Margaret Christie & Philip Korman: Taking action in the cause of local food

Margaret Christie & Philip Korman; CISA – Daily Hampshire Gazette Editorial

December 10, 2013

Luckily, we are well-nourished for that effort — stomachs, hearts, and souls — by our local farms.

During this anniversary year, we set an ambitious goal at CISA to double the amount of local food in the diets of Pioneer Valley residents. In the next 20 years, we’ll make local food a full quarter of our diet as a region. As an organization, our next steps toward reaching that goal include providing more support for new farmers, increasing the availability of locally grown food for Hampden County residents and aiding the businesses that connect farms and tables — processors, retailers, institutions, restaurants, and distributors, for example.

Filling your family’s table with food from local farms is a delicious way to support farm businesses in your community, and is perhaps even more meaningful during special holiday meals. But you can do more to build a vibrant local food economy.

Using the power of our food dollars and our strength as active, engaged citizens, we can create a local food system that nurtures our families, our communities, our economy and our environment.

Doubling the amount of local food in our diets will require new infrastructure, new businesses and new market outlets, as well as the financing, public policy, support services and enthusiastic customer base to ensure their success.

This big goal brings together many organizations with diverse interests in the Pioneer Valley: economic development, public health, food access and the environment, for example. Ultimately, though, to succeed, it must be a community effort, and there’s a role for everyone.

CISA’s new publication, “Eat Up and Take Action for Local Food,” provides resources and encouragement to bring your love of local food to your workplace, your neighborhood and your friends and family.

The publication includes stories of local people and businesses that are going the extra mile for local food. You can read about the Springfield Food Policy Council, where residents come together to fill gaps in the city’s food system and champion such initiatives as a new city ordinance that supports gardening in the city. At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, wellness policies encourage employees to eat more fresh food from local farms by allowing employees to pay for a CSA share through payroll deduction, pick up the farm share at the hospital, and earn wellness credits by joining a CSA.

Or learn about Greenfield’s Real Pickles, which cemented its commitment to local ownership by forming a worker-owned cooperative and funded the co-op’s purchase of the business through a highly successful community investment campaign that raised half a million dollars.

“Eat Up and Take Action” also provides ideas for how you can take action. Here are just a few, both large and small:

• Bring a friend to the farmers’ market.

• Volunteer at your school garden or community farm.

• Become a local foods entrepreneur.

• Tell your child’s school that you’d like more local food at lunch.

• Make your workplace local-food-friendly: bring local snacks to meetings, add local-food-related benefits to your health insurance options, or give a corporate gift that supports local food.

Eating fresh, seasonal food nourishes our connection to the land where we live and the people that grow our food. It supports our local economy, creating jobs and increasing our economic resilience. It gives us a way to take concrete, hopeful action, every day, to address some of the big problems facing us: climate change, corporate power, a fragile global economy.

And it provides a route to building a local food system that nurtures our community for the long term.

Realizing that vision may require us all to do a bit more, to think about how we can promote and support local food not only at our dining tables but in the board room, break room, cafeteria, fitness center and town meeting room. Eat up and take action for local food. Find the report at www.buylocalfood.org.

Margaret Christie is special projects director and Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

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Franklin County Community Development Corp. kitchen in Greenfield key link in local food chain

By RICHIE DAVIS   –  Gazette Contributing Writer  –   Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Joe Czajkowski delivered a ton of carrots, already peeled and “coin-cut,” to the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center last week from his 99-year-old Hatfield farm, Liz Buxton and her crew got to work.

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Next February will be promoted as “carrot month” as part of the Massachusetts Farm to School Partnership. So the Greenfield commercial kitchen had a line of half a dozen workers blanching, bagging, and then freezing the sliced orange vegetables for delivery to schools around the region in late January so cafeteria workers can prepare them as part of locally enhanced meals.

“I noticed in Heath, where they have a really nice school garden, that the kids had grown and picked the carrots, and they all wanted the carrots,” said Buxton, who worked as Mohawk Trail Regional School’s food and nutrition service director before taking charge of the Franklin County Community Development Corp. kitchen a couple of months ago. “They’ve started to recognize what’s local, and they were invested in those carrots.”

At Mohawk, she helped buy frozen local cauliflower, broccoli, peppers and carrots from the CDC kitchen, putting on the monthly lunch menus in which local produce was being featured. “These carrots were in the ground a couple of days ago. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.”

CDC this summer processed nearly 10,000 pounds of tomatoes from Red Fire and Atlas farms that it is now getting ready to turn into marinara sauce with some of the 1,300 peppers it received from Red Fire Farm, as well as local onions. It is hiring a food development specialist to help market the local produce to food service directors and their product distributors, and also trying to work with growers to sell their fruits and vegetables to the CDC to become part of the growing local food chain.

