Originally published at Ecocentric. As children, my brothers and I enjoyed a level of freedom that might make a modern parent gasp, and sometimes we exercised that freedom in the kitchen, where we fed one another weird concoctions that tended toward the un-healthy: spoons full of sugar mixed with water to make our specialty, ‘shwater,’ whole bouillon cubes added to already salty ramen, you get the picture. The only time I ever refused to sample my brothers’ culinary creations was when asked to close my eyes during its preparation. I may have been a child, and one with a sense of humor, but I wasn’t an idiot. So, proposed legislation in three states – Iowa, Minnesota and Florida – that would criminalize the filming, photography or audio recording of farms (the general assumption seems to be that the bills are meant to protect CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations, also referred to as factory farms –  but could apply to any farm of any nature) raised a major red flag to me, and to others who follow and write about such issues. People you’d expect to raise a protest, like Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle and Animal Welfare Approved director Andrew Guenther have done so, but mainstream media, especially the New York Times, has also done a great job, with this pointed op-ed and Mark Bittman’s excellent “Who Protects the Animals?” (in which he coins the phrase “ag-gag”). But Slow Food USA took it one further this week, unveiling a clever “Farmarazzi” campaign, asking folks to sign a petition against the Ag Gag rules and exercise their rights to free speech by uploading photos of farms that are “ready for their close-ups” to the SFUSA Facebook page. Interestingly,the packaging of most CAFO products (meat, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese – the brands you can buy at any supermarket) bear images of the idyllic pastoral settings you might find perusing the Farmarazzi photos, but that is not what the vast majority of modern livestock production looks like. I should know – I brought my camera when I visited one, so the ‘ag-gag’ rules also troubled me because under them, I realized, a pair of videos — one shot at a CAFO in Iowa, the other, at a more sustainable, pasture-based hog farm — I produced last year could have landed me in hot water. In the post accompanying the videos, I joined the ranks of luminaries Michael Pollen and livestock expert Temple Grandin in calling for increased transparency in the meat industry. Just on principle, the secrecy surrounding meat production is enough to lead one to eye her hamburger suspiciously. The things we do know about industrial-scale meat production – that enormous quantities of animal waste inevitably cause environmental damage and public health problems, and that overuse (especially nontherapeutic use) of antibiotics leaves the public at risk of contracting drug-resistant strains like MRSA – are bad enough. What horrors could lie behind the shroud of secrecy? The simple trust I extended to my siblings is not unlike the average consumer’s trust in the modern food system. Though some may murmur about yucky practices in food production, for the most part, we eat up. We also place trust in lawmakers and government agencies. Surely the threat of punishment keeps the food producers honest. Right? Maaaaaybe. Unfortunately, the cozy relationship between the government (agencies and lawmakers both) and Big Meat is no big secret. In fact, as Grist’s Tom Laskaway points out, one of the authors of the Minnesota bill, Representative Rod Hamilton, is also the Communications Director for Christensen Family Farms, the nation’s third largest pork producer. And so, where the third party fails to protect, often, we rely on a fourth party to step in – investigative journalists or increasingly, nonprofit consumer (or in this case, sometimes, animal) advocates. Consider the Humane Society’s gruesome 2008 “downer cow” videos, which brought to light inhumane practices used to prod cows too sick to walk toward the kill room floor.  Outrage boiled over when it came out that the slaughterhouse in question was the second-largest supplier to the nation’s School Lunch Program and in the end, the facility was shut down and the then-fresh Obama USDA closed the downer-cow loophole. Although their work may be hard to look at, videographers and other documentarians – and those who would distribute their work – perform an important service to society, one that helps keep us safe, and legislation aimed toward vilifying their efforts can only be perceived as thinly veiled attempts to hide the truth by misdirecting public scrutiny. The blame for inhumane and dirty practices lie with the producers who allow them to occur and the lawmakers and government agencies who give them pass after pass for behavior that sickens consumers, both literally and figuratively. The old adage that legislation and sausage-making are two processes most people would rather not observe close-up may sometimes hold true, but sometimes, we have to hold our noses and take a good hard look at what’s going on. For the record, the eight-year old girl who refused to taste her brothers’ secret concoctions probably wouldn’t have wanted to peer into a CAFO, but she wouldn’t have trusted someone who refused to let her look.
