Blogs

COMMUTING VS COMMUNING

The average American commute is growing ever longer, according to a study released last week:

Despite high gas prices – $2.66 in Atlanta on Tuesday – 9 of 10 Americans still drive to work each day, the vast majority of them alone, according to census figures released in June. What's more, the average commute in America has lengthened by a minute a year since 2000, now topping out at 38 minutes, according to the report.

"The big picture is we see congestion increasing in cities of all sizes," says Tim Lomax, an author of the study.

It's not just cars that have wear and tear, experts say. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that every 10 minutes added to a person's commute decreases by 10 percent the time that person dedicates to their family and community.

Longer commutes eat into mealtime, too; with more of us leaving the house at the crack of dawn and coming home later in the evening, we’re too rushed, even, for a bowl of cereal in the morning, much less a home-cooked meal in the evening.

And those obliged to drive to work miss out on the opportunity to incorporate a bit of physical activity into their workday, unlike folks who are lucky enough to live within walking or biking distance of their jobs.

Do we really need to read another study to figure out that all this eating on the run and endless driving is eroding our quality of life? The automobile has not lived up to its promise; it doesn’t provide us with true autonomy or mobility. It’s enslaved us to fossil fuels from foreign countries while depriving most Americans of any alternative means of transport. And all this commuting is a driving force behind climate change, too.

Mass transit, regarded as a common good that merits serious investment in most developed nations, is considered by many American planners and politicians to be as quaint and outmoded as, say, the Geneva Convention.

Plenty of people still consider proximity to public transportation a selling point, judging by the property values of older suburban enclaves that offer the convenience of commuter trains. But somewhere along the line, we started to put all our eggs in one combustible basket, and now we’ve hatched a whole flock of problems.

Many people would dearly love to live closer to their jobs, but can’t afford the high cost of housing near their workplace. Parents who might prefer to raise their kids in a more densely populated, culturally diverse, mixed-use kind of neighborhood find themselves forced to move to the ‘burbs because the public schools are better, the streets are safer, or the property taxes are lower.

But there’s a sizable percentage of folks who’d rather live in a bigger house on a larger lot no matter how far from their place of work, for whom the long daily drive seems a reasonable trade-off—or even a pleasure. Their commute gives them precious “alone” time, or a chance to listen to their favorite author’s latest book, or an opportunity to multitask on their cell phones (hands free, we hope.)

So if these so-called extreme commuters are happy with their way of life, why should anyone else frown upon it?

It depends on whether you regard global warming as a problem. If you don’t, well, then, there’s not much I can say to persuade you that the exurbs are inherently unsustainable. But as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just told a roomful of world leaders at today’s Climate Summit, "the time for doubt has passed…inaction now will prove the costliest action of all in the long term."

And another report issued last week, from the Urban Land Institute, points out that choosing to live closer to work is, in fact, a more effective way to fight climate change than switching to a hybrid car.

Unfortunately, our land use policies historically have encouraged exactly the opposite phenomenon, with federal, state and local policies that actively encourage sprawl and make it seem inevitable. And there are plenty of people willing to defend our ever expanding exurbs. As James Burling, the litigation director for the Pacific Legal Fund, a conservative group that dismisses environmentalists’ concerns over sprawl and global warming, told the Los Angeles Times:

"So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn, there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that," he said.

Ah, the proverbial bit of lawn, that precious American birthright. Who cares about greenhouse gases, as long as we can have our own bit of green? When it turns brown from drought, will the suburbs lose their luster, or will extreme commuters even notice, since they leave their homes before dawn and return after dark?

In the meantime, I’m off to hear Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA’s Goddard Institute, give a lecture on the impact of climate change on agriculture and food in the Hudson Valley.

Lucky for me, the venue hosting the event is within walking distance, because Manhattan is going to suffer from major gridlock today, thanks to the UN’s Climate Summit. Featured speakers include Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bush couldn’t make it, but he condescended to send Condi. Guess he’s busy prepping for his own two-day climate summit on Thursday and Friday, which will call for the usual voluntary measures and other pie-in-the-sky solutions. Brace yourselves for more hot air.

A DEEPLY ROOTED LOVE

Our G.O.P. (Gray Old Pachyderm) seems to think there’s something twisted about the attachment these carrots have for one another. Farmer Kitty, on the other hand, thinks it’s sweet. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Is it OK to juice them, though?

