The Green Plate: The Dark Side of Bioplastic

Posted on Oct 11, 13 at 02:10 PM on March 23, 2011 in Food

ColumnWhy bio-plastics aren’t as green as you think.

When was the last time you attended an event where food and drink was sold in disposable vessels?

If you’re an EcoSalon reader, it’s likely that after consuming your food or beverage you examined the container carefully to see if it was made from corn (or another plant product). And if it was, you probably then looked around for a compost bin to throw it in. Did you find one?

I’m guessing you didn’t and, left without much choice, you threw it in the garbage, maybe feeling a little uneasy, but consoling yourself with the thought that at least the container wasn’t made from petroleum, and it would break down. Right?


There are two problematic factors in potato, corn, and other plant-based plastics, which are often called “bioplastics.”

The first is disposal. Because many municipalities (even large cities like New York) don’t offer curbside composting, there’s an intention gap. Even the ones that do offer such a feature may offer residential, and not commercial composting, which means you’d have to bring your cup home with you to compost it. Realistically, how many people are going to do that?

Then there’s the labeling. Some compostable packaging and containers are not clearly labeled and can be indistinguishable from petroleum-based containers. Only highly motivated consumers will go that extra mile to find out, especially if there’s only one bin in which to toss your waste.

Some compostable ware may actually be worse for the environment than petroleum-based ware. Or at best, it might just be feel-good gesture or a marketing opportunity for companies or restaurants using it.

Still, plant-based plastic is a net win, right?

Probably not.

Consider net energy use. Lifecycle studies show that, as far as energy or water use goes, the production of petroleum-based plastics may actually be less taxing on the environment than the production of some plant-based plastics. This is partially because agriculture is fossil fuel and water intensive, and most plant-based plastics are produced using agricultural processes, including resource-intensive, soil-depleting mono-culturing.

There’s the issue of breakdown and associated greenhouse gases, too. Theoretically, bio plastics will break down faster than petroleum based plastics, but in a landfill, almost nothing breaks down due to lack of oxygen. And if the bio plastics do break down, that’s not necessarily a good thing since they can emit methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times stronger than C02.

Is anyone getting it right?

I spoke to Helene York, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service company that strives to lessen its impact on the environment through its business practices.

Among other initiatives, the company instituted the Low Carbon Diet. In addition to reducing meat and cheese consumption, reducing the use of airfreight, and other company wide actions, the Low Carbon Diet addresses the problem of waste – both food and non-food waste.

I asked York if plant-based plastics or petroleum were the better choice.

“What’s the environmental problem we’re trying to solve?” she asked.

Then she went on to outline the complicating considerations that make this question of “plant based?” or “petroleum based?” such a dilemma.

According to York, “If the problem is climate change, ocean acidification (which is related to climate change), total energy use, soil erosion, water use, or the decline of water tables in the Midwest, then most plant-based resins aren’t a better choice than most plastics.” Because they rely on agriculture.

“If the problem is keeping plastics out of the landfill, this isn’t an environmental problem. It’s a municipal finance problem. Plastics in a modern landfill are inert and they don’t leach. They don’t do anything in fact, while plant-based products have the potential to breakdown and generate methane.”

And then York gets to the heart of the question for The Green Plate:

“Do we really want to use land for growing commodity crops intended for industrial uses, whether they are for animal feed or to satisfy our convenience needs? Just because something is made with a natural or renewable ingredient,” she says, “doesn’t mean it’s a better product than something made from a durable ‘recyclable’ product like PET.”

In the end, the smartest thing is to reduce the number of disposables used entirely, which is what Bon Appétit is striving for in its daily operations.

You can do it, too. When you’re heading out of the house, why not grab a drinking vessel, or a mason jar (if you’re a hipster), and even a lightweight container? You could even invest in some bamboo flatware.

After all, you never know when you’re going to want to sample some delicious street food or drink. You may even consider only buying from vendors who use low impact packaging like recycled paper that is fully compostable anywhere.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: denkrahm

Why New GIPSA Rules Support Family Farms

October 28th, 2010 By Haven Bourque

The USDA has a law on the books that levels the playing field between family farmers who raise cattle, hogs and poultry and the large meat packers who purchase their livestock and bring it to market. It’s called the Packers and Stockyard Act, and its overseen by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration or GIPSA. But don’t tussle with that mouthful because it doesn’t explain what you need to know about the complex livestock market system. Just keep reading. GIPSA makes sure small producers have equal access to market that larger producers do. It’s fair competition, which is, of course, the American way.

Sounds great, right? And just in time for the good food revolution. But instead, this law has been gathering dust because the USDA hasn’t enforced it. New proposed rules (previously covered here on Civil Eats) amending the act would prevent large meat packers from artificially lowering the price of cattle, hogs and lamb. But four companies control over 80 percent of the U.S. meat market, and these “Big Four” are fighting an effort to strengthen the rule.

For all you urban food geeks who’ve never ridden the North Dakota range or shoveled chicken manure in central North Carolina, here’s some context. When you’re raising livestock, timely access to market is critical because a meat animal is a perishable product. When the animal has reached optimal weight, it must be sold in a narrow window of time, typically within two to three weeks. If it cannot be processed, it begins to degrade in quality, and a producer is subject to a significant price deflation. If a packer won’t purchase your animals for slaughter, you’re stuck selling your animal either too early or too late, competitive bidding isn’t possible, and the packer conspires to give you a ridiculously low price for your labors.

“The reason we’re fighting now for GIPSA’s new rules is simple,” said Rhonda Perry of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “We won’t have good quality, affordable food if we don’t have independent family farmers raising livestock. These farmers won’t survive if there’s no competition in the industry. Farmers just want a fair shake. They want the opportunity to compete, because we know we are the best food producers.”

