Archive for the 'food' Category

Blighted Hopes

Sharon August 11th, 2009

One of the consequences of this cold, wet year has been a devastating strain of Blight that has affected both tomatos and potatoes - much of the Northeast has it (it has yet to make it to me, but others have had it).  This has been particularlly destructive to organic farmers - pesticides can be sprayed to control the fungus that causes Late Blight, but while there are organic controls (Seranade seems to be effective), they have to be applied early, before the crop fails.  I know several farmers who have lost all their tomatoes and potatoes.  The bight spreads through airborne spores and is as far west as Indiana and as far north as northern Montreal and Ontario.  Just because you don’t have it yet, doesn’t mean you won’t.

Now the loss of tomatoes is a major inconvenience and an economic pain for gowers.  All of us want our salsa.  But the loss of potatoes, while a lesser economic trouble for most farmers and individuals, is actually more troubling - in tough times, potatoes are one of the more viable home staple crops.  Again, organic controls can be used, but these might not always be available.  In some ways, we are seeing the tremendous vulnerability we face in our food system - and the answer is not “great, let’s get out the pesticides,” obviously.  It is to diversify, and learn to live with our troubles.

I’ve heard people argue that this makes the case for industrial agriculture - if it weren’t for industrial agriculture, we wouldn’t have enough tomatoes, we are told.  But, besides the obvious fact that industrial agriculture doesn’t produce anything that tastes like a real tomato, there’s also the point that this is an industrial disease - late blight was spread in the US through tomato and pepper plants purchased from WalMart and Target and other discount realtors, and shipped around the country.

Certainly, it makes sense to use organic controls if they are available to you, and if you have the infection, to burn all affected plant material. But it also makes sense to learn to live with what we’ve now got.  This is little consolation for farmers and gardeners pulling out blackened plants, but people who have had chronic blight issues do point out that it is possible to learn to live with them.  Sue Robishaw, who has been saving potato seed for decades (most people have been told not to save potato seed because you might get blight, but since seed saving is method of creating food security, she’s had to deal with the reality of blight) has observed that often, early planted potatoes will set out a solid crop of potatoes before they succumb to late blight.  And those that succumb latest and produce the best are the ones to save seed from. 

With tomatoes, we can help by selecting blight-resistant varieties (and no, these are not only hybrids), by planting early determinate varieties that may fruit before late blight takes full hold, and by simply adapting ourselves to the spread of disease.

Just as important as diversifying our varieties, and developing resistant, will be diversifying our gardens.  Yes, tomatoes are a wonderful thing, and potatoes are a staple food.  But turnips and beets and sweet potatoes and corn and dry beans, carrots, parsnips and winter squash are all potential food staples as well - it never serves to rely on only one thing.  And if we don’t get tomato salsa, perhaps we will get roasted pepper, ground cherry or salsa verde.

This is the world we live in now - our vulnerabilities have been magnified.  The best tool we have for creating a resilient system is as much variety and diversity as humanly possible. 


Eat What You Grow, Grow What You Eat?

Sharon July 6th, 2009

A thought experiment:

Due to a combination of crises - maybe a volcano explosion, the penetration of Ug99 into the main of the world wheat crop, drought in many of the world’s grain growing regions, zombie invasion etc…  the world experiences a catastrophic failure of its staple crops.  All of a sudden grain supplies drop like a stone, and there are none to be had in the market.  No bread, no rice, no soybeans or corn - none of those products are available in the markets.

At first, there is panic.  The government institutes a ban on the feeding of anything but grass and hay to livestock, necessitating a massive butchering of most national stock, which raises cholesterol levels but keeps people from starving initially. 

Then we begin a rapid inventory of what crops survived, and what foods are available to feed the hungry.  For caloric density, there is little that can match grains, but we do what we can.  The national potato crop was poor, but what there is of that provides some familiar food.  But it was a banner year for the American beet-growers, and rather than converting them as is often the case, to sugar, they are sent to market whole to feed the hungry.  Similarly, sweet sorghum survived fairly well, and rather than being pressed into syrup, is sent out to market.  Southerly nations, responding to a worldwide crisis commit some of their taro and cassava crop to feed the hungry.  Many farmers when the rain finally came, planted turnips and buckwheat, and a modest harvest comes out of the midwest.  And of course, US nut growers, aware theirs is the most protein dense crop available commit their harvest (at stunning prices) to the cause.  Meanwhile corps of poor Americans are set to harvesting urban and rural oak trees for acorn meal. We learn that there is enough food to go around and prevent starvation, even if it is unfamiliar.

