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I had dinner with some girlfriends this evening on a backyard deck with Lake Tahoe in the distant background. Not a bad spot! Each of us catching the other up on our summer adventures against setting skies. They were eager to hear about what I've been learning on the farm and in my ag courses.

One friend had just returned from an island vacation with her extended family. She agreed with the concept of the food revolution being more of a social movement and liked the idea of creating more food hubs to help organic farmers get their food to like-minded markets and finding ways to preserve farmland and get more people farming. "That is all well and good," she said, "but how do you broach the sustainable food subject with friends and relatives who either don't see or care about the value of our food?"

People want to buy their Wish-Bone salad dressings and Gogurts. They are familiar, cheap and convenient products. It can be a touchy conversation and one you want to go well so you both feel happy with the outcome. I've thought about this conundrum many times thinking how we need a set of communication tools and tips to help convince friends and relatives respectfully but swiftly. We can't be judgmental in our approach because people will turn off but we also need to start seeing light bulbs go off at a faster pace than they are currently in order to increase the groundswell for a healthier tomorrow. Times a tickin! If you've got ideas, send'em my way. Please!

Most people will agree that pesticides are bad and chickens should have room to roam but they still buy chemically drenched veggies and factory farm eggs. Why is that? For one, they don't see the direct connection to the food they are eating. It's not like they are picking the eggs up at a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) and see the conditions in which their food was raised. But the bigger reason is...Price! We are a price driven society. And even though food is one of life's three basic building blocks along with water and air, we want food to be cheap. But we will pay high prices for other consumer goods like fashion, electronics and toys. If we measured status by what we ate and not how we looked, the tables would be turned. We need to view ourselves not as consumers but as eaters (just learned this concept in the book I'm reading entitled, Farmer Jane).

Bottom line, food needs to be a priority. We make our children a priority. The food we feed them and where it comes from should be a priority. Once upon a time, we use to spend 25% of our salaries on food now it is less than 10%. If we reprioritized our buying habits, we would spend less on dressing our lives and more on nourishing our families. And if worried about price, then we should find ways to not waste so much. 40% of the food produced in the US gets thrown away either before it reaches the market, at the market or in our homes. If we shopped more consciously, we would throw less food away in our homes leaving more money to buy food grown sustainably.

 
 
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Skull & Crossbones aren't what I really picture when I think of sweet strawberries or any happy field of green for that matter.

I snapped this photo last week while on my agroecology course at UCSC. We were passing a monocrop of conventioanly grown strawberries in Salinas, CA. We were laughing at the absurdity but really, there isn't anything funny at all about this picture. And it's not just strawberries that we need to be worried about when it comes the synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming methods.

At no point in my food's life cycle should I be told that I can not touch it. Even if it could be proven safe by the time it reaches my plate, what about all the environmental impacts like soil degradation and water quality including the field workers, farmers and applicators who are are subjected to these chemicals. Not to mention the amount of fossil fuels used to create these pesticides and fertilizers. It's bad enough we put fossil fuels in car, it has no business being applied to my food. Ick!

 
 
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I was sitting on the back stoop at friend's BBQ the other night typewritering through an ear of corn. I commented on how much I love corn-on-the-cob. Others nodded in agreement mumbling words of happiness through kernel laced grins.

Then it occurred to me...We don't mind respecting the seasonality of sweet corn anticipating it's summer on a stick flavor in July & August; so why do we expect to see tomatoes in January or Asparagus in October? We don't expect to see a ears of corn piled high in December.

The irony is...corn is one of the world's largest commodity crops and is available all year-long in the processed form yet we dance and sing at its arrival each summer like a long lost friend. Granted, corn for eating and corn for high fructose corn syrup are different varieties, but the principle is the same...we know how to respect seasonality so why can't we do this across the board for all fruits and vegetables?

Want a few more fun facts...sweet corn has more sugar than starch and must be eaten rather soon after harvest before all that sugar turns to starch. Corn for processed food is made from a tasteless field variety like "Yellow Dent Corn" which has more starch than sugar and must be processed in order to be edible..

 
 
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It was like Christmas morning when I opened my Roots of  Change list serve today. Just yesterday, I was commenting on the shortcomings of a tax on junk food to subsidize healthy food. Today, I learned about the NEW California Fresh Works Fund which is a public-private partnership that will loan $200 million to increase access to healthy food in under served communities in California and is endorsed by nutrition crusader, Michelle Obama.

The program's goal is simple..overcome food deserts - places where there are no grocery stores but only fast food and convenience stores. The fund will finance healthy food stores and eateries to set up shop in critical food access areas. Food Sovereignty efforts like this mend a broken food system and restore a basic human right to quality food. Businesses interested in applying must adhere to a set of guidelines which prohibit no junk food aisles and require a disproportion of healthy food. Better diets will lead to lower cases of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It is the ultimate health care bill...preventive care. The added bonus...the project will create, or secure, over 6000 jobs! See, we can have economic stimulus and eat healthy too! Win-win!

