The Town that Food Saved

Three weeks or so ago, I sent in my Letter of Intent to register at UC Davis in the fall.

In two months and a bit, I’ll be back in California starting a research position; by the end of September, I expect to be deep into classes, papers, and starting on some of the projects I’ve been dreaming up.

It was hard to decide to go back to school and it was hard to decide to go to Davis, but now that I’ve finally settled on a plan, it feels darn good.

Now that I’ve painted the broad strokes of the next couple of years, it’s becoming more and more exciting to layer in the details. So many of the experiences I’ve had over the last three months are connecting back to the work that I’ll be doing in Davis; people that I continue to meet, places I visit, reports I read — they’re all giving me inspiration for what I can do with two years of financial support, university resources, and lots of excitement and energy.

I’ll be in a program called Community and Regional Development, focusing on community economic development through food systems; looking at the ways that community-based agri-food businesses can create jobs, empower people, improve the physical environment, improve people’s health, and promote cultural change that, among other things, may lead to more cooperation, more compassion, more participation, and ultimately, a more satisfied, happy society.

When you start to get immersed in the food systems milieu, the same concepts come up again and again. The same examples  too. Hardwick, Vermont is one of those examples: a town that supposedly epitomizes what’s possible when business savvy meets food, meets community; throw in a whole lot of elbow grease and voila! an economic and cultural miracle. Down-and-out old quarry town town transformed into a agri-food mecca.

So when a friend recommended Hewitt’s book, The Town that Food Saved, of course I had to read it to see what all the fuss was about. More and more people have a hunch that there’s something magical about community and local and regional “systems,” or at least as opposed to the centralized, industrialized system that we’ve created over the past 100 or so years and this book starts to articulate and demystify some of this magic, not through theory or metrics, but through a story.

The beginning and end of the book are slightly worn, the same concepts you’ll find recycled in your typical industrial-ag critiques and I took issue with some specific points of the discussion that didn’t seem entirely accurate, but the book was completely redeemed by the conversational exposition of the people at the heart of this town.

In the end, the story fired me up, made me feel excited to act, to get out there and buy a a mobile food truck and hire a few students and get produce from local farms and serve people food. By the end, all I wanted to do was be one of the “Toms” (the one who is slightly less obsessed with himself, perhaps) who are the drivers of this story. I was jumping out of my skin, crawling with anticipation, with ideas.

Now, a few weeks later, the flutters have died down a bit in my gut and I’ve started to think more deeply about what I need to DO and I’m feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Hooray for inspiration.

April 19, 2010   No Comments

Sugar Beets in Saginaw

I love airports and airplanes. I love the feeling of being between places, in transition. And I love the anonymity — it’s the best of places for watching people, and also for meeting folks you might not otherwise meet on the street.

Yesterday, when I squeezed into Seat 14F (a window seat), it just so happened that the man already occupying the middle seat was a farmer. I noticed this, not because of any hint from his dress or demeanor, but because when he kindly got up to let me in,  I noticed his bag — a freebie from some sort of national ag association.

So I asked him about it and he told me that he was a farmer who grew sugar. “Beets?” I asked, and his face lit up. “You must know farming then?” he said. “Well, kinda,” I shrugged, and told him where I worked, and about my brief farming experience.

We talked the rest of the flight — about his clever daughters and about how my parents met and about the time he took his son to the Rose Bowl. I found out that in addition to farming part-time with his son, my new friend was a crop insurance agent and a representative of the Michigan Bean Commission. He traveled around the world to trade shows and meetings marketing Michigan dry beans: azukis, great northern, black beans, to name a few. He had been recently to Cancun and Barcelona and was soon off to Paris.

Apparently, Saginaw is the capitol of dry beans and sugar beets in Michigan. Sugar beets, in case you didn’t know, make sugar — the regular white grainy kind you pour into your coffee or sprinkle on your cereal (do people still do that?). Saginaw Valley, where lots of these beets are grown, lies between the thumb and forefinger of the Michigan glove, about two hours by car from the metro Detroit airport. My friend explained that people grew sugar beets there because the processing plants were nearby in the thumb. This awesome article from MSU tells more about the history of sugar beet production and processing in the state.

