Archive for June, 2009

Food, Inc. May Make You Lose Your Lunch

June 30, 2009

A film about what we eat could well win the award for the best horror flick showing in theaters this summer. Take a look, if you’re game, at Food, Inc., though a heads up for animal lovers and vegetarians: This documentary is hard to stomach.

If you’ve read both Fast Food Nation by writer Eric Schlosser, a Food, Inc. co-producer,  and Omnivore’s Dilemma by author Michael Pollan, dubbed the ethical epicurean by the New York Times, you may feel like there’s nothing new to be said on the subject of mass produced food. Nonetheless, these two food gurus serve as the talking heads on this doco by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner.  In the course of the film Schlosser rightly refers to himself as an investigative reporter. As a journalist with a muckraking past, I was pleased to hear the term and disheartened that it now applies to covering what we consume. Still, as a mostly vegetarian farmers’ market fan, I also figured I was immune to the evil things cooked up by the multinational food conglomerates that Pollan and Schlosser calmly and methodically feed us throughout the film.

Wrong on both counts. I was surprised and outraged all over again about what’s happened to how food is grown and sold in the U.S. and how a few large companies control almost all the food served up in supermarkets. Consider, too, as the film does, a poor Latino family of four who deal with a dilemma faced by many working Americans, namely how to eat cheaply and well. When a burger costs a buck at a drive-through and you can’t even get a pound of broccoli for that, what are you going to do? Deal with a dad with type 2 diabetes and a young daughter well on the way to getting the disease, that’s what.

And don’t get me started on the whole soybean seed saga. Turns out Monsato, a chemical company infamously known for producing both DDT and Agent Orange, has the monopoly on that franchise — its patented a gene in 90 percent of the country’s soybean seeds — and uses its multimillion-dollar muscles to squeeze out any small-time, old-school, seed-saving farmer who stands in their way. Nice.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is supposed to play the role of the bright spot amid the gloom.  Hmmm. Not sure I buy that one. We watch as Hirshberg starts selling his organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and listen as he tells us that every food purchase is a political act. There’s an ironic moment when an organic dairy farmer tells the fresh-faced Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted the chain store for years. And we learn that Stonyfield was recently bought by global behemoth Groupe Danone, the France-based makers of Dannon yogurt. Call me a worrywart, this kind of corporate match-up makes me nervous. Despite the film’s lively use of music and graphics and a catchy call to action at the end it all feels a bit bleak — until Schlosser points out that Big Tobacco eventually took a beating from consumer activists — take that corporate corn lobby!  I hope he’s right. Time will tell.

Hungry to see the film for yourself? A word to the wise: Have a meal before heading to this movie. And skip the artificially-buttered, non-organic, genetically-modified popcorn, which, as the screen reveals, is a big part of what’s wrong with the current food system.  As for high-fructose corn syrup? It’s the stuff of nightmares in our house now.

The last word goes to my son, who sat cowering in his seat for much of the playing time, when he wasn’t whispering, ” Mum, why did you bring me to see this movie?” Mind you, this is a kid with a healthy appetite for screen violence, fantasy films featuring orphaned children, and other frightening standard movie fare.  But animal abuse, E. coli, and early death by diet — it’s enough to turn a young one off his food forever. As he said on the way out, “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

Food, Inc. screens nationally, check local listings for details.

This is the third in a trilogy of food-themed films reviewed here this season. Read about the documentaries The Garden and Food Stamped in previous blog posts. And chime in if you have your own recommendation in this genre. I hear, for instance, that both King Corn and Dirt! The Movie are good, but haven’t seen either documentary yet. Have you?


Food Stamped: A Film For Our Times

June 22, 2009

Who knew that a documentary on the food stamp program could be funny, infuriating, informative, and entertaining? Food Stamped sets out to answer a simple but important question: Is it possible to eat well for a week on the federal supplemental food aid program?