 The CDC is also using a $250,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and $50,000 grant to buy a new freezer as well as flash-freezing and related equipment to ramp up its production of local produce for school sales as well as to help farmers’ own supplies for their winter customers.

“We’re taking a risk here,” said CDC Executive Director John Waite. “Schools want it, but it’s a question of price, how we’ll distribute it, and lots of pieces of the puzzle that need to come together. Until you have the product, you can’t make it happen. And we can say that we have this product; will you buy it? It’s making it happen.”

The CDC, has had to downsize from the roughly 16,000-square-foot freezer it originally sought to one that’s maybe 12,000 square feet, and that’s slowed the process, said Waite, but it’s also given the food processing center a chance to learn the importance of working with distributors such as Sysco or Thurston Foods, since food-service directors have balked at the idea of picking up produce. It’s also about hiring someone who can handle marketing, a job that’s proven too much for Waite or Buxton to handle, so they can also promote the commercial kitchen to some of the small-scale food manufacturers who pay rent to use the facility.

Lessons learned

“We’ve learned it’s about efficiency, and efficiency comes with volume,” said Waite, who spent a few months trying to fill a staffing gap this summer while also trying to connect farmers and food service directors with products and occasionally filling in on the production line as well.

“We’re committed to this, and the only way to increase sales is to increase marketing and build relationships,” he said.

The shared kitchen last year handled 65,000 pounds of vegetables, largely freezing and canning them for schools and colleges, including Deerfield Academy, Williams College and Hampshire College in Amherst. That is down to 20,000 or 30,000 pounds this year, mostly for Community Supported Agriculture operations to offer their members and farm stands to sell to customers, in the form of spaghetti sauce and applesauce — think 1,800 pounds of apples from Atkins Farm in Amherst— as well as frozen peaches, blueberries and strawberries.

With the fast-freeze and other equipment planned for deployment at the Wells Street facility by next summer, and with the kitchen getting ready for new USDA meat inspection certification beginning next month, with a meat-pie maker already lined up to use in the kitchen, Waite said he is already looking ahead to the day when the CDC can sell local frozen vegetables through Foster’s and Green Fields Market. He’s also looking at seeking a grant to prepare soups for Just Roots community farm.

Meanwhile, Waite has been meeting with food service directors from Amherst and Hampshire colleges, as well as with Hampshire’s farm program, about continuing to use the Greenfield kitchen to process its tomatoes and other produce. The kitchen even pureed 4,000 pounds of leftover fruit from the University of Massachusetts’ Guinness-Record, 15,000-pound fruit salad in September, for freezing and later use in making smoothies.

And proving the value of connections, the CDC worked through Hampshire’s Bon Appetit food service to make tomato sauce from a Connecticut farmer for Wesleyan and St. Joseph’s colleges.

From Connecticut to southern Vermont, “When a farmer says, ‘Our stuff’s ready,’ we want to be available to them,” said Waite, adding that it’s a matter of finding temporary, seasonal workers and having enough flexibility in the kitchen schedule and the right kind of equipment for that specific crop. “What we’re trying to do is give farmers diverse options to sell. If they can make more at the farm stand, great. But if one week, all their tomatoes are ready and they can only sell so much at the farm stand or grocery store, they can sell to us as well instead of leaving it on the vine. If we can eliminate that waste and pay them for that, it’s not a loss, and the farmers can get more income.”

Another lesson along the way is about the definition of “local,” at least when it comes to processing produce to extend the marketing season for sales to institutions that keep feeding people long after the growing season has ended.

“Now a lot of local is regional,” said Waite, pointing to research efforts by Farm to Institution New England, the six-state collaboration that started with a USDA grant in 2011 to beef up agricultural sales to schools, colleges and other institutions around the region.

Working with two northern Vermont commercial kitchens, two more on the Maine coast, as well as others in Boston and Rhode Island, the CDC here is trying to avoid duplicating costs for expensive, specialized equipment that may be based elsewhere. He points to the Northern Girl processing center in Maine, which is already equipped to deal with tons of potatoes and broccoli florettes.

“Maybe there’s a little specialization around New England, where we’re cooperating instead of competing,” said Waite. “Now there are distributors bringing in vegetables from California, so they can bring from Maine to Massachusetts, from Massachusetts to Maine and go back and forth, that’s a lot better than bringing it across the country.

“We’re competing against Chile and China, and in apples we’re competing against Washington state and China. We’re not competing between Massachusetts and Maine,” he added. “There’s always some hyper-local that wants to grow in the backyard, but when it comes to feeding 15 million people, we’ve got to work together.”

