not your forefather’s ketchup.

Raise your hand if you remember Ronald Reagan trying to count ketchup as a vegetable.

(Ok, no, these guys weren’t alive back then. They’re just processed foods, only way cuter. And the two main reasons I get so angry about misguided food policy.)

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher. In 1981, Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding. The USDA scrambled to figure out how to maintain some semblance of nutrition in school lunches. One idea floated was to count ketchup as “a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Thankfully, the idea tanked.

This week, it was reincarnated, in pizza sauce form. Stuck in a joint House-Senate Department of Agriculture spending bill (which is attached to other agencies’ spending bills to make a ‘minibus’ bill, different from an ‘omnibus’ bill, of course. Though what Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing have to do with each other I don’t exactly know, other than they’re all working under continuing resolutions because the fiscal year these bills are funding started almost two months ago, but I digress) was language blocking new standards in the National School Lunch Program. Standards that were developed in conjunction with nutritionists, doctors, and plain old common sense.

In case you’re a wonk like me, here’s the language from the proposed bill itself (on page 90 of the 401 page document):

Sec. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that –

(1)    requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;

(2)    implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (FNS-2007-0038, RIN 0584-AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and

(3)    establishes any whole grain requirement without defining “whole grain.”

I know, that makes absolutely no sense. Guess what? I speak bureaucrat. Here’s my translation:

Sec. 743. USDA, you can’t use any of the money Congress is giving you for your FY 2012 budget to:

(1) make us count the volume of tomato paste we’re putting on something as just the volume served. We like counting the “whole-food equivalency” of a tomato and we’re sticking to that. It doesn’t matter that tomato paste is the only thing we count like this; currently “other fruit paste and purees…are credited based on actual volume as served.” Our friends the pizza lobbyists *really* didn’t like the sentence you put in at the end of that section: “Schools would not be allowed to credit a volume of fruit or vegetables that is more than the actual serving size.” They said to tell you that you suck.

(2) limit the sodium intake of an elementary school-age child to anything less than 540 mg/breakfast and 1,230 mg/lunch; a middle school-age child to anything less than 600 mg/breakfast and 1,360 mg/lunch; and a high school-age child to 640 mg/breakfast and 1,420 mg/lunch until we think you’ve looked at all the data we think is relevant. We’re purposely ignoring the fact that it’s ridiculously easy to find such studies on the internet, including this one on the same website as the report these standards are based on, because we don’t like what it says. And you know, we’re also ignoring data from past Surgeons General, too. What does C. Everett Koop know? It’s not like he has any medical training. His assertion that “1.1 to 3.3 grams [of sodium] per day [is] found to be as safe and adequate for adults by the National Research Council” is ri-gosh-darn-diculous. Never mind that just the lunch for a kindergartener has more than the minimum ‘safe’ level of daily sodium for an adult under these standards. I’m sticking my fingers in my ears.      

(3) make anybody eat whole grains until you define whole grain to our satisfaction. Because the reference to “a minimum whole grain content of 51 percent” in your proposed rule and the definition of whole-grain in the Random House dictionary as “of or being natural or unprocessed grain containing the germ and bran” isn’t clear enough. That makes us think that at least 51% of the stuff we eat with grains in it has to have been minimally processed, keeping the germ and bran, and EVERYbody knows you can’t make ooey-gooey white bread with that crap. My friends at the American Frozen Food Institute told me so.

Holy cow. That took me several hours to untangle. And I know how to read this government-speak. You non-wonks don’t stand a chance in this field. Go back to eating your processed foods, fools.

…and that’s exactly what they want you to do. Don’t pay attention to the fact that the American Frozen Food Institute and the National Potato Council were the only food-related organizations that were happy about this language.

And if that hasn’t made your head spin enough already, here’s some language from the Senate’s deliberations on this bill on Halloween (my comments are conveniently in bold). No word if anyone dressed up as a ketchup bottle while talking about tomato paste.

