June 28, 2010

Preserving Justice: A Profile of Shakirah Simley

Shakira Simley, jam maker

Shakira Simley at the San Francisco Underground Market. (Photo by Monica Jensen/SF Public Press via Flickr)

I wrote this profile for Grist's New Agtivist interview series, where we talk to people who are working to change this country's food system in inspiring ways. Shakirah is a bit of a local hero -- she learned to love food and food politics while an undergraduate at Penn.

Shakirah Simley is a food justice activist with an unusual weapon: pectin. She's the founder and creative force behind Slow Jams, a socially conscious artisanal jam company in Oakland, Calif. She also works full-time for the public health organization Prevention Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to addressing health disparities and food and recreational inequities.

Born in the South Bronx, Simley grew up in Harlem the eldest of four kids, raised by a single mom who worked full-time while attending school. At the University of Pennsylvania, where the younger Simley studied cultural anthropology and urban studies, she led a successful effort to reform Penn's curriculum to include a cross-cultural analysis requirement, as well as launched a unionization-and-fair-wage campaign with Jobs with Justice on behalf of security guards at Penn and Temple University.

While her career path has focused on social justice, her real passion is "food -- specifically food justice," she says.

Before moving West, Simley was one of the first Human Rights Fellows for the City of New York. She also volunteered as a community chef with Just Food in NYC, teaching families about eating and cooking in a local, sustainable, and culturally-appropriate way. She'll soon be heading off to study for a year at Italy's prestigious University of Gastronomic Sciences, founded by Slow Food International.

Q. What makes Slow Jams different from other tasty jam makers at the farmers market?

A. We're committed to using urban and rurally sourced fruit, and our brand has a younger, progressive, and fresher feel to it. Plus we offer interesting but accessible flavor pairings such as Strawberry Lavender, Vanilla Grapefruit Jelly, and Onion Fennel Bacon Relish.

Q. How did Slow Jams come about?

A. I taught myself how to can, and through many hours of practice, voracious reading and research, my canning expertise has developed immensely with very successful results. While some folks grew up canning, I did not. Growing up in low-income neighborhoods, we hardly had access to fresh, affordable, abundant (never mind local or organic) produce. Whenever my siblings and I did have fruit, it was mostly during summer months -- my mom would specifically get fruit from street vendors located in wealthier neighborhoods and bring it uptown. Welch's [jelly] was a requisite for our PB&Js.

When I moved to the Bay Area, I was amazed at the year-round produce availability, the varieties, and the strong connection to and support of sustainable, local food systems. My desire to make jams and preserves and start a socially conscious company like Slow Jams is heavily influenced by my experiences growing up with a lack of access. As I steadily scale up my business over the next year, I want to ensure that values such as "high-quality, local and organic" and "culturally appropriate and accessible" are not mutually exclusive.

Q. Explain how Slow Jams incorporates those values.

A. I'm committed to sourcing a significant percentage of my ingredients and produce from urban growers. Over time, my company will work to build a sustainable network of urban producers including urban farms, community gardens, neighborhood fruit trees, urban backyards, and wild and foraged food. By creating positive economic activity through the vehicle of a local food/food-justice enterprise, I hope to stimulate the local economy through urban-ag and green-job development, utilize the untapped market of urban farmers and producers, provide opportunities for local non-profits with similar value systems that serve as potential producers, and create more viable urban micro-foodsheds.

I'm also receiving input from and holding focus groups in communities of color to determine the ways in which I can come up with products and services that would best serve those communities to widen the accessibility of Slow Jams. I'm also researching very small-scale local female farmers and farmers of color that could serve as direct suppliers; oftentimes these groups are excluded from mainstream distribution channels.

Basically, I want to make damn good, high-quality jams and preserves that are priced reasonably and distributed equitably. Slow Jams was recently accepted into La Cocina's Incubator Program in San Francisco, so I hope this vision will be brought to reality.