The program, however, doesn't talk about where the food will come from. Again, the word "healthy" is used very loosely. Replacing junk food with pesticide ridden fruits and vegetables can still cause health issues and can still hurt the earth just as much as junk food...the same chemical inputs are used on a mass scale. Yes, whole foods are better than processed foods but if grown conventionally it is not sustainable.

We can't rebuild Rome in a day so let's start with programs like Fresh Works and use it as a conversation starter for changing the whole food system. Let's use the "works" model to create even more green jobs by helping people become organic farmers who supply the food to these once food deserts. Now we're cookin'!

 

Tax It!

07/26/2011

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A friend forwarded me an article from The New York Times this weekend by Mark Bittman entitled, "Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables." Then today, Grist.org's Tom Laskawy commented on the article in his blog post. Thought I would chime in with my two cents...

The title pretty much sums it up...tax junk food and use the money to subsidize "healthy" food, namely vegetables. We need more people thinking along these lines so we can have a serious discussion about all the ways we can get out of the food fight we're in. But...I've got a few questions for Mark and Tom. Let's start with the term, "healthy." Its meaning is pretty broad. Does it mean just more fruits and vegetables or does it mean fruits and vegetables grown sustainably? Big difference, because one uses the current industrial model of growing food conventionally and the other requires supporting more small-mid sized farms to grow food organically.

It seems that taxing and cutting taxes is the solution to just about every economics discussion. That's an arm-chair economists opinion but probably not too far off. And whenever the word "tax" gets thrown on the table, people freak out and start a tug-of-war...tax good, tax bad, tax good, etc... All I know is, the conversation to change how we grow and produce food should not start with "tax." It just gets everyone hot and bothered and they forget what it is we are really trying to do...make healthy, quality food accessible and available which will improve not only one's personal health but that of their community. Taxing could raise some serious coin for the food movement but it should be a tactic not a strategy. A tax discussion will just bring out the boxing gloves making it a political debate when it is really one of food justice and social justice otherwise known as food sovereignty. My other thought is...would the tax be charged to the consumer or would the manufacturer be taxed thus increase the price of the product to cover the tax? When consumers are asked to pay more, like with gas prices, there is an initial slump but after enough times goes by, people just get use to the new price and go about their business. We could tax the food but would it really change buying behavior?

Finally, by the time a bill was passed which allowed a tax on sugary and processed foods, we could have redesigned the entire food system and begun to be implement real change. Let's take a whole systems approach versus using old politics to solve the problem.

 
 
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Our days may not have been filled with canoeing and basket weaving, but in many ways, the past two weeks of this conference have felt like a trip back to summer camp...living in dorm style, structured schedules, a cloistered campus, mess tent and field trips. And just like summer camp, the best part is all the new friends you make...Francisco from Tucson, Christina from Germany, Tom from Chicago, Nicole from Fairbanks, the list goes one...so many wonderful people! I can't remember the last time I spent this much time with the same set of people only to be threatened with never seeing some of them again. It's a tad unsettling. I will miss my Agroecology family but hope to stay in touch. We got lost in our daily routine and communal lifestyle making it seem like our little utopia away from reality would never end. But as sad as we are to leave, we are equally excited to take what we have learned and apply it in our careers, studies, farms, organizations, classrooms and next adventures. Every day I was inspired by a new career idea. In fact, I filled a whole page in my notebook with ideas ranging from building a food hub or starting a farm incubator program to building a local food council or handling the market distribution for organic farms. Now it's time to put boots on the ground and get to work.

If I could take one thing home with me, it would be the meals. Heavens to Betsies...the food was fantabulous! Every meal was a celebration both in spirit and in taste! I eat consciously and I'm a pretty good cook but at least once or twice a week, something happens in my diet which probably wasn't the best choice. The last two weeks, however, have been three meals a day made from the best and freshest ingredients. Mostly vegetarian, almost all local and in season but definitely organic. The kitchen staff took such good care of our bellies nourishing our souls and dazzling us with their creations. Click on the picture above to see how each meal was introduced by the kitchen staff. One word...gratitude!

Before I load the "bus" to head home leaving summer camp behind, I think of where this course has brought me. We were trained in agroecology and we looked at it from every which direction. The concept has stayed the same but transformed into something much deeper. I see it in 3-D now. As Steve Gliessman, our course director, was wrapping up today with closing remarks, I sat trying to write a new definition which tied it all together. I came up with this:

        "AGROECOLOGY: Creating a biodiverse agricultural ecosystem while leveraging the interactions both within the                     ecosystem as well as the local community which will support a sustainable food system."

