Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

Chowdown For Democracy: The Living Liberally 2009 Celebration Menu

Eating Liberally is not, technically, a catering service. However, we do delight in dishing up tasty food seasoned with a dash of democracy and a sprinkling of subversion, when the occasion calls for it.

And this Saturday, May 30th, is one such occasion: our annual Living Liberally celebration, emceed by Air America's Sam Seder. Together with our Liberally colleagues, we'll be honoring Media Matters For America, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Jack & Jill Politics for their outstanding contributions to the progressive cause.

We've adapted some of our favorite recipes from Scott Stringer's Go Green East Harlem Cookbook for the event, adding a few twists of our own and plenty of farm fresh veggies from the Union Square Greenmarket, some grown right here in New York City! Here's what attendees to our gala will be noshing on:

Upstate/Downstate Beans ‘n’ Baby Greens: an urban/rural partnership of Cayuga Pure Organics pinto, kidney & black beans from Ithaca & Queens County Farm Museum micro salad greens: yes, we can all just get along!

Spicy Buffalo Wingnuts: humanely raised chicken wings marinated in a tangy, multi-ethnic blend of local, grass-fed yogurt, spices and hot peppers guaranteed to give Lou Dobbs indigestion.

Spicy Buffalo Wing-nots: a vegan version of the above, featuring our own made-from-scratch seitan in a silken tofu marinade.

Green-Collar’d Greens: …because farming is the ultimate green job! A fine mess o’ locally grown, tender young kale, collard, turnip & beet greens lightly sautéed with garlic & scallions.

Grassroot/Netroot Veggie Slaw: a rainbow coalition of locally grown heirloom beets, Japanese turnips, and carrots--which, unlike House Minority Leader John Boehner, get their orange hue naturally ‘cause they’re chock full of beta carotene.

No-More-Food-Desert Desserts: sweet treats high in fruits, grains and vegetables, just like every community should be, regardless of income!

(Additional note: The Borough President recorded an invitation for you all to join us...thought you might like to see. - justin)

FRESH Director Ana Joanes Blazes A Trail To Greener Pastures

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

The front yard farming phenomenon is so hot now that People magazine recently did a story on it, "From Lawn to Lunch." But when Michelle Obama tore up a patch of the White House lawn to plant a kitchen garden, she inadvertently fertilized another growing movement: a flourishing Agribiz campaign to portray kitchen gardeners and 'good food movement' advocates as dangerous zealots out to shove fresh, untainted, ie. aggressively wholesome foods down America's collective throat and force us all to grow our own veggies--all without benefit of pesticides or chemicals.

Why? Because the rising influence of folks like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and other high profile "food cops," to quote the uber-astroturf (i.e. fake grassroots) Center For Consumer Freedom, is bad for Agribiz's bottom line. The more people know about how our food's grown and produced, the more likely they are to demand better, healthier--i.e. less profitable--food.

And now, Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and their Big Food buddies have to contend with a whole flurry of food documentaries that reveal just how screwed up our food chain's become over the past half-century. On June 12th, Participant Media will release Food, Inc., which they hope will be the "Inconvenient Truth" of our food system.

Monsanto, not surprisingly, is one of the villains in Food, Inc., so it's launched a pr offensive dismissing the documentary as pure propaganda that "demonizes American farmers." The only problem with this line of attack is that it's blatantly false, and there's no better proof of that than another outstanding food documentary, FRESH, which premieres this week in New York, Boston and DC. As FRESH director Ana Joanes says, her film "celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system."

Food, Inc. and FRESH both feature Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer profiled in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and Pollan himself appears in both films as well. But despite the apparent overlap, the two films are very different.

Each provides a much-needed public service, but where Food, Inc. airs a laundry list of factory farming's dirty secrets, Fresh makes a beeline past the manure lagoons, veal crates, contaminated food and monoculture madness to land us in truly greener pastures, whether it's in rural Virginia with Salatin or in urban Milwaukee at McArthur genius Will Allen's farm, Growing Power.

I've been excited about FRESH ever since my colleague Kate Croft, one of the prime movers and shakers behind New York University's Sustainability Task Force and a consultant/blogger (as am I) for the Eat Well Guide, told me about it a couple of months ago, and introduced me to Ana.

Ana grew up in Switzerland, but she's been living in the U.S. for more than 15 years. Her interest in the cultural and environmental impact of globalization drew her here to earn her BA in political science from Barnard college, followed by a degree from Columbia Law School. Before dedicating herself to film making, Ana founded Reel Youth, Inc., a video production program for youth coming out of detention, and other under-served youth.

Now, after making FRESH, she's become, like myself, a kind of accidental sustainable agtivist:

KT: Fresh is an essential companion piece to Food, Inc., but while both films expose the fundamental flaws in our food chain, your documentary focuses on folks who are committed to sustainable food production, whereas Food, Inc.'s primary purpose is to expose the horrors of Agribiz. At what point during the filming of Fresh did you become aware of Food, Inc.? And did it affect your decisions as a director?

AJ: Robert Kenner, the director of Food, Inc., contacted me sometime during the fall of 2007. Robbie had gotten my info from Joel when he was filming there (at Polyface Farm). We talked for a long time and have been in touch since. Learning about Food, Inc. did not affect any of my decisions, besides perhaps some strategical concerns with regard to a release date. But the structure and focus of my movie was in no way influenced by my conversation with Robert. Also, I only got to see his movie recently and so did not really know so much what to expect (although I knew our movies would be very different.)

KT: You first started working on Fresh in late 2005, before Omnivore's Dilemma came out, "locavore" entered the lexicon, and Wal-Mart became the nation's leading seller of "organic" milk. Did you sense back then that you were documenting a growing movement?

AJ: yes. When I started thinking about making this documentary, my focus was much broader. I thought to look at people and initiatives not only in farming but energy, architecture, technology, etc., and although I was finding out about amazing people and stories through my research, it became clear, almost from the start, that what was going on at the food level was the most exciting.

One thing in particular struck me: I was finding programs, initiatives, people ALL OVER the world, in apparently completely different environmental, cultural, and political environments, and yet they all shared key attributes: they all had a grassroots, bottom-up quality, as well as an incredibly integrated approach to the work they were doing.