Now imagine yourself, an ordinary shopper at the market, setting out to make dinner.  Here is a whole cassava root, with leaves attached.  Government propaganda has told you that the root is filling and starchy, but low in protein, but that this can be made up for by processing the leaves to remove the cyanide and then eating those - remember, they are perfectly safe, but you don’t want to get a paralytic neurological disease by inadequate processing.  Here is an enormous pile of beets, ready to be eaten in breakfast bakes, luncheon salads and dinner entrees.  Here is ground chestnut meal, to be mixed with sorghum and made into flatbreads.  Remember, there’s plenty of food - you just have to cook and eat it. 

I do not anticipate this particular scenario happening any time soon, but I do think it is a useful illustration of the degree to which we depend not only on food, but on the familiarity of our food.  In this case, with much muttering and unhappiness, some appetite fatigue and malnutrition, we probably would begin getting comfortable with acorn pancakes and turnip stew with taro dumplings.   This would be extremely difficult however - remember only a tiny percentage of Americans would actually even know what to do with the foods that they do eat all the time - confronted with a bowl of wheat berries or whole corn, or a soybean in its natural state, most Americans (and I suspect most people in much of the developed world) would see not “food” but something else.  Wheat comes in the form of bread, or maybe, for some, flour, corn in the form, at best, of cornmeal or tortillas, and more often in processed foods.  Soybeans are conveniently made into tofu or soyburgers.

But now let’s envision the scenario slightly differently, rather, say, like today.  Nothing happened to the world’s wheat crop, other than an increasingly large number of people who want to eat it.  Nothing happened to the corn or soybean crop that isn’t happening every day - sure, nitrogen is poisoning water ways, chemicals are causing cancer in farm kids, topsoil is washing away and the dead zone in the Gulf is getting bigger, but nothing much happened.  Nothing happened (thank G-d) to the rice crops on which almost half the world subsists. 

And yet, someone noticed that even though nothing in particular happened, most of those foods aregrown destructively - that is, something is happening, something disastrous.  The wheat is being grown often on dry prairie soils that should never be plowed at all.  The corn and soybeans are being grown continuously in the midwest, ripping off topsoil.  The dead zone, the aquifer pumping, the contamination of groundwater, the poisoning of frogs and fish in rice paddies - these things are happening.  And someone said “ok, we need to eat foods that don’t grow like this.  So, what can we grow without destroying the planet?”

 Well let’s say that what they came up with was much the same menu - the tastier white acorns, chestnuts, hazels and pecans to replace oil and protein crops, roots like beets, cassava, taro, sweet potatoes, potatoes and turnips that are easily grown either perennially or in combination with perennial agriculture in vegecultures.   Obscure grains suited to particular conditions - amaranth and old varieties of corn in hot dry climates, buckwheat in short summer climates, quinoa in high places, so that folks in Denver have pretty much only quinoa and maybe some barley, while in Pheonix, amaranth is it and in my neighborhood, you can have all the buckwheat you want - but not much else. 

 What do you think the odds are of Americans, or Europeans voluntarily shifting their diets?  Imagine the new ad campaigns “Now, with more cassava!”  Health food claims could probably do some - remember oat bran?  If you can get Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse to do acorns,  who knows…the sky is the limit?

However, it won’t happen fast.  Food cultures can and do change dramatically - when I was 10, I went out for sushi for the first time with my father - at the time there were two Japanese restaurants in Boston, and not a single person I knew, including my extremely adventurous Dad, had ever eaten it.  I did it rather on a bet, and was accounted a huge radical eating raw fish in 1982.  Now my local supermarket sells sushi, and everyone eats it.  But the transition from “bait” to “universal” took at least 25 years from the first introduction of the concept in the US.  It is hard to imagine now that there were times when literally it was impossible to get basil or broccoli in the US - nobody grew them outside a few ethnic gardeners.  In every case, however, it was a process.

