KAT's blog

Farming on Fifth Avenue

As astonishing as the sight of Michelle Obama digging up the White House lawn was on Friday, I spotted something equally unexpected--and just as welcome--on my way to the Union Square Greenmarket that morning: a mini-farm flourishing on Fifth Avenue at 13th Street. There, through the windows of Parsons The New School For Design gallery, were a series of planters filled with all kinds of lovely looking veggies. A sign explained that the project was sponsored by the Edible Schoolyard and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

The exhibit didn't appear to be open yet and I was schlepping a big bag of kitchen scraps to the Greenmarket to compost, but my curiosity compelled me to wheedle my way in and snap a few photos. A few hours later, Melina Shannon-DiPietro, a director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, blogged about the exhibit on The Atlantic's new food blog, noting the crucial role that gardens have to play in reconnecting folks with nature:

People don't fall in love with abstractions but with particulars, and caring for "the environment" starts with loving a particular place. Ask the people you know who are nature lovers or staunch environmentalists where this stance began. It's likely there's a garden, a piece of woods, or a grassy patch of lawn (yes, even lawn!) in their childhood. In a garden, students learn to care for a piece of land, and they learn a new brand of environmentalism.

School gardens teach students of all ages the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and the relationship between cause and effect. They also teach responsibility and care.

When I passed by the gallery again a few hours later on some errands there were a couple of urban aggies tending to the planters. What a lovely way to start the first day of spring!

Let's Ask Marion: Are Disney Eggs Just Ducky, Or Plain Daffy?

(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: So now Disney is marketing its own eggs. I'm fond of duck eggs from the farmers' market, but eggs stamped with Daffy Duck's likeness? Not so much. As Obama Foodorama noted the other day, the USDA and Disney have partnered to promote healthy eating even as Disney Hannah Montana Peanut Chocolate Bars have been caught up in the salmonella recall. Is there a legitimate role for corporate cartoon characters in the campaign to change the way America eats?

Dr. Nestle: Another example of corporate social responsibility in action! Of course food companies want cartoons on their packages. They are a clear signal to kids that these foods are intended just for them--“kids’ foods.” The idea is to make kids think that they are only supposed to eat kids’ food and that they know more about what they are supposed to eat than their parents do.

I first encountered the cartoon problem in 2006 when Nickelodeon, in a burst of corporate responsibility, put SpongeBob on “baby” carrots. This was supposed to induce kids to eat their veggies.

I was skeptical. Nickelodeon was still putting SpongeBob on loads of junky food products. This would surely confuse kids or make them cynical about carrots.

When did it become necessary to put cartoons on foods anyway? Food is food and entertainment is entertainment and I don’t see why they have to be mixed. If food is nourishing and well prepared, it is entertainment enough and doesn’t need cartoons to entice kids to eat. I say, let’s get rid of cartoons on all foods and let food be food.

But when I said something like this at a meeting of food company executives a few years ago, a representative of the Grocery Manufacturers Association held up a carton of milk with a cartoon cow on it and said, “See. If you did what she said, kids wouldn’t be allowed to drink milk.” OK, but kids will drink milk whether it has cartoons on the package or not. I vote for a boycott of kids’ foods with cartoons on the package!

Obamas Heed The Grassroots Plea To Give Peas A Chance

Faithful followers of Obama Foodorama, the food politics blog whose house specialty is a perfect blend of substance and froth, were treated to an especially tasty scoop yesterday--the news that there will, indeed, be a vegetable garden at the White House.

As they say in my native San Fernando Valley, OMG. This turn of events is not just epic, it's biblical: ask, and ye shall receive.

I'm not talking about the slacktivists who sit around railing and wailing, "why bother?" I refer, rather, to the asktivists like Roger Doiron, the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International who looked at that vast expanse of lawn circling the White House like a gaudy green bauble and asked, "why not grow food instead of grass?"

Roger's the force of nature behind the Eat The View campaign, started just over a year ago in February, 2008. I first met Roger--a modest, affable fellow from Maine--at Manhattan's Union Square a few years back when he manned a table at the NYC Grows Garden Festival to spread the word about Kitchen Gardeners International. We had a great chat about urban ag and I've been a fan of his work with KGI ever since.

A couple of months after Roger started Eat the View, Daniel Bowman Simon, an NYU student who's working towards a Masters in Urban Planning, posted a query on a sustainable ag listserv asking:

"Has there ever been a concerted effort to get a President to plant a real food garden on the grounds? Is anybody here interested in participating in the 2008 version? Any thoughts are most welcome. I'm just an average joe with a big idea!"

OK, so he wasn't the first average joe with this particular big idea, but just as the 70's punk scene was big enough to accommodate the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, so, too, did the grassroots Victory Garden groundswell welcome these two campaigns.

Funnily enough, Union Square is also where I first encountered the WHO farm folks last summer when they parked their trademark topsy turvy bus at the Greenmarket last summer before embarking on their cross-country odyssey to promote the idea of a food garden on the White House lawn. The top of the bus hadn't been planted yet, so I brought them a bag of organic fertilizer to help them get growing.

