Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekend Update

Here in drought-stricken Washington, D.C., word has come from eco-grocer Whole Foods that the sidewalk powerswashing witnessed by shoppers this week was inadvertent.

"I just wanted to drop you a note thanking you for the heads-up on the power washing," store spokeswoman Jane Pearson told The Slow Cook in an e-mail after our item appeared. "We have that on an automatic schedule, and had overlooked stopping them."

Okay, but wait a second. What you're saying is you powerwash the sidewalks on a regular basis, but for some reason during a drought you're on autopilot? I'm just guessing here, but didn't the guy who pulled up with a truckload of compressor and hose announce himself at the store before he started blasting the sidewalk area where customers are normally eating at the cafe-style tables you have set up there?

Not to belabor the point, but Whole Foods does advertise itself as being so concerned about the environment (all that sidewalk and street effluent washes right into the already-overpolluted Anacostia River) and in particular conserving water and energy (both of which powerwashing consumes copiously).

And when did brooms go out of style?

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Elsewhere on the local front, we received a visit yesterday at the school garden from a remarkable group of cyclists who have found a way to mix their twin passions of food gardening and bicycling.

Their visit to the container garden at Children's Studio School was part of a "garden hop" they'd organized to support our celebration of D.C. School Garden Week. So I took them on a tour and explained how this 1,600-square-foot garden of mostly native flowers, herbs and food plants had come about pretty much by accident and almost certainly because one of the parents happened to be a carpenter with all the right power tools.

I'm ashamed to say I've been a bit lax in managing the garden this year. Last year we had all kinds of lettuces, broccoli, carrots and other produce for the kids to ogle and play with. We didn't plant much this year, waiting for another Master Gardener to make herself known and pick up some of the load.

I was anxious to meet members of Women's Garden Cycles because they recently returned from a incredible journey, pedealing all the way from D.C. to Montreal and back, visiting all kinds of urban gardens and cutting-edge farms along the way. Do read about it on their blog.

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It looks like small-scale farmers may be on the verge of a real insurrection, they are so frustrated trying to survive under all the government regulations that favor industrial-scale agriculture. And isn't healthy competition what our system is all about?

Virginia farmer Richard Bean recently found himself in handcuffs. He's been selling his pork products and produce for years to restaurants and at farmers markets in the Charlottesville area. But authorities finally caught up with him for failing to have his meats processed in an inspected facility.

Armed state police troopers wearing flak jackets showed up at Bean's farm last month and confiscated his computer. Bean was charged with felony fraud for which he could face three years in prison. He and his partner are accused of selling meat improperly labeled "certified organic."


"We were trying to skirt the system. A small farm, making it work," Bean, 62, told The Washington Post. "We were able to earn a significant amount more per animal, and that's how we are able to compete with corporate agriculture."

The problem for small livestock farmers like Bean is that consolidation in the livestock business has caused most local meat processing facilities to close. And as The Post reports, he's hardly alone. This month, a county sheriff served Michigan cattle farmer Greg Niewendorp with a warrant before he would allow state agriculture officials to test his herd as part of a program to eradicate tuberculosis.

In Pennsylvania, dairy farmer Mark Nolt refused to obtain a permit to sell unpasteurized milk, prompting officials to raid his farm and confiscate raw milk, cheese and yogurt as well as equipment and sales records.

And in Charlottesville, John Coles and Christine Solem of Satyrfield Farms have dodged state regulations for nearly three years by giving away their raw-milk goat cheese, which is illegal to sell in Virginia. They have been soliciting donations for--a sign in front of their market stand says-- "legislative and court efforts to allow the sales of raw milk, cheese and other farm products."

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Even here in the urban confines of the District of Columbia, we've been able to reap a harvest of fresh fruit from trees growing untended along the sidewalks.We made a load of peach pies from one such tree that grows across the street. We had another favorite in an alley down the block. Unfortunately, it was recently cut down. What a pity.

Harvesting unwanted leavings is called "gleaning" and we are happy to do it if it means fresh, local food and saving a few pennies. Our friend and garden blogger Susan Harris recently posted a remarkable story about a family in nearby Takoma Park, MD, whose gleaning in addition to bio-intensive home gardening satisfies most of their food needs.

And here is a group of volunteers in Portland, OR, who turn their enthusiasm for gleaning into a worthy neighborhood cause by donating the produce to local food banks. And they tell us all about it on video.

Who says there's no free lunch?

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For those of you still confused about which is worse, eating mercury or not eating fish, there is help.

