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Nutrition & Health News, week of March 2

  • On Wednesday, the USDA unveiled a new digital tool, called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. The website is a repository for data, videos, and stories of local and regional food systems, and is meant to spur public interest in and awareness of local food initiatives sponsored by the USDA. Check it out here. [Obama Foodorama]
  • A new exhibit on obesity at Walt Disney World was shut down after it was criticized for being “insensitive and [reinforcing] stereotypes that obese children are lazy and have poor eating habits.” The exhibit featured two superheroes, called Willie Power and Callie Stenics, who have to fight against villains such as Snacker and Lead Bottom – and, you guessed it, the villains are overweight and eat too much. While an exhibit on healthy lifestyles is a good idea given that nearly 30% of kids are overweight or obese, Disney needs to create an exhibit that doesn’t stigmatize being overweight and instead teaches kids how they can engage in physical activity and eating well. [CBS]
  • A judge dismissed a court case against seed behemoth, Monsanto. Organic farmers sought to protect themselves from being sued by Monsanto in the case that pollen from the company’s patented genetically modified plants ended up contaminating organic crops. Monsanto is infamous for its bully tactics and routinely threatens small farmers with patent suits. The judge dismissed the case because it was based on hypothetical suits and none of the farmers had claimed to be threatened by Monsanto. [NPR]

*image via USDA

Nutrition & Health News, week of Feb. 17

  • A video presented at TEDxManhattan 2011 shows the difference in your body’s digestion of processed foods versus whole foods. If you haven’t already watched it, prepare to be grossed out. [Fooducate]
  • A preschool student in North Carolina was told by a government official that the lunch she brought from home was unhealthy, and she was forced to eat the school’s meal of chicken nuggets instead. Her lunch, packed by her mother, consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, chips, and apple juice – while it could be healthier (without chips, plus a vegetable), it was certainly more nutritious than chicken nuggets. All meals served in pre-K classrooms, even lunches brought from home, are required to meet USDA guidelines for meals; if they do not meet the guidelines, the provider is supposed to supplement (NOT replace) the missing components. [Carolina Journal]
  • A new commercial from fast food outlet Chipotle promotes the chain’s practice of sourcing organic, local foods through a video bashing Big Food and factory farming operations. The cute animation shows a farmer practicing sustainable farming methods (happy cows, munching on grass in a green field) and later loading his meat onto a Chipotle-branded truck. Chipotle’s emphasis on sustainable and organic foods is a rarity among chain restaurants, particularly in fast food. [Serious Eats]
  • Research out of Dartmouth found high levels of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup, which is used in many foods (mostly organic “processed” foods, like granola bars, etc.) as a sweetener. Arsenic was found in amounts six times the EPA’s threshold of 10 parts per billion for drinking water in a tested infant formula. There are currently no federal regulations regarding arsenic content in juices or foods, prompting the research team to strongly encourage the FDA to do something about it. Fox News reported the same story by grossly exaggerating the results, claiming basically that all organic food has arsenic in it. [Bloomberg]

Events: Screenings of “Fresh,” the movie

My friend sent me an email this morning, starting off with “Hi friend who likes food and Michael Pollan” – yup, that’s me – to tell me about a film/documentary coming out, called “Fresh.” The film is about “new thinking about what we’re eating” and explores the current movement of farmers, activists, etc. who are changing the U.S. food system for the better, moving us from an industrial agricultural system to a more sustainable, healthier model.

Here’s the synopsis:

FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.

Among several main characters, FRESH features urban farmer and activist, Will Allen, the recipient of MacArthur’s 2008 Genius Award; sustainable farmer and entrepreneur, Joel Salatin, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and supermarket owner, David Ball, challenging our Wal-Mart dominated economy.

“Fresh” will be screened all over the U.S. with panelists –  including a Boston screening on May 28th @ 7pm at Harvard, with panelists like the film’s director, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, and food activists from the Boston/Cambridge community.

Watch a preview and buy tickets to a screening on the website and if you’re not in Boston, find out if there’s a screening near you. I’ll be going – and maybe even live-blogging! Anyone want to join me?

Alice Waters: Gourmonster or Revolutionary?

imgalicesm3A truly nasty piece in the New York Post dubs Alice Waters, along with peers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, a “gourmonster” whose revolutionary thinking about food makes her an elitist, “on a crusade to tell you not just what you should eat, but how you should eat it.” The article goes on to claim that Waters’ “cooking philosophy,” which advocates local and sustainable food,  is “a chiding and bourgeois brand of junk food prohibitionism” and then takes cheap shots at Pollan and others. The end of the article ends on a somewhat less harsh note, stating that “mainly she and the rest of the Food Police seem out of touch. While the economy drives people to fast-food dollar meals, they cluelessly extol the virtues of expensive organic grapes.”

An article by NYT op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd appeared just a few days before, draping Waters in such balmy adjectives as “celestial” and “mythical,” calling her the “fairy godmother of the White House organic vegetable garden.” Waters claims innocently, responding to criticism she’s recieved, that ““I’m just put into that arugulance place. I own a fancy restaurant. I own an expensive restaurant. I never thought of it as fancy.” Chief among her objectives is converting President Obama to a beet-lover.

So, what’s the deal with Alice Waters? Is she really as big of a dreamer and as arugulant as she seems? After reading Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, I’d have to say that yes, she is a visionary – but she’s got her head in the clouds, ignoring little things like the state of the economy or, oh, that not everyone can afford to buy organic food. Her rules for eating are too rigid; she attaches a moral judgment to the way people eat, implying (or, often, explicitly stating) that eating organic, local, sustainable food is the only way. Her reverence for food is admirable, but her approach is less than practical. She should focus her efforts on expanding the Edible Schoolyard project and campaigning for change in our agricultural policy, instead of telling people what they can and cannot eat.

