Dear Diary: Our Experiments


The Soda Tax, Part 2

Written by Sara Padilla.

Question: Should sugar-sweetened beverages be taxed?

Answer: Yes

Last week I explored the basic arguments around taxing soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages in order to reverse and prevent the obesity epidemic and associated health problems. It’s no great secret that soda offers little to no nutritional value, and when consumed in excessive quantity, is a causative factor for overweight and obesity.

sodapopIf we tax sugar-sweetened beverages by one penny per ounce, consumers will both purchase less and consume less of the product.

Why? Based on evidence from several states, we know that a tobacco tax increase decreases smoking, increases revenue, and improves the state's overall health. The same positive outcomes are highly likely if we place a moderate tax on soda. In addition to reduced consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, revenues generated by a modest tax could be spent on programs currently funded by taxpayers to cover extreme medical costs due to overweight and obesity. Everyone saves!

Who doesn’t like this idea? The soda and beverage industry, for starters. But it’s time for a change. The consequences of providing cheap 24-hour access to junk food and soda are dire, and must be addressed before they get even worse. Taxing soda is a meaningful way to make a positive change that will not eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages nor place undue hardship upon the people that buy them. It will, however, give an economical nudge to the consumer and present a tangible reminder that healthier alternatives exist. Water, for example. Low or no-fat milk. Juices that are made from one hundred percent squeezed fruit.

What about other products based on sugar as a main ingredient? This is an important issue for discussion, and I believe one that will require additional research to figure out how best to price these products. For now, we have identified a key product (soda) and a research-based taxation model that we know has great potential for making change.

Taxing soda is a viable option to reduce obesity and improve our nation’s health. Unfortunately, momentum for introducing and passing soda taxes has “fizzled out”. Let’s bring back this important issue into the conversation about food security and health.


More Posts:

The Soda Tax, Part 1

Sources for This Blog Post

"Spread of Soda Taxes Fizzles," By Josh Goodman, Stateline, 2/14/12

"Chicago Soda Tax Hike? Alderman Wants Higher Price Tag on Sugary, Energy Drinks" 2/17/2012 Huffington Post

New Survey: Majority of Americans Oppose Soda Tax; Support Strongest Among the Young, the Wealthy, and the Thin" By Trevor Butterworth, 2/8/12, Forbes


Pleased to Eat You, Mr. Chicken.

Written by Jazz Glastra.

Q: Is it worth the time and trouble to get a local, pastured chicken instead of buying whatever is at the grocery store?

A: Yes

I’m on a mission to find my chicken, and no, I’m not talking about searching for an errant hen that crossed the road. This is all about finding a source of chicken meat that doesn’t make me nauseous with guilt, but also doesn’t drain my bank account. As a recent college grad, I’m struggling to establish a lot of things in my life—my career, relationships, habits—and one of the most important of these is my commitment to eating sustainably, humanely, and healthfully. As someone who has lived the majority of her life eating food that others have shopped for and prepared, I’m coming to realize that it takes a strong will to stay true to my values when it comes to food. One of my biggest downfalls so far has been chicken, but I’m ready to make a change.

Somehow, my boyfriend and I got into the habit of buying lots of cheap, industrially produced chicken from the grocery store and eating it every other night. Lately my conscience has been gnawing at me though, so I announced a moratorium on Perdue and similar industrial chicken brands (here’s why.)  Antibiotic use in industrial chicken farming allows extreme overcrowding—without it, the birds would die from sickness resulting from their living conditions. Organic birds cannot be given any antibiotics and therefore can’t  be raised in such overcrowded barns, so we switched to organic. While buying organic was a start, it was also a startling price jump at around $8 a pound. Meanwhile, conventional chicken breast is often available for $2 pound. At those prices, it’s pretty tough to argue for organic chicken even when I know that it’s better for me, the chickens, and the environment.

Still, if I was going complain about the evils of the industrial food system, I knew I had to do whatever I could to distance myself from it. I galvanized myself by watching Food Inc., which is designed to shock audiences with the deplorable practices of food corporations like chicken growers Tyson and Perdue. While the documentary was certainly convincing, I also noted the overall negativity of the film. It does feature snippets of hopeful footage, but its emphasis is on the depressing, the disgusting, and the dastardly. What I wanted was to feel good about my food, instead of just not feeling awful.