First, read this post by Brian Halweil and World Watch Institute. Halweil has been writing about the world's oceans for years, and he and his wife are expecting.

Second, take a look at this handy guide on healthy fish from Purdue University.

What usually gets lost in this debate is that the world's fisheries are largely pooped, depleted, fished out. As much as the seafood industry would love us to continue buying fish like there was no tomorrow, there is a tomorrow, and we should all be looking for alternate sources of omega-3, which is important for child development but available not only in non-threatened fish, but also in non-animal foods.

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A new survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control finds some improvement in fighting poor nutrition and obesity in the nation's schools. Some 30 percent of school districts have banned junk food from school vending machines, up from 4 percent in 2000.

Many schools are also requiring more physical activities. But the news is not all good. For instance, although researchers found that the proportion of schools selling bottled water grew--to 46 percent from 30 percent--they also said three-fourths of high schools sold soft drinks and that 61 percent sold potato chips and other high-fat snacks.

“What we’re seeing is that the nation’s schools really are making progress in addressing the obesity crisis and teenage tobacco use,” said Howell Wechsler, the director of the division of adolescent and school health at the disease agency and an author of the study. “But large numbers of schools are still not implementing recommended policies. We need all the nation’s schools to have environments that make it easy for children to make healthy choices.”

And should we really be thrilled about schools selling bottled water?

Meanwhile, some schools are also dropping French fries from the menu. But here's one school that's fighting fat by charging kids extra for the fries. French fries have been removed as a standard side with lunch at this Pittsburgh-area school, but they're still available for 50 cents.

Isn't that that the American way, a user tax for fries? Maybe they can use the money to start a vegetable orchestra...

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Finally, some of you apparently are dying to know what it is we cooked after I challenged a local chef (Ris Lacoste) to design a budget menu from locally-grown ingredients and wrote it up for Edible Chesapeake magazine.

Nothing too complicated, but utterly delicious. We roasted a pastured chicken with ratatouille and served it with roasted potatoes. We finished the meal with juicy white peaches in a local yogurt drizzled with honey.

It was great fun and a great meal and it warmed our hearts to be supporting the local farmers who work so hard to put food on our tables. Considering we had enough food to feed eight people, I thought our bill from the Dupont Circle farmers market was a pretty good deal. But you'll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out exactly how much it was we spent.

4 comments:

Janet said...

Although I'm very sympathetic with farmers' challenges in meeting regulations, I'm not ready to say it's OK to have meat processed at uninspected facilities. Maybe the regulations need to change to accommodate small processors and farmers, but I don't think small producers should get a free pass. There are scalawags among them, too.

Your budget menu, meanwhile, sounds wonderful at any price. I'm so jealous of your peaches!!

Ed Bruske said...

Janet, I think everyone agrees we want safe food. What you're seeing are signs of utter desperation among small-scale farmers who provide a valuable product on the one hand but are thwarted by a government that tilts in favor of industrial agriculture. Remember, there was an agricultural system before there was an FDA or a USDA. If you want wholesome, local food products, you have to take a stand in support of small farmers.

Also, do take note: The cases of food-born illnesses you hear about are not originating among small farmers, but among the big, industrial operations.

Janet said...

Hi, Ed. I know what you say is true about the government tilt and the sources of food-borne illnesses. I guess I figure that if my local (eastern Kansas) farmers can and do get their meat processing at inspected plants, so can other farmers. But maybe the situation is worse in some locales than in others.

Ed Bruske said...

Everything you say is true, Janet, but what this report from Virginia points up are some of the difficulties in involved for farmers in creating a sustainable meat industry for the local market. The first of those would be cost and the inevitable comparisons with industrially produced meats which are raised on a huge scale using cheap feed. Grass-fed beef takes much longer to grow to market size. And for small producers, shipping the animals to sometimes far-off slaughtering facilities, then having the meat packaged and shipped back, is a big expense.

For all of these reasons, you are seeing more and more co-op arrangements where consumers pool their resources to purchase whole animals, have them raised and butchered on the farm. Since this does not constitute a "sale" of the meat, it skirts all the meat packing and inspection laws and rankles the inspectors no end.

But do note that this particular Virginia farmer has been selling his product for years apparently with no ill health effects. If you talk to farmers, they will tell there is nothing to be gained by selling bad product and making people sick. You will be found out very quickly and lose your business. Not that I'm justifying selling non-inspected meat, just pointing out some of the reasons why farmers are so frustrated with the system the way it exists, and the consequences for consumers who would prefer to eat local food.