Please Don't Petraeus in a Bad Light

“I've got to admit it’s getting better.” In a stunning result, Iraq’s Al Anbar Province has landed on Money Magazine’s list of the “Top Ten Best Places to Live 2007.” Unknown to most Americans until mentioned numerous times by President Bush, General Petraeus, and others on American television as an exemplar of the improving situation in Iraq, Al Anbar surprisingly finished 2nd in the latest poll, ahead of Hanover, New Hampshire, but behind Middleton, Wisconsin. “Some places have everything any family could want—economic opportunity, good schools, safe streets, things to do and a sense of community,” according to Money Magazine, but just what does Al Anbar Province offer? “Well…it’s less Hellish than it was six months ago,” said an Anbar resident who asked not to be identified. Some in the media have linked Anbar’s place in the poll to its use as a Republican talking point, but a spokesman for the Bush Administration said, “We’d love to take the credit, but I think you’ll find it has taken place organically, a little reduction in ethno-sectarian strife goes a long way.” Look out Middleton, Al Anbar may not be #1 right now, but they’re #2 with a bullet…or is that an RPG?

WHY IT’S ONLY RATIONAL TO RATION MEAT

One of the more novel cookbooks in our collection is a little World War II vintage number called Cooking Without Meat. Published in 1943, it begins:

WHEN THERE IS NO MEAT

Doing with little meat, one of the necessities of wartime, means a drastic change in the eating habits of most North Americans, a change many resent and most cooks deplore. For it is true that the average meal (luncheon or dinner) is planned around the meat dish. Not only that, but the rest of the meal usually receives less attention, both in preparation and eating, and is often practically obscured in meat gravy with the result that even the flavor of vegetables is masked by the odor and savor of meat.

Not surprising, then, that meatless meals are a problem. The cook is left without the customary high spot in her menu, and foods that before received little attention must now stand on their own merits. This is not all tragedy, however. Other foods worthy of acquaintance have distinctive and subtle flavors which frequently go unnoticed in competition with the dominating taste of meat. And still other delectable foods are seldom served in meat-eating households, a privation no lover of good food would knowingly endure.

So if steaks and chops have left your table and a new cooking era confronts you, set out with anticipation to explore a new realm of gastronomic wonders. There are many pleasant surprises ahead for you and your family.

Faced with the complexities and restrictions of a rationed larder, you may be inclined to be skeptical about the joys of war-time cooking. Naturally, it means considerable readjustment, but it can be a game, a battle of wits. By accepting your limitations as a challenge, you will find increased satisfaction in the preparation of palatable meals.

Back then, life during wartime meant enduring all kinds of shortages. Ironically, it was the post-World War II surplus of petro-chemicals that fueled the rise of industrial agriculture in America, as Michael Pollan explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer. After the war the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help out the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: Spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.”

So, thanks to our military-industrial-fueled food chain, food rationing is a thing of the past (although we’re reportedly running low on bullets.) America’s positively marinating in meat. A food shortage is inconceivable in a land that produces enough food to supply every man, woman and child with 3900 calories a day—nearly double what the average person actually needs.

Whether you regard this uber-efficient system of food production as a plus or a minus depends on whether you’re a multinational conglomerate that profits from this glut, or just a no-name glutton. What’s clear, though, is that the average American actually ate better during the supposed deprivations of World War II than most of us do now; between cutting back on meat, and harvesting all those fresh, homegrown veggies from their victory gardens, Americans had a far healthier diet then--and, not coincidentally, a lower incidence of disease.

Now we’re importing our meat-centric diet, and the diseases it breeds, to the rest of the world, resulting in what the World Health Organization has dubbed the “globesity” epidemic. Excessive meat consumption is exacerbating global warming, too, because livestock production turns out to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

And as global warming worsens weather conditions such as droughts and floods, food production all over the world is in jeopardy. But just as we’ve figured out that we affluent nations need to eat less meat, meat consumption is skyrocketing in newly prosperous developing nations, to the consternation of climate change experts. A recent article in the venerable British medical journal the Lancet makes “the case for restricting production and consumption of red meat:”

Given the projected increases in global livestock production and in associated greenhouse-gas emissions if policies do not change, urgent attention needs to be paid to finding ways of reducing the demand for animal products and the energy intensity of their production…

…the prime objective must be to reduce consumption of animal products in high-income countries, and thus lower the ceiling consumption level to which low-income and middle-income countries would then converge…

… the urgent task of curtailing global greenhouse-gas emissions necessitates action on all major fronts. For the world's higher-income populations, greenhouse-gas emissions from meat-eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying, especially in view of the great warming potential of methane in the short-to-medium term.