From Senator Jerry Moran, R-KS (just as an example):

Furthermore, we must keep in mind the impact this rule will have on school budgets and food suppliers. Unfunded mandates such as this one will make it even harder for schools to provide healthy lunches for students. [Right, because properly funding nutritional programs in public schools so that all children have a relatively level nutritional playing field is a nasty socialist endeavor. And capitalism will keep us from falling behind China in educational achievement. Because it's worked so well so far.]

The Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of compliance over a 5-year period will reach $6.8 billion. The Federal reimbursement already does not cover the full cost of preparing a meal in many schools across our country. This new USDA rule will further drive up the costs of providing lunches and school districts will have to make up the difference. This doesn’t seem like a reasonable approach when many school districts are already struggling to make ends meet. [Oh. My. God. That's an obscene amount of money to pull out of thin air. $6.8 billion for five years? How could you even ask for that volume of cash? Well, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that's about the amount of money that funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for three weeks. If we can find money to fight two wars and mark our territory across a wide swath of Asia, why we can't find the cash to properly feed our kids?]

Let me give an example of what is in this rule. Once finalized, schools would be required to reduce sodium content in breakfasts by up to 27 percent and school lunches by up to 54 percent. There are a couple problems with this requirement. There is no suitable  replacement for sodium that can maintain the same functions of flavor and texture. Also, reducing sodium is not just a function of limiting raw salt content. Many ingredients have sodium in them that occurs naturally. School food suppliers have been working for years to reduce the amount of sodium in their food products. However, they need additional time to come up with a solution that balances nutritional value with taste so kids will eat the school lunch. [Two things: 1) if this guy is genuinely worried about taste, he's never actually eaten a school lunch, and 2) if the school suppliers need more time to figure out the nutrition vs. taste debate, why haven't they been working on it for the eleven months since the proposed rule was published? That's a decent amount of time for the chem labs that simulate food taste to figure something out.]

This rule would also change how nutritional content is measured—rather than measure nutrition based on density, the Department of Agriculture rule proposes to measure nutritional content based on volume. For example, tomato paste is nutritionally dense, but the Department of Agriculture says it must meet the same volume as a fresh tomato. That doesn’t make much sense. Why would we take a metric to be the arbitrary volume requirement instead of just measuring the nutritional value? [I really just don't get this tomato problem. If I buy a six ounce can of tomato paste, it says six ounces on the label. Not ten tomatoes. Lots of things are nutritionally dense when you concentrate them. Why should tomatoes get special treatment?]

No wonder these guys are so easy to ridicule on late night tv.

Elsewhere on the internet, people have been quoted as saying that government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat. Free will is quintessentially American. Ok, so if that’s the case, my three year old shouldn’t be punished for raiding her brother’s Halloween stash under the dining room table before breakfast (which happened today, and being the ungodly commie pinko that I am, I stopped her). In case you haven’t noticed, kids don’t always make the smartest choices regarding food. And if they don’t have parents who know how to make smart choices about food, or have the money or the time to make good choices for them, where else can they learn how to develop smart eating habits *except* at school?

And riddle me this – if government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat, why did the American Frozen Food Institute spend $5 million to influence Congress on these rules? I would think that greasing the palms of your local elected official would get them to work for something in your favor, wouldn’t it? Sounds like those politicians who were swayed by lobbyists weren’t exactly exercising their free will, either. I know of no low-income kindergartener who could wield that kind of influence in the halls of Congress.

If this pisses you off, it should. Between processing the Penn State child sex abuse scandal so that I could talk to my son (the same age as the victims) coherently about the dangers of child predators, and hearing that people in Congress like their potatoes and sodium more than they like my kids’ unblocked arteries to stay that way, it’s been a hard week to be a parent. This further cements my position to not let my kids eat the school lunches until Jamie Oliver makes his way to every school district in the country.

Finally, consider this. The federal government created the National School Lunch Program because during the Depression, “[m]illions of school children were unable to pay for their school lunches, and with but limited family resources to provide meals at home, the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern.” Today, one in four young adults is too overweight to join the military, which should also be a national concern. Not to mention the untold burden this public health crisis will put on future generations. But hey, those frozen pizza makers are job creators!

whoops.

