Dig It: Research

We share what other people are learning about our foods system and fill in the holes with our own experiments.

Learn more

Dig Deep: Resources

We may sound like foodie savants, but there are a lot of people and organizations we turn to for our information.

Learn more

Month Without Monsanto

In 2010, April tried to avoid all Monsanto products for a month. In October 2012, we're doing it with her.

Learn more

Fechez la Vache!

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: Did I have better luck searching for local dairy at my friendly neighborhood co-op?

Answer: You betcha.

When I last was on the local dairy hunt, I hung out with my husband at our local Whole Foods. This time, I escaped my preschooler’s gymnastics class by heading downstairs to our local food co-op. And though I may not have struck gold, I certainly came closer than I had before.

I’ve been shopping at the East End Food Co-op since my college days, when I was scared by labels I didn’t recognize and fumbled over the bulk spice section (thankfully, I never spilled a $25/oz jar of anything while I was there). Now as a frazzled working mom, I still feel not quite crunchy enough to eat there, but the Co-op does a good job in being welcoming to people with and without dreadlocks. Open since 1977, for a long time this was the only local game in town.

co-op_cheeseAnd the dairy section – oh, the dairy section. It is a mecca of local products. In a much smaller space than Whole Foods, the dairy section is a much larger percentage of the store, and fully one-fourth of the cheese section is local. NOM.

While there’s quite some overlap with the local products at Whole Foods, the Co-op has a much larger selection of products from the local providers’ lines. Here’s the lowdown (don’t forget, local in this exercise is in PA and surrounding states, special note for providers within approximately 100 miles):

  • Nine cheese producers, four within 100 miles. Now we’re talking.
  • No sour cream, drat. Maybe I spoke too soon.
  • Two ricotta, both within 100 miles.
  • Two cow’s milk yogurts, neither one within 100 miles. Apparently Philadelphia is the locus of PA yogurt production.
  • One sheep’s milk yogurt and two goat’s milk yogurts, both goat’s milk operations within 100 miles.
  • Four cow’s milk (two raw), three within 100 miles.
  • Two goat’s milk (one raw), both within 100 miles.
  • One butter, half and half, and buttermilk (overlap with one of the milk producers, within 100 miles)
  • No heavy cream. Double drat.


Even without sour cream and heavy cream, that’s twenty-two products from eighteen producers, thirteen of which are within 100 miles. And you can feel like you’re sticking it to the man when you’re shopping there. A much better outcome on this leg of the dairy quest.

Now, who’s up for some cow tossing?

Dig Deeper:

National Co-operative Grocers Association

Photo Credit: East End Food Co-op


Playing Chicken With Food Safety

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Will new poultry processing regulations endanger food safety?

Answer: TBD

chickenThe USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) has proposed a new rule to modernize the poultry inspection process, but the proposal has ruffled the feathers of some industry and consumer advocacy groups (like Food &Water Watch and the American Federation of Government Employees). While the FSIS claims that the new rule will improve poultry inspection and reduce incidence of food-born illness, opponents claim that the changes will endanger food safety and destroy jobs.

I was all ready to write a “yeah, down with the man!”-style post decrying the evils of this new rule, but after taking a good deal of time to read the actual text of the proposal, I had to reconsider my opinion. Like most debates in life, the issue isn’t as cut and dry as pundits on either side would have it seem.

For those of you who don’t have endless hours to read jargon-y documents about obscure regulations, I’m attempting to break it down. This week, I’ll try to suss out what exactly this new rule is all about, and why it might be a good thing. In Poultry Processing Part II (forthcoming), I’ll cover the opposition’s argument and try to draw some conclusions about the complicated matter.

The basics

It is the FSIS that is responsible for ensuring public health by inspecting all meat intended for human consumption for signs of disease, fecal contamination, blemishes, and defects.  The proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule would replace old standards of inspection with the New Poultry Inspection System. The proposal comes out of a 2011 presidential Executive Order mandating that government agencies review existing rules and regulations that may be outdated or ineffective.

