The hush hush damage of monocultures

By Anoush Alexanian

Let’s face it, its been coming up more and more in the news, on TV, in books that advocate food sustainability: monocultures. But what exactly are they? And if they have  been a productive method of farming for 60 years now, why is there so much fuss about them lately in the media?  According to Merriam-Webster, a monoculture is “the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land.”

The  main advantages, as stated by The University of Reading, are as follows:

1) Monocultures produce greater yields on less land because planting and harvesting can be standardized, which in turn results in less waste and boosts efficiency of harvesting and planting.

2) Monocultures have greatly reduced the amount of land needed to produce crops

3) Monocultures have produced a surplus of food to feed our nation, and lowered the cost  these crops.

These statements describe an industry that has evolved to maximize its profits through productivity and efficiency. But what are the hidden costs that we do not see as consumers of such an evolved agricultural system? What are the negative externalities that are not taken into account when ‘efficiency’ is measured?

The question to ask is not whether monocultures work, because looking at  data over the past 60 years proves that it does. What I am asking is how are we measuring efficiency. And whether, in this day and age, with increasing  environmental concerns, is monoculture farming something we want to continue pursuing?

Miguel A. Altieri, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written an intriguing article about the damaging effects of monocultures in his research. He mentions that from 1941 to 1995, pesticide use has increased from 161 to 212 million pounds – and thats just in California! These increases were not due to increases in acreage, because crop acreage remained constant during that period.

He further explains in detail about the negative consequences: erosion, loss of soil fertility, depletion of nutrient reserves, pollution of water systems, pest resurgence and genetic resistance to pesticides, chemical contamination, and destruction of natural control mechanisms.

Houston Wilson, a graduate student at UC – Berkley and currently the GSI for Dr. Altieri’s class on Agroecology, had much to say about the current state of farming and the development of monocultures. “Unfortunately, monocultures are not what they used to be, and this method is what is deemed efficient in the here and now.”

When asked about the chemicals and fertilizers, Wilson responded by stating that ” we are now experiencing a resistant strain of weeds and pests because of the chemical use. What is even more problematic is that when spraying all the crops with these chemicals, they also kill the beneficial insects, and what is beginning to occur is a secondary pest outbreak.”

The cycle today is being called the pesticide treadmill.

As I found out, there are an astounding number of hidden costs associated with  the massive inputs of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers used in monoculture farming.  Because of the lack of diversity in crops, and the large scale of the farming, monocultures are highly susceptible to pests and soil erosion. These ecological diseases are then treated with intensified chemical controls to overcome such limiting factors.

One of the most frightening facts, which Michael Pollan mentions in his book The Omnivores Dilemma, is how little research has been conducted to evaluate the effects of long term exposure to pesticides. What the government deems ‘tolerable’ in our foods is in fact an assumption that has not really been tested nor substantiated.

According to Food First, the benefits of small scale farming, or polyculture farming, are greatly underestimated. In the United States alone, farms whose lands are 27 acres or less have more than ten times greater output per acre than large monoculture farms. And as Pollan explains in his book, this is largely due to the amount of diversity that exists in such a system. Feeding the soil with much needed nutrients and supplying the farmer and his family with an ample supply of food, something that is completely absent in monoculture farming.

Polyculture farming has emerged to show not only that diversity is necessary and more effective, but that modeling a natural ecosystem without pesticides and fertilizers gives us a cleaner and greener environment. This in turn eliminates the amount of waste that builds up, since in monoculture farming the soil cannot be used after copious amounts of chemicals have been injected into the earth.

So again, how one chooses to measure efficiency makes all the difference. As I see it, polyculture farming generates not only environmental gains, but an improvement in the farmers lives, since they can live off the crops they grow. In contrast, monocultures have made farming an extremely difficult industry since only a few farmers grow all of the food which is produced. This not only eliminates jobs domestically, but also internationally, as globalization and comparative advantage cause foreign countries to import many of our crops. And because our crops are subsidized by the government, they are much cheaper   than foreign crops,  devastating the businesses of farmers abroad since they cannot compete with U.S prices.

Looking once again at the advantages for monocultures, it seems clear that the hidden costs not mentioned contradicted all of the advantages and benefits of monoculture farming. It just doesn’t make sense to me why we went down this road in the first place, and why the power of monocultures is growing in today’s industry. Monoculture farming is not more productive, nor less wasteful, nor does it produce more food which aids our domestic and global markets since farmers abroad are struggling to compete with U.S prices. And yes, it reduces the amount of land being used, but at what severe and irreversible  costs to our environment and ecosystems?

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to reach your own conclusion about monocultures. As for me, I will add just one more thought,  expressed beautifully by Mario Savio in Berkeley in 1964 during the civil rights movement:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

[Photo credit: Robert Crum via Flickr]

Anoush Alexanian is a junior  at the University of California, Berkeley.
Along with  studying Political Economics and minoring in Dance, she is a passionate advocate of food and health sustainability.

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Beware the Tyrannasorthorexia

Orthorexia: Not a Kind of Dinosaur, but Just as Scary

By Lorna Porter

It began simple enough. Disappointed with my health after a semester in the dorms, I was determined to make a change. I was going to be healthy, get back in shape, eat right, and get back to being the athlete I had been in high school. It was a goal that millions vow to achieve every year, a goal that society promotes extensively, a goal that has thousands of websites, books, magazines, and products devoted to it, a goal that has become a huge part of American culture. It was also a goal that would almost kill me.

