Posts filed under ‘Food Dilemmas’

A Calf Among the Cows: Profile of Organic Farm in Portugal

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© Slide show by Margarida Correia.

This is one in a series of posts on my 10-day experience as a volunteer farmer in northern Portugal.

Rosa had finished drinking from the giant tub when Mila and Tangerina approached to get their fill of water.  They should have known better.  Rosa swung her big horns to chase the younger cows away. 

“She’s asserting her status in the hierarchy of the cows,” said Filipe Antunes, co-owner of Cimo de Vila, a 30-acre organic farm in northern Portugal. Rosa, a nine-year-old cow, was one of the oldest and biggest in the herd of 15.

Queuing up for water were the herd’s lowest-ranking members:  tan-colored calves with small developing horns.  They would be last on the water line.

As I watched, I couldn’t help drawing an analogy between the cows and Portugal’s agriculture system. I compared Rosa, Mila and Tangerina to the big food growers — mostly outside Portugal — supplying the country’s hypermarkets and supermarket chains.  These super-sized food producers and distributors are making it hard for agriculture’s calves — small organic farms like Cimo de Vila — to compete. 

But the calves shouldn’t despair.  They can’t be bossed around forever.  (more…)

June 30, 2011 at 2:14 pm Leave a comment

Grocery Store Operator to Expand Supermarkets in NYC Low-Income Nabes

A citywide initiative to establish and retain supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods under the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program is gaining traction.  The New York City Economic Development Council announced that grocery store operator Bogopa Service Corp. will build a new 10,000-square-foot supermarket in Corona, Queens, and renovate and/or expand five existing grocery stores in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

The planned renovations and expansions will add 36,000 square feet of new supermarket space and create 82 new jobs, according to the NYCEDC. (more…)

June 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm Leave a comment

World of NYC Green Carts Revealed

Moveable Feast photo exhibition

Photo of Bangladeshi Green Cart vendor in Brooklyn by photographer Thomas Holton.

New York City Green Cart vendors, the men and woman who have ventured into some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to sell fresh fruit and vegetables, are the subject of a significant photography exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.  The exhibition — called “Moveable Feast:  Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program” — chronicles the lives of the cart vendors and their customers.

Gabriele Stabile, one of the five featured photographers, follows Patricia Jimenez, a Mexican woman whose produce cart on the edge of a South Bronx neighborhood once dubbed “Death Valley” is described as a “daily point of reference in the community.” (more…)

May 23, 2011 at 8:24 pm 3 comments

How Sweet It Is

Northeast winter carrots are sweeter than carrots just about anywhere else, even the high-quality, organic ones at Whole Foods.  That’s one of the many notable takeaways in a recent interview Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being” program, had with chef Dan Barber, co-owner of the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

According to a reading on a refractometer — a device that measures sugar levels in fruits and vegetables — the sugar content of carrots harvested mid-February at the restaurant’s farm was off the charts, said Barber.  The carrots were 13.8 percent sugar, sweeter even than the sweetest carrots.  The ones from Whole Foods, in contrast, had no sugar at all, registering 0 on the tell-tale refractometer.

The carrots grown locally in the dead of winter “far, far exceed in sugar and flavor those grown in a monoculture in warmer climates,” said Barber, referring to carrots from places like Florida, California, Texas, Arizona and Mexico.

While Barber is wistful about what the Northeast could be growing in the winter – things like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts that thrive, he said, “in the intensity of the cold” — he’s not a locavore extremist.  He has a weakness for oranges, a fruit that does not grow in New York, and acknowledges the wonders of modern-day distribution systems that bring consumers oranges and other produce from distant places.

More lighthearted than earnest, the discussion touches on the conflicts and dilemmas inherent in the local food movement, one that Barber describes as the “most exciting social movement in America today.”  When pressed, Barber offers a humorous, unconventional take on the notion of ethical eating.  Eating ethically isn’t some high-minded intellectual exercise, Barber insists.  It boils down to pleasure, pure and simple.

“Doing the right thing,” he said, “is the pleasurable thing,” going on to explain that “if you’re greedy for the best food, then you by definition are being greedy for the kind of world you want used in the right way.”

It’s funny and deep at the same time.  To listen to the near hour-long conversation, clear here.

December 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

What Price Milk?

A pamphlet circulated by the New York City milk cooperative, Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative, for nearly 20 years.

A pamphlet circulated by New York's now defunct Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative for nearly 20 years.

A dime for a quart of milk today sounds like a bargain, but back in the 1930s it was anything but.  With prices fluctuating from nine cents to 14 cents a quart – the equivalent today of $1.34 to $2.08 – milk was unaffordable to Depression-era New Yorkers. 

