Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

Bring On The Front Yard Farmers


Reusable shopping bags and compact fluorescent light bulbs are an easy place to start, once you've resolved to curb your carbon footprint. But why not go for some low hanging fruit that you could actually pick? Growing food in your front yard is a simple and tasty way to combat climate change.

Maintaining a lawn, on the other hand, is an exercise in monocrop masochism. As architect and edible landscape advocate Fritz Haeg wrote in Edible Estates: Attack On The Front Lawn, "...there is nothing remotely natural about a lawn. It is an industrial landscape disguised as organic plant material."

Those innocent-looking, wispy green blades are just a façade; at its roots, a lawn is a high maintenance monster, demanding regular feeding, seeding, weeding, watering and mowing.

And squandered resources are only the start. Gas-powered lawn mowers generate tons of air pollution. Excess fertilizer seeps out of our lawns and encourages equally lush growth in our waterways, where nitrogen-fed 'algal blooms' choke all kinds of aquatic life.

Yet, for so many Americans, a patch of green grass is still the gold standard when it comes to landscaping. As Haeg notes:

In the United States we plant more grass than any other crop: currently lawns cover more than thirty million acres. Given the way we lavish precious resources on it and put it everywhere that humans go, aliens landing in any American city today would assume that grass must be the most precious earthly substance of all.

Why not feed ourselves, instead of the grass? That's the simple goal of Haeg's Edible Estates project. Starting in 2005, Haeg enlisted the help of a small army of grow-your-own volunteers, and began converting lifeless lawns into productive food gardens, one front yard at a time. He's helped folks all over the country plant gardens that nurture themselves and their neighbors, and documented the happy end results in Edible Estates, published in 2008.

Since the book came out, the homegrown revolution's moved full steam ahead, with a big boost from Michelle Obama--not to mention an economy that's got folks growing their own food on a scale we haven't seen in decades.

So it's time for a new, expanded edition of Edible Estates. Are you the proud owner of a once sterile, now fertile front yard farm? Do you live in hardiness zones 3,4, 5, or 9? If so, Fritz Haeg wants to hear from you:

For this new edition of the book (Metropolis Books, 2008) we are looking for more reports from across the country from those that have decided to engage in "full frontal gardening". Have you replaced the lawn in front of your house or apartment building with a completely edible garden? We will be selecting one garden story from each zone, with each contributor receiving a copy of the book.

The deadline for submissions is Monday, August 31st, and you need to submit:

- a 500 word story about your garden
- 4 or 5 photos of your garden at the highest resolution
- your name, mailing address, size of garden, date established, and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone

Zone 9 includes: Houston, Central Florida
Zone 5 includes: Des Moines, Chicago
Zone 4 includes: Minneapolis, part of Wyoming
Zone 3 includes: Northern Minnesota and Montana

Don't know your zone? You can look it up here.

Send your questions and submissions to [email protected]. Here's your chance to help wean your fellow citizens off the grass and sow the seeds for our homegrown revolution. Kitchen gardeners of the world, unite and take over!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Saving The Bed-Stuy Farm: Choose Better Nutrition, Not Demolition


Give Mother Nature a vacant city lot, and she'll fill it with weeds and wildlife. Then human nature comes along and dumps clumps of consumer goods-gone-bad and construction debris on top of the pigweed and pigeons.

It takes visionaries like Reverend DeVanie Jackson and her husband, Reverend Robert Jackson, to convert a garbage-filled Brooklyn lot into a productive urban farm that provides 3,000 people a month with fresh, healthy food. The Reverends Jackson, who run an emergency food pantry in Bedford Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission, became urban farmers out of sheer necessity back in 2004, challenging the 'charity' of serving poor people even poorer food.

I first wrote about Reverend Robert Jackson and the Bed-Stuy Farm after hearing him speak at a forum last year sponsored by World Hunger Year (WHY), a non-profit dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty. Jackson explained how his frustration over the salty, sugary, unhealthy processed foods typically passed out at food pantries compelled him to become a farmer:

Jackson, seeing the need all around him, asked, "Why wait for food? Why not grow our own food?" He collared everyone he could, from seniors to substance abusers, to help convert empty lots to thriving food gardens. Call it a soil revival, or a soul revival; either way, Reverend Jackson's giving folks the means to wean themselves off of junk food and other junk, too.

The Reverends Jackson started the Bed-Stuy Farm with the help of NYC's GreenThumb program on a junk-filled lot owned by a nonprofit developer. An old house on the site, slated to be converted into affordable housing, had such severe structural problems that it had to be torn down. The land was left to languish, becoming a dump and an eyesore.

Today, the Bed-Stuy Farm is a stellar example of urban agriculture that produces 7,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables annually. Tomorrow? If the developer has its way, the Bed-Stuy Farm may soon be plowed under and paved over.

"The intent was always to do affordable housing on this site," Housing Preservation and Development Department official Margaret Sheffer told the New York Daily News last week. "The garden had essentially come in as a squatter." The HPD wants to sell the lot in order to pay off a debt of roughly $275,000 incurred by the developer, Neighborhood Partnership Housing Development/Direct Building Management.

But, as Nadia Johnson, the food justice coordinator for Just Food, noted, the "HPD has its choice of many other vacant lots. It would do well to consider them before this lot, which in its current form is contributing to the neighborhood in such a positive and healthy way." A petition calling for the preservation of the Bed-Stuy Farm has already been signed by more than 1100 folks; supporters of the farm are hoping to garner 1200 signatures to demonstrate support for this invaluable community resource.

Yes, we need affordable housing, but affordable healthy food is often even harder to come by, and it's tragic to pit these two equally worthy causes against each other. Our famed free market has mysteriously failed to meet the demand for either one.

