters without a teat in sight), which seems to me curiously unbalanced for a science article.

Of course it is worth celebrating that a dairy uses the manure from its cows on nearby fields to grow the cows' feed, and that water is conserved in the process of waste management and used for irrigation. But there is no mention here of the contribution of cattle waste to greenhouse gas totals - a very significant issue. There also seem to be a whole lot of fossil fuels used in managing the manure.

I wonder, too, why we must have balance in journalism - but apparently not when we right about mega scale agriculture? I'd like to hear about manure management from a small scale sustainable dairy.

Now I'm going to go back and scan the reader comments on this article, and see what others have said.

Well, it seems that many people found this to be, well, a crappy article, leaving many questions unanswered. How can we continue to make dairy food affordable (while eating less of it), and truly sustainable dairy farming profitable?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

movie reviews en francais

The movies, not the reviews, are in French.

In the television dead zone that is Advent I have been happy about the existence of Netflix and Hulu. So much so that I may, after a dozen years, go back to being without a television.

The Gleaners and I is a 2000 treatment, with a 2002 update, of gleaners in France, inspired by Millais's painting. Agnes Varda documents her own attempts at gleaning and those of others. Not limited to fields, vineyards and orchards, gleaning goes on at farmers' markets, at the shore, in dumpsters and metaphorically. Vargas also explores the legal framework that permits gleaning.

I found Vargas' discoveries charming and never condescending - and I felt encouraged to see what more I might do to undertake some organized gleaning here. But I'm not sure I have the courage or the fitness levels required for dumpster diving!

The problem with watching French movies, of course, is that while I catch some of the language, I do depend on the subtitles, and that means I don't get much knitting done while watching them. Food Beware: the French Organic Revolution did leave me some moments to tune out a bit - it's a very heavy health and food-caused illness emphasis, which for me is not the primary reason to eat organic food. What I really liked, in this movie centered on reforming a school lunch program in an agricultural area of France, was watching the children eat. They sat at tables for eight or so, mixed ages, with the food served family style. The cooks actually came out of the kitchen, prodding some children to eat their vegetables, interviewing others about their reactions to what was being served. Oh that we would have a little more of this human community around our institutional food here in the U.S. Or even our family meals, dare I say it. Seeing the kids in their vegetable patch, watching the whole community get behind the transition to organics, and listening the challenges of agriculturalists in the area did hold my interest for much of the movie.

This coming week I will mostly be doing "my own work" which will include more blog updates including movie reviews.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why don't we have something like this?

One of the problems in reforming our US food system is that the various issues are placed in a fascinatingly eclectic array of government agencies.

While checking out the link on the site of the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production - a wonderfully comprehensive list - I was reminded that in Britain they have got the whole spectrum in one department: DEFRA - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

On their web site you can find the 411 on current legislation and news in all these areas. For example, you could learn about marine fisheries' health or "mad cow" disease, food labeling or CFL bulbs, farm wages or invasive species, dangerous dogs and national parks, and badger vaccination programs.

I don't have Britain envy when it comes to church, but I sure do when I think about this attempt to integrate these things I am concerned about - except maybe vaccinating badgers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Re - re - re - re - re

No, I'm not singing Aretha's anthem, though it's one of my favorites.

I'm thinking about our lengthening list of re-'s, which began with reduce, reuse, recycle, and now features repurpose, rethink, reskill...

And, of course, the biggy, relocalize.

Scanning our local post-petroleum monthly email compendium the other day, I saw a magazine, partially available free on-line, Resurgence.

And in the recent issue, an article suggesting that the new key work is "resilience".

In it Rob Hopkins of Britain's Transition Network (raising consciousness and doing training in relocalization) suggests that not sustainability, but resilience, is the key property of systems which we should be emphasizing if we are to take the disruptions of climate change and post peak oil seriously.

Let's see if I understand this well enough to explain it. If we look at our local food system, sustainability has us paying attention to the fact that we are using few external inputs, that we are decreasing the number of seasonal jobs in favor of more stable year round employment, that our crops are in harmony with our local environment, and not a detriment. That sort of thing.

Now in a resilient system, we pay attention to biodiversity in our seed stock, so that we can face the coming drought (due to climate change) hopefully. We look at food storage strategies that are not energy intensive, as a hedge against crop failure. We help our workers learn a variety of skills, to enhance their chances of finding useful employment year round as weather patterns change. We look not only at sourcing agricultural inputs locally, but at marketing our product locally, too, perhaps with value added, as a hedge against escalating prices for transportation.

It occurs to me that the two things most necessary to building resilience in our systems are diversity - especially nurturing diversity locally, in eco and human systems - and community. Surely these are things good Christian people know something about. My own work with Total Ministry congregations has emphasized identifying and nurturing diversity, especially diversity of gifts, and strengthening people's capacity to work together, to achieve a more deliberate practice of community - not just for the sake of getting along, but for working and envisioning together. So I wonder why so few congregations are involved in this work or relocalization, of helping the communities in which they exist become more vibrantly resilient?

Fair Food Project

is a multimedia presentation from the California Institute for Rural Studies, an eco-justice organization.

I was mightily impressed by these three short segments describing the problems of farm workers. Comparing field labor working and living conditions to sweatshops - would we tolerate it or be protesting? But we are so invested in our cheap food supply, and the fields are so far away from our population centers, or from our sight even if they are not.

The second and third segments stress solutions. Sustainability involves workers, too. Whole foods, if we really meant it, involve a whole farm approach, seeing things systemically. A values-based rather than a product-based assessment of farm success is needed. And what about the idea that farmers building relationships with farm workers creates commitment, and with it increased productivity. There are many good clips and quotes here of farm owners trying to do the right thing for people and planet.

And - a tangential observation - after you've seen all the tomatoes picked green in the photos here, you will understand the lack of flavor in those you find at the supermarket. Even the last few from my garden, picked before frost and ripened inside after, have more flavor.

I'm going to buy this book

Yesterday I returned the library's copy of Cool Cuisine by Laura Stec.

I've actually had some email correspondence with Laura thanks to a member of the Environmental Commission in the Diocese of California. So I wanted to read her book on climate change and our food choices.

There is lots of data here, data you can use, data that's sound scientifically, with footnotes, no less. How our food is produced makes a significant contribution to greenhouse gases - which we knew. But here in one place is the ammo for making the case for those who don't want to spend endless hours surfing the web, and wondering about the edginess of some of the sites with data.

Laura is clearly not a strident purist, but a chef who wants people to do something to make a difference, improving their diet and its pleasures, while lessening their foodprint. One example is her comment on using imported spices and condiments - if they we get you eating more fruits and vegetables which are locally sourced, go ahead. What struck me as strange though, was the lapse into macrobiotic mythology (and I'm afraid here I am using that term not correctly, but pejoratively) in the latter chapters of the book. For me, the woo-woo detracted from the sensible tone of the rest of the work.

You'll also find here suggestions for things to do with others. Start a book and cook club and follow the suggestions for documentaries to watch and tastings to explore. And of course there are recipes. Great photos, too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Food Security

State by state food insecurity

Why is it so high in states with moderate climates and long growing seasons?

Statistics on Hunger in the US

for 2008 were published last week.

In 2007 88.9% of households in the US were food secure - that is, they didn't worry that they were running out of food before they could afford to buy more, eat unbalanced meals because of a lack of food and the money to buy more, or skip meals because of a lack of food.

In 2008 it was 85.4% of households which could claim food security, with increasing food insecurity in middle income households.

