Sunday, April 27, 2008

Weekend Update

I got a phone call from an exasperated spouse yesterday afternoon. "We're waiting in line to recycle. It's a total mess!" she complained.

Turns out she wasn't the only one. About three times the expected crowd turned out with their electronics devices and other hazardous wastes for the annual municipal pickup at Carter Baron Amphitheater here in the District of Columbia.

City officials were totally unprepared for the crowds. There were long waits, with car engines idling--rather counterproductive, don't you think? Main roads around the area became parking lots. People ditched their cars and came back wheeling television sets in shopping carts.

The District of Columbia, your nation's capitol, just isn't quite ready for the green revolution. Some surrounding jurisdictions allow hazardous waste disposal on a daily basis. But here in D.C. it's a once-a-year event, widely touted in the local media and on neighborhood listservs.

Another sign of just how far we have to go: It's dandelion season, and while many garden experts in the area are suggesting people learn to love these edible weeds, the extension service for the District of Columbia, operating out of our own land grant university, was advocating a scorched earth toxic dousing of lawns, courtesy of one of the local weathermen.

Sometimes living in the most powerful city in the world requires more than the usual amount of patience....


Hands-down winner as Washington's longest running horror show is not Hillary and Obama but the congressional antics surrounding the farm bill. You're sick of hearing about it, right? Well, there was great hope that this multi-billion-dollar piece of legislation might actually tackle food issues, but the longer it gets haggled over, the more money goes right back into those crop subsidy programs.

Now we learn that while kids are wanting for fresh foods in their school lunches, and while the pantries at the nation's food banks are going bare, nearly $500 million in tax breaks is being set aside for thoroughbred horse breeders. This particular boondoggle is being called the "Equine Equity Act" and is being pushed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Senate Minority Leader Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

While you have a picture of this big, wet kiss to rich horse breeders firmly in your mind, I'd like you to consider another priority of our federal government: slashing funds to the U.S. National Arboretum.

The arboretum, all 446 acres, is a place where hundreds of thousands of visitors each year find a rare bit of peace and tranquility amid the hustle and bustle of the city. Because I work as a volunteer in a food plot in the Washington Youth Garden, located inside the arboretum, I have a soft spot for this urban jewel of a refuge.

But apparently the bosses at the U.S. Department of Agriculture--lords of the farm bill as well--have found it necessary to cut a measly $2 million out of the arboretum's budget. Doesn't seem like much. Heck, that's chump change for horse breeders. But it would mean a 60 percent blowout to the arboretum's programs, cutting staff, closing to visitors--perhaps ruin for some of the facility's famous gardens and tree displays.

How's that for government priorities?


It's hard to count the number of ways that turning food crops into fuel for automobiles is a bad idea. Taking food out of the mouths of people to run our easy motoring lifestyle has become a major factor in food riots and destabilizing third-world governments. But there are recent studies as well showing that the supposed environmental benefits from this scheme are largely a hoax. The growing of the crops releases so much carbon into the atmosphere that any savings from the fuel are quickly wiped out. (And did we mention how waterways are fouled from all the fertilizers used to grow the fuel crops?)

Now comes a certain Texan who's devoted his life to promoting sustainable ranching in the Amazon basin. But when he flies his little Cessna over that vast carbon storehouse, what John Carter sees is the forests and jungles rapidly disappearing as men use bulldozers and chains to convert rain forest into cattle pastures and soybean fields. He sees fires wiping out such gigantic swaths of jungle that scientists now debate the "savannization" of the Amazon.

"You can't protect it. There's too much money to be made tearing it down," says Carter. "Out here on the frontier, you really see the market at work....It's like witnessing a rape."

Just a continent a way, the Norwegians also are getting in on the act. But their methods hark back to the colonial days of the 19th century. They've found ways of hoodwinking African chiefs into selling huge tracts of land for a mere pittance.

The project was unearthed when officials found a huge swatch of forest in Ghana being torn down. After making inquiries, they learned that a subsidiary of the Norwegian biofuels company--Bio Fuels Norway--had laid claim to the land and was already busy creating "the largest jatropha plantation in the world." (Jatropha is a small tree with seeds that produce an oil that can be converted into biodiesel.)

