Thursday, March 05th, 2009 | Author: admin

Just a short post today, in response to an interesting article from the New York Times on the safety of organic foods. This article was partially in response to the big salmonella outbreak in peanut butter and peanut products, and the recent consumer freak-out that followed. This outbreak has hilighted some of the seriously dangerous flaws in our food system, and I completely sympathize with worried consumers. Heck, I am one of them! I love peanut butter, but unfortunately most pb is made in huge factories where there is really no traceability for the processed stuff that ends up in each jar.

Realistically, the food most americans eat is greatly untraceable. I try to mostly get “whole foods” and then cook them myself, but even a can of black beans is hard to trace. Where did these things come from, and how do we know they’re safe? I am drawn to organic foods mainly for their environmental benefits, but also for the benefits to human health. Organic foods are regulated during growth and processing in terms of the chemicals purposefully used to treat it (chemical pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc), but this really says nothing about the safety of organic foods.

Considering the e. coli outbreak in organic spinach last year, I was actually surprised to learn that many people assume that organic foods will be free of pathogens. According to the recent NYT article, however, many Americans think organic foods are much safer. The article describes a bit of the process for organic food to be certified (see the government’s program on this here), and then dives into the controversy over the peanut scandal. Essentially, the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) did not have a state health certificate,  and therefore was unjustly given organic certification. Many organizations have called on the PCA to give up its organic certification, and that the certifiers should carefully consider the health standards that must be met. But organic standards and health standards are not the same thing, as the article quotes:

“It’s a reassurance that they have another set of eyes, and more eyes is always a good thing,” said Jane Baker, director for sales and marketing of California Certified Organic Farmers, a nonprofit certifying organization in Santa Cruz, Calif., and one of the largest and oldest in the country. “But let’s not confuse food safety controls with the organic side of things.”

The article closes with a woman who tries to buy organic local as much as possible, but when her organic peanut butter was pulled from the shelf and the Peter Pan wasn’t, she bought the national brand. Like her, I am unconvinced that the organic label is the be-all end-all of good food. Being conscious of the risks and benefits of eating various foods is important, and organic is only one of many sides of the “good” food concept in my head. This whole peanutty debacle just provides one more reason to shop local and know where my food is coming from!

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 | Author: admin

Short update on the last post! I just read a great article from the Washington Post about the role that Tom Vilsack will be playing in a new era of American politics. They always do such a great job talking about food and agriculture issues in a journalistic way. Here is most of the interview:

Some in the sustainable-food community have worried that you are too closely identified with ethanol and agribusiness. Is that fair?

First, I would ask for the opportunity for people to get to know me and judge me by the actions I take in this office. I’m not sure the full nature of the record was understood.

What don’t people know about you that might change their minds?

Food during my early years was a very difficult issue for me. I grew up in an addictive family. My mother had serious problems with alcohol and prescription drugs. I was an overweight kid. I can remember back in those days there weren’t the strategies that there are today to deal with those issues. So my parents put this very nasty cartoon of a very overweight young kid with a beanie cap and pasted it on the front of the refrigerator. So every time I opened the refrigerator I had to look at that picture.

Food is a fairly significant aspect of my life. I have struggled mightily with food. With my weight. And I’m conscious of it. So I have a sensitivity to people who struggle with their weight. That’s one aspect people don’t fully appreciate. I don’t want youngsters to go through what I went through.

There are ways we can go do a better job of educating young moms and dads about the vital role they have as the child’s first teacher. I think there are ways in which we can partner with local school districts and states to do a better job to provide nutrition options at school. It’s our responsibility to get this health-care crisis under control. I think if people understand that history and how serious I am about this and look at the record in Iowa — the real record in Iowa — they would be less concerned than they were.

What specific ideas do you have about how to move forward to improve nutrition in school lunches?

