KAT's blog

Let's Ask Marion: Does The USDA Stand for Ultra Silly Dietary Agenda?


(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: Monday's New York Times had an editorial supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that would give the US Agriculture Department "new powers to set nutritional standards for any food sold on school grounds, particularly junk foods that contribute to obesity."

The current standards leave a lot to be desired, as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution has revealed. In the first episode, Jamie stood accused of shortchanging the kids on carbohydrates because he omitted the bread from a meal that already included rice.

Last Friday, in episode three, Jamie found himself charged with the violation of "insufficient vegetables," despite the fact that his noodle-based entree featured seven different vegetables. The remedy? Add a bunch of french fries to the meal to meet the veggie quota.

How did the USDA's school lunch standards ever get so nutritionally nutty? Would passage of the CNA support the wholesome, made-from-scratch meals that Jamie Oliver's trying to bring back to our cafeterias?

Dr. Nestle: You are asking about the history of the USDA's school lunch program? Nothing could be more complicated or arcane. Fortunately, two new books take this on: Susan Levine's School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton, 2010), and Janet Poppendieck's Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California, 2010).

I used Poppendieck's book in my Food Ethics class at NYU this semester and reading it while watching Jamie Oliver's programs was a lot of fun. Yes, Oliver is doing reality television but no, he's not exaggerating. If you find this difficult to believe, read Poppendieck's book or take a quick look at Kate Adamick's review of Oliver's Food Revolution on the Atlantic Food Channel.

As Levine and Poppendieck explain, and as I discussed in Food Politics (California, 2007), school lunches started out as a way to dispose of surplus agricultural commodities by feeding hungry kids. Over the years, it got caught up in a series of "wars"--first on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition and later on welfare and obesity.

The politics of school lunch, and of the CNA in particular, have always reflected the tension inherent in any welfare program, in this case feeding the poor vs. inducing dependency and overspending. In recent years, as obesity became much more of a public health problem than malnutrition, the politics came to reflect the tensions between commercial interests and those of nutrition reformers. Congress is always involved as it endlessly tinkers with the rules for "competitive foods"--the sodas and snacks sold in competition with federally supported school meals.

Competitive foods put schools in a dilemma and in conflict of interest. They make money from competitive foods to help support the school lunch program. But sodas and snacks undermine participation in school meals programs.

Poppendieck points out that the result is a mess that leaves financially strapped school districts with few choices. It's not that the "lunch ladies" (you have to love Jamie Oliver's term) don't know how to make decent meals. It's that they are up against inadequate funding and equipment, and impossible nutrition standards that can be met most easily by commercial products like Uncrustables that are designed to meet USDA standards. My favorite example contains 51 ingredients (my rule is "no more than five").*

Inadequate funding is a big consideration in the Child Nutrition Act. This act provides $4.5 billion over 10 years for school meals. Although this represents a 10-fold increase over previous (2004) funding, it works out to an additional measly six cents per meal--not nearly enough to solve school districts' financial problems.

But--and this is a huge step forward--the act gives USDA the authority to set nutrition standards not only for foods sold in the cafeteria but also in vending machines and a la carte lines.

And the bill does a few other Very Good Things. It provides:

• An estimated $1.2 billion over 10 years for meals at after-school programs, free meals to all students in schools with high poverty levels, and increased availability of meals during summer months.

• An estimated $3.2 billion for establishing nutrition standards, strengthening local wellness policies, and increasing reimbursement rates.

• Mandatory funding for schools to establish school gardens and buy foods from local sources.

• Increased training for local food service personnel.

• Automatic enrollment of foster children for free school meals.

As for the pesky nutrition standards: the bill expects the USDA to revise them according to the recent report of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), School Meals: Building Blocks for Health Children. This report recommended a conversion to food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards along with increases in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limits on calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

All of this makes the CNA well worth supporting. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is a good first step to making big improvements eventually. In the meantime, plenty of schools are already doing great work and more are joining the food revolution one meal at a time. These deserve all the help we can give them.

*NOTE: the label of this particular Uncrustable was sent to me by someone who works in an upstate New York school district:


The Faces of FRESH: Sustainable Saints, or Loam-Loving Luddites?

Do you know the truth about just how bad the good food movement really is? The boosters of biotech want you to know that our global food crisis will only be worsened by the sustainable ag advocates who oppose technological breakthroughs whose safety and efficacy have yet to be tested.

You thought maybe it had something to do with poverty and politics? Those are just red herrings (an oily fish that is, btw, oddly deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, but high in contaminants.)

No, it's us real food rabble rousers who are subjecting the poorer nations of the world to imminent starvation, because we refuse to embrace genetically modified crops, toxic pesticides, and petroleum-based fertilizers. We're also highly suspicious of those drought-tolerant, high yielding crops that thrive in the otherwise arid microclimate of Monsanto's boardrooms but have yet to flourish elsewhere.

We're not content to just gum things up globally, though. Here at home, we support the Dandelion Defense League (DDL), a grassroots anti-grass group that's lobbying to not only make it illegal for America's lawn lovers to douse their dandelions with Round-Up, but would in fact require all homeowners--and renters, too!--to harvest those bitter greens and eat them (a rider with recipes will be attached to the proposed bill.)

