Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog


It struck me as strange that Andrew Young agreed to do PR for Wal-Mart in the first place, but it’s even stranger to see the noted civil rights leader forced to resign as Wal-Mart’s “goodwill ambassador” for making racially insensitive remarks.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, the West Coast’s oldest and largest African-American newspaper, Young was asked whether Wal-Mart’s campaign to conquer urban markets might displace small mom-and-pop grocery stores:

"Well, I think they should…those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables…I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs; very few black people own these stores." - Chicago Tribune via AP

Young’s comments caused a furor, and rightly so, but they should also spark a debate about the fact that inner city communities lack access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. In neighborhoods with nothing but fast food joints and bodegas selling crappy convenience foods, it’s not uncommon to find folks who are morbidly obese and yet malnourished.

There’s a movement to bring more farmers’ markets to the inner city, and that’s a great start. Whether Wal-Mart would bring fresher, cheaper produce to these nutritionally challenged neighborhoods, I don’t know. And if they did, would it make up for all the negative consequences that come when you open up the Big Pandora’s Box?


We were at an upstate NY Hannaford yesterday stocking up on supermarket staples, and, just out of idle curiosity, Matt picked up a package of hot dogs to see what was in them. We’re big fans of franks, but we stick with Hawthorne Valley’s grass-fed, biodynamic hot dogs, or, in a pinch, Applegate Farms’ organic hot dogs.

Conventional hot dogs, the kind sold in supermarkets everywhere, contain all kinds of strange and scary by-products. Matt took a look at the list of ingredients and discovered that the very first one is something called “mechanically separated meat.” Having no idea what that might mean, we consulted Wikipedia:

Mechanically separated meat (MSM), also known as mechanically recovered meat (MRM) is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing beef, pork or chicken bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue…This allowed companies to cheaply bulk up or extend their products and in turn offer these products to the public for a lower price.

Questions arose in the 1980s as to the safety of mechanically separated meat…Concerns were brought about again when the BSE (Mad Cow Disease) epidemic was discovered in the United Kingdom in 1986. Since bits of the spinal cord (the part most likely to be carrying BSE) often got mixed in with the rest of the meat, products using mechanically separated meat taken from the bodies of bovines were at higher risk for transmitting BSE to humans…

By some strange coincidence, William Safire’s On Language column in today’s NY Times contains the following item:

MSM’s Last Stand

“Stay in the Mainstream” was the futile banner of Rockefeller-Scranton delegates at the 1964 G.O.P. convention that nominated Barry Goldwater. Mainstream meant “middle of the road, centrist, moderate” — not the “base” but where the swing voters were and where elections were won.

Along came Internet bloggers, at first treated with disdain in many bastions of journalism. As their influence grew, many of these pajama-clad Netizens found their necessary villain in a phrase popularized by Ralph Nader, who noted in 1985 that “corporate criminal activity has spilled onto the pages and screens of the mainstream media.”

A new sense of mainstream is “stodgy.” Internet initialese has taken over: mainstream media, object of much blogger scorn, is MSM.

Early use of those initials is in a 1984 U.S. Court of Appeals decision holding that finely ground bits of bone need not be cited on certain food labels. It stood for “mechanically separated meat,” all too close to what some bloggers have in mind for the MainStream Media.

Either way you look at it, MSM stands for an unappetizing hodgepodge of sub-standard scraps served up to unsuspecting consumers.


It’s the mecca of American fast food excess, and, thankfully, it doesn’t actually exist. But there’s no shortage of real life fast food chains encouraging consumers to ingest mass quantities of junk food. A NY Times article, “U.S. Restaurant Chains Find There Is No Too Much ,” describes Burger King’s new BK Stacker:

Weighing in at as much as 1,000 calories, 1,800 milligrams of sodium and a day and a half's worth of saturated fat, the BK Stackers are for people who are proud they are not eating healthy items. ''It's the flame-broiled meat lovers' burger, and it's here to stay -- no veggies allowed,'' reads one of the product's tag lines.

And Burger King’s not alone in trotting out ultra-artery clogging fare:

Denny's, too, has recently super-sized one of its most popular menu items. An ad campaign for its Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast, which consists of three strips of bacon, three sausage links, two eggs, hash browns and three pancakes, tells customers they should not have to choose between bacon and sausage. In one commercial, a man proudly announces: ''I'm going to eat too much, but I'm never going to pay too much.'' The Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast, which has 1,270 calories, 77 grams of fat and 2,510 milligrams of sodium, costs $5.99.

Never underestimate the American appetite for overindulgence.


