Monday, February 16, 2009

January 15th- St.Catharines Standard Editorial; The Devil is in the Details of What we Eat

The Devil is in the Details of What we Eat

If it is true that the truth will set you free, there are a great many people talking to the media and advertising such untruths these days that they may as well be holed up in a dark dungeon somewhere with the key tossed to the wind. I mean I’m not na├»ve. I know that my new wrinkle cream really won’t take the years off my face as the advertising suggests. Its’ just that perhaps I’m vulnerable to the thought that it could, and that very suggestion sells the stuff. No real harm done. I’m out 20 bucks and when I forget it didn’t really work, I’ll try it again.
And that restaurant that says they serve local produce? When pressed, they can’t really say where it comes from. And truth be, its’ not really THAT local. They are just riding the wave of the local food buzz. It brings in business for them, and most people won’t question it because we are taught to believe what we hear and read.
Why even our very own Prime Minister, whose role in and of itself signifies a great deal of integrity, telling the Canadian public with a straight face that an opposition coalition is undemocratic. Come on, those are the rules….you can do that!
Most of us have the ability to figure out that the truth is being stretched somewhat in these cases to sell something or to win people over.
When you know very little about something, that is when you are truly vulnerable to the selling of the untruths. When it comes to food and drink, most of us are very vulnerable. We know very little about what we eat. Not only where it came from, but truly what it is, in the case of processed and fast foods. We are very vulnerable to the advertising gods, who tell us its’ value to us, their goal being to fatten their wallets and the wallets of the food processors they work for. And who are we not to believe, we can’t confirm it isn’t so.
Years ago putting food on the table for mere survival was a huge deal. In one of the few diaries ever written by an 18th century American woman, Martha Ballard makes it clear that her daily purpose and life’s work was feeding herself and her family. Her intimate knowledge of all her food was a necessity. The chores were hard on her body, making bread, growing a garden, raising and killing her livestock, canning and preserving. She would no doubt be amazed by the fact that very few of us now make our own food, nor expend any energy at all in the creation of it. Or in many cases even know what it is.
We work elsewhere and choose our food in boxes, and bags from shelves with its worth being loudly proclaimed on the outside. We buy images, promises and hope. We buy nutritious and fast to fit our busy lifestyle…rushing off to the gym after we pack away the leaf blower and the riding lawn mower that make our life easier. We buy low fat and get fatter, whole grain and get constipated, perfect looking fruit and are poisoned. Health care costs rise, as do all the rates of disease associated with a poor diet and obesity, the food processor gets richer, the farmer gets poorer.
In much of the advertising, taste isn’t even a consideration. A particularly annoying commercial is for a frozen lump of something that you put in a slow cooker and presto, its’ ready when you get home. Aren’t you absolutely amazing …a slow cooked meal, ready just like that! I’m sure we all feel good about this and that the compliments will pour in. But what are some of these things in it? Artificial flavor - what does that mean? And what do they do to soy when they hydrolyze it.? Ditto autolyzed yeast extract. Label readers are annoying, aren’t they? Better to swill the stuff down and praise the food gods who allowed you to get this on the table fast, damn the consequences.
How can companies get away with this? How can they be allowed to sell something by way of deceit? We now see whole grain white bread. Of course white bread is, by definition, NOT whole grain. Frito Lay chips with a “heart healthy” designation? How have we allowed these marketers and the companies they represent to infiltrate our lives with their semi-(if any) truths? Making a buck with pseudo-foods while preying on people’s’ vulnerabilities about health isn’t a good mix. We need to eye such advertising with the same cynicism we now reserve for our politicians, accepting a bit more Martha-like responsibility for our food and health. Wouldn’t old Martha be shocked if she went shopping in a grocery store today – once past the vegetable and fruit section she’d think she was in an alien world – so full of product promises masking a mind boggling assortment of chemical concoctions…..