Q. Have you always been interested in food?

A. Social justice, yes. Food, not necessarily. It wasn't until college at Penn that I started making the connections between food, access, and inequality with the help of one of my political science professors, Mary Summers.

After I graduated, moving back home to my old neighborhood in Harlem and seeing the food environment, I was struck at how hard it was for me and my family to eat healthily. I missed the farmers market at Clark Park in Philadelphia and having access to better grocery stores. Yes,
having limited means doesn't allow for the best food choices, but it's no coincidence why certain calories are cheaper than others, why fruits and vegetables were too expensive and sub par and why finding whole grains, unprocessed or unpackaged food required a trip downtown.

My -- and my mother's, neighbors', and family's -- pocketbooks were no match for the corporate control of our food system, and the institutionalized and systemic policies that keep this control in place. That's why I'm starting a progressive food business and completing research that challenges this system and offers viable, inclusive and sustainable solutions.

Q. What was the biggest obstacle you've faced in this business?

A. Moving to California and starting from scratch. I didn't have any job prospects, an apartment lined up, or a large social network when I moved to San Francisco. I was terrified. I feel incredibly fortunate to have come so far. Being a woman from my background presents certain challenges in a societal context and in starting a business, but I don't view this as an obstacle per se, more like fuel for my future ambitions and creating social change.

Q. Who do you look to for inspiration?

A. I mainly look to the women in my family, to activists like [Growing Power founder and urban farmer] Will Allen, who are really making it happen. I also think working out of communities with more liquor stores than supermarkets is an inspiration in and of itself.

Q. What books do you keep by your bedside, literally or metaphorically?

A. Poetry by Sonia Sanchez, a journal, and if I could have all of Wendell Berry's writings too, I would. Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter and Diet for a Hot Planet by Anna Lappé are next up on my list.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. My business, literally. And, as my friends jokingly say with fists clenched, "Injustice!"

Q. What advice would you give someone who is thinking of a career in artisanal food?

A. Take the time to develop and craft your business acumen and savvy. The best folks in artisanal food are not just great at making jam or pastries, cheese, or wine; they're hustlers in the best sense of the word. Be consistent about networking and building relationships with others. Also, always remember why you decided to go into artisanal food in the first place - that's critical to staying grounded, focused, and encouraged.

Q. What's your earliest food memory?

A. On super hot and humid days, running down the street with my younger siblings to catch the Mister Softee ice cream truck for a vanilla ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. Following the jingle of the Coco Helado vendors to get a mango and coconut ice in those squeezable paper cups. Black Cherry Jell-O moulds and Cool Whip with my Grandma Becky in Queens.

Q. Do you have a food-related guilty pleasure?

A. My sweet tooth is my biggest weakness, for things of the ice cream and baked-good variety. I will trek across the Bay Area for a certain slice of pie, cupcake, ice cream flavor, or some ridiculous dessert. Support small, local businesses, right?

Q. Company drops by unexpectedly around dinnertime. What do you do?

A. Put them to work! I'm a strong believer in making and sharing meals to build community. Surefire recipes include Bryant Terry's Coconut Sweet Potato Puree, my very special pork tenderloin, and homemade pastry cups with fresh berries and Slow Jams' urban Meyer lemon curd.

Q. You recently won a Fulbright to study at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. What will you do there?

A. I did! And I'm super excited. My project is to analyze the Slow Food model in its home country. I want to determine the correlations between food, class hierarchy, and inclusion in Italy to see if it can present a model for achieving food equity across socioeconomic lines. Exploring class and race dynamics presents an opportunity to determine who has a seat at the Slow Food table, and thus who can help advocate for a more equitable food system.

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June 24, 2010

Hay, Monsanto, Not So Fast

Alfalfa hayThe sustainable agriculture world is abuzz today with news of the Supreme Court's ruling regarding an earlier lawsuit, brought by alfalfa farmers, that sought to stop any planting of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. While the press coverage heralds the ruling as a decisive victory for Monsanto, a close reading shows that, in fact, it's a fairly significant win for opponents of biotech crops.

