Tom Philpott

Farmworkers Get Beat Up in Florida Fields and the US Senate

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In the heart of Florida's industrial-scale fruit and vegetable fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved the most tangible gains for US farmworkers since the glory days of the California-based United Farm Workers in the 1970s. CIW has methodically taken on large tomato growers and the giant corporations that buy their product, winning for themselves an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they harvest, which amounts to a substantial raise; as well as code-of-conduct agreements between buyers and growers that set up a grievance process for alleged abuses and other protections.

But despite CIW's burgeoning power, conditions remain rough in the area's farm fields—especially on farms that haven't signed the code of conduct. The group's agreements so far only cover tomatoes; workers toiling in other crops remain underpaid and largely unprotected. And last week, the group reported Sunday, a worker from a nearby eggplant field walked into its office wearing a bloodied t-shirt. Here's what happened:

He had been working at a vegetable packing house, packing eggplants, about 10 miles from Immokalee when a supervisor approached him. According to the worker, the supervisor criticized his work, and he, thinking the criticism unjustified, answered back. A discussion ensued when, according to the worker and a witness, the supervisor hauled off and punched him in the face. Staggered, he swung back, but was knocked to the ground by the supervisor before others in the area stepped in to pull them apart. The worker was told to go home, clean up, and return the next day. Instead, he went to the CIW's office, and filed a police report. He then went to the hospital, where he learned that the supervisor's punch had broken his nose.

For CIW, the incident was a haunting reminder of how things were in tomato fields in the mid-1990s, before the penny-per-pound campaign, when another young man walked into the offices wearing a bloody shirt:

He had been picking tomatoes in a field near Immokalee when he stopped to take a drink of water. A field supervisor accosted him, shouted "Are you here to work, or to drink water?", and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied—and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a nighttime march of nearly 500 workers on the crew leader's house. The marchers brandished his shirt as a banner, declaring "If you beat one of us, you beat us all!", and helped launch a movement that changed Immokalee forever.  

While I read CIW's report, I thought about another place farmworkers are getting beat up: in the halls of the US Senate. Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) have introduced what they call "common sense" legislation designed to squash new rules proposed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that impose new restrictions on employing children on farms. The  proposed rules would prevent kids under 16 from handling pesticides, working in animal feedlots, among other things that most people wouldn't want their kids doing.

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Tighter Rules for Factory Farm Antibiotics? Maybe.

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 4:00 PM EDT

On Dec. 22, the FDA quietly delivered what I called at the time a "Christmas present for factory farms": It announced it was ending a process it had begun 35 years earlier to determine whether routine antibiotic use on factory-scale kivestock farms posed a public health threat. Instead of pursuing regulation, the agency declared, it would rely on a "voluntary" approach to persuading livestock operations to reduce antibiotic abuse.

This, even though the agency itelf has conceded that that the practice of giving animals raised in tight quarters daily antibiotic doses of generates antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people; and even though the meat industry has shown no appetite to end the practice on its own.

Just three months later, the industry's gift has been unceremoniously snatched back by a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of consumer and enviro groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  

Tom's Kitchen: Frittata With Greens

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 8:00 AM EDT

The frittata—an Italian-style open omelette—is surely one the easiest and most versatile ways to throw together a substantial and delicious meal. Therefore, it was inevitable that I'd eventually turn my attention to it for the Tom's Kitchen column.

I learned to make frittatas at the knee of the great Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan. Not literally; I've never met her, and it's a good thing, because if I ever did, I'd likely collapse into a puddle of incomprehensible gushing. But I've studied her immortal Essentials of Classic of Italian Cooking, and it was there, over the past two decades, that I picked up my frittata technique.

Rick Santorum, Puppy Lover—and Scourge of the Meat Industry?

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 4:40 PM EDT
Shock and awwwww: If these make you melt, you may not get Big Ag's support.

Rick Santorum has a thing for puppies. Not a creepy fixation, mind you—apparently, he just doesn't like to see them raised in vast "puppy mills." Santorum also evidently likes horses, and would prefer not to see them slaughtered. And these stances has led him to make common cause with the Humane Society of the US.

Strange then, that a man who deplores the stuffing of puppies into confined spaces and recoils from the slaughter of innocent horses, has no beef with an industry that stuffs cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys into tight spaces with the intention of slaughtering them.  

