Posts Tagged ‘food’

A sure sign of a food system that needs help

This weekend, as I was reading up on gardening in Indiana while my boyfriend watched a football game, I caught a commercial on television for Pepsi Throwback edition, advertising that the product was “made with real sugar.” The first thing that came to mind at this commercial was not shock at the fact that regular Pepsi isn’t already made with real sugar; I am well aware of all the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that goes into our soft drinks. Instead, I was floored by the fact that the company was marketing something made with real sugar as a novelty item.

When foods made with real sugar, a natural product, are advertised as innovative, is this not a sure sign of a food system in trouble? A backwards system where foods made with the chemical, the man-made are normal, and those foods made with “the real thing” are out of the ordinary? Has our world really come to a place where foods that are “natural” or “real” are mere novelties? If so, we have all but finally reached the world of Sci Fi, where food has been reduced to a tiny, man-made, chemical-based pill, and real foods, like vegetables, roast beef, seafood, or, gasp, sugar are considered quaint and outdated.

When did we start eating a diet composed largely of man-made, highly processed and refined “food products” instead of real, live food? I cannot help but read the Pepsi commercial as Exhibit A in the case for food system reform.

Maybe the commercial struck such a cord with me because I had just finished reading Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry‘s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which eloquently makes the case for a return to real, sustainable foods: to fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products. Lappe and Terry outline the problems with our current food production system, and, although their complaints are not new – in fact, the organic, sustainable, local, hippie (whatever) community has been making the case for food reform for at least two decades – their book is a succinct and accurate assessment of the problems with modern industrial agriculture and of potential actions we can all make to take back control of our food.

In circles of environmentalists and sustainabilists (of which I count myself a member), it has nearly become common knowledge that modern means of food production – industrial-scale vegetable and grain farming using a plethora of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other fossil-fuel based inputs, factory farming of animals for mass consumption of (too much) meat, high processing and use of additives and preservatives in conventional “food products,” and the transport of all of these food items thousands of miles to their destination on our supermarket shelves – are unhealthy for both humans and the environment. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and others have popularized the problems with the way we produce and consume food in this country. Even the new Obama White House has begun an attempt to spread a message about the importance of eating locally and sustainably through the creation of a new organic garden on the Lawn.

So, if the ailments of our food system have become such a widespread topic of conversation, why is nothing substantive being done to change things? Part of the problem is clearly the downturn of the economy and insurance and real estate market busts that have distracted our national attention from the real problems with our government and economy, such as the issues facing a society reliant on cheap fossil fuels, and lack of access to affordable health care, meaningful education, and healthy, sustainable food. Grub authors Lappe and Bryant argue that in order to spur change in our food system at the national level, we need to start “voting with our pocketbook,” or so the phrase goes. We can start changing what our food system looks like (and what our waistlines look like, too) by buying only sustainable food options – less fast food and processed junk food, and more organic produce and whole grains. Though most people immediately assume organic food is more expensive than conventionally farmed and produced options, Lappe and Bryant show that if you buy whole organic, local, sustainable ingredients and cook more from scratch instead of buying processed, quick-fix foods, a sustainable diet can actually save you money. You can also grow your own food, no matter where you live, from just a few seeds and soil, for not only huge savings but also the assurance that you know where your food comes from and where it’s been.

This last point is the reason I was looking at gardening books this weekend. While my boyfriend, Paul, and I live in a city apartment, we have a small, west-facing balcony on which I plan to grow as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. I am in the process of planning a substantial container garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, salad greens, peas, beans and kale this spring, summer and fall. Living in south-central Indiana, our growing season consists of more than 175 days of frost-free weather, which I can extend even further by planting frost-tolerant kale in the early spring and late fall. Though I am a novice gardener and this first season may not produce as much as I would like, I am hoping to produce at least some produce for Paul and I to enjoy through the summer and fall, to help us live healthier and more sustainably.

There are many things we can do individually to change the way we think about food; growing your own is only one of many things to do. You can purchase food directly from farmers at your local farmers market, ask your grocery store to carry more local, sustainable, organic or fair-trade products, eat less (factory-farmed) meat, start tracking the “food miles” traveled of certain items in your diet and try to cut back on fossil-fuel intensive products, and more. If more people adopt a sustainable diet, the entire food system will begin to be more sustainable. Maybe then we’ll stop seeing commercials advertising products made with the real thing – “real sugar” – as a novelty, and eating “real food” will once again become the norm.


