Monday, August 29, 2011

Why we need SNAP

Speaking of NPR, yesterday on the way to church I listened to a story about Food Stamps.

How telling is it that this story was reported by a business reporter?

While she gave a good summary of the increase in the use of SNAP, as the program is now called, and all that in anticipation of more discouraging figures to be released this week, I found her analysis pretty ignorant.

It is not rising prices that necessitate the increased use of SNAP in the United States, but the high cost of everything else, high unemployment and sinking real wages, and the widening gap between rich and poor, including the working poor.

In our country working families spend as little as 9% of their income on food. The poor may spend a greater percentage, but nothing like the 50% or more that people in the poorest countries spend on nourishment.

Think about this: If the cost of grain, let's say corn, doubles, then for people in the two-thirds world, who are apt to buy the corn and grind it themselves as a staple food, for porridge or tortillas, the cost of food doubles. But for people in this country, who buy corn in the form of breakfast cereal, where only 10%, let's say, of the cost of a box of cereal actually goes for the corn in all its forms, then the cost of a $3 box of cereal becomes $3.30, only a 10% increase.

Our economic woes and inequities, not world food prices, are largely responsible for the need for supplements to people's incomes - which we give in the form of food assistance.

The reporter also opines that tax payers are not happy with putting food on other people's tables. Do those tax payers think about how they are supporting commodity crops (that corn again) which make their own grocery bill less expensive, and yield some of the foods which contribute to the ills driving up health care costs - also partially funded by their taxes. An ill nourished nation is a drain on all our pocketbooks in so many ways. Resenting helping some of our neighbors to eat a little bit better seems penny wise and pound foolish, nevermind mean spirited.

Fresh Food

It's food week on Fresh Air
and I think I am writing this note as much to remind myself to listen or to download the podcasts as to remind the world that this is a good show with very interesting hours.

So far Teri Gros has interviewed a chef with no sense of taste (really). Tomorrow's show is about the movie Ratatouille.

Meanwhile I'm having my own food week, making some condiments for the pantry and the round of harvest parties, and cheering on the first tomatoes - FINALLY.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How did I miss "Nordic Cuisine"?

I never have understood the trend among chefs to use chemicals to produce food flavored substances at very high prices, even if they do taste better than the food-flavored substances one can buy cheaply at fast food outlets and supermarkets. So it was pretty refreshing to read about this new movement, which has as its goals "purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics" in cooking.

Sticking to the seasonal in the far north has got to be challenging. And I suspect flavoring things with evergreen needles and bark is mostly a gimmick. But eating what has been well-stored or simply preserved during winter surely bears re-visiting.

This weekend is the Mad ("food" in Danish) Festival.
Way too late to get cancel my commitments and get a flight; they must be dreaming of breakfast by now.

But I do like thinking about the slogan - no conflict between a better meal and a better world.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thinking Ahead on World Food Production

Vacation brings its rewards, like lobster rolls, but finding time to think and write when visiting family is a bit difficult.

Before I left town, I wanted to post a link to this August 12 Science Friday podcast:
There's some excellent analysis about world food prices, relative costs of food, climate change and world water supplies in relationship to agriculture ("The competition [for water] is currently taking place in the global grain market." Lester Brown) There's also a reality check about what biotech and can do. And a critique of agro-fuels.

Another interesting note: is the increase in the number of hungry people, still going up, a sign that we will not reach 9 billion humans on the planet, because infant mortality and other hunger-related deaths will go up. Pretty grim.

But I do find it discouraging that Ira Flatow's initial question was posed in terms of biotech vs. charitable donations of synthetic nitrogen, with no consideration of a third alternative, working with nature to improve yields. Notice the way he directs the conversation with Gawain Kripke from Oxfam America toward the end of the conversation, back to N inputs as the biotech alternative. One of the key low tech solutions to global food security is improving storage of staple crops in the developing world, reducing loss to insects, rodents, and damp, something Kripke slides over and Flatow doesn't pick up on. Nobody talks about this much!

This reminds me that I need to find a few papers on the promise of sustainable agriculture for increase in yields in the developing world. A backyard farmer in my congregation who does everything sustainably at home still clings to the fact that we need subsidized mono-crop production ag in the US to feed the rest of the world.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

At the Board of Supervisors

I was impressed today by the knowledge some of the members of the Board of Supervisors showed - knowledge of the food forum report, and even the food system assessment. They had done their homework, and several showed that they had been paying attention to opportunities to address issues in their districts. Good for them.

Both the food forum report and the report of the survey of county lands to identify food growing potential were received unanimously.

What's distressing me, though, is the class bias evident on the part of two of the supervisors. Some of this relates to the obesity epidemic, and the facile drawing of cause and effect relationships. Makes me want to get up and scream, "I am fat and I do not eat fast food, nor do I have diabetes!"

There's a lot of blame the victim going on, too - as though avoiding obesity and diet-related diseases were simply a matter of personal discipline. I really do not care that one of the supervisors felt the need to confess to eating potato chips last evening. So what! Just because he has internalized the food police does not mean that he has the answers, or that the answers are a matter of conscience for everyone. Busy middle and upper middle class families should resist drawing parallels between their lives and the lives of the working class, working poor, and poor.

There was some poo-poohing of community gardens as no real solution to anything, too, and I wondered about that. I see the difference that our community garden makes in the diets of the 16 households who garden there, and their friends and networks. Other gardeners are constantly commenting on how at this time of the year they eat from the garden. One gardener shares with those for whom she provides in-home care, another pair of gardeners shares with their congregation and a twice monthly food pantry. A number of us swap our excess with other gardeners, give it to friends, get it to FISH or Food for Thought AIDS/HIV food pantry. We aren't very good at counting the pounds we share, but my guess is that at least four times as many households as garden get some benefit - some fresher or more varied produce - than they would otherwise. And when we talk about ways to use county land - spots that are too small for even small-scale commercial farming, can serve many households with fresh, local vegetables.

Now the work continues. The Board of Supervisors knows that there is a Food System Alliance, and we are working with them on the goals which surfaced from the forum, and on developing an action plan.

Finally - I would love to post a link to the forum report here, but I can't find it where it was supposed to be, on the Ag Innovations web site. grrrrrrr.

National Farmers' Market Week

This is it, according to the USDA. A good time to remember to get to your closest market, and see what's in season - if you don't have a garden that lets you know.

And before you complain that farmers' market produce is more expensive, consider two things:

Much of the food available at the supermarket and in fast food outlets, which is based on commodity crops, may appear cheaper, but that's because it's subsidized. Your taxes help to pay the difference. And your increased health care costs pay some of the remainder.

More and more farmers' markets here in California are accepting CalFresh (our version of SNAP, which used to be food stamps) at a 2 for 1 rate - $10 of CalFresh benefit will buy $20 worth of farmers' market produce. For many items, this makes the cost less than supermarket produce.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sonoma County food system assessment

Here's the press coverage of our Food System Alliance work.

Many of our our Alliance labored long and hard to pull together existing information about the state of the food system here in Sonoma County into this assessment document. This PD article has the right spin, I think, and picked up some of the critical points, but I must say I am embarrassed at how poorly it's written.

The assessment is just one of four reports coming out now and in the next few months, from the Alliance and member bodies. This Tuesday we bring the Food Forum report to the Board of Supervisors.

Stay tuned.