Chalk up the rising interest in urban agriculture not only to hard times--as this story in Tuesday's New York Times about the urban chicken-keeping phenomenon does--but to the inequities of our current food system, as well as a desire to know where our food comes from and whether it's healthy and safe.

Do the words "urban farm" sound oxymoronic to you? Let me ask you this: isn't the term "factory farm" even more incongruous? What's more unnatural: building a chicken coop in a Brooklyn backyard, or packing a stinky, sunless warehouse with chickens stacked up on top of one another as though they were pallets, not pullets?

Folks all over the world--including in the US--have been growing food in their own backyards for centuries. Of course, we had to, because we didn't have the means to mass produce food the way we do now.

But industrialized agriculture liberated us from having to cultivate our own land, and thereby paved the way, for, well, a whole lot of paving. And now, we're reaping a bumper crop of unhealthy, alienated Americans. We learned last week that obesity rates have nearly doubled over the past decade or so; this week, Bloomberg News reported that the use of antidepressants in the US essentially doubled during that same period. It's hard to say who's more chemically dependent--us, or our over-fertilized lawns.

Defenders of a centralized, uber-efficient food chain will tell you that industrialized food production gives consumers the food they want at the price they're willing to pay. As for healthy eating, it's a matter of personal choice, they say.

And yet, there are communities all over the country where you can't find decent, fresh fruits and vegetables at any price. But it's not because the folks in those neighborhoods don't want them. Community gardens and urban farms have sprouted in cities across the US, planted by inner city residents fed up with finding drugs and guns more readily available than fresh greens.

But pressure from developers often threatens these urban oases; witness the devastating destruction of our nation's largest community garden, captured in the excellent documentary The Garden.

Developers demolished an extraordinary 14-acre oasis of edibles lovingly tended by low income residents in South Central Los Angeles because too few politicians were willing to fight on behalf of the residents who relied on the farm to feed their families. Today, where acres of fresh, healthy food once flourished, you'll find a vacant lot awaiting development.

Please don't let a similar fate befall the Bed-Stuy Farm. Help save one of our own urban oases before it's too late.

The No Impact Man Health Care Plan

Did you know that energy conservation is the root cause of our obesity epidemic? We may be fossil-fuelish, and we're pretty careless with our kilowatts, too. But there's one unit of energy we're happy to hoard: the calorie. We routinely consume more calories than we need, but we're so fearful of physical exertion that we'll bend over backwards to avoid bending over backwards.

And so, without hardly lifting a finger, we've achieved an astonishing 37% percent rise in obesity between 1998 and 2006, according to a new report from the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention. As Thomas Frieden, the new head of the CDC, told ABC News on Monday:

"If you go with the flow in America, you will end up overweight or obese. This is not a result of a change in our genes. What has changed is our environment."

So, poor health has become the norm in our society, and millions of Americans are looking to President Obama and Congress for the solutions to our seemingly intractable health care problems.

But I'd like to propose a more obscure source of salvation: Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man."

You probably know him as "that guy who gave up toilet paper for a year," as the New York Times famously trumpeted. In fact, Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin, and their daughter Isabella gave up all the standard accoutrements of the American dream--electricity, driving, fast food, shopping--in order to answer the question, "Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much stuff?"

The media's always looking for the sensational angle, hence the New York Times' decision to brand Beavan's project as 'the Year Without Toilet Paper.' But, as Beavan asks:

"What if we called it 'the year I lost 20 pounds without ever going to the gym once? Or the year we didn't watch tv and we became much better parents as a result? Or the year we ate locally and seasonally and it ended up reversing my wife's pre-diabetic condition?"

With the No Impact Man movie and book coming out next month, Beavan's going to be mocked in some quarters for suggesting that our hyper-consumptive American dream's really more of a nightmare.

But as Frieden noted, our current health care crisis is the inevitable end result of a culture where unhealthy food and a sedentary life are the default. And for daring to frame the issue this way, Frieden's now being attacked by the health care industry for his "government-interventionist" approach to transforming our health care system, as Marion Nestle reports.

But he's not alone in saying that "it will take societal responsibility as much as - or more than - individual responsibility to deal with the problem."

Health economist Eric Finkelstein, from research institute RTI International, told Gwen Ifill on The Newshour last Monday that economics is the root cause of the obesity epidemic, because it's "easier and cheaper to engage in behaviors that promote obesity."

Finkelstein observed that the CDC has tried and failed for years to get individuals to make healthy choices. So they're trying a new tack, by lobbying for things like better food in schools, more parks, walkable communities, and so on:

Ifill: "How much of this is about public policy imperatives, and how much of this is about individual behavior? People know the right thing to do and just don't do it."

Finkelstein: "We've created an environment where it's extremely difficult for individuals to engage in behaviors that are associated with maintaining a healthy weight."

And while urbanites like Beavan have the option of getting around town on foot or bike, it's a sad fact that far too many communities are woefully inhospitable to such waist-trimming modes of transportation.

City dwellers also have greater access, oddly enough, to fresh-from-the-farm produce, because farmers' markets need densely populated neighborhoods in order to really thrive. Fast food joints, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. The question of personal responsibility becomes moot if your only choice is between a burger or pizza, as it is in far too many neighborhoods.

Yeah, sure, McDonalds has salads, but when you can buy four burgers for the price of one salad, what cash-strapped family's going to opt for the iceberg lettuce over the burger?

Skeptics and scorners may accuse Beavan of being a publicity-seeking opportunist. I did, once, before I had the chance to hear him speak and realized that I had totally misjudged him. He's just a regular guy who wants to make a living doing something he loves that just happens to benefit other people, too--in his case, raising awareness about how our choices affect our health and the planet's.