And what happens is generally an addition of food - for example, Americans are eating a lot more tofu than they used to.  Back in the 1970s, when my mother and step-mother were experimenting with healthy foods, there were a lot of recipes for tofu loaves - and probably more was done to bring tofu into the mainstream culture by the death of the tofu loaf than anything else - but the idea was that tofu would substitute for meat.  Well, for some portion of people it did - but meat consumption also rose, until we were actually eating more meat along with our tofu, than ever before.  While jello for jello salad may have peaked back in the 1950s, a surprising number of jello salads grace tables across the country - tables that also may have sliced tomatoes and basil with mozzarella now, or marinated broccoli salad.  That is, we’ve no replaced the jello but added on to it.

Why is all of this so important?  Well, it comes down the question of why I include “eat the food” in my Independence Days project.  It seems like so minor a thing - ”Of course we’re eating the food, we’re growing it, right?” But I think all of us have yet to fully grasp the magnitude of the food question from a eater’s perspective.  Right now, the vast majority of our calories are coming from grain production, mostly not very sustainable grain production.  Those of us most aware of the issue are at least buying our grains direct from sustainable farmers - this is excellent.  A few people are eating mostly what is available in their regions.  All of us are eating more out of our gardens.  But it remains the fact that only 5% of US cropland is growing vegetables, nuts and unusual small grains - the vast majority of our agricultural land is growing either meat, dairy, grains or soybeans. 

And most of even the most committed people I know are (and here I cannot fully except even myself) eating a lot of things that don’t really grow all that sustainably in our regions because we like them, because our families are accustomed to them, because we feel that a meal without bread or rice or tortillas is not a meal.  Because we have picky eaters in our family.  Because we have no idea what to do with a big pile of acorn meal or a cassava root, and no real desire to learn - or if we do want to learn, no quick easy way to overcome the cultural weight of it not being “our” food.  Food is not merely food, it is culture, it is our identity in some ways - we think of ourselves, implicitly, as being part of a community of eaters, and if our community does not eat what we eat, we are dubious.

This is an issue that comes up across the PO/Climate change community spectrum, and one I think all of these communities rarely struggle enough with.  It is an issue for backyard chicken raisers who are rightly proud that they are raising eggs and meat in their yards - and who also are raising them almost entirely on purchased bagged feed.  It is an issue for permaculturists, enthusiastically replacing their yards with forest gardens, who have no idea what they are going to do with groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes, so who mostly do nothing with them.  It is an issue for growers like me, who very much want to grow local staple crops for market - but who simply can’t make a living growing potatoes, beets and turnips, because people don’t eat those things in quantities sufficient, or pay enough for them.  It is an issue for me, because my family loves rice and bread, but does not grow much wheat or any rice.  It is not that we must eat wholly as we intend to eat, but it does matter that we begin the dietary and agricultural shift we inevitably face ahead of time.

Most of our gardens bring in our greens and our flavoring crops, our berries and our other things that make life pleasant.  Most of us are not growing our staple foods.  My family is in some measure - we grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root crops each year.  But we still haven’t fully dealt with our grain habit - in some ways we can’t - I consider food storage essential, but I can’t store potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes for as long as beans and grains.

It is possible to grow corn or soybeans, rice or wheat in ways that are sustainable.  But I’m not sure if we’re anywhere even remotely near that transition - one of the things found in both the former Soviet Union and Cuba is this - while small farms adapted very well to low input, sustainable food culture, larger farms simply didn’t, and yields never came back up to prior ones, until lots of fossil fuels were re-input into the system.  That is, there’s some compelling evidence that without a lot of energy, we can still grow grains - but not on large scale.  The traditional limits of, say, Amish farmers were generally no more than 100 acres.  The cultural shift required to imagine breaking up our grain farms into 100 acre increments, with the corresponding reality that some of that acreage must be used to feed animals, is a bit hard to imagine. 