Of course, being a medical journal, the Lancet also emphasizes the many health benefits of eating less red meat. But it’s kind of a moot point, because if we can’t reign in our greenhouse gas emissions, our collective goose is cooked, anyway. Uncle Sam’s asleep at the wheel—and he wouldn’t dream of asking us to curb our carbon footprint, anyway, whether by carpooling, say, or skipping the steak. Because, you know, that would be un-American.

But that’s no excuse for the rest of us to remain in a carbon-induced coma. Nature is asking us, nicely, to change our wasteful ways before it’s too late. So you can choose to change now, or you can have change thrust upon you later, when we’ve reached the point of no return. To paraphrase a 70’s margarine mantra, it’s not nice to fuel Mother Nature.

ROOTING FOR AMERICA’S ASPARAGUS FARMERS

We’re thrilled to be co-hosting, along with Screening Liberally, a showing this evening of the award-winning “stalk-umentary” Asparagus! If I were a film critic, my blurb for Asparagus! would be “Hilarious and Heartbreaking!” This saga of how the War on Drugs is destroying American asparagus farmers is funny, tragic, and infuriating, documenting our government’s demented decision to use our tax dollars to pay Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus instead of coca.

This strategy has done virtually nothing to stem the production of cocaine, but it’s nearly wiped out the family farms of Oceana County, Michigan, where the farmers are struggling to compete with cheap imported asparagus.

We here at Eating Liberally pride ourselves on providing tasty and topical food at all our events, but a fall screening of a film about a spring vegetable poses particular logistical challenges. Needless to say, there’s no locally grown asparagus this time of year. Sure, we could buy fresh asparagus at Whole Foods, except that it’s from Peru, which is, like, the whole point of this film.

Ah, but what about frozen asparagus? After all, everyone knows frozen’s the next best thing to fresh, right?

So I could get a 12 ounce bag of asparagus spears from Trader Joe’s for only $1.99, except that, it’s from, of course, Peru. How about Whole Foods? They’ve got 12 oz. bags of organic asparagus spears for just $2.29! Too bad they’re from China.

If you’re willing to pay more, Whole Foods also stocks 9 oz. boxes of organic asparagus from Cascadian Farms for $3.99. Why is it more expensive? I have no idea, because it, too, is from China.

There is only one source for American asparagus, and that’s good ol’ Bird’s Eye. My local supermarket sells their 10 oz. packages for $3.99, the same price as Cascadian Farm’s Chinese asparagus. OK, so it’s not organic, but if ever there were a situation where local trumps organic, this is it. I mean, if it weren’t for Bird’s Eye, these Michigan farmers might be out of business altogether.

Consumers are clearly willing to pay more for organic produce. When will food manufacturers figure out that we’re willing to pay a premium to get fruits and vegetables that are domestically produced, too? Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are no doubt compelled to source their foods as cheaply as possible. But those low prices don’t reflect the cost of transporting imported foods to our store shelves, not to mention the toll our globalized food chain is taking on our farmers.

Why can’t more companies offer us grown-in-the-USA frozen produce so that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to spend a bit more at the market would have the option of supporting American farmers? And even if you aren’t particularly patriotic, you might be happy to pay a bit extra to get food that’s not made in China. Or South America, at our expense.

Sometimes it seems the only thing we manufacture in the US these days is an appetite for cheap consumer goods and crappy processed foods. Most farmers who grow “specialty crops”--the USDA’s pet name for fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption and deemed unworthy of the largesse the USDA bestows on commodity crop farmers—can’t make a decent living off their land and have to take second jobs off the farm, which is also the only way many of them can afford health insurance.

