Monthly Archives: June 2009

A Farmers Market for Everyone.

For most people who receive food assistance from the government, shopping at a farmers market is out of the question. However, in City Heights, a low-income community in San Diego, the International Rescue Committee and the Farm Bureau have worked together to provide everyone with the chance to shop for local produce. Photo by Kerri.

For most people who receive food assistance from the government, shopping at a farmers market is out of the question. However, in City Heights, a low-income community in San Diego, the International Rescue Committee and the Farm Bureau have worked together to provide everyone with the chance to shop for local produce. Photo by Kerri.

On Saturday morning, Christopher and I took a trip outside of our usual range of travel. We went to City Heights, a community within San Diego, to learn about their farmers market.

Right away it was apparent that this farmers market differed from the one we are used to visiting. Ours is held at a local elementary school and has a wide variety of vendors and booths. In addition to fresh produce, you can purchase everything from crafts to fresh breads, and there is usually someone playing live music to the legions of locavores.

The City Heights farmers market is located on a blocked off street between a police station and low income housing.  There are significantly fewer vendors (this market is relatively new), and there weren’t many customers. However, as we walked past the booths we saw fresh greens stacked up and boxes of vegetables.

One vendor had long, slender, vibrant purple eggplants and dark green zucchinis at least a foot long.  I made a quick note to stop at that booth with the curly green kale for $1. What I first thought was a place for bike parking was group of  young punk rock volunteers teaching people how to re-build and repair bikes. But that is not why we went.

A table underneath a white canopy stood at the far end. There was a laptop, a wireless card swiping machine, a group of volunteers in colorful City Heights Farmers Market t-shirts and a sign that said “Use your EBT card here!!!”

Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards are swiped in exchange for tokens that can be used at any time at the farmers market. It is rare to even find a farmers market in a low income area, let alone one that accepts EBT.  In addition to helping people who already receive benefits, The San Diego chapter of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)  has volunteers helping to prescreen people to find out if they qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and to help them fill out the initial paperwork.  They have volunteers who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.

This market is a joint effort between the IRC and the San Diego Farm Bureau which is also starting similar projects in two other areas. According to a volunteer with the IRC, San Diego County is  the worst in the nation for food stamp participation. This means that people who qualify are not receiving assistance for a variety of reasons. City Heights has the lowest participation rate in San Diego.

This was one of the busiest booths at the time we arrived. We waited in line to talk to someone. While we were there,  an older woman came up to find out what was going on and learned that she might qualify for a one time senior voucher.  A Somalian man was assisted by two women, one of  whom helped to translate.  No one was turned away as the volunteers explained the processes and helped people with their questions. While we waited we noticed a survey on poster paper asking customers how the market’s prices compared to those at the grocery store. Most of the feedback indicated that the prices were “similar” or “better.” When we spoke with two of the workers, one from the Farm Bureau and one from the IRC, we learned that they do survey’s every week to better serve their customers and vendors.

This particular market is able to offer “Fresh Funds.” Money is donated towards the program  and is distributed each week, so that people who spent $5 at the market get an additional $5 worth of tokens to spend there.  This encourages people to use their money on fresh fruits and vegetables and helps local farmers.

If you live near City Heights or another farmers market that accepts EBT and/or WIC, check them out and support their efforts. The City Heights farmers market Web page has great information about their programs and why it is beneficial to support community efforts that provide healthy food to all people regardless of income.

– Kerri

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Vegan Cupcakes Take Over My Brain.

Mostly vegan cupcakes sat waiting on the table at the family cabin in Shingletown, Calif. Of course, the vegan tray made room for one outcast. Cupcakes by Kimberly. Photo by Christohper (iPhone).

Mostly vegan cupcakes sat waiting on the table at the family cabin in Shingletown, Calif. Of course, the vegan tray made room for one outcast. Cupcakes by Kimberly. Photo by Christopher (iPhone).

I’m not sure what it is about road trips that make me feel like whether we are traveling for five hours or five days we need to stock the car full of provisions for the trip. Maybe it is some sort of evolutionary survival instinct that has been passed down from our ancestors that whispers into our consciousness, “bring food, and lots of it!”

But as Kerri and I packed the cooler for our drive to Redding, Calif. for father’s day with her family, the food we put in was quite different than what we would have brought last summer. Beyond a few leftover slices of pizza, we packed apples, strawberries and almonds. No chips, cookies, or other prepackaged foods would make the 10-hour journey with us to northern California. It isn’t that those foods are inherently bad, but since the “dollar diet” our eating patterns have changed.

