Food Desert & Grocery Buzz

Some talk about grocery stores buzzing around the social media space in Detroit this week got me to thinking about urban food security is such a hot topic, but it seems like we tend to ignore some of the severe issues with food access in rural areas.
Thanks Center for Rural Affairs for reminding me of the bigger picture in your oh-so-awesome newsletter. This article was especially interesting. Appreciated the commentary on grocery stores as “more” than just food access points and especially love the example of the high schoolers starting a grocery.
May be meeting with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s Green Grocer project folks soon to talk about how they can tie into the conference I’m working on organizing around local and regional food distribution. Very much looking forward to hearing their take on the recent buzz in the blogggggggosphere.

January 26, 2011   No Comments


This guy is a rockstar. Everything he says resonates.

What inspires you to do your work? “Problem solving… Creating interesting, innovative, and efficient solutions”

“I think we miss opportunities to connect food advocacy and other fields of interest because the nature of the work (and the method of funding) breeds specialization rather than integration.”

“I don’t know one initiative in any field of interest that has been able to create sustainable, game-changing outcomes within 12 months… But in the food movement, we overpromise and underfund, then get mad when we don’t change the world after a year.”

“Investing in communities to create things. Be a part of the creation movement.”

And yet another reason to move to Detroit:

“In two weeks Detroit will launch its Green Grocer Project, which is a grocery expansion and attraction program to help with operations, financing and giving them a direct liaison housed in the City for anything they need. To create a space in the city for a grocer at any level to get involved and give them a contact for anything they need: bookkeeping, accounting, store design, product handling, you name it.… the Mayor will make an announcement on May 17th and it’ll be like watching my baby be born.”

May 11, 2010   No Comments

Florida Market Cambodian Cookfest

A few weekends ago, I took a posse down to Florida market including coworkers from NSAC, visiting intern Kara from the Michael Fields Ag Institute (holla!), and friend Sara. We explored and laughed and made friends with taxidermed ruminants and then some folks followed me back home to cook up some traditional Cambodian fare.

We made Ban Chao (savory turmeric crepes) and papaya salad (recipe below) and vegetarian fresh rolls (aka goi cuon) with the quick kind of peanut sauce.

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

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Green Papaya Salad

1 green papaya shredded
10-15 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber in thin strips or matchsticks.
1 carrot in thin strips
1 cup peanuts toasted and crushed (optional)
1 cup unsweetened shredded, toasted coconut (optional)

2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar, palm sugar or regular white sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small green chili, minced (optional)

Peel the papaya and grate with a large grater or shred by the “hack and shave” method: holding the papaya in one hand and a sharp knife in the other, strike the fruit with force with the sharp edge of the knife to make multiple vertical parallel incisions. Next, take the knife and shave a thin layer off that side of the papaya so that it comes off in thin ribbons. Do the same with the cucumbers. Julienne the carrots into similar strips or matchsticks.

Prepare the dressing by mixing the ingredients in a bowl. Add the dressing to the salad and toss again.

Place on a serving platter, top with coconut and peanuts if you feel like it and your friends have no crazy allergies.

May 3, 2010   1 Comment

All You Can Eat at Florida Market

This is the first of a few posts I’m planning on Florida market (aka Union, aka Capitol City). The whole area is slated for redevelopment — a plan that’s been evolving for the past 3+ years and is surrounded by controversy. It’s a totally fascinating story and something I wish a real journalist would take up. Sara R?!

I am obsessed with Florida market. Anyone I meet these days ends up with an earful about my favorite place in the whole district. I love markets. I really really do. Especially the ones that are a little gritty, that remind one that food isn’t meant to be intimidating or inaccessible, or elitist, but something elemental, raw, real, that we all share.

The Union Market buildings were built in the first phase of market construction from 1929 to 1931 and designed by architect E.L. Bullock Jr. in a reduced “Classical Revival” style.

Florida market is gritty. So much so in fact, that people who have visited sometimes crinkle their noses when I mention it. “You buy things there?” they ask. “But those dumpsters with rotting produce! The trucks! The exhaust! The derelicts! The peeling paint and vacant buildings and signs in foreign languages. The noise, the heat and the smell, and the butchers in that warehouse with all that MEAT.”

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I eat it up. This is the place that feeds DC. The wholesalers in the market distribute to restaurants and retail grocers throughout the district. No one who eats out or shops outside of farmers’ markets can pretend like they don’t eat from here. And when you come here in person, you can find all sorts of treasures you can’t find at Safeway, at Eastern, or even at the wonderful Freshfarm markets.

