What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

foragefoodI’ve long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries – strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet.

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it’s the ultimate slow food. I’ve enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I’m surprised I’m not more hungry: My daughters’ softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner.

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics.

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I’m kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it’s fair game. Because the tree isn’t being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us.

I’ve also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I’ll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you’ll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their “secret spot” for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It’s one of those, “I’d tell you where we go for berries but then I’d have to kill you,” sort of situations.

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can’t grow them and package them for Costco. It’s a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this.

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn’t grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can’t imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I’m here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts – your back and your tummy. (I’ve learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you’ll find your fill.

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn’t have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I’m grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I’ll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest.

I’ll follow up with more observations later in the week.

The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

Time’s Ecocentric blog has an interesting story about the link between rising food prices and the unfolding revolution in Egypt.

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak’s 30-year rule….Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don’t have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices.

The most telling data point from the article is that bread is central to Egyptian culture and diet and they are in the unenviable position of relying heavily on imports.

In Egypt, the Arabic word for bread — “aish” — is also the world for life. Egyptians are the world’s largest consumers of bread and Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.

To make matters more tenuous, Egyptians spend a very high percentage of their incomes on food. By comparison, Americans spend around 10% of disposable income on food.

28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

Starting tomorrow, February 1, I will be reviewing 28 books in 28 days leading up to the release of my book, Year of Plenty, on March 1. Year of Plenty tells the story of our family’s experience in 2008 consuming only what was local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Our four rules, scribbled on a Starbucks brochure in a fit of consumer fatigue, led us into wonderful conversations about locavores (people who eat local food), going green, farmers’ markets, downshifters (people who intentionally seek to consume less), simple living, food not lawns, backyard chickens, and more.

There are already some great books on these topics. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan is a wonderful expose of how our far-flung food system has gone awry, and Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon pioneered the year-long-food-experiment genre with their book The 100 Mile Diet. (If I use the Canadian title to the book, it will be less obvious that I borrowed a little inspiration from their American released book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, for the title to my blog and now book. I wanted to call the blog Consuming Passions, but Nancy thought it sounded too much like a cheap romance novel or daytime soap opera. Of course, she is almost always right.) Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle took it a step further by telling the tale of her family’s year of eating local, and the beauty of her story is more than matched by the beauty of her prose. Colin Beavan firmly established the “bumbling eco-experimenter” genre with his book and movie, No-Impact Man, that tells the tale of seeking to live for a year with zero environmental impact in the middle of Manhattan. While Year of Plenty shares a literary eco-system with these books, it seeks to break new ground by offering a Christian reflection on these issues.

While Year of Plenty is based on a premise that there is a need for more Christian engagement with these important issues of the day, there certainly are other books that have already, in their own unique way, sought to flesh out an authentic Christian response. That’s where the 28 books in 28 days project comes in. Earlier in the week I consulted the wisdom of my Tweeps and Facebook friends, and based on their counsel, I came up with a list of some of the most important contributions to date. I chose books that were overtly Christian in their perspective, with the exception of books by Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Their writings draw from the deep well of faith and their works are highly influential, so I thought it was important to include them. I tried to have a good representation of books in the areas of environmentalism, food, simple living, and redemptive consumption practices, which are the main themes covered in Year of Plenty. Most are more recently published but there are some classics in the mix. I picked one obscure book, titled MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), that I found too intriguing to leave off. Some of the authors have more than one book on the topic so, in that case, I picked the one I thought to be the most important contribution.

Go here to see the full list on Springpad. The titles and authors are as follows in nor particular order:

  1. Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, Michael Schut, Editor
  2. Farming As a Spiritual Discipline, Ragan Sutterfield
  3. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill
  4. Living More with Less, Doris Janzen Longacre
  5. Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, Jim Ball
  6. Planetwise: Dare to Care for God’s World, Dave Bookless
  7. Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues [EARTH WISE 2/E], Calvin B. DeWitt
  8. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred H. Van Dyke
  9. MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), Calvin Dewitt
  10. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Engaging Culture), Steven Bouma-Prediger
  11. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben
  12. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Norman Wirzba
  13. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry
  14. Food & Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread, Michael Schut, Editor
  15. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen F. Davis
  16. Bread for the World, Arthur Simon
  17. Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God’s Earth, Mallory McDuff
  18. Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food [Paperback], Lysa TerKeurst
  19. Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, Will Samson
  20. Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Julie Clawson
  21. A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katharine Hayhoe
  22. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, Matthew Sleeth M.D.
  23. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, Ronald J. Sider
  24. Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, Jonathan Merritt
  25. The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Rodney Clapp, Editor
  26. Saving God’s Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church’s Responsibility to Environmental Stewardship, Tri Robinson
  27. Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, Scott C. Sabin
  28. The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, Leslie Leyland Fields, Editor

