Monday, September 19, 2011

The Good Food Festival

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Good Food Festival.

The Good Food Festival:

Figuring How Organic and Local Can Save the World One Bite at a Time

Local.  Organic.  Really last week’s Good Food Festival was a four-day long tribute to the importance of these words. 

And yes, these are words that are thrown around like no other in Santa Monica.  But where do they fit in the real world?    And how can they save the world?  (Which as Molly Gean of Harry’s Berries noted was a pretty tall order to fill).

GFF’s Local/Organic panel housed a variety of different viewpoints from the aforementioned Gean (owner of a 40 acre organic strawberry farm) to Will Daniels Senior Vice President for Food Safety at Earthbound Farm (with 37,000 acres in total, the largest organic company out there) to Bruce Palma founder of Co-Opportunity Natural Foods (which as been selling local organic food for 37 years) to Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farms (which has farming for five generations going from organic to chemical then choosing to go back to organic again).  The panel was moderated by Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety (an environmental and public health organization which has initiated legal actions against the FDA and EPA to preserve the integrity of the food supply).

So what’s the big deal with local and organic?  

In the world of food sales organic is only 4% penetration in the market and 9% of fruit and vegetables.  But it’s also one of the fastest growing sections of the food industry. 

Why does it matter if our food comes from the earth or from chemicals? 

The answer is really two-fold health and taste.  The importance of organic taste is something that Santa Monica Farmers Market patrons know firsthand, along with chefs who have the market’s produce flow to them through specialty food buyers to locations as far as Scottsdale, AZ and Las Vegas, NV.   When Molly Gean referred to her strawberries she noted, “They’re smaller, our yields are lower, our cost is higher, but they taste so much better.”

But while most people agree that a organic strawberry will taste better than a GMO-ed one, they will usually with their next breath talk about how we all can’t live on organic farming.  “If the world only ate organic, we’d all starve to death,” is a pretty popular battle cry. 

But Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety noted that in May a United Nations report, titled Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, revealed that small-scale sustainable farming would even double food production within five to 10 years in places where most hungry people on the planet live.

“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

The UN report suggested moving away from the overuse of oil in farming, a problem that is magnified in the face of rising prices due to unrest in the Middle East. The focus should instead be on agroecology, or eco-farming. “Agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry,” he continued.  Barker also noted the World Bank was to be coming out with a similar study in the coming months.  

But that doesn’t mean that organic farming will be easy or cheap.  “Organic is more of an art than a science,” stated Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farms. “There’s a lot of problems, but the taste does give an edge.  I was a chemical farmer; they are difficult not to be.  I went through my learning curve with growing in season.   The only way to grow organic and survive is through diversification.”  “America grows the cheapest food in the world,” he continued.  “We need to pay more for good clean food than that.  Our father’s generation was so excited about chemicals.  But it’s caused so many issues.  You don’t have a quick fix; it comes part and parcel without the chemicals.   Yes yields aren’t as high but it comes out in the taste.”

“I think people need to understand the concept of fruit and vegetables being the primary part of dinner,” noted Bruce Palma.   “Most people don’t think about it that way so they’re not willing to spend the money on it the way they do on their meat.”
“Joel Salatin says on average that we spend 18% on health care and 9% on food,” noted Daniels of Earthbound.  “Decades ago it was different, and I believe it’s because of conventional agriculture.  I would love to see it flip again. “  Not only for the health of the people but also for the health of the land.  “Industrial agriculture consumes 70% of fresh water,” noted Barker.  “30% of greenhouse gases are due to global industrial farming.“  

“Global warming is created because of unbalanced eco-systems,” expanded Daniels further.  “Organic is just that: a balanced eco-system.   In 2011 alone Earthbound’s avoiding the use of over 333,000 pounds of toxic and persistent pesticides and 11.2 million pounds of synthetic fertilizer.   We’re conserving an estimated 1.8 million gallons of petroleum by avoiding the use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers.   We’re fighting global warming by absorbing as much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as taking more than 7,800 cars off the road.”  

But doing the right thing doesn’t make life easy. “Crop rotation is the key,” noted Daniels.  “Mono cropping is a bad idea all around.  Organic farming feeds the soil not the crop.”   “Being organic forces you to diversify,” noted Phil McGrath.  “It’s very hard to be a mono-cropper and be organic.   For example, if you’re going to do strawberries organically you “should” wait seven years before you do another strawberry crop.  I’m able to do 4 years before plantings.”  Which can be a hard thing to do if you only have 300 acres to work with and a quarter of it can’t be used for another four years.