“When your food system falls to corporate consolidation, you get disasters like the Iowa egg recall. One family farmer screwing up will not create a recall of 500 million eggs,” said Adam Warthesen from the Land Stewardship Project. He recalled the hard lesson North Carolina learned in 1999 when Hurricane Earl hit. “The hurricane caused serious flooding, with huge factory farm operations overtaken by flood waters and vast amounts of raw sewage from manure lagoons and dead hogs permeating into ground water and wells. It was a disaster.”

Holly Waddell, a third generation rancher in northwestern South Dakota and Vice Chair of Dakota Rural Action, told me that her priorities are caring for her land, for her animals and for the people who consume her product. She insisted that there is no way an industrial model can replicate that. “We are no longer in control when we’ve turned everything over to big corporations and government. They are not stewards of the land,” she said. “When we lose that family farming operation, all that’s out there looking after the animals is a hired laborer who makes barely minimum wage and who might not pay attention. To me this means the loss of pride and concern for our country’s resources.”

The Big Four packers view killing the GIPSA rules as their opportunity to capture the livestock industry from birth to plate. They’ve already succeeded with poultry and much of the hog supply chain. According to Perry, “Poultry is completely corporatized and has been since the 1970’s. Farmers still raise the birds, but they do not own their livestock. They are merely contractors working for the vertical integrators who own the livestock. They are not independent producers.”

“When we talk to poultry producers in the East, they tell us we need to fight like hell so our industry doesn’t end up like theirs,” said Warthesen.

As for the pork industry, Perry told me that since 1980, 90 percent of independent hog farmers have also stopped farming. Was efficient production the goal? No, it was profits for packers. Consumers saw a 71 percent increase in retail pork prices, while hog farmers suffered a 50 percent drop in their share of every dollar.

Independent cattle producers are still hanging on, but Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, told me we’ve lost over 40 percent of our independent producers already. As a result of this consolidation, 1.2 million people who were farming and ranching 20 years ago no longer do so today. “The GIPSA battle is a once in a lifetime opportunity to prevent the destruction of the cattle industry,” said Bullard. “Cattle is a $50 billion dollar industry. It’s the largest segment of American agriculture, and an economic cornerstone for rural communities across America.”

“Farmers and supporters are feeling desperate, but also hopeful,” said Warthesen. “We need to make sure this administration hears from both farmers and consumers, because this is the first administration that has even attempted to take this on.”

He sees the move to quash these rules as the sign of a struggling meat industry. “Consumers don’t want what they’re selling anymore. So the industry is fighting back with everything they’ve got. Ironically, although consumers are demanding meat from family farmers, policy makers have been pretty slow to catch up in no small part because of industry money and lobbying power.”

Waddell sees hope in the fact that this administration has put more focus on these issues. “Secretary Vilsack visited with us in Ft. Collins. He talked about agriculture being vital to our nation’s well-being,” she said. “He says his administration wants to see a vital rural economy and communities of folks that can sustain themselves out in the countryside. If that is genuinely the feeling starting to surface at USDA, they [should] go forward with the rules to enforce GIPSA.”

What can the concerned consumer do? Buy your meat from your local small family farms. Contact your representatives and the USDA. And submit a comment. The comment period for the rule ends November 22.

Photo: BugMan50 via Flickr


Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter.

The 10 Biggest Issues With the Global Food System

If you ask food experts like Michael Pollan, Marian Nestle, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva, and numerous other writers and scholars what the biggest problems in our global, industrialized food system are, you’ll end up with a lot to chew on.

It’s difficult to separate the problems into discrete categories because everything is connected. Big problems lead to seemingly smaller problems, that, when allowed to fester, become open wounds – much like the foul waste lagoons on industrial pig farms that dot our landscape, or the actual wounds on human flesh caused by antibiotic resistant staph infections, which are a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations.

Most of the problems in the system stem from one giant problem: Concentration of power, land, wealth, and political influence in the hands of a few large players who have gamed the system for their benefit. Here are the biggest issues, as we see them, followed by suggestions for what you can do about them.

1. Food Safety

Big players in the meat, dairy, eggs, and bagged greens industries are unsafe at any speed. Nobody paying attention to the news over the past few years could have missed the biggest food recall stories, nor the very real harm and deaths that have resulted from many of them. E-coli in beef has sickened many, killed some, and ruined lives. Recently, salmonella tainted pasteurized milk was pulled from shelves. Nobody could have missed the recent recall of about a half a billion eggs, and there have been numerous recalls of bagged greens – the most recent in June. These stories are becoming nearly every day occurrences, leaving us to wonder if our food system is DESIGNED to kill us. The problem is a direct result of lax food safety enforcement laws and lack of inspectors. This is at least partially because industry lobbies make sure that inconvenient regulations are not passed. Concentration in the industry also leads to over-crowded, sadistic farm operations requiring the use of massive doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics and grown hormones, and resulting in air and water pollution that contribute to a host of environmental and public health nightmares, and misery for the animals trapped in the system.

What can you do about it?

Know your farmers, ask about their practices and support what they are doing. You’ll eat better, you’ll worry less and you’ll support a better food system. When bagged spinach was first recalled a few years ago, I knew that the spinach in my CSA box was fine. Likewise, during the recent egg recall, I worried not a whit about the pastured eggs I buy at the farmers’ market.

2. Declining Wild Fish Stocks

As Taras Grescoe pointed out in Bottomfeeder and Paul Greenberg most recently outlined in Four Fish, we eat too many of a very few species of wild fish – mostly the ones that are higher on the food chain. Continuing in this vein will cause the eventual decimation of our oceans.

What can you do about it?

Branch out and try something new. Eat bait, or smaller fish, like anchovies, sardines, and small Spanish mackerel. These fish are more sustainable, more plentiful, more resilient, and healthier for you than the larger predators.

3. Poor Aquaculture Practices

Aquaculture may be an important food source in the future (see above) but much of it is practiced in ways that are unhealthy for eaters, native species and the environment. If GMO salmon is approved, (still pending at press time) it will only add to the list of everything that is wrong with farming carnivorous fish in the open ocean. Don’t replace that salmon on your plate with shrimp. Ever wonder why the shrimp is so cheapat restaurants like Red Lobster?