So what do you think? Does the list cover the most significant contributions or are there some that I’ve left off? You can lobby me to add books to the list but I’ll only add them if you provide the blog post review along with the reason it is important to the conversation. I’ve read many of these books already, but there are many I haven’t, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll offer my perspectives on each book but will also reference The Englewood Review of Books for some of these titles. They are currently the go-to source for book reviews of books on these topics. If you’re not following them already on Twitter or Facebook, you should be.

Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

The food blogosphere has been abuzz this week with news about S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Go here and here for background. It appears that amendments to the bill to allow more flexibility for small farms are going to make it into the bill. Yesterday, in response to these developments, a cadre of large vegetable grower organization wrote a letter to congress. Go here to read the full text. Here’s the key excerpt:

Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans. We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that “Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture, he said, takes the people out of the equation.”

I think that sentence highlights an important piece of the equation that maybe is lost in the way the story is being reported. Whereas the headlines are pitting farmers market foodies against farmers, this actually is primarily a debate between farmers in the ag community. Tester is talking about two different ways of farming. He probably has in mind the small farmers he knows from Montana more than he has in mind Michael Pollan or locavores. The small scale farmers I know are the biggest critics of large scale, “commodity” farming.

For example, I recently spoke with the folks from the small local dairy, Spokane Family Farm. I wanted to get their perspective on the recent Dairy Management controversy. The husband and wife team were “shippers” with Darigold for many years, which means that they had milking cows that they harvested milk from, and their responsibility ended when the Milky Way truck drove away with their gallons of milk. They had many frustrations with the system. They didn’t like that their milk was being mixed together with other milk, regardless of quality or bacteria counts. They were discouraged by the complicated supply chain between cow and customer. As Trish Vieira described the milk chain, the milk leaves the farm in a non-refrigerated truck where bacteria multiply at rapid rates. Then the milk is unloaded and because of high bacteria counts has to be boiled to 285 degerees which effects the quality and the nutrition. Then, because so much nutrition has been boiled out of it they then add back in undisclosed additives to meet government standards.

Trish made a great point when she said everyone at these different stages along the way is doing a good job, for the most part. The problem in her mind, is that everyone can do a good job at what they are assigned to do in the current system, and the end result is not so good. You end up with farmers’ who are forced to have thousands of cows in order to make a living, which forces them to borrow a lot of money, and in some cases cut corners on quality. You end up with milk processors who are so paranoid about food safety that they “kill” the food in order to sell it. And you end up with consumers who are getting a food that is less nutritious. Trish had a lot to say about the negatives effects of homogenization, and the way it changes the fat molecules so that they are more easily absorbed in the intestines. I’ll have to do more research on that before I ring the alarms on that one. Trish also said that the current system leads to excess milk in the food chain, which is part of the reason why Dairy Management is having to work so hard to sell cheese.

My point is that this is a farmer who is not happy with the current system and their response has been to go small and local. The Tester amendments are intended to help people like the Veira’s be able to have 30 head of cattle and make a living without being squeezed to death by beauracracy in the new Food Safety law. Business is hopping by the way and they are trying to figure out how to meet the growing demand among consumers for local, nutritious, farmer connected milk.

Here is a comment from a dairy farmer in response to my post on Dairy Management:

Thank you for clarifying this! I actually sit on one of the local check-off boards and also as a dairy farmer some of my check-off dollars go to DMI. I agree that the NYT article is a bit confusing and the headlines that were chosen as it was reposted went for the “taxpayer outrage” strategy. I can already hear the dairy industry focusing on this confusion and not on the fundamental problems in the industry and how farmers and eaters actually fare in the system. We have a system based on the assumption of ever increasing volumes of milk (and all other crops for that matter). This is the issue and family farmers are getting hurt by this oversupply and eaters are getting crappy-food promoted to them to get rid of the surplus. This is the problem. Don’t get distracted people, keep watching carefully! Thanks!