Food insecurity among households with children is higher that the general numbers, particularly for single parent households. It was before the bottom fell out, and it probably will be if and when there is a recovery.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Good News for women, children and maybe food deserts

Somewhere in my travels last week, I heard on NPR's Marketplace about how the changes in WIC allowed foods were affecting small retailers. It's now possible to buy many more things with WIC coupons, including fresh fruits and vegetables - not just canned and juiced - and soy products. The theory is that this may cause small retailers in some neighborhoods, where access to food shopping is limited and where poor young women shop, to stock more of these things. Imagine. Tofu at the 7-11.

But looking through the new food lists and the related FAQs, here's what I think:
Any young woman who can care for children and navigate the details of these guidelines (like why you can't buy canned black eyed peas with your veg coupons, but you can buy frozen - or why only GMO soybean derived soy milks are on the list, but you can get McCann's steel cut irish oats - or why you can pay extra if your fresh fruit goes over the dollar value, but if your pound of bulk oats or lentils turns out to weigh 18 oz. the clerk has to dump out the extra - and on and on and on) should be given a college degree.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gone in 23 seconds

That's how quickly pigs with a little experience located food whose image they could see in a mirror.

Recent studies in pig genetics and cognition are summarized in this recent article from the NY Times.

a bummer of a news day

I didn't take an audio book in the car with me today for a trip to CDSP. Mistake. I got so bogged down listening to news that glorifies war and violence. Wasn't the original November 11 celebration a celebration of peace?

To top it all off, this item caught my attention:

The nominee for the head of US AID, Rajiv Shah, M.D., is a former Gates Foundation employee and skilled at "building public-private partnerships with major technology development firms" - like - you guessed it - ta da - Monsanto.

Obama's appointments make the White House vegetable garden look like the worst kind of gratuitous gesture.

See Shah's resume here:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The True Cost of Shrimp

Great information on "The Perils of Overfishing" from Fresh Air.

Part I:

Part II:

Daniel Pauly from UBC tells it like it is: grim.

Listening reminded me that Sylvia Earle was on the Colbert Report a few weeks back and kept repeating her mantra of tilapia, catfish, carp. Darn - I wish I found farmed freshwater bottom feeders tasty.
The neon aquarium in the background is a particularly nice touch.

What Would Jesus Eat?

Just found this at

- an online event - faith perspective on food...

What Would Jesus Eat?

DATE: Thursday, November 5, 2009

TIME: 8:00 PM (New York time)


COST: Free.

CONVERSATION: Everyone eats. But what precisely are you eating? And why are you eating it? And what is the spiritual practice of eating? Lucas Land will lead an informative and stirring conversation on the relationship of faith and food. It is called "What Would Jesus Eat?" Be sure to bring your food stories, insights, and comments. You can get to know Lucas at his website when you click here.

REGISTER: Registration is free, but you must reserve your place. You can RSVP by emailing Kevin at When you do, you will receive log-in instructions.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monsanto, Microsoft and Africa

I didn't watch the News Hour much all summer - either baseball or work in the garden filled the early evening slot - and so I was surprised to see the Monsanto ad when I tuned in last week. It isn't greenwashing - it's just blatant lying.

This print version
is tame by comparison.

The ad on the News Hour concludes:
"That’s sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about."

I screamed disgust at the tv, and Moko ran under the bed.

This latest mass media lie by Monsanto has convinced me that the word sustainable is lost - I feel as though I can only use it when I know exactly to whom I am talking, and know that they share my ideas.

Vandana Shiva doesn't pull any punches in her opinions about Monsanto in this short promo for the non-profit Center for Food Safety:

But we've known Monsanto's game for a long time.

What was news to me was just how intertwined Monsanto and the Gates Foundation are.

A friend handed on the 21 September issue of The Nation, which had this article by Raj Patel
with a nuanced critique of the new green revolution proposed for Africa.

The writers draw on the research of the Community Alliance for Global Justice in Seattle, which reports that that they have found the Gates have given over $100 million in grants to organizations with links to Monsanto.

And what do Monsanto and Microsoft have in common? A deeply held belief in the value of intellectual property. It's not the simple belief in technology; it's the belief in who owns it, in who controls knowledge, in who profits.

This is so depressing I may have to find some silly comedies to watch before bedtime.

If Bill and Melinda really wanted to do something for the farmers of Africa, they would stop supporting GM seeds, with the monocropping and related land grabs and environmental degradation they cause. They'd find a way to use communication technology to help the small-scale farmers on that continent share the successes they are having using traditional knowledge of ecological agriculture in even better ways.

But philanthropy will condescend.

There's an exchange of letters about the article here:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Cooking Animal

Several years ago when I was working at the NCSE, one of the things I thought about a lot was "What makes us human?" I realized that one of the reasons people resist the complex of well-established theories we call evolution is this - everybody wants to be special, and they want humanity to be special, too.

For a while laughter was my favorite distinguishing characteristic. Apes do it - but it's different, on the inhale rather than the exhale - and never loud and hearty. But still it's a continuum - and it seems like anything we can think of that distinguishes our species behaviorally has precedent somewhere among our warm-blooded kin of one sort or another.

But cooking stuck with me as a strong candidate for species specific behavior - something we do as a regular intentional behavior, not just for one kind of food in one situation - like the monkeys of Nagano Olympics fame in their hot springs. Turns out that cooking may have influenced our evolution, and be truly integral to humanity. At least Richard Wrangham thinks so:

And if he's right, cooking may be foundational to what evolved as patriarchy, a sex-linked behavior that kept our early sisters in the kitchen. And we've adapted to cooked food, evolved with our cooking, so that raw food diets are not adequate for us. So much for all those diet books based in faux anthro.

If you, dear reader, have read the book, Catching Fire: how cooking made us human, please comment. The library waiting list is long, and I'm resisting buying books.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No More MacDonald's!

in Iceland, that is.

The franchisee there simply can't afford the imported ingredients since the big financial meltdown.

Apparently Mac requires they use certain suppliers, and the freight, literally, is too high.

Instead there will be local hamburger joints, sourcing meat and buns and all locally and selling cheaper. And of course, being a good deal more environmentally friendly. Financial crises and the straightened circumstances they cause are, apparently, not always anti-green.

The prime minister who helped set up Iceland for its financial crash was publicized eating the first Big Mac when the joints opened. Will he be the last one Mac-ing it up?

Heard on "The World" this afternoon on public radio.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This may be a step in the right direction

Posting the CO2 count on food labels in Sweden

but it would be even better if they posted the total impact on greenhouse gases - including methane, for example.

And if carrots are a better choice than tomatoes or cucumbers - grown in hothouses - and barley than rice - the parallel may be encouragement to eat even more rhubarb, that northerly fruit substitute.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Other than the early Julia Child shows, Gourmet was my portal to cooking beyond good New England fare. I quit subscribing when the perfume inserts got to me. They discontinued the "Gastronomie sans Argent" column, too, my favorite recipe source.

But when I picked one up at a news stand a few months back I was pleasantly surprised with how the magazine had seemed to keep up, not promoting waste, and covering food system issues while appealing to high end foodie tastes. So the demise of the magazine is not a pretty thing. The low and middle brow cooking magazines I've skimmed while waiting in line at the market are not covering the issues, and rely way too much on prepared foods as ingredients IMHO.

This opinion piece nails it, I think:

And as someone who's had a brush with journalism over the last few years, it nails a few other things, too.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Finally a Sonoma County Food System Alliance

I went to the inaugural meeting Monday afternoon.

And as I began to type I thought about the fact that this blog is public, so while I will share some of my learnings, I won't share all of my impressions.

Joseph McIntyre is the fast moving facilitator and Dan Schurman the ED of the coordinating organization Ag Innovations Network.

The participants were heavy on the human health and environmental advocacy angles, not so much economic justice. Farm labor, small scale farmers and the Food Bank were represented, but no other dimensions of labor, like food service workers or food processors, and no restaurateurs. There was also no one from the food waste angle.

