June 2010

One of the great emerging stories in American food is the comeback of the school lunch.  We’re waking up to the idea that our just-add-water starches aren’t working and we need to serve “real food” once again.  Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama rolled out her Chefs Move to Schools Campaign, a visionary plan for our best culinary talent to work with school kitchens.  It’s part of her broader Let’s Move! effort that has the goal of “solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.”  (Read: THIS generation.)  It’s an incredible news story; you’ll find full details here through the blog, ObamaFoodORama.

Yet there are stories told by reporters — and then there are sparks of fire ignited by friends.  Soon after the event, my friend Cathy Conway of Avalon Catering in Atlanta, GA, was tagged in these photos from Mary Moore of The Cook’s Warehouse.  How inspiring to see someone I have long admired — and cooked with in her kitchen years ago! — in the middle of it all.  In response to the photos, Cathy wrote:

“…Ready to dive deeper in my commitment to Grady High School [in Atlanta]…I feel like I can influence these young adults. Teach them: the pleasure of sharing at the table; the taste of a vegetable from the garden and quickly prepared in the pan; the importance of local; the power of voting with food dollars; the influence in their choices…”.

How wonderful to see this local movement happening — a local movement that is happening everywhere.  Congratulations, chefs!  Can’t wait to hear more.

Sea of Green and White

Mary Moore, Cathy Conway and Barbara Petit in the White House Garden

The First Lady with White House Chef Sam Kass

All the scarecrows I know are good at singing and dancing — and eventually — math equations.  And like a good English noun, their name explains their function.  They scare crows.  Songs, math, and directions back to Kansas are frills.

But Brooklyn always has a different take on the usual.  Recently, from the windows of a friend’s house in Williamsburg, I enjoyed seeing what we’ve come to call The Urban Scarecrow.  Or shall we say, The Scarepige?

These are two beautiful urban backyards where the owners have been planting for decades.  The plastic bags are used to scare away pigeons.  I’m told the birds go after the tomato plants, but as you’ll see in the photo below, the spooky bags have them dining elsewhere.

Happy Monday in another lovely week of summer!

Pigeons Be Gone! (Note: Deer in photo is not real)

Dear Readers:  I am thrilled to introduce our guest blogger, Derek Denckla.  He’s an esteemed chief of the urban ag tribe in NYC and it’s an honor to have him contribute here.  Here’s his thoughts from Day 1 of the Slow Money National Gathering in Vermont.  To read more of Derek’s work, see www.thegreenest.net.

The Venue; Photo Courtesy of Shelburne Farms

“Food is the field in which we daily explore our harming of the world.”

— Gary Snyder (as quoted by Woody Tasch)

I am attending the 2nd Slow Money National Gathering in Shelburne Farms, Vermont.  18 months after writing his book, The Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Matter (Chelsea Green), Woody Tasch has organized a growing movement of investors, businesses and farmers to bring his ideas about saving the planet through “nurture capital” through the nascent Slow Money Alliance.

Woody Tasch, Author of "The Nature of Slow Money" at the podium

Slow Money Alliance has developed support for its idea to foster entrepreneurial finance supporting soil fertility, carrying capacity, sense of place, diversity and nonviolence.  It has issued six “Slow Money Principles” that set out a vision of the destructive world of Fast Money and how Slow Money responds and restores balance and peace.

At this gathering in Vermont, Tasch has set a course for action to enact Slow Money Principles across the US.  His goal is to have 1 million people invest 1% of their income in soil fertility in the next ten years.  He announced the creation of the Soil Trust as a first step in this goal, aiming to collect $25 from 1 million people.  The money from the Soil Trust would fund local funds that would invest directly into land conservation and businesses that practice sustainable agriculture.

The conference began with remarks from Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who framed the urgency of the need to invest in a restorative model for agriculture that would address disastrous climate impacts caused by industrial agriculture over the last 50 years.  Repeatedly, he and other speakers emphasized the ways in which industrialized farming harms the air, water and soil as well as our bodies.

Tasch introduced the next two speakers with a reference to the contrasting views on how to grow sustainable food businesses.  “On the one hand, Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface farm, told me that ‘We are not part of an industry, we are a part of a movement.  On the other hand, Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, told me ‘I hate using that word ‘Movement’ for our business.  We are trying to make sustainable businesses that make change on a massive scale which can only be achieved by industry.”

“As far as I see it,” Tasch continued, “I agree with them both and see them as the separate halves of the whole discussion here about how to grow sustainable food business.”

Throughout the amazing day, the speakers represented the luminaries from the sustainable food movement who emphasized the need for investment in differing strategies for changing business as usual.  Joel Salatin, author, farmer central character in Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, spoke about sticking to your principles as a way to deal with scaling your enterprise.  He said that scale was not a problem if you stay true to your beliefs and set goals with your soul not your sales target.  He emphasized that the quality of his product and relationships with customers made his success.

Gary Hirschberg described his beginings as director of New Alchemy, an experimental self-sustaining agricultural center in the 1970s.  “It was a perfect agricultural system with solar heated greenhouses and aquaponics in a closed loop.  But it was not a good business and it failed.”