So I blew it for Hunger Action Month.

So much for 30 ways in 30 days in my house – between a weeklong business trip, the end of the fiscal year, the start of a school year for two different kids in two different schools, a new job for my husband, trying to get fall yardwork accomplished, starting to create Angry Birds Halloween costumes early (so I’m not frantically sewing the day of), and the neverending housework/laundry/dishes/cub scouts/dance class cycle, all my good intentions just fell through the cracks. I didn’t sign a paper plate, didn’t donate a tote bag, and heck, didn’t even make it to a farmers’ market to buy local during the month of September. Ugh.

Sound familiar? Getting sucked into the craziness of everyday life happens to a lot of us with small children – and a lot of us who don’t have the excuse of the little people, too. I don’t know about you, but all this go-go-go crisis mode crap stresses me out, and drives my husband crazy when I turn into the shrew. I’m not easily tamed.

But I digress. Sort of. One of the things I’ve been doing this month (with a long-distance friend) is an online course that has helped me clear my head quite a bit. It’s also further cemented the idea that food policy issues are important to me, and that I need to figure out how to incorporate it into my everyday life (more than I already do). Today, I’m doing that in two ways – writing a long overdue post about the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and reminding everyone that tomorrow (Tuesday, October 4th) is the 2011 Pittsburgh Day of Giving.  Whaddya know? They’re connected, and both points get me back on track.

Point 1. I referenced my trip last month to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank a few weeks ago. But here are some more visuals that struck me:

Wouldn’t you want to come and volunteer for these lovely, happy people at the food bank?

Look at the sheer size of the containers holding the food handed out in one night.

Again, the sheer scale of the place is amazing. And incredibly disheartening. Because if the food bank hands out this much food, it’s because that many people are hungry in this region.

Everybody’s favorite, industrial strength creamed corn. The food that moves through here is not luxurious. Which is a reason why the Produce for People program is so popular – it supplements these basic food items with fresh produce.

The saddest-looking donation in shop-through (where food pantries can take a gander at smaller donations from grocery stores and the like and see if the people they serve can use it). This birthday cake has definitely seen better days. Still, I’d rather see it donated instead of being thrown away. Kudos to the store that agreed with me.

The storage facilities in this place are cavernous.

See those blue mixed can stickers? That’s how the goods that are collected from local food drives are distributed. Food pantries will order those from the food bank for the variety. I felt better knowing that the stuff I donate is actually helpful.

This one made me tear up a little. The juxtaposition of the Feeding America poster, the food bank logo, and that lovely drawing was a little too much for me. My kids are lucky enough to not know what it’s like to be hungry – if only all kids could be so lucky.

We are lucky that the food bank is here. It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of our country that it has to exist at all. Which leads me to…

Point 2. You should care about this. Food, shelter, and clothing are the three needs of every human. If you are lucky enough to have an excess of those three, please consider donating to the food bank so that someone who doesn’t have enough of one of those three basic needs can have some more. People who need food assistance aren’t stereotypes you can wave away. They’re your neighbors. Especially in the current economic climate.

The generous folks at The Pittsburgh Foundation have made this incredibly easy. Our city is blessed with a strong philanthropic spirit – and the Pittsburgh Day of Giving, where your donations through their website (this one – over here – pittsburghgives.org – make sure you use it!) makes it even better. You can donate as little as $25, and your funds will be partially matched. It starts tonight at midnight. DO IT. You’ll be up too late making Halloween costumes or folding laundry anyway.

Or, heck, here’s another easy way: the food bank has a Groupon. Who doesn’t love those ridiculously good deals for the consumer (that turn out not to be so hot for the merchants, but not in this case)? You can donate $10 to help with school food programs. You’ve spent more than that on coffee this week.

I’m doing both (or will once it hits midnight tonight). I haven’t been paid (or fed) by the food bank to do either one of these things, or to talk to you about it. As a former food pantry kid, I know what it’s like to be poor. I’m thankful for social safety nets, both government- and privately funded. I’m happy to do it and talk about it because that means fewer kids go hungry. That’s a no brainer.

