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What farms can do for cities: A chat with author Sarah Rich

Sarah Rich, author of Urban Farms.

A former editor at Dwell and co-founder of the Foodprint Project, Sarah Rich thinks and writes about food as a key component of today's urban landscape. So when she and photographer Matthew Benson traveled the country recently documenting 16 public and private food-producing operations for their new book, Urban Farms, it was no surprise that the final product turned out to be an intelligent, inspiring work of art.

We spoke with Rich about the new book, the difference between a farm and a garden, and how urban farmers are moving beyond the trend factor.

Q. Why did you write Urban Farms? What was the ultimate goal?

A. There’s a lot of debate about urban farming as a solution that will feed cities in the future, but I was more interested in looking at it from an anthropological angle. I wanted to write about the other things urban farming can do for a city -- whether that’s creating green jobs, community building, environmental restoration, land-use planning, or any number of other things. While farms are essentially food-growing operations, they serve so many other functions in an urban environment.

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Oh, SNAP!: Are food stamps another subsidy for Big Food?

Photo by Brian Duss.

A few months back, we ran a post about the invisibility of modern hunger that looked at the way the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- with its use of EBT cards that fly under the radar -- has made it easy for many to ignore the rampant food insecurity in this country. Meanwhile the use of SNAP benefits, or food stamps as they are often called, has gone through the roof (it rose from $30 billion in 2007 to $72 billion in 2011).

A new report released today called “Food Stamps, Follow the Money” suggests that this invisibility also extends to the mechanisms behind SNAP, and raises questions about just how much food makers, retailers, and big banks may be profiting from food stamps. Not only do big food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars benefit from the SNAP economy, but retailers (such as Walmart) get a cut of those taxpayer dollars, while banks bring in processing fees. Or, as the report’s author (and occasional Grist contributor) Michele Simon sees it, SNAP “represents the largest, most overlooked corporate subsidy in the farm bill.”

Read more: Food

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Soil survivor: An interview with urban farming legend Will Allen

Will AllenWill Allen. (Photo by Growing Power.)

In his new autobiographical book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, we see a different side of MacArthur Genius and urban farmer Will Allen. The book takes readers behind the scenes to witness the process of trial and error behind Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based urban farm, CSA, and youth training program that put Allen on the map.

But The Good Food Revolution is much more than a how-to guide. The story extends back to Allen’s family’s escape from sharecropping, his childhood on the land, the basketball career that pulled him out of poverty and allowed him to travel, his work for various corporations -- including a stint at KFC and one at Procter and Gamble -- and his eventual return to farming. Alongside his own story, Allen also recounts the stories of several people who were instrumental to building Growing Power with him, many of whom experienced their first reliable and fulfilling job on the urban farm.

We spoke with Allen recently about the book, the obstacles it chronicles, last year's gift from Walmart, and the legacy he hopes to pass on.

Q. What was it like revisiting those early days and exploring your family history?

A. My family was part of the “great migration" north and my parents got away to the Washington, D.C., area. But the fact that my father still wanted to farm was a little unusual because most African Americans who had been involved in sharecropping in the 1930s pretty much wanted to leave behind that painful history. And the fact that my father wanted to pass on his agricultural roots to my brothers and me was unusual (so many farmers didn't, and the results are obesity, heart, disease, etc. -- all those things that come from being disconnected from our food and from eating bad food).

Read more: Urban Agriculture

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The food movement’s final frontier: Taking care of workers

Photo by Scott Roberston.

Rita has worked for the same Missouri-based pork processing company for 13 years. And yet she feels like she could lose her job at any time. If this 49-year-old mother of four is late for work by as little as five minutes, that’s one strike. If she takes more than her allotted seven minutes to race to the bathroom and back, that’s another strike. Three strikes is all it takes.

Rita (not her real name) cuts pork on a line she says has sped up considerably in recent years. The factory has reduced its staff, but demands the same amount of work from the employees that remain. She has to move fast, with a sharp knife, on her feet, for eight to 10 hours a day. “I’ve never seen so many people with heart problems,” she said of her co-workers over the phone recently. “I think it’s because of the stress. Where there used to be four of us, now there are two people. [The managers] say, ‘You all can do this.’”

In recent years, some workers have started talking about the conditions they face and trying to organize for better ones. Whenever this has happened, the company takes two approaches, Rita tells me. They start with a small raise (most meatpacking workers make a dollar or two more than minimum wage) to calm everyone down. If that doesn’t work, they’ll start firing people. Through all this, Rita has stayed on at the plant. “There are no other jobs,” she says.

Like farm work, meatpacking and other food processing work has become a last resort in this country. And while the harsh conditions Rita describes don’t apply to everyone working in her sector, they’re not atypical either.

Photo c/o Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

But getting an industry-wide view of the type of challenges food workers face hasn't been easy. That's where a new report called  "The Hands that Feed Us," which is  based on a comprehensive survey of over 600 workers from around the food industry (and nearly 50 employers), comes into the picture. Conducted by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the survey puts Rita’s story in full context and shines a bright light on the often invisible people behind our food.

Read more: Food

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Celebrity chefs and food movement leaders tell Congress: ‘This farm bill stinks’

Wendell Berry, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, and Mario Batali are among 70 food movement leaders who signed a letter asking Congress to invest in healthy food.

Mario Batali, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, and Alice Waters have had it with our  food system. These well-known chefs -- along with a group of 70 food movement celebrities, including Michael Pollan, Will Allen, Laurie David, Robert Kenner, and Wendell Berry -- have set down their sauté pans for just long enough to sign onto a letter asking Congress to invest in healthy food.

