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 http://www.suburbanpermaculture.org/

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.

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!

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October 29, 2011

Rotting Piles of Garbage: How to compost the low-impact way

I’ll be the first to admit it: I love compost. I love not throwing things in the trash, I love bugs and things that eat rotting food, and I love being able to put that food back into my garden. I even love how it smells – after it’s fully composted, that is.

My thing for compost goes back to college, where I was introduced to the wonders of growing your own food through a course in urban farming. Since then, I’ve gone out of my way to keep my vegetable scraps out of the landfill.

Out of my way is putting it lightly, actually. My little fetish for decomposition has been a smelly problem, one that I never really found an easy solution to. In my apartment existence, I’ve been known to do a bit of “guerrilla composting” by tossing my food scraps into the neighbor’s bushes. Usually, I just stored them in stinky, leaky plastic bags until I remember to bring them to the farm. I’ve even started a couple mini worm farms under the kitchen sink, but never with much success.

If I happened to live in a bigger, more progressive city, my compost problems would be solved – actually, hauled away every week in a big truck. In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen, but in Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Minneapolis, and around 3,000 other US cities, you can place your compostable kitchen scraps in your yard waste bin. In San Francisco, composting is actually mandatory. The movement is part of a larger effort to reduce the waste stream – all the consumables we send to our landfills. Landfills are designed to do the opposite of a compost heap, preventing decomposition to avoid the release of climate-altering methane gas (composting, on the other hand, is an aerobic process, which produces small amounts of less potent carbon dioxide). They’re very effective at this – a newspaper placed in a landfill will still be readable 35 years later.

Most of us tend to worry about the land-based impacts of landfills, but a more pressing concern associated with piling all our waste in a central location is the energy used and carbon dioxide produced in the process of picking up and delivering it. In my town, there are at least three major sanitation companies offering weekly pickup for trash and every-other-week pickup for yard waste and recycling. In Portland, the recently introduced yard waste/compost pickup service is offered every week, and I can’t imagine this being less frequent due to the smell factor. That means at least two trucks a week stopping by every home, and three on recycling weeks. Four if a separate truck is required for glass recycling, as it is in my neighborhood. Guess what the fuel economy is for the average diesel-fueled garbage truck. Nope, lower. Lower. Lower. Three miles per gallon. Seriously. To make matters worse, nobody wants a smelly, ugly, potentially flammable municipal compost facility near their home or farm, so trucks must sometimes travel farther to get to those locations than they do to get to landfills.

So is separating food waste from other household trash and sending it off to be composted really an idea we should get behind? Maybe if we replaced the yard waste trucks with a fleet of bicycles. Or maybe there’s another solution, one that addresses the other side of the problem – not what we’re throwing out, but what we choose to save.

In the lifetime of, say, a carrot, the part where it gets thrown away (either as a whole or as peelings and greens) is a pretty small part. It grew in soil, absorbing minerals, converting sunlight into energy and soaking up water. In a way, that carrot was like a battery, storing energy for future use by whomever ate it. It also stored some vitamins and minerals, part of which are absorbed by the eater’s digestive system. (Our habit of depositing what we’ve digested into sewer systems that don’t recycle nutrients is unfortunate in this light, but that’s another discussion.) The part of the carrot that doesn’t get eaten can go down two paths. On the landfill route, its nutrients and potential energy are locked away virtually forever. If composted, the energy goes into millions of microscopic creatures, and the nutrients are reused if that compost gets put on a new vegetable garden.

Nutrients are valuable, and although veggies are a renewable resource, the minerals that make them desirable in the first place are not. Like gold and silver, there is a limited amount of phosphorus, calcium, iodine, etc., in the thin crust around the core of molten rock that together make a planet we call home. When crops are grown in fertile soil, which has been enriched over billions of years with minerals from volcanic ash and disintegrated rock, those plants absorb the minerals and pass them along to whomever eats them.

After 10,000 years of agriculture on this planet, the store of minerals in the soil has all but been depleted. Comparing soils today with those tested just 100 years ago, there’s been an 85% loss in mineral content, a loss that is reflected in the nutritional value of the crops we grow. According to the Nutrition Security Institute, “Our food system is rapidly losing its ability to produce food with nutrient levels sufficient to maintain health.” Thirty trace minerals are essential to life, and some scientists say we need every element on earth in minute amounts for optimum health. Minerals are essential to everything from bone growth (think calcium) to DNA coding, the firing of neurons, energy transfer and metabolism, cell structure, and much more.