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself on sustainable aquaculture. In general, only eat farmed fish that are natural vegetarians and only buy from suppliers that are transparent about the origins of their fish.

4. Genetically Modified Crops

Besides being untested for their effects on human health, genetically modified seeds don’t necessarily produce greater yields, and can lead to over-application of pesticides that in turn can cause super weeds which have the potential to threaten overall biodiversity, and to contaminate non-gmo crops with their genetic material. The most recent case involving GMOS ended badly when the USDA issued permits allowing GMO sugar beets to be planted in defiance of a federal judge. The judge had issued a decision to stop the planting of GMO sugar beets on the grounds that they may cross-pollinate table beets and Swiss chard. Despite the fact that most other countries have laws outlawing or requiring the labeling of GMO foods, our government continues to bow down to industry.

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself about which crops are commonly genetically modified and only buy organic versions. Better yet, support the companies involved in the non-GMO project. These are the companies willing to go out on a limb and actually test their organic ingredients to make sure they are not contaminated. Also, raise your voice and let the USDA and our legislators know that you don’t want GMOS!

5. Exploitation of Workers

From actual documented slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, to daily pesticide exposure in farming communities, to the fact that America’s lowest paying jobs are in fast food restaurants – our food system crushes workers, ruins their health, and keeps them in poverty so that they need the cheap, processed, industrialized food to survive.

What can you do about it?

This is a tough one, because buying from local, organic farms isn’t necessarily the answer. Even the nicest local, organic farms don’t pay their workers much and require long hours of backbreaking work. The farmers often work just as hard and can’t even afford health insurance for themselves or their families, so even if they want to do better by their workers, they can’t. This is where raising your voice for a more fair government policy that benefits small farmers equally can help. The new USDA is doing a better job clamping down on the big guys and supporting small-scale farmers than ever before, but we’ve got a ways to go.

6. Lack of Equal Access

You’ve no doubt heard the term food desert. Our food system is unjust because it does not provide healthy, affordable food to everyone. People in urban areas often have no access to any fresh food at all because there are no grocery stores. Likewise, rural residents in the heart of agricultural areas sometimes cannot afford to buy the very food they may help to harvest. According to a survey of farm workers in Fresno, county – conducted by The California Institute of Rural Studies – in 2007, 45 percent faced food insecurity. Also, children who are hungry at home are more likely to depend on school lunch programs for most of their nourishment. Even the kids know what a disaster that is. A society that allows such a large percentage of its citizens to go hungry or rely on unhealthy foods that make them sick is shameful.

What can you do about it?

It’s not enough to vote with your fork. Volunteer with and give money to organizations that work on food access issues. There are many. A good place to start is The Community Food Security Coalition.

7. Not Enough People Engaged in Agriculture

Somebody’s got to grow all that food, but farmers are getting older and farming has long been in decline as a career choice. That’s because the system favors machine over man and profits over everything. This means lack of opportunities for farmers to earn a living wage that allows them to buy food and health insurance (see point five from last week). And it’s also unsustainable. (See point number 9 below). If we want to continue to eat, we’re going to have to get more people engaged in farming and we’re going to need to integrate agriculture into society.

What can you do about it?

One way is to grow your own, support neighborhood and school gardens, and urban agriculture. But the real change has to happen at the policy level, so speak up. Now is the time to start working with groups engaged in guiding policy for the next farm bill, such as The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

8. Monocrops

Monocropping is bad for the environment because it’s chemical dependent, harmful to wildlife and ecosystems, and kills the soil. It also increases the chances of famine due to lack of crop diversity. It makes communities dependent on imports of other needed crops, instead of fostering self-reliance. Processed packaged foods depend on monocrops, like palm oil, that cause deforestation and push indigenous people off their land, and soy, which is often genetically modified. (See point 4 from last week). In particular, soy monocropping is causing tensions in Argentina, as it displaces other types of farms.

What can you do about it?

Don’t buy packaged, processed food. Buy fresh, local foods grown by farmers with diverse operations. Cook real food from scratch in your own kitchen.

9. Finite Resources

Our modern, industrialized food system is dependent on fossil fuel based inputs and an unlimited supply of water and soil. All of these things are finite. Add to that that the food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and it’s clear that we cannot continue the way we are going. We have to find a better way.

What can you do about it?

This problem is bigger than all of us but you can keep voting with your fork for the food system you want. And if you get into an argument with your uncle about how we can possibly feed the world with organic agriculture, say what Michael Pollan has said, “how do we know? We’ve never tried.” (paraphrased)

10. Biofuel Production

Of course it would be easier to simply continue doing things the way we have been and just find another way to fuel our wasteful ways, but that’s not going to work. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels made from virgin agricultural crops (as opposed to recycled vegetable oil) could devastate our food system and environment. Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, are monocrops (see point eight) so they have the same potential to cause deforestation and other environmental problems. They also displace people and cause the price of basic commodities to rise, which is devastating to poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food.

What can you do about it?

This is another bigger-than-all-of-us problem, but you can do your small part by reducing energy use, driving less, and speaking up for sane urban and suburban planning and smart energy policies.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate,on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: chronos-tachyon, Danielle Scott, Muffet, Jonathan Assink, avlxyz, unanoslucror, lucianvenutian, ebruli, Jeffrey Beall, Daisy Double Oh, MSVG, Calc-Tufa, 91RS

Wading into Deep Waters: On California Water Stewardship with Dave Runsten

Posted on Oct 11, 13 at 02:10 PM

Last week while savoring the last of the stone fruit and the first crisp apples here in California, I worried about water. If you eat fruits and vegetables, you, too, should be very worried about water. This is because California, the state that supplies vast quantities of our nation’s produce, is running out. The culprit? Urban development gone wild, climate change, and generations of water transfer in a state with a high percentage land in the desert.