These two endeavors were greeted by many as a quixotic quest, or, worse, a trivial distraction. But the Kitchen Gardener and the WHO Farmers persisted, and today, they're taking a victory lap on behalf of all us victory gardeners. So, yesterday, I asked Roger where he found the resolve to lobby tirelessly for the transformation of the White House landscape, and--proving yet again that if you ask, you'll receive--he kindly emailed me back:

Me: You lobbied tirelessly for the WH victory garden despite the cynics
who said that (a) it would never happen, and (b) it's just a symbolic
gesture that won't really mean anything. What motivated you to keep
lobbying for a vegetable garden on the WH lawn in the face of all that
skepticism, and what do you think it will mean?

Roger: My short answer to your question is that gardeners are good at delayed
gratification. I stuck with the White House victory garden campaign for over
a year for the same reason I stick with my own garden through fair weather
and storms: because I knew the benefits would greatly outweigh the costs.

I know how my garden benefits me, my family, and my community and want to
see those benefits extended to everyone who is prepared to roll up his or
her sleeves and do a bit of digging. In pushing for a new garden at the
White House, I knew that I was helping to plant the seeds not just of one
garden, but the millions of gardens that one garden would inspire.

Gardens, for me, are a way of not only growing healthy children and
communities, but also achieving social justice. They represent the
democratization of the good food movement.

Although the White House garden campaign is winding down, the Eat the View
campaign is just getting warmed up. Now that the Obamas are on board, we're
going to be reaching out to other people and identifying other high-profile
pieces of land that could be transformed into edible landscapes. Sprawling
lawns around governors' residences, schoolyards, retirement homes, vacant
urban lots: those are all views that should be eaten.

In thinking about my stick-to-itiveness, I also think that coming from Maine
has something to do with it. Although Maine gardeners like me are short on
frost-free days, we're long on the type of hope and patience that such an
extended advocacy campaign requires. As proof of that, I'm about to get my
first taste of parsnips I planted late last June, a feast nearly nine months
in the making!

Seitan Fit For A Saint: "Veggie Hack" St. Paddy's Day!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork

If toasting the Emerald Isle with a pint of green beer is not your style, why not celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a green corned beef and cabbage? That's green as in photosynthesis; in other words, creating a plant-based version of a classic meat-centric dish, aka "veggie hacking."

With a bit of googling, I found a recipe from chef Brian McCarthy, author of The Vegan Family Cookbook, for seitan corned beef. Better still, there's a video of Brian showing exactly how he does it, in case you're intimidated by the prospect of making homemade seitan. Don't be--it's easier than you may think, and the end result is as good or better than anything you'll find at the store. I just started making my own seitan a couple of months ago and have been consistently pleased with the results.

I tinkered with McCarthy's recipe a bit and borrowed a trick from a Joy of Cooking recipe for candied corned beef by coating the seitan with a brown sugar/soy sauce/mustard glaze and baking it to give it a sweet, cripsy crust. This faux corned beef may be more of a tribute to St. Francis than St. Patrick, but either way, it's pretty divine.

Seitan Corned Beef
(adapted from The Vegan Family Cookbook by Brian McCarthy)

Dry Ingredients:

2 cups vital wheat gluten
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
2 Tbs. paprika
1 Tbs. whole fennel seed (coarsely ground)
2 Tbs. whole caraway seed (coarsely ground)
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. thyme
1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper

Wet Ingredients:

1 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup finely minced onion
2 Tbs. maple syrup
1 Tbs. vinegar

Cheese cloth (one double thick 24-inch by 16-inch piece)
2 - 6-inch pieces of string

To simmer seitan:

2 cups beer
2 cups water
bay leaf
10 peppercorns
4 whole cloves
2 tsp. salt

For the glaze:

3 Tbs. brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp. dry mustard


1) In a large pot, bring the beer, water, bay leaf, peppercorns, cloves and salt to a simmer.
2) In a large bowl, whisk together the gluten, nutritional yeast, paprika, fennel, caraway, allspice, cloves, thyme, salt, and black pepper.
3) In a separate bowl, whisk together the vegetable broth, onion, maple syrup, and vinegar.
4) Combine wet ingredients with the dry ingredients.
5) Form into a 5-inch by 8-inch corned beef-like loaf that will be about 1 1/2 inches thick.
6) Place corned beef loaf on cheesecloth and roll-up like a big flat rectangular tootsie roll (not too tight). Tie each end with a piece of string.
7) Place in simmering water, cover, and simmer for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
8) Take roast out of liquid and remove cheese cloth.
9) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
10) Place seitan in a baking dish and coat with brown sugar, soy sauce, and mustard.
11) Bake for 15 minutes.

Slice thin, and serve with cabbage and potatoes.

Why Ridicule Risotto?

