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February 26, 2010

In Philly? Come Chat with an Urban Farmer
Snow got you down? Would you rather be talking about spring planting? Well, if you happen to be in Philly this weekend, you're in luck. Urban farmer extraordinaire Dave Zelov, fearless leader of the Weavers Way agricultural empire, will be at the Allen's Lane High Point Cafe at the R8 Allen's Lane train station in NW Philly giving a presentation and answering veggie gardening questions this Sunday, February 28 at 2pm.

I can vouch for the fact that Dave is an amazing resource and a super nice guy. And yes, even in the middle of the snowiest winter in Philly history -- a winter which shows no sign of abating -- he's already harvesting chard, kale, bok choy, tatsoi, lettuce, arugula, pea shoots, and baby greens out of his hoop houses. But he's taking a break to help us all get a mental head start on the growing season.

Anyway, if you're around and want to think and talk about something green, swing on by this Sunday. Tell him Tom sent you.

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February 24, 2010

Robots Should Stay out of the Kitchen

This is wrong on so many levels. The NYT reports on the latest doings in the robotics lab:
With Dr. Rybski looking on like a proud parent, a bearded graduate student clacked away at a laptop on a roving service cart, and the robot rolled forward to fulfill its primary function: the delivery of one foil-wrapped Nature Valley trail-mix flavor granola bar.

"Hello, I'm the Snackbot," it said in a voice not unlike that of HAL 9000, from "2001: A Space Odyssey," as its rectangular LED "mouth" pulsated to form the words. "I've come to deliver snacks to Ian. Is Ian here?"
Now, Snackbot exists to help gather data on human/robot interactions. Although a careful review of the relevant data contained within such works as Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the lackluster I, Robot will give a discerning viewer all the information he or she needs to understand the dangers robots pose to humankind.

But it gets worse:

The Snackbot is but one soldier in a veritable army of new robots designed to serve and cook food and, in the process, act as good-will ambassadors, and salesmen, for a more automated future.

The article then proceeds to describe some of these "soldiers" culminating in the shocking robot-human hybrid that is the innocuously named Motoman SDA-10:

First they make our sushi. Then they enslave us.

The scientists involved with these efforts readily admit that the whole idea is meant to counteract the important lessons we've learned from Terminator and BSG and acclimate us to the idea of a future populated with robot servers. We all know how that story ends, don't we?

My suggestion: boil your own pot of water and leave the robots out of the equation entirely.

Photo credit: Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

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Is there too much 'Let's Hope' in 'Let's Move'?

pringlesThe industry talks a good game, but keeps churning out the same old junk. It's no mystery that Michelle Obama's Let's Move anti-obesity campaign is built on industry cooperation. It's also true that many experts are skeptical of the wisdom behind it; nutritionist Marion Nestle has been particularly critical both of the government's food industry "health" partnerships as well as of the administration's unwillingness to fight the industry's relentless media advertising.

I tend to agree. While the Let's Move initiative is full of worthy proposals, especially in the area of addressing food deserts and promoting farm-to-city initiatives, the idea of leaving restrictions on junk food television advertising -- not to mention junk food taxes -- out of the equation seems to base the pitch just a bit too much as an appeal to our better angels. It's hard to see public service announcements and educational campaigns counteracting those hundreds of millions of dollars work of junk food ads Americans of all ages submit to every time they turn on their televisions.

And it certainly doesn't help when star athletes, some of whom will no doubt participate in Let's Move, continue to flack for junk food (from Petyon and Eli Manning and Oreos to Derek Jeter and Gatorade). Meanwhile, anyone who's been watching the Olympics knows that NBC's coverage of this ultimate athletic event has been awash in ads for soda and other junk food. Even the Olympians themselves are in on the act -- Alternet noted that snowboarder Brad Martin is featured prominently in a McDonald's ad shown repeatedly during the Olympics.