And, hey, check it out. I may have crapped the bed on Hunger Action Month, but I have World Food Week of Action 2011 to look forward to. And it’s during my birthday week, so I may force my family to do something food-related for my birthday. A little guilt never hurt anyone, right?

produce to the people.

I had the good fortune to be able to observe the Produce to People program at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank tonight. I’m beat, and still processing all that I learned, but it was definitely one of those experiences I can’t forget. Here’s a glimpse of what I saw.

This doesn’t begin to demonstrate the volume of people or food in the room tonight. This does, however, demonstrate the ways people can be resourceful in getting their food home (we saw many laundry baskets in use). It also demonstrates the ubiquity of the canned corn that helps to fill in the gaps.

This once a month distribution is designed to be supplementary to local food pantry use, providing fresh produce as well as more shelf-stable food. However, 60% of the participants don’t have a home food pantry. Families can take home up to 45 pounds of food, and we saw volunteers maneuvering these carts back and forth for hours tonight.

The Paper Plate campaign asks people to explain to their elected officials how hunger has affected them, and what role the food bank has played in their life. This month, Senator Pat Toomey is the intended recipient of the paper plates – and you can send one virtually. It’s an easy way to make your voice heard and support food security in our region.

love thy neighbor

I’m gearing up for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank‘s #blogmob tomorrow, and while I’m excited to be a part of this event to raise awareness about hunger in our community, my enthusiasm was tempered a bit on my drive home. NPR, my go-to in-car radio companion, had two stories on food insecurity which pointed out the following statistics:

  • 17.2 million households were food insecure in 2010 – they had trouble putting food on the table, or didn’t know where their next meal would come from.
  • Children in 386,000 households went hungry at some point in 2010.
Both stories also noted that these statistics would have been worse if not for government nutrition programs. One in seven Americans (over 45 million) are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an increase of over 10 million since late 2007.

In the richest country in the world, ten million MORE people needed assistance eating in the past three years. While I’m not overly religious, I do try my best to be a good person, do what I can to help others, live a life where I can look myself in the mirror every day. And yet I hear that one in seven Americans need help eating? Where is their help from their neighbor? Where is their ‘brother’s keeper’? Who’s been shirking on the ‘do unto others’ part of the golden rule so that these people – almost 400,000 *children* – don’t have enough money to eat?

Thanks, NPR, for firing me up and making me angry. Thanks, USDA (who I usually nitpick) for releasing this data during Hunger Action Month. Thanks, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, for giving me an opportunity to learn more about the face of hunger in our community tomorrow, so I can DO something about it.

People who know me know I’m a mama bear when it comes to my family. I may have just broadened the reach of my claws.

September is ______ month.

According to my good friend Wikipedia, September is:

Though all of these are laudable things to celebrate in September (my husband would wholly support bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit”), Wiki missed a few non-national commemoration options for September that resonate with me.  In Pennsylvania, September has been designated Local Food Month by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). PASA is highlighting the harvest at its peak, restaurants that buy local, and farms that are opening their doors to people interested in seeing from where their food originates. There’s a calendar full of opportunities to connect with the local food community in western PA. And who can resist carrots as cute as these guys:

September is also Hunger Action Month, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is encouraging participation in the ’30 Ways in 30 Days’ campaign to increase awareness about the 1 in 6 Americans who experience hunger. That’s too many.  

I’m excited to be able to take part in one of their ‘Ways’ this month – I’ll be participating in their blogmob this Thursday, and will be sharing my experiences with you. At a time of year when so many are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of produce at markets or in their backyards (including me and those damn tomatoes), it will be a good reminder that not everyone is as lucky as me to complain about too many fresh vegetables. Stay tuned!

__________________________

Update: found another one (not in PA, though) – September is also Locavore Month.

How do you define a food desert? Probably not the way I do.

(I’m having an ongoing conversation with my friend and fellow blogger Leah from Brazen Kitchen about food deserts. We discovered this week that we’ve both been thinking of this topic since it was in the media earlier in the summer. Keep your eye on her blog for a different angle on the issue. It’s so much more fun to be a geek when you’re not alone!)

