Sunday, February 27, 2011

The wisdom of the inedible hen, Part II

A few days ago I promised to report back on my impatience and a food rule. Life got away from me for a while and I finally found some time to come back to this promise. I apologize.

Chapter 1. The fate of that wise inedible hen.

A few days ago, I had cooked a three year-old hen only five hours, on low heat, in a crock-pot. I was in a hurry to cook the hen for Lauren because I feared she might have been getting sick and I had remembered my grandma’s old saying “old hen and old ginger keeps the sickness away.” The only thing I manage to do was cook a delicious rice based soup, with a few pieces of the hen that was barely edible, with carrots and turnips cooked to the point where they melted into the soup. Luckily Lauren did not get sick; and I had learned my lesson and put the rest of the hen on low heat overnight in preparation for a French recipe I wanted to try.

The next morning, Lauren and I woke up to a house full of the deep and rich aromas from the crock-pot. It had reminded me of waking up in the Gobi Desert at my grandma’s house.

I took the hen out of the crock-pot, its meat came off the bones quite easily. I put the meats in a container and poured half-glass of red wine and marinated it for another day.
The big night came three days after I had initially botched the hen. After a night in the crock-pot and a night in the wine bath, the meats, both red and white, took on a deep purple color and an interesting tangy but rich taste. I melted half-a-stick of butter, caramelized some onions and garlics and added some all-purpose flour to the pan. I added some water and when the sauce became thick from the flour I added some carrots and turnips. A few minutes later, I put the marinated chicken to the pan and simmered it on low for a few more minutes. I had bought some ready-bake bread earlier that day (Lauren loves bread), and dinner was fantastic.

My patience has paid off. This takes me to chapter two.

Chapter 2. Respect your food, every part of it; respect it because it is real and you've done the hard work of transforming it into a conversation we have with our families.

Lauren and I enjoy having our dinners together. We enjoy making dinner together. We also enjoy learning to cook together. I’ve always loved to cook, but Lauren is just beginning to learn. Our skills vary, but our desire to learn parallels. Before my lesson by the infamous inedible hen, I had thought I was a good cook. Granted I occasionally botched a dish here or there, but mostly it was due to my experimentation. The “old hen and old ginger” dish was from my childhood, and the failure in my first attempt seriously made me doubt my skills. But Lauren pointed out that it was because I am an inherently impatient person. I want every good thing to happen immediately, yesterday!

That impatience is a lack of respect, not just for food, but for life in general. Up to this point, I had not respected the process it takes to make something truly amazing. I recall stories my father would tell about how some Chinese dishes requires days or even weeks in preparation. Although I had cooked quite a bit of Chinese food in my life, I never took the time to make anything that required more than an hour to make. My love for cooking is only limited, immature.

But that’s not the point of my food rule, it’s a lesson of my food rule. The point of my food rule is to remind myself, and everyone, that food is more about conversation and learning. It is from the conversations and our communal learning that we build a food culture, a growing and sustainable food culture.

Lauren was afraid of cooking because she was afraid of disappointing me. I learn that recently talking with her during dinner. I am afraid of patience and I learned it during dinner. So eating healthy is not just about buying something that is organic or local. It is also about a family and learning together – about the lessons of life in general. Healthy eating is only part of healthy living, and healthy living occurs when it is about families and communal learning of the deeper sense of things: things like patience.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Eat well • Be well • Live well - by Staraya M.

Converting city lots into community supported gardens

Over a century ago, the food for the 1 million Indianapolis city-dwellers traveled less than 10 miles on average from farm to a family’s kitchen. In 2007, our food traveled an average of 1,500 to 2,000 miles before reaching grocery store shelves. The environmental impact and our industrial dependency are obvious, but less so are our health and social welfare that have deteriorated accordingly.

So what happened? Where is the disconnect between us and our food? What can we do about it here in Indianapolis?

Everyone knows that land is limited and that everyone is losing more and more open green space to unnecessary developments. Everywhere we turn there are new construction going up and more pavements are laid. In the last 100 years, the loss of agricultural land and urban zoning restrictions on agriculture activities combined with the industrialization of our food products have effectively broken our connection with the farmers – farmers that once defined the Midwestern virtues. In less than 100 years, our consumption pattern have shifted from fresh and bio-diverse produces to refrigerated and chemically recombined material that has unknown side-effects. Billions of dollars from big agri-industrialists are pumped into lobbyists turning out lies to our legislatures so their profit structure would continue . . . until WE finally take action.

Today, cities all over the world are trying to recreate that lost connection with farmers markets and community gardens. Growing food on vacant city lands provides a host of environmental, social, and economic benefits including (but not limited to):

providing vibrant green spaces,

improved air quality,

cooler buildings where Green Space insulations have been integrated into architecture,

reduced energy consumption as food travels a shorter distance between farm/garden and plate,

creating habitats for birds, insects, and native plants,

providing local job opportunities,

creating a beautiful setting where people can socialize and build community,

providing a positive and healthy activity for everyone,

decreasing family food budgets,

raising property values

and MOST IMPORTANTLY: teaching healthy eating habits and sustainable values to our children.

If you look with the intention of making a beautiful spot of ‘green’ in the middle of a neighborhood, city, town circle, on top of a building, etc., you can see there are unlimited possibilities to start a community garden. Community gardens can exist in many different places like vacant lots, building tops, undeveloped regions, and private yards. Together, these spaces constitute a large amount of land that would need our attention, but ultimately could feed a significant portion of urban populations if they are shared and cultivated.

I am part of a group called Indy Backyard Growers Network and we are a group that has come together to help each other - Eat • Share • Grow. Some of us do not have access to land, some of us do. Because the garden work is overwhelming, collaboration and community support is critical and it is what brought us together. We are growing several gardens around town and groups of us are responsible for different tasks. We learn how to garden, do prep work, mulching, planting, weeding, watering, building beds, composting etc. Because of this group effort, not one person feels overwhelmed and we can grow a larger variety on a larger plot. These gardens will yield an abundance of fresh, truly organic (not the government labeled industrialized “Organic” kind) fruits and vegetables for all of our families. At the same time, we are creating a manageable garden maintenance schedule for each individual.

We share in the labor and the rewards! This process helps feed each of our souls. It is something that we all enjoy doing and it creates a fun community environment. From our participations, we immerse ourselves in learning activities and we develop a sense of pride because we can feed our families something that is full of great nutrition less the petro-chemicals.

There are more and more community gardens popping up over the years in Indianapolis. Growing Places Indy, run by Laura Henderson, is a non-profit organization committed to cultivating the “Culture” of food and urban agriculture in the Indianapolis marketplace. This garden is located in Downtown Indy at the White River state park. It is used for many different reasons including: to develop models for urban gardening, to engage community in Indy’s local food systems, and to grow leaders in the local food community. This garden is a great example of a central piece of land that was put to great use for community awareness and participation.
Dewey’s Sunshine Community Garden, located at 1025 N. Beville St. is another community garden that has been around for many years. This garden relies heavily on the younger generation to keep the seasonal vegetables and fruits growing and this teaches the kids about self- reliance and social justice.
A great resource to look up community gardens in your area is Indy [Grows] Gardens. Feel free to contact your local community garden and ask how you can get involved. The only way that we can change this broken food system is if we move in the direction of healthy and local food, in numbers. We can provide our families with the best nourishment possible, while doing what is best for ourselves and our communities.

