When “Farm-to-table” is just called “Dinner”

Once upon a time, in a distant land of, …. hmmm… let’s name it, “Everwhere,” people we might describe as “Chefs” would get the food they prepared and served from places known as “farms” and “gardens.”

It was such a common, everyday thing that nobody wrote about it or even mentioned it.

One day, though, supermarkets were introduced and people took their hands out of the soil and their dollars away from farms.

Now, it seems that every time a chef uses food that is considered local they want a medal. And I find myself wondering if we are doing more harm than good in the scheme of things by lauding something which should be ordinary.

Wouldn’t it be more apt to say to ourselves that these people are just doing their jobs? Much in the same way as organic food is considered by some to be just food – and sprayed and engineered food  is what should be labeled.

On the one hand, people say that it is good to praise those who are helping support The Local Food Movement and farmers. But, really, the premium that is placed on these food products (benefiting the restaurants more than the farmers) make it out of reach for average people turning it into something more a special treat (if affordable at all) rather than a part of regular life.

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As much as I love(d) ramen noodles…

Just as the leaves fall from the trees in autumn, so too do the foods we once included in our lives get called out for being unfriendly.

Just as the leaves fall from the trees in autumn, so too do the foods we once included in our lives get called out for being unfriendly.

Sometimes it seems that one by one, so much of what I once included in my diet has turned out to be bad for me. I remember learning, years ago, that swordfish is really high in mercury. How could fish be unhealthy?!! But, immediately I broke off the relationship. And never again have I eaten the succulent, flaky fish that was once a favorite.

One by one, all the staples – the veggies coated in pesticides – who knew? The GMOs – why weren’t we told before? The processed sugar and wheat and pink slime.

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Soap has nuts? Who knew!

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I’m one of those annoying people who gets really excited when I discover something new that fits my mission statement of learning more ways to heal the environment. But, soap nuts? Really?

What the heck.

I received an organic laundry starter kit as a gift a while ago and just did not get it. I was really skeptical. So, I put it on the shelf with my other laundry supplies and it started collecting dust.

Sometimes I would look at the kit and wonder how it worked. I even opened it and looked at the ingredients now and then – soap nuts, essential oils and dryer balls. (Yeah, dryers have balls. More on that later.)

So, when I finally got down to business, I was really impressed to find that they work!

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The gentrification of the local food movement

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When the local food movement first became trendy I found myself griping about it with others who had become involved before it was flavor of the day. Some told me that any vehicle that gets the word out is good. But now those same people are rolling their eyes with me about the “hippie cum high brow” mentality.

It just doesn’t blend well.

Technically, it’s not gentrification. That is more of an urban phenomenon. But, heck, PR types borrow words like “local” and “sustainable” for their purposes, so I will use this one – because the downside of gentrification is also what we are up against in the local food movement.

Siphoning out the flavor

Years ago, when I started at NYU, the Village was unique. It had its own flavor and quirks. Sure, it was kind of odd to step over used hypodermic needles on the way to a pub. But, there was also so much character – in a really good way.

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Nature’s amazing little fermented ALL-PURPOSE CLEANER!

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So, one evening I was sitting at dinner with Alicia Damia Ghio and the topic of cleaning naturally came up. She said what others have told me – vinegar is THE best all-purpose cleaner.

Hmmm, I thought, another vinegar believer. Vinegar! Who’d have thunk it.

She told me about how easy it is and that sometimes she might add baking soda or coarse salt to get out the stubborn stuff.

But, I need to clean my tiled shower floor and it’s kinda goopy between the tiles, I told Alicia.

No problem, she assured me. Give it a try.

So, yeah, I thought I would give it a try. And she was right. No problem whatsoever. I could not believe how easily it got out stains and guck that manufactured cleaners could not remove.

I was sold!

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The proof is in the soil

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What has perhaps shocked me the most about advocating to educate the public on the basics of our food system is how many people take an adversarial stance.

Some people like the images of lovely farmland and they have no interest in looking any closer. In fact, they don’t want to get into the details – get their hands dirty, so to speak.

They seem to think by saying, oh, we love farms, hooray for farms, they are supporting the future of farmland.

And the impression I get is that I am challenging them by saying there is more to it than that.

Most people don’t like to have their thinking challenged, I get that, but given how we were all brainwashed into believing food grows in supermarkets, I think it is time to reconsider.

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Beets me! . . . Making vegetables accessible doesn’t always make them understandable

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It’s easy for us to agree that bringing farm fresh organic vegetables to people who might not otherwise have access is a good thing. But, what about showing them what to do with the vegetables?

I can look at a bin of vegetables and know A) What I like and don’t enjoy; B) What looks appealing in terms of texture, freshness, color, etc.; C) What I am in the mood to make and how each item might fit in.

We might be missing the obvious though in not taking into account that those who have little or no experience with fresh produce could look at items at a farmers market and have anxiety. They might think they will make a fool of themselves due to ignorance. Or, they might just not want to be bothered changing their ways.

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Next stop: a movement for simplified food?

Delicious farm-fresh food, much of which is prepared ahead of time with garlic and/or olive oil.

Delicious farm-fresh food, much of which is prepared ahead of time with garlic and/or olive oil.

Okay, so it’s great to get food straight from a farm but maybe it’s time to start from scratch – and not prepare so much ahead of time so everyone can enjoy it. After all, some of us have food allergies and food sensitivities.

When I was registering for the recent UVM food systems summit,  I was asked if I have any food allergies. I responded that I cannot eat garlic or olive oil. No problem, I was told, they would accommodate me at the lunch service they were providing.

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Food systems summit raises my spirits

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I attended the University of Vermont food systems summit this week hoping to be inspired, to meet new people, expand my network and connect with meaningful discourse on ways forward with our food system.

That is just what happened, too.

The best was saved for last though. At the final panel discussion, the keynote speakers came up with an answer to “how can we change things for the better” that I think hit the nail on the head.

Innovate, they basically said. Don’t worry about fighting big Agri-business, squelching Monsanto or McDonalds. Instead, come up with something that is creative and positive and bests them.

Right on.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda tired of hearing about all the ills with our food system. (And there was some of that at the summit, too.) That doesn’t inspire me. And, for the most part, I think the only ones who really listen are members of the choir.

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Instead of another food movement, can we please have a societal revolution?

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Fairfield County, Connecticut was faced with the issue of biodiversity and the importance of nourishing the soil a little over a year ago – when a forest regeneration project, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, gained attention.

There were no fancy celebrity chefs or other notables touting the merits of soil health.

At that time, the people making the most noise were those who were more concerned with aesthetics than the long-term health of the forests. And they certainly weren’t connecting forest health to the food chain or clean water.

I wrote a series of stories about the forest regeneration project for local newspapers and explained why some coarse woody material (including tree stumps and fallen trees) was left on the ground in the forests – hint: it was to return nutrients to the soil and keep animals from grazing on seedlings.

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