I don’t know what the solution is, but as Asparagus! so ably shows, the answer is not to pay Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus, unless the question is, “How can we destroy our own farmers?” Three cheers for Bird’s Eye for being the only brand that can say “Product of the USA.” My boxes of American asparagus spears also say “please call us with comments at 1 800-563-1786…or visit our website at www.birdseyefoods.com.” I’m going to call them just to say thanks, on behalf of the fine folks of Oceana County, the former asparagus capital of the world. And thanks, too, to the filmmakers of Asparagus! for spreading the word about our endangered asparagus spears! Now, speaking of spreading, I’ve got some hors d’oeuvres to prepare…

IOWANS AGAINST CORN-SERVATION

We joined more than twelve thousand people in Indianola, Iowa yesterday for Senator Tom Harkin’s famous steak fry, where the steaks and the speeches were, by and large, pretty well done. Six of the democratic presidential candidates gathered on a hot air balloon field and vied to be the most uplifting speaker in their efforts to woo Iowa voters.

On our field trip to “flyover” country, we brought along a bit of blue state big city bias, but the souvenirs we collected over the weekend forced us to chuck our preconceptions and make room for the reality that Iowa is, in fact, a hotbed of sustainable agriculture.

You wouldn’t think so, looking out on all those amber waves of grain that flood our food chain with high fructose corn syrup and factory farmed animal flesh. We passed endless fields of corn, all of it destined for feed or fuel, none of it fit for human consumption.

And, indeed, the only corn we got to eat all weekend were the peanut butter-filled chocolate ears of corn my Drinking Liberally colleague Katrina shared with us at the airport on the way home. Locally made, but kind of bittersweet; after all, shouldn’t there be enough people-grade corn in Iowa that they could scare up some ears to serve at the Harkin steak fry? Instead, we got potato salad.

Gary Larsen, an Iowa farmer we met at the steak fry, shared our dismay. “People have got to eat more vegetables!” he told us.

“So what do you grow?” I asked.

“Corn and soybeans,” he answered. Gotta make a living, he explained. Larsen’s got 400 acres and three kids who don’t want to follow in his tractor tracks. “Farming has changed so much,” he lamented. “It’s gotten too big.”

I’ve been told that farmers are a deeply conservative bunch, with a horror of all things liberal, and Larsen certainly looked like a straight-out-of-central-casting commodity crop farmer. Turns out, though, that he drives a Prius and is totally OK with his openly gay son. Which is to say that he’s way more concerned about global warming than gay marriage.

Larsen worries that James Hansen may be right when he says we’ve got less than a decade to do something about climate change. He relies on cover crops instead of chemicals to keep his soil fertile, and his politics are as progressive as his farming methods (he expressed disappointment that Dennis Kucinich wasn’t at the steak fry.)

And Larsen’s not an anomaly. We also met Denise O’Brien, who founded the Women, Food & Agriculture Network and grows fruits and vegetables on a fourth generation family farm, which she graciously gave us a tour of during our visit (photos and post to follow). O’Brien ran for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture last year, and nearly won, to the consternation of conventional farmers for whom the word “organic” spells panic.

Plenty of Iowans are working to counter agribiz monoculture and manure lagoons, from the folks at the Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture to the Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa Farmers Union, and even Iowa State University, where there’s a graduate program in sustainable agriculture.

We came home with a bagful of great souvenirs: a board game called Farmopoly; t-shirts from the Iowa Farmers Union with a Wendell Berry quote (“If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture”); and a Des Moines downtown farmers’ market burlap shopping bag with fancy wooden handles, which belonged to our Des Moines Drinking Liberally colleagues Tricia and Mike until I admired it, at which point they insisted on giving it to me!

So I’m taking my brand new bag to the Union Square Greenmarket to show it off and replenish our empty fruit bowl. I’ll leave you with some highlights from the steak fry. My favorite moment was meeting much-beloved-by-the-blogosphere Elizabeth Edwards, who graciously informed me that I “don’t look like someone who Eats Liberally”. We don’t generally endorse candidates, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it—Elizabeth Edwards for President!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY HEARTLAND BLOGGING

We are in Iowa! First time we’ve ever set foot in corn country. We arrived last night to attend a national conference for our parent organization, Drinking Liberally, which has grown in four years from a single New York chapter to 212 chapters across the country.

Thanks to Drinking Liberally, progressives like us can fly to a place we’ve never been and walk into a bar filled with people we’ve never met and be warmly embraced and greeted as long lost friends. How cool is that? The power of the Internet to build community is an awesome thing.

Upon checking in at our hotel, the landmark Hotel Fort des Moines (where George W. and his dad have stayed many a time), we received a goody bag from the local Drinking Liberally crew which contained all kinds of treats including homemade cookies, along with several itineraries for the weekend.