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The Cost of Organic Food Is Worth It and—Surprise—It’s Not Always Higher

By Charlotte Vallaeys

Sons Kai and Liam shopping with Charlotte 2

“Organic food is too expensive.” It’s a complaint we, as organic farmers and advocates, hear all too often. And we’ve practiced and often repeated our defense of organic food’s higher price tag: it’s worth every extra penny in terms of a long-term investment in our health and in protecting the environment.

When people complain of the high price of organic foods, farmer Joel Salatin likes to respond: “Have you priced cancer lately?”

But we shouldn’t stop at countering the myth that organic food is “too expensive”; we must also examine the assumption that organic food actually is more expensive than conventional food. It’s simply not as black-and-white as many people assume.

Yes, I readily admit that in any supermarket that offers organic strawberries, they will be pricier than the conventional. And a box of organic cereal will definitely carry a higher price tag than the cheap conventional store-brand version.

But it is also entirely possible, without much effort, to fill a shopping cart with a week’s worth of conventional foods and pay more than you would for a week’s worth of organic food.

With two young sons (Liam is 5 and Kai is 3), I buy only organic food for my family. I shop with an organic gatekeeper: Liam sits in the cart and checks every incoming item for the USDA Organic seal. Anything without it he sends back to the shelf.

I also buy as much local certified organic food as possible and carefully choose the brands that I can trust with the important job of providing nourishment for my children. So I assumed that our food budget was much higher than that of families who do not share our commitment to organics.

After doing some quick math in supermarket aisles, I discovered that this is not necessarily the case.

Liam’s lunchbox provides a perfect example. On hectic weekday mornings, I admit that “convenience foods” like a Kraft Lunchable® box—no preparation and no clean-up required—can be quite alluring. But the ingredients list of a Lunchable® box reads like a who’s who of cheap and unhealthy items, including high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, carrageenan, artificial colors, chemical preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA, and lots of salt and sugar.

Clearly, Kraft is not interested in healthy and wholesome foods to support my sons’ well-being, but in cheap ingredients with a long shelf life and addictive taste that augment the corporation’s bottom line. I always figured that the extra cost and extra effort of peeling organic carrots and slicing organic apples were worth it. I would add that medical issues down the road cost time as well as money, and I would gladly add five minutes to my morning routine in exchange for safe and wholesome food.

Then I compared the cost of Liam’s homemade lunchbox, filled with organic foods, with that of a typical Kraft’s Lunchable, which seems to be perpetually on sale, at $2.50 per box, at my local Stop ‘n Shop. As it turns out, the homemade lunch (containing organic bread with organic hummus, organic cheddar cheese, an organic apple, organic carrots and organic raisins) costs less than a Lunchable (a typical box contains crackers or flatbread, Oscar Mayer ham, American cheese, applesauce, a cookie or a bag of candy, and a juice box).

Then I repeated the exercise with one of Kai’s favorite foods: yogurt. I was certain that our commitment to buy only the highest quality yogurt was costing us more money. I buy whole milk Butterworks Farm yogurt, which is highly rated on Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard. Not only is it organic, it’s from organic pioneers Jack and Anne Lazor’s farm in Vermont (Anne was one of Cornucopia’s founding Board members). They graze their Jersey cows and sweeten their yogurt with organic maple syrup. There are no fillers like pectin or “natural flavors” or any other ingredients with dubious pedigrees.

I always felt justified about my decision to pay extra for this wonderful yogurt, until I did a price comparison. On a price-per-ounce basis, I pay less for Butterworks Farm yogurt than I would for any of the major food corporations’ yogurt products marketed to children, including Yoplait’s Go-Gurt and Dannon’s Danimals.

Go figure: organic maple-syrup- sweetened yogurt from grassfed Jersey cow milk costs less than artificially flavored, chemically colored and carrageenan-stabilized yogurt in a tube.

I understand that parents living near the poverty level are not buying Go-Gurts or Lunchables either, because when money is tight, the conventional store-brand foods in bulk are definitely the least expensive. Organic foods are not cheaper than the cheapest conventional foods—and that’s a fact. But I have found conventional foods that are pricier than organic foods in nearly every corner and aisle of the supermarket.

While the complaint that “organic food is too expensive” is commonplace, when have we ever heard people point out the high cost of Go-Gurts and Lunchables?

It’s time to shift the discourse, beginning with the real numbers: on a price-per-ounce basis, heavily advertised brand-name foods from multinational corporations like Kraft and General Mills are often more expensive than wholesome organic equivalents that do not advertise and may require the occasional scooping, peeling or slicing.

It is the Go-Gurts and the Lunchables that should be the target of mainstream criticism—for being unhealthy and expensive—not the wonderful organic foods produced by responsible stewards of the land. Organic consumers know they are getting something in return: protection from toxic pesticide residues, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered ingredients, toxic solvents and fumigants. The price premium also supports sound environmental stewardship and humane animal husbandry practices. It is all well worth the extra cost.

