Archive for ‘food’

July 30, 2012

Lacto-Fermented Salsa: Culture for your tomatoes

Here’s one of life’s sad ironies: The rich cultural heritage we inherit from our parents often doesn’t jive with our personal tastes. I’m thinking, of course, mainly of food.
My mom is German, and as a kid I ate a lot of sauerkraut, bratwurst and marzipan, mostly because I didn’t know better.
As an adult, I’ve tried giving the cuisine of my ancestors another chance, but it hasn’t stuck. I may nibble on a bratwurst or marzipan log now and again, but it’s my revulsion to sauerkraut that I know really makes my grandma turn in her grave. The thought of cabbage shredded and pickled, with that crunchy-flaccid texture and mouth-puckering flavor doesn’t just repulse me, it makes me wish I was adopted.
Interesting, because sauerkraut is made using the same basic process as cheese, bread, beer and other foods I know I cannot live without: fermentation. I present to you these Fun Fermentation Facts:

  • Fermentation is the oldest form of food preservation. It’s been around for 10,000 years – since the Stone Age!
  • Fermentation always involves a “culture”, or bacteria that consumes the sugars available in the food being preserved and produces carbon dioxide and sour lactic acid.
  • Coffee and cocoa (chocolate) beans undergo a fermentation process that eats away the slimy layer around the beans before they are roasted. Thank the bacteria for your daily fix!
  • In the Middle Ages in Europe, water was unsafe to drink so most people drank wine or beer. When fermentation occurs, “good” (non-toxic and often beneficial) bacteria win over “bad” bacteria that cause disease.
  • Fermentation is central to many ancient and modern cultures, and these foods are often considered delicacies. The Chinese prize duck eggs that are salted and flavored before being coated in mud and left to ferment for at least a month.

Ok, I take back the thing about wishing I was adopted. Chinese kids have it way worse.
Anyway, I know I may never find my roots in fermented cabbage, but there is another form of fermented vegetable (okay, fruits) that makes my stomach weep tears of joy. I give you…

Lacto-Fermented Salsa.

There are at least three ways of making salsa, that unbeatable combination of tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro, each with its own “consume-by” date.

  • Fresh salsa keeps for a few days in the refrigerator.
  • Canned salsa, either store-bought or home made, can last indefinitely on the shelf, but often tastes as much like the fresh version as cherry pie filling tastes like real cherries. Plus, canning your own salsa is steamy, hard work to do in the summertime.
  • Fermentation provides the best of both worlds, preserving salsa in the refrigerator or root cellar for up to six months, long enough for your tomato plants to turn into compost.

This salsa is made using the usual ingredients, with the addition of lactobacillus culture, easy to find in the air or in a carton of yogurt.
An honesty-the-best-policy note: Like most fermented foods, fermented salsa is an acquired taste (although acquirement can happen within seconds), and depending on the stage of fermentation, eating it may feel like chugging a just-opened can of soda. The sour flavor comes from the lactic acid created by the bacteria, who are also responsible for the carbon dioxide bubbles. Personally, I love this fizzy salsa, and even find it addictive. Kids do, too (I discovered the recipe while working at a gardening summer camp).

You’ll need one quart-sized canning jar, clean but not sterilized, and:
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped chili pepper, hot or mild
½ cup chopped bell pepper (optional)
3-6 (or more!) cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
½ c chopped cilantro
1 t dried oregano, or 1 T fresh
juice of 2 lemons
1 T sea salt
4 T whey*, or extra tablespoon salt if whey is not available**
1/4 cup filtered water (unless your tomatoes are really juicy)

  1. Once you have all that stuff:
  2. Combine all ingredients and place in the quart-sized jar.
  3. Press down lightly with a spoon, adding more water if necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the salsa mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
  4. Cover tightly and keep in an undisturbed place in the kitchen. Fermentation time will depend on the room temperature. After two days, you should start to see bubbles, although it may take up to four in cooler climates. Bubbles indicate fermentation is occurring, and the salsa is ready to be eaten or stored in the refrigerator, where fermentation will continue at a much slower rate. Some prefer to leave the salsa out a bit longer to increase bubbly goodness.
  5. Enjoy with tortilla chips!

*Whey is the source of lactobacillus culture. It is simply the liquid that can be found in any yogurt that contains live cultures, such as Nancy’s (use the plain variety). For extra points, use whey from your own yogurt!
**If you can’t find whey, not to worry, lactobacillus cultures will find you. The added tablespoon salt preserves the salsa until wild lactobacillus already present in your salsa is able to multiply and create some fermentation action. However, this method will make your salsa extra salty.

