Archive for ‘food security’

April 3, 2012

Going Nuts: Restoring a Community Food Source

A desire to beautify our open spaces, restore a community-managed resource and secure a uniquely local food supply brought at least 30 volunteers to the hazelnut grove off River Road this Saturday, March 31.

Volunteers cut blackberries and grass from around the hazelnut trees.

It’s been a rough spring, both for Eugenians and for the trees we treasure. A freak snowstorm felled branches around the city and dampened our spirits in advance of a solid two weeks of rain. But Saturday, like a lottery ball with our number on it tumbling down the chute, the sun beat the odds and managed to send down a few warming rays that kept the rain at bay for the afternoon.  I like to think the volunteers would have shown up anyway, but they were especially energetic with the unexpected Vitamin D boost.

Lorna and Oliver from the City of Eugene provided tools – loppers, saws, rakes – and refreshments – coffee, tea, lemonade, Newman’s cookies – to make the job easy. Neighborhood permaculture guru Jan Spencer and a few other well-connected folks brought the man- and woman-power. Some worked in teams, pulling down blackberry vines from top while cutting down tall grass in the middle and digging up invasive root systems from the base of the trees. Unlike some invasive-plant eradication projects I’ve undertaken (as an Oregonian, I have taken a personal oath to destroy unwanted blackberries wherever they may lurk), this one had a distinct and attainable finish. Once we remove all the vines of blackberry and English ivy that are strangling the trees in the grove, we can keep them out with regular pruning and care for the trees themselves.

How does one care for a hazelnut tree? They really don’t require much attention for the bounty they can provide. The trees in this grove will need a healthy initial investment of “sweat equity” to produce a good crop of nuts next fall. Linda Perrine, who grows organic hazelnuts at her Honor Earth Farm and volunteered her expertise in this project, told us that hazelnut trees run on an 18-month cycle. They flower in February (one of the reasons they thrive in our temperate climate), and those flowers don’t grow into nuts until the next summer. That means if we prune and fertilize now, next spring’s flowers will see the benefit, and we’ll have an improved crop of nuts that fall.

The good news is that these 100 or so trees have been producing nuts with little or no human assistance each year for the past 25-30 years, according to Linda’s estimation of the age of the grove. Since the grove is on city land, next to the bike path that runs along the Willamette River, anyone is welcome to harvest the nuts, and they do. Thanks to nature’s aggressive reproductive strategies, the trees are at least producing something, even though they haven’t been cared for since the last work party five years ago.

This fall, I was the lucky recipient of some of those hazelnuts. A friend said she’d picked them up along the bike path, and I didn’t ask for their credentials. If I had, I would have learned about the grove sooner.

The bowl of unshelled hazelnuts (which some people call filberts) has been sitting on my table for the past six months, refilled regularly from our stash. The nut bowl has been a source of nourishment at those moments of hunger but no culinary inspiration or motivation. Hazelnuts are sweet, meaty and satisfyingly crunchy, not to mention a great source of protein. Cracking them with the elegant silver nutcracker is a way to keep our hands busy when we sit around the table in the evening, talking and drinking wine. It’s a source of entertainment when our kitten, Silvia, reaches across the table, hooks a nut out of the bowl with her paw, and careens after it as it flies across the room.

Being new to the neighborhood, I knew we had a depressing deficit of grocery stores, but I never imagined the hazelnut grove where my friend had found these cat toys/treats was so close to home. Turns out I bike by it every week on the way to my goat-milking job, but the city’s only public hazelnut farm was hiding itself amongst a tangle of grass and blackberries. I finally put two and two together when I met Jan Spencer at a neighborhood meeting. We connected about our aspirations for food security in the region, and he told me about the work party happening at the grove.
Pruning just happens to be one of my favorite things to do, and of course I wanted to cultivate this great source of protein as a food source for myself and my neighbors, so there I was this Saturday. After meeting Lorna and some of the crew, I picked a tree and set to work. I lopped. I hacked. I sawed. I yanked blackberry vines like bull whips from tall branches. I did the elbow-crawl through the exposed dirt to follow endless root systems. I met some more neighbors. We received a light sprinkling of rain like a blessing of holy water and then a bit more sunshine. I went home with twigs in my hair and a smile on my face.
About two-thirds of the trees in the grove were released from the under (and over) growth by the end of the day. Before we packed it up, Linda showed us how to prune a tree, picking one to serve as a model for the next work party. We removed about a dozen thin shoots (which she called “suckers”) to leave behind only four straight, strong and healthy trunks. This will put all the tree’s energy into producing nuts on those branches, producing a higher quality and even more bountiful harvest from the next set of flowers.
Pruned hazelnut tree.

Next time, the volunteers hope to finish cleaning up around the trees and work on pruning them. Some of the old trees still have the rotted-out skeleton of the original trunk standing in the middle of the sideshoots. When you cut away enough of those shoots and blackberries to reach the center, you get the satisfying experience of pushing it over. It feels like a food desert falling away, and a multitude of nutritious, home-grown options sprouting up in its place.

To see the rest of Jan’s photos and learn about Suburban Permaculture, go to

February 16, 2012

Redefining Convenience at the Organic Corner Market

The Organic Corner Market on River RoadDown the street from my house, next to the auto body shop and across the road from what my neighbor coyly refers to as the “naughty bookstore” is a small corner market. Now, you may be envisioning a 7-11 or similar joint, a reliable place to find chips, candy, cheap beer, and maybe a jug of milk, but this is a different sort of bodega.

My neighborhood lies between the center and the outskirts of Eugene – sort of a petticoat layer. It’s cut off from the center of town by the railroad tracks and bisected by the busy commercial corridor of River Road, which eventually leads you out of the city and into picturesque farmland where goats may roam. If it weren’t for our corner store, it could probably be called a food desert, especially for the many in the neighborhood who don’t drive.

In this very mixed residential zone, where one neighbor is building his own greenhouse and another distributes literature on the Second Coming, a run to corner market will not yield any kind of processed foods, unless you count locally milled flour. The friendly green building only offers fresh, antioxidant-loaded treats – all locally grown. That’s because this market is supplied by a handful of local food producers, chiefly Sweet Leaf Farm’s Penny Tyrell.

Fresh produce is the ultimate snack food, meal food, and survival food, and it seems that people in my neighborhood agree. Here, Penny literally found a niche in the market to peddle everything from pumpkins to flowers. The Organic Corner Market, as it’s officially known, has also become something of a community gathering spot, a place to carve pumpkins and run into your neighbor when fetching a last-minute item for dinner.

Detroit Fresh Healthy Bodega

Detroit Fresh - Urban convenience store offering fresh produce

While Penny has been building her market in my neighborhood, a Healthy Corner Market movement has been gaining speed across North America. Convenience store owners are tapping into the new market of health-conscious shoppers by offering fresh produce alongside Doritos and Pepsi. It’s hard to tell how many stores are doing it, but the industry is definitely catching on, with a little help from community grants and government programs like WIC, which offers food assistance to low-income mothers.

In Eugene, one organization, the Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth, convinced a branch of the local convenience store chain Dari Mart to park a produce truck with fresh veggies in front of one of its stores once a week all summer long. Customers lined up around the corner. Another mini martoff the freeway has been offering fresh, local and organic versions of the typical truck-stop options, to go with its plant-based ethanol and bio-diesel fuel.

The Organic Corner Market isn’t associated with the Healthy Corner Market initiative or any traditional convenience store, but seems to be approaching the quick-stop retail model from the opposite direction. Starting with fresh fruits and vegetables, it grew to offer a selection of locally produced foods like tuna, grain products and bread, plus flowers, seeds, and seedlings. It’s more than a farm stand, but not a place to find condoms and cigarettes, either.

