Dear Diary: Our Experiments
Today is our day to Occupy Our Food Supply! Many inspiring events are taking place throughout the nation today to educate and promote food justice and food access to policymakers and others who make critical and life changing decisions about the way in which we grow, raise, prepare, preserve, vend, and consume food and beverages.
The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will improve federal farm bill programs that support local and regional farming and food systems. Local food systems build the economy by increasing income to farmers and creating jobs. Local food systems create long-lasting and meaningful connections between consumers and the land and people who grow their food. The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act will provide significant benefits to all Americans, including greater access to fruits and vegetables through critical support services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).
This Act currently has more than 65 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and eleven in the Senate, but more work is needed to ensure that key provisions in the Act become a permanent part of upcoming Farm Bill legislation.
How you can help:
1. Call your Representative today and ask him/her to co-sponsor the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act.
Find your Representative’s name and direct number by going to Congress.org and typing in your zip code. You can also call the Capitol Switchboard, provide your Representative’s name and be directly connected to their office: (202) 225-3121.
2. Give them the message:
I am a constituent calling to urge Senator/Congress(wo)man __________ to co-sponsor the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act. This legislation is about to be introduced in the House and Senate. It will help boost farm income, improve access to healthy foods, and secure funding for critically important programs like the Community Food Projects (CFP) Competitive Grant Program.
Can I count on Senator/Congress(wo)man_________ to be a co-sponsor?
If your Senator will co-sponsor or wants more information: Tell them to communicate with Senator Sherrod Brown’s office.
If your Representative will co-sponsor or wants more information: Tell them to communicate with Representative Chellie Pingree’s office.
Question: Does a gluten-free diet have benefits for someone who is not sensitive to gluten?
Answer: Probably Not
I first heard of Celiac disease from a good friend of mine. Emily’s been a confirmed Celiac sufferer since the age of 2, which means she predates the current gluten-free craze by well over a decade. For Emily, eating gluten-free isn’t trendy or optional; it’s a way of life and it’s a part of her identity. When I told her I was trying out a gluten-free diet for a week, she was mostly supportive, but also a little bit territorial; “all these suburban moms who are putting their kids on gluten-free diets…they don’t have to do that,” she told me. For people with Celiac disease, gluten destroys the lining of the small intestine, which can prevent vital nutrients from being absorbed. It also causes a number of unpleasant symptoms—from headaches, to lethargy, to diarrhea. So how has this pesky little protein, thought to be fairly harmless for about 99% of Americans, become so notorious? Why is there an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to its eradication?
According to recent hype, a gluten-free diet may have numerous health benefits for the general population. Among other things, sticking to a gluten-free lifestyle is said to contribute to weight loss, improved mood, increased energy, and may even alleviate conditions as diverse as autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia. These claims seem to be shaky at best, so I decided to investigate for myself. In addition to some online research, this meant going gluten-free for a week. (I later found out it takes a full 6 months for the body to rid itself of gluten completely.)
I couldn’t care less about using only gluten-free corn bread mix or avoiding salad dressings with gluten in them. What was a struggle for me was cutting out bread, pasta, cookies, beer, and did I mention bread? Over the past year or so I’ve become a somewhat competent amateur bread-baker, and I polish off several meals a week with a slice of toast. I’m a gluten-eating machine, so I hoped going cold turkey would produce some miraculous result. Perhaps I would suddenly have the urge to run 4 miles or write the next great American novel. Maybe my concentration would at least improve?
Unfortunately, my foray into gluten free-dom had little effect on my body, mind, and general sense of well-being. Before beginning, I checked my weight and did an inventory of how I was feeling both mentally and physically. At the end of the week, I repeated the process in an attempt to create some semblance of objectivity in my one-woman, highly unscientific study. I may have actually gained a pound. However, it did teach me a thing or two about how incredibly addicted I am to carbs, particularly wheat products.
As they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I may be stepping on a lot of toes here—I know there are many folks without Celiac disease who swear by the gluten-free lifestyle. I suspect that a gluten-free lifestyle really can improve one’s health if it also results in an overall reduction in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and other known health threats that are often associated with gluten-filled products. However, there is little definitive evidence about the health benefits of merely eliminating gluten, at least for those who do not suffer from gluten intolerance. Just as fat-free diets swept through in the 90s and low-carb diets ruled in the 2000s, is gluten-free just another “magic bullet” that we peg our nutritional hopes to, only to be disappointed? The jury is still technically out on this one, but for now, I’m stocking up on Girl Scout Cookies and taking my chances.
