KAT's blog

Time To Wise Up?

Here's hoping that 2009 will be the year that we finally wise up to all our follies, and, in the words of NY Times columnist Bob Herbert, Stop Being Stupid.

Let's Ask Marion: Are The USDA's Organic Standards A Sham?

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

Kat: The Sacramento Bee reported on Sunday that a supposedly organic fertilizer used by nearly a third of California's organic farmers was in fact spiked with the synthetic fertilizer ammonium sulfate. In 2004, a whistleblower told California's Department of Food and Agriculture that this deception had been going on for five years.

The Department of Food and Agriculture tested the product and determined that the claim was true, but didn't order the company to take its product off the organic market until January 2007. "As a result," according to the SacBee, "some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables – including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm – wasn't really organic."

The SacBee adds:

"State officials knew some of California's largest organic farms had been using the fertilizer, the documents show, but they kept their findings confidential until nearly a year and a half after it was removed from the market."

The product was finally yanked for the vague violation of "improper labeling." The state chose not to pursue harsher penalties against California Liquid Fertilizer for violating California's organic product law, and also declined to refer the case to the attorney general's office for civil action as an unfair business practice. An agriculture department spokesman told the SacBee that "our priority was to remove the product from the market...More process would have delayed that."

This sort of incident perpetuates the notion that higher priced organic foods are some kind of scam, and vindicates the many small-scale sustainable farmers who've chosen to go "beyond organic" and opt out of the organic certification process altogether. Doesn't California's Department of Food and Agriculture have a stake in maintaining the integrity of the organic standards?

Dr. Nestle: What a dismal story, and on so many levels. Cheating is the Achilles’ heel of organics. The entire organic certification system is based on trust. If trust goes, the organic industry collapses like a house of cards. Organics means two quite different things. To people who care about the food system, organics is about growing crops and raising animals using methods that are good (for the health of people and animals), clean (for the environment), fair (to the people who produce the food), and sustainable (meaning renewing—not wasting or destroying—the earth’s natural resources).

To everyone involved in raising and selling organic foods, organics is a business. This business commands higher prices if—and only if—buyers believe that the food is produced according to those criteria and is better for their health and that of the planet.

The rules that govern USDA’s organic certification program attempt to address both food system and business concerns. As is usual for government agencies in the current political environment, business concerns take precedence. In setting the organic standards, the USDA tackled good and clean (although with some unfortunate compromises), but didn’t bother at all with fair or sustainable.

The “beyond organic” folks want to eliminate the compromises and deal with the missing pieces. Fine, but what they do also depends on trust, especially because if they aren’t certified, they are not inspected.

As I see it, trust in organic certification depends entirely on the integrity of the inspection system. The USDA certifies a motley group of agencies to visit farms and check to make sure that producers are following the rules. As I learned when researching the “organic” fish chapter of What to Eat, and even more from looking into the business of “organic” pet food, certifying agencies differ substantially in their application of the rules for organic production. Some take them seriously; some clearly don’t.

When I was writing What to Eat, I went to a lot of trouble to evaluate the integrity of the organic system. I interviewed producers, government officials, and inspectors. In 2006, everyone involved with the system told me that the system worked pretty well and violations were more a matter of misunderstanding than of evil intent. But large industrial vegetable growers in California told me that they think the organic system is corrupt from top to bottom. They have a vested interest in thinking so, of course. So whom are we supposed to trust?

One of the problems with the depressing instance discussed in the Sacramento Bee is that you have no way of knowing whether it is rare or common. We need to know this. Much is at stake. If, as is clearly the case, the organic rules don’t cover issues the public cares about, the inspection system is flawed, the USDA is constantly trying to weaken the standards, industrial producers are constantly trying to weaken the standards, and state departments of agriculture don’t want to bother enforcing them, why should anyone be willing to pay more for organics?