The point of Beavan's project is not to suggest that we should all live by candlelight and forage for edible weeds dressed in repurposed potato sacks (not that there's anything wrong with that.) His exercise in extreme voluntary simplicity is intended to inspire us. Will it encourage more Americans to curb their carbon footprint? Beavan is hopeful. As he says in the film, "The most radical political act there is, is to be an optimist."

Bottled Water Takes A Blow Down Under, & Below The Belt

image courtesy of Jeanne Curran

A band of audacious Aussies made multinational waves last week by declaring an outright ban on the sale of bottled water in Bundanoon, a village south of Sydney. The "Bundy on Tap" campaign, which entails the entirely voluntary removal of bottled water from Bundanoon's supermarket shelves, began "when a Sydney-based bottling company sought permission to extract millions of liters from the local aquifer, " according to the New York Times.

The locals questioned the logic "of trucking water some 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, north to a plant in Sydney, only to transport it somewhere else — possibly even back to Bundanoon — for sale". One of the Bundy on Tap campaign's leaders told the Times:

“We became aware, as a community, of what the bottled water industry was all about...So the idea was floated that if we don’t want an extraction plant in our town, maybe we shouldn’t be selling the end product at all.”

The Bundanoon ban coincided with a House subcommittee hearing here at home last Wednesday on the regulation of bottled water, which--contrary to public perception--is generally held to a lower standard than tap water. And as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes today, both bottled and tap water can be contaminated by phthalates, those endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may be fueling a rise in obesity, autism, allergies, and genital deformities in both humans and animals. Phthalate levels "soar in certain plastic water bottles," according to Kristof.

But while the folks in Bundanoon unintentionally unleashed "a worldwide debate about the social and environmental effects of bottled water" with their decision to just say no, the hearing on Capitol Hill prompted the Washington Post's Dana Milbank to just ask why:

The nation is entangled in two wars, a deep recession and a flu pandemic, and the people's representatives are hard at work investigating the menace of . . . bottled water?

Milbank mocked the notion that the bottled water industry needs better regulation, declaring that "bottled water has not killed anybody, and it's not even clear that it has made anybody sick."

But what if it threatens to emasculate a generation of American males? Will Milbank drop his smug, snarky stance now that Kristof's pulled the pants off the bottled water biz to expose alarming--and apparently phthalate-linked--anatomical irregularities such as "undescended testicles and less penile volume"?

You'd think the rise in such afflictions would be especially troubling to our politicians, given their proclivity for relying on their own nether regions to inform their decision-making. Will Kristof's below-the-belt exposé resonate in the Beltway, which suffers inordinately from an absence of balls and an abundance of little pricks?

Yes, we face far more pressing problems than consumer preference for bottled water over tap, and our government's failure to sufficiently safeguard either one. But in many parts of the world, access to safe drinking water is, in fact, a matter of life or death. As Elizabeth Royte, author of
Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water, blogged the other day, 13,699 people a day die from preventable, water-related diseases in this world.

We like to think that the lack of clean, safe drinking water is a problem primarily for underdeveloped nations, but the reality is that there are places in this country where our own water supply is contaminated by, among other things: mountain top mining removal; mercury emissions from coal-powered plants; pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics from industrial agriculture; and the residue of the prescription drugs we gobble like M & M's to cure our low libidos and high cholesterol counts.

It's no wonder so many consumers are afraid to drink the water coming out of their taps. And public drinking fountains have been displaced by private vending machines, further strengthening the beverage industry's hand in its drive to privatize one of life's essentials.

People the world over should have the right to safe, clean drinking water, whether they live in West Virginia or South Africa. We cannot allow our government to neglect our municipal water supply and encourage the privatization of water by enabling multinational corporations to drain our aquifers and perpetuate the myth that bottled water is safer than tap.

The reality is that neither one is safe enough, and we have to demand better. As Kristof concludes:

If terrorists were putting phthalates in our drinking water, we would be galvanized to defend ourselves and to spend billions of dollars to ensure our safety.

But since the source of our water woes is just good ol' fashioned capitalism run amok, we lack the political will to tackle this problem. Oh well. Perhaps the emasculation of our culture through excessive exposure to phthalates will turn out to have some sort of upside. Our nation's previous testosterone-heavy administration, after all, crashed our economy like a teen careening in a borrowed convertible, mired us in multiple wars, and childishly plugged its ears at every mention of the phrase "climate change." A little feminization could go a long way.

The Revolution Will Not Be (Petrochemically) Fertilized


If you think diabetes and obesity are the two biggest health care crises Americans face these days, you're missing the forest for the trees--literally. Because the roots of all this diet-induced disease lie in two less publicized but even more pernicious epidemics: nature deficit disorder and kitchen illiteracy.

The symptoms include a woeful lack of familiarity with that elusive culinary commodity known as "real food," or "good food," or "slow food", and total estrangement from Mother Earth--who, by the way, keeps hanging around outside pining for a glimpse of you while you remain indoors, mesmerized by your monitor or TV screen and mindlessly munching on ersatz edibles.

Do you have no idea what you're actually eating, where it came from, or how it was grown? You may suffer from one or both of these maladies. Are you fearful of naked food that's not encased in microwave-friendly packaging? Petrified by perishable produce that demands any sort of prep?

Perhaps you'd buy the new wearable feedbag that lets Americans eat more and move less, or sample Taco Bell's new green menu with no ingredients from nature, if these products existed outside the fertile imaginations of the Onion's writers.