You may have heard the phrase “food desert” repeatedly this summer, when First Lady Michelle Obama stood up with several major retail chains and announced a deal to plop down some big ole big box stores in food deserts. Which at face value is great – low-income communities, in both urban and rural areas, often have trouble attracting and maintaining grocery stores and other retailers because of a mix of low returns and high risks. Although the program does include a few independent retailers, the highest volume of stores in the initiative are national or regional chains. Commentators were perplexed – did we pretty much guarantee WalMart shareholders huge gains at taxpayer expense? Why not an emphasis on independent, locally owned businesses, or expanding farmers markets and cooking classes focusing on the foods you can buy there?

It looks like it’s grounded in the USDA’s definition of a food desert: “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Low-income* communities are defined as a census tract having “either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income;” and a low-access community qualifies if “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population … reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).” So access to a supermarket or large grocery store is the only way to get good quality food, and you have to be within a mile (or ten). And it’s the entire census tract that is or isn’t a food desert, regardless of how densely populated it is (population density determines the census tract size). And the definition of grocery store or supermarket is one that has at least $2 million in sales, which rules out smaller, usually locally owned stores.

This isn’t the only definition of a food desert – the CDC says that a food desert is an area that lacks “access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” They also say (the best sentence I’ve found so far on a government website) that “[i]dentifying food deserts is not an exact science….” The 2008 Farm Bill defined a food desert as an “area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” Wikipedia, my source for all things not otherwise easily defined, has a two-paragraph definition section on its food desert page.  And Fooddeserts.org has a slew of definitions and uses on its page in many countries. So while the definitions are similar, they’re not exactly interchangeable. The recent USDA definition certainly seems to be the most specific.

I know how I shop – and especially in the summer when local fruits and vegetables are flying fast and furious, I do what I can to avoid major supermarkets (especially the Whole Foods parking lot – this parody is spot on). I don’t feel as if I live in a food desert (which I don’t, according to the USDA) but even so, I can avoid most major grocery stores and still get my basics sorted out. So I started to think about tweaking the definition of a food desert using my neighborhood, because it’s easier to do this in theory than it is to mess with data on a national scale in practice. But I’m just trying to prove a point here.

My neighborhood is an urban one of moderate density. In the past ten years, its access to stores that sell food has vastly increased. In addition to two long-time grocery stores within a mile or two (one which has been greatly expanded), my end of town now has three more big box stores plopped nearby. I’m within spitting distance (relatively speaking) of two Giant Eagles** (one a Market District), a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, and a brand-spanking-new urban Target – with expanded produce section! This region of Pittsburgh (Shadyside/East Liberty/Larimer) is fast returning to its historical roots as a regional shopping district after spending many years languishing in misguided urban planner hell. Oh, plus there’s another Giant Eagle across the river. And my favorite grocery store, the East End Food Co-op, is a little further away.

So, not likely to be a food desert anywhere close to this place. Except that there are three census tracts that are still pink on the food locator’s website nearby.

Exhibit A (general lay of the land):

And closer to the core area I’m referencing:Here’s the grocery stores (that I know of – this is not meant to be exhaustive) added in:

Let’s ignore for a moment that one of the census tracts noted as a food desert actually *has* a grocery store in it, which brings up the question of grocery store data sources (and having good data in general). I’m curious about the one-mile rule, and if a significant chunk of these tracts are actually within a mile of a grocery store. That little tract – 1203 – seems a little suspect:

So at least 500 people and/or 33% of the people in this tract, have to be more than a mile away from a grocery store to be considered low access. This data set says that absolutely everyone fits into that category. This tract also has 57.8% of its population that is both low income and has low access – 1291 people.***

But it looks *so* close to the grocery stores plotted above, doesn’t it? Let’s pull out every planner’s friend, the scale bar, and draw a one-mile radius around Target, Trader Joe’s, the co-op, and the Waterworks GE, since those are the closest grocery stores to that tract (instead of calling the entire tract a desert because of its center point).