Food had always been a wonderful part of my life. I loved to bake, to cook, to try new foods, to experiment in the kitchen, and most of all, to eat. Yet, the second semester of my freshman year, my relationship with food changed. I began doing extensive food research, learning calorie counts and nutritional compositions for the first time, and food changed from something that I loved to something that I feared. I decided to listen to the thousands of people who felt they knew what was best for me to eat, and began drastically cutting foods out of my diet.

I began by cutting out dairy products, then animal products, then processed sugars. I finally decided that I would avoid all processed foods I could. Left with few options in the dining halls, I subsisted on a diet that was severely limited. Fruits were okay, but only in small amounts because of their high sugar content. Vegetables were okay, but avoid the starchy ones! Carbs were okay, but only brown rice or plain oatmeal. The only acceptable fat? Avocado.

I became consumed. My life was dictated by food, and the effects were immeasurable. I had absolutely no energy, wandering from class to my dorm room in a daze, always slightly off-balance and dizzy. I was so disconnected from my body that I couldn’t realize that my muscles, with absolutely no fuel, were consuming themselves. Every time I went running or cycled, every second I continued to workout, I was literally destroying myself. Weeks later, as I began my recovery, I would find out that I was eating only six hundred calories a day. Combine this with an hour workout (sometimes doubled up with a soccer game or another run) and the simple act of walking to class and other daily activities, and I was left in a deficit of at least 1500 calories or more each day.

I was so overwhelmed by this orthorexic mindset that I believed I was living a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. I ate pure, raw foods, I exercised, I went to bed early; I avoided all the things that were killing the Americans around me. I was going to be the healthiest person I could be, I was going to live the longest, I was going to be the perfect example of healthy living. Instead, I ended up the perfect example for orthorexic anorexia, and ended up nearly killing myself.

Orthorexia nervosa is a term used to describe a form of an eating disorder characterized by a fixation on healthy eating that can lead to severe malnutrition, and in some cases, death. Currently, it is not a medically recognized term. Yet, all of the doctors, nutritionists, and therapists that I saw were aware of the increasingly popular classification.

L.M. Donini was one of the first researchers to study orthorexia nervosa, and his conclusions made clear that healthy eating is not an eating disorder, yet when it is taken too far, the obsession, loss of moderation, and withdrawal from life lead it to an eating disorder. The disorder has been linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, yet the lack of research done on this relatively new phenomena means that there no clear diagnostic criteria, and very little awareness within society. This means, also, that there are potentially many orthorexics being treated as anorexics who could benefit from receiving an alternative treatment based on the knowledge of how orthorexia dictates one’s eating habits, and how to address it.

Steven Bratman was the man who coined the term othorexia. In his essay, “The Health Food Eating Disorder” he suggests that orthorexia can reach a point where eating healthy becomes a ‘pseudo-spiritual’ experience that requires penitence if one slips up, and that healthy eating can also bring a sense of superiority over others and their ‘poor’ diets. I experienced all of this, the need for control, the sense of accomplishment, the abject horror when I ate the Hershey Kiss passed out in my discussion group, and the constant loss of awareness of myself and the world around me.

A list of questions developed by Donini and his research team help diagnose orthorexia. Six months ago, I would have answered “always” to every single one. Eating at restaurants terrified me and I wouldn’t even let my own mom cook for me if I wasn’t watching every ingredient she used. Socially I was a nightmare, as food is often integrated with social interactions. Every time people wanted to go out, every late-night IHOP run or trip for ice cream after the beach, I would make some excuse, and escape to my home where I could prepare my half-cup of oatmeal, or my undressed salad. Every morning, I woke up thinking about breakfast, and what I would eat throughout the day. As soon as I finished one meal, I was planning out the next one. I missed out on so much.

To me, being thin was not the ultimate goal, it was simply a welcome byproduct of healthy living, a symbol of my dedication to health. It’s hard to explain the disconnect that I experienced from my body. To everyone around me, it was unbelievable that I couldn’t see what I was doing to myself. I never once weighed myself, and when I looked in the mirror, my thinness simply did not register.

It sounds incredible that I couldn’t realize the magnitude of what I was doing to myself, but studies have shown that people who can be defined as orthorexic struggle with seeing the big picture. I was so focused on the nutritional qualities of foods, and so afraid of the consequences of eating one milligram too many of sodium, or one gram of saturated fat, that I couldn’t see that my drive towards health was in fact killing me. I was so terrified of what I saw as unhealthy eating that I refused to eat processed sugars, when in truth my body had reached a point where it would have benefitted from straight glucose.

It wasn’t until my parents came to pick me up to go home for the summer that I realized the magnitude of my situation. My mom took one look at me, having not seen me in a month and a half, and burst into tears. I will never forget the panicked, helpless look on her face, the shock as she took in my sunken eyes, my stick-like arms, my collar-bone jutting out, all curves gone as I stood there, clothes hanging off me. It was the beginning of the strangest summer of my life, as I struggled to work with my parents, doctors, nutritionists, and therapists to overcome the disease that had taken over my life, and had almost taken it from me.

When I finally saw a doctor, my vital signs were dangerously low. My body temperature was way below normal, my heart rate was in the forties, and I was classified as severely underweight. There were days over the summer when the doctors were afraid I wouldn’t wake up, as my heart rate was so low that they were afraid it would simply stop while I was sleeping. Every time I snuck out to run, unable to give up exercising, I was at high-risk for a heart attack.

Now, months later, I have gained seventeen pounds, but I still have a long way to go until I reach ‘normal’ weight. My life has been severely affected by orthorexia, and I am so glad that I have now come to realize the severity of my actions, and how unhappy I was throughout this whole experience. Even as I was ‘achieving’ my goal, and ‘succeeding’ at being healthy, I was not enjoying life. If I have learned one thing from this, it is to relax. To relax in regards to my diet, my future, my health, and life in general.

