Choosing the future of our food

What do we want from our food system?

So...What is food?

Generations before us would laugh at the very question. Remember when, as a child, you wanted to know how aboriginal peoples knew something was food and not toxin? These are the abilities we appear to have lost.

As a result, we have come to a fork in the road.

It would seem that food choices are growing exponentially and grocery stores are getting bigger as a result: piles of produce, aisles of boxes, lanes of freezer cases all full of things to satisfy the basic act of feeding ourselves. Because it is the food store we accept it as meeting our nutritional needs. But we need to back up a bit.

Whatever we put into our mouths is not available to us as food until it is digested, but digestion doesn’t come as easily to us as one might imagine. It’s the same with other animals; even plants need an assist. In truth, we are dependent upon bacteria to process our mouthfuls into compounds we can use to grow and maintain the bodies we grow into.  So let’s take a listen to what bacteria can tell us. Bacteria know that if it doesn’t ferment, spoil, or rot, then it isn’t food (ewww). The trick is to eat for the bacteria what they can change into available nutrition before it rots, which is a lot easier if there are no artificial preservatives, pesticides, nonfood additives, or worse, antibacterials. Here’s a vote for fresh.

Moreover, when it comes to our appetites, there is a hunger of the body and a hunger of the mind. Which do you think prefers caramel corn to kale, froot loops to berries, soda to soup? It’s not a matter of good food vs. us being good; if something is indeed food, it should nourish. Sometimes the hunger of the mind wins out, but that doesn’t mean we have eaten. When we back off from putting into our mouths that which is highly advertised, we can hear more clearly the cravings resonating from within our bodies (which, unfortunately, have no advertising budget). We are able to eat pretty well without effort or plan -- seasonally, regionally, and with lots of variety. A few short weeks of dandelion greens, asparagus, strawberries, and maybe pullet eggs, and we have reset from the slog of winter to the vitality of spring.

Lastly, eating is a communal and cultural act. Even if you eat your lefse and herring alone, eating is not a chore but a pleasure. We eat what we eat because of who we are and the connections we hold to others, human, humanely raised, cultures of origin and adaptations. 

Food choices are being made without us. We don’t benefit from fewer foods and more versions of the same products,  longer shelf lives, and more addictive sugars, salts and fats. It is not our needs that have driven the consolidation of the food industry worldwide from seed to grocery shelf, or the homogenization of brand offerings across continents, cultures, and climates, leaving the culturing of food -- the work of bacteria -- in the wake of corporate free trade.

Hence the fork in the road. But the good news is that the fork is in your hand. Agriculture is interactive; if you buy it someone will grow it. Your choices determine the field.



Diverse, and maybe a little daunting.

Hungry yet?

Food security: Where is your next meal coming from?

Food security usually refers to availability and affordability. In America, one in five children are hungry and many adults skip meals for lack of food. School lunches and breakfasts at reduced cost  or free, provide most of  the nutrition for too many children but those stop on weekends, holidays and summer break. Are your neighbor’s kids hungry? Are you?

We need big answers to address food security over the next few years, to address the inequities in our food system, to address the real challenges.

Food production is not economically sustainable. Much of your food depends on the labor of poor people and slaves. When a union of farm workers negotiates for several years to win a 5 cent  per bushel price increase from a fast food giant, we cheer without knowing what that really means. Do you know how many bushels you would have to pick a week to make a living wage? Piecework keeps more workers impoverished and working conditions inhumane. 

In the US and elsewhere the cost of production exceeds the sale price. Because food prices are kept artificially low, about half the percentage of income they were fifty years ago,  we have fields of injustice: workers who are often underage, undocumented, indentured. In the food industry, workers for processors, retailers, and cooks and servers are often low wage, but still better paid than farm laborers. The quality and safety of our food depends on the skill and conscientiousness of food producers and handlers. Shouldn’t this work be fully compensated?

You hear a lot about tax money that goes to farmers..But most farms receive no subsidy or direct program payments. Eighty percent of farm household income comes from additional off-farm work, and that’s not because farm work is part time. Small farmers cannot compete for price with imports and farms with underpaid migrant labor. Neither can they pay themselves minimum wages. Seeds, fertilizers, and equipment are very expensive and controlled by near monopolies. Their risks of crop failure due to factors outside their control are largely uninsured. Yet most farmers are committed to farm until they can’t.

The average age of farmers is rising for the first time in generations, now at 59 - average! Is that a 90 year farmer for every 30 year old? The numbers of farmers are rapidly decreasing, even as the population is surging. The ratio of farmers to population has shifted from 1:2 to 1:110, yet the human farmer and farm worker are far more productive than any other system and potentially more ecologically benign. Just look how much food can be grown in a garden tended by a household. We are also losing ground because there is too little reward and too much risk for young farmers. Farmland is expensive because as real estate it is more valuable as malls, recreation, and offices. .