So maybe I was on the right track with trying to keep my vegetable scraps in my neighborhood to be recycled. Curbside compost programs, which haul nutrients away never to be seen again, don’t seem to make much sense, but composting at home does. It’s a bit like opening a savings account. When you stash your cash at the bank (provided it doesn’t fail), it can be loaned out to someone else while you’re not using it. Under the mattress, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Throwing food scraps in the landfill is a bit like putting your money in your bed. In landfills, food scraps only break down very slowly because of the lack of oxygen, and when they do, they release methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Second, like saving money in an interest-earning account, you’re actually increasing the benefit to yourself. You can spread your compost on your garden beds to increase soil fertility and grow strong plants that are resistant to disease. Third, unlike saving money, it’s fun.

Well, I think it’s fun. This summer I moved into a house with a real yard, and the first thing I did was build a fascinating – yet admittedly messy-looking – compost pile under the tree in the back yard. In just a couple feet of food scraps, mixed in with a little newspaper, it’s incredible the varieties of life that can unfold. I turned the pile every few weeks and marveled at the centipedes, grubs, worms, potato bugs and fly larvae crawling just underneath the top layer of banana peels. But Hannah, my domestic co-habitator, called it “the rotting pile of garbage”, and although she is a seasoned farmer herself, she somehow didn’t want the final stage of life for untold numbers of vegetables to unfold just off the patio.

The fall season finally provided the two of us with enough overlapping time off to do something about my DIY landfill. Our goal: Create a complete and attractive home compost system with minimum financial input. She’s a barista and I work at a non-profit – neither of us are overpaid.

To start, Hannah and I took a trip to BRING Recycling to rummage up some materials to build a tidy backyard compost bin in which to corral the creepy-crawlies and their food. BRING accepts donations of used building materials and organizes them in a huge warehouse full of old doors, pipes, wood scraps, random tiles and bricks, metal filing cabinets and desks, light fixtures, and anything else that may have a second life as an art project or functional element in someone’s house. It’s like Home Depot meets Goodwill. In the wood section, we found a whole pile of cedar panels that were perfect for the sides of our bin. We also found an old window, the front of a wooden cabinet, even hinges and screws. Total cost: $40. Price of a plastic composter for home use: $150. We win.

Step two: Bribing the neighbor with coffee beans to borrow his power drill. Done.

We assemble our materials in the backyard. We’re not expert builders, but all we need is a box without a bottom, so we go for it. The cedar panels form the back and two sides of the box. The third side will be a door to release the finished compost, and for this we use the window. It doesn’t come quite to the top of the box, which is perfect to allow air to flow over the top. We put an extra 4×4 we had laying around on the back of the box before screwing on the lid, to give the top an angle that will help the rain flow off. Oh, the lid is actually that cabinet front we found.

Homemade compost bin.

Step four: The kitchen compost receptacle. We were using a plastic bucket to catch our coffee grounds and onion peels, but that soon began smelling like civet cat vomit. Metal is the ticket when storing compost temporarily, because it doesn’t absorb or hang on to odors. The only problem was, a nice steel bucket with a vented lid and carbon filter will set you back at least 30 bucks.
Strolling the isles at Jerry’s, our local home improvement mega-store, I spotted a metal canister that looked about perfect. Removable lid, handle, large enough to fit a couple days’ worth of coffee grounds and garlic peels, and only $4. An empty paint can. Beautiful. Dirty. Rich. A little acrylic paint to personalize, and we’re set. Best of all, we found a way to keep it off our valuable kitchen counter space.

The final step: The material in our lovely new bin outside is about ¾ of the way composted. At this stage, adding new vegetable scraps to the top doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In most composting systems, you end up with three bins: an “active” one to add to until its full, a “composting” bin that’s full and breaking down, and a “finished” bin that contains fully composted material, which you can take out and use as needed.
Although my partner in composting has proclaimed a willingness to build bins around the entire house to ensure my happiness, I’m not that into the idea. I’d rather use my tiny yard space for actually growing things. Besides, now that fall is here, I don’t anticipate having as much yard waste to deal with (fallen leaves make lovely mulch and don’t need to be composted first).