What are consumers getting in return for Lunchables and Go-Gurts, for Betty Crocker cake mixes and Lean Cuisine microwaveable dinners, for cans of Breakfast Essentials? Rather than paying more to avoid toxic residues and chemical ingredients, shoppers are shelling out high food prices to buy convenience.

But the cost of preparing food in a factory so we don’t have to do it at home is not the only reason for the high prices of conventional foods. I found many conventional products that cost more than the exact same organic product—with no difference in preparation or packaging.

If not convenience, what are consumers paying extra for? In some cases, the word “deluxe” or “natural” on the label shot up the price significantly, even though these gimmicky marketing tools mean nothing legally. The foods are produced with toxic agrichemicals and often with GMOs and other materials that nobody in their right mind would ever consider “natural.” For example, conventional Kashi cereal (owned by Kellogg) often costs more than Nature’s Path organic cereal. And where does the extra money spent on “natural” and “deluxe” foods end up? Not to support responsible “natural” or “deluxe” farmers, but to line the pockets of multinational corporations with clever marketing departments and ad agencies.

Orange juice at Whole Foods is another good example. Uncle Matt’s orange juice, from organic oranges grown in Florida, costs less than the similarly sized containers of Odwalla orange juice. Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, which packages conventional, pesticide-sprayed oranges in a fancy package and then charges a hefty premium.

I also saw broccoli florets in the freezer of Stop ‘n Shop that were labeled “Deluxe” and cost more than the exact same certified organic variety. Conventional pasta sauce with fancy brand names often costs more than organic versions. Chobani yogurt costs more than almost any traditional-style organic yogurt. Yes, Greek-style costs more because it requires more milk to produce. But their milk comes from cows in feedlots given GMO corn and soy grown with pesticides, which simply does not justify a price tag higher than organic versions.

Organic is expensive? Organic is “elitist”? It’s time to direct the outrage where it belongs. Corporations that buy the cheapest crops—subsidized by taxpayer dollars, sprayed with pesticides, often genetically engineered—spend money on pretty packages and advertisements, and then profiteer at the expense of consumer confusion.

Meanwhile, the bees are dying, animals are abused on factory farms, and the land is poisoned by conventional agriculture.

We have a collective responsibility to ourselves, to the hard-working people who produce our food, to the animals we raise for our nourishment, and to the Earth to be discerning shoppers. We owe it to ourselves and to society to do everything we can to support organic agriculture.

A version of this story ran in Cornucopia’s Fall newsletter.

CISA launches online calculator to encourage buying local food

By RICHIE DAVIS – Gazette Contributing Writer – Thursday, October 24, 2013

Who says you shouldn’t play with your food?

Not Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, the Deerfield-based nonprofit that tries to get people in the Pioneer Valley to eat more local farm products.

To encourage local voracious habits in its 20th-anniversary year, CISA has launched an online calculator to help people see for themselves the impact of buying their milk, eggs, produce and meats from local producers.

The calculator comes as the most ambitious effort in a year of innovative challenges to pump up the volume of local food consumption — activities from a “Farmstand Bingo” game during the summer to organizing local food potluck dinners this fall.

The online tool, developed with help from economists Anita Dancs of Western New England University in Springfield and Helen Scharber of Hampshire College in Amherst, lets people plug in how much of their food budget they spend on locally produced items to see how it affects the local economy.

“We wanted to find a way to help people understand the importance of food choices they’re making on a daily basis, and to demonstrate the value of buying local agricultural products,” said CISA Program Director Kelly Coleman. “None of this is totally straightforward, and we felt the accuracy of the information was really important.”

In two steps, the calculator helps a user gauge how much local food they are already buying, and then it shows how much of a difference it would make if they bought more — or less — in any given category, including cutting back on buying frozen or canned foods and “long-distance” produce, meats, dairy and eggs.

“That’s to encourage people to think about how they can do more, what the impact would be,” said Coleman.

Because even a small commitment by numbers of people to buy certain kinds of local products can affect the local economy in surprising ways, the calculator demonstrates the power of shopping locally, said Coleman.

“One of my favorite little features of it is, if you make this change, say switch $5 to local vegetables from vegetables bought from far away, it has maybe 1.77 times more of an impact on the economy, almost twice the impact,” she said. “That’s really inspiring to me. And we haven’t had that (evidence) before, for the number wonks.”

For example, by shifting $30 monthly to more local vegetables and meat, it adds 2.24 times more to the local economy than spending that same amount on nonlocal foods, according to the data presented.

The calculator uses an IMPLAN modeling program, used for economic analysis and planning, applying numbers that the user inserts according to the total amount of “intentionally” purchased local food divided by the total grocery purchases. It automatically adds 10 percent to account for other local food that may be unwittingly part of the mix.

