Dear Diary: Our Experiments
It's about that time of year - you know, when you stupidly buy five pounds of zucchini at the farmer's market, or your CSA box or your garden explodes. If you find yourself wondering what exactly you've gotten yourself into when you're standing in front of your refrigerator and you can't see the ketchup or the peanut butter through the greens, you're not alone. I often think I'm insane right about this time every year. Last year, it was tomatoes that pushed me over the edge. This year, it's onions.
I have a foolproof way of managing large volumes of produce that I otherwise would scratch my head over - have a block party and use it up. We're lucky that our (long) street has a get-together every Monday evening in the summer, rotating through yards or in the street with the city sawhorses thrown up. I've often used the Monday night cookouts as a way to dispose of large volumes of produce. When there's thirty or forty people coming, it's pretty easy to make your way through a large salad or grilled veggies with pasta.
Question: Do heirloom tomatoes actually taste better?
Answer: Science says yes.
Summer is in full swing and tomato season is officially upon us. Yes, that’s right, tomatoes do, in fact, have a season. The miracle of modern food distribution has made most of us forget that tomatoes only grow in the hot months. Thanks to sophisticated plant breeding, long-haul trucking, and artificial ripening technology, they are some of the most ubiquitous vegetables (fruits, technically) of the American diet— their pale, mealy, tasteless selves (dis)gracing the sandwiches, salads, and shelves of our restaurants and grocery stores year-round.
Yet, if you’ve ever visited a farmer’s market in the height of summer, you’ve likely spotted a different fruit claiming the same name. Instead of uniformly round, reddish orbs, farmers are selling piles of lumpy, oddly colored things. These would be heirloom tomatoes.
Along with their strange colors and “ugly” shapes, you’ll spot them by their price tag. Heirloom tomatoes often fetch a much higher premium per pound than the ordinary red slicing tomato. Part of it is due to the growing and shipping practices associated with heirloom varieties (smaller-scale farms, non-mechanized harvests, picked ripe). Part of this is due to their popularity with fancy chefs and gourmands. Which begs the question, is the price worth it, or is it just foodie hype?
Well, a recent scientific study is backing up what foodies and farmers have been saying for years: heirloom tomatoes taste better. The flavorlessness of most tomatoes has long been blamed on harvesting and shipping practices—the standard red tomato is actually picked green, “ripened” artificially with ethylene gas, and refrigerated before it reaches your mouth—all of which diminish the flavor. But this study, published in Science, reveals that even without these factors, the ubiquitous red tomato is genetically inferior when it comes to flavor.
That’s because when plant breeders developed tomatoes that ripen into a uniform red hue, they inadvertently bred away the genes that give the tomato most of its flavor. The genetic mutation that allows a tomato to turn a solid red (instead of being spotted or streaked with yellow or green), it turns out, disables genes that allow the tomato fruit to produce its own sugars (instead of just getting them from the leaves) and carotenoids. Uniform coloration is incredibly important to tomato growers because it is demanded by consumers—which means the mutation has been bred into almost all commercial varieties.
Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are grown from seed selected decades ago by home gardeners and botanists interested in flavor rather than high yields and the ability to turn solid red. They don’t have the uniform ripening gene, so their flavors will naturally be more intense and complex. But I didn’t need science to confirm this. In my experience, heirlooms are juicier, sweeter, and tastier than almost any red tomato I’ve ever eaten.
If you’ve never had an heirloom tomato, give it a try. To truly appreciate the flavor, just slice and sprinkle ever so slightly with a bit of sea salt and olive oil. Only you can decide if these pricey orbs are “worth it” in your food budget, but the experience will certainly give you a new admiration for one of America’s most common vegetables.
Question: How do you preserve summer foods in the heat?
Answer: Good question.
While I didn’t try to fry an egg on the sidewalk last week, I suspect I probably could have. The heat wave that blasted large parts of the United States made Pittsburgh a balmy 99 degrees for days on end, with humidity so high that sucked the life right out of my bones.