The first itinerary promised a whirlwind weekend of hayseed hospitality, everything from corn shuckin’ to cow tippin’ to pig wrasslin’ to a bonfire and hoedown, with time out on Sunday morning for a slice of piety.

Alas, our Iowa colleagues were merely mocking our etched-in-concrete preconceptions about what folks out here in the heartland do for fun. The real agenda for the weekend actually entails attending a series of sessions on Saturday where speakers will share their vision for how to nurture the netroots and reclaim our democracy. There’s a mock caucus, too, to really give us a true taste of what it means to be an Iowan.

On Sunday, we’ll be attending Senator Tom Harkin’s legendary steak fry, where, despite the name, the steaks will be grilled, not fried. Ten thousand or so people will be there, including most of the Democratic presidential candidates (Kucinich and Gravel weren’t invited.) There will be tons of food, and plenty of fodder for Eating Liberally, when we’ve had a chance to digest it all!

The Surge...It Tingles

That tingling sensation you feel?…that means it’s working. Remember the old ads for the dandruff shampoo Selsun Blue? One side of the guy’s head was covered with Selsun Blue, the other with “the leading brand.” The Selsun Blue side was tingling. According to the commercial, that means it’s working. Or it could just be that it causes skin irritation.

I was reminded of that ad recently while watching Fox News Sunday. My whole body tingles when I watch Fox News Sunday but that’s another blog entry. When Juan Williams pointed out that the U.S. has suffered greater casualties since the surge, Brit Hume responded with vintage, aged-in-oaken-casks, condescension, “Juan, you didn’t honestly think the surge would lead to less U.S. casualties did you?”

Now I understand. More U.S. casualties means the surge is working. I can process that. Still, the whole “the surge will obviously lead to more casualties you idiot” thing wasn’t exactly one of the Administration’s key selling points back in the old pre-surge days.

So, as I understand Brit Hume and Fox News…

fewer casualties = good news
more casualties = good news

It’s no wonder Fox News* is head and shoulders above the competition.

*[by the way, try the new Fox News Shampoo—available along with the latest Factor Gear—for “fair and balanced” hair]

LET'S ASK MARION: WHAT WORKS BETTER: THE CARROT, OR THE STICK?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: As Michael Moore so ably documented in "Sicko," our health care system is disastrously dysfunctional. We outspend every other developed nation and yet, nearly 46 million Americans remain uninsured and we're less healthy in many ways than the people whose governments spend far less and yet manage to provide every citizen with access to decent health care.

But as bad as our system is, it seems poised to get even worse as health care costs skyrocket at twice the rate of inflation. Anxious employers are looking to crack down on overeating employees who eat into company profits by driving up obesity-related health care costs.

Some companies are launching "wellness" initiatives that reward their workers for adopting healthier habits, even going so far as to subsidize a CSA share or a gym membership.

Other companies are trying a more punitive approach, docking the pay of employees whose BMI (body mass index) qualifies them as obese, or adding a surcharge to their insurance costs.

In your experience, which is the more effective way to get people to skip the chips and reach for the carrot sticks--the carrot, or the stick?

Dr. Nestle: Yikes. I'm not sure either works, except for a few individuals, maybe. You are really asking (I think) what it takes to improve health behavior. A lengthy and unsatisfactory literature bears on this question, much of it theoretical and ungrounded in reality. The little we know about weight loss is that it takes way more than education. It takes a village, and a supportive one at that.

Some people are motivated by fear. One of the strongest influences on health behavior is what a doctor says to you about what you need to do to prevent a heart attack: lower your cholesterol or else!

But social changes do even better. Look at what happened with smoking. I like to tell the story that when I first started working at UCSF School of Medicine in 1976, all the doctors smoked. Ten years later when I left, nobody smoked except the hospital director and nurses. What happened? It became harder to live in society and smoke than not to.

I think we need to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully without having to do anything conscious about it. Let's make healthy eating the default—smaller portions, healthy meals, vegetables, no added salt. If people want to eat more or eat something else, that's fine but they have to ask for it, pay more for it, and add the salt themselves. Put the carrots right in front of people (but do make sure they are fresh, taste great, and are easy to eat). If someone wants chips, they can certainly have them but they have to ask. It would be an interesting experiment, no?

Jamie's Gay Rant

Jamie Kilstein's Liberal Shot of Political Whiskey:Gay People

Syndicate content