I think that gardening can be a daunting task that can be intimidating. But cultivating a garden within a community can lead to many positive things in our lives that can carry on for many generations to come. And remember, at the end of the day, nothing tastes better than something fresh from Mother Earth that you have nurtured. We all need to feed our soul, why not do it one garden at a time!

Eat well • Be well • Live well
Staraya M.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Inspiring character on a journey lost.

I held off writing this blog because I didn’t know how or what to write. A few days ago one of my facebook contacts posted a remembrance for someone in my old unit killed in action on February 16, 2005.

Remembering SGT Adam Plumondore K.I.A. 16 Feb 2005 Mosul Iraq. We lost quit a few men during that tour and as a medic I would trade my life for anyone of theirs.

I had wanted to write something that day, but I held off because I wasn’t too sure how I want to say what I wanted to say. Yesterday morning, I received a call from a Marine I had never met; but I have come to be a close friend to his journey walking around the country for veterans. His name is Eddie Gray. He embodies fear and hope in all of us and after talking to him over the phone, I realized how I would tell this story.

Eddie Grey is a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

I was a soldier. I served as a medic and did the best I could for my fellow service members. I am now a citizen, naturalized in 2007 after holding a Green Card for twelve-years. My service in Iraq convinced my loyalty to this great nation and I proudly took the oath.

Six years after a tour in Iraq, I am still haunted by the events that occurred. Haunted because I realized the preciousness of life and the amazing opportunity provided to me by the men and women who gave their lives defending this country. But I am proud today: proud to be a citizen and picking up the responsibilities of defending this nation in its time of need. I do what I can today for society, for this economic recovery. I started a social entrepreneurial project to help localize our food production to both reduce industrial agriculture and CAFO pollutions and help us diversify our food base and distribute production in preparation for the eventual petro-based food market crash and other industrial food emergencies such as disease outbreaks. I started this project also to develop local IT talents to help them compete against the rising cheap professional labors from India and China. I am a native Chinese having been born and raised there, but I am an American now owing my life to the ideals of this nation.

Starting a project is not easy. As a soldier I learned how to take orders, but since I enlisted (due to my stubbornness refusing to become a US citizen at that time) I was not able to learn how to lead. Now, I am required to lead this initiative and it is a scary thing.

I hear people criticize me all the time: this is too risky, this idea is stupid, why don’t you just focus on law school and be a lawyer, so on and so forth . . . .

They are right, this is risky and this may be stupid, but I just turns a blind-eye and keeps moving towards a forever-changing mission. I do well enough in law school to justify paying all that tuition, but I don’t foresee practicing law just for the sake of practicing law. If I should practice to help others, then so be it.

There are times I feel like giving up. There are times when doubt strikes so hard that echoes even in my dreams and nightmares.

When Eddie Gray called, after a year of silence, I was glad to hear that he is still on his journey walking around America for veterans. He had started the journey a few years ago while I worked at The American Legion. He contacted the Legion for some support and his file landed on my desk. I tried as much as I could, but in the end all I could do was write a letter of acknowledgment of his efforts. He took my letter and started his journey. He walked from Montana west to Washington. I kept track of him for a while until he reached Oregon. I resigned from the Legion at that time to pursuit my own dreams of doing some good for my community. He fell silent, probably because he had gotten drunk at one of the gracious Legionnaire’s house and caused some trouble. To The American Legion, he is a liability risk. To me, he is a friend.

When he called yesterday morning, I asked how he is doing. He rambled quite a bit and told me the encounters he had had on Thanksgiving Day last year. He had been sleeping against the wall underneath a highway bridge against his ruck-sac fully decorated with Marine Corp items. He was particularly proud of his Marine Corp license plate attached to the ruck-sac and he was even more excited to tell me that people had stopped to see him and offer him turkey and food. I could hear it in his voice that it was a victory for him when a strange woman had offered him a full bag of turkey meat and her husband offered him a half-empty bottle of wine.

“I ate the turkey and drank the wine, and I fell asleep. Not because of the wine. It was the tryptophan.”

I fear for his life. I fear that he has slipped from a heroic man started on a journey to help other veterans to simply a homeless man. I fear for his future, how will he survive and when will his journey end?

I had asked him on the phone when does he expect him journey will end. He laughed and told me he would be walking for the years to come.

I fear for his life, one that I cannot save just like the men of my unit who lost their lives in Iraq. But most of all, I fear for my life. I have taken on a very big risk trying to help my community, but am I lost as Eddie only waiting for the next gracious person to pity my choice?

I told Lauren of my conversation with Eddie. Lauren said: “all those who wonder are not lost.”

The words Eddie gave me just before we ended our conversation: “Aren’t you a vet? I’m doing this for you and for all of the veterans. I am a poet and a writer, I can’t do much else. I am walking and writing about all of the veterans in this country and only God knows when I will stop.”

Eddie Gray, 2009
I fear for Eddie, but I am proud to be his friend. If he should continue, there is no reason for me to quit. I do what I do for Eddie, for everyone. Only God knows when I will stop.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the Green Local Movement

rethink(i3), iCube, is entering into an agreement with Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, IUPUI , under a pilot project (IDEA) to use local multidisciplinary student talents to create a Green Movement for the state of Indiana. This movement will focus on bringing together various businesses, non-profits, and individual entities to create a ongoing conversation about sustainability and healthy living with a specific focus on the local economic recovery. We hope to create opportunities for employment, equalize environmental and food injustice, and create a market research data-bank to facilitate and grow Indiana's sustainability market.

IDEA (Innovation and Discovery Experiential Academy) is a multidisciplinary, active-learning internship that uses real-world experiences to build students’ confidence, knowledge, and understanding to become future inventors and business leaders. The IDEA Internship is a partnership between two units of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (the IUPUI Solution Center and the IUPUI Center for Research and Learning) and the project sponsor, Rethink(i3), a local, Social Entrepreneurial, start-up company. Student interns will work as a team to research, plan, and develop an innovation for the sponsor that will bring together businesses, nonprofits, and citizens active in the “green” movement.  Under supervision of the IDEA management team, the sponsor, and faculty mentors, the students on the IDEA Internship team will be responsible for research, planning, and development of a new business application and prototype.
In addition, The Green Elephant Blog  ( is in discussions with other Green minded bloggers to start a Citizen Media Publishing project to engage the topic and create a unified national movement.    

we are very excited about these upcoming projects and we encourage you to contact us and find out how you can participate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The wisdom of the inedible hen

At the end of a very long comment string on facebook, we came to this conclusion:

“In the United States we have no patience.....that's exactly why we are in the dilemma we are in.....”
The Chinese character for patience is "a blade hanging over the heart"

I agree. I am guilty of it myself. I will not be the first to admit, but I hope I am not the last. Confessions are good for the soul because they give us a perspective on our mistakes and help us stride to move forward. I have many confessions to make, but here is one on Patience: I have none when it comes to the most important of things.