The suburban-based DDL is closely aligned with but not related to its urban counterpart, the Purslane Preservation Society (PPS), whose own pet cause is to pass legislation protecting this plump and plucky weed from being peed on, stepped on, or otherwise disrespected by canines, ferrets, or any other ambulatory animal, including pedestrians, who tread on those sidewalks through whose cracks purslane bravely rears its succulent little leaves.

Plants may, however, be harvested, provided that they are then donated to the soup kitchen or food pantry of your choice, where their zingy, citrus-y flavor can be used to add a piquant touch to soups and salads.

And then there are the militant anti-monocroppers, with their not-so-secret plot to loosen the Corn Belt's grip on the Beltway and redirect those ag subsidies for feed corn and GMO soy into some kind of affirmative action plan for a subversive minority that the USDA tellingly labels "specialty crops." You may know them as fruits and vegetables, but don't be fooled by their wholesome facade; they're just another special interest group looking for a handout.

Oh, and if we get our way, we're going to declare a Nanny State of Emergency, which will entail confiscating all cupcakes and putting a padlock on pantries that are overstocked with over processed foods. And now that Meatless Monday's gone mainstream, brace yourself for Tofu Tuesday, which aims to make those much-maligned slabs of soy mandatory in every public school cafeteria across the country.

But why stop at just two days of the week? Why not eight days a week? We're a bunch of modern day Benedict Arnolds, conspiring with the Brits--well, okay, maybe it's just one Brit, but what an arsenal of pr weapons he's got!--to launch a coup in our school cafeterias, proclaiming an end to the Reign of Beige and installing a rainbow coalition of aggressively colored produce on our children's plates.

And in keeping with Michelle Obama's plea to provide kids with greater physical activity, we want to make sure our kids are getting a workout, too--by weighing their backpacks down with Michael Pollan's entire oeuvre. Every aggy, eggheaded essay the man has ever written, as well as his lesser known but equally eloquent treatises on gardening and carpentry, will be required reading, barring an armed uprising from the Texas Board of Education.

When it comes to farmers, Pollan is enemy number one. Just look what he's done to poor Joel Salatin, the self-proclaimed "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer" whose Polyface Farms became the poster child for sustainable farming in America after Pollan and the producers of Food, Inc. made him a star.

Now he's been plucked off his farm and found himself obliged to come to a big city he openly dislikes to lecture folks on how to feed the world sustainably. Presumably he'd rather be back home tending to his flocks, herds, and family, as he does so joyfully in Ana Joane's documentary FRESH.

Joanes, like Jamie Oliver, is a European; specifically, she hails from Switzerland. But she just couldn't remain neutral about the way we eat in America when she moved here as a student. With FRESH, Joanes gives real food rockstars like Pollan, Salatin, and the mighty Will Allen of Growing Power fame a platform from which to share their radical theories about how we grow, and consume, our food. It's coming to a theatre near you soon--don't say I didn't warn you.

Jamie Oliver Turns the Spotlight on Our Own Homegrown Heroes

The heated debate over health care reform sparked a slew of nasty name-calling from folks who fear that their taxpayer dollars could somehow wind up financing an abortion, a practice that they equate with murder.

But aren't our taxpayer dollars already killing our children? That's essentially the premise of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution reality show, which debuts on ABC tonight.

The first episode (which had a sneak preview last Sunday and can also be viewed online) highlights the dismal state of our school lunch program, which is woefully underfunded, hamstrung by ham-fisted USDA guidelines, and far too dependent on government-subsidized processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.

Like the Beatles, this British invasion's brought a charismatic, mop-topped populist to our shores. Only this time, as Oliver attempts to bring his "food revolution" to the dietarily disastrous town of Huntington, West Virginia, he garners more sneers than cheers.

Having freed ourselves from British oppression a couple hundred or so years ago, Americans are apparently still in no mood to submit to a Brit telling us we've got to stop feeding our kids a steady diet of commodity crop-based crap, a practice Oliver labels "child abuse."

I'm not sure what our founding foodie and farmer Thomas Jefferson would find more appalling: the fact that the children of Huntington can't tell a tomato from a potato, or the fact that it takes some limey interloper with a film crew to make folks sit up and pay attention to the shameful state of the American diet.

(Then again, it's possible that Jefferson might be too distraught over the Texas Board of Education's decision to eliminate him from a list of American thinkers who inspired revolutions around the world to worry about our screwed-up food system.)

The series kicks off with Oliver bounding into town like an impudent puppy, tussling with the school cafeteria cooks and shaking his shaggy head in disbelief at the agribiz atrocities they blithely dish up: breakfast pizza; sugary pink milk; dehydrated, chemically "enhanced" mashed potatoes whose reconstitution Oliver likens to the mixing of cement. The "lunch ladies," as he calls them, stare at him in disbelief when he suggests that they ought to try making meals from scratch using unadulterated, wholesome foods.

He befriends a shy, bullied twelve year old whose steady diet of corn dogs, chicken nuggets and fries has him tipping the scales at 350 pounds. And Oliver finds an ally in the local Baptist pastor, who's buried too many members of his congregation prematurely due to diet-related diseases.

But Oliver's blunt, cocky persona rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, generating the obligatory drama that's so essential for good ratings. Does the show sensationalize the awful eating habits of Huntington's residents? Of course. Is it manipulative and mawkish? Without a doubt. Will America tune in to watch it? You betcha.