We are also rapidly losing ground. Changing climate and geopolitics have greatly reduced the amount and quality of our farmland. With an unstable climate and erratic weather, there is increased risk of crop failures due to drought, flooding, high winds, storms, extremes of heat and cold. Formerly productive land is turning to desert as diverse ecological systems are overworked and underfed to produce monocropped commodities cheaply. Areas of moderate climate that depend on irrigation, such as the central valley of California, are challenged by decreased access to water. Orchards that have taken decades to become productive have shriveled and died in drought which depletes aquifers as it withholds rainfall. Totally artificial and controlled agriculture is on the increase but is heavily resource dependent and limited.

We need to talk about everyone having access to good food far into the future. Food banks are not the answer. Non-profits are far too partial a solution. Farmers receiving cheaper prices to keep food costs down is shortsighted. Subsidizing consumers ( most of the “farm bill” goes to this) is essential but it does not ensure availability of food. We need a food system that is secure from seed up.

It is time to reinvent a stable and sustainable food supply for all.

Organic matters

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can all get sentimental about the family farm with the smiling cows in the background, the barn and tire swing,  and the folksy way everybody works together. But if that is your image of organic agriculture it is hard to pay even a little bit more for organic food when, you know, you are on a budget.

Organic matters. You will save far more in health care costs by eating organic food than you will pay for the difference. You will keep long-lasting and dangerous chemicals out of your drinking water, the air you breathe, your gut and the bee hive.

With organic agriculture you will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere and maybe slow down this climate change or if we really take it seriously, have a climate for humans for other generations. You can keep soil in production, prevent desertification and keep that food on the table coming. Because organic agriculture values the soil, it is not treated as inert stuff to stick plants in, but alive with organisms whose roles we are just beginning to understand. It is not only the absence of chemicals but thepresence of biology that makes agriculture organic.

Organic food is not special. It is not food for the tree huggers only. It is not boring or dirty with, you know, dirt. It is what people and animals have eaten until just the last generation or so. In fact, increasingly you don’t have to go to a special store where they wear birkenstocks to get it. It will cost less than most of the essentials in your budget like gadgets and minutes. You could even safely grow some food yourself, enjoy the experience and the flavors.

There is nothing low tech or outdated about organic agriculture. It is a highly participatory advancing body of knowledge that has resilience built into the diversity of regional food systems it promotes. It has the ability to restore degraded farmland and the dignity of growing, preparing, and eating food.

Organic food puts us in touch with the process of food production. How it is grown matters. Sustainable regional organic food is a mouthful worth swallowing.

Industrialization and Globalization: The farm as food factory

The packaging is quaint, suggesting a sentimental family farm, maybe your grandparents’ or great grandparents’ place. The brand has been focus-grouped, the food packaged on a scale to which we can relate. Available anywhere, anytime, everywhere, every time the same. Behind the feel good of  the brand, farmers of a certain scale compete globally to meet quantity and price demands of the handful of buyers who will distribute it worldwide. This drives the production of food to the cheapest short term methods -- large fields, hybrids and GMO's, mechanization and trafficked labor. It is cheaper to monocrop a commodity in concentration and ship it around the world than to grow a diversity of crops regionally. This creates a fragility in the food network if there is a natural or political disaster in the area or a transportation crisis.

Profit margins favor processing for a consistent product available year round. Juice concentrate does not bruise or over ripen. Irradiated meat stays pink even when putrid. “Cheese food” replaces cheese as an inexpensive ingredient. Bagged greens ready to eat can be chopped from low quality harvests. . We no longer know what produce should look like. Processed food disguises the irregularity of real produce. What we do see fresh is standardized,  unblemished, painted, polished. And this shelf stable ready to use product has “added value” and cost because you can gulp it right from the package. That can of cooked beans costs many times more than dry beans and water. Frozen entrees, pre-made sandwiches, sliced cheese -- who needs a kitchen?

Buying the cheapest available ingredients, the processor may change the ingredients of a known product without notice unless it is an ”improvement” buzzword  they want to leverage. The consumer needs to read the label on every package. The word Organic comes and goes without any other changes to the label. No quick grabs if you need to avoid allergens or toxins.

The size of the brand and the food retailer standardize the offerings. You can “choose” between twenty iterations of the same cracker: low fat, whole grain, gluten free, multiple flavors, ridiculous numbers of size crackers and sizes of packaging. What are the chances for you to find a single product cracker maker? Not to tout sodas as food, but every restaurant, fast food drive thru, school vending machine offers “P” or “C” products but no others. .

