Monday, March 30, 2009

When Even Your Weeds are Political

Big Ag leans on the first lady for making her very public garden organic. I got this letter, as well, in an email group. That's the power of one garden. But the real power is the many gardens we all start in response.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Get Funds for a Farm to School Lunch Program

Ever wish for local food for your kid's school lunch? How about just real food for your kid's school lunch? You have a chance to make that happen.

The current stimulus plan allows funding for reform of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization act. Congress is currently setting the funding for this. The funding can help get better foods for school lunch programs, perhaps even local food from area farms, a farm-to-school food program.

Read more to learn how to make this possible for your school.


To help, contact your U.S. senators and your congressional representative and ask them to seek $20 billion over five years for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization in this year's budget. The budget will be finalized this week.

When you contact them, make sure they know you are a constituent. This is very important as they tend to only respond to constituents. Specify how a farm to school program could benefit your school and why it is important. You can find their contact information at

Second, may schools have outsourced school lunch programs to save costs and many lack equipment in order to prepare better meals. This funding can be used to purchase new equipment like salad bars that make better choices available for kids who need them most.

The economic stimulus package provides $100 million for school food service equipment grants. Local school food authorities (SFAs) may competitively apply for National School Lunch Program equipment assistance grants. Priority will be given to SFAs in which at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

This will require state-level action. Find your contact here and ask this agency to request in their grant application to set aside some of these funds for Farm to School projects, which will help get fresh, local foods in your school.

Finally, you need to talk to your school and ask them to apply for this funding. Given the current state of things, not too many schools will ignore potential to get funding.

Links to Learn More About Stimulus Money, School Lunch, and Farm to School
USDA Memo on 2009 Equipment Assistance Grants for School Food Authorities
Obama Stimulus Targets Fresh, Local Food by Diane Conners
U.S. Congress
Food program highlights in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Many thanks for this information to Deb Eschmeyer, Kellogg Food & Society Policy Fellow, National Farm to School Network.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Love-Hate Thing with Kansas

I love my city. It happens, though, to be perched half in one state and half in another. It's just the right size of place to allow for some culture and diversity, with really laid back people, and, for me, a fantastic local food scene (read more about all the awards and accolades).

In 20 minutes or less, I can get to an open field. Which is nice for a former farm girl because all the cement closes in on me quick when I visit NY. The surrounding rural areas also make for a world-class supply of local food. Eggs, milk from farms in Missouri. Meat and vegetables from both sides. Even local grain is easy to come by.

Because my local food comes from two states, I worry about agriculture legislation for both. And that's where Kansas just doesn't shine.

Most recently, of course, the "no-rBGH" label made it through the House in Kansas and is off to Senate for vote. This would make Kansas one of the few states in our nation where consumers can't tell how their milk is produced even though the FDA has standards for labels. Daires that still use rBGH amount for only 15% of milk production. Companies like Dannon and Starbucks won't use milk with rBGH. Why, Kansas?

Then, there is this gem I somehow missed (Thanks, Ethicurean!). This is a quote from Senator Pat Roberts. from KANSAS and a Senior Member of the Senate Ag Committee:
“That small family farmer is about 5′2″…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly — he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab — and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.”
WTF? I mean, you've seen how hard small farmers work, right? Roberts is a SENIOR member nation's Senate Ag Committee. So, he's not just Kansas' problem. He's your problem too! I did NOT vote for this guy. Wow. Ethicurean did a lovely slide show on Flickr to show Sen. Roberts what small family farmers really look like. And, I suppose we all now know what Sen. Pat Roberts looks like. And what's with the height thing? Napolean complex, Mr. Roberts?

By the way, as just released today, Roberts is heading up opposition to the agriculture budget cuts (subsidy reform) proposed and proposed reopening the farm bill for revisions. Kit Bond (R-MO), Sam Brownback (R-KS) also signed the letter.

I realize that the whole of the food movement community is all aglow over the White House Garden. As well we should be. But I would not go so far as to believe the battle for better food is won because of a single garden on the White House Lawn, and food activists will have, as Alternet proclaims, nothing more to do than "sit down and eat."

No. Because until we clean the whole House and Senate (and all 50 state legislatures with their own ag committees) of backward ideas like the ones above, we still have work to do.

And, until EVERYONE in America has access to all that fresh food, we have work to do.

And, hell, with all those gardens being planted, we've got a lot of weeding to do, too.

And, we apparently still have to learn how to cook that food again. Real food doesn't come in boxes, it comes with roots and dirt attached.

It's not like you sit there and the food just jumps on the plate. We have a lot of work to do.

Starting with Kansas.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Good Old Salad Days: Why Vegetables Today Have Less Nutrition

I will confess I am a bit of a science geek. Not totally as I tend to skim all the statistical analysis parts where the nitty gritty details of the methodology are transcribed in excruciating detail (yawn). But I read enough of it to see if the b.s. detector goes off. I have a finely tuned b.s. detector.

