How Good is Good Enough?
Farmers’ Market intern Sadie Weinberger ‘14 on the challenges presented by trying to figure out how to eat ethically:
I became a vegan at the start of the academic year, at the same time I moved into my off-campus house. I’d been feeling it out over the summer—I filled the refrigerator with Earth Balance and soymilk and popsicles galore—but living with a certain steadfastly omnivorous roommate made commitment a little difficult. Now, for the first time in my life, I am responsible for everything I put into my body, and it causes the sort of crisis that so often accompanies freedom of choice: how good is good enough?
I am vegan because I object to the practices by which the majority of animal products are produced in this country, mostly for environmental reasons. I have no moral objection to the consumption of animal products like dairy and eggs, but I find it easier to commit to the whole lifestyle rather than to try to pick and choose which sources I trust.
But my convictions on the matter of the environment create problems like, am I still allowed to eat Oreos? Oreos are technically vegan, and they are undeniably delicious, but their production also has a negative effect on the environment. So does the fact that I buy my vegetables at the farmer’s market and refrain from eating cheese really make my contribution any greater than anyone else’s?
And problems like, don’t I have an obligation to support farmers who provide alternatives to factory farming? It is somewhat unrealistic to expect that a significant percent of the population will be going vegan anytime soon, and in the meantime, most people will continue to consume animal products produced by factory farming. By refraining from eating any animal products, am I also hurting farmers that use humane and sustainable practices?
I don’t have good answers to these questions; if I did, I’d write a New York Times bestseller and move to Bora Bora. Even though I find myself in the privileged position to be able to make these kinds of choices, it is neither simple nor easy to determine which issues take precedence and which get sacrificed. But I think the important thing is that we keep trying. My ideal diet is all local, organic, sustainable, [insert buzzword here]. Do I live up to that ideal? Of course I don’t. I’m busy, I don’t have the money, etc. But maybe next time I go shopping, I’ll skip out on the Oreos.
Farm Intern Nace Cohen ‘14 on the costs—both explicit and hidden—of the modern food system:
There is an economics term, externality, which means that part of the cost of a product is not passed on directly to the consumer. This cost is still inherent to the product, and because the consumer doesn’t pay it in dollars it often ends up being paid out in other ways by society as a whole. An example of a product with an external cost is gasoline. In addition to the price paid at the pump, Americans pay for an oversized military with bases throughout the Middle East, oil spills in the gulf, pollution, and climate change.
One of the major problems with our food system is that there are too many externalities in the food that we buy. Americans spend less than the members of any other nation on their food— less than 6% of their income, according to the USDA. The next closest country, the UK, spends 9% of their income. This could be hailed as a great success of industrial food production, and an affordable food supply is not a bad thing— in fact quite the opposite. However, while we may directly spend less than other countries on food, if you factor in externalities this isn’t the case. By demanding that our food be cheap before anything else, we are getting food that is making us sick: more than one seventh of the US GDP is spent treating diet related diseases, according to the New York Times. By ignoring the harmful production of our food, our food system is destroying our environment: there was a 9,400-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 due to agricultural runoff, according to Science Daily.
These are costs that aren’t being paid in the grocery store, and certainly aren’t being footed by the corporations producing food for our industrial system, so who is picking up the bill? The answer, sadly, is us. The consumer is not simply paying the healthcare costs upfront, with his or her own body: the dramatic increase in diet-related diseases, many of them chronic, has lead to an increase in healthcare costs across the board. The costs to the environment are such that we haven’t yet started to pay for the damage that has been done, but oceanic dead zones, soil depletion, climate change, and other adverse effects of farming are real, and society will end up paying for them one way or another.
So how should these costs be assessed and covered? I believe that the people who should be responsible for paying for the externalities of the food system should be those who benefit from the system, the producers. Anybody who has taken basic economics will tell you that this will lead to an increase in the cost of the product. Increasing the cost of food is a complicated issue because everybody has a right to life, and therefore to affordable food. However, this right does not need to be ensured by ignoring the external costs of the food system. How do I believe this should be done? I believe that food producers should be ranked by an independent party on how their food production effects the environment, and that food processing companies should be ranked on how damaging their products are to consumers’ health. Based on the rank and the scale of operation these companies should be fined accordingly.
What does not matter is the solution that we agree upon, what matters is that we agree upon a solution. The food system that we live in is endangering our health and our environment, and the government has yet to admit that it is a problem. This is not a problem the market will fix, if we want to live in a safe healthy society it is something that we will have to change.
Embracing the Delicious Unnecessary: Making Corn Tortillas at Home
Erin Vanderhoof ‘12, Special Projects intern, explores one of the favorite foodstuffs of her native New Mexico:
During my time at the YSFP, I’ve become interested in rediscovering lost foodways and trying to make an event out of something I usually only buy at the store. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and making tortillas is something of a native New Mexican tradition. I learned how to make them in elementary school, but had since forgotten how. I found a simple recipe online, and with a lot of experimentation made some pretty delicious tortillas that we used to make green chile enchiladas. The ingredient list might look simple, but this is probably one of the most complex tasks that I’ve undertaken in my kitchen. That being said, there are a lot of ways to make a good tortilla, so I encourage you to try it out.
2 cups of masa harina (I used Goya brand that I found at Stop and Shop in New Haven, you can probably find it at any grocery store)
1 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cup boiling water (I boiled the water in my electric tea kettle)
2-4 tablespoons of oil
1) Combine the masa harina and salt in a large bowl, and mix so that the salt is distributed evenly throughout.
