KAT's blog

The Myth of the Rabid Locavore

Stephen Budiansky, self-proclaimed "liberal curmudgeon," has stuffed together another flimsy, flammable straw man out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric on the New York Times op-ed page, with the patronizing title Math Lessons For Locavores.

It's a familiar formula: start by establishing yourself as the voice of reason by professing your own deep appreciation of the merits of locally grown food as evidenced by the bounty of your own back yard. Then, launch into a diatribe against a mythical army of dour, sour food mile nazis, including 'celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations,' whose support for local farmers is based on wildly misguided and naive notions about curbing one's carbon 'foodprint.'

Throw in a bunch of dubious and/or irrelevant statistics that appear to be truly locally sourced -- i.e. pulled out of your own behind. Add a few disingenuous claims about the environmental benefits of industrial agriculture. Wrap things up with a statement so ludicrous that you have to publish it on your own website because hey, the New York Times is only willing to go so far:

"...eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds."

Budiansky's argument tars all eat-local proponents with the same broad brush, warning us that we're turning into a bunch of joyless, sanctimonious schmucks who are flimflamming an unsuspecting public:

For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

Sinful according to whom? As I wrote on page 27 of Rodale's Whole Green Catalog:

Bear in mind that buying local is often the most low-impact choice -- but not always: an out-of-season local tomato grown in a fossil fuel-heated greenhouse could consume more energy than one that's been field grown and shipped from Mexico.

But hey, what do I know? I'm just one of those local-food advocates who brandishes statistics that are "always selective, usually misleading and often bogus" to back up our "doctrinaire assertions."

That describes Budiansky's own modus operandi in a nutshell. His op-ed focuses almost exclusively on the question of how much fossil fuel is used to grow and ship food, and concludes that the amount of energy used is negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, and because eggs weigh less than the grain it costs to feed the factory farm hens that produce them, it was presumably quite energy efficient to ship those 380 million factory farmed eggs that have since been recalled for possible salmonella contamination from Iowa to fourteen other states.

But energy efficiency is only one small part of the equation when you add up the reasons to buy local. Other factors include: flavor and nutrition; support for more ecological farming practices; reduction of excess packaging; avoidance of pesticides and other toxins; more humane treatment of livestock and workers; preservation of local farmland; spending one's dollars closer to home; the farmers' market as community center, and so on.

Budiansky totally ignores these issues, except to challenge the assumption that sustainable agriculture is better for the environment than industrial agriculture. After establishing the folly of food miles, he goes on to note:

Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system's energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

Again with the energy usage! Geez. As if that were our big beef with fertilizers and chemicals. What about soil erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, the rise of superweeds and antibiotic-resistant infections, the dead zones in our oceans and rivers, exposure to contaminants, and all the other environmentally disastrous consequences of 'conventional' farming?

According to Budiansky, the real culprit, when it comes to squandering energy, is us:

Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

He cites the miles we drive to do our grocery shopping and the energy it takes to run our fridges, dishwashers, stoves, etc. But what do any of these things have to do with whether you choose to buy food locally? Your fridge uses the same amount of energy regardless of where the food you put in it came from.

If Budiansky sincerely cares to examine what constitutes a truly low-impact diet, why does he ignore one of the biggest sources of food-related wasted energy in the average American household? As New Scientist recently noted:

More energy is wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded by people in the US each year than is extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation's coastlines.

What's so maddening about sloppy op-eds like this is that they give fodder to folks who hate the very notion that their food choices have any consequences beyond their own waistlines and bank balances. At a time when global warming is surely fueling fires, floods, and drought all over the world, we need to have an honest conversation about how the way we eat contributes to climate change.

What we don't need is dishonest misrepresentations and tiresome stereotypes about the eat local movement. If you actually read what us good food folks have to say about eating ecologically, you'll see that the emphasis is on adopting a predominantly plant-based diet, eating foods when they're in season, limiting your consumption of animal products and processed convenience foods, and avoiding the chemicals and pesticides that are used in conventional farming.

Buying local produce is obviously a part of the equation. But to portray it as the sole consideration of sustainable food advocates is to adopt a lazy contrarian position that is guaranteed to generate controversy, and just as sure to do absolutely nothing to engender a meaningful discussion about these issues. Budiansky needs to be taken out to the foodshed and pummeled with his own lousy logic.

At the end of his blog post elaborating on his op-ed, he writes: "More seriously: environmentalism ought to be about pragmatism, not dogmatism."

Seriously? Such a deeply unserious piece such as his doesn't deserve to take up valuable real estate like the Times op-ed page. Though, like most real estate, it's worth less than it once was. Publishing stuff like this doesn't do much for the Old Grey Lady's property values.

Chelsea Clinton: Hudson Valley Girl? And a Vegan, Too!

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Chelsea Clinton is so definitely getting married in Rhinebeck today. All the signs point to it -- like the one two miles down the road from Astor Courts (the presumed wedding locale), which reads: "Chelsea and Marc -- congratulations from Rhinecliff's Morton Memorial Library! Stop in for your wedding gift -- your own free-for-life library card!!!"

What better way for the happy couple to become card-carrying members of the "un-Hamptons?" And in this era when sub-literate slogans and mindless mantras have dumbed down our political discourse, it's a timely reminder that a century or so ago, Republican Vice President Levi P. Morton valued literacy so much that he chose to honor the memory of his daughter Lena, who died tragically young, by erecting the Morton Memorial Library. (Excuse me, the Morton Memorial Library and Community House -- apparently he valued community, too -- must have been a closet socialist.)