Enter the worm bin. I’m always telling people who live in apartments to build a worm bin to quickly and non-odiferously turn food scraps into compost. I haven’t actually done this myself, though. (Like I said, putting worms in a paper bag full of food scraps under the sink just doesn’t cut it.) A worm bin is basically split-level condo for worms, which can be created by stacking plastic storage bins and poking holes in the top one for air. Since all worms want to do is eat and poop, it’s perfect for them because the top floor holds food scraps and shredded newspaper, and the bottom floor holds their poop – your compost. I’m thinking this will be a good solution for my household compost. I’ll post the results as they come in, including any funny things Hannah has to say about it. In the meantime, directions are here.

Maybe composting isn’t for everyone. In this culture, there is a certain “ick” factor to overcome. For me, anything that involves recycling and improves our chances of not just surviving but thriving with 7 billion plus on one planet, is good. Now that we’re out of $100 bills to light on fire, it might be time to start cultivating a new kind of wealth. All I know is, when I die, you can just throw me on the compost pile.

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.

June 14, 2011

The Crab Raider

[This is an essay I spent an inordinate amount of time working on for Oregon Quarterly‘s Northwest Perspectives essay contest. It didn’t win me fortune and fame, but it did land among the top ten finalists. That, I think, earns it a place somewhere on the internet. Like here.]



The Crab Raider: How a rookie fisherwoman learned her place on the food chain.

