Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Frozen Cattle And The Ghost Food Truck

Earlier this fall, South Dakota experienced an early blizzard that caught ranchers off-guard. Three to four feet of snow fell overnight in the first week of October when cattle were still in unprotected summer pastures and had not yet grown winter coats. Between 15,000 and 30,000 cows died during the storm, with some ranchers losing the majority of their herds.

This snowfall broke previous records for the entire month of October and came after several days of warm weather. It's being called a freak storm, but just how freaky is it? Since 2005's Hurricane Katrina broke all records as the most-damaging and costliest hurricane in US history, there has been a string of "freak" weather events that devastate communities. As seen in South Dakota, these communities are often food producers, which means that these storms also impact our food supply.

With a few exceptions, most people now recognize that human activities are changing the world climate in ways scientists are working to fully understand. Weather patterns are changing, overall temperatures of land and water are rising, and all of this has consequences.

It is difficult to grasp exactly what climate change means for future weather patterns -- increased drought and heat in some places might be paired with more frequent floods in others -- but the best explanation I've ever heard uses rolling dice as an analogy.

With a normal pair of dice (the weather patterns humans have lived with for millennia), the extremes in terms of rolls are a two or a twelve. So if you're rolling the dice for how intense the hurricane season will be, you could get a mild two or a terrible twelve. Climate change, scientists say, change the rules in two ways. First, it loads the dice so that the higher numbers are more likely. Category 5 hurricanes, massive tornadoes, or devastating droughts will become more common. 

But the dice are changed in another way, too: Climate change adds dots. One of the dice gets an extra dot on each face. Now, the most mild weather we can hope for is a three, not a two, and at the other end, we can suddenly roll thirteens or fourteens.

We've seen some evidence of this in recent years. The northeast coast got slammed with two major hurricanes, Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2013, that damaged states like Vermont that don't usually have to worry about hurricanes. Irene was the seventh-costliest hurricane in United States history and Sandy was the second-costliest. Twenty-six people were killed by a single tornado in Moore, OK, earlier this year.

The problem is not confined to the US by any means. In 2010, severe droughts killed as much as 25% of Russia's wheat crop, leading the country to ban wheat exports that year. Wheat prices spiked around the world. 

Our food supply depends on predictable weather and we may not have that any more.

Two artists have been thinking about what foods might be lost altogether or become so scarce as to raise prices to luxury-good status. They are touring in what they call the Ghost Food truck, providing free tastes and smells of substitutes for chocolate milk, fried cod, and peanut butter. It's a bleak vision of the toll climate change could take on our food supply.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

HEALTHY. Sustainable. Affordable. Fair. (Part IV)

We've spent the last two days preparing kits to go out to all the preschools, Head Start centers, and state preschools in the DNATL world. Almost 400 preschoolers will take part in a Food Day activity celebrating healthy eating.

We packed boxes with copies of Lois Ehlert's Eating the Alphabet, tangerines, bananas, and Potter the Otter: A Tale About Water books. We started delivering the boxes this afternoon, and by the end of the day tomorrow, preschools in Smith River, Crescent City, Klamath, and the upper Yurok Reservation will all have their kits for Food Day. It's an amazing start.

Our kits are a gentle introduction to the concepts of eating HEALTHY. They'll be making banana ghosts and tangerine pumpkins, and then eating the fresh fruit treats. Potter, in his newest book, will be teaching about healthy eating and active living. Everyone will learn about the benefits of drinking water over sugar-sweetened beverages and juice.

A lot of our nation has moved away from cooking at home, from scratch, using real, whole ingredients. Part of our Food Day schedule involves reteaching skills that have slipped out of everyday American lives. Food made from scratch is generally lower in added fats, sugar, and salt than heavily processed foods.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting advice about what constitutes a "healthy diet" and I won't enter that fray here. Also? We're a little busy counting tangerines and Potter the Otter stickers. But our ever wonderful Director of Nutrition for the Del Norte Unified School District sent me a link for an awfully cute Bugs Bunny cartoon about healthy eating, and I thought I'd share that with you. It doesn't cover every base, but it's a start.

That's all, folks!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Healthy. Sustainable. AFFORDABLE. Fair. (Part III)

For two years, I lived in the remote community of King Salmon, AK. There were 400 residents and one road, which led 16 miles to the coastal town of Naknek, with 600 residents. If you were a resident for at least a year, you could get a subsistence fishing license that allowed you to take almost 1,000 salmon, of various types, from the Naknek River and its mouth. This provided a great and almost free source of protein, and if you had the patience, you could gather gallons of blueberries and cranberries from the six-inch-high tundra berry "bushes" for vitamin C. Everything else, however, was flown in via Anchorage or barged in on one of six or seven massive barges that circled around the tip of the Aleutians once a month when the weather allowed.

In other words, food was expensive. Eight dollars for a gallon of milk and seven for a loaf of bread or box of cereal. That kind of expensive. By the time produce reached us, it was long past its prime, but still outrageously priced.