I happen to be the proud owner of a Morton Memorial Library card myself, because our humble Hudson Valley hovel is across the street from the library, and a quick bike ride to Astor Courts, where I've been many times.

So, how does a scruffy activist with soil-encrusted fingernails get to set foot in such a swanky setting? Well, "Dutchess County" may have the ring of royalty, but really, most folks in this neck of the woods -- including Astor Courts owner Kathy Hammer, who painstakingly restored the historic Stanford White pavillion -- are actually pretty down-to-earth. No red carpet for the glitterati, here; just greener pastures for the literati. Give us the life of the mind over the mindless life, any day.

Kathy frequently hosts fundraisers for Democratic candidates and graciously opens the doors of Astor Courts to artists, writers, activists, scholars, architects, students, and others who share her appreciation for this architectural gem and her passion for progressive causes.

As she told the New York Times in a 2008 article about the restoration of Astor Courts aptly titled "A Fixer Upper to End Them All," "We are using it the way it was intended, as a social gathering place."

Chelsea Clinton's wedding won't be the first time Kathy has played host to hundreds: In 2006, she threw a fundraiser for 400 Planned Parenthood supporters, and during the 2008 election season, she invited 350 neighbors to a screening of Pete Seeger's documentary, The Power of Song in Astor Courts' cavernous indoor clay tennis court.

Kathy has also become a champion of local and sustainable agriculture. Back in 1904, Astor Courts "was part of a gentleman's working farm," sending produce and meat down to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. One of Kathy's goals is to revive Astor Courts' agricultural heritage and promote our local Hudson Valley Farmers.

I should think she must be thrilled that Chelsea and Marc are rumored to be sourcing the food for their wedding from some of our fabulous local farmers. And I'd love to give them a shout-out, too, if only I were allowed.

But all I can say is that Chelsea's choice to make the menu mostly vegan, including the wedding cake, is maybe the best PR break an advocate for a plant-based diet could ask for. And the inclusion of pastured beef will do wonders to spread the grass-fed gospel.

I can, at least, share a few of my favorite things about Astor Courts:

1. The indoor swimming pool, reportedly the first-ever indoor swimming pool in the U.S. With its arched, robin's egg blue ceiling and giant windows overlooking the surrounding woodlands, it blows Hearst Castle's indoor pool out of the water.

2. The natural light that floods Astor Courts. Stanford White designed it to let in so much natural daylight that you barely need to flip a switch all day. There's an enormous skylight in the entrance hall which Kathy rescued from ruin and restored to its original glory.

3. The photographs. Astor Courts' walls display an extraordinary collection of early 20th-century American photography that would be the envy of any museum.

4. Brooke Astor's awesome library. The legendary philanthropist and socialite revered the written word, just as Levi P. Morton did.

I hope Chelsea and Marc share that passion, too, and will accept our hamlet's humble gift of a lifetime library card. I've got a couple of suggestions for how they can put it to good use:

For Marc, I recommend Woody Tasch's Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, because it's high time we put unfettered capitalism out to pasture, and Woody shows the way.

For Chelsea, who may be craving a mental health break after all the hoopla and hype, I suggest Maya Rodale's just published, perfectly timed A Groom of One's Own?

Like Chelsea, Maya belongs to a legendary American family -- she's the great granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, pioneer of the U.S. organic farming and gardening movement, whose motto was "Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People."

Maya is Rodale's director of communications, but when she's not promoting sustainable agriculture, puttering in the family garden or whipping up wholesome comfort food with her mother, Maria, she's writing ripping yarns about the winding, wayward path of true love.

In real life, Maya's walking down the aisle soon with her own dashing world-traveller and tech genius, Tony Haile. Here's wishing both these couples a happy, healthy future filled with delicious, fresh, locally grown veggies!

America: Too Big To Flail?

If correctly identifying your problems is the first step to solving them, I'm afraid we'll all be peeling tar balls off our heels before we get a handle on the BP blowout.

"Please stop calling it a leak!" Bill KcKibben pleaded at the Slow Money conference in Shelburne, Vermont last month. A leak, after all, suggests a kind of dribble. A spill sounds like something you might mop up with a towel.

"We've punched a hole in the bottom of the ocean," McKibben added. "Is a knife wound a 'blood leak?'"

We're hitting some fundamental limits, he added, citing the 'thousand year' storms that seem to come every four or five years now, and the fact that we're facing the hottest year on record, so far (and that was before the heat wave that hit the whole Eastern seaboard this past week).

Yes, we need to plug that hole in the ocean floor before the entire Gulf becomes one gigantic dead zone. But there's an onshore contaminant threatening our future, too, and it's called fast money.

Fast money spews from the wells of Wall Street and spatters the globe from Beijing to Bangalore to Bentonville. It creates land-based dead zones filled with underwater mortgages and sinking businesses. Fast money "does violence to the web of relations on which the health of communities and bioregions depend," according to Slow Money founder Woody Tasch.

Tasch shares Bill McKibben's fervent belief that you can't have a truly sound economy unless you practice sound ecology. The subtitle of Tasch's book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, says it all: investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered.