Last week when I was at the Imagine conference for ordained women of Province 8 of the Episcopal Church, I figured something out. I'm in the middle on this food system business, upholding the environment related issues to the church, and the economic justice issues to the eco-foodies who dominate the scene in my locale. I can live with this, and work with this.

We met at the Food Bank this time. What I hadn't thought about until I walked through the warehouse, was how dependent our food safety net for the poor is on nationwide sourcing. This is very scary. If there were a terrorist attack or environmental disaster that disrupted transportation; or if there were a huge spike in gasoline or diesel prices; or just a few decades down the road when peak oil is way back in our rear view mirrors, we are going to be in big trouble trying to meet the needs of the food insecure from local sourcing.

I haven't been paying attention

and I'm embarrassed.

There are two agricultural issues here in California which I kinda knew about. One is the impact of price regulation on dairy farmers, driving more to organic (not regulated) and a few to suicide. It's not just in India anymore.

The other is the threat of major pest invasions. I've seen the vaguely apocalyptic ads on television, but assumed it was a ploy by chemical companies. Now I've got to do some research, and since I have a month with no overnights away perhaps I will have time.

New resource for churches

I just hate when I can't find the right person to talk to so that I have an Episcopal hook on an ecumenical story. It happened again this week when I found nobody home so that I could write up the efforts of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon at their October 3 conference, Food Sovereignty for All.

But I can at least post a link to their handbook here:

Download a copy and have a look. It's great stuff - practical advice for congregations wanting to do a food system related project, with real life examples. If you've got extra land or a big underused kitchen at your church, of if you just want to strengthen connections with and support for local agriculture, there is help with getting started in these pages. Even if a congregation has never done a community ministry project before, there should be no excuses after reading this handbook. There are also several pages of resources if a congregation wants to begin with study of the food and faith connections.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Some emails and lots of postings this week about the death at 95 of Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution".

The National Academy of Sciences credits him with saving millions of lives, and those with whom he worked and lots of Iowans, apparently, revere him. As one plows through the coverage, it seems pretty clear that he was a deeply compassionate, humble man. And he was a competent scientist.

What has distressed me, though, is that this has provided an opportunity to silence or diminish critics of the green revolution - despite what we now know about its lack of sustainability.

We should not be surprised that The News Hour did this, greenwashing the green revolution.
After all, look at their sponsors: agrichemical companies.

But we need to be honest about the fact that yesterday's best science is not necessarily the greatest hope for the future. High tech agriculture that relies on fossil fuel inputs and synthetic pesticides is not sustainable for most of the world's population - either economically or ecologically.

There will be those of an older generation, like Borlaug, who see such high tech solutions as GMOs, the key to the "new green revolution" ("green revolution 2"? "son of the green revolution"?) as the way forward, and condemn their critics as elitists, immune to the plight of the hungry.

And there will be those like John Jeavons, in South Africa right now, working with folks who want to support small scale local farmers in sustainable growing techniques.

And there will continue to be a place for science, but working with local culture and biodiversity to find the most appropriate strains of seeds, searching for best biological practices to manage plant and animal pests and build soil fertility, and helping share knowledge among different locales as climate change brings about shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns.

The era of better living through chemistry, of the magic bullet, is over. But its saints are still on our calendar, in spite of the unintended consequences, as a reminder that we all strive to do the best we can to respond with compassion to our world in our times.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Susanne sent this article about Darrin Nordahl, a city planner in Davenport, Iowa who is committed to public produce.

Island Press is publishing his book about it.

Cultivating Food Entrepreneurs

is the slogan of La Cocina in San Francisco. Caleb Zigas, operations manager, spoke to our food systems group here yesterday. There's local interest in Sonoma County in a food business incubator, and this is certainly a model, though I think it would take a bigger and richer population base to sustain such a thing. Caleb suggested we could do it without additional infrasctructure by using under-used kitchens, in churches and community centers.

I wish I had gone to the San Francisco street food festival.

I wish we could do that here!

Church based community gardens secrets for success

Early this week I finished my article for Episcopal Life on community gardens around the church. As I revisted some of the gardens I got photos from last year, and contacted some new ones, I got another look at what makes them go.

The most important factor seems to be seeing the garden as a way of living for others, of being a good neighbor, of giving. I don't mean that all the produce has to go to the food bank. But I do mean that if people think a garden will bring new church members and pledges, they should think again. This is the wrong reason for doing the right thing, and leads to diminishing ownership and support of the garden project by church members. Gardeners become "those people" who don't come to church.

Another factor is that a key church leader needs to be involved with the garden -with genuine encouragement, and preferably with clogs, sun hat and rolled up sleeves. This need not be the rector or vicar, though that's not a bad idea. Deacons can do it. And in family-sized congregations a matriarch or patriarch with good organizing skills. S/he doesn't need to have all the vision - that can emerge from those working on the project - but does need to have energy and commitment.

Which leads me to a third observation. If there is any question about the buy in of the congregation to a community garden project, start small. I've seen a few gardens where folks went gangbusters - building beds, readying lots of plots, doing a y'all come - only to find that they didn't have the volunteers to sustain it, or that some of the gardeners they recruited in haste proved irresponsible, and need to be uninvited next season.

Real gardeners know that there is no such thing as an instant garden. Community gardens evolve, too - and the best ones I've talked with are always learning from experience and leaning into the future, adding on, improving, changing with the neighborhood's needs.

As I look back at these three factors, I wonder if they aren't necessary ingredients for any successful congregation-based community ministry:
do it for others, without ulterior institution-serving motives
enlist authentic support from key leaders
start small and evolve, working with those you serve

Still, when you think about it, a community garden is one of the least expensive ways for a congregation to steward its resources for the good of others - to make a difference, make friends, make a little beauty in the world.

Monday, August 24, 2009

tomatoes, herbs, winter squash

TIME to get on the foodcentric bandwagon

The cover article in Time magazine (August 31) seems to be an attempt to cash in on the popularity of food system news. You probably don't need to read it, but here is the link anyway:,8599,1917458,00.html

There's a lack of clarity here about the difference between sustainable and organic. The comparison of feedlot and open range beef on page 5 ignores the fact that both produce gaseous wastes, not just the solid stuff. And there's a general superficiality to this piece.

What I found really amusing, though, were all the links to other food and agriculture stories, video clips and photo galleries. Suggestions and live links kept cropping up that had no relationship to the paragraph that preceded them. A kind of topical randomness. Do they do this in case you are bored by the article, and need a break? I was amused, though, by the photos of the Oakland urban farmer and her little goats, and by the video of the organic garden center in Austin, TX. If you haven't seen the Hungry Planet photos, there is also a link to some of them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Reminder to Myself

I seem to have lost track of my summer task, to review as many food-themed films I haven't seen and visit some others as I can.

Julie and Julia really isn't on my list, as I found the book way too all-about-me on the part of the author, and I wonder why I need to see yet another person do a Julia Child imitation, no matter how good an actor Streep is. It's still an imitation.

I note that my local PBS station is celebrating J.C.'s birthday with a two hour fund-raising retrospective. I may watch it, but it's my birthday, too, so actually cooking something good might be a better use of time.

Back to movies: the LA Times came up with a reminder list of foodie friendly films from the past. I'd add some and subtract a few, but here they are, a nice mix:,0,3280677.story

Monday, August 10, 2009

UK update

Seems to me the Brits are doing a better job of addressing food issues systemically - and getting the word out about it - than we are. And of course, they don't spend time proposing GM solutions to the looming global food crisis, but look at lower tech solutions to increasing productivity with less fossil fuel dependency and less water.

