Tom Philpott

UPDATED: Everyone's Favorite Vegetable, Frozen Pizza

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 5:00 AM PST
Can you spot the veggie on the plastic foam plate?

[See update below.]

Congress is in the process of figuring next year's agriculture budget, and the food industry is using the occasion as an opportunity to bully the USDA as it rolls out new rules for the National School Lunch Program. According to the New York Times, Big Food has already dropped a cool $5.6 million lobbying to kibosh the new rules.

Why does the industry care about school lunches? Because school cafeterias get less than a dollar a day per student in federal funding to spend on ingredients (about two-thirds of the maximum $2.94 outlay per lunch goes to overhead and labor), and many public schools lack cooking facilities altogether. So cafeterias often outsource cooking to massive entities that know how to squeeze a profit by selling lots of dirt-cheap food—companies like meat giant Tyson and its infamous heat-and-serve "Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets," and Conagra and its frozen pizzas.

In January, the USDA came out with new guidelines governing what can go on kids' plates. Mandated by a 2004 act of Congress ordering USDA to align school lunches with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the rules (PDF) impose two new criteria that have drawn the ire of the food industry.

First, they rewrote the requirements around vegetable and fruit servings. Before, cafeterias were required to serve at least one vegetable per day, and the definition was expansive: Tater Tots and French fries, for example, counted. Now, they limit the amount of potatoes and other "starchy vegetables" to no more than one cup (two servings) per week—and require schools to serve at least one serving per week of dark green and red/orange vegetables. Second, they no longer allow the two ounces of tomato paste that lacquer a typical frozen pizza to count as a vegetable.

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Tom's Kitchen: A Sardine Dish to Convert the Unsaved

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 1:35 PM PST

Earlier this week, in a screed about the absurdity of grinding up sardines and dumping them as feed into fetid factory salmon farms, I promised a "simple, tasty, and economical sardine dish."

This turned out to be a bit more challenging than I thought—not because sardines aren't delicious, but rather because one the people I live with, Maverick Farms director Hillary Wilson, hates sardines. Or at least she thought she did. So the task wasn't just to make a delicious sardine dish—it was to make a sardine dish delicious enough to convert a card-carrying non-sardinista.

Added to that of course, was the usual challenge of Tom's Kitchen: to make a quick dish with only ingredients on hand—nothing fancy, no special trips to the grocery store. The idea is to show that that good cooking needn't be fussy or rely on rarefied ingredients. Happily, a stack of sardine cans sat in the pantry, unused only because of Hillary's objections.

To construct the dish, I started by conceding the non-sardinistas' main complaint about the delicacy: that they have a strong flavor. No doubt, they offer a briny blast of the sea in each bite. I refuse to allow their flavor to be labeled "fishy," but I acknowledge that they savor of fish, in the deepest way imaginable.

The Local Food Economy in 2 Charts

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 12:15 PM PST

First, the happy chart. The USDA recently released a report (PDF) that crunches numbers on recent developments in local/regional food economies. Sales are booming—and more farms are growing food for their surrounding communities, not global commodity markets. (I'm interested in that spike in the late '70s/early '80s—the report doesn't comment on that.)

 

For our era of stubbornly high unemployment, the report offers this interesting tidbit: Fruit and vegetable farms that sell into local markets employ 13 full-time employees per every $1 million in sales, versus just 3 employees for their counterparts that sell into global commodity markets. In other words, a dollar you spend at the farmers market supports four times as many workers as a dollar spent at the supermerket.

Now the scary chart. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), which represents the new guard of farmers rising to grow for local markets, has conducted an interesting study of the challenges and opportunities facing young growers. As the following chart from the report shows, their problems are everyone's—the nation's farmers are aging rapidly.

 

Source: National Young Farmers Coalition

Source: National Young Farmers Coalition 

The NYFC surveyed 1300 young farmers and asked them to name the biggest obstacles they face. The top answers all essentially relate to start-up money: lack capital (78 percent of respondents), land access (68 percent), health care (47 percent), and access to credit (40 percent).

