Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interlude: Farmers market morning on 2/25/2012

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of volunteering with the Sustainable Food Center at the farmers market downtown to take some pictures. I was also pretty hungry and was there from 9-noon, so I picked up just a few items. Or 50. Here's what I got:
Ok, this isn't food, but it's stil awesome! This is a gallon o' locally-made laundry soap from the South Austin People. They suggest one to two cap-fulls per load, so this should last a long time!

I have a Go Local card, so with a $20 purchase or more, I get a free bar of soap, so I indulged in my favorite: Sandalwood Vanilla.

This delightful swiss chard came from Blackland Prairie Farm, a family operation. I already had stocked up on greens when I got to their farmstand, but it was so beautiful and I quickly engaged in conversation with Mrs. Moore. I commented on her pretty flower arrangement and she said they were arugula flowers...then gave me one to eat on my salads! I indulged in this very tender chard and have been enjoying it greatly in my salads.


Collards for my attempt at Gomen, an Ethiopian dish.

Buying eggs from Milagro Farm is always a fun experience. Chris always has something interesting to say, and even the shy consumer who would prefer not to ask how the chickens are raised will no doubt hear all about it, voluntarily! Chris uses an egg-mobile to move the chickens around the pasture, which not only affords them fresh forage and insects, but also helps restore the grasses. Aka, I would call Chris a grass farmer. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. 

I enjoyed buying this cabbage from John of Naegelin Farms. I met a lot of farmers for the first time downtown, since it's definitely the biggest farmers market in the city. I'm going to chop this up into eighths (wedges) and steam it with my mom's honey mustard chicken recipe! Naegelin Farms is a 300-acre, sustainable, family farm.
By the way, this cabbage IS HUUUGE. It's oblong and nearly a foot long...$2!

I had wanted to get a whole chicken for the aforementioned honey mustard chicken dish, but by the time I was done volunteering, there weren't no dern chickens left. I then figured I'd get some ground bison for stuffed peppers, but that was out, too. So I was very politely guilt-tripped into buying one of Thunder Heart Bison's many, many steaks :) I don't yet know what I'm going to do with it, but I'm excited to try a bison sirloin. Thunder Heart's bison are 100% grass-fed and pastured. Yay! They also earned the Animal Welfare Approved seal.

These beautiful carrots and baby arugula were purchased directly from Cas of Animal Farm. Check out their website! He was super fun to photograph.

Next up is some delicious kale from Simmons Family Farms. I actually went over there for eggs, but without seeing any signage like "pasture-raised" or "organic," I inquired about how their chickens were raised and what they ate. This kind of thing is sort of hard for me, because if I don't like what they say, I have to leave and they know why. On the other hand, I'm using my voice to hopefully affect change. Turns out the chickens eat conventional grain from the feed store as well as forage and insects. She said they do have a lot of time to roam around but do spend a fair amount of time inside. This is of course great, but not what I was looking for. So, I bought some kale instead, which is sustainably grown. It's less curly, and very tender!

I also got to catch up with my friend Katie, who now sells cheese at Dos Lunas. The cheese is made from raw milk from pastured, happy cows, and it's amazing! I bought the black pepper cheddar. I might just break off a few pieces in a minute here to snack on! Their cheese is also sold outside of the farmers markets and used in many local restaurants, which you can read about here.

So...here's what I walked away with!

I also spent a lot of time chatting with the family behind the Swede Farm! There are no pictures, because I was too busy trying all their goat cheeses! They had at least four different kinds of chevre, a feta, and even plain kefir! I think my favorite was the smoked chevre. They mentioned that they sometimes have chocolate goat milk and also yogurt! Sign me up! Here's a picture from their website.

Chatted with Round Rock Honey also! It's delicious and completely, totally raw, wildflower honey. Not even heated! I forgot to ask this nice dude his name. Next time!

Countryside Farm raises chickens but also provides game! I bought a hog shoulder from them a few months ago and it was beyond words, so, here are two pictures of it:

Here are some photos from the rest of the day.

 This is an awesome, three-sided construction for compost, recycling, and landfill.

 These kiddos enjoyed trying new things at the tasting booth!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Do you have a card?