In this new film nutrition educator Shira Potash and her movie-maker husband Yoav take the food stamp challenge — with a healthy twist. At a screening last Saturday night we watch as the engaging twosome shop for inexpensive, wholesome food, plan menus for a week of eating on just a $1 a meal, and cook from scratch every night such nutritious recipes as Sweet Potato and Swiss Chard Frittata. The couple trade coffee for organic lettuce, stock up on free grocery store samples of outlawed items like cheese and chocolate (deemed too exxy on their tight budget), harvest herbs from their garden, and forage in the garbage bins of whole-grain bakers.  (What’s with all the dumpster diving in my neighborhood of late…an economic indicator, perhaps?)

As well as detailing their experiment, the film weaves in footage of Chef Shira serving up healthy greens in cooking class to eager elementary school children from mostly poor families; these same kids get hideously unhealthy and unappetizing options come time for school lunch.  And nutrition experts weigh in on how hard it is for low-income Americans to put three-square meals on the table. Let’s face it: Money and time is tight and fast food is cheap. Why not load up the shopping cart, as one food stamp recipient does, with pallets of Top Ramen noodle packets?

But as we learn, the price is right — for all the wrong reasons. Junk food cranked out by industrial food producers costs less because of government subsidies for big agriculture that small organic farmers simply don’t get.

The film is full of food stamp facts: One in eight families is eligible for such assistance, though only one out of 15 participate in the program. And 40 percent of those families are white, in case you’re wondering. By all accounts California does a bad job reaching folks who could really use food stamps and critically underserves the Latino community — the required fingerprinting is a huge deterrent to immigrants, according to a post-screening panel discussion, though food justice activists are all over that one.

But does it even matter if people who need food stamps aren’t getting them if it’s impossible to eat healthily on assistance? Or, put another way: How did the documentary duo do on a food-stamp diet of about 50 bucks a week? Spoiler alert: The Potashes were well fed  — but only because they live in bountiful Berkeley and poured their combined knowledge, skills, time, and energy into the exercise. Still, they came up short in calories and some nutrients despite their best efforts. And, truth be told, things got a little testy on the domestic scene as the week wore on and the rationing of staples like carrots and peanut butter proved necessary. As for meat, snacks, or desserts? They simply went without.

If you’ve worked up an appetite to check out this family-friendly film and you live in the Bay Area, take the kids (you may want to feed them first) to a screening next Sunday June 28 at 7 pm at the JCC East Bay Theater in North Berkeley. If you live elsewhere, then look for this excellent educational offering coming soon, I’m almost certain of it, to a PBS station near you.

Image: Shira Potash

The First Lady of Food

June 19, 2009

So the week began with Paul McCartney’s plea for Meat Free Mondays and ended with Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter discussing slaughtering chickens, rabbits, goats, and pigs for dinner.

What a difference a few days makes. Carpenter, in case you’ve missed her, is the author of Farm City, a new book on urban gardening that’s garnering rave reviews, like this one from Dwight Garner in last week’s New York Times. She’s not just growing greens people, she’s got an animal farm in her ghetto-fabulous digs. She describes how she lovingly cares for her edible pets and the respectful rituals she performs before readying them for the family meal. There are amusing accounts of dumpster diving near chi-chi restaurants for high-end swill for her hungry pigs.  She’s very funny, peppers her speech with cuss words, and this past week she packed both the bio-diesel gas station that sprang up overnight in my neighborhood and a church, no less, full of folk eager to here her talk dirty. She didn’t disappoint. “You work your arse off trying to feed your pig really well,” she told the church crowd, “and then you find yourself massaging salt into her leg and thinking, ‘this is going to be good’ — it’s a little sexy.”

Linda McCartney just rolled over in her grave. Meanwhile, I’m probably the only person alive in Berkeley who hadn’t attended a Michael Pollan food chat. As advertised, the man who urges us to Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. is accessible and charming and graciously played the role of the proud professor lavishing praise on his student and her success.

But here was the real take-home message from the evening. Carpenter, the relative newbie to food writing, asked Pollan whether this whole obsession with what we eat isn’t getting a little out of hand. Pollan used the opportunity to point out that the politics of food is just getting interesting, now that there’s an administration that gets why it’s important to reform this country’s food system. Of course, as he pointed out, it’s one thing to “get it,” and quite another to bring about change.