People understandably grew angry.  In November 1937, following a milk price increase, a mob of mostly women, along with a Holstein cow named Bossy, gathered at Foley Square in Manhattan to protest spiraling milk prices.

Meanwhile upstate dairy farmers were barely getting paid for the high-priced milk. Prices for the struggling dairymen plummeted to all-time lows, leaving many destitute and causing thousands to strike and even threaten to “blow up milk stations and milk trains.”  

Over Spilt Milk,” an online exhibit at the NY Food Museum relives the drama of a turbulent period in New York’s milk history.  The well-documented tale brings to life the villains and heroes of the day. The villains included the detested “Milk Trust”—the three milk distribution giants Borden’s Condensed Milk Co., Sheffield Farms Milk Co., and United States Dairy Products Co., which controlled two-thirds of the city’s milk market.  Other key players included the three-man Milk Control Board, accused by the public of favoritism and unclean ties with the milk lobby.  The Milk Control Board granted milk dealer licenses and stepped in to stabilize fluctuating milk prices. 

Heroes emerged from the chaos, among them community activists Meyer Parodneck and Dr. Caroline Whitney.  They helped organize a milk cooperative—the Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative—that connected dairy farmers directly to people in New York, eliminating the need for “Milk Trust distributors.” The cooperative, formed in 1937, existed until the 1970s when it was sold by its surviving founder. 

The online exhibit is filled with political cartoons and vintage photographs that bring back the tensions and passions of the time.  While the narrative sometimes jumps and leaves some holes along the way, it is a riveting story of the city’s past.  It’s also a harbinger of the modern community supported agriculture movement, which makes it all the more interesting.

May 24, 2009 at 1:06 am 1 comment

Online Farmers Market?

Talk about stretching the truth.  Shrewd entrepreneurs are positioning their companies as promoters of local food when their businesses in fact have little if anything to do with local food. Take Foodzie, a new online artisanal food store offering cheese, chocolate, cookies and other food items from around the world.  The company helps small, independent food businesses reach distant markets.  It does not promote local food or local farmers, as its co-founder, Rob LaFave, suggests in this recent blog post. 

“Buyers are really supporting the local economy and small, independent food makers and growers,” he is quoted saying in the New York Times Bits blog.

The entrepreneur also brazenly likens his online gourmet food store to a farmers market.   “You get a similar experience to a farmers market, when you get the opportunity to meet farmers, but it is much more scalable and you get a better selection,” he says of his store.  Later in the post, the real, live farmers market is irreverently referred to as the “offline farmers market.”

<span style=”It’s very twisted, but not entirely LaFave’s fault.  Throughout the post, the writer erroneously characterizes the store as an “online farmers market.”  It’s not.  Having fair trade organic coffee from Brazil, handcrafted cheese from Colorado, and olive oil from Italy all conveniently located in one place on a Web site is not representative of a true farmers market, where all the food is grown locally and buyers talk face-to-face with the farmers selling their goods. It’s just not. 

January 29, 2009 at 3:02 am Leave a comment

What the World Wants Today

For all the progress and momentum of the local food movement, people are still stuck in the 1970s when the solution to the world’s problems seemed to be a bottle of Coca-Cola.  “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company,” went the jingle in the 1971 hit television commercial.  Young smiling people from around the world sang the song on a hilltop in Italy, each holding a bottle of Coke.  “It’s the real thing,” they crooned, “Coke is what the world wants today.”

And it still is, it seems.  At a food conference held last week at Columbia University, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talked about the administration’s efforts to bring healthier food to New Yorkers.  He mentioned the ban on cigarette smoking in restaurants, the elimination of trans fats in food and the administration’s new food battles:  reducing salt in packaged foods and listing calories in food menus.  It was music to the ears of the thousand food advocates and locavores assembled in Columbia’s grand Alfred Lerner Hall.

But the music suddenly stopped.  When talking about the need for greater access to good-quality food in low-income neighborhoods, Mayor Bloomberg noted that people couldn’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, or low-fat milk, or he said “diet soda.”  Corner bodegas, he said, only had regular soda.

The crowd was aghast. Mayor Bloomberg — introduced by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer as a man who “gets it” when it comes to food and the environment — didn’t get it all.

Didn’t he know, the startled audience thought, that soda — whether diet or not — had high fructose corn syrup, which not only is unhealthy but soaks up gallons of fossil fuels to produce?  Didn’t he know that?

Apparently not.  Most people don’t.