November 16th- St.Catharines Standard Editorial; Eating our Way to Environmental Destruction

Eating Our Way to Environmental Destruction
The choppers fly overhead, swooping down to release their poisons on the land and vegetation below, a ritual repeated over thousands of acres as far as the eye can see. Cheerful Mexican cantatas fill the air as workers clear the land of thousands of heads of iceberg lettuce, leaving the land looking like a warzone. But perhaps the most telling, or even chilling sight is the fact that where the land is bare of food growing, it is bare of all life in any form. No weeds, no earthworms and no bugs. Its' sole purpose is to prop up desired plants.

Welcome to the Salinas Valley, where your California produce is grown. This is your food on petroleum.

My family had the extreme good fortune of travelling to California in September for, of all things, a tomato festival. And the festival was great mind you, but what really stuck in my mind was the landscape of the Salinas Valley. This is where your grocery store food is grown; thousands and thousands of acres of lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, peppers and strawberries. The scale is mind boggling.

Michael Pollan, food activist and writer, wrote a masterful 8000 word piece entitled “Farmer in Chief", addressed to the candidates for President of the United States prior to the recent election. It is said Barack Obama read it and we'll see if the organic garden proposed for the White lawn actually materializes again as it did under the rule of Roosevelt.

Food is a big issue and one we tend to ignore, which is somewhat surprising. We all eat, 100% of us. Clearly it is a health issue, but it is a huge environmental issue too.

The statistics quoted in Michael Pollans’ piece are shocking, and point to the very real message that by eating the way we do here in North America, we add more greenhouses gases to the environment than with any other activity. In the US, the food system uses 19 percent of all fossil fuels consumed, second only to cars.
In 1940 the food system produced 2.3 calories of food for every calorie of fossil fuel used. Today that number has jumped to 10 calories of fossil fuel used producing only 1 calorie of supermarket food. Petroleum based pesticides, fertilizers, farm machinery, modern processing, packaging and transportation account in large part for this huge difference. In Michael Pollans words, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are "eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases".

Yuck.

There is no reason to believe it is any different here in Canada. In Ontario, the latest available statistics from 2006 point out that only 0.9% of all farms were certified organic, considered to be more environmentally friendly. More are not accounted for in these statistics, those that are true to the word organic, without the certification. But there are no big players in this game. The big players are the commodity growers, corn and soybeans. Those big fossil fuels users and empty food calorie makers, that show up in virtually every processed food you buy. Glucose fructose, soy lecithin...the list goes on.

These genetically modified crops are also used as feed for animals, particularly cows. Corn is an unnatural diet for a cow and is very difficult to digest for these natural grazers and ruminants. But because of the government policies and subsidies, corn is a cheap and available food for cows, and their biology is dismissed.

In his 2008 book, In Defense of Food, Pollan writes than the typical North American diet includes a whopping 200 pounds of meat a year. And meat and dairy production itself is a huge polluter.

When we eat the locavore way, we really feel like we're doing our thing for the environment. But of all the greenhouse gases associated with producing and transporting food, only 11 % are from food moving from farm to our table. The largest emitter of greenhouse gases is food production, and the costliest for the environment are meat and dairy production.

More pollution is created in the transporting of grains to feedlots, where animals are raised for meat than is created moving food from farms to the grocery store, according to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. And according to New Scientist magazine, a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving the lights on at home.

So perhaps a little more organic (or better yet, home grown) and a little less meat could make a difference to the environment, suggestions that are for some reason controversial. But it is time we recognize that our personal choices do impact our world, and our food choices do too.

September 18th St. Catharines Standard Editorial- Lets Eat

Lets Eat!

The buzz about local food is everywhere. There is no question that food grown by your local farmer is healthier for you, the environment and clearly for the farmers’ financial well-being. In Niagara, the banana belt of Canada, we are blessed with abundance and our growers can grow an amazing variety of fruits and veggies to keep us well-fed virtually year-round. The idea of eating locally is really nothing new. It is what people have always done. Out of necessity people grew their own food or ate what was easily accessible to them. Local food was the norm. Common sense.

