World Food Day Post: Bringing Cooking and Food Preservation to the Table

Sharon October 16th, 2008

Today is World Food Day – and time to assess the prospects for the future (and near term) of our food.  As I write this, there are more than 100 million new starving people in the world over a year ago.  As I write this people in Iceland, one of the world’s richest nations, are wondering whether there will be any imported food coming into their country.  As I write this, one out of every eleven Americans – and as many as one in seven in states with high levels of poverty – require food stamps to be able to eat.  As I write this the city of Houston is finally returning to normal after weeks of disrupted food supplies and hunger.  As I write this food price inflation remains high, while farmers are increasingly unable to get prices that cover their rising costs.  We are experiencing a food crisis now – and we are only at the beginning.

This is one of a series of projects to draw attention to food security today.  Along with this post, Aaron Newton and I have published a short excerpt of _A Nation of Farmers_ over at The Oil Drum, and a longer one excerpt (ie, more of the same chapter)  at Hen and Harvest .  There is simply no more important issue than food facing the world in the next decades – and “facing the world” doesn’t mean “something we can conveniently leave to others” – it faces each of us directly.

I want to talk here about two things – first I want to address anyone who may still have the lingering sense that dinner isn’t really as important as how to keep transportation going, or where to drill.  Because dinner has been the territory of women, and then the disdain for women’s work and women’s territory shifted over to working women as well, and often dinner was the territory of no one, we are only just beginning to realize that we do have to understand food, to be familiar with it and to have a relationship to its creation. 

The power of our food system is this.  Up to 12% of our total fossil fuel use is linked to the food system.  More than 35% of our total greenhouse gas emissions are linked to our food system.  Our hope of controlling climate change, or chance of avoiding a world in which many, many people simply die from lack of food access depends on the creation of a system that can withstand the coming shifts in climate, energy costs and availability, and a worldwide depression.  And without basic food security, we can expect radical political change - people looking for scapegoats, governments overthrown, acts of war, violence.  Without basic food security we can expect to see a lost generation, people all over the world stunted developmentally, children dead, anger rising, people unable to address the coming crisis because they are too weak, their mental development was shaped by hunger, they were too hungry to learn about citizenship,  because they are too angry, and too hopeless because as Gandhi said, they can see God only in the form of bread.  So yes, dinner is just that important.

And why mention cooking and food preservation? What not focus on growing food?  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is that there are already many people and organizations who focus on that end of things – the production end of food, the distribution ends of this issue have the attention of many groups – community gardeners, victory garden groups like Kitchen Gardens International, food and farming experts, and millions of ordinary people are starting to see how important it is that we focus on the agricultural system.  Michael Pollan wrote in this week’s New York Times about the ways that food production needs to be at the forefront of our policy initiatives.  The other is that we have enough food – it is true that we need to increase yields in some of the poorer places of the world – but access and not wasting or losing what we have is as central a project as producing more – perhaps more so.

I’m focusing on the quieter end of this, the one that hasn’t as yet gotten the attention it so desperately needs. Worldwide, nearly a third of all the food we produce is lost before it can be consumed – whether it is lost in the field because there is no one to harvest it (as in some US states this year due to a decline in migrant labor) because of transport delays and shortages, pests damage or lack of the right tools for low-energy food preservation.  In the US, millions of people suffer food insecurity in part because they do not know how to cook low cost staple foods, or how to make use of leftovers and parts of vegetables not commonly eaten.  In the US our food security may well come to depend on local food systems – but most Americans who “eat local” do so only during the harvest season – because they have no idea how to preserve food, or to minimize loss.  In the poor world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because the food their parents grew cannot be preserved – they have no access to basic tools, or fuel for cooking and preserving due to deforestation. In the rich world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because no one knows how to cook, preserve or feed themselves, so we eat cheap, toxic fast and processed food at high cost.

I write a lot about growing food too, but today I want to draw attention to the urgent problem of making the best possible use of the food we do have – to minimizing waste, to the support of the local food systems we will depend on in the new economy, to cooking, that most ordinary work of human beings, which makes the difference between the normal development of children and decent nutrition and good health, and disastrous loss of health and future.

