Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Review: Food Inc

This book is called "a participant guide" to the movie Food Inc. and it is a collection of essays on the topics that the movie addresses. The essays are from a variety of authors and organizations and the topics go from food safety to the exploitation of farmers workers, from the effects of pesticide poisoning to a study of the ethanol policy of the government. What I liked the most about it is that every article ended with some idea or resource on what to do to improve the situation, to get more informed, to change the way things are. Also every topic was always covered by at least two different articles, so that two points of view were given on any given topic. It is a big eye opener and also a pleasant read, one that makes you think and makes you want to know more and do more. I definitely recommend this book, it will change the way you look at a supermarket, I guarantee it.

Our CSA experience - fifth box

This week from the CSA:
- Fennel
- parsley
- Lots of tomatoes
- fresh onion
- Italian beans
I haven't tried the beans yet, I wonder why they call them Italian anyway. We are very happy of the abundance of tomatoes and zucchini. I am canning as much sauce as I can but we alway end up eating most of it fresh, it is just too good! The fennel is still disappointingly small.

Our CSA experience -fourth box

This week from the CSA
- fennel
- onion
- kohlrabi ( we always get one!)
- basil
- arugula
- 7 tomatoes
- cucumber
I have to admit I was pretty disappointed by the fennel. I am used to nice big bulbs, which is the edible part, while these fennels seemed to have only leaves and very small bulbs, thus occupying most of our box while giving us close to nothing to eat. I know I could have used the leaf for tea, but being this hot out you don't really feel like a warm tea. The tomatoes instead where a nice surprise. By looking at them they didn't seem like very good sauce tomatoes, because I usually prefer the elongated ones, with more pulp and less seeds and water, but I have to say they compensated in flavor! I think I never had such a good tasting tomato sauce!

Our CSA experience - third box

In our third box from the CSA farm we got:
- beets
- our first tomatoes!
- fresh basil
- chard
- red cabbage
- salad
- walla walla onions
- kohlrabi
- eggs
- 1 zucchini
I tried roasting the beets, as many people had told me that was the best way to have them, and even though I have to say they were good, it seemed like way too much work and heat for a few beets, maybe if I had roasted them with something else it would have been different.
With the chard I made an awesome pie, I took the recipe from Martha Stewart's website and I have to say it was really tasty and pretty to look at. Definitely a good way to prepare any leafy vegetable, a great variation would probably be with spinach and ricotta, like we do in Italy.

Our CSA experience - visit to the farm

Freedom Organix - vegetable patch
A couple of weeks ago we visited our CSA farm, FreedomOrganix. The farm is located right out of Harvard, so for us it is about a 40 minutes drive from home. Harvard is still a very rural town where farming is the biggest source of income. Judging by the look of the downtown it probably saw better days and the recession must be hitting it pretty hard. It is also known for its "Milk days" a festival that honors the fact that dairy farming is big in the area. In fact we passed by a Dean's milk plant, but we didn't see too many cows around, a testimony to the fact that the cows are probably mostly kept indoors in big plant-like facilities. What we do see is field after field of corn and soy, each one with their little sign specifying that those fields are planted with such and such genetically modified kind of seed whose patent therefore belongs to such and such firm. I used not to notice those, now I see them everywhere and it is kind of scary to think of what they mean.
When we got to the farm we were greeted by a menacing dog, and the farmer, Cindy Nawiesniak, yelling at us to get back in the car until she locked the dog. It was kind of a scary beginning, but that's how farm dogs are, after all they have to defend the cattle and animals from intruders. Things got better right away though, Cindy was very friendly and talkative and enjoyed showing us around. We met the chickens that make our eggs every week and some other chickens that she "boards" for some restaurant. I have to admit these last ones didn't look particularly good, as they were losing their feathers, but she said it was normal. The chickens live in a pen that is moved around periodically. Around the pen there is an electrified fence to keep predators away.
 Apparently that doesn't deter some owl who keeps attacking and decapitating the chickens through the pen, and I thought owls only ate mice and snakes! She also has cows, and she sells the meat by the quarter, a little too much for our small family, but who knows, maybe in the future it would be an interesting way to buy meat and just freeze it and keep it, it would definitely be cheaper than buying it at the farmers market every week. She had a lot of calves who were very cute and she seemed very fond of them too. We saw all our future vegetables, including lots of potatoes and tomatoes and a lot of fennel apparently, and we found out that for some reason she is not very fond of zucchini (too bad because we love zucchini!)I think the reason is that it invades too much of the space of other plants. Our son was probably too young to appreciate any of this, although he enjoyed seeing the chickens, but I think it is going to be great to bring him there every year and make him realize that that is where his food ( or most of it) comes from.
Cindy talked to us about how she grew up in her grandparents farm, and how she felt the connection, how she had milk right out of a cow and ate fruit right off a tree branch and found unbelievable that kids nowadays don't make this connection with  the source of their food anymore. I think adults don't make that connection either, many of my friends will admit candidly that they don't want to know where their food is from, that they don't want to remember that it was once an animal, or something covered in dirt. People like prepackaged, sterile, unidentifiable foods, and that way get fooled by the industrial food system that sells them corn shaped into a hundred different things, and they are happy with it. Maybe if we knew what a chicken really looks like we would realize that a chicken breast CAN'T be that big, or if we knew what a fresh tomato tastes like we wouldn't buy those artificially ripened tasteless things they call tomatoes in the store.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Nature's Cornucopia in Mchenry,IL

I visited this store because of the large sign on the window that says "health food store" and because many websites related to organic products would direct me to it as a place that would be stocked with a variety of organic products. I was initially a little disappointed because most of the store seems to be actually dedicated to vitamins, herbs and other forms of holistic cures, which is something I am not very interested about. I wish they wouldn't mix the vitamin store with the food store, I think that taking so many integrators sort of contrasts with the idea of eating healthy and getting the best out of food, a sort of shortcut  that does not replace at all a varied and rich diet. There are contrasting opinions on the effectiveness of taking supplements, I don't think it is necessarily bad, but at the same time I don't appreciate how some of these products are advertised as some sort of "cure-all" for your problems. They have for example a nutrition consultant on site that for 95$ will give you a consult and prescribe the supplements that you need. It seems to me that a nutritionist should be recommending you a better diet first, supplements last. And the fact that he would recommend you the supplements in a store like this seems to me more like a way of selling more than a real doctor consultation.
 At the back of the store I found more food products: they have a large selection of gluten-free foods, including quinoa and buckwheat cereals, that I decided to try. I am sure I will also try some of their gluten-free flours once I get the bread machine. They have some frozen products, some of them gluten-free, others organic, including organic meats. I bought the chicken sausages, but they come from the the New York state, so they are definitely not a local product. They have slices of american cheese from the brand Horizon Organic, and another couple of cheeses that unfortunately are not organic. They also have some unusual finds like goat milk yogurt and many things from tofu dedicated to vegan eaters. The prices were quite steep, as expected, and I think I will only be going back for some of the most unusual products that I know I would not find elsewhere. I definitely did not like the vibe of the place, that seemed like a little bit of a mash of everything related to the adjectives "natural" and "healthy" that are so liberally and so mistakenly spread around to market so many different kinds of things.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Product Review: Organic Chicken from R-Family farm