Hay dudes, not so fast

The background: As the fourth most-planted U.S. crop behind corn, soybeans, and wheat, alfalfa is worth $9 billion a year -- the dairy industry is the biggest consumer -- with annual seed sales valued at $63 million, according to a USDA study. Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa seed has been genetically engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup.

Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco found that the USDA had illegally approved Roundup Ready alfalfa for planting -- which the agency refers to as "deregulating" -- by allowing Monsanto to sell and farmers to plant the seeds without the USDA completing a required full Environmental Impact Statement. (A preliminary one was under way.)

In response to a lawsuit filed by GMO-opposed alfalfa farmers along with the Center for Food Safety on behalf of consumers, the District Court halted all planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the USDA completes the EIS, which could take years. It also issued two injunctions: one that prevented the USDA from performing a so-called "partial deregulation" of Roundup Ready alfalfa, i.e. allowing restricted and otherwise limited planting, while it prepared the final environmental statement; the other stopping farmers from planting any Roundup Ready alfalfa starting with the 2010 crop year. (For a deeper look into the lead-up to the case, read Matt Jenkins' excellent 2007 feature "Brave New Hay" from High Country News.)

Today, in a 7-1 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court reversed both District Court injunctions, saying that the Court had overreached itself procedurally in halting the plantings. (Both Justices Steven Breyer and Clarence Thomas had conflicts of interest in the case -- Breyer's brother was the District Court judge on the case, while Thomas was corporate counsel for Monsanto earlier in his career, but only Breyer saw fit to recuse himself.)

Despite the news reports claiming victory for Monsanto, the Supreme Court did not overturn the central tenet of the case: that the USDA prematurely approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. The District Court, in effect, made it once again illegal to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa -- and the Supreme Court endorsed that ruling. While the Justices did declare that the USDA, if it wants to, has the right to give the seed a preliminary approval (i.e. for limited, restricted planting), the Supreme Court decision does not by itself give Roundup Ready alfalfa the green light.

And it's important to note that the USDA has not yet formally announced any intention to re-authorize the restricted plantings, which would come in the form of a rule for "partial deregulation" of Roundup Ready alfalfa. In fact, the agency and Monsanto hed preciously submitted such a plan to the District Court in hopes that it would be incorporated into the final ruling, and instead, they received an injunction.

To some, that move appeared to be an attempt at an end run around the official rulemaking process. It's not clear if the USDA will move forward with anything other than the "final" environmental review.

The USDA office that oversees biotech crops, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), just released a brief statement via email in response to the Supreme Court's ruling. In it, the agency leaves the door open to some sort of preliminary approval for the alfalfa seed, without indicating its intention one way or the other: "APHIS is carefully reviewing the Supreme Court ruling before making decisions about its next regulatory actions related to the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa." It also announced its intention to complete the full environmental impact statement "in time for the spring planting of alfalfa crops in 2011." That start date presumes they get through the process without any more lawsuits or injunctions -- not a safe bet, at all.

No mo' gene flow?

More importantly, the Supreme Court has also now ruled for the very first time that "environmental harm" includes economic effects such as reduced agricultural yield or loss of market due to genetic contamination, as well as the concept of what biologists refer to as "gene flow" (in practice, the idea that genetically engineered material may get into conventional plants through cross-pollination). The Supreme Court now accepts that this phenomenon in and of itself is harmful and illegal under current environment protections.

"That’s a huge win for our side ... That’s gigantic!" Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist of Consumers Union, told me. Future lawsuits can now confidently use the gene-flow argument against approval and use of genetically engineered crops.

Others share his glee. The Center for Food Safety called the ruling "a victory for the Center for Food Safety and the farmers and consumers it represents."