Part of my responsibility is to find people who share my concern and have more expertise than I do. People we nominate will be people who understand this issue and have the desire to effect change. The specifics of how we can do this will come from the experts. My job is to listen to the president, who is the ultimate vision maker, articulate his vision to the people who work in this department and add my two cents’ worth. The vision is, he wants more nutritious food in schools.

Will local foods play a part?

In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that. But sometimes that stresses the capacity: the production capacity or the distribution capacity. Especially since we don’t have yet a very sophisticated distribution system for locally grown food. One thing we can do is work on strategies to make that happen. It can be grant programs, loan programs, it can be technical assistance.

Is it true that you are thinking of changing the name of the department to include a reference to food?

We haven’t got to that point. Rather than renaming it, as important as some people may feel that would be, I think [we need] a recognition that this was America’s first energy department. If you think of what food is, it’s the energy we use to do our daily work. I want people to know about the USDA. This is a very important department. It’s not fully appreciated as such.

It’s hard to convince people of that sometimes.

You tell them there’s a new day here. You tell them every time they pick up a fork, every time they pick up a spoon, every time they slice a piece of bread, remember America’s first energy department.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 | Author: admin

Wow, I have fallen off the blogosphere! It has been over two months, but I realize that the more I write the more I will keep up with the news and articulating my takes on various agrissues. So I’m going to make an effort to at least write once a week, and also continue working on film projects and posting them soon. So much has changed in the USA over the last months (–I know, I haven’t written since November–), but here are the most relevant pieces of news that have struck me:

We have a new president!! Now I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I am absolutely giddy with pride and hope for the future. For many years, I watched US domestic and foreign policy spiral away from where I feel we should stand. In particular, I was increasingly disgusted with our international policies on energy and trade, and our domestic policy on environmental issues and agriculture (of course). For my entire voting life, I have had a president whose principles were far from mine, who embarrassed me when I traveled abroad, and whose country I saw on a dangerously downward trend. I wanted to move out of the United States, away from my home and my family and my friends, and to a state whose government more closely matched my values. But now, with Obama in the White House, I can say that (gulp) I would be thrilled and honored to work for the government! It is going to be less of an uphill battle for people working in “green collar” jobs, and I am so proud to be an American for the first time in a long time. Sure I’m worried about the economy, but on the upside, desperate times are a great incubator for innovation. Hooray for a new chapter in American history!

Obama at an Iowa farm in July 2007

Obama at an Iowa farm in July 2007

With the new president, a new Secretary of Agriculture has been appointed. On December 17, 2008, President (then President Elect) Obama named Tom Vilsack the next Secretary of Agriculture. On January 20, 2009, the Senate unanimously confirmed this appointment. Looks like my prediction in a post last year that Obama would shy away from Vilsack as his main agrisqueeze wasn’t too accurate!

In a Gristy look at the Vilsack appointment, David Murphy references Lincoln’s act of creating the Department of Agriculture. In Lincoln’s day, this was called “the people’s department.” He reviews the current state of big agribusiness and agripolitics, closing with the interesting reflection that

During Lincoln’s day nearly 58 percent of Americans were farmers. Today that number has dropped to less than 1 percent. If Obama/Vilsack want to stem to blood loss in rural America they’re going to have to appoint some serious agents of change.

Wikipedia tells me that (surprise surprise) Vilsack is supported by the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Farmers Union, and the American Farm Bureau Federation. The Organic Consumers Association, on the other hand, vehemently opposed Vilsack’s appointment, and in November 2008 they released a report citing reasons Obama should not appoint him (this is also from the wiki page):

  • Vilsack has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for large industrial farms and genetically modified crops; as Iowa state governor
  • He originated the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, effectively blocking local communities from regulating where genetically engineered crops would be grown
  • Vilsack was the founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership, and was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry lobbying group.
Yeah, so Vilsack is really into corn. Take the bad with the good...

Yeah, so Vilsack is really into corn. Take the bad with the good...