And this is one of the places where everyone can act.  We can all learn to store and preserve food, to take local foods and learn to put them up to bridge seasons where little is grown, be they hot and dry or cold and snowy.  We can all learn to cook – we can learn to use basic staples as our primary source of food, leaving rich foods like meats for festivals, increasing both pleasure and health.  We can share food with our neighbors, and strengthen local communities when we sit down for a meal together.  We can save a bit of money on our grocery bills by eating what is local, abundant and basic, and give that money to the increasing number of people in our neighborhoods and the world who need a helping hand just to eat.  We can share our knowledge and our techniques with others, and help them out of a growing poverty.  We can take the appalling quantity of wasted food, and eat more of it, creating greater equity in the world, and reducing methane in landfills.  We can come closer to the use of a fair share, and leave more for others.

There is no question that food security will be the central issue of the coming decades all over the world, for developed and undeveloped nations alike.  I applaud the attention that agriculture is receiving on this World Food Day.  And I draw your attention to the equally urgent problems of cooking and preserving food in the creation of a sustainable and equitable food system!


28 Responses to “World Food Day Post: Bringing Cooking and Food Preservation to the Table”

  1. Anonymous says:

    hmmm…second attempt to post:

    If anyone’s interested in contacting the candidates on this crucial issue, here’s a sample letter I wrote:

    Dear Mr. Obama,

    I’m writing to encourage you and your advisers to take a close look at farm and food policy commentator Michael Pollan’s compelling open letter to you and recent article in the NY Times:

    Food and farm policy gets at the heart of so many critical issues in the coming years: climate change, energy policy, health, national security, the creation of millions of dignified, green post-oil jobs, the revitalization of local communities and economies, education, food prices, and the list goes on.

    I’m disappointed that I didn’t here you mention food and farm policy in the recent debates, but hopeful that if there is a candidate who can lead the way for meaningful change in this area, it’s you.

    Please take time to review Pollan’s well-researched, insightful, and comprehensive policy and action recommendations for “resolarizing” American farms, re-regionalizing the food system, rebuilding American’s food culture, and making meaningless change in the areas of climate change, health, and economic and national security.

    Thank you for your attention to this pressing and neglected issue!


    The Obama campaign can be reached at

  2. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » World Food Day Post: Bringing Cooking and Food Preservation to … Today is World Food Day – and time to assess the prospects for the future (and near term) of our food. As I write this, there are more than 100 million new starving people in the world over a year ago. As I write this people in Iceland, one of the world’s richest nations, are wondering whether there will be any imported food coming into their country. As I write this, one out of every eleven Americans – and as many as one in seven in states with high levels of poverty – require food stamps to be able to eat. As I write this the city of Houston is finally returning to normal after weeks of disrupted food supplies and hunger. As I write this food price inflation remains high, while farmers are increasingly unable to get prices that cover their rising costs. We are experiencing a food crisis now – and we are only at the beginning. [...]

  3. Tess says:

    Excellent post. Being old enough at 55 to remember when chicken was a luxury and it was unheard of to throw away leftovers (and we were reasonably comfortable, growing up in the UK in the 50s/60s) it shocks me how few people can put together a simple meal. And yet… I find I’ve become complacent myself about this, not planning my meals properly, throwing away too much. I’m concentrating on turning back to my good old habits over the next few weeks.

  4. risa b says:

    When we get it down to where we decide if the water the broccoli was steamed in goes to a) the dough for the next two loaves of bread b) tomorrow’s bean soup c) the compost heap d) a tree in the orchard or e) the watering trough in the barnyard — and in the case of c) or d), remembering to rinse the plates, with any rare leftovers, into the water before washing them, then we’ll be hitting our stride.

    I’m SHOCKED at what company leave on their plates — it’s almost enough to convince me to go out and buy a piglet…

  5. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Food waste is the 800 lbs gorilla in my living room. Oh, not because I don’t eat leftovers, use more of a plant or simply throw it away, but because I end up with more of it than I can get to before it spoils. I’m talking participating in a local CSA this summer. Even with two other people sharing in on the food, I was the only one with cooking skills so if I didn’t prepare the vegies for the other two, the food sat around until I could get to it. Consequently, I lost usable greens and less sturdy vegies to spoilage.

    Another waste of food is the garden. We’ve had four light snows and I still haven’t gotten out to harvest all the brassicas out there. No time. I work full time during the week and then have just enough afterwork activities to lock up most of my evenings. It’s also getting dark by 6:30 pm and pretty soon it will be darker even earlier. Weekends are a blur of trying to catch up.

