Thursday, November 24, 2011

Want not.

As we approach the Giving Season, my Scrooginess has lead me to think about waste. A while back, I read an editorial in the Manitoba Cooperator about a study on Canadian food waste that had just come out of the University of Guelph. I was curious about it, so I asked the editor, Laura Rance, where I could find the study. It has been published online since.

I had a fair number of criticisms of the study's methodology and foci (who, me?), but Laura gently suggested that the study had value in sparking interest and further research. I think it is spot-on in its premise: 'Along with the rest of the world, Canada invests enormous resources in seeking ways to feed a growing population through increased production.  Far fewer resources are invested in making more effective use of the food already produced, even though doing so would have immediate results.'

The most startling revelation is that 40% of food that is produced in Canada ends up wasted, and the great majority of waste in the food supply chain - 51 percent - occurs at the consumer household level.

Because the authors are 'value chain' specialists, they only briefly address this household waste. Primarily, they look for ways waste is created as food moves along the chain, such as poor cooling of raspberries post-harvest and feeding animals until they are overly fat. They talk about waste due to processors receiving "products that do not meet the required specifications" and their recommendation is to change things on the farm.

A Maclean's article they reference deals with this issue in a much more comprehensive way, addressing retailer and consumer preferences for cosmetically pleasing produce and the laws (such as retailed carrots in Britain having to be a certain diameter) that facilitate this waste of imperfect produce. Paul Roberts tells a story in The End of Food (link) about green beans heading from Africa to a European market - 7 of 15 tonnes were waste because they were not of a certain length and straightness. We, of course, also pay the price of having to eat long-lasting uniform tomatoes, for example, instead of tastier ones.

I am curious about what the authors of the Guelph report do not address - any sociological reasons why waste occurs. What, in addition to techno-fixes, could result in the changes in production and consumption habits that lead to waste. For example, I would estimate that a fair amount of food waste is due to deskilling of the consumer. If you don't know how to use less popular cuts of meat, or that you can freeze celery leaves and vegetable ends for stock, then those things will be wasted.

I'm also curious if you have seen any initiatives that are working to address waste.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love apple: the complicated tomato

I don't mean to suggest by my last post that tomatoes are not a vegetable. Although, of course, many will argue that they are a fruit, and some purists even argue there is no such thing as a vegetable, I generally use commonly accepted notions rather than botanical definitions. Whatever the tomato is, it is delicious and nutritious.

Of course, it is not without dangers. Perhaps because of its resemblance to deadly nightshade, colonial Americans thought it was poisonous and used it only as decoration. While that was disproven (for the fruit; all other parts of the plant are toxic), it now turns out that because of their acidity, canned tomatoes are particularly adept at leaching bisphenol-A from the lining of the cans. BPA has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Conventionally grown, they also pose a danger to farmworkers: fields are sprayed with  more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides - and fieldworkers have been found in conditions of slavery in Florida.

If one can navigate these dangerous waters, the tomato is indispensible for certain types of cuisine, e.g. mine - tending towards the one-pot meal where things can be dumped in and simmered or baked. I came across a woman the other day who didn't know what people would use a lot of canned tomatoes for in cooking. She only used them for chili or spaghetti sauce, which they ate maybe once a month.

In addition to chili, here's what I use them for:

  • jambalaya
  • bruschetta
  • lasagna and other pastas
  • zucchini parmesan
  • lamb and chickpea stew (with or without lamb)
  • soup bases - lentil or peanut or hamburger or Manhattan clam chowder
  • shirred eggs
  • cabbage rolls
  •  ...and yes, pizza sauce
 Fresh, could they need any more enticement than the company of fellow vegetables?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ketchup may no longer be a vegetable, but pizza is.

If you've been following American food news, you've probably heard that the US Congress has voted to make pizza a vegetable. (No, the link isn't to a Wall-E clip.) More precisely, the guidelines for nutrition in  school lunches now assert that the two tablespoons of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza counts towards the weekly calculation of vegetable servings. The proposal to limit servings of potatoes (often in the form of hashbrowns and fries) per week was also dismissed.
Probably not this pizza.
I went to a "community school" for grades seven and eight. It was located in a newly gentrifying area, and had a mix of incomes represented, tending to the lower end. It didn't have a cafeteria or lunch program (very few schools in the city did) but I remember getting weekly donations of free muffins. I usually chose chocolate-chocolate chip: sweet, fatty, calorie-dense, likely nutritionally void. It didn't occur to me at the time to wonder at the donation. Cynically, I wonder now - was it a tax write-off? Past-date goods? An attempt to make us future muffin customers? Or just a treat for the poor kids? What, exactly, was the purpose of the muffin?