That is why strong organic standards, diligently enforced, are better for everyone concerned and especially for business. Everyone should be lobbying the new administration for stronger and better organic standards. But maybe the whole thing is moot? In the current economic climate, organic sales are tanking (see chart). While waiting for all this to sort out, here’s what to do: buy local from someone you know personally and think is worth trusting.

The Big Box Paradox: Should We Shop At Wal-Mart?

Image from G Living

(We're pleased as punch that Elanor Starmer, the Ethicurean's resident agriculture policy expert, found time amid all the holiday festivities to weigh in on whether Wal-Mart's been naughty or nice. Thanks, Elanor, and happy sledding!)

Kat: I used to shop at Wal-Mart, until I figured out that low prices based on lousy labor practices and shoddy made-in-China schlock are not such a bargain. But now that Wal-Mart--America's largest food retailer--has jumped on the organic bandwagon, it's making organic products available to folks who lack the access or means to shop at farmers' markets or, say, Whole Foods. Wal-Mart has also made a great show of going green, and just shelled out more than $352 million in what may be the "largest settlement ever for lawsuits over wage violations."

As you noted over at the Ethicurean a couple of weeks ago, global food companies such as Wal-Mart have a terrible track record when it comes to workers' rights. Can Wal-Mart ever be a force for good? Is it OK to advocate shopping there if it's the only way you can get your hands on organic stuff (even if it's industrial organic)?

Elanor: This is the perennial question, isn't it? Wal-Mart is so huge that it's easy to make the argument that any "good" thing Wal-Mart does - from stocking organic food to changing to energy-saving lightbulbs - makes a huge impact. And in a sense, that is absolutely true. But its potential to make a huge positive impact in one arena can't be viewed in isolation from its potential to hugely screw things up in other arenas. Looking at the sum total seems to be the only way to answer that question fairly.

On the plus side, it's pretty clear that Wal-Mart has gotten organic food into the hands of people who might not otherwise buy it or have access to it. But a major caveat is the quality of organic product that Wal-Mart actually provides. Wal-Mart isn't just a seller -- it's also a buyer, one that is able to offer lower prices to consumers (and still turn a massive profit) in part by lowering the prices it pays to its suppliers. In many cases, lower prices equals a lower-quality product. We saw this play out publicly when Wal-Mart decided to offer organic milk: Organic Valley was originally bidding for the contract along with Horizon (owned by dairy giant Dean Foods, which controls some 60% of the organic milk market in the US). Reportedly, Organic Valley dropped out of the bidding process because it realized that it couldn't maintain its high standards, including the tradition of offering its farmer-members a "fair" price for milk, given what Wal-Mart was willing to pay. Horizon ended up with the contract.

So is that good for consumers or not? Not so much. Consumers buy organic milk for a lot of different reasons -- because the cows aren't fed synthetic hormones or antibiotics, because they have access to pasture (and some studies suggest that grass-fed cows produce healthier meat and milk products than cows fed grain), because organic producers have to manage their dairies in more environmentally-responsible ways than conventional dairymen may, or because they want to help keep family farms in business by paying them a fair price for milk. What we're seeing with Horizon and other industrial-organic dairies is that the pressure to sell milk cheaply becomes pressure to cut corners on the organic standards. Horizon and Aurora, another big organic milk company, have been sued by the Cornucopia Institute for violating the standards by confining cows in giant feedlots rather than letting them out on pasture. The USDA has been pathetically lax in forcing the big guys to comply with the rules. As a result, consumers buying organic milk at Wal-Mart are getting milk that is far closer to the conventional stuff than most of them would probably ever imagine.

If consumers want to pay more for milk from cows that are fed organic feed but otherwise raised in conditions not unlike those of their conventional brethren, then Wal-Mart will help them do that. If they want healthier milk from cows that munch on pasture, where family farmers are able to care for the animals and the land because they're paid a fair price, then Wal-Mart isn't the answer. And as the pressure on suppliers to provide organic food at very low prices gets stronger and stronger, we'll see fewer domestic family farms able to compete and more organic food coming in from China and elsewhere, where enforcement of the standards is even weaker than it is here at home. The U.S. organic movement has spent so long building strong organic standards - it would be a tragedy if the label went the way of so many downtown shopping areas, drained of all its life by Wal-Mart's market power.