As I sat editing and inserting new lines of text into my fancy definition, Steve flashed the best definition of all up on the screen...

        "AGROECOLOGY: Transformation of food systems to sustainability."

Done! Couldn't have said it better myself. Guess that's why he gets paid the big bucks! Thanks Steve and the entire staff at the Community Agroecology Network.

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Here is a picture from last Saturday's Indian curry meal with beet chutney. Mmmm Mmmm goodness!

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The CAN girls on our last day of the course. We went wine tasting in the Santa Cruz backcountry...L-R: Katherine, Cara, Nicole, Laura, Christine, Nicole, Kristina and Christina.

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Lots of musical talent. Here are the "The Nicoles." That's what we decided to call them since three are named Nicole.

 
 
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After a long day of presentations, we were rewarded with a stimulating class on coffee cupping - similar to wine tasting but for coffee (click on the image to the left for a video). Can't say I'm really any better at detecting the "flavor profile," as they say, but I learned a lot about coffee in the process which debunked a few myths...

1. Dark roasts typically have less acidity while lighter roasts have more since they retain more of their natural flavors.

2. Hence, darker roasts mask the flavor more making it harder to notice the different notes of the bean., i.e. fruity, herby, etc.. When they say "Charbucks," it basically means that Starbucks has really dark coffee; some may even say burnt. By not allowing more of the coffee's natural flavors to show through, Starbucks can obtain the uniformity they need across the globe for quality control..

3. If you ask the barista for a full-body coffee, it doesn't necessarily mean you are asking for a dark roast. Body refers to the weight or viscosity of a coffee. Our Master Cupper, Sarah Crosby-Baker of Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting, compared "body" to the difference you feel when you drink whole milk vs.skim milk...one is thicker than the other on your tongue.

4. Kona coffee is not more expensive because its exotic or any more special. It's because it is grown on US soil where workers have to be paid a fair wage and be covered for workman's comp and payroll taxes. Sounds like what the fair-trade model is trying to do for coffee grown in developing countries. If more people knew that, they would understand the concept of fair trade a bit better.

5. Just like there is seasonality within fruits and vegetables there is seasonality with coffee. Just because coffee is grown in a temporal climate doesn't mean it can grow year-round. Some roasters are starting to pay more attention to this cycle and only offer certain regional varieties when they are in season. The typical harvest for Mexico and Central America is b/w Oct-Dec. bringing those beans to market by March or April. If stored properly, raw beans can last in cool storage but better when it is fresh.

A bit more on the coffee we tried...A large part of the Community Agroecology Network's (CAN) model is their fair trade coffee program where they work with small-scale coffee farmer cooperatives in Mexico and Central America. Unlike some fair trade brands, CAN along with other coffee cooperatives like Cooperative Coffees, cut out even more middle men traveling straight from grower to roaster. It develops long-term relationships with community based partners and ensures a fair price for the coffee farmer. CAN's innovative approach involves UCSC students and researches who nurture this international network and its commitment to building sustainable rural livelihoods. What they bring back is a story about the coffee, the people and the project. Instead of a nutrition table, there is a "sustainability facts" label telling you about the coffee's origin as well as the social and economic factors of the region. You can order CAN coffee online, click here!

Will leave you with one last, fun act...If you didn't know (I didn't), Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee - true story. The story goes that a shepherd noticed his goats were acting a little zanny after eating a certain berry. He figured the berry must have some intoxicating properties and processed the bean into a drinkable substance...presto chango, coffee!

 
 
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When creating a sustainable food system, what we are really proposing is an alternative food system. Applying a sustainability model to the current conventional model is like shoving a square peg into a round hole. Moving food through a national supermarket structure is contradictory to sustainability. It marginalizes seasonality and nutrition and doesn't make local economies more resilient. Before we can transition, we need to create a alternative model to which we can transition....a paradigm shift!

It is going to take BIG picture, outside-of-the-box thinking like that of Larry Yee and Jim Cochran. They share a vision for a new food future taking a "whole systems" approach which will relocalize our food system. At the core are several mid-sized, organic farms each producing a variety of different crops versus large, industrial-sized mono-crops. The engine which drives the model brings these diverse products to a regional hub where it is aggregated for local, not national, distribution to area markets. "Local" is the operative word. And in being local, players both producing and marketing work together and in cooperation. They are partners in community and representatives from this community serve as a governing body to steer the system. Other key elements include, a land trust which preserves farmland and helps local food producers acquire their land and a community bank which provides financial services and invests in area enterprise. It is dramatic shift from where we are now but it's the change we need. Larry and Jim are realistic and have set an attainable first goal of providing locally sourced food to 10% of the US food market by 2020 starting out in five pilot cities and eventually having cooperation between neighboring regional hubs as more develop. Plans are still in their infancy stages but a dream team of strategists and doers have been assembled. The ball is in motion. Look for it in an area near you...The Food Commons.