We were a one-income family at that point and even that was an entry-level salary, so we learned tough lessons about affordable food, or lack thereof.

It is a lesson that many Americans live every day, not just for two years because of an extreme location. One in four children in the United States live in food-insecure households, meaning that the adults in their life don't always know where the next meal is coming from. In households considered "very insecure", adults are often skipping meals on a regular basis.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food..." and yet, around the world, many people do not have access to adequate healthy food for themselves and their children.

This year, a high-profile film, A Place at the Table, focused attention on hunger in America. Part of the aim of the film makers is to make Americans as dedicated to ending hunger as they were in the past. Our political leaders have cut funding to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program that supplies a maximum of $1.50/meal to low-income Americans) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children, a program that supplies healthy foods to pregnant and nursing mothers and children under the age of five). People who use these programs are demonized in the public conversation about these cuts, despite the fact that most "facts" presented in these arguments are actually myths. One myth is countered in the image above; for more of the myths and misconceptions about the hungry, read this article that includes the entire infographic.

Because of the rhetoric surrounding the hungry in the media, there is a stigma attached to needing nutritional assistance. People don't want to be seen going into a food bank; they don't want their neighbors to know they are unable to feed their families.

In Del Norte and the adjacent tribal lands, there are people who cannot afford to buy adequate food for their families. There are people who live more than an hour's drive from the nearest supermarket. Most of DNATL is classified as a food desert. There are people who need help, but don't seek it for fear of what people will think.

Food Day is not just about a single day each year. Food Day is an ongoing attempt to make our food system better for everyone. Wouldn't it be great if, because of work we do over the next year, everyone in DNATL would have enough healthy food by the time Food Day rolls around next October 24th?

To join this conversation and action, please come to a Community Food Council meeting, follow this blog, "like" us on Facebook, and help our neighbors. As a community, we are only as strong as our weakest members: Shouldn't we work to make everyone strong?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Healthy. SUSTAINABLE. Affordable. Fair. (Part II)

Food Day's four-word tagline is Healthy, Sustainable, Affordable, Fair. We're doing a series of blog posts leading up to Food Day (October 24th!) about what each of those words mean.

In my last post, I talked about what FAIR means in terms of our food system. Today, I'm combining a short discussion of SUSTAINABLE with something new I learned this morning. So what does a sustainable food system look like?

Wikipedia provides this definition of sustainable farming: "an integrated plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term." The blog, Sustainable Table, defines it as follows:

"In simplest terms, sustainable is the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. This form of agriculture enables us to produce healthful food without compromising future generations' ability to do the same."

It can be hard to know exactly what won't compromise future production, but there are some agricultural practices that clearly will. What comes to mind most clearly for me are the crop circles I sometimes see from airplanes. I'm not talking about alien crop art, but of irrigated perfect circles of green amid an otherwise brown landscape.

This National Geographic photograph of Nevada is a perfect example. Water pumped from underground aquifers is sprayed by a moving radius-irrigation system to produce perfectly green circles in the midst of a desert. Aquifers tend to replenish very slowly, so removing lots of water for irrigation like this is most definitely not sustainable. I think many people would look at a feedlot or CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) and also think, unsustainable.

So much of our industrial agricultural system relies on practices like these, so how do we move away from them towards systems that resemble the definitions of sustainable farming?

Well, this morning, I learned of a fast-food chain that is taking large steps in that direction. I knew that Chipotle Mexican Grill talks up its commitment to healthier foods, but I didn't know much about what they meant by that. Then I saw a link to this article about why Big Ag "hates" Chipotle and watched the animated short movie the article is about. The Scarecrow shows a bleak future agriculture and a simple Scarecrow who moves to defy it. After watching it, I needed to learn more about why Chipotle would make a film that could be quite controversial, so I went to their website.

It turns out Chipotle has an entire section of their website devoted to their Food With Integrity beliefs. According to Chipotle, they have been working towards better sourcing for their foods for over a decade, including sourcing 40% of their beans from organic sources, all of their dairy from cows not treated with rGBH, and most of their beef and chicken from farmers who do not use antibiotics in animal feed. They also have new initiatives to increase their local food purchases and use a 350-mile radius to define local. You can learn much more about their Food With Integrity standards on their website.

I don't eat much fast food ever, but sometimes when traveling, there are few options. I'm glad to know that there are better options even in the fast food category.

Better, that is, in terms of sustainability. This is definitely not an endorsement of Chipotle on all levels. I did a quick calorie calculation for a chicken burrito with brown rice and black beans. I included cheese and guacamole, but not sour cream, and it came to a grand total of 1,095 calories (about half a day's worth) and a whopping 2,960mg of sodium (more than the recommended daily intake). There are certainly ways to eat healthier at Chipotle (the vegetarian burrito bowl I've eaten clocks in at 615 calories on the calcultor), but I don't think the chain overall would get an A-plus for that first word in the Food Day tagline: Healthy.