Within 24 hours, I had at least four people ask me for a card when I mentioned my blog. Understandable. But after entertaining very briefly the thought of ordering yet more eco-friendly Moo cards, I thought...why don't I just make them? If my blog stands for the environmentalist in me, and I'm not trying to sell a product, I can do this for free.

I made two kinds. The first are made from old paint chips!

However, I don't think I'm going to be coming into a lot of paint chips, and taking them from the store will just prompt them to replenish the void I leave behind. So what else can I write on that's sturdy? Cereal boxes!

I usually buy my granola in bulk, but this was a cereal box from probably a year ago that I still hadn't finished the contents of. I'm sure I'll come up with a new scheme once these run out, but I don't suspect that'll happen any time soon.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Interlude: Farmers market morning on 2/17/2012

I go to the farmers market at least once a week. This past Saturday, I checked out the Barton Creek Farmers Market for the first time in a few months, probably. I discovered a new vendor that grows their produce hydroponically: Markley Family Farms. They had some of the most beautiful green things I'd ever seen!

Here are some of my favorite items from Saturday:

Brussels sprouts from Markley Family Farms. They look absolutely perfect. $5 for a box full o' these babies.

Prettiest spinach I've ever seen from Markley Family Farms for $3 (huuuge bag). I've already eaten these in a salad and they are absolutely divine! They're very hardy, yet super tender; perfect for salads and will last a long time in the fridge.

A red lettuce variety for $2 from Johnson's Backyard Garden. It's fantastic in salads!

I unfortunately was carrying many pounds of food around when I bought these delicious easter egg radishes and neglected to see what the farm was called as I tried to make a fairly quick exit. It was a mother and daughter, and they were definitely new...and definitely adorable! I've sliced them on my salads and they're fantastic. Super crisp! $3 for this huge bunch!

"The Mushroom Guy," as I call it, was there! I got these three HUGE mushrooms for $1 each. The three of them together weighed 3/4 of a pound.  The farm is called Kitchen Pride. They also sell portabellos, baby portabellos, oysters, and shiitake. He gave me a $2 bill back!

I also bought a bunch of carrots from Johnson's Backyard Garden, and a 4 lb chicken from Richardson Farms.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The tip of the genetically modified iceberg

There is a lot to say about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially when it comes to eating a GM food product. Most people that do a little research find themselves opposing the use of GM foods, while others believe they increase the nutritional value and production of the food...and that it will help solve the world's hunger problem. As you might already know, I fall into the first category. I think that as a human being, I have the right to make an informed choice about what I buy and what I put inside me. Whether or not GMOs are safe to eat, I am not interested in supporting that industry. One of the most impactful things I can do right now is to speak with my choices...and my dollars. And if I'm not even given the opportunity to do so with GMOs, that really makes me mad.

To me, this has become much more a political issue than a health issue. I really don't care anymore if GMOs are safe. Maybe they are. That would be good news, because we all eat GMOs, sometimes daily, and usually without realizing it. But when you learn what this industry and its poster child, Monsanto, is doing to farmers around the world, you begin to realize that the negative effect of GMOs is already realized, and that damnit, I want to be able to do something about it. You'll also realize that world hunger is a product of misplaced and abused power, not lack of food. And you'll probably want to speak out about that, too.

If you are interested in spending 47 minutes following chef John Bishop on an adventure into GMOs, watch Deconstructing Supper, which is available to stream on Netflix. It's short, it's very level-headed, it doesn't rely on sensationalism, and the filmmaker, Marianne Kaplan, does a great job of trying to get as much information as she can from the side that supports GM foods as well as the side that doesn't support them. Ultimately, the filmmaker and Mr. Bishop end up on the side not supporting it, but I feel like anyone wanting to know more about this issue will be educated enough to decide how they want to proceed. I believe it gives you the necessary springboard for your future education on this issue.