Beyond beets, I also learned a little bit about crop insurance. My friend had been in DC to chat with folks at the USDA and on the Hill about the crop insurance business and the proposed cuts to crop insurance in Obama’s 2011 budget. It was fascinating to hear his perspective — “Why should the government penalize me for making a profit?” — and compare it to the perspective I share with the Obama administration and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition where I work:

From Obama’s 2011 budget proposal: “Crop-insurance companies currently benefit from huge windfall profits due to the structure and terms of the Government’s contract with the companies.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “a USDA study showed that a reasonable rate of return on equity for private crop-insurance companies is 12.8%, but the average now is 16.8%. USDA data show government payments to crop insurers have more than doubled in recent years, jumping from $1.8 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2009 while the total number of policies held by farmers has declined.”

Add to this the fact that my friend explained that until recently, when a former employee set up shop and became competition, he was the only insurer in his local area. I felt less sympathetic then to his side of the story, but it made me remember once again that in the end, farmers are businessmen and to him, these cuts might mean that he won’t be able to pay for his adventurous daughter to study abroad in Paris or to help his son buy land to start his own farm. And there’s the rub of government — how do you distribute resources equitably? How do you re-distribute when something’s not working — it seems much easier to give than to take something away.

March 26, 2010   4 Comments

UMich: How many Quads to make my food?

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on life cycle assessment or energy use in food production (yet!); this is just a way to dip my toe into obviously complicated issues that I find fascinating… Also all this discussion really is a really really long lead-in to talk about the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at University of Michigan, where I’ve been accepted! Hooray!

Numbers can lie, but sometimes they can be gosh-darn illuminating.

Here’s some data that hammers home the extent to which our food system here in the US has morphed into something that just plain doesn’t make sense.

It seems that we consume about 10.3 Quads of energy per year to produce, process, package, transport, sell, store and prepare our food. For all that, what do we get? 1.4 Quads of actual food energy.

Graphic from the University of Michigan that I also used in a presentation that I gave at the Fullerton Public Library back in October.

Interestingly, this 10.3 Quads used to produce our food is about 10% of the total energy consumed annually in the US. But what, you may ask, is a Quad? According to the illustrious Wikipedia, it’s:

  • 8,007,000,000 Gallons (US) of gasoline or…  about 530 million 15-gallon fill-ups at the station?
  • 293,071,000,000 Kilowatt-hours (kWh) or… powering 1 million 100 watt lightbulbs for 334 years

Yeah, I know that still doesn’t help much, sorry. I tried.

But really, the sheer amount is irrelevant. It’s the ratio that matters. This means that for every SEVEN units of fossil energy we’re putting in, we’re getting out only ONE unit of food energy. Huh?!

I’ve heard stats that “in the past” (e.g. pre-industrialized ag) one unit of fossil fuel energy would produce TWO units of food. Nothing at my fingertips to corroborate that, but it makes some sense if we can agree that food was grown with fewer industrial inputs (requiring fossil fuels), traveled shorter distances, was less processed, and used less packaging.

Some quick searching confirmed my expectation that organic production seems to require much less energy for many farm products than its conventional counterpart. This 22-year study by the Rodale Institute and partners showed that organic farming of corn and soybeans used an average of 30% less fossil energy, even when yield was accounted for (in fact, yield over the period of the experiment was the same for organic and conventional because soil fertility declined on the conventional plots).

But as we can see from the chart above, production is only about 20% of the story. After we’ve grown the food, we’ve still got to send it somewhere and wash it and pack it and maybe grind it up into something totally different and send it somewhere else and then cook it. It makes sense that organic production would use fewer fossil fuels when you consider that it restricts the use of pesticides and fertilizers, but in some cases, I’d imagine that when you look at the full product, some organic foods have a higher total energy cost than their conventionally available counterparts because they are transported further distances and in smaller (less efficient) batches.