According to the African Biodiversity Network, African land grabs are widespread, and usually involve invalid contracts with local leaders executed under the table with all kinds of promises of lucre and influence but without government scrutiny.

Meanwhile, you probably never expected biofuels to raise gender issues. But a United Nation's report warns that women could be the big losers in areas where croplands are given over to biofuel production.

"Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology - gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women's vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated," according to the report. "Biofuel production certainly offers opportunities for farmers , but they will only trickle down to the farm level, especially to women, if pro-poor policies are put in place that also empower women."

Ladies, does that burn your wick at all?


On a brighter note, we were happy to see the Wall Street Journal report recently on suburbanites turning their small plots into farms. Or rather, there's a business to be made bundling suburban yards into food-producing conglomerates. (Sorry, the WSJ does not let us link for free.)

The suburban food movement may come just in time to start providing fresh produce to local schools. In Maryland, lawmakers have embraced the idea and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is ready to sign legislation that would at least expose kids to local farms and even mount posters of local farmers in the lunchroom.

Turns out actually getting the produce onto kids' plates is a bit tougher. Schools are bound by USDA guidelines that sometimes leave them with only 90 cents per meal to spend on food. Bidding laws mean schools often aren't allowed to spend more on produce grown locally.

In addition, many schools no longer have facilities for preparing foods. "The food services in most schools aren't usually prepared to deal with whole foods. They want something that's at least partially prepared and ready to pop in the oven," said Janet Bachmann of the Arkansas-based National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, a USDA-funded agency that promotes local foods in schools.


Finally, adults take note: problems getting decent food in schools has really ticked some kids off.

In Westby, Wisconsin, middle schoolers are boycotting the school lunchroom over the quality of food service. Complaints range from running out of food, undercooked and overcooked food, soft or bruised fruit, portion sizes, overcharging of food items, "foreign items" found in the food, general appearance of some foods and the temperature at which food is served. Students also would rather not use plastic silverware, thank you very much.

“We normally have 245-260 students eating at noon, now we’re in the 40s. This is a major issue,” Westby Middle School Principal Clarice Nestingen told school board members recently.

Schools officials have met with the students and with parents, but the kids aren't budging. In fact, the boycott has spread to 5th- and 6th-graders.

Officials complain that they are already locked into contracts for the food the students have rejected and there's no money to switch to something more appetizing.

We say, Right on kids! And if all else fails, we'll teach you how to make your own!

Bon appetit....


Janet said...

Oh, dear. The update's pretty depressing. However, I was feeling good about our local electronics event yesterday in Lawrence, Kansas, which attached 600 people ( The city here also has household toxic waste recycling available daily "by appointment," meaning they want you to call first. Seems to work pretty well.

grace said...

i was trying to keep track of the farm bill because it has language in it that is relevant for school gardens - then i found out from someone that DC wasn't even included in the farm bill (not being a state and represented at all).

GBVC said...

I love the story about the school kids boycotting their meal service.
I wouldnt like to eat from those canteen trays everyday - I hope they get something better - AND eat it!

Anonymous said...

May I register some feedback on your new highlighting of key phrases? I find them very difficult to read. Or rather, I find the bold items do just what they are supposed to - draw my eye - and encourage me to skip over the rest of the post. I know, I know, people "look at" web pages instead of "reading" them - but I really do read every word of your posts and it's annoying to be lured into reading only the highlights, and then go back and figure out what I missed.

If you are going to do this, please be sure you are really highlighting the most important words. Your "brighter note" section of this post boiled down to "Wall Street Journal...Maryland...Gov. Martin O'Malley." I'd rather have it compress to "bundling suburban yards into food...laws mean schools aren't allowed to spend more on produce grown locally...schools have no facilities to prepare food"

Ed Bruske said...

Janet, the D.C. recycling debacle is still the talk of the town. Officials now are talking about how we might need more collection sites, more often. Duh!

Grace, there's so much D.C. is not included in, it's hard to keep track. Keeping track of the farm bill is a full-time job.

Emily, great feedback, thanks. The bold is kind of a holdover from my newspaper days, when we would highlight people's names in the personality column. I will stop that.

Charlotte, I like the British idea of making cooking classes mandatory. How are Freddie's school lunches, or do you pack him a lunch?