Also known as Capitol City market or Union Market, this is the place where the “other half” of DC shops. Mostly African and Latino families, with some Southeast Asian representation and occasional neighborhood hipster looking for a deal on tahini.

On Saturdays, most of the shops are open for retail sales, including Sam Wang produce, where besides the staples, you can find banana flowers, shiso leaf, nopales, chayote, lotus root, thai parsley, mini thai eggplant, masa, frozen banana leaves, tamarind pods, plantain, and every starchy root your heart desireth.

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Most families fill up two or three cardboard boxes with produce. Receipts I’ve average $60-100. Many folks ask the cashier to let them know when they hit a limit — “All I’ve got is $67 today, so let me know when we get there.” — some get to the end of the weighing and decide to put back the pumelo or melon because it puts them just over.

Sam Wang’s just one of the many shops. Down the way is a tofu production facility where you can get a tub of three super-fresh tofu blocks for $3. My roommate who once ran the kitchen at a vegetarian restaurant in town used to bike here every morning to buy in bulk.

You can also get a huge bag of fresh sprouts for $3 that’s bigger than a baby, but I don’t recommend it unless you plan to make pho for an army.

So far, I’ve brought about a dozen friends to the market with me on mini trips and all of them have found something to love:

Besides the produce, there’s a wonderful Halal market with basil seed juice (?!), samosas, frozen ready-made paratha, ginger tea, and lots of spices. Apparently you can also get goats, but I haven’t had time to set up a spit, so I haven’t indulged yet.

Then there’s the flea market where you can find everything from rusty industrial muffin tins to dancing panda radios, and also some useful things like an adapter for your beat-up no-frills cell-phone or sea foam stilettos to add a splash to your otherwise staid pantsuit.

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There’s a great market directory here of the businesses that sell direct to consumers. See you there Saturdays.

May 2, 2010   1 Comment

H-Mart in the snow



It snowed this weekend and it was beautiful. The white fluff piled up and up and up around our doorstep and in the street, disguising cars as white lambs, peaceful and chill.

We were warned that people in Washington couldn’t hack it on the roads in the snow, but still, we were determined to make the trek out to Falls Church, VA to the Korean superstore for provisions.

I was craving chili and strange smelling greens and products made of rice and tapioca. I wanted to rest my palm on the spikes of a durian and gape at a tank of geoducks and wrinkle my nose at the dried fungus. I wanted to stare at bewilderment at the choices of nori and buy bottles of soy sauce: light and dark and maybe some variations in between.

We were fairly warned, but still, the two hour trip (in fairer weather, 20 minutes or so) was long and I got cranky, but tried not to be because DC has been so beautiful so far that I didn’t want to ruin it over some ice and silly drivers.

And in the end it was worth it because H-mart had everything I wanted and banana flowers.


That’s them on the right up above. And they had all kinds of greens like the funny long Thai “parsley” and the shiny lemony leaves that look like they come from a tree, but are soft, and all kinds of basil and mint.


And, yes! Back there, in the plastic wrapping, there’s fresh turmeric and galangal and other hard-to-find, but totally awesome items.

Which means that I can go back there soon and get everything I need to make NOAM BAN CHOP, also known as Cambodian’s national dish — noodley goodness atop banana flower, cukes, topped with a fragrant, fishy, lemongrass, galangal, coconutty goodness and finished off with beansprouts and all kinds of fresh greens.

H-mart also had a fantastic selection of prepared foods, including crunchy, spicy pickled Daikon with sesame seeds that is so ridiculously yummy and refreshing that I could live off that and rice and a wee bit of egg for days straight.



That’s new roomie Chris on the left, eating one of the fresh rice cakes from H-mart — the kind that don’t taste like cardboard, but more like sweet, crunchy, light melty yumminess. According to this Washington Post review, the rice cakes are made by Suk Pyo Choi and his wife, Hae Young out of rice, soybean, water and a little bit of artificial sweetener. I wonder if it would ruin the recipe to add some stevia instead? Perhaps I’ll suggest it to Mr. Choi next time I’m there.

Twas a good trip and when the snow melts again, I plan to take my bike out there for a little adventure. I wonder how a whole striped bass would look strapped over my back rack. Too great for words? Perhaps.

in a larger map

January 31, 2010   2 Comments

Market love

I love markets. When we were small, every so often, my parents would bring us to the Orange County swapmeet. We’d load into our radio flyer wagon and go from stall to stall, surveying the goods, picking up socks in bulk and new tennis shoes, new plants for my mum, and, if we were lucky, something from the toy stall or later in my girlhood, a mood ring or a ying yang necklace from the jewelry tent.