While the calculator template may be used effectively in other parts of the country, Coleman said the data, from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, is tailored specifically to this three-county region to account for the local agricultural economy here due to different production and processing costs.

CISA did a “soft launch” of the calculator program on its website about a month ago, Coleman said, encouraging users to test it to work out confusing language and glitches.

“It’s not so much that this will make a difference to everyone,” she said. “Some people are really inspired by personal stories, while others really like the numbers. We felt this would be another way of demonstrating the impact that will inspire a certain population that really loves numbers, and this would be fun. We’ll still provide the stories and other ways” to encourage people to be “local heroes.”

On the Web: www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/local-food-calculator/

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We can eat better by working together to strengthen local agriculture

WebBy MARGARET CHRISTIE and PHILIP KORMAN – Daily Hampshire Gazette

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Do you ever wonder how much Pioneer Valley residents’ support for local farms and food businesses impacts the local economy? It’s easy to see how buying local benefits your family (it tastes good!). Likewise, if you’re a loyal farm customer, you can guess that your purchases benefit your favorite farm’s bottom line.

But what’s the cumulative effect of our collective support for local farm businesses? Today is the third-annual Food Day, giving us a chance to tote up our joint successes — and to prepare for challenges ahead.

In honor of Food Day, CISA launched a new Local Foods Calculator at buylocalfood.org. It can help you figure out what percent of your food budget is local — and inspire you to do more by showing the impact of increasing local purchases.

For example, if you shift just $5 per week to local fruits and vegetables, it contributes almost twice as much income to the local economy as purchasing non-local fruits and vegetables. If every household in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire County made this shift, we would see an increase of 516 jobs and add $24 million per year to the local economy.

As a region, we can generate this economic activity by working together. For a generation now, CISA has collaborated with farmers, individuals and organizations to strengthen local farms. Our successes are many — and yet, the challenges ahead are sobering.

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen commitment to local ownership and control realized through the conversion of three local businesses to cooperatives — Real Pickles and Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield and the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington. Other local endeavors include plans for the expansion of the North Quabbin Community Co-op into a storefront in Orange and in Springfield, community activism has created the real possibility of a full-line supermarket opening in Mason Square.

These business successes build on other positive trends related to local food. From 2008-2013, the number of farmers’ markets in our region grew 74 percent to 47 (including seven winter markets), while CSA farms grew 145 percent to 49 farms feeding approximately 40,000 people.

Local beer, brewed with local ingredients, is now created, consumed and celebrated at The People’s Pint and Northampton Brewery. Local wineries are producing more wines with local grapes. Local hard cider has experienced an amazing renaissance. And a new whole animal butcher shop, sourcing from local farmers, will open in 2014 in Northampton. We can measure the impact of our local purchases in dollars, in jobs, in businesses and in beer!

Together, we’ve begun to shift our food economy closer to home to benefit our communities. A number of factors, however, threaten our work. First, we must ensure that all residents of our region can benefit. As income inequality grows, the federal SNAP (food stamps) program is an important source of food for 15 percent of Americans, but Congressional inaction and antipathy threaten this program. Sixty percent of the farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley accept SNAP, and SNAP dollars used at farmers’ markets increased 41 percent from 2011 to 2012, making it a growing source of income for farmers. You can help by reminding your representatives that you support SNAP benefits and that USDA programs have helped more farmers’ markets accept SNAP and you can generously give when your farmers’ market asks for funds to match SNAP dollars.

While the debacle of the recent government shutdown reminds us why we value local action, we can’t ignore the power of the federal government to be a positive or negative force for local farmers. Decades of federal farm policies favoring the largest farms mean that in 2007, less than 2 percent of farms accounted for 50 percent of total sales of farm products (GAO Report, Concentration in Agriculture, 2009). The last five-year Farm Bill funded many innovative programs benefitting local, organic and beginning farmers, but since it expired a year ago Congress has been unable to pass a new Farm Bill. We need a new Farm Bill, and we need a better Farm Bill.

The impact of the federal government is also visible in the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. Although these regulations were created in response to food safety problems in the industrial food system, the proposed regulations would disproportionately increase costs for small, diverse farms. The result — we will lose a good number of small farms due to the high costs to comply. Comments on these rules are due Nov. 15 — learn more and take action at buylocalfood.org.

On Food Day, raise a local libation to our joint successes. Pledge to increase your local buying, and to take action to ensure that government policies benefit our farms and our neighbors. The next step for change involves not only what is on our plate and who is sitting at our table, but what are the rules that we eat by. Together, we can make sure our farms can feed us all.