If we weren't so divorced from nature, we'd give a rat's ass--make that a double rat's ass--about all those freaky deformed frogs that have been sprouting extra legs in recent decades, and the sexually deformed fish that started popping up in the Potomac a few years back.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his column last Sunday and again on Thursday's Colbert Report, scientists increasingly suspect that "a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, very widely used in agriculture, industry and consumer products," may be contributing to a scary hodgepodge of health problems in people as well as the disturbing rise in anatomical anomalies in frogs and fish.

Kristof cites a 'landmark' 50-page statement from the Endocrine Society which presents "evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology." The statement adds:

The rise in the incidence in obesity matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity.

I wrote back in 2006 that the EPA had identified endocrine disruption as one of its top six research priorities in 1996. But, a decade later, they had yet to begin testing any candidate chemicals for their endocrine-disrupting potential. Kristof notes that "for now, these chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed."

Sure, you could try to minimize your exposure to these apparent toxins by growing some of your own food without using pesticides and chemicals. But as our farming First Lady's recently discovered, the ground you're cultivating might be tainted anyway, because the chemicals and contaminants we've thoughtlessly dispersed into our air, soil and water in recent decades have a way of lingering.

Our obliviousness to the hazards of a chemically dependent food system have allowed these toxins to accrete in our environment--and our bodies--for far too long. But now, growing tomatoes has replaced throwing tomatoes as a form of protest; millions of Americans are looking to opt out of our toxic food chain by trying to grow some of their own food this year, many for the first time.

If we truly hope to create an alternative food system, though, many more of us will have to roll up our sleeves and get digging. As urban ag pioneer and McArthur genius Will Allen told Elizabeth Royte in next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "We need 50 million more people growing food on porches, in pots, in side yards.”

Royte notes the inherent challenges for advocates of urban agriculture:

...there is something almost fanciful in exhorting a person to grow food when he lives in an apartment or doesn’t have a landlord’s permission to garden on the roof or in an empty lot.

But the edible landscaping trend is taking root wherever there's soil, and even where there isn't, with the help of exhibits like the New York Botanical Garden's Edible Garden, which just opened last weekend and runs through September 13th.

The Edible Garden exhibitions include a Good Food Garden, a Seed Savers Heirloom Vegetable Garden, and a Beginner's Vegetable Garden, along with a half dozen other edible landscape-related exhibits. Rosalind Creasy, whose essential but long-out-of-print book Edible Landscaping has a new edition coming out in 2010, thankfully, designed the Heirloom Vegetable Garden. Other homegrown heroes like Kitchen Gardeners International founder Roger Doiron and Slow Food USA's new president Josh Viertel will be among the featured speakers at events taking place over the course of the summer.

If I may borrow from Stephen Colbert, I'd like to give a tip of the hat to cookware company Anolon, a major sponsor of the NYBG Edible Garden exhibition whose own Creating a Delicious Future campaign seeks to remedy kitchen illiteracy by fostering "a return to eating delicious foods prepared simply at home using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients."

The exhibition's other major sponsor, Scott's Miracle Gro, gets a wag of the finger: hey, guys, great way to greenwash the profits from all those pesticides the EPA's ordered you to take off the shelves.

Another wonderful edible gardening program to which I'll gladly give a shout-out is the Giving Through Growing campaign sponsored by Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge Winery in partnership with The American Community Gardening Association. Woodbridge is donating $40,000 this year to the ACGA to help provide "educational tools, leadership training, and community building strategies to participants in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles." As the Giving Through Growing website notes, the ACGA estimates that over 2,000 new community gardens will be established this year, on top of the 20,000 existing community gardens.

The Giving Through Growing program encourages you to send virtual "eSeeds" to your friends, and for every eSeed that's planted, Woodbridge will donate a dollar to the ACGS. It's a pretty painless way to show support for the folks who are greening our urban spaces.

Those of us who garden understand that food waste can either become "black gold," i.e. soil-enriching compost, or be shipped off to the landfill where it rots and generates methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Animal manures, too, can be a blessing to a farmer who raises his livestock on pasture, where the manure returns fertility to the soil as it has for centuries.

But when you crowd farm animals into what Jon Stewart aptly dubbed "an Abu Ghraib of animals" on Thursday's Daily Show in his interview with Food, Inc.'s Robbie Kenner, the massive quantities of manure that result become an environmental disaster.

And when you saturate the soil with synthetic chemicals to grow resource-intensive commodity crops, you deaden and deplete it.

This, then, is the fundamental difference between sustainable agriculture and intensive industrial food production. The first method enriches the soil; the other ultimately ruins it. Destroy the soil, and you destroy your civilization.

Will Allen predicts that 10 million people will plant gardens for the first time this year. But, as he told Elizabeth Royte, "two million of them will eventually drop out," when they get discouraged by pests and insufficient rain--or too much.

That's OK; 8 million new gardeners still adds up to a revolution. So grab your trowel and start digging for democracy. Let's overthrow the cornarchy this 4th of July!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Slow Money: Cultivating a Culture of Peace and Prosperity


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

This 4th of July, let's declare our freedom from the "pharmo-petro-chemico-military-industrial-agribusiness" food chain, exemplified by Stephen Colbert's funny but creepy Carlyle-like Prescott Group. Give your patriotic picnics and potlucks a truly independent flavor; serve foods grown "locally, deliciously, and sustainably," as the Food Independence Day campaign is calling on all of us to do--including our elected leaders.

And please, before you dismiss this as just another frivolous feel-good PR stunt, be aware that Food Independence Day is the brainchild of Roger Doiron, the Kitchen Gardeners International founder who led the call for the White House kitchen garden, which has yielded more produce--and more publicity--than even Roger could have hoped. Yes, he did! And he will, with your help.

But don't stop there. Join me in declaring a war on our tired policy of declaring wars, whether it's the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on whatever. This habit of framing everything in violent terms impoverishes us all.