Reading excellent coverage of the farmers vs. fisherman water issue here on Civil Eats piqued my interest. Then, last week I heard a roomful of water experts discuss how our water issues impact food and farming. Presented by Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), and Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), along with San Francisco Professional Food Society and Les Dames des Escoffier, the panel discussion made me more nervous and confused. What was true? After the panel I caught up with Dave Runsten, who heads up CAFF’s work with the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative, to seek clarification. Runsten’s July 2010 report Why Water Stewardship for Agriculture was published July 2010 and outlines some relevant points of the debate on water issues facing the state’s urban dwellers, farmers and the food system.

Dave, I’m swimming in the murky waters of this debate. Please review the main issues facing agricultural water management as you see them.

It’s a complicated topic even for experts. Here’s the big picture: California agriculture is essential to the food security of the United States. But we built a water system over many decades, starting back in the 19th century, which relies on lot of transfer of water from one basin to another. San Francisco gets water from Yosemite Valley, Los Angeles gets water from the Colorado river and from Northern California, etcetera. Today the LA region has a population of 20 million. If LA had to survive on its own water resources, it could support only one million people. Much of the land in California is desert. This land is worth nothing without access to water. So we transport water to desert areas to make land worthwhile for farming and real estate. It’s expensive, it’s politically controversial, and there isn’t enough water to go around.

How much of a crisis is this?

Today, we are 5 million acre feet short of the water the state needs for families and for farming. This shortage is only going to get worse. Climate change is reducing size of the snow pack, it will create extreme rain with flash flooding and runoff challenges, and means more drought. Almost 40 million people live in California so we need to change everyone’s habits.

We can’t have lawns and lush landscaping. 40-50 percent of our water is used outdoors. The State Water Board says three million feet of water can be saved if people simply conserve. For example, Los Angeles has mandated low-flow toilets and shower heads.

What’s our goal for water conservation?

Our conservation goal is 20 percent urban water reduction per capita by the end of 2020 in all of California’s urban areas. Legislation was passed in 2009 to require this commitment. But conservation alone won’t solve the problem. We need to store water by capturing it. Farmers in particular can do this by adapting a variety of technologies and practices. Some examples of this are building organic matter into the soil through cover cropping, minimum tillage and amendments, using drip or micro sprinklers, soil monitoring, and many other ways. Conservation must also take place at the irrigation district level, or the watershed level, improving distribution efficiency and working on local infrastructure rather than relying on central water infrastructure with dams.

In your July 2010 publication you say it is argued that farmers ‘waste’ water. Who argues this and why?

Los Angeles wants more water allocation to water lawns and cars. As a farmer, this offends me. I’m growing food for those people to eat. [Meanwhile] people have a concept that flood irrigation is a waste of water. Really it’s the way groundwater is being recharged. Water finds its way back into the Sacramento River after its flood irrigated, so it’s a natural recycling/reclamation system. Certain crops would be very difficult to grow with drip or sprinkler type irrigation. These types of systems are expensive to manufacture, purchase and install, they require electricity to operate, and they must be maintained, so they are far from a simple solution.

How much do farmers pay for water?

Farmers pay the cost of getting water to them depending on their location. Along the Sacramento River, farmers pay $5 per acre per year. On east side of San Joaquin valley the cost is $20/$30 an acre, and West of San Joaquin water costs $200/$300 an acre. In San Diego, farmers pay $2,000 an acre. That reflects the reality of what it costs to transport water there. To be truthful, anyone paying $5 per acre doesn’t have a much incentive to conserve.

What are the top controversies re: water for food, farming and families as you see them?

When Mark Reisner wrote Cadillac Desert about land development and water policy in the West back in the 80’s, he said rice growers were wasting water. Not about to take that one lying down, the rice farmers invited him to visit. He worked with them to create a water fowl habitat, timing of flooding the field to work with migration which vastly increased the number of water fowl flying through. To me this is a terrific illustration of how it is possible to have agriculture conducted in harmony with nature.

What about the Delta Smelt?

For sure the Delta has crashed. We pump more and more water out of it, especially in last 10-15 years. We’ve been destroying the environment of the Delta for a long time and these indicator species along with it. But here’s the rub: if we leave more water in the delta, whose water will we leave there, Northern California’s or Southern California’s? There is absolutely no simple solution to it.

What should CA food and farming advocates do?

Advocate for water conservation, urban and rural. It’s simply not fair to just attack farmers. We must recognize that farmers are producing our food, so we must create an urban-rural compact centered on stewardship and smart use to find a way to reduce water use. A lot of farmers don’t have any economic incentives to do this, so food advocates will have to support subsidies, technical support and monies to help them. Technical assistance through cooperative extension systems have been severely cut back; that means there’s not a lot of help available for farmers.

What about industrial agriculture versus small farms?

Water is a problem that cuts across every farming operation, both big and small. The price of water has everything to do with where you are located, what your water rights are, not the size of your farm. Smaller farms have even more limited budgets, while bigger ones have more access to consultants and technologies. Not all small organic farms are doing a great job on water use. They could do better, and they could use financial and technical help.

Here’s a good example from the Southern San Joaquin valley in the very large Westlands Water district. These are some of the biggest farms in CA , and they’re doing a great job conserving because they have expensive water and have to work really hard to adopt high technology irrigation practices. It’s simple economics. Compare them with organic farmers in Capay Valley. They do use drip irrigation to grow vegetables, so they’re not wasting water, but don’t have sophisticated moisture probes or other higher technology tools. Plus, there’s a high learning curve since historically they’ve had enough water.

What is your final thought for water-concerned Civil Eats readers?

The overarching problem is that people want to build houses in the desert. The water must come from Northern California. That’s the political reality here. Still, a permanent, sustainable agriculture in California with a permanent, sustainable water supply is possible if everyone in the state, urban and rural, conserves water.