Of course, this was the week that I had bought two pecks of peaches from McConnells’ Farm and had about eight bags of cherries in my fridge. So while cursing my bad luck and wishing I had a summer kitchen, I made jam and pies and baked in my kitchen with the oven at 450 degrees and a giant canning kettle of boiling water on the stove. While the results were delicious, my wilted self was resigned to sweating indefinitely.
And then I heard of freezer jam. Too late to do it with my first batch of peaches, I intend to give it a try soon to see how the results turn out. I have to admit it’s appealing and undesirable at the same time – the lack of a bubbling witches’ brew steaming up my kitchen would be fantastic, but the point of canning, at least to me, is to be off the grid and still be able to eat something. Shoving jam in the freezer seems like a cop-out somehow, but if we have another heat wave, I will likely be a convert.
Somewhat related is my ongoing bemusement as being one of the only people my age I know who knows how to can because it was a skill passed down in my family (and not learned on the internet or through a book). I’ve taught several people how to do hot-water canning, and have another one intending to get to it one of these days. In my internet travels, I came across this article on community canning centers, and am fascinated by the sense of community around preserving food that seems to be lost. We’re lucky in this town to have the ongoing tradition of church ladies in ethnic parishes making spanakopita and pierogies in the basement, but I know this is fairly unusual in this day and age.
Consider these statistics during World War II:
- 5,000 community canning centers were established across the country – and the centers were used by approximately 1% of the people who canned in 1943.
- In 1942, 64% of women canned food for their household; in 1943, it was 75%.
- Families that canned put up an average of 165 jars of food a year.
Wow. This food preserving method that has been pushed to the margins by massive agricultural and food companies was a regular, everyday part of this country’s food system during the war. It was a way to build community and feed your family. Thankfully, it’s making a comeback (or has never left some of us), but it seems to have a subversive connotation these days, when it used to be so normal.
So maybe I’ll put up with my glistening brow over my canning kettle a little longer. In addition to saving some great-tasting peaches for the winter, I can teach my kids that independence from the corporate food system can be a year-round practice. And at least with a pie, I can walk away from the kitchen’s heat for a little while.
Question: What’s in a Free Lunch?
Answer: A combination of healthy and sugary food and drink
Yesterday I spent some time at a local park with my five-year-old. As we approached the playground, I noticed something going on… birthday party? Weekday picnickers?
A line of children stood wriggling patiently. One by one kids aged 2 – 12 stepped forward to meet a volunteer who squirted soap into their hands, which they then rinsed at a spicket before accepting a small box.
A huge sign announced “Free Lunch for Kids” in huge dark letters.
I asked a volunteer about the requirements for the program. None, she explained. The kids just have to wash their hands.
She asked Miles if he wanted a box.
Shaking his head, “no, thanks. I just need to swing now.”
My experience living – temporarily – among hungry and impoverished families took place primarily outside of the United States. Already struck by difference, it was humbling to share a table with a family who often knew hunger. But my experience with hunger or hungry people in my hometown is limited.
It is troubling.
I observed the kids at the park as they took a box and unpacked the goods.
Just what is in a free lunch?
From what I could gather, the kids received an orange, a small carton of chocolate milk, and a PB&J on white bread (probably enriched).
Not so different from what I serve my kids, although they drink regular skim milk and I use whole wheat bread for sandwiches and toast.
I admit I felt a little uncomfortable standing in line to talk to the volunteer about the program, but I wanted to find out more.
My thoughts scattered like sunflower seeds in the garden bed. Some took root, but most were snatched by a clever sparrow before they had a chance to settle.
The volunteer didn’t blink when she saw me, and I confess to wondering if I looked like I needed a free lunch.
Looking around, most of the kids and their parents or caregivers were African-American or Hispanic. Perhaps six or eight non-Hispanic white families were present.
As we left the park, I noticed they ran out of boxes.
A volunteer scribbled in a notebook. “We’ll need to order more.”
She glanced my way. “Sorry, we’ll save one for you tomorrow!”