    I’m not sure what the answer is but I know an answer needs to be found and soon. Most of the people I know live lives like mine and if I can’t figure out an effective way to work, grow food and preserve it and maintain community connections, how can I possibly teach others to be able to do the same?

    It’s maddening…

    Kerri in AK

  6. Tara says:

    Ha! Risa b, I really WANT to buy a piglet, but don’t generate enough waste to feed it! :) Everything we don’t consume (which is very, very little) goes to the chickens, the worms or the compost.

  7. Ailsa Ek says:

    I just checked out Ideal poultry’s website to see how much broilers are. Got to run the numbers to see if it’s worth it to try to grow my own.

  8. Hausfrau says:

    Seconding Kerri’s comment! Actually this is the main reason I haven’t joined a CSA – I am afraid of the massive waste that might occur. I just wouldn’t know what to do with a ton of kohlrabi, 1/2 ton of swiss chard, and 60 lbs of green beans every week. I’m still trying to learn how to cook vegetables I’ve never seen or even heard of before a year ago.

    So, thanks for paying attention to this issue. It won’t help to grow local food if people don’t know what to do with it.

  9. Shamba says:

    I can sympathize with Hausfrau and Risa. I haven’t joined a CSA because I know I’d have way more stuff than I could eat myself and don’t have anyone else to give it to.


  10. Fern says:

    Actually, getting a ton of kolhrabi from the CSA might be better than the ONE I got: that ended up just being more raw salad ingredient, and I already had tons of lettuce, arugula, etc. Most veggies I can blanch and throw in the freezer for later, but not ‘salad greens’.

    One thing for sure is that NONE of us are SuperWoman/Man. We can’t move at supersonic speed, we can’t bilocate, and we need sleep, dammit! We can’t singlehandedly apprehend The Bad Guys nor singlehandedly handle EVERYTHING ELSE. So we have to try to pick one or two things to work on at a time.

    One friend and her roommate are splitting their CSA veggies with another family – no one is learning food storage yet, but they are getting used to the massive influx of CSA veggies. That friend IS learning how to make damnfine beer, OTOH. She has firm priorities.

    Having finally gotten a better quality dehydrator, I can now slice veggies or fruit in the morning and start ‘em drying, and find them mostly dry when I get home – similar to using my slowcooker! Except that in the slowcooker the rice always sinks to the bottom and never cooks … but I digress on to my personal slow learning curve there…

    But now that I’ve dried lots of veggies, I’m going to have to see if the family will EAT the results in future meals. They were fine about the canned fruits and veggies, but those took so much room to store.

    Fern, rambling and ranting

  11. The compost pile is your friend. Turn yesterdays leftovers into tomorrows groceries – and feed a wide variety of life, from insects to birds (that eat the insects that eat your compost) to what have you. Keep your food wastes in the cycle of life, it really is very simple yet exceedingly important.

  12. Meadowlark says:

    The water waste is something that came home to roost this summer while canning. It uses such an incredible amount of water and I didn’t really have any plans for what to do with the “runoff”. I was somewhat horrified with how much I ended up wasting. :(

  13. madison says:

    I really miss having a worm bin. When we relocated last year I released them :) Now I feel a pang of regret everytime I throw something away!

  14. Rebecca says:

    I know people who absolutely refuse to eat leftovers, under any circumstances. Their attitude is ‘I had to eat leftovers as a child, but I won’t now and neither will my children.’ And they are raising their children to believe that having to eat leftovers is somehow bad -I am appalled by this and the food wasted. I mean, I waste some, but nothing like that!

  15. Heather Gray says:

    Salad greens can go into soup. I learned that from my sister-in-law Doris one year, when one weekend a large bowl of salad didn’t get eaten up by the restaurant staff. She just threw it all into a pot with some water and a bit of seasoning, cooked it and froze it in plastic containers for the folks to de-frost whenever. It was pretty good as is, but sometimes they’d throw in a bit of chicken or turkey to liven it up. I imagine it would go well with some heartier vegetables too.