Eating for Enjoyment, Part 3: A Manifesto on Bread

In the last two posts I have discussed various food philosophies, the meaning of food in society, and our modern pattern of “eat and run.” In this article, I wish to focus on one particular type of food that is common to all humans—bread.

All cultures have some form of it. From pita to tortillas to naan, biscuits to French bread, whole wheat to Wonder Bread, every society in the world takes grain, grinds it to flour, mixes it with at least water and possibly salt, yeast or other things to make what is, for many, a staple food. The variety of breads and foods to eat with bread are some of the reasons it is so appealing to humans. As omnivores, we want a diverse diet and lots of choices, and bread—in sandwiches, dipped in soup or dip, covered in jam or butter, filled with practically anything—certainly allows for diversity.

The air-filled Wonder Bread varieties consumed by many Americans do not even begin to capture the possibilities available. Nor do they taste like what bread was meant to taste like. Even the denser, whole-wheat varieties available on grocery store shelves still are commonly loaded with preservatives to keep them fresh during transport and increase shelf life, and sometimes taste like such.

Furthermore, the bagged, generic sliced bread bought regularly at America’s supermarkets have relegated bread from the position of prominence warm, home-baked loaves had on many dinner tables of the past to the bologna-and-American cheese Wonder Bread concoctions that fill brown bag lunches today. Grocery store bakeries and places like Panera and Atlanta Bread Company have attempted to change this; still, it’s a far cry from French bakers carrying around trays or baskets of warm, fresh bread.

For all these reasons and more, one of the first tasks I have begun on my quest to eat for enjoyment is to take up bread baking. Baking my own bread from scratch has proved much more delicious and preservative-free than store bought varieties, not to mention just plain fun. When I finally, after hours of hand mixing, kneading, rising, and baking, took my first perfectly rounded loaf of whole wheat bread—beginner’s luck—out of the oven, I was so ecstatic, I ran to grab my camera to photo document, and had to have everyone in my house taste the bread immediately.

One of my bread creations, a soda bread made using a recipe from the book Classic Breads, by M. Caldirola, N. Negri, and N. Aru (published 2004 by Sterling).

One of my bread creations, a soda bread made using a recipe from the book Classic Breads, by M. Caldirola, N. Negri, and N. Aru (published 2004 by Sterling).

But there is something in bread making beyond the gratification you get with the final product. There is a process to making bread; you begin with piles of powder (flour, salt, and possibly sugar), cups of liquid of varying viscosities (butter, milk, or water) and one magic ingredient (yeast) and after getting your hands, your pants, and the floor completely covered in flour, you wind up with this product that looks nothing like the ingredients with which you began. It’s energizing to know that I can start from scratch and make something delicious with little more than the energy of my own hands and the oven.

But bread making, despite all the kneading and mixing and baking, ultimately does not rely on human power. Yeast—single-celled organisms from the fungi kingdom, whose invisible spores are in the air nearly everywhere—is the true engine behind bread making. Yeast, when added to the dough, feeds on the sugars in the flour, resulting in the creation of gas, which causes the dough to expand in volume, or rise. The time that elapses during rising allows the ingredients to ferment ever so slightly, cultivating the flavors and textures of what we know as bread.

As I anxiously check under the damp towel every 20 minutes or so as my bread is rising, it’s hard to believe all that is going on and I can’t even see it. What’s further amazing is that humans, somewhere in the course of history, discovered that they could harness the power of yeast to make leavened—or raised—bread. Bread making is relatively simply: you knead the ingredients, let the dough sit for anywhere from a few hours to a day or more, and pop it in the over. The amount of labor required is actually relatively little. It’s unfortunate that more people do not take advantage of the relative ease of making homemade bread, which makes your kitchen smell wonderful, contains no preservatives, and tastes delectable. Mmmm, mmmm…I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

(This post is the final installment in a three part series on food called Eating for Enjoyment, originally published in February 2009 in The Lawrentian. See all three here.)

Eating for Enjoyment, Part 2: The Meaning of Food

I ended my last post hinting at “what exactly food as a concept means to our human societies in general.” Food means more than just a source of sustenance to human societies. It holds a place in a deeper part of our consciousness. Or it used to.

Traditionally, meals used to be a time when people gathered together, indulging in not only a taste of the Earth’s bounty, but also a sense of community with one another. Special or symbolic meals and foods play an integral role in many religious celebrations and ceremonies, and different types of meals—often seasonally-linked—have been a part of cultures for eons.