Now it is possible we will simply reallocate our remaining fossil fuels to agriculture - this would be possible in the US, although tougher in countries that don’t have any.  But sooner or later (later probably) the supplies will be inadequate for even that - and remember, as I discussed recently in another post, Cuba lost only 20% of its oil inputs - a number that is much scarier than the 50 or 80% often quoted.  That is, when 20% of its oil disappeared, people began to go hungry, in large part because of the problems of competing priorities.  The 1970s oil shocks that caused a massive recession and energy crisis resulted from only a 5% reduction in US oil availability.  It is conceivable that agriculture will get all the oil - but police protection, education, military use, medical technology, transport, etc… will also be making demands.  We’d have to imagine a scenario in which we all agreed about something.  Good luck with that.

If it is going to be a difficult (not impossible, but difficult on a different scale than adapting our diets) process to adapt grain production as we have it now in the US, then we have to imagine that we may need to shift to other crops that produce more on smaller scales to substitute.  And therein lies the problem.  Root crops produce more calories and nutrition per acre under hand cultivation than many grains do - hand cultivated potatoes outyielded green revolution grains into the early 1970s, and the odds are they will again.  Some roots have the advantage of being perennial as well, and potatoes and sweet potatoes can grow on ground too steep, rocky or poor to grow grains at all, expanding crop land, and without tillage, reducing erosion.  While Americans eat a tolerable number of potatoes, they do so mostly as processed fries and hashbrowns.  Only in the south are sweet potatoes a major source of food.  Turnips, beets, parsnips and perennial roots are a tiny portion of our diets - and none at all for the American mainstream public.

High protein nut crops, including acorns, are probably the densest vegetarian source of calories, proteins and fats available to us.  They are also a tiny portion of our diet.  Animals can be fed on both nut mast and on root crops - mangels and turnips kept animals alive through the winter in Europe, and chestnuts were the “Tree grain” of the East, while acorns were in much of the West, but people do not eat these crops on any scale - we need not “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” once a year, but large scale consumption.

Grains are going to be regionalized - irrigated grain production simply will not be happening in many parts of the country.  Growing rice in California is obviously an act of first-level stupidity, but in the dryer parts of the American prairie, grain production may cease altogether due to climate change.  Southwesterners may be able to get along with dryland corns and amaranths that evolved for the desert, plus mesquite flours and other crops - although the heating and drying of that region may make even that hard.   When fertilizer prices rose, many people stopped planting corn altogether, and were forced to think about other crops - if they rise again, which they certainly will eventually, we will have to think about less demanding sources of food than corn.  

And this is going to require massive retraining and work on people’s palates and food cultures - and it is hugely important work.  There are two ways this can happen - we can find ourselves in crisis, eating what we do know and probably do not like.  The cost of this for ordinary people is grumbling and unhappiness. For children, the medically fragile and the elderly, it is appetite fatigue, which can cause them to stop eating, and suffer malnutrition, illness or occasionally even death.  The price for farmers - and the people who rely on them (ie, all of us) is the danger of an abrupt shift into crops that are unfamiliar, and the possibility of poor harvests when they are most needed.

Or, we can start the work now - we can learn to eat the food.  That means pushing our comfort levels back a good bit, and beginning to replace the grains in our diet with other foods, even if it is hard, even if we think we can’t like them, or we can’t do it.  It means that if we are growing forest gardens full of figs and hazelnuts, they are not merely a snack, but a supplement to our diet, and we eat figs and hazelnuts, jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts.  It means pushing our gardens a little more towards the foods we should be eating - and then actually eating them.  Not that it isn’t valuable to make your own hot sauce - hot sauce matters.  But then comes the process of learning to put it into a salsa served with homegrown beet chips, or on those acorn pancakes.  It is in this homely way that we begin to save the world - with beet chips ;-) .


Random Favorite Food Storage Recipes

Sharon January 15th, 2009

Hi Folks: The recipes here cover the range of food storage and preservation techniques, from recipes for eating out of your root cellar and season extension to straight pantry cooking.  I thought some of them might be fun additions to your menus.  These are some of my favorites.

Tex-Mex Millet: Another recipe borrowed (ok, stolen) from _Veganomicon_, this frankly, kicks ass.  It tastes like Spanish rice, but better.  I’ve changed it to be a bit more of a pantry thing, but the original is pretty terrific too.  Maybe they won’t sue me if you run out and buy their cookbook.