The Organic Corner Market in February

The Organic Corner Market in February

I got hooked on the Corner Market this summer when I first moved to the neighborhood. Having the best quality organic produce a two minutes’ walk from my kitchen was a luxury I’d never experienced before, and I dreaded the onset of winter more than usual. When October rolled around, I casually asked the guy behind the counter when the market would close for the season. With kind matter-of-factness, he informed me, “We don’t really close.”

“What?” I said. “How will you keep this up?” I indicated the bins of fresh salad greens, ripe tomatoes, crisp apples and bright flowers.
He just smiled mysteriously. “We’ll be closed for the holidays, but we plan to open back up in January.”

Honestly, I didn’t really believe him. Come December, the market looked as deserted as my garden beds. I settled myself in for a long winter of trekking downtown or up River Road to the chain supermarket for groceries.

I wasn’t giving local farmers enough credit. In mid-January, I spotted the Corner Market’s colorfully hand-painted sandwich board sign out by the road. I went in immediately, not sure what to expect. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the garage-like structure, I started seeing food, and a decent amount of it. Greens, leeks, carrots, squash, garlic, potatoes, and the locally milled grains they started carrying this summer. Penny was behind the counter.
“This your first week back?” I asked.
“Nope. Third.”
“Wow,” was all I could say. Then I started picking out some thick, gorgeous leeks to take home.

I came back the next week to chat with Penny more (they’re just open on Wednesdays for now, more days as the season progresses). Penny sorts winter squash as I chat with her. Very moldy ones go in a box for compost. Slightly moldy in a different box for the cook at the local Mission, who is a big fan of her produce.
“Last summer, he took an entire box of wilted basil, pureed it, and put it in his freezer,” she says. “I asked him if he could use any more; he said he’d take all I’ve got.”

That’s the general neighborhood attitude toward the market, now in its fourth year. The fact that they’re out here in the middle of winter selling whatever they can grow speaks both to the strength of the local market and Penny’s dedication to her customers.

“I live here. I’m into it.” In fact, Penny lives right around the corner from the Market. Her 40-acre farm is a few miles up River Road. Although Sweet Leaf Farm sells produce at several farmers’ markets in the region, she has an obvious preference for selling at the Corner Market.

It all started, she tells me, with pumpkins.

Organic Corner Market pumpkins

Organic Corner Market pumpkins. It takes a neighborhood to carve an army of disembodied gourd-heads.

Pumpkins are a challenge for truck farmers like Penny. They’re big, difficult to move, and people don’t pay a lot of money for them. But Penny’s a pumpkin fan, especially when it comes to carving them. One day in the fall of 2008, she pulled a truck full of pumpkins into the empty parking lot across from the adult shop, and people began buying them. The owners of the lot eventually allowed her to store some produce on site, which eliminated the hassle of moving the heavy squash to and fro. Penny decided to move in for good.

“The people who run the adult shop were my first customers,” Penny says with a smile. She traded with other neighbors for most of the work on her building. The window installer, the concrete pourer, the painter – they all got fresh produce, and she now has an eye-catching green building that has become a local landmark.

On a summer evening, it’s easy to find friends and neighbors shopping at the Corner Market, and she stays open late around Halloween for people to stop by and carve a pumpkin, building the massive display in the parking lot.

Penny’s plans include building a stage in the lot for summer concerts and to and expand her selection to better cater to “produce emergencies”.
“What’s that?” I ask, envisioning a soup flood or carrot in the eye.
“You know, when you run out of garlic or something.”

Regional suppliers are ready to meet the demand for fresh food, emergency or otherwise. Already, Penny offers tuna from a fish processor on the Oregon coast, seeds from Peace Seeds, grains from Camas Country Mill, and specialty produce from various growers. The bread is made at Sweetwater Farm and has been such a big hit that I’ve never seen it on the shelf – it sells out within the hour.

Supply has been matching demand. Penny doesn’t do any marketing because word of mouth is enough.
“The people that want it, know about it,” she says with a smile. “The people who stumble upon it, love it.”

About two miles up River Road, Dari Mart sells malt liquor at $1.39 per 22 oz bottle, and though they do stock local milk (not hard to do in Oregon), produce hasn’t yet made it onto the shelves. On the Healthy Corner Market website, convenience store owners in several case studies cited customer demand as a key reason they began stocking fresh produce. In an urban – or suburban – food desert, even a few apples or salad greens can make a big difference to those with limited shopping options. For me, it’s great comfort to know I’ll never be out of garlic as long as Penny and her fellow growers are down the street.

January 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Local: Worktrading for a food revolution

Back in 2006, Michael Pollan wrote a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a movement was born. Everyone wanted to eat local and organic food, and those who could afford it, did. In the past few years, farmers’ markets have taken off, kids started to dream about being farmers when they grew up, and a certain segment of the populace bought “Eat Local” tote bags and started shelling out $5 for a bunch of carrots.

On the backs of that movement rode the do-it-yourself locavores, the victory gardeners, the Michelle Obama crowd of herb pots and backyard chickens. Meanwhile, the trust fund kids started taking unpaid positions on farms on their summer breaks, reveling in fresh air, barn dances, and home made sauerkraut. Then most of them graduated, realized that there’s still no money in farming despite our nationwide romanticism for the lifestyle, and found jobs as fry cooks.

I’ll admit to being privileged enough to have spent time in both groups. Then I graduated, and after working a few seasonal jobs, was thankful to find regular work as an institutional cook. I’m very glad I have a job, but being part-time excludes me from the $5 carrot group these days. I’ve always rented and move too often to have a very productive garden. Luckily, I landed on a viable scheme to eat well without paying for it, and get my farming kicks in, too. Since, in the past three years, both the tote-baggers and college grads are finding the locavore dream more and more difficult to carry out, it may be a scheme to consider.

This Thursday found me, like most Thursdays do, squeezing the goats out at NettleEdge Farm. Since last spring, I’ve been coming to this sprawling homestead about once a week to do a few hours of work in exchange for goat milk, eggs, veggies, seeds and whatever else comes out of the earth or animals.

The farm is kept by Rachel and Keith Debuse, their son Keagan, and resident garlic expert George with help from a few others. Located just north of town in that nether region between suburb and country – an estate home on one lot, a Christmas tree farm on the next – the place is chaotic but comfortable. Decades of accumulated farm equipment, inherited from Keith’s family, rusts in nests of blackberry vines. Compost heaps dot the farmyard, protected from the destructive claws of chickens with makeshift fences held together with baling twine. Goats destroy everything, so their sheds are practically coming apart at the seams despite constant repair.

In other words, it’s a paradise, greener and quieter than the busy street I live on. Dogs and poultry run free. Nobody cares where you throw your apple core or park your wheelbarrow. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the family’s army-feeding garden and trees laden with pears, figs, plums and nuts from summer through fall.

My Thursday morning routine at NettlEdge is simple and rejuvenating – clean up after the goats, feed ‘em, milk ‘em, scratch ‘em behind the ears, find more food for them to eat. In the summer, it’s sweet-smelling grass that we cut by hand from the field, or blackberry vines, a goat delicacy. In the winter, it’s chopped up squash, garlic tops, cabbage greens, and hay, all grown on site. (In addition to goat food, the farm produces an excellent garlic crop, which they sell at the Kiva market in Eugene.)

What’s in it for me? I can never decide if the sanity or the sustenance is more valuable. I frequently bike the six miles to the farm along the Willamette River, my head full of worries and confusion on the way there, singing a song and plotting an elaborate lunch for myself on the way back. Although the goat-caretaking routine is easy on the surface, every day I learn something new about their diet and personalities under the watchful eye of Rachel, the unequivocal Goat Mistress.