"Yes, it's about food," these initiatives seemed to say, "but it's really about education, health, quality of work, environmental preservation, our spiritual well-being..." Food, I started to realize, was both a microcosm of the problems (economic consolidation, environmental destruction, exploitation of workers, oil crisis, etc.) and of the solutions. And because food plays such an intimate and immediate role in our everyday lives, it's a powerful entry point to discuss and address these challenges.

Food is a central part of our social and cultural fabric and we can instantly observe the consequences when we change our eating habits--not only in our pleasure and health, but on the vitality of our local economy, on our community and environment.

KT: You grew up in Switzerland and came to the U.S. as a student. There's a perception, validated by recent studies, that Europeans and Americans have very different eating habits. Did you notice this when you first arrived in the U.S.?

AJ: I think that what I noticed the most was how I missed the fresh products I grew up taking for granted. Tomatoes that actually have taste. Great salads. Yogurt and cheeses (it's much easier now to get great yogurt and cheese than it was when I first got here.) And being in New York, it didn't take long before I found myself eating all my meals out. It's hard to resist the "convenience" ethos that's so pervasive in New York and perhaps around the country.

I also came to realize that the price of food was much cheaper in the US, at least compared to Switzerland. Not only are restaurants very expensive back home--and therefore a much less regular occurrence--but food purchased at the supermarket is expensive, as well. People back home don't have the expectation that food should be cheap, so they spend a much larger portion of their income on food. Also, although we have amazing farmers' markets, the quality of food in the supermarket was always great and I never had to think about where to go to buy food. In New York, depending on your neighborhood, the difference in quality can be dramatic.

KT: Do you find that your own relationship to food has changed since you made FRESH?

AJ: When I started making FRESH, my main relationship with food was one of dieting and guilt. I would choose food based on calories, mostly. I think I always had a fairly healthy diet, to the extent that I never ate much junk, and always enjoyed vegetables and fruits, but I never thought of the quality of the meat, vegetables, or fruits that I was eating, or the impact that it has on my health, my community, and the environment.

To be honest, it never really crossed my mind to think of the way that food was raised/produced, or to worry about it. It also never crossed my mind that the food I was eating might be contributing to my not feeling good, having low energy, gaining weight, and possibly to my long-term well-being.

As I started making the documentary, my food anxiety mostly increased: I was still mostly concerned about calories, but I also started wondering about the pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics that might be in the food I was eating. I started thinking of all the "health snacks" I was eating that contained GMOs and the unknown health risk attached to that food.

But my habits didn't change much at first. The change happened slowly and with a general change in my outlook and lifestyle. It was as if my inquiry into our food system helped me realize not only our communal dysfunctions and misplaced priorities, but mine as well.

I started to try to find more balance in my life, to find or look for pleasure in daily activities, in the "process" of life, rather than constantly running after the next "thing" that was going to make me happier, better, more something or the other. Eating well was no longer about (or only about) improving my health or not gaining weight, it was about pleasure: taking care of myself and the folks that I love and taking the time to do so.

I also came to realize how important it was for me to align my actions with my heart and mind. I have always been concerned with the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people. But I did not always align my actions with my belief. Once I started living a more aware/conscious life, I felt great pleasure and satisfaction in acting in ways that support my beliefs. It was not a sacrifice--which is how I had always thought about it--but a relief.

KT: You're about to become a mother (congratulations!) Have you figured out how you'll equip your child to cope with a culinary culture where cheap, fast and toxic is the norm and fresh, untainted produce is seen as a luxury for an elite few?

AJ: No, I have no idea. I mean, I'll certainly feed him/her great food and hope to introduce him/her to the pleasures of gardening and cooking, and thereby influence his/her tastebuds for life. But I have no doubt my kid is going to get exposed to foods that will taste absolutely wonderful to him/her and that he/she will want more of them...and I have no idea how I'll deal with that. I do think celebrating food and making shopping and cooking a joy, as well as the sharing around a table on a daily basis, will go a long way--at least I hope!

KT: What's the most drastic change you've witnessed on the real food front in the years since you began this project? What gives you the greatest hope that we can really transform the way we eat and grow food in this country?

AJ: It seems to me that food has become a substantial focus for Americans. The mainstream news and cyberspace are filled with information and discussion ranging from concern about the latest food scare to a favorite recipe. This shift in American's awareness is both dramatic and fills me with great hope.

The sustainable food movement is, in essence, a grassroots movement advocating for a change in awareness, a shift in our relationship with each other and with our environment, a new social and economic paradigm. Like any deep cultural change, it starts small and slowly grows, then accelerates as it reaches a critical mass. Michelle Obama's garden is a reflection on how far and wide "real food" ideas have reached. More than a reflection, though, Michelle's garden will be a catalyst for raising awareness even further, and is evidence of our government's receptivity to the concerns and demands of sustainable food advocates.

It is this, and the amazing people that I encounter through my work, their energy and dedication, that keep me hopeful. Hopefulness is simply the knowledge that change is possible and that we can participate in it. Lin Yutang said that "Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence."

Does A Nation of Ninnies Need A Nanny?


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Q. What's the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker?

A. A pigeon can still make a deposit on a BMW.

Don't laugh--bird poop's a precious resource. I dispense pellets of Peruvian seabird guano to my gardening friends as if they were Pez, because, as the Worm's Way gardening supply catalogue explains, "There is nothing like it for accelerating growth".

If only guano could goose our stalled economy. Robert Frank, the Cornell economics professor, New York Times columnist, and author, most recently, of Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, declared in a speech last month at Skidmore college--which he prefaced with that pigeon joke--that Americans are worse off now than we were during the Great Depression.

We face a significant decline in our standard of living, Frank warned in his speech, the keynote for The Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference on The Pursuit of Happiness. The conference, co-hosted by Bard College and Skidmore College, brought a group of academics together to scrutinize one of America's most cherished birthrights through a Dickensian lens.

Why? Well, this may not be the best of times, or the worst of times, but in this era of profound economic uncertainty and social unrest, it's as good a time as any for "a reassessment of happiness," the conference's co-organizer, Barbara Black, Skidmore associate professor of English, noted, adding that "tragedy, loss, or challenge can make us more committed to happiness; deeply unhappy times often generate a renewed interest in the power of optimism."

Hope is all the rage, these days, but hope is cheap. That's why the current administration can afford to dispense it so liberally. Happiness, on the other hand, is in much shorter supply, making it the truly hot commodity--or it would be, if you could actually buy it.