There's one more angle to this issue as well, and that's the fact that in addition to being a seller and a buyer, Wal-Mart is also an employer. Wal-Mart's labor track record is horrendous -- riddled with union busts, gender discrimination, refusals to pay overtime or provide health benefits or pay decent wages (the average full-time associate's salary was $13,000 a year in 2001) -- and the result is a major population of workers who struggle to put food on the table. It's arguably Wal-Mart's pathetic labor record, not its organic food sales, that has the greatest impact on the health of low-income consumers. After all, Wal-Mart workers are also consumers, and Wal-Mart is the single largest employer in the United States.

I can't help but think that there has to be a better way to increase access to organic food. I recently read a 2004 report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that estimated that one Wal-Mart store with 200 employees costs U.S. taxpayers over $420,000 per year in subsidies for free or reduced school lunches for the employees' kids, Section 8 housing assistance, public health care coverage, and other programs. That begs the question of whether, instead of using that taxpayer money to effectively subsidize Wal-Mart's operating costs, we could use it to increase poor households' access to healthy and organic food in other ways. I mean, does it really have to be a choice between Wal-Mart organics and no organics at all? I am definitely not an expert on food access policy, but I know there are other options out there; WIC coupons that can be redeemed at farmers markets are but one small example.

If we want to increase low-income access to organic food, pay family farmers a fair wage for their sustainability efforts, and safeguard the strength of the organic label - all requirements for a healthy, functional organic system - we'll need new policy solutions. That's not a short-term fix by any means, but anything less won't get us where we want to go. In the meantime, each of us will have to decide whether or not to shop at Wal-Mart -- and not delude ourselves about what we're getting if we do.

Happy Holidays

Maybe Vilsack Won't Suck?

Tom Vilsack & Denise O'Brien

Obama's selection of GMO-lovin', bio-fuelish, feedlot-friendly Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture drew a resounding "Bleech!" from the blogosphere this week. Vilsack has a long history of Agribiz alliances that's giving progressive foodies a bad case of heartland heartburn.

Vilsack's cozy with that agrarian Antichrist, Monsanto, for starters--and if you don't know what's scary about that, you haven't heard that Monsanto's apparently hellbent on seizing control of our entire food chain. Kind of like a cheesy Austin Powers plot, except that IT'S REALLY HAPPENING.

His support of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) brings to mind another kind of movie--a horror film in which mad scientists tinker away in their labs and unwittingly unleash a Pandora's box of unforeseen--and disastrous--consequences. I know, it sounds like another low-budget sci-fi flick, but as Jill Richardson ably documented this week, IT'S HAPPENING NOW (apologies for invoking Wolf Blitzer.)

And don't forget the biofuel boondoggle. Clearly, corn-based ethanol--which Vilsack endorses--is a lose-lose proposition; it's not going to solve our energy problems, and it's exacerbating the global food crisis. What about cellulosic biofuels? Vilsack and Stephen Chu, Obama's newly appointed Secretary of Energy, are all gung-ho about those cowpie-in-the-sky fuels-of-the-future, too. But Tom Philpott's written a compelling post over on Grist about the folly of emphasizing biofuels over more low-impact energy sources, conservation, and public transportation.

OK, so it's pretty easy to villify Vilsack. He doesn't have much in common with the dream candidates endorsed by the more than 57,000 folks who signed on to the Food Democracy Now! petition launched by activist David Murphy, who, in the words of Ethicurean Bonnie Powell, "tilted tirelessly at Washington’s windmills like a madman with a laptop for a lance."