Nutrition is important, and I still feel that being educated about one’s diet and monitoring the quality of the foods one eats are very important. However, everyday I wish that I could wipe calorie counts out of my mind, and just eat food without thinking of it as a number. I wish I could just eat when I am hungry, stop when I’m full, indulge when my body craves it, and eat healthy because it makes my body feel good. I wish food could become the experience it once was, one to be enjoyed and shared with friends. I want food to be a fun part of life, but I also want to leave room for all other aspects of life to be enjoyed. Food should add to life’s fun, it shouldn’t be a source of stress.

I’ve been hesitant to share my story, knowing that being seen as an anorexic would change people’s perceptions of me. I didn’t want to become defined by my eating disorder. However, by becoming open about what I went through, I hope that I can help to show people how dangerous of a trap obsessive eating can become. I hope people will realize that balance can be found in life and that food can be a fun, exciting part of it. There’s more to food then nutrition. Food is cultural, familial, social, and pleasurable. One should strive to find balance in life, a balance between healthy eating and indulgence. One should realize that there can be a balance between caring about what one eats, and realizing that there is so much more to food than its nutritional content. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and food should contribute to life’s pleasures, not detract from them.

Lorna is a second-year student here at UC Berkeley, looking to major in Interdisciplinary Studies, concentrating on the relationship between globalization, international politics, and community health and development, with a minor in Public Policy.

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A Future for Food Trucks in Berkeley?

By Nancy Lam

For a college student on a budget, cheap and convenient food is a staple and often a must. With never enough time, our options for where to eat are often restricted to venues close to campus. The two most familiar food trucks are the taco truck and Desi dog on Bancroft and Telegraph.  But if one wants to look for more food truck options, there is not a lot to offer in Berkeley. One would think the constant crowds of students would attract many food vendors touting convenience and quick bites.  However, Berkeley has not lived up to its reputation as being receptive to all things.  San Francisco and Emeryville are well known for being centers for food trucks, so why do Berkeley students and residents  have less access to them?

Street food in America is not new, but the astounding growth of new, unique and even organic food trucks are astonishing.  The convenience and choices packaged in a truck that can come to you has sparked much interest. They are sprouting up all over in places like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles; however, local regulations make setting up food trucks in Berkeley more difficult. Despite these difficulties, there are a few local vendors still available in Berkeley.

Skylite Snowball is one such food truck, started in Berkeley by resident Katie Baum, who brings Baltimore style snowballs with a Berkeley taste. Launched just over Labor Day weekend, Katie is already building a following via Twitter and Facebook. Living in Berkeley for the past 13 years has instilled in her the desire to keep her syrups handmade, fresh, natural and local. Handmade syrups made with local ingredients are much more expensive, labor-intensive and difficult to create, but Katie feels that they are more special and feels better about putting them out there for the consumers. Even Katie has to admit that Berkeley is a hard place to do business in, but she remains committed to keeping Skylite Snowballs based in the East Bay rather than San Francisco.

Flacos, another Berkeley food vendor, brings organic, vegetarian and vegan Mexican food to crowds. They have worked around some of the difficult Berkeley food vending regulations by utilizing Berkeley farmers markets. With steady and growing support, Flacos has even transitioned to opening a restaurant on Adeline Street in Berkeley. Flacos’s founder Antonio has watched his business grow from one stall at the Berkeley farmers market to three. Even after opening a restaurant to feed his growing fans, he envisions Flacos becoming a global brand as big as McDonalds.

Flacos Taquito Full Plate bought at the Thursday North Berkeley Farmers Market

Antonio wants to change how food businesses are run by setting a good example. Antonio uses compostable utensils and containers, biodegradable trash bags, and over 80% of his ingredients are guaranteed to be bought from local farmers markets. Antonio also provides his employees with rights and benefits.

Flacos has had some limited exposure on campus. But with fewer opportunities available in Berkeley, Flacos is now working on expanding to San Francisco, the East Bay and Marin, then to the East Coast and, eventually, globally.

With food trucks launching and expanding their businesses, companies have sprung up to address the growing demand for assistance. Mobi Munch is “the nation’s first mobile food service infrastructure company and online marketing channel dedicated to providing established chefs and restaurateurs an integrated online and offline platform for launching innovative restaurant concepts aboard state-of-the-art food trucks.”

Mobi munch helps established chefs with food concepts to launch their ideas to feed the masses and start their own home-grown food trucks such as Chairman Bao in San Francisco.

Tammie Chi of Mobi Munch is a CAL alum and would love to bring Chairman Bao and other food trucks to the UC Berkeley campus, but has explained how the legal landscape makes it difficult. Only a few trucks are allowed permits in the city every couple years and despite submitting an application in hopes of eventually obtaining one, Chairman Bao has yet to receive a permit. Other food trucks in Berkeley are no stranger to the complications involved in obtaining a permit, the popular Cupkates has also had difficulties.

Meanwhile, food trucks have been expanding exponentially and despite rumbles of dissent from mortar restaurants about food trucks in places such as Emeryville,   Tammie sees another side. Ray Villaman, one of the founders of Mobi Munch and current president of the Tahoe Restaurant Group, actually works with restaurants to help them their own food trucks or work together with local food trucks so that both trucks and restaurants benefit.

According to Tammie, restaurants have called Mobi Munch to invite food trucks to park outside their businesses because they help draw in new customers. Places such as bars generate new customers for both the bar and the trucks; crowds can come for the food truck then grab a drink and those in the bar can stop by the trucks.

Within the growing food truck trend, there has been another consistent trend to emphasize the organic and natural foods offered by some of them. Tammie speaks of organics’ huge selling point and how Chairman Bao is “proud to say that they get their meat fresh from Golden Gate Meat everyday, and ingredients from farmers markets,” even if the cost is not cheap.