We've been trying to buy our way to bliss since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, but we still haven't figured out how to manufacture happiness for the masses. As Deirdre D'Albertis, Black's co-organizer and an associate professor of English at Bard, told me, we've got more in common with Victorian Brits than you might think; ordinary people as well as intellectuals "were concerned with the rise of conspicuous consumption or the worship of what they called "Mammon". You may know him as the god of "Greed is Good".

Then, as now, writers and social activists wondered how to "equitably distribute the wealth generated by a great empire," D'Albertis said, "as well as what the impact of rapid industrialization was doing to the English countryside". D'Albertis credits these nineteenth century 'thought leaders', as they'd be branded today, for inspiring a wide range of current social movements, including environmentalism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and that bête noire of wingnut blowhards, socialism.

So it was only fitting that this group of sepia-steeped scholars launched their conference with Frank, whose latest New York Times column puts those tea-stained tax protestors through the wringer and finds their arguments against taxing the rich decidedly weak.

Frank, an economist who subscribes to the Keynesian theory that our government needs to spend more, not less, at a time like this, believes that our economy won't recover anytime soon without a new New Deal. His speech, entitled "Unsolicited Advice For The Obama Administration," proposed that we spend the stimulus on "a massive laundry list of projects to revitalize the public sphere". You know, repair our crumbling bridges, upgrade our antiquated railway system, improve access to health care and better our schools, for example.

Conservatives carp that the stimulus is "a mere spending program". As Frank drily noted, "That's the whole point." Note, too, that improving education for the less affluent is an investment that would benefit us all. As New York Times economics reporter David Leonhardt noted recently, one unexpected bonus of the Great Depression was a surge in school enrollment among teenagers who would have otherwise dropped out to take a factory job:

In the manufacturing-heavy mid-Atlantic states, the high school graduation rate was just above 20 percent in the late 1920s. By 1940, it was almost 60 percent. These graduates then became the skilled workers and teachers who helped build the great post-World War II American economy.

But rabid tea-baggers will tell you (watch for flying flecks of spittle) that using taxpayer dollars for the betterment of society is a form of fascism. A teary-eyed Glenn Beck called it tyranny. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Beck was apparently confusing tyranny with democracy, but hey, nuance is for liberal weenies. So is community organizing. And community gardens. Especially community gardens filled with organically grown fruits and vegetables! And soup kitchens that serve mushroom risotto and pumpkin soup!

This last category drew the ire of conservative blogger Julie Gunlock, who went off half-cocked the other day about food banks and soup kitchens that are supposedly guilty of committing tax payer-financed food snobbery by offering their clientele fresh, wholesome meals instead of nutritionally bankrupt processed foods and donated donuts.

Gunlock notes that Obama's stimulus package contains $150 million for food banks and other organizations that provide food to people in need. Citing an unacceptably delicious-sounding meal served at a California soup kitchen, she huffed "No wonder these places need a bailout," adding that dispensing donuts or other unhealthy foods to the down-and-out does them no great disservice:

Millions of Americans are out of jobs, and some are inevitably relying on the occasional trip to the food bank. Should they be advised to stay away from food banks because they give out Velveeta, hot dogs, white bread, and (gasp!) canned vegetables -- food that doesn't meet some gourmet ideal?

Another conservative blogger, Ken Shepard, whose website NewsBusters is dedicated to exposing liberal media bias, derides Obama's pick to head the Center For Disease Control, Dr. Thomas Frieden, as a "nanny state activist" because he favors a "sin tax" on soda pop.

The Seattle Times, on the other hand, applauded the choice of Frieden, noting that he's won the admiration of the public-health community in his role as New York City's health commissioner "for tackling unhealthy habits behind diseases, including smoking, obesity and poor diet."

Shepard objects to Frieden's proposed penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugared beverages on the grounds that "it's designed to hurt. Its purpose is to discourage you from buying soda, on the grounds that soda, like smoking, is bad for you." He goes on:

Isn't soda a kind of food? Isn't food a good thing? And isn't it a matter of personal choice?

Well, actually, no, sometimes, and maybe, maybe not.

First, soda's not a food. It's a beverage with no redeeming nutritional value. An 8 ounce soda is the liquid equivalent of a candy bar, so chugging a 64 ounce Double Gulp Coke is comparable to eating 8 candy bars.

Second, yes, food can be a good thing--especially fresh, unprocessed plant-based foods that are full of fiber, nutrients and antioxidants.

Other foods, especially convenience foods and processed meats, are loaded with toxins, empty calories, excess sodium and other disease-inducing ingredients that contribute to the epidemic of ill health that afflicts so many Americans.

Third, is it really a matter of choice? I have several friends who claim they are addicted to soda and can't do without it. And they may be right. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner, has a new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite , which reveals how the food industry manipulates us to consume excess calories.

Kessler spent years researching the causes of our obesity epidemic and discovered that foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. As he told the Washington Post:

"Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology - what's going on in our body...The real question is what's going on in our brain."

You could argue that excess soda consumption is a choice, but if it is, it's a bad choice. So what, some folks say--it's a free country, and people are free to make bad choices. Meanwhile, these are the same people who oppose taxes on the grounds that it's "our" money, and
we know better than the government how best to spend it.

But in fact, we've made some astonishingly idiotic choices. We've been seeking satisfaction from things that haven't actually enhanced our lives: outsized houses with mortgages we couldn't pay; cars with lousy mileage whose tanks we can't afford to fill; dollar menus that are giving us all kinds of diseases our health care system's not equipped to treat; and so on. What's the difference between an overly bubbly housing market and sugary carbonated beverages? Both appeal to our infantile desire for instant gratification.

That's why Robert Frank believes that Americans stand to benefit from the reduced standard of living that seems inevitable. He takes issue with the doom-and-gloomers who peddle pessimism porn and Depression lust. Where they see "protracted misery," Frank sees a higher quality of life.

Yes, times are tough--and they're likely to get worse, but Frank's take is that things aren't as bad as they seem, despite our dire economic circumstances. In fact, we stand to gain by losing. Why? Because our "satisfaction depends more on relative consumption than absolute consumption".

In other words, we don't mind having to make do with less if our neighbors and coworkers are making do with less as well. It's the sense that other people are much better off than we are that breeds dissatisfaction, even if our own circumstances are fairly comfortable.

So a stimulus package that improves our collective well-being may be our best hope for happiness. But we've got some high hurdles to overcome--many of them self-imposed.