Gluten Sensitivity may not be limited to Celiac Disease: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/04/12/gluten.free.diet.improve/index.html
Should you go gluten-free? http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/g-free-diet
Sources for this blog post:
Question: What happens behind the scenes of a local Farm to Table restaurant?
Answer: Trial and error and a lot of research
In my last post I wrote about visiting The Piggery in Ithaca, NY, and how this local Farm to Table restaurant came to be. This week I’m writing about the part the customer doesn’t get to see: where the pigs live, what they eat, and what kind of red tape is involved in running a small butcher shop.
The pigs Heather and Brad (the owners) raise are all heritage breeds. When they first started out they decided to also raise some more ‘modern’ breeds, to see what was different. The modern breeds, being bred to be raised in large feed lots, inside, etc. Did not take well to pasture. They got sunburned, stayed really lean, the meat quality wasn’t as good, and they did not seem to be as intelligent and interactive as the heritage breeds.
Their pigs live in pasture (some open, some woods), and are moved daily to different plots of land. This is called Mob grazing, and is reputed to be better for the grass and better for the animal. Heather told me that their pigs responded better to this method than to traditional rotation grazing where they have more space but are moved less often. Now when they go out to move the pigs every day the pigs are happy and excited. In the past when they moved them less often, the move seemed to result in some orneriness and confusion.
When Heather and Brad went to choose feed for their animals they ran into a big issue with organic feed. When dairy farmers started converting their cows to organic feed (so they could produce organic milk), it sent the prices of organic, non-GMO corn and soy, soaring. The price of these grains quadrupled. So Heather and Brad cracked the books - books from the 1800’s that talked all about feed trials farmers used to do. Based on the information found there, and what they could get that was affordable, sustainable, and best for the pig, they decided to feed ‘small grains’ - non-GMO wheat, barley, triticale. Pigs are omnivores, so they also eat whey (the liquid you pour off from milk when you make cheese), and the occasional pumpkin. This diet results in a healthier pig, better tasting meat, and a business owner who is happy not to be supporting the corn or soy industries.
I was curious about how much red tape is involved for an individual, small farm to raise pigs, do their own processing, and bring them to market. The biggest challenge, Heather said, has to do with the USDA licensing for meat processing. You have to have one to wholesale. They use a USDA facility for slaughtering, but want to do their own butchering and processing (turning the meat into sausage, etc.). New York State is one of the few states that has a state license they can use to sell direct to the consumer, but they would need USDA certification to sell (for example) at the local co-op or grocery store. Between that and the challenges of meeting demand vs. working through the whole hog (see my previous post on this), the small hog farmer is pretty much limited to starting their own butcher shop or a meat CSA . Expansion into wholesale means bigger hoops to jump through, and a less sustainable model where supply and demand may not have as symbiotic of a relationship. To me this says that a larger business means a potentially less stable one.
Next up: Part III: What it takes to make all this work and the resource The Piggery couldn’t survive without.
Previous Posts on this Topic:
Agriculture and food systems: Cornell University Extension
Heritage breeds: Sustainable Table
Mob grazing: Mississippi State University Extension Newsletter
Kate Gardner, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist, food blogger and mythbuster specializing in whole foods for optimal health. She focuses her work on local food and sustainability, and she answers nutrition questions with a common sense approach that we like a whole lot...so much, in fact, we invited Kate to join the Digging Deep team. We're tickled Kate's agreed to sign on as our official "Resident Nutritionist". Kate will help answer our nutrition questions and offer regular Guest Expert posts on topics of interest we share. She also blogs daily on her site, Kate Gardner Nutrition.
Today, Kate's agreed to educate us on a question that comes up often: Sure, it's growth without pesticides but is organic food really more heathy for us? Turns out it may be...
Q: Does organic really have more nutritional benefits than conventional?
Answer: Yes, no or maybe so. The term ‘organic’ is associated with a variety of popular terms these days. The easiest way to answer this question is to address each food category separately. So, here we go!