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February 23, 2010

The Cleveland Model
Let's go back to the co-op theme, shall we? Tom Philpott of Grist wrote some time ago about the need for a "less efficient and more robust food system." He sketched a vision, based on his experience with his own farm, of small interrelated businesses benefiting communities via the local multiplier effect and generating jobs, good wages and affordable, healthy food far beyond what globalized multinational corporations have been able to manage for most American regions. It's a vision that without doubt shouldn't be restricted to the food system. Philpott closed the piece with a question: "How do we get there?"

Well, Cleveland, Ohio -- of all places -- has attempted an answer which caused Philpott to review the Nation's coverage of this "new" phenomenon of large scale cooperatives:

In a must-read article in the March 1 issue of The Nation, Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and Thad Williamson lay out what they call the "Cleveland Model," a reference to that city's emerging complex of worker-owned businesses under the Evergreen Cooperatives umbrella.

The key enterprise in the Cleveland initiative is the Evergreen Cooperative laundry, "a worker-owned, industrial-size, thoroughly 'green' operation" that "opened its doors late last fall in Glenville, a neighborhood with a median income hovering around $18,000," The Nation reports. Overall in Cleveland, the poverty rate stands at about 30 percent; the population has halved since 1950. The hollowed-out city, like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other rust-belt metropolises, stands as a stark rebuke to 30-plus years of de-industrialization and corporate-dominated globalization.

While these are "not your traditional small-scale co-ops," the authors report, they are also not faceless entities that turn workers into cogs in a vast machine. The authors write:

The Evergreen model draws heavily on the experience of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque Country of Spain, the world's most successful large-scale cooperative effort (now employing 100,000 workers in an integrated network of more than 120 high-tech, industrial, service, construction, financial and other largely cooperatively owned businesses).

...To fund the Evergreen initiatives, the project's founders have been resourceful: they've cobbled together funds from a combination of local foundations, banks, and city government, The Nation reports. And get this:

An important aspect of the plan is that each of the Evergreen co-operatives is obligated to pay 10 percent of its pre-tax profits back into the fund to help seed the development of new jobs through additional co-ops. Thus, each business has a commitment to its workers (through living-wage jobs, affordable health benefits and asset accumulation) and to the general community (by creating businesses that can provide stability to neighborhoods).

Besides the laundry, Evergreen also runs Ohio Solar Cooperative, which installs PV solar panels on commercial and government buildings and provides weatherization to homes. The group will soon roll out Green City Growers Cooperative, "a 100% worker-owned, hydroponic, food production greenhouse."

That's change we can believe in. Sadly, I question how much commitment there will be from the administration for this kind of thing. From the federal government's perch in DC it's easy to mistake what Cleveland is doing as "too small" to address the jobs crisis that we face. But that is nothing more than a failure of imagination. Still, the leadership on this will likely come from cities. Even so, we should all be thinking about how we might be able to get something like the Cleveland model to take root in our own communities.

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February 22, 2010

A Better Plastic?
If you've been watching the Olympics, you might have seen an ad for Sun Chips that features its "compostable bag." The plastic in the bag is derived from GMO corn and made by Cargill. The ad neglects to mention those inconvenient truths, though it does claim that its bag will break down in home compost "under ideal conditions."

Even worse, with the possible exception of the Sun Chips bag, corn plastic generally will not break down in home compost, even under ideal conditions -- it's only compostable in "industrial-scale" composting systems. So for those of you who live in San Francisco, which actually has municipal composting, that's all well and good, I guess. But for the rest of us, this stuff is still plain, old [genetically engineered] garbage.

But now researchers in the UK may have just fixed all that:
Scientists at Imperial College London are working on bioplastic packaging - made from trees and grass - that can break down in home composting bins.

The polymer developed by the scientists is made from sugars that come from the breakdown of fast-growing trees and grasses, or agricultural and food waste.

The scientists from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council purposely focused on non-food crops - many common bioplastics come from corn or sugar cane waste - and using low-energy and low-water processes.
Very cool. Keep an eye on this stuff. It could really be the packaging of the future.