Will more sustainable, local vendors become available to students in the future? Will food vendors that go national remain sustainable? Will the competition that sustainable food trucks pose to Berkeley restaurants make restaurants become more sustainable? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, there is all the incentive to go out and visit more food trucks, even if they are not necessarily plentiful in Berkeley. As for myself, I see a date with another food truck in the near future.

Nancy Lam is a 3rd year Interdisciplinary Studies Major at UC Berkeley. She is a Bay-Area native who loves cheap, good food, blue skies and the smell of fresh breads.

Interviews with: Katie Baum of Skylite Snowball, Antonio Magana of Flacos, Tammie Chi of MobiMunch

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Food Deserts: What Will Abandoned America Eat?

By Zoe Kornberg

Picture yourself as a member of the lower working class of America. You work two low-paying jobs, likely without benefits. You do not own a car, but you somehow manage to get your children to school and yourself to work every day. You do not have time to walk or take the bus three miles out of your way and back to the closest supermarket; nor do you have the money to buy much food, or the time to cook it. Conveniently, you walk two blocks to the liquor store to buy a ready-made meal, perhaps a soft drink and a hot dog.

This is the daily (and deadly) eating situation facing lower class families in inner cities and rural communities all across America in areas called food deserts. According to a 2009 study by the USDA, a food desert is defined as an area with “limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food.” Food deserts are found in regions with high poverty rates all over the country, whether they be urban or rural. High rates of chronic diet-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are directly linked to low rates of supermarkets per capita.

Take the Bay Area, for example. There are five grocery stores within a mile of my apartment on the south side of campus, and I can count on two hands other supermarkets or grocery stores in Berkeley I have frequented in the past. A fifteen-minute drive away in East Oakland or West Oakland, supermarkets are virtually nonexistent. The closest stores with fresh fruits and vegetables are in Emeryville, San Leandro, Berkeley, and the gentrified parts of Oakland, such as Piedmont and the Oakland Hills. Instead of supermarkets, which sell a wide variety of foods and produce, liquor stores and convenience stores saturate the flatlands of East and West Oakland. These so-called grocery stores sell high-processed foods and very little fresh produce at surprisingly high prices. Fast food chains blanket the flatlands too.

This image from google maps shows red dots overwhelming the impoverished flatlands of East Oakland. The red dots are convenience grocery stores and liquor stores such as Dave’s Grocery and Liquor, N&S Discount Store, Jalisco Market. The pinpoints with letters, located in the gentrified neighborhoods of Lake Merrit, Oakland Hills, and Alameda, are supermarkets and specialty food stores, such as Lucky, Whole Foods Market, and Piedmont Grocery Company.

Oakland is a textbook example of an urban food desert. The shocking lack of healthy food and the ubiquity of unhealthy food in the low-income parts of Oakland—and in food deserts all across America for that matter—did not pop up overnight. A mix of policies on the local, state, and national level slowly drove the supermarkets away.

According to UC Berkeley grad student in the Department of Geography, Nathan McClintock, Oakland’s food desert story begins almost a century ago with the racist homeownership policies of the Federal Housing Administration. Homeowners associations created racial covenants to box non-whites into West Oakland.

On top of that, banks redlined Oakland’s neighborhoods, or in other words graded property values to determine who to lend to. The banks heavily favored white neighborhoods and put the majority black neighborhoods in red—meaning those properties did not qualify for home loans.

The next grade up was yellow, or “decreasing desirability.” This was the grade given to most of East Oakland, where the Latino and Asian communities settled in old single-family homes. These neighborhoods received very little investment and gradually turned red. Whites fled to the suburbs to the south and east.

Whether measured by the Gini coefficient or some other calculation, it is undeniable that the gap between rich and poor has widened. After World War II ended, investment in Oakland industry decreased over time and unemployment grew—especially for people of color. Oakland became increasingly segregated and impoverished. As old policies of segregation became illegal, new ones under benign names took their place: subprime lending, urban redevelopment, etc…

Crime rates rose steadily and public services, such as public transportation were cut. From a supermarket chain’s perspective, it makes sense that Safeway or another food store would not want to have a branch in the flatlands of Oakland. Unfortunately, it hurts the poorest people of Oakland the most. This same story is echoed throughout the industrial hubs of America. Detroit. Chicago. New York City. Everywhere you will find a similar story to Oakland’s, and the people who live in food deserts are paying the price.

Food deserts exist in rural areas too, but their causes are not quite the same. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University showed that there is a strong correlation between being poor and living in a food desert. There is very little public transportation in rural areas and vast distances between supermarkets or big box stores that sell healthy foods, such as Walmart. For people living in poverty, often without the use of a car, this is an impossible situation. Again, it makes sense from a business prospective: why put a supermarket or grocery store in a place that can only be reached by only a few poor customers?

Obesity, diabetes, and cancer rates affect low-income Americans disproportionately, and it is no surprise if you look at what America eats. Food deserts help explain why so many poor Americans eat cheap, unhealthy, highly-processed foods that give them chronic health problems. This institutionalized lack of access to healthy food is a public health hazard, caused by decades of public policy failings on national, state, and local scales.

So what can be done to solve the problem of food deserts? Many inner-cities areas are now home to urban garden projects. In Oakland there are numerous projects, including Oakland Based Urban Gardens (OBUGS), and the Oakland Food Connection. These organizations grow food in gardens in the flatlands to be bought at low prices by low-income families who otherwise cannot access or afford these healthy fruits and vegetables.