Here's a place to start with the latest from the BBC - with good links to earlier related items.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Community Garden legislation

was introduced in Congress last month.

One was a bill to make August National Community Garden Awareness Month. With lots of whereases - primarily from a food security standpoint - it seems to have gotten stuck in committee. Let's celebrate it anyway.

HR3225 is in the House Committee on Agriculture, and actually proposes grant support for community gardens. You can read the whole thing on Thomas. I'm most interested in the first reason it gives for community gardening - the environmental impact one, with health second, and educating around and about community gardens third.

My congressmember is a co-sponsor of the bill, but after three weeks no one in her office has called me back. One of my fellow Food System Working Group members here is trying to get a visit when she and her staff are at home this month.

It also seems that the agriculture appropriations bill for 2010 was amended (by Sanders, VT) to include funds for school community gardens, but I must admit to being a bit rusty at following all this bill history.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Can we just call it food?

I have noticed a creeping trend to speak of "nutrition" when "food" would be a perfectly adequate word. Why is this? Seems like food is a word with many layers of meaning, cultural and affective as well as biological, while nutrition is clinical and without nuance. From my vantage point, using "nutrition" bespeaks an analytical, bloodless and cheerless attitude toward food. Nutrition is what thin rich people want for fat poor people.

It all reminds me of when we gave up sex for gender, and began referring to women as females. Ugh!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Reviews

Some time ago - the 80's perhaps? - I attended a conference in Toronto and then took in an exhibit at the science museum, called "FOOD: feed your mind about it". This summer I seem to be feasting on food books, everything I requested at the library rolling in at once.

Today I finished and returned Mark Bittman's Food Matters and Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe. What the two books have in common is that both feel like they were rushed into print to take advantage of a Pollanated reading public.

Bittman's is breezy, sometimes flippant, sometimes given to hyperbole, with a bit of a slapdash feel about it. He recounts his story - learning that what's good for the individual human body is also good for the planet.

The big message is eat less meat, and no junck food, in whatever way works for you. But if you want to try it Bittman's way, there are menus and recipes. Some of the recipes are in his style - simple frameworks with myriad variations.

One I tried suggested we shouldn't limit our vegetable purees used as dips or spreads to hummus and baba ganoush. So I roasted lots of yellow summer squash with some whole garlic with a little olive oil, then when really done, squeezed out the garlic, added some fresh dill and black pepper and a little more oil and blended. Surprisingly good with crackers or pita chips.
(Dill, garlic, squash all home grown.)

If you have his vegetarian cook book, and have read his blog, you don't need this book. But if you know a gourmand who needs to rethink things, or someone who is interested in eating green but doesn't know where to start, this would be helpful.

If you want to think comprehensively about reducing your carbon footprint in the kitchen, then Cooking Green could be helpful. There's a lot here on energy use and choosing the right appliances, cooking methods, and pots and pans to reduce it. I learned a few things - and there are some I might shop for if I had any money. Mostly, it's about things you are already doing if you're trying not to overspend on your PG&E bill.

But beware - there is lots of sloppy or downright erroneous science in this book. Heyhoe has struggled hard to understand the physics of boiling water - but she might have done better to quote someone who really does understand it. And the biology! She doesn't know the difference between a cultivar and a species, thinks salmon are freshwater fish, etc. A good fact checker would have been handy. Again I had that feeling - that this book was rushed into print. Or maybe it's just the effect of blogging on acceptable writing (my tongue is in my cheek), so that the distinction between fact and opinion doesn't really matter anymore. Just say anything and maybe it will make it's way into Wikipedia as a fact for 15 minutes.

Heyhoe's preoccupation with energy interested me because of some of the stats she gives:
If "transportation creates 11% of an average US household's greenhouse gases generated by food consumption"
and "agricultural and industrial emissions from growing and harvesting account for 83%" of them,
well that leaves 6% - presumably caused by food preparation and disposal or composting. So - how one's food is grown, and how what it eats is grown, and how much, etc. are the most important considerations in reducing one's "foodprint" from greenhouse gases.

Cooking Green does have information on water usage, which Bittman does not. For example, a plant based diet requires 300 gallons of water every day to support it, but a meat based one needs more like 4000 gallons.

Don't buy Cooking Green, though. Borrow it from the library like I did. Or check out the two related web sites where the author has material if you like.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fishy news on Sunday morning

Good News:

The sardine fishery is back in Monterey Bay.

Bad News:

90% of the catch goes to feed farmed tuna in Australia.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

There is always something new to learn

The fact for today:

Half of the one billion hungry people in the world are small scale farmers living in developing countries.

I learned this from a story about international land grabs on this week's "Living On Earth", an interview with Olivier De Schutter of the UN Food Programme.

A few weeks ago I posted a comment about a story I heard on Weekend Edition - about Saudi Arabians' buying land to raise feed for milk cows. This is more about the trend.

DeSchutter points out the three major problem areas in most of these deals:
access to land
food security for the nation whose land is used
and a lack of transparency in the deals - leading to corruption in how the funds gained are spent

Apparently many of the deals are spelled out in a few pages, with no provisions for worker justice, environmental health, etc., etc., etc....

The UN's 15 pages of guidelines are here:

DeSchutter maintains that the deals don't have to be prime examples of neo-colonialism.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"I don't believe in organic"

says Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times.

Check it out here:,0,2885942.story

Actually, he doesn't shun organic, but raises some questions about why it should not be the single issue in purchasing produce.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Here's Ian with our first box of produce for F.I.S.H. - carrots and summer squash.

The context of concern

I've been trying to follow the General Convention from a distance, which isn't easy, given that the issues I care about tend to be ones not seen as major or newsworthy by others, and so are not reported.

What I have heard about environmental issues is that much more attention is being paid to them than at earlier conventions. But what I see in the documented "mission priorities" is that ecological concern is once again seen as a subset of social justice, the last item on the list, a tagged on concern.

I appreciated Mike Schut's comment on the economic justice panel, in response to a questioner, that the vocation of Christians has not changed, but the context has. I want to push that a bit further, and say that the context hasn't changed, but our awareness of the context in which we respond to Christ has expanded to comprehend a much larger, more complex, interrelated creation - not just the human sphere.

Now it may be that my struggles with this are a bit of the pot calling the kettle black. I am after all, spending most of my time on food systems rather than other environmental issues. And one of the reasons I am doing that - in addition to liking to eat, of course - is that food systems are an area where all the banner concerns come together: water, land, air, biodiversity - and social justice, too.

But I think there is a difference between seeing social justice issues in the context of mercy toward all creation - and seeing human well being as the canon by which we measure environmental decisions. And please don't say it's a chicken and egg thing: we are just one species, and our existence is not privileged.

So that's the context - but there's a kind of back drop against which I have been mulling this over - and that's reading the Desmond and Moore book Darwin's Sacred Cause.
Learning about how Darwin, his kin, and his mentors worked for the abolition of slavery, and how that value set was one of the drivers in Darwin's work on human evolution, gives me pause. In reality there is no way to separate our concern for other people, for their freedom and dignity, and our attitudes toward the rest of creation. Compassion and respect for the other in its integrity is an attitude which we hope depends only on the other's otherness, not the details of who and what that other is. Compassion for other people can open us to compassion for all creation - if we have an opportunity to experience it. Darwin did. I did and do. Many people today - not so much, or only when it bites back.

Here's a sound review of Darwin's Sacred Cause:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I wonder if they'll have time for Slow Food

at their meeting in Italy. The G8, that is.

I finally took a moment to read the articles John posted. I also read an article posted today by Anuradha Mittal on the "G8 Italian Gala". (Love the title.)

And all of this against the backdrop of listening to the General Convention forum on the global economy, and the Diocese of Los Angeles lunchtime forum on economic empowerment.