Once processing is consolidated, the “raw materials” which used to be called food are transported to the factory, then the “product” is transported all over the world including, no doubt, across the road from the field where it was grown. Transportation has become a significant part of the cost. Once farmers who provided the land, labor, equipment, seed, fertility and pest control sold their crop for those costs. Now the return to farm portion of a dollar spent on food is as low as five cents. . 


The consumer can never know what food costs, not just what the overt production costs and hidden environmental and human costs are, but how much cash will be exchanged. Today it is one price, tomorrow another. This store is cheaper until the other store is cheaper. It is impossible to attach a value to the product. On sale! With coupon! With purchase of some other same brand product. The only thing we can know is that the juggling makes it seem cheap, a bargain and the customer seem smart, all without any idea what the price really is.

What looks like choice and opportunity has eroded both for the consumer and the farmer.

The Organic Farmer: This might be you. 

Okay, it is not among the career choices at the school guidance office or the job fair. It’s probably not what your parents always wished you would do, but believe me, once you are an organic farmer, they will brag you up.

Organic farmers are a diverse lot. Many had urban childhood's, went to college in the liberal arts, are pointy headed nerds. Many organic farmers are also musicians, artists, scientists, healers, spiritual leaders, woodworkers, engineers, restauranteurs, and teachers.

You could be on of the growing number of people who find they like the intellectual and physical challenge, who like to figure things out and find their own rhythm and solutions.

Organic farmers are a very welcoming bunch. They will cheer your decision, share information, contacts, resources. They will not act like you are competition; they will embrace you as a colleague, fellow traveler. They have created many resources to help you get started, find out what you need to know. Organic farmers are engaged in lifelong learning, making discoveries, inventing processes, creating new tools all the time. Over the years organic farmers have made organic farming respectable. It is a popular, of the people, way to farm.

Many consumers, natural food coops and grocers, farmers markets, restaurants, craft brewers and picklers, national and local nonprofits, and state, city and national political movers are teaming up to change the food system so everyone can eat healthy food and the land and producers of that food are respected and supported. It’s a movement, not a niche market.

If you want to feel your hard work benefits the world  you want to live in, you may be the next organic farmer.

Check out

Show Your Chops!

One of the most effective ways to change the food system is already in your kitchen and with a little planning, the other component can also be deployed, that would be YOU!

To create bountiful local foods takes investment:  intellectual, emotional, and financial. We will have the food system we support by choosing and serving the qualities we value in food -- organic, local, sustainably grown, unprocessed, no added hormones, preservatives, non-food ingredients. That means we all work a little closer to the origins of this food. Chef! At your station! Knives up! Begin!

It takes a little practice, experimentation, and perseverance to plan, prepare, and consume fresh, whole food, but it is a habit that gets easier and easier over time. You already research and put into practice all kinds of new information every day about all kinds of things. This assignment will be life changing.

How to begin: Buy produce you love in season. Find a recipe you like. Find the rest of the ingredients as locally and sustainably as possible. Make it an occasion: invite a friend to cook and dine with you. Post on social media.

Add recipes and triumphs as the seasons progress. Make notes to recipes of what you would add, do differently, serve with it. Don't forget that many meals require no cooking at all, just assembly of fresh foods.

With just a few tools and a little effort you could become a legend the kitchen, eat more healthily, and save the world.

Basta Carbon Era 

So we have some scientists measuring atmospheric carbon and speculating how much is being added annually by human activity. They do this for 50 years. Core samples of permafrost and glacial ice reveal how much carbon was present pre industrialization. But, what, we have like four times as many humans doing that activity now, too. Conditions attributed to this increase are believed to be warming the oceans, increasing the number and intensity storms and floods, and threatening species whose habitat is melting or moving out.

Not such good news is this.

Then some scientists say, let us shoot sunscreen into the atmosphere to maintain cool. Let us rocket the planet a little further from the sun. Let us make for Mars to colonize. Such bad news we ruined the planet.

Others say we created a more difficult climate for ourselves but this talk of saving the earth is nonsense. The earth will survive. How can we become more resilient? How can we change our ways?

Then, somebody decided to measure how much carbon is taken out of the atmosphere by different  human activities and annual agricultural plants are doing heroic amounts -- up to one-third of what humans put in by combustion. Hmmmmmm. Since the majority of these crops were in rows with bare soil between them, I am thinking we could easily up that, maybe double it, with continuous cover as in secondary crops, cover crops that feed the soil between rows, or even post harvest grazing of covers by animals raised for food. In addition to pulling CO2 out of the air, plants also sequester carbon in the soil which is why there is fossil fuel in the first place.

So the rebalancing of carbon layered in the earth and atmosphere can become stable if we leave more carbon in the ground by using alternative energies, compost organic matter instead of locking it up in landfills, green every space we can ---rooftops, former parking lots, alien surface scapes with more food gardens, more parks, more landscaping, more orchards, more flowers.