Michelle Obama made headlines last week by using those famously toned arms of hers to sling some mushroom risotto, steamed broccoli and fruit salad at Miriam's Kitchen, a D.C.non-profit that serves homemade meals to 4,000 homeless people a year made with fresh local and organic foods instead of processed or canned foods, as the New York Times reported.

Obama told the press who gathered to watch the First Lady ladle:

I want to urge people who are listening that if you have an opportunity, to come by -- not just this soup kitchen but any soup kitchen in your community. And helping is an easy thing to do. Collect some fruits and vegetables. Bring by some good healthy food. You know, we want to make sure that our guests here and across this country are eating nutritious items. Today we had fresh risotto with mushrooms. We had broccoli. We had fresh baked muffins with carrots in it.

And my understanding is that this facility is able to provide that kind of meal for about $1.50. And that's an incredible thing to remember: that we can provide this kind of healthy food for communities across this country, and we can do it by each of us lending a hand. (hat tip: Obama Foodorama)

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Everybody knows that our reliance on cheap processed foods is causing all kinds of diseases that disproportionately affect poor folks who can't afford pricey produce. Hey, even George Will--who still can't wrap his head around the fact that greenhouse gases are cooking our collective goose--has suddenly gotten the Gospel According to Pollan and connected the dots between our dumbass agricultural policies and fat-assed populace.

Other conservative commentators were, however, deeply disturbed by the whole event. An AP photo which showed a man using his cell phone camera to document the historic occasion of his being served by Michelle Obama sparked a tizzy in the wingnutosphere, which took offense at the idea that an individual affluent enough to afford a cell phone should be receiving free meals at a soup kitchen. Wonkette dished up a taste of these brain-dead tirades, including one from Kathy Shaidle, a blogger whose curdled rantings suggest she's learned at the fetid feet of Limbaugh. She begins by expressing that holier-than-thou-but-not-so-Christian contempt for the poor that is the hallmark of a certain kind of conservative:

Today's "poor" are the rich Jesus warned you about: fat, slovenly, wasteful of their money and other people's.

I prefer to call them "the broke."

A lot of (really naive) people are wondering (or pretending to wonder, when they're in public) how this "homeless" guy could "afford" a cellphone:

It would be better phrased: why is a guy with a cellphone homeless? Because then the question answers itself.

He spends all his (our) money on cellphones and, most likely, tattoos and drugs and booze and other crap, and has no money left for a home and food. And why should he bother? We pay for his shelter and food anyhow.

She goes on to validate my theory that wingnuts see wholesome foods as part of a vast left wing conspiracy:

What’s really funny in that news story by the way is what they’re serving at the soup kitchen: risotto with brocolli. Obviously some rich white liberal did the cooking that day, feeling all proud of herself, and what thanks did she get? Some lowclass loser going, “You expect me to eat this weird crap?!”

To which Salon's Alex Koppelman responded:

For the record, it was actually mushroom risotto. And her nasty "weird crap" remark? It's rice cooked in chicken stock with some vegetables, something most cultures are quite familiar with, no matter what you choose to call it. Come on.

This, in turn, elicited the following response from Shaidle:

Salon's Alex Koppelman is obviously a delusional liberal pantywaist who can't stand to have his romantic notions about "poverty" challenged (by someone who knows what they're talking about firsthand, and is also a better writer than he is.)

I'd rather be right than "nice" and "polite" -- and so would any intelligent adult who values the truth.

I'm betting Alex Koppelman is a grown man who still rides a bicycle. By choice. On the sidewalk.

This all seems like a trivial bloggy brouhaha, but it's indicative of a knee-jerk conservative mentality that feels compelled to malign liberals as broccoli-eating, bicycle-riding degenerates.

It may not be a deliberate, coordinated campaign; then again, maybe it is. Why is it that when progressives talk about the benefits our country could reap from say, investing in mass transit, or overhauling our school lunch program so that it might actually nourish our kids instead of poison them, too many folks on the right start to spew the kind of rancid rhetoric I've quoted here?

When did such wholesome and innocent things like riding a bike or liking vegetables turn into symbols of liberal decadence? Then again, take a look at the de facto head of the Republican Party, a man who evidently hasn't been on a bike or eaten a bite of fresh produce in decades. The Obamas, with their in-your-face fit physiques and ostentatiously heathy eating habits, must drive him crazy. Deepak Chopra rightly declares Limbaugh a symbol of anti-morality and offers an astute analysis of Limbaugh's appeal to his followers before concluding:

By any sane account, Rush Limbaugh is dead weight when it comes to finding a solution to anything. Like Sarah Palin, his spiritual bride, he lurks in the shadow of the human psyche, expressing the dark anger, resentment, jealousy, and vindictiveness that society can never escape.

Maybe Limbaugh will suffer a heart attack and have an epiphany that healthy foods and exercise are not, in fact, subversive liberal causes to be derided. Or maybe he'll just suffer a heart attack and die, like poor Tim Russert. That may be the only way we'll ever get Limbaugh to go organic, is when he dies and rots--from radio host to compost.