“Thank you.” I smiled at her. A teenager herself, I observed her quiet eyes and bright voice.
What brought her to serve our community? Is it her community, too?
Oregon kids and teens (ages 1 – 18) get free summer meals five days/week. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is meant to help fill the nutritional gap that occurs when kids out of school are no longer receiving free or reduced lunch on a regular basis. The meal sites are selected in neighborhoods considered to be high need.
Congress created the Summer Food Service Program for Children in 1968. Funding for meals is provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program.
In this time of ever-restrictive budgeting processes and obscenely partisan dialog in Congress, it is important for those of us who don’t benefit directly from these critical services to consider what would happen if they were to go away.
This post was adapted from an original post at www.sunshineandsalad.com
Question: Can the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model be accessible to low income communities?
The Rodale Institute—founded in 1947 to study the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people—has long been a pioneer research and development of organic agriculture techniques. (J.I. Rodale also founded a publishing company, Rodale Inc., which is responsible for such notable magazines today as Organic Gardening and Prevention) Among other things, the non-profit organization has been conducting the longest running side-by-side study that compares organic agriculture to conventional agriculture. Their research findings continue to be some of the most valuable and practical for organic farmers today.
This year, the Rodale Institute is continuing its legacy of groundbreaking (pun intended) research by moving out of experimentation and into production. Under the leadership of executive director “Coach” Mark Smallwood, they are reorienting the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept in an effort to make it more affordable and approachable for a wider variety of people.
This week, I had the chance to tour the Rodale farm and meet Cynthia James, food production specialist and lead farmer for Rodale’s new Agriculture Supported Communities (ASC) project. ASC builds on the CSA model, but made a few intentional additions and changes that specifically target underserved communities in food deserts. Recognizing that “food access” includes physical access, affordability, convenience, and approachability, the ASC pilot is on its way to great success.
Price and Payment Structure
One of the founding principles of the original Community Supported Agriculture program was that participants would contribute money up front in a pre-paid membership scheme. This would allow farmers to pay for inputs like seed and soil amendments in the winter and spring and ensure a guaranteed market for their goods once things got growing –avoiding a cycle of debt common to many conventional farmers.
However, running anywhere from $300-1000 for a six-month supply of veggies, the traditional pre-paid CSA model is very prohibitive to people without that kind of cash hanging around.
Rodale’s ASC is distinctly different in that it is a completely pay-as-you-go system. Participants sign a commitment agreement at the beginning of the growing season, agreeing to pay $10, $15, or $25 per week for about 26 weeks. In exchange, they get a (correspondingly-sized) box of fresh, organic vegetables weekly.
Food Stamp Ready
ASC participants can In order to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the exchange of benefits and food has to be immediate. In a typical pre-paid CSA, this isn’t the case. With a pay-as-you-go system, participants can slide their EBT cards at the pick-up location just like at a supermarket. This is amazing in terms of providing fresh food access to food deserts, but it also shifts profits of SNAP from “Big Food” to small-scale producers (Check out this Grist article about big corporations like Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Walmart profiting from food stamps).
The ASC makes fresh, organic produce convenient and accessible by providing drop-off/pick-up points within underserved communities. Many CSA programs only offer on-farm pick-ups, or drop-off locations in more affluent urban neighborhoods. Rodale’s ASC has partnered with other organizations to target locations that are already gathering points or community resources. For example, they partnered with the Food Trust to set up a pick-up in Reading, PA at an elementary school in which over 90% of the students participate in the federal free/reduced lunch program. Pick-up time corresponds with the school’s dismissal time so that parents can pick up their food along with their children.
Another distinct facet of the Rodale ASC program is that it incorporates a culinary and nutrition education component. Weekly newsletters and monthly live cooking demonstrations are meant to help participants make the most of their produce.