Margaret Christie is special projects director and Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

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Sorry, but your meat may not be safe to eat (unless it is local)

Gut bomb: That turkey burger could kill you, and here’s why

By Tom Laskawy

OK, meat eaters, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Hey, I know! I’ll start with the bad news: In a just-released study, Consumer Reports tested 257 samples of ground turkey from supermarkets, and found that virtually every one was contaminated with either fecal bacteria, staph, or salmonella. Even worse, most of the fecal bacteria were resistant to one or more antibiotics important to human medicine.

Clearly, between this study and the Environmental Working Group’s recent report on the high rates of fecal (and antibiotic-resistant) bacteria, it’s fair to conclude that the meat industry is struggling to keep its product safe.

The bit of good news here is that Consumer Reports tested both meat raised with antibiotics and meat raised without them. While meat raised without antibiotics had about the same rates of overall contamination as the industrial alternative, it had far lower levels of antibiotic-resistant strains — and it’s the antibiotic-resistant bugs that should scare you. Infection with them puts you at far greater risk of serious illness or even death if you’re an infant, elderly, or immune-compromised.

The message to consumers is simple: Buying meat raised without antibiotics will reduce your exposure to the nastiest bacteria. Which is a good thing.

There’s a message here for the meat industry, too: Restricting agricultural use of antibiotics would have a big effect on meat safety. Of course, any Danish pig farmer would tell you the same thing. But here at home neither Big Meat nor the government agencies that police it are ready to face that reality.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture certainly understands that regulations surrounding meat safety need reform. In fact, the agency is moving forward with a proposed new regulation for poultry inspections that the administrator of its food safety division declared last year would “further the agency’s transformation to focus solely on public health and help address the challenge we have to reduce foodborne illness.”

Sadly, it would take generous definitions of most of the nouns and verbs in that sentence for it to be accurate. The new USDA regs would actually reduce the number of government inspectors, shifting responsibility for visual inspections to slaughterhouse company employees, while increasing the speed at which the chickens move along the processing line and increasing the number and frequency of chemical disinfecting washes used on the carcasses. Sigh.

It may come as a surprise to learn that virtually all of the chicken you buy at the supermarket has been chemically disinfected, most frequently with chlorine but also with other, more toxic chemicals. It’s no sure fix, of course, since pathogens can hide in nooks and crannies that the sprays, which focus on surface contamination, can’t reach. It also does nothing to address the root causes of how the bacteria got onto the meat in the first place.

The USDA claims [PDF] that its new system is a more science-based approach that relies less on inspectors’ eyes and more on risk assessments of where the pathogens are and how to kill them. That claim is, of course, the subject of some dispute. Food and Water Watch uncovered documents that suggest that slaughterhouses that tried out the new regs actually had higher rates of salmonella contamination than those using the old system.

Nonetheless, the USDA estimates the new system will prevent up to 5,000 cases of foodborne illness annually — all this, while also saving taxpayers $90 million per year and lowering industry costs by just over $250 million per year. But it sure seems like the benefits are flowing the wrong way — that is, more toward industry than consumers (as in more chickens processed per hour and more profit).

One industry-associated food safety expert I spoke to, Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, said the industry has relied on chemical washes without necessarily using them appropriately, and that these new regs will help address that shortcoming. That may be. But appropriate use for carcasses may not equal appropriate use for the slaughterhouse workers who, along with the chickens, will be exposed to them.

The Washington Post ran an exposé last week on the increasing health problems those workers are suffering as a result of increased chemical exposure. The article features former USDA inspectors critical of the new meat safety rules, both because the line speeds are now too fast for inspectors to see problems and because of the reliance on chemicals.

And these former inspectors aren’t alone. Lawyer Bill Marler, who represents victims of serious foodborne illnesses and their families, agrees that it’s a misguided approach. “The whole system is flawed,” he told me in an email. As he sees it, the problem isn’t in the particulars of the rules themselves. The problem is that the USDA sets allowable levels for the presence of dangerous bacteria like salmonella or campylobacter on meat. Marler believes that the level should be zero.

“Impossible,” you say. “Bacteria are everywhere!” Well, almost 20 years ago, the USDA set a zero-tolerance policy for the deadly form of E. coli (O157:H7 for those keeping score at home) that caused the fatal Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. And while that strain still causes problems, especially in produce, we don’t see it as frequently in meat — with one notable 2009 exception — because companies were forced to eliminate it from their facilities. They didn’t like it, they complained about cost, but they mostly succeeded.

Many consumer advocates, including Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, believe that until the USDA does the same with the newer, deadlier, antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella and other deadly bacteria, no amount of chemical washing will solve the problems with our meat. The USDA has plenty of compelling evidence that attacking the problems at the source — that is, reducing the amount of antibiotics used in meat production — could drastically lower the most dangerous forms of bacterial contamination. But the USDA is too hemmed in by industry to make those changes.