It was also noted that as we approach 2012 we need to start to rally in regards to the Farm Bill.  

What’s the Farm Bill you ask?   

The Farm Bill is a $300 billion piece of legislation that is passed every 5 years and helps to provide the structure of agriculture ad food policy in the U.S.   As Phil McGrath noted, “Yes it’s boring but its what sets policy.   I can only hope everyone looks at the Farm Bill.   75% goes to nutrition and food stamps.  The other part is subsidies.  That’s the part we need to focus on, we need to apply pressure for some of that to go to sustainable farming.“ 

“I hope progress will move quicker,” stated Daniels.  “The people who make the needle move are the constituents and the lobbyists.  And right now, the biggest and baddies are speaking to your representatives.  Monsanto spends 50 million in lobbying.   They have 100 lobbyists, that are identifiable.  That doesn’t even count the groups.”  And their heavy hand can be found in America’s crops.   “90% of corn in the US is genetically modified,” noted Barker.  90-95% of sugar beets are GMOs”  

“The organic consumer needs to speak up.  They need to tell their representatives what’s important,” continued Daniels.  “I’m sorry to put the onus on you guys,” finished Gean.   “But you have your love of farmers markets.   You need to spread the word.” 

“It’s really all up to you.  Our fate is in your hands.”  

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica food writer who has been inspired to learn more about the Food Bill.   You can see more of her writings at

Friday, September 16, 2011

September: National Childhood Obesity Month

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the September being National Childhood Obesity Month!


September: National Childhood Obesity Month

I recently found out that September has been declared National Childhood Obesity Month.

Which is one of the saddest reflections of our times.

Now, as an "Almost Vegan" I know I am considered the complete opposite end of the spectrum. That because I imposed lots of restrictions on my diet, National Childhood Obesity Month wasn't created for my kids (when I have them).

But I wasn't born an Almost Vegan.

When I started writing about food I ate everything! Ironically, I had a tendency to look down on Vegetarians and Vegans because their diet was so un-Fun. (And in grand scheme of things I considered myself pretty tolerant since I had dabbled with Vegetarianism in college.) At that point my food journalism career consisted mainly of restaurant reviews.

But the thing about writing about food is that you start learning more and more with each article you write, about how our Food system works and all the things we need to fix about it. Somewhere around watching Food Inc., I stopped eating Meat and Chicken. Somewhere around reading Eating Animals, I stopped eating Seafood. Somewhere around the China Study I stopped eating Dairy.

Each of the aforementioned books and movies drew back the curtain a little more, but the last one absolutely blew my mind. Based on decades long project findings in rural China, the China Study details the comprehensive connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. I always tell people, "if you like eating meat, don't read this book; but if you don't want to get cancer, I'd order a copy right away."
But where's the Fun in that?

There is something about kids that we feel that they should have Fun at all times. And for most of us the easiest way for us to create Fun is through food. That there should always be a cookie for a treat, a carton of chocolate milk for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Most people will never look at a piece of broccoli and say "this would be great to celebrate Billy's birthday with." And I'm not saying it needs to go to that extreme, but really we need to do something.

We now have a National Childhood Obesity Month! If that doesn't piss you off it should! This "epidemic" (and really in the world of epidemics, it's the one with the most simplest of solutions) will probably shave five years off your kids' lives. Five years!

I have spent two-thirds of my life working with kids and I have discovered a simple simple truth: kids need restrictions. They need boundaries that teach them right from wrong (and this is something we don't grow out of as adults). What kind of restrictions: telling them Yes and No (the very definition of restriction); making sure they know what is healthy and unhealthy to eat (the easy part); and making sure they eat the good stuff (the not so easy part).

I'm an Almost Vegan, so sometimes I have a cookie or a cupcake. I don't beat myself up about it if I do because it's a treat. But treats are only treats if you don't get them all the time.

Now a lot of people get overwhelmed when you start talking about food. They'd rather play ostrich and eat whatever they want. But every action has ramifications, ignoring the need for a healthy diet today will only show up in heart disease tomorrow.

If you're feeling overwhelmed start small. Follow Michael Pollan's basic tenant of food health:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly pants.

It doesn't get any simpler that that. Pollan actually has an entire book dedicated to simple ways to eat right: Food Rules. They are simple pieces of wisdom like the ever so fitting #39.

#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. There is nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries, even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we're eating them every day. The french fry did not become America's most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they're so much work. The same holds true for fried chicken, chips, cakes, pies, and ice cream. Enjoy these treats as often as you're willing to prepare them — chances are good it won't be every day.