The Changing Face of California Agriculture

This is the ninth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

Jennifer Sowerwine’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, centers on bringing largely unrepresented voices to the table for discussions around food security and food systems change. Much of her time is spent working with Hmong and Mien farmers in California’s Central Valley, some of whom I visited a couple of years ago for a story I wrote about that area in The Sunday Magazine.

Many of these farmers, or their families, came to California from Southeast Asia, usually Laos, mainly as political refugees in the ’70s and ’80s. Sowerwine looks at how they got into small-scale farming, how they find and keep land, how they make farming economically viable, and how they’re adapting and changing their practices to meet new challenges. In looking at these things — along with labor and crop diversity — she’s found that these farmers have had little access to government resources.

Read the rest of this article here.

A Watchful Eye on Farm Families’ Health

This is the eighth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

C.H.A.M.A.C.O.S. stands for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, and also means “kids”in Mexican Spanish. It’s the name given by Brenda Eskenazi, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, for a group studying the effects of exposure to agriculture chemicals on children born in Salinas Valley between 2000 and 2002. The longitudinal study has followed more than half of the research population since birth.

Eskenazi and her team have focused primarily on three aspects of health that may be affected by these exposures: neurobehavioral development, which, if disrupted, can affect a child’s I.Q.; respiratory health; and growth, including weight and metabolism. This population sees higher rates of exposure to organophosphate chemicals, which are found in pesticides, than the general population, so there are possible implications of this study for farmworker communities and Californians at large.

Read the rest of this article here.

The Roots of Organic Farming

Visiting the farm at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was a personal high point of this series, though I couldn’t say exactly why. It could well have been because there’s an experimental blueberry plot there, and when I went in the spring, it was raining, and the green leaves were sparkling and the wet berries were offset perfectly, and here was this glistening working farm on an otherwise more-or-less normal college campus, which just happened to be on a hill above the Pacific.

Or it could have been because the Santa Cruz campus has a series of beautiful, renowned, well-run gardens and farms, unlike on any other campus in the country.

Read the rest of this article here.

Serving Up School Lunches of Tomorrow

This is the sixth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

It’s no secret that, although progress has been made, school lunches need help. This is a national project, and an important one. One of the proving grounds is San Francisco, where the school district is joining with researchers from the Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health to evaluate a project designed to increase school lunch participation, improve nutrition, reduce waste and ultimately counter tendencies toward obesity.

I took a look at a pilot project for this program by visiting Roosevelt Middle School and chatting with Zetta Reicker, who’s the director of the school system’s student nutrition services, and Kristine A. Madsen, an associate professor at the school of public health. (I also talked to a few kids, and ate lunch. Which was — for institutional food — better than O.K.)

Read the rest of this column here.

Lunch: September on #BittmanTopics

Whether you’re cooking it, eating it, growing it, or reading about it, food brings people together. Welcome to #BittmanTopics: a place where we can all share ideas about a different food-related topic each month. In case you missed the first installment, here’s how it works—and check the archives for past conversations.

Photo by Andrew Scrivani for the New York Times

Photo by Andrew Scrivani for the New York Times

September is a transitional month, time for heading back to school or maybe easing out of the summer vacation groove and into a routine. After taking it easy in August, I’m back in Berkeley; “California Matters,” my webseries with the University of California, will pick up again this week, and here on #BittmanTopics, we’re talking lunch.

The midday meal is easy to overlook, but with just a little planning, it’s also easy to ace. In recent years, school lunches have received the attention they deserve as an issue that intersects policy issues from public health and government regulations to food justice. Blogs have even cropped up about the desk lunch, parodying those that are sad and glorifying those that aren’t. What’s in your brown bag? How are the students in your life eating at school? Any time-tested tips for streamlining your own weekday lunches? Tales of lingering restaurant meals and brunches also welcome… This month, tag your lunch-related photos, tweets, recipes, and reads with #BittmanTopics and I’ll share my favorites.

What’s the Buzz About Wild Bees?

Among all the pollinators, honeybees get the most publicity, deservedly, because of the problems around their survival. Claire Kremen’s research at the University of California, Berkeley, looks at diverse pollinators — not just bees, but also birds, moths and many insects — and the issues affecting them as emblematic of the broader problems of the food system. Pollinators are critical to global food production and about 75 percent of crop species depend on them to produce food that is more abundant and nutritious than it would otherwise be.

Monoculture — a single crop in an open field that may measure many hundreds of acres — increasingly depends on importing thousands of hives (by truck, usually) for the pollination of crops, especially in places like California. For example, the state produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which has concentrated the need for bees way beyond the capacity of native pollinators.

Focusing on a single crop reduces the biodiversity pollinators need to survive, and the timetable they best work on. It’s also a risky endeavor to rely on one species, especially when there are diseases, management problems and the inherent risks of transportation. Yet the large single-crop farms require the large apiaries to get the job done.

Read the rest of this article here.

Wage Justice Is on the Menu

When I first wrote in some small detail about food workers in the United States, it was thanks in part to Saru Jayaraman, a leader of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. I’ve since come to rely on her for news about labor in general and food workers in particular. At that point, three years ago, her main focus was on tipped workers, who in 43 states are still paid sub-minimum wage (as low as $2.13 per hour) under the often-flawed and completely unfair assumption that tips will routinely make up the difference. Mostly, evidence shows, they do not.

But the 11 million-odd food service workers in the United States are subject to many other injustices, as Jayaraman discusses in this video: underpayment no matter what the scheme; sexual harassment; part-time work with unpredictable hours; lack of health insurance, sick days and paid vacation, and so on. In those terms, the plight of most workers in the food industry resembles that of industrial workers in the United States 100 years ago. What changed that, at least in part, was organization and, ultimately, unionization. That is what food workers need today.

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in American, California Matters, Food Politics

What Oysters Reveal About Sea Change

This is kind of the good news/bad news department, as so many things are: The good news is that terrific oysters are being farmed in several locations in California; the bad news is that ocean acidification — the absorption of carbon dioxide into the sea, a direct result of high levels of carbon in the atmosphere — is a direct threat to that industry.

I saw both when I visited Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall, an operation north of San Francisco on Tomales Bay. (Actually, I’ve eaten at and of Hog Island dozens of times, and even shot video there for a PBS series more than 10 years ago.)

I went with Tessa Hill, who’s been researching ocean acidification at Bodega Marine Laboratory for eight years. Hill studies how changes in marine chemistry impact a variety of marine animals, including oysters, whose shells are getting thinner, smaller and more susceptible to predators. Her research looks at current conditions and develop a baseline for tracking the effects of climate change going forward.

Read the rest of this column here.

Chop Suey’s Next Wave

The history of Chinese immigrants and citizens in California is long, complicated and not entirely pretty. Like every nonwhite immigrant group (and many white ones), the Chinese were treated as second-class citizens. Quotas were low and citizenship was especially hard to obtain. Furthermore, there were restrictions on family members; the vast majority of early immigrants were men, living alone or in groups, but almost always without women.

Many arrived for the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century and stayed to build the railroads. Then followed a kind of Chinese diaspora spreading eastward and scattering small groups of immigrants throughout the United States. Discrimination and outright racism drove many of them to establish independent businesses, including laundries and… restaurants.

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in American, California Matters, Chinese, Travel