And that’s where you, the consumers, come in. Your role goes beyond practicing good food safety at home and using helpful resources, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s new “Risky Meat Guide,” to avoid meat with the highest rates of bacterial contamination.

One of the great food-system success stories in recent years involves the dairy industry’s reluctant abandonment of artificial growth hormones in the face of a virtual revolt by (mostly) mothers of small children. If meat eaters demand meat raised without antibiotics — it’s not significantly more expensive to buy, as it doesn’t have to be organic — the industry will be forced to respond. Producers will have to change the ways they raise animals, which will have the added benefit of lessening the need for repeated chemical disinfection at the slaughterhouse.

That’s better for the animals, for workers, and for consumers — even vegetarians, since antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t just on meat anymore.

So, meat eaters. What are you waiting for?

Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. His writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.

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If you live in the Amherst, MA area, you are fortunate to have several sources of safe local meat.  Try:

Simple Gifts Farm

King Creek Farm

 

CISA marks two decades of support for local farming

By RICHIE DAVIS in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Monday, April 11, 2013

The fields around the region seemed a bit bleaker back in the late 1980s, as far as local farming was concerned.

A federal dairy herd buyout program — implemented to cut into a nationwide milk surplus that was really concentrated in Western states — gave struggling Franklin County dairy farmers a way out of their difficulties by selling off their operations, and selling off their land to developers.

Many of the farms that dominated the region tended to be large operations that sold primarily potatoes, onions, corn and other commodity crops to wholesale markets and tried to squeeze profits out of long days and a limited growing season.

The Beginning

But there was also a new energy taking place, recalls John Gerber, a professor at University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture, who helped launch CISA.

“We’d just gone through a terrible crisis in Massachusetts agriculture, but at the same time we were starting to see CSAs (community supported agriculture farms) popping up,” Gerber said, and a segment of the population pushing for more earth-friendly farming practices, including organic agriculture.

cisaxThe committee learned that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was offering grants to communities that were working on food systems, applied and won $1.2 million to help farmers create and implement a vision of a more sustainable food production system as well as identify and address the main obstacles to achieving it.

Out of that grant grew Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a Deerfield nonprofit organization that has helped dramatically affect the attitude toward farming not just here but nationwide. This year marks its 20th anniversary.

A Cooperative Project Emerges

“We need our farmers, and they need us,” said Juanita Nelson of Deerfield, who along with the region’s food co-ops, was one of the honorees at CISA’s annual meeting Friday in Northampton, and who in the 1980s was one of the few area farmers selling at a Greenfield farmers market .

Finding ways to support the region’s farmers was central to CISA, which immediately focused on increasing the market share for area farmers by trying to build connections between residents and farms in the area.

By doing market research, said CISA Special Projects Director Margaret Christie, “We learned that people in this area already cared about local farms and saw the connection between how they spent their food money and how it helped the local economy. They didn’t need us to point it out to them, but we made it easier for people to act on that and to show them they could make a difference and how they could do it every day.”

Even before CISA formally launched its “Be a Local Hero” campaign, with advertising, a widely recognized logo displayed at supermarkets, farm stands and restaurants, one of the organization’s working groups began meeting with dairy farmers to launch a small local milk marketing cooperative, Our Family Farms, to allow them to increase their profit.

Some farmers in the region were skeptical of the Amherst-dominated group that had just won a $1 million grant and had Hampshire College as its sponsoring umbrella — especially because it was suspected of pushing an organic agenda over more conventional approaches. But Christie, who began working for CISA soon after it was created, recalls, “I think people began to see bringing consumers on board with regular promotions and opportunities to connect to farms could make a difference for their businesses, and they wanted to be a part of this. They could see it was making a difference. There’s always skeptics out there, but there were fewer of them.”

“Local zeroes” was how some of those early skeptics reacted, recalled Upinngil farmer Clifford Hatch, an early chairman of the effort.

“The whole farming community was pretty fractured at that point, in terms of not pulling together,” Hatch said. “It’s a little more united today. ‘Local’ wasn’t fashionable at that point. The whole farming trend has gone toward more farms doing direct marketing of their product.”

Hatch, whose own farming operation has been helped by the emphasis on local agriculture that now is taken for granted in this area, says, “To tell the truth, we really astounded ourselves when we evaluated our work and found what the market penetrations had been.” Even Kellogg wasn’t convinced that the marketing campaign would work, recalls Ed Maltby, who taught agricultural courses at Smith Vocational Technical High School at the time and then was involved in helping efforts by Our Family Farms and Adams Family Farm to launch processing facilities.

But the Michigan foundation was later so encouraged by what it saw that it provided another $450,000 to help other groups around the country do similar work.