Photo: AnniThyme

Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter.

Tags: california, development, specialty crops, Water, water issues

In the Belly of the Good Food Movement Beast: What We Ate For Lunch At ALBA

September 9th, 2010 By Haven Bourque

On recent foggy morning, I drove with two food activist companions down a long dusty road in Salinas, CA towards a hotbed of contradictions. In the salad bowl of the nation, sustainable farming thrives alongside conventional farming. We were on our way to visit one of the beacons of creativity and success for the sustainable farming movement: ALBA, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association, which trains farm workers and aspiring farmers on 300-plus acres on two working farms to grow and market organic crops.

My traveling companions were eco-cognoscenti: Kari Hamerschlag, an Environmental Working Group senior researcher who moonlights as a California Farm Bill organizer, and Brandon Tomlinson, owner of a Bay Area organic vegetable delivery service. We met with ALBA to assess work to be done for the upcoming farm bill, and to secure supply for Brandon’s small operation. I was also there to report on what food is available and consumed in a food-forward farming environment. In many parts of the country, food deserts are as characteristic of farming communities as they are of urban jungles. What would we find there?

ALBA’s business model would impress any MBA: an incubator for small farming businesses that help local food economies bloom, support the land with conservation methods and teach farm communities to thrive. So where’s the contradiction? In the lunch bucket, of course.

First, the macro challenge. Farm workers are a population battling not only heartbreaking poverty, civil injustice, and the colossal stupidity of American immigration policy, but also heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity. In Salinas, access to healthy, sustainable food is a challenge; although so much good food is grown here, lunch options resemble West Oakland. What there isn’t: No restaurants serving locally grown foods. Certainly no Whole Foods. What there is: A WalMart with, according to the store’s Web site, a McDonald’s inside. A Grocery Outlet. For families with sufficient earnings, there are also several traditional Mexican restaurants. Taco trucks for everyone else. In Salinas, farm worker families purchase much of their food from bodegas, which don’t sell locally grown artichokes, tomatoes, and blackberries alongside powdered donuts, beer, chips, and soda.

ALBA is working furiously to change this in their community, and is making progress, but still has far to go. So there we were, surrounded by beguiling stalks of artichokes and tender lettuces, which illustrate the contradiction just as powerfully as a supermarket egg carton with the “farm fresh” label on a product crawling with Salmonella: there’s nothing good to eat here.

Swinging through ALBA’s main office to greet our hosts, we noticed a huge bowl of fresh ripe peaches on the reception desk. Out the window, we saw kids playing energetically at the fields’ edge where their parents worked, horsing around and shouting happily between bites of peach. The ALBA folk were busy submitting a grant application and building out fall’s training programs, so we ate lunch during our meeting. I took notes on the issues and on the food.

Farm worker diets mirror the tragedy of the SAD (Standard American Diet). According to a report by California Institute for Rural Studies, 45 percent of farm workers in Fresno County face food insecurity. Monterey County is no different. Translation: the people who grow and pick our food don’t have enough of their own. Poor farmers may not be a surprise to many, but here’s a shocker: 86 percent of farm workers surveyed report a high-fat diet, with 30 percent or more of their calorie intake from fat. And 42 percent report eating less than three servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Income, access, and nutritional education are the triple whammy that makes our farm worker population mirror the nation’s nutrition challenges. A recent NPR report covers the same tragedy in California’s Central Valley, where much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown. It’s a fast-food mecca where residents plagued by obesity and malnutrition are forced to drive 35 miles to reach a grocery store.

Looking out the window at the physically fit, happy ALBA children munching fruit between bouts of chasing each other, I was relieved to witness proof of a different lifestyle for those under ALBA’s wing. One of ALBA’s programs focuses on giving their own worker communities access to fresh, healthy, local, organic food, and building economic strength by selling to their own communities. I saw positive results right in front of me. There’s a downtown Saturday farmer’s market. And some taco trucks have joined in recent ALBA celebrations and are considering sourcing from ALBA farmers.

Still, the staff lunches mirrored a bit of contradiction. Brett Melone, ALBA’s Executive Director, ate a homemade salad of cabbage, carrots, cannellini beans, and cucumbers. Followed by a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Nathan Harkleroad, Farm Incubator Program Manager, ate beet chocolate cake he baked himself. He told me he usually he eats a burrito from a place down the road, as do many of the farmers training at ALBA. They also supplement lunch with their own vegetables and fruits, anticipating the day when the taco trucks would feature their own produce.

It was Gary Peterson, ALBA’s Deputy Director’s lunch that worried me most. He had (organic) ice cream at staff birthday party, chased by a handful of (organic) blueberries and (organic) almonds. He was the one who looked desperately for the exit when I brought up my topic. He sits at a computer far too much. I wished an intern would cook for the staff.

Later in the day we met Tony Serrano, the charismatic and impressively expert General Manager of ALBA Organics, who toured us around the fields. I didn’t immediately ask him about his lunch. Tony grew up in a farm worker family, migrating around the state picking strawberry fields until his parents’ small farm collapsed. Now he’s a towering figure at ALBA, and has helped the organization double its capacity since he joined in 2008.

After walking the rows and meeting farmers at the 110-acre Rural Development Center farm, we hopped into Tony’s truck and bumped on dusty roads towards the 95-acre Triple-M farm to get the whole picture of their operations. After a few minutes of talking, Tony confessed: he’s addicted to soda. He knows it’s evil but it’s a habit that’s hard to kick; he drinks it all day long. On the bright side, he arranged for ALBA to provide fresh carrots to his kids’ middle school. After the school bought his carrots, his kids were suddenly proud of their dad’s work. The carrots made him a mini-celebrity at the school and now his daughter is considering following him into farm management.