I see my own actions following this flow:

  1. Grow my own food. I am actively looking for a house for the first time so that I can grow a lot of my own produce in my own back yard. I'll likely be hiring Dani of Yard to Table Gardens in Austin to help me get my garden going successfully.
  2. When I can't grow something (usually meats and eggs), go to the farmers markets. These central Texas farmers only use sustainable practices and would never knowingly grow GMOs. Supporting them is important to me, and it's also a big F you to Monsanto.
  3. When I can't get something at the farmers market, which is nearly all processed food, processed ingredients, and fish, buy only Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified foods, and wild-caught fish to increase my chances of not winding up supporting and eating GMOs. However, even this doesn't guarantee that GM genes haven't cross-pollinated with regular plants.
  4. Get GMO foods LABELED. It is ridiculous that we are still deprived of this information because agribusiness and the corn, soya, canola, sugar beet, etc. industries are afraid we won't buy GM products if they're labeled....that it'll cause an unjust, negative reaction to a completely benign product. Well, tough. We're not going to back down, because we believe our free will and health is more important than your millions and billions. There are tons of petitions asking the government to label GMOs loating around...sign as many of them as you can. I also attended a rally last year; view the pictures here
I'm not convinced that all types of genetic modifications are potentially harmful to us and the environment. I realize that we've been messing around with plant genetics for a very, very long time. We even messed around with canine genetics through selective breeding to increase the occurrence of a particular trait, which is why we have the plethora of dog breeds we have. We also do plant hybridization, etc., and I've noticed that my apples in the last five years have a much, much smaller core than they used to...that most of my fruits are seedless. Mutations and hybridizations, I've heard, occur in nature. But inserting genes from another species into my food is not ok with me, especially if I'm not allowed to know about it. I don't see it as scientific advancement; I see it as the opposite. This may sound crazy, but I think it's lazy. Also, that rhymed.

This is just the tip of the genetically modified iceberg. Go...educate thyself. Make thine own decisions. Be an informed consumer, whatever your decision happens to be.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Chemical Cuisine

Did you know there's a mobile phone app to help you decode the staggering amount of unpronounceable and/or unrecognizable ingredients in processed foods? It's called Chemical Cuisine, and it's intended to be used whilst shopping so that you can make informed choices. Ever wondered what the hay phenylalanine is? Never fear! CSPI will rescue you! The app also allows you to discover that some ingredients look natural but aren't, like caramel color (sorry soda drinkers :() <---looks like a person with a melon slice in mouth

One of the best things about this app is that it's science-based. THANK YOU, CSPI. 

I would suggest using it when you need to get something processed, but otherwise, stick to the periphery of the grocery store. You can't always, though. When choosing to buy a processed item, I like to imagine how I would make said processed item at home. Would I use sodium bisulfite? Er....no. What about xanthan gum? WHAT

Then I decide to get something that has ingredients I actually use. Last night I wanted to make meatloaf, and didn't have time to let a loaf of bread go stale, so I bought breadcrumbs in a can. I couldn't believe how many ingredients constitute breadcrumbs, including all the additives, anti-caking agents, preservatives, and who knows what else. I did find something eventually, but it was tough. Anyway, this app is good for the hungry mind (double entendre, yes!)

p.s. It's not free, but it's only 99 cents.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Slimy business practices

I just read an article about how McDonald's is discontinuing the use of boneless lean beef trimmings, which doesn't sound so bad...until you actually read what it is: it's the rejects after all the choice cuts are taken. And since its nickname is "pink slime", I'm going to guess it's processed into a slurry, and then partially or fully constitutes burgers.

So...what do they use now? Could they tout that their burger patties are 100% beef even if they're made mostly of bones, cartilage, and "other"? 

The article also mentions the use of powerful bacteria-killing chemicals. I wonder how many of our meats are bathed in ammonia or what have you...even the meat labeled "Organic".

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The labeling lie

As consumers, we believe that the written information on food packages and food signs is there for our education, that we can rely on this information to help us make informed decisions about what we put in our bodies. But more often than not, it's there to mislead us.