This study by the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a fascinating breakdown of energy use for organic versus conventional products per unit of output. The chart also breaks down the energy costs into categories: distribution, collection transport, fertilizers, etc. When all is taken into account, the organic crops they studied still used less energy for the most part, except for carrots.

However, the full report shows that the model they used assumes that produce is imported only as far away as Southern Europe and does not account for the large amount of imported organic produce from even further afield.

Isn’t the devil always in the details?

Anyway, it’s complex. It makes me wonder if we’ll ever get to the point where right under the nutrition facts, our labels will include a little line for joules of energy and kg of GhGs. Pepsico has really already gotten this started by labeling its Tropicana juices with the carbon footprint.

But seriously, will some text that tells me this orange juice costs 1.7 kg of carbon really ever mean anything to me? We talk about consumer literacy, but this is a case in which I tend to think that change needs to come at the system level, not at the level of individual consumers. It’s just too much to ask of a person to weigh all those choices: nutrition, price, environment, social… for every product, every time you’re purchasing food.

Fascinating stuff, and all things I could pursue if I decide to go the University of Michigan for their MS program in Sustainable Systems at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. That graph up top came out of a study by Dr. Greg Keoleian who teaches in the program and is a guru of life cycle assessment, not only based on environmental indicators, but also incorporating social indicators for a variety of products. Plus, I could apply in my first year for the joint-MBA program in the Erb Institute to learn about how to bring these metrics into the business of food.

Pretty different from Community Development at Davis: more technical, more science-y, perhaps more of a birds’ eye view of sustainability (though there are also folks in the school who focus on Behavior, Education and Communication so I could bridge the two).

I like that I would learn tangible skills (life cycle assessment) in the U-Mich program but on the other hand, I know that I want to be a practitioner at the community level — in a small company or nonprofit — and not a researcher or a sustainability manager at Pepsico (at least I think) so it’s hard to say.

Other things influencing my thinking:

  • plus: U-Mich has already committed to giving me some financial assistance,
  • plus: I’ve never lived in the middle of the country and there’s so much interesting stuff going on in Michigan food-wise (especially Detroit!),
  • huge, potentially deal-breaking MINUS: Boyfriend Jaime did not get in there.

February 27, 2010   No Comments

UC Davis: 25 Historias del Valle Central

I heard just this morning that I’ve been accepted into the Community Development Graduate Group at UC Davis. I’m thrilled because the more I meet folks here in DC and the more I hear about exciting projects going on all over the country, the more I crave action — the hands-on work on the ground that I’ll be able to do in that program.

When I visited Davis back in September, I had a wonderful time meeting with professors and students; now I’ve some other folks from food and ag organizations in the nearby area — Community Alliance for Family Farmers, Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, and California FarmLink and it seems like there would be a lot of potential for interesting projects with each of them.

Other things that make Davis awesome:

Which brings me to the post title… while stumbling around the Davis website, I came upon this moving, beautifully executed project by Tracy Perkins, a graduate of the Community Development Program. It’s called “25 Stories from the Central Valley” and it’s a multimedia project about the effects of agricultural pollution on local communities. The main event is a series of 25 photographs and captions that make up an online “exhibit” taking you through the human suffering that results from environmental abuses in the Central Valley. You have to visit the site to get the full effect, but I found this caption particularly moving:

“Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her co-workers were put to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them.  She miscarried the next day.”

So much to learn and do in California, and then it’s so close to my heart’s home in San Francisco and not too far from my parents.

I only worry about getting involved in a food system that may have a less than glorious future given the already frightening, and increasingly dire problem of water scarcity. Perhaps there’s hope, but on the other hand, maybe I should try Michigan!

February 23, 2010   6 Comments

Community Food Enterprise: Graber Olives

Way back in November, family friends Lynne and John Orr took me and my parents to some wineries in the Inland Empire, a region that exemplifies that sad, but common story of agricultural land and open space succumbing to sidewalks and superhighways.

After the wineries, we drove over to the Graber Olive House, a small third-generation family-owned olive production and processing facility. Graber is Ontario’s oldest business, in operation since 1894. Our tour guide was a cheerful, white-haired woman, who had been best friends with one of the Graber daughters since they were both blushing teens. She remembered when the family would leave buckets of olives out by the back door for locals to pick up when they were away.

