eco-chef Aaron French
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Selected Publications
eco-chef | blogs | ecology | photography



Author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook
Photography by Elizabeth Tichenor and Aaron French
(Voyageur Press, 2011)

green grocer
Contributing author to "The New Green Grocer Cookbook"

Fungi Magazine
Recipe: "Tequila Morel Mushrooms over pasta orecchiette in Hedgehog Mushroom Romanesco," Fungi Magazine, Spring 09

Natural History Magazine
"A Taste of the Wild," Natural History Magazine, March 09

EcoChef Column
Published every other week in ten Bay Area News Group Papers in 2008 and 2009.


May 20: EcoChef: Dangers of food packaging and BPA
Read the Article: Text Version

May 7: EcoChef: Ranchers discuss swine flu solutions
Read the Article: Text Version

Apr 22: EcoChef: Drought prompts water efficiency
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

Apr 8: EcoChef: The story behind Vegan Soul Kitchen
Read the Article: Text Version.

Mar 25: EcoChef: Connect with your food by making it yourself
Read the Article: Text Version.

Mar 11: EcoChef: At the root of endive
Read the Article: Text Version.

Feb 25: EcoChef: Salmon population in jeopardy

Feb 11: EcoChef: Sweet story behind alternative sugars 
Read the Article: Text Version.

Jan 28: EcoChef: Political promises and the food we eat
Read the Article: Text Version.

Jan 14: EcoChef:Turn back the clock on breakfast
Read the Article: Text Version.


Dec 31: EcoChef: Age-old ideas of farming are new again
Read the Article: Text Version.

Dec 17: EcoChef: Sidestep the bag of deception
Read the Article: Text Version

Nov 26: EcoChef: Restaurants navigate the green maze
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

Nov 12: EcoChef: Going green means cutting back on fast food
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

Oct 28: EcoChef: Composting for a greener earth
Read the Article:Text Version.

Oct 22: Feature article: Bioneers strategize for a healthy, sustainable future
Read the Article:Text Version.

Oct 7: EcoChef: Eat local is a way of life
Read the Article:Text Version.

Sept 24: EcoChef: Two views on the food system
Read the Article: PDF Version.

Sept 9: EcoChef: Changing the way we eat
Read the Article:Text Version.

Sept 2: EcoChef: Give native plants a chance
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

Aug 27: Feature article on Slow Food Nation
Read the Article:| Text Version.

Aug 12: EcoChef: Small, traditional farms make big environmental impact
Read the Article:| Text Version.

July 30: EcoChef: Slow Food Nation promotes growing your own produce -- even in the city
Read the Article:| Text Version.

July 16: EcoChef: Celebrate tomato diversity with heirloom tomatoes
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

July 2: EcoChef: Rising prices argue for local, organic
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

June 18: EcoChef: Many farmers not reaping benefits from higher food prices
Read the Article: Text Version.

June 4: EcoChef: Bee troubles changing industry
The buzz about urban beekeeping.
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

May 21: EcoChef: Economics and ecology meet in the lunchroom

Eating a healthy lunch is good for you and the planet.
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

May 07: EcoChef: Preserving fisheries is a matter of choice
Just what is sustainable seafood, anyway?
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

April 22: EcoChef: Lower your carbon - cholesterol may follow
The importance of a low carbon emissions diet.
Read the Article: PDF Version. | Text Version.

U.S. News and World Report
U.S. News and World Report
- Alpha Consumer Blog

April 30: "Swine Flu: Is Cheap Meat to Blame?"

January 13: "Why Suze Orman is Wrong on Restaurants"


October: "Save Money, Eat Better"

Civil Eats Blog


May 19: Never, Ever Preach - Tell Sustainable Stories Through People

May 8: H1N1, Pigs, and CAFOs: Oh My!

April 28: Swine Flu: What the Science Tells Us

April 22: Shades of Sustainability

April 15: Renewing America’s Food Traditions: An Interview with Gary Nabhan, Part II

April 2: Where our Food Comes From: An Interview with Gary Nabhan

March 23: Who Are We Talking To? A Personal Reflection on the Business of Slow Food

March 13: Choosing Wisely: Shrimp

February 28:Mediating the Honeybee-Citrus Conflict in California

Feb 27: The Devil’s Food Dictionary

Feb 20: Feeding Our Fish Habit: Stop Picking on Whales

Feb 13: Re-assessing Biofuels, an Interview with Dr. David Pimentel

Feb 4: Supporting Farms: Its Everybody’s Business

Jan 30: Michelle Obama Brings Chef Sam Kass to the White House

Jan 22: Presidential Eats

Jan 17: A New Kind of Shovel-Ready Project: Agriculture Supported Communities

Jan 12: Moving Green Forward: Six Recommendations for 2009

Jan 9: Working Together in the New Administration on Food Issues

Jan 2: Food for Cold Nights


Nov 28: Preserving The Harvest

Nov 27: A Thanksgiving Poem

Nov 17: Learn to Write About Food

Nov 4: The Dawn of the Ecotarian

Nov 3: Don't Toss Your Pumpkin, Make Pancakes!

Aug 27: The Future of Food: A Discussion with
Bioneers food and farming director Arty Mangan

Aug 22: The Centralization of our Food System

Aug 13: Preserving and Protecting Native Foods

Aug 7: Time for Tea

Aug 5: Charcuterie Nose to Tail

July 28: Chefs Tour of the Brentwood Valley

July 8: Just one more reason to eat local food

July 2: A Slow Food Guide to Ecohealth

Chefs Collaborative Blog

July 28: What a Waste: The Table-to-Farm movement

July 18: The Low Carbon Emissions Diet: Why is it important?


Conservation and Ecology Publications

French, A. R. "A Taste of the Wild," Natural History Magazine, March 2009

French, A. R. “Rock On. Rock Islands Provide Rare habitat for a Rare African Bird.” Wildlife Conservation. July /Aug 2006.
Read the Article: PDF Version.

French, A.R. “Parakeet Valley.” Birder’s World. February 2006.
Read the Article: Image Version.

French, A. R., and T. B. Smith. 2005. “Implications of inter-taxonomic dominance hierarchies among diverse tropical frugivores,” Biotropica 37:1.
Read the Article: PDF Version

Aaron M. Lamperti, Aaron R. French, et al. Nutritional content of the diet versus available fruit for two hornbills in Central Africa. (in prep.)

Benjamin C. Wang, Victoria L. Sork, Aaron R. French, et al. “Effective seed dispersal by hornbills affects seedling composition in human-disturbed and protected Central African tropical forest.” (in prep.)

Benjamin C. Wang, Aaron R. French et al."Seed dispersal by hornbills affects seedling composition in human-disturbed and protected Central African tropical forest." (in prep.)


Aaron has had his photography selected for publication by, Orion magazine, Natural History magazine, Fungi magazine, Wildlife Conservation magazine, Birder's World magazine, Wild Guides books, Slow Food Nation, the National Audubon Society, the New York Zoological Society, and the Oakland Tribune & Contra Costa Times newspapers.

National Geographic
My photograph of endangered Akohekohe (Hawaiian honeycreeper) published by
NatGeo News Watch

January 10

Natural History MagazineMarch 09: Three photographs of African edible fruits and Baka "pygmies" selected to accompany the article "A Taste of the Wild" in Natural History Magazine.

Fungi Magazine


Spring 09: Fungi Magazine published three photos of my Tequila Morel Mushrooms recipe.


Orion Magazine


Nov / Dec 08:
Orion Magazine
published a photo of my bicycle commute from Oakland to the Sunny Side Cafe in Albany, Ca.


Aaron's photography website is at:

EcoChef: Dangers of food packaging and BPA

By Aaron French
Oakland Tribune Correspondent

Posted: 05/20/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

ON A RECENT walk on the beach in Monterey, I was captivated by the cries of the seagulls and the clean smell of the surf — but also dismayed at the sight of so much trash on the beach. Plastic of all kinds littered the surf, creating a line of multicolored debris along the white sand. Looking closer, I discovered that most of what I saw came directly from discarded food and beverage containers.

Some of our discarded food containers get recycled. For example, when you walk into the Patagonia store in San Francisco, you might see a rack of shiny black wetsuits. What you might not realize is that those wetsuits, and many other garments like them, are made from recycled plastic packaging, which keeps tons of plastic out of our landfills and off our beaches.

Recycling success stories such as these, however, obscure the fact that our culture is producing mountains of trash far faster than we can utilize it in recycled form. Indeed, the extent of our garbage problem became shockingly apparent when a giant "garbage patch" of floating plastic was recently found swirling in the South Pacific.

Making choices

Sadly, it is now estimated that there is more plastic floating in the ocean than plankton (a primary source of food for fish). More disappointing is that much of this plastic is created for food and beverage companies and is directly tied into our choices as consumers.

With the continuation of our current recession, large food companies are returning their attention to the center of the supermarket, introducing and promoting an increasing number of packaged food products that can be sold at low prices. In particular, canned foods are seeing a dramatic resurgence.

On the surface this may seem like a good thing. Packaged foods can be a source of "shelf stable" nutrition, giving people inexpensive, relatively healthy options when whole fruits and vegetables aren't available. On the other hand, many packaged foods are highly processed and may contain a range of unnecessary sugars, stabilizers, and other additives that may be harmful to our health.

Ironically, however, it's not what's in packaged food that should give us the greatest pause — it's the packaging itself. Strangely, most food packaging contains ingredients that may be directly hazardous to your health.

World of plastics

Food packages, including cans, many bottles and plastic or foil "pouches," all contain at least some plastic — regardless of their appearance. And unfortunately, much of the plastic used these days contains the additive bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is also an "endocrine disrupter" when it gets into our bodies. This means that it mimics estrogen function and disturbs normal hormone communication in our cells. These properties of BPA have been known since the 1930s, when medical researchers identified BPA as a possible synthetic estrogen.

Renee Sharp, director of the California office of the Environment Working Group, says that "As a chemical, it's pretty hard to get worse than BPA. BPA is synthetic estrogen which is particularly bad for the developing babies. Exposing babies to BPA is like giving babies low doses of birth control."

BPA has been linked to cancer, neuro-behavioral developmental disorders, and obesity, but the "list of other health affects goes on and on," Sharp continues. "This doesn't mean that older children and adults aren't susceptible, but younger children are the most at risk."

Given these concerns, a bill is currently working its way through the California assembly which would ban BPA from all packaging targeted to babies and young children. Minnesota has already passed a similar bill, and there is a broader federal law also currently under consideration.

No warning from FDA

The FDA for its part is still in denial about the harmful effects of BPA, posting this message on its Web site: "At this time, FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while we continue our risk assessment process." There are currently no government safety standards limiting the amount of BPA in canned food.

This stance has been harshly criticized, even by the FDA's own science advisers, who point out that the FDA relied on studies funded by the American Chemistry Council, which has a strong stake in continued BPA production.

BPA in our food can show up anywhere. For example, a test performed by Health Canada found BPA in 96 percent of canned soft drinks, while other studies have found high levels in products ranging from chicken soup to "heat and serve" pasta pouches. Levels were highest in foods that were exposed to heat while still in their packaging.

Chemicals such as BPA don't disappear when we throw away the container, either. Sarah Vogel, an environment program officer with the Johnson Family Foundation, says "BPA has been detected in surface waters, the ocean and the air, and BPA may be entering into the water (rivers and oceans) from direct emissions in production, atmospheric deposition, landfills and erosion."

As consumers, we need to encourage our food companies to remove these harmful chemicals from the production cycle. Because once these toxic chemicals become embedded in our environment they are extremely hard to remove.

As consumers, we can and should reduce our BPA exposure. Here are some simple tips:

  • Never microwave or heat food in plastic containers.

  • Reduce your consumption of canned foods and foods in plastic or foil pouches.

  • Look for "BPA Free" labels in the coming months.

  • Eat more fresh and bulk foods which contain less packaging.

  • EcoChef: Ranchers discuss swine flu solutions

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent

    THE RECENT outbreak of the N1H1 influenza virus, also known as swine flu, has brought unprecedented attention to the now-common practice of confined pork production. Confined pig farms are called CAFOs — Confined Animal Feeding Operations — and are a relatively recent invention.

    As of this writing, the most likely "ground zero" for the recent swine flu outbreak is near the large Smithfield Pork CAFO in Mexico. But this particular farm is not unique; it is in many ways identical to numerous of other pork farms around the world. Pigs long have had an integrated role as scavengers, because of their well-known proclivity to eat anything in sight, but that is not really the problem.

    In the middle of the last century, state and federal policies began to encourage farmers to produce greater output at lower costs. Larger and larger farming methods were developed, crowding more animals into large sheds and warehouses. Today, a typical pig farm has thousands of pigs living in each warehouse. Pigs are not allowed any exposure to fresh air or sunlight.

    The result of such concentrated numbers of animals is, predictably, an outpouring of concentrated solid waste, polluted water and dirty air. Iowa, for example, is the largest pork producer in the country and also has some of the most polluted water supplies. Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the Consumers Union, says it's obvious that "CAFOs are bad for

    a number of environmental and human health reasons." So why are farmers raising pigs this way? The short answer is money.

    By the 1990s, prices for pork were low and many remaining traditional pig farmers were looking into confinement operations as a way to stay in business. As there was only one price for pork —and that price was set by the CAFO operators — traditional farmers had higher costs and were being forced out of business.

    Premium pork

    Sixth-generation Iowa farmer Paul Willis didn't want to go that route. He wanted to continue farming the traditional way. During a trip to visit his daughter Sarah Willis in Ames, Iowa, he went to a local food cooperative and saw how free-range chicken was being sold for a premium price. According to Sarah, this was the "light bulb moment" when he realized he could do the same with pigs. The key to survival for traditional pork farmers was to market their meat separately as a premium product.

    Several years later, he met Bill Niman, and the Willis family started as the premier pork producer for Niman Ranch. Now, decades later, more than 200 other pork farmers work with Niman Ranch, and a stable premium market for the pork has been created. "Niman Ranch has allowed us to continue farming — if we had not found Niman Ranch, we would have sold our farm and been done with it," says Sarah Willis, now a sales specialist for Niman Ranch.