1. Produce: Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or other chemical sprays. They haven’t been exposed to synthetic fertilizers, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or other ‘conventional’ farming methods. With regard to chemical sprays, research clearly indicates that organically grown plant foods (including grains and beans) have fewer pesticide residues. Is that healthier? Well, no one knows for sure. Even the pesticide residues of conventionally grown plants are well below the ‘safe for consumption’ EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards. However, one question still remains: do small amounts of pesticide residues accumulate in our bodies over time enough to have negative health consequences? Maybe – more research is needed.
Nutritionally, organic produce has been shown to have higher amounts of vitamin C, some minerals, and some antioxidants. However, the amounts are negligible, so the impact on your overall nutrition would be minimal. At this point, it’s safe to say that a higher nutrient content would not be a good reason to eat organic produce.
There’s on more issue to consider about organic produce: genetically modified (GM) foods. In theory, organic produce is not supposed to contain and GM pollen or seed. There’s little that famers can do to prevent GM organisms from infiltrating an organic crop. While a group of natural food producers began an effort to verify ‘non-GMO’ organic foods, there’s still no guarantee with all organic produce. Plus, the cost incurred by farmers that test crops and verify non-GMO status, is so high that it’s nearly impossible to expect small, local farmers to afford it.
Verdict: Some organic produce clearly contains lower levels of pesticide residues. If you’re interested in purchasing organic, non-GMO verified products, visit www.nongmoprojct.org.
2. Fish: Organic fish is a more difficult term to outline. Wild fish eat whatever they want, and given agricultural runoff and pollution in the world’s water, it’s impossible to know what wild fish have eaten. Farmed fish are still tricky to define. Theoretically, a fish could be termed organic if it was fed organic feed. However, carnivorous fish (i.e. salmon), are often farmed in netted areas, so some of their food just swims right in and becomes lunch. Defining plant-eating fish as organic is slightly easier because fish farms can more tightly control what feed is available.
Verdict: At this time, purchasing sustainably caught fish is probably a better bet than organic fish. Sustainably caught fish means that the species are not overfished or at risk of extinction. The debate deeming farmed fish ‘organic’ is complicated and the current guidelines are loosely defined. Check out www.seafoodwatch.org for more information about safe-to-eat fish.
3. Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy: Organic meat, poultry and dairy is defined as free of pesticides, synthetic growth hormone or antibiotics; in addition, the animals must be raised on organic, GMO-free feed. In the last couple years, regulations have become stricter on animals’ access to pasture. It used to be that animals merely needed ‘access to pasture’ to be called organic. These days, they must graze for at least 4 months out of the year and 30% of their diet must be from grazing.
Nutritionally speaking, organic animal products contain more omega-3 fatty acids (including CLA, a type of fatty acid) and more antioxidants; they are also lower in calories and fat. Animals raised organically have lower levels of IGF-1, a hormone associated with cancer.
As always though, the term ‘organic’ doesn’t encompass certain important aspects of animal farming. For instance, ‘organic meat’ does not indicate if the animals were slaughtered humanely, if they were uncomfortably confined during their 8 months indoors, or whether or not their feed is part of their natural diet (i.e. organic cows can be fed organic grain, even though their natural diet is grass).
Verdict: Choosing organic meat is the better choice than conventionally raised animals. For more information about meat and poultry claims, check out this guide from Mayo Clinic.
Is organic worth the extra cost? Maybe. Given your personal financial situation, there are some organic choices that are probably worth the cost. Check out page 4 of the WebMD article cited below to make more informed organic choices.
Overall Recommendations from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/organic-food-better
1. Non-GMO Organic: www.nongmoprojct.org
2. The Dirty Dozen (12 fruits and vegetables worth purchasing organic): http://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/dirty-dozen-foods
3. Organic Fish: www.seafoodwatch.org
4. Organic Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/free-range/MY01559
Sources for this blog post:
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/29/business/29instincts.html
USDA, Organic Aquaculture: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/aquaculture-and-soilless-farming/aquaculture/organic-aquaculture
Organic Trade Association: http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html
Question: How will the new EU-US organic trade deal impact us?