Lauren and I have been trying to change the way we eat. Albeit slow to progress, we have been making one decision at a time to eat more locally and sensibly. We’ve decided to decrease our meat intake. We started to buy meat locally and only enough to make two meals per week. This doesn’t mean we are only eating two meals a week with meats as participants. You see, we love making leftovers into omelets and stir-fry, so about 80% of our meals contain some sort of animal protein.

Last weekend Lauren had bought a package of ground Bison meat and we made a delicious meat pie. We had awesome omelets and Biryani rice all week. Today, I busted into the three-year-old hen Lauren had purchased. I’ve had old hens as a child. My grandma had a saying (she had a saying for everything): “old hens and old gingers help keeps diseases away.” Lauren had ran a 5K today and she had been coughing. I wanted to make something for her to feel better.

I remember on special occasions or when my grandpa was sick, she and I would trap an old hen from her tiny sunroom (she had a small chicken coop there). I would be in charge of holding the wings and the head back, so the neck would be bent and exposed to her knife. Readers beware: the following segment will be gruesome.

She would slit the hen’s throat like a pro. The very first time I saw what had happened, I was immobilized with fear. But because my grandmother had put her hands firmly over mine to hold on to the hen, I had no other choice but stare in the eyes of that poor bird and watch her struggle and die. Her blood slowly drained into a rice-bowl my grandmother had placed underneath. She would catch all of the blood and add a bit of salt and steam it to gelatinize for soups later.

“You’ll get to eat the bird brain so you can get smarter.” She would say nonchalantly.

It wasn’t until later in life I would realize her lack of interest in the bird’s life was well justified. She had something more important in mind: feeding her children so they would survive, keeping the family health so we could prosper. But she never wasted any part of it. She would boil the bones twice to get out all of the nutrients. She would always tell me if I had wasted any part of the chicken, then she would've killed the bird for nothing. I had to face reality: the bird was dead and I could not let it die for no reason. My grandmother had lived in China during the transition to Communism. Her entire life was a struggle: warfare, hunger, more warfare, a famine, and finally when she could reasonably expect certainty in her life - she was plagued with my grandpa’s cancer. I've come to respect her wisdom and what she had said to me defines aspects of my life. Naturally, “old hens and old ginger help keep diseases away” was one I am eager to attempt to recreate.

I butchered the hen this morning. I split the thing into legs, thighs, breast, backbone, neck (came separate). Luckily for me, the farmer had done the killing for me sparing me of the eventual confrontation.

I immersed the pieces in water in a crock-pot along with slices of fresh, but old, ginger, slices of garlic, salt and pepper, and just a bit of soy sauce and vinegar to cut into the fat a bit. I cooked it on medium for 5 hours. The whole house smelled delicious!

I was thoroughly disgusted with the way my LARC paper was going, so a good supper was the only thing that motivated me.

By hour six, I was able to reasonably peel off the meat from the bones. I knew I was in trouble when I felt the rubbery bounce on my knife as I cut into the flesh. I had no choice, I was hungry and Lauren had been studying all day and we were both due for a break.

I carved half of the meats into small pieces and cooked it on medium on the stove-top for another hour.

“Surly”, I thought to myself, “that would be enough to tenderize it.”

I was wrong, but the melted carrot and turnips along with the leftover rice made a wonderful cream base soup with the rich flavors of the chicken. This bird smells fuller than the regular chicken breast we would buy, but because I had not cooked it properly, it is still tough. Only the white meats were at least edible.

To remedy my mistake, I’ve put the rest of the bird on low in the crockpot to cook overnight. I hope by this time tomorrow I would be able to easily peal the meats from the bones. Then it will be time to experiment with some French-based cream dish. . . .

The lesson: I had forgotten to respect the bird. It takes time and patience to cook the bird and the old ginger. I had forgotten my grandmother would cook the hen all day, let it cool overnight, and stew it the next day. In my haste, I've lost sight of the point, but at least I have another half of the bird to re-learn my lesson.  

Will report back.


Friday, February 18, 2011

What is your food rule?

Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is working with Slow Food USA to compile a list of food rules.
I was drawn to the idea (Slow Food USA’s new campaign) at first by a positive inception: create an idea to help the community - contribute a food rule. I am willing to bet that this little psychological trigger has made a pretty good dent in the active users on social networks. From there, it’s viral: you receive it from a friend via email; you are asked to suggest an idea for the community - something you can do; you feel good about doing a good thing and you never even left that dented spot on your couch; you have to pass this on; you ask another friend to suggest an idea for a food rule to the community, it’s a positive action, so your friend follows the instructions; repeat.

If our government is failing in regulating (or deregulating) the food system, we should at least suggest some good social rules and maxims to help us navigate through the gigabits of undigested information and astronomical variations on recombining what is not food to make food.

I believe we are a unique people to accomplish this. America is a diverse place, full of cultures ancient in their relationship with food. We are the world capital of the great omnivore’s experience. There have been countless brave immigrants, searching for a free place to live, and along with their hopes they have brought their best contribution to society. Without them, we couldn’t begin to imagine - no pizza, no sweet and sour, no gyros. If America is to gradually redistribute our cultivations, restore our land integrity, and develop sustainable food practices locally, America cannot ignore the chance of collecting a multi-cultured food philosophy! There are wisdoms embedded in the very veins of this country that can help us develop a deeper understanding of food and its role in our lives.

I think of our desire to contribute and our collection of food cultures as our societal leucocytes.

Let’s not forget that we have a good reason to act: food prices are on a rise, the sooner we develop self-sufficiency the better we are equipped to deal with food emergencies. Slow Food made some serious investments and hired pros to do this kind of smooth marketing work to make it viral. It’s about time. I’ve always heard NGOs refer to “preaching to the choir,” but now we have an organization taking steps to preach it to the public. I commend them on their work and I encourage you to lend them a hand in this great social experiment.

In the next few days, I will share my food rule, one I learned as a child from a Chinese poem: Respect your food, every part of it; respect it because it is real and you've done the hard work of transforming it into a conversation we have with our families.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Video kaleidoscope.

Tuesday was a long day for me, 14 hours of non-stop work, school, and other crap that life threw at me. I took yesterday morning to relax and practiced being mindful. Well, my excuse to just sit back with a cup of coffee and watch some videos online. Allow me to share my fantastic voyage into the video kaleidoscope:

The first has to do with my recent struggle with changing fundamentally how I live. Not that I want to eventually become another no-impact man, but that I want to help others live in better ways by first helping myself:

The second came from a friend from the coast who produced the video; (I caution you to make your own judgments, but I suggest you take the message seriously: practice responsible consumption). There is a free version you can download, but you can also make a donation to their organization and download the full director’s cut version.