The New Poultry Inspection System is based on a pilot program called the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP), which has been running in about two-dozen facilities since 1998. It would decrease the number of federally employed inspectors on each processing line, increase the maximum speed of processing and inspection, and shift sorting duties to processing establishment employees (rather than FSIS inspectors).

In the new system, FSIS inspectors will still be looking for carcasses that seem to either be diseased or contaminated with fecal matter, but they will do so only after establishment employees do a preliminary sorting, removing and disposing of any carcasses that appear to exhibit septecemic or toxemic (aka diseased) conditions. Once the initial sorting has been done, FSIS employees will only be inspecting birds that are ready to go in to the chiller.

Why it might be a good thing

The goal of the new system is to eliminate inefficiencies and redirect FSIS resources to more effective ways of increasing food safety. FSIS estimates that the changes would save the government $85-95 million over three years. In addition to saving money, it should also improve public health. The FSIS claims that this new rule improves food safety by freeing up inspectors from “online” duties and allowing them to conduct food safety-related inspections off the processing line. In comparison studies, FSIS found that in operations following the HIMP guidelines, “inspectors are able to spend more time in prevention-oriented inspections, which better protects the public from foodborne disease.” The HIMP study also showed that salmonella and fecal contamination rates are lower in the HIMP facilities than in non-HIMP facilities.

If these claims are true, then the new rule seems like a great thing for both the government and for consumers. However, major concerns about the changes still abound. Tune in next week for a review of why major organizations like Food & Water Watch and federal food inspectors themselves are adamantly opposed to the changes.

Dig Deeper:


Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection- full text of the FSIS proposal

Let Them Eat Chicken-blog devoted to opposition of this proposed rule

Sources for this Post:

“Poultry Inspectors Protest Inspection Proposal at USDA”-Food Safety News, April 3, 2012

Privatized Poultry Inspection: USDA’s Pilot Project Results”-Food and Water Watch

Photo Credit: USDA.gov


It's Alive!

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: What should I do with veggies that have sprouted before I used them?

Answer: It depends.
It's happened to the best of us. You push a few things to the back of the fridge in the course of cooking, making PB&Js, or putting away leftovers, and when you get around to cleaning things out, there are things growing. Some things are fuzzy and blue, while others are growing roots. While it's a safe bet to toss the moldy bits, I've alwaysIMG_20120408_153205 scratched my head about the things that are growing roots or shoots. Are they salvageable?

If it's a root vegetable or in the allium family, you can do something with it, though it might not be what you expected. Here's the lowdown on a few things you're likely to have in your crisper drawer.

Carrots: Carrots that have started to grow roots and sprout greens can be planted for more greens (the carrot is actually a taproot so once it's pulled, it can't regenerate more carrots). Greens work well for juicing or in vegetable stock, and since carrots are biennial plants, you can let it go to seed and try your hand at seed saving.

Garlic: If a head of garlic has started to sprout, you can separate the cloves and plant in the ground.

Ginger: While it's not likely that ginger root from the store will sprout without help, it can grow plants up to three feet tall.

Onions: If your onion is sprouting, you can't get another onion out of it, but the greens that grow would work well as garnish for salads.

Potatoes: The grandaddy of sprouting veggies in the kitchen, I've had great success with planting the potatoes with growing eyes in a garbage can of potting soil and getting fresh new potato babies in a short period of time.

Turnips: Like carrots, turnips won't produce more turnips, but you can get turnip greens for salads out of the deal.


Links in this Post:

Can I Eat Sprouting Garlic?

Planting Ginger Root

What To Do With Sprouting Onions?

How To Grow Potatoes in a Garbage Can

Grow Carrots from Carrots


Take the lead with lead

Written by Jen Kahn.

Question: How do I find out if lead is a concern in my garden, and what do I do about it?

Answer: Get your soil tested, amend it, plant fruiting plants, and optimize your nutritional status.

It’s about the time of year to get started on my garden.  I don’t have a nice, big, sunny yard, so I put my name on the waiting list for my city’s community garden.  Unfortunately, the one closest to my house is right on a highway, and I was unsure about what that might mean, both for my gardening experience, and for the quality of the soil.  With urban gardening becoming more and more common, lead from this kind of pollution can be an issue - the primary mechanisms for lead pollution being old paint and car exhaust, and lead in soil in urban areas is common.