So, when I tell you the broccoli you are eating is not what it used to be, well, it’s true. In fact, some 43 most commonly eaten vegetables have between six percent protein and up to 38 percent riboflavin amounts LESS than their 1950 counterparts. And less of other “good stuff” too.

So, are we going to have to eat more than five servings?

Well, most kids are not eating enough anyway, so this is really not good news. Read on.

The study, “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999,” was published by Donald R. Davis, PhD, FACN, Melvin D. Epp, PhD and Hugh D. Riordan, MD. The research team narrowed suspected causes for this drop in nutrition to a few variables.

One theory was the difference in the environment and soil in which the crops where raised. They concluded while this is plausible (and previously proven that organic methods produce vegetables with more nutrition) the difference between these two was not enough to account for the total difference in nutrition found.

So, it is not just about organic versus industrial growing methods.

It’s actually more about the type, or cultivars, grown. You see, in the last 50 years large-scale growers have been selecting for varieties that grow quickly, grow larger and have higher yield. That, in addition to ones that ship well. Nutrition suffers in the tradeoff for yield (i.e. profit).

It’s kind of like that whole triangle diagram from work, the one where the three points say, “fast, good, cheap” and you can only pick two for a realistic project. In this triangle, however, you can’t pick good and fast or good and cheap. Fast trumps flavor and nutrition, and the only goal the growers have is fast and cheap.

Think of each little head of broccoli like a closed loop with the same amount of nutrition no matter what, it just gets spread thinner when the plant gets bigger faster.

Proof. Slow food really is best. Which can leave a health-minded eater wondering, “Where do I get me some of that 1950 broccoli?”

Your back yard is a good place, just like the Obamas. Or your farmers market if you have the right farmers selling there. However, you will want to be sure that the varieties you are buying are heirlooms. Heirloom varieties by name must be at least 50 years old for the seed origin and must open pollinate. These old varieties of seed are the kinds of things you don’t see on store shelves. Many don’t ship well, or don’t have the high yield that commercial farms require. Heirloom tomatoes are probably the most familiar, sexy, tasty, ugly tomatoes full of flavor and character, and apparently, more nutrition.

Heirlooms are not just tomatoes, however. Take a scan through my favorite seed porn and you will get a glimpse of what you are missing. Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Romanesco, Cosmic Purple Carrots. And some old varieties you’ve probably not tried; Amaranth greens, Cardoon, Salsify to name a few.

If you’re still standing in the grocery store produce section, well, you’re missing out on more than just nutrition.

Flavor, variety, new tastes. And nutrients. It’s a lot to miss.

*If you’re curious as to why organic methods produce more nutrition, (fellow geek!) it is because the artificial inputs cause the crop to grow in size and weight more rapidly. The plant doesn’t have enough time to reach its nutrition potential before it gets big enough to get chopped off and shipped.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wow, Life Got Crazy

I am currently figuring out how to write a grant for a community project. I have these grand ideas on how big it could be and all these potential ways for it to grow. I forget sometimes that I need to crawl a bit first. Still, it's a great learning experience.

At the same time I am helping with an Urban Farm Tour event for this summer. Thus, I spend a lot more time hanging out in soup kitchens and libraries for these meetings. The urban farmers are inspiring. Some of the programs that they have started are just incredible, like the Refugee garden. It's been a pleasure to work with them.

For the first time, I am starting to feel a very deep sense of connectedness to my community. I am looking forward to the day when I can watch people actually gardening at a community site that I had a small part in helping establish. I hope the project will have some Food Justice elements, as well. There is so much potential.

I am sorry, though, this has all taken me a bit away from the blog and from visiting all of your sites. Kind of like the whole new mom days, I am struggling to figure out how all this new stuff is going to fit in my 24-hour day constraints. I'll get there.

Some good recipes to share soon. Yes, I have still been cooking at least!

I'm the Gatekeeper

No, not looking for the Keymaster. Just some good vegetables and spices, apparently. Today's NYT has a good review of the trend of getting back to the kitchen and just how much influence (up to 70% of all food choices, even while eating out) that this gatekeeper holds.

Plus, a quick quiz to find out just what kind of cook you are.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Garden Beginnings

There it is. Our whole garden. Right now, you can't tell the heirloom Romanesco broccoli from the Wild Rocket (arugula), the Siberian Red Kale from the Mesclun lettuces. It all looks pretty much like long-stem clover with only two leaves.

Honestly, I thought I'd killed the lot of it. All 250 would-be vegetables on our table. If they live. But the tiny seedlings proved more resilient than they look. Slowly, slowly, the delicate sprouts come up and begin to reach for the weak winter sun just outside the southern exposure window pane.

We planted all of these, the Kiddo and I, on her birthday. Even more reason to hope for them to thrive.

But if they do, where am I going to put 250 plants?