Then again, Vilsack is someone's dream candidate--that someone being Jennifer Donahue, who happens to be a personal friend of Vilsack's. Donahue, political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, wrote a post for HuffPo with the Onion-esque title "Vilsack Best Possible Secretary Of Agriculture," in which she lauded Vilsack's ability to listen.

Some snarky bloggers (I may have been among them) dismissed it as pure PuffPo. But in between the fuming and the fawning over the Vilsack nomination, a more even-handed "let's make the best of this and move forward" consensus is emerging, as exemplified by Brian Depew's post at the Center For Rural Affairs blog.

I honestly don't know what to make of the Vilsack nomination, so I asked Denise O'Brien, the organic farmer who ran for Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, to share her invaluable Iowan insights. O'Brien confirmed what Donahue asserted in her HuffPo piece--that Vilsack is a politician who actually seems to listen. Here's O'Brien's surprisingly upbeat take on Vilsack:

On the one hand people are ballistic because he is a trial lawyer and doesn't come "from the farm." On the other hand many who have known and worked with him in Iowa are not happy with him and his relationship with big ag, especially Monsanto.

Here's the story. Vilsack was the first Democrat to hold the office of Governor in Iowa in forty years - yes, forty. The last Democrat holding the seat was Harold Hughes when many of us were children or not even born yet.

Many were ecstatic that a Dem had made it to this high office and that at last, we would have access. There is no doubt about it; the Governor’s office was accessible. For the first time in years, Dems could walk into the office of the Governor and talk to a Governor of the same party. Expectations were high among the progressive farm and labor folk. We thought we could stop Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and do something about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and have a voice for fair trade. But alas, we found that even though we were of the same party, there were some differences.

Over the years the Governor's office was open for a number of meetings relating to trade, prior to the Seattle WTO meeting; for meetings to solve the farm financial crisis that emerges every few years; and for meetings developing food policy. During Vilsack’s administration we were in his office more than all of the past twenty years of farm activism.

It wasn’t far into his administration, it finally dawned on many that our Governor Tom Vilsack was a centrist as was the leader of our country - Bill Clinton - and that we were likely to disagree on a lot of issues. What's a progressive to do? Give up? Not bother to even engage in discussions about relevant issues? The best thing to do was to keep talking and to keep exposing the governor to a more progressive line of thinking. We resigned ourselves to the fact that our expectations of a Democratic Governor were exactly that, expectations and that there was still a lot of work to do.

There were a number of times that Governor Vilsack did act on issues that were more in line with a progressive agenda. He brought people together for problem solving. He appointed a strong leader as the head of the Department of Natural Resources who worked hard to reign in the CAFOs but was ultimately unsuccessful. The Governor also appointed people to the Environmental Protection Council who were intelligent and outspoken in their opposition to the CAFOs. Alas, big ag still had the upper hand.

One of the best issues that addressed a progressive agenda during his administration was the creation, by Executive Order, of the Iowa Food Policy Council. This was the second one to form in the United States. A number of progressives served on this Council and were able to make inroads on issues of food security, local foods, farmer's markets and programs addressing the needs of people in poverty - food stamps and WIC. Yes, this happened in Iowa, the "Belly of the Beast" of agribusiness, and Vilsack was the leader who made it happen.

The bottom line is that we can work with Governor Vilsack. I know this from a personal perspective. When I ran for Secretary of Agriculture in the state of Iowa, I had to first win a primary. Vilsack encouraged and supported a man who had worked for him during his governor years. My opponent had much help - money and volunteers - to make his campaign successful. It didn't work. I was able to win by a margin of fourteen or fifteen points. And, you know what? The night I won the primary, Governor Vilsack called me up and told me that a large check would be waiting for me when I saw him the next day. I admire that. I beat the pants off the man he supported, but when the contest was over, he gave his full support to me.

During the months prior to the election, Governor Vilsack was often at the same events I was and he heard my platform many times - "Safe and Healthy Families, Safe and Healthy Farms and a Safe and Healthy Iowa". I can't help but think that some of what I said has taken root and that he will be an ally to us.