I hear the boat engine slow as we approach the floating buoys, my cue to lean over the rail and point the long, hook-ended stick toward the water. As I prepare to strike, I make a silent request for crab. The last two pots we ran came up empty; nothing but a few abandoned shells stacked like poker chips in the corner. In the 50 or so pots we already pulled today, we’d found at least a half-dozen purple-backed Dungeness each. That can only mean one thing: Something is robbing us of our catch. Each crab lost is money lost, but in a place as vast as the Pacific, there’s little chance of finding the culprit, be it human or animal.
I shake my head vigorously. This is not the time to lose focus; our pot is close. As soon as it drifts in reach, I snag the first buoy with the hook, grabbing the rope attached to it with one hand while the other tosses the buoy stick to Hannah, who’s right at position on the other side of the landing box. I yank the rope into the giant pulley, also known as the block, dangling from the hydraulic arm in front of me. Forty fathoms below us, the crab pot jerks away from the sea floor as the block begins to fly through the rope. Now I wait, one neoprene-sheathed hand gripping the controls, intently watching the diamond spray of water coming off the line. Hannah returns to filling bait jars.
It’s a beautiful, cloudless day. As the block does its work, a gentle swell rocks the boat from side to side. At its worst, Dungeness crab fishing off the Oregon coast in winter is a grueling, monotonous gamble. Often, commercial fishing boats don’t catch enough – or the price of live crab isn’t high enough – to make the whole dangerous endeavor worthwhile. But we go out anyway, perfecting the focused and purposeful dance of tossing crab, coiling rope, swinging pots, and coming home exhausted, seasick, ready to call it quits, mostly for the joy that is in it. Hannah and I, probably the only two women deckhands working the Dungeness crab fishery this season and certainly the youngest, move in synchrony. The one on block leads; the other follows her cues. Captain Dave is our fierce but fearless choreographer, manning the wheel and barking instructions from inside the cabin of his 36-foot boat, the Glass Slipper. We trust him with our lives and he trusts us with his livelihood – both the powerful equipment on board and the high-dollar crustaceans that we pile into the tank, weather permitting.
The rope rising out of the water is red now, signaling that our pot is close. I keep one hand on the controls – now, it’s all about timing. Seconds later, I catch the first glimpse of the pot, ten feet underwater and moving toward us like a soul heaven-bent. It breaches the surface with the sound of a wave crashing on shore, but does not lose speed until I slam the lever closed. The crab pot swings to a stop just above our heads off the side of the boat, 150 pounds of iron and knitted wire gushing sea water.
Now that it’s up there, I can see that this pot is certainly not empty like the last few. In fact, it’s about half full of a slimy, pink and orange substance. It looks like rumpled skin in a transparent bag, only it’s moving. Hannah and I both scream at once.
“OCT-TO-PUSSS!” We’ve caught the pot-raider red-handed, and we have no idea what to do next. An awkward, flabbergasted moment passes before Captain Dave’s voice, calm as ever, crackles over the loudspeaker.
“Land the goddamn pot.” Right. Muscle memory takes over; we grab the pot on either side and haul it toward us as I milk a little slack rope out of the block. It settles down on the landing box with a thump. Fumbling with the latches, we pop open the lid. The octopus is already shrinking down into the wire netting, attempting to send its glistening, suction-cupped body right through the mesh. Hannah is turbulent with excitement, but I can only stare goggle-eyed. Between the seasickness patch transmitting dope-like chemicals into my jugular and the hypnotic trance of our fast-paced work, interruptions normally barely register with either of us. We are running pots, and we are only running pots, and we will do it until we drop from exhaustion or Captain Dave turns the boat toward harbor. But with its bulbous head and graceful tentacles, orange on the back side and a deep, fleshy pink underneath, this animal has seized our attention. In any context it would seem alien, but at this moment, it is simply unfathomable.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dave pulling on his orange rain gear to come out on deck. I emerge from my stupor.
“Grab it!” he hollers. “It’s trying to get away!” I am not sure if I believe him – how could this huge creature just slide out of the bottom of the pot like some sort of sea Houdini? – but I reach down for it anyway, grabbing at the slippery flesh somewhat hopelessly. Hannah, still spewing expletives, runs for a bucket, and all together, we wrestle the octopus out of its never-ending crab buffet. Once it’s in the bucket, Dave explains that an octopus has no skeleton, so it can slip through any opening that will fit its sharp beak. The one-inch gaps in the wire netting pose it no challenge.
As if to prove its escape artistry, one suction-cupped octopus tentacle is already feeling around the rim of the bucket. I am not able to resist any longer. I pull off one glove and crouch on deck. Up close, the octopus’ skin looks a little iridescent, almost coppery. He shrinks back slightly at my touch, then relaxes. His head and the tops of his arms are smooth at first but reveal small bumps, as if he’s caught a chill out here in the open air. I move a finger to one of his many suction cups. It sticks to me slightly. Running the back of my hand along his tentacle is like receiving a dozen small kisses from a sticky-faced child.
“What do we do with him?” I ask after a moment. Throwing him back is obviously out of the question; he’ll only find the next pot in the string and continue his freeloading ways.
“Keep him,” Dave responds. “We’ll sell him to the aquarium. They pay by the pound. Good money.” Hannah and I don’t say anything. We’re accustomed to the eat-or-be-eaten logic of the fishing industry; in this line of work, you learn to look at the process of trapping and hauling in hundreds of creatures as harvest, not murder. One fewer common Pacific octopus won’t make a difference, I tell myself, and Captain Dave would know. He has studied this place, mysterious and foreign to us, for longer than we’ve been alive. He understands that the oceans are bountiful, but not limitless, and that upsetting the balance below the waves would destroy the industry that hundreds of fishermen like himself barely cling to as it is. If he has deemed this octopus to be a menace, who are we to ask questions?
My conscience temporarily at ease, I assist in pouring the octopus into a plastic bag. We insert a deck hose to provide him with fresh water, and secure it with a zip tie. We put the bag back in the bucket and stash it in a corner of the deck, confident that the raider will threaten our pots no more. Without pause, we return to work, hoping to finish this string of pots before the sun goes down. Once again, the sameness of those motions – hook the pot, pull it up, land it, remove the crab, put in new bait, dump it off the side – blends the hours together. At the end of the day, the whole incident has been forgotten. We dock the boat and go home without even peeking in the bucket.