I like the way he highlights how “farmers and eaters” aren’t fairing so well in the current system. We have a food system dominated by corporations, and they are really the ones who see the food as a commodity. It’s the farmers’ and the eaters who are struggling in their own ways to reform the system. The current debate on the Food Safety Bill is a reflection of this struggle.

So let’s remember that it’s not the foodies against the farmers. No one is more aware of problems with the food system than farmers. If the system is going to be reformed it’s going to take the eaters and the farmers working together to change it.

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

I reported earlier on the fears that the Food Safety Modernization Act now before Congress could put small farmers’ out of business and send a destructive ripple through the burdgeoning local food movement. Yesterday the bill passed a cloture vote in the Senate which means it will likely soon be passed and put into law. The amendments to lower the negative impact on small farmers are still up in the air, and it sounds like there is an epic battle going on right now among legislators, big food lobbyists, and locavores.

Huffington Post yesterday even went as far as to say “Locavores Hold Up Food Safety Bill in Senate.” They’ve subsequently changed the headline to “Local Food Advocates”, but yesterday it was all about those pesky, food-luddite locavores who were gumming up the works. I guess we officially have a Locavore Lobby in this country now.

Grist has been all over this so I’ll turn it over to them:

Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We’ve already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements.

It’s worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it’s growing fast every year — sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.

Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they’re taking the legislative route to block any further growth.

If you want to get your food wonk on, go to Grist and read up on the whole interesting process. Here is a good place to start:

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harms small farms and producers?

Grist reports that it’s still not too late to call your Senator:

There’s still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives’ contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Because if you’ve read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we’ve got now.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

The headlines have been blaring all over the internet since the New York Times reported, While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. The story highlights the work of an organization called Dairy Management to promote extra cheese on Domino’s Pizzas. Here’s how the NY Times article describes their work:

Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

So the story gets framed as the U.S. Government pushing cheese like a drug dealer while at the same time creating “Just Say No to Fatty Foods” initiatives. With the narrative framework in place it has been cast as yet another sensational example of big government hypocrisy and waste.

Huffington Post made it a top story and the message about this being a government plot evolved into headlines like, Uncle Sam Wants YOU to Eat More Cheese and Federal Government Helps Dominos Sell Pizzas, Uses Tax Dollars to Push Dairy Products.

While I have often been critical of large U.S. agricultural interests on this blog, in this case I think the story is misleading.

The biggest misunderstanding is that taxpayer dollars are behind this promotional campaign. The NYTimes article states clearly,

Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry.

But the article then proceeds to muddy the waters with the very next sentence,

But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

If you read the whole article it actually does a good job of reporting accurately that Dairy Management “received $5.3 million that year from the Agriculture Department to promote dairy sales overseas.” But if you only read the first page it’s easy to misunderstand, as some have, that U.S. tax dollars used to fund the USDA are being used to promote Domino’s pizzas with extra cheese.

I spoke with a representative of Dairy Management Inc. this morning and she clarified that the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which is not involved in domestic marketing partnerships like the one with Domino’s, received $5.3 million of its $20 million budget from Foreign Ag. Services, an arm of the USDA. Those are the funds referred to in the Times article.

But what about the staff from USDA that provide oversight of Dairy Management? The NYTimes article hints that tax dollars that pay for employees of the USDA are being used to support Dairy Management. According to the representative of Dairy Management, the USDA does provide oversight of their programs as mandated by law, but Dairy Management reimburses the government for the costs of this oversight. I was also told that USDA employees do not sit on the board of Dairy Management, but do attend board meetings in their oversight capacity.

The other major misunderstanding is that somehow the government is running this program or “pushing” for cheesier pizzas. Dairy Management and its board of 80 dairy farmers are the ones who run the program and they are the ones who pay for it.

At the behest of the dairy industry, a law was passed in 1983 known as theDairy Production Stabilization Act of 1983.

It, therefore, is declared to be the policy of Congress that it is in the public interest to authorize the establishment, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, of an orderly procedure for financing (through assessments on all milk produced in the United States for commercial use and on imported dairy products) and carrying out a coordinated program of promotion designed to strengthen the dairy industry’s position in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for fluid milk and dairy products.