Then there are craft markets. The froo-froo Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach, the lower-key summertime street vendors in downtown Santa Cruz, the ridiculously hip Sunday Market in Chiang Mai, tourist-heavy Rastro in Madrid, the traditional Weinachtsmarkt in Regnesburg, Germany, and seasonal fairs on the Stanford campus, just in time for Mother’s Day.

And then, my favorite of all, the farmers’ market. Where produce is king and possibilities are endless. Squash blossoms? Apriums? Six strawberry varieties. Torpedo onions, garlic scapes, eggs of all colors. It’s a feast for the eyes and in all other senses of the word. Whenever I travel, I want to see the market; hog heads at Barcelona’s La Boqueria, durian at the wet markets in Singapore, cow stomach and coconuts at the outdoor stalls in Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh, sausage and bread and cheese in Tuscany, flying fish at Seattle’s Pike Place. Then there’s back home in Fullerton and in my adopted home, the San Francisco Bay: in Southern California and at Alemany and the Ferry Plaza and California Ave. in Palo Alto there are fresh berries, pumelos, tomatoes, avocados, and all the other delicious bounty of California’s Central Coast. There’s fruit and veggies to see and smell and touch (not too much!) and often taste when the stall owners are good at marketing.

So farmers’ markets are sensual, and then they’re also full of community; they’re where you go to shop and talk. Studies have shown that many many more conversations take place at the farmers’ market than do at supermarkets. Unsurprising. When you’re surrounded by sun and smiling farmers and mountains of fresh produce, it’s hard not to open your mouth and talk (or sing!)

I’ve always wanted to work at a market and now, with Synergy, I have. It’s fun. The San Juan Island market is full of folks that I’ve just started getting to know and Saturdays at the market are a mix of taking orders and answering questions about our produce (yes, that lettuce is perfect for wraps!) and greeting friends and chatting about the season and our sales and a hundred different things going on in the community.

If you love farmers’ markets too, consider voting here for your favorite!

June 29, 2009   2 Comments

Thrift Store Success

This year, my lovely mum made a commitment to only buy secondhand clothes (special exceptions for underwear and other “intimates”)… Before I left for the farm, mum and I went on a crazy thrifting spree, hitting up 3 or 4 huge warehouses in one day, and getting bags of goods — jeans, work shirts, cute coats, shoes, and more.

So when I went to the Friday Harbor thrift house this weekend with Lucy, I couldn’t help but think of her. People on the island are probably bigger than my 100lb mom, so she might not have had any luck except in the kids section, but I still felt a wave of nostalgia and missing as I clicked my way through the plastic hangers on the racks.

Apparently, the rich San Juaners who summer on the island tend to leave behind all kinds of awesome goods. Lucy scored some ridiculous boots a few weeks ago, listed at something around $300 retail. Ridiculous. We’ve heard September is the ideal month for shopping because that’s when all the summer folks head off and make their annual drops. Needless to say, we will be back at the thrift store (likely before September) again.

I’m most excited about my new sick kicks. — two pairs for a total of $6.50

May 5, 2009   No Comments

Is smaller and closer, better?

How does the size of a farm and the depth of community involvement relate to the quality of food produced and/or the quality of external products like land stewardship?

Just read this on a great blog:

“Locavorism isn’t about free-range, its about getting closer to the source; shaking the hand that feeds you and thereby knowing, even seeing, where your food comes from. The reason there are no worthy studies [showing more disease in free range pigs] is because grass-fed farmers often run size-manageable and responsible operations. They don’t cut corners precisely because they are held accountable by the community.”

It might be beside the point of the rest of Paula Crossfield’s article, but this benefit of locavorism surfaces again and again. Local is better because you can see the farm and the farmer and that makes them more accountable. This seems to make so much sense. But the social scientist in me (yes, one of my more loathed parts, but a deep-seated one nonetheless) wonders what kind of research has been done to detail the relationship between size of farm, depth of community involvement, and the extent to which farmers “cut corners.” In fact, this could really be applied to any kind of organization or business — how does scale and community ties affect some relatively objective measure of “quality?”

It seems like a very difficult thing to study given the observer effect — people changing as a result of their actions being observed — but I’ll bet someone’s tried. I’m going to ask some sociologists for help thinking about this one.