But will it make a difference? David Letterman doesn't think so. When Oliver appeared on his show Tuesday night, Letterman expressed support for his campaign, but burst the eternally effervescent Oliver's bubbles by stating flatly:

Try as hard as you might, you're never going to succeed because we are living in a culture dominated by the commerce of selling food which is inherently unhealthy.

Lettermen might have been channeling Marion Nestle, or maybe Grist's Tom Philpott, who noted the other day that, "a hugely powerful installed base of companies likes the food system just the way it is, and will fight in Congress to preserve its prerogatives."

Oliver, visibly frustrated by Letterman's skepticism, insisted that he's committed to creating genuine change:

I made five shows in Great Britain, and I got a billion dollars out of the British government, and we changed law, and we got the junk out of schools, and it can happen here--it can.

Some good food movement foot soldiers, who've been striving for years--and even decades--to change the way we feed our kids in the face of tremendous obstacles, bristled at the hubris of this famous Brit landing on our shores and declaring "his" food revolution.

In his recent TED talk, Oliver did acknowledge the important work being done by the real food revolutionaries who are transforming our fatally flawed food chain:

It's local cooks, teaching local people, it's free cooking lessons in the main street...this is real, tangible change...around America, there's plenty of wonderful things going on, there are angels in America doing great things in schools: farm to school set-ups, garden set-ups, education. There are amazing people doing this already.

The problem is, they all want to roll out what they're doing to the next school, and the next--but there's no cash. We need to recognize the experts and the angels quickly, identify them and allow them to easily find the resources to keep rolling out what they're already doing and doing well. Businesses of America need to support Mrs. Obama to do the things that she wants to do.

But these local heroes were nowhere to be found in the premiere of Oliver's reality show, presumably because the show's producers figured those folks wouldn't provide the necessary drama. They did consult with folks like Debra Eschmeyer, the communications and outreach director for the National Farm to School Network. I have the pleasure of knowing Debra, a passionate and charismatic advocate who exemplifies the kind of grassroots activism that Oliver championed in his TED talk.

Eschmeyer was disappointed that Food Revolution's first episode ignores "the myriad of obstacles to bring fresh local food to the lunch room, most of which can be overcome, but it can't be done in a couple weeks even with star-studded British flavor and money. Food service staff are doing the best they can with what they receive; double the reimbursement per meal, give the kids enough time to eat, give food service proper equipment to prepare meals, and many would do better than what Jamie cooks up."

Debra expressed her hope that "at some point he highlights the work of the many local heroes so he doesn't just make people feel guilty and defensive, but instead empowered and informed on ways to make positive change."

Well, Debra got her wish; after talking with her yesterday, the show's producer decided to solicit videos from 'real food patriots,' like Debra herself, who were nowhere to be found in the first show. Here's the message from the producer:

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" wants to hear about what you are doing to start your own Food Revolution!

Whether it's planting your own vegetable garden, "passing it on," cooking dinner for your family, or if you just want to bring attention to something in your community that needs change - we want to hear about it!

E-mail us a high definition video (most newer consumer cameras these days are HD. If you don't have access to HD, the higher the resolution, the better) and answer the following:

Who are you and what is the problem you're facing in your school and community?

How are you currently, or how do you plan to improve the state of affairs?

How has Jamie's work inspired you?

What do you want to say to Jamie?

E-mail your response to: [email protected]

Please include your name and contact information - you may be selected to be featured on Jamie's new TV show!
You can also post written responses on their blog here:

I'll let Debra have the last words:

I hope that this next week will result in a massive amount of grassroots footage to not only show Mr. Oliver the U.S. food movement, but also Mr. Obama. Let's move!

Seeds of Strange: Beckistan invades Kunstlerland!

Seeds of Strange: Beckistan invades Kunstlerland!

Are the teabaggers ready to stop throwing tomatoes and start growing tomatoes? Glenn Beck's latest sponsor, The Survival Seed Bank, is banking on Tea Party paranoia to sell a product it calls the "Full Acre Crisis Garden." As Stephen Colbert noted on Wednesday, "nothing moves product like the hot stink of fear."

For $164, you get a vacuum-sealed tube of PVC pipe filled with enough seed "to feed friends and family forever," because, "in an economic meltdown, non-hybrid seeds could become more valuable than even silver and gold!"

But hang on to your credit card! It turns out that the folks flogging the Full Acre Crisis Garden are nothing but horticultural hucksters, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas revealed on Tuesday.

The Survival Seed Bank claims to offer "the peace of mind knowing that if things were to get scary, that you and your family could still eat." But those vacuum-packed seeds "will be dead within the first year," according to Seed Bank Scams, because "seeds need an airtight, but not airless environment...if you take away all the air, you will kill the seeds."

Glenn Beck has made a fortune by stoking his viewers' sense of persecution and their fear that shadowy, corrupt forces are hard at work conspiring to rip them off.

And he's right, of course; there's no shortage of greedy, dishonest individuals and companies eager to profit by preying on people's worst instincts. Take Bill Heid, the guy behind the Survival Seed Bank. The Federal Trade Commission fined him $400,000 "in consumer redress" back in 2005 for making "false and unsubstantiated claims for the "Himalayan Diet Breakthrough."