It is hard not to be cynical when looking at the lobbying that was behind Congress's decision. Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals (14 cents per meal according to the Department of Agriculture) and require food that many children would throw away.

Here's some background on school lunches in the United States.
In fiscal year 2009, federal school nutrition programs underwrote more than five billion meals served to over 31 million students. Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau ($29,055 for a family of four in 2011). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch. Of the five billion meals provided to 31.8 million students during the 2008-09 school year, 55 percent were free of charge, 10 percent were reduced price, and the other 35 percent were paid.
That's 17.5 million children living in poverty. Surely there is a duty to provide them with nutrition, not the cheapest mass-produced schlock available. If the government is not going to address societal problems that perpetuate poverty, is not properly funding and regulating school meals the least it can do?

Libertarians will cry, "It's the parents' responsibility!" Sure, in an ideal world, with parents who have nutritional knowledge, cooking skills, and access to cheap, healthy ingredients. We don't live in that world. Let's work with the one we have.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's still important.

I apologize for the lack of meaty posts here (and I mean that in the figurative sense). I'm in a slump where all the food news seems depressing, coinciding with the most grinding work on my thesis. But here's a grain of hope: at least my thesis is on an important topic.

In the United States, the National Young Farmer’s Coalition released a study on barriers for young and beginning farmers in starting a farming career. Building a Future With Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed surveyed 1,000 farmers from across the United States and found that access to capital, access to land and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners.
Land access was the second biggest concern. Farmers under the age of 30 were significantly more likely to rent land (70%) than those over 30 (37%). Over the last decade, farm real estate values and rents doubled making farm ownership next to impossible for many beginners.

“In Nebraska the main barrier to new and beginning farmers is access to land.  Unless an aspiring farmer inherits land, it is very difficult to have access to it,” says William A. Powers, farmer and Executive Director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
There are answers. But is there the will to help young farmers?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Contest and Giveaway!

I know you're thinking about it already... next year's garden. I'm going to fuel that hunger with a contest.

I just bought some beautiful winter squash from a local farmer. Provide me with your favourite squash recipe in the comments. I will evaluate the recipes, and on December 1st I will choose the recipe my family enjoyed the most. The winner will receive a package of Burgess Buttercup winter squash seeds and a package of Bohemian Flat Podded Sugar Snap pea seed (yes, the pea seeds you cannot buy in stores!).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lost skills?

A relative of mine had the chance to travel around to a lot of small-town museums this fall. The museums tend to have a lot artifacts from the European pioneers who first settled the area as farmers - a cream separator, a forge, an old school desk, a horse-drawn carriage...

Most of these museums are volunteer-run, and open only in the summer. To close the season, a big event at some museums is the old-time threshing demonstration.

Unfortunately, as the overwhelmingly elderly people in one small town told my relative, there aren't any young people who know how to operate a threshing machine, or who have the time and inclination to learn. One of them went on to list other old-timey skills that they have difficulty finding people to demonstrate: canning chickens and darning socks were at the top of the list.

It so happens I can do those domestic things. (Don't ask me to operate a thresher.) And when I think about it, I know more than a few city folks who are able to. Canning, I think, is making a renaissance; I volunteered this summer with a group of undergrads who gleaned fruit trees and learned how to can the proceeds. They had a blast trying out different recipes from the Bernardin website. Knitting has also come back into style, and if you put all the effort required into knitting socks, you're going to want to darn them. Believe me, I know:

An acquaintance commented on the city-rural divide that she saw in our area during a debate on urban chickens. "People in the city were just like, why would you want to do that? we left the farm for a reason." Maybe the younger generation doesn't have as much of that. The city is slowly coming to appreciate what once were rural skills that you shucked off along with your manurey boots as soon as you could leave the farm. The values of good food, manual labour, the pleasure to be taken in creation and craft, and a spiritual yet practical connection to the soil can be universal.

Will there be a renaissance in the rural areas too?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011