A final note on mold: I know someone will one day successfully sue me for saying this, but it’s not really that scary. If mold grows on your salsa, either before or after you refrigerate it, simply scrape it off and discard. Add more water to ensure that your salsa is covered to prevent mold.

My tomatoes aren’t ripe yet, but when they are, I’ll be dicing and fermenting and waiting for those magical bubbles to appear. As for the cabbage, I’ll take it raw, thank you.

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March 2, 2012

Kale & Roasted Potato Salad: Seasonable Satisfaction

Kale Some of us here in the abundant Pacific Northwest attempt to eat locally year-round. A friend from California recently scoffed at this notion. “Kale and potato” diet, she called it, due to the difficulty of finding much else that is local during the long span of winter months.

A recent surge in demand for local produce has enabled many farmers to offer much more than kale and potatoes year round. Still, if you’re on a budget and not a good food horder (in other words, you didn’t spend half your summer sweating over the stove to preserve the bounty), there are a few weeks when the local diet is limited to those hardy winter greens and the tubers that hide out in warm soil.

This is by no means a punishment. Kale and potatoes happen to be culinary compliments any way you slice ‘em – roasted, mashed, cooked in a soup or grated into pancakes. With a little creativity, there is no end to the possibilities, and before you know it, it’s April and you’re feasting on baby asparagus and homegrown arugula.

This is a variation of German potato salad as my mother taught me. Its fans are many and rabid, forcing me to publish the recipe to quiet their clamoring. Roasting the potatoes brings out their fullest flavor, and the yams add unexpected sweetness. It’s the raw kale, of course, that really gives this dish substance and a satisfying chewiness.

Kale and Roasted Potato Salad
serves 8-10

1 T stoneground mustard
¼ c mayo
¼ c sour cream
3 T sugar
1 T capers
juice of half a lemon
Spike or salt
pepper, to taste
red pepper flakes, to taste

6 small Yukon Gold potatoes
2 medium yams
1-2 cups kale, chopped to ¼-inch pieces
1/2  c parsley, chopped finely
1 yellow, orange or red bell pepper, diced
¼ c minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pickles, finely chopped

Roast the potatoes and yams at 400 F for 30-45 minutes, until soft. Allow 15 minutes to cool, then dice.

Meanwhile, combine the first nine ingredients for the dressing. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients with the potatoes and yams. Toss with dressing and serve. Better when refrigerated and served the next day, just be sure to bring to room temperature before serving.

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.

September 6, 2011

The War on Raw: Your nanny state boils the milk, but you don’t have to drink it

It’s banned in Canada and 18 US states, but it’s legal in Europe and always has been. Three in California were recently arrested for selling it. In other states, everyone from local police to the FDA take it upon themselves to eradicate it, even where laws permit its production and sale.

What is this substance, and why is the subject of so much kerfufflery? It’s raw, unpasteurized milk – from cows, goats, sheep, and anything else with four legs and an udder. The source of the controversy can only be seen under a microscope. It’s the wriggling bacteria that colonize everything from skin to the vacuum of space.

Is raw milk really the pathogen-loaded drink of insanity that the mainstream media has made it out to be? Of course not. Is there any reason to prefer it over pasteurized milk? Well, people wouldn’t be going to jail in their determination to consume and sell it if there wasn’t.

We tend to think of pasteurized milk as the norm, but really, it’s only a recent phenomenon. The practice of pasteurization began around the period of industrialization in the US – the late 1900s and early 20th century. Around this time, farmers quit their livelihoods in mass numbers to take jobs in the cities. The reasons for this are complex, but the result was that the farms that remained got bigger. Food preservation – canning, pasteurizing, freeze-drying, etc. – went from a home practice to a factory process. This made food more suitable for long-distance transit and less time consuming for people to prepare, while coincidentally (or not) multiplying the profit margin for the corporations running the whole thing.

Dairy animals also got the shaft in this transition. Because people no longer owned their own cows, goats or sheep, milk had to come from somewhere, and the first mega-dairies were born in the 1920s, with cows the new dairy standard. Sanitation was poor at first, and the USDA was still a small government department. It didn’t have the funding to keep up with inspections or the power to limit dairies to a reasonable size. Also, modern-day methods of testing for pathogens, or bad bacteria, did not exist, so pasteurization was proposed as a way of guaranteeing the safety of the milk supply. Today, despite advances in testing and the potential to track a given jug of milk back to the dairy at which it was produced with barcodes and microchips, not much has changed. We’re still using the outdated technology of heating milk to near-boiling temperatures for 15-20 seconds, just to be on the safe side.