Some sell their produce in green grocer stores, such as People’s Grocery. Alternatively, some gardens run community supported agriculture programs or CSAs, which are a weekly produce delivery service. The main goals of these programs are to give the poor access to healthy foods, pump up the local economy, educate the poor about healthy eating, and advocate for change in the inner-city.

Despite these inspiring non-profits, McClintock calculates that urban gardens of Oakland only provide 5% of the needed produce in their city. Reversing a century or more of racist housing policy will take time and considering the divisive and partisan politics in both the California and national legislatures, I wouldn’t hold my breath. In the mean time, an effective solution might be to encourage supermarkets to come back to food deserts, such as Oakland. Pennsylvania recently enacted the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, and according to the website it “has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, creating or preserving more than 5,000 jobs.”

Locally, you can volunteer with some of these local urban garden groups mentioned above and help spread awareness of food deserts. Check out all the urban food projects in Oakland here.

Sources:

McClintock, Nathan. “From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Demarcated Devaluation in the Flatlands of Oakland, California.” In Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman (eds) Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability. MIT Press (in press, 2011).

Schafft, K., Jensen, E., Hinrichs, C. “Food Deserts and Overweight Schoolchildren: Evidence from Pennsylvania.” Rural Sociology 74.2 (2009): 153-177.

Ver Ploeg, M., Breneman, V., et al. “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” USDA Report to Congress. June 2009. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/AP/AP036/
http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/
http://www.growyouroakland.org/pages/main.php?pageid=39&pagecategory=4
http://www.cityslickerfarms.org/
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/21/opinion/21sat4.html
http://www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/fffi.php
http://www.marigallagher.com/projects/

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Mapping our Food System: Bringing Two Ways Of Life Together

By Caitlyn King

Locavore is a recently coined word that has gone distances in the past couple of years. It was named the Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007 after being coined by 4 women here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their mission: to challenge people to eat food grown and made within a 100 mile radius of their location. The Locavore website talks about their experiences and is inspiring to those who have the faintest interest in the sustainable food movement. My question: is eating locally practical for students?

Time Crunch, Grab n’ Go
College is structured around investing in time. Spend it one way, and it is lost; it can’t be applied elsewhere. When it comes to studying, Berkeley students are willing to give up anything to get an extra hour of cramming. This can include fueling up on bad food to prevent starvation during a time crunch. Top on the list: yogurt parfait or a sticky bun from the Golden Bear Cafe while running late to class in the morning. Likewise, the late night study session usually calls for a grab n’ go torpedo-shaped dinner. Subway or Chipotle anyone?

I asked around to see if this grab n’ go lifestyle was a good representation of students. A 3rd year Sociology major, Lisa Chan, told me details about her eating habits when she is busy. Chan admitted that the most efficient route she has available is under her bed: Instant Noodles!

Chan explained that if her noodles fall through, she will debate lines, price, and how fast the service is when looking at eateries. As Chan said, “Efficiency is always key when I am in a time crunch, I scope it out to find what will match my needs the quickest.”

Chan is a true example of how students will go for what is available, quick, and cheap to fill their empty stomach. As a result, ‘Grab n’ Go’ habits butt heads with the Locavore movement that we are encouraged to participate in. Sometimes we don’t have time to shop for local food, let alone cook it. So we sadly rely on serviced food to survive.

Though we want to vote with our dollar, time crunching means eating out, which usually means buying serviced food made from Sysco and BiRite products. With technology constantly moving forward, people have already started to invent tools for locating restaurants that use and provide seasonal and sustainable prepared food.

It Begins with a Seed, then a Sprout
Food Sprout is home to a business dedicated to connecting consumers to foods origins, in addition to helping producers source more sustainable options. It is designed to actually map where food comes from before it is sold to the consumer.

This website lists many restaurants and products, however a lot of the actual mapping of sources has yet to be filled out. Visitors to the website have the opportunity to add information about restaurants, farms, and products that they know about.

Andrew Naber, the founder of Food Sprout, admitted that he was one of the many who was influenced by the documentary Food Inc., which discusses where our food comes from and the problem with our food system. He saw the movie in December of 2009, and noticed that “It was evident then that our food supply is secretive. I felt there were probably enough people that want to expose this so I began development of Food Sprout for this very reason. To lift the veil of secrecy on what I call Big Food.”

Naber also explained why much of the information still has to be added to the website. “The most time intensive part is connecting the dots. We can load lots of data into our platform quickly. The real value comes when you can connect Company A with Company B and show the relationship between them.”

He later explained his frustration in how many large businesses aren’t willing to share information, causing his mapping progress to move slower than expected.

In the end, Naber made it clear that his goals and purpose for mapping food and its impact lie in the future of the environment and the generations ahead. He ultimately wants Food Sprout to “have an impact on the food system by influencing consumers to act different and therefore force businesses with bad habits to change.”

His idea will hopefully spread far enough to not only make this site a leading search tool, but to change the way that our food production, restaurants, and ingredients are made. Mapping out our food sources brings hope to the two concepts of a Locavore and a ‘Grab n’ Go’ life. If sites such as Food Sprout expand enough, the ‘Grab n’ Go’ consumer may be able to jump on board the Locavore movement. The future looks bright, but it will take some time, pressure, and a blend of knowledge to get it in gear.

Caitlyn King is a 3rd year Conservation Resource Studies major with a minor in Public Policy. Her hometown, North Lake Tahoe, harvested her love for the environment and its preservation. While college initially deteriorated her adamant high school practices of health and good eating, she is slowly moving back to her old habits while being surrounded with large amounts of local and delicious food. When Caitlyn isn’t studying for school, you can often find her on the fire trails running, crocheting, or baking up a new rendition of chocolate chip cookies.