In fact, our fixation on making a killing, as opposed to making a living, is what's brought our economy to the brink of collapse, as venture capitalist/eco-preneur Woody Tasch argues brilliantly in his new book. The title, Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered may be a mouthful, but it's one I'd love to see on everyone's lips, because this book gets right to the heart of everything that's ailing our economy and corroding our culture.

Tasch's book is, in part, about how bad business decisions keep us from having good food. But it's not your (organic) garden-variety indictment of industrial agriculture. Yes, his "Slow Money" concept borrows freely from Italy's Slow Food movement--which famously began as a revolt against a McDonalds in Rome--and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote the forward to Tasch's book. But Slow Money is not some kind of simplistic, anti-corporate, socialist rant.

Rather, Tasch offers a formula for a new kind of capitalism in which farmers' markets and stock markets both flourish. Tasch's economic agenda is founded on the heretical notion that we need to think about the long term consequences of how we invest our natural resources and our human capital, instead of dwelling on quarterly profits and worshipping the false gods of convenience and consumption.

If we weren't so shortsighted, and so enamored of easy money, we'd be less vulnerable to scummy scammers like Bernie Madoff, the sleazy money lenders, and all the other charlatans who helped create this recession. We might learn to think of our housing as shelter, first and foremost, and long-term investment--not an asset to be flipped, or an ATM. We might also be more willing to confront the serious problems that plague our industrialized food system, as documented in Food, Inc.

But we remain convinced that the hallmark of a healthy economy is endless growth, overlooking the fact that some growths are malignant. And what about growth that's achieved through artificial means? We object to our athletes abusing steroids, but we're told that injecting cows with hormones to squeeze more milk out of them represents progress, as does saturating our soil with chemicals that deplete it and clog our waterways with runoff.

As Michael Pollan points out in Food, Inc., the way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous 10,000. In those fifty years, Tasch notes, we've shifted to a food system that "treats the soil as if it were nothing more than a medium for holding plant roots so that they can be force-fed a chemical diet."

Tasch tallies up all the trade-offs we've made in the name of progress that have actually eroded our standard of living; for example, the way we've sacrificed freshness for shelf life. He laments the "economic violence" that permeates our culture of consumption and proposes a radical rethink of our current values--not just the way we do business, but our entire way of life.

Slow Money cites an eclectic range of thinkers, including some of our greatest agrarian philosophers and naturalists, as well as business leaders, professors and economists, who help Tasch make his case for an enlightened, re-localized food system that could bring us wholesome foods affordably without degrading people, animals and the planet.

Sound impossible? It's really our only hope. Don't believe the disinformation campaign being spun by Agribiz lobbyists, about how 'organic agriculture can never feed the world'. Foodie blogger extraordinaire Jill Richardson took on that monocrop myth in a Daily Kos diary on Monday.

But don't just take it from us bloggers. As Rodale Institute CEO Tim LaSalle told me recently:

We have to come out of this decade with drastically new ways to raise food. These ways have to use natural systems channeling solar power through crops, pasture and humanely raised livestock that builds soil carbon, doesn't pollute our water and increases economic opportunity for food producers in rural and urban areas.

Organic can do this, and it's doing it now, and with the declining supplies of fossil fuels, it is the only real future we have.

Tasch seconds this sentiment, but he doesn't just explain why our current system of food production is unsustainable. He offers credible examples of alternative food chains being built one community and one entrepreneur at a time. His expertise and success in both for-profit and nonprofit endeavors, combined with Tasch's understanding of the fundamentals of soil fertility, make Slow Money a must read if you're feeling overwhelmed by the problems of our food chain and want to know how we can move forward. Joan Gussow, through whom I first learned about Tasch and his book, said of him, "He just may be a genius. No, let me amend that. He is a genius. He just may save us."

Sir Paul and The Queen Give Fruits and Veggies The Royal Treatment

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

England and America have historically enjoyed a "special friendship" exemplified by a friendly rivalry and a rich cultural exchange: silly sitcoms, shameless reality shows, cheery and cheesy chick lit, Hollywood's Los Anglo-cized adaptations of Jane Austen, and so on. They've got Nigella Lawson; we've got Rachel Ray (hey, no fair! can we trade?) They've got Jamie Oliver slaughtering a chicken live on British tv, we've got Mark Bittman asking carnivores to only come out at night--or, as he frames it, "Go vegan till 6."

The latest trans-Atlantic trend swap's got the Queen and "Macca"--that's Sir Paul, to us yanks--stealing a page from the U.S.-led "Eat The View" kitchen garden revival and the Meatless Monday movement, two high-profile pro-produce campaigns that are heating up faster than a solar oven in a food desert.

First, Queen Elizabeth adopted Michelle Obama's urban ag agenda by starting her own kitchen garden on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The Queen and the First Lady have been forging a "special friendship" of their own in recent months, as evidenced by the spontaneous hug Michelle Obama gave the Queen at a reception, to the horror of the protocol police.

Who knows, maybe the Queen's growing friendship with our foremost ambassador for fruits and veggies was a factor in her Majesty's decision to authorize a new victory garden. It's been a long time since the Queen last dabbled in edible landscaping, according to the BBC, which noted that "This is the first time vegetables have been grown in the backyard of the monarch's London residence since World War II."

The BBC story included a photo, taken in 1940, showing the Queen as a young princess wielding a spade and a rake. This time around, the Queen's delegating the digging to her staff. Claire Midgeley, the deputy head gardener, explained the motivation behind the garden:

"We are trying to promote growing your own food and vegetables, getting families and children involved, getting their hands dirty. It's a growing movement throughout the country and we're just hoping to encourage that."