As New York City's new public health commissioner, Thomas Farley, pointed out in his book Prescription For A Healthy Nation, "about half of all deaths in the United States are caused by individual human behavior: too many of us smoke, drink alcohol, eat high-calorie and high-fat foods, don't get enough exercise, and use cars and guns to kill ourselves and each other. The major reason why we Americans die early is that we behave in an unhealthy way. It is what we do that makes us sick, not lack of access to medical care."

Farley's picking up right where Frieden left off, to the consternation of nanny state naysayers who don't want to pick up the tab for other folks' poor choices, or pay a 'sin tax' for their own. Hey, all you tea-baggers, I hate to break the news, but you're already paying. We all are.

Peak-Oil Prophet James Howard Kunstler on Food, Fuel and Why He Became an Almost Vegan

Painting by James Howard Kunstler

Originally published on AlterNet.

I grew up in Woodland Hills, Calif., a nominally pastoral, petrocentric Los Angeles suburb, so peak oil prognosticator James Howard Kunstler's dim view of our car-crazed culture really resonates with me.

Kunstler's relentless skewering of suburbia, and his penchant for apocalyptic predictions have landed him a reputation as a cranky Cassandra. But as Ben McGrath observed while strolling around Saratoga Springs with Kunstler for a recent New Yorker piece, "Far from the image of the stereotypical Chicken Little, he was more like an amiable town crier whom the citizenry regarded fondly, if a bit skeptically."

So, when a friend and I found ourselves headed to Kunstler's neck of the woods for a conference recently, we arranged to have dinner with Saratoga Springs' resident soothsayer. Contrary to his contrarian reputation, Kunstler proved to be an affable, upbeat guy.

We chatted about food, politics, urban planning, gardening and a dozen other topics, but I'm not much of a note-taker; I'd rather eat than tweet. So our dinner conversation was off the record, including, mercifully, his ribald remarks about Alice Waters and Martha Stewart, which decency should preclude me from even alluding to.

However, he graciously agreed to answer my questions via e-mail about his conversion from carnivore to (mostly) vegan and other foodish and fuelish topics.

KT: Let's get right to the meat of the matter--or, rather, the lack thereof. You used to enjoy eating "lots of meat, duck fat, butter by the firkin". What made you decide to go more or less vegan in recent months? Was it hard to make the transition to a plant-based diet?

JHK: It was as simple as a trip to the doctor's office. My cholesterol and blood pressure were too high. I had to take some radical action. I've enjoyed the challenge of cooking with a very different range of ingredients. But I like cooking and am pretty good at it -- I worked in many restaurant kitchens when I was a starving bohemian -- and I figured a lot of things out. For instance, that you can make stocks and sauces by braising onions and aromatics without oil or butter. The only thing I really miss is making really bravura dishes for company, like chicken pie with a butter-saturated crust, duck-and-sausage gumbo, brownies... You get the picture.... I'm still excited by the challenge of vegan (or nearly vegan -- I use skim milk) cookery. There are some excellent cookbooks out there, by the way, like Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, The Accidental Vegan by Devra Gartenstein, and the Candle Cafe Cookbook by Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza.

KT: A study's just come out showing that although the French spend two hours eating each day--roughly twice as long as we do--they're among the slimmest of the 18 nations in the study. Americans were the fattest, with more than one in three Americans qualifying as obese. How would you explain this phenomenon? What compels Americans to eat so many of our meals in our cars?

JHK: Americans eat so many meals in cars because 1.) the infrastructure of daily life is engineered for extreme car dependency, and 2.) because the paucity of decent quality public space and so-called "third places" (gathering places) for the working classes (and lower) -- and remember, it is the working classes and poor who are way disproportionately obese. The people portrayed in Vanity Fair Magazine are not fat. I suspect that the amount of time Americans spend in their cars is roughly proportionate to the amount of time French people spend at the table. Fast food is not a new phenomenon in the USA, however. Frances Trollope's sensational travel book of the 1830s, "The Domestic Manners of the Americans" dwells on the horrifying spectacle of our hotel dining rooms, where people bolted their food with disgusting manners. Americans have been in a tearing rush for 200 years.

KT: In The Long Emergency, published in 2005, you predicted with astounding accuracy how the sub-prime mortgage meltdown would unfold. Your latest novel, World Made By Hand, takes place in the near future after a massive flu outbreak that originated in Mexico. Um, what should we start worrying about next?

JHK: Worry about the "recovery" that never comes and the insidious collapse of our institutions and arrangements that will proceed from this. Worry about lost incomes and vocations that will never come back (e.g. marketing exec for Target, Inc.) and the need to find new ways to be useful to your fellow human beings (and incidentally perhaps earn a living). Worry about finding a community to live in that is cohesive enough to stave off anarchy at the local level. Worry about building the best garden you can and making good compost. Worry about how difficult it is to learn how to play a musical instrument at age 47.

KT: You recently wrote "there's no way we can continue the petro-agriculture system of farming and the Cheez Doodle and Pepsi Cola diet that it services. The public is absolutely zombified in the face of this problem -- perhaps a result of the diet itself." OK, so how will we stock our post-peak oil pantries? Do we really need to start hoarding rice and beans?

JHK: Get some kind of a hand-cranked home grain mill. Personally, I think it is indeed a good idea to lay in a supply of beans, lentils, rice, oats, other grains and don't forget salt, boullion (soups can sustain us with any number of ingredients), dried onion flakes, spices (chilies and curries especially). Our just-in-time, three-day's-worth-of-inventory supermarket system is very susceptible to disruption. And we're very far from establishing workable local food networks in this country. The fragility of Petro-Ag is being aggravated by the collapse of bank lending now. Farmers need borrowed money desperately. Capital is as important an "input" as methane-based fertilizers. I think we could see problems with food production and distribution anytime from here on.

KT: You're an avid gardener. Do you grow much of your own food? Do you worry that you'll have to guard your greens with a gun if our collapsing economy sends the mall rats outdoors to forage after the food courts run out of pretzel nuggets?

JHK: I don't grow any grains. I have successfully grown potatoes, but won't this year. (I'm renting my current house and its accompanying property.) This year I'll be planting mostly leafy greens (collards, kale, chard, lettuces plus some peppers and tomatoes (pure frivolity). It is not hard to imagine that food theft will become a problem. The trouble, though, is that the sort of people liable to do the thieving are exactly those with the poorest skills in cooking. You have to know what to do with kale to make it worth stealing. It may be more like kitchen theft: "...what's that you got on the stove, pal...?"