A little different when you use a one-mile radius, I’d say. At least half of census tract 1203 (the more populated half, judging by the street grid on the map) is covered by Target or Trader Joe’s. And if you can get to Trader Joe’s, you can get to the Giant Eagle across the street.

What about seasonality? If you put farmers’ markets or farm stands into the mix, how does that change the landscape? Here’s the seasonal markets, a year-round farmers’ market, a farm stand, and several community gardens:

And their coverage in a one-mile radius: ****

At least one of the larger markets takes food stamps (SNAP? WIC? I can’t keep up with what they’re called anymore), which makes purchasing even easier. Not all of the community gardens sell to the public, but some do. So, best case scenario, several months out of the year, more people have access to (fresh, local) food. And two out of the three food desert tracts are now covered by the existing options. In theory, anyway. Note that I didn’t take a look at the transit routes, for example, because I’ve bored you enough already.

So what’s my point to this exercise? Well, I have several:

  • Recognize the limitations of a national definition in a local area. I probably understand the area around these census tracts better than someone crunching numbers in Washington does. And this is a far from comprehensive assessment of the issue at hand. If I’m worried about food access in these areas, I know there’s a lot more to take into consideration than just what I see on the Food Desert Locator.
  • Make sure you have the most up to date data. Self-explanatory, that one.
  • Determine if a definition is the best one for the job. Do we need another huge big box? Or would something else work better instead – maybe a smaller grocer to stabilize a neighborhood business district and augment the existing large supermarkets?
  • Use this as a tool, not as gospel. I direct this one to the USDA and Mrs. Obama – please, please, PLEASE do not develop a new funding stream for food deserts based solely on this tool. It’s a great tool, but it’s just a tool. Build the flexibility in at the local level so people on the ground who understand the context can do good things in their neighborhoods, not just watch as another big box retailer tromps on in.
You may see me hit on this topic again – the issue of food access is so much more complex than the ‘easy’ solution of throwing a WalMart Express in a poor neighborhood makes it out to be.

* Don’t get me started on the fact that the federal government doesn’t define a low-income area consistently. There is a difference between median household and median family income, for example.

**Giant Eagle is the dominant regional grocery store chain.

*** Just so you know, the population data in this tool is from 2000. For this census tract, the 2010 population is down to 1,650. Here’s another question about data – it’s out of date (probably because Census 2010 income-level data has not been released). Will this be updated? Was it possible to use the American Community Survey data to get more recent (and therefore relevant) data on this issue, at least in urban areas?

**** assuming that both a farm stand and a big market would draw from a mile away, that is.

Little boxes… made of ticky-tacky…


 Not in my front yard! (photo courtesy of myfoxdetroit.com)

I’m one of many, many Americans who have the dubious distinction of having grown up in the suburbs. Though I can understand the thought process of some who live there – More land for your money! Lower taxes! Better schools! Everybody’s just like us! – I hated it. HATED IT. Especially where I lived, there was nowhere I could go on foot other than to the local high school. Which is cool for about all of five minutes. The closest grocery store and shopping area was a mile away on a road with no sidewalks where people (myself included, in my teenage years) regularly drove 20 miles above the speed limit. Not exactly a good destination for a middle-schooler on foot.

I drove through that part of town this past weekend to show my son where I used to live. It was the first time I hadn’t been over there to deal with something from my parents’ old house (cleaning 33 years of stuff out of the place has been over for a couple of years, thank goodness) and the first time in ages I wasn’t on autopilot driving through. All I could think of was “how on earth do people LIVE here?”

Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’ve just lived in a city too long, but I like walking to the coffee shop and the bus stop and having a major supermarket (and in two weeks, a brand-spanking-new urban Tarzhay) within a mile of my house. I like walking there on sidewalks that actually exist, I like riding a bike there easily, I like driving there, I like being home quickly from work in 20 minutes on a bus that someone else drives so I don’t have to. Yes, I do like driving sometimes, but I like even more the fact that I don’t HAVE to. I can still function in society if I were to suddenly become carless tomorrow. Which is probably why I’ve lived within the city limits for 16 years now and have a graduate degree in planning. So I admit that I’m a little more extreme than most. But still….