Vilsack has been the governor of Iowa since the late 1990s, and as such has plenty of support for big agrindustry, particularly in the corn arena. On the upside, he is a democrat who is committed to renewable energy (even though he mostly supports corn-based ethanol), understanding the human side of climate change (from FarmWeek: “I want this department to be a national leader in climate change mitigation/adaptation efforts…This will involve conservation, greater efficiency with the energy we have, and new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy”), and he also is very familiar with sustainable agriculture research. Iowa, though deep in the corn belt, is also a big player in the organic farming movement (check out the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University).

Frederick Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center, stressed that Vilsack focus on the issues of nutrition, energy and freshwater in an Ames Progressive article. Kirschenmann recommends a systems approach to solving the myriads of problems facing the Department of Agriculture: “since systems are complex and multi-faceted, I would urge Secretary Vilsack to insist on full life cycle analysis in assessing whether any innovation actually produces the economic, environmental or social benefits it purports to provide.”

In January on a US Food Policy blog, I read that Vilsack promises to promote local food systems and thinks fruits and vegetables shouldn’t just be grown in rural areas, but everywhere. Vilsack met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle and is quoted as saying, “It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products.

In his first weeks as Secretary, Vilsack is already making big changes. Vilsack has recently appointed 48 key USDA posts, which you can read about in this AgriPulse file. He also reversed two nasty policies from the Bush administration, as described in a recent Gazette article. In one, Vilsack restored funding for a healthy food program, and in the other he extend the comment period on contentious rules limiting crop subsidy payments. Way to go, Tom!

The Washinton Post nodded towards foodies’ raised eyebrows about the Vilsack appointment, but went on to commend his commitment to farmers and even more to child nutrition programs.

He added that educating school administrators, parents and children is essential in effecting change. To that end, he said, he supports establishing school and urban community gardens, long at the top of the wish list for activists.

“We want to make a better connection between what kids eat and knowing where it comes from,” he said. “I’ve seen it in my own family. If you educate kids at an early age, you can have a tremendous impact.”

It is certainly a step in the right direction. OK, we didn’t get what the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof called a Secretary of Food. Alright, we don’t have a Farmer in Chief (yet). And sure, it’s not a flying leap like us sustainable food advocates would have hoped. But it’s much better than what we’ve had in this last decade! In a NYT article, Vilsack is quoted as writing:

Let us build a 21st-century rural economy of cutting-edge companies and technologies that lead us to energy and food security…Such an investment will revitalize rural America, re-establish our moral leadership on climate security and eliminate our addiction to foreign oil.

And another great bite from the Washington Post, from VIlsack on the Department of Agriculture:

This is a department that intersects the lives of Americans two to three times a day. Every single American…So I absolutely see the constituency of this department as broader than those who produce our food — it extends to those who consume it.

Only time will show how much Vilsack will follow through on these commitments, but I am hopeful that things will be moving in the right direction. Or rather, towards the left.

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 | Author: admin

I just received an interesting email from the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at MSU. It is about a petition to the President Elect Barack Obama, suggesting that the next Secretary of Agriculture should be - you guessed it - Michael Pollan. There is even a facebook group devoted to this cause. While I added myself to the group (only so I could post a comment), I’m not convinced this is a good idea. It’s unsound namely because Pollan is a journalist and not an agriculturalist or agronomist. He has not worked for the government or in public policy before. He is good at researching agricultural issues, and presenting them in an easily-digestible way to the American people. But is he really fit to be the Ag Secretary? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the next president will entertain this idea either.

Here are some more likely candidates, as listed by Plenty Magazine:

–John Ikerd
Raised on a dairy farm in Missouri. Spent his career as an agricultural economist at various top universities. Although his roots are quite mainstream, his philosophies have evolved and he’s written extensively on sustainability. His vision is based on a “common sense” that compels us to care for others and about nature.

–Mark Ritchie
Definitely one of the crunchier candidates — which I consider a positive, though it may harm him politically. Ritchie lived in the Bay Area during the ’70s, later founding a fair trade coffee company as well as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which works to support the family farm. He also did some time as an academic at the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies. Ritchie has government experience as Minnesota’s Secretary of State, which could help.