What does pasteurization do, other than kill anything that might be living in the milk? Actually, the bacteria-annihilation thing is part of the problem. In the human gut, there are millions of varieties of bacteria, known as the “gut flora”. Obviously, they’re harmless, or else we’d be sick all the time, and many of them are beneficial. Our bodies have evolved along with them to enhance our ability to digest certain substances and absorb nutrients. Ever bought “probiotic” yogurt? It’s just pasteurized milk that’s had bacteria added back in and left to ferment.

One of these bacteria is Lactobacilli, which eats and digests lactose. Many lactose-intolerant individuals find that they can digest raw milk, but not pasteurized milk, because pasteurization destroys Lactobacilli. Scientists haven’t even begun to identify the trillions of bacteria in our environments and our bodies, so I’m guessing Lactobacilli has a few million relatives present in raw milk. Just because we haven’t studied them doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from them.

In addition to micro-flora, milk carries hundreds nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurization cooks the life from these as well, another side-effect that scientists don’t really know the impacts of. We do know that extreme heat denatures, or modifies beyond recognition, certain molecules that build enzymes, proteins other necessary building blocks present in milk. As a result, David Gumpert, author of Raw Milk Revolution, calls pasteurized milk nutritionally inferior to raw milk.

Look at it this way: many of us were raised on unpasteurized milk. It came from our mothers. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of drinking anything with dead stuff in it.

But is it safe? Yes, we have an obsession with safety these days, so here are the quick and no-so-dirty numbers: Illnesses from raw milk consumption average about 42 per year. In 2010, 9.4 million people reported having consumed raw milk. Around fifty million suffered from a food-borne illness. There are only four pathogens commonly found in raw milk that lead to illness in humans, and all of them can be eliminated with proper handling of the milk. If animals are healthy and clean, the milk is not exposed to outside contaminants, and it is refrigerated right away, chances of it ever making you sick are close to none. (Source: The Weston A. Price Foundation)

Raw-milk enthusiasts, and I guess now I’ve admitted to being one, have other reasons to seek out milk straight from the udder. Usually, farms that produce raw milk are small-scale, close by, and practice good farming methods. Compare that to a mega-dairy with 30,000 cows who never set hoof outside the barn. Most raw milk producers pasture-feed their animals, which has a thousand benefits for that animal’s health, translating to healthier milk for us to drink.

So the cows (or goats, camels, sheep, etc) benefit, the consumer benefits, and farmers benefit also from being able to sell raw milk. Raw milk represents a market niche for small farmers – it’s a product they are uniquely suited to produce, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for it. Around Eugene, it’s anywhere from $7 to $15 a gallon for goat or cows’ milk (pasteurized cow milk in the store is about $3 a gallon). Some farmers will tell you this price barely matches their cost of production, while others will admit raw milk sales are the literal “cash cow” of their operation, allowing them to take on less profitable ventures, like growing vegetables or saving seed. Many also keep rare heirloom livestock breeds, milking animals like Guernsey cows and Nigerian Dwarf goats that fell out of favor when the demand for machine-ready cows covered the landscape with Jerseys and Holsteins. Either way, no one can argue that farmers are an asset to the community, and any way they can earn money to keep themselves afloat should not be discouraged.

Unfortunately, it is discouraged, and mightily. In Oregon, raw milk sales are legal, but most people who sell it are probably doing so illegally. That’s because they don’t have expensive USDA approval of their facilities. It doesn’t make a difference to customers, who usually pick milk up at the farm itself and can perform visual inspections at will. Recently, though, raw milk has also started appearing on the shelves of our local natural foods stores, presumably produced by slightly larger farms with USDA licenses.

Those store owners may still have to watch their back, however. In California this month, three owners of the natural foods co-op Rawsome Foods were arrested in a SWAT team raid and pressed with criminal charges of conspiracy to sell unpasteurized milk. Law enforcement seized and destroyed $10,000 worth of raw milk. The officers, from the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the FDA, the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control, contended that the owners did not have proper business licenses and the farm producing the milk did not have permits to do so. The owners hold that they weren’t actually selling milk but facilitating a “cow share” agreement, in which individuals share ownership of a cow and pay the farmer to board it, milk it, and deliver the milk. The case is currently in the courts.