For its part, Monsanto is spinning the ruling positively. In a statement posted on its website, the company said:

This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010.

Well, from all appearances Monsanto has this flat wrong. Farmers can't plant Roundup Ready alfalfa just yet. And even if the USDA tries for that preliminary approval, the Supreme Court made very clear that today's ruling does not presume that any preliminary approval is (or isn't) legal.

Indeed, the legal issues at the heart of the ruling aren't over the rights of corporations or the science behind genetically engineered seed, but about the separation of powers between co-equal branches of government. The Supreme Court today stopped a District Court from telling a federal agency that it couldn't make regulatory rules. For the judiciary to stop the government from doing its job requires meeting a very rigorous set of standards. After the Supreme Court decided to make this point the crux of its ruling, all the other issues fell by the wayside. Another way of looking at it is that the supposed "overreach" by the District Court was against the USDA, not Monsanto.

The Supreme Court has also made the point very clearly that outside groups have the ability to file lawsuits in order to stop any poorly conceived or improperly executed rule that a federal agency passes. And surprisingly enough, the Court -- with its expansion of the definition of "environmental harm" to include things like gene flow -- just gave consumer groups a whole new set of legal weapons to wield against the same companies currently crowing over the implications of today's events.

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June 22, 2010

Agreed: All Processed Food is Not Created Equal

peasAt last, Ezra Klein returns to food! And he levels a legitimate criticism at the food movement:

One of the really difficult things about getting people to eat better is convincing them that it's not just a way for others to impose class-based lifestyle preferences on one another. But when you're down on processed foods that are sold in Giant but all about the processed stuff you can buy at Whole Foods, that's what comes through.

You see this pretty clearly with frozen foods. Foodies love to freeze (and can and jar and pickle) things, but there's a real condescension and distaste for frozen foods you can buy at the supermarket. But in a world in which people are working longer hours and may not want to learn how to cook, prepackaged meals are going to be a big part of any solution.

I was with him to the end but then came up short. Who exactly pooh-poohs frozen peas? In fact, I would say that many of us are big believers in foods that combine healthy ingredients and relative convenience.

Indeed, some of us have even pointed out that there is surprisingly little convenience in highly processed, additive-filled "convenience foods" -- studies have shown they don't save that much time relative to cooking from scratch. In the above-linked piece, I referred to a promising study in the USDA's recent report on food deserts that indicated what healthy, convenient prepackaged food would look like and how amazingly effective it could be in changing eating patterns:

One intervention stocked prepared packs of fruits and vegetables (washed, cut, and bagged) at two tiendas (small stores) that served primarily Latino customers in North Carolina. Fruit and vegetable intake for customers at these two tiendas was compared with the fruit and vegetable intake of customers at two control group tiendas that did not offer the fruit and vegetable packs (Ayala et al., 2009). The study found that customers who shopped at stores where the packs were sold increased fruit and vegetable intake by one full serving. Customers who shopped in the two control tiendas exhibited no change in consumption.

As I observed at the time:

Of course, these kinds of value-added products don't require an enormous factory, a massive distribution system or a vast sea of corn and soy to engineer. So, it's understandable that Big Food hasn't done much with them. But still, someone should. And it might make more than a small dent in our societal eating disorder of too much of the wrong kinds of food.

Anyway, just to say that, while Ezra is right that not all processed food is created equal, and that dismissing the whole category isn't useful, I don't think it's fair to class most of those who are trying to reform the food system with the -- to put it kindly -- "faddists" who insist the answer comes with a focus on one food type or style, whether it's the raw diet in the book review by Mark Bittman that inspired his post, or macrobiotics, or veganism, or what have you. They may be the loudest, and they may even be the most passionate, but they don't represent the most numerous or the most influential segment of reformers.