“I set out to start Stonyfield to correct what New Alchemy lacked: a business. However, it took nine years of struggle before Stoneyfield made a nickel.  297 courageous patient capitalists gave me the funds to start.  Many of them have done very well, as aresult. Today, Stonyfield Farms is a $355 million company.”

Hirschberg went on to say that our economy is based on myths that sustainable business seeks to dispel by facing the real consequences and costs of ignoring the impact of traditional business practices.  Hirschberg described how Stonyfield has adopted changes in doing business step-by-step, incrementally to become more environmentally sensitive.

“Industrial food businesses make their product as cheaply as possible to get the widest margin in order to outspend the competition on advertising.  We spend more on the product, spend close to nothing on ads, and make a better return than most traditional food businesses, like those in our corporate parent, Danone.”  (Stonyfield was bought in 2001 by the Danone Group, a $25 billion food company.  Although Hirschberg retains control over Stonyfield’s business operation.)  Hirschberg agreed with Salatin that quality and loyalty were his best assets.

“This is a critical moment for the food movement.  We are charged with nothing less than saving the world.”  Hirschberg said.  He closed with a Gandhi quote: “Anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.”

All of the speakers conveyed an abiding passion for their work.  Will Rapp from Gardener’s Supply who pioneered composting techniques and greened the Intervale in Burlington, VT. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seeds, who spoke about all the sustainable businesses in his town of Hardwick, VT who meet to discuss issues and how to support each others work. Eliot Coleman, founder of Four Seasons Farm and author of New Organic Grower, outlined his Feast Philosophy with a common sense approach to growing food that delights and nourishes the person and the soil.  Each enterprise presented a different facet of how business might express environmental goals and personal ethics.  The ideas were filled with joy of creativity and life but the moral task was seen in sober terms of war.

It was no accident then, that one of the speakers quoted a war-time President, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, who warned:   “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”  It was a day of ideas that were both sobering and inspiring in equal measure.

Live from the Union Square subway:  A big food message that tips its hat to changing consumer perception.  When I saw this poster, the first thing I thought of was the film King Corn.  The filmmakers explain that grass-fed cows used to take 2-3 years to get fat and ready for our beef consumption.  Once we started feeding them corn, however, they got to the same weight in just 15 months.  By changing the diet of our cows, we’re forcing them into false maturation.  With this, and so many of our industrial food ways, we wrestle nature into the ground.

More and more, activist groups like Slow Food USA, are putting reason back on the table.  It takes time and thoughtfulness to make real food.  This Simply Orange ad isn’t all good, nor all bad.  But it’s interesting to think about its context.  Why would this be their message now?  The food revolution is making its way through the mass media channels.  What do you think?

Live from the Union Square Subway

On an early summer night

Under trees and soft light

The thought came to me

“I am where I wish to be.”

Continued below

Candlelight Dinner for "What's Organic About Organic?"

Some moments are best said in poetry.  This was my impression after the recent premiere of Shelley Roger’s documentary film, “What’s Organic About Organic?”.  The event was held in a precious, private Brooklyn backyard.  On a wide plank table, the hostess offered high notes from local farmers, bakers, and cheese mongers.  Shelley and her “characters” — the people interviewed in the film — along with journalists and bloggers, gathered in front of the screen centered between two trees.

Her beautiful film digs deep into what organic means.  Told through personal stories and official decrees, the word organic can be used many ways.  But this film isn’t interested in what it means to poseurs.  At its core, it’s about the farmers and consumers who vigilantly ensure the integrity of organic.

For example, the wording on grazing pastures for organic cows was once vague.  Some operations were stamping a hoof on grass occasionally, rather than having days in open pasture.  The truly organic dairy farmers were outraged.  As a result of their protests, the USDA strengthened its wording on these practices.  Now the organic label means something again.

Farmers go to these measures for “organic” because they are the stewards of their land and animals.  They serve a community they know.  To explain why they care, Andy Grant, of Grant Family Farms, tells a tough story from his childhood:  He lost his family dog to pesticide exposure.  His little boy perception saw then that something was fundamentally wrong.  Once an adult, he became an organic farmer.

Organic also has cultural importance — in the name of social justice.  To many, the principles also include fair wages and treatment for farm workers.  Wende Elliot of Wholesome Harvest, a co-op of family farms in Iowa, explains that she and her husband go beyond the U.S. organic standards and adhere to international codes.  In doing so, they promise their customers that the workers make a living wage in good conditions.  Similarly, Andy Grant shows his respect for his team as he inspects a box of lettuce packed by his field workers.  Gently handling the lettuce heads, he says, “These guys are artists.”

Back under the moonlight in Brooklyn, the crowd around the table talked late.  In addition to making a film, Shelley and her conspirators, are building a coalition.  These are kindred minds coming together.  It’s not enough to just say organic and go home.  Those who care remain watchful, promising integrity in word and process.

Now our table gets bigger.  If you are in NYC, then pull up a seat.  The team behind “What’s Organic?”  has a wonderful series of events coming in June.  Shelley and many of the people interviewed in the film will be ready for questions.  And together, with Shelley, her characters, and our expanding community for delicious, fair and safe food, we’ll find the answers.