Enter Mr. Chicken (as I have dubbed him): a local, pasture-raised bird from Dominion Valley Farm, about 45 miles from my home. I arranged to purchase a whole frozen chicken at Milwaukee’s Winter Farmer’s Market and proudly came home with a frozen 5 pounder. Located fairly easily by consulting this handy-dandy local food finder, my new chicken lived a normal, chicken-y life before being processed by a local butcher about 35 minutes from the farm. While his feed was not entirely organic, Mr. Chicken is definitely a great step in the right direction. At $4 a pound, I’m getting a much better value than I did with grocery store organic, though it’s true the whole weight is not all white meat, our favorite part.  Still, we figure on getting about 3 meals or so out of this sucker—roasted chicken tonight, chicken salad tomorrow, and soup from the carcass in a couple days. Three meals for twenty dollars? I’ll take that. It’s going to take some extra work on my part, but most good things in life do. I’ve shaken the farmer’s hand that feeds me and asked many questions about Mr. Chicken’s life. I feel good about this purchase; really, what more could I ask for?

Dig Deeper:

Food, Inc. the movie:

Cage-free? Free Range? Organic? What does it mean!?

Find your own Mr. Chicken:

Sources for this blog post:


This Little Piggy Went to Market, Part 3

Written by Jen Kahn.

Question: So what DOES it take, to make a local Farm-to-Table restaurant work?

Answer: Hard work, love, and a kick#$% team.

If you’ve been following my posts, I’ve been writing about a Farm to Table restaurant in my hometown: The Piggery (Ithaca, NY).  I’ve talked about how it came to be, and about the part the customer doesn’t get to see (all about pigs and red tape).  This week I’m digging to the heart of it to talk about the essential ingredients for this recipe to work.

LocalMeatThe first item on the list?  Hard work and loving what they do. Owner Heather was clear in communicating that this work is (in her words) a “gigundo project”. She and her husband work 15 hour days, six days a week to run their farm, butcher counter, and restaurant.  Creating the business the way they want - feeding the animals well, buying high quality ingredients for the deli, and providing a living wage work environment - also requires high spend and tight margins. They love what they do and they bust their tails to keep it going.

Good research is another requirement.  Deciding how to raise the pigs, and how to build the business requires a ton of research and information gathering.  They read, go to conferences, talk to other farmers and producers. Knowing their priorities. Heather and Brad chose to prioritize local, quality, sustainable over getting to be ‘organic‘ because that was a better fit with their values and vision. I would add flexibility to the list here. Heather said that The Piggery as it is today wasn’t a part of their original vision.  They’ve had to change and adapt their business plan as they found their niche.  Luckily, they love it, and their passion for sustainable meat, great food, and our local community makes everything possible.

You might be wondering about the biggest challenges this type of small business faces (I did).  Number one? Resources. Making this all work is highly dependent upon the infrastructure they’ve established.  They make use of a small USDA slaughterhouse nearby.  If that disappeared or could no longer accommodate them, they’d have a big problem.  Same goes for customer demand, resources in the way of other local producers, etc..  And speaking of customers...keeping up with customer demand is another challenge (a nice one to have).  One thing I noticed is that they seem to be taking it one step at a time.  They’ve expanded their hours slowly.  They still do not serve breakfast past 11 am (despite customer whining - this customer at least), as they don’t have the ideal kitchen to do so.  I don’t know a ton about managing a small business, but I understand that a slow and steady approach is favorable to starting out huge and not being able to keep up.

And the number one, most important, top essential ingredient? The people!! They have a great team they can trust, with low employee turnover. They have many local farms to choose from as suppliers for the deli part of the business.  And the customers? When I was there last Saturday the tables were packed, the deli, drive-through, and meat case all had lines (Yes Virginia, you CAN get both a sustainable pasture-raised carnitas burrito, AND a pound of cranberry sage sausage at the drive-through, but you’ll have to wait your turn).  The customers created room and support for a business like this to exist.  This is a true example of the community saying ‘if you build it, (they) will come’, and they did come, and they keep coming.  My big personal takeaway here is that we really can create our environment through speaking up and putting our money where our mouths are... and our mouths around food whose processes and priorities align with our values.