While Mayor Bloomberg was delivering his remarks, rocker Gene Simmons of KISS was downtown on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange promoting “Gene Simmons Family Jewels”, a reality television series about the musician’s family.  Simmons took the opportunity while on the air with Fox Business News anchor Alexis Glick to make a pitch for the U.S. capital markets.

“Invest in America,” he exhorted viewers, as stock market prices were falling to new depths. “I’m buying.”

The American economy, he said, just needed to go on a diet.  Stop spending “stupid money” on things like cigarettes, he told the viewers, and take the “throw-away money” and invest it in the market.  If you like Coke, buy Coke, he said.  If you like hamburgers, buy MacDonald’s.

The famous guitarist was charming and gracious in a Gene Simmons kind of way.  “Forget about me,” he said.  “What’s around me is what makes America great.”

Yet for all his patriotism, Mr. Simmons like Mayor Bloomberg didn’t get it.  In the same breath that he recommended buying Coke, he noted that the nation needed to “get out of Mideast oil.”

Mr. Simmons didn’t see that Coke is dependent on Mideast oil for the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow mass quantities of industrial corn.  He didn’t see that connection or understand the havoc that industrial agriculture wreaks on the environment.

Every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it, or around 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn, according to Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

For all their good intentions, Mr. Simmons and Mayor Bloomberg are missing the point. What the world needs to do is wean itself off Coke and other sodas altogether.  They’re bad for people’s health, the environment and long-term even the economy.  What the world wants today hopefully won’t be anything it will want to touch tomorrow.

November 28, 2008 at 8:22 pm 1 comment

Mini-Size Me

Eli’s, the gourmet food market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, last month took a radical step on behalf of the environment: it added an energy surcharge of 1.8 percent to people’s grocery bills.  Customers predictably weren’t happy, and the unpopular surcharge was soon suspended.  The store’s owner, Eli Zabar, insisted he was trying to make a statement: the energy cost of running a food business was much higher than any other type of business.  He could have simply raised food prices, but that wouldn’t have done anything to make people aware of all the energy needed to run a supermarket: lighting, electricity for the frozen goods, meat and dairy departments, and so on.   

“It takes a lot of energy to roast coffee,” Zabar is quoted as saying in a New York Times article.

So, what exactly was Zabar trying to say?  That we shouldn’t shop at supermarkets or gourmet food stores?  Although it’s more energy efficient to buy food direct from farmers whenever we can, I don’t think that was Zabar’s point.  He is a merchant after all.  He was simply drawing attention to all the ways in which we deplete our natural resources and suck energy out of the planet, without even knowing it. 

Take the production of meat, which is super high-energy intensive.  According to a statistic cited in a New York Times article by Mark Bittman, the production of 2.2 pounds of beef burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. 

How is it, though, that cows consume energy?  Don’t they eat grass?  Well, the lucky ones do.  Most cows – the ones raised on industrial farms – are fed great quantities of corn and other grains, which rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – all of which use massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce.  Processing and transporting the animals also consume a tremendous amount of energy. 

Bittman points out that it takes two to five times more grain to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption.

So we’d be better off – both ourselves and the environment – if we ate less meat and more grains and vegetables.  In our meat-eating culture, it’s not so easy to do. 

Not too long ago, I went to Todaro’s, a well-loved neighborhood food store in Manhattan, to buy a small, no-bigger-than-quarter-pound steak, but all they had were hunky one-pound cuts of beef.  The sales clerk said they’d never be able to sell itsy bitsy quarter-pound steaks like the one I wanted.  I settled for the smallest steak there – a sirloin steak just a little over three-quarters of a pound.  I took it home and cut it into three equal parts, which I then froze. 

Four ounces of meat, a quarter pound, is what the USDA recommends consumers eat a day.  Americans eat twice that much – eight ounces, a half a pound – about twice the global average. 

It’s hard to reduce our meat intake when we live in a fervent meat culture, but we can try.

We can buy that steak if we have to (or can’t resist), but we can cut it, freeze it, and make it last.  We can “mini-size” our steaks and chops when the rest of the nation is super-sizing.    

Zabar made a statement.  Now it’s our turn to act. 

October 24, 2008 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

Reflections on Lazy Locavores

It’s not easy being a locavore, but people nevertheless are trying.  They’re hitting farmers markets whenever they can, checking Web sites for local food sources, and even growing food in their own backyards.  Some, though, are taking the easy way out, hiring people to plant gardens or ordering local food from online vendors.  They’re what Kim Severson in a New York Times article calls the “lazy locavores.” 