The common theme in these two videos that helped me through my doubts about taking action and living in better ways: believing that you have to immerse yourself into the things you believe; you have to take action, but only immersion can help you identify responsible actions you must take.

No one here at The Green Elephant believes we have the right or the necessary knowledge to tell you how to believe or what to think, but we owe you the responsibility to help you recognize the necessity of your actions for the welfare of humanity and our nurturing planet.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

As promised, local ingredients and compromises.

I love cooking. I have been cooking since I was six. I was in the first grade and my mother was always at work. My father was in the US at the time. So my two-hour lunch breaks usually involved experimenting with different things we had in the kitchen and making my own concoctions. During winter months, we would only have potatoes, carrots, bok choy (aka Chinese cabbage), and the occasional pork. Some days my mom would stir-fry carrots and meat, my favorite, and some days she would stir-fry potato strings. I love combining the two into one pot and add some rice and some water to cook it down. It made a perfect lunch on those cold days when I had to wear thick sweaters in-doors.

Yesterday I promised a Shepherd’s Pie recipe. I helped Lauren make this last night. It’s my variation from the potato, carrot, pork concoction. I figured this would be something helpful I can write for the community. Here it is.

You will need:

1 lbs of ground meat from your local farmer who cares about his/her animals.

1 potato

1 carrot

½ onion

1 can of cream of celery soup (you can substitute any cream based soup, or you can boil some rice and cook it down to make rice based cream soup)

Bread crumbs (you can also use corn bread to add a soulful flavor).

Salt and pepper

Hopefully you got these from your local farmers as well, but we were bad and got everything but the meat from Kroger. This is our compromise and we apologize. We are still transitioning to the local economy.

To begin, chop the potatoes and carrots into small or medium cubes. Heat a medium cooking pot on high with some olive or vegetable oil. Add the onions to the pot and let it caramelize. Add the ground meat and cook for a few minutes until the juice starts to cook out from the meat. Add potatoes and carrots and stir continuously so the potatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This is a pretty good exercise for your arms and shoulders. Lauren often misses this point about Chinese stir-fry: it’s about constant motion and care you give to the food. If you put things on the fire and walk away, you are not loving your food. You have to watch it constantly and watch it achieve that perfect balance.

Oh sorry, ADD kicking in…

After five minutes or so, add the can of cream of celery soup and a bit of salt and pepper – taste to desire. Cook for another ten minutes or so. When you can break the potatoes with your spoon easily, you are done here. Turn off the fire and put the content into a medium size baking pan. Cover the top with bread crumbs and cover with foil. Cook on 375 degrees for another 15 minutes.
The best part about this meal: health meat! leftovers blended into scrambled eggs the next few mornings and leftovers to make other dinners.

The worst part about this meal: we are still mostly depended on industrial foods and some even made from processed corn by-products.

The lesson: it tasted good because you have made it and you loved it. You are developing a closer relationship with your food. It tasted good because you wanted it that way. Taste should matter. But you can also substitute any or all of the ingredients with locally grown products if you happen to live in a place where that is readily accessible. You don’t have to substitute all of the ingredients all at once. It will be a transition, but we have started.

- jin & lauren

Monday, February 14, 2011

Something useful for Monday morning.

I have the problem of wanting to be a philosopher. Consequently, I never write anything useful.

I had wanted to write something useful for people for a few years now, but it seems harder to imagine than to do. I realized it was because I had not been practicing what I preach. If I don’t “do” myself, then how can I expect others to “do?” Aside from just enjoying cooking a lot, I haven’t really began to work through the gauntlet of our industrial food system to remedy the situation for myself. How can I expect others to do the same?

Shame on me:

Allow me to make an excuse for myself: To start something is hard. Your instinct is to start only when you are sure you won’t fail. It’s human nature for us to be perfectionist. We wouldn’t accept anything less! The problem too is we really don’t know what it means to eat healthy and there are too many food fads out there, so we feel overwhelmed and we choose to ignore what little we can do to ignore the guilt and uncertainty. We have been accustomed to a certain way of life, and with no perfect reason to convince us otherwise, we choose to stay within our comfort zone.

The paradox: we won’t act because we don’t know, but we don’t know because we haven’t acted.

The solution: start somewhere and don’t be afraid. The point is not to achieve but to start. A few weeks ago Lauren and I started to really pay attention to the labels on the things we buy. I am sure millions of mothers have already been doing this for decades, hence our kaleidoscope of food fads. I suggest we do something different this time. Instead of just reading the labels and following what the “current” research suggests, we should read the labels and make the best decision for ourselves.

Here are a few maxims to follow:

  1. Buy things with the least amount of ingredients listed. More natural ingredients are better, and the more names you recognize the better. If you read the label and there are more ten-syllable words than simple food names, and you have no idea what they mean or where they come from, then you may want to put it down.
  2. Price should matter! But you can make reasonable compromises. Lauren and I used to buy enough meat so we would have animal protein every dinner. We bought the cheap kind of meat, generally store brand – CAFO inducted and full of antibiotics and hormones. Since we started buying grass-fed meats, we are planning to cut back on our meat consumption to offset the double cost per week. I had grown up only eating meat two or three times per week, I think we can manage the slight cut back knowing that we are eating healthier. (We bought some bison meat and I will post an awesome Shepherd’s Pie recipe.)
  3. Buy locally grown and packaged!
  4. Don’t expect to buy things 100% local and natural. It is impossible. I think you have a better chance of walking on water. Tell yourself to just make a conscious effort, that’s all. If you follow the first two maxims, you will notice your grocery bags’ content change slowly. Lauren and I noticed certain things disappear from our daily customs and a few surprising healthy eating habits we are developing. The more you do, the more progress you will see, and more you will want to do.
  5. If we can do it, so can you.
  6. Oh, don’t forget to take your own grocery bags! And always submit ideas for us to help ourselves.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I had recently asked Ariana, an accomplished musician, what it would take for us to start living in sustainable ways and do what we can to help conserve and protect our planet. She kindly offered her thoughts. I thank her for the conversation, and don't forget - conversation is what changes the WORLD! 

- by Ariana Kim

For me, we must leave the comfort zone that most Americans have with their grocery shopping experience. I am still working on this myself! Having access to produce that would never grow anywhere near the Midwest 365 days/year is something that we've become accustomed to. It is something that many people see as an absolute. The fact that a brand can trigger familiarity (and gives us comfort so we could buy things without critical thought), shows us that it's more about encouraging people to question and critically think about their "staples" rather than bombarding them with change. If the corporate song-and-dance between advertising moguls, investors, and store designers settles down, better-quality, sustainable food would be much more accessible.

What if locally created, organic honeys and syrups were cheaper than Mrs. Butterworth? What if the 6-pack of Coca-Cola was more expensive than the 12-pack of Jones natural sugar-cane soda? And what if there was a rack of Jones soda placed front-and-center as the first thing that everyone would see as they waked into a Kroger with a huge, yellow sign that read "Sale!" -- how might this affect how we shop? Advertisers often talk about the food market being "consumer-driven," but in reality, it's just the opposite. If we can start removing ourselves from the comfort zone to which we've become accustomed, my hope and feeling is that advertisers and corporations will follow. Let's try it and see!