Heid made $4.9 million in sales off The Himalayan Diet Breakthrough, a dietary supplement containing "a paste-like material" called Nepalese Mineral Pitch that "oozes out of the cliff face cracks in the summer season" in the Himalayas. Heid promised buyers that this miraculous product would enable them to achieve rapid and substantial weight loss without dieting or exercise, while still consuming unlimited amounts of food.

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.

If you buy into all that, I've got a seed-filled PVC tube to sell you.

The Full Acre Crisis Garden is a twisted variation on a victory garden, tailored to folks who fear a laundry list of perceived threats: a "world wide government agenda;" "a belligerent lower class demanding handouts"; "a rapidly diminishing middle class crippled by police state bureaucracy"; "an aloof, ruling elite that has introduced us to an emerging totalitarianism which seeks control over every aspect of our lives;" and the ever popular "Big Government."

It would be bad enough if the folks who wrote this stuff actually believed it, but Heid's history proves that he's just a cynical con artist looking for suckers to help him make a quick buck. And he's found them in Beckistan.

The Survival Seed Bank gets one thing right: seeds are "more valuable than silver or gold in a real meltdown..." After all, they're the source of all life.

To us sustainable ag advocates, seeds are sacred. Ken Greene, co-founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library--note that it's a library, as opposed to a bank--said it best:

Seeds are, by nature, about sharing. They are community resources. Saving seeds is about survival, both of the plants and people who depend on them, but this is survival through cooperation, not competition. Through the Seed Library we are trying to change the way people think about and treat seeds. We are trying to move seeds from being seen as commodities to be traded or profited from, to cultural and nutritive resources to be protected, shared, and celebrated.

As opposed to, you know, making them the foundation for your get-rich-quick scheme to pick the pockets of tinfoil hat-wearing teabaggers.

By embracing the Survival Seed Bank as a sponsor, Glenn Beck is treading on peak oil prophet James Howard Kunstler's turf. Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, has been warning us to start growing our own food for years.

But Kunstler's message is anathema to the defenders of American Excess-tionalism. In his forecast for 2010, Kunstler predicts that we'll have to learn to live without "all the trappings of comfort and convenience now taken as entitlements":

...we must return to some traditional American life-ways that we abandoned for the cheap oil life of convenience, comfort, obesity, and social atomization...

...The successful people in America moving forward will be those who attach themselves to cohesive local communities, places with integral local economies and sturdy social networks, especially places that can produce a significant amount of their own food.

Note that for Kunstler, growing your own food is just one component of a revitalized local economy, a renewed civic spirit, and a renouncement of our car-based, consumption-crazed culture.

And he's right. We do urgently need to relocalize our far-flung, fossil fueled food chain. We need to reclaim our farmland, empower a new generation of gardeners and farmers, and invest the capital required to "accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration," in the words of eco-preneur Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money Alliance.

But you won't find the answers to these challenges in a sealed plastic pipe from a Beck-sanctioned scam artist.

Look for them instead at Change.org's Ideas for Change in America contest, where you have the opportunity to voice your support RIGHT NOW for several visionary proposals to transform the way we grow our food. Time is of the essence, because voting ENDS in just a few hours.

Change.org will mount grassroots campaigns to promote the 10 ideas that win, and the three that I'm asking you to please support only need a few hundred votes to get (or remain) in the top 10:

1. Slow Money: invest in local food systems to save the economy and the planet

2. Good Food For All Kids: A Garden at Every School

3. No Farms No Food: Save the Land that Sustains Us

If you're wondering whether these kinds of campaigns ever generate any real change, consider the White House Kitchen Garden, which got its biggest boost from Roger Doiron's Eat The View campaign. Millions of folks have been inspired to start growing food in their own yards as a result. So go vote!

Our Toxic Waterways: Flushing Away Our Future?

Big River Trailer from Wicked Delicate Films on Vimeo.

Frustrated swimming pool owners in thousands of backyards across this country have posted a sign that pleads "We don't swim in your toilet, so please don't pee in our pool!"

The message is crude but clear. Nobody wants to wallow in somebody else's waste--or our own, for that matter. So why do we treat our seas like sewers? Why do we contaminate our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans with a horrible hodgepodge of chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastic debris and waste?

Evidently, the world's waterways are a giant toilet into which we can dump anything and everything, and then simply flush it all "away." As if river currents and rolling waves will pull our pollution into some giant cosmic garbage disposal.

Industrial agriculture's synthetic fertilizers have given us lush green lawns and amber waves of grain. But the run-off from all those yards and farms seeps into our water table and feeds the "red tides", those toxic algae blooms that cause massive die-offs of aquatic plants and animals.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers who fondly documented their brief stint as Iowa corn farmers in King Corn, explore agribiz's downstream downside in Big River. In this thirty-minute sequel, Cheney and Ellis revisit their Iowa acre and trace its toxic trail all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The film will make its Manhattan debut on March 15th at the Brecht Forum, followed by a panel discussion with Cheney, Ellis, King Corn director Aaron Woolf, Hudson Valley farmer and MacArthur genius Cheryl Rogowski, and Steve Rosenberg of Scenic Hudson.

The screening is a benefit for the Food Systems Network NYC, a non-profit organization whose members (myself included) are dedicated to bringing fresh, wholesome foods to all New Yorkers and supporting our region's farmers, both urban and rural.