As we work on our latest project in the economics of eating well, which we’ll fully recount in the book (due out in early 2010), the process of experimenting with our dietary patterns is starting to pay off. In general we tended to overeat before, now we know when to stop. We used to eat far more processed foods, now we cook from “raw” ingredients. The biggest challenge that remains however is eating in social settings with others.

Kerri’s family eats a fairly typical American diet. At gatherings the guys grill up burgers and dogs, and the women cover the tables with bowls of chips, Ritz crackers with dips, some assorted fruits, soda, tea, bottled water, and some type of dessert. This year it was cupcakes, compliments of Kerri’s younger sister.

I struggle during these trips because the chips, cookies, soda, cupcakes, and other high-calorie foods are difficult to resist. I was raised to overeat, and this habit, in combination with calorie dense junk foods, is a disaster for my health.

Today I did my best. When we arrived before lunch I resisted the barbecue chips and the crackers when they came out. But as everyone around me started munching away, the crunching of chips came in like surround sound. Resisting the snack table amidst the crowd of consensus eating made me feel like that lone man standing in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square 20 years ago.

I stayed strong for a couple hours, but soon the rationalizations clouded my will to defy. Kerri said it was o.k. to snack on carrots. Then we took a long calorie-burning walk, which made it fine to have two veggie burgers instead of one (besides, who wants to bring frozen food home on long drive?).

Then Kim came out with the cupcakes and it was game over.

Rationalizations grew into philosophical platforms: eating is an act of communion – if I don’t take part I’m rejecting a shared experience, therefore rejecting her family; Kerri’s sister went out of her way to make elegant vegan cupcakes – abstaining this accommodation would be blasphemous and just plain rude.  And of course the all time favorite way to indulge “bad” behavior: “Everything is o.k. in moderation.”

As the food was put away things got easier, but each day we are here is a challenge. Eating well is hard work, and although possible, there are moments when resistance is futile.

Trying to stay strong,
Christopher

P.S. If you didn’t hear about it, Nestle has recalled all of their cookie dough as 66 people in 28 states have contracted E.coli 0157 from it. If you have some in your fridge, THROW IT AWAY. Cooking it won’t help, because the minute you open it you will have contaminated your kitchen.

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“Food, Inc.” & the Cornivore’s Dilemma

Movie theater employees at the Nuart in Santa Monica had a playful understanding of the irony concerning the sale of corn-based concessions to movie-goers of whom more would be expected. Also for sale was the companion book for the film, which includes essays by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Muhammad Yunus and others. Photo by Christopher.

Movie theater employees at the Nuart in Santa Monica had a playful understanding of the irony concerning the sale of corn-based concessions to movie-goers of whom more would be expected. Also for sale was the companion book for the film, which includes essays by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Muhammad Yunus and others. Photo by Christopher.

School is out! Friday was the last day, my grades are turned in and I am looking forward to a summer of relaxation and playing in my garden.  We started off our vacation with a trip to the movies today; a movie about food.

And when I say we took a trip, I mean it. “Food, Inc.” opened yesterday in select locations only, so we took a two hour car ride up to Los Angeles to see it.  The irony of watching a movie about food, including the ubiquity of corn, while eating popcorn, was not lost on the movie theater. They offered a special “Cornivore’s Dilemma” that included a large popcorn and a large soda. We thought this was funny, but did not take the bait.

On the whole, “Food, Inc.” further opens the discussion on what has happened to the food industry over the past fifty years. There are interviews with Michael Pollan, who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”; Eric Schossler, who wrote “Fast Food Nation”; Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms and several  other farmers and workers in the food industry.

The film takes a look at the way farms have moved from the storybook image of a red barn and happy animals wandering leisurely, to the factory model of  large-scale production.  The film also explores the conditions of workers in these operations, particularly the slaughterhouses, an issue that Human Rights Watch investigated in 2005 and presented in a 185 page report titled “Blood, Sweat, & Fear”.

Already there is a website offering rebuttals of the claims made in the film. A few of their answers offer links to videos on Youtube.com to support their claims, such as a video about where McDonald’s meat comes from that shows a production plant, but the only live animals we see are about five cows grazing in an open pasture at the start of the video; only underlining the film’s claim.

Of course this link led me to the distraction of Youtube where I watched several others videos, including one of a cheeseburger and french fries from McDonald’s that a person claimed to be almost three years old.

