December 2009


While packing for a long drive south, two thoughts came to mind:  1) What if the fire and brimstone preachers are right and all sinners go to hell?  2) Then my flaring eternity will be spent at a Roy Rogers restaurant, alongside an eight lane highway.

The Current Map of Options; Courtesy of Serious Eats

To avoid this version of hell now, I’m researching how to find organic, local food in the towns along our route to New Orleans.  Does anyone have a suggestion how to do this?  I’m all eyes.  Here’s what I’ve found thus far:

Before we leave the Holland Tunnel, New Yorkers have a wonderful resource in www.whatisfresh.com.  It lists all of our local farmers’ markets, including what days of the week they are open and what ingredients to expect when you get there.  Looking in the third week of December, I had no idea so many markets remain open during the winter months.

Now to the New Jersey Turnpike and beyond:  Where do we go from here?

The best bet I have found is the Eat Well Guide.  It’s great for singular destinations — one town or zip code, for example.  The “Plan a Trip” feature, however, is tough to use.  Granted, I’m going a long distance, so pages of results come up, but nonetheless, it’s cumbersome.  I’ve logged in a few stopping points along the route, but I’m afraid it’s not a way to create a map of local, seasonal places from here to Nola.  (I still love you Eat Well Guide, I’m just not sure we’re right together for the long road.)

The second consideration is an iphone app called Locavore.  But it is more for cooks, than diners.  Locavore lists the seasonally available produce, but doesn’t provide any information on nearby restaurants that will cook it up.  What it does have — oddly enough — is running commentary from other app users about what they just ate.  I think Twitter is finally ridding itself of the “here’s what I had for lunch” rep, but don’t worry, you can still follow along here.  Yes, these are my people, but I’m no fan of the dietary playbook.

So, can one find delicious, non-industrial food along America’s highways?  Or is it “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”?

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I’m not usually one to swoon over local government, but the latest initiatives from the Offices of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer are awfully attractive.

In Honor of the Wintry Wind Gusts Today - Image by Crafternoon

This week Quinn introduced a program entitled, “FoodWorks New York.”  According to the press release, “Outside of the U.S. military, New York City is the largest institutional buyer of food in the country.  The Department of Education alone serves over 860,000 meals a day.”

It turns out that the Dept. of Ed. is setting up an increasing number of salad bars in the schools.  Great news — but all the romaine lettuce comes from Maryland and California.  They would buy the lettuce in New York state, however, there are no facilities for washing, cutting, and packing it in our region.  As a result, we’re carting this produce around the country before it gets to New York lunches.  The FoodWorks program aims to fix these broken links in the local supply chain.  In The Case of the Well-Traveled Romaine, the city has plenty of empty industrial space that could house the needed processing facility.

To learn more and read about the five goals of FoodWorks New York, please find the press release here.

The next object of my admiration is the The NYC Sustainable Food Charter created by the Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.  It has been enthusiastically circulated in preparation for the NYC Food and Climate Summit tomorrow.  It means a lot to me to live in a place that sets these priorities for its people.  I’m looking forward to the gathering of the NYC tribes at the Summit.  The Food Charter has set our agenda.

Last night in a small forum opened to the public, the Sustainability Practice Network held a panel discussion, moderated by the RiskMetrics Group, about the future of sustainable agriculture.  The speakers were an important group of corporate and non-profit voices:

  • Michael Doane, Agricultural Economics and Sustainability, Monsanto
  • Ani Gulati, Assistant General Counsel and Sustainability, General Mills
  • Chip Jones, SVP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Dean Foods
  • Jake Baker, Climate Change Investment Research, Deutsche Bank
  • Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance
  • Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

Admission:  I’m inclined to judge these names and titles quickly, breaking them down into “us” and “them.”  Afterall, I grew up as our culture started to summarize complex issues in the few words of a bumper sticker or a t-shirt slogan.  To the credit of everyone involved last night, the panel facilitated a conversation.