Normally sized Chicken Breasts from R-family farm
Last week we bought a whole cut-up chicken from R-Family farm at the Woodstock Farmers'market. They had just killed them the day before the market, so you definitely cannot go any fresher than that! It has to be said that at 4.50 a pound it is much more expensive than any chicken you will buy at the store, but we are trying to reduce the amount of meat we eat per week, plus I could use the chicken to prepare three different dishes, thus making it last a little longer. Looking to other prices online it seems like it wasn't even that expensive for organic chicken, as I have seen some websites listing 6-8 dollars a pound.
I oven roasted the breasts, the wings and the legs, simply adding salt and pepper to them. Since I left the skin on while cooking I didn't even have to add any oil, but just a little bit of broth at the bottom of the pan as they were drying out a little too much. One thing I have noticed immediately is that usually chicken releases a lot of water and fat while roasting while this didn't have almost any. The result was crispy and full of flavor, which is what struck us the most: we are used to a pretty tasteless chicken, except from the taste of the herbs and spices that we add to it, while this chicken had a taste of its own. The meat was firm and juicy and did not fall off the bone as easily as a store bought chicken. 
With the back and the neck of the chicken I made a chicken broth that we ate the following day with tortellini, while I used the meat, together with some leftover breast, to make baby food for my son. We still have the chicken liver and I plan to make with it an Italian specialty, Risotto ai Fegatini,  that I hope my husband, the picky american, will accept to eat. I think that using all the parts of the animals is a way to respect the fact that we took their life, at least we are making the most out of it and not just discarding it and throwing it away.
I am posting a pictureof the chicken breasts because I wanted to show how much smaller they were in size compared to the gigantic breasts we find at the supermarket, but unfortunately I didn't put anything to the side to compare them with, so it is hard to tell. I will have to take a better picture next time.

Do Journalists Know What Organic Really Means? ABC7 news

Today I was watching ABC7 and they were doing a section on food with Steve Dolinsky called the Hungry Hound that reviews local restaurants and food of the Chicago area. As they were closing in, Steve Dolinsky mentioned something about organic pork being used more and more in Chicago restaurants, and one of the hosts of the program ( I did not catch her name unfortunately ) thought it was very funny to comment " Organic Pork? isn't that an oxymoron?" The other host was quick to reply that it is important what the pig had been fed, but the segment was ending so they quickly moved to a new topic. I think it is infuriating how people keep thinking that organic simply means healthier. Researching more into ABC7 website I found another video of a segment called Organic Answers, that is dedicated to make people understand organics. Needless to say they open up by saying "many people have been buying organic for years for health reasons". In the segment they go on explaining how after all certain fruits and vegetable can safely be bought even if not organic because of a thicker skin that is more resistant to pesticides. 
As much as I appreciate the fact that the organic market is getting more attention in the media, a trend that reflect a growing interest from the consumers, I really think they should inform themselves a little better as to what organic really means. I have been through this over and over on my website, but it is not just a matter of what is healthier for me, it is also a matter of what is better for the environment, the economy, the people and the animals involved. As long as organic will be associated with healthy only, there will always be people able to say that after all an organic vegetable has the same nutritional value of a non-organic one, which even if it were true, it is still not the point.

The Bread Quest - Second Attempt

My lovely husband last week decided to try making bread again and this time he did a Ciabatta bread! He took the recipe from Epicurious but substituted part of the flour with whole wheat upon my request. Probably for this reason the bread didn't rise as much as it should have, but it was still pretty good! Kudos to my husband! Right away out of the oven it seemed a little to yeasty, but I have to say that when it cooled off it tasted just perfect. The crust wasn't as crunchy as you would find it in Italy, but it was still good enough. Our son loved it and I have to say that there is a certain satisfaction in seeing your son eating something you have made from scratch and you know exactly what ingredients you put in it. The only downside is that the whole process took 24 hours ( he left the first part of the dough rest overnight) and even though the result was so good, it is still very laborious to make more often than once a week, so I finally convinced him to get a bread machine. It is the Westbend 41300 Hi-Rise Electronic Dual-blade Breadmaker ( what a big name for an appliance) and we are looking forward to try it once we finally get it. I am hoping to make bread at least twice a week and to try some recipes without or with a lower amount of gluten.

As for buying bread, the supermarket does not carry any brand that is organic. Sara Lee apparently tried to cash in on the growing organic market by launching a brand called EarthGrains. This brand ( sold at my local supermarket ) advertised the use of at least 20% of Eco-grains. Apparently these grains are grown in Idaho through a technique called precision farming that should reduce the erosion of the soil and the use of pesticides and fertilizer. As much as good an attempt this is, it really looks like a way to look more green in order to sell to a different market of people, and it seems like Sara Lee already got in trouble with an organic growers' association for claiming on its website that Eco-grains are better than organic. According to an article I found on the Star-Telegraph Sara Lee was forced to remove the comparisons with organic from their website, in which they claimed that organic crops still impoverish the soil and destroy undeveloped land.On the other hand other experts say that these claims would be true if the Eco-grain were cultivated with a no-till technology, which eliminates the erosion problem, but they aren't.  The  organic association, called Cornucopia, posted on their website a fact sheet comparing Eco-grain with organic grains, but they do not mention the tilling problem at all. To me that of Sara Lee looks just like another marketing strategy, and I will be happy to make my own bread instead. For now we already have so much flour in the house that we have decided not to buy anymore until we finished what we have. Then the quest for the perfect sustainable flour will start, and who knows where that will take us.

Our CSA experience - second box

Here is week 2 of our CSA experience with Freedomorganix:

- 12 eggs
- 1 melon ( not sure what it is called, it is orange inside but it is not a Cantaloupe)
- 1 small pale yellow squash
- 1 large onion
- 1 bunch of fresh onion
- 1 kohlrabi
- 1 big bag of salad
- 1 big bag of arugula
- 2 jalapeno peppers

Last week the quantity was pretty good for us in the end. With the arugula, that was particularly pungent and flavorful, I made pesto and also a sort of pasta Carbonara with eggs, Parmesan cheese, German prosciutto and arugula. I did not include the recipe because the prosciutto and the cheese were not organic, so they really did not fit the requirements of the quest. I suspect this week I am going to have to buy some extra vegetables, like some tomatoes for example. I finally found a good way to prepare the kohlrabi: I diced it in bite-size pieces and then boiled it. Then I seasoned it with light mayo, salt, pepper and fresh parsley, pretty much like a potato salad. my husband loved it. The mayo was not organic either, I wonder if you could even find an organic one. At the end of the week I had some salad leftover and 3 eggs so I made a Frittata with it. Basically I just cooked an onion and tossed the leftover salad and arugula in it then added the 3 eggs that I had beaten lightly with salt, pepper and fresh parsley. I let it cook covered until it looked done. Frittata is a great way to use any leftover quantity of vegetables and add some protein to your meal through the eggs, for a lighter version you could also use only the white of some of the eggs. This week I don't know what I will do with the Jalapenos, since I am not a big fan of spicy foods, I think I will use them with some of the canned beans that we have and make a sort of chili-like preparation. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cheap Food And Farm Workers Rights

As I was reading the book "Food inc." I came across an article by Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers, a union which tries to fight for the rights of farm workers across the nation. From what he says, the conditions under which farm workers are forced to work are appalling. Not only the workers are paid much under the level of poverty (the official poverty level is 21.000$ a year, while an average farm worker will make about 13.000$ a year) but they are also forced to work in conditions like scorching heat, with no right to water and no shelter. They are often illegal immigrants, because no one in this country would accept to work in those conditions, who can't therefore complain or claim any rights or benefits or health care. Even those that are legal workers, have very few rights that are often not respected and very seldom enforced by the government. The working structure is purposefully convoluted, so that even if someone is to be fined or arrested, it is always the middle man and not the big brand that employed the people that were being exploited. In some cases workers were found living in a state of slavery, as they were being held against their will in isolation, forced to work all day long while being threatened of being harmed or reported to the authorities as illegal immigrants.