That’s where the First Lady of Food comes in. It seems Michelle Obama is on a mission to raise people’s consciousness about our diet. The White House Victory Garden was just the beginning; this week she revealed a plan detailing how to profoundly alter the way we eat. Pollan thinks if the Obama administration can get people to realize that to carry out health care reform the country also needs to overhaul its food industry (drawing the connection between obesity, type 2 diabetes, and skyrocketing health care costs) then maybe real change is possible. That’s something to chew on.

Photo: Lynn Sweet.

To learn more about what Michelle’s got cooking on the culinary political front follow her every food move at Eddie Gehman Kohan’s amazingly exhaustive Obama Foodorama blog.

Paul McCartney Sings: All You Need is Meatless Monday

June 15, 2009

This just in: Paul McCartney & Yoko Ono seem to have put their legendary differences aside to promote the Meat Free Monday campaign, which is, well, exactly as its name suggests.

There’s nothing particularly new about this notion. U.S. Presidents Truman and Roosevelt asked folks to give up eating animals during both World Wars. And public health officials, like the good folk at  Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have promoted the idea from a public-health perspective for years.

But last year, one of  the world’s leading authorities on climate change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri,  declared that going meat-free once a week was the most attractive way for individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower their carbon footprint, and save scarce resources. Bingo! A new movement was born with a double-whammy agenda. And Sir Paul’s got the, ah, chops to pull it off.

The idea is getting play in the film world as well. The just-released doco Food Inc. lists going without meat one day a week in its top ten actions humans can take to support a sustainable food system.

I can report that tonight, campaign launch day no less, I did indeed go meatless. Baked tofu, marinated in tamari, pickled ginger, garlic, and lime juice, served over sweet, short-grain rice and topped with spinach wilted in a little grapeseed oil was on the menu. But to be honest, I hadn’t gotten wind of the campaign until I sat down at my computer AFTER dinner. So no brownie points for me.  I like the sound of Meat Free Mondays (nicely alliterative) but the real reason the first day of the week got picked for the job is it’s the day, apparently, when most of us set our intentions for the week. (The hope is that some people may go on to Tempeh Tuesdays, Wakame Wednesdays…you get the idea).

Here’s what I want to know: Do campaigns featuring famous folk make you more or less likely to join in? Some of us, of course, are quite happy to be told what to do and herded along like, um, cattle. As a veg-head, it’s not going to change my behavior. But as a rebellious spirit I can see how such a pronouncement might make a contrary carnivore dig in his heels and cook beef at the beginning of the week. And for omnivores of the world the Boomtown Rats classic “I don’t like Mondays” may hold new meaning.

So tell me: How do you feel about an ex-Beatle asking you to swap seitan for steak on Mondays — or any other night of the week for that matter?

What Do You Eat When You Eat Alone?

June 13, 2009

True confession: When I’m home alone at night sometimes I forget to make dinner. Ten o’clock rolls around, the kitchen is closed, and so I grab a bowl of cereal and call it a night. Terrible habit I know. At least it’s whole grain cereal. It turns out, I’m in good company.

Here’s another cereal-for-solo suppers supporter:

Flickr photo by Brian Auer used under the Creative Commons license

How about you? What do you eat for dinner when nobody is looking? I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular pastime since my domestic situation shifted about 18 months ago. Half the week my kid and I eat dinner every night, mostly at home, no exceptions. The other half of the week he’s dining with his dad, leaving me free to whip up something fabulously indulgent for myself, right?

Not likely. I typically take the opportunity to eat out with friends. That’s sort of cheating. And expensive. And on a week when my son is doing a five-night stint at his father’s I rarely eat out every single one of those evenings. So, then, what’s for dinner at my house?

Initially, I had grand visions of simmering batches of soup on the stove on solo supper nights. Somehow I don’t seem to find — or make — the time to prepare these meals. So I’ve been conducting an informal survey, asking folks who find themselves making dinner for one on a regular basis what they eat. The 81-year-old widow whose memoir I’m editing tells me she cooks herself a meal chock full of vegetables. A male friend’s frequent solo feast of choice is a stir-fry. A galpal swears that Trader Joes frozen shrimp and mango cubes can be called into service to make a delicious meal. And a chef friend recalls that during her single days she delighted in buying the best cuts of meat or priciest seafood justifying the cost because she only needed small portions of each.