–Fred Kirschenmann
A South Dakotan and organic farmer who’s been Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture — a top nexus for ideas and research on sustainable ag — since 2000. He’s a farmer first and an intellectual second — and he’s very clear about that —though he’s written articulately on sustainable farming. Probably still too left-of-center to have a real shot, but if he got the position he would really push for change.

–Tom Buis
President of the National Farmer’s Union and an Indiana farmer himself. The NFU may be slightly more progressive than the Farm Bureau, but as far as I’m concerned, Buis as ag secretary would pretty much mean a continuation of the status quo. But he has the right friends — Buis served as senior agricultural policy advisor to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who’s got Obama’s ear – and that may help more than a willingness to bring change to ag policy.

–Gus Schumacher
Raised on a farm in Massachusetts; studied agribusiness at Harvard; and worked for a long time at the USDA, in charge of international trade and development programs as well as domestic commodities, insurance, and farm credit operations. He’s served as USDA Under-Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, Massachusetts Commissioner of Food And Agriculture, and worked at the World Bank. Personally, he’s my favorite candidate because he knows how politics work but has his heart in the right place (see his piece on the Farm Bill here).

–Tom Vilsack
Governor of Iowa, a former lawyer who had the briefest of Democrats’ runs for the presidential nomination. As any Iowa guv must, he has strong ties to Big Ag and vehemently supports ethanol. According to the Guardian, Vilsack “understands that sustainable rural development means more than just commodity farming.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, his is the name that’s gotten the most airtime.

I’m leaning away from Vilsack, and I have a feeling Obama will lean away from him as well. We’ll see…

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Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 | Author: admin

OK. So things have been going well, right? Obama is generally pretty awesome. But get this. Brace yourselves. He apparently (gulp) doesn’t like beets. Blasphemy, right? I mean, he is supposedly such a food-lover and loves eating all sorts of daring and delicious cuisine…but according to the Seattle Times, our next president loves a spicy chili anyday but has always hated beets. This is so sad, as beets are probably one of my favorite ground provisions (root crops). They are great just boiled, diced and thrown into a salad with all the regular fixins, or grated and made into any variety of baked beet creations (think BEETZA with a beet crust, or a beet sauce, or a beet topping? take your pick!) … so in closing, here are some photos of beets to make you drool. Unless you’re the next president, that is.

(all photos from Johnny’s Seed Catalog)

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Tuesday, November 18th, 2008 | Author: admin

So I knew before I moved to the windy city that I wanted to join a Chicago CSA. Community Supported Agriculture is basically an alternative form of marketing food (usually veggies, but increasingly fruit, flowers, dairy and meat too) that cuts out the supermarket or farmers market. Traditionally the members (buyers) of a CSA would pay for an entire season, at the beginning of the season, so the farm can pay for seeds, labor, supplies, maintenance etc throughout the season knowing that they are financially secure. It’s a lovely mutually beneficial relationship between eater and grower, that reconnects people to their food, people to each other, and everyone to the land. Yay!

So I checked out Local Harvest, a great site that directs people in any city in the USA to the various local food options in their area. I found a whole lot of CSAs in Chicagoland that exist during the summer season, but I need some winter food! Although temperatures will be frigid and it will be snowy, cold season farming is a growing trend in the Midwest. Season extension is one of the main foci of the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State University (the incubator for my interest and passion for sustainable agriculture), and there are a number of farms in this area that use a variety of techniques to provide food all winter long.

