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Whole Grains: Putting White Flour Power On The Run?

2009-03-31-WholeGrains.jpg

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

So the First Family's pulled up a patch of green turf and rolled out the red carpet for that dynamic dietary duo, fruits and veggies. Finally, fresh produce has a friend in the White House (except for beets, which, sad to say, the President declines to eat.)

But where is the Beltway ballyhoo for the third crucial ally in the Axis of Eat Well? It takes three pillars to form the plant-based diet we're supposed to adopt if we want to save ourselves and the planet: fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. With all the publicity that the Grow Your Own movement has been getting, it's high time to shine a light on America's Grainy Day Woman, Lorna Sass, whose last book, Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way won a well-deserved James Beard award.

Sass's new book, Whole Grains For Busy People, may be an innocently titled paperback with a cheery, wholesome-looking cover, but don't be fooled; the recipes inside are out to subvert the way Americans eat.

And not a minute too soon, because while "white bread" has become synonymous with "bland," it's really not so benign as that; eating all those processed foods high in refined flour contributes to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

The thing is, though, we've all grown so accustomed to white flour (and white rice) that many of us don't know how to bake with whole wheat flour and have no clue what to do with whole grains like rye, barley, corn meal, and spelt. We think millet is for the birds, and associate brown rice with seitan worshippers.

Sass comes to the rescue with Whole Grains For Busy People, making it easy for folks to prepare quick, simple meals built around whole grains that you can cook up in half an hour. These grains may be foreign to your pantry, but they're the staples that have sustained mankind for centuries. And they offer a wide range of tastes and textures infinitely more interesting than their pale, over processed cousins.

As Sass explains, refined flour only became the norm after manufacturers discovered that flour would keep indefinitely if you removed the bran and germ. Unfortunately, this process also removes "50 to 90 percent of the nutrients and phytochemicals" contained in whole grains. Whose shelf life would you rather shorten--your own, or your flour's? Whole grains are not only high in nutrients, antioxidants and fiber, but because our bodies absorb them more slowly than refined grains, your body is spared the kind of spikes in sugar and insulin that can lead to diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Whole Grains For Busy People is, like all of Sass's books, crammed with useful information and tips as well as easy-to-make recipes. For all those folks who've tried whole wheat pastas and pastries in the past and found their texture lacking, Sass highlights culinary breakthroughs such as King Arthur's white whole wheat flour, and provides a chart rating the new whole grain pastas that constitute a dramatic improvement over the "gummy, gritty or mushy" varieties you may have encountered in the past.

Sass is especially enamored of the brown rice pastas that have been a boon to the gluten-intolerant. Adapting a technique from Cook's Illustrated called "skillet pasta," she offers a whole series of super quick dishes featuring brown rice pastas that can be cooked in a single skillet along with their sauce, eliminating the need to boil a pot of water and pre-cook the pasta.

Many of the recipes featured in Whole Grains For Busy People are clever whole-grain enhanced variations of familiar dishes. The quinoa-creamed spinach, for example, achieves its cream-free creaminess through the use of quinoa flakes--a product I had spotted at my local health food store but had no clue what to do with till I found Sass's recipe.

Sass includes a number of vegetarian dishes, and even the meat, poultry and fish-based recipes play down the protein in favor of grains and veggies. Plus, Sass offers plenty of variations that make it easy to adapt her recipes to suit your own dietary preferences, whether you're vegan, vegetarian, or "flexitarian."

You may know that "quinoa" is pronounced "KEEN-wah," not "Kwi-NO-ah," but do you know what to do with it? Whole Grains For Busy People offers ten different dishes featuring quinoa, from soups and stews to a stir-fry, a paella, and even a pudding.

You know you're supposed to be eating more whole grains. You hear it from everyone: Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman--and, of course, the USDA, which tells us to eat more whole grains even though its agricultural policies continue to encourage over processed, highly refined foods (how passive aggressive can you get?)

Whole Grains For Busy People takes obscure, fringe-y grains like quinoa and farro--along with neglected pre-agribiz staples like barley and buckwheat--and incorporates them into classic comfort foods using simple ingredients that are widely available. It's a stealthy way to bring these whole grains back from the culinary wilderness where they've languished too long. Here's to the end of white flour power, and a resurgence in fiber--whether it's moral or dietary. We could use more of both, these days.

Fedco Seeds: The David To Monsanto's Goliath

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Seed money for start-ups may be evaporating faster than California's dwindling reservoirs, but this rocky economy's proving to be fertile ground for the seed industry. Cash-strapped consumers, scared by the specter of an empty fridge, are investing in the ultimate low-tech, high-yield start-up: the kitchen garden. The National Gardening Association estimates that some 43 million Americans are gearing up to grow at least some of their own food this spring.