The next morning, I arrive early to the Glass Slipper. Captain Dave, as usual, is already there, tinkering with the engine below the cabin floor. It’s our fourth straight day of crabbing in a streak of good weather, and I’m on autopilot as I ready the boat for another day at sea. It isn’t until Hannah arrives for work that I remember the passenger we’d brought on board the day before.
I abandon the boxes of bait I’d been stacking, find the octopus bucket and peer in. But like our raided pots, it’s empty. The bag hangs like a ghost in the water, the hose flowing uselessly out onto the deck. It doesn’t make sense – Dave hadn’t contacted any octopus buyers by the time we’d pulled into harbor the night before, and I doubted that he’d had a sudden craving for calamari. I shout down to him.
“Hey, where’s our octopus?”
“Gone,” he says without turning around.
“What?” we both yell back.
“He left,” he says, and from the evidence before me, I know he’s right. We’d obviously underestimated our prisoner and overestimated the power of plastic zip ties. I look at Hannah, knowing that she’s feeling the same unspoken surge of satisfaction.
The other fishing boats are pulling out from their moorings; Captain Dave has finished his repairs and is anxious to get out to sea. There’s always more crab to catch. As we chug out into open water, I take my usual seat on the back hatch of the boat, watching the wake spread out behind us like a highway that vanishes into the horizon. It’s my time to summon up the energy for the work ahead, to process the upheaval of my privileged existence that this job has wrought, and to stow away memories that I know will be with me long after my body is unable to haul in pots.
The experience I am attempting to record today is as slippery as its subject matter. I’d surprised myself by taking joy in the octopus’ escape. After all, he had been robbing us of our catch, shamelessly moving down the string of pots that we had worked so hard to set, and had consumed the trapped crabs as if they belonged to him. He’d cost us money, and beat us at our own game of exploiting the food chain. As a final humiliation, he defied our methods of containing him. In this business, it’s bad form to allow the catch to sneak away in the night.
Of course, I’m still glad the octopus escaped, and the insulting way in which he did it only reinforces my flawed logic. With only a slight twinge of guilt, I can take the life and freedom of a faceless crab bent on pinching my finger off, but a clever animal with eight legs, in my mind, cries to be free. As humans, we identify with creatures who we consider to be like us, and there will always be an instinctual cringe at the sight of one of them behind bars – or in the petting zoo section of the aquarium.
If I were captain of this boat, I’m not sure if I would have kept that octopus or let him go. There are surely more ruthless types on other boats who would have simply killed the creature on the spot. Anything that eats crab is the enemy, charismatic or not.
There’s no more time to ponder the matter further. We’re approaching our first string of pots already. As the boat rises up on a large swell, I catch a glimpse of the first few sets of buoys, spaced 500 feet apart with expert precision. Dave’s voice on the loudspeaker warns us to get ready. I take up my position at the block and reach for the buoy stick, sending a silent warning of my own to the crabs waiting down there at the bottom of the ocean. If the octopus hasn’t gotten them yet, we will.

***

Tuula Rebhahn is an Oregon coast native and graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, gardening, finding rocks and daydreaming.

June 4, 2011

The Carrot Connection: Childhood Nutrition and School Gardens

If you’re under 30 and went through the US public school system, you would not be at fault for believing that sex and illegal drugs, out of all earthly hazards, are the most dire threats to public health and safety.

You remember those 12 years of rigorous training and its slogans: “just say no”, “abstinence before marriage”, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid left thinking that teenager- and adulthood was some sort of dangerous maze in which shady characters would be trying to bed me or jab me with needles full of corruption at every turn. I assumed that as long as I avoided these two evils, a long and healthy life was pretty much assured. 

Well, turns out I was wrong, and so was the war on drugs. The number one killer of adults in America is heart disease. Close runners-up are diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. Why is it then that the only place I learned about nutrition in school was from the USDA food pyramid poster slapped up in the corner of the lunch room?

A couple decades later, not much has changed. Even though the USDA invested $2 to change the food pyramid to a plate, its healthier-eating message is hardly making it to the younger generation. If the substance-abuse and  anti-sex programs are still as fear-based as I remember them, kids today are probably  more concerned about STDs and gateway drugs than diabetes and thyroid conditions. Meanwhile, subsidies to agribusiness are higher than ever, and physical education is being cut from school budgets.