In its first year, the ASC supports about 150 members with 4 acres of farmland in production. The resources of the Rodale Institute support the trial project, but they hope to make the program self-sustaining. The financial feasibility of this type of model for other farmers is yet to be determined, but the popularity of the program in its early stages (there is already a long waiting list for memberships) indicates that the ASC model will be a valuable part of a growing and changing local food system.
Question: Why is it so hard to sell food from a food truck?
Answer: Outdated regulations, for starters.
Mobile food vending - carts, trucks, the ice cream man - has come a long way from the standard hot dog cart. When I was in college (longer ago than I care to admit), my options were limited to the friendly hot dog guy, Pop the Greek, and the asian 'roach coaches' lined up in front of the library. And I was in heaven - my suburban white bread existence up to that point had never exposed me to pad thai or tzatziki. I still remember the bamboo shoots on my first green curry. And above all, it was perfect for my starving student budget. I could get at least one meal - usually two - for under five dollars.
That basic premise - interesting, (relatively) healthy food, cooked fresh and fast and served inexpensively - seems to be behind the explosion in food trucks in major cities in the past several years. Sure, there's some of the food celebrity cult of personality rolled in, but generally, it's a less expensive and more flexible way to get started in the food business. And I don’t know if it’s because I went to Austin, Mecca of food carts, last winter, or if it’s because I’m friends with someone embarking on a food truck adventure here in Pittsburgh, but now I see them all over the place. (Paris, anyone?)
A quick Google search of ‘mobile food truck regulations’ shows that cities are at least thinking about how to regulate them – Washington DC, New York City, Houston, Denver, Boston, Ottawa, and New Orleans all show up in the first twenty hits, with headlines like “Elk Grove to Consider New Food Truck Laws” next to “Mobile food trucks downtown? Not with Detroit’s archaic vending laws” showing the issues flaring up. Some cities, like Detroit, haven’t updated their vending laws since your daddy was a boy, with great regulations like “Mobile food service establishments and/or pushcarts shall be limited to the preparation and serving of frankfurters, and serving of no potentially hazardous foods, and beverages and commissary wrapped foods maintained at proper temperatures. Mobile food service establishments and/or pushcarts shall be used for no other purpose or business.” That takes you back, doesn’t it?
Pushback from existing businesses also is an issue. Many of the restrictive regulations were put in place to make sure the mobile vendors didn’t draw from brick and mortar restaurants. While this sort of makes sense to me, a hot dog or taco vendor isn’t likely to pull the same clientele – if I want a $3 taco in under five minutes, eaten standing up, I’m not going to go to a sit-down restaurant anyway.
And as the owner of a Washington DC food truck puts it, “if you’re good at what you do, food trucks don’t represent competition.” But they have sometimes been seen as a threat.
So what’s a Korean/Mexican kimchi quesadilla lover to do? If you see a food truck, check it out. Chances are the food is good, reasonably priced, and the person running the truck will be truly happy to have you as a customer.
Food Truck Fiesta (Washington DC)
Also on this topic:
Question: Should we ban supersized quantities of sugary drinks?
Last week I had the opportunity to attend day one of the National Soda Summit in Washington, D.C. Convened by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in collaboration with other organizations, the Summit focused on strengthening the movement to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and share critical research on this issue with advocates, government, state and local policymakers, public health professionals, business leaders, and others who play a role in shaping our policy around food and beverages.
Just a few days before the meeting opened, the Mayor of New York City proposed a ban on sugary drinks in sizes greater than 16 ounces in movie theaters, restaurants and delis. Not surprisingly, food industry and others cried out, outraged by the threat against personal choice. At the Summit, however, the New York Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene received a standing ovation for the bold and radical step forward in the fight to reduce risk of chronic disease and obesity that flies in the face of Big Beverage and its supporters.
To quote Andy Fisher, Former Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition:
“…I think it's brilliant policy because a) research has shown that people will not go back to buy a second soda after finishing one because they would feel piggish in doing so - so it might actually reduce consumption; b) because it hits soda manufacturers' wallets as they make a lot more money on supersized drinks and c) it attempts to shift the culture of normal sizing back to something more reasonable…. let's get real: large amounts of soda are hazardous to your health and cost the public billions in medical expenses for diet related diseases. Virtually everyone, regardless of class, drinks too much soda in America. If the government can ban meth and coke for public health reasons, then it darn well should be regulating the volume of Coke as an equally important public health cause.”