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Berkeley Student Food Collective feeds and educates… but will students bite?

By Alyssa Kies

Whisper sweet nothings to me about free-range birds and grass-fed beef; I’m enamored. I shiver with anticipation waiting for new fruits and vegetables to come into season. Allot me a tiny sample of your triple cream brie; I’ll quiver.

But I have this itching, crawling feeling that I am not like everyone.

When I heard that the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC) was opening up a store on Bancroft, the possibilities teased me. Fresh, local, healthy, sustainably grown, and ethically produced foods were going to be made available to students, with the dual intention of educating and feeding the Cal community. The laundry list of catchwords got my food morality tingling. “Who wouldn’t want to shop there?” I wondered.

The average Cal student, maybe?

BSFC Storefront

The Berkeley Student Food Collective Storefront on Bancroft

Hannah Burstein, a second year and the membership coordinator of the BSFC, said she wants to see a rise in food consciousness among students, referring to a certain awareness of the effects of food on the environment, the community, and the body. “Just because there’s such a strong [food] culture here doesn’t mean that it represents the majority,” Burstein said. Indeed, Berkeley serves as a food mecca, cultivating influential foodies such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, as well as progressive grocery stores like Berkeley Bowl and sustainable high-end restaurants like Chez Panisse.

But this food culture is not so apparent along Telegraph Avenue, where cheap food in large portions is the strip’s main draw. Hungry kids flock to greasy joints advertising starving student specials. Burstein claims that large corporations have found “an unending source of money” in profiting off of people’s dependency on food. “If the only food that’s widely available is cheap and unhealthy and unsustainable then people are still going to buy it,” she said.

The BSFC store will sell prepared foods like sandwiches and granola, as well as produce and dairy products. Each product they sell must adhere to at least one quality of the Real Food guidelines. That is, each product must be either: local, fair, ecologically sound, or humane. Local is defined as produced within 250 miles. Fair typically refers to workers’ rights, while humane refers to animal rights. Ecologically sound often refers to whether or not the food was treated with pesticides. The BSFC also maintains that their food must be healthy.

BSFC outreach coordinator Justina Byrne named grocers like Safeway, Berkeley Bowl, and Whole Foods as the store’s biggest competitors. The BSFC is a cooperative, meaning that it is non-profit organization operated by members who volunteer their time at the store in exchange for discounts on food and the ability to vote on BSFC decisions. The money saved from having volunteers instead of employees allows the store to keep product prices low, at least lower than comparable stores like Whole Foods. But the demographic of Whole Foods shoppers is older and more affluent and food-conscious than the average Cal student who values the price of food over its morality. I asked Byrne how the BSFC prices would compare to Safeway.

“If Safeway were selling the products that we’re selling, Safeway would probably be more expensive,” she responded, noting that the food sold at Safeway is often not organic and not locally sourced.

Would students pay a little more for food held to higher standards? I stalked the aisles of the Safeway on College Avenue to investigate.

I figured that students browsing produce would be more likely to care about how their food was made than students found in, say, the aisle with chips and soda. Alex Bigman, a senior at Cal, was carefully selecting Brussels sprouts when I approached him.

Bigman typically shops at Trader Joe’s and says that he comes to Safeway for his produce, which he considers to be of higher quality. The main thing he looks for when shopping for food is convenience; he wants food that is quick and easy to prepare, and has a regular shopping list that includes vegetables, frozen foods, pasta, and eggs. I told him a little about the BSFC store: its location right across from campus, the standards to which it holds its products, and the price, which I described as cheaper than Whole Foods but slightly more expensive than Safeway. Did the BSFC store sound like a place where Bigman might shop?

“My motivation in going there would not be from an ideological standpoint,” Bigman said, but added that its convenient location would motivate him to shop there.

His motivations were shared by others.

A group of second-years waiting at the bus stop outside of Safeway said that they shopped there because it is convenient, especially for students without cars. The location was the main reason that they might choose to shop at the BSFC store. “I don’t know if I care so much about all the [ethical] qualities,” said one of them. All of them named price as one of the main factors they examine when choosing food.

Berkeley senior Silvina Bae shops at Safeway and Trader Joe’s for the variety of products and the convenience. She was in the produce section of Safeway when I asked her about whether the BSFC store appealed to her. “If the pricing is reasonable, then I would shop there,” she said. When asked if there was anything she would be willing to pay more for, she replied, “Meat, if it was better quality.”

Trader Joe’s revealed a similar story. Customers were mildly interested in the ethical values of the BSFC store, but more intrigued by its convenient location. A second-year browsing blackberries told me that although she would shop at the BSFC store because it is much closer to where she lives, Trader Joe’s would still be on her grocery circuit for its variety.

Junior transfer Sammy Kayed said that he was enjoying the freedoms of having a job and living away from home—namely, buying his own food. “I’m getting clams and shrimp,” Kayed said, “I like cooking.” Kayed was the only person I interviewed that said he would shop at the BSFC store because of its values, mentioning that he recently did a research project that revealed to him the less-than-pristine source of Trader Joe’s almonds.

All in all, the convenience of the BSFC storefront appealed to Cal students more than its food dogma.

The BSFC’s biggest challenge will not be selling food, but getting students to care about how their food is made and distributed.

Fortunately for them, education is one of the cornerstones of the BSFC. According to their website, the goal of the Education Committee in the BSFC is to make “the larger environmental, social and political issues related to food systems today more tangible and accessible to students and the surrounding community.” To do this, Byrne said that the Education Committee is planning educational film screenings, workshops, and events teaching people how to cook. The BSFC is peculiar in a food system characterized by industrial agriculture giants and cheap processed foods.