The O'Brien Retort: "The Real Green Building Is Building The Soil!"

Women farmers are leading the way in the sustainable ag revolution, as the CS Monitor noted last week. I first wrote about this movement back in 2005, and met one of its leaders when we traveled to Iowa in 2007: Denise O'Brien (pictured right, with me), founder of the Women, Food & Agriculture Network. Denise is just back from the Midwest Organic Farming Conference, where the mother of all treehuggers, Vandana Shiva, was one of the keynote speakers. We're pleased to share this dispatch from Eating Liberally's favorite farminist:

Not many would understand that a weekend in Paradise could happen in La Crosse, Wisconsin. But what a weekend it was! I arrived in this northern Mississippi community on Thursday morning just before a bout of nasty weather hindered many on their trek to the Midwest Organic Farming Conference. This year was a celebration of twenty years, and what a wonderful celebration it was.

I went to my first conference in the mid 90s when it was held at Sinsinawa Mound Center, a former convent in the hills near Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. The convent and the people were magical then as now. Starting with ninety folks in 1990, this conference has grown to over 2600 participants. An incredible increase during those twenty years!

During the 90s I facilitated a couple of workshops on women in sustainable farming. I was very happy with an attendance of twenty five to thirty. This year there was a workshop, "See Jane Grow: A Celebration of Women Leading the Organic Agriculture Revolution" that I did not conduct but attended as a participant. What a shock when I walked in the room and there were over 150 women and men present! These folks were there to learn about policy, entrepreneurship, advocacy and to network.

My days spent at the conference helped renew and reenergize my mind, body and soul that were growing weary of the cold winter months. The highlights of the event were seeing old friends and meeting new ones, walking through the trade show to see the latest tools, seeds and resources and of course, the workshops and keynote speakers.

People were so alive and positive about the future. Folks were celebrating the appointment and were hopeful of the confirmation of Kathleen Merrigan as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Many of us have worked with Kathleen over the years and know that she will bring wisdom and balance to the USDA.

Celebration was a key theme to this gathering. People have worked hard throughout the year and now take time to enjoy a few brews, listen and dance to fantastic music and discuss everything from growing and preparing food to nourishment for the earth – the medium in which we as farmers perform our work. Questions and answers abound in this convention center. How do we nurture those little creatures in the soil to help us grow crops that will feed and nourish people? How do we build a hoophouse to extend our ability to eat fresh, local food for a few months more of the year? How do we get the USDA to support us in our work as small, medium and large scale organic farmers?

I would be amiss if I did not mention that two keynote speakers blew us away. We started with Vandana Shiva , the goddess of organics. The words that I brought home with me were “the real green building is building the soil!”. Yes!

Dr. Shiva was followed by Dr. Alan Green. A couple of years ago I heard Dr. Green, a pediatrician, and was just as impressed by his presentation as I was this time. The title of his keynote of course endeared him to me – “Why Farmers Are My Heroes.”

I came away from this conference renewed and reenergized as I had hoped. I also came away with a new tool for weeding, a Cobrahead Weeding Tool, now I just need the ground to thaw to begin my spring work!

Agribiz Biostitute Declares Fresh Healthy Food A Menace

You're probably busy worrying about things like insolvency and unemployment, and rightly so; our banks are taking on water faster than we can bail them out, while the job market--and our waterways--are evaporating as quickly as that pool of color-coded conservatives the GOP's called up to counter the Obama juggernaut.

Steele, Jindal, Keyes? Please. The Republicans ought to be waving a white flag, but they just can't let go of the confederate flag. Witness the witless mayor of Los Alamitas, Dean Grose, who circulated an e-mail depicting a watermelon patch on the White House lawn with the caption "No Easter egg hunt this year."

Grose, who claimed that he "wasn't aware of the racial stereotype that blacks like watermelon," finds himself obliged to resign and "has sought assistance from Orange County Human Relations Commission to acquire greater sensitivity.” With all due respect, that sounds about as effective as a charm school run by Christopher Hitchens.

If only Grose were a bit savvier, he could have claimed that he was simply endorsing the White House Victory Garden concept that Alice Waters & Co. have been famously promoting. I'm sure the Eat The View campaign would gladly welcome some bi-partisan support.

Quite frankly, though, conservatives don't seem all that psyched about fresh fruits and vegetables. See, fruits and vegetables may be high in vitamin K, but they're low on K street lobbyists. Fresh produce is, alas, a mere "specialty crop", not a deep-pocketed special interest group worthy of generous subsidies.

This explains why commodity crops form the cornerstone of our National School Lunch Program rather than the fresh fruits and vegetables the USDA is launching yet another campaign to promote. So we're feeding our kids a steady diet of "high-fat, low-grade meats and cheeses and processed foods like chicken nuggets and pizza," as a recent New York Times op-ed from Alice Waters and Civil Eat's Katrina Heron lamented.