Please, please, you say, don't go all emotional on us! I want you to know that I am not selling out. I am not naïve – I am a realist. My principals are still intact. I am a progressive from the word go. I am not happy that someone from the progressive foodie constituency was not chosen. The sustainable/organic ag/foodies/local foods progressives have not quite arrived to the point of having as much influence as we would like to believe. Many times I feel that I live in a bubble and that everyone is on the same page with me. It is at a time like this, when a mainstream person is appointed to an influential position, that I realize there is still a lot of work to do.

My years of being a farm and food activist have taught me how to work with what I've got and to never give up. What we have is Tom Vilsack and what we have to keep in mind is that he knows the sustainable/organic/foodie community in Iowa and beyond. He knows we are hardworking, serious individuals who believe passionately in the issues of food and farm. My hope is that this will be present with him as he moves into his work as the Secretary of Agriculture. Our work is cut out for us. It is important to keep the pressure on and continue to recommend people to fill the positions that will facilitate the scaling up of the work we have already accomplished. The pathway of agriculture and agribusiness is complex. The new Secretary of Agriculture needs our help to maneuver that path.

We have much work to do and we must continue to carry the message of HOPE.

Let's Ask Marion: Is NY's "Fat Tax" On Soda A Good Idea?

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

Kat: New York Governor David Patterson's new budget plan calls for plumping up the state's coffers by slapping a so-called "fat tax" on non-diet sodas. This measure would reportedly raise $404 million in much needed revenue--and would presumably encourage some folks to cut back on sugary beverages. What do you think: is this a win-win, or a nanny state no-no?

Dr. Nestle: The governor must be desperate for money to take on soft drink lobbying groups, who reporters tell me, are already in Albany hard at work. This is an old idea, first attributed to Kelly Brownell at Yale and Michael Jacobson at Center for Science in the Public Interest, who based it on the success of high taxes in reducing rates of cigarette smoking. With cigarettes, there was a clear link between cost and usage. The higher the cost, the fewer people smoked.

The governor is picking on soft drinks for good reason. They have calories but no other nutritional value, which is why CSPI calls them “liquid sugar.” Much evidence demonstrates that children and adults who habitually consume sugary soft drinks take in more calories, have worse diets, and are fatter than those who don’t.

But my understanding is that the tax will be 15%, meaning just 15 cents more for something that now costs a dollar. It’s hard to believe that 15 cents will make a difference in consumption levels. Cigarette taxes are much higher. Also, the tax will not apply to milk, juice, diet soda, and bottled water. I suppose this means that juice drinks and sports drinks are also excluded, sugary as they are.

So I’m a bit worried about the slippery slope. Juice drinks also predispose to overweight, and that’s no surprise. It’s easy to take in lots of calories from juices if you drink enough of them. And then there’s the diet soda paradox: people who drink diet sodas also are fatter, perhaps because they retain the taste for sugars and make up the calories in other ways. It looks to me like this tax is more about raising money than preventing obesity. But it’s an interesting experiment, and it should be most entertaining to watch soft drink lobbyists go into action.

Weekend Cat Blogging

...because when times are hard, you need a little feline fun. Check out YouTube sensation Broccoli Kitten:

Over at Daily Kos, in the comments thread on a "Frugal Fridays" dairy on how to eat cheaply, KateCrashes posted this pic of a "pootie" who doesn't share Broccoli Kitten's fondness for veggies, under the caption "I HAZ SOM WORREEZ":

Finally--or, rather, "finily"--who knew that the eternally earnest economist/NY Times columnist Paul Krugman has a weakness for lolcats? Krugman flew to Sweden last week to receive his well-deserved Nobel Prize, and blogged about feeling guilty that he didn't have time to blog about the auto bailout and Obama's stimulus plan. He illustrated the post with the image below:

The O'Brien Retort: Hope For A "Secretary Of Food"?