But don't expect Tasch to declare war on Wall Street. In a statement to the six hundred or so farmers, philanthropists, investors, eco-preneurs and real food rabble rousers (like me) who came to historic Shelburne Farms for Slow Money's second annual conference, Tasch explained why he's not going to pick that fight--or any fight, for that matter:

All of us here, today, recognize that we live in an economy and culture that is addicted to oil. We know that our system of industrial agriculture is, in Joan Gussow's words, "floating on a sea of oil." We recognize the irony that the Gulf oil spill is occurring in what is already a dead zone due to agricultural run-off carried down the Mississippi River.

We recognize, too, the temptation to become Tea-Party-like in our anger and frustration. It is tempting to wage war against BP or Goldman Sachs or McDonalds or Monsanto. But waging such wars makes about as much sense as trying to inject Slow Money into the gusher of fast money, hoping it will somehow "top kill" it...

...let's remember that you can launch a war, but you cannot launch peace. You can launch money into an investment portfolio, but you cannot launch peace of mind. You can launch chemicals into the soil, but you cannot launch fertility. Peace, health and fertility can only be found through what Wendell Berry calls "millions of small acts of care and restraint."

Peace. Health. Fertility. Too bad our current notions of how to keep America secure and prosperous have brought us just the opposite: war, disease, barren seas and soil.

And how do you sell the virtues of "small acts of care and restraint" to a nation that prides itself on living large and thinking big?

Except that we really don't think big, anymore, when we think at all. We have a shockingly defeatist, "can't do" attitude when it comes to tackling our current crises. Hence the mindset that we can't afford a moratorium on deepwater drilling because it will cost even more jobs than BP's disastrous deepwater drilling has already destroyed. We need the oil and the jobs, come hell or high, oily water. As Tasch wrote in his book:

It is not surprising that we find ourselves, today, captive to markets that are themselves captive to the enormous momentum of the economic growth that they have made possible.

What is surprising, however, is the degree of our reticence, our impotence, our unwillingness--in the face of the collision course between unlimited economic growth and the limits of culture and the biosphere to absorb our accelerating levels of extraction, consumption, and pollution--to dare to imagine another way.

The Slow Money conference showcased the socially responsible investors, sustainable agriculture proponents, and ecologically savvy entrepreneurs who have not only dared to imagine another way, but are actively pursuing it.

No, I'm not going to claim that all our problems will be solved by backing the manufacture of such locavore luxuries as organic kale chips and granola bars, or artisanal grass-fed sausage sticks, or (my personal favorite) a chia-based beverage that was delicious in a viscous way.

But I was impressed and inspired by the presentations from a variety of innovators: Midwestern Bio Ag, Terra Green Biologics, and Marrone Bio Innovations, who've found environmentally safe ways to boost soil fertility and control pests; City Fresh Foods, Peoples' Community Market, and Home Town Farms, who are improving their communities' access to fresh, healthy food; and Farmland LP and the Carrot Project, dedicated to fostering the growth of sustainably farmed land. And as a dedicated DIYer, I was delighted to learn about a totally non-toxic but super durable varnish from Vermont Natural Coatings that is made from whey, a by-product of the local cheese industry.

Together, these trail blazers, among others, made a compelling case that nurturing the kinds of small, regionally based businesses that they exemplify could not only create jobs and revitalize our economy, but also address what Bill McKibben called our "social deficit...the ecological and psychic wounds that we've inflicted on ourselves."

As McKibben noted, anything that's "too big to fail" is, by definition, too big, period. That goes not only for our financial system, but every other system we rely on, including our food and energy systems.

How many more fast money blowouts can we afford? Slow Money, on the other hand, is about growing things, not blowing things up, whether it's in pursuit of the coal beneath a mountaintop or the oil at the bottom of the sea.

McKibben ended his keynote by saying that we need to "take very drastic action, now." Is it time to put a cap on capitalism? You can help bring our economy back down to earth literally, now, by signing on to the Slow Money Soil Trust.

America's Auto Asphyxiation: We Put the Loco in Locomotion

Our demented devotion to the car and disdain for trains drives me nuts, so I thought it was awfully fitting that National Transportation Week happened to coincide with National Mental Health Month. This ironic bit of synergy was brought to my attention by Aaron Woolf, the acutely observant producer/director of King Corn whose latest documentary,Beyond The Motor City, boldly repurposes Detroit, home of the auto industry and spawner of sprawl, as the potential birthplace for a mass transit revival.

Sounds incongruous? Improbable? In fact, as Beyond The Motor City reveals, Detroit, like so many other American cities, had an excellent public transit system before the car became king and our railways plunged into a steep decline that continues to this day.

The eternally underfunded Amtrak limps along on life support despite six straight years of record ridership. Some stimulus money has been allocated for what passes for high speed transit in this country, but too many folks who live in rural regions where there are no trains at all begrudge the very notion that their tax dollars ought to help fund mass transit in more densely populated states.

So, while China's poured $350 billion dollars over the past decade into a high-speed rail system that can go up to 220 mph, the nation that gave the world Back To The Future lurches Forward Into The Past (apologies to The Firesign Theater).

It's shocking to see the once-glorious Michigan Central Station looking like some kind of Roman ruin, decayed and abandoned. But it's equally eerie to see large swaths of open land in the middle of downtown Detroit where houses once stood. Wide boulevards evoke phantom drivers who abandoned Detroit as its fossil fueled fortunes declined.

But where some see only decay, Woolf envisages renewal. Like his fellow filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenkso, whose documentary Grown In Detroit focuses on a high school program that teaches pregnant teens how to farm on a former playground, Woolf has faith in Detroit's ability to rise from the ashes of the auto industry's flame-out and reinvent itself.