    Niman has since sold the company, and received considerable attention recently when he publicly attacked the way the current owners were doing business. When I asked Sarah Willis why Niman might do that, she responded, "Well, for one, nothing has changed when it comes to our pork production. Nothing. But the bigger picture is that Niman Ranch provides the primary market for alternative, naturally raised meat products and provides that market for farmers. It just seems like Bill must not have been thinking of farmers."

    Natural solutions

    In response to questions about the swine flu — a flu passed to humans not by eating pork but by interacting with sick animals — Paul Willis responded, "I try not to be negative when it comes talking about how other people are producing pork, but it's just really common sense. When you pack together such a highly concentrated amount of hogs into one small area, it creates an unhealthy environment."

    With free-range types of operations where pigs are outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, it's much more difficult for virulent infections to take hold.

    Several local pig farmers I talked to echoed the same ideas. Dan Bagley of Clark Summit Farm in Tomales keeps only about 50 pigs at a time, and says, "We're not too worried about the flu." He quickly mentions the vigorous health of his animals, which are free to run around and exercise. When I probe, he says he's only had to administer antibiotics to one sick pig in five years. In CAFO environments, all confined pigs are typically fed antibiotics with their feed.

    When I brought up the issue of disease with Jim Dunlop of TLC Ranch in Watsonville, he told me, "For me, I don't really manage any diseases at all. My animals don't have disease." What does worry Dunlop is people's perception of the meat he sells — "people having a knee-jerk reaction and not eating pork because of swine flu worries."

    The most important message is this: Even though swine flu is not related in any way to cooking or eating pork, we do need to be aware of where our meat is coming from and of what the larger impacts of our meat choices are.

    EcoChef: Drought prompts water efficiency

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent

    Posted: 04/22/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

    I WAS RECENTLY up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, walking along the bank of the Cosumnes River. In past years, the trail I was on would have been at least six feet under water, as the river swelled with spring precipitation and snowmelt. But this year the water level was several feet down the bank.

    While I was happy to be able to take my beautiful hike along a dry path, it was a disturbing indicator of California's water supply status.

    As summer approaches, the question of water is on everyone's mind. We are experiencing the third year in a row of lower than normal precipitation, and a variety of state agencies and nongovernmental groups are studying the problem and releasing recommendations on how best to move forward.

    "California has a history of droughts, but there are some significant differences between the current drought and those of the past," notes a joint "Report to the Governor" from the California Departments of Water Resources and Food and Agriculture. Recent regulatory restrictions to protect endangered species, an increase in the number of California residents (by 9 million since 1990), and a change in agricultural crops toward orchards and vineyards have put increased strain on our water supply, the report continues.

    Feeling the shortage

    Access to a steady supply of clean water is something that affects everyone, no matter where they live or what they do for a living. Some, however, will feel the effects of the water shortage more sharply than others. This is because different parts of the state have widely different water rights. While the overall water demand far outstrips the available supply (even in a "normal" year), some regions and agricultural districts have historical rights to unlimited water, while others have none.

    Last year, California's farmers and food producers lost more than $300 million because of water shortages, and more than 100,000 acres of farmland remained unplanted or was abandoned. This year looks much more dire, as water shortfalls are expected to cause a loss of more than 20,000 jobs and billions in farm and producer income.

    These projections make the recent headline in Economist magazine seem odd: "Dust to dust, good things can come from a drought." But as it turns out, a few good things may indeed come out of the dust.

    Among them, a more efficient market mechanism to distribute water rights where they are most needed — and recommended in a report to the governor. The drought is also likely to prompt more efficient use of water in both urban and agricultural areas.

    Making sure that water allocated for agricultural uses is used efficiently is not simple, says Katy Mamen, Coordinator of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

    How much is too much?

    "It's really hard to quantify how much water is actually used on a farm," Mamen says. "It also gets very complicated when you start to see how some of the water applied to farmland benefits the ecosystem. It's not a simple matter of water for farms versus water for the environment."

    Mamen co-authored a report with Lisa Kresge of the California Institute for Rural Studies about innovative water management practices being implemented by farmers around California. Selecting a range of farm sizes and types, the report highlights the broad array of methods farmers are adopting.

    Some methods might seem counterintuitive at first. For example, permanent "cover crop" plants beneath trees in fruit and nut orchards might be thought to use more water than bare dirt. In fact, they "help retain water, reduce surface evaporation, and reduce or eliminate runoff and erosion," the report notes.

    Other cutting-edge practices include reducing or even eliminating the plowing of fields, computerizing irrigation systems that respond to soil moisture levels, and creating on-farm drainage management systems.

    While some of these systems may have high upfront costs, there can be significant long term savings with some unexpected secondary benefits. For example, if you reduce the amount of water used to irrigate your farm, you also reduce the amount of nutrients leeched out of the soil. The result is healthier plants and better crops to sell at harvest.

    Mamen sums it up this way: "This drought presents an opportunity to advance both practices and policy that encourage sustainable water management."

    EcoChef: The story behind Bryant Terry's "Vegan Soul Kitchen"

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent

    Posted: 04/08/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

    ON A RECENT rainy evening, a line was forming outside the door of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco for an evening of soul food appetizers and live music. The guest of honor wasn't an up-and-coming sculptor or an internationally renowned collage artist. The line was for the launch party celebrating Oakland chef Bryant Terry's new book, "Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine."

    The book is nothing short of revolutionary from a certain perspective — taking the meat out of soul food — but at the same time perfectly grounded in tradition.

    "It's not about the absence of anything," Terry said during an interview in his Oakland home, "it's about the focus on fresh, seasonal, good food."

    After all, the term "soul food," I learned from the book "African-American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture," wasn't coined until the late 1960s — even though the food itself has a long and complicated past. Adjusting to the times, however, has always been part of soul food's history, and it is in this time-honored tradition that "Vegan Soul Kitchen" resides.

    No lack of soul

    Picking up the book yields a surprise: It opens with a musical score for a prayer song titled "Thankful," which was written by Terry's uncle Don Bryant. It's immediately clear that while he's removed the meat, he has definitely kept the soul in his food.

    And just what is this good food he's talking about? How about Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux, or Black-Eyed Pea Fritters with Hot Pepper Sauce? There's nothing in these descriptions that suggest they are lamenting the absence of crispy-fried chicken or chunks of smoky pork.

    Terry grew up in Memphis and spent a lot of time with his grandparents, working in their gardens and watching them cook. A section in the book entitled "Margie's Cupboard" is dedicated to his grandmother.

    "When I think about her and the time we spent in the kitchen, what I remember was her huge pantry where she kept all these pickles and preserves and chutneys, or stuff that they would barter or was shared by people from the neighborhood. And most people had a backyard garden and fruit trees."

    Returning now, he says, is sad because there are no gardens. "The neighborhood now is just a shell of itself."

    Something to celebrate

    In Terry's childhood, it was this connection to the land and the food it produced that created the neighborhood, and he hopes to bring that back with the recipes in the book. "The book is geared to eating on weekends, holidays and special occasions," he says. Celebration food that's healthful and good was his goal — and one that would appeal to people who might eat meat but are looking for options for more plant-based foods.

    "It was important for me to make an intervention into the soul food cookbook genre that is pretty much oversaturated with books that include animal products."

    But, surprisingly, he doesn't claim to be a vegan himself. He prefers to say he has a "plant-based diet." He transitioned to vegetarianism in high school, but adds "there's been times when I've gone back to fish." That's not the important point for Terry. He's much more interested in talking about stewardship — certainly of the African-American communities that he is involved with, but also the environment around them.

    In his conclusion to the book, he writes, "Sure, just before we dig in, I might mention the health benefits of eating foods in season "... or the environmental impact of eating locally. But after that, I sit back and let people get their grub on."

    So, get your grub on with the plants of the season. If you include meat with your meal, that is just fine with Terry, but just don't say it's because the plants don't taste good. And once you start your meal with his Cold and Creamy Cucumber Watermelon Soup with Pickled Watermelon Rind Salsa, meat will be the last thing on your mind.




    EcoChef: Connect with your food by making it yourself

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 03/25/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

    SOMETIMES THINGS are just better when they are made by hand, and when it comes to the simplest foods this is doubly true.

    Doing some spring cleaning in my pantry, I found two forgotten bottles of dressing I had made. Nestled behind a bag of flour, they were labeled "Blood Orange Asparagus," and they instantly transported me back to a day at the San Mateo farmers market just about a year ago when the joint bounties of winter and spring collided into my consciousness and became transformed by my afternoon of labor into what I was how holding.

    I don't remember the date last year when I had experienced this gastronomical serendipity, but it's not hard to figure out.

    The local California asparagus season begins in late February as the plants stretch toward the sun in preparation for the gentle warmth of spring. And it's at the end of March when the California blood orange trees offer up their final harvest. I could be off by as much as a month with these estimates — the changing of seasons is different every year. But it was the nexus of these two seasons that I managed to capture in a bottle over a year ago; and here we are again.

    For the past month I've been squeezing blood orange juice to serve at the cafe, to roast with chicken and ancho chiles, or to whip into tangy breakfast custards. I've been eagerly awaiting the first local asparagus, and my wife just brought some home from her foraging excursion this morning. These two local offerings are in tune with the weather — as the stormy wind and rain lash against my windows one day only to be pushed aside by the gentle sun the next.

    It is this entire experience of place and season that I feel when I ate my simple lunch salad of watercress topped with my year-old dressing creation. To be sure, it might not have been the best thing that I have ever made — perhaps it could have used a little more this or that. But that isn't the point; the point is that I had made it. That alone made it worthwhile.

    And I'm not alone in this feeling of attachment to the efforts of my hands. The February issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article called "The Ikea Effect: When Labor Leads to Love," by Michael I. Norton. Norton writes "People place a disproportionately high value on products they had a hand in making. They'd rather buy their own amateurish origami than something made by a pro." I couldn't agree more.

    The article continues with a case study about cake mixes. When they were first developed, the mixes were initially rejected because women thought they were too easy to make. An easy cake mix devalued the work women had traditionally spent to make their celebration pastries. Food companies went back to the kitchen and reformulated their products to require more work — adding an egg, perhaps some oil in addition to the water that had been requested before. Voila! That was all that was required at the time, and the mixes have since become a part of the American experience.

    As a country we are now a long way from those early experiments with industrial convenience. In the subsequent years we have embraced these conveniences as part of our society. In the process we have ended up losing generations of culinary experience.

    But the pieces of the puzzle are increasingly available to those who look — we just have to make the time. As Hank Cardello and Doug Garr write in their book "Stuffed, An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat" (Harper Collins, 2009), people used to spend about two hours each day preparing for dinner. Now, we spend an average of 20 minutes. As a result we have turned over the keys to our health to others in the food industry who don't always have our best interests at heart. But Cardello doesn't fully blame the food industry. He writes, "When it comes to diets and food, we're a nation of lemmings. We engulf every trend, no matter how ridiculous it sounds or potentially harmful it may be."

    The trend to embrace now is one of connection. The more we choose to connect with our food, the greater the value we will end up placing on those actions. And in the process we will recapture some of the value that food has in our lives.



    EcoChef: At the root of endive

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 03/11/2009 12:00:00 AM PDT

    AS YOU CRUISE down the vegetable isle of your local store, you might see a strange looking white vegetable — perhaps wrapped in blue paper. Called endive and pronounced "on-diive," this vegetable has an interesting history tied to the late-winter season we are experiencing.

    As a culture, we Americans have become accustomed to having as much food as we want, all year round. In fact, as New York Times columnist Mark Bittman joked on a recent Colbert Report, "There is actually about twice as much food in the United States as we need to sustain ourselves, so it's very important that all of us eat as much as possible to get rid of that." That, he went on to say, is why "we've gotten in the habit of eating unconsciously, and we eat without thinking."

    But this extreme abundance is a relatively new phenomenon — particularly in the northern hemispheres, where food scarcity for part of the year has been common throughout history. In Europe, for example, the late winter season was a very difficult time when it came to food.

    Months past the fall harvest, stocks of dried and preserved foods would become increasingly scarce. Families would have to create ingenious ways to stretch their food supplies, and many would literally be hungry until the first of the spring bounty arrived. The universal scarcity of food is believed to have prompted the Catholic tradition of fasting during Lent. It certainly would have made it easier to get through this rough time as a community if everyone is fasted together.

    But an accidental discovery back in the 1800s presented a new food for people to eat during these hungry times.

    It has been a long tradition in Europe to make a drink made with chicory root, a perennial herb related to the daisy. The roots are baked and then ground up to make a coffee-like drink that is tasty (but sadly lacking in caffeine!) Right about now, you might be thinking that I've digressed from the endive; not so.

    According to an 1830s legend, a new type of winter food was discovered when some chicory roots were housed in a dark and humid cellar. Under the right conditions, the roots sprouted some pale white leaves that someone broke off and decided to eat. From this discovery, a new food industry soon developed.

    The leaves of the chicory are called endive, and have a crunchy texture and slightly bitter taste that can be eaten fresh or cooked.

    Endive production is big business in Europe, but here in the United States, there is only one producer. Called California Vegetable Specialties (CVS), the company is more than 25 years old and is based in the small Delta town of Rio Vista.

    Modified from those original cellar experiments, today's endive production is a very precise science. Roots are harvested after one growing season and transferred to a temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouse. It is here that the edible endive shoots emerge under the right conditions. CVS president Rich Collins has figured out how to store the roots to have a crop available year-round, but the majority of his harvest is sold in the traditional winter months.

    Collins is especially proud of creating a system that's productive and prolific. Each acre of roots uses only 300 square feet of grow-space in the warehouse. And the crop is also highly water efficient, important with the drought conditions this year. He says that his entire plant warehouse is watered by a small domestic-sized well. "We are very, very mindful of being as efficient as we can be. Nothing goes to waste," Collins adds.

    In Europe, the plant roots are used to make chicory. Because the drink has a very small market here, Collins gives his roots away to make a nutritious cattle feed. "Because of that, Rio Vista is the No. 1 recycling city in California," Collins says proudly.

    So just how do you use endive? Don't be afraid to simply break off one of the outer leaves to taste the crunchy complexity of flavor. A great way to enjoy endive is to simply spread a layer of leaves out on a plate, sprinkle them with some good olive oil, perhaps some sea salt, and add a little dash of balsamic vinegar. You could also toss them with some toasted California walnuts, or braise them in the oven with a little milk, some salt, pepper and a dash of nutmeg. Twenty minutes in a hot oven and you will have a wonderful side dish.

    However you eat them, remember that they connect you directly back to the food traditions of Europe, when many people were much less fortunate than we are with our food choices.


    EcoChef: Sweet story behind alternative sugars
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 02/11/2009 12:00:00 AM PST

    I LIVED FOR a time on Maui, the land of 10,000-foot volcanoes, pineapples, sunsets over the ocean — and sugar cane. Most of the year, the air there was pure and fresh; but during harvest season, when the sugar cane fields were burned to simplify collection, the air was thick with smoke and ash, and the locals would be watching the sky for a strong wind to blow it out to sea.

    This scene played out again when I was down in Brazil, where the air around São Paulo was brown and dirty — not from automobile pollution, as I had guessed, but from the burning sugar fields. And these are not isolated incidents. According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, "substantially elevated levels of carbon monoxide and ozone in the atmosphere have been found around sugar cane fields" at the time of pre-harvest burning.

    And in addition to air pollution, the WWF study found that growing sugar cane wastes water, uses lots of chemicals and is often done at the expense of wildlife habitats. In addition, sugar cane mills cause air pollution. The report concluded that "the production of sugarcane has probably caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop."

    Luckily for us, there are many other plants that can provide sugar, including different species of cactus, maple trees, several kinds of palms, roots and rubbers, and even flowers. And while it is not likely most of us will ever give up sugar completely, we can make an impact by diversifying the sweeteners we use in our daily lives.

    Chef Mani Niall knows a thing or two about cooking with all types of sweet ingredients. Right now he's executive chef at Just Desserts in San Francisco, but before that he was at the helm of his own Mani's Bakery chain in Los Angeles, a bakery that became famous for serving more healthful versions of classic recipes. Some of those bakery secrets are included in his newest book, "Sweet! From Agave to Turbinado, Home Baking With Every Kind of Natural Sugar and Sweetener."

    When I talked to Niall, he was quick to mention that he didn't "want to mislead readers into thinking that this book is about switching away from sugar." Most of his recipes do use granulated sugar, but also integrate other sweeteners, such as panela and agave from Latin America, gur and jaggery from Asia and India, sorghum from Africa. Niall's book includes a detailed listing of all of the different types of sugar and their sources.

    What's important to know is that traditional white sugar, or sucrose, is a grouping of two more simple sugars called glucose and fructose. While pure sucrose can be obtained from many plant sources, they all have different minerals and other compounds attached that slightly alter how they react in recipes and in our bodies. As they vary in color, texture, sweetness and flavor, substitutions require careful recipe planning, Niall explains.

    Just as molasses and honey are vastly different in taste, so are many of the other sweeteners. Jaggery, also known as gur when it's made from palm tree sap, is dark and coarse, with a winy fragrance. Agave, which comes from cactus, is mild in flavor, more like corn syrup in flavor.

    From a health standpoint, reaching for alternative sugars can be a very good thing. The reason is that sugar is rapidly assimilated as a quick source of energy caused by a rapid increase in blood glucose levels. This has been linked to a wide range of chronic health problems. Sugar alternatives, however, have different chemical structures that are assimilated differently by the body.

    For example, agave syrup is believed to have a lower glycemic index because it breaks down more slowly into the bloodstream. Yacon syrup can't even be absorbed by the human digestive system. Science aside, the way in which these different sweeteners affect you directly depends on your particular health conditions.

    The upshot is that all good things are best in moderation. As a nation, we eat more sugar with each passing year. If we can learn to diversify our sweet tooth and incorporate some other sweet flavors into our diets, it will certainly be a boon to our bodies. And it will also benefit the planet, as some of those burning cane fields can be converted to other purposes.


    EcoChef: Political promises and the food we eat
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 01/28/2009 01:00:00 AM PST

    We don't normally connect political promises with the food on our tables — but we should. In the months before the nation's attention was caught up in fiscal crises and foreclosures, then-president-elect Barack Obama made a number of promises that have potentially far-reaching effects on the food we eat.

    Among them, he promised to "establish a new program to identify and train the next generation of farmers," by providing tax incentives to make it easier for new farmers to afford their first farm.

    I write this column following the inauguration ceremony of our new president, with his words running through my mind: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility." And I can't help but relate them to the issues of food ecology that I deal with every day.

    In addition to his promise to support first-time farmers, he also promised support for smaller, independent farms, and limits on corporate agribusiness subsidies. And he pledged to strengthen antimonopoly laws to aid smaller farmers when they sell and distribute their goods.

    If implemented, these two measures alone dramatically would alter the agricultural landscape of this country. Indeed, they would signal a formal about-face from the 1970s, when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said to farmers, "Get big or get out."

    Obama has made several specific promises to help support sustainable and organic farms by increasing the funding for the awkwardly titled "National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program," which helps farmers afford the increased overhead of organic certification. He also promised to change the federally mandated crop insurance rates, which currently penalize organic farmers.

    Moving off the farm, Obama made several promises that could affect the water we drink and use for irrigation He promised to "reinvigorate" the drinking water standards diluted by the Bush administration, and update them to address newly discovered threats.

    Equally important, he promised to restore federal financing for wastewater treatment infrastructure and federal support for local water conservation efforts. With chronic shortages looming on the horizon, any water conservation measures we can adopt will make a big impact on how much food we can grow.

    The one pledge he has made that I am most concerned about is his commitment to increasing biofuel production. Biofuels often use more energy to produce than they offer in return, and they have been blamed, at least partially, for the rapid inflation in food prices last year.

    Additionally, the increased acreage of crops needed to produce these fuels, even at current levels, has seen the destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin Amazonian rain forest, the destruction of critical orangutan habitat in Indonesia, and troublingly, a decrease in crops available for food.

    In addition, the process of clearing new land to grow fuel crops releases more carbon into the atmosphere, negating much of the environmental benefits that biofuels might offer. So while I agree that biofuel research is a good idea, Obama's promise to "Require at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030" seems premature.

    Of course, we will have to wait and see what Obama's administration actually does in the days ahead. But if even a few of these promises are honored, the agricultural landscape that creates the food for our table will be dramatically altered for years to come.

    EcoChef: Turn back the clock on breakfast

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 01/14/2009 12:00:00 AM PST

    WITH THE TURNING of the New Year, I wanted to start at the beginning — with breakfast, the most important meal of the day. How each of us starts our morning sets the stage for how we eat the rest of the day.

    Many might not be aware that the associations we have with most breakfast foods today have been heavily influenced by advertising and marketing in the early half of the last century. To give you an idea of how far we've strayed, consider what was a typical breakfast for a New England factory worker in the mid-1800s: "big plates of fried cod, potato balls, pumpkin mush with molasses, fried hash, toast, and maybe even apple pie, along with coffee and brown sugar." (From "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove" by Laura Schenone, 2003, W.W. Norton & Co.)

    Now, a portion of that might seem familiar (the toast and coffee, perhaps?), but where is the bacon, or the eggs over easy, or the even the cereal with milk and orange juice?

    Eggs were an important part of the meal, but used as an ingredient to make the popular Fried Codfish, a mash of boiled cod, mashed potatoes and beaten eggs. Would you like the recipe? Probably not ... our tastes have changed.

    In the late 1800s, food companies started to trademark foods and market them for specific meals. For example, Quaker Oats became a trademark in 1877 — before that, they were just oats. In the following years, modern breakfast cereals were invented,

    meat producers began to target their marketing for breakfast foods, and breakfast slowly became relegated to a second class meal, often eaten on the run.

    Slow down for breakfast

    This last trend has affected breakfast most profoundly in recent years. Breakfast has been transformed from a central part of our daily routine to an afterthought, something to be eaten quickly in the car on the way to school and work. From a health perspective — both environmental and human — this needs to be slowly reversed. This one shift in our eating habits results in a cascade of unintended consequences.

    First and foremost is that most convenience foods made for breakfast are heavily processed and packaged, and contain an abundance of sugar and calories. Eating these foods contributes excessively to energy use, landfill creation and our expanding waistlines.

    Breakfast is particularly important for children. According to the American Dietetic Association, breakfast is one of the most important factors "assuring optimal development and growth, positive effects on alertness, attention, performance on standardized achievement tests, and other skills important for academic success." But we can extrapolate similar effects for adults. In addition to well-documented studies that demonstrate the people who eat a healthy breakfast lose weight and have more energy, a healthy breakfast also can reduce the amount of junk foods we eat throughout the rest of the day.


    So, what is a good eco-breakfast? One of the very best things we can do is to eat leftovers from the night before. Not only does this reduce waste and energy use, it will help to make sure that we're eating a breakfast higher in vegetables and protein.

    Another great eco-breakfast, particularly in these winter months, is slow-cooked hot cereal. While many Americans are accustomed to instant and microwave cereals, much of the nutrition has been removed to make them microwave-ready. A better option would be to cook some rolled grains — oats, barley, etc. — in a slow cooker overnight. It takes less than five minutes to get things started in the evening. Set the cooker on low, and wake up to some flavorful breakfast cereal. Just be sure to use enough liquids for the longer cooking time — while I typically cook my oatmeal with a 2:1 ratio of water to oats, I use at least a 3:1 ratio when cooking them overnight (the exact ratio will depend on the type of cooker you have, the heat it cooks at and how tightly the lid fits.) Feel free to add the sweetener of your choice, some nuts and dried or seasonal fruits to make your cereal a tempting treat in the morning.

    Finally, for a quick meal on the go, a great option would be hard-boiled free-range eggs and a seasonal piece of fruit. The eggs can be cooked and peeled ahead of time to make your morning easier as you head out the door. By consistently eating a breakfast of healthy whole foods, you are doing what's best for your body and the planet.


    EcoChef: Age-old ideas of farming are new again
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent

    AS WE TURN the corner on 2009, I wanted to take the opportunity to applaud several fresh approaches to food distribution that, in a way, are giant steps backward.

    The past year has seen a remarkable increase in awareness about where and how our food is produced. While most food bought and sold in the United States still circulates through a national or even international network of buyers and distributors, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of food bought at the local level — direct transactions between farmers or ranchers and consumers.

    While this discussion typically has focused on farmers markets as outlets of local food, or perhaps Community Supported Agriculture programs, these are not the only options available. As consumer interest in localized food grows, so do new distribution models.

    One benefit of farmers market sales, for example, is that they allow people to see exactly where their money is going. Consumers form relationships with the people growing their food. Creating relationships is one factor that motivates Marissa Guggiana of Sonoma Direct Meats to go against conventional wisdom and connect her customers directly with her suppliers.

    Both Guggiana and Beni Ratto of Leo L. Cotella Produce in Oakland are spearheading new ventures focusing on local foods that echo the teachings of their grandfathers — while simultaneously changing the future of sustainable food.

    "There needs to be more transparency in the food industry," says Guggiana, who has started a new distribution project that links restaurant chefs directly with the ranchers supplying their meat. "We really started a good conversation in the past year around local food," she says, but "it's just the beginning."

    Her goal is to create a system where "chefs buy directly from the farm, buying a whole carcass or close to it." Sonoma Direct Meats still will be involved in the transaction as processors and distributors, but the customers will know exactly what expenses go to the rancher, to the processor, and for shipping. As an additional benefit, Guggiana doesn't "have to take the risk of buying meat that doesn't sell." She sees it as a "Win, Win" for her and her customers. Currently she connects about 15 local farms with an equal number of Bay Area restaurants.

    Ratto's family business is also taking a giant step back into the past — in order to move forward. Ratto and his family produce company, Leo L. Cotella Produce in Oakland, has teamed up with the Buy Fresh Buy Local program. The program was created by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to support regional farms and foster a sense of community. Ratto couldn't agree more, adding that his family has been selling local produce since 1898. "Now, I'm just trying to return to what my great-grandfather did a century ago."

    The biggest difference with being involved in Buy Fresh Buy Local, he says, is that now all of his family's local produce is clearly labeled as such.

    With increased consumer interest, Ratto saw the need to increase the transparency in his family operation and to clearly list where all the produce came from. Now, he sells from farmers that partner with the Buy Fresh Buy Local program as well as other producers that grow within a 150-mile radius of his Oakland market.

    Neither idea is new — and to me that is why they are interesting. They are both age-old methods of eating as a community, of connecting with your larger surroundings. But the fact that these ideas are "new again" means that the food industry as a whole is going in the right direction.

    EcoChef: Sidestep the bag of deception
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 12/17/2008 12:00:00 AM PST

    IN THE LAST several years, all wildlife — from birds to frogs, insects to deer — have been villainized in the name of food safety. Nowhere is this more common than in the leafy greens industry that sells bagged lettuce and spinach.

    First, some background. This story starts in 2006, in the aftermath of the spinach E. coli contamination scare. The leafy greens industry lost millions of dollars and wanted to ensure that a similar incident wouldn't happen again. Unfortunately, they couldn't directly change the crux of the problem — packaging mixed greens in plastic bags.

    Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance, says, "The bag itself is a micro-incubator." The processing and "washing of thousands of pounds of greens at a time can spread pathogens to scores of consumers."

    As the industry didn't see a way to change their business model directly, they created a diversion and made wildlife the enemy, Baumgartner says.

    Terry Palmisano, a wildlife biologist from the California Department of Fish and Game, agrees. "It's a war on wildlife," he says. "We shouldn't have to destroy one to protect the other."

    Palmisano discussed the little-known relationship between wildlife and food safety at a recent conference organized by the Wild Farm Alliance.

    Under new regulations, if farmers want to sell their lettuce to the packers and wholesalers, they are forced to eliminate both wildlife and wildlife habitat from their farms. For example, they are asked to plow increasingly wide "sterile zones" between crops and nearby water or grassy areas — as much as 450 feet wide.

    These rules go above and beyond what is required by law, and more surprisingly, what is indicated by the best available science. It is the middlemen — the buying agents and wholesalers — who are requiring these extreme measures.

    Farmers are being asked to put up fences to exclude wildlife, set up trap and poison stations bordering their farms, and even shoot animals seen nearby. There is a zero-tolerance policy — if one deer footprint is seen in the field, for example, the farmer may not be able to sell the crop.

    Current research demonstrates the futility of these efforts, if the goal is truly food safety. Diana Stuart, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Santa Cruz, says her research shows that "native wildlife pose little risk of food borne illnesses." E. coli is a human parasite, and is only rarely found in wild animals. Furthermore, research conducted by the USDA shows that having grass and vegetation buffers around crops can actually filter out 99 percent of dangerous pathogens.

    From the consumer perspective, I was surprised to learn that buying organic greens doesn't necessarily solve this problem. Many organic growers are still required by their buying agents to adhere to these same rules, even though these rules violate federal organic standards that require all farmers to maintain or water wetlands, woodlands and wildlife on their farms.

    As for Palmisano and the Department of Fish and Game, she is dismayed by the increase of what she calls the "shoot, shovel and shut up" mentality that farmers have. She concedes that farmers are definitely caught but adds, "we need to bring some science back into the mix, and some common sense back to the issue."

    A related issue is that the Fish and Game Department traditionally has not allocated many patrol rangers to agricultural areas, and now is unable to patrol the new areas of concern thoroughly enough. Palmisano called on the community to help by reporting any known wildlife violations.

    The irony is that crops have coexisted beside wildlife for thousands of years. It is only when the packaging changed that food contamination problems began. No known disease outbreaks have been caused by loose or bunched spinach or lettuce, for example.

    So what are we to do if we don't want to contribute to these destructive farming practices? According to research conducted by the Wild Farm Alliance, our best bet is to buy bagged greens sold at farmers' markets or directly through community supported agriculture relationships. Otherwise, stick with traditional bunches of lettuce that are more wildlife friendly.

    As consumers, if we want to help save our vanishing wildlife, we simply need to invest a little more time to wash and prepare our own salad greens, which seems like a small price to pay.


    EcoChef: Restaurants get certification for going green
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Posted: 11/26/2008 12:00:00 AM PST

    IN MY LAST column I discussed some eco-downfalls involved with eating fast food, recommending a simple home-cooked meal instead. However, when we do want a restaurant meal, how do we know which restaurants are environmentally "green"?

    You might comb for clues such as organic produce or free range meats. But the menu, it turns out, doesn't give the larger "green" picture. For example, does the restaurant try to conserve energy? Does it reduce the garbage it produces? Does it reduce the water it consumes? These are all important but largely hidden from the customers' eyes.

    In most of the country, if you want to figure out how green a restaurant is, you are on your own. But in the Bay Area, we have what may be the country's only program that certifies green restaurants. And it's been around since 2002.

    Called the Bay Area Green Business program, it is coordinated by the Association of Bay Area Governments and includes all nine Bay Area counties — from Sonoma to Santa Clara, San Mateo to Contra Costa.

    "We haven't found another program like this in the country," says Ceil Scandone, the Regional Coordinator for the Green Business program. The program was actually started in the 1990s, initially as a way to reduce hazardous waste, but members realized there were other opportunities to reduce environmental impact.

    The program now certifies everything from auto repair shops to hotels, commercial printers to restaurants. "We now have over 1,500 certified businesses," Scandone says, "which is a great start, but only a start." She adds that the number of businesses they certify as green is increasing each year.

    Of the 1,500 businesses, it should be noted, only about 100 are restaurants. "Most restaurateurs are some of the busiest people that I know," says Pam Evans. "It's difficult for them to take time out to do this."

    Evans, program manager for Alameda County, adds that some compliance requirements can be a challenge for many restaurants.

    There are five core elements to the program. All businesses must reduce energy use, reduce water consumption, reduce waste and prevent pollution. The fifth element is called "environmental compliance," which varies with business types.

    For restaurants, the environmental compliance focuses on clean waste water disposal, clean waste storage and proper grease disposal. "This can be one of the most challenging parts for many restaurants," says Evans, who has had restaurants back out of the program.

    But while the certification can be rigorous, "we don't require perfection," Scandone says. Certain aspects of the program are required, like buying at least 30 percent recycled context paper and recycling all waste paper, plastic and metal. But there is a lot of flexibility in ways to meet the necessary standards.

    The Sunny Side Cafe in Albany where I chef recently became certified green, and for us it was a nearly year-long process. At Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, the process took about six months.

    Chef Kenneth Todd Kniess of Bistro Liaison says since being certified, the program has helped him reduce his water and electricity bill each month. Kniess couldn't be happier: "It's worked out well for us. Now we're part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem."

    Once the certification process is completed, the process is still not over. Every three years there is a recertification, and if standards have changed, the businesses need to be brought up to the current level.

    There are upfront costs to these changes, but many of these are subsidized or even entirely paid for by a variety of public and private partner organizations. "They were amazing," says chef and co-owner Amy Murray of Berkeley's Venus restaurant. "All the partner groups made it so easy, and they paid for things and made these changes free."

    The county coordinators in the program are eager to get more restaurants to start the process, says Evans. "Because restaurants are larger energy and water users than many other businesses, we can get a larger 'bang for the buck' when working with them."

    To see where you can get the most green for your buck in your neighborhood, go to


    EcoChef: Going green means cutting back on fast food
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune Correspondent
    Article Last Updated: 11/11/2008 12:20:09 PM PST

    THERE ARE MANY ways that we can eat more sustainably. One of these ways is to simply resist the urge to grab that fast-food burger or bucket of chicken on the way home. Americans are spending an increasing amount each year on fast food — from $6 billion annually in 1970 to $140 billion in 2007. Surprisingly, saving money is one of the top reasons people give to support this fast-food habit.

    These claims are often driven by advertising. If you watch any television these days, you might have seen a recent KFC commercial about the $10 family meal challenge. The absurd claim is that you can't cook a healthful family meal for less than $10.

    Like many chefs, I knew this was a hoax, but didn't bother to test the claims specifically. Not so for chef Kurt Friese, author of the new book "A Cook's Journey, Slow Food in the Heartland" (Ice Cube Press). He accepted the challenge and took it head-on, posting his findings at

    Transition to green

    Using recipes from "The Joy of Cooking," he re-created the meal with chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and homemade biscuits. The bottom line? The KFC meal including tax was $10.58. Friese writes, "I made the same meal for $7.94 — and I got three extra pieces of chicken and a carcass to use for soup. I want to point out that Friese lives in Iowa, so perhaps your local market prices might be a little higher. But he does note that his shopping was done at a "higher-end place ."

    This is just one more example of the mythology present in modern consumer culture. We think we are being efficient consumers with these "budget" fast-food meals. But we are not only spending more money, we also are taking part in a system that is based on cheap oil and excessive energy use. This system is "doomed to failure," Friese says, and we need to start looking for alternatives. "You're going to save a lot of fuel by eating at home," Friese continues, noting that you can easily shop for the entire week with one trip to the grocery store, but a trip to the fast-food restaurant typically results in a single meal.

    This reality highlights one of the problems of defining sustainable eating. Indeed, on one level, making a KFC meal at home isn't entirely sustainable, especially when you make that meal with conventionally raised meats and nonorganic ingredients. In contrast to the KFC alternative, however, it is much more energy-efficient, much less wasteful of packaging, and offers more food for less money.

    This is one of the ironies of the word "sustainable," a word found on everything from car advertisements to magazine covers. You might think that a word that is so frequently used might have a solid definition, but sadly, sustainable does not.

    Typical definitions include a phrase that goes something like this: "Sustainable is being able to meet the needs of current generations without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet theirs." This sounds nice, but quickly falls short when you try to put it into practice. What are the needs of current generations? How do current actions affect the future? How far into the future do we need to look?

    To try to shed light on some of this confusion, I looked to the USDA's National Agricultural Library to find some clarification. Unfortunately, it offered little help, beginning its discussion like this: "Some terms defy definition. 'Sustainable agriculture' has become one of them. In such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable?"

    Looking for balance

    The USDA might not be able to give us clear answers, but classic ecology can. Ecologists use the word equilibrium to describe a sustainable system. A cycle is in equilibrium if the forces of inputs and outputs are balanced. What this tells us is that we have to measure how green we are in relative terms.

    A move towards sustainable eating for a family eating that KFC meal once or twice a week is simply to start eating at home. For another family, it might be increasing the amount of food purchased at farmers markets, or integrating a composting routine into their daily lives. All of these possibilities are equally important.

    The bottom line is: Do what you can to cut out the fast food, and you'll be doing your pocketbook, your health and the environment a world of good.

    EcoChef: Composting for a greener earth
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 10/28/2008 12:00:00 PM PDT

    THERE IS A final frontier in the food world that gets very little attention, and that is what happens to the food when it leaves our plates. One-third of all the trash we throw away in the United States is food waste, and 97 percent of these food scraps end up in landfills.

    The problem here is that as that food rots in landfills, it contributes to global warming, producing methane gas, which is many times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

    A better alternative is to compost that food waste. This is an easy option for both home and commercial waste. In some areas, trash collectors collect food waste weekly along with your garden and lawn trimmings and take
    More care of the composting for you. If that's not the case where you live, it's pretty simple to compost at home, and you might even get paid for it.

    To get an overview of food composting in the United States, I talked with Jonathan Bloom, who blogs at He told me that composting at the municipal level is really only happening in a handful of places across the United States. He calls it extremely rare.

    That assessment was echoed by Brian Mathews, senior program manager at Mathews says that nationally, food composting is so rare that "I don't know that anybody is tracking it, and even our program is still in its infancy." That said,

    he adds that Alameda County has the largest food recycling program in the area, and one of the largest in the country.

    Alameda County started accepting food waste into its green-waste bins in 2000, and has slowly expanded the program to more and more areas and cities. Both businesses and residences can participate.

    When you get right down to it, it's quite easy to do. Simply toss your food waste into the provided collection bin separate from your other trash. Once you start, you might be amazed how much lighter your trash can is at the end of the week. But what happens to the food once it's picked up?

    Green waste is hauled to a composting facility, where it is mixed with paper, cardboard, yard waste and other green material to achieve the right mix. This mix ensures that the pile has the right balance of airflow so it will break down correctly to produce compost that can be used for agriculture and in city parks.

    While composting itself is not a new idea, it has only very recently been adapted to this large scale. In the 1980s, Mathews helped to build the first permitted composting waste facility in California. It was used by canneries and industrial food producers as a way to reduce costs.

    In addition to Alameda County, San Francisco has had a food composting program for several years, and now San Mateo and Contra Costa counties are increasing their offerings as well.

    In Contra Costa County, residential food scrap recycling is offered in Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, and a pilot commercial program is starting in Walnut Creek and Lafayette. San Mateo County is also starting food waste collection programs in selected cities, including San Carlos and Daly City.

    Food scrap recycling can be complicated by the complex relationships that exist between cities, counties, waste management districts and private companies. For example, a business in Albany may pay up to 50 percent less for its trash service if it separates out its green waste, while a business in Oakland may only receive a 25 percent discount due to contract differences.

    Even if composting is offered in your area, Lillian Clark of San Mateo County RecycleWorks suggests that you might want to keep all of that organic goodness for yourself, to use on your lawn or garden. Rather than transporting it, why not just put it back into your own soil?

    If you're not sure how to make sure your compost pile is balanced, help is readily available. All Bay Area counties provide subsidized recycling bins and materials, as well as offer classes and workshops about how to become master composters.

    Gardeners are especially enthusiastic about the classes, says Deidra Dingman of Contra Costa County. "When people find out about the composting classes that we offer, they say 'We're so excited! We've been looking for this forever!'"

    However you do it, composting is one of the best ways to decrease your impact on the planet. In addition to the greenhouse gas benefits mentioned above, natural compost is an essential food source for the plants that feed us in return. Particularly if you value a sustainable food system, how your food leaves the kitchen is just as important as what kind of food you buy.

    To learn more about composting, check out these Web sites:;;;


    Bioneers strategize for a healthy, sustainable future
    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune correspondent
    Article Last Updated: 10/22/2008 02:36:39 PM PDT


    Chefs are the rock stars of the food movement, serving up delectable bites of all things good — and good for the environment.

    But for every restaurant chef, there are dozens of people working behind the scenes, food pioneers who work hard to make sure the food on our dining table is produced in a sustainable manner, that farmers can afford to stay on their land, and that our children receive an education that promotes a healthy lifestyle for themselves and the world.

    This past weekend, many of those behind-the-scenes people gathered for the 19th annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, a forum for forward-thinkers in the food business.

    The conference consists of a carefully selected collection of sessions that are dedicated to creating a future of environmental hope, from exploring ecological design to promoting understanding of indigenous knowledge.

    Bioneers includes a broad range of issues, but in the current economic climate, it is the Bioneers Food and Farming segment that has taken center stage.

    Even though Bioneers itself is based in New Mexico, many of the people selected to speak at this year's conference are based here in the Bay Area. We talked to five of our Bay Area food system pioneers to find out more about their missions for change.

    Larry Bain, co-founder, Let's Be Frank
    'I love meat," says Larry Bain. But a number of years ago, he became aware of the environmental damage that commercial ranching operations cause. Looking for a solution to this apparent conundrum, he realized that moving cattle off of feedlots and back onto pastures would fix most of the problems that modern ranching cause.

    But this is only part of the picture. Bain also realized that there was an economic component. "Pasture-raised animals "... are great for the environment, and offer ranchers a way to get out of the commodity system which was bankrupting them."

    After working at top-tier restaurants like Jardiniere, he co-founded ACME Chophouse, and became friends with the ranchers who produced the grass-fed steaks he served. Bain points out that "$60-a-plate restaurants are great, but they are not going to change the way people eat." Wanting a way to bring grass-fed meat to the masses, and realizing that animals have a lot of meat beyond the prime cuts demanded by restaurants, the idea for Let's Be Frank was born.
    "What people don't appreciate is how hard it is to make a hot dog," Bain lamented. "You need state-of-the-art equipment, and for us it was 18 months of trial and error!"

    Today, Let's Be Frank products are sold throughout the greater Bay Area and Los Angeles in 20 independent markets, and at hot dog carts at Crissy Field and weekends at the AT&T ballpark.

    What most pleases Bain is that the success of Let's Be Frank means he can now buy more grass-fed meat, which supports more sustainable ranches and ranchers.

    "By making a really great product, we can charge a little more," Bain says, "which supports our original goal of giving ranchers a living wage."

    Michael Dimock, executive director, Roots of Change:
    "We need to take a systemic approach to change our food system," says Roots of Change's Michael Dimock. "It's a monumental task because it's a system that is so deeply rooted in our culture." Roots of Change, based in San Francisco, is dedicated to changing those attitudes — by looking for ways to engage the entire food system for a positive future.

    Dimock says his primary objective for 2008 is to shepherd the development of a comprehensive sustainable Food, Fisheries and Farm policy for California. Since he has a background working as an organic farmer himself and heading up Slow Food USA, Dimock can see very clearly that there are local solutions to such large issues.
    "We are looking for ways to develop local and statewide policies that provide incentives or pathways to develop regional and sustainable food systems," he says. "But we can't ignore the social justice realm," he cautions. "We can't ignore the farm laborers who have been getting the short end of the stick."
    Because of that, Roots of Change has started working with rural farm workers and inner city communities that have little access to healthy food.
    "There have been millions of dollars spent to change the food system" here in California in the past, he says, but "now is the moment when a multitude of conversations about the food systems" can make a difference. The trick, Dimock believes, is to "project those conversations in such a way so that the public and leadership of the country take note."
    Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director, Institute for Food & Development Policy:
    "Everyone knows that we are experiencing a food crisis," says Eric Holt-Gimenez, "and people want to do something about it." But, Holt-Gimenez cautions, "not all the apparent opportunities are really solutions. In fact, a lot of the solutions are really the things that got us into the problem in the first place."
    Holt-Gimenez has worked for 25 years with research institutes, universities, grass-roots coalitions, and a farmer-to-farmer movement in Central and South America and the Philippines. Because of those experiences, he is a staunch supporter of returning to localized small farms here in California and the United States.
    He is convinced that "agro-ecology is what's working, and it is mostly the small farmers who are embracing these principles and techniques to preserve resources and improve crop yields. We don't need technological fixes coming from the biotech industry. We already know what works."

    The challenge, he says, is to find ways to get the small farmers back on the land. They are the ones, he believes, who can save the planet, feed the world and save biodiversity, all at the same time.

    Don Shaffer, president and CEO, RSF Social Finance:
    We've all heard of Slow Food, but what about Slow Money? Don Shaffer, president and CEO of RSF Social Finance in Oakland, moderated a Bioneers discussion called "Follow the Slow Money: Patient Capital and Local Living Economies." What does this mean, and what does it have to do with food?
    With the turmoil on Wall Street, people are looking for other places to put their money, and an increasingly attractive option is local investment funds. Shaffer manages just such a fund that allows people to invest their money while supporting their local food networks and communities.

    Thirty percent of RSF investments support the local food economy, and all dividends earned in the program are invested back into the program to create more growth. "We need money to be direct, transparent and personal," he says, adding that people seem to be interested in the current climate. "We've been deluged with requests for information."

    Farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, and all kinds of direct relationships between food producers and consumers are transforming our food system, Shaffer says.

    "Money is what connects human beings, and the financial troubles we are having now were caused because money has become so abstract and so complex that no one knows what's going on."

    Lisa Bennett, Center for Ecoliteracy:

    "Food is a beautiful doorway into sustainability," says Lisa Bennett, communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in San Francisco and author of the just-published book "Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment."

    Divided into sections by grade level, the book recommends activities that help kids get the big picture in terms of our food system. For example, for the kindergarten through second-grade set, the book suggests making a chart with the headings "Fruits," "Vegetables," "Milk," "Grains," and "Meat/Beans." Then it asks the students to "find food items that fit into each category from the school lunch menu."

    It might sound simple, but Bennett says taking children through this exercise at such an early age can get them on the right track with their eating, and teach them enough so that they ask the right questions.

    "With so many things going on right now in the world, the most important thing is to understand how all the issues are connected," Bennett says. The Center for Ecoliteracy presented a full-day intensive program at the conference that was specifically aimed at teachers, parents, activists and youth. At the conference, the center unveiled a new initiative called "Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability."

    EcoChef: Eat local is a way of life

    By Aaron French
    Oakland Tribune correspondent

    EATING LOCALLY has become such a popular trend that it even has its own word — locavore. Last December, the New Oxford American Dictionary selected locavore as its "word of the year." The story was immediately picked up by news outlets around the country, and many locavores became local celebrities on morning television talk shows.

    Now that nearly a year has passed, what has become of the Eat Local movement? Is it simply a "flash in the pan," or a movement with sustainable roots?

    Tracey Ryder, co-founder of the Edible Communities family of magazines, believes it's the latter. "We're still on the crest of the wave," she says, noting that "there are still millions of people who have no idea about this movement who are hungry for this information." The information that she's referring to centers around buying from people you know. For example, at a farmers market, you have face-to-face interactions that foster accountability.

    Ryder is a trained chef and graphic artist, and initially started a local food magazine to combine her interests. That was in 2002. Now there are 50 franchised magazines across the United States focusing on their local communities — a number that has doubled in the past year. The weakening economy is also a motivating influence.

    "With the economy being terrible right now," Ryder said, "people are really concerned about buying and affording food." This has led to an increased awareness of gardening along with canning and preserving techniques. Ryder has heard an increasing wave of people asking, "How do I make food in bulk at home to save money?"

    If you are new to the topic, it's a great time of year here in the Bay Area to start. October is harvest time, and the farmers markets are packed with both late summer and early winter crops.

    It's such a good time of year, in fact, that October has been selected as Eat Local Month. People can join the movement at and try to consume an entire diet of local food for a month. Alternatively, people can use the Buy Fresh Buy Local Web site to find restaurants, stores and products in their area that purchase from local suppliers.

    Indeed, eating local can go far beyond the farmers market. For example, try to find a local product at your regular supermarket that your can substitute for the national brand you usually buy. Perhaps it might be a loaf of locally baked bread, a jar of preserves or some handcrafted sausage.

    To give more depth to the issues surrounding the locavore diet, the Commonwealth Club is sponsoring a monthlong series of Eat Local panel discussions. Topics include the impact of water on local food systems, local food and your health, and how local food can strengthen communities.
    If you do take part in the Eat Local month, there's always the question of what to do when the month is over. Cheryl Koehler, publisher of Edible East Bay, is a strong advocate for eating locally year-round.

    "You don't have to have any ideology when the flavor and quality are so evident," she explained as she passed out organic Gala and Red Delicious apples from Watsonville's Prevedelli Farms. Koehler was at Macy's in Santa Clara with Food Network chef Dave Lieberman for a "Go Green" discussion and cooking demonstration. "When you do it for a month you learn about the month," she says. But, "when you do it for a year, you learn about the entire cycle."

    Lieberman, whose Bay Area visit was part of an eight-city tour focusing on eating local and sustainable foods, hopes that his visit encouraged people to give it a try.

    Personally, he enjoys the "eat local" challenge. He says he "alter(ed) the menu a little bit" for each location on his tour. Besides just sticking with the philosophy of eat local, he also hopes that his tour-stops encourage people to enjoy their local flavors.

    The hope is that efforts such as Eat Local and Go Green will eventually elevate the concept of eating local, from short-term challenge to an integrated way of life.

    EcoChef: Changing the way we eat
    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 09/09/2008 12:01:35 PM PDT

    YOU NEVER KNOW when will have a moment of clarity. It happened to me during my lunch break at Slow Food Nation's Changemakers Day.

    I started up a conversation with my neighbors in the lunch line — Stephen Gliessman and Robbie Jaffe. Gliessman is a professor of agroecology and environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, while Jaffe is executive director of the Community Agroecology Network.

    They also own Condor's Hope Ranch, a sustainable wine and olive oil farm in Santa Barbara County. Condor's Hope is named after the endangered California condor that is being reintroduced into the area, which led us to the topic of these endangered birds, the largest flying bird in North America.

    Condor populations plummeted in the first part of the 20th century. In 1987, the remaining 22 condors were captured for a captive breeding program. Twenty years later, there are more than 300 surviving condors, half of which have been reintroduced into the wild.

    In our short but spirited conversation, Jaffe mentioned how the condors had forgotten how to feed their young. The wild condors were killing their young chicks by feeding them bottle caps, plastic bags and pieces of wire. In their 20 years of captivity, they had lost their native understanding of what good and healthy food was.

    And that was when I realized — we've done exactly the same thing.

    Just like the condors, we have culturally lost our
    "food compass" that naturally orients us to what is most healthy. Instead, we are drawn to foods that are too sweet, too salty or too fattening, and we've created a food culture of haste and convenience. This, in a nutshell, is what the Slow Food Nation festival was all about — repairing that "food compass" and reconnecting to the land and people involved in food production.

    Several days later, I met Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, at a benefit. After an elaborate meal featuring native California cuisine, Petrini spoke about the foundations of Slow Food.

    "We must all come together," Petrini stated, "because behind these plates of food there are so many hands making it happen." We are connected by our food to both the environment and to the people who grew and prepared the food for us, he said.

    Petrini continued, "There is a systemic relationship between food, the environment and education." This was Petrini's central message: The culture of food is as important as the food itself. And all three of those components — food, the environment and education — are needed for healthy communities. When one gets lost through colonialism, technology or immigration, Petrini said, some of the value of that food is lost with it.

    The question is, how do we regain that knowledge? How do we relearn what is lost?

    To answer that question, I turn to the words of writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Berry wrote about this very issue back in 1989 in the essay "The Pleasures of Eating," published in "What Are People For?" (North Point Press, 1990). When asked "What can city people do?" to reverse the decline of rural cultural life, Berry responds: Learn.

    "Learn the origins of the food you buy. "... Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening. "... Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species."

    And the key behind all of this, for both Berry and Petrini, is pleasure. Fully enjoying the food you eat, in all its complexity, is "perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world," Berry writes.

    Slow Food's Petrini agrees that pleasure goes hand-in-hand with connection. It is interdependence, he says, that gives us our greatest happiness and pleasure. But "pleasure and knowledge must be balanced," he cautions, echoing the words Berry had written nearly 20 years ago.

    We need to keep our food knowledge alive and rekindle what we have forgotten, or risk sharing the fate of the endangered condors who have lost the wisdom of what food means.

    Back in the lunch line, Gliessman added, "We've been seeing more condors these days, so I think they're doing better."

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    Slow Food Nation celebrates good, clean, and fair food
    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 08/27/2008 04:04:54 PM PDT

    THERE HAS hardly been a time in recent history when food has played so prominently on everyone's minds. It's in the news every day — food prices are rising, grain is being used to make fuel, rice is being hoarded. At the same time, sales of organic and artisan foods continue to rise; schools and corporations are updating their food service programs; and interest in farming as a way of life is increasing across the country.

    It is in this greater context that the largest food festival in American history will launch this weekend in San Francisco. Called Slow Food Nation, it is the first-ever comprehensive import from the Italian Slow Food movement that started in the 1980s.

    The Slow Food Nation festival is grand in scope — almost overwhelming. Events include food tastings, lectures, presentations, poetry and dance performances, farm tours, cooking demonstrations and a music festival. One wonders, when reading the schedule, what lies at the heart of the incredibly diverse offerings.

    Slow Food Nation's Executive Director Anya Fernald explains: "We really felt that if it wasn't big and inclusive enough, it wouldn't have the power to impact the change in America that we need at this time."
    Fernald, along with Slow Food Nation founder Alice Waters, wanted to make sure that the festival was relevant on a larger scale and that it would be more than a simple weekend of tasty fun.  "This is the beginning of a delicious revolution," Waters says.

    Fernald is a veteran of the Italian Slow Food movement, whose biennial Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre food festivals attract more than 150,000 participants. Slow Food Nation organizers hope attendance at the San Francisco event will be about a third of that — about 50,000.
    The target audience, they say, is as broad as the schedule — hard-core foodies will rub shoulders with their favorite food producers; farmers will have a chance to discuss issues with food justice activists; and everyone will have a chance to eat. Even the slogan, "Come to the Table," reflects their inclusive ideals.

    To achieve this goal, Slow Food Nation established itself as an umbrella under which a wide range of stakeholders in the food system could gather. For example, in creating a schedule of 46 Slow Dinners designed to "illuminate the connection between food and community," they took a hands-off approach — simply serving to partner restaurants and local nonprofit organizations focused on various aspects of the food system.
    For example, Alameda's Pappo restaurant partnered with the Alameda Point Collaborative, promoting a dialogue about food, health and nutrition in an urban setting. These events create, in effect, 46 satellite locations for people to gather around delicious food, connect with like-minded people, and discuss the issues that are important to them.

    The majority of Slow Food Nation events will be held in two locations— San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza and Fort Mason Center. For those on a budget, Civic Center Plaza is the place to go. In the center of the plaza is the Victory Garden, a beautifully designed edible art project that serves as the anchor for a bustling marketplace of sustainable food vendors. Throughout the weekend, a free stage will feature a variety of dance, music, poetry, and theatre performances.

    But the heart of the Slow Food Nation weekend will be found several blocks away, at Fort Mason Center, home to 15 Taste Pavilions. A collection of food demonstration and tasting centers, the Taste Pavilions will showcase a wide range of American food and drink — from heirloom hams to handmade ice cream. Admission is $65 for adults ($45 for 21 and under) for a four-hour lunch or dinner tasting experience.
    Taste participant Paul Bertolli of Fra' Mani Salumi is excited to be a part of the festival.

    "For us," Bertolli says, "it's about trying to present some not so mainstream products, using interesting breeds of pork." Bertolli speaks passionately about "exalting the pork," expressing the central Slow Food ideal of letting the ingredients speak for themselves.

    Tea Pavilion curator Alice Cravens likes to use her drink of choice for a different purpose — relaxation. Cravens planned her Tea Pavilion as a small oasis where participants can reduce their stimulation and "connect to themselves through the tea."  "It's a subtle thing, it's not overpowering," Cravens says.

    While the food and drink served in the Taste Pavilions was selected with an eye on tradition, the architecture is designed to be cutting-edge. All of these experiential food centers will be housed in modern architectural structures that are equal parts building, art and cultural statement — a Pickle Pavilion with a ceiling canopy made from suspended Mason jar lids, a Cheese Pavilion designed with old milk crates supporting a living roof, and an outside Bread Pavilion greeting visitors with the aroma of five separate ovens baking at full speed.
    Also tucked into the Taste Pavilions is the Green Kitchen, featuring a table, a mortar and pestle, a knife and a frying pan. This simple setup will underline a star-studded lineup of chef demonstrations, including the likes of chef Charlie Trotter, author Deborah Madison, Corey Lee and Peter Jacobson from the French Laundry, and Chez Panisse's Cal Peternell and David Tanis, to name just a few.

    Lee of The French Laundry is excited to play a part in Slow Food Nation.
    "The two key points for me are its influence in keeping traditions and heritage intact, as well as in helping us discover our cultural identities through food," he says.

    The ultimate goal of the entire weekend, organizers say, is to change the food system to reflect the Slow Food values of good, clean, and fair. To that end, the Slow Food Nation festival will also host a large conference for food system leaders, organized in partnership with the nonprofit Roots of Change. The objective of the Friday conference, called "Changemakers Day," is lofty. The plan is to discuss and promote ways to shift California to a completely sustainable food system by the year 2030.

    Roots of Change president Michael Dimock believes that such a goal is definitely achievable.

    "I think the current issues that have emerged around energy, food prices and water are going to create a powerful context in which change can emerge," he says. "We are clearly on the road to achieving our initial five-year goals."

    EcoChef: Give native plants a chance
    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 09/02/2008 12:00:40 PM PDT

    ONE OF THE myths of our modern food system is how much choice we have. True, we can buy a seemingly infinite variety of processed foods, but they are all made from a handful of plant ingredients. And while we can eat A wide range of fruits and vegetables yearround, the total number of plants that we consume is usually less than 50. Many people eat less than 30 kinds of plants their entire lives.

    This is miniscule compared with the thousands of plant species eaten by many Native Americans. One of the tragedies of our modern age is how thoroughly we have forgotten just how many plant species can be harvested and eaten.
    A small but growing group of people are doing their best to reverse that trend.

    "Imagine how sustainable our diets would be if we simply ate what the land provided," says Alrie Middlebrook, president of the California Native Garden Foundation, at a recent native food banquet she organized with indigenous food chef John Farais. The banquet was the culmination of an Eating California class taught by Middlebrook and Farais, which combined information about growing, harvesting, cooking, and eating native foods.

    The meal was ambitious in scope, with seven courses that included more than 25 California native foods. Farais hit the ground running with an amuse-bouche of mesquite-seared rabbit served over acorn tortillas. He didn't stop until he had served two rounds of dessert (counting as one
    course), including both elderberry and elderflower sorbets, acorn brownies and "mesquite snaps."

    Dr. Kat Anderson, an ethno-ecologist from UC Davis and author of "Tending the Wild" (University of California Press, $21.95), gave some background on the feast. One of the principles Native Californians had when they collected wild foods, she said, was to always leave some behind, ensuring a supply of food in the future.

    For example, their collecting technology did not uproot the wildflowers and grasses when they collected seeds. Instead, they developed special "seed beaters" and baskets. Humans became both seed collectors for food and seed dispersers — scattering the seeds to grow back in the following years.

    These traditions all but disappeared as immigrants flocked to the area for the Gold Rush of 1849. Immigrants brought with them new plants to grow and new foods to eat, and over time these took over.
    More than 150 years later, the availability of native foods has been drastically reduced. Chef Farais laments, "The biggest challenge with trying to use California natives is that (they are) practically nonexistent." To find some sources of edible natives, Farais looks far and wide.

    For example, mesquite flour was once a staple food in Southern California and throughout the Southwest. Today, it is almost completely unavailable from U.S. sources. However, it is still commercially milled and utilized throughout South America and is starting to be imported from countries such as Argentina and Peru.

    And while oak trees producing acorns are plentiful, acorn nuts or flour are virtually unmarketed in the United States. In Korea and other parts of Asia, however, a fine acorn flour is commonly used to make an acorn jelly called dotori mook, eaten with soy sauce and other flavors. As a result, acorn flour is readily available in Korean supermarkets.
    The goal now, says Anderson, is to "bring the natives back." They are not only tasty and nutritious, but are extremely drought-tolerant, as they have adapted over thousands of years to live in this climate.
    Indeed, the goal of the California Native Garden Foundation is to do just that — by planting them in your garden. Compared with a traditional lawn, a native garden uses 80 percent less water and can produce food for you and your family, as well as the birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

    "Traditionally, people were all over the land in a truly interactive way," Anderson says. Now it is our challenge to "learn from the place in which we live, and incorporate native plants back into our lives."

    EcoChef: Small, traditional farms make big environmental impact
    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 08/12/2008 04:10:06 PM PDT

    CHEESEMAKER MANDY JOHNSTON of the Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Company family loves her farm in the Central California town of Orland. Johnston makes about 600 pounds of cheese a week, starting with the raw milk from her cows.

    In a several-step process of heating, cutting and pressing, she makes large wheels of cheese by hand, which then age for at least two months before they are ready to eat.

    Johnston is part of a growing number of small meat and dairy producers who are returning to time-honored traditions of working with the land, not taking from it. For example, Johnston and her family run far fewer cows on their 20 acres than most dairy operations, because, she says, "It's important to us that we only keep the amount of cows that our pasture can healthfully maintain. We want the grass to be the main source of their diet, not a supplement to grain or hay."

    I have previously written about the high environmental costs often associated with meat and dairy farming, including greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation. But as the above example illustrates, not all farms are created equal.

    "The continuum of environmental impact is extremely wide," says Marissa Guggiana, president of Sonoma Direct meats.

    The most important thing to look for, Guggiana says, are pasture-raised animals. Pasture-raised animals are able to walk around and graze naturally. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from the conditions in the typical Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have become the predominant method of raising livestock in the United States.

    In fact, conditions are so extreme in many confined animal operations that the animals can't walk or even turn around. While many studies have shown that higher animal density does not necessarily lead to higher profits, the practice is encouraged by government subsidies and policies. In addition to the animal welfare concerns, CAFOs are also responsible for considerable water and air pollution that lower-density farms avoid.

    The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (California Proposition 2, on the state ballot this November) is a step in the right direction. Sponsored by the Californians for Humane Farms, its goal is to require that animals have the space to turn around and extend their limbs. The fact that such a reasonable idea needs a state proposition shows just how far removed from nature these farms have come.

    Pasture-raised animals have none of these associated problems. While waste from confined high-density animals accumulates and can poison ground water, at lower densities the manure can naturally break down and form a beneficial fertilizer. What is toxic can become nourishment in the correct amount.

    I asked a number of small dairy operations to tell me what made their farm more sustainable or environmentally friendly than a larger operation, and received a variety of answers. Sue Conley from the Cowgirl Creamery mentioned the solar panels at their creamery, and the fact that most of their staff can walk to work in Point Reyes. The nearby Strauss Dairy, used for Cowgirl Cheese, utilizes a methane digester to create electricity from manure.

    Benoît de Korsak is proud that the ceramic containers St. Benoit yogurt uses keep hundreds of thousands of plastic cups out of landfills, and of the fact that their out-of-date yogurts are fed to the pigs, reducing waste. At Pedrozo dairy, they feed leftover whey from the cheese-making process to their animals.

    Many of these are also farmstead operations, meaning that they only use milk from their farm to make cheese and yogurts. This increases freshness and also reduces the energy used in milk transport.

    These are just a few examples of how small farms can reduce their environmental impact. One of the best things you can do is to contact your local producers to learn about their practices. For example, are they certified organic? Or perhaps they are following organic regulations, but don't have the certification? What sorts of feed do they use? Can you take a tour of the farm or factory? I have found that the people who take pride in their products are happy to tell you about their practices.

    Another great way to get involved is to make some cheese yourself. The basic ingredients are generally available, and it can lead to a greater respect the next time you toss a block of cheese into your shopping cart.

    EcoChef: Slow Food Nation promotes growing your own produce -- even in the city
    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 07/29/2008 12:05:31 PM PDT

    IT'S NOT OFTEN that a big-city mayor gets excited about gardening. But that's exactly what happened at the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden planting celebration when San Francisco Mayor Newsom got his first glimpse of the garden. "I'm just like a kid, I'm so excited about this!"

    Newsom, who was on hand to introduce Slow Food Nation's founder Alice Waters and executive director Anya Fernald, talked to the crowd about the role urban gardens can play in our food production system, adding that we need to do more with our public spaces. "The key of this movement," he said, "is about social equality ... and environmental justice."

    The original Victory Garden idea came from World War II. Between the years of 1941 and 1943, more than 40 percent of the food consumed in the United States was grown in 20 million separate urban gardens. The gardens were forgotten in the postwar economic boom, but their legacy lives on in the current reincarnation. From now through September, a garden will occupy a prominent section of the Civic Center Plaza, at which time the food will be donated to the San Francisco Food Bank. Kei Hoshino from the Food Bank was excited about the variety of produce the garden would offer, adding that "it's a tremendous gesture of commitment from the city." And it's a timely gesture at that. With rising food prices comes the conflicting reality of greater food need, yet less food received per dollar spent. In this situation, the name Victory Garden really does apply.

    Referencing Newsom's comments, Fernald of Slow Food Nation said, "Lack of access to wholesome food is the social equality issue." She noted that in many communities, there are efficient distribution systems for junk food, but not for fresh vegetables. What we are doing, she said, is "bringing the food directly to the people with this garden in the heart of San Francisco." By increasing the number of connections between urban and agricultural areas, everyone stands to win. As food prices continue to rise, it is the urban poor who are hit the hardest, and particular attention is needed in those areas.

    There are many parts of the Bay Area with limited access to fresh vegetables. City Slicker Farms, a nonprofit urban agriculture organization in West Oakland and one of the co-creators of the San Francisco Victory Garden, is an advocate of the multiple benefits of urban gardening. Being involved with or simply exposed to an urban garden can help anchor people in the larger cycles of nature. In addition, eating a steady supply of green vegetables can reduce the risk of the damaging affects of the lead paint common in older neighborhoods.

    Kathryn Lyddan, a member of the advisory board of City Slicker Farms and executive director of the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust, pointed out the various centers of food availability and scarcity on a large map of the East Bay. She particularly drew attention to the inequality between parts of urban Richmond and Oakland and the incredible farmland less than 45 minutes away. Urban gardens have a large role to play, but so does increasing communication between nearby farmers and urban centers. Lyddan recently organized a chefs tour of local Brentwood farms to foster communication by bringing together a varied group of chefs, gardeners and business leaders to visit a variety of local farms, tasting the produce and speaking with the farmers themselves.

    Sonya Binnewies of Oliveto and the underground Rocket Kitchen mused, "I think many of us in the coastal Bay Area, and in the food scene in general, have been used to looking for the organic label first, and it's interesting to see how that's not the end of the road, particularly if we care about the health of our local farming communities." Christopher Wiley, S.F. Food Bank director of development, says of the current Victory Garden, "It's really beautiful, and hopefully it will become a kind of sacred ground for food in this city." Hopefully that vision will flow over into all the surrounding communities and towns as well.

    In upcoming columns I will be tackling the issue of genetically modified foods. Please e-mail me with any questions or comments you have about that topic, and I might use them in a future column. Thank you.

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    EcoChef: Celebrate tomato diversity with heirloom tomatoes

    By Aaron French
    Article Last Updated: 07/15/2008 05:02:45 PM PDT

    When Diane Ott Whealy's grandfather was emigrating from Bavaria, he undoubtedly brought with him everything he thought he needed to prosper in the New World — clothes, personal possessions, tools — and a small collection of seeds from his homeland.

    The offspring of those seeds yields the German Pink tomato. An heirloom tomato with a full sweet-floral flavor, the German Pink became the first seeds stored in the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Ott Whealy co-founded Seed Savers in 1975, which has since collected more than 6,000 tomato varieties for their seed bank, out of the total 25,000 varieties in existence.

    These aren't all cultivated, of course, and include what Ott Whealy calls the "good, bad, and the ugly." Many of these tomatoes may be incredibly flavorful, but are not commercially viable. Some might be sour, while others might be bitter and tough. But as a collection, they represent the natural variations of what tomatoes can be.
    Heirloom tomatoes have become extremely popular in the past few years, displacing other varieties at both markets and on restaurant menus with their rainbow of colors and enticing names: Brandywine, Cherokee, Green Zebra.

    Surprisingly, there is no firm definition of the term heirloom plant. Some heirlooms are passed down from father to daughter, as with the German Pink. Others are commercial varieties from the turn of the last century that have since dropped in popularity. Still others were collected from other countries and brought to the United States in a quest to increase the genetic and flavor diversity of our foodstocks.

    "Mostly they are useful for variations of size, color and shapes," says Roger Chetelat, director of the UC Davis Tomato Genetics Resource Center, which houses an impressive collection of more than 3,000 tomato varieties. In terms of flavor, "a lot of tomatoes that are commercially grown varieties are great if you allow them to fully ripen," he says. The problem with commercial tomatoes aren't inherent differences, he says, but how they are handled. "If heirloom tomatoes are picked green and handled roughly the way commercial varieties are, they will also have less taste."

    Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening as heirloom varieties become more popular. Growers are responding to soaring demand by picking them firm and green and shipping them longer distances to market. Any tomato handled like this won't necessarily taste like you may have grown to expect. The ideal tomato is one picked that same day for perfect ripeness. Your best bet is to buy direct from farmers at local markets.

    Chetelat also cautions about romanticizing older tomato varieties. "Just because they are old doesn't mean they are good," he says. In many cases, there are reasons that they fell out of favor in the first place, such as a lack of disease-resistance or ability to grow in a variety of conditions. For example, seed varieties follow human populations. As the United States population became more mobile in the 1930s and '40s, people needed seeds that would grow in different regions. Increasingly, seed providers at that time made available newer hybrid varieties that yielded more consistent results across a variety of conditions. People embraced the new seeds, and many older varieties became forgotten.

    But recently, the tide has been turning. Farmers are returning to old seed stocks and planting 10 or 20 varieties where in years past they planted one or two. Peggy Lemaux, a plant biologist from UC Berkeley, says "it's nice that some of the old varieties of tomatoes are coming back. The diversity is really good." She notes that as our commercial crops became more uniform, they also become more susceptible to particular diseases attacking a certain variety. The increasing diversity in tomato populations can help to prevent that.

    Upcoming weather patterns are going to be an issue as well. While tomatoes are a relatively drought-resistant crop, the increasing variation in climate is going to be impressive, and we need to have crops equipped to deal with those future conditions. So enjoy your summer heirloom tomatoes, knowing that they not only taste good, but they just might also help to keep our food supply healthy in years to come.


    EcoChef: Rising prices argue for local, organic
    by Aaron French
    Article Launched: 07/01/2008 02:43:03 PM PDT

    MY LAST COLUMN discussed some of the ecological issues leading to the high food prices that we find at the grocery store, including droughts, floods and unusual weather patterns. All of these reduce the crop yields that farmers produce, which raises food prices through economic market forces.

    "Economics is a lot like nature. It's all about balance," explains Martin Medeiros, an economist who teaches for UC Berkeley Extension. When things are unbalanced, it creates a "tenuous situation between food supply and food demand," he says. And because economic and ecological cycles are linked via agriculture, "any extended period of harsh weather can lead to both crop failure and stormy economic times." Stormy economic times is econo-speak for high prices.

    Mando Giotta of Golden Gate Meats, a local organic and sustainable meat wholesaler, has seen exactly that. Golden Gate Meats has experienced price increases across the board from the ranchers they work with. "In our case, most of the cost increases are from the food for animals and fuel for transportation," Giotta says. And it's tough for farmers and ranchers to pass on the increased costs they face. "There's a real possibility that a lot of small operations in particular will slow production or go out of business entirely until prices stabilize." While food prices have been increasing across the board, it is the commodity grain crops — wheat, corn, rice and

    soybeans — that are rising the most. These crops are heavily traded on the international market and are a common input for the animal feed Giotta was discussing.

    Much of the price increase in corn, in particular, has been blamed on biofuel production. Any grain used for fuel is taken away from food markets, driving prices up. But Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, asserts that "biofuels are not the main culprit." Instead, she says, long-term policies are what determine commodity food prices.

    By way of example, Mittal notes that in the 1970s, developing countries were net exporters of food, while now they are importing tens of billions of dollars of food each year. In the past few decades, many developing countries have created a middle class that eschews farming while increasing demand for food.

    The end result is that less food is now grown in these developing countries, and there are more countries dependent on imported food to meet their needs.

    Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says the current food crisis is a result of the last 50 years of world food policy. Additionally, he adds, few farmers or consumers benefit from global agricultural trading — it often drives prices down on the farm and up on the trading floor. Last year, for example, farmers made around $270 per ton of wheat, while the global trading price was more than $520.

    Closer to home, those rising fuel prices we are so acutely aware of raise food costs in several ways. Transportation is certainly a major cost for many foods we eat, as our supermarkets have become globalized, but it is just one of the major energy uses. Less discussed are the fertilizers and chemicals used in traditional farming, both of which require copious amounts of fuel. For example, the price of natural gas accounts for 90 percent of the cost of producing commercial fertilizers, and natural gas prices have risen more than five-fold in the last decade.

    Farmers are increasingly looking for ways to reduce these expensive inputs, and this is one area where organic farmers have the advantage. With the exception of some uncommonly used "narrow range oils" that basically suffocate pests, all of the petroleum-intensive fertilizers and chemicals are prohibited from organic fields. Instead of chemical fertilizers, organic farmers rely on natural crop rotation to slowly build up nutrients in the soil. And while this can take some time, these practices yield significant cost savings.

    In the long run, these savings at the farm could start to equalize the price gap between organic and conventional foods. This is one case where what benefits farms and farmland can also benefit our pocketbooks. And by buying locally from these organic farmers, we can circumvent the impact of commodity pricing and high transportation costs.

    EcoChef: Many farmers not reaping benefits from higher food prices
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 06/17/2008 12:00:54 PM PDT

    IT IS NO SECRET that food prices have been rising at unprecedented levels. But not all farmers are reaping the benefits; many are suffering. There are many reasons that food prices are currently spiking, including an unusual confluence of ecological, economic and policy factors all conspiring to make our food more expensive. The losers in this equation are both consumers and farmers alike.

    In this column I will address some of the ecological factors impacting our food costs. These include land, water and the proper weather conditions, all of which are in increasingly short supply. In subsequent columns I will discuss the economic and political factors that also relate to these issues.

    Nationwide, more than 1 million acres of farmland is lost to urban development every year. And once developed, very little is ever returned to farming. This loss is a long-term issue, which increases the agricultural pressure on the farmland still in production as time goes on.

    Of more immediate concern for farmers worldwide is water availability. Water is a transient resource, prone to move around in the form of rivers, streams, evaporation and rainfall. Every year, all of these sources of water change with global weather patterns. And while some areas receive more water than they need, other areas receive less. This couldn't be more in evidence than in the United States this year: In the same week, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after California experienced the driest spring in 88 years, while Midwest states were experiencing the worst flooding in 15 years.

    Both events are environmental and human catastrophes, but have particular importance for the farmers in both areas.

    In California, farmers are competing for water with an ever-growing population. This is compounded by increasing populations and related droughts in neighboring Southwest states, leaving California less able to import water from outside areas, such as the Colorado River — long tapped to buffer California's water needs. As a result, The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently decided to limit the water given to Central Valley farms to 40 percent of the regular amounts. It is too soon to know the total impact of such measures, but it could lead to hundreds of acres of land not planted this year.

    In addition to farmers, commercial fishermen depend on plentiful water supplies to put food on our tables. This spring's collapse of the Chinook salmon populations, and the subsequent closing of the salmon fishing season, was at least in part caused by low water levels in the rivers. As a result, a federal judge in April reversed a water plan that would have diverted water out of the San Francisco Bay Delta for other uses. And while this protects the interests of fishermen and others tied to the Delta region, it also limits what farms can use.

    In the Midwest, they are currently experiencing the opposite problem. In one Wisconsin county alone, farmers recently lost more than $5.5 million worth of crops in one week due to the torrential rain. The floodwaters impact crops by simply washing them away, and they also destroy or reduce yield by standing in the fields, making the crops prone to mold and disease. Many fields will have to be replanted, which in addition to the expense leads to immature crops at the prime harvest time, before fall weather creates its own problems.

    Finally, farmers currently have to deal with unusual weather patterns. Farmers plan their planting and harvest schedules to coincide with weather averages — when actual weather patterns are different, farmers suffer. A recent newsletter from A&B Produce, a local vegetable wholesaler, gives one example: "Unusual summer weather patterns are creating unusual shorts and gluts of supply. Temperatures in the Valley have delayed harvests and prices have been unusually high for this time of the year."

    All of the environmental issues discussed often have a negative impact on how much food farmers can produce. A limited supply of food leads to higher prices. But, while farmers may be receiving more money per pound of produce, they are also faced with increased costs for fewer products, and these higher prices sometimes aren't enough.

    I will delve deeper into the related economic issues facing farmers in the next column.



    EcoChef: Bee troubles changing industry
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 06/03/2008 10:18:54 AM PDT

    URBAN BEEKEEPER Julia Roll beckons me forward as she grabs a frame of honey with her bare hands. She is wearing screened headgear, but my face is bare and bees fly around me in a swarm as I approach the open hive. "Look," she points; "There's the queen!"

    Roll has a quick smile when talking about her bees, but becomes serious when discussing the larger issues. Over the past years, bees have suffered a serious decline. In 2007, the USDA calculated that 25 percent of the beehives across the United States lost up to 45 percent of their bees. This year, the losses appear to be worse. Scientists are calling this phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, and blame a combination of mites, beetles, viruses, chemicals and stress as major causes.

    Roll is among a new breed of beekeepers who are experimenting with radical ideas to confront these issues. Tending her hives at the Sol center for sustainable living, she gives me a short lesson in modern beekeeping. Most visibly, Roll's lack of gloves is a conscious effort not to upset the hive. "I'd rather not kill any bees by accident," she explains. She also avoids the pesticides that protect bees from parasites, but which also leave potentially toxic residue in the wax and honey.

    Additionally, her hives have no artificial foundation — the stamped honeycomb template beekeepers use to regulate size. Larger combs equal more honey and more money, but Roll believes this can

    stress the bees and make them susceptible to disease. Finally, her hives are shaped in a half-hexagon, the natural shape bees use to make their combs. "They are called top bar hives," she explained. First developed for the third world as a low-cost alternative, they have become a symbol among a growing group of independent thinkers who are challenging traditional beekeeping methods. Using such techniques, small-scale beekeepers are less apt to experience Colony Collapse.

    Looking for a wider perspective, I talked to Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, whose mission is to protect pollinating insects. Black explained that European honeybees — the species used by large- and small-scale beekepers alike — were first brought to this continent by settlers at Jamestown for honey production. It wasn't until the dawn of the 20th century, however, as field sizes grew with mechanized farming, that honeybees were recognized as important pollinators. Today, commercial beekeepers commonly keep tens of thousands of hives together, trucking them around the country to pollinate crops such as apples, oranges, peaches, berries, almonds and melons (the biggest crops — wheat, corn, and rice — are pollinated by wind, and thus not directly affected by bees).

    Many of these specialty crops are grown in vast monocultures of hundreds of acres, and are entirely dependant on honeybees for pollination. Without those bees, the fruit will be small and misshapen, or no fruit will grow at all. Bees pollinate more than 150 crop species, totaling some 30 percent of our diet, and supporting a $200 billion industry.

    But the wild bees can help, if given the chance. "The key to effective pollination by wild bees," Black says, "is to keep patches of native habitat between the crop fields." Blueberries, for example, have been thought to be entirely dependant on honeybee pollination. But when farmers experiment with smaller blueberry fields of 20-40 acres mixed with native patches, they are finding that the native bees do an excellent pollination job on their own. These facts lead beekeeper Roll to pose the question, "Is there really a shortage of honeybees, or simply an abundance of monocultures?"

    Roll's bees, who collect pollen and nectar from a variety of flowers, produce superior honey. I'll never forget the wild honey I watched being collected from the trunk of a tree in the Cameroon rain forest. I recall its complexity being unlike anything I have ever tasted; each cell of the honeycomb a different hue from the numerous kinds of nectar and pollen the bees had collected.

    And it was the taste of Roll's Oakland honey that was the most surprising. A group of us sat in a circle, dipping spoons into a small bowl of honey harvested from Roll's hives. I looked up and saw wide smiles all around, as we tasted the complex layers of flavor reminiscent of that honey of my memory from Cameroon.


    EcoChef: Economics, ecology meet in lunchroom
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 05/20/2008 12:01:02 PM PDT

    AT A COMMUNITY HALL in Half Moon Bay, a Berkeley school chef was getting rowdy with the crowd. Ann "Renegade Lunch Lady" Cooper was hired 2½ years ago by the Berkeley Unified School District to turn around its lunch program. She urged the audience to be responsible caregivers for our children's future, bemoaning how many adults spend more on their morning coffee than the $2.75 the school district receives for each child it feeds. "It all comes down to money," Cooper said.

    Cooper was the opening act of a screening organized by Erin Tormey of Coastside Farmer's Markets of the underground movie phenomenon "Two Angry Moms." The movie is riding a wave of popularity, spreading a heartfelt message of hope in the power of community involvement in changing the way our children eat.

    "Today's schoolchildren are overfed, yet undernourished" is a central message from the movie. "Two Angry Moms" asserts that our federal school lunch standards are crippled by conflicting mandates given to the United States Department of Agriculture. One moment they're an advocate for the consumption of American meat, milk and produce, the next they are regulating what and how much food American children eat. The movie also draws a correlation between worsening nutritional quality and profit motive, as when schools bring in big companies and fast-food chains to help raise revenue.

    School lunch is not a trivial issue — it affects us all. Today's children, largely due to poor diet, are the first generation in U.S. history predicted to have shorter life spans than their parents. And while Americans spend less than 10 percent of their household budget on food, we spend more than 17 percent of our national budget on healthcare. Lisa Bennett of the Center for Ecoliteracy cites annual hospital costs related to childhood obesity at $127 million, up from $35 million per year in the 1980s.

    Effecting change requires a two-pronged approach: 1) Change the food that is served, and 2) Educate children about where their food comes from.

    It's a challenging mandate. Carolyn Federman of the Chez Panisse Foundation cites both government regulations and commodity subsidy programs as obstacles to buying whole, unprocessed foods. The lack of the proper infrastructure is another problem. Many institutions have become accustomed to warming pre-made meals, and thus lack the stoves and equipment basic to even a small restaurant. But things are slowly changing. For example, there are 2,000 farm-to-school programs nationally that connect schools with local farms to improve meals and provide educational opportunities. Those opportunities have inspired many school lunch initiatives, many of which have originated in the greater Bay Area.

    The Life Lab program, affiliated with UC Santa Cruz, has been promoting garden-based education since 1979. And the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Chez Panisse Foundation, both in Berkeley, have been working together in Bay Area schools and independently around the country for well over a decade. All share the belief that connecting children directly with nature will change how they eat. "What we are trying to do is use food as a way to connect young people to their community and the planet," says Federman.

    John Fisher, program director of the Life Lab Garden Classroom, takes it a step further. "Agriculture has become one of the most destructive activities in the world," he says, "and the more we can teach children how to grow food in a way that is in tune with the environment, the better."

    Fisher shares Federman's belief that eating whole foods will connect people to their local communities. When our schools stop buying ready-made food from large companies, he says, more of that money starts to flow into the local economy. Beyond those issues, Bennett pointed to the growing body of academic research showing the connection between a healthful diet and a child's ability to perform well in school. And, of course, the sooner one learns good eating habits, the likelier it will become a lifelong practice.


    EcoChef: Preserving fisheries is a matter of choice
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 05/06/2008 12:01:18 PM PDT

    To say it has been a rough year for our Bay Area fishermen would be an understatement. First there was the tragic oil spill just before the start of the crab season. Now they are faced with the collapse of the largest salmon fishery on the Pacific Coast, the California fall Chinook Salmon, which makes up 90 percent of the total California salmon harvest and up to 60 percent of the Oregon harvest.

    And so it follows that when more than 50 Bay Area chefs recently gathered to discuss food concerns, the state of our local seafood was at the top of the list. We want to know what seafood species are sustainable, and how do we know what we are getting?

    One of the first things people need to understand, says Sheila Bowman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, is that seafood is seasonal. We need to learn to appreciate the rhythm of our local catch. Certainly we can expand our seafood seasons by buying from farther away — Alaskan halibut or New England oysters. But just as we have come to appreciate the joys of a seasonal heirloom tomato, we can get in tune with fruits from the sea.

    Many seafood species are migratory, traveling the ocean's currents in search of the best food sources. Salmon are a good case in point. It takes salmon anywhere from 2-5 years of swimming in the open ocean before they mature and are caught for food. And in that time, they can travel hundreds if not thousands of miles. California Department of Fish and Game biologist Allen Grover has studied salmon for more than 20 years, and he says every year still brings surprises. He was reluctant to speculate on the current salmon decline. "Salmon have a complicated life history, and any one thing can drive the population down." Due to that complexity, he added, "There is a very small probability of finding the 'smoking gun'" responsible for this year's collapse.

    The large number of agencies involved further complicates seafood management, says Kate Wing, ocean policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. For example, the California Department of Fish and Game is responsible for salmon while it is in rivers and out to three miles offshore, at which point the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration takes over. But other agencies such as local water districts determine how much water is removed from rivers, which can severely affect fish populations. Then there are additional groups, like the Pacific Fishery Management Council, that recommend fishery management measures to the secretary of commerce through the National Marine Fisheries Service. "You have to have a coordinated effort between all these agencies," Wing says. She is cautiously optimistic that the responsible parties are trying to do the right thing.

    But in the end, it all comes down to consumer choices. It is our buying dollars that drive the fishing economy. The consumer's best friend is the Seafood Watch Program from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carefully researching fish abundance, methods and related factors, they give a three-tiered guide to fish choices — Green (Best), Yellow (Good) and Red (Avoid). My only critique of the program is that I find the Yellow (Good) label to be confusing. For example, I have long chosen the local Petrale Sole, labeled Yellow, for its beautiful texture. To my dismay, Bowman of Seafood Watch recommended eating Petrale Sole, along with all California flatfish, only a few times a year, due to issues with bottom trawling, which can damage or destroy fish habitat. The Seafood Watch recommends Alaskan halibut as the best alternative.

    When it comes to eating at restaurants, consumers have to be even more wary. Many establishments now claim environmental awareness, but if you look closely at what they are offering, you might find something different. Casson Trenor is the author of the upcoming book "Sustainable Sushi: A Guide For a Changing Planet" (North Atlantic Books, 2009) and director of FishWise, an industry certifying organization. According to Trenor, there are two points of view in the seafood industry. Some groups realize that the industry is currently unsustainable, and are doing everything in their power to change those damaging practices. However, there are other groups that will sell anything to stay in business, including unsustainable fish. Unfortunately, Trenor says, "In the long run they are cutting their own throats."

    Top Choices For Sustainable California Seafood:
    1. Dungeness Crab
    2. Black Rockfish
    3. Pacific Sardines
    4. Pacific Albacore Tuna
    5. White Seabass (King Croaker)
    Also recommended are Alaskan Wild Salmon and Alaskan Halibut instead of local populations.

    Top Choices For Farmed Fish:
    1. Arctic Char (an excellent salmon replacement)
    2. Striped Bass
    3. Tilapia (from U.S.)
    4. Catfish (from U.S.)
    5. Shellfish: Oysters, Clams, Mussels, Abalone
    Avoid farmed salmon and shrimp.

    EcoChef: Lower your carbon - cholesterol may follow
    CCT Staff
    Article Created: 04/22/2008 12:06:06 PM PDT

    We love to hate C-words when it comes to food. But the C-words of the past — calories, carbs, cholesterol — have been eclipsed by an overlord indifferent to weight loss, diabetes and heart disease. These are petty concerns for a villain undermining the health of our planet. The new C-word is carbon, and it's contributing to global climate change.

    Yes, the low carbon diet is the new "It" in the food world. But what does it mean? This diet is about lowering not our cholesterol, but our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Carbon is the basic building block of life, and plants absorb it in the form of CO2 — one of the major greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change. So, the more plants, the more CO2 absorbed, and the less global warming. But while livestock, and thus meat-based diets, leave a much greater carbon footprint than plants, there's more to the story.

    Fertilizing, picking, packaging and transporting agricultural products all cost energy, usually in the form of fossil fuels, meaning commercial food plants emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than they can absorb.

    By current estimates, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of our food system. Scientists have devised the Life Cycle Assessment to calculate the energy required to support a particular food — from inception to disposal. Some foods, such as meat and dairy, are well studied, while the LCA of others, such as processed foods, are less well understood.

    Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas produced by our food system, but it is the most common. Methane, produced by cows and sheep, is not nearly as pervasive, but it's much more powerful — 23 times more efficient at trapping greenhouse gases than CO2. Nitrous oxide is also a byproduct of modern agriculture, largely from animal waste and nitrogen fertilizers. All of these greenhouse gases settle into the atmosphere where they create a "blanket" in the atmosphere that heats up the Earth. Greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere now will survive for decades if not centuries.

    We know that plant foods produce lower carbon emissions than animal products. An exception to this rule is hothouse-grown vegetables. While climate-controlled environments allow us to have year-round fresh local produce, they require large amounts of CO2-producing energy to keep the plants cozy. And locally grown isn't always the lowest carbon, either. A study in England found that green beans flown in from Kenya had lower carbon footprints than local beans, largely due to differences between farming by machine and by hand.

    The worse greenhouse gas offenders are the cows, sheep and goats that produce the methane described earlier. These are also the animals that produce our milk and cheese, making dairy a high carbon choice. The best meats to consume from a greenhouse gas perspective are locally raised chicken and pork.

    Seafood is a mixed bag. The seafood with the lowest carbon emissions are shellfish, particularly when they're not flown in from the East Coast or another country. Fresh fish poses a bit of a conundrum. Many of the diesel engines in the small boats that harvest and transport small local catches are horribly carbon-inefficient, while the air shipment of fresh refrigerated fish has its own environmental problems. From a carbon emissions perspective, we are better off eating "fresh frozen at sea" seafood that can be packaged and transported more efficiently. Perhaps the worst offender of all is farmed fish, usually grown with artificial fungicides and grown with huge, emissions-producing floodlights. Though there are exceptions here, too.

    As confusing as this all may sound, there are some easy shopping choices that will make a difference (see sidebar on Go Low Carb). Shopping at farmers markets is a good way to eat a low-carbon diet, as well. I've significantly lowered my personal carbon emissions by moderating my dairy intake.

    Some food service companies are addressing carbon emissions head on. Bon Appetit Management Co., based in Palo Alto, serves more than 80 million meals each year in restaurants and corporate and school cafeterias. The company's move toward a low carbon diet, which takes place this year, was pioneered by Helene York, director of the Bon Appetit Management Co.'s foundation, back in 2005. "This was before 'An Inconvenient Truth,'" York says, "There wasn't very much awareness."

    "Finding a science partner was a challenge," York says, because so few groups were working on the problem at the time. Now, after studying the issue for more than two years, they are implementing a low carbon diet throughout their entire operation.

    A bonus of this program is how healthful the low carbon diet turns out to be. It closely matches many recommendations doctors and nutritionists are already making: fewer processed foods and more whole vegetables and grains. When chosen from local sources, it's a healthful diet for the planet and the person.

    "Nutrition is No. 1 for me," says Susan Hunter, executive chef for Bon Appetit at Mills College. Hunter is experimenting with novel foods such as homemade nut milk as an alternative to dairy. "It's a whole new level of cuisine," she says.

    Julie Cummins, director of education at the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture, agrees. She recently organized a series of panel discussions about food and global warming.

    Cummins is quick to point out that "carbon emissions are only one aspect" of a sustainable and healthy food system. "There are a lots of trade-offs," Cummins says. "Ultimately, it's about how good fresh food tastes."

    Once people realize that making eco-friendly choices needn't involve sacrifice, you can be certain that low carbon food will be coming to a store or restaurant near you.


    To calculate the relative carbon impact of your food choices go to:

    Here are a few tips to get you started on a low-carb diet.

    Increase your intake of fresh, seasonal vegetables. Avoid hothouse-grown vegetables.

    Reduce your intake of meat (particularly beef, lamb, and sheep) and consume less dairy. Eat them less often and/or in smaller amounts.

    Buy and cook only enough to eat. More than 30 percent of food that is purchased at markets is wasted.

    Reduce your total food miles. This includes buying local food but also how often you drive to go shopping. Shop for the week, not for the day.

    Avoid eating processed and packaged foods.

    Plant a garden. Nothing is as carbon friendly as something you grew yourself!

    -- Sources: Helene York and Julie Cummins

    Eat the whole thing, with joy
    Contra Costa Times (
    By Aaron French
    Article Launched: 04/08/2008 12:00:43 PM PDT

    BOOK: "Beyond Nose to Tail" ($35, Bloomsbury, 240 pages), 107 recipes.

    AUTHORS: Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly update recipes from the past to bring us to the offal present.

    REVIEWER: Aaron French, chef of the Sunny Side Cafe in Albany, spent time growing up on a small farm, where he raised rabbits, chickens, guinea fowl and ducks for food.

    The heart of this book comes from an ancient idea: When you eat an animal, eat the whole thing (not just the choice bits!) and do so with joy. A sequel to Fergus Henderson's first cookbook, "Nose to Tail Eating," his new book is composed of two sections. The first scant half (44 recipes), written by Henderson, is about eating unconventional meat. The second half (63 recipes) is written by pastry chef Justin Piers Gellatly, and focuses on puddings, baking and doughnuts.

    Selecting from the table of contents, you could easily dine on "Back fat with wet walnuts," "Nettle and snail soup" and "Pot-roast half pig's head." For dessert, you could choose "Burnt sheep's milk yoghurt" or "Prune and suet pudding." An unusual meal by American standards, but one that will certainly encourage a connection between you and your food. And that, I believe, is the real strength of this book.

    The recipes themselves are a varied lot — from the detailed recipe for a pigs-foot stock called "Trotter Gear," to the whimsical but useless "recipe" for Grilled Mackerel, cooked over "a driftwood fire on a beach in the Hebrides." I made the "Trotter Gear" stock with the best available ingredients, and it was surprisingly bland. There is an art to the simplicity of letting ingredients speak for themselves, and in this case I felt let down, as if Henderson is keeping some part of his recipe secret for his restaurant.

    My other bone to pick (squirrel bone, of course) is that Henderson takes ample liberties in describing the basics of his recipes. This is fine for a knowledgeable cook, but the beginner who might want to experiment with Braised Squirrel might wonder what a "gentle oven" is, or get lost pondering the meaning of "place the bacon on the feathered nest," when there is nary a bird in sight.

    Overall, this is a fun and well-written book that never failed to produce a chuckle from everyone I shared it with. However, it is best used for inspiration rather than for the specific recipes themselves.

    Michael Pollan urges students to make the time for real food
    The Oakland Tribune (
    By Aaron French, Correspondent
    Article Created: 03/12/2008 12:49:10 AM PDT

    WHEREVER Michael Pollan gives a talk, you can expect a sold-out crowd. Pollan is a literary rock star after his last book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," went platinum by becoming a New York Times best seller and one of the Times and Washington Post's 10 best books of 2006.

    His new book, "In Defense of Food" (Penguin Press, $21.95), came out in January and is already a best-seller. In a discussion at UC Berkeley Wheeler Auditorium with fellow journalism school professor Cynthia Gorney, the conversation stayed comfortably close to Pollan's central thesis: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

    Pollan urged the audience to challenge accepted and popular notions regarding food science, nutrition and vitamins, and to not have too much confidence in oversight and regulation.

    "You can't trust this government about food," Pollan says, citing several instances where the government put agribusiness interests above public health concerns.

    He advised eating foods "your great-grandmother would recognize," while repeating his well-worn advice to buy products from the edge of the supermarket (and stay away from the middle, where processed foods reign).

    While he also recommends shopping at farmers markets and growing your own food, he sees plenty of justifiable exceptions to the locavore's mantra of only eating foods produced as close to home as possible.The energy it takes to transport food can be offset by a number of other complicated factors.

    "I don't think we should buy all-local anyway," says Pollan, who says he is reluctant to give up his Italian-produced pasta.

    Asked how he expected economically challenged people to afford the high cost of natural foods, he admits, "It's hard to grow good food and we don't pay enough." Another attendee raised the argument of saving time; a tempting byproduct of convenience foods.

    We now spend an average of two hours a day on the Internet, he says, compared with less than 1½ hours per day shopping, preparing, eating and cleaning up our three meals a day "" it's simply a matter of reversing our priorities.

    Aaron French is the chef at Sunny Side Cafe in Albany. Reach him at

    Tucker Shaw's cookbook for men reviewed by East Bay chef
    Contra Costa Times (
    Article Launched: 02/19/2008

    By Aaron French

    I start my day by turning on a 30-foot wall of ovens, grills, griddles, stoves and broilers so I was intrigued by "Gentlemen, Start your Ovens" by Tucker Shaw. Would this be another "Open can, mix & microwave" cookbook? Would a professional chef find something new and interesting in a "guy cookbook"? A look inside quickly provided answers of "No" and "Yes," respectively.

    The book has an excellent layout, fantastic photography and an accessible tone. The author, a veteran writer of teenage novels and restaurant reviews, keeps the tone light as he guides the readers around the kitchen. While obviously aimed at men, this is also a great book for the modern kitchen-phobic woman who wants to change her take-out ways. Solid sections on kitchen equipment, food basics and, yes, cleaning, start out the book.

    Moving on to the recipes, I found them to be both diverse and surprisingly useful. Shaw strikes a nice balance in the number of ingredients and recipe complexity. His recipes manage to be simple to understand and execute without being vapid "" a nice balance between "A Man, A Plan, A Can" and "Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef." While I prefer to add fresh herbs to my recipes in addition to raiding my generous spice cabinet, I found Shaw's flavors to be satisfying and well-rounded.

    Recipes spanned both day and night, from breakfast basics to after-party snacks. Yes, you'll definitely find the beer-battered onion rings and meatloaf you expect, but also a simple and well-rounded chicken soup complete with homemade stock ("Don't bother skimming the foam") he utilizes for a number of other recipes, including the Hash 'n' Eggs.

    In short, Shaw's new cookbook takes a nice middle ground and serves up tasty but simple recipes with humor to spare.




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