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Claire Thompson's Posts


Looking back to see ahead: One woman’s quest to bring back Native American food traditions

Valerie Segrest.

Valerie Segrest often encounters people who want her to tell them what to eat. Instead, this native foods educator and registered member of Washington state’s Muckleshoot Indian Tribe says she works to “help people see the wealth of knowledge they come from, and use that to make healthier choices.” It’s a doubly empowering way to reconnect with cultural traditions and change food habits at the same time.

When it comes to the diet-related health problems in native communities, Segrest says, “you could take America and put it under a microscope. That’s what’s happening on every reservation.” In other words, diabetes rates are high, and access to healthy food -- not to mention traditional foods -- can be dicey at best.

The answer, Segrest believes, is a move toward the traditional foodways that have slipped away from “a culture now consuming a diet that is very superimposed.”

Read more: Food


‘The Queen of Versailles’ almost makes you feel sorry for the 1%. Almost.

Jackie Siegel in front of her family's 26,000-square-foot home. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Greenfield/Magnolia Pictures.)

In 2007, Jackie and David Siegel were “bursting out of the seams” of their old house. At 26,000 square feet, it felt too cozy for their eight-kid family and their extravagant lifestyle. They were ready to upgrade. So they started building their dream home: a 90,000-square-foot behemoth, inspired by the palace of Versailles, that would include 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, two tennis courts, a bowling alley, a skating rink, a sushi bar, and $5 million worth of marble -- you know, the essentials. The Florida mansion would be the biggest house in the United States.

Around the same time, photographer Lauren Greenfield met Jackie Siegel at a party for Donatella Versace while Greenfield was working on a project about wealth and consumerism. An interest in photographing the Siegels turned into an idea for a documentary that would chronicle the construction of their new home. "I was interested in the connection between the American dream and home ownership -- the way the home had become not just a place to live and raise your family, but a designed expression of identity and success," Greenfield explains.

The Siegels' story represented this phenomenon at its most extreme, a supersized version of the same vision chased by Americans of all income levels.

In the middle of 2010 -- about a year into filming the documentary -- the financial crisis finally caught up to the Siegels, and Greenfield's film took a fateful turn.

Read more: Living, Politics


No more trowels, no more roots: What happens to school gardens in summer?

One of Katy Brantley's summer garden interns hard at work.

The biggest irony of the school garden is that it often goes untended during summer, the peak season. This is no coincidence; what we now call “summer vacation” used to be the time when most parents needed their children at home in the fields, planting and harvesting.

Now that the majority of Americans are no longer farmers, however, schools have become many children’s sole exposure to agriculture. But the good news is that they're far from scarce; schools across the country are scrambling to set up food-producing gardens and take advantage of the hands-on lessons they provide.

Alice Waters’ “edible schoolyard,” while no longer considered revolutionary, is still a model for many teachers. FoodCorps, a branch of the AmeriCorps Service Network dedicated to food education, is wrapping up its first year of garden programming in selected schools, and many school districts and nonprofits are embracing school gardens at the local level. But what happens to all these gardens when school’s out for summer?

“There are kinks that haven’t been worked out in a lot of these newer school gardens, summer maintenance being one of them,” said Dana Stevens, a Food Corps member stationed in rural Washington County, Maine. When she arrived, the crop of brand-new school gardens in the area was mostly either left untended June through August or maintained by faculty or community volunteers.

This year, Stevens tried to organize the process.

Read more: Food


Buzzkill: EPA rejects beekeepers’ pesticide petition

Photo by Javier Martinez Solera.

Beekeepers in the U.S., looking for a way to stop or slow the die-offs devastating their industry, are watching their options dwindle along with the bees. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected a petition [PDF] that beekeepers and environmental groups filed back in March asking EPA to stop sales of clothianidin, a pesticide believed to be harmful to bees. EPA said use of the chemical does not present an “imminent hazard” -- the requirement to suspend registration of a pesticide.

EPA defines an imminent hazard as harm that will occur “within the one to two years necessary to complete cancellation proceedings” and said it didn’t think that was likely with clothianidin.

And the agency is right. As scary as the bee losses are (beekeepers have seen an average 30 percent population decline every year since 2006, and 70 percent of our flowering plants need pollinators to reproduce, so … you do the math), we probably aren’t going to see a full-scale collapse of our food system within the next two years solely as a result of poisoned bees. We probably aren’t going to see a full-scale collapse of our energy system within the next two years, either -- but is that as far out as we’re planning these days?

Read more: Food


Jeremy’s iron will: On-screen villain plays the good guy in anti-waste doc

Jeremy Irons has played some serious douchebags: Scar, Claus von Bülow, Simon Gruber, the ultimate caricature of the 1% in Margin Call, the cauldron in Once Upon a Halloween (oh, did you miss that one?). The point is, it’s a little disconcerting to see him tromping around a Lebanese dump in rubber boots and a sad little straw hat, empathizing with a Palestinian refugee who picks trash for a living. But just because he’s so good at being villainous onscreen doesn’t mean that he can’t have his concerned celebrity cause movie. And the cause Irons chose is garbage.

Trashed, a documentary directed by Candida Brady and executive-produced by and starring Irons (with a score by Vangelis), looks at the toxic effects an endless worldwide buildup of waste has on our health and environment. To be honest, I kind of wish such a powerhouse of film-industry talent had tackled a slightly more cutting-edge or original issue -- I mean, Jeremy Irons’ voice over a Vangelis theme is a surefire way to lend gravity to any situation, and it just seems a bit of a waste (ahem) to use such drama to approach what I see as a pretty broad, old-school environmental issue: We throw too much shit away! We should recycle instead! Yeah, and did you know there’s a hole in the ozone layer?

Read more: Pollution


Cohousing: The secret to sustainable urban living?

Petaluma Avenue Homes, an affordable cohousing community in Sebastopol, Calif. (Photo by Schemata Workshop.)

Back in the good old days, I’m told, people lived in neighborhoods where they looked out for each other. They had potlucks, kept an eye on each other’s kids, loaned out lawnmowers and cups of sugar. Each home was its family’s castle, but the instinct to participate in a caring community transcended the temptation to isolate in private houses.

Apparently we’ve strayed so far from that norm over the last half-century or so that it now takes a conscious effort to recreate it. That’s one way to view cohousing, a collaborative housing model imported to the United States from Denmark in the 1970s, in which “residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods.” In the approximately 125 cohousing communities in the U.S., residents share chores and responsibilities, come together for meals and other activities in a common house, and make decisions based on consensus. It’s a conscious way of living designed to encourage social interaction and investment in the greater good.

Sounds nice, right? A little crunch-tastic, maybe, but nice. And the opportunities for making this type of housing eco-friendly are many. But there’s one problem: What sounds at first like a good way to save money -- sharing play space, a group kitchen, etc. -- is every bit as expensive as traditional housing, meaning that it's out of reach for many people who could benefit from it.

Read more: Cities, Living


Playing with their food: Kids discover the fun of farming at camp

At Plantation Farm Camp in Sonoma County, Calif., kids help with farm chores alongside traditional camp activities.

Ah, summer camp. Hiking, canoeing, and capture-the-flag, followed by meals of beans and franks or overcooked spaghetti -- it’s the stuff childhood memories are made of. But at some camps around the country, weeding, composting, and looking after livestock supplement the usual arts, crafts, and games, and dinner is braised lamb shank, polenta, and grilled vegetables.

Every year, parents sink thousands of dollars into intensive music, sports, or academic summer programs in the hopes of sculpting their children into perfect Ivy League candidates. Farm-based summer camps offer specialization of a different stripe, getting kids outside and down in the dirt to experience the meaning of “farm to table” firsthand -- and perhaps cultivating a few future farmers in the process.

“It seems to fill a need people see in their kids’ education,” says Meghan Ryan, education programs manager at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. “Kids are so scheduled, but this is something very different and special.”

Read more: Food


Let them eat kale: In Harlem, a farm share for the people

Dennis Derryck, founder of Corbin Hill Farm.

The same week I interviewed an author who dismissed local food as nothing but “a niche product for upper-crust consumers,” I learned about a project in New York City that directly challenges that assumption. The folks behind Harlem-based Corbin Hill Farm don’t see sustainably grown local produce as a passing craze for the foodie elite; on the contrary, they’re figuring out a way to make it accessible to low-income communities on a large scale.

Founder and longtime Harlem resident Dennis Derryck has long been aware that people in his community and the nearby South Bronx don’t have much access to good, fresh food. But when it came to solutions, as he saw it, “all these small and beautiful things had very little impact. School gardens, rooftop gardens, educational programs -- at the end of the program, where was the parent or the kid supposed to go?”

Derryck saw promise of more lasting change in the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. But a traditional CSA design -- in which members essentially invest in a local farm by paying a large share at the beginning of the season -- wouldn’t work for neighborhoods where many residents live on food stamps and struggle to make rent on time. So Derryck tweaked the model to make sense for low-income consumers: Corbin Hill shareholders pay only a week in advance, can put their shares on hold at any time, and can use any form of payment -- including food stamps. The program caters to neighborhood cultural tastes by including items like cilantro, tomatillos, and collard greens whenever possible, and every box comes with recipes written in both Spanish and English.


Local haterade: Authors say locavores do more harm than good

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu.

Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu say they know what’s wrong with the food system: local food purists. In their new book, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, the husband-and-wife team (a University of Toronto geography professor and an economist) argue that the excitement over this movement is misguided to the point of having “utterly disastrous” effects. “If widely adopted,” they write, “either voluntarily or through political mandates, locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety and much more significant environmental damage than is presently the case” [emphasis theirs].

Desrochers and Shimizu are not the first vocal critics of the local food movement. James McWilliams is well known for his early contrarian views on local food (and a resulting book about it), as is Stephen Budiansky, whose 2010 New York Times article prompted an in-depth debate here at Grist. Like these folks -- and a whole array of others -- the authors of Locavore’s Dilemma argue mainly that food miles are a misleading and often incorrect gauge of the sustainability of one’s food.

We don’t entirely disagree. A dogmatic approach is rarely a good idea, and questions about where food should be grown and why are indeed complex. But does that mean things are great the way they are?

Most of us eat local food for a combination of reasons -- from taste, to personal health, to food-chain transparency, to concern for workers, to a desire to see a stop to industrial farming practices that damage soil health and biodiversity, to an interest in keeping small farmers in business. And, realistically, most of us compromise for reasons of cost or convenience. Yes, there are Portlandia-level locavores out there who take it a little too seriously, but the vast majority of us see local food as one piece of a much larger shift. Maybe it is unrealistic to believe small, local producers can literally feed the world -- but does that mean we shouldn’t support their efforts at all?

I sat down with Desrochers when he was in town last week to see if there was something to the anti-locavore argument. As you might guess, there's a lot he and I don't agree on. But at Grist we try, when we can, to challenge our views.

Read more: Locavore


Say it ain’t soil: What’s the true value of organic farmland?

Nick Maravell has been farming organically and cultivating heirloom seeds on a leased 20-acre plot of land in Potomac, Md., for over three decades.

Nick’s Organic Farm is an anomaly in wealthy, suburban Potomac, where McMansions dominate the landscape, and its location has made it possible for Maravell to cultivate heirloom breeds of organic soy and corn seeds native to the Chesapeake Bay region. Corn seed is wind-pollinated, meaning organic varieties are easily contaminated by genetically modified pollen if grown anywhere near conventional farms. But Maravell’s farm is isolated, protected by a buffer of suburbia -- an ideally situated piece of land that would be difficult to replace.

All this might explain why, when it became clear that Maravell would lose his lease, the surrounding community didn’t take it lightly. His landlord, the Montgomery County Board of Education, transferred the lease to the county, which then awarded a contract to a private developer to build soccer fields. The announcement -- and subsequent findings that the county had violated the Open Meetings Act in handing the land over to developers without first soliciting public input -- caused an uproar.