2 tbsp butter or oil

2 cloves garlic

1 cup millet

1 onion

2 pickled jalapenos, diced, or to taste (I like a lot more, but then I’m a chile head)

2 cups vegetable or chicken broth or bullion

5 tablespoons tomato paste

½ tsp salt

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground coriander

Sautee the onion, garlic and jalapeno in the oil until golden and soft, about 7 minutes.  Add the millet, stir and sautee another 5 minutes, until the millet looks golden and toasted.  Pour in the broth and add tomato paste, salt, cumin and coriander. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower heat, cover and cook on lowest setting for ½ hour, or until all the liquid is absorbed.  Fluff up and eat.______________

Dehydrator Apple Granola bars: My kids love granola bars, and I love that I don’t have to actually bake these.  These are very tasty and have absolutely no fat in them, other than what’s naturally in the oats

 3 tart apples 
2 cups rolled oats 
1/2 cup silvered almonds 
2 tbsp. brown sugar 
1 tbsp. honey in 1/4 cup water 
1 tsp. salt 
1/2 tsp. cinnamon 

Peel and grate apples. Place in a bowl with the other ingredients and toss lightly until thoroughly mixed. Place mixture on a dehydrator sheet and dry for 2 to 3 hours, or until crunchy. Cut into bars and store in an airtight container.__________________

Pumpkin Pancakes: These are extremely nutritious, really tasty, cheap and filling.  My kids adore them, and so do the adults.  I like them with cranberry sauce, actually, but maple syrup is traditional.

1 cup pumpkin, squash or sweet potato puree

1 egg plus 1 tbsp soy flour (or 2 eggs)

1 cup milk, buttermilk, soymilk or water

3 tbsp honey or sugar

1/2 tsp salt

2 ½ cups whole wheat flour

Mix together egg, orange vegetable puree, honey and liquid.  Mix dry ingredients.  Whisk together and fry in a pan with a little oil over medium heat.  Eat with jam, apples sauce, honey, maple syrup or pancake syrup.________________

Beets with Tahini Sauce: Ok, I know you hate beets, or think you do, but this is the platonic beet recipe - people who hate beets coming running up to beg for seconds, I swear.  There is something about this amazing combination that just transforms the beets.  Try it – really.  I’ve adapted the recipe from May Bsisu’s spectacular book _The Arab Table_.

5 large or 10 small beets, peeled and diced.

2 tbsp oil

3 tbsp yogurt

2 tbsp tahini

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Coat the diced beets with oil and roast in a 425 oven until tender (you can steam them if you prefer).  Meanwhile, mix all other ingredients.  When the beets are tender, toss with the tahini-yogurt sauce.  This can be served warm, cool or at room temperature and is absolutely amazingly good.


Bamboo Shoot Soup - If you have bamboo, you have bamboo shoots.  You can use the canned ones, but they aren’t as tasty.  This soup kicks butt when you are tired or grumpy or sick

6 cups vegetable stock (or chicken or whatever)

3 tbsp light soy sauce or to taste

1 tbsp sugar

2 cups julienned sliced bamboo shoots (you can used canned too, although the taste is inferior)

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup sliced onions

1 cup sliced mushrooms (you can used dried and rehydrated shiitakes or fresh mushrooms)

1 cup dried tofu sheets (available at asian grocers), broken into bite sized pieces

3 tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp white pepper

¼ cup of hot sauce (or to taste - we use chile-garlic paste) 

Bring stock to a boil. Add soy sauce, sugar and vegetables and cook until vegetables are tender.  Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup cold water, and stir into soup. Keep stirring until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  Serve with hot sauce and fresh cilantro, if available._____________

Stuffed Cabbage with Dried Fruits, Mushrooms and Wild Rice: This is adapted from Georgeanne Brennan’s lovely book _France: The Vegetarian Table_ and has become my favorite way to eat stuffed cabbage.