I’m suitably impressed. All these people take their meal at the table, with napkins and place mats, and maybe candles and a glass of wine as well. Truly, eye-opening. Clearly, eating well on your own is a learned skill.

Now, thanks to Deborah Madison, of Greens restaurant fame and the author of the wildly popular cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, we’ve got some more insights into what people chew on when no one else is watching.

Her new book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone, is a departure from her usual fare (and not just because meat features prominently). It’s written with and inspired by her hubbie, Patrick McFarlin, who got in the habit of asking this very question as an icebreaker on food trips the couple took with the Oldways Preservation Trust.  McFarlin’s whimsical illustrations accompany the stories. The book includes some 100 recipes, tweaked a tad for your solitary pleasure.

Check out the funny video found here for a flavor of what folks told the couple about eating alone. And read an excerpt, on the universal appeal of leftovers, over at Culinate.

The results of the authors’ unscientific research may surprise you. At a recent reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s book store, the couple drew laughter when they acknowledged that there appears to be something of a gender divide surrounding solo dinners.  Men frequently eat meat when on their own and their cooking often involves “sticking something into something,” like the flank steak stuffed with bacon, cheese, and mushrooms featured in the book. Women often opt for good carbs with salt or something like a salad that involves chopping and dicing. What people do when supping solo is also interesting. Some eat while watching TV, with their animals, while reading — or even in bed. Others (again, often men) pace, eat while surveying the contents of the fridge, or even wolf dinner down while leaning over the sink.

This respectful yet voyeuristic read gives a glimpse into the secret life of those of us seeking solitary sustenance, whether we’re eating alone as an aberration or on a regular basis. The book reveals that people tend to cook simple, satisfying meals that they know and love or opt to make something their partners don’t like, such as okra or sardines, when on their own.  There’s also some weird stuff like margarita mix poured over white bread — yikes — though not as many strange food choices as you might imagine in such a book.

What do this duo eat on their ownsome? Madison says she’d choose pie if it was available, though that’s usually not an option. She’s fond of braised vegetables. McFarlin’s a fan of panini.

My personal favorite food for a satisfying solo supper? Scrambled eggs. I know many Americans couldn’t imagine eating this so-called breakfast staple for dinner but, heck, throw caution to the wind and give it a whirl.  The secret ingredient for lovely, moist scramble? Cream, glorious, cream. Thank you Bill Granger of the much-lauded bills restaurants in Sydney for this ingredient insight. For scrambled eggs for one use 2 eggs and about a third a cup of cream. Find the full recipe here. I look in my veggie crisper and dice up nice and fine anything fresh and colorful and whack that in as well. Often orange pepper, baby spinach, and red onion find their way into the mix. Goat cheese is a nice addition too. Bill scrambled egg purists may sniff at such suggestions. So be it.

Now it’s your turn. Do tell: What kind of grub goes down your gullet at nighttime when no one’s looking? Feel no fear, guilt, or shame. Judging by Madison’s and McFarlin’s account, it appears that there are many culinary commonalities among solitary eaters, revealing that we’re never really alone even when we’re dining at a table for one.

Flickr photo by avlxyz used under the Creative Commons license

Feed a Family, Fund a Farmer, Support a School

June 5, 2009


Gotta love the fabo eco-experiment (in more ways than one) in its second year at an independent K-8th school in El Cerrito, a suburban enclave adjacent to food-centric Berkeley in Northern California. It’s a program that seems well worth replicating in cash-strapped schools across the country.

Here’s what’s happening: Every Wednesday between 12 and 2 at Windrush School you’ll find kids and parent volunteers busily boxing beautiful, organic, seasonal produce dropped off by local farmers for about 100 school families to pick up. The school’s Farm Stand feeds folks, builds community, and offers opportunities to put into practice science, math, and nutrition lessons.  And, here’s the ka-ching kicker:  The program raises revenue as well — to the tune of a cool $20,000 a year. That’s no chump change for any school, public or private, during tight financial times.