Dig Deeper:

Agriculture and food systems: Cornell University Extension

Heritage breeds: Sustainable Table

Mob grazing: Mississippi State University Extension Newsletter

Tri-State Swine Nutrition Guide

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service regulations and policies

USDA State Inspection Programs

Northeast Organic Farming Association

Living wage employment in Tompkins County

The economic impact of local living wages


Guest Expert: Matt Young, Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre

Written by Matt Young.

"Matt "Mateo" Young served as Urban Food Infrastructure Coordinator with the Santa Fe, NM-based Earth Care & their Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre Americorps Training program during its 2010-2011 pilot year. Matt is currently a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH, concentrating in 'Advocacy for Social Justice & Sustainability.' Matt is also launching a fresh bread venture, Young Bread Works: Bread With Depth and blogs about foodstuffs at The Curious Omnivore.

Question: How can we work to alleviate hunger in New Mexico?

One solution: The Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre

Santa Fe Youth Cadre“Dios Mio! These apples are yummmmmmy!,” shouted a Santa Fe Community Garden volunteer, Sarah.

A balmy September sun shone down on a former rogue city landfill now turned into an acre-upon-acre community garden on the West Side of Santa Fe. Within 10 days of our Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre's first meeting we had served at a local soup kitchen, toured school gardens, and were now serving the Garden by gleaning uber-fresh apples for community food banks such as the Santa Fe Food Depot before they fermented beyond familiarity.

Sarah joined a handful of Santa Fe University of Art & Design students, local Santa Fe high school students, and other community members who were picking the fruit. From where we gleaned, one could choose to see only the green leaves and red fruits. Yet, with just the slightest turning of one’s eyes, so much more came into view and perspective.

Beyond the dry arroyo (river bed) of the Santa Fe River, one could see the upper roof of the newer Agua Fria Elementary School, long in need of building for a growing population in the City’s West and South Sides. Further beyond, one could make out the southern limits of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristos. Turning one’s head another 90 degrees would open up a high desert landscape, gorgeous in vista yet desolate in the scattered vegetation of gramma grass and cholla cacti that covers most of central New Mexico’s landscape.

On that warm September day, we could glean apples at their peak of fruition in a lush pocket of green. How? New Mexico hosts an arid climate - there are definitive desert landscapes within the “Land of Enchantment.” But there are also the upper stretches of the Rio Grande River, fed by snowmelt from the Sangre de Cristos and adjacent Jemez Range. Furthermore, pre-Columbian Native Pueblo practices in dryland agriculture followed on by colonial Spanish import of acequias, canales, and other irrigation systems that detoured water from existing tributaries through farmlands and back into the larger watershed all took shape over centuries. Such snowmelt, alongside the sporadic summer storm bursts and odd spells of rain, and a unique Southwest climate allow the state to generate over $2.1 billion dollars in agricultural income in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet, while New Mexican farmers generate this income on a spread of 21,000 farms & ranches occupying over 43.2 million acres, another reality emerges. According to independent research released in a report from Dreaming New Mexico, the state ranked 5th in most food-insecure states in the all of the United States.  Over 300,000 New Mexicans go hungry daily.

A variety of factors shape these disparities, including but not limited to an average travel distance of 30-40 miles one-way from “home” to “supermarket,” concentration of capital in larger farm operations and thus diminishing returns for diverse, smaller farms, and many more factors.

The Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre in its pilot year began coming to grips with how we could raise awareness of such hunger. We worked with the Santa Fe Public Schools, the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, the City of Santa Fe Environmental Services Division, and other community partners.

We cleared and laid beds for future home gardens in public housing plots. We created and taught local, healthy eating & nutrition habits in curricula from elementary through high school levels. We helped organize “Cook With the Chef” events at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market to further highlight community bonds in cultivating a local foodshed. Yet, we especially got out to community farms across Santa Fe County. At times, with infrastructure dating back decades and much in the way to plant, weed, and harvest, our weekly “farm days” were the least we could do.