1 large cabbage (savoy is the easiest to separate)

2 tsp salt

4 tbsp butter or good oil

1 large onion, diced

10 dried prunes, chopped

¼ cup golden or regular raisins

4 dried apricots, chopped

¾ fresh or dried and reconstituted wild mushrooms – the more flavorful the better

2 tsp while pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tbsp chopped rosemary

2 cups wild rice (can use regular rice or another grain, but wild rice is the best) cooked until tender in meat or vegetable broth or apple cider

1/3 cup heavy cream

Vegetable or chicken broth

Peel off the dry outer leaves of the cabbage, if any.  Put the whole cabbage in a pot, cover with water and add salt, and boil for 15 minutes.  Remove cabbage from pot and drain in a colander until cool.  Unwrap and remove leaves from the outside in, setting gradually aside.  When it becomes impossible to keep removing leaves, cut the stem out of the center, and chop the center cabbage – you should have six cups of chopped cabbage.  Melt the butter in a large skillet, sauté cabbage and onions until transluscent.  Add dried fruit and mushrooms and cook for 5-7 minutes, until tender.  Add pepper, cumin and salt to taste.  Remove from heat and mix with cream and rice.Wrap a small amount of filling in each cabbage leaf, fold until closed and place in a baking dish. Pour enough vegetable broth over to come about halfway up on the cabbage, cover baking dish and bake 35 minutes, until tender.



Universal Food Stamps? If the Industrial Food System No Longer Provides Cheap Food, What Are We Keeping It For, Anyway?

Sharon January 3rd, 2009

I think the above is an important story, one that demonstrates an increasing shift in our society’s relationship to its food.  Vermont’s policy change on food stamps is likely to be mirrored by other states, and this represents both a fundamental shift in the reality of American need, and also, I think, the final stake in the heart of the industrial food system. 
The well-known Food Stamp program got a new updated name Friday, and Vermont Gov. James Douglas was on hand for the launch, standing in front of three tables of food at Shaw’s Supermarket Friday afternoon. The state’s expanded nutrition program was symbolized by the display of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, underscoring the new name and “3Squares” focus on healthy eating.Enrollment in the program currently stands at 31,000, or more than 12 percent, of Vermont’s approximately 250,000 households. Those households represent more than 61,000 individuals in the state. The program has expanded by about 57 percent since 2001, when it served 39,000 individuals, said Steve Dale, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.Douglas said he anticipates that “tens of thousands of additional Vermont families will be eligible” for 3Squares VT. “What better time to make that important change than now, when so many Vermonters are struggling to pay their bills in these challenging economic times,” he said.

During the summer, anti-hunger advocates and members of the Vermont Food and Fuel Partnership looked for the most effective way to confront an expected winter crisis caused by spiking fuel bills that could force Vermonters to cut back on food. The consensus was to raise the eligibility ceiling for the supplemental nutrition assistance program and eliminate the asset test, which Douglas called “a burden to participation.” Those changes, agreed to last summer, went into effect Jan. 1.

Now people with gross incomes of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 130 percent, are eligible for the program. That’s $3,269 a month for a family of four. And people will no longer have to spend down their savings for their children’s college education or their retirement to qualify.

“That’s still lower income, but when you take away the onus of being the poorest of the poor, people realize, ‘This is for me!’” said Renée Richardson, the director of the program.”

I have to say, it was a bit of a shock to realize that if we lived in Vermont, my family would qualify for food stamps.  But, of course, that goes along with what has been a massive national shift - away from food stamps as a method of helping the most vulnerable and towards food stamps as a food subsidy that essentially makes food affordable for many people.  In the last few years we’ve seen food stamp enrollment (and let’s be honest, they’ve changed the name before, they will still be calling it food stamps, no matter what marketing VT does) move up to 1 in 9 Americans, and 1 in 6 people in Michigan and Washington DC.  That is, they effectively now operate as a subsidy for a substantial, and rapidly increasing portion of the US.  Given the scale of the expected economic crisis in 2009 and 2010, it would not be surprising to see those numbers hit 1 in 5 Americans.

Now I want to be clear - I am in favor of food stamps and any strategy that helps keep people from going hungry, and that ensures adequate nutrition.   I’m also strongly in favor of any new program that reduces or even attempts to reduce the stigma of accepting aid when it is needed.  That said, however, the question needs to be asked - are food stamps the best possible way to address the issues of food security and access that we’ve created in our society? 

First of all, let’s talk about what’s driving the vast increase in food stamp enrollment in the US.  The first factor is state enthusiasm - that is, there has been a laudable push to bring more hungry people into the food stamp program.  There has also been a push by the states to expand their food stamp enrollment because food stamps are federally funded, and effectively transfer federal dollars into the state - that is, the food that food stamp recipients purchase in Vermont gets spent in Vermont. 