The logo of the United Farm Workers
Farm workers are exposed to pesticides all day long, not only because they have to apply the pesticides and handle the treated plants, but also because they often live near the fields where they work, thus affecting also their kids and families. Organic farming  at least reduces the use of pesticides, but that is not enough. Many organic, "earth-friendly" brands are the ones responsible of the biggest violations of workers' rights, and it is impossible for us to know who they are.The article offers the example of a wine producer, Bronco Wines, that supplies wine to Trader's Joe, that employed a sub-contractor to hire the workers to pick the grapes. Among them a 17 year old girl, Maria Isabel, who died of a heat stroke after working all day under the California sun without shelter or water. The only one who could be held responsible is the sub-contractor and not Trader's Joe who can pretend not to know how they can sell a cheap 1.99$ bottle of wine.

The website of the UFW offers a small list of labels that treat their workers fairly, but that is certainly not enough. The website also gives the possibility to sign a petition to limit the use of pesticides and other few petitions. One thing we can do is realize that "cheap food" usually comes at a price: a price that we pay with our health, with that of other people, the welfare of other animals and the preservation of the environment. 

"The average American family now spends less than ten percent of its income on food, the lowest percent in history. in 1950, this figure was twenty percent. As writer and grower David Mas Masumoto described it in a poem he presented at the 2008 Slow Food Festival, "I remember $2-a-box peaches in 1961 and $2-a-box peaches in 2007""(Food Inc. pg.128)

Maria Isabel, 17 yr old farm worker
who died of a heat stroke in the fields
Nothing really comes for free. We have to realize that this unreal low prices are paid for by other people suffering, by our own health declining, by our resources being polluted and depleted.
As for me and my quest, so far, the farmers' market seems like the best solution, at least I know I am buying from small family farmers. But what will I do in the winter? How will I know that I am not buying fruit that was picked by a modern slave? 

Another interesting issue is that of illegal immigration, an issue that is very heartfelt by many Americans. I found an interesting initiative called Take Our Jobs, that invite American citizens to work as farm workers and take the place of the illegal immigrants that are, as some would put it, "stealing their jobs and causing unemployment". Here is the text of the website:

There are two issues facing our nation--high unemployment and undocumented people in the workforce--that many Americans believe are related.
Missing from the debate on both issues is an honest recognition that the food we all eat - at home, in restaurants and workplace cafeterias (including those in the Capitol) - comes to us from the labor of undocumented farm workers.
Agriculture in the United States is dependent on an immigrant workforce. Three-quarters of all crop workers working in American agriculture were born outside the United States. According to government statistics, since the late 1990s, at least 50% of the crop workers have not been authorized to work legally in the United States.
We are a nation in denial about our food supply. As a result the UFW has initiated the "Take Our Jobs" campaign.
Farm workers are ready to welcome citizens and legal residents who wish to replace them in the field. We will use our knowledge and staff to help connect the unemployed with farm employers. Just fill out the form to the right and continue on to the request for job application.
** Job may include using hand tools such as knives, hoes, shovels, etc. Duties may include tilling the soil, transplanting, weeding, thinning, picking, cutting, sorting & packing of harvested produce. May set up & operate irrigation equip. Work is performed outside in all weather conditions (Summertime 90+ degree weather) & is physically demanding requiring workers to bend, stoop, lift & carry up to 50 lbs on a regular basis.

I would really like to know how many of the unemployed Americans are willing to take that kind of job.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Quest for Eating Out: Duke's Alehouse and Kitchen

I have to admit that since we started the quest we pretty much stopped eating out. It is simply impossible to know where your food is from in a restaurant. Most of the restaurants have to try and keep costs down as much as possible, and buying organic ingredients is definitely not a good low-price policy. Chain restaurants buy in bulk from big producers, who are also usually the ones using the most pesticides, exploiting their workers, injecting their livestock with anything possible, all in the name of keeping costs down and thus making a profit. 

I live in the furthest suburbs of Chicago, and there aren't many options available besides big chain restaurants. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions, and one of this is Duke's Alehouse. Located in downtown Crystal Lake, Duke's a very furnished alehouse, stocked with literally hundreds of beer from around the world, many of which are organic and local. It  is also a restaurant who specializes in American comfort food with an eye to local, sustainable and organic ingredients. They purchase most of their ingredients from within 25 miles distance, and they even have their own garden where they grow for example their own herbs, arugula and heirloom tomatoes. I tried the Pizza with pesto, arugula,heirloom tomatoes ( from their garden ) mozzarella, artichokes and olive tapenade. My husband had a bison burger, also local, with the same ingredients. The mozzarella cheese that was on both was not organic, but was very tasty, I wonder why finding organic cheese seems to be so hard. The pizza was good, small enough to be a single portion, with a nice thin crust. The bison was maybe a little less greasy than normal beef and overall really good. Only small disappointment: we ordered a small fruit salad for our son and were half expecting a seasonal medley, maybe with some of the wonderful peaches and berries that seem to be in all the farmers' markets these weeks. Instead we got grapes, pineapple and watermelon that were definitely neither local nor organic.  We also got a dessert : a blueberry and strawberry crumble with a ball of homemade ice-cream on top, the perfect summer dessert! We will definitely be going back there more, as I would like to try some of the organic beers and I am looking forward to what specials they are going to propose as the seasons change.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sweetened drinks: an American addiction

In my quest I had no problem at all cutting on soda and any other sweetened drink. This is because I am Italian and I grew up considering water a drink, and everything else a snack or some kind of guilty pleasure to be enjoyed only in seldom special occasions. We did not buy Coke in my house, and not because my mum was some kind of health nut, it simply was not normal for us to spend money on something that offered no nutritional value at all. I had fruit juices growing up, and looking back at the ingredients of my favorite ones I realize that they were full of unnecessary extra sugar. But I always had them as a part of a snack, rather than as a way to quench my thirst. I think this is an essential and saving difference. I crave water when I am thirsty, and water only. I can have a juice or a coke but it's more like having a treat than anything else. My husband instead grew up drinking soda and almost no water at all. My mother in law candidly told me that pediatricians recommended adding honey to the kids water, to help them "get used" to it. Almost as if water wasn't what we are naturally supposed to drink, while sugar is. If it's true that Americans are used to associate drinking with a sweet taste since infancy, it is no surprise that there are so many obese people in this nation. Mums nowadays are not doing any better, since apple juice seem to be the drink of choice of most kids. In the store I saw organic apple juice for sale, and while this is a better solution than a soda or sugar water, it is yet another way to get people used to drinking something sweet instead of water. It only adds unnecessary calories to the kids' nutrition and the little nutritional value is definitely surpassed by eating a real apple instead.
For these reasons I haven't researched on artificial sweeteners vs. real sugar. I will from now on  take my coffee with real sugar, and I will keep not drinking soda. Artificial sweeteners are just another chemical product that add to the many artificial ingredients we ingest everyday in highly processed foods, there is no "organic" or "natural" alternative. In a way it is like the fight between margarine and butter. I'd much rather have old fashioned butter, although in moderation, than artificial margarine any day of the year.