 

Dig Deep

07/18/2011

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The way I learned about UCSC's Agroecology seminar was through a list serve I am on with Roots of Change. Today, the entire Roots of Change staff came to present on their efforts across California to transform the state's food system.

Their work goes deep from strategic planning at the state level to their Farmer's Market Consortium which leverages the food stamp program to not only help those in need gain access to sustainably grown food but to increase demand for these products thus securing more business for organic farmers.

The cornerstone to their mission lies within their "convening" practice where they coordinate regional roundtables with stakeholders in local agriculture - farmers, non-profits, government agencies and businesses. Roots of Change provides the process but the agenda is driven solely by its participants. It is the participants who  agree upon realities in their foodshed and develop a map for change. Through this cooperative process, Roots of Change hopes there will be enough area roundtables to form a Food System Alliance which can contribute to shaping California food policy. But the process isn't always rosie. In fact, it can get down right noise, haha. As Roots of Change president, Michale Dimock, describes, "Your working with people from different sectors and at different levels. You've got to get people to open up and start sharing so you push in a variety of ways to create that spark."

To move the ball forward, we need to work in collaboration. In these roundtables are both conventional and organic growers.  By first striking a balance with agreed realities, these unlikely allies can work together on progressive policy. Here is where it gets a little sticky though...just recently, Roots of Change came out with a promotional video called, Food Movement Rising. It starts off with all the usual, scary things associated with modern-day farming and ends with the solutions for a sustainable food future. Sounds great, right?? Wrong...the conventional growers in these roundtables feel blindsided. They thought they were working in cooperation only to have the finger pointed at them. Guess they didn't get the memo on what it meant to "transform" the food system. "Transforming" could have different meanings to different people. For many of us, transforming means converting conventional farming practices over to sustainable. For conventional growers, it must mean their methods still have a place at the table but in a modified approach, i.e. instead of Pesticide A that is a proven carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor, they will use Pesticide B which is just a carcinogen. Fleshing out misunderstandings like this is all part of the process and where new realities will be met. Back to the drawing board!

 
 
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I want to hand a blue ribbon to all the programs and initiatives I've been learning about this past week but my  favorite so far is where we visited today, ALBA! The ALBA growing and education center is in the fertile valley of Salinas, CA. Bottom line, we need more of these centers all over the country, the world in fact! ALBA stands for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association."

Here's the skinny...ALBA not only trains people how to farm organically but helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. The biggest risk in starting to farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if you can afford to buy land, you have a huge learning curve in developing best practices. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training then lease .5 acre at 20% its market value. After five years, you are paying 100% of the market value but may have increased your capacity to 5 or 7 acres. It is an "incubator" for small farms. The model is brilliant! But that's not all...ALBA also has a distribution component, ALBA Organics, to help their farmers get their food to market since marketing can be the toughest hurdle of all - you may be a good farmer but not a very good sales person. ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

Many of the graduates who lease land from ALBA opt out of ALBA Organics. With the help of ALBA staff, they develop their own economically, viable businesses with CSA's and farmer's markets...like Pablo Perez of J & P Organics . We had the fortune of meeting Pablo in the fields and hearing his story...Pablo had started out working in a chemically, dependent nursery years ago later leasing .5 acre and then 7 acres where he grew flowers conventionally. When his irrigation pump broke, the landowners refused to help fix it. $70K in lost income later and Pablo had also lost his lease and was back working in a nursery. His American dream crumbled. A couple years later, Pablo's son, Juan, was on field trip to ALBA and saw an opportunity for his family. He encouraged his dad to take the bi-lingual course offered at ALBA. Together five years ago, they formed J & P Organics. Juan handles the marketing and Pablo farms their now 5 acre plot which supports 500 CSA shareholders. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye. But not to Pablo. He is all smiles and full of stories. Including this story, or is it a parable...

A man asked Pablo, "Why are your strawberries $1 more than that guy's strawberries over there?" Pablo replied, "Because mine are organic and I don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides." "I don't care about that," the man responded and proceeded to buy the cheaper, poison laced strawberries. A few days later, than man came back to ask Pablo why the strawberries he bought were dry and tasteless. Pablo explained, "because the chemicals take out all the nutrients and flavor." And with that, Pablo cut one of his strawberries open and handed it to the man. It was juicy and exploding with taste. The man never bought a conventionally grown strawberry again. The End!

Photo: Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA's Farm Incubator Program Manager, giving us a tour of ALBA's farmland and Pablo Perez of J & P Organics telling stories.