 Food stamps are an extremely effective way of subsidizing state economies, because virtually every dollar gets spent directly - that is, unlike, say, tax returns that often get saved or put into markets that benefit others, low income families don’t have a lot of reserve, so the money they get circulates around - it gets spent and used in the economy, upping the velocity of money.  In this sense, food stamps are a much better investment than, say, bank bailouts - money given to Citibank, for example, goes into the bank’s coffers to offset its existing debts, and is mostly never seen again.  Food stamps given to low income families get spent at the supermarket or the farmer’s market and get money circulating in the community.  In a comparatively poor state like Vermont, this is absolutely urgent.

But, of course, there’s another, not so helpful reason why food stamp enrollments are rising - people are struggling. 2007 saw vast rises in the price of basic foods, and while some foods have declined in cost somewhat - milk for example - agricultural prices are always based in large part on the last season’s production, and so consumers can expect to pay high prices for a long time. 

Moreover, as more and more industrial food producers are forced to stop absorbing higher commodity prices, and make up for shifts in their bottom lines that occurred last year, prices are likely to remain high while companies attempt to remain in business.  With one major industrial producer, Pilgrim Foods, already in bankruptcy, we can expect to see some measure of consolidation in the system - leading, probably to higher prices overall.  Combine that with dramatic month over month job losses and pay cuts, and the prospects are overwhelmingly for more and more people to struggle to put food on the table. Indeed, food pantries and food stamp application handlers are all reporting more and more people who never thought they would be in there present situation needing help.

I think it is important that those of us who think about food begin thinking about food stamps not as an emergency support program, but as a normative food subsidy for Americans - the move to include middle class citizens in food stamp programs is likely to grow, and the fact that the middle class now needs food stamps to get by is not just a bad sign for the temporary economy, but a serious structural shift in our food system.  The exapansion of food stamps is already having a substantial impact on the food system as a whole - remember, states are being flooded with dollars that can *only* be spent on food - this means that the food marketplace is being shifted as a whole, for as spending drops, we are shifting dollars in a particular direction.  Again, I have no difficulty with this to the extent it mitigates hunger - but we do need ask who these subsidies are actually supporting.  If we are going to make a massive federal investment in the food system, we should be subsidizing investments that improve local food security, support goals of cutting global warming gasses and reduce the externalization of a range of problems from health costs to ecological damage onto the shoulders of already burdened taxpayers.

In this sense food stamps are not an unmitigated good.  At this point, food stamps disproportionally benefit the industrial food economy -  many farmer’s markets and CSA programs cannot or are not set up to accept food stamps, and low income families often struggle to get transport to farmer’s markets and farmstands that do accept them. CSAs usually require upfront payments that food stamp recipients cannot make - and while many CSA owners attempt to accomodate low income shares, their personal profit margins are sufficiently low that this doesn’t always work. 

Not only does this prioritization of the industrial do considerable ecological harm, and also reduce the access of lower income families to healthy foods,  but it works against the interests of the states, which lose most of the dollars spent their as they go back to industrial producers. A rational system would be something like Michael Pollan’s proposition that food stamp values are doubled when spent directly at farmer’s markets or through CSA payment programs.  So to would using some federal subsidy and education money to teach people - children and adults - how to cook and eat seasonally, so that they could get the most from their food stamp dollars, buying high quality, whole foods.

But more importantly, the rise in food stamp use should make us look seriously at our industrial food system, and our food system in relationship to the world at large.  For a long time, the one thing that you could say about American industrial food was that it was cheap.  But if food is no longer inexpensive, not just for the poor, but for the American middle class, then the single virtue of the industrial food system begins to collapse.  That is, even with a system of externalized costs, one that defers paying the full price of pollution, industrial food is no longer affordable.  So why were we keeping the industrial food system around again?  Certainly not because there are no better choices - if we are going to subsidize expensive food, why not good, nutritious food that will lower national health costs, enrich small farmers and improve overall food security? 

