Sunday, May 25, 2008

Weekend Update

Once again attention focused on the farm bill as Congress easily overrode President Bush's veto and moved forward with plans to continue stuffing the pockets of big, influential landowners. There was a skunk at the party, however, as Congress realized that the bill they sent the White House was missing an entire section. Will they have to pass it all over again?

The farm bill designates hundreds of billions of dollars for programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With all that money sloshing around, you'd think the USDA would have plenty to maintain its programming. Yet in various odd and unforeseen ways, the Bush administration seems bent on eliminating programs that promote the public interest.

We recently reported on plans to gut the budget at the National Arboretum, a jewel of a green space here in the nation's capital. Now it emerges that the Bushites also plan to discontinue the federal government's database on agricultural pesticide use.

Anyone--scientists, researchers, public interest groups--wanting to know how much of a certain pesticide is being spewed into the atmosphere could in the past turn to the annual Agriculture Chemical Research Reports. The reports, while hardly the stuff of headline news, have helped show that genetically modified crops that are supposed to help farmers achieve weed-free croplands have actually spawned new types of herbicide-resistant weeds, resulting in more and more chemicals being sprayed onto the land.

Evidence continues to mount on the many ways that pesticides affect humans, including links to cancer and reproductive abnormalities. But apparently the USDA under Bush would just as soon the public not know how industrial agricultural is fouling the environment.

We are counting the days....

*****

The Washington Post this week unleashed a five-part, front-page series on childhood obesity and the news is not good. Kids continue to get fatter at an alarming rate, raising the possibility of an entire generation with a life-span shorter than its parents'.

Even in elementary school, children now suffer high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians' offices; even a spike in child gallstones, an ailment once reserved for adults.

What emerges is the picture of a society that has been sleep-walking where its children's health is concerned, acquiescent to a corporate food industry that is just as happy to sell junk to kids for a quick buck. Schools are still plagued with vending machines full of potato chips and sodas, and food advertising directed at children is still dominated by unhealthful products.

The situation is most dire in poor neighborhoods, where the primary source of food often is the corner convenience store. In one particular ward here in the District of Columbia, fully 80 percent of children are overweight. But even in wealthy suburbs, parents have nowhere to turn for help fighting the obesity epidemic.

"There's a huge burden of disease that we can anticipate from the growing obesity in kids," said William H. Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is a wave that is just moving through the population."

What's missing is any kind of coherent federal policy aimed at the health of our children. The truth is, we've seen this coming for more than forty years and did little about it. Surgeon General Steven Galson calls it "a national catastrophe."

*****

While we're on the subject of obesity, we have this item from our Responsible Food Service department. It's the Baskin-Robbins Heath Shake.

I swear, we are not making this up. The large version of this monster--32 ounces, a full quart--weighs in with 2,310 calories, as much as most adults need in an entire day. A whopping 970 of those calories are fat. In fact, with 64 grams of saturated fat, one "shake" contains more than triple your recommended daily dose. But wait, there's more. Just in case your blood pressure isn't high enough, you also get 1,560 milligrams of sodium or 65 percent of the recommended daily intake for a person consuming 2,000 calories a day.

Needless to say, the ingredient list reads like a chemistry experiment with plenty of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated coconut oil. So thanks, Baskin-Robbins. We'll be sucking on one of these while we're digesting all the information in the Washington Post series on obesity.

*****

While Americans continue to get fatter, they also waste an astounding amount of food. Would you believe that 27 percent of all the food available for consumption in this country gets thrown in the trash? That's a pound a day for every man, woman and child. Twelve percent of all the trash shipped to landfills is food.

And all that rotting food produces methane, a major greenhouse gas. Some cities, such as San Francisco, are exploring ways to turn wasted food into compost.

The huge portion sizes served at restaurant is partly to blame. But the bulk of uneaten food consists of fresh produce, milk and grain products. Skyrocketing food prices may prove a blessing. Americans may actually start to eat less, and finish everything on their plate.

*****

While the USDA doesn't want us to know how much pesticide is being sprayed on our foods, a Florida company is being accused of using every trick in the book to bring pesticide-tainted peas into the country.

A Florida grand jury indicted importer Fresh King on charges of using fake importers, false invoices and rigged lab tests to evade a pesticide alert on peas imported from Guatemala.

As part of the scheme, according to the indictment, Fresh King stored crates of rotting peas, yams and squash in its warehouse and presented these to U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors for destruction when pesticides were detected. Meanwhile, the company had already sold Guatemalan snow peas and sugar snap peas potentially containing traces of methamidophos and chlorothalonil to its clients.

We are so glad to be growing our own peas....

*****

With all the talk of childhood obesity, one school district--Boulder Valley in Colorado--is looking at ways to ditch the junk and start making meals from scratch. Schools officials have hired chef Ann Cooper--founder of "Lunch Lessons" and director of food services for the Berkeley Unified School District--to conduct an evaluation.

“We’re going to be looking at how to reinvent food service by switching to a scratch-cooking environment,” said Leslie Stafford, chief financial officer for the district and co-chairwoman of Boulder Valley’s school food committee. “We would like to move away from processed foods and into serving more whole foods.”

The survey is expected to suggest ways for Boulder Valley to improve student dining by providing fresh meals, buying local ingredients, making facility upgrades and possibly building a central kitchen that delivers meals to a majority of district schools.

“It’s a fairly large overhaul,” Stafford said.

Good luck, and bon appetit....

2 comments:

alex said...

I found your blog through your popcorn "recipe" and just wanted to comment to say how much I liked this blog. Also, do you watch Dirty Jobs? One episode was about the trash in Chinatown in San Francisco and it was excellent. If you want to know more about how much they recycle and how its processed you should check out the Discovery Channels website to see when that episode is on in your area. Makes me upset the rest of the country can't do the same

Ed Bruske said...

San Francisco is leagues ahead of us in the recycling and composting departments.