But very few farms deliver their winter goodies to CSA members. Then I found Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks. It isn’t a traditional CSA, it’s more like a CSAmalgam — Irv and Shelly basically coordinate a number of farms in the area, organize it into their website, and deliver all over the Chicago area. So I found three friends, and we decided to get a weekly family box of produce. Saturday we got our first shipment of delicious local organic food! Here we are, each of us holding up our favorite item from the week:

They also sent us a little sheet of all the veggies and fruit that we recieved. Each item has a name, a farm it’s from, and some cooking ideas. We split up the big box o food, and I ended up getting Baby Bok Choi and Brussel Sprouts (Full Harvest Farm, Hartford, WI), Honey Crisp Apples (Lehman Orchards, Niles, MI), Red Leaf Lettuce (Genesis Growers, St. Anne, IL), and Crimini Mushrooms (River Valley Ranch, Burlington, WI). Here is my share of the items, for a total of $11:

So from this week forth, I will only be going to the 61st Street Farmers Market and Hyde Park Produce to supplement my CSA share. Hoorah for good food!

Sunday, November 16th, 2008 | Author: admin

What a month! It has been almost two weeks since the American people voted in a new president elect, Barack Obama. I am thrilled, to say the least. It is an exciting coincidence that I moved to Chicago, specifically to Hyde Park, just two months before the community’s most prominent resident was voted into the white house. When McCain made his concession speech, my friends called me and we rushed into the streets and (two blocks from my house) to Obama’s street, where at least 50 other Hyde Parkers had gathered to celebrate. One man had brought a big boom box, and we all danced and laughed and…I can’t describe the positive vibe on that block that night. It was infectious. The rest of the week, people walked around as if on clouds, smiling at strangers and not even frowning on the rainy winter days. But this blog is about food and agriculture, so let me share a bit of what I’ve learned about Obama’s stance on these issues.

On Ethicurean, a great foodie website (they define the word as “Someone who seeks out tasty things that are also sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical - SOLE food, for short”), I read an article a few months ago pointing me to an interview with Barack Obama from the Missoula Independent. I’d highly recommend reading the full interview, which includes Obama’s famous chili recipe, which supposedly is one of the only dishes he can cook!

I was particularly happy to read mention of a great documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which is all about one of the Illinois farms serving urban farmers markets in Chicago, Angelic Organics. Here are some of the most provocative bites Obama gives on his food and agriculture policies:

Given the busy lives that working parents lead, I know it’s easier to take your children to a fast food restaurant than it is to cook a balanced meal at home using fresh fruits and vegetables. But the eating habits that children develop when they are young will last them for their entire lives. As president, I would use the bully pulpit of the office to encourage parents to devote more time to ensuring that their children are eating healthy meals

On Angelic Organics:

These types of farms can provide an important source of fresh fruits and vegetables to inner city communities that do not have easy access to grocery stores that sell organic foods. Moreover, farms like Angelic Organics that sell directly to consumers cut out all of the middlemen and get full retail price for their food, which increases the financial viability of small family farms. As president, I would implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community-supported farms. I also support a national farm-to-school program and am pleased that the Farm Bill provides more than $1 billion to expand healthy snacks in our schools.

On ethanol production:

I have been a long-time supporter of home-grown biofuels, but I believe that corn ethanol should be a transitional fuel source as we move towards more advanced cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from agricultural waste products, switchgrass, sustainably harvested forest biomass and other renewable feedstock.

On his future choice for Secretary of Agriculture:

I would select a Secretary of Agriculture who shares my commitment to America’s farmers and ranchers, and to developing the rural economy, yet who is not afraid to challenge entrenched special interests in Washington.

My favorite quote from the Missoula Independent interview:

I believe that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from. For that reason, I support the immediate implementation of the Country of Origin labeling law, which will require meat products to indicate their country of origin.

