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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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New documentary is like ‘The Real World’ for farming

Photo by Ben Williams.

Filmmaker Hailey Wist's documentary The Garden Summer is the true story of five strangers picked to live on a farm, work together, and have their lives taped. Wist recruited four other good-looking 20-something suburbanites to spend the summer on an Arkansas farm, getting all their food (except booze, coffee, and cooking oil) either from their own garden or from within a 100-mile radius.

So what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real on a farm? Well, like the original MTV reprobates, they drink, get in arguments, and have romantic entanglements, sometimes with the same people. But they also learn about where their food comes from, and about wasting less and living simpler.

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Cut above: Cooking with grass-fed beef

Lynne Curry has always considered herself a locavore, but her food choices changed drastically when she moved from the Washington coast to a grassland ranching community called Wallowa in Eastern Oregon. Near the coast, she had eaten mostly vegetarian, with some fresh fish now and then. But in Wallowa she found that eating responsibly and supporting her local community meant buying and eating grassland beef (in large “shares”). Drawing on prior culinary experience from stints working in several high-end Pacific Northwest restaurants such as The Herb Farm and Willows Inn, Curry created recipes for every cut of meat on the cow.

With her first cookbook, Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut, Curry shares those recipes. She also suggests reaching into the freezer and grabbing whatever cut comes to hand, then paging through her book for a recipe. We caught up with Curry recently to hear about her decision to write the book and the lessons she's learned along the way.

Q. When did you realize you wanted to write this particular cookbook?

A. I always knew I wanted to do a book, but when I saw an article in TIME magazine about cow-pooling, I knew it was this one. It was the first thing I had seen outside of my community that reflected the relevance of this topic back to me.

But many articles about grass-fed beef only go so far, and then leave you hanging. To make this a viable choice, people need to know how to apply cooking methods.

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Put it in your pipe and grow it: Former tobacco farms evolve

A sweet potato from Saura Pride Purple Sweet Potato, a fledgling business that was once a tobacco farm. (All photos by RAFI.)

Alan Flippin comes from a long line of North Carolina tobacco growers. But, a few years back, the crop just stopped making sense. His family’s operation stopped making much of a profit as the cost of fertilizer and other inputs rose. And, Flippin says, “I don’t really enjoy growing tobacco; I don’t use it. I was looking to get into something else.”

He wanted to transition to growing produce instead -- something he could feel good about cultivating, eating, and selling. But shifting to a completely different crop is a hugely risky proposition. “With tobacco, you pretty much know how to grow it; you’ve got a market, and you get insurance for your crops,” Flippin says. “Whereas for produce, it’s very scary because there’s so much you don’t know.”

Flippin’s fledgling produce operation got off the ground with the help of a grant from something called the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. The grant enabled him to build a greenhouse and experiment with several varieties of organic vegetables to sell to wholesalers, farmers markets, and at a local co-op.

The fund was created in the wake of the Tobacco Master Settlement to help North Carolina’s agricultural communities transition to new sources of income. According to the terms of the settlement, announced in 1997, the country’s four largest tobacco companies would make perpetual payments to 46 states to compensate them for smoking-related health-care costs and, in tobacco-growing states, economic losses (four other states already had individual agreements with tobacco companies).

A percentage of North Carolina’s settlement money goes to the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which is a program of the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

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Thousands more farmers markets will soon take food stamps

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

When it comes to giving more people access to fresh, healthy food, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has turned a great deal of its focus in recent years toward farmers markets. And, more specifically, opening farmers markets up to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) or  “food stamp” users.

In fact, the agency reports, spending at farmers markets under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has already jumped by 400 percent since 2008 -- and that's with less than a quarter of the country's 7,000 markets participating in the program.

"That's a huge transformation in the farmers market world, in terms of people being able to feel like they're invited to the party,” USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a phone interview.

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Locavore brew: Tapping into beer’s agricultural roots

A version of this piece originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.

All photos by Almanac Beer Co.

Wendell Berry has said that eating is an agricultural act, but what about drinking beer? A thirst for fermented beverages may have inspired the world's first farmers to plant crops some 13,000 years ago, yet today beer is rarely part of the larger conversation about where our food comes from.