I read the article with mixed emotions and found myself both liking and disliking this emerging class of local food eaters.  First what I liked.  I liked the fact that lazy locavores are inspiring new businesses.  A business planting gardens might be a great entry point for people who want to farm and others who like to be outdoors and work with their hands.  Landscapers and gardeners looking for additional revenue streams also benefit from the emerging generation of food-conscious consumers.  Then there are the new online vendors, which source from only local places, like the “FruitGuys” mentioned in the NYT article.  These online vendors are sure to make Fresh Direct more competitive and perhaps more local-oriented.  I like new businesses, particularly when they revolve around life’s essentials, none more so than good nutritious food.

What’s there to dislike about lazy locavores?  For me, it has a little to do with ordering local food online.  Doesn’t that mute one of the key objectives of eating locally, which is to reduce carbon emissions by having food travel shorter distances? By ordering rather than picking up local food, locavores are needlessly expanding their carbon and environmental footprint.  True, food is not traveling as far as it otherwise would.  Instead, it’s traveling shorter distances to hundreds of local destinations.  And think of all the packaging!

What bothered me more was the hint of elitism.  Not everyone can afford to be lazy about their local food habit.  In these hard economic times, who can afford to hire a gardener to grow their food? Or keep a personal chef? Or pay a premium to have their local food delivered to their door?   

That got me thinking about the hard-driving, non-lazy locavores, and what they could do to enjoy local food without having to lay out too much extra cash.  Here are some things I thought of:

·         Join a CSA. A CSA share costs about the same as what shoppers would pay for conventional food in the supermarket, so it’s a good deal.  A CSA arrangement works especially well for people who live within walking distance of the CSA food drop-off location. 

·         Shop at farmers markets. There are multiple farmers markets throughout the city.  If locavores work in neighborhoods that have farmers markets, they should consider shopping after work hours on their way home.  It might be a time saver.  People, though, are out of luck if there aren’t any farmers markets near their homes or workplaces.

·         Buddy up with a neighbor and split the errand of shopping for local food.  Granted, shoppers would need a very good relationship with their neighbor, but if that relationship exists it could save time and probably even money. 

None of these ideas are as convenient as having someone shop for you or grow your food for you at home, or having local produce delivered to your door.   But for locavores who don’t mind a little inconvenience – and aren’t lazy – the ideas might help.

August 1, 2008 at 11:34 pm 2 comments

A Bright Side to Higher Food Prices?

We’re all feeling the pinch in one form or another.  We feel it when we hand over the extra dollar for the slice of pizza or part with $4 dollars for a half-gallon of orange juice. We notice it too in the shrinking size of cereal boxes or in the ever smaller portions of rice we’re served at Japanese restaurants.

No one likes the sting, but is it possible that some good can come from the price spikes?  Can there possibly be a bright side to higher food prices?  The optimist in me says there is. 

The shock of higher prices jolts us from a long 50-plus-year sleep – an era when most Americans stopped worrying about food production and began to take food for granted. As the country shifted to large-scale agriculture and great bounties of food began to appear regularly and conveniently at cheap prices on supermarket shelves, people slowly lost touch with the land and what it produces when.  They forgot about farmers and the risks they faced with hot-tempered Mother Nature. 

Higher food prices connect us to farms and farmers in a way we haven’t been in a long time.  Images of inundated cornfields in the Midwest and stories of crop failures and food shortages around the world are an unwelcome wakeup call – a reminder of how farmers and the land should never be taken for granted.

It’s hard not to connect with farmers when we hear stories of their toil.  In a recent New York Times article, one Iowa farmer worried how he and his fellow American farmers would be able to feed the world, given the disastrous crop failures.  If they take on the burdens of the world, people might begin to think more responsibly about how they eat and what they can do to minimize their toll on the earth.  People might begin appreciating their fruits and veggies a little more, and the breads, cheeses and meats they mindlessly throw into their shopping carts. 

They might even start to follow Michael Pollan’s words of wisdom on eating: Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.

A few months ago, my boss, an avid consumer of Coca Cola, Pepsi and other soft drinks, wondered aloud why the local pizzeria hiked its prices.  Pizza is not made from corn, he remarked.  Why should the prices go up?  Colleagues piped in with explanations – higher costs of fuel and fertilizer, and grain shortages across the board.  It was a reality check, an epiphany that food may not always be there for the taking.   

Higher food prices also make us better shoppers.  I recently bumped into a woman at a health food store who fretted about the ever smaller boxes of cereal.  “I’m paying attention to sizes and costs like I never did before,” she told me.  Both of us then commiserated about cereal makers’ marketing ploys.  We spent a few minutes comparing cereal box sizes.  Even though some were exactly the same size and shape, not all contained the same amount of cereal.

Higher prices got us talking and thinking. I’d say that’s a good thing. 

June 25, 2008 at 11:59 pm 6 comments

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