“I want people to see that things need to change,” Burstein said.

The BSFC is scheduled to open on November 15th. In the meantime, they’ll have to find a way to get students as fired up as they are about food.

Sources: BSFC website (www.berkeleystudentfoodcollective.org/about)

Alyssa Kies is a second-year intended Media Studies major and Geography minor. She has a deep love for chocolate, magazines, stinky cheese, and the Bay Area.

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A New Chapter In My life

My first encounter with the novel idea of food sustainability was when  Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, arrived in my mail the summer before my freshman year here at UC Berkeley. It was sent to all incoming freshmen as part of the campus’ On The Same Page program, a seminar series that discusses the issues of industrial agriculture and food production presented in the book. I read a little bit of the book and was immediately blown away at the profound ideas and evidence Pollan presented. At that time I was an avid environmentalist who thought I knew everything about human destruction of the environment: deforestation, biodiversity loss, you name it—but the truth was I knew nothing about our food system’s effect on the environment. This is why I was so blown away by Pollan’s work. He opened an entirely new realm of information about our food system that I could delve into and analyze through an environmentalist scope.

When it came around to spring semester of my freshman year, I signed up for Jenna Kingkade’s DeCal, Food Sustainability Journalism, to further my knowledge in this field. The class was an enlightening experience because all the students needed to research and write about an issue related to food sustainability in the Berkeley area. I chose to investigate industrial beef production to learn about how the system functions and what undesirable ramifications arise from having that type of system. I also researched sustainable alternatives to industrial beef, like local grassfed beef. It was a very fascinating process, to go out into the world and interview people—I felt like a true journalist. The end product of the class was the Naked Bear Magazine, a successful 10,000 copy publication consisting of all the articles that the DeCal students wrote. The magazine was distributed to the UC Berkeley student body, and 2010 incoming freshman.

I grew up the youngest of six boys in a family with two busy working parents. They tried raising my oldest brothers on healthy, natural foods and cooking, but by the time I was born, that gastronomic idealism soon dissolved. I was raised on convenience foods. Junk food, fast food, chips, soda, candy were all a dietary mainstay for me. While I was in junior high, I would come home after school and eat hot pockets and microwavable burritos. In high school, I would go out to eat fast food for lunch almost every day. I believed this was normal, healthy eating even though it was causing me to feel terrible. Having this dietary background, I was entranced with the ideas of healthy eating that were omnipresent in Berkeley. Pollan’s more recent book, In Defense of Food, added more fuel to the flame. After reading it, I became aware of how unhealthy processed foods came to dominate the American diet, and subsequently mine. Through my own research I came across many parallels between eating healthily and eating sustainably. In the end investigative escapades, I realized there is an innate marriage between the health of the planet and the health of our bodies.

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How it All Started

The Spring 2010 Naked Bear Magazine Staff

By Jenna Kingkade

Two years ago I began working for Cal Dining as a food sustainability coordinator- a positon that involved educating students living in the resident halls about food sustainability. I was quite put off by the apathy that I observed. As my fellow coordinators and I took surveys to gather students’ thoughts on a tray-less dining initiative we were proposing, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why don’t students care that by eliminating trays we can save hundreds of gallons of water each day? This is Berkeley- doesn’t everyone want to compost, drink tap water and sit in trees…??

I soon realized (a little disappointedly) that the University of California Berkeley is not exactly the same as the City of Berkeley when it comes to its commitment to sustainability. With that in mind, I decided to create a guide that I hoped would both explore issues relating to food sustainability and suggest ways that students and community members could make their food choices and dining habits more sustainable.

Fifteen passionate Cal students suffered through my Decal class Food Sustainability Journalism in Spring 2010 and contributed articles to Naked Bear; Your Guide to Eating Sustainably. With a 10,000 dollar grant from Brita, we printed and distributed 5,000 copies of the guide during Earth Week and the remaining 5,000 are currently being distributed in dining locations around campus and in the res halls.

This blog is an expansion of the project to educate the community about food sustainability (and now health) issues. Scott Shapiro approached me last spring and suggested that we create a blog, both in order to reach a wider audience and to herald the increasing predominance and importance of social media (especially the blogosphere).

Although I will subscribe to newspapers and magazines as long as they are extant (I’m a diehard fan of traditional media), I recognize the great potential that social media provides for the sharing news and information.  Importantly, this is grass-roots journalism, produced for students by students, that is not censored by corporate interests or influenced by advertisers.

I am excited to observe the outcome of this project and I hope that you enjoy it!

Please come back soon and read some great stories by UCB students about current food sustainability and health issues and news.

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From moons to moos

As a graduate student in planetary science – I study moons of Jupiter – I often feel out of place in undergraduate courses on sustainable agriculture or food journalism.  On the first day of class, when we go around the room and students announce that they are majoring in resource management or environmental policy, I wonder if I really have anything to offer.  I assume they are wondering if I got lost on my way to a seminar.  The truth is, though, regardless of our backgrounds, we can all contribute to a sustainable future by simply being more aware of what we eat.