More recently, Time’s Swampland interviewed Obama just a few weeks before his campaign ended. The full transcript is very interesting, especially when Obama mentions the Michael Pollan article I wrote about a few weeks ago. Here is an interesting quote about the economic crisis and how it relates to energy, and in turn, to food:

Whatever else we think is going to happen over the next certainly 5 years, one thing we know, the days of easy credit are going to be over because there is just too much de-leveraging taking place, too much debt both at the government level, corporate level and consumer level. And what that means is that just from a purely economic perspective, finding the new driver of our economy is going to be critical. There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy.
I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

According to an article from ScrippsNews, Obama’s capaign website said that he wants to promote regional, local, and organic food systems “by helping organic farmers afford to certify crops, as well as change crop insurance so they’re not penalized.” While I couldn’t find the specific part of the website they referred to (it has probably changed since then), he did say some of those things in the above quotes as well. The article also contrasts Obama’s stance on agriculture with that of Mccain, whose campaign website said he wanted “to foster a “21st Century green revolution,” his campaign Web site said. That calls for research to develop higher yields and more production per acre.” Of course, this would also mean promoting pesticide and herbicide and fertilizer use, and all the other nasty parts of Green Revolution agriculture. Good thing he didn’t win!

Another great site, Family Farmed, as a great PDF factsheet on Obama’s support of local, family farms. I didn’t know he spoke at one of the Farm Aid concerts! He just keeps getting cooler, right?

On Obama’s website, there was a great page that featured a quote about the challenges facing downstate Illinois, as many other places:

I’ve fought these battles for rural Americans - and for ethics reform in our government - in Springfield and in Washington. And I know that what we’re talking about here is not just one policy - it’s about the future for these kids who are going to graduate from Tama High. It’s about whether they can find opportunity here at home. It’s about whether they’ll have a government that fights for them, so they can dream without limit.

In an article from OpEdNews, the author Jim Goodman argues that “Globalization, industrial farming and high tech agriculture have not brought us into a golden age of agriculture, they have given us a food crisis. While Obama has fundamental flaws in his farm policy, he has at least, tried to move beyond the failed policies of Reagan, Clinton and Bush.” At least Obama has food and agriculture on his radar screen, and he is pushing for more sustainable and regional systems of agriculture. He prompts the reader to participate in the public discussion on food policies, and that we must push for change.

A fabulous (as usual) Grist article last month looked at Obama and McCain’s takes on food and agriculture policy. The section on Obama first praises his plan to challenge big agribusiness and the meat industry, and his promise to promote local, organic food. But then the article bashes Obama’s ethanol subsidy plans, and his less-than-novel plan for a $250,000 cap on farmer payments. The article also talks about the Pollan article, and how our next president will be forced “to deal with food issues in ways that break radically with past policies”.

I think our country is moving in the right direction. I’m less apt to move to another country in the coming years. Things are changing, and I have a renewed faith that the future of food and farming is looking brighter every day.

Saturday, October 25th, 2008 | Author: admin

Today has been very productive…not particularly for my academics, but it was my “break” from the 700+ pages of reading for classes over the last week! It has been a film-filled day.

I woke up this morning to rain, and thought my plans to film more at the 61st Street Farmers Market were ruined. But by 10 the rain had cleared up quite a bit and I biked down with the camera bag strapped to my back. Last week, my group from Fire Escape was able to get some great establishing shots and close-ups of veggies, but we didn’t bring the consent forms for filming interviews or getting recognizable shots of people. This week we came prepared with the right forms, and captured a few hours of great market interactions. I am still getting used to the camera and sound equipment, and we will have a look at the footage later this week. Unfortunately, the camera malfunctioned around 1, and we weren’t able to figure out a quick fix. I’m getting a great introduction to the obstacles facing documentary filmmakers! I think we will be entering an exciting little piece in Chicago in 60 Seconds from this footage, but shoot the documentary footage two weeks from today. It will be a blustery fall-winter day, and our plan is to follow a day from harvesting to (indoor winter) marketing. More details as they happen!

Later in the day, I went to a free film screening at doc films. I had heard quite a bit about the brand new documentary The Garden from my foodie/farmie friends, and I was thrilled to hear doc would be screening it for free! I love all these freebies lately (last night I went to see Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile for free through U Chicago Presents), but I would’ve paid to see this film.

Here is a little blurb from their website on the backstory:

The fourteen-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda in South Central Los Angeles is the largest of its kind in the United States. Started as a form of healing after the devastating L.A. riots in 1992, the South Central Farmers have since created a miracle in one of the country’s most blighted neighborhoods. Growing their own food. Feeding their families. Creating a community.

But after just two weeks of filming for what would’ve been a purely positive documentary, this garden faced the threat of eviction via eminent domain rights of the City of Los Angeles. The story quickly becomes political, as we watch the underhanded techniques of a privileged few impact this poor community. Many of the community gardeners take to action when they are threatened with eviction, and the film exquisitely lays out the history, characters and events that transpire. Today, there is no garden and the lot remains vacant, but the passion and solidarity of the South Central Farmers is inspirational and educational for anyone involved in food/agriculture activism.

I had the chance to speak with Scott Hamilton Kennedy for a bit after his q&a following the screening, and mentioned my various film projects. He was very encouraging and offered a few words of advice, namely to keep chugging through even when you feel like you hit a brick wall. Timely advice considering my various obstacles these past weeks!

The film premiered at the LA Film Festival, and won Best Documentary at SILVERDOCS. I also just joined their facebook fan group, but that’s because I’m a facedork like that…Check out these videos on youtube to learn more, and see the movie!

Speaking of movies, I’m about to go see Let the Right One In downtown, whee!

Monday, October 20th, 2008 | Author: admin

A note on the other side of what you consume: the liquids. Check out this article I just read about Midwestern wines. It referred me to the Drink Local Wine idea, which I’ve heard about (and participated in) more in the last years.

As a Michigander, I consider myself lucky in the realms of local adult drinks. At Michigan State University, a number of my friends and I got into beer brewing and wine making. Most of it turned out awesome, and some of it was pretty questionable. My friend Jay referred me to the Alaskan Bootleggers Bible for inspiration and technique. It doesn’t get much more local than your own kitchen, right?

Luke knows how to brew up a storm

Every year when I was young we would make a trip to Uncle John’s Cider Mill, especially in October to get a pumpkin from their patch and visit the haunted barn! A few years before I turned 21 they opened their own Fruit House Winery, adding tasty wines, hard ciders, and sparkling drinks to their more kid-friendly ciders. My favorite is the Fruit House Red, as I’m not too wild about sweeter wines.

While in France a few years ago, my friends would laugh every time I mentioned Michigan’s wine industry. But there are plenty of delicious and affordable wines around these parts. Last summer a few friends and I went up to the “pinky” of Michigan’s mitten, and I was impressed and surprised at the wealth of vineyards and wineries. We had a great time with friends who were all growing food or making wine, among other things. I’ll keep this limited to the drink-related places on that trip:

  • Brian works at Chateau Chantal, a B&B/winery/vineyard with incredible views of the Grand Traverse Bays. We got a tour and a private tasting, yum
  • Christin works at 2 Lads, an uber-modern winery that utilizes gravity-flow processing to save energy and to handle the delicate wines with greater care. Another tour and tasting (and yes, we visited one winery after another)
  • Andy (former SOFer) works at Peninsula Cellars, a landmark winery with a fabulous Cab Franc…and I’m told they have a good Pinot Noir, but I’m not really into that Earthy flavor thang…

Jay and Brian, and the wine thief!

The region was, at the time in early June 2008, bouncing back from a late and devastating frost. It hit the vineyards pretty hard, particularly the ones on flatter (rather than hilly) plots of land. We’ll see how the wines from 2008 fare after this early trauma.

While I’m still new to Chicago, I recently tried August Hill’s Hieland Red, and it was a deep rich (nearly figgy, but dry) blend that inspires me to try more of their wines. This winery is about 90 miles Southwest of Chicago, and I’m keeping my eyes peeled for other local drinks. And of course, my friends, this isn’t limited to wine.

My favorite local adult beverage of late has been the delectably hoppy Harvest Ale from Goose Island. While the Goosey beers are plentiful and quite local, I’m surprised at the lack of other local breweries. Am I missing something? I checked out the Illinois Beer page, but I haven’t heard of any of the listed beers from Illinois. Further investigation at my local liquor store is on the way!

Perhaps I have been spoiled in Michigan, surrounded with so many delicious local microbrews that I have been blind to the virtual tastybeer famine going on even in the great state of Illinois. Michigan has its own Brewers Guild, and you can check out the locations on their interactive map. Close to my heart is the Michigan Brewing Company, who (rumor has it) will be opening a new brewpub in Lansing, my hometown and the capital city. Hoorah! Bell’s is also famous far and wide, for the beer and the great brewery venue.

But enough about Michigan! I want to drink local Chicagoland beverages as much as possible. Suggestions?

Thursday, October 16th, 2008 | Author: admin

Another brilliant article by Michael Pollan was published in the New York Times this week. In this, he writes “An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief,” a list of reasons our next president should care about food policy. Michael Pollan has perhaps done more to shift the general public’s perceptions and knowledge about food and agriculture than any other popular journalist.

While working at the Student Organic Farm, I heard Pollan’s name dropped in conversations a few times before I finally read one of his articles in the NYT. In the article I thought he came off as a somewhat elitist gourmet foodie, but also hit on a number of interesting reflections about our food system. In 2006 I read one of his many books, The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. His witty style and use of history as well as politics to teach had me hooked. In this book, one of his main arguments is that “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” He illustrates how things have changed on our plates throughout history, and gives us a laundry list of reasons we should make conscious decisions about the food we eat. A recurring theme in his writing is that food is very political, and that our food and agriculture system affect our lives in more ways than most people realize. His most recent book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto gives more of a how-to guide for the public. As a general prescription for the eaters of the world, he gives a simple mantra:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But in his latest article, he lists reasons why food matters and needs to be discussed more in politics:

  • Health care, energy, foreign/trade policy, and climate change are all hot issues in the campaigns. Our food system is rarely discussed, yet it intimately relates to all these issues
  • Health costs have risen dramatically, and 4/10 deaths in the US are related to diet-related chronic diseases. “You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.”
  • Our food system uses ~29% of US total energy supply, and is highly inefficient
  • Trade policies and food security are increasingly important, as the world prices of food continue to rise

Pollan argues that in this tumultuous food climate, sustainable agriculture has found a rapidly growing audience, and not just among liberals:

Markets for alternative kinds of food — organic, local, pasture-based, humane — are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform.

Throughout whirlwind history of food and agriculture policies in the US, Pollan remains focused on reducing reliance on fossil fuels in food production as one of the ways we can dramatically change our country for the better. Polyculture/Permaculture systems can be utilized across large areas of land, he argues, and if our policies/customs changed we could restructure the farm systems across the Midwest! He cites a number of articles showing that polyculture systems can produce much more food per acre than conventional agriculture. Of course, he thinks we need to invest more into research and training in sustainable agriculture.

Pollan argues for large-scale composting and use of more perennial crops to help lower emissions and provide a richer soil too! He also says we need to completely restructure our meat industry. Perhaps most profoundly, our food system needs to become decentralized, or what he calls “reregionalized.”

No, we don’t know if it will work. But Pollan is a believer that we need to figure out what kinds of sustianable agriculture will work before it’s too late. Soon enough, we won’t be able to have seemingly unlimited cheap fossil fuels. Food is one of our most basic necessities, and yet it is currently produced under a system that is not sustainable economically, environmentally, for human health and perhaps most importantly, in using energy. He lists a number of ways the government can create this new food system, and a number of ways we as a society must change our food culture.

I particularly enjoyed his idea of putting in an organic garden at the White House, and encouraging a revitalization of what Eleanor Roosevelt called “victory gardens”. I highly recommend taking the time to read his article and think about how you think government and society could be doing more to work towards sustainable food!