Who doesn’t want their kid to walk to school? Who wants to make their kids fatter? Who wants to prohibit the planting of vegetables so that the neighborhood kids don’t know where tomatoes come from before they end up in ketchup? No one I know. But, alas, we live in a society where all of those things happen – and, as it happens, all things have been talked about (especially the last thing, those poor defenseless tomatoes) this week:

  •  The Safe Routes to School Program unveiled a new “walkability” checklist to determine the community value of a school – in part because “one phenomenon we battle everyday is kids’ inability to walk to school – or anywhere – because it’s too far” (sound familiar, childhood?). According to them, school siting away from existing populations, or residential siting away from existing schools, “has helped contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has proclaimed.”
  • Yeah, that pesky obesity epidemic. Sick of hearing about that one yet? Me neither, because it’s getting worse. The catchy title of this year’s report F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011 highlights both adult and childhood obesity. More than two-thirds of the 50 states have adult obesity rates over 25%. Twenty years ago, no state had a rate over 20%. Childhood rates aren’t quite as alarming, but this interactive map from last year shows that all states except one have childhood obesity rates less than 10% (yet another reason I feel compelled to move to Oregon). So at minimum, one out of ten kids are overweight. In my state, 15% of all kids are overweight. But not being able to walk to school has nothing to do with it, right? Neither does having the ability to grow your own food and learn that food doesn’t just come from a grocery store. Nothing at all.
  • Which leads me to the worst story of the week, as far as I’m concerned. Have you heard the one about the woman who is being sued by her city for growing vegetables in her front yard? Sadly, it’s not a joke. Gotta love complaining neighbors in small towns who don’t think raised garden beds are suitable for front yards, even though the municipal code specifically exempts vegetables from the prohibition of random things in yards. Yes, I’ve checked. And what struck me in this story (after thinking that Oak Park has nothing better to do than to declare war on vegetables) is what this supportive neighbor said: “I have a bunch of little children and we take walks to come by and see everything growing. I think it’s a very wonderful thing for our neighborhood.”

So let’s take away maybe the only place kids can see things growing that they might one day eat in a neighborhood because it’s not suitable. Thinking back on my childhood, I don’t remember any of our neighbors growing gardens, just my parents. Is it typical of suburbia to want things so ‘just-so’ that they don’t want people eating from their yards? That’s certainly the stereotype, and there are many documented cases of kids not having a clue where food comes from. 

I know this post may be wandering, but it also proves a point – everything is connected. If my kids don’t know where food comes from and the difference between processed and non-processed foods, and they can’t walk to the bus stop or to school because of safety or land use issues, it seems pretty inevitable that they will end up overweight. I’m doing my best to keep that from happening – and it’s so foreign to me that people, especially planners, who are supposed to think of the interconnectedness of systems, don’t get it. Then again, there’s a reason I don’t live in places like that.

Pigs have rights, too!

(or, what to do when your seven year old refuses to eat today what he gobbled down yesterday)

Mmmmm, bacon. Meat candy. I know vegetarians who make exceptions for bacon, omnivores who gobble down pounds of it at a time, no one who doesn’t love it. We’re lucky to be able to purchase locally raised heritage pork in bulk, but even bacon that’s not locally produced is pretty darn good.

Which is why my husband was so shocked when our son flat-out refused to eat bacon for breakfast one morning this past winter, when he had happily eaten it the day before. I got a phone call at work requesting me to discuss the problem with my son – who was so upset about the situation he was crying, and then had to get off the phone because he got a nosebleed – which left me scratching my head as well. Apparently we had been good at instilling in him the need to question his food’s sources, but not so good about discussing the particular options for responsible food choices.

So, as my pedantic brain is wont to do, I started thinking of the conversation to have with him and ended up with a flow chart (you have been forewarned of my geek factor).