We often look to certifications to tell us how the food was raised/grown. The most popular one is of course USDA Certified Organic. If only that small symbol could truly tell us how the food came to be, but it can't. I'm about to break your hippie heart, and I'm sorry.
When we imagine produce being grown organically, we automatically think of a small, family farm just outside of town that uses the most sustainable farming practices we can think of, farmers going out to check on their germinating seeds, tenderly pulling carrots from the ground, tilling the earth, rotating their crops, keeping the soil happy and full of nutrients (and life), and basically pouring love (not pesticides) into their plants. And similarly, when we think of organic animal products like meats and eggs, we think of a compassionate ol' farmer that has a personal relationship with their livestock and chickens, and the animals roam on green pastures eating whatever their heart desires and truly living the good life. 
The USDA Certified Organic seal doesn't guarantee any of this, unfortunately. When we see "organic", we automatically think "small, sustainable, non-industrialized farming". There are exceptions, but most Certified Organic foods we pick up at the grocery store aren't produced that way. There is a huge industrialized organic food industry that's taking off because the consumer is demanding it. I like that organic has become more prevalent, because it shows the power of our voice. What I don't like is the fact that so many consumers are supporting an industry they might not if they really knew what Certified Organic meant. 
Usually, the picture we have in our heads of how organic produce is grown and how organic animals are raised is flawed, especially the latter. When you buy an "all-natural, organic turkey" from the store, you're almost certainly getting a bird whose life has been just as horrible as a conventionally raised bird, except their feed happens to be certified organic. They may have had access to pasture, but that doesn't mean anything either...usually, this "access" is a small door they can't fit through, or the animal has never been taught how to go outside. 

Organic meat is better than conventional, industrialized meat. No contest. But I want people to know that it may not always mean what you think it means, and that there is a better alternative. As for produce, many farmers can't understand how you can possibly be organic and be industrial. It's kind of oxymoronic. When something gets scaled up, you have to start making compromises. I'd recommend you rethink buying those giant tubs of Earthbound Farms organic baby spinach if sustainable agriculture really means a lot to you.

There are also many levels of USDA organicness. There's 100% organic, organic, made with organic ingredients, etc. (read more about that here.)

There are also TONS of other organic certifications that have nothing to do with the government! How on earth are we supposed to keep track of what each label means? Good god. 

It all feels more like this.
And then there are brands that prey on our desire to be responsible and healthy citizens of the world, which really pisses me off. There is nothing certified organic in this Organix shampoo brand. But many people will buy it thinking there is.

Certified Organic = no genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

One really good thing about USDA Certified Organic is that it means the product is not genetically modified or doesn't contain any genetically modified ingredients. Can you really be sure? No, not any more that your "natural" potato chips don't actually have an artificial preservative. But, it's at least a good start. However, looking for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal is a better bet. 

Read more about the non-GMO project. I'm not going to get into a GMO debate here, but if you're someone who likes to avoid them, that's your choice, and you should know how to better avoid them.

Beyond organic
There's a company called Eden Foods, and they're not Certified Organic. In fact, they've chosen not to go through the tedious and expensive process of becoming certified, because they feel their food products are beyond organic. Yes, you can do the bare minimum and still be a Certified Organic farm, and more and more companies and farms are skipping the costly certification process and instead relying on the confidence they have in their sustainable farming practices and transparency.
If you go to the farmers market, everything there is beyond organic. While some farms have taken the trouble to become certified, they don't do the minimum...they use it as a symbol for what we usually think it means: this produce has been grown and harvested exactly the way you think it has, in the most sustainable manner possible. 

Natural hardly means anything, and it's not enforced or certified. As long as the product doesn't have an artificial ingredient, it's natural. High-fructose corn syrup is natural. So is MSG. So is stuffing hundreds of chickens into a confined space and never letting them see the light of day. 
Natural is better than not-natural. But it's not that much better. When we buy a "Natural" pound of chicken breast, I believe everyone imagines a pastured chicken. Not even close. For a chicken, it means nothing. All fresh meat is natural.
What about hormone- and antibiotic-free? Livestock and poultry are given antibiotics for two reasons: to ward off diseases they are highly susceptible to because of their horrible diets, and to promote fast growth, as are hormones. So yes, getting a chicken that's antibiotic- and hormone-free is better than not. But this chicken probably lived in conditions you don't even want to know about, and it ate corn feed. 