So, while high desert surrounds the Santa Fe Community Garden, at least one green pocket in a series of growing green pockets and elsewhere in Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, and New Mexico starts to blossom. If more and more community partners, more volunteers like Sarah can experience the fresh goodness of local apples or delve into any other number of localizing food missions, then we just might start realizing what Adelle Davis once wrote:

We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are. -Adelle Davis, American author & nutritionist (1904-1974)


Dig Deeper

Earth Corps' Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre

Dreaming New Mexico

New Mexico Farm to Table and the New Mexico Food & Agriculture Policy Council inform the Food Cadre’s work.


Something Fishy With The Seafood

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Was the fish on your plate caught by slaves?

Answer: We can’t know for sure (and that’s the problem).

The last time I went to buy fish from the grocery store, I got so overwhelmed that I nearly gave up on the effort. Conventional neighborhood grocers provide little information about the fish they offer at the seafood counter. Even when they do offer info about origin or catch method, it’s hard to decipher what it all means-- and what is the best for our bodies, our environment, and our budgets. 5268939129_daa84116dd

And little did I know, I now have to worry about the human rights implications of my seafood purchases as well. I just read a recent investigative journalism piece in Bloomberg Businessweek that exposes rampant labor rights abuses aboard foreign fishing vessels. According to the article, several fishing operations in New Zealand have been manning their boats with what amounts to modern day slave labor. Indonesian men are hired by employment agencies to work on foreign-chartered vessels (FCVs) fishing off the coast of New Zealand. Coerced into signing contracts that strip them of all labor rights, the fishermen are sent to work in grueling conditions, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and denied their wages. The fishermen are threatened with physical violence and economic ruin should they choose to complain to authorities or run away from the ship.

Several major food retailers --including Costco, Sam’s Club, Safeway, P.F. Chang’s, and even Whole Foods -- have been linked to New Zealand-based companies that charter the FCVs accused of practicing slavery. The frustrating thing, though, is that even the most dogged investigators have a hard time proving exactly where the suspect seafood ends up. Because of the long supply chain and the confusing network of employment recruiters, boat owners, fish processors, wholesalers, exporters, distributors, and retailers, it’s basically impossible to actually track the offending fish all the way to the dinner plate. The best we can do is conjecture.

For example, P.F. Chang’s buys squid exclusively through Turner, a California-based importer. Turner bought over half a million pounds of squid from United Fisheries, New Zealand’s eighth largest seafood processor. United Fisheries, in turn, sources their seafood from foreign-chartered vessels, including the South Korean Melilla fleet. Employees on the Melilla boats have reported extensive labor and human rights abuse, including indentured servitude and slavery. Incidentally, squid is one of the primary species that the Melilla crew catches. So is there something fishy with your order of calamari? Quite possibly.

I hate to end on such a depressing note, so I will say this: There are other options. In the Philadelphia area, where I live, Otolith Sustainable Seafood provides a direct link between consumers and environmentally responsible fishermen operating in Alaska. Through a Community Supported Seafood (CSS) model, Otolith can assure100% traceable seafood. This means no questions as to either the harvest methods or the labor conditions. Check out to see if there is a Community Supported Fishery near you.

Dig Deeper:

Read the whole story – The Fishing Industry’s Cruelest Catch, by E. Benjamin Skinner

Download a Seafood Watch pocket guide to help you make sustainable seafood purchases.


The Great Grocery Hunt pt. 4: The random, shady produce truck

Written by Eric Brach.

Question: Should I buy produce from that truck I sometimes see parked down the road from my house?

Answer: If you’re buying more than an apple to go, probably not.

PC1_2012-02-20_11-31-42-652I was on my way to Whole Foods for the latest installment of this experiment when I passed a mobile produce truck. You probably know the kind – I used to see these in Washington, DC and Austin, Texas, and since I see them now in L.A., I have to assume they exist in most American cities. They have a vaguely Latin American vibe, and they seem impossibly inexpensive. Since I’d never shopped at one before, save to buy a serendipitous banana or pear on the go, and I found myself in the middle of this experiment, I thought I’d call an audible and see what a purchasing trip at one of these trucks would net me.

Curious? Read on.

Variety: I got a number of things I might not otherwise have gotten. Tomatillos? Chiles? Mangos – the good kind? I never buy these things at real grocery stores. However, you’ll notice that there’s only one vegetable in this whole group. That was partly due to the fact that this truck’s lettuce, for instance, looked like it was long past its prime. Which provides a good segue to the next two categories… 6/10

Selection: Necessarily limited. I mean, it’s the back of a truck. How many choices are you really going to have? The convenience factor is fine if you happen to be there, but otherwise, your choices are quite limited. There were no nice peppers, beans, mushrooms, or leaf vegetables to speak of. 2/10

Healthfulness: I’m really not sure. I mean, where did this stuff come from? How long ago was it picked? I have no idea, and I’m not sure there’s any way to find that info out if the vendor’s unwilling to share that info. Is this all resale from CostCo purchases? Is it leftovers from a grocery supply vendor? Did it “fall off the back of a truck?” I just don’t know. What I do know is that I didn’t buy any lettuce because it was pretty brown and wilted, and these two cucumbers were the only once that weren’t sad and tired. The grapes lasted less long than I expected, too. I ought to note that the mangos, even at the end of the week, were still outstanding… still, I’m concerned that these fruits and veggies were not quite at their peak. 5/10

Tastiness: Despite my reservations, I have to give credit here: the avocados were creamy and delicious, the mangos had great flavor and kept it for days, and even the pears – which I usually never buy, because they’re almost always hard and flavorless, or else mealy and off-putting – were the best pears I’ve had outside of Harry & David package shipments. The chiles had punch, too. 9/10PC2_2012-02-20_11-49-21-949

Value for the Money: Yeah, it was pretty cheap. I was able to buy everything there that I could want, and it still cost only $12. My grapes and cucumbers wrinkled up pretty quickly after I got them home… still, it was pretty cheap (had I avoided the mangos and avocados, this bounty would have been less than $8). 8/10

Final score: 6/10. Tasty, cheap, and quick, but you really can’t do your regular shopping at one of these guys. At least not if you actually do like to eat lots of veggies, that is.

Next week: Back to our regularly scheduled food programming: a brick and mortar store.


Making money grow on (apple) trees

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: How much money can I really save by growing my own vegetables?

Answer: I’ll keep you posted.

Eating organic can get expensive, fast – especially in a region where farmers’ markets are only running six months of the year. Add to the mix picky kids and a husband whose diet is more Paleo than not (and who gets wild hairs up his rear about health crazes on a regular basis), and there have been months where my grocery bill is comparable to my mortgage. Ouch.

This year, I’m trying to do something about it. I’ve gardened since I was a kid, have enough space to grow a decent amount of food in my yard (as long as I get creative), and located a friend who is eager to help with the gruntwork. I also have harnessed my minions, who are paying me back for having given birth to them by helping me plant seeds in recycled pots.

Because my family is trying to be more budget-conscious this year, I’m keeping track of my spending on this project. In years past, I’ve planted peas, corn, tomatoes, and some herbs. This year I’m going whole-hog, with a list of vegetables and herbs we can grow from spring through fall. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m also copping to a moment of insanity where I decided to buy three apple tree seedlings so I can grow them into a fence – my biggest expenditure so far.

You can find my expenses to date here – at about two-thirds of the way through my shopping list, I’ve spent $206.12 ($125.97 of which was apple trees). For the volume of seeds/seedlings I’ve purchased to date, I think the cost has been pretty reasonable. I’m shaking my head mostly about my lack of restraint regarding cucumbers and lettuce. On the other hand, nine varieties of tomatoes seem perfectly reasonable to me.

seedling_potsI didn’t count on the amount of space it takes in your house to start this many seeds. We’ve rearranged our dining room and commandeered our table to become our seedling factory, and there’s still no way we can fit all the seedlings we plan to grow in that space. Here’s hoping staggered planting times actually work. And if you have any suggestions about how to keep the crazy dog off the table, please let me know.

I haven’t harvested anything yet, though the onions I planted in the fall have been happily growing throughout this mild winter. Once I start getting produce, I plan to compare my goods to prices in the grocery store to see if I’m getting my money’s worth. Here’s hoping the deer don’t get to the goodies first.