Food in America is undeniably linked to our culture, though just how has changed over the past century. A hundred years ago, a meal used to come from the farm your family worked on—the vegetables from the garden, the meat from the cow recently slaughtered, the bread from grain grown in the fields. Families used to come in from a long day and sit down to a communal meal at the kitchen table, exchanging news of their lives and the world.

Even 50 years ago, families gathered at the kitchen table for dinner. Even though the food came from the supermarket, and possibly at least some of it from a box or can, at least the people eating it still engaged with each other while dining.

Today’s typical dinner table looks drastically from these first two scenarios. The food most likely came from a box, or worse, a fast food bag. And the family is likely not sitting down to the table together, but rather eating in fragmented “shifts,” as my family and others like to call it.

Given this upbringing most Lawrence students likely had—where dinner was a fragmented affair between school, sports games, and music lessons—you’d actually be surprised at how well the “family meal” actually holds up at college. Looking around at the cafeteria, you usually see the same groups of friends sitting at the same tables in A, B or C room at around the same time each night of the week. This is the college version of the “family dinner.” Somehow, in our busy lives, we still manage to all sit down together and eat a meal. Granted, mealtime is made easier by the fact that we need not cook a meal, but simply walk through a line and choose our meal from a variety of items. And many of us still have to “eat and run”—to rehearsal, to homework, to meetings.

Still, dinner at college is less about food and more about the company (which is good, given that the food is…well, cafeteria food). We’ve managed to maintain the structure of dinnertime, but the significance of the meal we eat is gone. The struggle becomes, then, how to preserve meaning in what we eat when eating limited options from a buffet line. For many of these foods, we don’t even know their names, much less their contents, method of cooking, or source of ingredients. With the exception of the (occasionally correct) “VGN” (vegan) and “V” (vegetarian) labels, and the “Provided by the garden” labels (now rare in the middle of winter), the food we eat in cafeterias or at restaurants has lost its dimensionality and definition.

Even beyond cafeteria food, much of the food we eat today is dimensionless: what we eat, we view as simply a “hamburger” or a “salad,” without considering the rich stories and layers of meaning behind the food. This is why it becomes easy to ignore the fact that most meat comes from factory farms, where cattle live in cages barely larger than themselves, eating hormones, antibiotics, and corn feed. It’s easy to ignore the living conditions of migrant workers who pick our spinach. It’s easy to ignore the thousands of gallons of fossil fuel burned to ship our food the thousands of miles from its source to our neighborhood grocery stores.

Far from the intimate connection between farmer and kitchen table that we have long since lost, we don’t even have a connection between the drive-thru boy and the passenger seat “table.” Mealtime has gone from being a thoughtful event to a mechanistic necessity.

But there is a larger lesson in this than just to be more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths; the way we eat in modern society is symbolic of the way we conduct our lives in general. We are constantly in a rush, we rarely think through the things we buy and use—be it soap or Burger King—and how they affect our bodies and our planet, and we often ignore those individuals around us and the social relationships that make us human. But, perhaps, if we start to think about our food, it will start us thinking more about other things, too.

(This post is the second in a three part series called Eating for Enjoyment, originally published in The Lawrentian in February 2009. See all three here.)

Eating for Enjoyment, Part 1: A Food Philosophy

It’s almost spring, for those of you who haven’t noticed. And as I spend my last term on a meal plan at Lawrence, making the trek to the school cafeteria two plus times a day, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about food. Thinking about all the good things I’m going to cook next year when I can cook for myself and have my own kitchen: all the healthy, organic produce I’m going to use in all the great homemade soups and breads I’ll make, and how I’ll never have to buy another Chunky canned soup or Ramen noodles again.

Well, given that I’ll be on the budget of a graduate student (in both time and money), living in an apartment that, except with the addition of a kitchen, will likely be worse than my current suite in the newest, nicest dorm on campus, maybe all my food won’t be organic, and I probably won’t have the time to bake a fresh loaf of bread to put out on the windowsill of my apartment every morning. And I may still buy the occasional can o’ soup in a pinch.

Still, having control over the ingredients that go into my food and being able to choose what to cook for dinner every night, and not just have to dip into the troughs that are the cafeteria buffet lines, are things I’ve been looking forward to for at least three years. Cooking what I want will allow me to be more ethical, sustainable, healthy, and satisfied with my food choices.