The Summit offered a unique opportunity to focus on a problem that is hurting kids and adults alike: overconsumption of products that offer zero nutritional value. By providing alternative beverages (primarily water) in popular settings such as movie theaters and restaurants, we increase the potential for good health and decrease the risk for chronic disease related to obesity.
Let’s give the NYC ban a chance before we kill its potential to help.
My head is swimming from all of the alert emails, calls to action, and 'call your Senator - or else' emails about the Farm Bill lately. Coming out of the Senate Agriculture committee this week and soon headed to the Senate floor for debate, this bundle of bills sets the national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy for the next five years.
Understandably, groups on all sides of the debate have weighed in. Here's just a few:
- the Environmental Working Group's open letter to the Senate, signed by 70 American food and health leaders to urge Congress to cut crop insurance subsidies
- the Food Resource and Action Center, noting that $862 million is proposed to be cut from the SNAP program
- criticism by Southern farmers that the draft bill does not adequately address their unique farming issues
- positive reaction from a few Big Ag organizations, including the Agricultural Export Coalition, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Farmers Union
And the list goes on. While Big Ag groups seem ok with cutting direct subsidies, it's partly because it will be made up by a more robust crop insurance program. Everyone else - from southern farmers to conservation groups to low income advocacy organizations - is concerned about the continuation of subsidies by another name and the cuts to the SNAP program in the name of 'reform,' among other issues.
While no legislation can please everyone, it still leans too far towards corporate America, and away from helping needy families, for my liking. So I'll be letting my Senators know where I stand on the issue. Read up, and let your thoughts be known.
Image: Senate Agriculture Committee
Question: How hard is it to eat well on food stamps?
Answer: Ask Mario Batali.
Did you hear about the Food Stamp Challenge earlier this month? Celebrity chef Mario Batali and his family of four ate for a week on the same amount of money a family receives in food stamps. That calculated to $31/person over the week, or just under $1.50 a meal. His challenge was coordinated and publicized by the Food Bank for New York City, which was protesting potential cuts to the food stamp budget currently under consideration in Congress.
While Batali got through it, and offered up some recipes on his talk show The Chew to prove that you can cook well on a budget, he got to go back to his celebrity chef lifestyle at the end of the week. The 46 million Americans on food stamps don’t have that luxury.
Which is why I was compelled to follow the Food Bank’s link to write to Congress about this issue (they make it easy to do). And I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that only one of my three elected representatives responded to me – I’m not counting my House rep’s ‘do not reply to this email’ auto-response.
So I figured I’d share some highlights of the response I did get (the full text can be found here), from Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). I have to admit that I’m not up on Casey’s politics, other than his well-known stance of being a pro-life Democrat, but I’m working on that. The meatiest parts:
“The Committee-passed version of the 2012 Farm Bill supports food assistance programs, including The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). I introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill to allow USDA to consider the needs of states and the demands placed on emergency feeding organizations, such as food banks, when purchasing commodities through the TEFAP program. This amendment is included in the current bill. The 2012 Farm Bill also includes provisions to improve access to healthy foods in food deserts and to fund SNAP education and training programs. I have heard from many people about the “heat and eat” provision of SNAP. The Farm Bill permits participating states to coordinate SNAP and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) allowing the LIHEAP agency to provide cash benefits directly to SNAP households. The current version of the 2012 Farm Bill would require at least $10 per year in LIHEAP assistance in order to qualify for the Standard Utility Allowance in the SNAP eligibility determination process.”