Touring the Triple-M farm as the sun set, we enjoyed a strangely wonderful combination of bodega-purchased beers, vine-ripened blackberries, and golden raspberries. With Tony, we strategized dinner in Salinas, primarily to avoid traffic in the three-hour drive back to Oakland. Our options were slim and there were no vegetarian choices, no sustainably raised meats, few vegetables, and only unsustainable seafood. Maybe a few years from now a restaurant there will feature ALBA’s produce. We’d eat there together someday.

Photo: Karina Canto, ALBA expert, shares her crop nutrient and disease management expertise with ALBA farmer Eleazar Juarez of Rio De Parras Organic Farm. Courtesy ALBA

Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter.

Tags: ALBA, Brandon Tomlinson, Brett Melone, Gary Peterson, Kari Hamerschlag, Nathan Harkleroad, Tony Serrano

Last Mile Access: Let the Hotel Valet Open the Door to a Food Conversation

The valet made me do it. We bared our souls and talked with each other about food. We did it in the middle of the tastefully decorated lobby of a reputable Cannery Row hotel in Monterey, CA. It began as a very unexpected moment, and has become one of my all-time favorite experiences talking about access to good food. Because it was a conversation not with a chef, foodie or expert. It was with a regular person who longs to connect to food and is somehow stuck, marooned on an island alone, full of latent desire.

The valet—let’s call him Paul—asked me the very question I yearn to hear, and with him I had the discussion that I never tire of. Paul had parked my car when I checked into the hotel, had smiled professionally at me and held the door three mornings in a row when I sashayed excitedly out into the sunlight.

The cause of my excitement was a food issue conference hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Media Institute is an annual gathering of journalists and experts who cover food system issues ranging from sustainable seafood to GMOs. It is the highlight of my year, second only to the Ecological Farming Association annual meeting.

The third morning, Paul held the lobby door open and commented that I looked happy. I told him yes, I was happy because I spent the last three days at a conference talking and thinking about food. He immediately grabbed my arm. He looked a bit shocked at his intensity, but recovered quickly and said: “You were at a food conference. Tell me, what should I eat? And why? I know there’s a big debate now about food but I can’t follow it. I can cook, but I’m confused about what’s good for me. The grocery store? I go in there, I walk around…it feels wrong, and I come out with stuff I don’t like. Can you talk with me for a minute?”

Although he spoke quietly, his interest was so intense that the small lobby grew quiet. The receptionist, guests checking out and the other staff stood waiting for my answer. Where to start? Full disclosure: I’m a communications professional who relies on the power of my words to make a living. I know I’ve got about six seconds to keep him or lose him. Do I start with a slogan: Know your farmer, know your food? Nope, too abstract. Do I punt to Michael Pollan’s now famous: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much? Nope, too abstract again for a lobby conversation. Marion Nestle wrote a huge book about this, like War and Peace for the American eater.

Plus, do I need a pundit or am I ready to be my own? I took a deep breath: “I like to shop at farmers’ markets because they sell food that’s grown right up the road. I bet there’s one near here. I walk around the market, talk to a few farmers, see what looks good to me and buy what I can afford and know I can handle in the time I have available in my basic kitchen. Did you know artichokes are grown in Castroville, just a few miles away from here, and you can steam them in about five minutes?” He burst into a smile. “I’m Italian, from Florida. My family loved artichokes! Growing up we’d save money to buy the good ones, from Italy, in olive oil, in a glass jar, for pasta. You mean I can get them fresh here?” Ah, what a moment.

Several contradictions bear illustration: We’re on Cannery Row in Monterey, CA, where super-green list sustainable seafood sardines had their heyday until the species collapse in 1950s. Right near Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the shrines of ocean conservation, sits the restaurant Bubba Gump, a shrine to farmed shrimp redolent of butter, garlic and disgusting chemicals like disinfectants, pesticides and antibiotics used to keep filthy shrimp ponds teetering on the brink of legal seafood production. Another contradiction: My food conference is teeming with experts on food system sustainability. A few hundred feet from that, a hotel valet wonders what to eat, and has the guts to talk to me about it. If only more people dared to, and if only we could build a real community around real answers. And buy those artichokes from right up the road.

For me, Paul is an archetype of the struggle around food access. He didn’t just open the door for me mornings. He opened the door to a conversation that needs to happen in every walk of life. Where do we find food that speaks to us? What impact might a deeper connection with food have on our local communities, our health and our environment? We all want to know how to make this connection.

Paul isn’t the only one who wants to talk. I frequently find myself drawn into these conversations. My neighbors, strangers on public transportation, and also people at farmers’ markets want to engage around food. Seems everybody always wanted to make five minute blender mayonnaise but it takes a catalyst in the community to make it happen. We should all share knowledge, not just about the joys of homemade mayonnaise, but also about why we should use a pastured egg from a farmer we know rather than an organic supermarket egg. And we should be talking how to cook a beet and why it has a low carbon footprint. It probably helps when information is shared from simple home cooks, not chefs. What’s clear to me is that engaging with each other around food is the gateway, the first step to transforming our relationship. It has to come from each other, no matter how unexpected the place or the time.

I recommended Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything to Paul as a straightforward tome featuring all the basics, then riffs, galore. But I don’t think cookbooks are the silver bullet. A community connection which starts that dialogue would be a better answer. Steps away from where Paul parks cars and opens doors every day, a food conference was trying to open the door. But it didn’t go far enough. For this movement to thrive, it will take community, connection and deeper dialogue. Let’s start a conversation about food with unexpected people in unexpected situations. I think we’ll all benefit from the results.

What’s a Mother to Do?

