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Environment

Top 5 Sustainable Food Stories of the Year

It has been a great year for sustainable foodies -- here's the best of what has happened so far.

1. The White House Garden

Michelle, Sasha and Malia

Michelle, Sasha and Malia

Harkening back to FDR's Victory Garden, the Obama's made waves earlier this year when they decided to plant a garden on the White House grounds. This is one of the most heartening stories to emerge this year. It signals an understanding in the highest echelons of the Administration of the importance the food system has to the health of the country. And not just the physical health, but the health of our value system.

In one fell swoop, the President and First Lady Obama lent some of their cool factor to gardening. Lots of great reporting was done all over the blogosphere, but I'd personally like to reference Obama Foodorama's post on the topic. They are a great blog with some fantastic commentary and all the news you need regarding our President and anything to do with food, including some of the fantastic appointments he's made at the USDA. Go bookmark 'em now. The New York Times had this to say at the time:

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family's meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern.

"My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, "is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

2. Yardsharing and the Gardening Explosion

Whether its due to the recession, or to the fact that so many Americans are waking up to the fact that our food system is, well, screwed beyond belief, the fact is that this year saw an explosion in community gardening, yardsharing and urban farming. This is a great development that has real impact. The power of people growing, maintaining, harvesting and eventually cooking and eating produce that they themselves raised is incalculable. Gardening and yard sharing are not new ideas obviously, but the impact these ideas are having on the culture at large is exploding.  In "What is Yardsharing?" Hyperlocavore Liz McLellan defines yardsharing as such:

What is 'yardsharing'?

Yard sharing is an arrangement between people to share skills and gardening resources; space, time, strength, tools or skills, in order to grow food as locally as possible, to make neighborhoods resilient, kids healthy and food much cheaper!

Why would I want to set up a yardsharing group?

Yard sharing is a way to connect people who love to garden, people who love healthy fresh food and people who have yards! Often people who have yards have little time time for a vegetable garden. And sometimes gardeners have trouble finding soil to garden in because they rent an apartment! Sometimes older people lack stamina and are socially isolated, finding younger people to partner in growing food together works wonderfully for all. There are all kinds of reasons it makes sense.

Here is a great video of Liz explaining what yard sharing is, and how to get involved.

3. The Mainstream Media Finally Wakes Up

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Well it was bound to happen, but the mainstream media finally got around to checking in on America's broken food system, and lo and behold, they've actually done some pretty decent reporting on the issue. The Time Magazine cover, and the accompanying article by Bryan Walsh, mark a watershed moment for American food. Here is a short bit from the article, but really you should read the whole thing:

So what's wrong with cheap food and cheap meat — especially in a world in which more than 1 billion people go hungry? A lot. For one thing, not all food is equally inexpensive; fruits and vegetables don't receive the same price supports as grains. A study in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it's no surprise we're so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.

4. The Dairy Crisis and Swine Flu

As if we needed yet another crisis in our country to illuminate how incredibly far we are from a sane food system that honors the hard working farmers of America, the collapse in wholesale milk prices is threatening to permanently change the face of the dairy business forever. Prices for wholesale milk have dropped 40 percent, more in some cases, and the farmers most likely to suffer are the independent family dairies. Because of ridiculous government regulation of the dairy business, rules requiring pasteurization and homogenization and prohibitions on the selling of raw milk, the dairy market has been completely distorted. It actually may be one of the most captive markets. Reminds one of the Soviet Union as we've quickly approached the level of bureaucratic inanity of the U.S.S.R.. Check out this great article by Dave Murphy over at Civil Eats:

The assault on rural America continues unabated. For the past six months dairy farmers across the country have suffered a historic drop in milk prices while operating costs remain high. Since December 2008, the price that farmers are paid for the milk they produce has plunged over 50 percent, the largest single drop since the Great Depression.

While organic dairy farmers have faced a decrease in overall sales due to the recent world financial meltdown and tight budgets on the home front as a result, the current drop in milk prices is impacting mainly conventional and small to mid-size family dairy farmers — the worst crisis most dairy farmers have faced in their entire careers.

The emergence of Swine Flu earlier this year was yet another reminder, along with recurring meat recalls throughout the year, that the American, and international, industrialized meat business contains within its very core, the ability to sicken and kill a great very many of us. Tom Philpott, continuing his amazing journalistic efforts at Grist, came in with this nugget:

The outbreak of a new flu strain—a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses—has infected 1,000 people in Mexico and the U.S., killing 68. The World Health Organization warned Saturday that the outbreak could reach global pandemic levels.

Is Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork packer and hog producer, linked to the outbreak? Smithfield operates massive hog-raising operations Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated.

5. Food Inc. Fresh,Social Media, and Pro Food

The overwhelming success of Food Inc. is another great story for the local sustainable world, as it put the ideas and hard work of journalists like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, and farmers like Joel Salatin, into a format that Americans can digest. And digest they did. Ana Sofia Jones' film Fresh easily set the stage for Food Inc. by warming up the local sustainable movement. With these two films, the movement has officially entered the media conversation. Expect more good work, maybe even a television show or two, ;)

A lot of the work done by Ana Sofia and other advocates this year has been done using the tools of Social Media, namely, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The local sustainable food movement has more fully embraced the social media instruments our culture has created than any other industry I can think of, save technology. Bloggers, advocates, journalists, filmmakers, farmers, artisans, cheesemakers, winemakers and everyone else involved between the farm and the table has embraced social media as a democratizing medium. It is now common to see representatives from all of the above professions conversing with each other, branching out, making connections, helping each other out, commenting on each others Facebook pages and

Fitting right in with this trend was the emergence earlier this summer of #ProFood, a simple term that grew out of an online discussion on Twitter. As humble as those beginnings were, ProFood has galvanized hundred, if not thousands, of people and businesses to inculcate and embrace a set of ideas and ideals about our broken American food system. Obviously as one of the intellectual founders and leaders of Pro Food, I am biased in selecting Pro Food as one of the more important stories to occur in the local sustainable space. But from my perspective, the fact that Pro Food grew organically (no pun intended) from a transparent conversation into the makings of a movement says a lot about what our culture is capable of. Embracing the tools of social media, this term Pro Food, has quickly become the pace setter in the local sustainable food movement online, particularly in regards to the entrepreneurial, small-scale, local activities of hundreds of people and businesses. Can't wait to see what Pro Food and similar movements begin to create in the weeks and months ahead. Here is a quick primer on Pro Food that I wrote. And for the original post on Pro Food by Rob Smart, check this out:

Zachary Adam Cohen is the creator of Farm to Table: The Emerging American Meal, a reality-TV show chronicling the people, places and trends in the local sustainable food renaissance. He blogs at Farm to Table, Huffington Post, and on Twitter @ZacharyCohen.
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