Graham Crackers, Corn Flakes, and Other Echoes of Christian Food Ethics

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The most interesting section in Theology on the Menu, thus far, is the review of early U.S. history where Christian leaders were on the forefront of the healthy food movements. The authors highlight the religious justifications for 19th century justifications for vegetarianism, whole foods diets, and healthy eating.

For example Dr Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who spoke out against the delitorious effects of white bread and advocated for breads made from whole grains. He came up with his own healthy flour mix made with whole-wheat flour, bran, and wheat germ from which he developed the well known cracker that bears his name. Along with being healthy he claimed that the dryness of Graham Crackers curbed sexual urges, both of which modern civilization has counteracted by adding chocolate and marshmallows to make S'mores.

In another example of the strong historic connection between early health food movements and Christian faith the book highlights the development of corn flakes. John Harvey Kellogg was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitortium, health center and headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventists who were strong advocates of vegeterianism. This close relationship gave birth to Kellog's breakfast cereals and the iconic corn flakes. Once again, modern America has taken this historic holy urge for health and added lots of sugar to transform them into Frosted Flakes. 

These are just two examples of many that point to the strong religious roots of modern food movements, but that really shouldn't be a surprise. Many secular food passions have an implicit, if not explicit, spiritual vibe. From vegans to raw foodites, to localists and bacon evangelists, there is something more going on than just calorie counts and fat content. These dietary regimens point to a way of life and possess hints of the meaning of it all.

My Take on Ethics of Eating - More grace needed in current food debates

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Last week I was a panelist on an Ethics of Eating event at Sante' restaurant in downtown Spokane and today's edition of the Spokesman Review has an article on what transpired. The in-person event, pictured above, was organized in response to a heated virtual debate on Facebook over the fact that Sante' serves foie gras. You can look on the Sante' Facebook page for a run down of the debate. Local TV news even did a story on it. Here's one of the critical comments posted on Faceboook:

You will never have our business/patronage because I now know you serve foie gras. And we will never recommend your restaurant to local friends or out of town guests. In fact, we will tell them about your inhumane offerings and I'm sure they will decide the same, as our friends are all animal caring people. In your quest to serve haute' cuisine and be a Cosmo restaurant, you have shown us that you have made unethical choices to seek your customers. With many other dining options, our money will be spent elsewhere. Shame on you for putting money above the suffering of ducks and geese.

I personally really enjoyed the event, especially hearing from Jeremy and other leaders in the Spokane sustainable food community. There were not any strident critics in the audience but there were some good questions from vegans about the justification for killing animals when other alternatives are available. I explained that I find those arguments a lot more compelling than I used to, although I am not yet convinced. I appreciated that the audience expressed a genuine desire to learn about food systems and the my fellow panelists responded with a gracious desire to inform and inspire people to learn more. I guess the big surprise was that the in-person event was such a pleasant dialogue compared to the rancor and bitterness of the online lobbing of accusatory grenades. The online ethical debate around food has taken on an almost religious character, with the puritans on one side and hedonists on the other.

This is one of the reasons I have been compelled to explore actual religious traditions around food. I have suspected that the religious-like debate around food systems might actually have something to learn from actual religious food practices. We've spent the last four months following kosher food laws and Orthodox fasting rules. We celebrated the end of the Orthodox Lenten fast last Saturday with the midnight Pascha service at Holy Trinity Orthodox church. 

I plan on writing extensively about what we have been learning but there is one aspect of the Pascha service that I found especially helpful for current debates around food. In the Orthodox church the fasting rules for Lent are very strict. On most days there is no meat, no dairy, no oil, no fish, no eggs, and no alcohol. On days where there is an evening celebration of the eucharist the strict rule is that you abstain from all food and drink until receiving the communion elements at the evening service. We followed these rules closely but there is a wide range of observance in the Orthodox church, with many loosely observing the rules and many not observing them at all. One of the ethical questions around these food rules in the Orthodox church is how to deal with the diversity of practice given an ethical ideal. This is the same question that faces locavores, slow-food advocates, vegan evangelists and the rest. 