Even healthcare can be thought of in start-up terms: Who wants to enter a physcial career that offers no prospect of affordable health care?

Yet as the top chart shows, once local-oriented farmers get up and running, there's a robust and growing market for their goods.

The NYFC report ends with an excellent discussion about how federal farm policy could be tweaked to make condistions friendlier to incoming growers.

Is the Corn Lobby Poisoning Its Own Well?

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 11:40 AM PST

The National Corn Growers Association claims to represent 35,000 dues-paying corn farmers, but it openly aligns itself with the companies that sell them chemicals and buy their crops. The sponsors for its annual Commodity Classic event read like the league table of the handful of companies that dominate the global agribusiness trade: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer Cropscience, Dupont, and Archer Daniels Midland.  

So why am I surprised that it's rallying its farmers to protect atrazine—the widely used, highly lucrative herbicide marketed by Syngenta—from EPA regulation? Here's the pitch:

The National Corn Growers Association reminds farmers and their allies to submit comments opposing a petition filed with the Environmental Protection Agency that would ban atrazine use and production before the public comment period closes on November 14.

The particular petition that drew NCGA's ire involves atrazine effects on frogs. According to  a damning weight of evidence, the herbicide causes all manner of sexual and immune-system trouble in frogs, including "chemical castration" of males.

On Antibiotic Use, Factory Farms Police Themselves

| Thu Nov. 10, 2011 12:40 PM PST

Back in 2006, the European Union banned the practice of dosing livestock with antibiotics as a growth enhancer. In late October, the EU Parliament voted to extend that ban to all prophylactic uses of antibiotics on farms. The move won't become law unless the European Commission approves it, but the Parliament is considered to be an influential body. The commission will announce a plan to address antibiotic issues on November 17.

Here in the United States, regulation of farm antibiotic use is moving in a different direction. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration officially denied two citizen petitions—one issued in 1999 and the other in 2005—to impose similar restrictions here. In a letter announcing the decision, an FDA official explained that implementing such a ban would be too cumbersome, and that a voluntary approach would have to do.

In these two news items—one a push to crack down on the abuses of factory meat farms, the other a defense of a voluntary approach—we have a summary of EU and US approaches to food safety.

Eat a Sardine, Save a Salmon

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 5:04 AM PST

There's lots of good wonky stuff in this Oceana report (PDF) about the importance of forage fish in coastal waters along the western US.

The basic argument goes like this: Small fish—species like anchovies and sardines, collectively known as forage fish—play an outsized role in the ocean. They lie at the bottom of the food chain, and when we fail to protect them, we also endanger the bigger species that feed on them, like tuna and whales, and thus threaten the entire oceanic ecosystem. Unfortunately, Oceana warns, there remain "major gaps" and "severe flaws" in the way the west coast's forage fish are being managed.

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Honey Laundering

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 12:21 PM PST
Laundered honey: either grin and bear it, or buy the real article from farmers markets.

Peruse the sweetener shelf of a US supermarket, and you'll find an array of bear-shaped jars glistening with golden honey, all of it priced to move.

Ever wonder why the ongoing collapse of US honeybee populations hasn't caused a scarcity of honey or a spike in prices? I think the ace investigative reporter Andrew Schneider of Food Safety News might have the answer. In an August investigation, Schneider revealed:

A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. A Food Safety News investigation has documented that millions of pounds of honey banned as unsafe in dozens of countries are being imported and sold here in record quantities.

Today, Schneider is back with a new report, already highlighted by my colleague Stephanie Mencimer but worth delving into more.

Schneider rounded up more than 60 samples of honey from retailers in 10 states and the District of Columbia and had them analyzed at a Texas A&M University lab. The result: Three-quarters of the samples were "ultra-filtered"—a process in which honey is "heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey."