Part of my food angst stems from field experience this past summer in the Philippines, where we ate white rice with either a) okra, b) eggplant, c) dried fish with 90% of your daily salt allowance, d) canned tuna in a variety of flavors (including marinara, which should be illegal as a tuna flavor), or e) a Filipino variant on the theme of Spam. Eating purely for sustenance and never for enjoyment was a new experience for me, and made me much more appreciative of good-tasting, enjoyable food when it was available. And though I do realize that most of the world does not have the variety of good food available that Westerners are used to eating on a daily basis (a subject for a future post), recognizing and appreciating the variety and possibility inherent in cooking and eating in America has become part of my own personal food philosophy.

Some people are vegans or vegetarians. Some people never eat meat on a Friday. Some people buy only “happy meat” from sustainable farms, or eggs from utilitarian, free-range farmers named Chiara. Some people only buy Oscar Meyer baloney. I vow to never eat simply for the sake of sustenance. As long as I can afford to, and live in a society where there is such a large variety of foods, I will eat only foods I like, foods I enjoy eating, foods that are healthful, and foods that do not harm the environment.

I call it eating for enjoyment. Yes, it’s idealistic, and possibly a bit unrealistic. But so are vegans eating at cafeteria buffet lines. And at least when I start cooking for myself, I’ll have complete control over what goes into my tummy.

This food project of mine has only just begun. I still eat mystery meat and casseroles at the cafeteria. And after a four-year love affair with Ramen noodles, it will be hard to go cold turkey. But, I got recipe books for Christmas, and spent a good part of my spring break experimenting with bread baking. And when I occasionally cook dinner with my boyfriend, even though it still takes almost 3 hours from start to first bite, I enjoy every minute of the cooking.

And if nothing else, I’m learning that when you buy your own ingredients and spend the time and effort putting them together into something worth eating, you think a lot more about where your food came from, how it’s made, and exactly what food as a concept means to our human societies in general.

(A version of this essay is part of a three part series on food and eating that was originally written for The Lawrentian in February 2009. See all three here.)

Bon Appetit to a Low Carbon Diet

Next year, as Lawrence University switches over to its new Campus Center, it will also have a new food service. A company called Bon Appetit will be Lawrence University’s new food service provider. Though I am graduating and so will not be eating this new food next year, I am intrigued by one thing: Bon Appetit’s tag line is “Food services for a sustainable future,” and that next year, Lawrentians will be able to enjoy a more sustainable diet when eating in the Campus Center cafeteria.

Bon Appetit calls its sustainable eating plan a “Low Carbon Diet.” This means that the company not only recognizes the contribution of the food industry to carbon emissions connected to global climate change (in the form of emissions from shipping food and fertilizers to grow food across the world, carbon sinks lost when areas are deforested to make pasture or agricultural land, as well as methane emissions released when wasted food decomposes), but seeks to design its operations in a way that minimizes the amount of carbon emitted in the process.

What exactly does this entail? Well, Bon Appetit launched their Low Carbon Diet campaign in 2007 on Earth Day, seeking to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from business operations 25% over three years. According to their website, this means several things, including the following:
• Getting nearly all the fruits, veggies, meats and water their operations use from North America,
• Educating “guests,” or diners, on how they can make “low carbon” food choices,
• Reducing food and kitchen waste, and
• Using energy and water efficient kitchen equipment.

With an initial goal of reducing beef consumption by at least 10% in each of their cafeterias, the entire system has decreased consumption by 23% in two years. This year, the company is tackling cheese and tropical fruit consumption, aiming to reduce these figures by 25% and 50%, respectively.

One the aforementioned educational efforts is Bon Appetit’s low carbon diet calculator. This unique and interesting site allows visitors to place various meal items into a frying pan that calculates the contribution of given diet choices to global warming in the form of “CO2 points.” In the calculator, each point equals one gram of CO2 emissions, so that a 2,000-point meal item for instance equals 4.4 pounds of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

To see what this might amount to in food items, I dragged my lunch from today into the frying pan. My lunch consisted of an Italian sub-like sandwich made at the school cafeteria with turkey, ham, salami, lettuce, tomato, and cheese on bread with chips on the side. So I dumped all this in (or as close as I could get), and it amounted to 1,660 CO2 points, or about 3.65 lbs of carbon emitted into the atmosphere because of my lunch. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you assume I eat 18 meals like this a week for 52 weeks a year, that amounts to more than 3,400 lbs of carbon emitted per year. And this likely is a low estimate, because I didn’t include any beef in this typical meal. One 4 oz. steak amounts to 4,793 CO2 points, or over 10.5 lbs of CO2 emitted, just from one small steak!