Cheney and Ellis have chosen to go the grassroots route with the release of Big River, organizing screenings across the country in churches, schools, community centers, libraries, boardrooms and so forth. So if you're not in New York, check out their website to find a screening near you.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls the film " a sharp and clever reminder that nothing ever really goes away, certainly not the soup of chemicals we're pouring on our fields." And Big River is more timely than ever in the wake of a flood of stories this past week about our nation's troubled waterways.

When Cheney and Ellis revisit Iowa, they discover that Atrazine, the herbicide they relied on to grow their corn, has tainted the local creek. Just this week, scientists reported that this widely used weed-killer, which has contaminated the tap water of millions of Americans, is "chemically castrating"--and even feminizing--male frogs. Their gender is literally reversed to the extent that they can bear eggs.

Atrazine is a known endocrine disrupter and suspected carcinogen. The European Union banned it back in 2004. Researchers in the US have called for a ban here, too, citing studies that have linked it to "human birth defects, low birth weight, prematurity and low sperm count."

Nonetheless, we apply about 80 million pounds of Atrazine annually, and the Environmental Protection Agency has long insisted that it poses no risk. In October of last year, however, the EPA announced that it would "reassess atrazine's safety, including its cancer risk."

But there's only so much the EPA can do to defend our waterways, because, as the New York Times reported last week in the latest installment of its superb Toxic Water series, the Clean Water Act doesn't give the EPA the authority to pursue some of the biggest offenders:

Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law.

The result?:

Some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

Some members of Congress are trying to remedy this egregious state of affairs through a piece of legislation called the Clean Water Restoration Act, but as the Times reported:

...a broad coalition of industries has often successfully lobbied to prevent the full Congress from voting on such proposals by telling farmers and small-business owners that the new legislation would permit the government to regulate rain puddles and small ponds and layer new regulations on how they dispose of waste.

Glenn Beck is warning that passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act will result in the government regulating virtually every body of water larger than your birdbath. This could conceivably include the puddles of crocodile tears that Beck routinely weeps, and maybe even the pools of drool that accompanied his ick-inducing interview with Sarah Palin.

Allowing the EPA to prevent industries from polluting our waterways is just bad for business, according to Beck. Never mind that letting manufacturers dump toxins into our waters is bad for us. For wingnut pundits whose populist veneer is thinner than the chocolate shell on an M & M, the concerns of common citizens must never be allowed to trump the needs of commerce.

It's a view evidentally shared by mega developers the Toll Brothers, who withdrew from a proposed project along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn last Tuesday after the EPA finally declared the famously fouled Gowanus a Superfund site.

Thanks to "years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation's most extensively contaminated water bodies," the EPA declared.

The Toll Brothers had grand plans to build 450 housing units and 2,000 square feet of retail space there. "We're extremely disappointed in the EPA's decision," David Von Spreckelsen, a Toll senior vice president, told the Wall Street Journal. "It's going to have a big impact on the properties along the canal...It's unlikely you are going to see development there for many, many, many, many years."

Admittedly, this news is a colossal disappointment for all those would-be home buyers who longed to live by a canal whose signature stench betrays its industrial past: a heady blend of "cement, oil, mercury, lead, PCBs, coal tar, and other contaminants."

But as the New York Times reported last year, "Studies have shown that property values decline after a Superfund listing but rebound after the cleanup, sometimes to far higher levels."

Given the choice, most folks prefer their creeks and canals to be contaminant-free. Sadly, too many communities haven't got a choice. They're up a rancid river without a paddle, while Glenn Beck piddles on the truth and peddles his twaddle about puddles.

War and Peas: Why Childhood Obesity is a Matter of National Security

It's a good thing Michelle Obama's arms are so fabulously fit, because she's just signed on to do some serious heavy lifting. At Tuesday's White House launch of the Let's Move campaign, the First Lady declared her ambition to end childhood obesity within a generation:

I don't want our kids to live diminished lives because we failed to step up today. I don't want them looking back decades from now and asking us, why didn't you help us when you had a chance? Why didn't you put us first when it mattered most?

So much of what we all want for our kids isn't within our control. We want them to succeed in everything they do. We want to protect them from every hardship and spare them from every mistake. But we know we can't do all of that. What we can do...what is fully within our control...is to give them the very best start in their journeys. What we can do is give them advantages early in life that will stay with them long after we're gone. As President Franklin Roosevelt once put it: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

That is our obligation, not just as parents who love our kids, but as citizens who love this country.

I applaud the First Lady's attempt to rally the nation by casting this crisis as a problem that ought to concern any self-proclaimed patriot. But I'm really glad she didn't name the campaign the War on Waistlines, because we're already overextended in the metaphorical war department, what with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty. Not to mention the actual wars we're waging in the Middle East.

Or maybe we should mention them, because, as Michelle Obama noted on Tuesday, "Military leaders report that obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service."

Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, bi-partisan organization of senior retired military leaders who believe that "the most effective long-term investment we can make for a strong military is in the health and education of the American people," flatly declares that being overweight is "the Number 1 reason why potential recruits are unable to enlist in the armed services," adding this shocking statistic:

75% of young Americans are ineligible to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.

This is no laughing matter, despite George Saunder's painfully funny Heavy Artillery piece in last month's New Yorker, a fictitious dispatch from an out-of-shape, soda-swilling soldier too preoccupied by snack attacks to fend off enemy fire.