The Quest for the Reusable Bag

Since I started the quest I have also finally adopted reusable bags. I have 3 bags that I keep in my car, when I come home I immediately put them near the entrance to the garage to remind me to put them back in the car as soon as I get out. So far I have been pretty good at remembering to take them with me, but I have to say I did have some concerns about putting produce in the bags with no kind of external "protection" like at least a paper bag. So I was using the paper bags to separate produce and then I was putting them in the reusable bag. I now realize that that defeated the purpose of the reusable bag itself. It is true that paper bags at least are biodegradable and recyclable ( plus I love using them to store my home made bread for example ) but making them is still very expensive in terms of energy and of trees. So I will try keeping my produce "free to roam" in the bags from now on. The only downside is that I will have to start using some kind of bleach spray to clean the inside of the bags once I bring them home, since it seems like repeatedly using the same bags can foster the spread of bacteria and fungi.
According to Wikipedia,  from the sheer number of reusable bags imported every year, each and every family in the States should already own enough bags for a lifetime, yet plastic bags are still being heavily used. Moreover it's interesting to note that most of the bags are imported from China, couldn't the U.S. produce their own bags ? Maybe out of recycled materials? I am referring to the bags commonly found at supermarkets like Jewel or Meijer or Walmart. I am sure that it is possible to find bags made in the US if I bought them online, but shouldn't they be readily and easily accessible? As usual California seems to be ahead on this kind of issue, and apparently Walmart there sells the bag for 15 cents ( instead of 1-3 $ like the rest of the country) and it is preparing to switch completely over to reusable bags. This is a perfect example of how the choices we make can influence even the biggest corporations. Evidently Walmart is trying to have a better image in California because there are more environmentally conscious customers over there. It is time for the whole country to change, but there is still a lot of work to do, even in such a small matter as reusable bags. First of all they shouldn't be another reason for large profits for supermarkets. A reusable bag costs between 15-25 cents to a store and they sell them at a minimum of 99 cents. Secondly the use of reusable bags should be promoted while the use of plastic bags should be discouraged.

 In Ireland , plastic bags have been subject to an Environmental Levy since 2002, according to which the retailers have to pay a levy of 0.15 euro cents for every bag they give to customers. The funds thus raised go directly into an environmental fund used to finance a range of waste management initiatives.

This levy has resulted in a dramatic decrease in ‘single-use’ plastic bag consumption over the past
year and a substantial increase in reusable bags. The levy does not apply to paper bags, and many
retailers have switched to paper, but these have not replaced plastic shopping bags in supermarkets.
Since its introduction, the levy has raised 3.5 million euros for waste management and
environmental projects. It has been reported that the use of plastic bags has fallen by 90-95%. The

Many other countries have adopted similar methods, with good result. From what I found, in the U.S. some states, like New Jersey, tax directly the companies producing such pollutants, but that doesn't impact the consumer to make him change his habits. I know some stores offer a minimal discount if customers bring their own bag, but I am sure that a levy on the use of plastic bags would definitely change the behavior of Americans that are very economically minded. Why is it that the U.S. always have to come last when it comes to this kind of issues? The more I read about environment the more I find that many other countries have found viable solutions to most of the problems, while the U.S. resists any kind of change. The reason is usually the excessive power of big corporations on the political power. My question at this point is: are the United States a democracy or a plutocracy? I am starting to think the second is most true.

Our CSA experience - first box

Our first box from the CSA
Yesterday we got our first box from the CSA. We got:

  • 12 eggs
  • 4 ears of sweetcorn
  • 1 large zucchini
  • 1 large summer squash
  • 1 red cabbage
  • 1 kohlrabi
  • 1 bunch of parsley
I will be honest, I was hoping for more zucchini. I think probably the sweetcorn ears took up a lot of the space. I like sweetcorn but there isn't as much you can do with it except eating it boiled or grilled. I prefer more "creative" recipes. My challenges are going to be the kohlrabi and the red cabbage. I have been scouring the internet for interesting recipes, hopefully we will find something useful. We are also going to eat a lot more eggs, but since we are cutting back on the meat I suppose that is not so bad. I already made frittata with some leftover potatoes yesterday, and I am planning some tasty pasta for tonight.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Bread Quest - First Attempt

Ideally, we would like to start making our own bread for a variety of reasons:
  •  One is that the bread that we buy at the store is not entirely to our satisfaction anyway. I am from Italy and I miss the crusty bread that lasts fresh and tasty for more than one day that I ate everyday at home, and I don't even consider "toast" bread a real bread to be eaten with a meal. 
  • I also noticed that in the bread I buy at the store, even the fresh one from the bakery, there are a bunch of ingredients that I don't recognize as "natural" . 
  • By making our own bread  we could use organic ingredients, since there are no organic breads in the stores near our home.
  • My husband loves making bread and there is nothing better than the smell of freshly baked bread in the house. 
4 grains plus flax roll
A couple of days ago my husband tried  making a white French bread. It looked perfect and it was pretty good although it was a lot heavier and more solid than we would have liked. Besides I would like to eat whole grain, since it's so much healthier and the higher amount of fiber help me with my diet. So yesterday I tried to make a 4 grains and flax bread, following the recipe indicated by Arrowhead mills, the makers of the 4 grains mix. It did not turn out too good. I made 8 small bread rolls shaped like mini-baguettes. First of all it took much longer to cook them than indicated in the box. Secondly they are way too solid and dry so they were a big disappointment. I am starting to think a breadmaker would probably solve our problem, also because it seems to take so long and so much effort to make the bread from scratch that it doesn't seem feasible,especially with a baby in the house.

Why It Is a Good Idea to Join a CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture)

We just joined a CSA farm, which is a farm that sells shares of its crops at the beginning of the season and then gives a share of its crops weekly to its members during harvest season. The farm we joined is called Freedom Organix  and is located in Harvard, which is not too far from us. We joined when the season had already begun, but we are still going to enjoy 12 weeks of organic and fresh vegetables and pastured eggs! We also subscribed for their Harvest Box and reserved a turkey for Thanksgiving. Today we are going to get our first box and we are very excited about it. To us, it made sense to join a CSA because it offered multiple advantages

1) All the vegetables that we will eat will be organic and locally farmed without having to go every few days to the farmers' market and at a cheaper price than that of the farmers' market

2) The money that we spend will go directly to a small family farm and not in the hands of some big corporation or distributor

3) We will have the chance to visit the farm where our vegetables are grown and I think that is not only a pleasant experience for us but also a valuable lesson for our son as he grows older

