Industrial Harvest

Grain CSAs in BC by sarah kavage

Out on the western fringes of the continent, British Columbia seems to be a smallish hotbed of experiments in local grain growing.  Today I found out about not one, not two but three recently formed CSAs devoted to growing wheat – Island Grains on Vancouver Island; Urban Grains on the mainland.  Further inland in the Creston Valley, the Creston Valley Food Action Coalition and parter organizations started BC’s first CSA devoted to grain.  These folks actually organized a fleet of sailboats to transport their harvest – see the radio series devoted to the venture here

I promise a longer update, soon – the last couple months have been devoted to trying to bring together all the moving parts of this project.  There are a lot of them, but it’s slowly starting to come together.


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.

Flanagan attacks school gardens by sarah kavage
January 19, 2010, 11:57 am
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , ,

Anyone else see this in the Atlantic? 

The author, Caitlin Flanagan, essentially argues that (particularly in budget crises) school garden programs are foolish attempts by well intentioned yet clueless privledged people (namely Alice Waters); they are tangental to a school’s mandate to teach readin’ writin’ and ‘rithmetic; and they trap poor kids in a cycle of physical labor for generations.  The essay seems designed to 1) provoke and 2) invoke a big load of white liberal guilt.  I’m glad to roll with both if there’s a subtle and well-reasoned argument behind it, but any good points she might have are buried in oversimplification and inflammatory prose.  I’ve never heard of a school that sends kids out in the hot sun to pick lettuce all day as part of school curriculum, as the first paragraph implies. 

Fortunately, the response by the Atlantic’s own food writer saves me from having to pick this piece apart all on my own.  The article seems to have unleashed a veritable shitstorm of commentary – see more here, here and here.

Kavage Bros. by sarah kavage
December 27, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , ,

It being the holidays and all, I managed to convince my parents to make a visit to keep me company in Chicago for a few days.  All the thinking about grocery stores and food deserts reminded me that being a grocer is part of my own family history.  My dad grew up in a small mining / mill town along the Ohio river, and my grandfather and his two brothers ran Kavage Bros., a small grocery / butcher from the 30s into the 70s. 

I got my dad to refresh my memory with a few stories and descriptions of what the life of a small town grocer was like.  Please indulge, and hopefully enjoy, this short trip down memory lane and diversion from the regularly scheduled “research program.” 

The most important thing to remember about old-time grocery stores is that they ran on a credit system.  Kavage Bros. was no different.  Customers had an account which they would periodically pay off; during strikes at the steel mill credit would be extended for even longer periods of time.  Yes, getting people to pay could be quite an ordeal, even when they weren’t on strike.  The accounting system was a ledger with a tab for each customer and their receipts were affixed to that tab.  When a customer bought or ordered something, the new receipt would be placed on the top of the stack and a running total amount owed was written on that top receipt.  So it was pretty easy to tell at a glance which customers you needed to collect from – they had the largest running totals and the thickest stacks of receipts.  Back then delivery was free, even for a single loaf of bread – my dad did delivery runs practically as soon as his legs were long enough to reach the gas pedal. 

The store was not just a store but somewhat of a social center for a small town.  There was a pool hall in the store basement, and also a 16 mm movie projector with one old silent western on it that my father would watch daily before going to school.  Grandpa pulled the tooth of a one-armed Greek man who came in with a toothache by leaning him back on the butcher block, wrapping a handkerchief around a pair of pliers, and giving a good yank (just writing that makes my mouth hurt).   

Apparently there were also quite a few not-quite-above board activities that went on there.  My grandpa was a big gambler and made so many bets from behind the counter that it sounds like it was difficult for him to get business done; during WWII he and one brother also ran a little bit of a black-market business getting people extra sugar, oil and other rationed goods.  Family legend has it that he somehow did all of this stuff without the knowledge of the third brother who was much more pious and law-abiding. 

For a time, there were two Kavage Bros. stores, one in Yorkville and one in nearby Tiltonsville.  Like many of the small independents, the Yorkville store closed in the 60s, pushed out by the larger chain supermarkets which were coming into vogue at the time.  I have some foggy memories of the Tiltonsville store which revolved around being confused by the fact that we were allowed to eat candy bars there without paying for them.  My grandpa closed the Tiltonsville store when he hit retirement age and spent the rest of his years on the golf course, occasionally taking his granddaughters to the dog races and letting them recklessly drive the golf cart.

Happy Holidays from our sponsor, Noah’s Pudding by sarah kavage

As we were proceeding through our tour of Chicago winter farmers’ markets a couple of weeks ago, Anne took me on a side trip to a middle eastern grocery store in Andersonville.  Middle Eastern and North African folks happen to be among the world’s largest per capita wheat consumers – Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Turkey, Tunisia and Iran all rank in the top ten, according to statistics from the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization.  The grocery carried an appropriately large variety of wheat and wheat-based products – cracked wheat, bulghur, semolina flour, several different varieties of wheat berries, pasta, and fresh-baked pita bread.  Most intriguing, was the bag of pearled wheat berries from a Turkish importer labeled “Wheat for Noah’s Pudding.”  No explanation or recipe on the package, so of course I had to buy it and turn to that great library in the sky, the Internet. 

Noah’s Pudding, it turns out, is a very special traditional dish in Turkey.  Legend has it that back in biblical times, when the waters receded from the great flood, Noah cooked up all the grains, nuts and fruit that were left on the Ark into a tasty stew of a dessert to celebrate and give thanks.  Recipes therefore vary depending on the source, but all of them include one or two different types of grains (wheat, barley and rice are all common), cooked with one or two types of beans (chickpeas and white beans, typically), some sugar and some geographically appropriate dried fruits (apricots, figs, raisins).  Nuts (walnuts, almonds or pistachios) and pomegranate seeds are sprinkled on top along with some cinnamon and even rose water for a bit of a gourmet touch.  It’s served cold or at room temperature, and is sort of a cross between oatmeal and rice pudding.  I’m usually not so much for pudding-y things and was dubious about the inclusion of the beans, but the combination of textures and flavors was surprisingly good (next time I do want to try the rosewater). 