Independent Panel: EPA Underestimates Atrazine's Cancer Risk

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 3:00 AM PST

Atrazine is the second most widely used pesticide on US farms. According to its maker, the Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, US sales of it are booming. Does it cause cancer?

The EPA, which regulates pesticide use, has been operating under the assumption that the chemical is "not likely to be a human carcinogen." But in 2009, the agency launched what it called a "comprehensive new evaluation of the pesticide atrazine to determine its effects on humans." As part of the process, it charged a panel made up of independent scientists and public health experts to "evaluate the pesticide's potential cancer and non-cancer effects."

Tom's Kitchen: A Little Pork, a Lot of Flavor

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 10:28 AM PDT
A little pork goes a long way with fall collard greens.

Some of my friends are trying to eat less meat, figuring it will improve their health, bolster their bank accounts, and shrink their ecological footprints in one swoop. Another friend, a longtime vegetarian, wants to diversify her diet by including meat—but just a little. This edition of Tom's Kitchen is for both camps.

The basic concept here is to take a highly flavored meat product—smoked pork sausage—and use small quantities of it to flavor two meals built around fall's classic vegetables. It's been a chilly, wet fall here in western North Carolina, but we're still harvesting collard greens and cabbage, both of which go delightfully with pork. In fact, right now is the best time of year to eat collards, because morning frosts followed by relatively warm days gives them a sweetness and depth of flavor you won't find any other time of year.

I haven't been using just any old smoked pork sausage, either. I was recently in New Orleans, where I visited Cochon Butcher, my favorite sandwich shop on earth and also a great place to get all manner of house-cured meats. I picked up a foot-long chunk of Cochon's andouille, an iconic Cajun sausage. Using Spanish-style cured chorizo (as opposed to the Mexican-style fresh version) would also work.

Beans, Greens, Andouille, and Rice

Serves two, with leftovers
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 hot red chile pepper, chopped (optional but encouraged)
1 four-inch chunk of andouille or other cured pork sausage, casing peeled away, and cut into chunks
1 bunch collared greens, stemmed and sliced thin crosswise
1 cup cooked white beans, with a bit of their water
1 cup brown rice, cooked
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Coat a cast iron or other heavy skillet with olive oil, and turn heat to medium. When oil is shimmering, add onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent. Add garlic and, if using, chile pepper. Cook, stirring, another minute and add sausage. Cook, stirring another minute, and add collards along with a pinch of salt. Stir well to coast the collards, add a dash of water, and cover. Turn heat down to low, cover, and let the collards cook, stirring occasionally, until they're tender. When they're done, stir in the beans and rice, season with salt, pepper, and a dash of vinegar, and serve.
Pasta/cabbage variation: Substitute a medium-sized head of cabbage, chopped, for the collards; 1/2 pound whole-wheat spaghetti, cooked, for the rice; and 1/2 cup frshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or other hard cheese) for the beans.

 

Good News About Beer and Butchers

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 11:54 AM PDT

While the food and ag industries can use their lobbying power to dominate national ag policy, they can by no means shut down the work going on all around the country to create vital alternatives. Two news items have crossed my desk this week that remind me not to despair about recent shenanigans in Washington.

• The first one involves beer—specifically, a bubbling up of craft brewing in St. Louis, the US headquarters of global beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev. According to a recent New York Times article, the number of craft breweries in the city have jumped to 11 from three in 2008, the year the Belgian conglomerate InBev bought then US-based Anheuser-Busch, maker of the iconic (and dreadful) Budweiser brand. In the suburbs surrounding St. Louis, The Times reports, there are now another dozen brewhouses.

This might sound like a frivolous thing to get excited about, but hear me out. Two massive global companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev and its rival SAB Miller, produce nearly 80 percent of the beer consumed in the US. In their business model, beer is a flavorless industrial commodity, to be churned out in a few vast factories and bottled into a dizzying array of contrived brands.