Has the promise of farm-to-table fallen short? Yes. And no.

In celebrating the All-Stars of the farmers’ market — asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, emmer wheat — farm-to-table advocates are often guilty of ignoring a whole class of humbler crops that are required to produce the most delicious food. . . .

Perhaps the problem with the farm-to-table movement is implicit in its name. Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system — a grocery-aisle mentality — when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability. Flavor can be our guide to reshaping our diets, and our landscapes, from the ground up.

The thoughtful Dan Barber of Blue Hill on what some of the missing elements in achieving a sustainable food system might be. And how crucial chefs and consumers are.

Hollywood Farmers’ Market seeks a new manager

The Sunday morning Hollywood Farmers’ Market is one of L.A.’s greatest certified farmers’ markets, and despite some trying times in recent years (threatened loss of permits, leadership crisis) the market and its organizer, SEE-LA, seem to have rebounded. Good thing, too, because it’s one of my favorites.

Now the market is seeking a new director. This isn’t a light job: The market needs someone with significant experience who understands city, county, and state regs and who can work with 160 or so weekly vendors throughout the year. Someone who can get their feet dirty on a farm or at City Hall and feel equally comfortable.

Interested? Here are the details.

Does Buying Organic Help Farmworkers?

As with so many questions, the answer is a resounding “it depends”:

[M]ost farmworkers work long, hard hours under circumstances most Americans wouldn’t put up with. In addition to undertaking dangerous and highly repetitive tasks in the hot sun, modern farmworkers have been stripped of basic rights, harassed, held against their will, and deprived of breaks and pay.

Do these grim realities apply on all farms? Surely small and organic farms—-the ones you see at your local farmers market-—offer workers a better living under humane circumstances. Don’t they?

Anecdotally, the answer is a resounding yes. Many small-scale producers pride themselves on treating their employees well. But dig a little deeper, and it gets complicated, fast.

Twilight Greenaway writes about the Agricultural Justice Project and their “Food Justice Certified” label.

Back in the saddle again (or, back to the keyboard)

It’s been a month of administrative tasks and behind-the-scenes work, and while I’ve felt it, there’s not been much visible here. That’s about to change and regular posting resumes this week.

Thanks to all of you who’ve asked, and continued to follow.

“Monsanto Does Not Condone Cannibalism”

Good to get that out of the way. In case you were worried.

Modern Farmer recently considered the prevalence of evil Monsanto memes, and why the company seems to have perennial public relations problems:

If you set aside for a moment from the usual debate about whether GMOs are bad or good, a curious fact emerges. For a rich and powerful company that seems to excel at nearly everything it does, Monsanto sucks in one important aspect: spin control.

2014 Science & Food Public Lecture Series at UCLA

Events in April, May, and June on “The Science of Sushi” (with Ole Mouritsen and Morihiro Onodera), “How We Taste” (with Dr Dana Small and Wylie Dufresne), and “Harnessing Creativity (and the Science of Pie)” with Dave Arnold and Lena Kwak. All on UCLA’s campus; tickets can be purchased by phone or in person from UCLA’s Central Ticket Office, or via Ticketmaster.

More information on the science & food website.

Gabriel Axel, R.I.P.

The director of Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel, died last weekend. Based on a story by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), the film is a quiet, beautiful film about food, art, and their transformative power. If you haven’t seen it, you should; if you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again. The Criterion Collection website offers several resources related to the film, including links to rent or purchase a copy. And it’s available on Netflix.

Also, don’t miss this essay, “Babette’s Feast, A Fable for Culinary France,” from Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Michael Pollan on the Rise of Industrial Agriculture (Edible Education 101)

The first of this year’s Edible Education lectures from the UC Berkeley class is by Michael Pollan, co-chair of the course. (Because this is a class each video presentation captures administrative and other housekeeping announcements; the lecture itself starts approximately 30 minutes into the video.)

Edible Education 101: “The Rise of Industrial Agriculture” by Michael Pollan from The Edible Schoolyard Project on Vimeo.

Can’t read this fast enough

How can you not make a mad dash to read an interview that begins with this quote:

We have this whole idea that to be anti-materialist is somehow to be reverent, and to materialist is to be fallen. Meanwhile, if we were just genuinely materialist, that would make us reverent. I guess that’s why I like cooking. That is reverence, as far as I can tell. So is how you treat people; it’s all the same stuff.

I’m an unabashed admirer of Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal so I’m delighted to see this conversation between Tamar and Sheila Heti in The Believer. Now…off I go.

Passing on knowledge to the next generation (of farmers)

Not sure how many readers of this article in today’s New York Times will understand what an incredible gathering this was. What these farmers share is amazing talent and dedication, and a deep commitment to the importance of growing food in a way that nourishes not only the eater but also the earth.