Waters and Heron point out that this is a "poor investment," and float the radical notion that perhaps the lunch program could try nourishing our kids with freshly prepared, wholesome, unprocessed foods instead of the heat 'n' serve commodity crop crap it currently dumps on our little dumplings.

Our famously dysfunctional health care system's already groaning under the weight of a whole range of diet-induced diseases; who's going to pick up the tab for all that incipient diabetes and hypertension and heart disease?

Maybe Big Food could chip in--after all, PepsiCo agreed to help offset the cost of "Mountain Dew Mouth," an epidemic of dental disease in Appalachia caused by the practice of giving toddlers soda in their sippy cups. Couldn't we have similar initiatives to tackle "Whopper Waist"? What about Dunkin' Diabetes?

Of course, we could also just try making healthy food more accessible and affordable. But that would upset the anti-apple cart, and yes, there is one. Consider the following letter to the Editor that the Times published in response to the Waters/Heron op-ed:

To the Editor:

Alice Waters and Katrina Heron’s suggestions for improvements in the National School Lunch Program include a healthy helping of wishful thinking and inconsistency.

For one thing, food safety, environmental preservation and energy conservation are not promoted by “foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.” Such foods are expensive and inefficient, because they use more land and water than if modern techniques were employed.

Moreover, Ms. Waters is a longtime opponent of the use of the most precise and predictable genetic techniques to improve crop varieties, a view that is diametrically at odds with the writers’ desire for the federal government “to back environmentally sound farming practices.”

Finally, “food safety” would likely become a far greater problem if thousands of schools were to begin to “cook food from scratch”: the vast majority of food poisonings result from the improper handling of food — in particular, from inadequately cooking chicken or permitting the juices from raw poultry to contaminate other foods.

Henry I. Miller
Stanford, Calif.,
Feb. 21, 2009

The writer, a medical doctor, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former Food and Drug Administration official.

Welcome to another steaming poo-poo platter of Agribriz propaganda served up by a biostitute whose foundation is fossil-fueled by Archer Daniels Midland, Exxon, Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Titanic financial titans like J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch.

Miller once wrote an op-ed for the Times in which he argued that rBST, Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, was a boon to the environment because it enabled dairy farmers to squeeze more milk out of fewer cows, thereby reducing their carbon footprint. Consumers, he claimed, were happy to buy milk from cows injected with this "safe and useful product...in spite of efforts by biotechnology opponents to bamboozle milk processors and retailers into believing that consumers don’t want it."

Opposition to rBST, he warned, could send the cost of milk soaring to $5 a gallon.

In fact, widespread consumer rejection of rBST compelled Monsanto to sell it off to another company, while the price of milk has fallen so low that dairy farmers are being forced to slaughter their cows because they can no longer afford to feed them.

So now Miller's peddling more disingenuous Agribiz talking points, depicting sustainable ag advocates as mesclun-muddled meddlers. In his first paragraph, Miller implies that industrial agriculture, with its reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than organic farming, which he claims requires "more land and water."

Organic farming may well be more labor intensive, but it's simply preposterous to claim that it's more resource intensive or environmentally damaging than industrial agriculture. In fact, recent studies have shown that organic farming is far kinder to the environment, and offers the best hope for feeding the world.

Miller goes on to attack Waters for her opposition to the "most precise and predictable genetic techniques to improve crop varieties," by which he presumably means genetically modified crops. He states that such a position is "diametrically at odds" with her plea to the USDA to make "good on its fledgling commitment to back environmentally sound farming practices." This up-is-down, black-is-white, topsy turvy spin ranks right up there with Monsanto's latest ad campaign that claims they're all about sustainable agriculture. Yes, and Rush Limbaugh wants to do away with partisan rancor. Whatever.

Miller then goes and gets his genetically modified cotton knickers in a twist over Waters' and Heron's suggestion that school lunches would ideally be cooked from scratch. According to Miller, this is an open invitation to an epidemic of food poisoning, the "vast majority" of which results "from improper food handling."

Nevermind that all the recent salmonella and E. coli outbreaks have been linked to industrial agriculture. Specifically, factory farm feces. You see, the bacteria that brought us the tainted spinach, tomato, and peanut recalls are "intestinal bacteria," as Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, recently noted in Agweek. "But spinach has no intestine. Neither do tomatoes. And neither do peanuts."

After reading Miller's galling Orwellian garbage, I purged my palate of the Agribiz aftertaste with Tom Philpott's excellent, nuanced take on our school lunch program over at Grist. Philpott cites several critics who claim that the kind of overhaul of the school lunch program that Waters and Heron propose may not be doable--or even desirable. He explains precisely why it is both, and concludes that, yes, oui can:

Finally, the French pay up for school lunches -- $8 a pop, last I checked -- and their economy is certainly doing no worse than ours; and their health metrics are better. In Paris, they've got chefs cooking at daycare centers!