According to the EPA there is no safe level of lead consumption.  However, lead does not easily absorb into plants, so if your tested levels of lead are categorized as safe, there’s not too much concern, unless you have small children - then the level considered safe is lower than for an adult..  If you’re worried anyway,  vegetables that grow underground (carrots, radishes, potatoes) and leafy greens accumulate more lead than fruit bearing plants.  So plant beans, cucumbers, and eggplant, rather than kale or chard.  You can also get yourself tested, before your garden as a baseline, and periodically to make sure you’re not taking on any toxic burden.

There are also things you can do to your soil to mitigate absorption.  Raising the pH of any acidic soil will help, as lead is more easily absorbed by plants in acidic soil.  Adding phosphorous helps, as it binds with the lead so it’s not available for the plant.  Amending your soil with compost helps too: the broken down plant matter in compost is high in humic acid, a chelator, which buffers soil pH, helps to make important nutrients more available for plants, while binding with lead to keep it from being absorbed.  Your extension department (or whoever does your soil testing) can help you figure out what to do.

If you get your soil tests and the levels are not safe, remove and replace your topsoil (to minimize physical contact) and plant flowers.  Sunflowers and mustard greens have both been found to actually remove lead and other heavy metals from soil (called phytomitigation or phytoextraction), so plant a few crops of those, and retest.

KaleWith any lead levels in your soil at all, it’s important to clean vegetables thoroughly of dirt before eating.  And, eating those vegetables will help protect your body, if you do end up exposed.  Nutrient deficiencies allow for increased lead absorption into your body, while a fed, nourished person will be more resilient.

I ended up deciding that any lead was too much lead for me, and I didn’t want to sit by a highway in the sun anyway.  So I found another garden that is a little more remote.  I can’t walk to it, but I think I’ll enjoy weeding more, and I can focus on the challenge of getting things to grow well (I do not have a green thumb) instead of how to avoid heavy metals.

Dig Deeper:






Taproot Magazine

Written by Kate Darlington.

Title: Taproot Magazine

In a Nutshell: Good for Beginners, Artsy - 5 out of 5 Shovels


With news of major newspapers and magazines going bankrupt and shutting down their print operations, it’s a bit surprising that anyone would try to launch an taproot2all-new, hard copy periodical –but that’s exactly what the folks at Taproot Magazine have done.

As electronic media continues to take over our lives, I’m digging (pun intended) the vibe of this indy publication. Publisher Jason Miller says in an introduction to the inaugural issue, “we believe there’s still a place in this world for something you can curl up with that doesn’t glow in the dark or request that you ‘friend’ or ‘link-in’ with it. We know this is not the prevailing view of the future of magazines, but we’re not afraid to be different.” Taproot is tangible and finite and it proves that print media isn’t obsolete. (And yes, I am aware of the irony as I write this for an internet-based blog).

The magazine is the brainchild of a few back-to-the-land types from Maine and Vermont. It is a quarterly publication “celebrating local living through writing, photography and the arts, both fine and domestic.” Though it’s not strictly about food, food and agriculture do become undeniable themes for a publication “written by and for people living fully and digging deeper; people who are interested in deepening their connections to their families, communities, and themselves as they strive to live locally and closer to the ground.”

Content is multi-disciplinary in a hipster/artsy sort of way: non-fiction prose, beautiful photography, practical how-tos, recipes, poetry, and illustration all have their place. Some up and coming names in the food writing world also grace the pages—I was particularly excited to see contributions from Ashley English, author of Homemade Living book series and Shannon Hayes, author of Radical Homemakers.

Each issue centers loosely on one theme. Issue 1 begins, naturally, with Soil. Some highlights from the inaugural edition:

  • “One-hundred-fifty-nine Spoonfuls of One Soil” -a story of one woman’s trip across the Midwest to visit a museum housing the Uva Turnball soil collection.
  • “The Backyard Battle”-an inspiring account of a backyard chicken keeper and her fight to legalize urban coops.
  • “Feeling Your Way Around the Kitchen” –about the importance of using our sense of touch as we cook, including recipes for massaged kale salad and coconut macaroons.