KT: You evidently enjoy cooking and entertaining. Who would your dream dinner guests be (limiting your guest list to those folks who are currently among the living)?

JHK: I have a pretty good revolving cast of characters among my friends locally who make regular visits to my table. This week, a farming couple who are renting 20 acres off a wealthy land-truster (and doing a great job of market gardening) are coming over, along with the Rolling Stone environmental reporter and his wife, who is writing a gardening book. I don't need no steenkin' outatown celebrities.

Let's Ask Marion: Did Oprah's KFC Giveaway Do Us Any Favors?


(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: Oprah's getting grilled over her KFC coupon giveaway for a free meal featuring two pieces of KFC's new, healthier grilled chicken (along with two carb-heavy side dishes and a biscuit.) From a purely nutritional perspective, there's no denying grilled is better than fried. But it's a safe bet that the folks who redeem this coupon will be washing that
chicken down with gallons of soda. And the meat still comes from factory farms, which Oprah very publicly deplored when she came out in support of Proposition 2.

You witnessed firsthand the appalling conditions to which factory farmed chickens are subjected when you served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. The environmental degradation that CAFOs cause is another significant problem, as are the lousy working conditions in the poultry processing plants.

Yet, as a nutritionist, you would presumably applaud any attempt by a high-profile figure such as Oprah to nudge folks in a healthier direction. How do you feel about the KFC/Oprah flap?

Dr. Nestle: Your question raises an important philosophical issue hotly debated in the nutrition community today: Is a better junk food a good choice? Some would say that small nutritional improvements multiplied over an entire population will make an important difference to health. This is the philosophy behind shaving milligrams of sugar off of kids' breakfast cereals or adding a gram of fiber here and there.

But others, and I count myself among them, worry that such small changes merely create a "health aura"--the illusion that anything eaten in the vicinity of something healthful is automatically healthful too.

Researchers demonstrate the power of the health aura to give people license to make less nutritious choices. Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell have shown that putting a low-fat label on a food product is all you have to do to get people to eat more calories from it than they would otherwise. And researchers have just shown that customers will order more French fries from a menu that lists a salad than they will from one that doesn't.

Those are examples of the health aura in action. If grilled chicken works for KFC as salads did for McDonald's, it will bring in new customers, at least temporarily. But health aura research predicts that having a healthier option at KFC will encourage most customers to order more of everything else.

My conclusion: the grilled chicken option is about marketing, not health. The proof? Oprah talked about it.

Where does that leave fast food restaurants? Isn't there anything they can do to promote the health of their customers? Indeed there is. Here are five simple suggestions: they could (1) make it easier and cheaper for customers to order smaller portions, (2) make healthy kids meals the default, (3) add vegetables (other than potatoes) to all of their meals, (4) provide fruit desserts, and (5) reduce the sugars and salt in everything they make.

What do you think the chances are that any fast food place will do these? Grilled chicken is easier and gets them off the hook, apparently.

Let's Ask Marion Nestle: Who Needs Bioterrorism When We've Got Manure Lagoons?

(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: Tom Philpott of Grist reported on Friday that a Chinese company called Cofco--a state-owned food-and-agribiz giant--is thinking of buying out U.S. owned Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, "at a significant premium to its share price."

Of course, that was before the shit hit the spam. Now, we're suddenly facing a swine flu outbreak, which Philpott aptly describes as "a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses.As Philpott subsequently reported on Saturday, the Mexican health agency IMSS suspects the outbreak may be linked to the clouds of flies that thrive in the manure lagoons of the Smithfield-owned industrial hog operations in Vera Cruz, where the swine flu was first detected.

With the World Health Organization warning of a prospective global pandemic, I'm not sure that Cofco is going to be so eager to acquire Smithfield. But supposing they were, do you think it's a good idea to have the largest industrial hog operation in the world run by the Chinese government?

Dr. Nestle: Whoa. Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat--globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant--microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

This time, it’s swine flu, a viral disease. I can’t tell from the reports whether a Smithfield CAFO in Mexico really is responsible for transmission of this new flu virus from pigs to people, but one thing is clear: Smithfield is in big trouble financially. This means it is for sale to the highest bidder. Our investment system is not in the business of making ethical or moral judgments about such things. Investors are unlikely to care who the highest bidder might be as long as the bid is high.

Why China might want to buy Smithfield is an entirely separate question. Its pork operations are still small relative to ours and maybe its pork producers want to learn how to do things bigger. Whatever they do, they will have to follow U.S. rules and regulations. And that is a problem. As the Pew Commission report made clear, we have laws on the books that govern production and emission standards in CAFOs; it’s just that nobody bothers to enforce them. Somebody needs to, whether the owners are Chinese or American. Otherwise, this won't be the last of the swine flu scares.

The Doctor With A Dirty Prescription To Purge Our Bodies, And Our Planet


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Enough with the Earth Day blah-blah-blah--until we start celebrating earth with a small "e" everyday, all the compact fluorescent light bulbs and reusable shopping bags and hybrid cars and stainless steel water bottles in the world won't cut it. We need to learn to love and cherish our dirt, because without healthy soil, we're toast. And that means weaning ourselves off our fossil-fueled food chain and supporting the farmers who grow their crops without pesticides and chemicals.

J. I. Rodale, the visionary whose publishing empire launched the organic movement in America back in the early forties, foresaw that industrialized agriculture would ultimately degrade both ourselves and our surroundings. His motto was simple: "healthy soil=healthy food=healthy people".

Rodale founded the Soil and Health Foundation in 1947 to encourage an alternative to industrial farming. Now called The Rodale Institute, this 333-acre research farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania has been demonstrating for decades how to nourish ourselves and steward the land by growing foods without petroluem-based by-products. Instead, their energy (i.e., calories) comes from the sun, and farmland that's naturally replenished with compost, manure, and cover crops--the way farmers grew food for centuries before the military-industrial complex started to steep our soil in oil.

Evidence is mounting that what agribusiness calls "conventional" agriculture is, in fact, a disastrous experiment that has failed to feed the world. We now know, too, that industrialized food production is a key culprit in the rising temperatures and reduced life spans that threaten our future.