Of course, this is precisely the kind of thing that has rabid Republicans foaming at the mouth. As Mitt Romney told a conference of conservatives on Friday:

“I’m afraid I know where the liberal Democrats want to take us...As they try to pull us in the direction of government-dominated Europe, we’re going to have to fight as never before to make sure that America stays America.”

Fresh healthy food in our schools? Eee-www. That is, like, so EU. This is America, dammit. We don't do healthy.

Let's Ask Marion: Should We Be Merry About Merrigan?

(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: A near-collective cheer rose up from the progressive foodie blogosphere
on Monday (here, here, here, here, and here) at the news that President Obama has nominated Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's "Sustainable Dozen," to serve as Deputy Secretary at the USDA. Obama Foodorama weighed in with a somewhat more cautiously optimistic post expressing the hope that Merrigan's appointment might mark the dawn of an enlightened, post-racial, post-gender USDA. Change we can believe in?

Dr. Nestle: Let's score this as a win for Food Democracy Now, which worked hard to collect over 87,000 signatures from people who want the USDA to start paying attention to sustainable agriculture. Let's also give points to USDA Secretary Vilsack for listening to Food Democracy Now on this issue. Kathleen Merrigan has a long track record of promoting organics and plenty of experience in making things work in government. I'm keeping fingers crossed that she will be able to make some progress on issues that matter so much to so many of us.

Farmers + Fashionistas = Sex and the Country?

My style is more Birkenstock than Birkin bag, so Fashion Week doesn't do much for me. You know the Shopocalypse has arrived when designers go dumpster diving for shoulder pads in the Dynasty/Dallas dustbin. Padded assets in this Grapes of Graft depression? Dust Bowl duds, à la the Waltons, would be more fitting for the hard times ahead.

But the John Patrick Organic fashion show managed to bypass both eighties excess and seventies scarcity and find fertile ground in "Green Acres," the sixties spoof starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as neophyte homesteaders. I knew this wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill runway show because (a) it featured a "young farmer bake sale," and (b) the invite came from Greenhorns director Severine Von Tscharner Fleming.

Von Tscharner Fleming--oh, heck, let's just call her Severine, life's too short--is the pastoral pied piper who's luring America's youth back to the land with her Serve Your Country Food campaign and the Greenhorns Guide For Beginning Farmers. The guide, available as a free download, is a marvelous mash-up of "permaculture, Ben Franklin, your farming grandparents, Van Jones, Robert Rodale, Wendell Berry, Chip Planck, Gandhi, Will Allen and the Nearings," as the Rodale Institute raved, "re-mixed as an agro-ecological cultural renaissance wrapped in a cool buzz."

Severine organized the bake sale to whet the stylish set's appetite for tasty local food. Patrick's goal is to be the "Johnny Appleseed" of the fashion industry, spreading the seedlings of sustainable style by using materials such as organic cotton, recycled textiles and vegan leather in his clothing lines for men and women. So Patrick generously agreed to share the spotlight with a few enterprising young agrarians that Severine enlisted in her campaign to swell the ranks of treehugging trendsetters.

Models posed center stage in Patrick's refreshingly simple, elegant designs; off to the side, folks sampled fresh-from-the farm goodies made from free range eggs and grass-fed dairy while chatting with the people who made them. Now that those Skinny Bitches have raised awareness in the fashion biz about the horrors of our industrialized food chain, it's the perfect time for Severine and her crew to drum up the demand for locally grown foods that we need to breed if small scale farming is going to be seen as a viable vocation by the millions of young people it will take to remake our food chain.

Admittedly, the cookies and cheeses on offer didn't include any vegan options, so there was no instant gratification for the Skinny Bitch contingent. But for devotees of a plant-based diet, there was something far more thrilling on display: locally grown heirloom vegetable seeds from The Hudson Valley Seed Library, a "homestead- based farm and business in upstate New York" whose goal is to offer urban, suburban, and rural home gardeners "high-quality seeds of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties rooted in the history and soils of the Northeast."

To appreciate how truly rare and wonderful a find the Seed Library is, it helps to know a bit about the seed business, which--like pretty much every other sector in the U.S.--has been largely hijacked by a few corporations who've gobbled up the smaller seed companies and now control a frightening percentage of the seeds we need to feed us. It's almost impossible to exaggerate how scary this is, because they're not just shoving their genetically modified seeds down the world's collective throat, they're actively working to stop small family farmers from engaging in the centuries-old practice of saving seeds from one season to the next to preserve rare, non-hybridized varieties--in case you wanted to have the choice to just say "bleech!" to bio-tech foods.