Answer: In a good way (we think)
In case you missed it, the United States and the European Union signed a landmark trade deal regarding organic food last week. Christine Bushway, the Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association is calling this agreement an “historic game changer” –a pretty big claim, if you ask me. Since the agreement has yet to go into effect, the impacts remain speculative, but here are a few things I found out when I looked into it:
The basics ~ Under the EU-US Organic Equivalence Cooperation Agreement, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and the European Union Organic Program will be considered equal starting June 1, 2012. This means that products that are certified organic through the EU Organic program will now be able to be marketed in the United States as “organic” – and vice versa. Before now, if an organic grower wanted to market their produce in both the EU and the US, they would have to be certified by both systems –which is often redundant and always costly. This important new deal will, as the agreement claims, “expanded market access, reduce duplicative requirements, and lower certification costs for the trade in organic products.”
The deal will only apply to products that originate, or are ultimately processed and packaged, in the European Union or the United States. It will not benefit organic growers in other countries that market their goods in either the EU or US. The two parties did agree, however, to future collaboration and cooperation regarding control and approval in third-party countries.
Most disparities in organic production standards between the regions are minor and will be disregarded for trade purposes. The major exception is antibiotic use. In the US, organic apple and pear farmers are permitted to use certain antibiotics to control a disease called fire blight. In Europe, animal farmers are required to use antibiotics to treat sick animals, whereas in the US, any animal treated with antibiotics is prohibited from being sold as organic. These standards will not change under this new agreement. All meat sold in the US will still have to be antibiotic free, as will all fruit sold in the EU.
What this means for farmers~ Both regions are experiencing growing demand for organics, which, when combined with less complicated export requirements, could make it significantly easier for farmers and manufacturers to find a high-value markets for their goods on either side of the Atlantic.
Expanded markets will hopefully make organic farming more profitable for some. In all likelihood, large farms that have a production scale amenable to transatlantic export will be the biggest beneficiaries. However, the U.S. hopes that the deal will also benefit smaller operations as well. “Larger operations can compete quite easily [already], but I think that this deal will make it easier for small and medium-sized organic producers to access new markets, because we are removing…barriers,” said Isi Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative.
Because expanded market access and reduced certification costs are likely to make organic farming more profitable, the new trade deal might provide incentives for conventional growers to switch to organic production. Fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers contaminating our air, ground, and water? Yes please.
What this means for consumers~ An exciting element of this trade agreement is its impact on selection and availability of organically produced food. Since Europe basically shares our growing season, it is not likely to make a huge difference for everyday fresh produce. However, for manufactured products that European countries specialize in, this could mean a real difference for US consumers – think olive oil, chocolate, and wine (oh, my!).
In addition to greater access and variety, consumers will also benefit from better knowledge about their food choices. The European products we are ingesting may already be produced organically, but are prohibited from being marketed as such due to current regulations. The agreement will hopefully allow us to make more informed decisions about our food choices.
Sources For This Blog Post
Coming Soon To Your Grocery Aisle: Organic Food From Europe (by Dan Charles for NPR’s food blog, The Salt, February 15, 2012)
EU, US Ink Organic Food Deal (AFP, February 15, 2012)
EU-US Sign Historic Organic Trade Agreement (Farm Futures, February 16, 2012)
Question: Is a CSA the place for my produce?
For those of you not already familiar, CSA boxes started popping up in America some thirty years ago with their first appearance in rural New England. With some 13,000 CSA farms operating in America since the last count by the USDA, they’ve since grown far more widespread. No longer do denizens of urban areas and exurbs have to make the binary choice between schlepping out to farmstands or meekly buying whatever’s on sale at the local groceries: nowadays, most cities and exurbs play host to multiple CSA organizations.
CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture, is propelled by the notion that people should have another choice for buying their comestibles than just the grocery store – and farmers, too, should have another outlet for selling. Though of course it makes little economic sense for farmers to run deliveries door-to-door like milkmen of old, what individual farmers and farm co-operatives can do is deliver bulk packages of groceries to groups of buyers through one centralized drop-off. Everybody wins in this scenario: the farmers get more dollar for their product than they would from high-overhead grocery stores, and buyers get easy access to fresher produce.