Perhaps I was inclined to like it because I was so pleased to find a dish that mirrored on a small scale what Industrial Harvest is actually all about.  Both Muslim and Christians in Turkey and other places around the Mediterranean prepare it as a gesture of sharing and goodwill between different peoples and religions.  It’s customarily made at a certain time of year, prepared in huge batches (if you search online for recipes, you’ll find they make 30 portions or more) and shared among neighbors and the poor – tradition dictates giving a cup to 40 neighbors to the east, west, north and south, no matter their race, religion or how you may feel about them.  In more recent times, religious and cultural organizations (particularly those with interfaith or intercultural ideals) in the US have picked up on this tradition and use it to celebrate goodwill between religions and cultures.  I shared my batch with my fellow students at the Adventure School for Ladies, with plenty left over to serve at the InCUBATE symposium potluck the following night. 

For those of us who have been turned off by the dogma, judgment, money and politics that is unfortunately associated with religion, Noah’s Pudding seems a refreshingly straightforward and tasty way to generate actual goodwill.  So make some and share it.  Happy holidays!

Greetings from the middle of the food desert by sarah kavage

Ironically, spending a month in Chicago working on a project about food and nourishment has up until this point meant sacrificing the ability to nourish myself.  You see, despite InCUBATE’s location in a pretty good neighborhood, there is little fresh or organic food to be found nearby.  It’s just in one of those nowhere-ish locations and although it’s been great to be around so much good Mexican food, one cannot live by tortillas and micheladas alone (although I’ve been trying), and eating out gets expensive really quickly.  Plus, most of the time I’d just rather eat my own cooking. 

So I’ve been getting into the terrible habit of living in semi-starvation mode for most of the day and then doing dinner meetings or social events where food is served.  Semi-starvation mode, for me, means snacking on bread (haven’t lacked for that), cheese and peanut butter, the occasional soy shake, and coffee throughout the day with no real meal.  On days when I don’t go out, that pattern just continues till I go to bed.  I most certainly am not starving, but I have a high metabolism and sometimes it feels just a little bit like it.  Plus the lack of ability to find a good vegetable is really frustrating.  I’ve been able to pick up some great baked goods, cheese and tofu at the Logan Square Sunday farmer’s market (next door!) but there’s little fresh being sold there these days due to the obvious fact that not much grows in mid-December in the midwest. 

One of the most interesting concepts in geography / urban planning to have cropped up in the last few years (or ten) has been that of the food desert.  Definitions vary, but usually food deserts are areas lacking in access to a) fresh b) affordable c) any food outlets.  Instead, you see fast food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores.  Usually these are poor neighborhoods with more darker skinned people and new immigrants.  It’s unfortunately no surprise that the upper-class white neighborhoods get the fancy organic grocery stores, the farmers’ markets, or any grocery store at all, and that the fast food chains prey on people who think they can’t afford anything better or are working two or three or four jobs and don’t have the time to run around the city looking for more nutritious alternatives, much less cook them.   A lot of people in Chicago (and other places) have been working to change this through community gardens and farmers’ markets, but it’s tough to get the big grocery stores to budge.  Small grocery stores can change what they carry, but are often locked out of their ability to get better quality goods because the large chain grocers have a lock on the distribution networks, or can undercut prices so much.  

I went to the local grocery store around the corner, a larger independently owned Mexican grocery that was actually quite fine in all respects except for the rather ugly, industrially produced produce.  In Seattle, the basket of groceries that I walked out with would have been of much higher quality (organic, etc) and cost between 30 and 40 bucks.  This basket?  $13 and change ($5 of which was for organic butter – yikes).  A three-fold difference in cost?  You gain a little bit of understanding into what people mean when they say they can’t afford organic.  I’m not at all rich by American standards, but I am a little bit different from most people because I don’t have a car and will pay a high premium for convenience (our local grocery in Seattle is a 5-10 minute walk from the house), and because we eat nearly all of our meals at home it’s easier to rationalize paying more.  And I love good food and want to support small farmers and organic farming.  So the bottom line is I pay that premium willingly, but I still feel like a sucker and wonder are we helping to create local food systems or are we helping to create TWO food systems, where the good food goes to people who can afford it and working class / poor people get the cheap, industrially produced crap?

To continue blathering on about my food consumption, observant readers may have noticed the use of “up until this point” in the first sentence of this post.  Yes, I finally found nourishment in the form of the Dill Pickle Food Coop, a newly opened coop that began as a buying club a few years back and now has a small storefront space in Logan Square.  Kudos again to Bryce, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of all things food-related, for cluing me in to this.  It was about a 15-minute walk, non-members can shop there, and they had some beautiful kale, potatoes, carrots and some almost at the end of their life-span but very cheap tomatoes. 

Guess how much I spent.  Forty bucks.  I knew that’s how much it would cost, too – it was just like being back in Seattle.  Despite the sinking feeling that I have become a yuppie snob, it was a great feeling to come back and actually cook.  I made some delicious lentil soup – which I ate two bowls of with the fresh baked bread and felt finally, totally nourished and very grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to afford such things.

Look for more posts about this topic in the future.  It’s one I have a great deal of personal and professional interest in, but it’s complicated and I have not done nearly enough research to discuss all of or even some of these issues sensitively and in depth.  The food desert phenomenon is real, and illuminates so many issues of race and class in our society, but what can / is being done about it?