On a recent sunny Wednesday, a gaggle of giggly students weighed potatoes and pluots, carefully counted peaches, and filled baskets to the brim with to-die-for Maria Catalan strawberries. Grown-ups supervised the parceling out of produce like kale, beets, potatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers. There was surprisingly little sampling — and not nearly the chaos anticipated — until the jobs were done and then everyone was rewarded with a luscious piece of fruit or a crunchy salad veggie.


The brainchild of parent Lucy Aghadjian, a petite dynamo who is passionate about produce, the Farm Stand now serves as an integral part of the school’s fundraising efforts. It’s subsidized by participating families for the price of a couple of fancy coffees a week  (about $3-$5 a box goes directly to the school).  Two years ago, Aghadjian got new head of school Ilana Kaufman, a kindred spirit on the good-food front, jazzed about the fresh idea. In this neck of the woods, it didn’t take much prodding to get parents on board.

Local growers, like beloved farmers market mainstays such as Full Belly, Riverdog, Swanton Berry, and Twin Girls, drop off recently-harvested crops at the school’s Farm Stand shed or a nearby market on their way down the freeway on a regular East Bay run. Relationships are nurtured on both sides: Full Belly Farm recently hosted a group of 5th graders on an overnight adventure. When Farmer Bill from Swanton mentioned he was buried in artichokes, Aghadjian happily took them off his hands — and included a simply delicious recipe for the spring vegetable in her weekly flyer tucked inside each box. (Educating adults and children about how to cook unfamiliar produce is key to the stand’s success.)

Sure, loads of neighborhoods serve as pick-up points for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) mostly-veg boxes but what’s going on at Windrush is a win-win-win for all three parties.

Could other schools follow the Windrush model? What ingredients do you need in the mix? If you know of similar income-generating produce programs in other schools feel free to add advice about what’s essential to making a school Farm Stand thrive.

Five must-haves gleaned from a recent visit:

1. A gung-ho, can-do instigator leading the way. It certainly helps if this person has food cred: Aghadjian is a caterer who had existing connections with farmers.

2. A school administrator who sees the program’s value from a curriculum, community, and economic perspective. Kaufman routinely swings by the stand, meets with farmers, and offers samples to parents and students at the end of the school day.

3. The blessing and buy-in of local growers. And the realization on the school end that you need to make it easy for farm folk to participate.

4. A small core of devoted parent volunteers willing to sort produce — rain or shine — each week. Amazingly, Windrush has had only one rainy day since the stand started.

5. A leap of faith. Isn’t that what every great idea needs?

And, of course, the payoff that comes from raising money in a fun and life-affirming way — and hearing from kids who discover they love kohlrabi or pomellos? Priceless.

windrush.farmstand1Photos: Sarah Henry

What’s Cooking in the First Family’s Kitchen?

June 2, 2009


Not much, judging by recent mainstream media reports. On Sunday, the New York Times noted that Michelle Obama’s big push on the eat-locally-grown-food front (think White House victory garden) may not extend to making a home-cooked meal. And last month the Washington Post revealed that when the First Lady was asked (albeit, it turns out, some time ago) for her favorite recipe, she responded, “Cooking isn’t one of my huge things.”

Wait. What’s that sound? Alice Waters on the West Coast having an anxiety attack. There’s more. When a boy visiting the White House asked Ms. Obama if she likes to cook, she said: “I don’t miss cooking. I’m just fine with other people cooking.”

Cue collective groan from nutrition educators who tirelessly attempt to whip up enthusiasm for the quaint concept of a family dinner made from scratch by parents.

But going after Michelle over her reluctance to make a meal feels a bit retro folks. Has anyone asked Barack if he bakes? Does he fix dinner for his girls? I mean, I know The President is a tad busy, what with the downturn in the economy, health care reform, and a smattering of global crises he needs to stay on top of, but everyone has to eat, right?