Continued below

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

As an easy definition of sustainability, we say it’s when something is good for the three P’s:  people, planet and profits.  In speaking of agriculture, the P in people quickly becomes the P in population.  The human race is expected to nearly double in size to 9 billion by 2050.  No one is sure how we will feed this many.

A question emerged from the panel:  To feed the growing population, do we need to increase food production or can we accomplish this by improving food distribution channels?

To this end, Josh Viertel gave an astonishing statistic:  Last year we made enough food to feed 11 billion people.  “We don’t have a production gap, we have a distribution gap,” he said.

Michael Doane of Monsanto advocated for increased production as the solution.  His company develops biotech seeds — seeds infused with a trait to resist drought or certain pests, for example — that create more prolific crops.  According to him, there are two billion acres of biotech crops around the world.  They are starting biotech rice in China.  (Yes, the biggest crop among the world’s largest population is going biotech.)  Only the Europeans are holding out against this technology.

In response, I understand the quickening of our collective heart rate as we think about a food crisis one generation away.  Many forces are working to address this immediately.  But in the break-neck pace of solution (and market share gain), we risk undermining a delicate ecological system.  Monsanto has a Research and Development department that constructs new seeds to conquer the traditional problems of farming.  But the problem with genetically modified seeds or biotech seeds is that Nature also has its own R & D department.  The biotech seeds may solve a weakness for awhile, but over time, Nature returns with a more robust pest or plant disease.

At very least, biotech does not solve problems for the long term.  At very worst, it irreversibly tampers with the agricultural heritage of which we are the guardians.

We have many compelling possibilities to address food insecurity and planet peril, such as:

  • Improved distribution channels, including the decentralization of food.  More local providers and thus shorter food chains.
  • Vertical Farming:  An urban-based system using closed-loop hydroponics.  Crops are located where the population lives.  We preserve seed integrity and there’s no need for pesticides.
  • Sustainable fish cultivation.
  • Increased global productivity through better farming techniques and training.
  • And the expansion of our growing surfaces:  Rooftops, abandoned lots, etc.

Yes, these other ideas are in the nascent stage of development.  But when we consider what’s at stake — food for human beings — how can we not develop these ideas first?  The answer to the question of whether it is increased production or improved distribution is likely both.

Not at the risk, however, of manipulating seeds when many other workable solutions exist.  I stand with the Europeans on this one.  Readers, I’d love to hear from you.

On an evening out recently, my friend asked our waitress if the restaurant’s beef was corn-fed or grass-fed.  With a minor degree of smug, I nodded at his question.  It showed that we know the facts and we know what to ask for.  Our work was done.

“It’s corn-fed and grass-finished,” she said.

To quote a different, but famous animal from our culture, Miss Piggy: “Humph!”  This meal was going to need a new vocabulary.

According to Michael Pollan in the movie, Food Inc., when we stop feeding cows corn–the common, cheap food of concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs)–the e-coli bacteria in their stomachs is reduced by 80% in about three weeks.  This doesn’t say anything about unnaturally fattening the cows with corn in record time before the transition, but perhaps there is a noble goal here of trying to avoid lethal bacteria.  That’s my best guess for “grass-finished.”  Our server wasn’t quite sure why she’d been instructed to answer in this way.

Continued below

Out on the Range and not in the CAFO

On the Range and Not in the CAFO

This food conversation between three people all well-intentioned, but not fully agreeing in the nuance, got me thinking about the upcoming tables in Copenhagen.  As we invent new phrases in this little corner of the world, what will be the common language of food sustainability there?  May it not be a Tower of Babel.

One international group, The Global Crop Diversity Trust out of Rome, Italy, has issued a document entitled, “Food Security and Climate Change:  A Call for Commitment and Preparation.”  At the time of this post, it is supported by the signatures of 68 international dignitaries.  It may not seem like a large number, but collectively, this circle of experts holds much of the world’s knowledge for the future of sustainable food.  Please take a look at their Climate Change Statement here.  Let’s hope the conference leads to a larger table of communal understanding.