Is that really so crazy? I'd argue that it's even crazier to insist that we can go on worshipping at the altar of the auto.

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels and apparent allergy to alternative transportation are a slight variation; we do nothing, over and over again. Coal mines blow up, oil rigs explode, we just keep truckin', uh-huh.

I bet you didn't evenknow this was National Transportation Week. Maybe you missed the stirring proclamation that President Obama phoned in from some socialist parallel universe where American tax payers are willing to pony up for progress:

Today, smart, sustainable development, coupled with quality public transportation, has created more livable and environmentally sustainable communities for all to enjoy. By reducing isolation and bringing neighborhoods together, we can continue to increase access to good jobs, affordable housing, safe streets and parks, and a healthy food supply.

Working together to upgrade our Nation's transportation infrastructure, we will lay a new foundation for long-term growth, security, and prosperity in America and give future generations a transportation system that is second to none.

Well, sure, because who would want to leave our kids the crappy, bottom-of-the-barrel system we have now? Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), studied pre-war train schedules and found that there are trains in this country that actually take several hours longer to reach their destination now than they did seventy or so years ago.

So, while Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and most of Europe all have high speed rail systems or are in the process of building them, we remain as mired in oil as the fossils stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits.

Rachel Maddow ran a devastating segment on her show recently entitled "Doomed To Repeat It" documenting decades of oil-fueled disasters. Watch it and weep as presidents from Nixon to Bush make phony pledges to wean us off fossil fuels, and current politicians still chant "Drill, Baby, Drill."

As Maddow noted, the 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara helped launch the birth of Earth Day the following year. Maddow wasn't even born yet, but I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, so I remember the 1973 "oil shock," the gas rationing, the smog alerts--just a regular part of the weather forecast--telling us not to play outside.

Most of all, though, I remember the feeling of being trapped, stranded in the suburbs; it drove me crazy that my mom had to drive me pretty much everywhere. You've heard of early adopters? I was an early rejecter; a kinder Kunstler, deeply alienated by our car-centric culture.

We equate cars with freedom, but how liberating is it, really, to be saddled with a long commute, or stuck circling around the block hunting for a parking spot?

Woolf gave a terrific interview to the St Lou Jew recently (gotta love their motto--"young. yid. younited") to whom he expressed a similar sentiment:

I think we have improperly come to conflate the car with the idea of freedom in this country. It was easier to say that cars and freedom were connected when oil was $11 a barrel and before we began to feel so un-free on our myriad clogged highways. For far too long, public transit has come to be thought of as the transit of last resort. But what form will a 21st century transportation landscape take?...

...In my parents' generation, everyone wanted to move to the suburbs, in your generation we are seeing a yearning to be part of a dense urban community. Maybe there's another kind of freedom in NOT having a car. We once imagined infrastructure in a way that would make us free, but that so-called freedom is totally unsustainable.

National Transportation Week may be over, but we still have another whole week to celebrate National Mental Health month. So if you're feeling depressed about our ongoing failure to address our energy needs in a rational way, allow me to prescribe a viewing of Beyond The Motor City--you can watch it in its entirety on PBS's Blueprint America website, or better yet, see if it's coming to a big screen near you.

As Woolf told stloujew:

...in terms of a national vision for transportation, America has radically transformed itself before...but really only once in a generation. I think we are at that point in our generation where we can once again transform.

When it comes to meeting our energy needs, take it from one of the filmmakers who brought you King Corn: ethanol ain't gonna cut it. Can we train the masses to embrace mass transit? Aaron Woolf thinks so, and I hope he's right.

Rachael Ray's Radical EVOOlution

Remember when Fox pundit Michelle Malkin accused Rachael Ray of being a terrorist sympathizer because she wore a Middle Eastern-ish scarf in a Dunkin' Donuts ad? I'm not sure what was more absurd about that episode: Malkin's unhinged hysteria, or Dunkin' Donuts' profile in cowardice (they yanked the ad.)

But Malkin got one thing right: Rachael Ray is far more radical than I even dared hope. She took Capitol Hill by storm yesterday, armed with some very sharp talking points, and fired them directly at the lawmakers who actually have the power to improve the lousy school lunches we're dis-serving our kids:

"How could you go to any state in the union and say you are not for an extra couple of cents to eradicate hunger, to make our kids healthier, stronger, better focused? It doesn't make any sense that you would even have to have a long conversation about that, to me."

And does it make any sense that anyone could object to the idea of America's farmers growing more fruits and vegetables, as recommended in the White House's just-released report on childhood obesity? Yet, as the Washington Post's Jane Black reported yesterday, the suggestion that our agricultural policies should support the production of fresh, wholesome foods is sure to be controversial.

Why? Because the USDA has a bad case of schizophrenia: it's supposed to look out for the 'little people'--presumably that includes our school children--by helping us eat healthy, but it's simultaneously tasked with championing the interests of Big Ag, which profits from turning commodity crops into cheap processed foods that cause ill health.

So the USDA has historically marginalized fruits and vegetables as "specialty crops" and encouraged our farmers to grow more feed corn and soy. And Congress won't allocate sufficient funds to pay the cost of feeding those "special" fruits and vegetables to our apparently not-so-special kids.

Ray reportedly told Congress, "Find the money now and get it done or you are going to be part of sinking our ship down the line."

Ray teamed up with another powerful New Yorker, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, to lobby the folks who hold the purse strings to the Child Nutrition Act. I had the opportunity, thanks to my Living Liberally colleague Claire Silberman, to meet Gillibrand at a private lunch in NYC last week, and was gratified to hear firsthand about all the initiatives she's spearheading to transform the way we feed our kids.