At least, that’s the party line. But there are, of course, hurdles. Buyers must be willing and able to receive their groceries at a set time and date, and there’s only limited scalability. What’s more, there’s next to no opportunity for customization – buyers all get the same thing: whatever the growers have managed to produce. This has always made me timid about CSAs – what if there’s too much in the box, or not enough? And what if I don’t like what I get? I cast those doubts aside for the first time in the interest of this investigation. Was I right do to so? Read on.
As the photo shows, my $13 for half a box (in my case, a paper bag) of fruits and veggies went a reasonably long way. Upon taking home my food from the local gym – my area’s point of exchange – I opened my package to find about 3/4 of a pound of crimini mushrooms, about a pound and change of Brussels sprouts, two onions, two grapefruits, three heads of broccoli, a bunch of kale, and a pound or so of sweet, half-stemmed carrots.
My reactions to this bounty, along the five categories of judgment I established at the beginning of this month-long adventure, were as follows:
Variety: Relatively good. I didn’t walk home with 15 pounds of Russet potatoes, which I’d sort of feared. I got green, leafy vegetables; root vegetables; mushrooms; some fruit – all in all, not a bad assortment. Still, I did think two grapefruits was a little light for a week’s worth of non-vegetal produce. Vegetables are much tougher to make a quick snack of than fruits, so I might have liked a more even split. All in all, though, I was pleased. 7/10.
Selection: Both good and bad. On the one hand, there’s the total lack of choice: by getting a CSA box, you’re by definition handing over your keys to the butler and telling him to use his best judgment, aren’t you? That said, what I ended up with isn’t so far from what I would have bought for myself – or rather, what the more virtuous version of me would have bought for myself. So I have to give a few points back. 4/10
Healthfulness: Darn good. Largely organic, and with a good assemblage of vitamins and minerals that provide lots of vitamins A, C, and K. . There’s an overabundance of green vegetables, though, so despite the nice fiber I’m getting, my color wheel – a clever, visual method for determining if you’re getting a good variety of nutrients – is a little lopsided. Still, at least I can be relatively secure that I’m not bombarding my liver with pesticides. 8/10
Tastiness: Very strong. The mushrooms were great – are mushrooms ever not? – and the Brussels sprouts were solid. The carrots were sweet, the broccoli was fresh and crunchy – especially my favorite (read: odd) part, the stems – and I even quite liked the kale. I never buy kale myself, because it’s too bitter to eat much of raw, and to cook it, you need to blanch it first in boiling water before you can even figure out what to do with it. But I cooked it in bacon fat. So of course I thought it was good. Still not gonna buy it myself, though. 10/10
Value for the Money: Excellent. I’ve spent so long shopping in conventional groceries, that I know that this bag would also cost about $13 in the store, too. The difference? This is local (a bit greener for the earth), demi-organic (I don’t know what is and what isn’t, which is frustrating… but I know that some is; or at least, that’s what we’re told), and I didn’t have to spend time going out to get it. For that, I’m happy.
There ends my assessment of my CSA box – or rather, there almost ends it. Because part of Value for the Money also includes the unmentionables, the undesirables: the inedibles. So how much is left of this CSA box at the end of the week? How much did I get that I didn’t want?
As you can see, not much. Just two grapefruits and two onions. This comes as a bit of a surprise, given that I love citrus and I tend to use onions in just about everything I cook. Of course, citrus isn’t that portable – yes, it’s got a skin, but it’s messy to open and eat, so it’s really more of an at-home snack for me than an on-the-go. Still, while I do have about a quarter of my bag left, both grapefruit and onions have quite a bit of shelf life, and I know that I’ll use them both soon. 9/10.
Overall score: 8/10. If you don’t mind ceding total grocery control, a CSA may be right for you – on most other notes, it hits.
Next week: the conventional grocery store.
Question: Is urban agriculture only possible on a (relatively) large scale?
Answer: Heck no!
I sometimes forget that I have more food-related information floating around in my head than the average person. Then, when someone looks at me cross-eyed when I reference Michael Pollan in casual conversation, I realize I need to back up.
Referencing urban agriculture was merely my most recent example of being too wonky. I realized the hard way that some people (most people, probably) have an incomplete view of what urban agriculture actually encompasses – maybe they’ve heard of Will Allen’s Growing Power farm in Milwaukee, or John Hantz’s ambitious plan to build on Detroit’s community gardening movement with the world’s largest urban farm, but that’s it.