In California, a handful of local craft brewers are starting to tap into that primitive connection. Taking up the motto "Beer is agriculture," Almanac Beer Co. works directly with farmers in the greater Bay Area to source specialty ingredients for their seasonal brews. "For most people, beer is what shows up in the bottle or can," says Almanac brewer Damian Fagan. "We're trying to create a foundation that beer is rooted deeply in agriculture."

Fagan founded Almanac with Beer & Nosh blogger Jesse Friedman last year, after they met in a home-brewing club, where they traded brewing experiments. ("I'd show up with a fig beer or a puréed turnip beer. Not always great ideas," Fagan admits.) The two instantly bonded over their interest in San Francisco's farm-to-table food culture. "We saw a real opening to think and talk about the brewing process using that same vocabulary and ideology," says Friedman.

Read more: Food, Locavore

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Beautiful chart tells you how to eat seasonal (in the U.K., at least)

This beautiful interactive chart from U.K. organization Eat Seasonably may not apply precisely to your climate, and it's pretty British in other ways too -- "courgettes" are zucchini, FYI. But I love the concept -- a handy calendar showing you what fruits and veg are in season at what times -- and I love the idea of having a star vegetable or three for every month.

Read more: Food, Locavore

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Farm-connected CSAs should offer more than just ‘veggie subscriptions’

Photo by Mswine.

I was recently struck by a promotion I saw on the site Local Harvest, which lists organic and locally grown food around the country. The site reads, “Many farms offer subscriptions for weekly baskets of produce, flowers and other farm products. Try a CSA this year!”

“A subscription to local farm products?” I thought. “Is that all community-supported agriculture has become?"

As the local food movement has gone from a trickle to a sweeping current, and sales of local farm products have grown, it seems that many community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers may have lost touch with the original intention behind the term. As a farmer, and one who’s researched and written about the history of CSAs in the U.S. and abroad, I find this trend deeply troubling. It seems many urban residents now see the CSA as just another form of “retail farming” rather than a model for civic agriculture, a site-specific form of solidarity, or associative economics that can transform relationships.

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San Francisco’s urban ag-spansion

Photo by Jeff C.

A version of this post originally appeared in the CUESA Newsletter.

Mary Davis started feeling the squeeze of city life about a year ago. She had grown up gardening and spent a stint working on an organic farm while attending grad school in Missouri. Now an architect living in San Francisco's Mission District, she longed to reconnect with her gardening roots, but her small apartment was lacking in the dirt department. "There was no garden, no outdoors," she says. "I really wanted a place with some soil."

She started looking around her neighborhood and fell in love with the historic Dearborn Community Garden. But when she inquired about getting a plot, she was told there was a 22-year waiting list.

She signed up nonetheless and continued her search, adding her name to the Potrero Hill Community Garden's list as well, which had a comparatively modest seven-year wait. Since then, Davis has moved into a house with a shared backyard garden, but she still longs for a plot of her own.

Davis' experience is not uncommon among would-be gardeners in San Francisco. Most of the city's community gardens have waiting lists of two years or more, according to Public Harvest, a new report by San Francisco Urban Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR). The most comprehensive report of its kind in recent years, it paints a sweeping portrait of the current urban agriculture landscape and presents a bold agenda to help San Francisco meet the demands of a burgeoning movement.

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Let’s put an end to ‘dietary tribalism’

Every time I’m on social media, I am reminded of a growing trend that worries me -- let’s call it dietary tribalism. I use this term to refer to the many fractured groups with conflicting dietary views who, for the most part, don't realize just how much they have in common.

This recent piece in the New York Times about the "challenges of plant-based eating in a meat-based world” got me thinking, as it described several people’s efforts to adopt a vegan lifestyle and how they were fraught with challenges. Not only did I find this lens problematic (for one, not everyone finds the transition that difficult), but I was struck by how it repeated a familiar, yet inaccurate frame: that one is either a vegan or they'll eat an entire cow in one sitting.

But it bothered me even more that the comments turned, predictably, into "veganism isn't natural" vs. "everyone should go vegan." It was almost the perfect microcosm of what happens in the food world when, rather than discuss issues we have in common, we take sides. All this mud-slinging detracts from a more important conversation.