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June 21, 2010

HBO's "Gasland" Airing Tonight
For those of you who subscribe to HBO, you might want to check out "Gasland" tonight at 9P ET/PT. It's a documentary by Josh Fox about Pennsylvania's controversial embrace of natural gas fracking in the state's Marcellus Shale formation. Fracking involves pumping toxic chemicals mixed with diesel fuel and water underground at high pressure to shatter the surrounding rock and extract the gas. The practice is still lightly regulated by the state of Pennsylvania (and to a certain extent untaxed). Yet thousands of wells are being drilled as we speak. Here's a trailer:

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One super-toxic chemical down, thousands more to go

Danger signLast week, and capping at least a decades-long battle by consumer advocates, the EPA announced a ban on the pesticide endosulfan -- one of the last legal organochlorine pesticides, a notorious group of which DDT is a member. Horrifically toxic (possibly more toxic to humans than DDT) and banned in the European Union since 2007, endosulfan remains in common -- though technically restricted -- use, especially on Florida tomatoes* and California and Nevada cotton according to the Pesticide Action Network. An article in Environmental Health News presents a much longer list of uses, including melons, cucumbers, squashes, potatoes, apples, blueberries, eggplant, lettuce, and other leafy vegetables, pears, peppers, and stone fruit and cotton.

Endosulfan also easily spreads through the air (no doubt like the nerve gases from which pesticides such as this were derived). A 2008 National Park Service report found significant levels of endosulfan throughout the ecosystems of the West's National Parks, even when there was no nearby agricultural use. A Scientific American article observed that, unlike its organochlorine brethren, endosulfan's environmental concentrations "have been increasing since the 1980s in the Arctic and in other remote ecosystems." As a result of all this and along with other data released during the EPA's lengthy re-examination of the pesticide, California declared endosulfan to be a "toxic air contaminant" in 2008.

In short, good riddance.

You really have to question the length of time it took to get a product as dangerous as endosulfan off the shelf. And let's be clear, the EPA still must "negotiate" with endosulfan's producer Makhteshim Agan in order to avoid a long phaseout; if the company balks, and to be fair there's no indication at this time that they will, endosulfan could stay on the market for an extended period. Assuming that doesn't happen and it soon becomes unavailable in the U.S., endosulfan remains in use in India and Australia.

And this one victory must be considered against the thousands of toxic chemicals that continue to surround poison us. A case in point is the about-to-be-approved pesticide methyl iodide -- even more toxic than methyl bromide, the chemical it replaces. Unless California's legislature acts quickly, methyl iodide will soon go into wide use on the state's conventionally grown strawberry crops.

It's hard to revel in the victory over one supertoxic pesticide when another shambles up right behind it. As Tom Philpott suggests, agribusiness seems to respond to regulations and resistance with yet more toxic chemical solutions to our "problems."

*Florida agribusiness really doesn't play nice. Let's take a moment
to review Florida's recent agricultural lowlights in addition to exposing its farmworkers to endosulfan. First, there were the thousands of farmworkers in Immokalee (aka "the tomato capital of the United States") kept in virtual slavery, exposed by then-
Gourmet writer Barry Estabrook and our own Tom Philpott. Next, came the sad saga of the sugar industry's role in the degradation of the Everglades and how it might snag a financial windfall in the plan to clear them up. And just the other week, we learned of the tragedy of pesticide-laden Apopka, Florida (Barry Estabrook, again), where agribusiness poisoned thousands of workers, then received its own bailout from the state government while the workers have been left to sicken and die on their own. Florida, what is your problem?

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June 11, 2010

Obama to Mississippi River: Get Ready to Rumble!
Is President Obama about to announce a plan to redirect the Mississippi River in order to save the Gulf Coast wetlands? Annie Lowery of the Washington Independent picked up this exchange between Anderson Cooper and historian Doug Brinkley.
[W]hen President Obama comes to Florida and Alabama and Mississippi, and that is holding BP responsible for the Natural Resource Damage Act, for the Oil Spill Response Act. And, by that, I mean BP is going to end up paying somewhere from $10 billion to $15 billion, maybe even $20 billion, because they’re going — one of the only ways to save the Louisiana wetlands is going to be — you know, the Mississippi River has been channelized for navigation.

