Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Pink Slime Problem

In the conclusion of my last blog post I mentioned pink slime.  Since then The San Francisco ChronicleThe New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous other media outlets have all run stories on ground beef and, to use the technical term, lean beef trimmings. Here is the situation in a nutshell: 
  • A lot of ground beef contains this stuff known colloquially as “pink slime.”
  • Our governmental regulatory agencies say it’s safe to eat even though it may be gross.
  • Unless you’re a vegetarian, you’ve probably eaten it and you were probably not aware of it because it is in most ground beef sold in the U.S. and products containing it do not disclose its presence on their labeling.
  • It’s hard to determine whether or not the products we buy contain it.
Watching all this media attention, I asked myself two questions:
1.       Am I getting this stuff in the ground beef I buy?
2.       If so, how can I avoid it?
Some of the answers were simple:
1.       If I buy my meat from farmers who participate in Upstate Locally Grown, it’s easy: no pink slime—it’s absolutely out of the question. I’ve met the farmers, I’ve seen the animals, and I’m convinced that this is the best product I can get in terms of quality and ethics.
2.       If I buy meat from certain national grocery chains including Publix and Whole Foods Market, it’s reasonable to believe I will not be buying pink slime because they have publicly announced that they will not stock ground beef containing it.
Other answers were harder to find or required a different approach to ground beef:
1.       According to beef experts and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, any ground beef that is labeled in terms of an actual cut of meat, like “ground chuck” or “ground round” must contain only the meat from that cut.  So, if the store is marketing ground beef by its fat percentage, such as 20% lean, there is no guarantee about how that fat percentage was accomplished.  But, if the product is marketed as “ground chuck,” it really should be (just) ground chuck—no pink slime.
2.       While I doubt few people have done this, it is possible to grind your own meat, even without a fancy meat grinder.  Obviously, this is the most foolproof way to determine what has gone into your hamburger, and it is actually a pretty cool process.  All you need is a food processor (and I have done this with a basic Black & Decker model) and some sort of meat—I have used chuck roasts and eye-of-round roasts.  Just cut the roast into cubes, place the cubes in the processor, and pulse until you have the consistency you want. 

Processing meat like this produces a ground beef that looks different from the typical grocery-store product.  Since it has been “ground” in a food processor it often looks more like it has been “minced,” more like old-fashioned (and snooty-sounding) mincemeat than a typical (and boring) “ground beef.”  Grinding meat like this also makes it possible to season the meat while it’s being processed, and there is nothing better than a grilled burger that has been broken down from a whole roast with steak seasoning processed all through it—not just sprinkled on top.  When I have ground my own beef and grilled burgers like this, the result seems juicier, and somewhat meatier than normal, possibly because I grind the beef to a coarser consistency than the typical grocery-store grind, possibly because the whole process just somehow seems more pure and natural.  Instead of squeezing mush into an arbitrary shape and grilling it, I have taken a distinct piece of meat, rendered it supple and malleable, and grilled it.

In a perfect world, we could walk into any grocery store and buy products that clearly disclosed where they were grown or made, how they were made, and exactly what they contained.  But, until I live in that world, I’ll continue to look for the best products I can find and be thankful that I do have access to food, through Upstate Locally Grown and other local purveyors, that I trust and respect.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Increasing Popularity of Home Vegetable Gardening

I have recently written about how the garden is calling my name.  I can’t wait to start building my garden and planning this year’s crops.  But I am clearly not alone.  All the big box stores have been gearing up for the Spring planting season since early February, at least. 

Judging from what has popped up in these stores, this year’s trends seem to include seed starting kits and organic seeds.  The Greenwood, SC Lowes has seed starting kits in every conceivable combination of size, shape, and quality (even some designed for children), and our Walmart has a huge display of certified organic seeds from Seeds of Change.  