Whether you're a hawk or a dove, surely we can all agree that we've done our children a terrible disservice by allowing poor nutrition and physical inactivity to become the norm. If three quarters of our kids aren't fit to serve in the military, you've got to wonder how well equipped are they to succeed in civilian life?

Decent jobs may be in short supply now, but supposing we could even get our economy back on track and create rewarding employment opportunities, what are we doing to prepare our youth for those good jobs?

And what good do the billions of dollars we devote to military preparedness do us if our kids are in such lousy shape that only one quarter of our youth are fit to serve? As Michelle Obama pointed out:

If kids aren't getting adequate nutrition, even the best textbooks and teachers in the world won't help them learn. If they don't have safe places to run and play, and they wind up with obesity-related conditions, then those health care costs will just keep rising...

...we know that solving our obesity challenge won't be easy - and it certainly won't be quick. But make no mistake about it, this problem can be solved.

This isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered - we know the cure for this. This isn't like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet - it doesn't take some stroke of genius or feat of technology. We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives. Rarely in the history of this country have we encountered a problem of such magnitude and consequence that is so eminently solvable.

We could start by allocating more money to provide healthy school lunches, as Slow Food USA, The Healthy Schools Campaign, The LunchBox, and dozens of other organizations have been calling on the USDA to do.

Imagine if, instead of subsidizing the commodity crops that form the cornerstone of our disease-inducing food chain, we channeled that money into the production of wholesome foods that would provide our kids with the nutrients they need?

And if we provided kids with appealing outdoor activities and regular recess, we might be able to whittle down the number of hours they spend watching TV and being bombarded with junk food advertising, which has been shown to encourage more unhealthy eating habits.

These may be common sense solutions, but to implement them we'll need to address a number of significant obstacles: insufficient access to affordable fresh produce; our addiction to convenience foods and a too-busy culture that doesn't leave time for real meals; a lack of basic cooking skills; and agricultural policies that favor processed foods.

Nutrition professor Marion Nestle found much to commend in the Let's Move campaign, which has the potential to put these issues on the front burner.

The campaign's success will depend on whether Michelle Obama and the many other participants in Let's Move can motivate parents and children to alter deeply ingrained habits.

But it can be done--there is a precedent. As the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in the Washington Post:

...it is a challenging goal, indeed, but the percentage of American smokers dropped from 42 percent in 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry revealed the dangers of cigarette smoking to the American public, to less than 20 percent in 2007...Americans have shown a willingness to become healthier; on the issue of childhood obesity, we can do it again.

So, if you really want to serve our country, you can start by serving real food. The Let's Move campaign is a serious call to arms, toned or not. Let's hope the nation heeds it.

Originally published on The Green Fork

Blogging and Eating for Haiti Relief

Guest Blogger Gisele Perez, aka the LA2LAChef, is an expatriate New Orleanian and professional chef now living in Los Angeles. She blogs at painperdu, is the owner of small pleasures catering in Los Angeles, and co-host of the Drinking Liberally chapter there.)

It started as a simple idea- food bloggers love food, and that fact creates a bond among us. Haiti is desperately in need of being fed-something we can align with passionately. Watching those news accounts out of Haiti after the January earthquake made us all want to do something to help. Hence the birth of Stir It 28 -a grass roots event of local food bloggers to help Haiti.

Food bloggers will come together bringing and serving delicious treats they've prepared. 100% of all funds raised during the month will go to Share Our Strength and Yéle Haiti.

Your LA2LA Chef is thrilled to be taking part in this event in
Los Angeles (events are also happening in  Chicago, New York and
Atlanta -the list of cities is growing so check the site links). The
plan originated with bloggers Chrystal Baker of Duo Dishes, Bren Herrera of Flanboyant Eats , and Courtney Nzeribe of Coco Cooks. 

For more information and to purchase advance tickets please go to at Flanboyant Eats or Coco Cooks. If you're in L.A. I look forward to seeing you on February 21st.

A High School For Green Teens

With unemployment in the dismal double digits, there's a lot of chanting and ranting about jobs right now. China's cleaning our clock when it comes to clean tech, even as its growth continues to rely on dirty ol' coal. And so does ours, for that matter. The difference is that China's forging ahead with alternative energy while we bury our heads in the tar sands.

Our national unemployment rate seems stuck at 10 percent, and in some urban areas, it's risen above 15 percent, according to CNN. Creating more jobs is clearly job number one. But what color will those jobs be? A generation or so ago, jobs came in just two basic colors: blue collar and white. Now, we've got one black-collared Jobs, trotting out another supposedly game-changing gadget in his trademark mock turtleneck (color Pee Wee Herman among the unimpressed ).

The real game changer, though, is the thousands of green jobs we could be creating, if only we'd reallocate our deficit-depleted resources. And the Steve showing us how to do this is named Ritz, not Jobs.

Steve Ritz is a trail-blazing teacher with an impressive track record of achievement working with students in one of the most challenging environments in New York City, the South Bronx--that eternally dumped-on borough whose name is synonymous with urban blight.

Ritz has figured out how to grow good food, good jobs and good citizens by tapping into one of our greatest wasted resources--urban youth. And he's doing it in Hunts Point, a quintessential "food desert" that, ironically, just happens to also be one of the world's largest food distribution centers; 2.7 billion pounds of fresh produce from 49 states and 55 foreign countries passes through Hunts Point's New York City Terminal Market annually on its way to more affluent neighborhoods.