I'm suffering a bit of mental indigestion - yet it seems like it's the same old story, too.

We need some radical changes in the way we consider economy, and a revival of moral values.

First, a comment on the article below by Prime Minister Aso (Japan). I appreciate his noble goal of eschewing "land grabs" in favor of "renovated agro-industries" - but wait - what's the key word there? "Industries" I would suggest - a word at war with the policies he suggests would be important, like respect for local land rights and local food security issues. I think there are way too many loopholes in his proposals - especially when one thinks about putting them into practice in countries of great poverty (and probably because of it great stress and great corruption). What starts as a noble effort to partner with folks in other countries, who have the land Japan does not, might well end up just another land grab. Think about the missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mittal reminds us that those 800 million or so hungry people that we intended to halve - the number, not the people - were 963 million by the end of 2008. Even with some amelioration in the staple food prices over the last six months or so, the number is now estimated by some to be rapidly approaching one billion, and by Mittal and her sources to be 1.02 billion.

If you think about those much touted millennium development goals -we have 6 years to reverse the trend by 600 million people. And if we want to look at sustainable hunger reduction 6 years probably is not possible without great will and a mobilizing of human effort and education on an unprecedented scale. Transforming industrial ag land to smaller scale diversified farms takes years.

But I digress.

The main points in Mittal's report as I see it are
1) As long as the global food crisis is framed as simply a supply and demand problem, the need for more industrial ag, more chemical inputs, and more GMOs will be the go to solution. In my language - it's a triple bottom line concern. And it must be addressed systemically, with regard for social and environmental health, as well as provisioning food stuffs.

2) Free global trade in food only works for those who have money to buy it. For rural folk whose livelihoods and way of life have been destroyed by the colonizing effect of global agribusiness, there is no money and little food.

Here's a phrase I liked from Canterbury's presentation: "local level community regeneration".
Surely this is the goal, with restoring healthy and healthful food systems as part of it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

G8 shifts focus from food aid to farming (

G8 shifts focus from food aid to farming

By Javier Blas in London

Published: July 6 2009 00:08

The G8 countries will this week announce a “food security initiative”, committing more than $12bn for agricultural development over the next three years, in a move that signals a further shift from food aid to long-term investments in farming in the developing world.

The US and Japan will provide the bulk of the funding, with $3bn-$4bn each, with the rest coming from Europe and Canada, according to United Nations officials and Group of Eight diplomats briefed on the “L’Aquila Food Security Initiative”. Officials said it would more than triple spending. ...


Taro Aso: The world must learn to live and farm sustainably (

The world must learn to live and farm sustainably

By Taro Aso (Japan’s prime minister)

Published: July 5 2009 20:08

Food security will be the highlight of the discussion when the heads of 27 countries and 11 organisations meet on Friday at the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila. I expect substantial progress to be made, particularly on aid to countries affected by the food crisis. I will also make a new proposal to promote responsible foreign investment in agriculture, in the face of so-called “land grabs” – the growing trend for large-scale investment in farmland across the developing world.

A year has passed since this phenomenon first gained attention, and new deals continue to hit the headlines. The United Nations special rapporteur called for a set of principles, and the African Union discussed the issue at its summit last week. What is needed now is for concerned parties to frame a co-ordinated global response.

Japan, as the world’s largest net food importer and a major donor in agricultural development, believes it has a role to play.


We believe non-binding principles would promote responsible investment and sustainable farmland management. They should include, among other things:

● International agricultural investments, particularly sovereign interventions, must be transparent and accountable. Investors should ensure that key stakeholders, including local communities, are properly informed. Agreements should be disclosed.

● Investors must respect the rights of local people affected by investments, in particular land rights. They should also ensure the benefits are shared with local communities in the form of employment, infrastructure, skills and technology transfer.

● Investment projects need to be integrated into recipient countries’ development strategies and environmental policies.

● Investors must take into account the food supply and demand situation in recipient countries. Foreign investment must not aggravate local food insecurity.

● Deals for land and products should adequately reflect market values. Trade arrangements must adhere to World Trade Organisation rules.

Japan will work with key partners to develop a global platform to agree on principles and compile good practices. We call on interested parties to meet in September. We need a grand coalition with a common vision, for our interests are all entwined.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Seafood Update

Greenpeace is particularly concerned with the oceans' health and they've just published an update of their report on seafood retailers.

There are some things that may surprise you here: Target has passed Whole Foods in the rankings, WalMart is making progress, and Trader Joe's is in the basement due to a lack of transparency and blatant greenwashing. (I find I am going to TJ's less often these days, and being much more selective about what I buy. They still have some good deals - but it just ain't the same since going national under international ownership.)

Since we don't have a Target with fresh food in this area, it looks like the best bets are local stores or Safeway (groan). I think it's time to tell Raley's, our regional chain, they need to at least get out the red, yellow and green labels and stop selling red snapper and a few other things. Oliver's labels, and says they are cutting down on red items, but you couldn't prove it by me.

I note that in Massachusetts the best bet is Stop and Shop - and of course, local outlets where people will talk to you. But curiously Stop and Shop does not include the red/yellow/green in their ads - you have to go into the store.

Okay - my only question of Greenpeace is what in #*@#!! are "ocean quahogs"? The quahog, Venus mercenaria, is an intertidal species.

Okay - I checked on this. It's another genus (Artica islandica), hardshelled bivalve mollusc, that looks like a quahog, and lives on the North Atlantic sea floor. It is not a sea clam (Spisula solidissima). Apparently the issue is not its rarity, but that it must be taken by the most destructive kind of trawling.

Meanwhile, I am going to spend the rest of the day reciting those Genus species names of the East Coast clams. Aren't they great? And don't forget Mya arenaria the softshell clam (steamers).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Food activity

I've been doing more with food lately than writing about it. I got my annual box of stone fruit from the Fruit Group in Cotati, and there are just a few nectarines left. The rest have been turned into salsa, conserve, jam and some unjarred goodies along the way. And I froze some to go into a crisp or cobbler with blackberries in a few weeks. It won't be long now for the free bounty of creekside berries - the fireworks I can hear as I type this are my first clue as to just what time of year it is.

In the garden we wait for tomatoes to ripen. I have lettuce, annual herbs, summer squash and beets, and I harvested my garlic. It's drying in the garage. Since the garages are somewhat loosely connected, I'm sure my neighbors wonder why they can smell garlic when they go to get their cars and motorcycles. I find the smell, the look, everything about it one of the more satisfying things I've done. It just did its thing underground from Thanksgiving to July 1 - et voila!

The one thing I have been thinking about is the opportunity to speak about food issues at Epiphany West at CDSP the last week in January. John Jeavons and I are going to be doing a three hour workshop, focusing on the boom in community gardens and the importance of small scale ego-agriculture. And I will have an opportunity to offer my CALL course on food and faith again in the spring of 2010. Seems like with increased interest in these things and the tie in to Epiphany West, we ought to be able to make it go.

And the one thing I have been writing, if you can call it writing, is compiling my tried and true preserve and condiment recipes from their various sources - scrawled over clippings and books with pages stuck together with jam! I was feeling the need to have them all in one place - for myself, and for some at the garden with whom I may share them.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

seeds of discontent

Harry Eyres, Slow Lane columnist for the Financial Times Life & Arts section, wrote on the weekend of June 13/June 14 2009 an extended review-essay of three new books on seeds - including a biography of Luther Burbank (1849-1926), who while working in a plough factory in Massachusetts found a two-year-old book by Charles Darwin on animal and plant breeding. The result is edible history - hybrids developed by Burbank in his 50 years in Santa Rosa, California, are still commercially important. Tho Monsanto seems to have taken some of his initiatives a bit farther and around a bend ...