I thought that I was in the clear. That I dodged some bullets. I had two healthy pregnancies, during which I tried to do all the right things: I avoided gas stations and mainstream cleaning products. I didn’t color my hair, polish my nails or smoke. Now nine years later, I have two healthy and thriving little girls, and we try to create a healthy home together.
But then two weeks ago, I found myself at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Breast Cancer Fund. The Breast Cancer Fund fights to get scientists, the medical establishment and policy makers to pay as much attention to the cause of breast cancer as the cure. During the evening, I was reminded once again how vulnerable women are to environmental exposure to chemicals, how our breast tissue is particularly sensitive. And most importantly, how puberty is a crucial window of vulnerability for girls, opening up channels of influence to chemicals much like those months in-utero. Only now our kids are older, a little more out of our grasp and control than when they were babies. Her speech shook me to the core. Suddenly, it feels like that bullet is coming right at me again.
My older daughter is on the cusp of puberty at 9 years old, my younger just a few years behind. All of those potent feelings I experienced during my pregnancies and their babyhood came flooding back. The momentary and false sense of control – if only I can buy the right sunscreen/feed them the right foods/clean with the right products, I can avoid unwanted exposures to environmental toxins like mercury, bisphenol A, phthalates, or flame retardants. But now we know that exposure to these chemicals is beyond the control of any of us alone.
We as a society, for reasons complex yet unfolding, are foisting young girls into the turmoil of puberty long before they are developmentally ready. In 2010, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center published a report on the effects of chemicals found in products we all have at home, like nail polish, cosmetics, perfume, lotion and shampoo. The results show a direct relationship between use of these products and early puberty development in girls. Studies have also linked early onset puberty to common household items, and foods like dairy and fish.
If only we collectively decided to honor their bodies’ natural trajectories and let them remain little girls for as long as was meant to be. As long as girls have over the course of history. Now, history is apparently a moving target, as implied by the title of a recent New York Times Magazine article on the topic of early puberty: “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” An article that unfortunately failed to mention any solutions to the problem of early puberty, like changing the way our country regulates the use of chemicals.
Which brings me to policy change, which is more imperative than ever. We know that changing our personal eating/cleaning/makeup/chemical use habits will only get us so far. As consumers, we should push the personal care, household products, and agricultural industries in the right direction. But at the same time, our legislators need to act to reform the outdated and broken 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and pass the new, updated Safe Chemicals Act of 2012, which focuses on children’s health as a benchmark for chemical safety. Authored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and co-sponsored by 16 Senators, the Act will increase the safety of chemicals used in consumer products, and protect those most vulnerable to chemical exposure, like women and children.
Take action today to let your elected officials know there is strong public support for changing the way we regulate chemicals in the United States:
As for me, enough is enough. I don’t want my daughters dodging the same bullets for their daughters someday.

Lena Brook has advocated for environmental health and justice for over ten years with organizations like Clean Water Action, Health Care Without Harm and Physicians for Social Responsibility. She’s currently a strategic communications consultant with HavenBMedia in San Francisco and can be found blogging about all things related to food at A Happier Meal.

The Rise of Company Gardens

Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

Harvard Pilgrim in Massachusetts is one of many companies that have started gardens as an economical way to encourage a healthy work force.

Published: May 11, 2010


Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

Kate Keeler, second from left, of Harvard Pilgrim plants chard with gardening pros.

HERE at the world headquarters of PepsiCo, the masterminds behind $60 billion worth of Mountain Dew, Cheetos and Rice-A-Roni roam polished hallways.

But a five-minute walk away is the organic corporate vegetable garden, where spreadsheets and performance reviews give way to basil starts and black peppermint plants. Employees can sneak out for a quick lunchtime weeding session and cart home the harvest.

As companies have less to spend on raises, health benefits and passes to the water park, a fashionable new perk is emerging: all the carrots and zucchini employees can grow.

Carved from rolling green office park turf or tucked into containers on rooftops and converted smoking areas, these corporate plots of dirt spring from growing attention to sustainability and a rising interest in gardening. But they also reflect an economy that calls for creative ways to build workers’ morale and health.

“It’s almost as if they are saying, ‘Yeah, we couldn’t give you a pay increase and yeah, times are tough, but this is something we can do to help improve the quality of your life,’ ” said Bruce Butterfield, the research director for the nonprofit National Gardening Association.

In corporate language, there is very little benchmarking on the numbers of gardens. But dozens of companies in several parts of the country have recently installed them or are digging them this spring.

That Google, Yahoo and Sunset magazine have started organic gardens is not a surprise. They are, after all, based in Silicon Valley, where the work force is almost as comfortable composting as it is programming.

But the trend has caught on at more-traditional companies, too. At the headquarters for the Kohl’s department stores near Milwaukee, the organic gardens provide vegetables for a local food bank and a place for children at the company child care center to play. Abundant crops of pumpkins and tomatoes grow at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky.

Still, what seems like a good idea in the conference room doesn’t always translate to the field. People don’t always follow through. It’s the same dynamic that fills the office refrigerator with old yogurt containers and moldy lunches.

At PepsiCo, most of the plots are still weedy and empty. The weather has been cool and so, gardeners say, has enthusiasm. Last year when the company first turned over a plot the size of two tennis courts to peppers and tomatoes, 200 of the 1,450 employees here signed up, mailroom workers and midlevel administrators alike. This year, the volunteers dwindled to about 75, and many of them have yet to ready their plots.

So on Tuesday, Anu Malhotra from the food services division pulled on her gardening gloves and yanked weeds from small squares of land that weren’t even her own.

“Corporate strategies had two plots last year, but they were always traveling, so we just kind of took over,” she said.

At Aveda, which offers on-site massage and organic cafeteria food at its headquarters near Minneapolis, the garden is a chance for its 700 employees to take a break from their desks and take home fresh produce. Workers pay $10 for the season and in return, they get a share of the bounty. Picking up a hoe is optional, but encouraged.

“It does seem like work, but it’s a different kind of work from our regular workday,” said Peggy Skinner, an employee who pushed to have the garden installed.

Aveda employees sometimes need to be cajoled to take their turn at the weeds. This year, to keep on schedule, Ms. Skinner has devised a chore calendar and suggests twice-weekly gardening sessions. Reminder e-mail messages will be sent.