More:
“Gourmonsters: They’re the food police, and they think they’re better for you” [NY Post]
“The Aura of Arugulance” [NYT]

Michael Pollan on NPR

I just listened to a great episode of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, with Michael Pollan as a guest. Also great, comedian Paula Poundstone’s debate with Pollan about whether a ring-ding (not to be confused with a ding-dong) qualifies as real food (less than 5 ingredients): “Devil’s food cake, that’s one. Creamy filling…two. And chocolate coating! That’s only 3!” Definitely worth a listen.

“To sum up his work, he says ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ Which, of course, is entirely un-American.”- Host, Peter Sagal

“We’re very confused about food…What other species needs experts to tell them how to eat?” – Michael Pollan

You can download episodes of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! here or on iTunes, for free.

Chickens at the White House?

chicken-flock-close-upNow that the Obamas have a vegetable garden, why not throw a flock of chickens into the mix? Sure, they would have tasty, fresh chicken and all the eggs their hearts desire – but, having grown up with chickens, I know it takes a lot of work. Personally, I’d like to see the Obamas spending their time doing better things than tending to chickens. Can you really see Sasha and Malia, in their J.Crew frocks, picking up chicken poop on the South Lawn? I don’t think so. Let’s see how they do with the garden first.

“How about a White House Chicken Flock?” [The Atlantic]

“Many Paths to Food Revolution” [Serious Eats]

Photo courtesy of Colorado State University.

A Food Revolution on the rise?

Just as I was writing about the Obamas’ garden as a first step towards promoting local, organic foods, something bigger was brewing in D.C. and across the country among advocates of sustainable food. The NYT ran an article on Sunday about the boost that sustainable food movement has gotten recently by the Obama administration. To sum up the points and goals of the movement:

AT the heart of the sustainable-food movement is a belief that America has become efficient at producing cheap, abundant food that profits corporations and agribusiness, but is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

The federal government is culpable, the activists say, because it pays farmers billions in subsidies each year for growing grains and soybeans. A result is an abundance of corn and soybeans that provide cheap feed for livestock and inexpensive food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup.

They argue that farm policy — and federal dollars — should instead encourage farmers to grow more diverse crops, reward conservation practices and promote local food networks that rely less on fossil fuels for such things as fertilizer and transportation.

Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture, has raised hopes among advocates of the movement because he has been a vocal supporter of sustainable food and advocate for small farmers. Advocates of health care reform should also be happy to back Vilsack, who believes “agriculture and food policy should fit into the Obama administration’s planned overhaul of health care, by encouraging nutrition to prevent disease.”

However, Vilsack has already faced strong opposition in Congress since taking office. It looks like we might have to wait for a full-fledged revolution but, with Obama in the White House, the building blocks are finally there.

More: “Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?” [NYT]

Obama White House to have a garden

obama_garden

Well, it looks like all the environmentalists, locavorians, and food enthusiasts that have been clucking* for months about the potential for a garden at the White House have finally gotten what they asked for – the Obamas started digging their garden today on the South Lawn. While the Obamas and their guests will certainly benefit from the fresh organic produce, will the rest of America follow their example?

The question had taken on political and environmental symbolism, with the Obamas lobbied for months by advocates who believe that growing more food locally, and organically, can lead to more healthful eating and reduce reliance on huge industrial farms that use more oil for transportation and chemicals for fertilizer.

There’s something to be said for the Obamas setting an example – but, in reality, how much impact will this truly have on the rest of the country? I hate to be pessimistic but…not much, especially during a recession – organic foods sales are down right now and, if you don’t live in California, local produce can be hard to come by throughout the year. I doubt that the majority of Americans are going to suddenly be inspired to drop their Big Macs and plant some veggies, just because the Obamas are doing it. I am hopeful though that, over time (oh, say, 8 years?), the Obamas will be able to make enough changes in our food policy and agriculture industry that buying local, organic foods will become more feasible for most Americans, if cost is the main barrier. However, if mentality and culture are, at least partially, to blame for the soaring prevalence of obesity and diabetes  – after all, we’re not being force-fed cheap, greasy fast food – then we’ve got our work cut out for us. Hopefully, that’s where the Obamas come in – helping promote the consumption of local, organic produce (and humanely-raised animals, I hope!) will trickle down to the masses, showing that we are responsible for our food choices and, in turn, that we have the power to improve our health and the environment if we make the right choices about what we eat.

michelle

And the best part of the garden? No beets! Sorry, Dwight Schrute, but beets are not for me – or the prez.

*More on this topic:

“An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief” by Michael Pollan

The White House Organic Farm Project

Eat the View: The White House Organic Garden Campaign

Top photo courtesy of http://www.eattheview.orh; bottom photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Another thing for you to check out!

Sustainable Table
is an organization dedicated to promoting the sustainable foods movement and helping consumers understand the problems with our food supply that industrial agriculture has created, and offers solutions and advice on what you can do.

In addition to providing alot of information regarding both sustainable and industrial agriculture, they also run the Eat Well Guide, which allows you to search by zipcode for farms, stores, and restaurants that have meat and dairy products from sustainable farms. They also have their own blog on the main website.

Also, take a look at The Meatrix, a spoof on the Matrix which has educational cartoons about the dangers of factory farming. Very informative, a little disturbing though- even if the characters are cute.

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