(a Q & A with our favorite Iowa farminist, sustainable ag advocate Denise O’Brien (pictured right, with me), who sets down her spade to take up our questions about all things ag):

kat: Progressive foodies have been vigorously debating the "who should be Obama's Secretary of Agriculture?" question for several months now. There's been a movement to draft Michael Pollan, who has no interest in the job, and a letter to President-elect Obama, signed by nearly ninety luminaries in the good food movement galaxy, imploring him to buck the Big Ag/biotech brigade in favor of some more sustainably-minded candidates. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof weighed in on the subject this week with a terrific column explaining why this appointment is so critical.

This is all well and good, but we want to know what you think. Big Ag had a big fit back in 2006 when you ran for Iowa's Secretary of Ag and nearly beat your Republican opponent, a conventional commodity crop farmer. You went on to advise John Edwards about food and ag policy. What are you hoping for from this new administration?

O'Brien: As a farmer of thirty plus years, I am intrigued by all of the emails, blogs and websites devoted to the selection of the United States Secretary of Agriculture. My mind swirls with all sorts of fantasies of what a progressive “Secretary of Food” could do for our country. But alas, today as I check out the latest candidates, I am brought back to the unfortunate reality of our current situation - the United States, just like our little state of Iowa, is owned solely by big agribusiness interests with the American Farm Bureau Federation leading the corporate interest pack. It has often baffled me how an insurance company has been able to “speak for the farmers” when they are certainly not a farm organization.

My first introduction to national farm policy was in the early 1980’s when the farm sector of our economy marched headlong into the “farm crisis’. Few people realize that we had an incredible restructuring of the agricultural system. In fact, from my experience, I would say that is when agri business took firm hold. Farmers were told that farming is a business not a way of life when in reality it is both. There were suicides, a rise in domestic violence, foreclosures, auctions – such an upheaval that rural areas entered a chronic depression.

These things happened before there was a food movement, before people started asking questions about where food comes from and what is in our food. They happened before the introduction of genetically modified organisms, bovine growth hormones and the concentration of animals in confined feeding operations.

So where does that bring me today with my ear glued to the radio and my eyes glued to the computer screen waiting anxiously for the announcement that I am sure to be disappointed in? It brings me to what I have been taught for thirty years, that grassroots organizing is the way to get things done. Why do you think that the food movement has come to where it is today? It isn’t because someone, say Michael Pollan (not to pick on you Michael), woke up one day and said “this isn’t right.” No, it is because people for the past thirty years have been developing strategy, asking the right questions and implementing plans to create the “food movement”.

Sure, it would be swell to have a person at the head of the Department of Agriculture who understands what the food movement is about, but seriously, that would be an incredible leap for corporate interests. Food justice is just not a concept that sector can even begin to grasp.

I have had firsthand experience taking on corporate ag and although I was not successful in my bid for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, my friends all tell me I scared the sh… out of them! What this indicates is that we all must continue to work for food democracy. In my humble opinion, food democracy is about economic democracy. That is where we need to be heading.

'Tis The Season For Local, Organic...Beefcake?

Our economy may be collapsing, but as the holidays approach we still feel compelled to exchange gifts with friends and family. Some folks enjoy the quest for the perfect gift, but for those of us who haven't got a lot of time, money, or imagination, schlepping around town hunting down thoughtful presents for our loved ones can be an angst-ridden errand.

The pressure to please collides with our limited resources, and the ensuing wreckage litters living rooms all over America on Christmas morning with mounds of stuff we have no use for. Oh, sure, there are the happy exceptions--the book you've been dying to read, the cordless drill that you actually needed--but all too often we find ourselves sincerely saying "oh, you shouldn't have".

So what happens to the sweater you don't really like, or the cheesy fondue set you'll never use? Sometimes you give it away, but other times you let it stick around and clutter up your life, because it's a symbol of someone's affection for you.