Sadly, those endless truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables don't do the locals much good. In fact, all the fumes from that commerce contribute to the South Bronx's extraordinarily high rate of respiratory illness, with a death rate from asthma that's about three times the national average.

Hunts Point is also part of the poorest congressional district in the country, with over half the population living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is at a whopping 28 percent. And the neighborhood's 41st police precinct consistently records the highest violent crime rate per capita in New York City.

Undaunted by these grim statistics, Ritz took classes with a 40 percent attendance rate and brought them up to 93 percent. More remarkably still, his students have consistently achieved 100% passing grades on the state Regents exams in math and science.

Ritz's current goal is to establish the Hunts Point High School for Sustainable Community Initiatives, an open enrollment NYC public school that would train the local youth in emerging fields such as green roofing, urban agriculture, natural resource management, brown field remediation--in short, all the 21st century post-petroleum vocations in which our labor force needs to be skilled.

At his current position teaching at the Discovery High School in the Bronx, Ritz just oversaw the installation of a living, edible green wall in partnership with a for-profit enterprise called Green Living Technologies, a pioneering developer of cutting edge urban agricultural systems.

Green Living Technologies is sponsoring a team of Ritz's students, bringing them to Boston later this month "to be the first high students in America to be trained and certified as green wall and green roof installers," Ritz told me, adding that this is "proof that we are poised, ready, willing and able to export our talent and diversity nationally as we transform the landscape and mindset of the South Bronx."

Ritz believes that kids "shouldn't have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn and earn in a better one." His Hunts Point High School for Sustainable Community Initiatives proposal "addresses those facts in earnest; providing the skill set and wherewithal to turn Hunts Point into a preeminent educational and vocational destination that can be replicated nationally."

Sounds awesome, right? Tell it to the Department of Education, which rejected the proposal in its original incarnation back in 2008 when it was conceived as the Majora Carter Achievement Academy, named for the founder of the environmental justice non-profit Sustainable South Bronx.

Undeterred, Ritz renamed the proposed school and retooled it to be a "career and technical education” school with an emphasis on training in green technologies. He resubmitted it, only to have the Department of Education reject it again last November.

This past Monday, President Obama participated in a YouTube forum in which he took questions submitted by citizens in a kind of virtual, interactive fireside chat. One questioner asked:

President Obama, record numbers of young people elected you in support of a clean energy future. If money is tight, why do you propose wasting billions in expensive nuclear, dirty coal, and offshore drilling? We need to ramp up efficiency, wind and solar, that are all economically sustainable and create clean and safe jobs for our generation.

The President responded that he believes green jobs will be "the driver of our economy over the long term."

And yet, his support for 'clean coal,' offshore drilling, and other environmentally damaging sources of energy only creates more of what you might call "brown jobs." I'm not trying to coin a cute euphemism for disagreeable chores like emptying bedpans, cleaning toilets, diaper-changing or dog-walking. By "brown," I mean jobs that won't sustain our economy in the long run, because they're based on outdated notions about what our nation needs now.

Steve Ritz has demonstrated the potential of green jobs to revitalize a community and give young people a viable, rewarding career path. The Hunts Point Express published an editorial recently calling on the Department of Education to give the green light to Ritz's proposal, lauding it as a "visionary yet practical way to meet critical neighborhood needs."

And Bronx Community Board 2 just voted unanimously, thirty to zero, to pass Ritz's proposal.

If you'd like to help build momentum for Ritz's innovative initiative, please consider taking the time to post a comment in response to the Hunts Point Express editorial, or contactNYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to express your support. And if you'd like to learn more about the HPHS proposal, contact Ritz directly at [email protected].

Part of his strategy with the HPHA is to "turn garbage and waste into money." Wouldn't that be more cost effective, in the long run, than throwing good money after bad by clinging to outdated technologies?

Originally published on The Green Fork

Let's Ask Marion: Should Salt Be Regulated?

(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 City's new initiative to persuade food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the salt in their foods by 25% over the next five years is eliciting the usual outrage from the "nanny state" naysayers, for whom excess salt consumption is yet another matter of personal responsibility.

But as you noted last Monday, "nearly 80% of salt in American diets is already in packaged and restaurant foods and if you eat them at all you have no choice about the amount of salt you are getting." Many Americans consume more than double the daily recommended intake of sodium, contributing to thousands of deaths and billions in medical costs annually.

Mayor Bloomberg equates the food industry's overuse of salt to such health hazards as asbestos. But Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, insisted to WNYC's Amy Eddings that this analogy is false because "we could reduce our salt intake on our own, if we wanted to."

Technically, this is true, if you're willing and able to eliminate packaged foods from your diet, stop eating out, and start cooking all your meals from scratch. Unfortunately, the percentage of folks who have the time, inclination, and resources to do this is roughly on a par with those who think that Wall Street's robber barons earned those big bonuses.

The food industry maintains that it would gladly reduce the sodium in its products--and some are doing so surreptitiously--if only consumers conditioned to crave super salty foods would be more willing to accept reduced sodium products.

The "invisible hand" of the market can't seem to let go of the salt shaker. Mayor Bloomberg's proposal is a step in the right direction, but do you think it will achieve meaningful reductions, or will we ultimately end up having to regulate salt?