Why do we even have to debate the notion that we should feed our kids real food? It shouldn't be a partisan issue, and it shouldn't be a regionally divisive issue pitting the Corn Belt against the Arugula Belt (i.e., any community with a population dense and affluent enough to support a farmers' market and/or a Whole Foods.)

But we live in such a bizarrely partisan era that a humble salad green like arugula has become shorthand for supposed liberal lunacy. James Godsil, the Milwaukee mover and shaker behind the awesome urban ag project Sweet Water Organics and Growing Power board member, is on a mission to rescue arugula, aka "rocket," as it's known in Europe, from its current status as a symbol of all things socialist and restore it to its rightful place on our plates, regardless of region or social status. As he wrote on the Milwaukee Renaissance website:

It is a stupefying fact that our president was mocked for sharing his love of arugula.

Godsil's "Arugula as Birthright" campaign seeks to get kids all over the country psyched about growing, and savoring, fresh salad greens, while also learning invaluable lessons:

Imagine a school with a principal and one teacher committed to affording each and every student a taste, for starters, regular tastes eventually, and growing classes, ultimately, of arugula and spinach.

Then imagine a school with a composting and vermiculture program that gave our students a chance to learn about turning urban waste streams into the world's most nutrient-rich soil, and then some hands on experience in science, math, biology, chemistry, and construction, creating raised bed gardens, even hoop houses, for their school edible playgrounds.

We need grassroots activists with Godsil's vision and passion, we need celebrities like Ray who is willing to use her star wattage to turn up the heat on Congress, and we need politicians like Gillibrand, a mother of young children who appears willing to challenge our long-entrenched Iowa-based cornarchy.

To to see Ray bounding through the Beltway demanding that our politicians start showing true family values by allocating more money to give our kids better food is a dream come true for me.

Will Agribiz astroturfers accuse her of treason for conspiring in a a terroirist plot--with a Brit, no less--to foist fresh, healthy foods on America's youth?

When Oliver appeared on Ray's show recently to talk about 'his' Food Revolution and his desire to support Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, Ray told Oliver:

No matter where your representatives or your congress people are from, this is something we all care about as a country, and we're not asking, we're demanding change!

I was duly impressed by her genuine enthusiasm for the First Lady's endeavor, and I also applauded her for enlisting the resources of her non-profit Yum-O! and the powerful platform of the Rachael Ray show to reward one of my own personal heroes, Pressure Cooker star Wilma Stephenson.

But I had no idea Ray would put her money where her self-proclaimed "big Sicilian mouth" is. Will wonders never cease? Let's give Ray a shout-out, and while we're at it, let's let Senator Gillibrand know we're thankful for her efforts as a member of the Ag Committee to bring "specialty crops" out of left field. And speaking of bringing greens out of left field, won't you please join James Godsil in his quest to stop shameless partisans from soiling arugula's reputation? Please email him at godsil.james@gmail.com if you share his conviction that arugula should be a uniter, not a divider.

Cast Your Vote For a Hip Hop Video That Captures the "Abnormality" of Junk Food

Chicago hip hop artist D-Nick The Microphone Misfit teamed up with B-Boy Super inLight to create "Abnormality", a track for the opening of Graffiti and Grub, the Chicago health food store founded by activist LaDonna Redmond. Their video highlights the physical health issues brought on by artificial, processed foods and encourages us all to look at what we're putting into our bodies.

D-Nick and Super inLight both embrace the acronym HIP HOP for "Healthy Independent People Helping Other People" and they are doing just that, using their talents to get the word out that "Eating healthy is the first step in disease prevention." D-Nick has entered the video in The One Chicago, One Nation film contest, whose goal is to reward "videos that tell the stories of people in Chicago from different backgrounds working together for the common good."

Please watch "Abnormality", share it with friends, and show your support by voting for D-Nick--voting ends on May 9th.

Lyrics to "Abnormality" by D-Nick The Microphone Misfit:

Freedom from disease and abnormality/
Cause you don't wanna have that stuff affecting your reality/
C'mon.....

I was Chillin' with my brother Super InLight/
We were shooting the breeze getting our Mind right/
Laughing, talking, politics, and current events/
Buggin'out about a lot of things that don't make sense/

And then Super all of a sudden got an urge from his tummy/
He looked up and said, "Yo D! I'm kind of hungry"/
"Help ya self in the kitchen there is food in the cabinet/
He opened up the cabinet and said "I ain't having it/

There ain't nothing in here except for junk food/
If I eat this It will put me in a junk mood/
No disrespect D don't mean to be rude/
But Lays chips, French dip c'mon man duuude/

I had no idea you were eating like this/
Why would you ever put that on your grocery list/
This so called food ain't meant for a human/
If I eat this then my bowels won't be movin'/

C'mon Super don't you think you're jumping the gun/
I just eat this when I'm kicking back and havin' some fun/
I don't really need to eat nothing organically grown/
Unless you wanna make your body cancer's permanent home/

Eating healthy is the first step in disease prevention/
It also cuts down on hypertension/
There's a few more things I'd like to mention
If you'll sit back and pay attention

(Chorus)

Freedom from disease and abnormality/
Cause you don't wanna have that stuff affecting your reality/
Freedom from disease and abnormality/
Cause you don't wanna have that stuff affecting your reality/

You wouldn't pay your bills with counterfeit money/
So why would you put something counterfeit in your tummy/
You won't give ya mama artificial love/
So why would you feast on artificial grub/...