What I have witnessed in Greenwood, however, is indicative of a national surge of interest in vegetable gardening.   Last Fall, the New York Times and the National Gardening Association noted that home vegetable gardening has increased steadily since 2008, and various news reports from every corner of the nation attest to the fact that this is, indeed, a national trend.  In the latest publically available figures from the National Gardening Association, 36 million American households had home vegetable gardens in 2008, and the number was expected to go up 19% in 2009 to 43 million.  The NGA sells their research findings to businesses that market lawn and garden products, and because of this it does not freely distribute extremely current data; nevertheless, the resources it does make available indicate that the trends observed in 2008-2009 are continuing apace.  From the evidence I’ve been able to dig up, it seems that the recent increase in home vegetable gardening is the most dramatic increase since the Victory Garden campaign of World War II, which peaked in 1943 with approximately 20 million American families planting such gardens.

While the popularity of home vegetable gardening is increasing, various methods of gardening are also proliferating.  I subscribe to two gardening magazines and both of the recent issues included plans for building raised beds. “Container gardening” is now so popular that a Google search for the term yields over two million hits, and “vertical gardening” also seems to be increasing in popularity.  I have even read an account of someone converting shipping pallets into attractive patio planters.

The bottom line is that when we talk about gardening today, we think of more than hauling out the old tiller and a bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer.  More people than ever are gardening and doing it in a variety of ways; there are more informational resources available for home gardeners than ever before; and, with the simultaneous rise of interest in organic gardening, I expect home gardeners are using more earth-friendly and sustainable practices than they have in the past. In a month that has brought us disturbing stories about “pink slime” and “Ag-Gag” legislation, we should all celebrate the good news that home gardening is alive, well, and growing.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Living with Food Deserts

I recently read an article by Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic entitled “Access to Good, Healthy Food Should Be a Basic Human Right,” and it caused me to think of access to food differently than I have in quite some time.  The issue for millions of Americans, as Schlosser reminded me, is not necessarily organic food or sustainable food but simple and consistent access to Good, Healthy Food.

Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Agricultural released an online Food Desert Locator “that pinpoints the location of ‘food deserts’ around the country and provides data on population characteristics of census tracts where residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.”

This large federal study, describes a food desert as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. ‘Low income’ tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as "low access" tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).”

A cursory glance at the Food Desert Locator immediately makes two facts clear: food deserts are everywhere, and if you don’t live in a food desert, there is one near you. 

From my office at Lander University in Greenwood, SC, where I can tuck myself away amongst all the comforts of academic life, I only need to walk about two blocks to find myself in one of these “food desert” census tracts.  When I lived in Gainesville, Florida a few years ago, my wife taught at an elementary school five miles from our apartment—in another one of these food deserts. When I lived in Wilmington, NC as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I enjoyed plenty of good food and good music in the city’s riverfront downtown, which happens to be another food desert.

The Food Desert Locator uses hard data—census statistics—to map out its deserts, and like everything the USDA does, it has its problems.  For one, it focuses on the presence of supermarkets, and it sees supermarkets as the best solution to the problem of food access.  Partially in response to this study, Walmart has launched an initiative to open stores in some 300 food deserts.  To its credit, Walmart did indeed open a store adjacent to the elementary school in Gainesville, Florida where my wife formerly taught, and it is an asset to the community.  As critics have recognized, however, the study’s focus on supermarkets means that “existing small-scale food-retail infrastructure in places like Harlem doesn't typically figure into official analyzes, and thus isn't valued.”

I can’t speak to the situation in Harlem, but the same problem exists where I live.  For instance, right smack in the center of the food desert adjacent to my university in Greenwood, there is a community garden on Seaboard Avenue and two independent Hispanic groceries.  Additionally, there are two outstanding farm stands within walking distance of that census tract.

Eric Schlosser is right: access to good, healthy food should be regarded as a basic human right.  To correct the problem of food deserts, I’m willing to adopt the mantra that politicians like to apply to energy policy: I want an all-of-the-above policy.  If supermarkets can be convinced to move into these areas, I am all for it; if they will not (and they won’t, because their goals are first driven by economics), we should all support and celebrate the smaller, more mobile stores and markets that either already serve these areas or move into them in the future. 

GMOs, World Hunger, and the Gates Foundation

Several weeks ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released its annual letter that enumerated its goals for 2012.  The first quarter of the letter outlines the Foundation’s plans to promote innovations in agriculture, with special emphasis placed GMO crops. The Gates premise goes like this: there are far too many people in extreme poverty, and at risk of starvation, in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, and the solution to this problem is to invent new crops that will help farmers overcome the harsh growing conditions and pests that far too often ruin their harvests.  In this letter, Bill Gates supports this initiative by touting the success of the “Green Revolution” that increased the agricultural production of impoverished regions of the world during the 1960s.