Of course, there are more tangible forms of payment involved, and it’s a good thing, too. Even though I’m always glad when I get there, it would be hard a lot of days for me to drag myself out of bed and out into the rain without that literal carrot dangling in front of my nose. Instead of a taxed-to-death pay check, I participate in a form of bartering known as a worktrade – trading work for farm product.

At first, Rachel and I were fairly exacting when we measured out my time for her goods. Raw, fresh, organic goat milk goes for about $15/gallon in these parts. It was mine for an hour and half’s work. Another half hour, a carton of eggs. Etcetera. After we got to know each other, however, the employer/employee dynamic slowly shifted toward that between trusted friends, and the things we offer each other have become more elemental than work and food.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to come up with this scheme. Bartering (the exchange of a good or service for another good or service) predates currency; it probably even predates language and culture. A few hundred years ago, taxes were paid in sheaves of wheat; a hundred years ago, doctors and accountants would accept a few chickens or a share of a pig in exchange for their services. Those people were probably smarter than us. Every time a tangible good or service is converted to cash, some of its intrinsic value is lost, pocketed by the trader. Cash traded for goods also drops a bit of that value. Sure, cash is more convenient. But convenience is a luxury that fewer people can afford these days.

Food, especially good food, is expensive. It’s expensive because a whole lot of time and energy go into producing it. Right now in this country, unemployment hovers around 9% of the population (nationally, it’s 8%).  In other words, 9% of the population, and probably more, has an excess of energy and time. Granted, a good chunk of those people, for one reason or another, don’t have the capacity to convert that time and energy into work, but if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do. I’m also guessing that most of the farmers in your area are starving for time and energy. You can put it together from here.

There are plenty of reasons to worktrade, and the more I do it, the more I find. First off, thanks to the connective power of the internet, good arrangements are easier to locate. I found Rachael and her goats by posting an ad on craigslist one day, lonesome for the goats I left behind at my first farming job. I posted my request to worktrade for milk in the “barter” section, and a friend of Rachel’s spotted it and emailed me. After interviewing each other, we went to work, and we haven’t looked back.

After spending some time trading this way, I began to see the act of the barter unfolding constantly around me – needs and wants implicitly stated and filled. The goats, in exchange for food, shelter and backscratches, give us milk, meat and manure, which is traded in on the field for vegetables, which in turn shared amongst the human and non-human herds on the premises. Plants need the opportunity to propagate themselves; we want their seeds, fruits, leaves and roots. When I first began worktrading, replacing cash with other items of value felt strange to me. Now it’s the social construction of money that seems unnatural.

Bartering is the only economic exchange that enables both parties involved to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s not always practical, but when it is, it’s possible to trade one good for another and for both of you to walk away better for the exchange. When cash is involved, intrinsic value is lost. The value of money itself is completely reliant on your ability to get a good deal on something else. Standard retail markup is 60%.

So for the individual with a wealth of time and talent but few “job” opportunities, what options exist to begin converting that energy into sustenance?

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a loose organization of farmers and farm workers around the world. WWOOFers receive housing and/or food at farms in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. Farms are listed online, but you must first pay a membership fee to see what sites are available in your area. It’s usually used by people traveling through, not locals in search of an ongoing worktrade relationship.

I worked under a similar program in British Columbia the summer after graduating college. At Collins Farm, I worked for food, housing, and education – a crash-course in organic farming and making a small family farm survive. Here in Eugene, I’ve worktraded for workshops, rent, and art, doing everything from painting walls to writing. A local organization called Emerald Valley Time Exchange helps people connect to others for trading services (you mow my lawn, I’ll walk your dog). I’ve never used it, but it sounds like a good resource.

It’s not just here in progressivesville that worktrading is accepted practice. The site BarterQuest allows you to trade your skills for items, or items for items, or skills for skills. I couldn’t find any farmers on there, and most people seem to do things remotely (across the US), but it could be a good model for a more local resource. I just joined BarterQuest, and will post if anything exciting happens.

Recently, I brought my friend Cynthia with me on a Thursday morning. A “recovering” vegan, she tried her first sip of real milk and swooned. We spent the trip back to town brainstorming ways to help her find a similar worktrade arrangement. Like me, she works part time, and she isn’t already part of the farming community. She doesn’t have farming experience, but is willing to learn.

What resources exist for people like Cynthia? Unfortunately, there’s no one stop shop, and maybe there should be. An online resource that connects farmers to people willing to commit themselves to a steady worktrade, for free, could do a lot to empower disadvantaged people in our community and relieve the food insecurity that faces a third of the population here (according to Food for Lane County). Farmers would benefit from having one or two committed laborers who are invested in the land for reasons beyond dollar bills or this year’s trend in summer jobs.

A wider adoption of farming worktrades could be an effective way to buck agrobusiness and make real food part of our lives again. Working for food does have its limitations, for individuals and for businesses, but long before the word “locavore” was invented, everyone was one. In times of economic instability, barter was trusted over the going currency. What do we have to lose?

Had a great experience WWOOFing or worktrading for food or anything else? Want to launch a foodtrade site? Let me know via the comments section or email. Thanks!

March 12, 2011

Food (to the) Rescue

These days, everyone talks a lot about food production. Where was it grown? Is it free-range? Organic? Fair trade? How fresh is it? Who owns the genetic material? (Pause for satire.)

In the life span of food, like that of humans, everybody seems to coo and fret over the birthing process, but nobody pays much attention to what happens at the end. No, I’m not talking about poop, although poop is important. I’m talking about the food that doesn’t end up in someone’s stomach. According to the blog Wasted Food, 40% of food produced in America ends up in the landfill. Holy tamales. If you’ve ever visited your local dump, just seeing the endless piles of trash is enough to make you swear to never buy anything again. When you consider how much of that junk was once something edible, and how many people on earth are hungry and undernourished, (around 1 billion, according to the UN), it’s truly depressing.

Ahhh, gloom and doom. Got your attention now, don’t I? Actually, what I’m here to write about today wasn’t how sad it is that we throw so much out, but about the exciting phenomenon of food rescue. Recent experiences have shown me that there are superheroes living amongst us, posing as food bank operators, swooping in and snatching perfectly good food from the brink of the trash bin.

Food For Lane County, the major food bank for the Eugene area, is a hotspot of food rescue activity. Like most food banks, Food for Lane County collects provisions from a variety of sources – canned food drives, government commodities, and local growers, processors and retailers. It all comes first to its central warehouse in west Eugene, a place I’ve recently become very familiar with. Since enjoying a stretch of unemployment that allowed me to keep my need for food assistance below the radar via EBT, I found a job cooking for institutionalized teenagers. They eat a lot, and my employer is a non-profit, so I visit Food For Lane County on a weekly basis, collecting donated and rescued food on the behalf of my captive diners (and breakfast-ers, and lunch-ers, and snack-ers…). I say captive because they don’t have much of a choice but to eat whatever I cook for them, which makes it easy to incorporate the FFLC provisions into the menu.

