Food

Umbra on composting tainted food

Dear Umbra, This tainted peanut butter recall is crazy. I have a box of crackers with peanut butter. Can I safely compost them in my hot compost pile? Jane Vallejo, Calif. Dearest Jane, Let me first say I am very sad for those who have been killed in this outbreak. My deepest sympathies to their families. There’s no reason anyone should be killed by food in these modern times. It’s outrageous. Put the cracker down and slowly back away. As of this writing, the Salmonella typhimurium was traced to the Peanut Corporation of America, of course in Georgia, which mainly …

Waste not, want less

Why is it so hard for farmers to donate their crops?

Because there aren't enough roadblocks to getting hungry people healthy food, here's another one. And it's something that could be fixed with a small dollop of legalese (ideally right on top of the stimulus package). Someone at Bread for the City, which runs the biggest D.C. food pantry, pointed me to a post on their blog that sets up the problem thusly: [L]iterally tons of fresh fruits and vegetables will be grown this year that will never make it to market for one reason or another. (For instance, major supermarkets turn away curvy cucumbers since they don't stack well ...) In a country where about half of all food grown is wasted, the gap between the field and the market is where a shockingly large amount of the loss occurs. Their goal is to get this "wasted" food to the people who need it. Naturally, it's not easy (although nothing about helping the poor ever is). But it's not finding the produce that's the problem -- many farmers are more than happy to participate. It's getting it: the food pantries have to organize teams of volunteers to harvest, pack, and transport the produce themselves. Why not just have the farmers do it for them? Sometimes they do, of course. But for many farmers already on the edge financially, throwing in labor and fuel as part of the deal just isn't possible. The tax-savvy among you will no doubt object -- what about the write-off?

Vilsack sets the table

It's official: Nutrition will play a big role in reform at the USDA

After reading Tom Philpott's post on Tom Vilsack's recent comments to the WaPo, I think it's worth digging in a bit more. To this point, we've all had to be content with reading tea leaves and parsing statements. But now we are finally getting a taste of the tea. Philpott highlighted Vilsack's line about his desire to represent the interests of those "who consume food" -- a long-awaited distinction to be sure. Of course, claiming to represent eaters is no panacea. The USDA can easily describe its efforts to support a system that provides vast amounts of cheap calories as "helpful" to consumers -- and that kind of disingenuous wordplay would be par for the course at the old USDA. But it appears that Vilsack takes a broader, more progressive view as he pointed out the following: His first official act was the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable farmers that had been rescinded in the final days of the Bush administration. Though the dollar amount was small, Vilsack said it sent a message of his emphasis on nutritious food.

More to Vilsack than meets the eye?

WaPo on the new USDA chief

As Tom Laskawy pointed out here a few days ago, controversy rages around new USDA chief Tom Vilsack's choice of deputy secretary -- traditionally a powerful figure within the agency, tasked with implementing policy in a sprawling bureaucracy. The sustainable-ag world is rallying around Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, who's thought to be under serious consideration for the post. Evidently, the choice is being held up because Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is threatening to fight it in the ag committee. It's pretty unsavory stuff -- Conrad is evidently furious that Hassebrook supports stricter limits on subsidies paid to a single farm (a policy also supported by Vilsack and President Barack Obama). Astonishingly, this back-room brawl in what used to be a back-water agency has gotten high-profile attention. NYT pundit Nicholas Kristof weighed in on his blog recently. As I've written before, the USDA suddenly operates under the glare of media attention. Can anyone remember a similar situation at USDA during Bush II's reign? I tried to make a fuss when Bush chose a deputy secretary who had served as president of the Corn Refiners Association. No one seemed to see what the big deal was. Those days are over. Now the USDA chief's got reporters bird-dogging him about his attitude toward reform. And he's been making an effort -- unprecedented, as far as I know -- to soothe his critics in the sustainable-food world. Here he is waxing downright Pollanesque to a Washington Post reporter:

Cheap-chicken ad from KFC hides true cost of food; here’s a tastier, low-cost alternative

What’s he hiding? Undeterred by the thorough trouncing he received last time he threw down the gauntlet, the Colonel has placed it gingerly at my feet once more, with another apocryphal advertisement that premiered during — what else? — the Super Bowl. I know that times are tough, and every business has a right — perhaps even a duty — to make itself at least appear to be the frugal choice. I get that; I really do. Even my own restaurant has cut prices, introduced lower-cost fare, and offered bargains for repeat business. We’re all in this together, and we …

(Soy)bean counting

Direct and organic farm sales rise rapidly, new census shows

Direct sales from farmers rose 49 percent, and organic farm sales more than tripled from 2002 to 2007, new USDA farm census data show. USDA released the 2007 Agriculture Census data today, giving Americans a far more detailed understanding of agricultural trends -- just as interest in local foods expands dramatically. For me, one of the key indicators of the growth of interest in community-based foods is the rapidly rising sales of food direct from farmers to consumers. Direct food sales rose a whopping 49 percent to $1.2 billion in 2007, up from $812 million in 2002. This includes farmstand, farmers market, internet, or other direct sales of fruit, vegetables, meats, and many other foods.

Maple flag raised the red flag

Canada saved us from more bad peanuts

In the stream of news about the troubling "our peanuts are tainted and our food system is whack" situation, this gem has floated to the surface: It was Canada that first raised the red flag on Peanut Corp's products last spring. The tale unfurls a bit like a parody of bumbling agency hijinks, but the moral is clear: Canada. Always. Rocks.

Eating their words

On the importance of getting personal with your food

William Emery, author of Edges of Bounty. Real food doesn't often compete with the delicious paper-and-ink smell of bookstores, but last Saturday, chefs, farmers, photographers, and writers filled Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company with their wares: two appetizing reads. The back-to-back book events featured the authors of Chefs on the Farm and Edges of Bounty. One lesson I walked away with that day was that food is only as good as the relationships on which it's based. These relationships can be between soil and seed, eater and herb, farmer and goat, or even you and your neighbors. Both books' authors reinforced this idea and went on to suggest that diverse, well-tended, and personal relationships produce the best meals and the best stories.

The crop-diversity crisis

By naming the root cause behind food crises, we stand a chance at solving them

This is a guest post by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. ----- Southern Africa, 2030. A throng of emaciated people waits for food rations to arrive. The maize crop has failed, devastated by hot weather and drought. Yet again. A "food crisis?" Yes. That's what we'll call it in 22 years. But not today. If we want to do something about future food crises, we should name them today, and name them properly. Problems unnamed or improperly named are problems left unsolved. In many cases, what we call food crises are more precisely thought of as crop-diversity crises. That's what history's most famous "food crisis" -- the Irish potato famine -- really was. A paper recently published Science -- abstract here -- by a group of scholars with whom the Crop Diversity Trust collaborates, predicts a drop in maize (corn) yields of 30 percent in southern Africa by 2030 as a result of climate change, unless new climate-ready varieties of maize are developed. A huge drop in production of the region's most important food crop will bring instant famine.