Monthly Archives: August 2014

Stargazing

I was a bit disappointed to learn, my first summer back in a place without light pollution, that August’s Perseid meteor shower was going to be washed out by a full moon. The other night, I received a consolation prize.

I had finished my homework and was about to go to bed, when I realized it was pitch black outside. And relatively warm. I poured myself a nightcap, put on a sweatshirt, turned off the lights in the house, and carefully made my way down the steps to the backyard with Pendleton the dog.

It took a while for my vision to adjust. I closed my eyes for a minute to coax my pupils to dilate wide enough to take in the pinpoints. At first I saw only a few, then a few more, then ten times more, then twenty times more. After fifteen minutes or so, the Milky Way was fully visible, stretching across the sky toward Ruby Peak.

It’s all about waiting for the stars to come to you. I even caught a few shooting stars, perhaps remnants of the Perseids. I had to stand in a place that my vision wasn’t blocked overhead by the apple trees in our yard. What I should have done was walk out into the field, but I didn’t want Pendleton to rustle up any deer that were undoubtedly bedded down out there.

Mike and I were recently in Portland, visiting friends. Our friends’ kid was showing Mike her new bedroom furniture, and he pointed out that, from her bed, she could look out the window at the stars. She gave him a blank look. He remembered that you can only see a few stars in the city; not anything to impress a nine-year-old.

Standing in my yard, I was reminded of getting up at 4 in the morning every night last winter to let the puppies outside. In January, I regularly heard the Great horned owls conversing. Now, I could hear cows yelling, sprinklers whooshing, grasshoppers singing, and Pendleton munching on windfall apples.

I wished I could bring my friends’ kid out to our yard, so she would understand what Mike was talking about.

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Join Me in Conversation About Food

Oregon Humanities is one of the nation’s most innovative humanities councils, welcoming discussion rather than lectures. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have been accepted into their Conversation Project roster. My new program is called “Good Food, Bad Food: Agriculture, Ethics, and Personal Choice.” I hope you’ll join me in the conversation!

A slide from my PowerPoint: Conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there--someone who helps grow food who is on food stamps

A slide from my PowerPoint conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there–a person who helps grow food who is on food stamps

How can you do that? The process is a little chicken-and-egg at first—an organization must contact me directly (kristy @ kristyathens.com) to talk about potential dates, and then apply to Oregon Humanities. However, if it doesn’t work out with them, or if the event is a fundraiser, for a private group, or some other qualifier that makes OH unable to sponsor it, they encourage CP leaders to make private arrangements. So you people in Hawai`i, please feel free to fly me out! January is open.

You can hear a little more about my topic in this video.

And view the entire catalogue here.

We’ll talk about the power of food in our personal and cultural mythologies, and how that correlates with our purchases. But exactly what we talk about will be up to you! I hope your library or other civic organization will invite me to visit! I’m looking forward to it.

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Honey, I Canned the Peaches

Whenever I engage in domesticities such as canning, I refer to my bible, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. As I’ve noted in this blog, most recently when I canned apricots, I love its author, Carla Emery. And sometimes, love means you can tell someone to go jump in a lake.

I’m not someone who particularly enjoys process. So, just like e.e. cummings talked about the joy of “having written,” when I talk about the joy of canning peaches I am talking about the joy of having canned peaches. The act itself involves anxiety, minor burns, and swearing. I work really hard not to cut myself.

I put in an order with a local farmer for peaches a month or so ago, and they were finally ready on Thursday. I picked up my lug, and yesterday loaded my dishwasher with jars and set everything up: vat of boiling water, cutting board, steam canner. I consulted The Encyclopedia of Country Living, which had Carla’s instructions as well as my notes from past years about how many jars I’d used.

Canning prep

Canning prep

Carla wrote: “If you’re slow you can drop the fruit into water containing 2 T. each salt and vinegar per gallon water to prevent darkening. But I just work fast.” I filled another vat with water.

I was careful to buy freestone peaches so I wouldn’t have to deal with the stones sticking into the fruit. However, the peaches were just slightly underripe. Unlike Carla, who was a full-time back-to-the-land homemaker and could can her peaches at the exact right time, I have a schedule, and that schedule allowed me to can on Saturday. Not Wednesday, when the peaches would have been ready. By next week, they’d be too far gone. Now or never.

The result was that only a few of them separated the way they were supposed to. Mostly, I had to cut around the stone, which had stuck in one of the two halves, and then dig it out with a spoon. Even though I doused the peaches in boiling water, the skins only sort-of peeled off. Mostly I had to peel them with a paring knife. This was fussy.

“I just work fast,” Carla said. Go jump in a lake, Carla.