The Obama Foodorama blog immediately went on the defensive in a post challenging many of the assumptions cooked up by Amanda Hesser in her op-ed article for the Times. But no word on whether either parent makes dinner at home in the long post. Others weighed in on this food fight, perhaps no more scathing and succinct as Regina Schrambling over at gastropoda. Still, I suspect a guest appearance on Oprah is in Obama’s future, where those much-discussed arm muscles could be put to good use whisking up a vinaigrette for a gorgeous salad sourced from the White House veggie patch.

Now it’s your turn: Just how important is it to see the First Lady and Commander in Chief play chef? Should Sasha and Malia routinely sit down to a meal made by mom and dad? What do you think?

Avoiding a Sugar Overload at Snack Time

June 1, 2009

We’ve all done it, yelled: “Grab a bar & a bottle” as we bolt out the door. It’s tricky figuring out a healthy, on-the-go snack for our kids in a hurry.

So it was my turn on the Saturday sport snack schedule a week ago. I’ve pretty much figured out the food end of it. Cut fruit, whole-wheat crackers, and chunks of cheese usually does the job. But I’m challenged in the beverage department.

Have you studied a drink bottle label recently? Here’s a handy hint on label reading: Listing sugar in grams doesn’t mean much to me, other than more is obviously not good. But this is a measure I can visualize: Just divide the # of grams by four to find out the sugar content in teaspoons.

Before snack duty day I loaded up the cart with fruit-juice-only drinks, vitamin waters, and other (it turns out) sugar-filled beverages. One brand popular among health-conscious types boasts that it’s 70 percent juice. It also contains a whopping 43 grams of the sweet stuff in one of its 12-ounce bottles. We’re talking 11 teaspoons of sugar. Yikes. And those vitamin waters — which contain no fruit juice but sometimes do have caffeine so double check those labels — are high in sugar too. Now I’ve become an obsessive label reader.

Check this out:  A 20-ounce soda bottle of an iconic American drink contains 65 grams of sugar. That’s about 17 teaspoons. By gulping down the real thing you add about 240 excess calories to your day — and it would take an hour of walking to burn off those babies. Drink just one a day for a year and you (or your kid) are looking at 25 extra pounds you could do without. Yowzer. (For the scoop on the sugar content of lots of foods visit

I’m not a zealot. I get that the occasional treat is fun. I can still recall ordering pink lemonades with my grandparents in suburban Sydney. Unlike American lemonade, these concoctions were a soda more akin to a 7-Up with a dash of bright pink grenadine for a festive effect. Loved ’em. Only got ’em once in a while.

What about plain old water? Yes, my kid has his own reusable water bottle. But you try showing up with bottled water in the Bay Area. It’s a political hot potato.

So I tried a little experiment. Along with the regular “crap snack drinks” as my son and I call them, I sent two big pitchers of water with citrus slices and homegrown mint to practice; not a drop came home.

Next time: I’ll forgo the packaged drinks for the gently flavored H20. Choice isn’t always a good thing. Feel free to share other on-the-go drink (or snack) ideas.

At home, there’s a drink we can offer our kids without guilt. The humble smoothie is a simply delicious way to quench thirst, supply energy, and get some nutrition into the mix as well. Cheers.

Strawberry Smoothie

Smoothies make a great snack or a quick breakfast. Vary the fruit or fruit juice depending on taste. Blueberries, for instance, make for a cool-looking concoction.

Substitute vanilla rice, soy, or cow’s milk for juice and/or yogurt. Use measurements below as a guide. The consistency of a smoothie can be custom made to suit personal preference.

Quick Tip: Frozen fruit such as berries, bananas, mango, or pineapple makes a thicker, frothier smoothie and ensures it’s a refreshing ice-cold drink to boot.

You Need:

1/2-1 cup plain yogurt
1/4-1/2 cup orange juice (no pulp)
1 large banana, peeled
6-8 strawberries, hulls & stems removed
1/2-1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and/or nutmeg
1-2 scoops of whey protein powder (optional)

To Do:

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth.

2. Pour into chilled glasses and serve.

Flickr photo by p2nnylan3, used under the Creative Commons license