Ah, that's another problem for a much warmer spring day to come.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dr. Marion Nestle Interview on Food Safety

In the wake of the peanut butter recalls, and well, years of food safety issues, the Senate and House are reviewing bills that will strengthen our food safety laws. Opinions on the bills vary from the positive to fears of what the bills mean for small farmers.

While I plan on reading the actual legislation proposed, and more articles, I also decided to ask a real expert on the subject. Dr. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on the topic of how politics impacts our plates. Her groundbreaking book covers such topics as "Undermining Dietary Advice," exploitation of kids and schools, and the inner workings of food lobbies and their influence on government. I caught up with Dr. Nestle at a Food Policy conference in Kansas City.

BB: In your speech at the Kansas City Food Policy meeting, you mentioned that the issue of food safety is "less of an FDA issue than a Congress issue." Given the poor track record of the FDA and USDA on food safety, can you explain your comment?

Dr. Nestle: Sure. The FDA and USDA are agencies of the executive branch of government. They do what Congress tells them to with the resources Congress gives them. If Congress wanted us to have safe food, our legislators would pass laws requiring all food producers to develop science-based food safety plans and to follow them carefully, or face dire consequences from a diligent oversight agency. At the moment, Congress only requires those kinds of plans for a handful of foods and does not give the FDA anywhere near enough funds to enforce food safety rules.

BB: In the same speech, you also connected food safety issues to deregulation. The same deregulation that sent the economy into a tail spin. How are the two connected?

Dr. Nestle: Congress backed away from the FDA in the 1990s for attempting to regulate cigarettes and dietary supplements as drugs. It required the agency to do more than one hundred new things without giving it the resources to do so. The FDA has too few scientists and inspectors on staff to do its job. That’s deregulation for you.

BB: On March 3, the Senate introduced the Bill S. 510, or the "FDA Food Safety Modernization Act." The bill, and House Bill H.R. 875, includes provisions such as mandatory food recalls. What are your thoughts on the bill? Will it be effective?

Dr. Nestle: There are two competing bills before Congress, one to fix the FDA by increasing its resources and the other to create a single food safety agency. Both ask for recall authority, which the FDA currently does not have. I much prefer the single agency approach. This would combine the food safety functions of USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else). The present divided system behaves as if these foods were unrelated, even though the spinach, tomato, and peanut butter recalls proved otherwise. These are plant crops contaminated by animal wastes.

BB: You shop at the greenmarket and support local food. Many small farmers and food producers are worried about the bill and the regulations making it difficult for small farms and local producers to continue. Will the "one-size-fits-all" approach become a barrier to farmers markets and CSAs?

Dr. Nestle: Let’s hope that whatever Congress does, its bills make allowances for small scale food production.

BB: What can each of us, as citizens and consumers, do to ensure we have safe food to eat and can access fresh, local foods?

Dr. Nestle: Cooking helps. Most microorganisms are killed promptly by heat.

BB: What are the positives and/or negatives you see with the new Obama administration and food policy?

Dr. Nestle: It’s way too early to tell what the Obama administration will do. I tend not to pay any attention to the rhetoric. I want to let the actions speak for themselves.

BB: No one seems to like hearing about food recalls and safety issues. Do you experience resistance to your message? Do you ever get tired of fighting the battle for safe food?

Dr. Nestle: Research on risk communication makes it clear that most people are less troubled by microbial food contamination than they are about pesticides, irradiation, or genetic modification. It is understandable to be more worried about things you can’t see or control than those you can. I get plenty of feedback that my messages—and those of many others involved in these same issues—are being heard. I think it’s an exciting time to be involved in these issues. It’s a time when there is a real opportunity for progress.

Helpful Links:
The GovTrack site will allow you to subscribe to the following bills status and to read the full text of the proposed legislation:
House Bill H.R. 875

Senate Bill S. 510
Food Politics by Dr. Marion Nestle

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

Michelle Obama, read the full post at Eating Liberally (good read):

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.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


I am waiting to get sick. Every time the kiddo gets a bug from school, I can count on it, too. Because, you see, I don't just get coughed on. No. I get the rollover in the night, power blast of germs not on my nose, but up my nose. All night long. It's one of those mom fringe benefits along with being up every two hours and getting very far behind at work.

Still, the little ones are so sad, so tired, and such a bundle of need, there's no way you could turn your back on them — even when they are coughing. On your face.

So, I wait. Get as much as I can done. And batten down the hatches.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

rBGH Battle Still On in Some States

The state-by-state attempt to change milk labels is still on, at least in states like Kansas. It's frustrating when most other countries such as the UK have banned the use of the drug due to concerns over its affects on both human and animal health.

If you are still wondering, "what's the big deal over this?" then a visit to the site Your Milk on Drugs will at least give the side of the story for those in favor of clear labels explaining if the milk was produced with rBGH or not.

Want to take action? Tell Kansas to keep consumers informed about rBGH on milk labels.