Originally published on The Green Fork. A while back, a friend posted on his Facebook profile that he was excited to embark on his yearly attempt to outshine his suburban neighbors with the lushness of his lawn. I pictured my friend pouring resources, including time, into the project. I think he's one of those guys who enjoys mowing the lawn, although he's a very social person and it tends to be a solitary act. I thought too about the amount of chemicals and drinkable water he would squander in the name of a little neighborhood rivalry, and I could have cried for the weirdness of it all. Clarence Ridgley of suburban Baltimore was once a competitive lawn tender, too, but in 2008, he decided to raise the neighborhood stakes by planting an edible landscape in his front yard. He went to the Web in search of plants that would do well in his region and stumbled upon the call put out that day by Los Angeles-based artist Fritz Haeg, for his Edible Estates project. Haeg had been commissioned by Baltimore's Contemporary Museum to come to town and organize the installation of a front yard edible garden and document the whole thing, in writing, photos and videos, to be displayed as part of an exhibit called Cottage Industries. Clarence applied and was the chosen beneficiary of the project. Here's how it went down: Clarence and Fritz conferred over what types of foods the Ridgleys would like to grow (and eat), Fritz planned the garden and organized the volunteers, then executed the documentation with the help of photographer Leslie Furlong. Haeg acts as kind of a garden party organizer, if you will: he blows into town, gets it going and then leaves. "I just kind of make these gardens happen then disappear. I want the families to feel like they're their gardens, not my gardens." I caught wind of Edible Estates through my boyfriend at the time (artist Jaimes Mayhew), and we were excited to volunteer together on a project that touched on both of our interests. So we signed up and went out to the Ridgleys' house one Saturday in April two years ago, along with a few dozen other people. I wrote about it for the now sadly defunct magazine, Edible Chesapeake. Haeg wrote about it too, but not in the first edition of his book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, which came out right around the time we helped plant the Ridgleys' garden. The first book was about the gardens he'd helped make happen up until that point (the Baltimore installation was the sixth) and featured essays from Michael Pollan and Rosalind Creasy. It was a great book, and I had no idea he was even doing a second version until I got a galley in the mail a month or two ago. Upon pulling the book from the padded envelope it arrived in, I noticed a familiar sight on the cover -- the Ridgley's garden -- and I was transported back to that day in Baltimore, filled with pride again at how much we'd accomplished, and how quickly. I was glad for the Ridgleys, whose lives had become more healthful and more interesting for having broken from the "greenest lawn contest" tradition. Haeg is no Roger Doiron, and the book is not designed as a how-to, though you will find valuable info within; rather, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn is a collection of stories about what happens when people are brave enough to break from that tradition, and smart enough to question the idea that we should separate ourselves from our neighbors with squares of resource-intensive, mind numbingly uniform green space. I was also excited to see that the new edition includes an essay by the prodigious Will Allen, founder of Growing Power and far and away my favorite of the sustainable food movement's leaders. Allen's essay takes Edible Estates to another level, in fact aims to take the "sustainable food movement" itself to another level, suggesting that movement (or whatever we're calling it these days) is more aptly called a revolution. Let that sink in for a moment. As the mainstream media grows ever more pop and shallow, with the likes of Glen Beck targeting public officials and bashing programs like Meatless Monday as indoctrination of our nation's youth, tossing out words like revolution is no small potatoes, but Allen is easy to get behind -- those who've heard him speak will attest to his easy manner and compelling style -- and inspires the reader to believe that the revolution, even if not all of it's being televised, is here all the same. Of course, he's right. Gardens are growing like weeds, a fact that has been attributed by some to our flagging economy, but is also one of the most hopeful things a person can do and, in many circles, one of the coolest. I talked to Fritz the other night, and he mentioned the enthusiasm young people bring to the task and that he thought some of their enjoyment comes from ripping up the lawns, mistakes of past generations, and replacing them with something better. "The project is very much an earnest, straightforward, pragmatic attempt to see what happens when people grow food at home," says Fritz. " But also, for me, removing the lawn and planting food is an equally powerful symbolic act, taking the icon of the antiquated, outdated fantasy of what America is and replacing it with a new kind of fantasy of what America could be. For me, the lawn symbolizes a whole kind of value system that doesn't make sense anymore and a productive garden in front of your house symbolizes another set of values ." Why ever we're doing it, it's not all fun and games, as anyone who has ever put in a full day (or a full season) of gardening can attest. But many hands make for lighter work, and this, to me, was the neatest thing about Edible Estates. It was unbelievable how quickly the Ridgleys' yard was transformed. In fact, the three-day event was shortened to two when we finished the planting early that Saturday, and those who'd signed up for the Sunday shift missed their chance to get their hands dirty. I remember that day feeling like I was at an old-fashioned barn raising, and imagining how many lawns could be replaced if we could just get organized. Of course, Fritz Haeg isn't the only person helping plant the seeds of lawn replacement or cooperative gardening, or farming, for that matter. The New York Times ran a great piece in February called Field Report: Plow Shares about North Carolina's Crop Mobs, which bring dozens of wannabe agrarians -- and their energy -- to working farms, often accomplishing in one day feats that would have taken the regular crew months. For those who would prefer a more lasting involvement, possibly with an edible payoff, Hyperlocavore is a sort of match-making site for "yard-sharing," and of course, many towns have community gardens that you can get involved with. Here in New York, spring has sprung, just this week, but it's not too late to get started on some edible landscaping of your own! Even a few tomato plants or some potted herbs can spruce up your window or fire escape and you'll thank yourself when you're making homegrown salsa later this summer. Or, find someone with a garden to help out on -- no doubt you'll reap the rewards there as well. Fritz Haeg is appearing in NYC tonight, along with Will Allen, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Annie Novak, co-founder of Brooklyn's Rooftop Farms. The event is sold out, but you can stream it live at 7pm at The Green Space.