Friday, February 11, 2011

What it means to be American.

I listen to NPR regularly. It’s one of my most treasured American indulgences. In China, news is dictated by the State and there is no such thing as “public radio” in the form of free and unassociated journalism. I heard today that Congress has plans to pull NPR funding. I was shocked.

NPR had aired its political demise at the end of President Obama’s speech. I can’t exactly remember what the President had been addressing at the time. I was deeply in thought drawing process maps for a citizen journalism model I hope to help strengthen the public’s access to information. I do remember thinking at the time in parallel: NPR had previously introduced Obama as “The Leader of The Free World.”

“What a title.” I thought to myself. “What a concept.”
(sorry for the ADD, but my point will be clear in a few second.)

To me, freedom has been hard to come by. I grew up in China during the 1980s. This was the China before cars invaded roads and McDonald’s invaded the street sides. Bicycles were everywhere and farmers grew their own and took the rest to the city for sale. There were no industries, no regulations (I don’t think China ever had a government that regulated food).

Even though my mom and I had access to a healthier locally sustainable culture, we did not have the freedom of accessing information. Everything said was “according to the State Council” and everything was unspoken. People had just emerged from the Cultural Revolution, and no one had any sense of identity because we were all part of the State, “under the leadership of the Communist Party.”

I remember each morning I would hear the loudspeakers overhead, quietly screaming the Leaders’ directives. “Religion is bad,” the voice would echo, “following the teachings of Chair Man Mao, under the leadership of Chairman Deng, get rich is glorious . . . .”

I think my realization of freedom came when my Army buddy Mark said to me: “after this tour in this shithole, don’t let anyone tell you ‘you can’t.’” It had daunted on me that my past is now in the past, my future is this idea we fought for: democracy – liberation of a people.

But the problem I had was the fact that I was a philosophy major and just returned from Iraq. My job options were limited. I remember going to one interview for a marketing position and thinking "this is not me, I can't do this."

I also did not have the credentials to be a journalist. 

But fortune is often disguised in great peril. I stumbled upon a job listing for The American Legion. I had no idea what the Legion is. I did a quick search and read up on their history from their site. I applied and began work for a 501(c)(19) organization with 3 million members and 14,000 Posts across the world. They had been established in 1919 by the WWI veterans and built to its peak by the Greatest Generation of this country. I felt proud. I worked on important projects for very important offices. I had a great time working for them. I met so many volunteers that had done amazing things for this nation as soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and women. Gradually I became frustrated with the speed of things. I quit my job, started law school, and started this project: a market driven process that will perpetuate a positive thing. What better things to focus on than journalism – Citizen Journalism.

This Citizen Journalism should be about the fundamental things in our lives that does not belong to the federal government to regulate. Nor should we expect them to support its operations. It is our news and we should be responsible for it. This Citizen Journalism is everything that is:

"not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States,"

Our Speech is protected by the First Amendment, but the Tenth gives us the ability to act.
How do you act on information? A great friend, Susan Bird, had once inspired me with her blog about conversation and society. I took that to heart. In case you have not noticed, this blog has recently added a few more people to the conversation. It’s no longer just me talking to the world, my world around me is responding. It seems to me there is no more perfect way of communicating the news to each other by engaging in positive conversations. Building on passion and peer influence, we can take news and transform it into action. Citizen Journalism is not just about the news, but about the news and others, about the freedom to act, about the very community that nurtures us. 

What does this have to do with NPR and its public funding? Let me explain: China and the US today are faced with a insurmountable environmental problem, childhood obesity and childhood hunger. Luckily for the rest of us, a centralized Communist regime is just the thing to fight the environmental effects quickly. Their "news services" have been advocating GREEN aggressively for a number of years now. But The bigger problem is a social deterioration caused by Americans. Not only do we pollute so much more per person, we also waste more. We are setting an example to a people that worship our very existence. To a people without political freedom, the Chinese strive in every other ways to be like us. 

I remember when I was a kid, I had great admiration for the US just as many of my peers. I think the Chinese people still admire us, (as a proud citizen, I said "us"), and my Chinese people will do as you would do. If you eat McDonald's and trash the planet, so will my Chinese brothers and sisters. The scary thing is there are about 1.3 BILLION of them doing it. Today, Chinese kids are going online and looking at us. They are learning everything we are doing. If we are true Americans, we would be leaders. We would show my Chinese brothers and sisters the true meaning of FREEDOM!

Today we face the same eerie silence of information. It seems we, as Americans, are not speaking. I don't mean just any sort of speaking. There are those who are loud enough, thank you Jared Lee Loughner. I mean speaking intelligently and sensibly. I see hope. I see people rallying around each other engaging in conversations online. But the Great American Marketing Machine is turning like a well oiled machine, misguiding us to our very own destruction. Their trickery is perfected as a science and openly so. The great American Free Press is dying and being replaced with irresponsible commercialism disguised as opinion news. Just in case we cannot depend on public funding legislatively, we have to take at least this fundamental right back into our hands. If not Citizen Journalism, then what else? If we do not act, who will? If we are not responsible for our own messages, then who could? So go and support NPR, but also start your own conversation.

To conclude, I give you  this year's 1MinutetoSavetheWorld's Environmental Film Competition Best Youth Film, sponsored by UNICEF and Sony Open Planet Ideas

by Wilbury Primary School (British), Class 4B, 'Give the Colours Back to the Earth'


News release by Stephanie Leach

1 Minute to Save the World, an online international film competition, is proving that young people can have a huge impact on raising environmental awareness: from across the globe they have submitted one-minute films on the subject of climate change, making sure that their voices are heard by the world leaders and advisers who determine policy. They are the next generation of environmental activists using the internet and film to get their messages and ideas seen and heard by mass audiences online.

The competition, in its second year, has received films from young filmmakers around the world; from Mexico to Thailand, India to Vietnam. People of all ages took the opportunity to broadcast their messages to a global audience, with some films shown at the COP16 Climate Change conference in Cancun in December 2010. Judges included actor/director Frank Oz, documentary filmmaker Bruce Parry, director and climate change activist Shekhar Kapur, the UNICEF UK Climate Youth Ambassadors, and Google Green Business Operations' Ben Kotts.

The Artists Project Earth ( APE ) Youth Visions award for best film has gone to a talented group of children from Nairobi with their up-beat, hip-hop message to ‘get on your bike and save the world'. The APE Youth Vision Award offered a prize of £5000 for best film PLUS proposal as to how the money would be spent. The young people from Nairobi won the judges over with their funky film and proposal to spend the money on making a further series of six films addressing issues in the developing world such as turning waste into energy, making cash from trash and conscious consumerism. APE Award judge, Bruce Parry said, "It's a simple message with a lot of heart and great lyrics: 'More or less in control' - love it!" "Me and My Bike" also took the Best Film Award sponsored by Passion Pictures.

The Best Youth Film Award, sponsored by Unicef and SONY Open Planet, was won by the children and staff at Wilbury Primary School, Class 4B, in the UK for their film, "Give the Colours Back to the Earth". "The children are thrilled to have won first prize " said Headteacher Sandra Heaviside. "It is a tremendous achievement as it was our first attempt at this kind of competition. The children are very concerned about the effects of climate change, and were very enthusiastic to present their ideas in the form of an animation". SONY's Emily Nicoll who sat on the judging panel, stated that the film carried "evocative storytelling, passionate narration and lovely animation, combining to set out the issues and to seek solutions in children's ideas and actions." The UNICEF Youth Climate Ambassadors said that "the innocence of the children's voices is contrasted against the somber message and helps convey how they will be affected most" The winners will receive the new SONY NEX VG10 camcorder, with runners-up winning a Latitude E4300 Laptop and Minos Ultra 60 min. FlipCam.

The winning films will now be widely distributed across the internet encouraging positive action and change at a grass roots level.

Following the announcement of the winners, The 1 Minute to Save the World 2011 competition is due to start shortly inviting a new batch of young activists to join the fight against global warming armed with cameras and talent. We've seen an empowered generation issue a stern mandate through eco-activism and entertainment; we look now to continue to remind those with the capacity to make tangible change that it is urgent they do so.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

For the love of Sherlock Holmes – I hope Ken Jennings kicks Watson's a**

Okay, so this blog has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson, but if I were to title the blog post “Thomas J. Watson’s Super Computer takes on Jeopardy Champs” I would lose the effect of the analogy. And besides, I don’t really care for search engine rankings and I love to write for the sake of writing. So fans beware, I’m about to trash talk Dr. Watson’s good name.

In a few days, Watson, the IBM Super Computer will take on two of the most celebrated Jeopardy Champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. I happen to have studied a bit of artificial intelligence and can reasonably tell a story of why Dr. Watson is always doomed to follow Sherlock Holmes’ lead and why should that matter to Alex Trebek. Bear with me.

In the beginning, Dr. Watson became Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, following every cue and provided no initiatives deserving to be mentioned. Hence the Hollywood made movies about Sherlock Holmes and not Dr. Watson. Then there are computers, following our every command and never making a suggestion to us on how to be human. But the dark side of the force wishes to bring upon us the wrath of Matrix. They want to create machine intelligence to rival our own and challenge our existence.

Rewind to 2011, phew… it’s a good thing we are not there yet.

Machine intelligence is not new and it is definitely evolving. Remember Deep Blue - the supercomputer that beat world chess-champ Kasparov? The way the machine operated then was by sheer calculation of the possible moves in binary and react to Kasparov’s mistakes. The machine itself had no intelligence, mere algorisms and a databank. Then came “Eliza,” who followed simple rules of grammar and syntax and responded to human input with the appearance of a conversation. For example, if you were to ask Eliza “how do you feel today” Eliza would respond with something like: “does that question interest you?” Eliza obviously had not understanding of the human condition and merely reacted logically to a conversation. Even though Eliza had logical operations, she did not have an advanced logical routine. She merely followed a pre-defined script without maxims. Then came along a computer that had general logical reasoning. I can’t remember what our nefarious scientists called it, but it too lacked an understanding of the basic human rules of conversation.

To challenge Jeopardy, IBM had to create a computer that can learn, can process pattern recognition. Not just the simply kind of pattern recognition, spotting a circular shape to match with the letter “O.” Watson had to have the kind of complex pattern recognition that can handle Jeopardy’s unique experiment with human understanding. Watson will also need enormous memory storage since it would not be plugged into the Internet.

Watson is no chump-change. It is the equivalent of 6,000 high-end home computers and has a storage containing over 10 million documents. But it is still about pattern recognition and calculation based on best matches of possible results. It is still no Sherlock.

Here is the moral of the story. Computers are finding patterns and learning about us, but it will always just react to our needs. The few industry market geniuses are analyzing your patterns using these supercomputers and influencing you in irresponsible ways that destroyed your relationship with food and destroyed our planet.In our story, Dr. Watson is helpless to us because it cannot engage our needs in the conversation. No matter ho hard it tries, it cannot fight our fight for us. Sherlock must do the work. It's time we take back that responsibility and take the initiatives, being Sherlocks, and lead ourselves in this technology driven world. No offense to Watson - the computer, but until we have control back from the industries that are exploiting our trust and your good will, we have to hope Ken Jennings kicks your ass.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Find a tax rebate for your green life style

I don't do product reviews. This blog is not intended for product reviews. However, once in a while someone points me to a product or service that I will gladly pass on to the readers.

Here is one:

There is a handy new web tool from Ennovationz that will help you find tax credits, rebates, and state and federal incentives for living in a sustainable way. Their website lists your local energy efficiency rebates range anywhere from $25 to over $1500, depending on the item and local programs. I typed in my own zip code and found some useful tips about switching to a energy efficient refrigerator.

Just to give you a fair warning: Ennovationz is a Silicon Valley startup. That means they are commercially driven. They help connect consumers to their best green and energy efficient providers. The company has a database of over 5000 incentives -- tax credits, state programs, utility rebates, subsidized financing and more -- offered by 750 providers nationwide. The Ennovationz website also has a compare-my-bills feature, which can help residents figure out if their energy bills are out of line with similar homes in their area, and personalized recommendations for energy savings. The company is led by Martha Amram, a noted energy expert and Steven Ashby, who brings years of consumer marketing experience to the green sector. Ennovationz' offerings are free to the consumer. Check them out at

P.S. I've also put their widget on my blog in case you want to try it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A perpetual existence of the good life

There is no such thing.

My grandpa had once told me about a Tibetan custom: each year, the monks make a beautiful design in the image of the Buddha from flowers that were brought to the temple by the devoted. Each year, after the completion of this labor intensive undertake, the carpet of flowers bearing the astonishing image of Siddhārtha Gautama was destroyed in a blaze set by those who had made his image.

I remember asking my grandpa, but why would the monks work so hard all those months just so they could set it to flame?

What seemed to me counter-intuitive was obvious to my grandfather. He would laugh intentionally, not to belittle me, but to show the ignorance of my faith in something so intangible to the facts of life. He would tell me the monks knew that no matter how much we treasure the seemingly tangible, we would have to acknowledge its eventual cessation from our awareness. “All things come to an end,” he would say,” and that is why “the monks would continue this custom year after year, to show their devotion to the cycle of life that must end and begin again.” What is more important to the monks is not the product of their labor, but their opportunity to make a better one next year – to show their devotion and their celebration to life.

Today I saw a Huffington Post article about how China had banned reincarnations without government permission. This was a direct response to the Dali Lama’s indication that his successor would not be born inside Tibet so long it is under Chinese control.

My first reaction was anger. My instinct was to criticize the Chinese government for its shortsighted policies and its futile attempt to reach beyond its control.

Then, I realized something more peculiar in my range of possible reactions: something more precarious but inescapable just as the eventual destruction of Siddhartha’s image year after year – China will never be able to control the spiritual continuation of a faith by regulating it.

Oddly this made me realize another very important, precarious and inescapable, truth about my American family: the government will never be able to regulate our fundamental relationship with food and our sustainable necessities. As a culture just beginning to understand the value of our health, the worth of our fundamental rights, the need to govern ourselves with regards to the basics of our livelihood, there will always be those of us who continue to believe in what we believe. Through our labor and our perpetual effort, we will make a better life than what we think of as the perpetual good life. We will replace this industrialized food culture with a bio-diverse, locally distributed, culturally rich agriculture landscape; we will replace this over-consumptive and polluted environment with a refreshing spiritual one.

If the monks can try and try each year, remaking the image of their worship, then we can try and try, in however small ways we can to be sustainable and green, to help remake this one and only planet in the image of our own determination. But first we must believe, just as the monks have believed, that we are capable of making positive changes, not afraid of letting go what we value - a Big Mac with cheese. Only so can the Dali Lama live on in the minds of his believers, and only then can we live in the minds of our founding fathers – who believed in us to make this a perfect union of the states for the people and by the people.

Just as Tibetan Buddhism is not about where or who the Dali Lama reincarnation should be, sustainability is not about what label or what government regulation is. Both are about the believers doing the perpetual task of making the imperfect state of things into a better one, year after year, life after life.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How does the ghost turn the mill?

There is an old saying in China: money can make even the ghost turn the mill. To my American brain - money makes the world turn.

I’ve had some people ask recently what is “sustainability” and why do I run a for-profit business under the scope of this new fad. The obvious implication is that for-profit ventures are just looking to squeeze dollars from the consumers cheated into believing that they are “buying their way to progress.” If I was serious about doing some good for society, I should have started a non-profit.

I respectfully disagree. I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for a few years. I’ve learned that there is an inherent failure in the non-profit operating model that prevents them from acting quickly and exposes their projects to risk of lack of long term funding. Therefore, non-profits are prone to short term visions and insufficient or misplaced investments into the wrong channels of the economy. They may be devoting millions of dollars on a “Organic” label or fighting a court case about surfacing mining restorations, but these non-profits rarely address our long term grassroots concerns since what matters to a small community is rarely important enough for a national organization to pick up on its PAC agenda. Non-profits are also most often driven by existing interests and funds that are closely associated with either government agencies or industries. Therefore, non-profits, at least the larger ones with stable funding, cannot effectively make significant and meaningful impacts at the market place that drives our social evolution. It is inconsistent with its serving purpose – to help remedy the effects of its for-profit counterparts.

I’m not discounting the efforts and impacts of non-profits, however. In fact, I think the non-profit sector is a critical piece of the whole puzzle. The market-place where transactions take place is where the direct impact of over-consumption is felt. The secondary impacts are the social problem manifested in the forms of health issues, social and environmental injustice, symptoms of industrialization, etc. Non-profits exist as a way for us to tell lies to ourselves that we are at least doing something about the situation and in return, our collective conscious makes a point to let a few success advance just so we continue to buy the same things from the same vendors who are destroying our environment and laughing at our ignorance.

When I was certified with a Six Sigma Blackbelt, I realized that there is so much we can do in the for-profit sector to directly impact this sustainability movement. Often plant managers will say there is no way they can improve efficiency, increase production, and be sustainable at the same time. I’ve always asked the question: can a business employ sustainability concepts into an existing product without increasing cost? If not, can we adopt a new design and process standard to improve sustainability and profit.

From working with production cycles, product design, and process improvement, I’ve learned that about 80% of the time, effort, and investment were usually committed to the design phase. If we can incorporate process improvement methods with sustainability in mind, we can hope to create products and market processes that makes more green sense than what we have right now.

The market usually reacts quickly to demand changes. One of the creative way to influence demand is by introducing a new thinking to the market process and directly participate in the market under the sustainability incentive. If we compare original green product pricing with the evolved green product pricing of today, we invariably notice a downward trend. This may be a combination of growing eco awareness, increased competition, and increase application of sustainably design methods.
So while my good friends continue to make important impacts in the non-profit sector and continue their hard work within the reactionary mentality, I prefer to work from the other end – by facilitating sustainable thinking in the market process and employing technology to connect the consumer base with this new product design mentality and influence the market buying habits to match the sustainability model.

There is a happy alternative to the non-profit model called "low profit" limited liability corporations. Illinois passed a law last year allowing companies to incorporate as a L3C. B-Corps have existed for quite a while as well. You can learn more about these things here: Things You Need To Know . While I am waiting for Indiana to pass its own L3C legislation, in the mean time, I have incorporated myself as a for-profit provisioned to give back part of our profit to either the non-profit sector or other social causes. This is to ensure that we make some meaningful and direct impact in the market place. Believe me, no one is getting rich doing this, but we are all hopeful that we will make a difference.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

the death of "Organic" food

A while ago I wrote a blog about buying organic. I’ve always thought the government’s regulation of the Organic label is a nonsensical aimed to drive profit into the pockets of the food industrialists. With the Organic label in place, we are still buying produce from far away places, the farming methods are still land intensive, and we are still not eating anything that’s much healthier albeit it’s a better alternative than the hormone-injected, petro-chemical fed produce. It was a choice of the two evils.

I’ve started to buy more organic food simply because they are the lesser of the two evil. I had thought the outlook of my food security is somewhat promising if I being to make a conscious choice to facilitate government actions to create a more sustainable local food market for us.
But putting my eggs in the basket of government discretion is like giving the fox the key to the hen house. It appears that in an effort of deregulation, the USDA has effectively labeled the Organic food market into nonexistence. In a recent story from, Why You Can Now Kiss Organic Beef, Dairy and Many Vegetables Goodbye, Ari LeVaux confirmed that USDA will no longer track genetically engineered (GE) seeds that are planted by farmers. This came from an effort from Monsanto: GE crops can now be planted right along side of non-GE crops and the USDA won’t even notify or track these “mix” produce for the consumers. There goes the “Organic” label. Right?

What got some people angry, including The Center for Food Safety, is the potential for cross-contamination between GE and non-GE crops. In fact, The Center for Food Safety had once challenged Monsanto’s efforts in court. In June of last year, the US Supreme Court held that USDA is required to draft an environmental impact statement (EIS) to disclose to the public the impacts of mixing the GE and non-GE crops. (recall an EIS is required for every major federal action "significantly affecting the quality of the human environment")

According to LeVaux,

The EIS was dutifully drafted and released in December 2010. The document airs the concerns expressed by the vast majority of the 200,000-plus comments on GE alfalfa, yet somehow concludes: "...consumer preferences for organic over GE foods are influenced in part by ethical and environmental factors that are likely unrelated to minor unintended presence of GE content in feed crops."

Concluding the article, LeVaux stated:

Widespread genetic contamination has for years been threatening to make the entire GE discussion mute, because once everything is contaminated there will be nothing pure left to protect. In the same way, GE alfalfa threatens to make the whole idea of organic mute.

I had studied genetics for a while in college. My father is a geneticist and had spent his entire life genetically modifying different kind of cells for the benefit of medical research. So for me to mouth-bash genetic engineering is irresponsible and hypocritical. So I did a bit of web surfing and was pointed to a blog by a friend: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture by Brian Dunning.

I highly recommend this blog. Brian points out some of the fundamental flaws of the Organic culture and forces us to shift our focus to a more important point about our relationship with food:

We should choose farming methods that truly address our real concerns — safety and sustainability — not simply methods that satisfy an arbitrary marketing label. To whatever extent these practices include methods that are permitted under organic rules, that's just fine; but there's never a case when a safe, more efficient, and sustainable modern technology that feeds more people worldwide should be disallowed for no logical reason. Buy whatever produce you see in the market that you like and that's cheap, and don't reward the people who are profiteering by selling you fear.

So this evolution of the relationship with food, our eventual food movement, is more than just about the purity of food and some abstract intangible need to protect the virtue of our food. It’s about sustainability, it’s about environmental justice, it’s about health and welfare of the human race as well as our gracious host – planet earth. While consumers should be motivated by the ethical and environmental factors, it should be inherently driven. It should be more than a label and profits in the pockets of these Organic and conventional food industrialists.

In the end, this is not about buying "Organic." This food revolution is about locality, about regional identity, about food justice and culture, about a health relationship with our food and with each other.
When the USDA and the Supreme Court can figure that into their EIS and judicial discretions, we can hope for meaningful and logical regulation. But until then, we are faced with a regulatory system that does nothing to help us in identifying with our food. We are faced with a pressing issue of food price increases and increased margin of food injustice and inequality.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What would it take to create a “saner and more delicious food system” ?

I stumbled on a recent Civil Eats’ interview with Mark Bittman and I recommend that you read the full interview if you have time. I have also included parts of the interview here.

When asked the state of agriculture and food policy in the next 5-10 years, Bittman had this to say:

We just need more and more people fighting for food policy that benefits everyone. Right now the so-called movement feels like a few thousand people talking about it to each other—I mean, really, who’s reading this interview? Not that it isn’t worth doing, but how do we get these notions to a broader public? We need tens, hundreds of thousands of us, making noise in public. We need a new anti-war movement, one that’s not only anti-war but pro-food and, of course, pro-justice in all arenas. This is not a small thing!

My first reaction was disbelief. I am reading the interview, and at the least my dog and cat are sympathetic and read the interview as well. That makes at least one-and-half loyal followers of this movement at this very moment. I had thought there were at least a few million others in this country already participating and making changes in the better food movement. How else would I justify my time devoted to the topic?

But then again, delusion sometimes is a revolution’s best friend. Believing in something so whole-heartedly can blind us to the reality of the situation. So I started my accounting process to see if Bittman was right, that there really are just a few thousand of us talking to each other – preaching-to-the-choir so to speak.

First I thought of the Slow Food folks, an Italian movement that began in the 80s to fend off the globalizing effects of fast-food places such as McDonalds. I recently learned that Slow Food USA is making its way around the nation and their mission and philosophy is now common knowledge to your average hippie like me living in the Midwest. Local growers networks are popping up around me like Starbucks once had. On facebook, I’m noticing a range of activities ranging from individuals posting news and blogs about food and sustainability. Since Monday, I’ve joined three local groups, a few CSAs, and signed up for a talk about using technology to induce changes in the way we eat and becoming a healthier nation. (All of this right in the middle of the Midwest Corn-Belt where Monsanto probably has a secret cave and a Monsantomobile ready for action.)

So why is Bittman so gloom-and-doom? And what has anti-war movement got anything to do with the healthier and local food movement? As a former Army medic and having been to the battlefield, I failed to see the connection. No doubt that a peaceful world and a compassionate human race will give us a healthier relationship with our food. But that is wishing for the stars without even thinking about how to reach them. I personally think the sustainable healthy food movement ought to be treated politically in its own right. Why give the politicians more reasons to bark at the food demands we are making? If we make this simply about food, and our relationship with food, then perhaps we can begin to realize what really is the distinctive connection we have with nature and make reasonable progress with the middle-of-the-road politicians who worries more about reelection than anything. Perhaps then we can end our wars without much discussion and reach the stars in more sensible and direct way?

The point is: why are we still seeing this food movement as some sort of red-headed-stepchild of our national debate? Why is it that we can’t recognize this is perhaps one of the most critical and fundamental discussion we can make in our lives? Perception is everything. Problem solving requires that we clearly see each portion of the equation and solve them to get to the necessary functions we need to solve the next problem. There really is no reason to mesh all of our challenges in one place and blindly attack the topic with a shotgun. A more precision driven movement is required here. So I agree with most of what Bittman has said, but I would argue that we should not give a straw-man for the opposition to attack. The war is far removed from our food policies at a practical level. I won’t argue its consequent reality from our far removed relationship with nature and with each other, but we should focus on solving the core issue here and raise awareness of our relationship with food more directly.

Bittman’s pessimistic view continues when asked if he thinks real policy changes are possible:

It’s inevitable; it’s that or steady decline. The real question is “Does change happen because we win some important battles, or does it happen because the country or the world experiences some unforeseen disaster wakes us up?” I’m not rooting for disaster, but I’d guess we see either significant change or disaster—or both—in the next 20 years; food-wise, scary things are right around the corner. Typically, though, Americans need bad situations to bring about significant change.

Do we need WalMart and the First Lady working together? Maybe that doesn’t hurt. But we need to build community, and two things that do that are CSAs and real co-ops, and here I’m talking about community-run supermarkets. Imagine, for example, a co-op board saying “We’re going to have a small cereal aisle and a small soda aisle; we’ll carry that stuff because some of our members want them, but we want to focus on whole foods.” And note the case here: I’m talking about whole foods and not Whole Foods!

I would like to hope that Americans do not need a bad situation to bring about significant changes. I would like to believe that we are sensible enough to see our detached relationship with food and come to a reasonable decision to do something before it is too late.I would like to think that instead of going up against Wal-Mart, we should embrace their presence and demand that they respond to our needs - not the other way around.

I guess I am just an optimist when it comes to hopes and dreams. I hope you are as well. To conclude, I will echo Bittman’s reasonable demands for change:

a fairer form of taxation . . . subsidies moved from one place to another . . . a stronger FDA, a more sensible USDA . . . emphasis and support of regional food and food grown at small farms, by farmers making a decent wage . . . better treatment of farmworkers and animals . . . increase in home cooking
And I would add: a direct and distinct relationship with our food, our communities, and our future.

Mark Bittman is a food journalist and author. He wrote a weekly column for The New York Times dining section called The Minimalist. His final Minimalist column was published on January 26, 2011. Now he will be blogging a weekly op-ed column and becoming a regular Times Magazine contributor.