Ken Greene and Doug Muller, the (bio)dynamic duo who founded the Seed Library, are creating an invaluable resource for those of us in the northeast who are game to start growing even just a little of our own food. Their long-term goal is to provide "an accessible and affordable source of locally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring gardeners." They've been hard at work for several years laying the foundation for this brilliant enterprise, which began as a seed-lending project at an upstate library. When you become a member, your $20 fee gets you ten packs of seeds--a real bargain for these rare, hand-picked varieties--and starts you on your way to actively helping to revitalize our local food chain. As the handout at the fashion show explained:

Anyone can buy seeds from our catalog, which is available on our website. However, those who chose to become members of the Hudson Valley Seed Library receive a great deal--and become involved in a community of regional seed-savers...Under the current program, members can select ten packs of seeds from the catalog (and additional packs at discounted rates), grow them in their home gardens, enjoy the flowers and eat some veggies, and, if they so choose, save seed from the plants to return to the library. For each variety successfully saved and returned, members receive credit toward their next year's membership. This cooperative process creates a source of seeds grown in and adapted to our region.

Muller adds:

"Growing these seeds in your home garden and learning how to save seeds is a way for all of us to participate in the ceaseless renewal of life--and to practice frugality, develop regional food security, and enjoy being active and outside more often."

Kudos to Severine and John Patrick for bringing a bit of Green Acres to Gotham. As Muller blogged on the Seed Library website the day after the show, "With all the pouty-lipped models and international paparazzi, it was definitely not our usual scene. But it was great to be there."

So much of the fashion industry seems geared towards soul-deadening conformity to an unhealthy norm--not to mention planet-polluting consumption. No wonder the New York Post found John Patrick and Severine's organic fashion show/young farmer bake sale "a much-needed breath of fresh, eco-friendly air."

Patrick gets brownie points, too, for donating remnants of the organic cotton left over from his clothing production to the worthy non-profit Made With Love, which was also present at the fashion show displaying the stuffed animals made from that cotton. Sales of the toys raise funds for NGOs dedicated to helping women and children in need in Africa, Brazil and Haiti.

Fashion may seem frivolous, but we all need to wear something, just as we all need to eat. And it's official now--there's a Slow Clothing movement, à la Slow Food, which celebrates things that some of us have been doing for decades: everything from foraging for second-hand finds at thrift shops and flea markets to making your own clothes from scratch or repurposing items. The movement also includes high-end, sustainably produced textiles and fashions from artisans and designers like John Patrick.

My favorite piece of fashion advice comes from Mrs. No Impact Man, aka Michelle Conlin, the former fashionista-turned-frugalista who offered me this gem: "Go shopping in your own closet." How many of us haven't got tons of stuff we never even wear or have forgotten about entirely? Will I ever have an occasion to wear that pair of Chanel overalls I impulsively bought on sale at Filene's just because I couldn't resist the absurdity?

I used to watch Sex and the City because it was funny, well-written, and--unlike so many supposedly NYC-based shows--actually filmed here. But I could never relate to the passion for fashion that infused the whole show. The closest I could come was to imagine that Carrie Bradshaw and her glamorous girlfriends got the same thrill from shopping for shoes and handbags that I get from trolling the Greenmarket seeking out rare fruits and veggies.

I may be the only woman in the West Village who's more excited by burdock roots than Blahnik boots, but, thanks to Severine and her growing horde of horticultural hipsters, there's hope that someday I'll have plenty of company. Can't wait to wear my Chanel overalls to the premiere of The Greenhorns, or No Impact Man--or both.

The Politician Who's Ready to Reclaim Our Food Chain NOW

President Obama's got an awful lot on his plate. Sadly, it's all lousy leftovers from the previous administration: rotten bailouts, curdled wars, moldy policies. Is there any room for grass-fed, grassroots-led reform?

The eat-better-brigade's hoping our new Commander in Chief will be "the prize delivery guy...delivering fresh, steaming change in 30 minutes or less" as Raj Patel put it in a speech last Friday at the Farming For The Future conference in Pennsylvania. Patel bemoaned the monocrop monarchy that rules from our school cafeterias to our diners and dining rooms. He ended with the rousing declaration that we are "not consumers of democracy, we are its proprietors."

Who's minding the store, though? Will Obama even attempt to emancipate eaters from the military industrial complex cabal that helped Big Ag give small farms the boot? Our government's policies have played a scandalously large role in exiling wholesome, unprocessed, uncontaminated foods to the fringes of our culture.

But we don't need to wait for deliverance from DC when NYC's got a powerful advocate for fresh, healthy, locally grown foods who's ready to lead the way today. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held a press conference last Saturday at Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket to announce the release of Food In The Public Interest: How New York City's Food Policy Holds the Key to Hunger, Health, Jobs and the Environment , a comprehensive report on how to strengthen our local foodshed by establishing "food enterprise zones" and other incentives to improve access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods in every neighborhood. Stringer's also a big fan of urban agriculture, eager to help NYC residents curb their carbon "foodprint" by helping folks grow more of their own food in community gardens, backyards and on rooftops. The report, produced with the help of Stringer's dedicated, able staff and input from food policy experts and activists of all stripes (like myself), grew out of a forum he co-hosted with Columbia University last November on The Politics of Food.