Well, now the Mississippi River has to be redirected. It’s going to have to be flooded and sediment pumped into these marshlands to save it.
Brinkley claims this relates to the falling out between BP and the administration (aside from the whole Exxon-Valdez-sized-spill-every-five-days thing). Plus, the oil companies were responsible for wetlands destruction long before this spill happened. And now President Obama is going to fix it all by opening the floodgates and letting the Mississippi once again find its own way to the sea. Or something.

It's the kind of solution that might appeal to, well, everyone. Decisive, dramatic, HUGE... It would certainly put an end to complaints that Obama isn't doing enough -- he's moving rivers for Pete's sake! I wonder if it's true. According to Brinkley, we'll find out soon -- he claimed Obama is to announce it during this weekend's trip to the Gulf Coast. Stay tuned indeed...

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Extreme Warming in Arctic Equals Colder Winters—and Political Gridlock

Snowy cityThe political (or at least the Senatorial) tides are running strongly against a muscular policy response to climate change. Now a top NOAA scientist tells us that even the winds are blowing in the wrong direction -- actual winds, mind you, not political. Via Science Daily:

A warmer Arctic climate is influencing the air pressure at the North Pole and shifting wind patterns on our planet. We can expect more cold and snowy winters in Europe, eastern Asia and eastern North America.

"Cold and snowy winters will be the rule, rather than the exception," says Dr. James Overland of the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in the United States. Dr. Overland is at the International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference (IPY-OSC) to chair a session on
polar climate feedbacks, amplification and teleconnections, including impacts on mid-latitudes.

It's not greenhouse gases per se that are driving these near-term changes -- it's the dramatic loss of sea ice along with warming-induced alterations to wind patterns, changes that Overland also referred to as "irreversible." He explicitly linked this past year's snowpocalypses to this Arctic warming, called "Arctic amplification" due to the fact that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. This is a significant finding for all sorts of reasons, but it also means climate change's second order effects, i.e. the changes in the systems that the rise in greenhouse gases has affected, are now themselves causing real and meaningful climate alterations. And the pace will likely accelerate.


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June 7, 2010

Crocodiles on the High Seas

One of the advantages of having a blog is that you get to write about things simply because they are ridiculously cool:
The mystery of how the world's largest living reptile -- the estuarine crocodile -- has come to occupy so many South Pacific islands separated by huge stretches of ocean despite being a poor swimmer has at last been solved by a group of Australian ecologists.

Publishing their new study in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Animal Ecology, they say that like a surfer catching a wave, the crocodiles ride ocean currents to cross large areas of open sea.

Many anecdotal accounts exist of large crocodiles being sighted far out to sea, but this is the first study to show -- using underwater acoustic tags and satellite tracking -- that estuarine crocodiles ride surface currents during long-distance travel, which would enable them to voyage from one oceanic island and another.

We're talking here about the monster cros from Australia. They can't feed at sea so they don't count as marine species -- they are river dwellers who have quite literally found an efficient way to get around. The scientists tracked one croc, a 12 footer, which traveled over 360 miles in a little over three weeks. A second one -- 16 feet long -- swam over 250 miles in 20 days. Mind you, these reptiles are poor swimmers -- they just find the ocean current and cruise. And they're smart enough to haul out when the tides and currents aren't favorable. Too cool.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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June 4, 2010

Urban Farms Aren't Just for Yuppies

Weavers Way Coop urban farm

Tom Philpott makes a crucial point in his must-read post on the potential and perils of urban ag. You can't criticize urban farms for their reliance on grants and donations without acknowledging that virtually all forms of agriculture require heavy subsidies in some form or another:
...[A]ll farms struggle mightily to "thrive in a market economy" -- and relatively few actually do. The most obvious evidence to back up this point is commodity subsidies. If any farm type should be able to thrive in the free market, it would be the large corn and soy farms of the Midwest. They stand on one of the world's greatest stores of topsoil; they are highly capitalized, with towering combines tricked out with GPS and other technology that allow a single farmer to cover thousands of acres. They have have access to high-tech seeds and bottomless amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Agribusiness giants like ADM and Cargill have built up an elaborate infrastructure to buy their goods and ship them around the globe.