Now that's something to think about/...

While information is leaking out /
From the lies the scandal from the food pyramid/
The sucka's who invented that need to do a bid*/

You want...

Freedom from disease and abnormality/
Cause you don't wanna have that stuff affecting your reality/
Freedom from disease and abnormality/
Cause you don't wanna have that stuff affecting your reality/

Rachael Ray Honors a Tough-But-Tender Teacher

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Wilma Stephenson and Rachael Ray

Philly high school teacher Wilma Stephenson is what you might call a benevolent bully. Pressure Cooker, a just-out-on-DVD documentary about Stephenson's "culinary boot camp," gets some laughs from her drill sergeant-style tactics.

But there's nothing funny about all the obstacles facing her inner-city students in their efforts to win scholarships to the country's best culinary academies. Having a mentor like Stephenson to goad and guide them gives her kids opportunities that would more likely pass them by were it not for her passion and dedication.

Seeing Pressure Cooker made me fall in love with Wilma Stephenson, and Rachael Ray did, too.

Ray was so impressed by Stephenson's success rate with her students that she enlisted the resources of her non-profit Yum-O! and the Rachael Ray Show to honor Stephenson for her extraordinary devotion to her students.

So, on Monday, May 3rd, the Rachael Ray Show will air an episode entitled "Room 325," which will introduce the tender-hearted terror of Frakford High to the rest of America. By a happy coincidence, Eating Liberally is hosting a screening of Pressure Cooker here in NYC on the same evening. Please come if you're in our neck of the woods, and if you're not, get a copy of the DVD--you'll see why Rachael Ray wanted to go and meet Stephenson for herself!

I asked Ray to tell me a little more about why she chose to feature Stephenson, and she kindly took time out to answer my questions via email:

* * *

Kerry Treuman: You snuck into culinary teacher Wilma Stephenson's Philadelphia high school over spring break like some kind of Secret Santa, and gave her kitchen and classroom a total makeover with state-of-the-art equipment. What inspired you to do this?

Rachael Ray: Wilma inspired us to do this! This is one of the few culinary programs left in public schools and they are so important. I was interested in Wilma's program as a whole because not only is she teaching kids values and a vocation, but she is also a mother figure and a mentor to her students. You have to celebrate someone like that!

In a school where 40% of the students don't graduate, 100% of Wilma's students graduate with the ability to get a decent job in the food service industry if they don't pursue college. That's amazing!

KT: You've never made any bones about the fact that you had no formal culinary training yourself (and it doesn't seem to have, um, held you back, exactly.) But in addition to giving Wilma an "extreme kitchen-classroom makeover," you awarded each of her 10 graduating seniors a $5,000 scholarship. What do you hope this will do for them?

RR: These kids have so much stacked against them that the scholarships are a small gesture. They are an ingredient dropped in the recipes of the next step in their lives!

KT: Michelle Obama is inspiring millions of Americans to get off the sofa, bag the chips, get digging, get cooking, and get healthy. As one of America's best-known celebrity chefs, you have an incredible platform from which to help her rally the troops.

Clearly, you're stepping up to the plate. So I'm gonna pitch you a softball--do you have a strategy to help the First Lady hit this campaign out of the park?

RR: Healthy eating has to be a conversation. My approach to getting families to eat healthy is multi-pronged -- I believe everyone must become an activist in their community around the concept of good health and nutrition. In order to achieve substantial changes, you need to take baby steps.

People want food that is familiar to them. It's very hard to ask families to stop eating burgers, fries and macaroni and cheese all together, but you can arm them with information in order to do so in a slightly healthier way. Making simple changes in peoples meal routines, such as switching out white bread for whole wheat bread and white pasta for whole grain pasta. Whole grain pasta alone is a great source of protein and fiber.

Another example is instead of making regular mashed potatoes, you can make mashed sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are the number one most nutritious vegetable in the produce department -- and they are delicious! Small steps can add up to big changes in the overall health of an entire family.

It's also very important to give your kids ownership of the food they eat! Let them get involved in the process. Whether it's in your yard or in your windowsill, introduce growing fresh vegetables to them. By helping grow what they eat, kids know where food comes from and they can choose to eat what they watched grow.

How Can You Have A Tea Party If You Won't Share The Pie?

I'm sorry, but I just can't sit idly by and let the Tea Party stain the reputation of a beverage beloved by cultures the world over for centuries. How did a delightful afternoon ritual steeped in civility and gentility become a synonym for angry mobs of Fox populi with holsters on their hips and foam on their lips? Give me clotted scones, not sotted clones.

Don't get me wrong; I feel the Tea Party's pain. Hey, I'm angry, too. There's a lot to be angry about. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted recently, "People are upset because they are mired in economic distress and are losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests."

So it's no wonder that populist rage is all the rage; pundits and politicians have brought the Tea Party to a boil. Sadly, much of their anger is a toxic brew of bigotry, ignorance, and fear. And many tea partiers suffer from what Barbara Ehreinreich has aptly dubbed "an empathy deficit," a belief in the notion that if you're poor, or sick, or otherwise challenged, you must have brought your misfortunes upon yourself and are therefore to be despised and mocked.

The Tea Party ridicules the notion that government could be--or should be--a force for good. It also maintains that the media (with the exception of Fox News, of course) cannot be trusted.