Stringer's calling for a "radical overhaul" of the disastrous food policies that are plunging us into a future of lower life expectancy and higher sea levels. And he's looking beyond his own borough, hoping to set a precedent for communities all over the country. The Politics of Food conference was the first step in Stringer's plan to "begin the urgent work of creating a...practical and innovative food policy for New York that puts our great city at the front of this debate where it belongs."

NYC is, after all, the birthplace of J. I. Rodale, America's foremost proponent of sustainable agriculture. That's right, the founder of Organic Gardening magazine (originally called Organic Farming and Gardening when it launched in 1942,) grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Rodale "believed that modern agricultural techniques and American eating habits left quite a bit to be desired," so, in 1950, he launched another periodical, Prevention, to promote a healthier diet and combat the food-induced illnesses that plague us. He died in 1971--rather inconveniently, during a taping of the Dick Cavett show, where he had a heart attack--so we can only imagine what he would make of the extent to which our diet has deteriorated in recent decades.

No doubt Rodale would have applauded Mayor Bloomberg for taking on tobacco and trans fats. But he would have been baffled by Bloomberg's much vaunted sustainability initiative, PlaNYC, which fails to consider any aspect of our food chain in its goal of greening New York and ensuring a better quality of life for NYC's residents in the decades to come.

This egregious oversight of the impact that food production has on our environment is a sin committed not only by Bloomberg but also by the otherwise visionary Van Jones and Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman, who both lobby tirelessly for a green collar economy but have yet to realize that growing healthy food is the ultimate green collar job, whether you're doing it on pavement or pasture. As Michael Pollan wrote in his open letter to President Obama advocating the "resolarization" of our food chain:

...we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

...We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America -- not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.

...The revival of farming in America, which of course draws on the abiding cultural power of our agrarian heritage, will pay many political and economic dividends. It will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of new "green jobs," which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy...

But while Obama and his Secretary of Ag, Tom Vilsack, have given lip service to the merits of Michael Pollan's proposals, our bold borough president has been busy actively working to implement them, heeding Pollan's call to reregionalize our food system and rebuild America's food culture. Stringer has even signed on to the politically risky aspect of Pollan's "sun food agenda" that addresses those inconvenient truths about the corporate-sponsored corpulence and petro-fueled pollution that plague our nation. As Pollan notes:

Our agenda puts the interests of America's farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry's. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more "populist" or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd.

Stringer echoed this sentiment on Saturday:

For too long, decisions about our food supply have been made by private parties or by the federal government...We talk more about food desserts in this city than we talk about food deserts, where 750,000 New Yorkers do not have access to healthy food...that must change. We also have a policy in this city of giving tax incentives to Burger King, McDonald's, and fast food operators rather than give tax abatements to people who want to get us the lettuce and the tomato without the burger. And that, to me, is food injustice. That must change.

...We've got to bring food closer to home...we must establish a state of the art foodshed...it is time to tag enterprise zones to guarantee that the healthy food supply will come to all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

...we're talking about investing in green jobs to deal with food production, but it has to not just be about the President telling the states that it will eventually trickle down to the cities. We have got to look at new development and our economic infrastructure and figure out how we can incentivize the ability to create green collar jobs.

Stringer cited the high price we'll pay if we fail to address the diet-related diseases that are crippling our communities:

...we taxpayers will have to deal with that crisis...and healthcare costs will continue to rise because we did not do the preventive work that we had to do.

...if we create the beginnings of a foodshed...if we use land use and zoning as it relates to creating supermarkets and healthy food, if we implement these recommendations, NYC will become the leader in creating a new green economy and making sure that our people have a lot of healthy opportunities in their lives.

...the Mayor's done a great job with trans fats, putting these issues on the table. But we continue to subsidize Burger King and McDonald's, we continue to fail to use the zoning laws that we have on the books to empower people to have a say in what is happening in our neighborhoods. It's time to use our rooftops, it's time to bring vegetation, vegetables, closer to home, and let's use our collective thinking.

The people behind me today, they're the experts, not me. They're the policy people, they're the advocates, they're the people on the front line. They're the ones who, now, working together, have told us very clearly that there is a role for government in this battle. This is the road map that they've given government officials--from the governor, the mayor, the borough president, the city council--this is the document, today, and people have got to understand that this is our moment, this is our opportunity.

This is indeed our opportunity, and we are so lucky to have a politician who gets it. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Milwaukee's Growing Power, the extraordinary urban farm founded by MacArthur genius Will Allen, and saw firsthand the future of urban agriculture. With Stringer's support, I'm optimistic that NYC could adopt Allen's remarkable model for producing food and converting food waste to fertilizer.

Last week, before heading off to the Farming for the Future conference, I attended a forum at NYU where a group of sustainable ag advocates, including the marvelous Annie Myers and permaculture proponents Andrew Faust and Adam Brock, discussed their vision for transforming NYU's grounds and rooftops into productive food gardens.

And today, New York City Council Member David Yassky's holding a press conference to introduce the Sustainable Roof Act of 2009. The time is now--here's hoping that as goes New York, so goes the nation.

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