Keep in mind that urban agriculture, at its most basic, is defined as “the growing, processing, and distributing of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities.” That can cover just about anything involving growing plants or raising animals in an urban area.
So, in an effort to make this topic a little clearer, I present to you my urban agriculture categories (with hometown examples):
- Individual gardening – this can range from a pot of herbs on a balcony, to a 4x6 garden plot out the back door, or a handful of chickens in a small coop. I’d say most of us amateur gardeners fall into this category – myself included, with my raised beds on a 50’x200’ lot. This year one of my goals is to work out chicken logistics. And yes, it’s legal, according to Pittsburgh’s new urban ag ordinance (most large cities either have similar ordinances or are working on crafting them).
- Community gardening – Traditionally, these gardens are collections of small plots where food is grown in individually-managed beds. In Pittsburgh, several of these community spaces have been run by neighbors or local non-profits, and have been in existence for many years. One of the most popular is adjacent to a beautiful old cemetery.
- Schoolyard education – building from the successful Edible Schoolyard example in California, several elementary schools in the city have interactive garden plots on their grounds. I can attest to their popularity – my son’s favorite class in second grade was ‘garden class.’
- Job training – from summer intern programs at urban farms to degrees in horticulture technology, urban agriculture often pairs underserved populations with job training opportunities. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild’s Bidwell Training Center was established post-urban renewal – your orchids may come from their greenhouses.
- Agent of change – Larimer is one of those mostly vacant, depopulated urban neighborhoods you sometimes hear about on the 11:00 news. Except it’s not. This small Pittsburgh neighborhood has built developed a green, sustainable community plan based on maximizing green assets. At the heart of this plan is the Green Up team, working with local partners and spearheading community-based urban farming. The newest neighborhood asset is the Environment and Energy Community Outreach building, set to open this month.
- Urban farm – what most people think of as urban agriculture, urban farms are usually non-profit or commercial ventures on large swaths of vacant land. The nearby Braddock Farms, run by Grow Pittsburgh on county-owned land, provides vegetables for residents at a seasonal farm stand as well as local restaurants. All in the shadow of a still-active steel mill.
- Traditional farm – perhaps the most rare form, land within the city limits that has always been farmed or zoned agricultural still exists. Wild Red’s Gardens (formerly Mildreds’ Daughters farm) is a five-acre farm that has been farmed continuously for over 80 years. It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Sources for this blog post:
Alison’s personal journey with food is a fascinating one: she was raised by a father, who despite growing up in an urban housing project north of Boston, retained and practiced the hunting and gathering skills that his Eastern European parents and grandfather taught him. Her family lived off the chickens, turkeys and rabbits her father raised for meat, sourced wild foods like mushrooms, fish, shellfish, and game, and grew produce in the backyard. Unlike many of us, she always knew where her food came from, and was often involved in the processing of and cooking of their family's food.
But as Alison points out, during the dead of winter in New England, it’s often necessary for even the most resourceful to forage in the aisles of the local grocery store. I shared tips for eating seasonally in this recent post, but I still wondered: what does someone so self-sufficient in foraging, growing, and preserving food prioritize when she’s shopping in a grocery store? Alison shares her insights below.
Shopping at a conventional grocery store in New England in the wintertime can be a depressing experience. It is also a part of my reality. While I rarely frequent the grocery during the growing season, come January I often find myself at my local Market Basket, feeling uninspired about my choices and wishing I had stored more homegrown onions and garlic.
To eat organic produce in New England in February often means that you’re footing the bill for transportation costs to bring food in from California. To eat regionally can often mean a sacrifice of sustainable growing methods.
Instead of feeling like it’s a "lose-lose” situation, arm yourself with knowledge and make the best choices that you can. Below is a list of 4 food categories that I regularly buy at the grocery store. All of these choices attempt to balance the environmental, health and social impacts of the food:
Where did it come from and how was it grown? Who was the farmer? Are the farmworkers treated fairly? Ultimately, what is in this food and how will that affect my body?
Buy in bulk and always keep in store. Combined with a pressure cooker at home, preparing dried beans is not as time consuming or involved as you probably think and they are extremely good for you. Buying dried is also not only cheaper, but the environmental impact far less when you deal with less packaging for a greater quantity of food.