It was a good thing I had prepared the vinegar-salt water.

But, as with any problem, if you keep working at it you’ll eventually lick it. And I did. And my February-self will thank me!

See, that wasn't so bad! Now, go ice those burns

See, that wasn’t so bad! Now, go ice those burns

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Go to Farm School

Back in the day, a person learned how to farm by osmosis: they’d been doing chores since they could walk. But then mid-20th-century agriculture policies caused farmers to hit hard times; many of them actually encouraged their children to pursue other careers. The ones who stayed took up industrial farming. A couple generations later, young adults are renewing their interest in small farms but have no personal background to lean on. Most university-level ag programs are geared toward the children of industrial farms. Who is passing on the knowledge of family-sized farming?

Ten years ago, almost no one was. But things have changed—quickly. Oregon State University has launched a Small Farms program. Rogue Farm Corps, a farming internship program, is expanding from southern Oregon into Portland and Bend. Friends of Family Farmers has a Next Generation campaign. All of them, and others, are working to replenish the supply of farmers that is aging out of the industry.

Last September, on a whim, I went to an all-day “Small Farm School” workshop. It is run by the OSU program on the Clackamas Community College campus. There were a number of courses to choose from. Since I already know how to garden, I chose “On-Farm Veterinary Care,” “Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping Basics,” and “Invasive and Perennial Weeds.” You can see this year’s options and register on their website. Here are some pictures!

We learned about giving vaccinations

We learned about giving vaccinations

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We learned about hoof care

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We learned about pasture (this stick shows how tall your grass should be)

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We learned about bees and colony collapse disorder

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We learned about noxious weeds and how to combat them (I should have paid more attention when he talked about cheatgrass)

I had a great time and learned a lot. If you’re considering a career—or even a hobby—in farming, I recommend this workshop as a fairly inexpensive way to see how you like it!

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New Icon, Same Game: “MyPlate” and Industry Interference

I’m taking summer courses—crazy, I know—because they were too good to pass up. I just finished a great class called “Food Policy and Law,” and here is one of my papers for it. I have a question for you: Both my husband and I distinctly remember getting a worksheet with the food pyramid in elementary school, i.e. the late 1970s. But according to my research this is impossible, as it didn’t get published until the 1990s. Does anyone else remember the food pyramid from earlier than that?

United States dietary policy is communicated via a publication entitled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which is updated every five years (most recently in 2010). The purpose of the document is: “to be used in developing educational materials and aiding policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs, including Federal nutrition assistance and education programs. The Dietary Guidelines also serve as the basis for nutrition messages and consumer materials developed by nutrition educators and health professionals for the general public and specific audiences, such as children” (USDA and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2010, p. i).

This explanation is rather practical, compared with the loftier purpose stated in the introduction of the report itself: “The ultimate goal of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations by facilitating and promoting healthy eating and physical activity choices so that these behaviors become the norm among all individuals” (ibid., p. 1). This goal engages the culture of the United States, as well as its eating habits.

To make the guidelines more palatable to the general public, the USDA has issued a number of graphic pamphlets over the years. Their titles illustrate the culture of the time, such as “Food for Fitness” in the mid-1900s, when cars and household machines made leisure time (and, therefore, a sedentary lifestyle) a possibility for the middle class for the first time, and the “Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide” in 1979, when women began entering the workforce while still being expected to run the household (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2011). Starting in 1992 the department made the illustration more cartoon-like, ostensibly in the service of their above-noted goal of appealing to children: first a pyramid and now a brightly colored plate.

Food for Fitness guide

Food for Fitness guide

MyPlate

MyPlate

The Food Pyramid, its fin de siècle tart-up MyPyramid, and most recent MyPlate schemes have many things in common, but some important differences. None of them reveals an invisible major player in how their guidelines were created: agriculture lobby organizations.

Effectiveness

The USDA Food and Nutrition Services is successful at the first goal stated above (developing educational materials and aiding policymakers), partly because their programs, such as The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are required to base their guidelines and practices on the federal dietary guidelines. WIC is the most prescriptive of the programs, indicating exactly what the shopper may purchase. NSLP provides a participating school reimbursement for meals served, rather than supplying ingredients, with the exception of “bonus” foods, which are agricultural surpluses (USDA, 2013). SNAP is the least prescriptive, with individual recipients using a charge-card-type device with the cashier of a grocery store. While a few purchases are forbidden (tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, non-food items), the recipient has freedom of choice over brand, size, etc. (Fitzgerald et al., 2012).

