In the many years I worked in the restaurant world, Valentine’s Day meant whipping up confections for other people’s sweethearts. The pressure was steep: People scramble for reservations on the romantic holiday, and desserts are expected to impress. This year, I’ll be at home — and focusing on a Valentine’s Day sweet for my very own Valentine. I knew the dessert would have to be chocolate, and it would be a huge boon if was also dairy-free, because Phil, like millions of others, has difficulty digesting lactose. I also knew that he prefers cakes to pies, puddings, tortes, or even …
There was some curiosity as to what stance U.S. Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack would take in his speech this week before the National Association of Wheat Growers. Surprisingly, he came as the bearer of bad tidings. According to this report: Vilsack called on farmers to accept the political reality that U.S. farm program direct payments are under fire both at home and abroad and therefore farmers should develop other sources of income. In his remarks to the groups he said he intends to promote a far more diversified income base for the farm sector, saying that windmills and biofuels should definitely be part of the income mix and that organic agriculture will also play an increasing role. Um, what? Leave aside the "prepare for a pay cut" thing for a moment. Did Vilsack just use the O-word in front of a bunch of large-scale industrial farmers? Once they stopped laughing, I wonder if they starting thinking about the implications of what he was saying. Maybe this guy is for real. Vilsack's comments certainly jibe with his plans for the new USDA Office for Ecosystem Services and Markets -- an entity that is charged with cataloging the climate impacts of forestry and farming practices. The Christian Science Monitor characterized it thusly:
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 …
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?
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.
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:
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 …
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.
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.
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