Here’s a bird you can serve to a vegetarian! Meet Trombocini, the heirloom squash that thinks it’s a swan. Thanks to Trina from Silver Heights Farm, who sold me the seedling that produced this elegant creature. Trina offers an amazing array of heirloom seedlings every Wednesday at the Union Square Greenmarket.



During World War II, faced with the threat of food shortages, our government called on its citizens to plant “Victory Gardens.” Growing your own food was considered a civic duty, and some 20 million Americans got digging and managed to grow 40% of the produce consumed during that period.

The very notion of a food shortage sounds absurd in this era of overeating. But a gas shortage doesn’t seem so farfetched, does it? And a prolonged gas crisis could put a serious kink in our carbon-based food chain.

OK, I sound like a total crackpot, I know, but the fact is, our nation’s food supply is incredibly vulnerable to disruption because it relies so heavily on fossil fuels.

The Bush administration wouldn’t dream of asking us to scale back, to give anything up, to voluntarily constrain our carbon footprint. On the contrary, their mantra is consume, consume, consume. Conservation’s for commies.

The war in Iraq’s sure to drag on longer than World War II, but there’s no plan for victory, and no call to plant victory gardens, either. Why is the very notion of sustainability so subversive?


Whole Foods CEO John Mackey got into a sort of virtual food fight with author Michael Pollan a few months back over (among other things) just how much locally grown produce Whole Foods really offers its customers. Whole Foods typically features plenty of pretty placards and banners promoting local produce, while having very little locally grown produce actually available.

A series of letters was exchanged and while Mackey took issue with many of Pollan’s claims, he acknowledged that Pollan had a point and that Whole Foods could do better on the local front. To that end, Mackey announced a number of initiatives that Whole Foods would implement:

Whole Foods Market is changing the job responsibilities of our Regional Buyers to focus more on sourcing local products for their stores.

We have set up an annual budget of $10 million to promote local agriculture (especially animal agriculture) wherever we have stores through long-term loans at low rates of interest. Select Regional and Store Buyers will be empowered to extend these loans to help support smaller scale agricultural entrepreneurs. This money will be used to help local producers of grass fed beef, goat milk dairies, organic pasture based eggs, animal compassionate dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, etc. Some of the money will also be used to help support local vegetable farmers as well. It is Whole Foods Market's intention to help finance local agriculture all over the United States. We are going to "walk our talk" with financial support for local, small scale agriculture…

…Whole Foods Market is committed to supporting local farmers markets across the United States (and also in Canada and the U.K.). Beginning soon, many of our markets where we have stand-alone stores (no other retailers sharing our parking lots) will close off major sections of the parking lots on Sunday to provide a place for local farmers to sell their products directly to customers…

…Our Regional and Store Marketing Teams are now directly responsible for communicating and educating our customers about locally produced products. Some of our Marketers are already doing this, but company-wide we aren't doing nearly enough to tell the stories of our local producers. This is going to seriously improve over the next 12 to 24 months.

Well done! A textbook case of “conscious capitalism. ” I was gratified to see that the exchange between Pollan and Mackey had actually galvanized Whole Foods to make some real changes.

I get most of my produce from the Union Square Greenmarket, but I shop at Whole Foods several times a week for other staples. At the Union Square Whole Foods last Friday, I noticed a prominently placed blackboard listing an extensive selection of locally grown produce from all over the tri-state region: sugar plums, green beans, peaches, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, eggplant, basil, arugula, radicchio, radish, red Boston lettuce, cucumbers, fava beans, cranberry beans, and carrots.

Wow! Michael Pollan would be so pleased, I thought. Only problem was, I couldn’t actually locate 90% of the stuff listed on the board. I asked a couple of guys working in the produce department if they knew where the fava and cranberry beans were, and they seemed utterly baffled. I pointed to the blackboard and they just shrugged. “Haven’t got any,” was the reply. “You’re sold out?” I asked, to which one of them said something along the lines of “I don’t remember ever seeing them.”

And the local items they did offer were all conventionally grown, except the eggplant. (Admittedly, much of the produce at the Greenmarket isn’t organic, either; finding food that’s both local and organic remains a challenge.)

On Monday, the blackboard still listed all the phantom produce. Yesterday, the blackboard itself was gone. I asked what had happened to it, and whether it would be returning, but no one seemed to know anything about it.

I want to make it clear that I consider Whole Foods, on the whole, to be a force for good. John Mackey seems sincere and his company has accomplished some admirable things, no doubt about it. And the way Mackey handled Pollan’s criticism, by starting a dialogue and actually acknowledging room for improvement, is a marked contrast to GM’s snide, flippant dismissal of Thomas Friedman, who rightly took GM to task for its reprehensible gas guzzler rebate promotion recently.