An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown (The University of Chicago Press)

The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants by Jane S. Smith (The Penguin Press)

Forgotten Fruits: The Stories Behind Britain’s Traditional Fruit and Vegetables by Christopher Stocks (Windmill)


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How many things wrong can you find in this picture?


Another Sunday, another atrocious story on Weekend Edition.

This time the story is about dairy farming in Saudi Arabia.

My first question is: what are those folks doing drinking milk anyway? Aren't they low on the lactase scale? Surely there are food that are both more appropriate both to produce and to the local cultural diet than cow's milk.

Second question: While I guess I can understand why a Saudi royal would want something he saw in California, why twice as big? Think about the stench when driving certain highways in California - stench from dairy and beef feedlots. Now multiply that.

Third question: Do they recycle any of the waste water from this operation - or is it all so polluted with excrement that it would take too much time or room to do so. I'm thinking about all that water used to cool the cows in 120F heat.

Fourth question: Didn't anybody realize that this was the desert, and that aquifers run dry - and won't be replenished given the decreasing rainfall in the desert latitudes?

Fifth question: Have people no sense of justice, of the human right to food? The most appalling thing about this piece was the report that countries like Saudi Arabia, because they've decimated their own natural resources with inappropriate agriculture, are buying tracts of land in places like Ethiopia and Sudan - countries of deep-seated food insecurity. Is no intervention possible to stop this? Will those who have oil buy land, water and food - at the expense of the lives of those who don't?

Or is this just a more blatant form of normal corporate colonialism?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ancient no-till crop rotation

I've been reading Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity.

This is not my usual fare, edited as it is by a couple of M.D.'s and very anthropocentric. But hey, it's a pretty good book - coffee tablish, but very well-crafted essays, including two relating specifically to the food system.

In the chapter on "GM Foods and Organic Farming" they quote Virgil on green manures and no-till methods:

in Part I of "The Georgics"

Sow in the golden grain where previously
You raised a crop of beans that gaily shook
Within their pods, or a tiny brood of vetch,
Or the slender stems and rustling undergrowth
Of bitter lupine...
Thus will the land find rest in its change of crop,
And earth left unplowed show you gratitude.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A World of Contrasts

After a many-houred drive home from Bakersfield yesterday, along Highway 99 through what I want to think of as the trail mix belt - nut trees on one side of the road, grape vines on the other, and Selma, the raisin capital of the world - noting the billboards advertising herbicides, and others will pleas to support agricultural water - it was a nice suprise to hear this story about organic farming in the Punjab on NPR this morning:

The online prose is less favorable to organic than the radio report - wonder why? - but still there is one well-placed ag commission official promoting 70% organic for India as a whole. Imagine!

Give Monsanto a kick in the pants!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ahead of the trend

For more than a year - ever since a community gardener described to me his ill-conceived experiments in canning and I wondered why he wasn't dead - I have been thinking that we need to do much more to revive canning and preserving knowledge - in a word, reskill. I wanted to do a tomato canning party in the Thanksgiving Lutheran church kitchen last year, but the produce and an opportunity just never coincided. And just last week, thinking about teaching others, I realized I need to pull together my favorite canning and preserving recipes.

Well the New York Times has caught on. If home and community gardening are booming, so is doing something with that produce. Today's suite of features focuses on Eugenia Bone, a New Yorker who has written a canning cookbook.
The advice in the article seems pretty good to me, and there are references to other cook books in the "Dos and Don'ts" article.

I'd add to them an older title on my book shelf, Helen Witty's Fancy Pantry - which seems to have anticipated by a few decades the trend toward preserving for taste, not just frugality. But hey - there's no reason to trash simple canning either. I also picked up a book last summer with lots of good ideas - The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving.

The blogs mentioned in the articles seem pretty sound - but I've noted in the past that web preserving recipes vary widely, and some are simply not safe. If the acid content of a recipe seems low for water bath canning, compare it with a similar one in something standard and safety tested, like Putting Food By or the Ball or government recipes and guidelines on-line.

On my wish list for this summer is a rack for my 8 quart stock pot - like the one shown in the photos in the Times - so when I do four jar batches I don't need to get out the spackleware behemoth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Legislation to watch

No, don't just watch it - try to do something to stop it.

This last week I received a couple of alerts about SB 384, the Lugar-Casey Act.

It's passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee without much fanfare or public response.

The good news is that this bill increases funds for ag development and food security abroad.

The very bad news is that it requires such aid to include investment in GMOs.

Once again we can pretend to be helping the poor while instead helping the rich - in this case the big agrochemical firms.

The research that supported the pro-GMO position was funded by the Gates Foundation. So it's Gates and G-8 on the GMO side - and the UN, any number of NGOs and most of those with either an agroecological vision, or a realistic sense of the lives of the poor, or both, on the other.

If you read only one article about this, check out this one, by Ben Burkett, a Mississippi farmer, an African-American, and the president of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Then call your Senators and let them know how you and Ben feel about it.

The Oakland Institute as usual is right on top of things. They are aggregating information on a new site, Voices from Africa.

For even more background, The Oakland Institute's reports are good. And there's this one from Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety:
The executive summary is pages 5-8, if 48 pages seems too much. It did to me tonight, but I hope to read it and offer more highlights here soon.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sometimes it's better to be illusioned

For some time I have been drinking soy milk - using the real thing in my tea, but otherwise sticking to soy beverage, or milk in fermented or cultured forms. I've developed a real fondness for Silk Very Vanilla.

I've taken care over the years to read the labels, and try to buy only organic soy products. It's not that I am so much worried about health risks - I just don't want to support the corporations who patent GMOs.

Well, it turns out, I wasn't paying attention - or thinking about the implications of organic.

There is now nothing on the Silk label which says organic, and most of their soy beans come from China. Even many beans purported to be organic (though it's difficult to assess) come from China or Brazil.

Silk is now part of Dean Foods, a large food product conglomerate. With the acquisition came the shift to Chinese soy, and, of course, the failure to continue to support organic soy production in this country, as the Organic Bytes newsletter points out. What could have been a force for market-based agricultural reform in this country became just another globally sourcing corporation, doing it as cheaply as possible.

Organic Bytes information source is the Cornucopia Institute
and there you can find a full report and a rating of all the soy products companies.
Five bean companies produce soy foods which are wholly organic, made from small farm, US grown soy beans. The zero and one bean companies got there primarily by not disclosing much.
In the middle are companies that most likely do not use GMOs, but may use dangerous solvents (hexane) in production.

Most of the private labels and brands you would recognize at any super market are disastrous. Eden Soy is the only beverage brand I recognized with the coveted 5 bean rating.

I did, though, find good reviews (you can get the full info on any manufacturer by clicking on its name in the survey) of several companies whose other soy products I buy in the 4 bean section.

I got so interested in it all that I moved on to Cornucopia's updated organic dairy survey. I was so pleased that little Loleta Cheese in Humboldt County got 5 cows! Many northern California dairies got 4 cows, as did Sunnyside Organic Milk, the house brand of several regional grocery chains. So if you go to Raley's, Lucky or Food Maxx, don't spend more for the national brand organic milk with the bucolic scene on the label. Choose the less expensive Sunnyside Brand from Stockton, California - the most transparent store brand in either study.

Friday, May 22, 2009

time to move those seedlings?

time to move those seedlings?


up here in the pacific northwest we are a few weeks behind, say, southern Arizona - the broom is blooming, not throwing allergens-rich seed....

tomatoes are the yearly challenge - finding a variety that will work well here


looking forward to the spirituality of gardening workshop with Christine Sine at Mustard Seed House ( on the 30th

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I love the community garden

mostly because it is practical community. Right now we are all very busy getting our warm weather plants in, so most every evening someone is there working. And even when we are racing the dark to get something done, there is always time for an exchange of information, speculation, hope - gardener talk.