Obviously, how we eat clearly has a much larger impact on the climate and the environment than we commonly realize. Not only does the distance food travels from farm to plate result in more or less oil-guzzling, carbon-emitting miles being driven cross-country, but conventional industrial farms require large amounts of fertilizer that also must be transported to the farms and then often ends up washing into polluted rivers and streams. The cattle from which the steak you eat comes release manure and methane emissions in amounts far larger than are natural, and the land on which to pasture these cattle often comes at the expense of forests that once acted as carbon sinks.

The latest trend toward food sustainability, including the local and organic food movements, led by writers like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver, Marion Nestle, companies like Bon Appetit, and projects such as the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University, is part of a growing realization that organic, local and natural is better for the health of people and the environment. Bon Appetit is just one of the businesses to recently recognize the prescience of environmental issues, and to take advantage of the market niche for sustainable products.

It only remains to see how Bon Appetit’s new service at Lawrence will taste. And that, alas, as I will be graduating, I leave up to next year’s students.

Sources: The Huffington Post, Bon Appetit Management Company Website,

(A version of this essay was first published in the April 10, 2009 edition of The Lawrentian.)

“Bioconversion of wood wastes into gourmet and medicinal mushrooms”??

(A version of the following article was printed in The Lawrentian on January 23, 2009.)

Today, while researching possible outlets for scrap wood and furniture at my Goodwill internship, I came across a paper sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture published in 1999 for The International Research Group on Wood Preservation on the possibility of converting wood waste into edible mushrooms. Wood into mushrooms? In the lab? Could this be the epitome of the “waste to food” concept proponents of “cradle to cradle” design so espouse?

In this study, wood waste is inoculated with a certain white-rot fungus from the genus Pleurotus and low concentrations of sugar, to stimulate fungi colonization and growth. The “wood wastes” can be conventional wood waste (e.g. leftover materials from construction and demolition), agricultural (e.g. trees, branches, and woody brush), and even paper product waste. Apparently, a variety of different mushrooms grow well on different compositions of waste material; some grow better on sawdust, while others prefer the corn stocks of agricultural refuge. The fruiting bodies of each mushroom were large (5-15cm in diameter) when harvested and could be harvested (or “flushed”) up to ten times at up to 250 grams per flush before the fungi stopped producing fruit.

What’s more impressive is the biological efficiency of this whole process: 1 lb of fresh mushrooms grown in the wild from 1 lb of dry substrate (4 lbs wet) are 100% biologically efficient, whereas the mushrooms grown in the wood waste process are between 300 and 500% biologically efficient. That means this process is more efficient than nature itself!

But how well did this idea take off? The paper I ran across initially was published in 1999, so I did a little more research to see if there has been any further research on the subject, and – most importantly – to see if anyone is actually growing mushrooms on wood waste. Turns out, there have been a number of articles published on the economic potential of wood-degrading mushrooms from the Pleurotus genus. Someone has even patented kits for the cultivation of shitake mushrooms on wood waste. An article published in Mushroom News in August of 2007 stated that many specialty mushrooms are now preferentially grown on sawdust substrate.

Who knew that specialty mushroom you eat in your next gourmet mushroom soup could have been grown on the wood waste from your local construction company? Using wood waste to grow food crops is certainly sustainable, and indeed an example of the “cradle to cradle” production process. “Cradle to cradle” holds that the waste product generated by one industry should be the resource for another industry; or, the principle more simply know as, one man’s garbage is another man’s gold.

In a world of increasing pressure both on the natural world in the form of rising human consumption and pollution, converting wood waste to food such as mushrooms can be a viable method of dealing with the shortage of landfill space, mitigating CO2 emissions caused by the burning of wood products, and the dealing with the growing shortage of natural resources in a world of increasing demand. And as the resource shortages increase, innovations that turn waste into a valuable product are going to be increasingly necessary to sustain our world.

Now, if only someone could convert our old tennis shoes into Cheetos…

Sources: “Bioconversion of wood wastes into gourmet and medicinal mushrooms,” by Suki Croan, from Proceedings of The International Research Group on Wood Preservation 30th Annual Meeting; Mushroom News