April 20, 2009   2 Comments

Lemongrass, Galangal, and Turmeric — not so local flavors

My amazing mum sent me two galangal stems & tubers, a few stalks of lemongrass and a piece of turmeric from the fridge. I planted them all a few days ago and have been keeping the kitchen steamy and hot in the hopes that they’re tricked into thinking it’s tropical.

Unfortunately, the turmeric rhizome got moldy, so I think it’s going to have to go in the garbage. Perhaps I’ll be able to find a replacement in Bellingham or in Seattle if I ever make it out there.

That’s one thing that gets me about this “eating local” business. In general, I love love what “local” stands for. Eating what’s near you makes sense — it can be fresher, it takes fewer resources to transport, it’s technically easier to involve yourself with your food by actually talking with the farmer or (gasp!) going out to actually visit the farm where it’s produced. Plus, I understand and support strengthening local economies — I do believe when you buy food from your neighbor, you’re ultimately doing yourself a favor.

But then how do I get things I love without guilt? I love cooking Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese foods. Let’s say my little indoor pots of tropical tubers don’t work out or they don’t produce enough for all the lovely curries I want to make. Do I eschew curry or make adjustments that essentially change a dish? I’d say neither.

I’ve certainly been eating differently since I arrived, less meat, more gorgeous produce, and that adjustment has been wonderfully delicious. But I miss curry and spice and tropical fruits. So when do you draw the line between practical, ethical, joyous eating and overzealousness tied up with guilt? Especially when what’s practical and “right” for me and practical and “right” for you is so different.

The NY Times columnist Mark Bittman says we should avoid labels and just strive to eat “wholesome,” “good” food. I agree, but here you bump up against the problem of definition — some folks have been brought up with very different standards for “good,” and folks have different levels of access to “good.”

I guess it really does come down to a question of ethics and making complex moral tradeoffs. I’m going to see what some of these books have to say on the subject and get back to you.

April 20, 2009   5 Comments

Things I’ll miss: #4 Going to the market

Market set-up in the wee hours of morning

Chicken lady

Beansprouts, tofu, and noodles

My home goods vendor

Marketing was scary at first in Kampong Cham. My first week in the city, I subsisted largely off of packs of dried ramen, not out of laziness, but because I couldn’t muster the courage to get myself to the market. My first Saturday alone in my house, before I had my bicycle or motorcycle, I ventured out to catch a moto to the market. Would he understand where I wanted to go? How would I get back? Would I be cheated at the market? How would I endure the staring and the titters? I headed downstairs, out to the street, only to scamper back inside and boil some water for another noodle lunch.

Sunday was a little better. I managed to wave down a moto man outside my house and made it all the way to the market. That first day, I bought (what else?) some more dried noodles, some eggs and some vegetables before my courage gave out and I retreated back to home base to plan my next mission.

Each trip I became bolder. My Khmer lessons centered mostly around learning words for food and for bargaining and as my vocabulary improved, so did my confidence. By the first month, I was bargaining for meat, finding flour, picking out coconuts. When I got my moto, I learned where to park and how to pay the attendant. I came to recognize faces and became a regular at certain stalls. I had a place for housewares, for chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, tofu and beansprouts, veggies in the late afternoon.

Beside my staples, I was always discovering something new. The market had all kinds of treasures — huge sacks of dried lentils, gooey, steaming coconut cakes, dried flattened bananas, sausages brought in from Siem Reap, dried fish in at least 30 different forms, stinky shrimp paste — and these things changed month-to-month. You only had to seek out the fruit stalls to see the degree to which the market was ruled by the seasons. My first months were ruled by juicy yellow mangoes and rambutans. Then came the custard apples and famous bright red longans. Pumelos began to pop up with more frequency around July and pomegranates appeared soon thereafter, followed by tiny orange tangerines. Through it all, dragonfruit, bananas, and pineapple were mainstays.

Going to market was a ritual that made me feel part of the thrum of Cambodian life.

My eyes loomed large during my first visit to the Lucky Supermarket in Phnom Penh. Neatly packaged apples in styrofoam and plastic wrap, a-la Trader Joe’s. Ice cream and yogurt and Prego pasta sauce and Cornflakes. Olive oil and Camembert and lunch meats, all within the confines of the one air-conditioned building. An entire chocolate section. Dark, light, hazelnuts and almonds. More than almost anything else in Phnom Penh, the supermarket was a place that brought me back to the Western world, with all its dazzling choice and convenience, and with all of its air-conditioned, odorless sterility.

And now I’m back to that world for good. Farmers markets are the closest I’m going to get to recreating the market experience, and they don’t really come close.

December 8, 2008   1 Comment