So, half a century after J. I. Rodale founded the Rodale Institute, I asked Dr. Tim LaSalle, its current CEO, to talk about the Rodale Institute's mission to address these challenges by helping farmers to make the switch to sustainable agriculture.

KT: The Rodale Institute recently delivered a truckload of compost from your research farm in Pennsylvania to the front of the USDA's headquarters near the National Mall--literally helping to lay the ground for the "People's Garden".

But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reportedly shattered some Agribiz nerves along with the asphalt when he jackhammered that patch of pavement to make way for a productive--and certified organic--food garden. Vilsack's apparent endorsement of organic agriculture marks a departure from the USDA's long-standing reluctance to acknowledge the advantages of organic food production over "conventional" agriculture.

Why do you think the USDA's changing its tune now?

TS: Perhaps the Secretary sees the need for big changes in US agriculture for human and ecological health. He would be right to point to organic farming for all that it can do. Regenerative organic agriculture is the future-oriented, scientifically documented way to farm--a way that improves soil quality, cleans up watersheds, sequesters carbon in the soil to fight global warming, and produces food with greater nutrient density and enhanced nutrient profiles in vegetables, fruit and meat. Additionally, it out-produces conventional chemical-based farming in weather-stressed years.

Perhaps this is a timely recognition that the USDA runs the National Organic Program, the only third-party accredited, federally sanctioned approach to sustainable agriculture in the country. By their rules, organic farmers can't use most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, don't apply sludge to their soils, use genetically modified seeds, inject their cattle with rBGH and don't routinely give their livestock antibiotics.

This demonstration garden is a chance for the Secretary to highlight that the USDA program works, because organic farming works. It's keeping tons of agricultural chemicals out of waterways, pulling up to 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year from the atmosphere and keeping it in the ground (much more than conventional systems), and restoring biodiversity to farms across America. That's good farming and farming that is truly caring for human and ecological health at the same time.

KT: The so-called "Green Revolution" brought American-style industrial agriculture to developing nations such as Africa and India a few decades back, promising to solve chronic food shortages through the use of high-yield crops and chemicals. But, as NPR reported last week, this resource-intensive system of food production has ultimately proven catastrophic for India's farmers. Depleted water tables and exhausted soil have led to massive crop failures, driving nearly 200,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide since 1997, as the BBC recently reported.

And there was more bad news for biotech crops last week. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that "genetically engineered crops do little to improve yields and instead promote the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds that actually curb production." Germany, meanwhile, went so far as to ban a strain of genetically modified corn from Monsanto, declaring it "a danger to the environment."

You co-authored a report calling for an "organic green revolution" based on regenerative agriculture--i.e. farming methods that replenish the soil instead of depleting it, and draw energy from the sun rather than fossil fuels to grow food. The Rodale Institute has devoted more than half a century to studying the environmental and health benefits of this kind of agriculture, which can produce higher yields and more nutritious foods.

Your report asserts that an organic green revolution may, in fact, be "the only way we can solve the growing problem of hunger in developing countries."

So why do ostensibly well-intentioned individuals and institutions, such as Jeffrey Sachs and the Gates Foundation, continue to bet on biotech and insist that industrial agriculture offers the only viable solution to the global food crisis? Can organic agriculture truly feed the world when our population is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2040?

TL: The input-intensive, industrial model benefits from most of the research dollars and industry promotion. Its advocates have tremendous influence throughout government and business, so it's what sounds legitimate until we actually look at available peer-reviewed research, as well as successful organic operations and businesses throughout the world. Only truly sustainable farming maximizes on-farm, natural resources, cuts toxic damage to people and the environment, and reduces the overall degradation of soils and water while producing better food and livelihoods for the people involved.

Last year's UNEP report on food security in Africa--which of examined 286 projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 countries--found that when organic and near-organic practices were adopted with all their ecological benefits, crop yields also increased by more than 100 per cent from previous practices. The old "green revolution" failed in Africa because soils were so depleted already.

The principles of organic farming are known and well adapted to local conditions in India and Africa, where many family-owned farms using biodiverse farming systems achieve better water management, more nutritional output per acre, and more economic opportunity than conventional industrial agricultural production of commodity crops.

The Rodale Institute and our partners can show farmers anywhere how to convert some, or all, of their farm to organic management, achieving as much improvement in soil quality and resilience in the face of changing weather as they are willing to undertake. We can help them to find other farmers in their area who have kicked chemicals and fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, who raise their own fertility through special cover crops and who see more returns in productive capacity every year for their biological improvements.

KT: Industrial agriculture generates a significant portion of the world's greenhouse gases. The regenerative agriculture that Rodale's been pioneering does just the opposite, by pulling carbon out of the air and storing it in the soil.

So, making the switch from industrial to organic agriculture could have a profound impact on climate change. But how do you get people excited about something as abstract as carbon sequestration?

TL: Climate change is not abstract. Ice caps shrinking, the increase in crippling multi-year droughts, wholesale shifts in growing patterns, weather-induced expansion of disease-bearing insects, habitat loss for animals and plants--these are real.

Let us all get excited to know that the most significant single step you can take toward slowing global warming is to buy organic food and promote organic agriculture. It's where we can make the biggest difference the fastest--by locking more carbon in the soil through photosynthesis on more acres. Organic farming of crops and pasture can remove more than 7,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year from the atmosphere.

The movements to expand organic farming, and get serious and creative about fighting climate change, are overlapping and creating tremendous new opportunities. There's excitement because people are being empowered to do things that matter to them, their families, their communities and the communities impacted by how their food and fiber is grown. This new level of connectivity is electric, really, in waking up our consciousness in this time of economic disruption to how valuable clean water, healthy soil, pure air, whole food and cooperative communities can be. This investment promises the best returns we could ask for.

KT: The White House kitchen garden has generated a lot of enthusiasm and excitement--and the disapproval of Agribiz lobbyists who felt compelled to send Michelle Obama a letter accusing her of setting a bad example by attempting to grow food without benefit of pesticides and chemicals. What would you say in response?

TL: Most mothers try to give their children the most healthy and nutritious food they can. We applaud the First Lady for setting an example of a great way for many families to assure more of what they eat is free from contaminants.

That letter was a little preposterous to suggest that more pesticides are a good thing, and that people really shouldn't waste time growing food for themselves. The letter also shows we're at a tipping point in popular understanding of how our food should be produced. Our nation's dangerous experiment with fossil-fueled fertility and toxic-dependent pest management is coming to an end--that's clear.