Like thrift shopping or dumpster diving, “shopping” at the FFLC warehouse requires a finely tuned strategy. First, I arrive early, before they open the doors at 8:30. Trucks are coming in with deliveries all day, but the selection is best first thing in the morning. To picture the scene, imagine coupon day at your local grocery store, except that instead of housewives and pensioners, the people waiting in line to elbow their way to the bargains manage food banks all over the county, or run shelters and assistance centers for our many hungry residents. In other words, they’re on a mission. At precisely 8:30, we file in and scramble for the limited number of shopping carts. The best scores are on meat and produce, the most expensive items on my budget, so I start in the walk-in cooler, pulling my hat down around my ears. Three or four people are already in there, loading up their carts and occasionally notifying each other when they come across the good stuff. I join the friendly competition, starting with the dairy section. The first thing I find is a crate full of whipping cream from a local dairy that expires tomorrow. I throw a few into my cart. My mind wanders momentarily to fruit salad with whipped cream and delicious soup, but then I hear talk of deli meat on the other side of the cooler and scurry over. Packages of roasted turkey slices from Market of Choice, a gourmet grocery chain, join the whipping cream. Then I hit the stacks of organic yogurt, a common item here, and random packaged cheese. After taking everything I can use from the deli side of the cooler (and there’s still a lot left over), I move to the produce side. Here I find cabbage, carrots and root vegetables from the FFLC gardens. Assorted boxes from grocery stores carry grapes, avocados, mangos, lettuce and tomatoes. Because the cases of apples, oranges and bananas are stacked higher than me, I take as much as I think the kids will eat. Some of these specimens are too far gone to consume, but some are just perfectly ripe. I once scored a half-dozen containers of strawberries, each containing one moldy berry for ten good ones.

The incredible part of all of this is that, thanks to a new grant to Food For Lane County, it’s all free (it used to cost organizations like ours 14 cents a pound, which is still pretty amazing). The part that I like best, though, is that it’s also all part of that 40% of food that otherwise would be chucked in the trash heap.

Let’s look a little closer at that number. Unless you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or stocked the shelves at a grocery store, it might be a little hard to believe. If you have first-hand experience with the food industry, 40% might even seem low. Even when customers take home what they don’t finish, restaurant kitchens throw out a lot of what they cook, because they always have to make a little extra to avoid running out. Federal food-safety laws dictate how often food can be kept at certain temperatures, how many times it can be reheated, and how long prepared food can be stored before it has to be discarded (usually no longer than a week). When pre-packaged products hit their expiration dates in restaurants or in stores, they also get thrown out. Cafeterias and buffets are notorious for wasting more food than they serve. Kids are the worst food wasters (think about all those elementary school food fights), and they are the ones most often served in cafeterias. Excess food – and therefore wasted food – is also built right into our cultural sense of security. It’s not good enough, in this age of prosperity, to simply have enough. If we don’t have more than enough, we feel somehow cheated or even deprived. We all feel a right to not only eat good food, but to have as much of it as we can pay for.

But enough sociology. One of the coolest things about Food For Lane County is their Food Rescue Express program (sporting the best acronym in the food assistance world – FREX). FREX actually drives to various institutions – hospitals, the university, delis – in the city to pick up food that has been prepared but not served. It all makes its way to the warehouse, where I’ve found tubs of salad dressing, gallons of soup, baggies of peeled and halved bananas, even pre-assembled hot dogs fresh off the FREX trucks (see how they did that?). FREX is a unique model; the FFLC person I talked to said theirs is the only program like it she knows of. Since it’s excess food that they’re rescuing, it isn’t even close to being old or expired (it’s FREX! Ok, I’ll stop.)

FREX gleans a small part of the food that goes into FFLC’s warehouse. The rest comes from USDA commodities and donations from local growers and processors. Actually, three-quarters of he food donated to FFLC is locally grown or processed. That means the 63,000 county residents who received emergency food from FFLC last year ate more local food than the average American. And since this is Oregon, many of those local processors and growers are also organic. On my food budget, I can’t always afford to buy Nancy’s yogurt, Toby’s Tofu Pate, Fern Ridge Dairy goat cheese, and bread from Metropol Bakery, but the “underprivileged” kids I serve in my job eat this stuff on a regular basis. The donated products were either packaged wrong or just a little too close to the “sell-by” date (which seems more and more arbitrary to me all the time).

In a way, the work that FFLC does creates a silver lining to the modern world’s inequitable, appearance-obsessed, wasteful food system. If the average shopper wasn’t afraid of buying bruised apples or expired milk at the grocery store, there wouldn’t be much excess to flow over to food banks and those in need of food assistance. The annoying food-contaminant-paranoid FDA rules that make it difficult for small, local food processors to operate also forces a lot of food to be abandoned before it can even be served. The hungry aren’t so picky.

Rescued food not only keeps our landfills slightly more manageable, it also brings an element of variety and dignity to standard emergency food box or soup-kitchen fare. Most US food banks get by on government cheese, dented cans of peaches and stale bread. If you’re Lane County’s one in three who are eligible for food assistance, you may get to try an avocado for the first time, or even be faced with the enviable problem of using up a pound of locally made chevre.

Maybe “rescued” can be the new food label, like “local”, “natural”, and “organic” that everyone swoons for. After all, the food is here anyway, and if it’s going to the landfill, does it really matter if first came from Chile or New Zealand? Shouldn’t we try to eat that food first, before we worry about producing even more to feed our growing population? Better yet, maybe we can stop the problem at its source by avoiding places that tempt us to buy too much – like Costco and Trader Joe’s (I’m talking specifically about produce. Go ahead and buy container-loads of non-perishables if that’s what you like.) I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to facing the science projects in the back of the refrigerator, but ever since my roommates discovered a free leftover pickup service, our fridge has stayed nice and clean. It works like this: Pretend you’re getting rid of some old junk by placing it in a free box on the curb. Instead of ugly clothes or the Twilight series, just stick your (labeled and meat-free) leftovers out there. Because we live close to a park that homeless people frequent, the food is usually gone within hours. This isn’t a strategy that everyone will feel comfortable with, but all I’m saying is to be creative.

Organizations like Food For Lane County are putting a big dent in that 40% of wasted food, but they can’t rescue all the food. To be sure, some waste is inevitable, but hey – compost happens. The next time you’re out shopping, though, just try to think a little bit less about where your food came from, and pay attention to where it might be going, too. When the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is applied to the food system, we all eat a little bit better.

December 29, 2010

>Oh, SNAP: Do food stamps make you fat?


I have a confession to make. For the last six months, I have been using food stamps. It’s easy, and I like it. I get $200 added to a little blue card every month, which I use like a debit card at any convenience store, supermarket, health food store, Asian market, or even farmer’s market within the state of Oregon that I please. Basically, I eat for free, so long as I don’t want to go to a restaurant or the hot food bar at the grocery store.  

This might not seem like much of a confession. After all, about 20% of Oregon residents receive food benefits, and along with unemployment checks and the occasional visit to the food bank, it’s how a lot of Americans are scraping by these days. I took an Americorps job in June, and under this government-funded program, participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the title that has replaced the phrase “food stamps” in government-speak) is all but expected. With my initial paperwork, I was given a letter addressed to the local branch of the Department of Human Services, which administers food benefits. To paraphrase, it said “Tuula works for Americorps now. We don’t actually pay her a living wage. Sign her up for food stamps, stat.” Everyone I worked with got the same form, and one-by-one, we trudged down to the DHS office, answered a couple of basic questions about our living expenses, and were handed the magical blue cards.

I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot outside the building, trying to adjust my frame of mind enough to allow myself to go in. Like a lot of people in this country, especially those with immigrant families who lived out some version of the American Dream, I considered accepting any form of federal welfare to be right down there with begging on the street corner. As I sat watching the rain dripping down my windshield, contemplating the course of my life, I started feeling very sorry for myself. Don’t I have a college degree? I wondered. How did I get here? What have I done wrong? Then I remembered: I wanted this. I wanted to do the low-paying, environmental, non-profit, social-service work. It makes me feel good. Besides, the economy is falling apart. I’m lucky to have a job of any kind, and it’s not like I’ll be a welfare bum forever. I pulled my jacket hood over my head, grabbed my letter, and went out into the rain.