Dr. Nestle: I love nanny-state accusations. Whenever I hear them, I know either that food industry self-interest is involved or that the accuser really doesn’t understand that our food system already is government-regulated as can be. These kinds of actions are just tweaking of existing policy, in this case to promote better health.

At issue is the default. Right now, companies have free rein to add as much salt to their processed or prepared foods as they like. The makers of processed foods do focus-group testing to see how consumers like the taste of their products. They invariably find that below a certain level of salt--the “bliss” point—their study subjects say they don’t like it. Soups are a good example. A measly half-cup portion of the most popular Campbell’s soups contains 480 mg of sodium or more than a full gram of salt (4 grams to a teaspoon).

To someone like me who has been trying to reduce my salt intake for years, those soups taste like salt water. That’s because the taste of salt depends on how much you are eating. If you eat a lot, you need more to taste salty. If you are like me, practically all processed and restaurant foods taste unpleasantly salty.

So what to do? I say this is indeed a matter of personal choice and right now I don’t have one. If I want to eat out at all, I know I’m going to feel oversalted by the time I get home.

I want the default choice to be lower in salt. Nobody is stopping anyone from salting food. You don’t think your food tastes salty enough? Get out the salt shaker.

But let me make two other comments. One is that the amount of salt we eat is so far in excess of what we need that asking food makers and sellers to cut down can hardly make a dent in taste. A new Swedish study just out says that young men consume at least twice the salt they need and the authors are calling on government to require food makers to start cutting down.

And yes, the science is controversial and not everyone has blood pressure that goes through the roof when they eat something salty. But lots of people do. And almost everyone has blood pressure that goes up with age. As a population, we would be better off exposed to less salt in our diets.

Some food makers are already gradually cutting down on salt, but quietly so nobody notices. If every food company were required to do that, everyone would get used to a less salty taste and we all might be able to better appreciate the subtle tastes of food.

My guess is that Bloomberg has started a movement and we will be seeing much more effort to lower the salt intake of Americans. As I see it, this is about giving people a real choice about what they eat.

Haiti: The Aid Masquerade

The horror in Haiti is beyond anything we can imagine in the U.S., but this apocalyptic catastrophe has something in common with Hurricane Katrina; in both cases, a terrible natural disaster was made infinitely worse by human negligence and incompetence. How many thousands of Haitians could have survived the earthquake if the country weren't crippled by chronic poverty, shoddy infrastructure, environmental degradation and a host of other ills that have plagued Haiti for centuries?

Many Americans are rushing to send relief and expressing compassion for the devastated nation. But some influential public figures have done just the opposite. Pat Robertson has stated that Haiti brought this tragedy on itself through "a pact with the devil," while Rush Limbaugh derides the notion that we should provide any further aid to Haiti because, he says, "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."

Limbaugh apparently thinks that we've already done more than our share for Haiti. It's a shame to see him use his massive platform to perpetuate this idea, because the reality is that much of what we have done in the name of "aiding" Haiti has in fact been far from helpful.

As Tracy Kidder notes in a New York Times op-ed, many of the projects undertaken ostensibly on behalf of the Haitian people "seem designed to serve not impoverished Haitians but the interests of the people administering the projects."

Consider, for example, the food aid we send to Haiti. Aljazeera's Inside USA program ran a report last July called The Politics of Rice that explains how seemingly good intentions can have disastrous implications:

Twenty years ago, Haiti produced enough rice to feed its population. Importing rice from other countries like the US was unheard of.

Today, the country of less than 10 million people is the third largest importer of US rice in the world - 75 per cent of the rice eaten in Haiti is shipped in from the US.

Great for farmers in places like Arkansas and Missouri but devastating for farmers in the Artibonite valley, which used to be Haiti's rice bowl.

In short, it has been our government's policy to encourage Haitians to give up farming in rural areas and move to crowded cities like Port-Au-Prince to work in sweatshops manufacturing cheap garments for the U.S. and other markets.

The logic behind this policy is that it's more "efficient" for U.S. agribiz to produce rice than the small Haitian farmers, and that working in a sweatshop gives Haitians a way to participate in the global economy.

Unfortunately, this approach to "aid" has compelled thousands of Haitians to migrate to overcrowded slums and work in miserable conditions. It also left them vulnerable to fluctuations in the global food supply recently, when rising fuel costs and droughts drove up the price of rice.

Annie Leonard, the environmental activist who created the Story of Stuff video and has a superb book by the same name coming out March 9th, documents the terrible consequences of this misguided philosophy in her book:

...global rice prices tripled over a few months in early 2008, leaving thousands of Haitians simply unable to afford this staple food. The newspaper ran haunting images of Haitians who had resorted to eating dirt pies, held together with bits of lard or butter, in order to have some substance in their stomachs.

Had we devoted our resources to "supporting farmers in developing sustainable farming practices, rather than investing in infrastructure and policies favoring garment factories and export processing," Annie concluded, "a drought in Australia would not have made people starve in Haiti, half a planet away."

Haiti lies in ruins and we have played a role in fostering the conditions that helped reduce this troubled nation to rubble. Now's the time to make amends for decades--if not centuries--of neglect and exploitation. Find out here how you can help.

Originally published on The Green Fork

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