The main orchard is located in the Sierra Foothills, but the olives are cured and canned in the factory in Ontario. Clifford Graber designed most of the equipment himself, including the olive-sorting machine that’s still in use today. There’s so much beauty in a thing well made, and the sturdiness and appropriateness of these machines made me want to know more about the man who created them.

The olives themselves are special, Manzanillo and Mission varieties, brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. Unlike commercial olives which are picked green, and then cured to deep black, Graber olives are picked ripe, when they’ve turned from green to warm brick brown. Experienced pickers who have worked for the family season after season (and some for multiple generations) pick the olives by hand, no more than 15 at a time so as not to bruise the delicate skin.

The olives go back to the factory where they are cured, then sorted by size and canned by workers who, again, have been with the company for multiple years.

The finished product is a firm but yielding, rich and buttery flavorful thing that doesn’t really resemble most olives I’ve tasted. The olives are slightly mottled, not perfectly unblemished like your typical black olives, but more like a forest floor.

Picture 1 of 13

I’ve been meaning to post some of the photos from the factory because it was just so cool, but it came back to mind after I attended an event all about Community Food Enterprises co-sponsored by the Wallace Foundation and Business Alliances for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The workshop centered around the results of a three-year project studying two dozen community food enterprises in the US and abroad. The  work was based on the premise that locally owned businesses are the bulwark of strong, resilient, regional economies and socially vibrant communities.

When business is rooted in community, it seems to be more accountable to its neighbors, socially, economically and environmentally.

Food business, in particular, are interesting because of the clear links between food and land and food and place. The study set up a definition for what it meant to be a “community food enterprise,” and came to some conclusions about common challenges and common strategies for success as a starting point for replicating good models.

As a successful locally-owned food business, it wasn’t surprising to me that Graber fit a number of the indicators for success identified in the study. As a small start-up, Graber’s success relied on hard work, innovation, local delivery (see above for that anecdote about delivery in pails), some vertical integration (with production, processing and marketing), better taste, and a better story. No doubt because it is small and locally owned, Graber appears to be loyal to its workers and pays them fair wages.

I’m sure it faced many of the challenges of a small local business as well, but somehow it managed to survive and thrive despite the rapid changes in the surrounding community.

In the midst of the asphalt and strip malls and housing developments of the IE, it’s no surprise that Graber stands out. Is it strange to yearn for a world where there are more Grabers and fewer car dealerships and box stores full of housewares?

February 15, 2010   2 Comments

Awesome food safety poster and something you can DO now.

This poster was made by Veritable Vegetable for the Wild Farm Alliance.

It’s a spoof on food safety regulations that make it very difficult for growers to maintain ecologically sound growing practices (like buffers and vegetation that might provide habitat) and nudge them towards less desirable habits — like using fences, traps and poison to keep wildlife away — that undermine biodiversity and may not actually have the desired effect on food safety.


If you can’t read the tiny print. The top three read left to right: “Toxic Pesticides, Toxic Fertilizer, Fueled by Fossil Fuels” “Unknown Food Value” and “Unknown Pathogens”

The blue part says “Please grow only between the red and yellow flags. The food is patrolled for the safety of YOUR food system.”

To read a great article on alternative strategies to improve food safety while maintaining biodiversity and supporting small farms with good stewardship practices, check out this awesome report by Food and Water Watch.

If you care about the issue and want to act, consider calling your senator and asking s/he to support Senator Stabenow’s Food Safety Training bill that would help deliver training and technical assistance to small farms to help them provide safer food.

Funny how much the poster reminds me so much of these (real) signs in Singapore. But I’ll have to leave those thoughts for another post!


February 3, 2010   No Comments

Capital Capitol soup + Seeded Buttermilk Crackers

I’m in DC! Until May!

And it’s wonderful so far.

After a brief work-jaunt to Santa Fe, I’ve settled into a lovely house with awesome housemates, gotten down into work at the office, hung out with old friends and made a few new ones.