That was six months ago. My Americorps term of service up, but I’m still on SNAP as I job search and try to avoid moving in with my parents. As difficult as it was to take the dink to my pride, I’m glad I did it. Not only did having my food bill taken care of allow me to save money while earning less than minimum wage from Americorps (another valuable experience), it also gave me some insights into the economics and geography of how we eat.

Because the SNAP card works exactly like a debit card would, it took me a while to notice any changes in my food buying habits. In fact, using EBT is quite discrete – at the store, they ring up your groceries, you swipe your card, selecting “EBT” instead of “debit/credit”, enter your PIN, take your receipt (which gives you the balance left for that month) and you’re on your way. As someone with a lot of initial guilt and shame surrounding the use of food stamps, I was grateful for this hassle-free process. I didn’t stand out.

That was the grocery store. The farmers market was a different story. After I found out that I could use my EBT card at the Lane County Farmers Market (for some reason, they don’t really advertise this feature), I took the next beautiful Saturday afternoon to stroll downtown with my grocery bag and pick out some fresh, organic veggies. I met my friend Tara, a fellow Americorps member, there. First, we had to visit a little booth, crammed between tables overflowing with produce, where a woman ran $10 off the balance of our cards (they do it in $5 increments) and gave us each ten wooden tokens that she said could be exchanged dollar-for-dollar at any of the farmer’s stands. Unfortunately, she told us, we couldn’t receive change in cash, so if we bought something for 50 cents, we would have to hand over a whole token. We started elbowing our way through the market throngs, and I found some carrots and a basket of strawberries, handed over five tokens, and didn’t get hassled. Tara, on the other hand, just wanted strawberries, and went to a different farmer for them. When she tried to pay, though, the woman behind the table frowned.
“Can you pay with something else?” she asked. “We get charged a fee to exchange those.” In the busy scuffle of the market, Tara didn’t feel like putting up a fight and holding up the line, so we dug through our pockets to produce some change. The woman didn’t seem much happier about the pile of nickles, dimes and quarters she provided, but what did she expect? As Tara pointed out on the walk home, if we had the option to pay some other way, we wouldn’t be on food stamps.

The more I thought about it, the more it irritated me. The whole point of SNAP is to reduce some of the inequity in our food system and give low-income people such as ourselves the option to eat fresh and nutritious food. If farmer’s markets charge their vendors a fee to accept their version of EBT, and farmers are reluctant to sell to individuals using the system, the whole point of the program is lost. I stuck the other five tokens in my purse, where they are still, because the next time I went to the farmers market I forgot to bring them. Clearly, this system needs some work.

But I didn’t shop much at the farmers market this summer anyway. I tried to keep from using my own cash for food and keep my monthly grocery bill within the allotted $200, which was easy as long as I didn’t spring for such items as $3.50 baskets of local strawberries (or meat, which I don’t normally eat anyway). I still bought mostly organic, but local foods were out of my price range. I also found myself cooking a lot more. I couldn’t justify the expense of eating out when I had free food at home, and I also knew that if I spent my food benefits on frozen pizzas and prepared deli items, my account would be empty a lot sooner than if I bought the raw ingredients. Without kids to take care of and clean up after, or a second job to pay a mortgage or whatever, I had the time for this (although, living alone, I got pretty tired spending every evening at home in front of the stove). Of course, if I did have other responsibilities in my life, the quality of what I was eating wouldn’t be nearly as good as it was. Also, I would need more than $200 per person, especially if there were meat-eaters in the family.

So if you’re busy, and you don’t earn much money, participating in the SNAP program makes a lot of sense. Only problem is, most people are much more likely to use food stamps to buy fattening, unhealthy foods that are cheap and easy to prepare. The result? People on SNAP are much more likely to be overweight or obese than those who aren’t, according to some scientists.

Thinking more about grocery transactions recently has also helped me notice where various food outlets are placed. I usually shop at small natural-foods stores, which are concentrated around the center of town where housing and businesses cater to those in the upper income levels. Head toward the outskirts of the city, and you won’t find those cozy shops stuffed with bulk foods, fresh veggies and organic cheese. In fact, even the large grocery chains start dropping off, and for every Albertson’s or Safeway you’ll find three or four Dari-Marts, 7-11s, or Circle-Ks, all variations on the convenience store theme. I notice them because the changeable-letter signs often advertise “We take EBT”. For what, though? Doritos, candy, soft drinks, maybe some milk, eggs or boxed mac-and-cheese. So if you live in one of those neighborhoods, and maybe you don’t have a car, or the ability to bus into town to visit another store, what are your options?

I’m not the first person to notice this phenomenon, and much has been said about the problem of “food deserts” in both rural and urban areas. One proposal that keeps coming up is to not allow the purchase of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods under SNAP. As it currently stands, you can buy pretty much any food item in the grocery or convenience store using your food benefits. The federal SNAP website details what does and does not apply as “food” under the program. Among the things that don’t count: Alcohol, personal care items, vitamins, and live animals (No buying a catfish to fatten up in your living room, sorry). Twinkies, Velveeta and Kool-Aid do count, although most people would probably agree that they have few nutritional differences from toothpaste. The problem is, as SNAP argues in a report, that there would simply be too much administration involved in fine-tuning the definition of “food” to exclude “junk food”. And you know that food processors would find ways around the law if they did, fortifying their products until they met the minimum nutritional requirements.

In the interest of balancing out the junk food eligible for purchase under SNAP, the USDA implemented a program in 2007 that allows farmers markets to accept food stamps. Of course, this doesn’t address the underlying issue of the cost of fresh, locally produced food, so, in some states, other organizations have stepped in to offer subsidies to low-income farmers market shoppers. Still, less than 0.01% of all federal SNAP dollars were spent at farmers markets last year.

Another little-known fact about SNAP is you can also use food benefits to buy seeds for your garden. It’s another nice thought, but one that probably hasn’t been very popular. A lot of the low-income kids I met through the Americorps job this summer hadn’t ever eaten a fresh tomato before. If their parents aren’t buying this kind of stuff, the chances are even lower than they’ll want to grow it themselves.

So SNAP isn’t doing much to improve the health of low-income people in this country, but it probably isn’t the root of the problem, either. Regardless of how you pay for it, cheap, processed, and unhealthy food will always be an option, and more so if you live in a low-income neighborhood. It would be senseless to force stores in these areas to carry fresh produce that would probably just rot in the coolers. There’s an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed: the cycle of poverty and poor diet. If people didn’t grow up eating something, they aren’t usually going to start eating it as adults, and since poverty tends to persists through generations, it also defines the dietary habits of a large segment of the population. So you can make good food affordable, but that doesn’t mean it will replace bad food pound for pound. There’s also the issue of convenience. After working a double shift, your average single mother will probably be more willing to microwave a hot pocket than chop a salad.

Can we ever take fresh, local fruit and vegetables out of the domain of the well-off and align American food values along the lines of apples, not apple pie? Sure. I forgot to mention the steady, free source of local and organic vegetables that I relied on through my summer and fall of being on SNAP: the farm where I worked. When growing food is part of what you do for a living, you’re guaranteed nothing but to eat fairly decently. In fact, for most of human history, people made their living as farmers, and poor folks like me lived off potatoes, greens, fresh eggs, and fruit from the trees. We grew it ourselves. The rich gorged on lard, sugar and beef, got fat, and died of heart disease. Now the tables have turned. Over 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, and I would bet that most of them are currently on or have been on food stamps.