Michelle Obama said much the same thing yesterday as she joined the fifth-graders who helped plant the White House kitchen garden back in April harvest 73 pounds of lettuce and 12 pounds of peas:

"This gorgeous, bountiful garden has given us a chance to not just have some fun -- and we've had a lot of it -- but to shed some light on the important food and nutrition issues that we need to address as a nation...I want you to continue to be my little ambassadors in your own home and your own communities."

As the Washington Post reported, the First Lady gave a 14 minute speech proving that her foray into front yard farming is far more than the feel-good publicity stunt it may have seemed to skeptics:

The 14-minute speech was a marked change in tone from the series of fun-filled photo ops on the White House South Lawn, all of which have felt like school field trips with one very famous chaperone. The first lady talked about the importance of tackling obesity and the ways to do it: by improving access to fresh produce in low-income communities, offering more nutritious food in school breakfast and lunch programs, and overhauling how American families eat...

...Obama also explicitly linked healthful eating to two major legislative initiatives: the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, which fund school breakfast and lunch programs, and health-care reform. American eating habits, she noted, have changed dramatically since she was growing up -- "and I don't think that was that long ago."

During her childhood, she said, fast food was a treat, desserts were reserved for special occasions, and all the kids in the neighborhood went home to have dinner with their families. Since then, childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed: Nearly one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, and diet-related health issues cost $120 billion annually. "Government has a role to play," Obama said. "We need to make sure we offer [students] the healthiest meals possible to make sure we give these kids a good start to their day and their future."

If the First Lady and the Queen's shared desire to promote food gardening and healthy eating seems like an unprecedented pairing, Brits witnessed an even more improbable UK/US alliance this week when Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono--famously blamed for breaking up the Beatles--came together on Monday to announce the launch of Sir Paul's Meat Free Mondays campaign.

By coincidence, America's version of the go-veg-once-a-week movement, Meatless Monday, relaunched its website on the very same day, so there's plenty of momentum growing on both sides of the Atlantic for this campaign to start your week off doing something significant to curb your carbon 'foodprint.'

Given the role that livestock production plays in producing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting back on our meat consumption just makes sense, and making a habit of doing so one day a week is a win-win, benefiting your own health and the planet's. As Moby, who's as famous these days for his NYC vegan café Teany as for his music, said at the Meat Free Monday launch:

'If I point my finger at someone, saying, "You should be a vegetarian," they're just going to get annoyed...There is definitely a risk [of] alienating people. Maybe one day a week, consider what you are doing.

'We're saying, do this for your personal health and in the process you help animals and you help the environment.'

It's heartening to see two of Britain's best known citizens lobbying on behalf of a plant-based diet, or what Michael Pollan--another Meatless Mondays advocate--calls "the resolarization of our food chain." Here comes the sun, indeed. I just hope this trend endures longer than Madonna's marriage, or David Beckham's hairline. This is one cross cultural exchange that we really need to nurture.

Food, Inc.: The Silence of the Yams

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Robbie Kenner didn't mean to make a horror film when he started working on Food, Inc.. But you can't shine a light on our food chain without exposing some ugly truths. As Michael Pollan says in the opening of Food, Inc.:

The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that's used to sell the go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers. The picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass. The reality is, it's not a farm, it's a factory.

Whether we're ready to have that pastoral veneer peeled away is the question. Pollan and his fellow investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, the Fast Food Nation author who co-produced Food, Inc., with Kenner, are determined to fling open the doors to those rank, cavernous CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and force us to confront the nasty consequences of our addiction to cheap processed convenience foods.

America the Beautiful? Um, not so much, these days. Let's do an inventory:

Amber waves of grain: sure, we've still got 'em. But the corn we subsidize now isn't even edible. It's only good for three things:

1. Fattening up cows--although, as Food Inc. reveals, their digestive tracts aren't equipped to digest corn, so it makes them sick and creates a breeding ground for the potentially lethal E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, which sickened 73,000 people in the U.S. in 2007.

Do statistics like that make your eyes glaze over? Food, Inc. will make you weep at the story of Kevin Kowalcyk, a healthy, beautiful two and a half year-old boy who died after eating a hamburger contaminated with E.coli. The tragedy turned his mother Barbara into a food safety advocate lobbying to give the USDA the power to crack down on producers of tainted meat, with a bill named after her son. After seven years of lobbying, "Kevin's Law" has yet to pass.

2. Fattening us up on HFCS-filled soda and processed convenience foods, which makes us sick. One in three Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes, as Food, Inc. points out--unless you're a minority, in which case, the rate will be one in two.

And who knows what all those GMOs (genetically modified organisms) lurking in 70% of our processed foods are doing to our bodies and our environment? Not to mention the pesticides, bisphenol A and phlalates that permeate our food chain. Studies suggest these contaminants may be linked to dozens of diseases.

3. Ethanol, the bogus alternative fuel that's more boondoggle than boon. Not only is it not a solution to our energy needs, it may actually be worse than gas when it comes to global warming. And speaking of our energy-intenstive way of life...

Purple mountain majesties: If our mountains are purple these days, it's 'cause they've been bruised and battered by mountaintop mining removal, a practice which entails blasting the tops off mountains and dumping the resulting rubble into creeks and streams. Jim Hightower calls the mountaintop mining removal that's destroying the Appalachians "ecocide,...the total annihilation of a priceless ecosystem that is older than the Himalayas."

We could do an awful lot to conserve energy if we shifted to a diet dominated by local, seasonal produce, and bypassed factory farm animal products in favor of grass-fed meat and poultry from farmers like Food, Inc.'s Joel Salatin, the wry, quotable contrarian who's become the poster boy for sustainable agriculture. Such a change would dramatically reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use to grow and transport our food. But that would require agricultural policies that actually encouraged American farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and less feed corn, which brings us to...