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February 19, 2010

Co-ops: for Farmers What's Old is New
I love my food co-op. It's not a secret. Heck, I blog for it. And what works for consumers works for farmers like Sam Simon of upstate New York, too (via the NYT):

He began his dairy operation in 1999, more as a labor of love than a business venture. But he soon realized that the economics were unsustainable: Farmers couldn't survive being paid roughly the same price for milk that they were in the 1970s. "This is nuts," he thought.

So he looked for an alternative in which a farm could produce premium milk, process it and sell it on its own label. The farms he looked at that had tried it weren’t succeeding, so he came up with the idea of a nonprofit co-op selling premium-quality milk, without artificial hormones, traveling 80 or so miles instead of 1,200, to customers in the Northeast. The hope was that people would pay more for locally produced, higher-quality milk, and that the extra cost would be passed on directly to the farmers.

He signed up eight family farms in Dutchess and Columbia Counties that produce 1.6 million pounds of milk a month, 200,000 of it sold through Hudson Valley Fresh. So far it's working. The farmers get paid a price, now $21 per hundredweight of milk, based on their cost of production, not on the fixed commodity price, now about $16, up from as low as $11 last year. That can be the difference between breaking even and not. Hudson Valley Fresh sells a third of it in New York City, in places like Whole Foods, and the rest in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut and on Long Island.

Milk is a troubled commodity, of course, but much of that trouble comes from the fact that, thanks to Ronald Reagan, its price is set on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where large speculators can (and have) manipulated the price. Even though fluid milk is a perishable commodity, for some reason commodity traders get to determine the wholesale cost, which now has no relation to the actual cost of production. That's capitalism for you!

Meanwhile, the Philly area also has a great example of another kind of successful farmer co-op in Lancaster Farm Fresh, which joins fifty farmers into an entity that can efficiently distribute tons of produce into urban markets from New York City to Washington, DC.

And small scale co-ops may even provide the way forward for ethanol as well -- not as a means to produce fuel for cars on a massive scale, but as an alternative to diesel fuel for farm equipment.

Co-ops have a long history in agriculture but have struggled since corporate consolidation became the watchword in Washington DC and state capitals nationwide. To this day, the USDA remains far more interested in low retail prices of commodities, irrespective of the impact it has on farmers themselves or rural communities. But with its new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, there seems to be a bit more momentum coming from the USDA for helping farmers establish co-ops. Hoping corporations behave benevolently is not a plan. Giving farmers the ability to act as a countervailing force to corporate control of agricultural markets? Now that's a plan.

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February 9, 2010

Did the President Just Create a National Food Policy Council?

Michelle Obama kicked off her campaign against childhood obesity today. Among the provisions are a revamping of the school lunch program, a small boost in funding for farmers markets, a major initiative to "end" food deserts by 2017, a focus on maintaining children's exercise levels, a set of broad public-private partnerships, along with reforms to front-of-package nutrition labeling and the food pyramid (see the WaPo's Jane Black for a good summary).

But the most intriguing element may have been the creation of The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity. According to the White House blog:

The new task force is charged with developing an interagency action plan to solve the problem of obesity among our Nation's children as part of the First Lady’s Let's Move campaign. The campaign will take a comprehensive approach to engage both public and private sectors to help children become more active and eat healthier within a generation, so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.

Members of the task force include: the Secretary of the Interior; the Secretary of Agriculture; Secretary of Health and Human Services; Secretary of Education; Director of the Office of Management and Budget; Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady; Assistant to the President for Economic Policy; and heads of other executive departments, agencies, or offices as the Chair may
designate.

By their nature, food policy councils are designed to circumvent the parochial interests and often "captured" status of regulatory agencies. By making people who don't normally talk sit together and consider the broader impact of their policies, food policy councils have the potential to keep special interests from dominating policy debates.

Most state-level food policy councils, such as New York's or Iowa's (created by then Gov. Tom Vilsack), include nutrition and access to health food as their core mission. And many find themselves moving towards involvement in local food and expansion of farmers markets and the like as a result of the inevitable conclusion that food production and food access are inexorably linked.