But when I get to the checkout at my local Whole Foods, the entire right half of the scanner monitor is taken up by idyllic images of farmers toiling in the soil under banners proclaiming “NorthEast Grown,” and “Locally Grown.”

If this is going to be anything more than a hollow PR campaign, Whole Foods had better start actually offering more locally grown stuff, and if they can’t come through, they should shelve the pretend promotion till they’ve worked out the kinks and figured out how to feature more local food. In the meantime, you’ve got to wonder, Where’s the (local, grass-fed) Beef?


We had a fantastic turnout last night for the first meeting of the NY Eating Liberally chapter at Rudy’s. It was incredibly gratifying to have so many people show up, chow down, and share a truly free-ranging discussion about food and politics. A fine time was had by all: the foodies, the wonks, and the wonky foodies.

I know we’re on to something here, because the subject of our unsustainable food chain is popping up everywhere you look. Today’s LA Times quotes Michael Pollan, author of the best selling agricultural odyssey The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Americans are starting to understand "just how important the food issue is — how it is linked to energy and global warming (17% of our fossil fuel use goes to feeding ourselves); to environmental pollution (farming is the single biggest source of water pollution); health (obesity and diabetes turned attention to the way we produce food); world trade, the federal budget and the welfare of animals."

"Increasingly," Pollan adds, "people recognize that the industrial food system is failing us — it is not keeping us or our world healthy. And there are alternatives…at a time when world problems seem so dire and intractable, food represents one area where people feel they can actually make a difference, here and now…if you feel that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices — brutal factory farms or environmental pollution — you can withhold your support, and vote with your fork for a better alternative."

Agribusiness and Big Food are undermining our health and our environment, and when the film version of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation comes out this fall, people are going to freak out about the feces in our food chain.

They’ll vote with their forks, and they’ll vote Democratic, too. Because when it comes to the policies that affect our food supply, Republicans would rather feed corporate profits than heed the needs of the people and the planet.

To put it bluntly, any politician who thinks it’s OK for fast food chains to serve contaminated beef, or for factory farms to feed their cows chicken manure, is saying to the American people simply this: eat shit.

Now, I’m not the most PR-savvy person, but I don’t think that’s a winning message. Fast Food Nation hits the theaters in October. Voters go to the polls in November. The time for Eating Liberally is now!


Now that fries have regained their Gallic accent in congressional cafeterias, Stephen Colbert has commemorated the occasion with a customized bottle of Heinz ketchup.

Of course, what got lost in the whole “freedom fries” flap is the fact that French fries are actually Belgian. Belgium, France, what’s the difference? Who has time for such nitpicky nuance when we’re at war with Iran. I mean, Iraq. Whatever.




CNN’s Kitty Pilgrim reported last night that components for electronic voting machines are being routinely sold online. She cited as an example a brand new Diebold motherboard available on eBay, and added that even entire voting machines are for sale on occasion.

Thanks to voter watchdog groups like Open Voting Foundation and BlackBox Voting, there’s been plenty of consternation in the blogosphere over the revelation that Diebold’s machines can be hacked using only a screwdriver.

The MSM, on the other hand, seems curiously blasé about the threat these machines pose to the very foundation of our democracy. But Pilgrim has been on the trail of the paper-trail-free travesty that is electronic voting for months with her “Democracy at Risk” series.

So kudos to Kitty for dogging Diebold and the other companies that manufacture these machines. Because what good will all of our GOTV efforts do if easy-to-hack electronic voting machines are going to chew up our votes and not even poop out a paper trail?


House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi confessed yesterday that she’s a chocoholic.

“It’s a real obsession,” she told Deborah Solomon. “I can’t do without it.”

More shocking still, she admitted, she sometimes has ice cream for breakfast. I happen to think this is a good thing, having a leader who’s capable of thinking outside the cereal box.

No word on what her favorite flavor is, but you can bet it’s not any of the choices on offer from the Star Spangled Ice Cream company, founded by some entrepreneurial conservatives who couldn’t stomach the hippie politics of Ben & Jerry’s. Star Spangled’s flavors include Smaller Governmint, I Hate The French Vanilla, Nutty Environmentalist, Iraqi Road, and Gun Nut, among others.

What’s next? Salad dressing from Ron Silver, for wingnuts who don’t want to buy Newman’s Own? Because, you know, the profits go to all those icky do-goody causes.