The government’s effectiveness regarding its second, “ultimate” goal (to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations) is abysmal. The Trust for America’s Health reports that adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15 to 30 percent, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled (n.d.). In an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service program Frontline, Dr. Walter Willet noted the disastrous effect of the country’s well-meaning nutritionists encouraging people in the 1970s and ‘80s to abandon butter (saturated fat) for margarine and shortening (hydrogenated or “trans” fat), causing heart disease and other health problems.

“[The Food Pyramid] is really not compatible with good scientific evidence, and it was really out of date from the day it was printed in 1991, because we knew, and we’ve known for 30 or 40 years that the type of fat is very important. That was totally neglected (emphasis mine)” (Willett, 2004).

Additionally, the federal government has lagged in considering culturally appropriate foods and non-carnivorous diets, and providing its information in languages other than English and Spanish (though some states have translated the materials, depending on the needs of their population). An organization called Oldways has attempted to fill this gap with its Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, African Heritage, and vegetarian/vegan pyramids (n.d.).

Harvard University’s School of Public Health has refuted the value of the new MyPlate design roundly, criticizing it for not mentioning healthy unsaturated fats (e.g. olive or canola oil), for not condemning openly sugary drinks including fruit juice, and for supporting dairy products and refined grains (2011). MyPlate has absolved itself of any real responsibility on its website: “MyPlate is designed to remind Americans to eat healthfully; it is not intended to change consumer behavior alone (emphasis in original)” (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2013).

Effects on Consumer Demand

In a general and surface-level way, Americans care about eating healthy food, or at least thinking about it. What matters, however, is when the fork hits the plate: Actual food choices are more relevant than intentions. What Americans understand about nutrition can affect their choices.

In this way, the inaccuracies of the Food Pyramid, and now MyPlate, can be devastating to the average consumer. People who think French fries are healthy because potatoes are listed as a vegetable, or that white dinner rolls are an appropriate grains serving, must know to look elsewhere to find better information (Green, n.d.).

There are a few possible reasons for the failure of the national nutrition standards to have resulted in worse, not better, health of the general populace. The main two are the success of marketing efforts for unhealthy food and beverage choices, and the flaws built into the Food Pyramid/MyPlate paradigm itself. The former is simply the result of a free market and consumer free will, which often results in unhealthful choices. The latter can be attributed to industry interference.

What is missing from the seemingly innocuous, even noble, goals of the USDA and HHS is the behind-the-scenes influence of agribusiness. This influence has affected what is in the dietary guidelines, and in the illustrated version of the guidelines, at least since Sen. George McGovern endeavored in 1977 to update the nation’s nutrition guidelines in light of new scientific findings—which recommended reductions in salt, meat, and sugar—and was soundly crushed by the American National Cattlemen’s Association, International Sugar Research Foundation, Salt Institute, United Egg Producers and numerous state egg councils, and National Live Stock and Meat Board, ultimately resulting in the complete corruption of the guidelines and the transfer of their purview from the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to what is now the USDA (Greger, 2013).

Because government-funded food-supplement programs like SNAP and WIC are significant sources of funds ($78 billion in 2011 and $11.6 billion in 2012, respectively), agricultural lobbies work hard to keep their food items recommended. The most recent fight is over white (russet) potatoes. WIC does not provide potatoes, and the potato lobby is trying to change that. Not because they are concerned about the health of America’s low-income mothers, critics say, but because of the money they are missing out on (WIC is a $600 million program) and because of the public perception that potatoes must be “bad” if they’re not included (Nestle, 2014; Rampell, 2014).

Meanwhile, people who keep more rigorous habits than what MyPlate recommends rely on studies and reports from entities other than the federal government for their nutrition information, and tend to shop at farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and other farm-to-table outlets. The efforts of supporters of non-industrial, organically grown food have made some inroads with the federal government, but the results have been minimal. For example, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program received $16.5 million in funding in 2011, which amounts to approximately 3 percent of the total WIC program (USDA, 2012). Of the $71.8 billion redeemed in SNAP benefits from 2010 to 2011, only $11.7 million was redeemed at farmers’ markets (Roper, 2012). Farm-to-school programs are gaining popularity but have a long way to go before they put a dent in the NSLP; hospitals and prisons are even more marginalized. Some restaurants voluntarily specialize in locally grown ingredients, but these are mid- to high-scale establishments.

While personal choice will always create a place for unhealthy foods and beverages, the federal government should at least provide accurate, sensible information about the components of a healthy diet. Until its dietary guidelines are separated from the USDA, which is essentially the chamber of commerce for U.S. agriculture, and overseen by nutritional scientists with no financial connection to the outcome of their findings, the United States will continue down its path of preventable diet-related obesity and disease.

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