Meanwhile, cow share agreements, while causing unknown confusion to the cows, have been a successful tactic for Canadians to circumvent the legal system to obtain raw milk. An Ontario farmer named Michael Schmidt, whose fight to sell raw milk has made him a hero for real-foodies, pioneered the movement. Legally, farmers can produce raw milk for themselves, so cow shares simply create a way for people who live in the city to own a cow and drink its milk. On the surface, it works the same – farmers keep the cows together in the barn, milk them, care for them, and make the milk available to the cows’ real owners. Cow shares have the added benefit of circumventing Canada’s restrictive milk quota system, which gives the government total power over the milk market and prices. British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia are all home to cow shares, and farmers are battling in the courts for the right to sell raw milk in a simpler way, without having to arrange shared ownership. Maybe they should get the animal rights activists involved – this has got to be causing some emotionally taxing identity crises for the poor bovines.

Here in Eugene, I’ve found a slightly easier way to obtain raw milk without denting my pocketbook. Pining for the goats I left behind in Canada, this spring I began work trading at a local goat farm. I bike out into the countryside once a week, spend the morning petting goats, picking up their poop, milking them (after thoroughly washing hands, of course), and cutting grass for them to eat. In return, I go home with two or three gallons of creamy, fresh, delicious and – gasp! – raw goat milk. It’s a fun way to spend my day off and my cheese-making skills have developed to new heights. (I’ve also been enjoying kefir, especially the reaction I get to the phrase “fermented goat milk”.) I found the farm through craigslist, where I find everything else that is wonderful, and would encourage anyone living in vicinity of a farm with extra time on their hands to look for a similar arrangement.

The raw milk movement is at the stage the organic movement was in the US thirty years ago. For those who fear microbes in all forms and prefer a standardized product, pasteurized milk will probably always be there. For the survivalists, though, there’s always a way to get your hands on the world’s most nutritious illegal substance.

The blog The Bovine does an excellent job tracking developments in raw milk and other real-food movements. Go to RealMilk.com for short, succinct articles on why raw milk is better. They also have very useful listings of where to find raw milk in most US states and some other countries.

If you’re a farmer considering or already selling raw milk in various stages of legality, the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers assistance to farmers under legal fire for selling or otherwise distributing raw milk.

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.

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 CommonDreams.org, 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 Answers.com
  • $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 350.org
  • 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.
July 25, 2009

>Harvest

>We start early, before the temperature begins to creep up and everything – the harvest and those who pick it – starts to fade in the midday sun. Vancouver Island is at a high latitude, so the sun comes up around 5 AM and doesn’t go down until about 9 in the evening. Luckily, the light doesn’t keep me from sleeping all the way till 7, when I wake up to CBC (the Canadian version of BBC) on the radio and stiffly move myself out of bed. The going is slow because I started learning to ride horses on Wednesday. It feels like somebody’s taken a rake to the muscles of my inner legs. (As far as my progress in riding goes, my instructor summed it up nicely after the first lesson: “You did good today,” he said. “You showed up.”)
Aftermath of my extracurricular activities aside, harvest day is probably my favorite time around the farm. So I stretch carefully, shower, and head up to the campground office to make myself some breakfast. Because the office is open from 8 in the morning till 9 at night, we hardly do anything at the house but sleep (and write!). I savor my berries and yogurt as I sit with Ann and Andrea, who are already laying out the game plan for market this week. Market is on Saturday, and instead of hauling our produce all the way into Port Alberni, we simply hold it here, where we have a somewhat captive customer base (campers) and the space to make it an event. We hold a pancake breakfast and hayride; the kids play with the goats while their parents take a stroll by the river.
But that will all take place tomorrow. The produce is the main act, and it’s still waiting in the garden for us to retrieve it. We finish our coffee, gather up some buckets, and head down the hill, border collies herding us along.
Crystal is already in the garden and Connie arrives shortly after. We are an all-girl vegetable-picking machine. Andrea heads to the potato patch – she loves digging around in the dirt. I grab scissors and start on the kale and swiss chard. Connie hits up the greenhouse for cucumbers and tomatoes, and Crystal pulls the netting off the long rows of carrots. Half an hour later, I’m still lost in the brilliant red stems of the chard, feeling slightly overwhelmed and mentally full. Every time I pick vegetables my mind moves immediately to washing, chopping and cooking them, in any way I know how and a few I don’t think are possible (chard muffins?). After thirty or so chard plants, I get the dizzying feeling of there simply being too much food here for any one person to eat. I guess that’s the only way I can part with it come morning. As I fill my last bucket with greens and throw up my hands, Crystal comes walking down the row, a bright orange, freshly washed, perfect carrot in her outstretched hand.
“Second breakfast?” Indeed.