  16. Beth says:

    Nice to hear someone talking about ordinary stuff like putting dinner on the table. Purchasing the ingredients is the first hurdle in waste reduction. My kids and I recently took a hard look (forgive us, we’re newbies) at the origins of our supermarket produce. If you’re interested (of course you are!) here are the results of last week’s Little Orange Study:

    Three different kinds of oranges. Orange One: local, from here in Texas. Actually trucked here from south Texas, 520 miles away, but that’s as local as oranges can get. Texas oranges aren’t pretty — they are yellow flecked with brown, and they are seeded — but sweet and delicious. Since they’re ugly, they’re cheap at only .75 cents/pound. Orange Two came from California (1200 miles away), and went for .89 cents/pound. Orange Three was from Australia (!!!) and went for a whopping $1.69/pound. These were perfectly, aggressively orange in color and had a tough peel that about took off my thumbnail. They’re the orange that everyone wants. And those that don’t get sold will rot in the store dumpster — along with asparagus from Peru and bananas from Guatemala.

    These are the food choices for your average suburbanite. We generally don’t have a clue where the food came from or, the enormous energy costs in bringing it here. Heck, some of us really want to eat local. We just don’t have a clue how to make that happen.

  17. I also put salad greens in soup. Mince them as fine as you can and they disintegrate into the broth adding thickening and flavor. In fact I put just about anything into the soup and at least once or twice a week, our main meal is soup and some kind of bread product. The key to recycling leftovers into soup is to not use too many disparate kinds as they fight instead of meld into a rich flavor.

    I have done my best to train my family to eat what is set in front of them because : Mommy is not a short order cook!

    The other way to handle leftovers is to accumulate a bunch and then it is smorgasbord night. You have to be first in line to get the best choices!

  18. Rosa says:

    Fern, if you’re going to be cooking dried veggies, the pressure cooker is your friend. It also perks up stuff that just got limp, from being stored too long – root vegetables or over-roasted corn or whatever. And it makes *awesome* risotto in like 10 minutes. We use ours almost every night. It’s been the savior of our failed dried sweet potato chip experiment, among other things.

    For a long time we always got two CSA boxes so I could put up a bunch (also, 4-5 adults lived here then).

    One of the ways we deal with it is by having mandatory salad weeks early in the season (salad at every meal – which is sort of nice the first week or two, since we don’t buy salad greens in winter – and also anyone who drops by around dinner has to eat a bowl of salad too.) Some of the bitter greens are OK dried, too, for winter soups & stuff.

    I imagine it’s similar for people with bigger or more productive gardens than I have – you get something, it’s amazing and you haven’t eaten it for like a year. But it’s in season for weeks so by the end you never want to see any more. And then it’s gone til next year.

    Except for the pile you have to can or dry before it goes bad. It’s certainly like that with gleaned apples – at first, the seven laundry baskets of apples make me feel rich, but after a week or two they’re just an unending chore. (Except for the people sniping my dried apples from the rack when there are perfectly good apples in a heap next to it that they could eat if they weren’t too lazy to wash/peel/cut them!)

  19. olympia says:

    In regard to the cooking part of things, there is an unfortunate school of thought out there, held by some very well-meaning people, that the poor are incapable of doing more than heating up a can of soup or spreading peanut butter on bread. A year or so ago, a local food writer did an experiment in which she attempted to eat local and organic on a food stamp budget. The woman obviously had some cooking skills, along with a fully stocked spice cabinet, but she wasn’t making her own foie de gras or anything. She roasted a chicken, she made her own bread- oh, and she foraged for fiddleheads. The first person to comment on her experiment seemed incensed- the writer didn’t know how real poor people lived, he said. Real poor people couldn’t forage for fiddleheads. I thought, well, why not? It’s true that if you’re limited to a hot plate for cooking, or your work schedule requires you put your 11-year-old in charge of meals, your options are limited. All poor people aren’t so limited, though. There might be enough time, along with an adequate enough kitchen, to cook from scratch. Still, I see this insistence out there, that poor people need canned food and frozen chicken fingers, as they aren’t able to cook much more than that. My concern is that this belief has become self-fulfilling- and that is putting people of limited means of even greater risk of food insecurity.

  20. Ailsa Ek says:

    olympia: I “Hrmph!” in those people’s general direction. When I was poor I baked all my own bread and made just about everything from scratch. Doing anything else seemed to me improvident, and I could stretch food stamps just about forever, it seemed like.