And did you know that there is actually a certification called CNG? Apparently, their standards are considered to be even stricter than Certified Organic. Aaaghhhhh the labelssss!!!
Now, here's an interesting one. You've probably seen "vegetarian-fed" on egg cartons or chicken packages. This of course makes us think that the chicken is eating wholesome ingredients. But what you may not realize is that chickens are omnivores...they LOVE insects and insect larvae! Vegetarian-fed just means they ate genetically modified corn for their short lives in a dark warehouse when they really wanted to be chilling on a pasture eating forage and picking worms out of cow patties. This one really gets me. Yes, it's true, but it's the fact that we can't help but read into it that makes it evil. On top of all this, I believe this claim is intended to make it seem like the eggs are more nutritious. What a labeling lie that is.

Sidenote: This particular label is a doozy. What the hell does "USDA Process Verified" mean? 

Many times, grass-fed also means pastured (see below). But not always. If it's Certified Organic and grass-fed, the animal must have access to pasture...but as I already stated above, that may not mean what we think it means. However, there are other huge benefits to grass-fed over grain-fed: the health of the animal and therefore, your health. You really don't need to worry about E. coli when eating a grass-fed animal, because the E. coli outbreaks are usually caused by animals eating corn. You put a grain-fed cow on a pasture for a couple of weeks, and it sheds the E. coli. It also means the cow doesn't have a hole in its side that the farmer must routinely shove his hand into to pull out the frothy mess of grain that the rumine is having difficulty processing due to the increase in acidity. It means the animal doesn't need antibiotics because it's healthy and has all its defenses intact. It means the animal took much longer to grow to butchering size than its conventional counterpart. It means the chicken was strong enough to walk around unlike most conventional chickens because it didn't grow too fast. It means you are getting a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6s. It basically means this animal actually can offer you a nutritional benefit, and it had a better life.

(There's no logo for this, so you can just look at happy animals here instead)

Ok, finally a term you can really trust when it's a farmer looking you in the eye and saying, "yes, my animals wander around on pasture eating what they evolved to eat and fulfilling their natural desires." If you have any doubts, go pay a visit to the farm one day. TRANSPARENCY

Just plain ol' inaccuracy
So where do you suppose these green beans were actually grown?

Health claims
Packaging is riddled with (often meaningless) health claims, like:
  • All natural
  • Low calorie
  • Rich in antioxidants
  • Gluten-free
  • Fat-free
  • High in calcium
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • High in fiber
  • No HFCS
  • 100% daily value of vitamin C
  • No trans fats
  • Whole-grain
And the list goes on. These are simply claims, and they can be bold-faced lies! They are there to mislead you, not educate you. Usually, the less healthy a food is, the more claims it has. They're trying to show you what is not terrible about the food while completely glossing over what is terrible about the food.
Did you know that Twizzlers is a low-calorie "food" with no fat? WELL DUH. It's also made of ingredients you wouldn't even recognize as food and loooooaddded with sugar. Not to mention the funny thing is that it's going to be those sugary snacks that put on the pounds and not the avocado in the produce section.
None of these claims make a food inherently good for you. Not even whole-grain.
Some of these claims mean what they say (like high in fiber), but what these claims are counting on is us then reading into them. "Oh, high in fiber? Must be good for me!" Michael Pollan's book "Food Rules" recommends you avoid foods with health claims on them, although I think sometimes they are helpful, like when you have a food allergy. But generally, I think he's right. A head of broccoli doesn't have to boast its healthfulness.

So what should I do?
There's a lot more I could write about regarding labeling, and I probably will later on. And you may feel pretty depressed now, sorry. If you feel compelled to make a change based on all this information, try a few different things:

  • Buy less processed food and meat, period. Shop in the produce section and the meat counters, and be done.
  • Go to the farmers market. In Austin, there are many. You may have forgotten what real food tastes like.
  • Go visit a farmstand.
  • Volunteer with a farm and get produce for your time.
  • Sign up for a CSA.
  • Sign up with Greenling if you have more money than time.
Why? There are no ingredients lists on whole foods. They just are. If you want total transparency about what their farming practices are, you can ask the farmer. You won't need a label.

Further reading