It’s a timely statement by this star-powered group, as the Senate Agriculture Committee’s draft of the 2012 Farm Bill -- a package of federal farm and food legislation representing nearly a trillion dollars -- finally hit the Senate floor this week.

And they have a point. As we’ve reported in the past, the Senate draft probably won’t improve the big picture of the food landscape as-is. In the draft, farm conservation efforts and nutrition assistance both face deep cuts, while the industrial farm lobbies have ensured that the biggest commodity farms continue to rake in subsidy payments. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at this graphic, which ran with Sunday's New York Times op-ed on the subject. It shows that a full 76 percent of the subsidy dollars distributed between 1995 and 2010 went to a mere 10 percent of the nation’s farms.)

Signed, sealed, delivered

The letter signed by Batali, Waters, and co. was initiated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and describes the Senate bill as “falling far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges.” The letter continues:

It is also seriously out of step with the nation’s priorities and what the American public expects and wants from our food and farm policy. In a national poll last year, 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill. Members of the U.S. Council of Mayors and the National League of Cities have both echoed this sentiment in recent statements calling for a healthy food and farm bill.

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FDA: High-fructose corn syrup will not be called ‘corn sugar’

The image the Corn Refiners Association might have hoped to conjure with the term "corn sugar."

There has been a lot of back and forth about real and perceived differences between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) over the years -- including here at Grist, where Tom Laskawy has explored the contentious topic at length. And while the science is definitely still unfolding, the fact that the Corn Refiners Association has shown a strong interest in blurring the line between the two is certainly compelling reason to suspect there are, in fact, some noteworthy differences.

As of Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees. The agency released an official response to the Corn Refiners Association’s 2010 request to refer to the substance as “corn sugar” with a resounding no. The reasons they gave read as benignly technical, but also hint at the differences in the kinds of processes needed to make sugar and HFCS (one being a highly industrial, synthetic process resulting in a food that could not exist in nature if we wanted it to). The statement reads:

 … the use of the term “corn sugar” for HFCS would suggest that HFCS is a solid, dried, and crystallized sweetener obtained from corn. Instead, HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose.

The report also points out that the name “corn sugar” is already spoken for, and is used on food labels to describe dextrose.

Read more: Corn, Food

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Faked Alaska: Is genetically modified salmon coming soon to a table near you?

After six months of relative media silence, GMO salmon are back. Since last fall, AquaBounty Technologies, the breeders of the fish -- which is not to be confused with radioactive tuna -- have been in a kind of regulatory limbo, awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Then this week, several GMO salmon stories popped up in the media, and, taken together, they suggest it might be time to take another look at the salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal raised for commercial consumption if it’s approved.

The fish, which is branded AquAdvantage, has been altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from a deepwater eel-like fish called an ocean pout. The latter allows the fish to grow during the cold months and reach market size twice as fast as other salmon.

A short article on Seafood Source reported that although AquaBounty continues to hemorrhage money (they reported a net loss of $2.7 million in 2011), CEO Ron Stotish is confident that approval is right around the corner.

Read more: Animals, Food, Scary Food

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Americans want more fruits and veggies for everyone

Photo by Chiot's Run.

If you’ve noticed more carrot-crunching, more orange-peeling, and an abundance of leafy green salads lately, it’s probably not a coincidence. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, Americans eat more fresh foods than they did five years ago.

The WaPo story was based on a national phone survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation, which found that the majority of Americans are trying to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are shopping at farmers markets at least on occasion, and say they know “a lot or a little about where their fresh fruits and vegetables come from.” These findings are interesting -- and they speak to the success of a whole array of efforts to get more of us cooking, examining what we eat, and honing in on the place where healthy and truly delicious foods intersect.

Less visible in the media landscape is the fact that the Kellogg Foundation survey also suggests that all this healthy eating has Americans looking outside themselves.

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The Domino’s effect: The pizza giant refuses to phase out inhumane pork

Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has describes raising pigs in gestation crates as "asking a sow to live in an airline seat.” (Photo by Farm Sanctuary.)

Domino’s wants to be different. The company -- once known for crap-tastic pizza and mediocre ad campaigns -- has struggled in recent years to remake its image with an ironic campaign that admitted to poor quality followed by an effort to incorporate so-called “artisan toppings.”

Domino's has been doing so much to reach out to food-conscious customers, says Kristie Middleton, outreach manager at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), that she's surprised by its latest move -- a decision to continue serving pork from pigs raised in gestation crates. “It seems like it would only make sense to include an animal welfare tenet as part of their rebranding,” she says.

Read more: Food

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Politicians, advocates make an 11th-hour push for a better farm bill

Senator Debbie Stabenow, head of the Senate Ag Committee, has pledged to get a farm bill passed by September. (Photo by Lance Cheung for the USDA.)

Right now, the Farm Bill needs a hero, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow thinks she's up for the job. Despite serious setbacks, the Democrat from Michigan is confident she and the committee she chairs can work with the House committee to pass a new farm bill before the current one runs out in September.

And, while hearing Stabenow speak at a conference last week, I just about believed her. The senator has worked on a handful of farm bills before this one and she knows what it takes. But, as I mentioned in a recent post, she’s up against a formidable round of cuts. The Tea Party-driven House Agriculture Committee not only wants to cut $33 billion (compared to the Senate’s $23 billion), but they want to make most of those cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).