Yet over most of the past 20 years, corn and soy prices have hovered under the cost of production, making these farms reliant on billions of dollars in annual subsidies to stay solvent. They've turned marginally profitable over the past few years -- not due to the magic of the free market, however, but because a government-mandated and -subsidized ethanol program has lifted corn and soy prices. Like urban farms, "economic sustainability eludes them." They are wards not of the foundations, but rather of the state.

Philpott then observes that, according to USDA data, most farms run as businesses (rather than hobbies) contribute only a small fraction of farmers total income. What the government doesn't subsidize, "off-farm income of farmers and their spouses" does:

For farms that bring in between $10,000 and $249,000 in gross sales, farm income represents a tiny fraction of farm families' overall earnings (see green sliver in middle bar). This category encompasses the non-hobby, small- and mid-sized farms that supply the bulk of produce at farmers markets. After farm expenses, these farm families bring home about $60,000 in annual income, a very small slice of which comes from farm profits.

There are many challenges for urban farms: including issues of scale, labor, distribution and storage (although many of these are not so different than the challenges that face any farm). But we need to recognize that an ability to generate a healthy profit is not a reasonable demand.

While it's true that urban land is expensive and its use should be geared toward maximal economic impact, it's easy to gloss over the fact that investors aren't falling over themselves to pour money into cities' neglected and struggling urban cores. These areas simply aren't about to spontaneously turn into hi-tech meccas. Urban agriculture, when practiced in the intensive style of growing which can yield huge amounts of food on small plots, provides jobs -- both for farm workers and tradespeople, skills and a product that doesn't just go right into urban residents pockets but into their stomachs. It should be viewed as a key component of urban development, not classifed as a hobbyist Yuppie trend.

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June 3, 2010

The Oil Spill Cometh
Via Mother Jones comes this video released by the National Center for Atmospheric Research that shows a computer simulation of the projected path of the Gulf oil spill as it spreads up the East Coast this summer. Anyone fancy a dip?

Spill, baby, spill.

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June 1, 2010

The Fight over Salt: Big Food vs. Us
Alton Brown and salt
Salty dog Alton Brown

The biggest loser in Michael Moss's New York Times expose of the food industry's fight against salt restrictions isn't the food industry. It isn't government, either. In my view, the real loser is television chef Alton Brown:

With salt under attack for its ill effects on the nation’s health, the food giant Cargill kicked off a campaign last November to spread its own message.

“Salt is a pretty amazing compound,” Alton Brown, a Food Network star, gushes in a Cargill video called Salt 101. “So make sure you have plenty of salt in your kitchen at all times.”

The campaign by Cargill, which both produces and uses salt, promotes salt as “life enhancing” and suggests sprinkling it on foods as varied as chocolate cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and even coffee. “You might be surprised,” Mr. Brown says, “by what foods are enhanced by its briny kiss.”

As they say on SNL, "Really, Alton? REALLY?!"

The Salt 101 website (which appears as a set of full-screen videos of Brown gushing over the history, utility, and value of salt) is a high-end sales pitch for Diamond table salt. And as we all know, there's "nothing wrong" with table salt. However, and despite industry efforts to the contrary, the current controversy over salt isn't about table salt. The debate is over the various forms of and high amounts of salt in processed food, without which Big Food's brilliant creations tend toward flavors that food scientists refer to as "warmed over," "cardboard," or -- wait for it -- "damp dog hair."


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