Local Heroes

cisagrocer“We came up with something that was very relevant to the Valley,” Maltby said, and that eventually even caught the attention of Kathleen Merrigan, the current assistant U.S. deputy agriculture secretary, who has promoted a “know your farmer” approach.

“We started the ‘local hero’ campaign nationally in 1999, and 10 years later, it was like the New York Times discovered it,” said Philip Korman, CISA’s current executive director. Korman says his concerns about taking the organization’s reins in 2008 as the economy soured have been overcome by seeing a growth in memberships — now at 355 farms, restaurants and organizations around the three counties — as well as sale of local products.

“I was a little concerned, about whether people would still stay focused on buying locally when they might have a little less discretionary funds, was this going to be a fad that would ebb and disappear. But people are willing to learn some new skills, alter their shopping patterns and are wanting to get more connection with farmers. It’s helpful to have the national culture echo the message that we brought.”

Changing mind-set at UMass and the Region

The surprise, for some, has been also in the number of young farmers who have been attracted to the region as CISA has contributed to a change of the cultural mind-set.

“What I couldn’t have predicted was the number of young people bringing creativity to the marketplace,” said Gerber, citing enterprises like Valley Green Feast home delivery service and Many Hands Farm Corps internship training program for farm workers. “They’re doing things no one had thought of before. That’s what was exciting: Things (like CISA) have certainly changed the landscape that makes it more receptive to those kinds of experiments.”

In fact, Gerber said, the launch of a UMass degree program in sustainable agriculture — like a similar program launched last year at Greenfield Community College — is a direct result of a renewed interest young people have in farming.

“CISA helped provide a context for that,” Gerber said, “a visibility nationally that something’s happening here in the valley. UMass just happens to be sitting in a hotbed of sustainable agriculture. The excitement that CISA represents says, ‘Something’s going on here.’ I’m getting calls from North Carolina, from California, from Arizona from people who want to transfer to UMass. Partly, it’s the farming in the Valley, partly it’s CISA bringing visibility to all this. It’s really cool.”

Vicki Van Zee, an early director of the farming nonprofit, recalled that the median age of farmers 20 years ago was around 60 in the Pioneer Valley, and that has dropped dramatically.

“What’s completely a gleeful surprise is the amount of young folks who are as interested in farming as they are. They’re the ones leading the charge now, seeing this value of farming small, that you can make a living from farming with a couple of acres and much more relational marketing.”

It’s also a surprise, she noted, that UMass, which started out as an agricultural land-grant institution, has been able to make dramatic change and launch its new program in response to this trend.

If young farmers have been attracted to take some of the courses offered by CISA and other organizations in order to start farming, that’s because CISA has helped farmers gain a new respect, Maltby said.

“Why Massachusetts has been increasing the number of farmers whereas every other part of the country it’s dropping, is … there’s a level of respect. I remember a very poignant moment when Our Family Farms was asked to be in the Franklin County Fair parade, and (co-op member) Debbie Duprey was nearly in tears at the end of the parade because she said people came up to her and thanked her, and nobody had ever done that for her as a farmer.” The renewed success for farming in the Valley, in fact, has helped drive up competition for good farmland, Maltby said.

“There’s so much competition for good land,” said Valley Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard. “CISA’s raised the awareness of buying locally and that’s generated a bigger demand for that kind of product, which gets people more interested in farming, and they realize they might actually make a living doing it. As a result, we’re getting calls from people looking for farmland,” at the rate of one or two a week.

CISA — which also helped fill the role left by a diminished Cooperative Extension Service beginning in the late 1980s and the 1990s — has also helped farmers by offering an array of workshops about marketing, business practices and planning, and other technical skills for which a new generation of farmers may not have been trained, said Van Zee and others. And in recent years, it’s also helped examine issues that will affect the future of agriculture in the region, such as the need for processing and storage facilities and ways to comply with new federal food safety regulations — while also advocating that those regulations need to take into account small farm operations.

As it marks its 20th anniversary, Korman says, CISA will be pushing to play more of a role in Hampden County, where about half the population says in a 2012 marketing survey that they recognize the “local hero” campaign, but the organization will face challenges of dealing with a more urban population further removed from farms, with more cultural diversity as well as urban poverty.

To do that work, and while continuing programs like a disaster relief fund set up in the wake of devastating storm damage in the past two years, Korman said CISA will need more staff. It’s launched a $100,000 challenge fundraising campaign that will match, two-for-one, every dollar raised.

“CISA, along with its farmers, has changed the culture here locally,” Korman said. “More people care about local agriculture. The respect that farmers have always earned, but not always received, can be passed along. Now someone can be excited as a 25-yearold to be a farmer, and farmers can be respected by people who will look out for them.”

On the Web: http://www.buylocalfood.org

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