And no wonder. As Roger Doiron, founder of Maine-based Kitchen Gardeners International, has documented, a few dozen seed packets costing $130 can yield more than two thousand dollars worth of produce over the course of the growing season. "We have a fabulous opportunity," C.R. Lawn, the founder of another Maine mainstay, Fedco Seeds, told an audience at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's Farming For The Future conference last month. "The challenge is on us to come through." Lawn, an endearingly shaggy character who looks a bit like a pale Papa Smurf, rocked gently from side to side as he spoke of the challenges that his company faced following the acquisition of Fedco's largest seed supplier, Seminis, by monolithic Monsanto back in 2005.

Like many a diehard Fedco fan, I eagerly await their famous catalog each spring in anticipation of the wonderful, whimsical illustrations and witty seed descriptions sprinkled with fascinating tidbits of trivia and gratuitous political commentary. "We wish we were writing for the New Yorker," Lawn confessed wistfully.

But when I opened my 2006 Fedco catalog, anticipating a breezy excursion through the season's seed offerings, I was dismayed to find out about Fedco's dilemma. I was vaguely aware, at the time, of Monsanto's house of horrors: Agent Orange, DDT, rBST,Roundup, and so on. But I hadn't realized that they were swallowing up smaller seed companies in their relentless drive to dominate the world's food supply. In January of 2006, I wrote:

Does it matter if most of our vegetables are brought to us courtesy of Monsanto and Dupont? I'll admit I don't think about this issue a whole lot myself. But when I kicked back with a stack of seed catalogs on Sunday to find out what's new and novel in the edible landscape, I opened up the Fedco Co-op Seed Packers catalog and found a can of worms.

Fedco sells the finest hybrid and heirloom vegetable seed to farmers and home gardeners alike, offering a wide range of certified organic cultivars and regional heirloom varieties at terrific prices. A cooperative venture committed to fostering sustainable agriculture, Fedco conducts extensive trials of its seeds in order to select the best tasting, hardiest varieties with the highest germination rates.

So when Fedco's largest seed supplier, a company called Seminis, got snapped up by Monsanto last year, Fedco was faced with a major ethical dilemma. Monsanto, king of the genetically engineered crop crowd, is anathema to the folks at Fedco, but Seminis has long provided Fedco with many of its most popular vegetable varieties, including my all-time favorite cherry tomato, a super sweet golden hybrid called Sunsugar.

Fedco, being the cooperative that it is, polled its customers: should they drop the Monsanto/Seminis seed altogether, phase it out gradually, or keep it? The majority voted to drop Monsanto like a genetically modified hot potato.

As Lawn told us at the PASA conference, Fedco has been scrambling ever since to find replacement seed varieties for the ones its customers have come to rely on. It's been a struggle, Lawn admitted, but he has no doubt they made the right decision, and sales have doubled over the past two years.

Monsanto's ongoing campaign to control our food chain's been well documented in a series of books, documentaries, and articles in recent years, but the vast majority of American consumers remain blissfully unaware of all the behind-the-scenes machinations Monsanto has employed in its quest to persecute--and, presumably, eliminate--the small, independent farmers who decline to buy Monsanto's patented, genetically modified seeds, preferring instead to grow seed varieties that have been painstakingly bred for superior flavor and texture and, in many cases, passed down through generations.

These are the heirloom varieties that have been threatened with extinction since the advent of industrial agriculture, because though they may have the best flavor, they don't ship well, or their appearance is too irregular for customers programmed to demand uniformly round tomatoes or perfect apples.

C. R. Lawn has been on the frontlines of the agri-culture wars since he founded Fedco Seeds in 1978, so the 2006 catalog was full of quotes from customers cheering his company's decision not to do business with Monsanto:

"You don't need to sell your soul for a Sunsugar...We'll survive on the sweet tastiness of the moral high ground."

But Fedco's not only surviving; it's thriving. Three years later, the 2009 catalog includes a brand new open-pollinated cherry tomato Fedco's introduced named "WOW," because "WOW! has been the first word out of everyone who has ever plopped one in his or her mouth." Sadly, I missed the boat on this reportedly remarkable new variety because, well, I was too busy attending sustainable ag conferences and the like to crack open my seed catalogs.

I'm sorry I won't be harvesting any "WOWs" this year, but thankful I had the opportunity to hear the iconic, ironic C. R. Lawn speak. With the impending publication of Robyn O'Brien's The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making us Sick -- And What We Can Do About It, and the June release of the documentary Food, Inc., mainstream America's about to get a wake-up call on just how asleep at the wheel our government's been in allowing Monsanto to monopolize our country's crops. Here's to C. R. Lawn and his colleagues at Fedco for weathering the Seminis/Monsanto storm and emerging triumphant. Thanks to these savers of seeds, our nation's rich agricultural heritage lives on.

Farming on Fifth Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obamas Heed The Grassroots Plea To Give Peas A Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted from The Green Fork

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

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

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

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

Dry Ingredients:

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

Wet Ingredients:

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

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

To simmer seitan:

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

For the glaze:

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

Instructions:

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

Slice thin, and serve with cabbage and potatoes.

Why Ridicule Risotto?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I prefer to call them "the broke."

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

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

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

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

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

To which Salon's Alex Koppelman responded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agribiz Biostitute Declares Fresh Healthy Food A Menace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Editor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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