4) We will eat whatever comes in the box, which means we will have to eat any vegetable we get depending on what is in season. For us that will probably mean more variety throughout the year as we tend to buy always the same "favorites" at the supermarket without risking to try vegetables that we are not familiar with. It is purely a psychological factor but while for example I ate everything my parents presented me, I never voluntarily bought certain kinds of food that I like less. This way we will feel like we don't want to waste anything and we will be challenged to find new recipes for foods we are less used to

5) Eating fresh and in season means also getting more vitamins and nutrients

So these are the theoretical advantages of the CSA. As we get the box and we actually try the vegetables I will post about the practical advantages/disadvantages.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Product Review : Organic Pork Chops from R-family farm

Last Saturday we bought pork chops from R-Family Farm at the Farmers' market in Woodstock, IL. They raise their own Berkshire pigs that are free to graze and pasture while also fed the organic feed that they make on their farm. The meat is slightly darker than the one you would find at the store and it's obviously more expensive, since we bought 4 pork chops for 15.00 $.
I cooked the chops in the pan simply seasoning them with salt and pepper, so that the natural flavor of the meat would be more clearly detectable. I have to say the chops were much more flavorful than the store bought ones and maybe also a little more firm and a little less fat than what we usually get. I also noticed that the meat didn't lose as much "water" while cooking. We were very satisfied with them and we would recommend them to anyone.

VICTORY! USDA Sets Clear Pasture Standards for Organic Dairy

On the website of the Organic Consumers Association I finally found further information on the issue of pasture access for organic cows. Apparently new regulations are on their way of being approved ( as I understand from the official document they started having effect on June 2010 but the producers have 1 year of time to comply). Cows will have to be pastured for at least 120 days of the year, but although that is a giant step forward, cows are still allowed to be grain fed for 120 days for finishing. On the OCA website there is a petition that can be signed to change this part of the regulations. Here I report the whole news about the regulations and the concerns of the OCA regarding finishing.

VICTORY! USDA Sets Clear Pasture Standards for Organic Dairy
WORK TO BE DONE: 4 Months In Feedlots to "Finish" Organic Beef? Organic Consumers Say "No!"

USDA Press Release:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2010 - The U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced details of the final regulation regarding access to pasture for organic livestock operations. This rule amends the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations to clarify the use of pasture in raising organic ruminants.

"Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The final rule published today will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products."

The final rule provides certainty to consumers that organic livestock production is a pasture based system in which animals are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season. The majority of organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers are already grazing animals and maintaining pastures that meet the requirements of this rule. These standards contain clear requirements that will provide greater assurance that all producers are being held to the same standards.

USDA received a substantial number of comments on provisions of the rule affecting finish feeding practices of slaughter livestock, and has extended the comment period for this provision for 60 days. Finish feeding is commonly used by organic farmers and ranchers to improve the grade of beef and involves feeding livestock grain

"It is difficult to decouple standards for milking cows from standards for finish feeding," said Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. "Since finish feeding gets swept up into this dairy rulemaking, we are taking an extra step and inviting public comment on the finish feeding requirements. We want to be certain that our actions pertaining to finish feeding are aligned with organic principles."

This final rule is the culmination of a process that was initiated in 2005 when the National Organic Standards Board recommended that ruminants obtain a minimum 30 percent dry matter intake for at least 120 days. The proposed rule, published on Oct. 28, 2008, received over 26,000 comments from producers, retailers, handlers, certifying agents, consumers, trade associations, organic associations, animal welfare organizations, consumer groups, state and local government entities and various industry groups.

The main components of the rule include:

-Animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year;
-Animals must obtain a minimum of 30 percent dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season;
-Producers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil and water quality; and,
-Livestock are exempt from the 30 percent dry matter intake requirements during the finish feeding period, not to exceed 120 days. Livestock must have access to pasture during the finishing phase.
The final rule becomes effective 120 days after publication, June 17, 2010. Operations which are already certified organic will have one year to implement the provisions. Operations which obtain organic certification after the effective date will be expected to demonstrate full compliance.

Although this is a final rule, comments on the exceptions for finish feeding of ruminant slaughter stock may be submitted before April 19, 2010. This 60-day comment period pertains to the finish feeding provisions only. The specific questions to consider and instructions for submitting comments are available on the NOP website at http://www.ams.usda.gov/NOP .


There is still work to be done. The Organic Consumers Association recognizes serious environmental and health concerns with the USDA's plan to "finish" organic cattle in feedlots, a.k.a. factory farms, for up to four months.

Organic cattle grazed on pasture produce food that is healthier, safer, and more nutritious than cattle "finished" on organic grain in a feedlot. The use of pasture also protects the environment and removes dangerous greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The safety of the meat is also a concern. Cattle fed grass rather than grain are less likely to harbor the deadly pathogen E. coli.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Diet to fight the daily symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

I asked my sister to contribute with her personal experience on the relationship between food and her health. As I say in the page How the Quest Began she was one of the reasons why I started my quest to eat a better and more conscious diet. Here is the translation of her post.

My experience:
My Diet to fight the daily symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

A few words on MS

Not everybody knows that MS is not an age-related disease. It usually is diagnosed very early, on average before the age of 25, although the symptoms become more evident in older age, after many years of re-lapses. For those who don't know it, MS is a degenerating disease of the myelin that is a layer that protects neurons in the brain but also in the peripheral nervous system. The immunity system attacks the myelin, in one point or in more than one point at once, and this can cause the interruption of the function located in the point of the brain that was attacked. For example, it is possible to lose sensibility in one limb, or the ability to move, or sight. In the first phase of this disease, this kind of blackouts are temporary. Almost every time the brain can restart the interrupted functions by activating, if necessary, alternative circuits ( vicarious circuits) to transmit the necessary nervous messages.
Sometimes though, and with the progress of the disease, the damages are not bypassed anymore. For this reason, a person with MS risks losing most of her mobility and, more rarely, cognitive functions.
These are the most well known facts about this disease, but most people don't know that, even in moments of quiet between one attack and the other, the disease influences heavily the daily life of the affected people, even in the case of people that has no disability or mobility problem. It is typical of MS, in fact, a diffuse sense of asthenia, that makes the person constantly tired making the normal development of work and daily life harder. Besides, the person affected by MS has a very hard time recovering from stress and requires a much longer period of rest than a healthy person does.

My Diet

Many believe that they can control the disease thanks to a more or less strict diet, and this is not the place to analyze the different approaches. It is not my intention to mantain that, thanks to the diet, I have avoided any relapses, as I have no proof of that. I would like to talk about how my daily life has improved with the diet, and how thanks to it I don't feel everyday that terrible sense of tiredness that, at 30 years old, forced me to give up most of my free time activities, because after working 8 hours I had no energy left to face a dinner, a walk, the gym or simply a party.
My diet is based on three principles that, based on my experience, are the staples of my well-being:

1. Refined flour and gluten are bad for me

They are the worst enemies of my intestine, and therefore of my immunity system that is stimulated in the wrong way by the toxins that are created when the intestine doesn't work properly. The solution is to eat as much WHOLE GRAINS as possible and, if possible, alternate foods that have gluten ( like pasta and other grains) with foods that don't have any ( like brown rice, quinoa...)
Please note:
a) I am not affected by coeliac disease, but gluten is a protein that is hard to absorb for anybody's intestine, even for a healthy person. For this reason, it is useful to let the intestine "rest" every once in a while.
b) Refined flour, besides not having enough fiber, are a source of fast assimilated sugars that end up in the blood spiking instantly the glycemic index. These cause high insulin spikes that are dangerous also for people with diabetes and overweight or obese.