This magazine definitely isn’t meant for the research and facts kind of folks, but it’s nice to read something every once and awhile that inspires rather than overwhelms, shares rather than preaches.

Oh, and did I mention, there are no ads!

Dig Deeper:

Taproot Magazine Subscriptions


The Great Grocery Debate: The Round-Up

Written by Eric Brach.

This week, we review the reviews, as it were, and try to come to a final answer to our question: where should we go to buy our produce?

The answer, not surprisingly, is that there is no one be-all, end-all answer. The right choice for you depends on what you value most.

If price is your primary concern: go to the supermarket. I wouldn’t have assumed at the outset of this investigation that I’d be saying this, but it really is true: conventional supermarkets buy in bulk and can thus pass the savings along to you. Nowhere can you as a consumer get better bargains and control spending as well as you can as at your local grocery store. Trader Joe’s will suffice in a pinch, as they are quite good at controlling costs, but both the selection and freshness of TJ’s produce are of concern to me, so I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of choosing that store for my fruits and veggies. This goes double – triple? – for buying produce off the back of a truck. But then, you probably knew that.

If you care most about selection: the farmer’s market is for you. As Adam Smith first noted, in a well-functioning free market, firms will compete for the business of the buyer, and no market is freer than a farmer’s market. Given the fact that most small farms focus on small, specific varieties of produce, even a smaller farmer’s market will likely offer you greater choice than even the biggest brick-and-mortar stores.

If time is tight in your busy schedule: the CSA is your best bet. You waste no time selecting or standing in line; you place your order, then swing by and pick it up at a scheduled time that’s convenient for you. You’re sacrificing autonomy, but in return you’re saving that precious resource of clock ticks, and you might just get exposed to some new favorite fruits and vegetables, too.

If you have plenty of time, or plenty of money: go to Whole Foods. Another answer I never thought I’d give when I started out, Whole Foods really is the gold standard for produce – still. If you’ve got time on your hands to bargain-shop, or if you just don’t worry much over the price of your groceries at all, Whole Foods really is the best place to go to get fruits and vegetables. One reader – who identified herself as “an old-time hippie who used to work at New York City’s first vegetarian restaurant way back when” – had this to say: “The produce section at Whole Foods is beautiful. It’s filled with good aromas. It puts people in a good mood – myself included! Sometimes I go there just to browse.”

This, too, surprised me – the amount of reader response this little inquiry generated. A reader in Colorado responded to my original Trader Joe’s post, noting that she used to work at the chain and found my reporting on their produce problems spot-on. Multiple readers wrote in to suggest that I visit an ethnic grocery store (Middle Eastern, Asian, or Latino) to find new options and great deals, and while I eventually decided to exclude such a visit because of the wide heterogeneity of such stores across the country – what value is my report if it doesn’t hold water in my readers’ necks of the woods? – I still think the idea is a good one, and I recommend that you fellow fresh fruit and veg sleuths out there take it to heart.

Myth busted? Problem solved? Perhaps not. But at least you health-hungry single shoppers and head-scratching new dads and moms can now be aided by this guidepost along the path – or, rather, the produce aisle.


More Posts:

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 7: The Local Farmer's Market

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 6: Trader Joe's

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 5: Whole Foods

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 4: The Random, Shady Produce Truck

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 3: Ralph's, Your Conventional Neighborhood Grocery Store

The Great Grocery Hunt Pt. 2: CSAs

The Great Grocery Hunt

Member Login

Support Us

With your help we'll keep digging to de-mystify questions about food science, safety, sales hype, and highlight solutions. Click here to give.

We launched thanks to more than 100 friends who gave $5,000 to fund our kickstarter.com campaign and super-fantastic pro-bono contributions from our website designers and public relations guru - check out our list of wonderful supporters.

Thanks to all who choose to support our work. We welcome and need your help to keep our site live and spread the word. All donations that exceed our modest technical, supply, and PR costs go straight back to the community as gifts to Heifer International.

Click here to give.