While he doesn’t say much about the role of big ag, he does focus on supporting SNAP (food stamps), the strain on food banks, and coordinating SNAP and LIHEAP so that people who need assistance to eat can also get assistance to heat their homes in the winter. I’m going to dig into his positions a bit more to see what I agree with and what I don’t, but Casey’s at least thinking about Pennsylvania’s largest industry, which is more than I can say for Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), who so far is keeping mum on my email.
I recommend doing the same – sending a message to your representatives takes only a minute. If you’re up for a challenge, try eating on $31/week and see how easy it is. But at the least, take a minute to find out where your elected officials stand on the farm bill and food stamps.
Sources for this Blog Post:
Question: Is gardening an effective treatment for depression, and why?
Answer: It’s all in your head! (Vitamin D, neurotransmitters, and your right amygdala)
I have had a stressful few weeks. Did I say weeks? Try months (if not years). I work full time, and just wrapped up my MS in Human Nutrition. I won’t even begin to list my extracurriculars. The last few weeks have been study-madness for my comp exam, and wow have I been looking forward to a less packed summer. Well, right on the heels of my exam, a beloved family pet became ill and passed away. Already way past my stress quota, the heartbreak was rather unseating. Although I am a yoga teacher and trained in stress management facilitation, sometimes practicing these things fall off the table. Usually when I need them most.
My impulse, when this frosting-on-the-cake event happened two Fridays ago, was to crawl under a rock and hide. I mean, take a day off. I needed a day to myself, no people, no obligations, no conversations, maybe a bath, and some good old wallowing in misery. I was also facing the busiest weekend I’ve had in maybe a year. So I cancelled my showing at the health fair I had committed to. I eschewed my post for Digging Deep (sorry guys). I was going to stay home and be miserable, and I was going to like it! Saturday morning I woke up, determined to stay home after dropping off my fiancée at a shiitake log inoculation workshop at our community garden. We drove to the workshop. It was nice and cool, partly cloudy. Well, maybe I could stay a little while...
By 2 o’clock that afternoon I was dirty, smiling, and a little sunburnt. I had to admit that I felt much better than I may have had I stayed home. What was it that helped? A quick check-in and inventory of the day yielded these possibilities: social contact/support, exercise, sunshine, fresh air, a present-moment focus on what I was working on - all things that have been demonstrated to uplift mood. I know I usually enjoy myself when I engage in activities that result in being smeared with dirt as well, but that might just be me.
I know a little bit about how these things support our mood, but thought I’d look for more particulars. Can gardening, in fact, be effective for depression or anxiety, and are my assumptions about why, correct? As it turns out, this is not a new idea, and is in fact a form of therapy and area of study called ecotherapy, where activities like gardening and animal care are used to ease depression, anxiety, and stress. Why does it work? Well, specific biological claims are not being made (that I could find) about this therapy. My guess from what I’ve learned in my studies, is that benefits are due at least in part to the reasons I mentioned above. Sunshine, for example, is similar to phototherapy (the natural equivalent of the artificial replacement). Phototherapy has been found to improve scores on depression rating tests, and is currently used as a depression treatment. It also increases vitamin D3 levels in blood. The research on D3 as a treatment for depression has been mixed, but this nutrient may play a role as well.
Exercise gets a lot of press about its role in treating depression. Studies have found it to work as well as antidepressants in some cases. The mechanism at play here has to do at least in part to hormones and neurotransmitters that are stimulated during exercise, that are related to mood and pain perception. Social support has been linked to prevention of depression or depressive episodes, and present-moment mindfulness practices seem to act on the same part of the brain, the right amygdala, as depression. Interestingly, I even found a study that examined the mechanism behind how playing in the dirt can improve your mood - it has to do with mycobacterium stimulation of the serotonin system, implicated in depression.
The take away here is if you are feeling blue, get thee to a garden pronto and dig something, plant something, or simply roll around on the ground. It’s not a substitute for seeing a therapist or your physician, or their recommendations, if you are experiencing signs of depression, but it can help support you in the general ups and downs of life. The other great benefit is that once your delicious vegetable plants produce, you’ll have highly nutritious food to further support your mind and body. Sounds like a win-win to me.