Tonight I got more tomatoes planted. Dan was there to check on the compost pile he built last night, and gave me some rhubarb. Robert was setting out tomatoes, too, and planting some bush beans. He and I arranged to swap some surplus plants on Thursday. I went crazy with squash starts, and he has extra basil.

Also on Thursday, Ian will be through with his finals at Santa Rosa JC, and he and I are going to start in on a plot another gardener decided to give up. We're going to plant for FISH or the food bank. I want to put up a sign on it that says "Squashing hunger, one zucchini at a time."

a sad mosey

Last Friday at noon I headed out for Rio Vista - where we were having a Celebrating Creation event on Saturday - the long way, heading down through Marin, Vallejo and Benicia, then east on 4. My goal was to find some local produce to serve at lunchtime on Saturday.

I think I must have been having fantasies about Brentwood. Probably it was the Buy Fresh, Buy Local signs the community features. I was ready!

But what a disappointment. Many farm stands simply were not open yet - though promotional materials say they are. One I found specializes in dry fruit and nuts, and sits right in the middle of a new subdivision. I asked the owner where some of the nuts - kinds I know don't grow around here - came from. She was a little vague, and I asked if nuts in the shell weren't subject to COOL? She didn't know what that was.

Onward I drove, taking in the sights. Strip malls, box store arrays, subdivisions with 2 story 2000 sq ft houses cheek by jowl, and apartment (or condo?) complexes that looked like public housing. A particularly sad sight was a van advertising "foreclosure tours". Looking around, I wondered how many of the folks who live in Antioch and Brentwood were in flight from the urban East Bay, taking advantage of no down payment, adjustable rate financing - and now are wondering just what they've done.

Then, continuing east, there was a sudden end of the subdivisions - well, maybe there was a small one here and there, old enough to have trees as tall as the two story buildings. But even here in the open space, many of the orchards seemed to be on the way out, vegetable crops, too, and horses and grapes on the way in.

I did find one cherry orchard that was open and selling - and the cherries were good - because they were all ripe. And finally somewhere between Knightsen and Oakley I found a farm stand selling strawberries, asparagus, eggs and lemons.

One hope I have is that the real estate bust will slow the rising land prices, and the encroaching housing, and leave more of the fertile land bordering the Delta for agriculture. The Brentwood Land Trust is apparently committed to preserving ag land, so the Bay Area can eat when we run out of oil - even though this wasn't apparent just driving around.
I also hope the farmers in the Brentwood area will wise up - that if you are going to advertise as an area to Buy Fresh, Buy Local, you need to have more crop variety year round. If I can do it in my little community garden plot, they can, too...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Which to buy organic

I've been looking for the simplest iteration of which produce to buy organic, and which it's okay to buy conventional - for a pesticide residue and health perspective.

This would seem to be it:

You can download a printable wallet guide
so you don't have to come up with a mnemonic for the 12 items highest in pesticide residues, and the 15 lowest. Although it might be fun to come up with an anagram of their first initials. The dirties only have one vowel, though, so fat chance of an acronym there!

And yes, I Phone users, there's an app for that. The food lists, not making up acronyms...

Climate Change and Food - more resources

There's some hyperbole in this one

But hey - they've got Percy Schmeiser. Don't know who Percy is? You only need to watch the first minute of this video to find out.

There's more info on Bye Bye Beef.

I just took the pledge - though it's nothing new for me to be beef free.

This is an effort of Peter Kreitler, who has been involved in environmental ministry in the Los Angeles area for years.

Food Films

I'm adding a web site to the list - which needs managing, I know, I know -

It's the home of a food film festival.

Of the films they feature this year I highly recommend "Flow" - about water issues.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Something positive for the piggies

The other day, while following the stories of the dancing parrots, I ran across a note on a pub in England which barters allotment (community garden) produce for pints.

It's The Pigs, Edgefield, in Norfolk. Pub

Great web site; made me hungry for lunch, never mind longing for a winery that might barter for zucchini in a couple of months, or even fresh herbs now.

(and I don't know why my cutting and pasting won't copy the whole web address - you may need to cut and paste, too - or try this instead

CAFOs and flu - one possibility

Other blogsters have latched onto one possibility for a flu virus vector - flies that love manure lagoons near Mexican CAFOs. But they seem honest about the fact this is only an hypothesis at this point.

Pigs ARE prodigious defecators.

A vaguely related statistic to ponder from Stuffed and Starved.

In the US feedlots produce 300 million tons of manure a year.

As I recall this is about bovines, though maybe all feedlots and CAFOs - but whatever - that's a ton of s--- per person. Are our meat and dairy habits worth it?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Grace and Justice

I've been noticing lately that when people say grace before a meal they often mention the hands that prepared it, but leave out the complex justice issues of the food system - like the workers that were exploited to get that food to your table. After talking a lot with Neil James, food scientist from Florida A & M, at our Committee on Science, Technology and Faith, I am more attuned than ever to the plight of the poor, and how the injustices in our food system contribute to it. Reading Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved on the flight home only reinforced this. And besides, I felt guilty that I did not mark Cesar Chavez Day here in blogland a month ago.

What I am dwelling on right now is this insight from Patel - that we don't need cheaper food. Our government's desire to have cheaper food for the poor, together with vertically integrated agri-chemical companies, are the reason we are in this mess. We need to have a living wage for everyone, so all can afford healthful, local, fresh food.

One of the things that Neil brought to my attention was the issue of Kosher meat. Can it be Kosher if workers are exploited in its processing? What a classic prophetic case - ritual butchering means nothing if those who sell the beef are grinding down the poor. Seems like this issue was hot in the press last summer and I missed it.

Don't Blame Bacon

even though you know I would love to...

You cannot catch swine flu from eating America's favorite salt-fat supplier.

I'm sure everybody knows that, but somehow I had to say it.

What is puzzling me is that I read on the last spam blast from the Organic Consumers Association that the use of antibiotics in CAFOs contributes to the development of new viruses, and to their resistance to drugs.

Well, flu is caused by a virus, and antibiotics deal with bacteria. I would understand how mutant, resistant bacterial strains might develop in CAFOs. But viruses? On the other hand, CAFOs - with the crowding and generally unhealthful living conditions for the critters - would, it seems to me, be breeding grounds for many things.

But would those conditions necessarily select for viruses that jump species?

Oh well - probably we all can agree that neither CAFOs nor influenza are nice, but a causal link, if one exists, is more complex that any email newsletter can describe.

Monday, April 20, 2009

food security, global stability ... this just in from Cison di Valmarino

Financial Times ( Monday April 20 2009

US urges food output boost to avert unrest

By Javier Blas in Cison di Valmarino, Italy

The US agriculture secretary has warned that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and food output and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability. ...

"This is not just about food security, this is about national security, it is about environmental security," he said on the sidelines of the first meeting of the Group of Eight ministers of agriculture. ...

Last year's spike in food prices caused riots in about 30 countries, from Haiti to Bangladesh. Leading agricultural commodity exporters, including India and Argentina, imposed bans on overseas sales of food products. "I can figure out there are only three things that could happen if people do not have food: people could riot, that they have done; people migrate to places where there is food, which creates additional challenges; or people die," said Mr Vilsack.

This article can be found at:,_i_email=y.html

Friday, April 17, 2009

Lent and the anti-Lent

Usually I don't talk about my lenten disciplines, but since this one was related to food, I thought I might say a word about it. If you hate self-indulgent blogs, skip this post.

