Here’s the first episode of “California Matters,” a 10-part webseries I developed with the Berkeley Food Institute. To do it, I ranged throughout the state, talking to people about issues in food, from labor rights to pesticide exposure, the history of Chinese-American cooking, ocean acidification, and more. This first one — in which I roam the streets of Oakland with Berkeley professors Tom Carlson and Philip Stark — is about urban foraging and wild edibles: weeds.
Food-wise (and otherwise), what happens in California affects everyone in America (get it? California Matters), so I’m excited to share the series, and looking forward to telling more of these stories. Here’s a conversation I had recently about how and why we made the series, plus a couplepodcasts for more info. Stay tuned, and click here to subscribe.
Just about everyone agrees that we need more farmers. Currently, nearly 30 percent are 65 or older, and fewer than 10 percent are under 35. The number of farmers is likely to fall further with continuing consolidation and technological innovation.
But displacement of farmers is neither desirable nor inevitable. We need to put more young people on smaller farms, the kinds that will grow nourishing food for people instead of food that sickens us or yields products intended for animals or cars.
The problem is land, which is often prohibitively expensive. Farmland near cities is prized by developers and the wealthy looking for vacation homes, hobby farms or secure investments. Many farmers have no choice but to rent land for a year or two before being asked to move and start all over, because the purchase of even the smallest plot is out of their reach.
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 here’s what we talked about in April and May.
Summer is the easiest time of year to eat locally, especially if you garden. This month on #BittmanTopics, I want to hear about your local food scene—from gardening and foraging to preservation or raising animals—whether you produce food yourself or know or live near others who do.
A front yard garden in Orlando, FL. Photo by Todd Anderson for the New York Times.
Even little things count. You don’t need much of a green thumb to keep a pot of herbs alive. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the folks—and there are more and more of them—who build raised gardens or keep chickens and bees. (I got my start somewhere in between, with some tomato plants in a 6-inch strip of dirt.)
We can discuss all of this in a tweetchat I’m hosting on June 10 at 3:00 ET (noon PT) in conjunction with the launch of California Matters, my web series produced by the University of California and Berkeley Food Institute. It premieres on June 8, and the first episode is all about foraging. Follow along with #BittmanTopics and come with questions.
Foraged morels. Photo by Rikki Snyder for the New York Times.
How and what do you raise? What techniques have you found particularly successful? Why do you garden (or forage, raise animals, keep bees…)? Got any ideas for making the most of bumper crops? Do you have family, friends, or neighbors who share their bounty? Stay in touch this month—on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and in the comments below—and I’ll feature my favorites back here in a few weeks.
A few weeks ago at the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kan. — a celebration, essentially, of true sustainability — I sat down with Wes Jackson to drink rich beer and eat delicious, chewy bread made from the perennial grain Kernza. The Kernza we ate was cultivated at the Land Institute, the festival’s sponsor and the organization Jackson founded here 37 years ago.
At 77, Jackson is a big man with big ideas. Clearly he was back then as well, when he became determined to change the face of agriculture from being dependent upon annual monoculture (that is, planting a new crop of a single plant each year) to one that includes perennial polyculture, with fields containing varieties of mutually complementary species, planted once, harvested seasonally but remaining in place for years.
Last year, it seemed, every book about food that crossed my desk — other than those about cooking, of course — seemed to have one of two titles: “How I Moved to Brooklyn and Became a Roof-Gardening Butcher” or “The Gluten-Free Diet Saved My Life, and It Can Save Yours.”
This year is different; the books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday, and how the industry is well aware of how destructive of public health this manipulation truly is. We have the excellent “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America” by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, which details the takeover of our food system by that same crew of corporate cynics.
And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is. This is in part thanks to Warner’s measured, almost dry but deceptively alluring reportorial style, but it’s also because the extent to which food is manipulated – and therefore, consumers as well — is downright absurd . There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.
The seed catalogs have arrived, and for the roughly 15 percent of Americans who appreciate the joys and rewards of growing some of their own crops, this is a more encouraging sign than Groundhog Day or even the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training.
Yet several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando, where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables.
As if gardens were somehow an official eyesore, or inappropriate. (Jason Helvenston, my hero, said: “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”) If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers.
After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before.
And the threat is more acute than ever. While Rachel Carson focused on their effect on “nature,” it’s become obvious that farmworkers need protection from direct exposure while applying chemicals to crops . Less well known are the recentstudies showing that routine, casual, continuing — what you might call chronic — exposure to pesticides is damaging not only to flora but to all creatures, including the one that habitually considers itself above it all: us.
As usual, there are catalysts for this column; in this case they number three.
Supporters of ingredients derived from “genetically modified foods,” which hereafter I’ll call G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — are mostly the chemical companies who make them or other people who make money from them. They assert that a) there’s no proof that G.M.O.’s are harmful to humans, and b) studies demonstrating that they might be are largely flawed . Point B might even be true, although since the chemical companies largely control the research, it’s hard to tell.
But even if there were a way to guarantee that food produced with G.M.O. ingredients is not directly bad for you, it remains clear that such food is in general bad for all of us, based on the collateral damage from producing it.
What most genetically engineered crops have in common is that they’re bred to be super-resistant to chemical herbicides, chemicals that will kill pretty much everything except the specified crop. And as the weeds that those chemicals are meant to kill adapt and grow bigger and stronger, more and stronger chemicals are needed to try to deal with them.
California’s Central Valley is our greatest food resource. Why are we treating it so badly?
I left Los Angeles at 4 in the morning, long before first light, and made it to Bakersfield — the land of oil derricks, lowriders and truck stops with Punjabi food — by 6. Ten minutes later, I was in the land of carrots.
You know that huge pile of cello-wrapped carrots in your supermarket? Now imagine that the pile filled the entire supermarket. That’s how many carrots I saw upon my arrival at Bolthouse Farms. Something like 50 industrial trucks were filled to the top with carrots, all ready for processing. Bolthouse, along with another large producer, supplies an estimated 85 percent of the carrots eaten by Americans. There are many ways to put this in perspective, and they’re all pretty mind-blowing: Bolthouse processes six million pounds of carrots a day. If you took its yield from one week and stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth. If you took all the carrots the company grows in a year, they would double the weight of the Empire State Building.
At Bolthouse’s complex, carrots whirl around on conveyor belts at up to 50 miles an hour en route to their future as juliennes, coins and stubs, or baby carrots, which the company popularized and which aren’t babies. Other carrots become freezer fare, concentrate, salad dressings and beverages. Fiber is separated for tomato sauce and hot dogs. Whatever’s left becomes cattle feed. For the entire article click here.