No one questions the good intentions of the Gates Foundation, but plenty of people have lined up to question its logic on these agricultural initiatives.  The first problem, many argue, is that the Foundation’s memory of the Green Revolution is skewed.  From Gates’s perspective, the Green Revolution was an unmitigated success because “researchers created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize (corn) that helped many farmers vastly improve their yields. In some places, like East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. These changes saved countless lives and helped nations develop.”  Other observers describe this global agricultural policy differently.  A 2008 article in The Seattle Times describes provides this historical summary: “Using strains of crops that required fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, the Green Revolution methods increased yields. But they also damaged the environment, favored wealthier farmers and left some poorer ones deeper in debt”.

If we split the difference between these perspectives, it’s fair to suggest that the Gates Foundation should at least temper its enthusiasm about the Green Revolution, provide some discussion about what went wrong during this early round of “agricultural innovation,” and explain how this second Green Revolution will avoid those problems.  The closest the Foundation has come to addressing these concerns is to pledge that “local involvement and farmer choice are project cornerstones,” and that the “transgenic” seeds the plan will provide to farmers “will be available royalty-free to farmers, who will not have to pay any additional fees to use them.”

Just as the Gates Foundation overlooks the socioeconomic failures of the Green Revolution in favor of its completely positive version of history, the Foundation also fails to address the legitimate concerns about the “transgenic” seeds in which it sees so much promise.  The problems with these seeds are widely recognized—they have been the subject of highly credible news reports, web sites, and documentaries, and significant numbers of Americans are arguing that products derived from genetically modified crops should be labeled as such—but on all of this the Gates Foundation remains silent.

Bill Gates bases his entire agricultural plan on the idea of innovation, and the innovation he imagines is largely technological—biotechnological. His point of view is not the only one, however, and we should listen to the alternative voices. Beyond all of this, though, we should consider the larger questions that underlie the entire issue of providing for the poor and feeding the hungry. Do we trust corporations like Monsanto to stand by their purported promises to give poor farmers royalty-free seed stock when nothing in their U.S. track record (again, see the news reports and documentaries I referred to above) suggests that they would abide by such agreements? Do we trust that the needs of small farmers in desperate situations will be treated with dignity and respect by corporations that have trampled on farmers with considerably greater resources and political capital in the United States?

The greatest question of all is this one: do we think, as Bill Gates does, that GMOs are the only way to feed the constantly ballooning world population, or can we imagine other alternatives? 

The alternatives may be right before us—in all the organizations, like Upstate Locally Grown, that show us it is possible to feed ourselves without an industrial food system that consolidates a system of national production in places thousands of miles from where we live and relies on massive transportation systems.  Even on the international stage there are it may be possible to feed the global poor and hungry with methods that are cheaper and more effective than the transgenic solutions offered by biotech companies and promoted by powerful organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

My Winter Gardening

If it is warmer than 60 degrees outside, I want to be working in a garden.  Thus, the weather this January has been hard on me.  Every ounce of my being has demanded that I plant something, but, thankfully, I have resisted. 

What I have accomplished, however, is a great deal of reading, planning, and preparing.

Every leaf that fell on my half-acre lot in the Fall has been collected in a series of compost heaps, one of which is getting special treatment—it’s getting all our kitchen scraps, an occasional batch of Donna Putney’s composted chicken manure, and constant turning.  For me, composting is an especially urgent issue this year because my family moved to a new house over the summer and we will have to build an entirely new garden in a backyard that seems to have never produced a thing other than daffodils and mosquitoes. Oh, how I miss that old garden in the previous subdivision, which I built out of nothing but packed clay on that little lot that was almost wholly devoid of topsoil, trees and their leaves, and anything else that could be composted for the enrichment of our harvest. 

