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The New York Times Magazine “Food & Drink Issue” has arrived! [ht:av].

The entire magazine is dedicated to food (even the travel section!). It features many interesting sections, such a Food Policy section that deals with eating sustainable fish (try Bristol Bay Alaskan Salmon), prospects for eating algae, and the adequateness of food stamps. Michael Pollan answers reader’s questions, and in doing so gives his thoughtful views on food innovations, the role of government, and how to create a healthy and sustainable food economy.

Importantly, this issue of the magazine grapples with the ethical, philosophical, technological, economic, political, and cultural aspects of food production and consumption. Only through this type of conversation will our society succeed in building a healthy, sustainable, and just food system.

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You Are What you Eat

Photographer Mark Menjivar (h/t kms) has a great photo gallery exploring food issues at the most personal level- a person’s refrigerator. Mark writes,

An intense curiosity and questions about stewardship led me to begin to make these unconventional portraits. A refrigerator is both a private and a shared space.  One person likened the question, “May I photograph the interior of your fridge?” to asking someone to pose nude for the camera.

Each fridge is photographed “as is”.  Nothing added, nothing taken away.

These are portraits of the rich and the poor.  Vegetarians, Republicans, members of the NRA, those left out, the under appreciated, former soldiers in Hitler’s SS, dreamers, and so much more.  We never know the full story of one’s life.

My hope is that we will think deeply about how we care.

How we care for our bodies. How we care for others. And how we care for the land.

Go click through- among others, he features competitive food eaters, a single person on a low fixed income, and a bar tender.

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Not just rotten eggs

Robert Reich thinks the recent recall of hundreds of millions of salmonella infected eggs is just the result of some “rotten apples” in the industry.  It’s the same argument we heard after the Massey Energy mine explosion, the BP oil spill, and the Wall Street banks bringing on the financial crisis. Every week, more stories emerge of cases where companies are not looking out for their workers, customers, or their surrounding communities.

As long as thinking remains contained within this narrow  “rotten apple” framework, the systemic problem will never be addressed. Hyman Minsky looked at the financial system through a different lens, and realized that as the markets became more complex, a financial crisis became inevitable. His theory proved remarkably accurate in 2007 (although it still has not receive much attention within the economics profession). If we can also overcome the narrowing “rotten apple” thinking for non-financial markets, we might actually be able to build an economy that works for consumers, workers, and the environment.

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An Op-Ed yesterday by Stephen Budiansky in the NYT argues that the local food movement is not necessarily as green as it seems:

Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce…

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system…

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far…

Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacture fertilizer…

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy.

Budiansky argues that there is nothing good per se about locally grown food. I really don’t know where I stand on this. I’m also unsure whether the industrial farming yields cannot be matched by best-practice organic techniques. It is certain that fertilizer and pesticides have a range of environmental costs. Either way, I think Budiansky has a point. The broader abstraction from this story is that consumers are easily fooled by green buzzwords. Redefining values on positive, reality-based terms is certainly the way forward. Anna Lappe provides some in Grist.

When we talk about our ecological food values, we’re focusing on the importance of interconnections and of the complexity of a truly sustainable food system. As agroecological farmers like to remind us, sustainable food is not just defined by the absence of chemicals — it’s about the creation of a healthy ecosystem, especially healthy, carbon-rich soils.

As for the locally-grown movement,

The answer, Kim explained, has to do with values — community values. “Our producers see themselves as responsible for the health and well-being of the consumers. And the consumers, they know the farmers and see very clearly how they’re responsible for their well-being,” he said.

I think there’s real value in people being closer to what they eat for this reason. Rather than being alienated from food that we buy in a grocery store, we can have a relationship with something that is grown in our backyard or a community garden down the street. Focusing on misleading energy-use statistics, as Budiansky rightly points out, is not the way forward. Neither, though, is dimissing the locavore movement out of hand. There are very real and meaningful values behind these shifts in consumer preferences. It’s best that they be harnessed for good and not co-opted by Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

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A Fresh Idea

Nourish Farm-to-Family Philanthropy, based in Sheboygan, WI, brings local farmers, volunteers, struggling families, and professional chefs together to share meals made with fresh, local ingredients.

Christensen knew there had to be a way to get a steady supply of local produce to the neediest eaters, who survive largely on a diet of packaged pantry foods.

She pondered the dilemma for months until she came up with a plan for an innovative charity she calls Nourish Farms. For one afternoon each week, volunteers “tour” organic farms that operate as Community Supported Agriculture farms, or CSAs, and they assist in the harvest of whatever produce is ripe. Then, guided by a professional chef, the volunteers turn the harvested food into a meal to share with residents of local shelters.

Organic, farm-fresh foods are too expansive for lower income families to afford. Stuck eating junk, these populations are at greater risk to develop health complications associated with obesity, which impedes their productivity even more, putting them on a vicious downward spiral. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that, in the USA, “Obesity Rates Keep Rising“:

Americans are continuing to get fatter and fatter, with obesity rates reaching 30 percent or more in nine states last year, as opposed to only three states in 2007, health officials reported on Tuesday.

The increases mean that 2.4 million more people became obese from 2007 to 2009, bringing the total to 72.5 million, or 26.7 percent of the population. The numbers are part of a continuing and ominous trend.

But the rates are probably underestimates because they are based on a phone survey in which 400,000 participants were asked their weight and height instead of having it measured by someone else, and people have a notorious tendency to describe themselves as taller and lighter than they really are.

The article, however, lacks any discussion of class and obesity. Poverty and health cannot be solved independently, as they are deeply intertwined.

Hopefully, charities such as Nurish improve the obesity trends by providing healthy food to those most in need of it and helping people rethink their relationship to food.

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