What we need is re-education, and the beginnings of it already exist. The best example I can think of is Farm to School, which takes kids on field trips out of the classroom to farms and also brings fresh food to them in the cafeteria. There’s also the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, similar to SNAP except with much stricter rules about what can be purchased, and it’s only available to mothers with children under five. It also has a fairly decent website with nutrition information and cooking tips, although it gets a bit patronizing (“Did you know that fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories?” No waaay…)

As for me, I look forward to one day having the financial freedom to put my toothpaste, beer and bananas on the same piece of plastic. Maybe the fact that I have successfully used food stamps without packing on a layer of winter fat says something, but I think the average person on SNAP has a lot more hurdles to jump than I on the way to healthy living. Let’s fix our food system first, the one that pushed high-calorie diets on low-income people, and maybe we can all eat a bit fresher.

Find a farmer’s market that accepts SNAP or WIC here.

October 21, 2009

>Summing it all up

>I don’t normally post other people’s writing/research, but this piece is fairly straightforward, somewhat frightening and hopefully, inspiring. The source is, a great source for humanitarian and environmental news.

On World Food Day: Crunching the Numbers

by Roger Doiron

  • 1: number of new kitchen gardens planted at the White House this year AP
  • 1943: the last time food was grown at the White House White House
  • 20 million: the number of new gardens planted in 1943 LA Times
  • 40%: percentage of nation’s produce coming from gardens in 1943 LA Times
  • 7 million: estimated number of new food gardens planted in the US in 2009 NGA
  • $2000: amount of savings possible per year from a 40′ x 40′ garden KGI
  • 90%: percentage of fruit/vegetable varieties lost in the US the last 100 years CNN
  • 3500: number of vegetable varieties owned by Monsanto Monsanto
  • 18,467: number of new small farms counted in the last agricultural census USDA
  • 4,685: number of farmers markets nationwide USDA
  • 4,100: number of Wal-mart stores and clubs in the US Wal-mart
  • 187,000 ft2 : average area of a Wal-mart superstore Wal-mart
  • 60,112 ft2: average area of a farmers’ market USDA
  • 9.5 million: number of imported food shipments arriving in the US each year Huffington Post
  • 226,377: number of establishments registered to export food to the US Huffington Post
  • 200: number of on-site inspections of these establishments conducted by the FDA last year Huffington Post
  • 76 million: number of people who fall ill each year due to food poisoning CDC
  • 50 gallons: volume of sugared beverages consumed per person in the US each year LA Times
  • 22,727: number of Olympic-sized swimming pools those beverages would fill
  • $15 billion: annual estimated revenue of a penny-per-ounce tax on soda LA Times
  • $20.5 billion: Coca-Cola’s gross profit in 2008 Coca-Cola
  • 72 million: number of American adults considered obese CDC
  • 33%: percentage of US children likely to develop obesity or Type 2 diabetes CDC
  • 10-15 years: average number of years their lives will be shortened as a result CDC
  • 57 years: average age of the American farmer USDA
  • 25 days: average shelf-life of a Twinkie Snopes
  • 350 parts per million: sustainable level of CO2 in atmosphere
  • 390 parts per million: current level of CO2 in the atmosphere NOAA
  • 31%: percentage of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food and agriculture IPCC
  • 2020: year by which many geologists feel the world will have reached “peak oil” production UK Research Centre
  • 10 calories: average amount of fossil fuel energy required to produce 1 calorie of food energy in industrialized food systems Cornell
  • 29,100 calories: estimated fossil fuel calories required to produce one order of Outback Steakhouse Aussie Cheese Fries Men’s Health
  • 1 billion: number of hungry people in the world in 2009 FAO
  • 9.1 billion: projected world population in the year 2050 US Census
  • 70%: percentage increase in global food production required to feed that projected population FAO
  • 70%: percentage of world’s fresh water used for agricultural purposes UNESCO
  • 1.8 billion: number of people expected to experience “water scarcity” in the year 2025 UNEP
  • 0: number of new, oil-rich, water-rich, fertile and inhabitable planets we are likely to discover in the next 40 years
  • 1: number of people needed to make a positive difference in any of the above: you!
Roger Doiron is Founding Director of Kitchen Gardeners International, an IATP Food and Society Fellow, and, if you believe the folks at Huffington Post, one of the top Green Game Changers of 2009. After the heartbreaking sweep of the Red Sox Sunday, he recently changed his own game from baseball to football.
October 8, 2009

>Blight Fright: Wheat’s precarious position in the food supply

>Your average aspiring self-sufficient, food-conscious home or community will likely contain a few staple ingredients or food sources that are local and sustainably produced (or at least as close to sustainable as mere mortals can achieve). You’ve got your farmers-market veggies, free-range eggs, organic dairy products, perhaps even some meat from a local grower if you’re so (gastronomically and financially) inclined.
But there’s one key ingredient missing from this happy pie of wholesome foodery. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to make any sort of pie without it. It’s grain – more specifically, wheat. In most parts of the world, its production is still stuck in the industrial, grossly unsustainable way of doing things, which is unfortunate because it’s such a central part of the Western diet. Had any bread, shredded wheat, crackers, pasta, or doughnuts today? Then you’ll see my point – wheat is everywhere. And while it may not seem to be in short supply, any person on a low income will tell you that the price of all of the above items has risen sharply in the last year or so. That’s because wheat is facing some serious global problems – disease, drought and heightened demand – that is causing the price to skyrocket on the global commodity market.
Clearly, wheat is another example of a food staple that is vitally important to re-localize. Having grains nearby, in the hands of hundreds of small farmers (or better yet, individual consumers with backyard gardens), instead of under the lock and key of four or five global conglomerates, makes their availability a surer bet. Only problem is, if you’re trying to be a locavore, bread and wheat products are one area in which you’re likely to break the local-food diet on a regular basis. Farmers growing for a local market tend to stick to vegetables, meat and eggs. Because of the processing (grinding into flour and other products) needed, wheat and other grains have managed to stay centralized, distributed from regional mills.
Let’s follow a typical pound of flour from the field to your morning pancakes. Once the grain is harvested (whether that farm is organic or conventional) it goes to a regional collection point. In Oregon, for example, all the wheat grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley (the main agricultural part of the state) gets trucked up to temporary storage somewhere near Portland. From there, it goes onto containers headed for Asia. That’s right. For all the millions of acres of grain produced close to home, only a tiny percentage of it makes it to the state’s only commercial grain milling facility in Eugene, and an even smaller percentage is actually consumed in the state. So those pancakes you ate this morning were more likely to be made from grain from the Midwest than from close to home. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, thanks to centralized distribution.
Sounds crazy, you say? Sorry, it’s all economics. The lowest price can only be obtained by controlling the supply through a limited number of processing facilities and shipping it out to retailers as needed. Do you like your cheap box of pancake mix? Do you? Well, then don’t ask so many questions.

In the meantime, local-food advocates keep harping on the need to circumvent this consolidated system – which applies not only to wheat but also just about any food product you can think of – and reestablish direct producer-to-consumer relationships. But why? Put simply, it’s a matter of food security. This means two things: the safety of the food we actually consume, and our ability to obtain it in the first place.
Let’s go back to the bag of mix you used to make your pancakes. Contamination in centralized processing plants (which is what recently compromised the safety of peanuts), isn’t the only problem. Black stem rust, a fungus that attacks wheat plants, is a looming but under-reported threat to wheat harvests around the world. It’s been around a long time – probably as long as wheat has been domesticated – but modern-day strains have been bred to resist the fungus. Now, as if it’s starring in its own terrible sci-fi flick, it’s back – with a vengeance. The fungus has finally evolved the genetic upper hand to destroy previously immune plants. Scientists are calling the new strain Ug99, for the country, Uganda, where it has hit the hardest, leaving behind acre upon acre of ashen, inedible wheat. It seems to be getting more virulent as it progresses, and is so immediately devastating to crops that the US (who else?) once bred it as a biological weapon.
We shouldn’t have bothered – Ug99 is wreaking havoc all on its own, causing famine and strife all over Africa and the Middle East. We’re not hearing much about it now, but as soon as it spreads to developed countries, I imagine that we will hear more.
Ironically, even Norman Bourlag, the much-lauded father of the “green revolution” and industrial agriculture, had to admit that the Ug99 problem is an unintended side-effect of the way conventional agriculture seeks to extract the most production out of a given piece of land. According to this article in NewScientist:

Ug99 will find agriculture has changed to its liking in the decades stem rust has been away. “Forty years ago most wheat wasn’t irrigated and heavily fertilised,” says Borlaug. Now, thanks to the Green Revolution he helped bring about, it is. That means modern wheat fields are a damper, denser thicket of stems, where dew can linger till noon – just right for fungus.