People who are still invested in that approach, and who haven't opened their imagination and scientific study to what else is possible that is much better for them and the country, are understandably fearful--even when their system is destroying our soil and water, contributing to climate change and demanding more energy inputs than it produces.

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.

Let's Ask Marion: Where's The Outcry Over Our Sickening Food Supply?

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

Kat: The NY Times ran a story the other day exposing a stunning indifference on the part of public health officials in some states to outbreaks of life-threatening food-borne
illnesses. The article included some astounding statistics:

One-quarter of the nation's population is sickened every year by
contaminated food, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die...

Presumably, if terrorists were poisoning our food supply and killing 5,000 Americans annually we'd be up in arms about it--if not dropping bombs. Where's the outrage?

Dr. Nestle: Outrage? There really isn't much but much can't be expected, urgent as it
may be. This, as I discuss in early chapters of my book, Safe Food, has to do with the way humans perceive risk. As far
as I can tell from the evidence, we are hard wired to be most frightened of food dangers that seem foreign, alien, technological, and under someone else's control. That's why it's pretty easy to generate fear and outrage about genetically modified foods, bovine growth hormone, irradiation, and bisphenol A, for example, but much harder to get people worked up about
microbial illness.

The CDC says Americans experience 76 million episodes of food poisoning a year, along with those 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Pretty much everyone has experienced foodborne illness and most of us survive to tell the tale. Such things may be unpleasant--sometimes VERY unpleasant--but they are familiar. And we share some of the responsibility:
if only we had washed our hands, not eaten that egg salad, cooked foods to the right temperature, and so forth. Much as we might like to, we can't blame faceless corporations like Monsanto for what we shouldn't have eaten last night.

Even so, it is beyond me why people aren't taking to the streets to complain about the lack of reliable food safety oversight. We could do so much better a job of ensuring safe food if we had better rules in place and an agency required, willing, and able to enforce those rules. As I wrote
recently in the San Francisco Chronicle
, we have two sets of bills before Congress
now, some aimed at fixing the FDA and some aimed at fixing the system. I think the entire system needs a fix but I will gladly settle for fixing the FDA if that's the best we can get right now. But nothing will happen without enormous public pressure. Outrage! We need you now!

Young Agrarians: Digging The Future


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Our economic contractions have given birth to a new demographic--the "frugalistas." The rise of thrifty hipsters who get their thrills from no-frill living marks "a re-emergence of thrift as a value," according to the New York Times. From secondhand shops to homegrown crops, penny pinching's taken on a new luster.

Chasing dollars, on the other hand, appears to be passé, thanks to the fiascos that tanked the banks and tarnished Wall Street's image:

Today, the financial crisis and the economic downturn are likely to alter drastically the career paths of future years...

...And early indications suggest new career directions that are tethered less to the dream of an immediate six-figure paycheck on Wall Street than to the demands of a new public agenda to solve the nation's problems.

We need to "make banking boring again," as Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist, declared last week. His fellow columnist Frank Rich chimed in with a Sunday op-ed bemoaning the fact that our culture of greed siphoned off "gifted undergraduates who might otherwise have been scientists, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or inventors."

Or farmers, perhaps? We need to make growing food a prestigious profession again, as it was when our country was founded. Thomas Jefferson believed that "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens...As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else."

What Jefferson couldn't foresee is that we'd convert our farmers to fossil fuels. As Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy:

The number of farmers has fallen from half the American population to about 1 percent, and in essence those missing farmers have been replaced with oil. We might see fossil fuel as playing the same role that slaves played in early American agriculture--"a natural resource" that comes cheap.

Of course, that "cheap" energy doesn't seem like such a bargain if you factor in all the disease and pollution that can be traced to our current system of industrial agriculture. But guess what? It's not more efficient, either. As McKibben discovered:

According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. They use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health.

But in order to take the petroleum out of our food chain, we'll have to repopulate the farms. To switch to sustainable, small-scale agriculture will require millions of newly minted farmers. Can we accomplish such a seismic cultural shift? Young people are certainly showing a renewed interest in farming and gardening that bodes well. As Twilight Greenaway noted on Culinate last week:

If you're a young person eager to get into farming in the U.S. these days, you can choose between 68 different colleges and universities offering classes and degree programs in sustainable agriculture.

But, adds Greenaway, the young would-be farmer faces numerous obstacles, two of the greatest being low wages and the high cost of land. Greenhorns director Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the filmmaker/farmer who's out to recruit a new generation of farmers, told Greenaway:

We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm.

The current reality for young farmers is more uncertain, as von Tscharner Fleming points out:

...It's not by any means a predictable trajectory, like from high school to college to grad school to, say, medical school to internship to professional salary."

We are at a critical juncture, here, with profound implications for our future. Defenders of industrial agriculture would have you believe that advocates of small-scale farming are luddites who'd drag us back to an era of drudgery and deprivation. In fact, while sustainable agriculture is based on tried and tested methods of growing food and building soil, it welcomes ecologically savvy innovation. As Bill McKibben notes:

The new farming technologies are perhaps the most exciting new "inventions" of our age--more important, in the long run, than the iPod or maybe even the Internet.

Here in New York City, there's an unprecedented interest in urban agriculture, from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's Food In The Public Interest policy initiative to the Community Agriculture Club at New York University to Just Food's chicken-keeping workshops and petitions to bring back composting and legalize beekeeping. There are frequent permaculture workshops at community gardens, and field trips to farms.

This Thursday, April 16th, there's a Youth Forum & Expo at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, on Food, Farming and Active Living. Sponsored by the Baum Forum in collaboration with the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership, the Youth Forum & Expo is aimed at youths from ages 15 to 24 and is intended to "inspire young people to engage with the kaleidoscope of important issues surrounding food systems and healthy lifestyles, and to empower them with the tangible resources necessary to become active change agents in and around New York City."

And that's just a taste of the real food revolution that's brewing in New York City. Beyond our five boroughs, there are similar events and organizations in communities all over the country geared towards inspiring young people to become engaged in food production, as well as nationwide campaigns such as The Real Food Challenge.