How ironic, then, when one of Glenn Beck's sponsors turned out to be a con artist who'd been fined $400,000 by the FTC back in 2005 for making false and unsubstantiated claims for the "Himalayan Diet Breakthrough," a dietary supplement containing Nepalese Mineral Pitch, "a paste-like material" that "oozes out of the cliff face cracks in the summer season" in the Himalayas.

This miraculous product supposedly enabled you to achieve rapid and substantial weight loss without dieting or exercise, while still consuming unlimited amounts of food. I asked:

Who could possibly buy the notion that you could sit on your ass all day eating crap and still lose weight by ingesting some mysterious substance harvested in the Himalayas?

Maybe the same folks who think that slashing taxes and shredding regulations is a dandy way to shore up our crumbling bridges and highways, boost our children's flagging academic performance, clean up our environment, guarantee affordable health care, protect consumers from makers of defective products (like, say, cars that accelerate unexpectedly, or a diabetes drug that's known to cause heart attacks); and prevent financial institutions from ripping people off through fraudulent, predatory practices.

An indignant tea bagger named 'Richard' responded:

Look at the list of things you expect from your government. Wouldn't you feel better if you would take it upon yourself to make sure that you 1-quit worrying about the 1 in 3 million chance that you will have a bridge collapse beneath you; 2-realize that parents are mostly responsible for our flagging academic performance and throwing more money at it wont fix it; 3-where is all of this nasty environment you guys are always complaining about...it is beautiful where I live; 4-find a way to pay for your own healthcare so I don't have to..if it is that important to you, drop your cell phone or your cable TV to afford it and try shopping around...do it yourself; 5 - I can't go on, I have to get back to work since we are rapidly approaching a situation in America where there are more people riding in the cart than those of us pushing it. Good luck man, with your attitude, you will need it.

And there you have the Tea Party philosophy in a wingnutshell:

1. I should stop worrying about our decaying, woefully neglected infrastructure, because the odds of a bridge falling on me are slim to none;

2. I shouldn't care that our kids are lagging behind the children of other industrialized nations, because the fault lies primarily with their parents;

3. I shouldn't be concerned about, say, the disastrous oil spill off the Gulf Coast, or the fact that an unprecedented 33 retired US military generals and admirals declared yesterday that "Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place" and "threatening America's security," because 'Richard' lives in a lovely place untainted by environmental degradation.

4. If I just gave up my cell phone and cable TV, it would free up the $600 a month I need to be able to afford a decent heath insurance plan;

5. Richard is sick of having to work so hard to support all the freeloaders who are dragging our country down.

Hey, Richard, you know what's really dragging our country down? The Tea Party's selfish, misanthropic mindset.

You know what would lift our country up? A groundswell of support for Drinking Liberally, the social network that has led to 353 Living Liberally chapters, giving progressive-minded folks in all fifty states a place to hang out and chat in a convivial environment.

Living Liberally is the antidote to the Tea Party; as my mentor and super hero Justin Krebs, co-founder of Drinking Liberally, says in his soon-to-be-published 538 Ways to Live, Work, and Play Like a Liberal:

Liberals believe that we are better off when we're out for each other than when we're out only for ourselves...

...It all comes down to an approach to life that acknowledges that we're sharing this planet, sharing our cities and roads, sharing our fortunes (and even our misfortunes), sharing our resources and our surpluses, our creative impulses and pleasures, even sharing our weather, with those around us. We truly are all in it - in all of it - together.

Another one of my Liberally colleagues, Baratunde Thurston, the self-proclaimed 'vigilante pundit' and tweet-happy stand-up who's also Web & Politics editor at The Onion and author of the forthcoming book How To Be Black, (see preview from SWSX), wrote a post yesterday to spread the word about Living Liberally's 4th Annual Spring Celebration & Fundraiser and why Living Liberally merits your support:

Around the country, people need this type of liberal network more than ever. As we hear about the Tea Baggers in the news, many of us ask, "Where is OUR Tea Party?"

Well, the fact is there are liberals in over 300 cities that are drinking something stiffer than weak tea. Drinking Liberally chapters are often the first stop for candidates trying to reach progressive audiences and for local advocates looking to recruit for their campaigns.

In some cities, it's the only event that welcomes "liberals," providing a necessary destination for those who want to create a more progressive future for our country.

Baratunde adds that:

The Living Liberally team is only able to create this network with your support. Each year, the Annual Celebration gathers allies, honors partners and pulls in the necessary resources for the work ahead.

This year, Living Liberally is honoring SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, "for promoting a progressive America and being a great ally to the netroots," and my beloved mentor Dr. Marion Nestle, for her "fearless championing of the grassroots good food movement."

In keeping with Eating Liberally tradition, the menu will pay tribute to our honorees. Here's a partial list:

César Chávez Salad
Working Class Heroes
Un-Feta'd Capital-lini
Won't Take No More Shitake-Bean Salad
Faux Populist Popovers (full of hot air)
Bananny State Cupcakes
Hands Off My Entitle-Mint Pie (small slices only! there might not be enough!!!)

Laura Flanders of GritTV is our special guest host, and you can bet that a fine time will be had by all. If you're leery, or weary, of the Tea Party and its enraged citizens, come join Living Liberally and raise a toast to the engaged citizens!