Basically, I tried to get back to better eating habits, primarily by renouncing gluttony. Not to lose weight, although that wouldn't hurt, but because I recognize that gluttony really is a moral issue, and, indeed, a justice issue. I wanted to test the proposition that one can eat well and enjoyably without eating more than one's share. It's about time, you will say.

So I returned to watching my portions and logging my food using the food pyramid. This tool, pooh-poohed by some, I really do find helpful in eating an adequate, balanced, but not ascetic diet.

I realized of course that I'd been eating way too much in the grain category - just because they are whole doesn't mean you can go whole hog - and the cheese category, too, and the butter - but often not enough fruit. I tend to do pretty well with vegetables just naturally.

And I did do well throughout Lent. I had my annual blood work during this time, and all the numbers that doctors fuss about were much better. Plus food got cheaper - because I wasn't eating to excess and buying lots of extras - just almost daily dark chocolate and a weekly small ice cream.

But then I went on a little baking binge for Easter - cookies plus the bread below. And it's baseball season, too.

Fortunately, ball park food does not much appeal to me. I have a theory that most ball parks have one good thing I might want to eat, and there's the challenge of finding it. I would never be tempted by the all you can eat seats at the Coliseum - for which we can be thankful.

So I was more than a little grossed out when I heard about the Fifth Third Burger, at the minor league park in Grand Rapids, the Tigers' A team.

It's five one-third pound burger patties (Fifth Third is the bank which sponsor's the park, I think) on a one pound bun, with chili, processed cheese, salsa, lettuce, styrofoam tomatoes, sour cream and chips and nacho cheese sauce. Bring on the statins and lactaid. It costs $20 and pushes 5000 calories and 10,000 milligrams of sodium. Prizes are given for anyone who finishes one, though it's recommended for a family of four - who will each have exceeded their RDA for sodium by the time they finish it. I'd love it if someone did a "carbon footprint" for this anti-lent pro-gluttony baby.

But at least this is imaginable. I am still trying to figure out what a previous promotion at Fifth Third Park - deep fried Pepsi - is.

Anyway, the Easter treats are gone. I'm still singing Alleluias, but back to eating just enough good food.

Monday, April 13, 2009

a tale of two loaves

Happy Easter!

But what happened to Lent?

It seems like only a few weeks ago that we were celebrating Dimanche Gras with a Kings Cake, the picture of which I never got around to publishing.
Basically these two things are the same. But the Kings Cake has a hidden object - coin, nut or plastic baby - and unpleasant purple, green and gold frosting - the carnival colors of New Orleans, while the Greek Easter Bread has red eggs embedded - red for the blood of Christ and eggs for new life (though not much new life once they are hard boiled!). The sesame seeds on the Easter version are a straightforward fertility symbol, I think.
But there's something basic about celebrating holidays - any holiday - with a festive sweetened bread. I'm sure that in between Mardi Gras and Easter the Sicilians have a similar recipe for St. Joseph's Day (my name day, March 19) and the English have buns that are hot and cross for Good Friday. (Irish soda bread on St. Patrick's Day - no yeast, no eggs, little fat - doesn't cut it - sorry!)
And who can forget panetone and stollen.
Portuguese sweet bread is a similar dough, too - but I'm not aware that it's associated with any particular holiday. Perhaps the Portuguese are more ad lib with their celebrations?
And of course the French brioche - not sweet, but richer - those French!
A serious account of What I Did for Lent This Year plus some updates on food issue reading will follow this post soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chain, chain, chain; untraceable supply chain

There was an article in Wednesday's NY Times business section heralding a forthcoming report by the inspector general of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Apparently many manufacturers of food products have no idea of their supply chains. This is why folks are still discovering that they may have killed someone with peanut butter in their cookies and candy.

Now I'm no health nut, but this concluding paragraph in the article really made me gasp:
" ' According to an estimate from a manager at a grain storage facility, if grain from one farm were contaminated, millions of bags of flour would be at risk and might have to be removed from retail shelves,' the report stated."

It made me want to contact the folks at King Arthur, or Bob of Red Mill fame, and say, "Do you know where your grain comes from?" I have to trust that they (mostly Bob these days because of shipping) are the exceptions, who do know - who deserve my trust. But after learning that of 40 market items purchased by inspectors only 5 had a fully traceable supply chain, I wonder.

All just another reason to grow your own, or cultivate your own supply chain. But who can afford that? and for everything? It's time for more inspectors, apparently, to step up enforcement of the law requiring manufacturers to know where their raw ingredients come from.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More press and more confusion

seems to be the result of the groundbreaking for the White House vegetable garden.

The article in today's NY Times seems to be a typical mishmash and rehash.
Besides, aren't you tired of Alice Waters? or of Whole Foods being held up as a paragon of a reformed food system?

This shorter piece by Mark Bittman makes more sense

I love the quote from Marion Nestle:

"Organic junk food is still junk food."

It's right up there with a note I made from a recent Pollan interview in Mother Jones:

"If you are willing to make it yourself, have all you want." He was referring specifically to french fries, but think about all the other things it might apply to. If it involves lots of work - and lots of fat - this maxim will save you.

The current Mother Jones issue, by the way has a provocative article, getting beneath the consumer hype of "organic". "Organic and Local is so 2008."

Actually, the most interesting thing I have read lately is a book I finished studying just this week, written before 2008. I think it must have been the author's dissertation - it certainly was written in academese. But it raised all the issues about organic in California - how the movement started, where it went astray, what it is not addressing.

Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: the Paradox of Organic Farming in California
University of California Press, 2004.

"Organic" as a certifiable label really is all about inputs, that is, it is a label geared to the consumer system - growers as consumers as well as shoppers. It does not address processes, nor does it address justice issues. (I think I'll save a little rant about farm workers - and how they are mostly neglected in all this - for Cesar Chavez day.)

What organic means is that farmers are using different inputs than non-organic/conventional growers. No more, no less. Well, except perhaps for European certification schemes.

The organic movement in California was not an attempt to recover a more wholesome agrarian tradition. Most agriculture in California has always been done on a large scale. The organic movement as it arose in the 60s and 70s came from urban idealists, back-to-the-land romanticism.

Conversion to organic in California has been driven by cost (some things are just relatively easy and maybe even cheaper to grow organically, like grapes and tomatoes) and by wholesalers as much as by a vision of sustainability or ecological agriculture.

And most of the organic food available in the supermarket is grown on a large scale. Small scale growers make it through a combination of restaurant contracts and direct marketing, with CSAs probably having the most positive impact on small-medium integrated farming with just labor practices.

Friday, March 20, 2009

So now a generation has an excuse

not to like beets! Because Barack Obama doesn't like beets, and there won't be any in the White House garden. The beets are in at my garden - but only one other gardener has any planted. Why this anti-beet feeling in a culture that likes sweet things?

Was it Bush I who didn't like broccoli? There's some here. But I don't see the promised arugula on the plan. Must one plant it in the fall in the D.C. area?

So the White House vegetable garden seemed inevitable, and now everyone is taking credit for it, especially Alice Waters.

I've just looked over the plan and it makes pretty good sense. I'm happy to see they are confining the mint - but I wonder why not interplant the other herbs, especially the annual and tender perennial ones? and the chives? They all help with pest control or attract beneficials.

Hallelujah for the rhubarb - but I am wondering why so few carrots? - and why next to the dill with which they compete?

I assume the tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplants will go in after the peas and early lettuces.

And that in time they will realize the berry patch is way too small, and they need an asparagus bed!

If John Jeavons were there they would plant some grains, too. Perhaps grains and favas over next winter? They've got way more than enough land to plant staples, like grains and potatoes. Oh dear - have they shunned potatoes, too, but just not told us? Now is when they should go in...

Follow the link to see the garden plan: