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Don’t box me in: The unstoppable growth of CSA-style produce delivery

A traditional CSA box in spring is filled with mostly greens and rhubarb. Photo by Annemod.

My introduction to community-supported agriculture wasn't through a real CSA at all, but through something called The Box -- a generic subscription-based box of organic produce much like it sounds. My roommate and I were in our early 20s, sharing a one-bedroom, and we didn't cook much. She suggested we go with a farm she'd heard of (there were only a handful of CSAs in the area at the time), but we both decided that we liked The Box's huge selection, which wasn't limited by location or season (they even had mangoes in winter).

In truth, The Box did very little to connect me with my foodshed; I didn’t learn anything about the farms behind the food nor, I’ll admit, did I care much at the time. On the other hand, it was through this service that I developed a borderline-unhealthy obsession with cooking everything we’d gotten one week before the next delivery arrived. I also learned that I liked chard, fava beans, and a few other seasonal foods I might not have tried. More importantly, I became a Person Who Got a Box of Organic Vegetables Every Week. And, looking back, that was a big step toward becoming the person I am today (a local food- and farm-obsessed gardener and home cook who reads and writes about food politics for a living).

This week, I was reminded of those early adventures with The Box while exploring the current state of the CSA -- a subset of the organic food world that is at a crossroads, much like the larger organic industry. What started out as a great way for small farmers to reach a direct audience -- a way for die-hard locavores to “buy in” to a single farm and take on the risks and the benefits of the year's bounty -- has gone mainstream, for better or worse.

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Can’t-miss summer reading for sustainable food fans

Photo by Shutterstock.

Writer-farmer Wendell Berry reminds city dwellers that "eating is an agricultural act." For many, vacationing has followed suit. Whether you’re bed and breakfasting it on the farm, biodieseling to a beach picnic, or touring the eco-vineyards of South Africa this year, you'll need a sustainable food book or two for the journey.

Here we rounded up to a list of some of our favorites -- all released this year and ready for the beach, farm, road trip, or wine trail.

1. In Change Comes to Dinner: How Vertical Farmers, Urban Growers, and Other Innovators Are Revolutionizing How America Eats, Katherine Gustafson goes on what she calls a “hoperaking” tour of sustainable food operations. Gustafson paints with Michael Pollan-esque strokes, managing to extrapolate broad ideas about meat monopolies and consumer appetites from the passenger seat of a school-bus-turned-mobile-farmers-market or the edge of an aquaponic tilapia tank. Casual summer readers might glide past the statistics and commentary en route to the quirky stories of eco-entrepreneurs, but it's nice to know they're there for later reference. This paperback will fit perfectly into a frame pack or beach tote, and the casual tone keeps it light.

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Farmers, beekeepers, brewers: Book takes on New York’s food makers past and present

Robin Shulman. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.)

The title of Robin Shulman’s book says it all. Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York weaves together historical perspective on food production with a romp through the Big Apple’s modern-day food landscape. In it, Shulman writes:

When I began to work on this book, I thought I would be spending time with people who had been shunted to the edges of an overdeveloped city. But over time, meeting people and reading history, I started to realize that people who produce food draw others around them; they are not isolated, but among the most connected. As much as any other group of laborers and artists, they are the culture of New York. They are the ones who wrangle space to manufacture foods and share them at feasts and ceremonies -- the things that help weave the unruly, disparate strands of the city into something uniquely itself.

I spoke with Shulman recently about her motivation for writing Eat the City, as well as "hipstervores," red beehives, and New York's dark role in the sugar trade. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q. In the Eat the City acknowledgements you recognize the inspiration of writers who have shown you that “Writing ostensibly about food can be … powerful enough to tell the story of everything else.” Does that describe on your approach to writing it?

A. Eating is at the core of our lives. Everyone has to eat and food has to be a part of the way our economy functions. It’s a part of our culture and our memories. It’s part of where we come from and where we want to be. So by telling the story of the food, I could talk about people’s life histories and what they care about most.

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Drought: Bad for the Gulf ‘dead zone’ after all?

Photo courtesy of NASA.

Last week, I wrote about how this year’s unusually small Gulf dead zone may offer less reason to celebrate than you’d think. Yes, less rainfall has indeed meant less farm runoff into the Mississippi, resulting in fewer nutrients from fertilizer and livestock in the Gulf, and thus a smaller lifeless aquatic area (or “dead zone”). In normal years, however, this zone is still continuing to expand. And, until the face of farming changes -- so that commodity producers rely less heavily on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and animal agriculture is less concentrated -- this pattern isn’t going to change.

As it turns out, there’s more to the relationship between drought and nitrogen than I’d originally thought. Eric Davidson, executive director and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center -- a Massachusetts-based think tank focused on climate and natural resources -- shared some additional science that suggests we might really want to hold off on celebrating.

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Mixed blessings: A smaller Gulf dead zone offers less to celebrate than you’d think

You know how hot weather makes more people believe in climate change? Well, let’s hope that this year's smaller-than-average Gulf Dead Zone -- due to climate-related drought, no less – doesn’t keep people from seeing the urgency of agricultural runoff.

First, the good news: As we mentioned quickly in our latest drought roundup, the only bright side to the fact that there has been much less rainfall in the Midwest this year is the added fact that less of it is flowing into the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf. According to a Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMC) press release, “nutrient output into the Gulf this spring approached near the 80-year record low."

This is a) crazy scary in its own right, and b) it means fewer nutrients in the water, fewer algae blooms, and a much smaller lifeless, oxygen-deprived area. (It's less than half the size of last year’s dead zone.) So fish and other aquatic life have much more room to breathe, so to say. And that’s good(ish) news. Except that the source of the problem hasn’t gone anywhere.

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GMO potatoes: Is the biodiversity shortcut worth it?

A protest against GMO potatoes. (Photo by BASFPlantScience.)

Last week’s announcement that Ireland’s environmental protection agency approved the nation’s first trial of the genetically modified potato has reactivated the conversation about the spuds, which have actually been kicking around Europe -- on a trial basis -- since 2010.

Potatoes are an industrial crop; we grow nearly as many of them worldwide as we do corn, soy, wheat, and sugar, and those industries all rely heavily on genetic engineering. And -- like corn, sugar, and soy -- potato starch is now often valued for its indirect uses, such as in animal feed and biofuel. So it’s not surprising that industry forces would be pushing for giant swaths of industrial-starch-producing GMO potatoes. But to do so in Ireland would involve a unique historical irony.

You see, it just so happens that the Irish potato famine of the 19th century is held up as one of the most striking examples of the way monocrops -- those grown with little or no genetic diversity -- are vulnerable to disease. Heralded as a miracle when it arrived from South America in the 1800s, the potato produced more calories per acre than wheat and corn, and virtually did away with the mass-scale hunger many European countries were facing at the time. (Some say it was the potato that made European nations into world superpowers, and its cultivation also marked the beginning of today’s industrial agriculture model.)

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Should the food movement push for better jobs too?

Activists participate in a National Day of Action urging Chipotle to sign a Fair Food Agreement with Florida tomato workers. (Photo by Hai Vo.)

U.K. resident and activist Bethan Tichborne wants to see the fast food giant Chipotle sign an agreement to treat farmworkers fairly, so she organized to create an international component of a U.S.-based Day of Action to get Chipotle’s attention earlier this week.

"We found out on Monday that Chipotle has plans to expand in the U.K.,” says Tichborne. “So we're pretty pleased that by Wednesday we had a people from all around the country handing out several hundred leaflets at one of the three already existing branches in London! ... We had a great response from passers-by and most of the customers that we spoke to. Some said they would think twice before eating there again."

Tichborne was joined by several hundred students, activists, and other conscious consumers, who gathered in 25 American cities in support of a group of Florida tomato workers organizing for improved wages and labor conditions. The target was Chipotle, the fast food chain known for a comparatively progressive approach to sourcing its food (the company uses meat raised without antibiotics, and sources at least some of its produce from local and organic sources). Activists -- led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the nonprofit group Just Harvest -- are demanding that Chipotle join 10 other fast food restaurants, food service companies, and grocery stores, including McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods, in signing onto the CIW Fair Food Program.

A young activist hands out a flyer outside Chipotle on the recent Day of Action against the chain.

The inhumane conditions faced by Florida farmworkers are well documented. Not only do they work long hours in sweltering heat, but they're paid by the pound, earn less than $12,000 a year on average, and they're often directly exposed to pesticides. (In Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook’s 2011 chronicle of the Immokaleee workers’ plight, he describes encountering numerous workers who come home from the fields with their clothes soaked through with liquid pesticides). After nearly two decades of organizing, CIW has seen improvements and their Fair Food Program is making a dent in the atrocities. But there’s clearly a long way to go.

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Food mega-wholesaler Sysco pledges to liberate pigs from crates

Photo by Karen 2873.

Sysco -- the giant, often-invisible food distributor -- offers 400,000 products to the bulk of the nation’s restaurants and other institutions. It has a 17.5 percent market share, made $37 billion in sales in 2010 alone, and dispatches a cavalcade of silver trucks daily from 180 locations across the U. S.

In other words, Sysco is wholesale food in America, the same way Cargill is farming and Walmart is, well, all of retail. Or, as Salon put it back in 2009, Sysco has “come to monopolize most of what you eat.” So when the company changes a policy -- like it announced it was doing on Monday, when it pledged to do away with meat from pigs raised in gestation crates -- there is bound to be a striking ripple effect.

In a statement to the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), the company wrote: “Sysco is committed to working with its suppliers to create a gestation crate-free supply system, for the good of all. Like many of our customers, we’re going to work with our pork suppliers to develop a timeline to achieve this goal.”

As their name implies, gestation crates are essentially steel cages that keep pregnant sows confined in a space roughly the size of their bodies. They’re commonly seen -- along with battery cages for egg-laying hens -- as among the least humane livestock practices. Animal behavior expert Temple Grandin describes gestation grates as the equivalent of “asking a sow to live in an airline seat” (without lavatory privileges).

Over the course of the last year, thanks to consumer demand, and an ongoing effort by HSUS, most major players in the fast food, grocery, and food service industries have gone -- at least on paper -- gestation crate-free. The list includes Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Kraft, and Hormel (the maker of Spam). Even Smithfield Foods — the nation’s largest pork producer — has agreed to phase out the crates by 2017.

So Sysco can’t, by any means, say it’s first to make the pledge (and the company has yet to specify a timeline for the switch), but its move might have the largest impact so far on the practices farmers are using on the ground.

Read more: Animals, Factory Farms, Food

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The lesser of two evils: Why food advocates are pushing for a farm bill they don’t love

What’s that sound? It’s the clock ticking as the timeline for this year’s farm bill process begins to run out. The current bill expires Sept. 30, and we now have less than two weeks before Congress’ month-long recess begins on August 3.

So what's the holdup? Now that both the Senate and House Agriculture committees have passed their versions of the bill, you’d think they’d get to work hashing it out, right? Wrong. Instead the Republican-controlled House is stalling.

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Me, you, and everything we eat: Does food righteousness hinder system-wide change?

"Which of these products will absolve me of more civic engagement?"

Food is inherently personal. But is that all it is?

Let's take a moment to look at the comments on a recent Facebook post from NPR about the tie between antibiotics in factory farmed chicken and bladder infections.

First up, the ever-popular: “Oh no! That sucks ... Oh wait, I'm a vegan.”

Then: “Just don't eat chicken,” “So now I gotta raise my own chickens[?],” and, “GROSS. So glad I'm back to vegetarianism and mostly shopping the farmers market and local co-op. The whole mainstream food system is so completely disgusting.”

Here’s another similar example. Last month, I wrote a post about a campaign by the Consumer’s Union to convince several major grocery chains to stop carrying meat from animals raised with antibiotics, and one commenter said, “GO VEGAN.”

These comments make perfect sense. If you want to see less support for factory farms, I think going vegan can be a great choice (this is not an anti-vegan rant). But it doesn't really matter what the post is about.

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