One of my major realizations over the past several years is that one cannot really have an organic garden without a steady supply of organic manure.  So, during this unseasonably warm winter I have constructed a hutch and procured rabbits—all girls named Snowy, Joe, and Dark Sky—and instructed them to manufacture all the manure they can muster, as quickly as possible.
More than anything, perhaps, I have tried to track what my family eats the most and figure out how I can produce more of those staples in our back yard.  So far, this is what I think we need in the garden this summer:
In mass quantities (enough to store for the winter):
Herbs—basil, parsley, cilantro, thyme, rosemary
Summer squash of all varieties
Black beans
In smaller amounts (things we’ll want to eat as they go but not preserve)
Cucumbers (I’ve made some great pickles in the past, but I predict that I’ll lack that patience this year)
Sweet peas (I’d love to grow enough to freeze, but, considering my kids and their appetite for these things, I think it would be virtually impossible to produce enough.)
Various lettuces, spinaches, and other leafy things

My planning is driven by what we eat the most, but it is also driven by how easy (or how hard) it is to procure the things we want.  Tomatoes are a perfect example.  First of all, I will confess—and I know it marks me as an oddball—I don’t like raw tomatoes.  Cook them any which way and you will have to fight me off, but please do not ask me to eat a raw tomato.  And cook them I do—all the time.  I love the challenge of making good marinara (and if I had to choose one cuisine to eat the rest of my life it would be Italian); I love chili, which requires a tomato base; I am about to embark on a homemade ketchup experiment.  I require a lot of tomatoes, and I have always loved the convenience and generally high quality of canned tomato product.  One can even buy Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes in the Greenwood, SC Walmart,  Sadly, however, those easy canned tomatoes are almost all packed in BPA-lined cans, and my family went BPA-free about three years ago (or so we thought).  This summer, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll stuff the pantry with a year’s supply of jarred tomatoes that I grew in the back yard with the help of my wife, my kids, and my rabbits. 

Where Does Environmentalism Stand Today?

For a number of years I studied the history of environmentalism as an academic subject, and the longer I pursued that goal I found it more difficult to understand the environmentalism of the current moment. Today, it is still hard to determine where things stand. It’s now possible to find organic products in Walmart and most any chain grocery store; some studies show that the United States consumes less gasoline  now than it did in 2008; and we all now use cfl lightbulbs, like 'em or not. But I can never determine if I should see these things as progress or greenwashing that makes us feel just environmentally friendly enough to justify deferring wholesale changes in our daily lives. 

The same situation exists on the pollution front: it’s been a while since a river caught on fire in the United States, and it’s now been 23 years since the Exxon Valdez coated Prince William Sound in crude oil, but in the past two years the Deepwater Horizon dwarfed the Exxon Valdez disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and we all bore witness to the world’s greatest peacetime nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. What environmental catastrophes have lost in frequency they have gained back in scale.

I have gone swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and I have seen many a Florida sunset sink beneath its waters; when the Deepwater Horizon was pumping hundreds of thousands of crude oil into it and Louisiana’s estuaries, I could feel the damage in my soul, but Prince William Sound and Fukushima, Japan are complete abstractions.  I understand them as I might understand a Chemistry textbook, but I don’t feel the loss of those environmental travesties.
I applaud those who can think and act globally (thank you, Al Gore) but to truly believe the world can change I have to narrow my focus--like to the food I put in my mouth. For my money, food is the most powerful factor in environmentalism today.  The plate and the fork are the unavoidable instruments that maintain our now largely invisible link to the nonhuman world of soil, sun, and water, and the plate and fork bind us all together.  Despite differing religions, political points of view, and economic statuses, we all eat. This may be the last thing we all have in common.  And today what we put on our plates can be genetically engineered, synthetic, raised by exploited laborers, fertilized with chemicals, sprayed with poisons, and shipped from Argentina or New Zealand. Or it can be organic and local; produced by expert farmers and artisans; and completely wholesome.  Each of us gets to decide what we eat, and the decisions we make reverberate into all the larger issues: food miles, national farm policies, fundamental issues about land use, the value and danger of GMO’s, the basic relationship we want to forge with the world around us. 

As basic as they are, eating and participating in an economy are always political actions. I thank God that Upstate Locally Grown gives me the opportunity to both eat and buy in ways that allow me to remain true to the values of responsibility and sustainability that I privilege above almost anything else.