2. The importance of antioxidants:

Vitamin A, C and E should be abundant in my diet. When they are missing the tiredness clearly worsens and it is possible to notice even on my skin the signs of a tired metabolism. Therefore, obviously, I eat fruit and vegetables as much as possible. To help, I add wheat germ oil to my salad ( Vitamin E!) or I take vitamins with Q10. It is important to remember to take the vitamins during meals, so that they can combine with other substances, otherwise their antioxidant power is wasted. 

3. Good fat vs. Bad Fat

Myelin is substantially fat, so obviously I can't eliminate all fats, because I run the risk of making it weaker. Useful fats in this case are the monounsaturated fats ( like Omega-3) that are available in fish and in flaxseed oil, while the saturated fats that are in eggs, milk, cheese and red meat should be avoided. The saturated or long-chain facts have the ulterior defect of keeping our system busy in the process required to absorb them thus preventing the absorption of the monounsaturated fats.

From these three notions I created a diet that avoids, as much as possible, animal fats, except from fish and that is based on fruit and vegetables with a very keen eye on fiber absorption.
Obviously , the more you are careful with the quality of your food, the lower the risk of eating any toxins, and the lower the possibilities of starting a reaction in the immune system. Therefore, besides the kind of food, it is necessary to pay attention to where this food is from.

The effects of my diet

As I said earlier, MS is an autoimmune disease, and maybe for this reason it is easy to imagine that if I ingest a  lower amount of toxic substances my immunity system will leave me alone for longer. But even in the short term, I can testify that I have recovered the energy that I thought was lost, and a general sense of well being that is very important to better deal with the psychological aspect of the disease.
I am not extremely rigid applying the diet. I am a food lover and I often allow myself the luxury of a grilled meat or a heavily seasoned pasta, but the benefits that I get from the diet are such that in general it does not require a big effort to keep the diet up in my daily life. And, more importantly, when I feel more tired than usual, having a stricter diet has always worked to see immediately a quick improvement.

Food can be poison and it can be medicine

It might seem like an obvious statement but it is simple chemistry: our body is made by the substances that we put in it with the food, so it is obvious that food is not only fuel to be burned. The chemicals that we introduce in our body by eating are like poisons or like medicines, and their role goes well beyond the concept of diet as an instrument to lose weight.
The scientific studies and the medical treatments are more than welcome ( treatments that, for MS, don't yet exist: the medicine that are given nowadays are simple palliatives and sedatives of the immune system) but why should we make things harder by getting sick because of a wrong diet?
Even if your neurologist is not a believer in the impact of a diet on MS, he cannot say that it will be harmful. At most he can say that it has no effect, but I would recommend anyone to try: after all, taking care of yourself is already something that will improve your attitude toward the disease and, as far as I am concerned, it has already improved the symptoms.

La dieta per contrastare la sintomatologia quotidiana della Sclerosi Multipla. ( Italian Article )

I asked my sister to contribute with her personal experience of the relationship between food and her health. As I say in the page How the Quest Began she was one of the reasons why I started my quest to eat a better and more conscious diet. I will post her post here in Italian and I will immediately start translating it so I can post it in English too.

La mia esperienza:
La dieta per contrastare la sintomatologia quotidiana della Sclerosi Multipla.

Due parole sulla SM

Non tutti sanno che la SM non è una malattia della vecchiaia. Essa insorge molto presto, in media prima dei 25 anni, anche se è nella vecchiaia che i sintomi, accumulatisi in anni di ricadute, diventano più evidenti. Per chi non lo sapesse, la SM è una malattia degenerativa del rivestimento mielinico delle cellule nervose, in particolare nel cervello, ma può riguardare anche i nervi periferici. La mielina viene attaccata dal sistema immunitario, in uno o più punti contemporaneamente, e questo può provocare l'interruzione della funzione residente nel punto attaccato. Ad esempio, si può perdere la sensibilità ad un arto, o la capacità motoria, o la vista. Nella prima fase di questa malattia, questi blackout sono temporanei. Quasi sempre, infatti, il cervello è in grado di riprendere le funzioni intaccate, attivando, se necessario, dei circuiti alternativi (detti circuiti vicari) per trasmettere i messaggi nervosi necessari.
A volte, però, e con il proseguire della malattia, i danni non sono più recuperabili. Per questo motivo, una persona affetta da SM rischia di perdere buona parte della sua mobilità e, più raramente, della sue capacità cognitive.
E queste forse sono le informazioni più scontate sulla malattia, ma non tutti sanno che, anche in periodi di quiete fra una crisi e l'altra, la malattia influenza pesantemente la vita quotidiana dei malati, anche quando si tratta di persone che non hanno accumulato nessuna disabilità e nessun problema motorio. Tipico della SM, infatti, è uno stato di astenia diffusa, che affatica la persona in modo tale da rendere difficile il normale svolgimento del lavoro e degli impegni quotidiani. Inoltre, il malato di SM fa un'enorme fatica a recuperare la stanchezza e necessità di periodi di riposo molto più lunghi di una persona sana.

La mia dieta

Molti sono coloro che sostengono di poter tenere sotto controllo la malattia grazie ad una dieta particolare, più o meno proibitiva, e non è questo il luogo per analizzare i diversi approcci. Non è mia intenzione neppure sostenere che, grazie alla dieta, io abbia scongiurato ulteriori ricadute, perché di questo non ho le prove.
Vorrei invece parlare di come la mia vita quotidiana sia migliorata con la dieta, grazie alla quale non sento più tutti i giorni quella terribile stanchezza che, a 30 anni, mi costringeva a rinunciare a molte attività extra lavorative, perché dopo 8 ore di lavoro non avevo più nessuna energia per affrontare una cena, una passeggiata, la palestra, o semplicemente una festa.
La mia dieta si fonda su tre principi che, per quella che è la mia esperienza, sono alla base del mio benessere:

1. Le farine raffinate e il glutine sono dannosi:
questi sono i nemici peggiori per il mio intestino, e quindi per il mio sistema immunitario che viene stimolato in modo scorretto dalle tossine che si formano quando l'intestino non funziona. La soluzione è mangiare quanto più INTEGRALE e, se possibile, alternare alimenti con glutine (pasta e altri grani) ad alimenti che ne sono privi (riso integrale, quinoa....). 
a. io non sono celiaca, ma il glutine è una proteina difficile da assimilare per l'intestino di chiunque, anche per una persona sana. Per questo motivo, è utile lasciare che l'intestino "riposi", ogni tanto.
b. le farine raffinate, oltre a non fornire fibre sufficienti, forniscono zuccheri a rapida assimilazione, che finiscono nel sangue alzando il tasso glicemico in maniera istantanea. Quindi hanno anche la controindicazione di determinare forti picchi di insulina, pessimi per diabetici e persone con problemi di peso.

2. Il ruolo degli antiossidanti:
Vitamine A,C ed E non devono mancare nella mia dieta. Quando mancano, l'affaticamento peggiora sensibilmente e persino ad occhio nudo è possibile notare, sulla pelle, i segni di un metabolismo stanco. Quindi, ovviamente, frutta e verdura a volontà. Per aiutarmi, aggiungo olio di germe di grano all'insalata (vitamina E!), o assumo integratori vitaminici con Q10. Importante ricordare di prendere gli integratori durante i pasti, in modo che si possano combinare con le altre sostanze, altrimenti il loro potere antiossidante viene sprecato.

3. Grassi buoni vs grassi cattivi:
La mielina è una sostanza grassa, quindi è ovvio che non si possano eliminare indiscriminatamente tutti i grassi, perché il rischio è di indebolirla. Bisogna però sapere che i grassi utili sono quelli a catena corta, presenti nel pesce e nell'olio di lino, ad esempio, e non quelli a catena lunga, presenti nel grasso animale: uova, latte, formaggio, carni rosse...
I grassi a catena lunga hanno anche il difetto di impegnare i nostri enzimi nelle scissioni necessarie alla loro assimilazione, ostacolando l'assimilazione dei grassi a catena corta.

Da queste tre nozioni, ne deriva una dieta che evita, quanto più possibile, grassi animali, fatta eccezione per quelli del pesce, e che si basa sostanzialmente su frutta e verdura, con un occhio molto attento all'assimilazione di fibre.
Ovviamente, quanta più attenzione si fa alla qualità del cibo, tante meno tossine si ingeriscono, e tanto più basse sono le probabilità di innescare una reazione del proprio sistema immunitario. Quindi, oltre alla tipologia di alimento, va prestata attenzione alla provenienza dello stesso.

Gli effetti della mia dieta:

Come dicevo, la SM è una malattia autoimmunitaria, e forse per questo è facile immaginare che meno sono le sostanze tossiche che ingerisco, più a lungo il mio sistema immunitario mi lascerà in pace. Ma anche nel breve termine, posso testimoniare di aver recuperato l'energia che credevo perduta, e un benessere generale molto importante per sopportare meglio anche l'aspetto psicologico della malattia.
Non sono estremamente rigida nell'applicare la dieta. Essendo una persona golosa, spesso mi concedo il lusso di una barbecue o una pasta molto condita, ma il benessere derivato dal regime alimentare è tale, che non è un grosso sforzo mantenerlo nella vita di tutti i giorni.
E, soprattutto, nei giorni in cui mi sento più stanca di solito, irrigidire la dieta ha sempre funzionato per vedere subito un rapido miglioramento.


Sarà una banalità, ma è chimica: il nostro organismo è fatto delle sostanze che introduciamo con il cibo, quindi è ovvio che il cibo non sia soltanto energia da bruciare. Le sostanze chimiche che introduciamo nel corpo mangiando sono come veleni o medicine, e il loro ruolo va ben al di là del concetto di dieta come strumento per dimagrire.
Ben vengano i ritrovati scientifici e le cure mediche (cure che, per la SM, non esistono ancora: quelle che vengono somministrate sono palliativi il cui unico ruolo è sedare, e non curare, il sistema immunitario), ma perché complicarsi la vita ammalandosi di cattiva alimentazione?
Che il vostro neurologo sia o meno propenso a credere nel ruolo della dieta, non potrà dirvi che è dannosa. Al massimo, potrà dire che non avrà effetto sulla malattia, ma consiglio a tutti di provare: dopo tutto, prendersi cura di se stessi è già qualcosa che può migliorare l'approccio alla malattia. E, per quel che mi riguarda, ha migliorato anche i sintomi.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Power of Misinformation: Organic, Cage Free and Factory Eggs

 The first thing I decided to do as I started my quest was to get more information about the food I was going to buy. I want to know more about where my food is from, how it was cultivated or raised and who is getting my money. I use the internet as a main source of information but I know the risks involved. You simply google any kind of question and you will get a multitude of answers, but it is like yelling a question and having a crowd answer to you, how many people really know what they are talking about? How many are answering you for their own agenda? How many have verified what they are saying? I usually sift through the answers and avoid personal blogs, yahoo answers, forum discussions and other personal websites unless they offer some official link in support of their posts, in which case I will go and verify the source. I also try to go directly to the companies' websites and read through what they directly have to say about their products. Most brands will offer you the story of their ingredients and it is easy to read between the lines of what they say and what they avoid saying in order to determine if the food responds to my needs. I also usually stop to read articles from important news sites like CNN or TIME magazine and I do it just because I thought that journalists are supposed to check their sources before publishing their articles and therefore there must be a basis of truth in what they say. I forgot that journalists can also pick and choose their sources if they want to, so that they can twist the truth however they want.

A Perfect Example of Misinformation by Time Magazine

Today I was doing some research on cage free and organic eggs, trying to understand the different labels and what they really meant and I ran across an article from the Time Magazine called "Organic Eggs: More Expensive, but No Healthier" by Jeffrey Kluger. Most of the people don't read past the title or the first couple of paragraphs of an article and it is easy to  tell in this case what they want people to think from those first few lines. I was very shocked to see how biased and superficial the whole article was. It was based on a study ( based on a method developed in 1937 ) that took into consideration only the amount of protein in the albumen. Hey, what about vitamins, omega-3, saturated fats? Ever heard of those? But even if organic and factory eggs had the same nutritional value, do we want to talk about the impact on the environment and the fact that the chicken are treated humanely? Or that doesn't matter at all? Organic chickens are fed organic food, so at the very least we are eliminating some pesticides and toxins from the soil used to cultivate the crops that are going to be fed to these chickens, doesn't that matter too? But the journalist felt that saying that the two eggs were the same wasn't enough to boost the factory farmed eggs market, so decided to go beyond that. He underlined how in some studies it was proved that pastured eggs contained pollutants due to the environmental conditions of the soil where the chickens where raised. What about the fact that for sure the chickens that are fed non-organic feed will ingest a certain amount of pollutants? What is the incidence of those cases anyway? What about giving us some numbers and compare them to the cases of salmonella and arsenic poisoning through factory farmed eggs?
Reading through the comments under the article I was happy to notice that many people replied by posting alternative studies and informations. One that was very interesting linked to a study that compared values like Beta Carotene, Vitamin E, Saturated Fat and Omega-3 content. Now, this study was made by Mother Earth News and I am not saying that is to be taken as gold, I would have liked to see a similar study conducted by the USDA or some other governmental agency though. 

What Organic is Really About 

As I said in a previous post, eating organic is about much more than personal health and the media should stop using this point as an excuse to say "there is really no difference at all and you are stupid if you waste your money in that stuff". The above example is only one of many similar sounding articles that allude to the fact that organic food is just a fad for some hippies that have lots of money to waste in stupid things. 
I like the definition of organic that Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield, gave in the book "Food inc."