For some employees, beanpoles quickly become just another part of the office scenery. On a visit last fall, the special self-watering “earth box” container garden on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., was filled with fewer actual gardeners than with workers hurrying through on their way back to their desks, cafeteria trays filled with free food balanced on their laptops.

Nevertheless, the editors of Human Resource Executive magazine were so taken with the corporate-garden concept that last month they named the garden run by the employees of Haberman, a Minneapolis-based public relations firm, one of the top five benefits ideas of the year. True, some of the 24 workers at the firm still enjoy an afternoon mocha, but they also reach for the brussels sprouts and cucumbers packed into the company refrigerator. Even a scant crop of peas was passed around the conference room table as a snack. Enlarge This Image

Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

Employees at the health care company Harvard Pilgrim in Wellesley, Mass., grew radishes, carrots and beets over the winter in cold frames.

Kim McMartin, who lives in a condo in downtown Minneapolis, had never planted a thing until she stuck some green bean seeds into the ground at the Haberman garden last summer. Some were planted too deep. Others were too shallow. As a result, her beans came up crooked.

This year, she vows to do better.

The new corporate green thumb is not necessarily a sign that American business culture is becoming more agrarian-minded, said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s more about the popularity of backyard gardening.

A National Gardening Association survey done in conjunction with Harris shows that 41 million Americans grew fruits and vegetables in 2009. That’s about 13 percent more than the year before.

In many cases, employee groups asked for the gardens. Sometimes, managers suggested them to help supply a food bank or as a team-building activity. It turns out that building tomato trellises together can help erase office hierarchies.

“It takes the politics out of the job,” said Sheila Golden, a senior manager at PepsiCo whose team grew what everyone agrees were the best tomatoes in the corporate garden last year. “Everybody is on the same level in the garden.”

Another beneficiary can be the company cafeteria. Best Buy planted a garden at its headquarters in Richfield, Minn., to help improve the food it serves to 4,600 employees.

“I really looked at it as what difference does a little bit less shrubbery make to my employees? Not much,” said Ian Ellis, director of corporate facilities. “But having fresh herbs and fresh tomatoes would make a big difference.”

A small plot or a few containers can cost a company less than $1,000 to install. At the higher end, Chesapeake Energy, a power company, is finishing a $500,000 garden this week that fills a city block just east of its main campus in Oklahoma City with container beds, gardening sheds and water sources. And there are ongoing expenses, like paying someone to tend the crops when employees can’t.

Cafeteria cooks may be delighted to get fresh herbs and vegetables, but managers can have other concerns, said Kent Buell, a resident district manager with Bon Appétit, the food service company that has installed kitchen gardens for 12 of its 80 corporate clients, including Best Buy, Intel and Target.

“A C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company loses some control when they have a garden on the premises,” he said. “They worry about supply chain. They have the health and safety committee weighing in. They worry about what it brings to the brand.”

Finding arable dirt can be a challenge. Many corporate headquarters are surrounded by acres of empty land, but the soil is often mixed with fill from building construction. And all that sod in the corporate business park has been kept green with chemicals.

Then there are more mundane worries, like how to dress for a day that includes both garden work and a budget meeting with the boss.

Harvard Pilgrim, a nonprofit health care company with 1,150 employees in New England, planted gardens at its campuses in Wellesley and Quincy, Mass., last year. Some of the neophyte farmers change into their gardening clothes at the end of the day. Others get down in the dirt every morning and then use the company showers.

Tammy Binette, 40, arrives at the Quincy branch 15 minutes before her 7 a.m. receptionist shift so she can water the crops. She harvests at lunch and sometimes drives extra produce to the local food bank.

Since all the beds are raised and the paths between them well tended, Ms. Binette just goes out in her dressy work shoes, taking them off and walking barefoot in the grass on nice days.

“I even went out there in stiletto heels a couple times,” she said.

What I Finally Did with my Massa Organics Duck


Last fall, Greg tweeted that he’d be selling rice-paddy raised ducks at the Berkeley market if folks wanted to order ahead. I did. I picked mine up on a bright day in September or October. I have no idea which. It was frozen so I put it in the freezer thinking I’d cook it within the month.

All sorts of crazy life stuff ensued, including a move. The duck, of course, came with me to my new home and took up residence in my new freezer. Sitting there in my freezer all winter and into the spring, the duck took on a gigantic importance. It was a special duck. A Massa-raised duck. Not just any old duck. I had to DO something with it. Just roasting it would not do at all. I was waiting for an occasion.

Finally Haven’s mother was in town and since the two of us had been meaning to cook a dinner together out of Niloufer’s wonderful book, My Bombay Kitchen, we decided it was time. Only problem is that there wasn’t really a recipe for a whole duck in the book.Improvisation was in order.


I decided to make the Green Curry Masala (page 135) that Niloufer says is versatile enough for lamb, brains, or chicken. My thought was to rub the duck with ginger garlic paste (page 36) and steam it for 15 minutes to render the fat. Then I’d rub it with the masala and roast it. I also made the Watercress and Turnip Salad (page 215). Haven made a variation on the Fresh Turmeric and Ginger Pickle (page 234) and her mother (appropriately) made Mother’s Khichri (page 165). Sorry about the white rice! We didn’t use the Massa Rice.


All went swimmingly. In the end I decided the duck needed a little sauce so I whisked together some white wine, butter, and Green Curry Masala and we spooned it over the duck. Four of us picked that thing clean. It looked as if buzzards had gotten in and taken up residence at the dinner table. The appetizer was a real coup. Instead of flatbread we ate the pickle with Cowgirl Fromage Blanc (they were out of paneer) on toasted Massa Whole Wheat Tortillas.


I’m hoping for another duck this fall. Greg: are you listening?


Just before steaming. Steamer insert rigged up in wok with foil covering it for 15 minutes.

Just after steam bath.

Rendering fat to use for roasting potatoes.

After roasting. It wasn’t that pretty but it sure was good. PS: 1 duck is barely enough for 4 people.