Sustainability most often refers to maintaining the complex natural systems that provide us with fresh air, clean water, and a wondrous habitat in which to live.  Sustainable food systems also address the impact of food production on the well-being of humans and animals.  It is the intersection of these three areas: environment, human health, and animal welfare, that compels me to act.  Our food system has consequences that are both long-term (what does this do to the planet) and short-term (how can we keep our 10-year-olds from becoming obese) and at both the smallest scale of community – our bodies, our families – and the global community as well.  I could certainly go on and on about the ills of our current food system and the destructive force it has become in each of these areas, but I will instead leave the informing to the students who will be contributing to this blog starting in just a few short weeks.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” ~Ghandi

In the meantime, I will give you a taste (pun intended) of my contribution to a more sustainable food system.  My first decision, upon learning about where our food actually comes from and all of the ramifications of that system, was to turn in disgust and walk in the opposite direction from industrial, conventional food.  I completely stopped eating conventional meat and eggs; I haven’t purchased eggs from a grocery store in almost a year.  I also switched to organic produce, ideally locally-grown, which I purchase from various farmers markets.  The transition was easier than I thought it would be.  It’s amazing how much less appetizing a cheeseburger looks when I can envision the cow from whence it came living in its own muck, unable to move because it is so confined, and being pumped full of antibiotics to keep it from dying because it’s forced to eat corn that its body cannot process.  And it doesn’t stop with the patty.  I can almost see the corn sweeteners in the bun that will cause an insulin spike in my blood and the pesticides used to grow the vegetables draining into the local water supply.  This is the story behind nearly every cheeseburger served in a restaurant or fast food joint in the United States, every burger grilled on the fourth of July using the cheap ground beef and hamburger buns sold in nearly every grocery store.

“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than knowledge that is idle.” ~Kahlil Gibran

In making this transition, I noticed that I wasn’t hearing a lot about these issues from my friends and colleagues.  There were lots of Facebook rants about the Tea Party and American Idol and poor grammar, but I realized that the food issues I was learning about were simply absent from the discussion.  Changing my own diet was a certainty, but I can’t change the system by myself.  To spread the word, I started a blog called An Omnivore’s Decision to not only inform people of the issues with food, but to also give them an example of how a more sustainable food lifestyle can work.  I want to show people that even a busy graduate student can afford, in both time and money, to make better choices.  I went a step further by contributing to the Naked Bear sustainable food magazine put together by Berkeley students last year (bears are their mascot).  This semester, I am co-editor of the magazine, and I am helping teach the course on food systems and social media, the culmination of which is the blog you are reading now.  My goal is to continue to disseminate information about both the problems and solutions within our food system and to teach others to do the same.  I hope you will find this blog a useful tool and that you will pass along the information you learn here.  There is a sustainable food system out there, and every decision we make can be a step toward that future.

~Alyssa Rhoden, PhD candidate, Earth & Planetary Sc., UC – Berkeley

The information presented is from a combination of sources including The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and the documentaries King Corn and Food, Inc.
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Scott’s story

Why would a 2nd year MBA student spend a significant amount of his time facilitating a DeCal class on ‘Food, Health and Sustainability’ in the Journalism school?

1.  I used to be obese

I’m currently in the best shape of my life.  My lipid profile isn’t bad either. But I wasn’t always this way. I used to be 30 pounds overweight and had chronic GERD and frequent back pain.  This was 2005.  My blood pressure and fasting glucose were creeping up to a danger zone. Was this a sign of insulin resistance? Perhaps. Regardless, it was fueled by lots of late nights in consulting, combined with calorie-dense but nutrition deficient meals (and lots of Oreo Cheesecake and beer).

In 2007 I settled into a new job and could finally grab control over my lifestyle. I had come back from a snowboarding trip completely exhausted and trailed behind the rest of the group throughout the trip. I had to fix myself. I took this as an opportunity to overhaul my lifestyle.  I researched “fat loss”, particularly leveraging the blogosphere. I began playing racquetball and started Crossfitting. I cut out empty calories, paid attention to where my food came from and started down the paleo/primal path.  I also learned a lot from Gary Taubes.  To share my efforts, I started a facebook page that chronicles my workouts and meals.

2.  We’re headed down a dangerous path

It wasn’t till I backpacked through Central America that I realized how food affects much more than just our bodies. Earlier that year, a friend suggested I read Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I had it on my Kindle but didn’t start reading until I was on a “chicken bus” in Nicaragua.   I was reading about the maize that made its way to the US on the same path that I was travelling. I looked out the window and saw cows grazing in pasture while learning about CAFOs for the first time.  I realized that this country, who’s GDP is 1/20th that of the US’s, produces its food in such a different way than we do. There was no military-industrial-agriculture complex and obesity was scarce (through rising). I discovered the connection that food has not just with our health but with the environment and society.

3.  I ‘m at Cal. I want to learn and connect with the brightest

Great… I was impacted by a book on agriculture and another on revisionist history of nutrition.  I lost a lot of weight and feel a lot better; what does this have to do with facilitating a class and getting involved with a blog!?

  1. I’m at one of the most progressive universities in the world
  2. Michael Pollan is an adjunct professor here
  3. I’ve taken several classes in corporate strategy, business models and marketing
  4. I’m passionate about health and sustainable agriculture, and there must be a class on this somewhere else at Cal, right?

Well, kind of. I found a DeCal course that was taught last Spring during my first year of business school. I cold-emailed Jenna asking if she was facilitating again in the Fall since there was nothing else offered that sounded interesting. She needed another pair of hands. I offered and suggested we incorporate another one of my passions: social media.  We assembled a team, developed a course and here we are half way through the Fall 2010 semester!

Hence “Food, Sustainability and Health in Social Media.”  The course is divided into how food affects 3 systems:

  1. The body
  2. The environment
  3. Society

We explore each of these topic areas through the lense of social media rather than textbooks and “traditional media.” Assignments are not delivered on paper to sit in a filing cabinet. Instead, students will write blog posts, comments and become a part of the global discussion.

While teaching is a great learning experience, I’m learning even more from my fellow [younger] millennials who are students in the class.  We have a great group of enthusiastic bright minds who are devoting a lot more of themselves to causes than I am. These are the people who are going to make a difference. Look out for some great writing from them over the next few months! This is their blog – all I can do is help create a platform for them.

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