At the end of  “Food, Inc.” the filmmakers offer suggestions for the audience on how to address some of what is happening to the food industry. Among others, they ask viewers to shop for organic and local foods, remind people that everyone deserves healthy food, suggest talking to school boards about creating healthy lunches, and recommend planting your own garden. Even if it is a small one. However, these suggestions alone may not be enough to solve the problems created by the industrial food system.

The website for the film offers a list of when the movie is playing and in which cities. If you can find one near you, definitely check it out.

Happy viewing,

Kerri

P.S. Good luck to the South Central Farmers who are holding a press conference this evening to kick off their “Take Back the Farm” campaign.

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Urban Homesteaders Plant Ideas at Film Fest.

Jules Dervaes seeks his kid's input before answering a question from the audience after the film screening of "Homegrown Revolution", a short documentary of their urban homestead in Pasadena where they grow 6,000 pounds of produce on one tenth of an acre each year. Photo by Christopher.

Jules Dervaes seeks his kid's input before answering a question from the audience after the film screening of "Homegrown Revolution", a short documentary of their urban homestead in Pasadena where they grow 6,000 pounds of produce on one tenth of an acre each year. Photo by Christopher.

Watching Kerri gently raise her garden over the last few weeks has been quite a treat. The look she gets when something new has sprouted, and the sheer excitement that radiates from her as she checks in on the food landscape that is taking over our patio is inspiring. While I have borne witness to several new crops grown from seeds recently, what we saw today takes urban gardening to a whole new level.

Jules Dervaes and his three adult children have been growing their own food, and working to live off the grid for nearly a decade. Their urban homestead located in Pasadena is both a revolution in living and a model for self-sufficency. Their short film “Homegrown Revolution” was shown today as part of the Cottonwood Environmental Film Festival here in Encinitas, and the Dervaes family was present to answer questions and distribute information from a booth in the back of the room.

The short film documents how the Dervaes have transformed 1/10 of an acre, which used to include a driveway, into a 6,000 pound urban garden that offers up 350 types of useful and edible plants each year. They use every inch of space, which includes vertical gardening, and during the summer are able to provide up to 80 percent of their food needs. During the winter it’s about 50 percent. In contrast, their lawn growing neighbors have little to show for their own patches of earth just 130 feet from the freeway.

Overall, the Dervaes eat about 60 percent of what they grow, sell 30 percent to local chefs, and use the remaining 10 percent to feed to the small number of chickens, ducks and goats that help produce compost.

“The animals help complete the cycle,” Dervaes said as he answered a question from an audience member after the screening.

The few animals they have aren’t for eating, as the family maintains a near-vegetarian diet, but they do eat some of the eggs and milk produced by their furry and feathered friends. The youngest daughter, Jordanne, says they’re more like pets really and that each one has a name. She even takes the goats hiking.

Beyond the growing of food, the family also uses solar energy, human powered appliances (including a bike blender), a graywater system (including an outdoor shower) and would not dare using chemicals to keep away pests. Their nine different compost systems have put their land 18 inches above the plot next door.

This short film however was only a prologue to the feature length film “Fresh” that screened directly afterward.

For those of you who have read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, this film could have very well been a companion to the section where Pollan is on the Salatin farm. While Pollan himself is interveiwed throughout, seeing Joel Salatin and the farm that Pollan works hard to describe in his book, is the best part of this film.

Filmmaker Ana Sofia Joanes has done a good job of weaving together a few different stories of where our food comes from, and in doing so allows viewers to see that another type of food system is possible, if we’re willing to get our hands dirty, or commit to supporting closed cycle farms that are looking to feed people instead of mono cropping corn and soy to process into other products.

Both films were inspiring, but I’m not convinced that the solutions proposed by either film are going to gain much traction with the majority of Americans who prize convenience above all else. My dad is not going to start a garden, and I’m pretty sure he’s not alone. However, a move in this direction is absolutely essential if we are going to survive as a species.

Unfortunately the one in nine Americans now receiving food stamps is less equipped to make such a radical transition, as many people are just trying to make it to the next paycheck (if they’re lucky enough to have a job – unemployment is now 9.4 percent). If you are paying attention, you know that the United States has reached a record level of federal assistance this week. More Americans than ever before are struggling to feed their families.

Over the last few days there were also several thought-provoking food tidbits to consider. Author Tom Standage was interviewed on National Public Radio about his book “An Edible History of Humanity”, and Jim Motavalli wrote a well reasoned opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine predicting the oncoming vegetarian revolution; he writes that it will come by force rather than choice, and the comments are also worth sifting through.

Until next week,

Christopher

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