It’s getting late in the summer, and the garden is in full production mode now. This is only the Collins’ second year growing produce for a local market, but there is certainly no lack of variety. By the end of the morning we have the truck loaded up with greens, potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, peas, rhubarb, strawberries and flowers. We unload in the office – which also houses a small commercial kitchen – and start washing and bagging. The unfortunate side of the local market is nobody seems to want to buy anything that’s not in a bag. If we do leave it in baskets or buckets, they’ll bag it themselves before they buy it.
I excuse myself from this somewhat depressing process to start making lunch. I have a little challenge going with myself to use the most vegetables in one meal as possible. With a little storebought ginger and soy sauce, I squeeze seven into a giant stir fry (record: eight veggies). We take a bit of a break and eat outside on the deck in the last bit of shade. It’s getting hot – the thermometer reads 30 Celsius. Up until a week or so ago this meant nothing to me, and it actually made the heat easier to bear. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. In India, nobody ever really knew what temperature it was, so there was no complaining. Well, my mother was kind enough to email me a handy conversion chart and I now know that when it’s 30, it’s not just below freezing but in fact 86 in the clunky old Fahrenheit system. And when it’s 30 at noon and just getting started, it’s going to be a hot day.
Back inside, it’s time to switch the A/C on. With the freezers, refrigerators and oven going all day, it can get hotter inside than outside without the aid of this wonderful little invention. Feeling more comfortable now, I start on the bread and spend the afternoon registering campers with floury hands. Breads are my experimental addition to the farmers’ market, and so far, it’s been a mild success. The best part is, we keep the ugly loaves and whatever doesn’t sell. Contrary to popular belief, breadmaking isn’t actually that difficult or time consuming. You just have to be able to hang around the kitchen for a few hours, so campground management actually is a good side activity.
Campers are an interesting lot. They fall into three main categories: those who are on vacation and so are determined not to fuss about anything so that they can have a good time; those who are on vacation and so are determined to be completely picky about everything so that they can have a good time; and teenagers who come from town to throw parties at the campground. Any afternoon will produce any combination of these types. I had the good fortune to be eating dinner while some partying teenagers came and rented a couple sites. We’re all pretty tired of the loud music, piles of trash and general obnoxiousness that comes along with these customers, but Ann and Bob were ready this time. They raised three kids and can be pretty scary. Sitting in the corner, absorbed in my bread and cucumber salad, I even felt a little shaky in my boots as the two of them loom over the group of would-be rabble-rousers.
“Now, you’re not going to have a large group of people down there, are you?” Ann asks, though it’s more of a statement than a question. The kids are wide-eyed and innocent.
“Oh, no.” Having been in their shoes more than once only a few years ago, I know that deceptive tone all too well. I can almost see the thought bubbles resting above their heads, and they don’t contain words but pictures of beer and thumping stereos. Bob sees them too and walks over to the counter.
“No music down there,” he tells them.
“None at all?” they whine.
“Absolutely not. You don’t want us to come down there at three in the morning to tell you to shut it off, got it?” A mafia contract killer could not have sounded more threatening. They’ve got it. They shuffle out. Yet another crisis averted – we hope.

I finish eating and walk down to the house to read a bit. Before bed, I help Bob move the “chicken tractor”. This ingenious little pen, which holds all our meat birds, is open at the bottom so the chickens can scratch at the grass. It gets moved once or twice a day, so they can fertilize a new patch of soil while getting some fresh grubs to eat – a win-win situation.
After the moving is done, Bob heads out to the pasture to move irrigation pipes. I walk up the hill, worn out and not sure where my farming mentors get the energy to work the 15-hour or more days that they do (Ann is still up at the office). As I pass the barn, I hear a friendly but demanding “meiow!” It’s Buster, the friendly black-and-white barn cat. He proves irresistible. Instead of going inside, I sit with him on an old picnic table that overlooks the farm. From here, we can see the garden, the pasture with the horses and cows grazing, the forest beyond and Mount Arrowsmith towering above it all. It’s a view that takes my breath away still after almost a month living here. I watch the sun turn the mountainside pink and gold, the cool evening air taking away some of my fatigue. Buster relaxes on my lap, his purr rumbling against my fingers. It’s one of those perfect moments that seem to arise so easily in this place. Despite all the work that goes into planting, watering, weeding and harvesting produce, I still can’t help but find it miraculous that so many good things come out of the simple inputs of soil, manure, seeds and water. As long as that formula continues to work, we’ll never go hungry here. And that’s a pretty good feeling.