Dig Deeper:

Kitchen Gardeners International


The Soda Tax, Part 1

Written by Sara Padilla.

Question: Should sugar-sweetened beverages be taxed?

Answer: TBD

Coca-Cola. Pepsi. Orange Crush. Canada Dry Ginger Ale. All of these items have something critical in common which shouldn’t surprise you. The main ingredient in each of these products is sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which by definition is a sweetener made by processing corn syrup. soda

In order to reduce and prevent obesity and associated health problems, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) has been proposed by the public health community. Revenue generated by such a tax would be used for obesity prevention initiatives and other health programs. Research suggests that a one-penny per ounce tax would impact the purchase of SSBs, causing a decline in its overall consumption among Americans.

There are a few problems with consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages that are well documented. First, SSBs contain little to no nutritional value therefore providing “empty” calories. Let’s use Coke as an example. The Coca-Cola website indicates that one serving of Coke contains 97 calories. This isn’t excessive. However, according to the industry, one serving = 8 oz. Unfortunately, a can of Coke = 12 oz. A typical plastic bottle marketed to one person contains 20 oz. I have yet to see someone purchase a bottle of soda and then whip out two or three cups in which to share. A Big Gulp product (sold at the national 7-11 chain convenience store) contains a whopping 40 ounces of soda, or five full servings. Let’s not even do the math for a Super Big Gulp. It’s clear that by consuming extreme quantities of a nutritionally deficient product, we are positioning ourselves to experience a host of health related problems including greater risk of obesity and associated chronic disease, dramatic energy swings related to sugar and caffeine, and limited consumption of healthier beverages such as water, low-fat milk, and 100% fruit juice.

The second problem related to SSBs is economic. Even by purchasing a single-container portion, SSBs are some of the cheapest and most widely available products in the United States. The soda industry spends millions of dollars marketing to youth and successfully claims a huge percentage of adolescent and young adult buying power. People of limited income spend a significant portion of tax-supported supplemental nutrition assistance dollars on SSBs. I visited a number of independently owned corner stores in my neighborhood recently, and found that nearly without exception the cost of a soda was less than what it cost to purchase the same quantity of bottled water.

I have a confession to make. I drink diet Coke. Not every day, and never more than a 12-oz can. But an occasional diet Coke tastes good to me, even though I am fully aware it’s not doing anything for me nutritionally, and may be even causing harm. A one-penny per ounce tax is probably not going to impact my purchasing decisions around SSBs. But what if I drink half dozen or more sodas every day? 12 cents x 6 sodas x 7 days in a week.... yes, the cost will make me consider a different option. Cost is a compelling reason to limit consumption.

But where do we draw the line? Beverages such as Gatorade or PowerAde meet the criteria of soda or sugar-sweetened beverages, but they are typically labeled sports drinks.

And what about beverages that use organically grown cane sugar grown by hard-working farmers?

And what about taxing other types of junk food that contain sugar?

It’s not a simple question. Join me next Monday as I continue to explore the benefits and challenges to taxing soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.


More Blog Posts:

The Soda Tax, Part 2

Sources for this Blog Post


Guest Expert: Rose Slam! Johnson, Food Entrepreneur

Written by Rose Slam! Johnson.

In 2009, Rose Slam! Johnson wanted to create hummus, salad, salsa and pesto. She knew it would be more fun to share her delicious eats, so she developed a weekly bicycle delivery service and invited a few friends to come on what she dubbed a Community Supported Culinary Adventure (CSCA).

Hot Bike!The service started with 10 customers and, through word of mouth, peaked at 17. In 2011 it was discovered that those ingredients fit perfectly on a corn tortilla. Enter: ApothoTaco Stand. With passion for both food and bicycles, it was only a matter of time before Slam! figured out the perfect collaboration. Enter: Hot Bike! A bicycle with a kitchen on the back. Having met her original goal on Kickstarter, she's happily accepting more financing to expand her vision and preparing for the design stage. Hot Bike! plans to be on the Bay Area streets by early May. For more information, visit her at or support Hot Bike! on Kickstarter.

Question: Should I become a food entrepreneur?

Answer: If the path chooses you, we all know there is only one option...

These are the various thoughts that run through my head as I ruminate on this question daily:

“Definitely not, this is a terrible idea.”

“I want to create food and I need to pay rent, can these two happen together?”

“This is a terrible idea, I’m not even good at cooking, I don’t like being responsible for the profits and losses, and I am working my ass off.”

“They say business is rough, I will do it differently, I won’t be stressed, I will live off my dream, it will be smooth sailing.”

I am constantly asking myself if this is what I want. Do I want to be a player in the game of capitalism, to bow down to the standards of cleanliness, taste, and appearance for food? Do I want to put my heart and time into creating something that requires a certain number of humans show up with money in their pocket and interest in their belly, in order to pay my rent next month?

Tacos!Regardless of the answer to those questions, I know I want to create. I know I want to experiment. I know these creations and experimentations are much more fun and innovative when my community is involved. I also know that people get a sense of inspiration when they see others following their dreams and living authentically.

The barriers, hesitations, and fears are prominent in my head. They are especially present in the first hour of an event where I am selling food. “Did I make too much? Did I make enough? Is it priced too high, is it any good?” I am usually too busy for any of those questions to bother me for too long, but they are certainly present. They are what keep me on my toes, forever flexible and transparent with my product, plans, and systems.

I recently read an article on 3 reasons not to start a food business. The article didn’t stop me from continuing to develop my business plan, sell my fares, and fundraise for my next project, Hot Bike!, a kitchen on the back of a bicycle. While the article did little to deter me, the points are worth noting.

POINT ONE: THE MARKET IS CROWDED: I don’t know where you live, but there are plenty of food consumers in San Francisco and they are willing to step outside of the strict standards of the health department to try something radical. And lucky for me, they especially like it when it comes on a bike:)

POINT TWO: THE GROCERY STORE CHAINS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU: so what, I don’t care about them. We don’t need those chains to survive. In the Bay Area, I can source most of my goods from local co-ops and farmers markets, and I adapt my menu to do so. I also trade with many customers. The trade helps us utilize our relationships and resources and adds value to the work we do. Everyone walks away happier.

POINT THREE: YOUR CURRENT JOB IS EASIER: It is definitely easier (and more reliable) to work for someone else, but so much less fun! I have tried working on a regular schedule for other organizations, and I just don’t work as hard as when I am working for myself. Being a food entrepreneur is not the “easy route.” I am choosing the route that is fueled by curiosity, possibility, and excitement.

I don’t suggest this path for anyone, but if the path chooses you, we all know there is only one option.bullhorn

Rose Slam! Johnson, calling all customers to Hot Bike!


The Great Grocery Hunt part 3: Ralph’s, Your Conventional Neighborhood Grocery Store

Written by Eric Brach.

Question: Is it all right to keep buying my groceries at the regular place?

Answer: Absolutely.

Before I get started, I want to thank the readers who contributed comments on last week’s article on CSA boxes. One had this to say:

Ralphs_buy“[We love our CSA], Farm Fresh To You. They've got different options in terms of sizes, veg vs. fruit (‘ready to eat’ is one option), etc. They also have a good system that lets you 'veto' whatever you're tired of / don't like, are super flexible if you're out on vacation, etc., and finally, they delivery to our doorstep. (I haven't done the eco-homework to find out if this delivery is greener or not; I think it's roughly a wash.) Oh, and organic & all 5 farms are 100-miles or closer. So yeah, we're happy with them, and we're forced to eat our veggies. :)"

Thanks for that note.  Another reader told me simply, “Rethink kale… [it’s] my favorite food now.” Duly noted.

Let’s keep this produce train rolling, shall we?  Like I’m sure many of you readers did, I spent countless Saturdays and Sundays of my youth accompanying my parents to the store. Since I spent the first seventeen years of my life going to a plain-old grocery store and buying plain-old vegetables, I found myself a bit bewildered by all the hubbub over going local, organic, and green once I started making my own buying decisions. Couldn’t I keep going to a plain grocery like I always had?  Would buying “regular”, once I’d seen my alternatives, feel like a step backwards? For my memories’ sake, I hoped not.