READ THE REST OF THIS POST AT GRIST.ORG

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February 5, 2010

Will Philly Get a Soda Tax?

I sure hope so (via KYW 1060):

...The Nutter Administration is considering a tax on soda to help close the city's massive deficit. But the mayor himself claims that the real goal of such a tax would be to improve your health.

"What we're focused on primarily is obesity."

Mayor Nutter insists that his consideration of levying a tax on all sodas and sweetened drinks has a noble goal that goes beyond solving an economic crisis. He wants to encourage people to avoid sodas:

"It's something that we're taking a look at it, because we care very deeply about the issue of obesity, not only for children, type-2 diabetes, but also adults as well."

It's still unclear if Nutter will include a soda tax in the budget that he presents to city council in one month. Also unclear -- the rate of the tax, and who would pay directly -- distributors, retailers or consumers.

The Philly Daily News suggests a penny-an-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks might be a possibility -- though we won't find out until March 4 when the Mayor unveils his budget. In the unlikely event a Philly city soda tax could survive the vicious and inevitable blowback from the beverage industry, it would -- according to Yale's Rudd Center dead useful soda tax calculator -- generate up to $68 million dollars for the cash-strapped city. I say, go for it, Mike!

flickr user: b0r0da

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February 3, 2010

Register Receipts Are [Really] Hazardous to Your Health

Because coating everyday objects in endocrine disrupting chemicals is just plain fun! From HuffPo:

Amazingly, the greatest threat of BPA exposure may be something we handle nearly every day: receipts. According to the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry's John Warner in a Science News article last year, "The average cash register receipt that's out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA." Milligrams? By comparison, the amount deemed worrisome enough by reusable water bottle manufacturer Nalgene to eliminate the chemical from its polycarbonate bottles was measured in nanograms (that's one-millionth of a milligram).

What's especially scary about the receipt scenario is that there's no way to control all the possibilities for exposure -- picture waiters delivering plates of food after handling customers' checks, or shaking hands with someone who just put a receipt in his wallet. What you can control: Decline a receipt if you don't need one (save more trees, too), and wash your hands frequently (good hygiene during flu season, anyway).

Sadly, as far as I know, none of the pending BPA bans on the state or federal level address the use of bisphenol-A in register receipts. And yet that may be how many of us get our largest dose of that nasty chemical (here's more background on BPA). Too bad the FDA thinks its hands are tied when it comes to regulating it.

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February 1, 2010

The Professor in Chief
The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg analyzes President Obama's bravura performance during his Q&A with the GOP:

The "Question Time" format -- Republican legislators vs. Democratic President -- turns out to suit Obama perfectly. He listens carefully to the question/statement. He prefaces his answer with a brief courtesy of some sort. Then he analyzes the question, calmly picking it apart and vaporizing its premises. Then he explains (a) why his policy is preferable and (b) how it has already incorporated Republican ideas to the degree that they make sense.

He occupies the position of authority: he's President; he has the podium; the format makes it awkward for his questioners to interrupt or hector him. He sets the rhythm, and the rhythm suits him. There's a leisurely arc to his answers. In the campaign debates, the stingy time limits -- "one-minute answer!" "lightning round!" "Bzzzz!" -- and the preening "moderators" cramped his style. Sometimes he'd barely get started. In Baltimore, he didn’t have to rush. Each answer became an essay with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It helped that his questioners were politically hostile public officials pretending to be policy wonks, because that freed him to unleash his own, greatly superior wonkery without sounding overly technical or condescending.

My fear is that all that will resonate from Obama's appearance will be its tone and scorekeeping -- meta-analysis will prevail over policy analysis. The actual content of his proposals and his explanations for why the GOP's alternatives are useless will get lost in the noise. As Paul Krugman pointed out today, the GOP has no ideas and to date that appears to be a winning electoral strategy.

My hope is that this event will encourage the GOP to flog their ideas more vocally. If today's "alternative" GOP budget document is any indication -- with its massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- the GOP is probably better off sticking to their familiar, well-worn one word answer.

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