And then you die, and somebody has to go through all the crap you accumulated over your lifetime. For me, it was my mother's things; she died unexpectedly a few years back and my father delegated the depressing task of sorting out all her clothes and bric-a-brac to me, her only daughter.

For my friend and fellow foodie blogger Jill Richardson, it was her 23 year-old brother Adam, who died several weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving, after years of struggling with obesity. Yes, even at 23 you can leave a lot behind, and Jill's been going through Adam's things trying to figure out what to do with it all. She posted a poignant diary on Daily Kos Sunday in which she noted:

I have been buying stuff for my family members throughout the year, to give them to them at Christmas/Hanukkah. Decorative wine bottle stoppers, Christmas tree ornaments, satchels of lavender, artisan made soap... I've been accumulating them in my closet all year. Now I feel I'm just adding to the load of things my loved ones will some day leave behind...

...Maybe I'm just being morbid, but this sad experience of trying to resurrect my brother with his stuff and utterly failing has affected my view of the holiday season. Instead of buying people more stuff, here are some ideas I've come up with: donations/trees planted in their names, theatre or ballet tickets, art, massages, and food. I would add to the list soaps, lotions, and candles but only if the person will actually use them.

I second Jill's sentiments, and I'd like to add one more thing to her list--a calendar. Down To Earth: The Farmers Of Columbia County has got the kind of dirty pictures sure to seduce greenmarket groupies, from the cover's close-up of a farmer's soil-encrusted fingers lovingly cupping a plump, ripe tomato, to the portraits inside of upstate New York farmers captured in all their muddy agrarian glory, their faces pleasantly weathered and stubbly, surrounded by the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

A calendar's a great gift because it's one of those things that everybody needs anyway, and it's got a finite shelf life that guarantees it will never become clutter. But the Down To Earth calendar isn't just useful and lovely; when you purchase it, your $12.95 goes to support the Sylvia Center, a non-profit enterprise dedicated to introducing New York City school kids to "the life-giving pleasures of fresh food from the farm." The Sylvia Center pursues this mission at two locations: the Children's Learning Center in Soho, and Katchkie Farm, a couple of hours north in Kinderhook.

The Sylvia Center is the brainchild of Liz Neumark, founder of the upscale New York City catering company Great Performances. Neumark did something quite visionary and wonderful several years ago when she bought the patch of land that she dubbed Katchkie Farm. Neumark hired Bob Walker, a farmer committed to sustainable agriculture, to manage the farm and provide year-round locally grown produce for Great Performances' events.

I first met Farmer Bob--as he was known before he became Down To Earth's "Mr. October"--at a swanky Manhattan loft back in January where Michael Pollan was giving a reading from In Defense of Food. The event, catered by Great Performances, was a benefit for Just Food, the non-profit organization that has been New York City's foremost advocate of CSAs (community supported agriculture) for more than a decade.

When Farmer Bob found out I was a blogger, he said, "You oughta blog about my farm," and proceeded, with great enthusiasm and charm, to tell me all about his energy efficient greenhouses. He gave me his card and told me I should come up and check out his operation sometime. I said I'd love to, but as a non-driver I'd have to rope a friend into giving me a ride.

In July, I got an invite to the 100 Mile Menu, an event Great Performances was hosting at the Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom. It was the perfect high society showcase for a low-on-the-food-chain feast made from foods grown within a hundred mile radius of New York City. But as intrigued as I was by the prospect of scarfing sustainable hors d'oeuvres in a room where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor once danced and Truman Capote held his legendary Black and White Ball, I was even more curious to visit the vegetables in their native habitat, before they, and Farmer Bob, got all cleaned up and made the pilgrimage to the Plaza.