I spent $13.68 for the week of produce shown in the picture at right. Vigilant readers will note that, with the exception of the mushrooms, I selected for myself an entirely different array of foods from what the CSA folks gave me. Those same readers will also note that, left to my own devices, I buy a fair bit more fruit than veggies when I’m doing my own shopping. With the exception of the cabbage and the carrots, everything I bought that wasn’t a fungus was fruit (even the tomatoes, avocado, and zucchini squash. Does it have seeds? It’s a fruit.)  Still, though, I’d be lying if I said I actively considered the gestalt of my purchases while loading my basket, I feel I did OK – I mean, this is clearly a grown-up’s shopping. I didn’t buy just $15 of raspberries, for instance.  I’ve got whites, reds, oranges, yellows and greens, an assortment that informs me at a glance that I’m keeping my diet properly varied. Sorta. Let’s analyze.

Variety: Very good in many ways, but telling of my eating habits in others. For instance, most people don’t think of bananas and avocados as similar at all, but in fact, they are. They’re both fruity fiber-bombs packed with potassium. They’re both sweet, soft, and creamily unctuous, and they actually overlap quite a bit in what nutrients they provide. My sweet tooth really is evident here – carrots are a sweet vegetable, strawberries and apples are sweet, tomatoes are on the sweet side of the faux-vegetable tableau, and even cabbage cooks up a bit sugary once steamed or boiled. So, though I’ve got a pretty nice array, I also deep down know I could have done better. Where are the peas and beans? Where are the radishes? 8/10

Selection: Outstanding. I mean, it’s a grocery store. Ralph’s admittedly doesn’t have a very big organics section – and actually, nothing I bought save the apples is organic – but there’s just about as broad a variety of produce to choose from in a big old grocery as there is anywhere else a person could imagine. 9/10

Healthfulness: Fine, I suppose. I mean, we’re talking about fruits and vegetables here, not beef fat and shellfish, so maybe we ought to use a tougher standard. I have a decent variety of foods, and although I know the apples and bananas had to have been flown in from outside, everything else is California-grown and therefore fresh-picked enough to have not lost much nutritive value. So it’s local, mostly – maybe not 100-mile local, but at least in-state – and I’ve got a good mix of A, C, E, and some B vitamins.  I’m a little low on Vitamin K and fiber with this mix, though. Plus, if you believe in the power of organic and small-farm (i.e., reduced chemical and chemical-free) growing, well, Virginia, I have bad news for you. 6/10

Tastiness: Excellent across the board, except for the tomatoes, which were pretty bland.  But whatever, that’s what you get sometimes from a conventional grocer: pretty-looking hothouse produce without much in the mouth-zing department. (Those little cherub tomatoes are great, but at $4 per 12 oz., they didn’t fit into my budget for this experiment.) Everything else was great though. I was pleased. 9/10

Value for the Money: One wonderful thing about shopping at a high-competition, generic grocery store – and about doing shopping yourself – is that you can take advantage of sales. I did, and that really helped me stretch my produce dollar. Avocadoes were marked down to 47 cents each, and that big clamshell of strawberries cost a measly two bucks. That does wonders for my mind.

Ah, but what about the leftovers?  Well, though everything got used, I had to cheat a little. That bag of carrots stared at me from the fridge until I brought it into school and shared it with my students. And as for the huge head of cabbage, I steamed it, but could only eat about half – really pushing myself – until it had been sitting around, cooked, for four days or so and it really had to go in the trash.  That was a shame.  So I got a lot of food, but maybe it was too much. Plus, all that bargain hunting takes time, and time is money.  But now I’m nitpicking. I stretched that $13.68 quite a long ways, though I do lose a few points for tricking myself into buying things I’d never eat (and that’s something we all do now and then, I think). 8/10.

Final score: 8/10. This beat the CSA in selection and variety, but fell just behind in all the other categories. Still, if you have the time, care about choice, and want to make sure you save your dollars, the traditional grocery is just fine for you.

Next week: Whole Foods? Trader Joes? Or something unexpected? Stay on your toes and stay tuned.

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