Originally published on The Green Fork. Today, Civil Eats editor Paula Crossfield sent word that Food, Inc. has officially earned itself an Oscar nomination. This is no major surprise -- it's an amazing film that caught fire upon release and is still burning bright, having caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who parlayed her recent interview with Michael Pollan into a whole little food section on Oprah.com. Having spent the last several years following the issues outlined in the film, I did not expect to be surprised by much that it covered and I wasn't, but as I was caught off guard by my emotional response to it. Food, Inc. basically left me crying like a baby for the people -- farmers and consumers alike -- who've been hurt by our food system. That said, if you eat food and haven't seen this film yet, you should. While you're at it, there are more great food documentaries out there with which to feed your head. A few years ago, I curated a "Shortlist" of food films for Art's Engine, the group that runs the Media That Matters Film Festival, so I'll not revisit the ones I mentioned there, except to say that The Real Dirt on Farmer John is still one of my favorite movies of all time. Here's a few fresher cinematic tidbits that I've eaten up since: Fresh A touch more positive and less polished than Food, Inc, Fresh too has made some waves this year. Homegrown This snapshot of a (relatively) traditional family operating an urban homestead in Pasadena, California shatters the notion that urban farming is for hippies or their more contemporary counterparts, hipsters. Homegrown documents the story of the Dervaes family, who grow (literally) tons of produce on less than a quarter of an acre, and operate a website where they share their journey. I interviewed director Robert McFalls at last year's Maryland Film Festival, check out the video below. Julie and Julia Much more mainstream and less political than any of the others mentioned here, Julie & Julia was great because it inspired people to get back into the kitchen. Also, Meryl Streep (who also earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Julia Child) virtually channeled the giant of French cooking, forcing the viewer to at once fall in love with her and share her pure love for good food. The Future of Food An oldie but goodie, The Future of Food lays out information on industrial food technology, food policies and consumer issues. Living a Nightmare Not for the faint of heart, Living a Nightmare offers a rare glimpse into the state of intensive animal livestock production in Michigan. Watch and weep and prepare to go vegan until you manage to wipe your mental hard drive clean of this one. I would be remiss if I didn't mention two very exciting film projects that are still in the works -- The Greenhorns and The Queer Farmer Project. I saw a rough ten minute cut of the latter a few weeks ago here in Brooklyn, and it was heartfelt and inspiring and brought a fresh and unique perspective to food politics and the nature of growing food. The former, I hear, is nearing the last stages of post production and I can't wait to see the final cut. One film you won't see in a theater anytime soon is Pig Business, which last I heard, had been all but shut down from public screenings by pressure from the pork industry, but you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube. Speaking of YouTube, if your appetite (and budget) is relatively small, you can find tons of free aperitifs right here on the old Internet. A few of my favorite sites for foodie videos are Cooking Up a Story and The Dairy Show. My colleagues at the GRACE Foundation, Karen Correa and Dulce Fernandes, have also produced a number of great film shorts. That should be enough to tide you over until The Greenhorns makes its debut. Congratulations to everyone who was involved in Food, Inc, thanks to all who document the stories behind the food we eat, and bon appetite!