Could the big problems be answered by making more beautiful spaces, surrounding our frantic selves with nature, and living closer to the cycles of renewal the earth gives in abundance?

Can we say Basta! to the carbon era?

What Vegetable Are You Putting On That Vegetable?

The only way to eat more vegetables — which we all need to consider — is to eat more varieties of vegetables and eat more vegetables together. Here are some strategies:

Make vegetables the main dish. Start with squash, cauliflower, potatoes or cooking greens. Prepare with complementary vegetables, herbs, and a protein source. Mashed cauliflower and potatoes with browned onions and curry spices anyone? How about spicy squash soup with spinach or amaranth greens and almonds? Slow cooked greens such as turnip, collards, kale with some serious heat  and a savory protein?

Swap out a processed grain or protein source for another vegetable. Think vegetable “spaghetti” of zucchini or shredded fennel or sautéed broccoli raab and green garlic over finely sliced napa cabbage and bean sprouts, or stuffed grape leaves with mint, garlic, purslane, tomato?

Layer up those veggies. Lasagna with layers of mushrooms. basil, arugula, onions, spinach, as an alternate layer with the ricotta and then top with a sauce brimming with fresh vegetables added to the tomatoes. Make that tortilla sag with the weight of onions, avocado, tomato, pepper, lettuce, beans, jalapeños, tomatillos, cilantro or parsley, chard. 

Take a side dish to the platter. How about roasted roots —turnips, rutabagas, carrots, parsnips, potatoes bathed in a peanut sauce such as gado gado, or a pureed green sauce of spinach or lamb's quarters with garlic and cannelloni beans?  Or take a large winter squash such as a hubbard, make an opening without halving it, and stuff it with a savory dressing and bake?

Make salad the meal. You can eat more greens if you finely shred them just before assembly. Try adding shreds of kale, cabbage, radishes, beets, carrots, kohlrabi to mixed greens such as lettuces, endives, and mustards and fill the plate. Slice on cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet or hot peppers, or toss in micro greens, berries, toasted nuts and seeds. Add chopped herb combinations and a protein such as cooked and marinated beans. If you dress it, do so lightly so the flavors can mingle.

Eat every part of that plant. Turnips, radishes, beets, carrots have tasty roots but don’t forget the tops can add another taste and texture. Add them to salads, soups, scrambles, sandwiches.

Can you wrap? What better vehicle for loading on the layers of fresh produce in colorful variety? Think differently about what could be included such as sugar pea pods, cilantro, scallions, alfalfa sprouts, Asian greens, pickled vegetables like kim chee, green beans, celery, corn.

Could a vegetable do that? Need a spread to flavor the sandwich? Even if it is a meat or cheese combo it can have a layer of spicy red pepper spread, olive spread, hummus, pesto, garlic cream, guacamole, chutney, in place of the mayo.  Even a peanut butter sandwich could host a layer of  sliced radishes, cucumber, tomato, pepper, roasted leftover roots, sauerkraut, chopped greens. Dagwood!

Up the herbs, powerful sources of nutrients. Move beyond the dry shaker jars that are years old  in your cupboard and make daring layers of whole leaves of basils, mints, parsleys, dill, fennels, tarragon, oregano, sage, shiso, or drop in some edible flowers such as pansies, nasturtiums, day lilies, calendula, marigold, zinnia, salvia, bachelor buttons or petunias as long as they are organic.

Crunch time. Need to exercise your jaw with a crunchy texture? Snack on raw carrot, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, green beans, radishes, summer or winter squash, bean sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers. Bonus points if you make a dip of refried beans, spicy peanut sauce, herbed yogurt, salsa, mint, cilantro, or tamarind chutney.

Splurge on a “costly” vegetable or fruit. Steam up some artichokes and discover really slow food eating. Add some avocado to a wrap. Slurp up some Japanese bar food edamame soy pods. Grill some brussels sprouts. Indulge in fresh asparagus. The cost per serving will rival the cheapest processed food.

Take a look at your plate and challenge yourself to add one more layer of flavor and nutrition with one more vegetable. Keep score. Set goals. Today was only a 6? Come on. Tomorrow you can do that before noon.

Follow a vegetarian. Pick a day to go meatless each week. You will discover creative solutions to your hunger that will lead you to vegetation imagination. Pick an ethnic menu to try at home or at a restaurant that specializes in primarily vegetable dishes. Even if you choose to add animal protein to the dish you will see what a vegetable centered meal could be. To truly eat the number and variety of vegetables and herbs we need to optimize our performance and health we need to conceive of vegetables differently, as the focus of complex pairings that comprise so many of the world cuisines. 

There are lots of ideas  at