Industrial Harvest

If only I’d known… by sarah kavage
February 26, 2010, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

First the week of eating in, now this.  We haven’t really been snowed in at all here in Seattle (not to gloat – our weather issues are of the liquid water variety), and the winners look tough to beat – but I still would have loved to take part in the snowpocalypse bread baking challenge.


Eat-In by sarah kavage
February 22, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , , ,

Posted by Sarah

Inspired by this book (in which the author ate no meals out for 2 years – in NYC!), the Huffington Post has declared this week (Feb 22-28) The Week of Eating In.  

I love to cook.  I don’t consider myself any sort of gourmand or foodie, just a utiliarian cook with a healthy appetite.  I love eating food, and over the years I’ve gotten pickier about what I eat, what’s in it, and how it tastes.  At the same time, years of practice have made me a better cook – not to brag, but I feel like I can usually make a better meal than I can eat in a restaurant.  But to stop eating out, even for a week, seems practically impossible. 

My husband and I have been trying to save money these days, so we’ve actively cut down from eating out 3 times a week or more to 1 or 2.  That seems like a lot, so in my own defense I must add that my husband has a huge appetite and we both work at home.  I make most everything from scratch and have also started to learn to make even more of the few prepared food items that I would otherwise buy (largely bread products, thanks to artistic motivations).  So all in all, I’m preparing food 2-3 times a day – that’s a lot of time at the stove.  I’ve started to suspect that all this time in the kitchen is at the root of my nagging back pain, and am beginning to relate to farm wives and parents with large families all too well (although I’ve got it pretty good – my husband has to keep up with the dishes!). 

Eating out, for us, now happens mostly on occasions where we’re 1) too tired or lazy to cook/clean up, 2) away from home and hungry, 3) unprepared (if the folks at the Huffington Post had asked me, I’d have told them to wait to start Eat-In Week till I had time to make a run to the store).  Most of the time, lack of preparation is what does us in – and is also, at times, at the root of #1 and #2.  An empty fridge means a shopping trip before you can even start to cook, and if you’re tired and you already burned one pot of beans and you have to walk right by the Thai place on the way to the grocery store, what do you think you’d do?  Hypothetically, of course. 

Our primary motivation for eating out, therefore, is function and convenience – which puts us right in synch with the American consumer.  Eating out used to be a luxury, something reserved for birthdays and family visits.  Eating out as convenience has boomed over the last 30-40 years – to the extent that according to this 2006 survey (check out the other results, too – they’re quite interesting), two-thirds of respondents eat out at least once a week.  Half of those (one third the total) eat out about once a week and the other half (again, one third the total) eat out twice a week or more.  

The explosion in restaurant dining may also bear some responsibility for the obesity/diabetes epidemic.  Although fast food restaurants are easy to demonize, all restaurant chefs know the secret of making things delicious:  add salt, sugar and fat.  We’ve all seen the statistics on Chinese food and movie popcorn, but there’s some evidence that in fact there may be little nutritional difference between other restaurant food and fast food.  Another recent (and easier to read) analysis by Consumer Reports found that eating out (at any restaurant, not just fast food) was one of the six health behaviors most likely to predict unhealthy body weights.

To me, the potential health impacts and restoring a more direct relationship to our food are really minor factors in why we should all try to cook more.  What’s important is that cooking is one of those undervalued activities lumped under “housework.”  Although it’s certainly work, any granny can tell you that cooking is also a way to express creativity and caring.  Take pride in this work!  Bad things happen to a culture when people stop valuing their own handiwork and start relying on “specialists” to produce it.  So even though I don’t know if I’ll jump on the Week of Eating In bandwagon (as noted previously, my act is not quite together this week) I applaud the effort, and I’m with it in spirit. 
OK, time to go make dinner…

Mapping the Food System by sarah kavage
February 15, 2010, 11:15 pm
Filed under: big ag, Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , ,

Y’all know that I love maps, right?  I have a professional obligation to be interested in “spatial data”, sure – but they’re also such an attractive way to present information. 

Well, the USDA has just launched this nifty interactive Food Environment Atlas.  You, your computer and your internet connection can explore the geography of spending on food, food prices, food taxes, poverty and grocery store access, etc. across the US.  There are even a number of data layers related to local food production, looking at things like number of farms that sell directly to consumers, farmers markets and acreage devoted to vegetable farming. 

If you don’t want to mess around with creating the maps yourself, Nicola Twilley at Edible Geography has created a lovely sampling here

Like any other means of communication or displaying information, maps are just as frequently used to deceive and conceal as they are to enlighten – and the prettier the map, the more likely people will be to be seduced into taking it at face value.  It’s important to think about maps as skeptically and critically as you might a newspaper or Wikipedia article (we all do that, right?) – what is missing is just as important as what is there.  Although it’s a legitimately useful product, the Atlas also contains no data on acres of farmland that are devoted to industrially produced crops like wheat, corn & soybeans.  Acres of land farmed organically is also left out.  USDA keeps statistics on both, and both relate to our environment, our health and our food system.  Nor is there anything on meat production (slaughterhouses), which is fraught with environmental health negatives, especially now that it’s been concentrated and consolidated to an extreme degree.  Although I can understand why these topics would be neglected at the USDA,  there is nothing in the Atlas that might justify an argument that “corporate ag” might not be the best model of food production for our health, social justice and our environment – and indeed is likely at the root of many of the problems the Atlas seeks to address.

Introducing Ben Walker, our Research Fellow by sarah kavage
February 1, 2010, 9:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’m pleased to announce that the Industrial Harvest project now has an official research fellow!  Ben Walker was born in Streator, IL, a couple hours drive southwest of Chicago, and has spent the bulk of his life in the region between these two places.  His earliest jobs were in conventional agriculture, detasseling seed corn for Cargill and baling hay for a local farmer.  Since then, he has worked with a few organic/sustainable/family farming operations, both vegetable and animal, one (at Growing Home) as part of a job training program for urban populations with various barriers to permanent employment.  He’s a beekeeper, a student of traditional Western herbalism, a permaculturist, and an avid maker of fermented foods.  

Ben is interested in helping to frame discussions about food and agriculture that examine the crucial social factors that are often left out of current food systems critiques, and in exploring possibilities for cultural exchange that weave together meaningful personal experience, sharing of skills, and broader popular education.  He’ll be posting on such things and others here, and likely lending a bit of greatly needed intellectual heft to this rag!