Oyster Fraud, Oyster Poaching

Oyster fraud is about more than just getting duped out of a couple bucks. By law, oysters must carry a tag that includes information on the grower or harvester, origin, harvest date, and more. There’s a reason why strong traceability requirements are in place: For the most part, we eat oysters raw. They’re a high-risk food. The CDC found that incidence of vibrio infection, associated with eating raw shellfish, was 43 percent higher in 2012 than it was from 2006 to 2008.

and then there’s oyster poaching:

“If it’s a poached oyster, they’re probably not doing any paperwork on it,” says Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service, paperwork that would include traceable information such as history of temperature controls and harvest location.

“If they’re taking oysters from an area not deemed for consumption—like marinas or sewage areas—someone could get very sick on that,” he says.

Jon Rowley (quoted in the article) and others recommend asking to see the shipping tag to confirm origin, harvest site, and shipping date. (Coastodian.org shares an image of what these tags look like and the information contained thereon.) But this advice seems to beg the question: If someone’s intent on passing off shellfish as something other/better than what it is, what would keep them from forging or modifying a tag, or otherwise giving the consumer wrong information.

Walmart Joins CIW’s Fair Food Program

This week brought another big victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the organization that has been working tirelessly to improve working conditions and wages for farmworkers.

The press release notes that the immediate benefits will accrue to tens of thousands of Florida farmworkers–not a small population by any means–but the real benefit as I see it as the potential for this to benefits farmworkers across the country. Each time another significant player in the food market signs on, the pressure becomes greater on others (ahem, Publix) to join the Fair Food Program.

The CIW announcement addressed the short- and long-term implications of this week’s development; Barry Estabrook, who investigated the conditions of farmworkers in the Florida tomato industry for his superb book, Tomatoland, described this as an “historic stride forward” in his contribution to Civil Eats.

Refining Gastronomica’s focus

An interesting and thoughtful editor’s note from Melissa Caldwell of Gastronomica on the decision to refine the journal’s focus and correspondingly revise its subtitle from “The Journal of Food and Culture” to “The Journal of Critical Food Studies.” Looking forward to seeing how the tone and content of the journal shift over the next few issues.

Putting the Cheerios announcement in perspective

Lots of tweets and shouts in the last few days heralding General Mills’ announcement that Cheerios–at least the “original” Cheerios–would be manufactured without GM ingredients. I was finding it hard to be enthusiastic about this development, and Mark Bittman helped me put my finger on why:

Taking the G.M.O.’s out of Cheerios is only a little bit harder than taking them out of oatmeal: there are no G.M.O. oats, and Cheerios are, essentially, oats. (Well, hyper-processed oats.) They also contain small amounts of cornstarch and sugar, so its parent company, General Mills, has done little more than source non-G.M.O. cornstarch and cane rather than beet sugar to use in production. (There are G.M.O. beets, and almost all corn and soybeans grown in the United States use G.M.O. seeds, whose products find their way into most processed foods.) This is what they’ve done for years in most of Europe, where products with G.M.O.’s are almost universally labeled as such.

Some will argue that this step, though a small one in terms of ingredients, is meaningful as a sign that consumers’ voices are being heard. I think that’s true to the extent that manufacturers do realize that consumers are increasingly aware that perhaps this whole “genetically modified” thing is something they should be paying attention to. (Whether they’re paying attention to the right things is another matter.) But given how fast and loose many food manufacturers play with their labeling and marketing messages, the Cheerios announcement may not be the harbinger of great progress. Bittman addresses this, too:

If opportunistic marketers like those at General Mills can cash in by making insignificant changes in their products that lead to significant marketing benefits, what happens to people who’ve actually put work into making their products significantly cleaner — that is, organic? Once you have an “organic” label, you are forbidden to put “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” on your package — that’s theoretically understood, as are more important benefits, like antibiotic- and pesticide-free. But thanks to the way-too-loud G.M.O. screaming match, my guess is that it’s easier to market food using a meaningless “G.M.O.-free” label than an organic label.


Renewing the call for a 50-year Farm Bill

This week has brought another wave of Farm Bill conversation, mostly about the trades that have been proposed. What it brought to my mind was the proposal, made seriously and around the time of the last Farm Bill debate by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, to give the Farm Bill a much longer view:

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities. . . .

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

Keeping an eye on the (genetically modified) ball

On the heels of Amy Harmon’s New York Times piece (and Tom Philpott’s comment on it, posted here), there’s this, from Tom:

Over the weekend, listservs, blogs, and Twitter feeds lit up with reactions to Amy Harmon’s deep dive into the politics behind a partial ban on growing genetically modified crops on Hawaii’s main island. The fuss obscured a much more significant development that occurred with little fanfare (and no Times attention) on Friday, when the US Department of Agriculture took a giant step toward approving a controversial new crop promoted by Dow Agrosciences, that could significantly ramp up the chemical war on weeds being waged in the Midwest’s corn and soybean fields.

Keeping track of these developments is a bit like a game of Whac-a-Mole…