New Friends

Introducing, Marcie, a friend of a friend from the islands. We met for first time at the farmer’s market (where else) last weekend for squash and coffee; it was, needless to say, an encounter of kindred spirits.

This Wednesday we inaugurated what I think’ll be an especially fruitful cooking partnership.


I didn’t feel like trekking to the market and the pickings were slim. Since I just arrived a week ago, I was lacking some of my usual stockpile of goodies, but I figured a little bit of creativity and some love could yield something good. On hand: rapini on sale at Whole Paycheck, a jar of white beans, yukon golds, chicken broth, and some hot Italian sausage from Cibola Farms out in Virginia. It had been a grey day, so I was thinking soup. Marcie was in agreement.

Sausages in soup

The sausage made the meal.

Cibola Farms raises free-range heritage Tamworth pigs and grassfed bison. Buffalo-pork cranberry sausage? Buffalo summer sausage? Yum! I’m curious how they process their buffalo because a source in New Mexico mentioned that the USDA inspector charges some ridiculous hourly rate to inspect “exotic animals” like bison at their mobile slaughter facility. A question for the next market.

The sausage is made by Simply Sausage, a company out in Landover, MD that packages sausages for a number of different farmers. They’ve featured recently on in this sausage-making video

Plus their website has a friendly page on storing extra sausage.

So the soup was a success: sauteing the onions and garlic until the smell wafted upstairs into my bedroom where I could smell it 3 hours later, throwing in the harder stem ends of the rapini and the potatoes, then the broth, then the sausage as an afterthought (may have been even better if we had thought to brown it with the onions). Last the leafy bits of the veg, the beans (canned and already cooked), and a healthy dose of chili powder — not an entirely intentional pour, but an entirely welcomed one.


And to go along, I made a batch of the buttermilk crackers that’ve been a table staple recently. So so simple, and so so delicious, although in this case they were slightly more difficult to make since our kitchen lacks a proper baking tray. I flipped over a smallish roasting pan and used the bottom. The crackers got mostly crispy, but I definitely need to invest in a proper pan.

capital-capitol-soup capital-capitol-soup-2

Seeded Buttermilk Crackers

Adapted from Raley’s Store Website

I generally only bake half the batch at a time. It makes quite a few crackers. To store the rest of the dough, keep in an air-tight plastic baggie in the freezer and remove a couple of hours before you’re ready to bake.

3 cups flour
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup buttermilk plus 2 tbsp for brushing
1 tablespoon each, sesame, poppy, cumin, and caraway seeds
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

Preheat oven to 400F.

1) Sift together flour, baking soda, table salt and pepper. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or fork until well-distributed and the flour ends up in little peas.

2) Stir in buttermilk until the mixture turns to a soft dough. Knead several times on a lightly floured board until the flour is worked in, but don’t overdo it or your crackers will get tough.

3) Separate a walnut-sized chunk and roll out on a floured board as thinly as possible — I keep rolling until I can see the table underneath.

4)  Carefully transfer to a cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper or sprayed lightly with cooking spray. Brush the cracker with buttermilk and sprinke with seeds and sea salt. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool, then break into large pieces.

January 24, 2010   4 Comments

Where have all the farm boys gone?

We were driving through Ontario the other weekend, past car dealerships and strip malls and concrete dividers and I got this image in my mind of the Inland Empire way before the orange groves, before the Mormon settlements, before the Spanish settlers when the Serranos and Cahullia Indian tribes lived in the San Bernadino valley. It must have been beautiful.

Our family friend, John told me about being out in the area and taking biking trips out to wineries through the backs of fields back in the 70s. Apparently not all the freeways were around back then and you could get from place to place without your Suburban (or in our case, Honda) .

I went digging a bit and turned up this map from the California Dept of conservation on land-use change in Chino from 1984 to 2008. How fascinating.

Check out the way the green turns pink. Within the image area, more than 12,500 acres were removed from agricultural uses, and urban land increased by more than 17,000 acres.

Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program
1984 to 2008 TIME SERIES


November 30, 2009   1 Comment

First Real Good Food Potluck

Wednesday night the Daniel Family hosted our first Real Good Food Potluck. It was a smashing success — over 50 folks made it out, the living room was full to the brim with family, friends, and many new faces.