The conversation continues – it’s not just a one-time and you’re done thing – but the big issues and questions that arose were important ones. Why do you think pigs have rights? Should we stop killing all animals for food production? What would happen to us? What would happen to the animals? Should we just make sure that pigs while living live like pigs should live? Why don’t we do that as a matter of course?

So yes, I’ve discussed food systems planning, factory farms, free range animals, the state of animal domestication and husbandry, the pros and cons of vegetarianism, processed versus non-processed food and their relative costs, and overall nutrition issues with my second grader. He swore off bacon for a couple of days but doesn’t mind eating it now that he knows that the pig from where it came lived a happy, mudwallowing, grunting life at a local farm. He also further understands why we don’t like him eating school lunches, and will look at food labels in the grocery store to avoid things he can’t pronounce.

Hopefully, I’ve helped to inform his decision-making. If he decides one day to become a vegetarian, I’m ok with that, as long as it’s not a knee-jerk reaction. And in the meantime, we’re doing our best to make sure pigs have rights AND we have meat candy.

I hate to keep bashing

…the USDA, but man, they’re making it easy.

Marion Nestle, as usual, has an excellent point:

“But the big national outbreaks we’ve been experiencing lately are from foods that are already contaminated by the time they get to you.  Following food safety procedures makes good sense, but that’s not where the problem lies…. To stop food safety problems at their source, we need a functional food safety system.  This means rules that require all producers to follow food safety procedures and a government with the authority and resources to make sure they do.”

So USDA will spend $2 million to tell us to make our food safer, that it’s our responsibility, yet we have no control over how safe our food is until it gets to us…. unless we know our farmer or grow it ourselves.

It’s deja vu all over again.

a tale of two demonstration gardens

I love visiting big cities. Though I live in a small-to-medium size city and love having its amenities without the traffic and expenses of big city life, there is something about checking out a town with a real functioning transportation system, a Central Business District that’s more than six blocks long, and many, many places to visit.

Thankfully, I live a short drive away from many big cities. This past weekend, my family headed to Washington, DC for a screaming trip to visit a family member in town for a conference (who lives much, much further away). Since it was the first time the kids had been there to sightsee, we crammed in several standard touristy things before we left.

And of course, since I can’t get away from food-related things, even on vacation, we drove along the National Mall and spotted the People’s Garden on the USDA‘s lawn. Beautifully manicured, the garden had a variety of crops growing, both those that people usually have growing in their backyards and those that are generally just commercially grown (I know no one who grows wheat in their backyard).

Later on, we visited the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) (which, by the way, is quite possibly the best museum I have visited in ages). It too has a demonstration garden, highlighting crops that are traditionally used in Native cooking – and used in the fantastic museum cafe.

But once I saw the two gardens, the gears started turning in my head. The comparison of the two, and their underlying reasons for development, irks me. The Smithsonian‘s vision is “shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world,” and the NMAI’s mission is to advance “knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present, and future, through partnership through Native people and others.” USDA’s mission involves providing “leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.” Further down the page, its strategic plan highlights key activities of the Department. Which further irks me, because “enhancing food safety” and “improving nutrition and health” only come after “expanding markets for agricultural products,” “support[ing] international economic development, ” and “further developing alternative markets for agricultural products and activities.”

Combined with the discussion several weeks ago about the disconnect between the USDA’s nutrition guidelines and its agricultural subsidy, the USDA’s demonstration garden seemed like lipstick on a pig (or, as my husband proudly said, ‘making chicken salad out of chicken shit.’ And yes, I still married him). It’s glossy, pretty, right on the Mall to advertise to tourists, and doesn’t actually reflect what the USDA does inside the Whitten Building.

In contrast, the NMAI demonstration garden is in perfect alignment with the museum’s, and the Smithsonian Institution’s, mission and vision. So although the garden is a little less glossy, and doesn’t have the broad range of crops available in the USDA garden, it does its job honestly.

Advocating for a government agency to reflect the needs of the citizens it serves is a constant struggle between competing interests. And I laud the USDA for trying to raise awareness with the People’s Garden program. But until it puts its money where its mouth is in its budget, it can do much, much better than some raised beds in a corner.