Is Katie Lee Our Own Homegrown Goddess of Good Food? (Q&A)

If you've got your doubts about whether those corndog-diggin', nugget-lovin' French fry fanatics in Huntington, West Virginia have the capacity to rediscover the joys of real food, look no further than Katie Lee. And I mean, really look at her. Get past the pretty face, the famous former husband, and all that superfluous stuff. This native daughter of Huntington could be Jamie Oliver's greatest ambassador to the Appalachians and beyond; she's on a mission to reacquaint America with the kind of comfort food that's life-affirming, not death-inducing.

In her books The Comfort Table and The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, Lee makes a tasty case for "conscious consumption." You'll find her on CBS's Early Morning Show whipping up fresh foods with ingredients your Grandma (and hers) would find reassuringly familiar--not like the slop that got Jamie Oliver so distraught when he descended on Huntington.

Lee is proof positive that back in the day, people in West Virginia knew how to make wholesome meals from scratch and took the time to sit down to savor them with friends and family. And so did the rest of us. What's truly extraordinary about the people of Huntington is really how ordinary they are, a microcosm of the rest of the country, by and large (as it were.) I asked Lee if she would share her thoughts with me about her hometown and her passion for good food, and she graciously obliged:

* * *

Kerry Trueman: What was your first thought when you heard that Jamie Oliver had chosen your hometown of Huntington, West Virginia in which to launch 'his' Food Revolution?

Katie Lee: I met Jamie in London last summer, just a few months before he launched his revolution. A mutual friend, chef Adam Perry Lang, introduced us when he realized I was from the Huntington area. As a long time fan of Jamie Oliver, I was so thrilled to hear he was taking his ideas of healthy living that had worked so well in the UK and bringing them to my hometown.

Listening to him speak so passionately about his ideas was very inspiring. Huntington may be statistically the most unhealthy city in America, but it's not far off from most areas in our country. I think it's an opportunity for people in Huntington to not only get healthy, but also be role models for the rest of the country.

KT: Can you tell us how the food that Jamie's show depicts the folks there eating now compares to how you ate as a child?

KL: I was very blessed to grow up in a family that appreciated good food. My mom and I lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents, my great grandmother, and my great aunt and uncle. My grandfather had a green thumb and grew all kinds of vegetables, he had a cousin that raised cows, and a cousin that raised pigs, and everyone shared their food. At any given time, you could go in my grandma's kitchen and find her cooking up something delicious.

We had a handful of fast food restaurants in the area, but more "mom and pop" local restaurants that served homestyle food. It wasn't necessarily low-fat, but it was real. It wasn't the processed crap that you get in a drive-thru. People cooked at home more, too.

Nowadays, most of those locally run restaurants are nowhere to be found, replaced by one junky fast food restaurant or chain after another. I watched cafeteria food change while I was growing up too -- while in elementary the cooks actually cooked and by the time I got to high school, the cooks were reheating frozen chicken nuggets and pizza.

It really makes me sad. I believe everyone can cook if they set their minds to it, and their lives would be enriched by it.

KT: What did your friends and family have to say about Jamie and his show when you went home for the holidays last week?

KL: Jamie's revolution is the talk of the town. It was in the local newspaper every day that I was there. I think the feelings on the premise of the show are mixed -- some people really believe he can help the town, others think it's impossible to change, much like Rod the DJ. I was so incredibly disappointed when I watched that first episode and saw Rod's reaction. Jamie is there with the best of intentions and it's important to be open-minded.

I was in Huntington for the taping of the final episode and Jamie had a street fair. People were out and about, enjoying eating healthy food and celebrating the revolution. I'm hoping as the show progresses, we will see more people like Rod have a change of heart.

KT: Given that you're known for your prize-winning Logan County Burger (which is really more of a patty melt) and your meatloaf recipe, it might come as a shock to some people to hear that you were once a vegetarian. What role does meat play in your meals these days?

KL: Yes, the burger queen was once a vegetarian! I went meat-free for about five years, during high school and part of college. As you might imagine, I caught some grief in high school, as I was the only vegetarian in our class.

I do eat meat now, and I enjoy it very much, but I am very conscious of where I get my meat and how it was raised. My diet is not meat-heavy, so when I am cooking meat I seek out the highest quality.

I also participate in Meat-Free or Meatless Mondays, an initiative to not eat meat one day a week. Going without meat just one day can make a huge environmental impact.

KT: Your pug Fionula is quite the lucky pup--you make all her food from scratch. What inspired you to start making your own dog food?

KL: I started making much of Fionula's food because she got pancreatitis a few months ago. I've always been very strict with her diet, only feeding her organic dog food, but after her sickness I decided to cook her food myself. She eats mostly organic chicken, rice, and veggies.

KT: Your definition of comfort food is based on the notion that since we are what we eat, we ought to know what we're eating. Would it be fair to describe you as a kind of homegrown cross between Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver? A populist Michael Pollan? A 21st century Edna Lewis? A lean Paula Deen? All of the above?

KL: All of the people you mentioned are people I greatly admire for what they have accomplished. The world of food is so consuming that there is room for all different opinions and personalities. I always think that comfort food starts at the source. To be truly comforted by your food, you need to know where it comes from and be comfortable with the way it was raised and how it got to your plate. I believe in eating healthy, real food and being comfortable.

Cross posted from The Green Fork

Let's Ask Marion: Can Jamie Oliver Declare Victory?

2010-04-07-marion.jpg

(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:)

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver's attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie's 'people' consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in her review on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

• A principal who cares about what kids eat

• Teachers who care about what kids eat

• Parents who care about what kids eat

• Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids' names.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.

Yes! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is TV, not a real school intervention. Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment. They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

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