Mum and I spent the day shuttling to the farmer’s market on the scooter and cooking up a storm. We made chicken enchiladas from a couple of our backyard chickens (more on the processing soon!), pumpkin gnocchi from the Halloween pumpkin I picked with Christina (I owe a post on this too!), a couple of persimmon cakes, and pumpkin & white bean chili. Very seasonal. Very delicious.

It was especially awesome to have a couple of people there who I’d never met (Jessie, Sharon, Carolyn, Gabe, Tod), folks I hadn’t seen in forever (Derek,  a few new friends (Jorge, Janet) who I’d just met the previous week.

Next potluck is on Thursday December 10th. Don’t miss it! Click here to RSVP.
Picture 1 of 13

Mmm... gnocchi!

As the night kicked off, I was a smiling dervish, pulling hot lasagna from the oven and jumping at the doorbell, and digging up serving implements, and hugging my Godparents as they walked in. People just kept coming and coming with amazing food. There were beets and beet greens and slaw and paella and spinach ricotta pasta and homemade tomato pasta; teriyaki chicken and shepherd’s pie and grilled veggies and crudites and baguettes and guac and salsa. Not to mention the glorious desserts. At one point, I ran out to the garage to grab another folding table to hold the bounty.

A little after 7, we screened Food Inc. Only 2 folks other than my family had seen the movie before. Everyone gasped and “wow”-ed and a number of folks came up to me afterwards and mentioned how much it moved them. I’ve now watched the movie 7 times with about 60 different people and I have to say it’s a pretty darn effective tool for getting people to start thinking about what they eat.

I was especially happy because at least 3 people visited the Fullerton Farmers Market after I suggested making a visit to get potluck supplies. Of those, at least two said they’d definitely be making the trip weekly from now on. Hooray!

I got a few questions afterwards of the “well, now-what” variety. People were moved by the film, but were wondering what to do next. I mentioned eating local, seasonal, and organic foods, talked about buying “whole” foods and shared some of the places we shop.

But people’s questions really got me thinking again about how important it is to have a combination of consumer education driving demand and values-based businesses supplying alternatives to the everyday obvious options. Here in Fullerton for example, we really only have one truly organic cafe option and only one big natural food store, not that close to many neighborhoods. The farmers market is wonderful, but not huge. In general, it’s not that easy to get organics or local produce. The markets — Stater Bros, Albertsons, Ralphs — don’t carry any sustainably raised meats; Stater Bros doesn’t appear to carry any organics at all. A shopper really has to go out of his or her way to do things differently.

But for those of us who want to try, here are some great resources for North Orange County:

November 14, 2009   3 Comments

For the poor, poor lactose intolerant among us…

I’ve realized lately that I’m becoming less and less able to process lactose. I’ve decided that rather give in completely to the monster that is my digestive system, I will fight this wretched condition and continue to eat cheese and ice cream and yogurt and milk chocolate.

But there’s a limit to my masochism, and in the morning, when I’m just waking up and drinking my cup a’ joe, I tend to use soy milk.

In this hippified town, there are about 100 options for a person like me who wants to purchase a smooth, nutty, frothy delicious box of soy goodness. I prefer plain, unsweetened, unflavored versions, which limits my options somewhat, but still, I have choices and really no way to differentiate other than price and the prettiness of the packaging.

So I was delighted to come across Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Soy Scorecard. Cornucopia came up with a rubric to determine the “goodness” of various soy brands based on criteria like the business structure of the company (family business=good, investor owned corp=bad), percentage of organic soybeans purchased, transparency of purchasing information, etc.

Unfortunately, my last purchase, on sale at the local market, came out with a “zero bean” rating — which means it was a poor choice. Next time, I’m going to go for Eden. It came out number one, it’s offered at my local coop, it’s only slightly more expensive, and it tastes so much more delicious (it’s a toasty brown and tastes like a handful of nuts mixed in cream). Mmmmm.

July 14, 2009   16 Comments