2) Add the boiling water to the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture looks like cooked cereal and has the consistency of polenta.
3) It’s time to form the tortillas (I think this is the hardest part). Get a bowl and fill it with lukewarm water. Dip your hands in the water every time you touch the cornmeal. Roll a hunk of the cornmeal into a ball the size of a golf ball. Place the ball between two sheets of waxed paper and flatten it with your hands. They should be about a ¼ of an inch thick. Don’t make them too thin or else they’ll stick to the waxed paper.
4) In a cast-skillet (if you have one, or a non-stick frying pan if you don’t), heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Fry the tortillas one at a time, flipping them after about a minute, when the tortilla holds together and has black flecks on a side.
I layered the tortillas with cheese and green chile sauce because to make enchiladas because they’re too fragile to fold. It might seem kind of silly to make something that is so readily available at the grocery store, but I swear these tortillas are better — not only because they taste like elbow grease.
Tasting the Weeding
Adam Goff ‘15, one of our Farm interns, on how to build an appetite:
Our menu on the trail was sparse. The eight of us on the summer trail-crew were building mountain bike trails in Vermont and had set up camp down the stream and up the logging road from the work site. Our kitchen was the compressed ground beneath a strung-up blue tarp. In it we kept a propane stove, four coolers, and fifteen buckets. The coolers and buckets held the food and utensils and doubled as counter space.
Breakfast was oatmeal, brown sugar and raisins. Lunch was peanut butter and jelly and an apple. We took two trail mix work breaks each day to eat a half-a-cup worth of raisins, peanuts, almonds and chocolate chips. Our dinner was varying combinations of rice, beans, cheese, pasta, onions, and canned tomatoes. I learned to use hot sauce. And I ate one of my tastiest meals: ‘trail pizza’, pan-fried flour tortillas with tomato sauce and cheese in the middle.
I also found that the pairing of two peanuts and two raisins was fantastic, the crunchy and squishy melded beautifully. So was two almonds and three chocolate chips. The key ingredient was an hour of sledge-hammering rock into gravel and an afternoon of shoveling. Working does more than make me want food more and hunger for more food. Mud and sweat and calluses create tastier food. I guess that boring dining hall dinner is partly my fault. Reading and writing does not bring out the taste in peanut butter or pizza or pasta.
At the Yale Farm, we eat pizza every Friday, better pizza than I get from blue-tarp kitchens or dining halls. There’s a brick oven to cook the ricotta and sage and eggplant; each slice has lots of taste. And for me part of that incredible flavor comes from the workday that comes before the pizza. Weeding the beets tastes delicious.
WorkWork and TalkTalk
Brendan Bashin-Sullivan ‘15, a Farm intern, reflects on the ways that learning and doing inform one another, on and off the Farm:
Call me rootless, or whatever, but even when I’m fingers deep in this good ground of ours, I find myself wishing I was other places. Not in the sense of “Oh, this is unbearable, oh to be in (place)”. Only in the sense of “I heard about this cool scene about to go down (across state lines)(in another country)(among people whose food-and-work realities outstrip my wildest dreams) and I wish I was headed there.” This week, it was the Prairie Festival in Salina, KS, which I first read about here.
The Prairie festival stands out to me as a culmination of something I’ve been thinking about since Mitchell Davis’ talk as part of the YSFP’s Chewing the Fat speaker series a couple of weeks ago. Over dinner, he mentioned a kind of symbiotic relationship between food and food writing. The way I understood him is this: On one hand you have food, and the making of food, and the taste of food, and the enjoyment of food, as very intimate and private aesthetic experiences, almost hidden experiences. You have the word-of-mouth tricks for cooking that pass from generation to generation, you have old family recipes that aren’t even necessarily written down, you have the intuition and experimentation of years and years of cooking every day. On the other hand you have “food writing” as a counterpoint. This includes written records and publications of cooking techniques— cookbooks, “correct” or “standard” cooking methods, and the dubious art of food criticism, where you attempt to describe what something tastes like to people who have never tasted it, and then make judgments as to whether it is good or not.
By now you’ve probably seen the New York Times’ controversial summation of a Stanford study on the nutritional content of organic food, headlined “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” For those of us who are organic advocates it’s an incredibly frustrating claim, misunderstanding many of the most crucial reasons that we try to eschew pesticides and herbicides in the food we grow and eat.
Time and again, studies have shown that conventional, chemical agriculture contributes to climate change, worsening storms and droughts even as it strips soils and ecosystems of their diversity and resilience, making them less able to self-regulate and, eventually, correct. A system that makes processed corn product cheaper cattle feed than corn itself (never mind the grasses that comprise their natural diet) seem self-evidently broken. An organic strawberry with no more vitamins than its chemically farmed counterpart is still worlds better for the environment, and likely for the people who grew it, who are exposed in the field to sprays of neurotoxic pesticide levels high above the acceptable residue eventually tested.
Then there is the economic aspect: the fact that organic farms are often small-scale and local, strengthening civic economies and creating robust regional foodsheds, supporting a variety of small businesses. The conditions for laborers on large chemical farms are famously inhumane, with some legitimately qualifying as enslavement. The rise of an alternative food system has encouraged some former farmworkers to start their own farms, transforming them from underpaid, undervalued field hands to business-owning entrepreneurs.
But none of that makes for a pithy headline, or fodder for angry debate. One of the greatest strengths of the sustainable food movement is that it isn’t a catchy phrase or quote, or a simple answer to anything. This means that the media will continue to get it wrong— but that, as long we keep reading and thinking critically— we are bound to be closer to getting it right.