    I always wished I could teach a cooking class to my fellow food stamp recipients, though, because I knew everyone couldn’t do what I was doing – and in mu opinion you eat a whole lot better when you know how to cook. I’ll match my Chicken Kiev against any frozen Chicken Kiev anytime.

  21. Beth says:

    Cooking anything at all is a hassle for the working poor. Especially for those on their feet, working a long shift and working more than one job to make ends meet. Why cook, when all those fast-food places offer a special on $1 hamburgers? Also, many of the working poor have jobs in fast-food places, and they get free food to take home to their families.

    Kind of a no-brainer. A fast way to fill everyone’s stomach before heading off to your next job. It does take time and know-how to prepare nutritious food. And so more of the working poor get sick and malnourished. If you can have at least one parent at home, then they can scratch out some nutrition from container vegetable gardens and do a bit of cooking from scratch. But many, many kids just don’t have two parents.

  22. olympia says:

    Beth- See, I really hesitate to make the judgment that pre-prepared food is the only option for the working poor. Also, all working poor are not alike- when I was working 30 hours a week as a cashier (ah, the misery!), I had little money, but plenty of time to cook. And sometimes, I did. Yeah, a $1 cheeseburger may be easy to grab and satisfying on some level, but a lot of dry grains and beans are also really easy to cook, and are very satisfying. Why do we assume poor people aren’t capable of cooking them?

  23. BoysMom says:

    Something of interest, and I’ve no idea how to change it: my husband is from the third world, and when he first saw me canning, tomatos, I think it was, just boiling water bath, nothing fancy, he said “How come none of your peace corps volunteers ever taught us how to do that?”

    A good question, don’t you think?

    Our chickens eat whatever scraps and leftovers the people won’t. I suppose I ought to check and see if there’s anything they really shouldn’t have rather than trusting to their chickeny good sense to keep them from eating stuff that wouldn’t be good for them. They’re having celery tops, pepper seeds, and carrot peals tonight. They might get some chilli, if the toddler doesn’t finish his, tomorrow. Nobody seems to want his leftovers after he’s eaten some, spit a couple mouthfulls back into his bowl, and fingerpainted in it, except for the chickens!

  24. Heather Gray says:

    I didn’t know how to cook dried beans but I made plenty of other dishes from when I was working and going to school, to just working. I got a lot of meals out of one chicken (stir fries, soup, etc.), and the day-old veggies racks were my friend. One summer I only had $10/week to spend on food, so yeah I got some cheapo mac-n-cheese and ramen, or made sauces (sometimes butter and dried garlic powder) to go with pasta, but it was amazing how often I could get veggies for next to nothing. No chicken that summer of course, but one year I was able to get whole chickens for only .49/lb (even in the 80s that was a good price). Didn’t eat out at all during the tougher times — would have cost too much.

  25. Rosa says:

    When I was broke and not working very much, I ate really well. And I was raised on something a lot like Hillbilly Housewife’s $45/week menu, except with lots of weird cuts of meat nobody else ate. I tell people who think tofu is icky about the cow-tongue sandwiches i had to take to school in the early ’80s. But when I was broke and working and doing school full time, I ate a lot of cereal and free food from places I & my friends worked. Hell, I’m still working an entry-level job where they give us free food, we had Little Caesar’s today. I’m not turning down free food – that’s a survival strategy that has served me well for a long time.

    People have different skills, and different strategies, and different interests. Where are the complaints about he 35 year old six-figure-making software engineer with a negative net worth who eats in a restaurant every night? If people are putting their time and talents into something other than cooking from scratch (like, say, learning all new parenting skills better than the way they were raised) there is probably a reason for it.

  26. Sharon says:

    There are definitely things that make it hard for poor people to cook – those who live in motels rooms with no cooking facilities, those who face regular utility shut offs, those who work long hours and leave bigger kids in charge. That’s tough. That said, however, my father worked two jobs and came home and fed his kids from scratch. Many of the world’s poor, working at jobs far worse than the ones Americans do cook. I’m not saying there aren’t compelling reasons to not cook, or that there aren’t a lot of reasons to sympathize with them, but a lot of the foods available cheaply to the poor that won’t give them diabetes and kill them earlier require cooking, and that’s something all of us – rich and poor – are going to have to deal with as we become less rich.


  27. [...] as a post by Sharon Astyck ( points out, our ready access to food in the Western world is significantly dependent on or linked [...]

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