If we are to accept that something as basic as food has now moved out of the realm of ordinary affordability, this should make clear to us precisely how vulnerable we are to hunger even in the US.  The fact that we have acknowledged a need for a subsidy that extends well into the middle class (and it actually extends further than implied, because food stamps automatically make you eligible for things like subsidized school lunches) means that the industrial food system no longer is managing to do the one thing that you could say in its defense - provide affordable food.  And if this is no longer the case, there really is no defense left for industrial agriculture.


How Low Can I Go?: Balancing Cheap and Sustainable in My Pantry

Sharon December 20th, 2008

I don’t know about you, but it seems like it is getting harder and harder to keep the grocery budget stable - and given the economic times we’re in that’s a tough thing to swallow.  I could, of course, stop buying storage foods and start eating down our reserves more, but I don’t quite feel we’re there yet.  So the question for me becomes how to balance the need to keep plugging the holes in our storage, to keep the grocery bills in budget, and also, to make sure that I’m voting with my dollars as much as possible for things I actually support.  Because the money I spend in the food system either reinforces industrial agriculture and the status quo (when I buy industrial food, whether organic or conventional) or it helps build a better food system (when I buy locally, direct from farmers, though coops and institutions I value, and fair trade for imported goods). 

So, for example,  we only eat animal products that are local and sustainably raised.  That costs, although raising our own helps a lot.  We buy goods like spices and tea from fair trade producers, and our produce locally whenever possible. We also keep kosher, so there are some foods we simply don’t eat, and others that have to be bought at higher prices.  That makes it hard for us to take advantage of low cost menu models like The Hillbilly Housewife’s (I like her site a lot, btw, and think her ultra-low-cost menu is really excellent: which often use pork products and processed foods to provide flavorings.  I can and do work around that, of course, but I’m not going to be buying my teabags 100 for a buck - it just isn’t feasible.

And yet, keeping my grocery budget low is important to me for several reasons - when we stay under budget, we make larger donations to charity.  We also are able to do more to build up our food reserves that way.  And if, as we fear, Eric loses his job in the crashing of the New York State education budget, we’re going to have to get by for a while (assuming no easy job solution) with savings, unemployment and/or  what I make writing, farming and teaching - last year my total earnings from all sources ran a bit under 14K.  That would be challenging.  So the more we build our reserves, the better off we are.

I doubt I’m the only person who wants to keep their food budget low, while still buying food that supports their principles. And in fact, this is one of those things that becomes more, not less urgent in a crisis.  Because the premium most of us pay for organic food from local farmers, for our CSA baskets and grassfed meat is something that most of us feel we could compromise on if we really had to.  The problem is, of course, is more and more of us decide not to get the CSA share, or to just this week buy the industrial ground beef, the local farms will be casualties of the Depression.  Walmart is already seeing an improvement in sales - because people are shifting from higher priced merchants to them.  And if we all go back to shopping at Walmart, when the final dust is settled, and Walmart’s just-in-time model and its heavy use of energy no longer function, we’ll find ourselves without Walmart *or* the local food systems we need so badly.

So I thought I’d start a new series on this blog about my own attempts to keep the budget down, your suggestions for how to eatly cheaply without compromising on principle, and if we have to compromise, how to make the least painful choices.

The first step for me, and I hope for all of you, will be to sit down and figure out exactly what we’re spending on food for week by week usage, vs. storage.  I really should know this already, but the last few years we’ve been lucky enough to have a small margin of flexibility in our budget- not enough to throw caution to the winds, but enough that I’ve not been carefully dividing our storage and “to eat this week” stuff up. I have an overall sense of how much we spend on food, but, for example, haven’t sat down to figure out the amortized cost of the 20lbs of local, dried cranberries I bought last week over the year it will last us.  I also need to do a full scale analysis of our food budget, including animal feeds and seeds in the total calculation. 

The next project will be to set a challenge budget for ourselves, to ask “how low can I go” while still buying my food from local and sustainable source.  Can I use less of something (ok, no question I can drink less tea!), can I use it more wisely?  Can I find lower priced options in our budget?  Try new recipes that will help reduce costs?  Make more things from scratch?  Change my habits so that I’m eating more of inexpensive and seasonal things?  Could I help the kids use less of things (toothpaste - check!)?  Are there places where I’m buying things that could be cut out all together? 

Anyone else want to work on figuring out just how low you can go, without compromising on the systems we all are going to rely on?


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