The fruited plain: The USDA tells us to consume five to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables even as it marginalizes the farmers who grow these so-called "specialty crops". The fruit and vegetable farmers aren't powerful enough to buy themselves favorable legislation, as the corn and livestock lobbyists do. Michael Pollan calls it "the silence of the yams," and until the USDA decides to put our money where it keeps telling us to put our mouths, you'll be able to get four burgers for the price of one salad at McDonalds.

With all the resources it takes to produce a pound of beef, shouldn't a salad cost less than a burger? Not to mention the hidden costs of industrial livestock production, like the contamination of our waterways from...

Sea to shining sea: excess fertilizer runoff feeds the algae blooms that create dead zones along our shores and dull our oceans' gleam, along with all that discarded plastic from our disposable consumer culture. There's so much junk floating around in the ocean now that it's impeding the search for the remains of Air France Flight 447.

We've been heading down this polluted path for decades. George Carlin provided us with his own satirical ode to catastrophic consumption back in 1972:

Oh beautiful, for smoggy skies, insecticided grain

For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain.

America, America, man sheds his waste on thee

And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea!

Maybe we're finally ready to change course, 37 years later. Food, Inc. exposes the dark side of the American diet in a compelling--and surprisingly entertaining--way. Will you lose your appetite for factory farmed foods after you've seen it? I hope so. But its stated goal is to leave you "hungry for change," the kind of change that's transforming the way we think about how--and where--our food is grown.

Yes, Food, Inc. is a horror story, of sorts, but it's no scarier than the tall tales that Agribiz and Big Food have been spinning in their efforts to ensnare you in their monoculture myths of efficiency, convenience and affordability. They'd have you believe that the folks behind Food, Inc. are technology-hating luddites and arugula-eating elitists who want the world to subsist on wormy apples.

They'd also love it if you'd take their word for it that their methods of farming are super sustainable. And our food supply's plenty safe, thank you very much. More frequent inspections and stringent regulations? That will just drive up the price of food.

But as Food, Inc. clearly shows, industrial agriculture's cutting corners in some lethal and inhumane ways, and our cheap food supply is poisoning Americans on a scale that Al Qaeda could only dream of.

It's all well and good to espouse shopping at farmers markets and growing our own food wherever possible. We can also demand better from our corporations and our government. But the fact remains that fruits and vegetables are unavailable--or unaffordable--to many low-income Americans.

Industrial agriculture's got the cheap part down. Sustainable agriculture's got the fresh, healthy part of the equation covered. The burning question we need to ask was raised by Grist blogger Tom Laskawy in a recent email to some colleagues pondering this issue of access: Do all Americans have the right to affordable, fresh, healthy food?

Big Ag and Big Food insist that their food chain is doing a perfectly swell job of meeting all our needs. Oh, beautiful, for specious lies. Food, Inc.'s implied answer to Laskawy's question is yes, we all have that right, but we'll have to fight for it.

Hop On The Homegrown Bandwagon


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Formerly squeamish suburbanites are learning what every little kid knows instinctively--dirt and worms are cool. If you're on the cutting edge, you've already stopped trimming your lawn and started clipping your nails, 'cause the era of manicured hands and manicured lawns is officially over. It's time to tear up your turf, grow 'clean' food, and get some dirt under your nails, because nothing says "sustainable" like particles of soil clinging to your fingers--or your fingerlings.

Mini farms are sprouting up in front yards, back yards, on rooftops, and sunny windowsills. Early adopters have taken chickens under their wings, and put bins of scrap-happy red wigglers under their kitchen sinks to compost the coffee grounds. Here in uber-urban NYC, my friends are planting illicit patches of herbs on their fire escapes, a practice hypothetically frowned on by the NY fire department. But who's gonna get busted for growing basil? Everybody knows that firefighters cook up a storm when they're not racing off to put out other folks' fires.

Illicit bee-keeping, on the other hand, can be a stickier endeavor, which is why there's a move to make it legal in NYC, where--to the astonishment of many--chicken keeping is actually permitted.

It shouldn't be such a surprise, really, because a half-century ago, "chickens were all the rage in the United States, and not just among farmers," as Nicolette Hahn Niman notes in her memoir Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, adding that "these were times when people had limited entertainment options--no movies, no television, and no with chickens was about as commonplace as interactions are today with dogs and cats."

Speaking of cats, Catwoman Eartha Kitt kept chickens and grew greens in her Beverly Hills backyard. It's a shame she didn't live long enough to see farming become fashionable; I'm sure Kitt would have pounced on Carleen Madigan's The Backyard Homestead and added it to her Christmas wishlist for Santa, baby.

Madigan's book, aptly billed as "the Indispensible Guide To Food Self-Sufficiency" is an invaluable resource to help you tackle just about any homegrown, made-from-scratch project, from growing your own fruits, veggies and livestock to preserving it in the form of canning, curing, brewing, preserving, etc. Dominique Browning, the former editor of the late, lamented House & Garden (what other shelter magazine would have Bill McKibben contribute a column on composting?) gave it a rave in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review:

This fascinating, friendly book is brimming with ideas, illustrations and enthusiasm. The garden plans are solid, the advice crisp; the diagrams, as on pruning and double digging, are models of decorum. Madigan makes it all look so easy. Halfway through, she puts petal to the metal, and whoosh! At warp speed we're growing our own hops and making our own beer, planting our own wheat fields, keeping chickens (ho hum), ducks, geese and turkeys (now we're talking) and milking goats, butchering lamb (wrapping it with that nifty "drugstore fold" -- diagram included -- while we're at it), raising rabbits and grinding sausage. Oh, and tapping our maple trees, churning butter and making cheese and yogurt...