So, the day before the event, my friend Robin kindly agreed to take a field trip with me up to Kinderhook to get the grand tour of Katchkie Farms. Farmer Bob took us through the fields and the greenhouses and showed off the clever home-made jumbo salad spinners he'd fashioned out of wastebaskets with the help of a hole saw. He told us that when Neumark chose the site for her farm she didn't realize that the water table was so high that the soil would be too soggy to farm in. So Farmer Bob cheerfully told us, he had to lay, like, 20,000 feet of drainage pipe before he could hope to grow any decent crops.

But what fascinated me the most was the quirky odyssey that turned Bob into a farmer at the age of thirty. A California native, he had been doing theatrical lighting for rock concerts. One day while driving around Los Angeles, he heard Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, interview Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird about their book Secrets of the Soil : New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet. He was so enthralled that he headed to the nearest book store and bought the book on the spot, and soon found himself studying biodynamic agriculture in Europe.

On the day Robin and I dropped by, Farmer Bob took us to a pavilion by a pond where the folks who run the Sylvia Center were showing a group of kids from the city how to make salsa from just-harvested vegetables. On this hot summer day, the kids were happily chopping away under the pavilion's shade, taking time out to munch on slices of sweet, golden yellow heirloom watermelons. They were having a great time, as were we. Robin even took a dip in the pond, braving a dock peppered with piles of Canadian goose poop to go for a quick swim.

The Sylvia Center offers urban kids a taste of country life and fresh, wholesome foods that help them understand the connections between the weather, the seasons, and the life cycle of a vegetable from seed to table. In an era when so many children--and grown-ups, too--suffer from nature deficit disorder and a disease-inducing diet dominated by over processed pseudo-foods, programs like the Sylvia Center can steer kids towards a healthier path and lay the foundation for a lifetime of better habits.

The Down To Earth calendar supports this valuable mission even as it celebrates what Neumark rightly calls "the new American Heroes", farmers like Bob Walker who are equally passionate about nurturing the soil and nourishing their communities. They're good-looking guys, too, but the real beauties in this calendar are the gorgeous peaches, apples, and veggies in the background (not to mention the vintage red tractor and the cute critters). So get your friends and family a copy of Down To Earth this holiday season; you'll be giving them a dose of homegrown happiness to inspire them each and every day.

If It's Friday, It's Meet The Bloggers

Some of my fellow Kossacks got their knickers in a twist the other day over the news that David Gregory's set to become the new host of NBC's Meet The Press. Why the outrage? Well for one thing, they can never forgive Gregory for dancing with the devil, aka "MC" Rove. Plus, as one unkind Kossack noted, "I think he looks like he's from Planet Of The Apes" (admittedly, the photos offered as evidence made a compelling case).

Why not Chuck Todd? Better still, Rachel Maddow, patron saint of progressive wonks?

Look, I worship the luminous Rachel just as much as the next lefty blogger, but when are you guys gonna wake up and start sleeping in on Sunday? Why waste another precious hour of your life watching all those inside-the-Beltway bozos compete to see who can offer the most ossified observations, the stalest sound bites? (I make an exception for Donna Brazile, for whom God created the DVR.)

Get with the program--Friday is the new Sunday. You've got Left, Right, & Center on KCRW, and now there's Meet The Bloggers, live every Friday at 1 pm Eastern. Meet The Bloggers is an online video show from Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation, dedicated to providing a forum for "unconventional political opinion and analysis." It's got the talking heads you actually want to hear from, the folks just beyond the scope of our myopic old media.

And, it's got no commercials. Which makes this Friday's episode especially apt--just in time for the holidays, when so many Americans are "addled by advertising," as the Reverend Billy likes to say, Meet The Bloggers brings us the Rev and the righteous Savitri D from the Church of Stop Shopping, along with tips from the Center For A New American Dream's LaToya Peterson on how to simplify the holidays.

Last Friday, our culture's rampant consumerism literally ran amok and robbed Jdimytai Damour of his very life. Tune in this Friday to honor Damour's memory by learning what we can do to pull our people back from the maw of the malls and restore sanity and humanity to the holiday season.

Syndicate content