I know all of this, because of an exposé on posing the question: "Is Rick Santorum a Closet Animal Rights Activist?"; and a piece in the industrial-ag trade weekly Agri-Pulse ($ub only) called "Santorum raises 'aggie' eyebrows over HSUS [Humane Society of the US] ties."

Bye Bye, Cancer-Causing Strawberry Fumigant

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:50 PM EDT
Soon to be methyl iodide-free.

Methyl iodide, a highly toxic pesticide intended for large-scale plantings of strawberries and other fruit crops, gained approval from the EPA in 2007 and the California Department of Pesticide Registration in 2010. Yet its maker, chemical giant Arysta, abruptly yanked it from the US market Tuesday.

What happened? Methyl iodide's inglorious exit ends a saga that exemplifies corporate capture of the regulatory agencies and the potential for popular organizing to push back against it.

Researchers: GM Crops Are Killing Monarch Butterflies, After All

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 1:00 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly in all its majesty.

If any insect species can be described as charismatic minifauna, it's the monarch butterfly. The gorgeous creatures flutter about in a migratory range that stretches from the northern part of South America up into Canada. The monarch is the only butterfly species that undertakes such a long-distance migration. And when they alight upon a place en masse, heads turn. No fewer than five states—Texas, Alabama, Idaho, illinois, and Minnesota—claim the monarch as their state insect. 

Unfortunately, the monarch populations appear to be in a state of decline. Why? A new study (abstract; press release) from University of Minnesota and Iowa State University researchers points to an answer: the rapid rise of crops engineered to withstand herbicides.

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Walmart's Local Food Push: How Serious?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 9:36 AM EDT

So I've got a piece in the March/April issue of the print Mother Jonescheck it out. I dig into Walmart's big push into local and organic food, comparing reality on the ground to the hype of press releases. My article is a short sidebar to Andy Kroll's long, beautifully reported look at the retail behemoth's larger campaign to "go green," which takes him, inevitably, to China, source of 70 percent of the goods Walmart sells. Happy reading.

Revolving Door: Romney Ag Team Edition

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 5:55 AM EDT

For the casual observer like me, it's hard to make sense of the GOP presidential primary, what with all the crazy talk and the recurrent Santorum surges. But people who follow these things closely tell me that despite the chaos, Mitt Romney will likely emerge as the nominee.

That means it's time to start contemplating what a hypothetical President Romney might get up to on food and agriculture issues. The embattled Republican front-runner hasn't expressed his views on ag policy. But just last week, Romney telegraphed his food-and-ag agenda by announcing his Agriculture Advisory Committee.  

Surprise, surprise: Big Ag interests rule the roost. Here are some highlights.

Can Your Kid's Cafeteria Now Opt out of "Pink Slime"?

| Sun Mar. 18, 2012 10:00 AM EDT

Responding to a media storm (The Daily, CBS, ABC, me), the USDA has relented on "pink slime," the ammonia-treated hamburger filler that the agency has been ushering into school-cafeteria burgers. "USDA will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef," the agency declared in a Thursday press release, using its preferred term for the product. .

So your kid's school cafeteria can now opt out of the stuff starting now, right? Not so fast.

An excellent post by Nancy Huehnergarth of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA) blog raises some key questions about the USDA's move. First of all, as Huehnergarth points out, the USDA's announcement only applies to the food commodities the USDA itself buys for the National School Lunch Program, which amounts to about 20 percent of the ingredients that end up on kids' plates.

Tom's Kitchen: 3 Ways to Home-Falafel Nirvana

| Sat Mar. 17, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
Falafel: the jewel of Mideastern street fare, doable in your own home.

A few days ago, I wrote about how I'm all in favor of of helping people figure out ways to eat less meat, but skeptical that industrial fake-meat products based on soy-protein isolates are the way to do it. I posited that whole-food dishes like falafel—chickpeas ground up with spices and then deep-fried—might be a better beacon toward a less meat-intensive future.  

Writing about falafel gave me a powerful craving for it. And where I live in rural North Carolina, there are no falafel joints. So if I knew that if I wanted to have some, I'd have to do something I've never done before: make falafel at home.

And that give me the opportunity to see whether falafel has a place in a practical-minded, no-time-for-fuss kitchen like mine.

Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.Pan fry, deep fry: it's all good.The first thing I needed was a recipe, and I knew what to do: I merely typed "Bittman + falafel" into Google. Mark Bittman—whose provocative column on meat substitutes started me on my falafel journey—is the heavyweight champ of straight-ahead, minimalist cooking. I found this recipe from a 2008 New York Times column of his.

Now, my main reservation about home falafel has always centered on the fact that it's deep-fried. I love deep-fried foods as much as the next person, but I rarely use the technique at home because it requires so much oil and makes the house smell like a grease trap (unless you have a good vent).  

So I decided to give the traditional cooking method a shot under Bittman's tutelage, but also to experiment with two other techniques for cooking bean paste: pan-frying, which is basically sautéing with just enough oil to cover the bottom of a pan; and baking.

Having never made falafel before, I was surprised that you don't pre-cook the chickpeas before they're ground. You simply soak give them a 24-hour soak, drain them (reserving some of the soaking water), and drop them in a food processor with a few other ingredients: onion, garlic, parsley, paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a little lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Then you pulse the mixture, using as little of the reserved water as possible, until it forms a kind of rough paste.

I found that the whole thing came together quickly, with only a splash of water. With very little fuss, I suddenly had a whole bowlful of batter that looked fit for a real falafel joint—minimalist, indeed. Following Bittman's orders, I tasted the batter for seasoning, decided to ramp up the coriander, cumin, paprika, and salt, and gave the batter a few more pulses.

Bittman even delivered a tip that made deep-frying way easier than I had foreseen: Use a small pan. When I think of deep-frying, I think of chicken pieces sizzling in a huge skillet, a process that requires monstrous amounts of oil. But with a small pan, you get away with using much less oil; and falafel balls—which Bittman says should take just a heaping tablespoon of batter—are small enough that you can do several at a time even in a modestly sized vessel.

So I gave my sauce pan about 2.5 inches of oil (a little more than a pint) and brought it to 350 degrees, using a thermometer to measure. I dropped in a few falafel balls and held my breath, half-expecting them to explode into greasy mush. But they stayed whole, and soon transformed into gorgeous, deep-brown falafel orbs. And all for about 10 minutes of active cooking time.

Meanwhile, I improvised pan-fry and baking techniques. For the pan-fried ones, I heated a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and added enough oil to cover the bottom. I used the same amount of batter I had used for the ball, but tamped them down into little patties to maximize contact with the hot pan—an attempt both to speed cooking and encourage browning. For the baked ones, I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and spread some parchment paper over a small baking sheet, lightly greasing it with oil. I baked the flattened patties for 10 minutes or so, then flipped them and gave them five or so minutes more.

For me, the deep-fried balls were best: a nice crunch, and then moist deliciousness inside. And they weren't greasy at all. But the pan-fried and bake versions were worthy, too. They had much less crunch than, but delivered all of the flavor of, the fried ones. And my roommate actually preferred them. She found the fried ones too crunchy; and thought the texture inside both the baked and pan-fried ones more to her liking.

Who needs meat?Who needs meat?Of course, making falafel doesn't just entail making falafel—you also need pita bread and garnishes. In many places in the US, you can buy decent pita at a middle eastern shop or good grocery store. Not so much here, so we made ours using a simple recipe calling for a yeast dough, which we rolled out and cooked just before eating.

For garnishes, we kept it simple. We took Bittman's advice on a sauce: "mix equal amounts of tahini and yogurt, and season to taste with a little salt, pepper, cumin, raw garlic if you like, and lemon juice" (though we subbed cider vinegar for lemon juice, since we had no lemons on hand). And I made a quick salad of a handful of chopped parsley mixed with a bit of chopped red onion, dressed lightly with olive oil and cider vinegar. We also had mixed salad greens from the farm, homemade salsa macha (a diabolically hot puree of dried chile peppers and olive oil), and some chopped-up pickled cucumbers and green beans. 

The result was a fantastic and easy meal. I may have have just taken the first step down a slippery slope that will end with me shutting my laptop and opening a falafel stand. (Just kidding—I think.) I advise all omnivores looking for satisfying ways to cut down on meat to give it a try.

UPDATE: So, Bittman's recipe, which calls for 1 3/4 cups of chickpeas, make a lot of batter. I found its sheer volume overwhelming, at first, because my household right now consists just of two people. But I mixed it on Thursday and it's now Saturday—and it's still cooking up great. I just saved the original oil and reheat it when I want to fry off a few nuggets. My kitchen has become a falafel stand. Dreams come true.