Madigan's got the goods, and she wants you to have them, too:

It's about loving the process of creating something delicious and the joy of sharing my creations with people I care about.

The Backyard Homestead is for anyone who's tantalized by the prospect of producing even a little bit of your own food, regardless of where you live. So if you've got those back-to-the-land fantasies but your town is more Wal-Mart than Walden Pond, don't despair: The Backyard Homestead will help you make your dreams come true.

Farmer Heroes


cross-posted from LornaSassAtLarge

(Kat: Lorna Sass, the whole grain goddess/pressure cooker queen whose visionary cookbooks are my bible, has kindly shared with us her take on Ana Joane's terrific new food doc FRESH and her own recent encounter with a Utah farmer who's reclaiming our food chain in the same spirit as FRESH's agrarian all-star cast.)

Wednesday night I saw a fine documentary called FRESH in which farmers using brilliantly conceived, sustainable growing methods were celebrated for the heroes they are.

The film, directed with great sensitivity by Anna Joanes, portrays the palpable joy of farmers like Joel Salatin in rural Virginia and Will Allen in urban Milwaukee who are finding ways to farm that create high-quality food profitably and chemical free. It was thrilling to have Salatin, Allen, chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and nutritionist/organic gardener/author Joan Gussow emerge after the screening to take questions.

The film and panelists received a standing ovation. It was a thrilling moment, full of hope that we are on the cusp of great and long overdue change in American agriculture. (For more details on the growing grassroots movement towards sustainable farming, a great site to visit is eatwellguide. I subscribe to their informative blog The Green Fork on an RSS feed.)

Before viewing the happy pigs, cows, chickens, and sprightly salad greens of these two featured farmers, I had to close my eyes during those moments when the devastating conditions of factory farming were screened. A few times in the film, we witness a vacant look in the eyes of an average-Joe farming couple caught up in a nasty procedure that “grows” chickens inhumanely. During the interview, two beloved poodles cuddle on their laps, a visual that brilliantly captures the irony and tragedy of an animal-raising system that splits human psyches asunder.

On my recent trip to Utah, I met a farmer hero like Salatin and Allen by a combination of chance and determination. Despite the magnificent scenery all around us, The Sweetie and I were beginning to languish about the fourth day into the trip. Looking forward to eating well prepared, real food means a great deal to both of us, and we were having a rough time finding anything healthy to put on our plates. There were overweight people and fast-food restaurants all around us, and we’d run out of the wholegrain bread I’d brought along for breakfast…

So when we were served a complimentary appetizer of fresh, lightly pickled vegetables at a delightful restaurant called Cafe Diablo in the tiny town of Torrey, we immediately asked their source and were told about Randy Ramsley’s Mesa Farm Market Bakery and Cafe in nearby Caineville. In addition to wanting to see those veggies at their source, it so happened that Randys’ farm was right on scenic route 24.

So the next day, we headed for his place and traveled for what seemed like hours through variably gorgeous and desolate landscapes before suddenly out of nowhere there appeared this shack on the right side of the road:

It was about 4 p.m. and the place looked very closed, but I spotted a silver-haired man at the back and decided to knock on the front door. Someone opened the door and there was Randy, who turned out to be the farmer and just about everything else at the moment.

Once inside, the place looked pretty barren of veggies and sandwiches, so we asked for some iced coffee. Randy said he thought that could be done and proceeded to grind some fair-trade beans and make us a fresh batch, which proved to be the best coffee we had on the trip.

Once revived, I spotted some freshly baked loaves and was thrilled to learn that some were made of wholegrain flour. Good, that would be breakfast and maybe part of the lunch for the next few days. Randy had already delivered his organic salad greens and other vegetables to Cafe Diablo and another terrific restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder (yes, there is a Boulder, Utah), so we couldn’t buy any of those, but we had a chance to chat as we sipped the fresh brew.

“How did you end up farming on this desolate stretch of road?” I asked.

Randy was hiking through the Caineville area, spotted the land, and knew it was going to be his job to farm there. “We are farming in the heart of the Caineville Badlands,” he explained to us (and in further detail on his beautiful web site). “These badlands are some of the ‘baddest’ badlands in North America. Yet we grow what we believe to be some of the most heavenly tasting organic fruits and vegetables on the planet.”

Through hard work, creative genius, and a belief in his mission to provide high quality food to those who can’t otherwise get it, Randy and his co-workers have developed a method of farming sustainably in the Utah desert at the same time as he improves the soil in these badlands. He uses a type of drip irrigation developed in Israel and maintains a herd of goats to do the weeding. The goats digest the weeds, and drop their fertilizing pellets onto the soil. Little by little he’s developing a small artisanal cheese business based on the goat milk.

On his 50 acres, he also has an acre of fruit trees. In the middle of it is a chicken coop. As explained by Randy, the 50 or so chickens eat garden waste, bugs, weeds, and fallen fruit. They provide eggs as well as nitrogen-rich fertilizer. When he makes deliveries of bread and vegetables to the restaurants he serves, he collects their waste vegetable oil and turns it into biodiesel, then uses the biofuel to run the pumps and tractor.

It’s a circular system like the ones described by Salatin and Allen. Nothing is wasted, the soil becomes richer in nutrients each year, and people get to eat the healthiest food they’ve ever tasted.

Meeting Randy was a highlight of our trip to Utah. We came away knowing we’d met someone who was doing the work that he loved and was meant to do, and we were the richer for the experience. As for me, it’s been a long time since I’ve had any living heroes and I feel very lucky to have met three of them in the space of one week.