 "Organic stands for many things - a philosophy of wholeness, the science of integration, a rallying cry for keeping nature humming as the interdependent web of life"

I decided to choose consciously what I eat and what I buy because I want to have a positive impact not only on the life of my family but also on the health, on the economy and on the environment of this country and of the world. And if that means paying a few dollars more to know that the chickens that laid my eggs lived a normal chicken life than it is ok with me. Besides I find quite interesting that most of the people that tells me that organic food is one dollar more expensive than the factory one, doesn't seem to have a problem buying 5 dollar drinks at Starbucks everyday. Sorry but I prefer to buy some organic food instead.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Woodstock Farmer's Market

Today we went to the farmer's market in Woodstock, IL. It is our favorite because it is close to home and because of the beautiful square where it is held. Usually we buy some berries or some fruit and then hang in the square with our son, listening to the live music while he learns to walk on the grass. We always saw it just as a nice summer family activity, but now I am determined to try to buy all my produce and all my meat either from the farmers' market, or from the various farm stands that are in the area. The goal is to reduce the amount of things I buy at the supermarket to a minimum, at least in the summer when it is much easier.
Today we bought:

  • Raspberries
  •  Apricots ( nice and small, like I remembered them to be when I was a kid, not those huge peach-sized tasteless things you find at the store)
  • 4 Zucchini
  • 1 "Italian Zucchini" ( It's a large zucchini with white stripes)
  • 1 Box of "Dragon Tongue Beans" ( they looked like the beans that we use in Italy, but instead I found out you can eat them with the whole pod and you can have them raw, not bad!)
  • 4 Pork chops
  • 1 lb of Ground beef
  • 3 lbs of Rump roast beef
  • 1 Little bag of mini carrots
We spent a total of 55.00 dollars. So definitely more expensive than the store, especially if you consider that the pork alone was 15.00 dollars and the beef 20.00 dollars, but that is how it should be.
We got the pork from R-Family farm, they also have other animals and sell directly at their farm. We previously bought chicken from them and I was shocked to see the difference in size with the chicken you get at the store. The breast must have been a quarter of the size of what you would find at a supermarket. From the information I found on their website, their pork should be darker and stronger tasting than the store one, I will post something when we eat it.
The beef comes from Willow Lea Stock Farm which is a local farm with cows that are grass-fed for most of the year although their food is supplemented with corn and soy during the winter. We bought their meat before and it seemed definitely leaner and more flavorful than what we buy at the store. The prices of the meat though are definitely going to make us reduce the amount of meat we eat per week.
I was disappointed to notice that most of the stands only had plastic bags. We had our own reusable bag, but no one offered a paper bag for the produce, which would be recyclable and biodegradable.

Local Food and Local Farms

Five Reasons to Eat Sustainable, Organic Food

I think there is some confusion as to why one should go through the trouble of finding food that is not processed in a huge factory, that is produced by a company that is fair to the environment, fair to the people that work for it and fair to the animals. I think the confusion arises from the fact that there is not a single reason for it, there is a number of reasons. Every single reason by itself is not enough to justify going through the amount of trouble and extra expense that it takes, but if we look at them all together than you understand that there is no other choice really. Here are my reasons, so please read them all and try to consider them as a whole before dismissing them or criticizing them one by one.

  • It is better for my health
Organic food doesn't contain the chemicals, the antibiotics and the hormones that are used in most factory foods.
There is also some evidence that some organic foods may contain a higher ratio of nutrients than other foods. For example vegetables that have been recently picked and that did not travel across the country before getting on your table retain more of their vitamin content. Also by eating seasonally you get the best out of the crops, because natural sun ripening also boosts the vitamin and nutrients content of the plants. There is also some evidence that milk and meat from grass fed cows might have a higher ratio of the good omega-3 fatty acids, more beta carotene ( in the milk) and lower overall fat ( in the meat ).
Organic meat is also more expensive then the packaged one. This can help you realize that it is not necessary to eat meat everyday of the year, thus improving the quality of your diet which should be much more based on vegetables and cereals than the average american diet is. Also eating seasonal crops means eating whatever is available at the moment, this forces you to add more varieties of fruit and vegetables in your diet. For example I have been trying turnips, squashes and various roots that I never even considered buying in the supermarket before because other vegetables that were more appealing to me were available.This apparent extra amount of choice at the supermarket actually led me to eat always the same "favorites" instead of trying extra varieties. Variety is a key to good nutrition, since every vegetable or fruit has slightly different proprieties and a little bit of everything is a good rule when it comes to choosing a healthy diet.
Eating more vegetables and less processed food also results in weight loss and higher overall energy for exercising, which for me was a great perk.

  • It helps reduce pollution and waste of natural resources
Factory farms have to dispose of large amounts of animal waste that ends up in our water and in the soil. This animal waste is often filled with bacteria resulting from the animals living in close quarters and with antibiotics that in turn make bacteria more resistant and people more allergic to antibiotics. Factories pollute the air. The packaging of processed foods is additional garbage that is not always recyclable and that ends up filling our landfills. Processed food also requires a multitude of ingredients being transported from far away locations, which means more greenhouse gases into the air, more oil wasted. 
  • I want animals to be treated humanely
I am not a vegetarian. I like eating meat and I think it is an important part of our diet. But I think that animals should not be seen as inanimate objects, a commodity like any other. You can see it from a selfish point of view: stressed out animals tend to get sicker and therefore need to be treated with antibiotics that you will end up eating too; besides, grass fed cows and free range chicken taste better than their industrial counterpart and have better nutrients. But there is also a non selfish reason. Even though I am not a vegetarian I do think we should respect the animal whose life we are taking. In Italy we traditionally have a culture of using all the parts of the animal. It was probably more due to poverty than due to respect, but I think it is a respectful thing, not to waste the animal's life. In the States people don't even want to think that their meat comes from what once was a live animal. That is why boneless or ground meat are preferred. I want to remember that my food came from an animal, and I want to think that that animal lived a normal life, ate the food he was supposed to eat, lived with his fellow animals as he was supposed to, before being killed ( in a merciful way) for my consumption. I know that vegetarians will say that if I really respected the animal I would not kill it. And vegans will say I shouldn't even exploit it. But I know I was born to eat meat as part of my diet, I am hardwired for it, and as much as I am willing to reduce the amount of meat that I eat, so that is sustainable and fair, I will not give up on it. 
  • I want workers to be treated fairly
It is interesting how this topic seems to be the one that strikes people the least, and there is no "produced fairly" official seal on any product. So this is also the trickiest one, because it is the hardest to verify. Many larger farms and food plants rely on the work of illegal immigrants that have close to no rights and get paid close to nothing. Even though the political debate on illegal immigration is very heated, the question seems to be mostly focused on how to get rid of them and not on how to punish the entrepreneurs that employ them. In the movie "Food Inc." they also mention how meatpacking has become one of the most unfair, underpaid and unsafe jobs in the country. There is no way for me to check that a plant is fair to its workers or that they don't employ illegal immigrants. But I know that if I am buying local produce directly from a farmer who owns and operate the farm with his family he won't be exploiting his workers. This topic has to be applied also to organic produce. When I buy it in a store, from a big brand like Horizon or Stonyfield, what guarantees do I have that it was produced without harming any human?
  • I want diversity and competition in the food market, I want small businesses to survive, I want giant corporations to feel like they are accountable for what they do
 By choosing to buy food consciously I also influence the industry to change their ways in order to keep selling their products. A perfect example is the use of the hormones in milk production. Since people has become more aware of the problem and started buying more milk that claimed to be hormone free, the main brands had to align in order to keep selling and now most of the brands don't use hormones anymore in their milk. This can happen with many other products. The good thing of capitalism is that the market regulates what is produced and how. Factories have to produce what people want or go broke. If we start making more informed decisions on our food then the industry will have to modify their ways in order to keep selling their products.