Is there hope? Heck yes there is. Even though the Department of Education and the USDA haven’t made it a priority, parents and community leaders are stepping up to change the way kids are fed and taught about nutrition in public schools. Or at least, they are in Eugene. Since last fall, I’ve been volunteering with the School Garden Project of Lane County, which facilitates hands-on education in school gardens. Recently, I attended a discussion on childhood nutrition hosted by two other great organizations, Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth and Eugene Coalition for Better School Food (if there’s anything we do well around here, it’s coalition-forming).

The discussion was held in a small elementary school cafeteria in town. Lured by the promise of refreshments, I arrived early and was not disappointed. Tables overflowing with raw nuts, fresh berries, organic granola, locally produced hummus, bread, salsa and tortilla chips lined one wall. Although it was a warm spring evening, the room slowly filled with people, mostly parents, and the sounds of snacking blended with their chatter, in which intentions were voiced in measured tones. They had notepads on their knees and questions prepared.

A stage was set up near the “Pizza Window” at the front of the cafeteria, and the introducer took the stage at exactly the scheduled time and politely asked the audience to quiet down. They did. Suddenly, it hit me that this was no disorganized hippie rally. These people do not just have a cause, they have a mission. This event was not another outlet for disgruntled souls to complain about corporate power or government malfeasance. It was about gathering the facts.

They’d picked just the man to deliver them, too. The highlighting speaker was Dr. Daniel Marks, a pediatric endocrinologist and director of the Oregon Child Health Research Center at Oregon Health & Sciences University. He’s one of those guys who can take a lot of complicated information and make it easy to understand, without losing sight of the bigger picture.

The big picture, in this case, is literal. Thirty percent of kids today are overweight or obese. There are a number of factors contributing to this problem, starting with genetics, exacerbated by family, and made all the more complex by advertising. For most of our history as a species, 2.5 million years or so, we lived as hunter-gatherers and food was scarce. Our bodies evolved to store the calories from animal fat and sugars, which were eaten rarely, by readily creating its own fat stores to be used up in the lean times. To this day, neurotransmitters reward us with good feelings when we eat anything sweet or fatty. Evolution hasn’t had the opportunity to remove that incentive. Agriculture was only invented 10,000 years ago, and since then, food has become more abundant for most societies. As Dr. Marks put it, our bodies are very good at dealing with food scarcity, but very bad at dealing with its opposite. In a time of plenty, our bodies still won’t allow a single calorie to ever go to waste.

Not only do we have genetics making us fat, there’s the family factor as well. It’s obvious that parents teach their kids how to eat once they’re old enough to learn, but one of the most interesting parts of Dr. Mark’s lecture was about a study done on breastfeeding mothers. Before each feeding, one group of mothers drank a glass of carrot juice. The other group just drank water. Once the babies of the carrot-juice group grew old enough to eat solid food, they preferred the food with carrot puree mixed in. The babies who didn’t receive carrot juice through their mothers’ milk didn’t have a preference for carrots. It’s easy to see the potential for teaching good dietary habits – or bad ones – that mothers posses even before babies are conscious of what food is.

Beyond family, the community in which a child is raised plays a big role. All cultures place special significance on food, but in ours, eating is almost a religion. So is losing weight – but not in the sense of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Most of the time, dieting is framed as a way to look better while enjoying the same eating habits that caused the weight gain.

That brings me to advertising. The companies making processed food know very well that we’re genetically programmed to get off on sugary and fatty foods. They seek to hook kids young and succeed at it. Kids see an average of three ads a day for fast food alone. If they happen to go in a grocery store, they’ll find friendly cartoon characters beckoning from boxes of sugar-loaded cereal. Candy bars are placed conveniently at kid-height. School programs funded by Pizza Hut reward kids for reading with a free 750-calorie “personal” pizza. Product placement in TV and movies makes drinking a Coke as second-nature as smoking a cigarette did in the entertainment of the 50’s.

Again, all of this would be relatively harmless if getting fat wasn’t so easy. According to Dr. Marks, kids consuming just 50 calories a day beyond what they need for normal growth are on the path to being overweight in just a few years. Fifty calories – that’s one Oreo. 100 calories extra calories a day – a DoubleStuf Oreo – will lead to obesity. It’s no wonder 30% of kids today are overweight or obese.