But if you are like me, perhaps you are getting somewhat weary of it all. I’ve now heard the term distavore used in jest to rebuke fervent locavores. They are tired of people looking in their grocery cart and sneering… just before they hop in their gas guzzler and peel out of the parking lot. Tired of going to foodie friends’ homes or restaurants and listening or reading for half an hour about the local roots of every minor ingredient making up the ensuing feast. Tired of reading about all the different organizations you can belong to that will assist you in your local food search. I constantly ask myself why such a simple thing as eating great local food has become so complicated and preachy. Can we please just get on with the task at hand and eat?

When I think of whole tangled web of local food advocacy organizations in Niagara, my head spins. A fantastic line from a song of that iconic folk singer John Prine comes to mind…”It don’t make no sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more” We now have all these paid positions for food advocacy, your tax dollars and mine paying no doubt well-intentioned non farmers to promote local food. Some organizations require a fee from the farmer to join. Don’t join, you aren’t promoted. Seems a bit silly because you are still a farmer and you are still growing local food, but you can’t take advantage of these subsidized programs without doling out the cash. And of course even when you join you likely won’t see everyone being promoted equally. Lets’ face it, some products are just a little cooler to promote. There is no indication in any of these directories that membership is exclusive to those who have paid. The assumption is that the list is comprehensive and inclusive. If you haven’t paid, your name appears nowhere. You and your farm don’t exist. Ditto of course with restaurants and other local food purveyors. Some not on the lists are the very best at dealing with farmers and at promoting local food having done it for years before it was the trendy thing to do. It just made sense.

So here’s the question. Why is the money provided to support local food efforts not doing anything to support the farmer on the farm beyond promotion? Perhaps provide needed assistance to farmers to enable them to grow more and distribute produce? For small farmers like me the struggle is the same as those looking for a job for the first time. You can’t get the job because you don’t have experience. But you can’t get the experience because they won’t give you the job. As a small farmer, the only way I can grow my business is to get help. And the only way I can afford more help, is if I produce more. It’s a vicious circle.

So when I hear the talk about all the money being floated to these local food organizations, I shake my head. Promotion is a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but if you grow food we should be hearing about you regardless of your ability or desire to pay membership fees or be associated with any particular organization. People want to know. And if local food continues to grow in popularity, farmers could use a bit of financial help to grow and keep up. As for now, the best advertising for a farmer is showing up at a farmers market with a quality product. People will talk. Buying locally involves stopping at road side stands or farmers markets that may or may not be on a map and forming relationships with the people who grow your food. Not tapping away at a computer to see who is a member of what.

Supporting local food is about supporting farmers. And there are some superb ones in Niagara. May they grow and prosper.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

seeds, seeds, seeds!

Feb 12/09 Right now I am surrounded by seeds , especially tomato seeds. At this point I don't want to know how many varieties I have, or have on the way...it is scary! I know for sure I am up over 650 different tomato varieties and have really tried to focus on the bizarre and tasty this year.
I am really excited about a few in particular..yellow zebra...aka Pork Chop,Orange- Green Zebra and a number of Brad Gates crazy collection. Should be an exciting tomato year. Will I get them all in? Hard to say for sure. I really want to be able to focus clearly on each variety and discern its' unique qualities, and I'm not sure how do-able that is with so many.
Next week, I start planting, but just a slow beginning. We are certainly still in the throws of winter. But it is time to get in the onions, with a focus on BIG, as per my husbands orders. So, we're looking at Walla Walla, Ailsa Craig and similar grande types.
I'm happy to be doing the CSA,but a small version this year. I plan on carrying on with my restaurants (the boys),market and especially transplant sales....that I am excited about after the soil fiasco of last year. So now, bring on spring!