The RFC, a network of college and university students, is campaigning to bring food that's local, fair, ecologically sound, and humane to their campus dining halls, while organizing and training the next generation of food justice activists. As the RFC's Northeast Regional Coordinator, Sam Lipschultz, told me recently:

We're helping to empower young people to take a stake in their food system and in their future by demanding that their schools divest from the dominant industrial food system that has been exploiting workers, communities, land and sea for centuries, and invest in a real food economy that is not just about local food, not just about organic food, but about a food economy that respects the dignity of all workers, that supports ecologically produced food, and that will nourish our communities for generations to come.

Move over, Masters of the Universe. Here come the Saviors of the Soil.

Nutritionism: The Numbers Game That Doesn't Add Up To Good Health

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

So Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus has signed on to flog frozen dinners for processed food giant ConAgra, who's shelling out an estimated $90-100 million dollars to "re-introduce" its Healthy Choice brand of convenience foods.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Or is there? The new campaign strives for Seinfeld-like irony by showing Louis-Dreyfus waffling about whether to endorse Healthy Choice. And Louis-Dreyfus should be ambivalent; after all, ConAgra has a pretty troubled track record on labor, food safety and environmental issues.

Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, has all the obligatory eco-chic credentials, from the solar powered Santa Barbara house featuring salvaged materials to her hybrid and biodiesel-fueled cars. She encourages everyone to use CFL bulbs and reusable shopping bags. And, as she told Shape magazine, whose April cover features her fabulously fit 48-year-old bod, Louis-Dreyfus is a big fan of organic and local food:

...I buy organic foods whenever they're available and shop at my local farmers' market whenever I can. There's something cozy about it. It's a very friendly environment; you get to know the farmers. Plus, it's better for the earth because the food is grown nearby, not flown in from some faraway place like South America."

I'm not out to mock Louis-Dreyfus's apparent hypocrisy, here. What really galls me about Healthy Choice is what it represents: the triumph of "nutritionism," that dubious dietary trend skewered by Michael Pollan in his bestseller In Defense of Food.

Nutritionism is the phenomenon that's given us all kinds of super-duper enhanced foods: probiotic yogurts; whole grain cookies that are high in fiber; orange juice with added calcium, and so on. It's a system of formulas, relying on various combinations of carbs, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients which--in the proper ratios--are supposed to be the key to good health.

And yet, all these numbers haven't added up to a healthier nation--on the contrary.

So, on the 100th anniversary of our nation's oldest nutrition program at Teachers College, Columbia University this past weekend, one of our foremost professors of nutrition, Joan Dye Gussow, stepped up to a podium to implore her fellow nutritionists to avoid what she called "the nutrient trap."

Gussow, who's taught nutritional ecology at Teachers College for nearly four decades,
recalled the gist of a conversation she'd had with a colleague back in 1969:

"You know, Ruthe, I was thinking about nutrition education; and I realized that it would take me about 20 minutes to teach ordinary people what they ought to eat if they wanted to be healthy. Less meat, less fat, lots of grains and fruits and vegetables, some dairy. The problem is that there are all those other things in the supermarket designed to seduce them."

As Gussow noted, the end of World War II brought a flood of processed foods derived from new and novel ingredients:

"...the push to invent new products to maintain the growth of the food industry and the emergence of television for promoting these tempting objects directly to the public, came together to create accelerating change in the food supply...

...if we had known in 1940 what we know today about degenerative diseases in relation to the macronutrient composition of the diet, it would have been relatively simple to teach people how to choose their diets wisely from the foods then available in the marketplace...

...Instead, those of us trying to apply nutrition so as to improve human well-being, have for years found ourselves standing ankle-deep in a flood of new products, desperately seeking to keep abreast of the latest news about the latest combination of ingredients that will make us and those we counsel chronically healthy.

Nutritionists in recent decades have focused on individual nutrients in their attempts to identify beneficial ingredients. But Gussow pointed out the folly of fixating on, say, beta carotene's potential to fight cancer when there are some 50 other carotenoids commonly found in fruits and vegetables. Since many of these carotenoids occur together, Gussow added, "It's impossible to say when you're looking at someone's diet, which one--or several--of them might be helping protect against cancer."

What we do know is that plant-based foods contain a wide range of micro and macro nutrients that foster good health. This is why Gussow and her fellow nutrition professor Marion Nestle--and Michael Pollan, who acknowledges his debt to both these women--are forever telling us to eat whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Packaged, processed "food-like substances" containing long lists of gobbledy-gook ingredients will never form the basis of a healthy diet, regardless of whether they've been "enhanced" with fiber, or omega 3 fatty acids, or antioxidants. As Gussow declared:

" is time for nutrition educators to start taking our own stand, insisting that whole foods not collections of nutrients must become the fundamental unit for eaters and educators as well as researchers.

In thinking how we might do that, I've personally had some success in suggesting that we use the term "indigenous" nutrients in our specifications which would mean they had to be there to start with and "nutrition" couldn't be achieved by just dumping appropriate quantities of the most popular nutrients into any old mix of corn, soy and sugar. But we need to go further than that. We definitely need to push for food, food that comes fresh into homes and institutions and is cooked so that it tastes like actual food. Simple, good tasting food that eaters sometimes have a chance to handle raw...

...As the devastating statistics indicate--the rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the forecasts that our children will have lives shorter than ours--we are threatening ours and our children's futures by how we feed them and allow them to be fed. We know just enough about the composition of food to know that, in seeking health, our only real choice is to eat actual traditional foods, not those collections of nutrients that the food industry will be happy to provide to us in a variety of forms, even as candy bars. And we know, therefore, that our most determined enemies in the attempt to improve diets will be the food companies that profit from selling all of us these unhealthy products.

ConAgra's Healthy Choice website boasts that its new "all natural" entrees are high in fiber, contain antioxidants such as lycopene and vitamins A and C, are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and free of preservatives or artificial flavors. To the average shopper, that all sounds reassuringly nutritious, no doubt.

And if you take a look at the nutritional information offered for each of Healthy Choice's new entrees, you'll see that the number of carbs, fats, etc. falls within the recommended range by our current nutritional standards. You'll also get a brief, vague description of each dish--for example, the Sweet Asian Potstickers: "Get 6 grams of fiber from this delectable vegetable dish served on a healthy bed of whole-grain rice and covered with a sweet Asian-style sauce."

Well, OK, but what are these Sweet Asian Potstickers actually made of? Who knows? The Healthy Choice website doesn't bother to list the actual ingredients. Because it's not really about the food--it's all about the nutrients. The truly healthy choice is real food, not a brand in a box.