Milk & Dairy:
Organic and usually Stonyfield. I try to buy as local as I can at Market Basket in Massachusetts. A helpful list of butter, milk and yogurt products that are bovine growth hormone free and available in most stores can be found on Sustainable Table’s website. [Editor’s note: We found through our research that Organic Valley farmers are not only organic, but also source their animal feed from non-Monsanto seeds.]
Sprouts & Greens:
I can typically find locally grown sprouts at just about any chain grocery store because they are so easy to grow (also really easy to grow at home!). Although shipped in from California, Olivia’s Organics provides an array of different greens in the wintertime and are often the only organic option for salad greens and spinach available at my local grocery store. Since the company is New England based, I feel even better about their product.
Fruits & Veggies:
This is always tough during the winter. There are certainly a lot more “do not's” than “dos” in this category for me. I refuse to purchase any conventionally grown berries (loaded with pesticides), or things like oranges and tomatoes (commonplace for the laborers growing these food to be treated inhumanely), and produce grown in countries whose labor and environmental laws either concern me or are unknown to me.
While I do try to save enough fresh vegetables and fruits to last me the winter, when my only option is the grocery store I try to buy food that can be grown locally, stores easily, and is ideally organically grown, like carrots, cabbage and onion. If I’m not sure where it came from, then it’s more likely to be regionally produced if it meets the first two criteria. For more information about what’s in season near your house, call your local farmers market association or check out Eat Well Guide’s seasonal food guide.
Question: Where should I buy groceries – specifically, my produce?
This question is one I’ve struggled with, and I don’t believe I’m alone. These days, we’re bombarded with so many messages about what we should and should not purchase that they’ve turned into buzzwords devoid of any meaning. Buy sustainable; buy organic; buy organically-grown-but-not-certified; buy local. Everyone talks about these words like they’re some magic key, or they hold all the answers, but to me, they just leave me with more questions If I only eat veggies grown within 100 miles from me, does that qualify me to be a locavore? Or do I have to limit my radius to 50 miles? 25? What if I get in the car for a road trip – is it eating local if I bring my veggies with me from home, or do I have to buy them when I get there? And how can I be green if my car is idling while I pull over to get food from a stall on the roadside?
With all these cluttered messages bombarding me – and, I assume, you – I’ve decided to run a test. For five weeks, I’ll be investigating where I really ought to be getting my fruits and veggies from, and I’ve decided to test five sources: community-supported agriculture, also known as CSA boxes; an everday, conventional grocery; that megalith of upscale yuppie shopping, Whole Foods; that megalith of low-cost yuppie shopping, Trader Joe’s; and finally, an area farmer’s market.
On my treks, I’ll be rating my purchases across a number of dimensions, including variety of what I get, selection, healthfulness, tastiness, and value for the money. In order to maintain a standard, I’m imposing a price cap of no more than $15 spent at each location. Why $15? Well, I’m a bachelor who eats some – though certainly not all – of my meals at home. 10 per week is probably about the right number. Of that, 3 or 4 are just pouring cereal into a bowl, so those hardly count – although, if my weekly shopping gives me access to bananas, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and the like, those fruits might go into and improve my meals on half-cocked mornings. Of course, I can’t blow all of my money on breakfast nibbles – I do entertain, after all, and if I can’t whip up a scrumptious stir-fry on a moment’s notice with what’s on hand for a fetching young member of the opposite sex (aaaaaand a quick shout-out here to my girlfriend…) that means what I’ve got isn’t cutting. So I’ll have to come home with a basket of goodies both nutritive and diverse. Besides, $15 for produce seems like a reasonable amount for an omnivorous single person’s weekly grocery budget, and as a young professional, it’s certainly important to me to know what I’m getting for money.
My quest, for the next five weeks, will be to answer this question of what fruit and vegetable outlet serves me best. Do a ten and a five – or less – buy a bountiful bevy of booty at one store and mere meager rations somewhere else? I want to get past perceptions of sticker price (a $3 artichoke?!) and find out the answer. I’ll also, in addition to all my taste-testing, recipe-making, and general fruit-and-vegetable nomming, investigating my quantities of leftovers from each purchase when a week is through. I’ll also try to answer why they’re there. Do I have so many leftovers because I got so much for my money? Or is it because I hated all of my the choices available to me and don’t want to eat any of them.