What Borlaug fails to mention is that not only do wheat plants grow closer together now than ever before, those plants are genetically identical thanks to hybridization. Farmers don’t save their own wheat for replanting, they buy it from a seed company (ie, Monsanto), which has developed wheat genetically programmed to produce the highest yield possible. So when a disease or fungus like Ug99 hits the genetic jackpot that allows it to destroy a wheat plant, it can destroy virtually all wheat plants, because there are only a few varieties grown in the world.
Ug99 isn’t the only threat to the world’s food supply, either. Since the beginning of the year, farmers in Canada and the Midwest have noticed a sharp increase in cases of Fusarium head blight, another fungus that affects wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn and grasses used to feed livestock. This one is sneakier: it doesn’t destroy plants right away but makes their grain toxic to consume. That means any slip-up in our notoriously shaky food-safety inspection system could poison hundreds or thousands of innocent pancake-eaters.
The most frustrating part about all of this is that there’s not much the average consumer can do to voice his or her protest against the way wheat is grown and distributed. Sure, we can buy organic, but organic grain is no more resistant to the diseases bred by conventional agriculture than its chemically nurtured counterparts. And “big organic” uses centralized distribution systems that, like any centralized system, erase the connections between producer and consumer until it’s impossible to tell where any given bag of flour was grown.
Still, one thing organic growers can’t do is spray their fields down with fungicide at the slightest hint of black stem rust, which is what conventional growers will surely do. And there is one way to ensure both the supply and safety of your wheat: grow and mill it yourself. I’m not being facetious. It takes surprisingly little grain to feed a family (ten families can live off one measly acre, according to an anonymous informational signboard at the Port Alberni fair last month), and there are actually super-compact mills built today that you can squeeze under your kitchen sink. Unless you live next door to a giant commercial wheat farm, there’s little chance of any global wheat pandemics affecting your plants.
Unfortunately, I have no personal experience with wheat cultivation, so I won’t instruct you on it here (perhaps in a future blog!) Instead, I’ll post yet another recipe, one that I’ve become quite familiar with since becoming the designated baker of Collins Farm. I’ve been making bread practically since I could reach the kitchen counter, but only started making yeast-free bread this summer. It has a unique flavor and texture but a dedicated fan base at our farm market. I’m a bit conflicted about selling it since bread is so deliciously simple to make, so I’m hoping making the recipe public will make kitchen revolutionaries out of a few of you.
The most important step is to find some local flour. If you live in Oregon, the local grain I discussed above is sold under the name Bob’s Red Mill. You can probably also find local farmers that grow grains if you ask around (try Willamette Farm and Food Coalition’s directory) If you live in Port Alberni, find Wayne Smith at the Farmer’s Market at the Harbor Quay – he sources his own organic grain and grinds it up fresh. It’s incredible stuff.

Tuula’s Whole Grain Bread
Makes 2 loaves

To make from starter:
Starter takes about 48 hours to ferment, but it makes awesome bread and eliminates the need for yeast. I start in the morning two days before I want to make bread. Combine a cup of water and a cup of whole wheat flour in an airtight container. Keep it in a warm place where it won’t be disturbed (in the oven with the light on is good). The next morning, “feed” it by adding another cup of flour and another cup of water. It should be bubbly and smell “yeasty”. Set it aside again until you make your bread (that evening or the next morning). You can keep the starter going for as long as you like but it will turn into sourdough starter after about a week (you can find lots of instructionals online for making sourdough bread this way).

To make from yeast:
Use active dry yeast (not instant) or fresh yeast, which is available from bakeries.
In a large bowl, dissolve 2 tablespoons molasses or honey* in 2 cups lukewarm water (no hotter than 115 degrees). Sprinkle in 1 ½ tablespoons yeast and allow to sit for ten minutes, or until it looks bubbly.

*Molasses gives a nice dark color to the bread but some prefer the flavor of honey, so use both if you like.

Bread recipe
2 cups starter or 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 ½ cups water (in addition to water used in yeast method)
2 tablespoons molasses or honey*
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive work fine)
½ teaspoon salt
7 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup dry 7-grain cereal
½ cup cooked brown rice (or substitute more cereal)
½ cup any combination flax seeds, sunflower seeds and/or pumpkin seeds

1. Add 1 cup hot water to the 7-grain cereal, set aside to soak.
2. Prepare yeast mixture as above or pour starter into a large bowl. Add molasses (if using starter), oil, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Mix well (lumps are ok) and add soaked cereal, rice and seeds.
3. Continue adding flour until a dough forms. Turn onto a floured counter and knead for 10 minutes or until dough is smooth and elastic.
4. Place dough in a clean and oiled bowl, flip to coat both sides. Allow to rise two hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
5. When dough has risen (it will not double in volume but perhaps get close depending on the strength of your yeast/starter), punch it down. Divide it into two loaves and place in bread pans or on baking sheets. Brush the loaves with a beaten egg and sprinkle on some extra seeds (this is optional but makes the loaves look prettier). Make a ½ inch deep cut lengthwise along the top of the loaf.
6. If dough was refrigerated, allow to rise an additional hour in the pans. If not, half an hour or so should do the trick. Again, the dough will not rise significantly but should grow a bit.
7. Bake at 375 for about an hour. Bread will brown on top and sound hollow when tapped. Allow to cool in pans for a few minutes, then turn onto racks to cool. Do not bag until completely cooled.

August 8, 2009

>Planning for Eat-Ability

>Imagine a setting in which people can live, access life’s necessities without need for motorized transportation, and never worry about having adequate food or water. There are a thousand types of communities that might come to mind, but one of them is probably not a typical suburban or rural housing subdivision. Somehow, though, the majority of people in North America and other developed regions live in these kinds of developments. They sprawl like lichen on a rock across rural landscapes – without an outwardly visible source of food or water. Placed far from urban areas, with cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of nearly identical houses and no other necessary amenities nearby, suburban and ex-urban (i.e., stuck in the middle of nowhere) developments are a prime example of bad design. They’re impossible to walk through – most lack sidewalks or logical footpaths between cul-de-sacs. To access work, school, or stores, residents have no other option than to hop in their cars, get on the freeway, and find the nearest suburban center. The only remnants of nature might be found in the fake pond at the golf course or perhaps in the subdivision’s name – “Willow Crest” or “Fox Hollow”. And worst of all, most of these developments are built smack on top of prime farmland. From a food security perspective, this manner of paving over and occupying the landscape is fairly frightening.