This established what is known as the Dairy Checkoff. Every commercial producer of dairy in the U.S. is required by law to pay a fee per 100 pounds of product. For example, Idaho dairy farmers pay a total of 16 cents per 100 lbs of milk. Of that, 10 cents stays in Idaho to fund a state version of Dairy Management called United Dairymen of Idaho, 1 cent funds the Idaho Dairymen’s Association that lobbies for dairy interests, and 5 cents goes to Dairy Management for national programs.

With the Domino’s Legends Pizza promotion, Dairy Management set up the marketing campaign nationally, and in Idaho’s case, the United Dairymen of Idaho Communications Rep. did radio interviews and ran statewide radio advertisements. All of this paid for by dairy farmers, not tax-payers. Their activities are regulated by the government according to the 1983 law to ensure they are using the funds legally, but it’s disingenuous to suggest then that the government is therefore promoting fatty fast foods and dishonest to imply that taxpayer dollars are being used for such programs.

I’m not a big fan of promoting fast foods to consumers, but I’m not sure why it’s controversial that dairy farmers are paying for programs to promote the sale of their products. It’s like saying it’s scandalous that Starbucks wants consumers to drink more coffee.

Behind the faux controversy of tax-payer funded promotions for cheese pizza is a very real controversy about the juxtaposition of Dairy Management’s promotional work and the USDA initiatives promoting a healthy diet. Marion Nestle and her Food Politics blog is a good place to start in getting up to speed on this ongoing debate. But let’s not give dairy farmers a hard time for wanting us to eat more cheese.  They already have enough challenges.

Wal-Mart ramps up efforts to buy local food

Wal-Mart ramps up efforts to buy local food

Wal-Mart continues to make larger bets on going local and more sustainable asreported this morning;

In the United States, Wal-Mart will double the percentage of locally sourced produce it uses, to 9 percent, the company said. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state. Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, where Wal-mart expects to buy 30 percent of produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.

In emerging markets, Wal-mart has pledged to sell $1 billion of food from small and medium farmers (which it defines as farmers with fewer than 20 hectares or about 50 acres). It will also provide training for the farmers and their laborers on how to choose crops that are in demand as well as the proper application of water and pesticides.

Go here, here and here for previous posts on Walmarts efforts to go local.

Spokane Area Farm to Offer Winter CSA Meat and Vegetable Subscription

Spokane Area Farm to Offer Winter CSA Meat and Vegetable Subscription

6a00e5500a0b5588340133f4abca24970b-500wiLiving in a northern climate means short growing seasons and extra challenges finding local sources of food during the winter. This year Rocky Ridge Ranch, a farm small sustainable farm in Reardan, WA, is going where no other Spokane area farm has gone in helping consumers with this dilemma. They are offering awinter CSA program.

CSA’s are a wonderful innovation in local food but it’s likely you have no idea what a CSA is. They are basically subscriptions for a weekly supply of fresh local fruits, veggies and meats. Go here for previous posts that will help bring you up to speed and go here for a first hand account of someone’s experience with a CSA. CSA’s are a win-win for farmers who need steady reliable cash flow and consumers who are often too busy to hunt down local sources for food.

Rocky Ridge Ranch produces some of the areas best meat, eggs and produce so this is a great opportunity.

Here’s the description they give of a typical weekly delivery;

Meat
Chicken or Roast (beef or pork or lamb.)
Beef Steak, or Pork or Lamb Chops, or Beef, or Pork Cutlets
Sausage, Bacon or Links
Ground Beef or Beef Stew Meat or Ground Pork or Ribs
Soup Bones, etc. as available
(Substitutes of comparable value may have to be made from time to time.)

Produce
Salad Mix or Spring Mix or Spinach
Salad onions or radishes
Lettuce, or Winter Greens
Beets,or Carrots or Potatoes (Stored or fresh)
Squash or Cabbage ( Brassicas we succeed with.)
Herbs (dried or Fresh.)

Go here for the full run-down.

Bring on the Spokane Chicken Revolution

Bring on the Spokane Chicken Revolution

Yesterday I did an interview with KREM News regarding Spokane area chicken ordinances. Here’s the headline for the story on their web site; “Man fights to make Spokane Valley more chicken-friendly.” I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I’ll go along. Let the “fight” begin. It’s time to organize the restless masses and work together for comprehensive changes to ordinances in the County, the City and Valley. Viva La Chicken Revolution. Go here to join the fight or drop me an email to get on the email list.