Because school is where kids spend most of their time, people concerned about this epidemic have been putting their energy there to try to turn things around. But despite many years of programs that build gardens in schools, bring kids to farms, and deliver farm produce to schools, school lunch menus haven’t change a whole lot. On the other hand, community awareness of healthy vs unhealthy food, where food comes from, and what it should actually taste like has taken off. Putting pressure on the decision-makers to improve the quality of school food has definitely gone from a fringe cause to an organized movement.

This spring, I’ve been volunteering with School Garden Project of Lane County. Through this program, kids get to spend an hour out of the classroom twice a month, doing hands-on activities in the garden at their school. In this hour, they all become little hunter-gatherers and dirt excavators. Give them the opportunity to use a shovel and sample some lettuce, kale, broccoli, nasturtium flowers or swiss chard out of the garden, and they’re happy as chickens on a compost pile. Their preconceptions of hating vegetables disappear in the excitement of eating something right out of the garden. I’ve watched many a kid stick a broccoli floret in his mouth, even after I’ve warned him that the plant’s a little old and covered with aphids, and make a disgusted face while assuring me that it’s “delicious”.

So why don’t the school cafeterias reflect the fact that kids do like to eat fresh fruits and veggies and are capable of making good choices when it comes to nutrition? Cafeterias today are pretty similar to those I remember as a kid – unfriendly, uncomfortable, and a better space for DARE assemblies than for eating. In Eugene’s 4J school district, they all now have salad bars, but the salad must be purchased as part of a meal and doesn’t contain enough substance to stand alone. Even if they do opt for the salad bar, many kids never get around to eating it all. Lunch periods are short, lunch lines are long, and recess often comes directly afterward. When you’re a kid, all you want to do is get out to that playground, and if lunchtime is cutting into the time you can spend kicking other kids off the top of the jungle gym, you’re not going to bother with more than a few bites.

To encourage kids to eat, maybe school cafeterias could take a few hints from their competitors at the fast food chains. The interior of a fast food joint is always yellow or orange –colors that stimulate hunger. They are well lit, with lots of windows. Ads on every wall persuade customers to consume even more with drool-worthy pictures and targeted messages. The tables and chairs are arranged in such a way to make customers feel more like guests and less like inmates.

 

Of course, there are bigger-picture questions in this debate. In the panel discussion following Dr. Marks’ talk, we heard from the Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for the school district. Actually, as her title was written, the term “Nutrition Services” came with a slash after it, and the word “Sodexco”. When I got home, I looked that word up. Turns out that instead of having its own Nutrition Services department, the school district contracts it out to a food supplier – Sodexo. Here’s a gem from their/the school district’s website: “Most think of them as just kids. We see them as valued customers… That’s the Sodexo difference.” After the panel discussion, parents brought up lots of concerns, but nobody addressed the glaring problem: In every other room of the school, kids are students. In the cafeteria, they’re customers – consumers, in marketing-speak. Should publicly funded schools even be allowed to have such a relationship with a private business? How can local farms ever have a chance at supplying the school district if “nutrition services” employees all work for the current supplier? Does Sodexo offer choices like organic foods? I doubt it.

Then there’s the matter of school budgets. Eugene’s schools, like most others in this country, are probably in their biggest budget crisis ever. The amount they have budgeted for each kid’s lunch is around $1. Because quality food is not the highest priority in the budget, this amount will probably go down soon. Maybe the bigger issue that needs to be addressed here is that of school funding.

In response to public meetings like the one I attended, school lunches are evolving, slowly. The Sodexo representative present at the panel discussion said she was phasing out chocolate milk (twice the calories as regular milk) and “Cookie Fridays”. Still, she was on a stage next to the Pizza Window, and claimed that menu items like these are necessary to get kids to eat in the first place.

More activity is taking place on the parents’ side: More and more are sending their kids to school with sack lunches. They’re not just forming coalitions, they’re volunteering their time to School Garden Project and Farm to School programs and taking nutrition education into their own hands. Thanks to this effort, kids are finally learning what real food is and why they should seek it out. I had a reminder of that today at an elementary school, when one of the girls in the garden session turned to me and asked, “Why do you wear glasses?” I told her it was so I could see. She frowned at me. “You need to eat more carrots.”

I’ll bring up it up with my mother.

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?

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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.