These questions matter to me, and I hope they matter to you, too. Stay tuned.
Q: Does lamb bacon exist?
A: Yes, and it somehow slipped by all of us.
We all know this country has gone crazy for bacon. Simply coo-coo. Earlier, two of my friends posted a Valentine's Day photo of "bacon roses" on Facebook. Jack in the Box will make you a bacon shake on request. I need not go on because you've all lived it and you know this is the tip of the pop culture iceberg made of bacon-wrapped frozen bacon ice-cream, glazed with bacon bourbon sauce, sprinkled with bacon salt.
We all think we know so much about bacon, meat of many uses. So color me shocked as I was perusing CUESA's recent farmer's market update and found this little tidbit:
A search unearthed this heartfelt discussion about whether lamb bacon is "real" bacon on BaconToday.com. I found this comment from reader imagol4 extremely helpful:
"Bacon is more a cut of meat and less a product of a particular animal...Bacon that comes from the belly of an animal is sometimes referred to as “Strip Bacon” due to the alternating stripes of meat and fat. You can get strip bacon from any animal that stores fat in the belly area like pigs and cows do. Wild Boar, Beef, Buffalo, Deer, Elk, Bear, Giraffe, Zebra, etc. Not that you would want to eat some of those…but you could get bacon from them. The taste Americans associate with bacon comes mainly from the curing process. Uncured bacon tastes considerably different, even when made with pork."
The USDA's factsheet on bacon is even more informative, noting that bacon has "an ancient history" - a bacon legacy, so to speak. Though the USDA defines bacon as "cured belly of a swine (hog) carcass," it then goes on to talk about poultry bacon, beef bacon, back bacon, Dixie bacon, and Bacon Arkansas. I feel pretty confident saying that lamb bacon counts.
How does lamb bacon relate to sustainability?
1) As Daniel Meyer points out in "Bacon 2.0" in the NY Times Diner's Journal:
"Lamb bacon...is made from the saddle of the animal, a section that is comprised of the highly coveted loin and the less coveted flaps of meat and fat that dangle from it on either side. Those flaps, Bryan explains, “look pretty unusable until you cut them off and realize they look a lot like pork belly.” If your butcher isn’t selling these parts of the saddle in some form...then he is likely throwing them away. They’re not hard to come by if you just ask." (my bold)
By eating delicious lamb bacon, you're eating more of the whole beast. Less goes to waste. It's funny: every time I see bacon mentioned these days I find myself wondering what's happened to the rest of the pig.
He also mentions that this is a "cheap cut," which makes it easier to pay less while buying better meat.
2) By mixing up the kinds of meat we eat, we can move farther from factory farming (assuming your lamb was raised well.) Things like lamb bacon are a good reminder that there's more diversity to food than what we often find on the supermarket shelves, and that by eating a variety foods we help sustain their existence. This is very important. Besides it being a whole web-of-life thing, can you imagine what would happen if all the pigs in the world suddenly gave way to a great plague? Hipsters would go insane.
I'm used to bacon tasting one way in particular. Like russet potatoes taste a certain way, and bologna sandwiches with mustard, and chocolate chip cookies. Familiar food is comforting and warming. It's a lot like love. There's nothing wrong with love except that it's not static. If you don't keep feeding it new delicious tidbits then it can go stale.
But everyone knows a relationship needs a little spice now and then. Diversity is good. Diversity is exciting. It's Valentine's Day. Lose your inhibitions!
Concerned about food waste? Learn about Ampleharvest.org
Video - make lamb bacon
Sources from this blog post
Bacon 2.0 by Daniel Meyer
Bacon photo credit: Jonathunder
- Sugar Monsters are Everywhere
- Couch Potato Culture
- Oh, Hello Reality. I Didn’t See You There.
- This Little Piggy Went to Market
- Guest Expert: Tovar Cerulli, author of "The Mindful Carnivore"
- Thinking Local, Acting Global: Coffee
- Taking a Peek Behind the Shell
- Welcome to the U.S., Beware the Food
- It Is a Desert, After All