Of course, some developers talk about “sustainable development” (a puzzling little oxymoron) or planning for “livability”. They throw in a few bike paths and extra trees. Still, these greenwashing tactics don’t solve the root problems of urban sprawl: isolation of communities and the destructin of ecologically valuable unpaved land that has the added benefit of keeping the population fed.
Thanks to rural land speculation and the cycle of decline in inner cities, this pattern of development has been difficult to stop or even slow, although the present recession is helping immensely. Still, the sight of sprawling asphalt and rows of single-family dwellings from an airplane window has the power to throw me into a funk of hopelessness for days.
But wait! Could there be a slow shift in consciousness here? I was recently mailed an article (the old-fashioned way, no less) describing the hottest trend in housing developments: organic farms. And I don’t mean developers are buying out farmers and naming the subdivisions “Pesticide-Free Strawberry Fields” instead of “Shady Oak Glen”. No, according the New York Times article, farms are now considered “subdivision amenities” by many developers. Instead of building homes around golf courses, they are putting in organic farms to draw in yuppie foodies or perhaps those who have ideas about living in a rural area. Residents can even pitch in around the farm and share in the harvest. Of course, the article left out some of the potential difficulties that immediately come to mind. What happens when the breeze shifts and some unfortunate homeowner realizes they’ve purchased the olfactory privilege of living downwind from the chicken house? Will residents tolerate the drone of a tractor disturbing the peaceful summer ambiance?
Apparently, somebody has figured out a way to make it work, because the developments do seem to have caught on. They probably won’t work everywhere – not all sprawl takes place on pristine farmland with ample water – and they certainly don’t cure the basic problems inherent in urban sprawl mentioned above, but I suppose if people must live in subdivisions, they might as well have a convenient, safe food source nearby. The logical next steps will be to put in a school, a few small, locally owned stores and restaurants, and public gathering spaces, eliminating the need to drive thirty minutes for a coffee fix or a new rake. Put it all together, and a sprawling city will have devolved into a cluster of small towns. Livability? Absolutely. Eat-ability? Even better.
May 26, 2009

>Oregon Local Foods part 2: What’s for dinner?

>Cassava root. Salmonberry. Black Republican cherries.
Never heard of them? There’s probably a reason for that – they are all edible plants native to the Willamette Valley here in Oregon. At one time, native Oregonians (from the Kalapooia and other tribes) ate cassava like we eat French fries today. Berry bushes in hundreds of varieties provided a wild harvest to anyone who knew how to tell a delicious snack from a bellyache. The black Republican cherry tree was introduced as a commercial crop in 1860, producing a plum-like fruit that was known throughout the Northwest.
Today, the cassava is protected as one of the few remaining indigenous plants in the area, our berry diet is limited to the two or three varieties that accompany peanut butter in sandwiches, and the words “black Republican” only bring to mind awful jokes.
But the irony is more immediate than that. Faced with a food culture that has been completely commodified, stripped of all regional identity and packed into neat little boxes (salmon burger, anyone?), chefs and food aficionados around the Willamette Valley are scratching wildly, looking for dishes that we can claim and incorporate into a distinctive local cuisine. I feel their pain – the lack of “American” food, leave alone Oregonian or Pacific Northwestern food is something I’ve long failed to understand. Once, a friend and I brainstormed an entire afternoon trying to think of something to cook for Saudi Arabian friends coming over for an authentic American dinner. We ended up making enchiladas. Close enough –as long as our guests never find their way south of the border.
It’s not that we don’t have material to work with in this region. Heirlooms like the black Republicans, including apple, pear and nut trees, as well as a varieties of beans, vegetables and berries, have been cultivated here since the first white settlers set up camp. The sense of local pride that has evolved around these crops is revealed in some of their names: Gramma Walters bean; Oregon Champion gooseberry. Because they are for one reason or another not commercially viable (delicate fruit, short shelf life, inconsistent production), many are in danger of extinction. Today, only a few, very old black Republican trees survive in the Eugene area and nowhere else, according to a book compiled by Gary Paul Nabhan, a well known ecologist and localization writer. The loss of heirloom varieties would be a blow to local agriculture, not just for cultural reasons but also because locally adapted crops tend to be hardier, better suited to the climate and soil conditions and thus less likely to need chemical inputs to thrive.
Anyway, anyone trying to establish a regional cuisine in Oregon has my full support, especially given some of the difficulties involved. Salmon is no longer an obvious choice for any of the Pacific Northwest. Gary Nabhan splits North America into distinct bioregions based on indigenous food traditions, and names this corner of the continent Salmon Nation. I support the idea behind this effort, but wish we could move beyond this beleaguered fish for its basis. One species is limited as a basis for an entire cuisine, and nobody with an ounce of ecological awareness would (or should) be caught dead eating anything but wild-caught salmon, whose numbers are swiftly dwindling anyway. In addition, any food trend that might eventually filter its way down to the masses (ie broke college students who find cooking an enjoyable form of productive procrastination) must be affordable, but most restaurants that attempt to differentiate their fare from that of Seattle or Portland tend to be in the price range of middle-aged urbanites with real jobs. In this economy, that leaves out roughly half of the population. (Really, though: the poverty rate in the Eugene area is higher than the state average, and Oregon is now has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation.) Although the efforts of local chefs to get us to eat seasonally and locally with braised lamb in wild mushroom sauce are admirable, they aren’t the American’s South’s cornbread and grits. That is, you won’t see many of us switching from ramen-based diets anytime soon. As I mentioned in the previous post, the industrial food system has gotten most people used to food made from two or three major plants plus meat. It’s cheap and childishly easy to prepare (or pick up at the drive-thru window). Some serious re-education is in order before we can even think about preparing regionally based foods.
That said, I do see some adventurous farmers and blogger/cooks in the area making steps in these directions, first making the food available and then showing people that it’s not rocket science to put it together. Farmers near Corvallis are making serious efforts to reintroduce bean and grain production in the Willamette Valley; one Eugene-based blog has a recipe for black bean brownies. Is that the smell of synergy baking?
I’m not suggesting that Oregon farmers abandon all commodity crops for fields of waving cassava and garbanzos. After all, grass seed production generates $1.6 billion in economic activity in the state, and how else would every suburban home be able to cultivate an overwatered green monoculture without these farmers? Plus, other forms of agriculture are just way too much work, and since there simply aren’t enough illegal immigrants to go around, who will do it? On the other hand, small, organic farms have been shown to provide more ecosystem-like benefits while being more productive per acre than huge operations. And aren’t we facing something like a global food crisis? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give up just a few of those acres for diversified food production rooted in local traditions that we can all take pride in?
It’s all too confusing for me. I think I’ll just head to the kitchen to see if I can make black bean brownies that look as good as the picture on that blog. I only wish I had some black Republican cherry ice cream to put on top of them.

February 7, 2009

>Down with grass!


In the summer of 2008, farmer Harry MacCormack did something on his land that hasn’t been done in the Willamette Valley for over twenty years. In this small act, unbeknownst to most of his neighbors in nearby Corvallis, Oregon, he may have sparked a revolution that could transform the state’s economic structure and create a model for sustainable communities across the country.
So what was MacCormack up to on his farm last summer? He was growing beans. As food and fuel prices rise around the world and Oregon residents scramble for ways to reduce their demands on our fragile environment and economy, farmers are moving toward a solution that may seem simple in hindsight. Instead of devoting 80% of cropland acres to grass seed, an inedible crop of which very little actually stays in the region, farmers led by MacCormack are beginning a movement to use the valley’s fertile lands for growing food. Beans, grains, and other staples used to be primary crops in the region until suburban lawns and golf courses made grass seed a hot commodity. Today, this cash crop is as popular as ever, but increased problems with field burning and chemical use has farmers searching for alternatives.
MacCormack’s experimental planting, known by the coalition of farmers, distributors and retailers he works with as the “Bean and Grain Project,” could be the alternative. But the initiative is not without its detractors: some environmentalists say that attempting to grow certain crops in Oregon would require even more chemicals and energy than it would in their native environments. Many farmers simply cannot afford to switch from grass seed to less profitable crops. And eco-conscious as they may be, most food buyers in the region are used to the low prices allowed by importing beans and grains from countries where standards of living are lower.

Read more about the bean and grain project here: