Waste Not, Want Not: How Ordinary Home Cooks Can Help Prevent World Hunger

Together a family of four pitches 1,656 pounds of food–the amount pictured here in the Food Waste display © AMNH/D. Finnin**

This is a blog about everyday meal making, so you’re likely wondering why an article on world hunger?  Because I have met and talked to most of the people on our newsletter list and I know they, like most people, really, have a deep concern for the plight of others.  Usually, it feels like there’s nothing we can do about big problems.  Happily, however, everyday meal making provides an opportunity to change the world.  Three times a day, seven days a week, we have a chance to make food choices that, e.g., lead to less food wasted so more food is available for those in need.  This Waste Not, Want Not series hopes to build awareness of these opportunities so we can exercise our power to effect change.

Those who have taken one of our healthy meal making classes will chuckle at the heading for this article.  For those who haven’t, I am known for hoarding the bits and scraps from our cooking adventures that most people would toss:

  • Are we making a salad with kale leaves?  Save the stems for making a soup!
  • Is the saute pan covered with the bits and pieces from browning chicken?  Deglaze it and save the juices for cooking carrots!
  • Broccoli on the menu?  Peel the tough stems and boil for a lovely puree!

While I admit to being a (lighthearted, I hope) miser, there is a heartbreakingly serious side to this waste not, want not quirk of mine:  Hunger.  It is fast increasing, even in our own country, the wealthiest in the world.  National Geographic recently profiled what hunger looks like in America:

“[T]he number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012–a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000. Finding food has become a central worry for millions of Americans. One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in 20.”

AND YET. . . we waste 30% of our food supply!  Picture the groceries you buy each week.  Now imagine tossing a third of them in the trash can.  Wow.

In a previous post, I described the potato blight display at the Global Kitchen exhibit in Denver.  In addition to that display the exhibit featured another illustrating our food waste problem.

  • In the developing world, it explained, food waste occurs for lack of things like storage, refrigeration, distribution and technology.  E.g., there is a big crop of mangoes, but it can’t be refrigerated to spread out the harvest, can’t be widely distributed to more people in need and can’t be dried, canned or otherwise processed for year-round eating.
  • In the developed world, on the other hand, food waste occurs just because we are thoughtless and picky.  To begin with, each year every man, woman and child in the United States throws out 414 pounds of food at home, in stores and restaurants.  But even more food is lost on farms and in processing and transportation.  E.g., huge amounts of produce is discarded on farms and at stores simply because it isn’t quite pretty or fresh enough for the American consumer or has a few blemishes.**

Wow, again.

Certainly the food industry bears some responsibility for our quick-to-toss mentality.  It happily stokes our fears around food contamination:  A little wilting on the lettuce–pitch it and go buy more!  Asparagus been in the frig for six days–must be bad so go buy more!  Apple have a brown spot–get rid of it and go buy more!

Note the “go buy more” theme?  It is to the industry’s advantage to take advantage of food safety concerns.  Pitching a tomato with a bad spot means you run to the store for a replacement.  Ka-ching!

There is no question that food safety is important, but for goodness sake:

  • Old does not automatically equal inedible.  In asparagus season, it is sometimes 7 or 10 days before I can get to my last bunch and it is absolutely fine.
  • Wilted does not automatically equal inedible.  Our Monroe Organics CSA lettuce is often wilted after a long day from harvest through delivery and pick up, but as Jacquie Monroe always reminds us, dunk it in a bowl of cold water for a couple hours.  Presto it becomes just like new!
  • And mold does not automatically signify that an entire produce item has gone bad.  In tomato season,  have plenty of tomatoes that start to turn, but I cut off all of the bad spot (plus a margin of good tomato) and what’s left is fine.

Many of us were raised in the post WWII, “starving child in China” era.  Parents cajoled us to eat our peas because there were “so many starving children in China.”  I don’t know whether our parents truly cared about the kids in China or just needed a heavy moral stick to make us eat nasty canned peas.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before we wised up to the absurdity of it all.  How in the world could eating nasty canned peas in America save some kid in China?

So we proceeded to toss out the kid in China nonsense.  But we didn’t stop there.  As each ensuing decade brought an ever-increasing abundance of food, we continued pitching, ultimately abandoning centuries-old traditions of gratefully treasuring and carefully husbanding food.  In place of those traditions, we giddily created into a cool new credo that took food for granted, gave little respect to the miracle of abundance and thoughtlessly, almost wantonly, wasted.

And now each of us wastes 414 pounds of food a year, while our neighbors go hungry.

Apple and plum sauce made from the abundance of fruit in our Boulder area this year.

So as Food Day approaches, when we can reflect on our food consumption, am I suggesting a return to the starving child in China mentality?  Lick my plate clean and starving kids somewhere are magically spared from hunger for a day?   That does sound silly, but what if:

  1. On a tangible level, what if the money saved by not wasting food is directed to hunger organizations (and while food banks are great, I favor organizations that address the root causes of hunger.)
  2. On a less tangible level, what if each of us, by paying a little more attention to revering and deeply appreciating food, contribute to a shift in the cultural norm.  Embarrassing waste is no longer accepted and food is treasured.  I’m guessing that kind of culture would more quickly find and effectively implement the solutions that already exist to end hunger.

If you have any more thoughts, please share in the comment box below.

Autumn, the season of harvest abundance, is a perfect time to begin building awareness around food waste and cultivating reverence for the food miracles nature bestows, day after day, season after season.

If you’re ready to take action, there are many ways to avoid food waste.

  • Wondering what to have for dinner?  Instead of running to the store for something, go foraging in your frig and find uses for a couple treasures in danger of going to waste.  The “Building Block Cooking Systems® shared in our healthy meal making classes make this kind of thing easy and fun to do.
  • These beans got forgotten in the garden, but not need to dump them; with the right kind of cooking, they can be turned into a delightful dish.

    Also included in our healthy meal making classes are lots of waste not, want not ideas, especially around using and enjoying leftovers.

  • Interestingly, joining a CSA helps prevent food waste as farmers can distribute food that is first quality in taste but not quite pretty enough for a farmers’ market or grocery store display.  Using this less-than-perfect produce keeps it from going to compost.
  • Check out Jen Hatmaker’s book, “7, an experimental mutiny against excess.”  It’s a “funny, raw, and not a guilt trip in the making” account of how she took 7 months, identified 7 areas of excess and made 7simple choices to fight back again the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism and overindulgence.  No surprise that food was one of her 7 target areas.  The surprise came in how humbly but hilariously she awakened–and awakens us–to the “filthy engine where ungratefulness and waste are standard protocol.”
  • Finally, check out the recipes in the previous posts for green beans past their prime and arugula (or any other vegetable) that’s so bitter you’re tempted to toss it.
Notes
The New Face of Hunger, Tracie McMillan,National Geographic, August 2014,
** From the Food: Our Global Kitchen exhibit; American Museum of Natural History

Recipe: Slow Cooker Kohlrabi Gratin

Cooking vegetables gratin-style is a delicious option–in the winter. Because a gratin is baked an hour or so, it’s tough to even think about making one in the heat of summer. Hence the slow cooker version in this recipe. Of course in cooler weather, you can also bake this dish at 350 (F) for an hour or so.

Although kohlrabi has been at the markets lately, with the arrival of August’s hot temperatures, this cooler weather crop may disappear for a while.  However, it frequently reappears in autumn, so keep this recipe handy.

For tips on peeling and cutting a kohlrabi, see the next post.

Serves 2

Step 1 Lightly Saute Onions

  • 1 med. red onion, sliced into strips about ¼” x 2” (or 1 cup sliced green parts of fresh onions)
  • ½ Tbsp. butter

In a medium-sized, heavy bottomed saute pan, heat butter over medium heat until lightly sizzling. Add onions and saute, just until lightly browned (about 5 minutes.)

Kohlrabi

See the next post for instructions on quickly cutting matchsticks or, for a more traditional style gratin, quarter and slice kohlrabi thinly.

Step 2 Combine and Cook

  • ½ Tbsp. butter
  • 2 medium kohlrabi (about 3 to 4” in diameter), cut into ¼” matchsticks (or thinly sliced and halved)
  • 1 cup milk or unsweetened almond or soy milk
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Grease a 3 to 5 qt. round slow cooker with butter, then add and stir together sauteed onion, kohlrabi, milk and salt and pepper. (Reserve onion pan for making breadcrumbs.)

Slow cook gratin a total of 6 to 8 hours as follows: Begin by covering slow cooker and cooking gratin on high for 2 to 3 hours until simmering vigorously, stirring occasionally. Once mixture is simmering well and kohlrabi has begun to soften, remove lid and continue cooking until most of liquid is evaporated–about 2 to 3 more hours, stirring occasionally.*  Then reduce heat to low and re-cover with lid and continue cooking until vegetables are cooked to taste, about another 1 to 2 hours.

Step 3 Toast Breadcrumbs and Serve

  • ½ Tbsp. butter or olive oil
  • 2-3 Tbsp. dried breadcrumbs

In pan used for sauteing onions, melt butter over medium heat, then sprinkle crumbs evenly across bottom of pan. Cook, stirring every minute or two, until crumbs are lightly browned and crispy. About 30 minutes before serving, return slow cooker to high and sprinkle evenly with prepared crumbs. Continue cooking, uncovered, for the last 30 minutes. Serve with optional garnishes.

Optional Garnishes

  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

* Note:  cooking the dish uncovered allows moisture to evaporate, so the gratin comes out more like a baked dish than the kind of soupier dish that normal slow cooking produces.  While this means this isn’t a dish to fix and forget all day, the result is well worth the small amount of extra attention required.

Turnips, Kohlrabi, Radishes and Other Odd Vegetables

Picture of Kohlrabi

Strangely Beautiful Kohlrabi (photo courtesy of Vermont Food Bank)

The Key to Survival:  Odd Vegetables?

Last week, we got kohlrabi in our CSA boxes for a second time in a row. Chatting with a fellow CSA* member she complained, “Why did we get kohlrabi again? Can’t they just give us vegetables we know?”

Our personal vegetable kingdoms are frequently divided between “vegetables we know” and “everything else.” The former category includes perennial favorites like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and peppers. The latter is a dumping ground for those vegetables we never buy or that don’t have instant taste appeal–like kohlrabi, collards, radishes, turnips, parsnips and celeriac.

Why go to the effort of growing, buying and cooking all these odd vegetables? If we can go to the store and buy easy things like carrots and spinach, why bother with produce that presents such preparation and palatability challenges? It’s a fair question, and I’ve often asked it of myself, especially since our classes frequently use vegetables from the “everything else” category.

The answer can be summed up in one word:  Diversity.

Potato blight–not a pretty sight.

I recently attended Food: Our Global Kitchen, the Colorado History Museum’s current exhibit.**  Two juxtaposing displays really drove home the point of diversity.  The first described how, at the time of the tragic Irish Potato Famine, millions of Ireland’s population subsisted largely on just one crop, the potato. To make matters worse, they relied on just one variety of potato. So when the pathogen P. infestans (a/k/a potato blight) struck in 1845, it “spread alarmingly quickly, cutting yields from that year’s harvest in half. By the next year, harvest from potato farms had dropped to one quarter of its original size.” In the ensuing famine, over one million people died of starvation.***

Picture of Peruvian Potatoes

The wild diversity of Peruvian potatoes (courtesy of MikeJackson1948.wordpress.com)

The second display described a very different situation across the globe, where native populations in the Andean highlands had developed nearly 4000 potato varieties over thousands of years, each capable of withstanding different diseases, pests, water availability, soil conditions, etc.  So even though P. infestans is believed to have originated in Peru, the Andean region was spared its devastation.***

My great grandmother was a Potato Famine emigrant, so these displays really left me shaken.  Monoculture, the practice of planting acres and acres with a single variety of a single plant, leaves us so frighteningly vulnerable–just one disease from disaster. Sadly, we haven’t learned much. Not many years after the Irish Potato Famine, American farmers continued planting fields upon fields with just a few varieties of potatoes.   These became an “ocean of breakfast” for the next potato scourge: the Colorado potato beetle, which has been a continuing pest epidemic ever since, kept in check only by massive and multiple applications of pesticides.

At my CSA Farm, Monroe Organic Farms, over 100 produce varieties are planted on just 20 or so acres! Not only do the Monroes grow a huge number of produce items from asparagus to zucchini and carrots to watermelon. In addition, they juggle four different varieties of carrots, five kinds of zucchini, five of watermelon–did you even know there were five kinds of watermelon, all quite different? Here, 4th generation farmer Kyle Monroe sells asparagus and strawberries.

What’s to save us? Diversity. It’s the “technology” Nature has always deployed to keep disease and pests in check. Faced with a riotous mix of species and varieties, insects and pathogens can’t multiply and adapt to dangerous levels.

Which brings us back to turnips, kohlrabi and radishes. The more odd things on our farms, the less we are vulnerable to massive crop failures. And should pests or hail or a water shortage bring down one crop, there’s a good chance the damaging condition will have little or no affect on other crops or varieties.  Last year, for instance, our CSA farm was hit by fury of hail that sheared the tops off most crops–but all the root crops were safely buried in the ground. So we rued the loss of Monroe’s famous melons, but cheered at the bounty of carrots, potatoes, beets and celeriac.

Diversity yields benefits on a personal level, too. As we eat a greater variety of foods, our bodies benefit from a wider range of nutrients. In fact, Jacquie, our CSA farmer, says this is an important reason for including vegetables from the “everything else” category, i.e., so members get a chance to try and benefit from new foods.  And there’s nothing like a variety of tastes–from the sweetness of peaches to the earthiness of turnips–to create a dish with deep, well-rounded flavor.

Carrot Diversity

Diverse Varieties of Carrots:  Buying at Farmers’ Markets featuring locally grown foods from diversified farms is an excellent way to support an environmentally sound food system.

Finally, many “odd” produce varieties are what grow best in Colorado. While finicky tomatoes and cucumbers can only be grown in our hottest months, sturdy crops like kale, chard, and yes, radishes, kohlrabi and turnips, can be grown in our chilly, unpredictable springs and autumns as well. So while waiting for the hot weather crops to (finally) produce, several rounds of cold-weather crops can be harvested and eaten–and many can be stored through the winter months.

In a world where easy and familiar vegetables are shipped in to your grocery store no matter the month, it’s easy to ignore the odd vegetables. But perhaps you want to help transition us to an environmentally sound, resilient food system, where tomatoes aren’t shipped in from places 1000 miles away and we aren’t dependent on drought-ravaged California for 90% of our food supply. One of the best ways to contribute is also one of the easiest: simply buy, use and create demand for the odd vegetables.

And don’t worry about the taste. Over time, our taste buds grow and develop so that we come to treasure the “unique” flavors of each member of the vegetable kingdom. Our classes are a perfect way to gain some exposure, experiment and learn tricks and tips to make the odd vegetables a natural part of your diet.  And see the following posts on How to peel and cut a kohlrabi, quick ideas for using kohlrabi, and a recipe for Slow Cooker Kohlrabi Gratin.

Notes

*”CSA” stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Having a CSA is essentially like buying a one-season share in a local farm; in return, you get a box of the farm’s produce harvest each week.

** Food: Our Global Kitchen is open through September 1; well worth a trip to downtown Denver

*** Information drawn from Smithsonian.com, Scientists Finally Pintpoint the Pathoget that Caused the Irish Potato Famine, May 21, 2013;   http://cipotato.org/potato/  and  Smithsonian.com, How the Potato Changed the World, November, 2011.

Recipe: White Fish in Cilantro Broth with Sweet Potatoes and Broccoli

Simple, One-Dish Style Makes for Simple Dinner Times

Broccoli florets and julienned sweet potatoes surround delicate white fish kept moist and tasty with the springy tang of a cilantro broth.

Step 1:  Prepare Cilantro Broth  

  • 1 Tbsp. roughly chopped garlic (from about 3 cloves)
  • 1 Tbsp. jalapeno pepper, chopped roughly, more or less, to taste
  • ¼  cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ tsp. salt, more or less to taste
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, low sodium (divided)
  • 2 cups roughly chopped cilantro, both stems and leaves

In cup of immersion blender, combine garlic, jalapeno, lime juice and salt.  Allow to sit for several minutes to meld flavors.  Add half of broth and cilantro.  Blend until fairly smooth but with a little texture, then add remaining broth and blend just enough to incorporate it.  Reserve.

Even though this is a one-dish meal, two-pan cooking makes preparation faster–vegetables simmer-steam in one pan while the fish cooks in another.

Step 2:  Simmer Steam Vegetables

  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth, low sodium (divided)
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut about ½ to 3/4” in size
  • 1 lrg. Garnet or Jewel yam, julienned to about 1/8”, then cut into roughly 2” lengths

Combine broth and broccoli florets in a large frying pan with a lid.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat t o low and simmer just 3-5 minutes, until broccoli is halfway done.
Stir in yam strips and continue simmering until both broccoli and yams are almost done to taste, about 3-5 more minutes.

Step 3:  Pan Fry White Fish 

  • ½ to ¾ lb. cod, talapia or other mild white fish filets either fresh or frozen and thawed, cut into 2-3” cutlets
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil, to taste

While vegetables cook, warm oil over medium heat in a medium-sized, heavy bottomed saute pan.  Gently squeeze or pat cutlets dry, then season with salt and pepper.  When a corner of fish sizzles gently when touched in warming oil, use a spatula to spread oil evenly over bottom of pan, then lay cutlets in warmed oil in a single layer so they do not touch each other.  Set timer and cook for 3 minutes and flip over.  Reduce heat to medium low and cook another 1 minute, then remove immediately to a plate.

Step 4:  Combine and Serve

As soon as vegetables are almost done, stir in reserved sauce, then push vegetables to sides of pan and lay partially cooked cutlets in center.  Continue simmering, covered, just 1-2 more minutes, until fish is done.  Taste and add more salt, pepper, lime or jalapenos,  to taste.  Serve immediately, placing two or three cutlets in center of wide soup bowl surrounded by half of the vegetables.  Spoon broth over the top.

Optional:  Serve alongside a little brown rice to soak up the broth deliciously

NOTES:  See the next post for background information on preparing this recipe.

CSAs: Sign Up Now for Great Produce, Good Meat

Farmer's Market Photo

Hard to believe, but summer really is coming. Think ahead now and join a CSA to enjoy great summer produce at very reasonable prices.

Now is the time to sign up for a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture.

What  Join a CSA and you rise from passive grocery store consumer to farm member and supporter.  Every week you get a great box of produce (or meat) at amazingly reasonable prices.  Super fresh and super tasty.

Why  By the single step of joining a CSA you do all this:

  • get the best-tasting produce
  • at the most reasonable prices
  • that does the best job of supporting your and your family’s good health
  • while supporting sustainable growing practices
  • which protects the environment and preserves farmland
  • supports local farmers and local economy
  • and builds a stronger community.  What else can you do that is so beneficial?!!

Also be sure to see the previous post on the importance of clean meat–the kind you get direct from a farmer

When  CSAs deliver produce weekly, as it’s grown, so in Colorado that’s generally June through October.

Where  CSAs usually deliver to nearby towns and cities; it’s nice to find one that delivers to a fairly close location.

How Much  Pricing varies, depending upon farm and size.  Regardless, in my experience, the per pound price of produce was always very reasonable.  See the listing below for exact pricing.  And remember to start small.  There’s always next year to buy a bigger share as you get accustomed to this new way of “shopping.”

CSA Listing
The Daily Camera just printed a convenient list of CSAs that deliver in the Boulder area
Here is another good online source  (but note that Grant Family Farms is no longer in business.)

CSA Fair  Come Meet the Farmers!
Saturday March 15, 9:00am – Noon at Impact Hub Boulder, 1877 Broadway, Suite 100
Co-hosted by Local Food Shift and Boulder County Farmers’ Markets.  Connects people face-to-face with farmers, discovering all the ways to directly support them, learn about food production and enjoy local food–and join a CSA!   RSVP here.

Produce

We’ve been “trained” to seek out produce that looks good on the outside; CSA produce may not be as pretty on the outside, but it is stellar on the inside.

Think Ahead”  That’s the key to reaping the benefits of a CSA.  Remember we live in an instant food culture.  Anytime you get hungry, somebody has something to fill you up.  But you get what you pay for.  Little effort = little value.  Sadly we see the consequences of little effort all around us.

Why not try a new paradigm:  Think ahead.  You will be hungry this summer and autumn, just like you are every day.  That won’t change.  What can change is thinking ahead now and ordering a CSA.  Each week, you’ll have a magnificent box of produce and clean meat.  Then, when you’re hungry, you’ll fill yourself up with real food that nourishes and nurtures, i.e., what you really want to be eating.

Full Disclosure  CSAs offer great benefits, but as a member-supporter of the farm, you also get to intimately know and share some of the risks of farming.  In this way, you get very connected to the world outside our homes and offices where real food is produced.

Our farmers work tremendously hard and are so ingenious, but there are a lot of factors outside their control (e.g., floods, drought, shearing hailstorms, to name just a few from the last couple years.)  The fees paid by as a CSA member give farmers a cushion of security in this very risky environment.

Most often, those fees are repaid tenfold in the health-giving, delicious produce members receive.  But now and then, members take a hit alongside their farmers (albeit it a much, much smaller hit!)  Last year, for instance, our farm suffered a freak hailstorm in July.  In one hour, half of their crops were destroyed.  Talk about a force of nature!  But even though our shares were smaller, they were still very adequate, and I never felt “deprived.”

Members also help farmers by accepting and using up the less-than-perfect produce that is part and parcel of every harvest.  I was dismayed when the produce from my first CSA wasn’t nearly as nice as what my farmer sold at the Market.  Think about it, though:  for every perfect 7″ carrot, there are several 4-6″ carrots which taste just as good.  They may take a little more work, but by accepting them, they don’t go to waste and our farmer is further supported.

Finally, there is the dreaded, “What if I get 10 turnips” fear.  First, come to our healthy meal making classes with The New Kitchen Cooking School.  We learn systems for cooking a vegetable in multiple ways so you never feel over-dosed.  This summer we have three sessions all revolving around the summer vegetables you might receive in a CSA box.  Second, a CSA box always has plenty of variety to offset any vegetable you receive in plentitude.

Read more from Dan Moore’s volunteer website about why and how to join a CSA

Happy eating!

How a Good Food Goes Bad

Sweet Potato Fries--Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Sweet Potato Fries–Do they deserve a healthy halo?

Another good food gone bad.  It was bound to happen.

I’m not talking about some broccoli gone bad in the bottom drawer of the frig.  I’m talking about the industrialization of poor sweet potatoes.

You might remember five or so years ago, when roasting became popular.  In the midst of our roasting fun, someone discovered the joy of roasted sweet potatoes, a/k/a sweet potato fries when cut to resemble French fries.

Back in those good old days, we started with high quality sweet potatoes.  Consistent with healthy roasting technique, slices were tossed with a moderate amount of high quality olive oil (e.g. 1-2 Tablespoons for 2-3 potatoes.)  Next came a sprinkling of salt that could be very moderate because high-quality, unrefined salt was used, bolstered by freshly ground pepper and sometimes other herbs and spices.  Roasted at high temperatures, the outsides browned while the natural sweetness of the potato condensed and intensified.

Not only did these fries add marvelous flavor and delightful color to our plates, they provided us with increased nutritional variety.   They were also great for people who can’t tolerate regular potatoes very well.

Downfall of the Joyous Sweet Potato

Something so ideal was bound to catch the eye of the industrial feeding machine.  First, trading on their healthy reputation, restaurants began offering sweet potato fries made like regular French fries, i.e., drowned in a vat of fat and coated with half a day’s worth of sodium.  In some restaurants, sugar is even being added to complete the addictive fat-salt-sugar triad that is the hallmark of our addictive fast food industry. (1)

Now the sweet potato itself is being subjected to an “industrial transformation,” not unlike that of countless foods from hamburgers to burritos and noodle bowls to stir fry.  Once perfectly fine and healthful, they are now classic examples of junk food.  Evidentially, the same fate awaits the poor sweet potato.  With consumption rising 30% over the last decade, The Wall Street Journal reports that food behemoth ConAgra has launched its biggest bet in years:  “to reinvent the sweet potato for mass consumption, starting with its shape and sugar content.” (2)

What exactly does it look like when a food goes from edible fruit of the earth to industrial product?  Many of industrial ag’s products (note the use of “products” not “foods”) have been a part of the foodscape so long we don’t even notice them or their effects.  But the re-making of the sweet potato is happening right now, under our noses, providing insight into how our modern food system has been shaped and why it no longer serves us.

The Model  ConAgra hopes to make the sweet potato a modern-day equivalent of the russet potato, which in the mid-1940s was “elevated” by entrepreneur J. R. Simplot from kitchen staple to multibillion-dollar franchise.  Simplot’s “genius” lay in developing a standard-sized, brick-like potato that could be efficiently machine-processed then quickly and conveniently cooked for mass consumption.(3)

The Fallout  We have mass consumed alright–right into an obesity epidemic in fact, with French fries a leading contributor.  Besides shifting the national diet away from nutritional balance, Simplot’s profit-driven efforts lessened valuable plant diversity,(4) diminished potato flavor(5) and compromised small farmers in favor of large corporate farms and mono-culture production.(6)

The Process  20,000 sweet potato lines are evaluated annually, from which scientists breed just a few that have a certain amount of sweetness, consistent deep orange color, a brick-like shape instead of pointed ends, a denser weight and the ability to store for a year rather than six months.  (Side Note:  In a world plagued by hunger, isn’t it interesting that millions and millions are being spent to create a boutique sweet potato for unhealthy frying instead of just growing and distributing plain old sweet potatoes to starving consumers?)

The Motivation  Not to be confused as an avenue to boost consumer health, all of ConAgra’s work is dedicated to the production of deep-fried sweet potato products, driven by the hope “that new, improved sweet potatoes will fuel growth and profit in its $2.2 billion potato business.”  As even the Wall Street reporter acknowledged, although sweet potatoes “are widely perceived as healthier, . . . when fried it’s debatable whether they are healthier than regular potatoes.”

The Misfortune  Nature has given us a joyously sweet edible.  Why do we demand more, to begin with, and when we demand more, what careful natural wisdom are we upsetting?  Contrary to modern industrial thought, we can’t have it all.  Just look at the tomato.  Clever engineering made it ripen more evenly for easier harvesting, but oops, that engineering also “contributed to making tomatoes less sweet.” Breeding for a redder tomato had similar unfortunate consequences.(7)  So what tradeoffs will be required to make sweet potatoes sweeter, or more uniform in color or able to store for an entire year?

The Solution   Easy.  No need to engage in civil disobedience, donate all your money to an environmental group or even write a letter.  Just be smart, be wise, be mindful of what you buy–and start making different choices.

Remember the Every Day Good Eating Motto   You can’t buy good nutrition in a box–or a package or at most restaurants.  So go home and make your own roasted sweet potatoes with real, nature-produced sweet potatoes, minimal amounts of fat and salt and NO added sugar!  They are easy.  You’ll love them.  And it will feel so rewarding to make your own, nutritious food.   Here is the recipe.

Notes:

While this isn’t meant to be a scholarly research paper, many authors have carefully researched and documented the industrialized food system.  Here are some citations that might be of interest as you begin understanding what has happened to our food system:

(1)  Fries or Sweet Fries?  Should you be eating either?  Bonnie Liebman, December 28, 2013, Nutrition Action

(2), (3)  “ConAgra Pushes Sweet Potato to Straighten Up and Fry Right,” Ilan Brat, The Wall Street Journal, May 23, 2010

(4)  “Consider that in the Andean highlands, a single farm may host as many as 40 distinct varieties of potato. . . , each having slightly different optimal soil, water, light, and temperature regimes. . . . (In comparison, in the United States, just four closely related varieties account for about 99 percent of all the potatoes produced.)”  Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a global Supermarket, Brian Halweil, W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 71  (As climate change takes hold, we may find ourselves wishing we had more potato varieties with different tolerances.)

(5)  “About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.  But the canning, freezing, and degydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor.  Since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable.  Without this flavor industry, today’s fast food industry could not exist.”  (Leads one to wonder whether the loss of a food’s natural flavor coincides with a loss of naturally-occurring nutrients as well.)  Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Perennial, 2002, p. 120.

(6)  “Over the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost about half of its potato farmers. . . .  Family farms are giving way to corporate farms that stretch for thousands of acres.”  Schlosser, p. 118.  Sadly, Brat reports that Louisiana sweet potato farmers are eager to see ConAgra’s entry into the market, believing that the company’s new, $155 million sweet-potato processing plant as a key to their survival.

(7)  “Why Your Tomato Has No Flavor,” Jie Jenny Zou, The Wall Street Journal; “Bring Back Those Tasty Tomatoes,” The Los Angeles Times in The Daily Camera, “Monsanto Digs Into Seeds,” Ian Berry, The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2012, p. B9:  “For years, seed companies have emphasized shelf-life and durability in shipping at the expense of taste, Consuelo Madere, vice president of Monsant’s vegetable-seed division, said in an interview.”

Kitchen Tip: Miracles with Baking Soda

I may be the last one to the baking soda party, but I’m solidly there now.  After buying a new box the other day, I happened to notice all the uses listed on the package.  

Baking Soda Miracles

Just for fun, I tried it on the microwave, on some tea-stained pans and even on my beautiful brushed steel dishwasher.

The stuff worked beautifully–easy, pretty shine and nothing that will harm our health or the planet’s health.  And lest I forget–cheap, cheap, cheap (e.g., around $2.00 for a big, 2 lb. box).  Notice how I made a convenient shaker by punching holes in a lid.  

So don’t worry if things get messy in the kitchen from cooking.  That’s just part of making good, health-giving meals.  Cleaning up is easy enough. 

Use Tip:  Shake soda onto a barely damp sponge and just moisten surface to be washed.  Too much water dissolves the soda and it loses its light abrasive abilities.

And Don’t Forget the Bathroom:  Great way to clean glass shower doors as well as sinks and other surfaces. 

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