At the Pascha service I learned how they deal with this diversity of practice as they prepare to gather around tables and celebrate the Paschal feast. Their approach is summed up in their reading of the famous sermon from St. John Crysostom which opens with these words:

If any be a devout lover of God,
  let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
  let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
  let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
  let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
  let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
  let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
  let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
  let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
  in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

When it comes to sharing in the abundant feast of lamb that follows the Paschal service they make no distinction between those who come first and those who come last, those who fasted strictly and those who didn't fast at all. (See Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard for the theological background to this.) My orthodox friends model this approach throughout Lent by not talking openly about their individual fasting practices so as to avoid pride and the divisions that it cultivates. In the midst of the most strict food rules I've ever encountered they somehow manage to offer grace instead of judgment. 

The fullness of the gospel expressed in the invitation to the table at the Paschal service can't be reduced to a simple lesson, but it does offer a provocative vision of what it looks like for a community to gather around food practices, which might be helpful for food activists filled with religious zeal for their cause:

Instead of identifying all the people (or chefs) that they'll never share a meal with, how about a grace-filled invitation to gather around the feast table, seeking community and relationships, knowing that these relationships are the foundation for more ethical practice.

Instead of exalting the puritans and hurling accusations at the unfaithful, how about an acknowledgement that we are all sinners caught up in a fallen food system. 

Instead of prideful proclamations of approved practices, how about a humble stance that lifts up ideals but avoids creating a culinary class system. 

I'm glad for the face-to-face gathering at Sante' last week. It felt like a generous invitation to gather around the table in the diversity of our practices to learn and grow together. I look forward to more such conversations.

Seattle Resident Takes Eating Local to a New Level - Backyard Squirrel Anyone?

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In all of our local eating exploits it has never once dawned on me to trap and eat the squirrels that frolick in our back yard, but Melany Vorass in Seattle has done that and more. 

This according to the Seattle Times:

In a city that savors local food initiatives, allowing up to eight chickens and three goats in every back yard, Vorass is exploring new frontiers.

"I don't see any reason why we would object," chuckles City Council President Richard Conlin, prime mover of Seattle's locavore agenda. "From a public-policy standpoint it's an individual making a choice, and that's fine."

Her culinary innovation arose from frustration with the little gray critters that were camping out in her eaves. Her husband was already in the habit of trapping them and relocating them when she learned about British squirrel eating habits. 

In England, eating nonnative gray squirrels has been viewed as a way to save the indigenous red squirrel. Following a "Save a red, eat a gray!" campaign, some of London's finest restaurants started serving up the Yank transplants, according to The New York Times.

The Seattle Times article gives me the impression that either Vorass is quite a character or the reporter just couldn't resist poking fun at the quirky nature of the story. 

Choice passages from the article:

There's no denying squirrels are cute, Vorass says. "But so are cows."

Snails are the next challenge for Vorass. Instead of spending time and money trying to get rid of them, she says, "we could be eating the enemy." She collected and cooked some, and liked them enough to buy a terrarium for snail-ranching.

And finally this from the City Council president Richard Conlin

"There could be lots of people doing things we don't know about. The most important thing is be respectful of your neighbors. I mean, don't trap their cats and eat them."

She has a blog that gives the run down on how to dress a squirrel.

Most people will probably snicker at the article but others will take great afront to the practice. A 2010 article from the Guardian in the UK gives a taste of how some may respond as they describe the sale of squirrel meat at a grocery store run by Mr. Budgens:

The animal welfare group Viva accused Budgens of profiting from a "wildlife massacre".

Its founder and director, Juliet Gellatley, said: "If this store is attempting to stand out from the crowd by selling squirrel, the only message they are giving out is that they are happy to have the blood of a beautiful wild animal on their hands for the sake of a few quid."

One bit of advice from the Appalachia where squirrel eating is common: don't eat the squirrel's brain. The NY Times reported the following in 1997:

Doctors in Kentucky have issued a warning that people should not eat squirrel brains, a regional delicacy, because squirrels may carry a variant of mad cow disease that can be transmitted to humans and is fatal.

Although no squirrels have been tested for mad squirrel disease, there is reason to believe that they could be infected, said Dr. Joseph Berger, chairman of the neurology department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Elk, deer, mink, rodents and other wild animals are known to develop variants of mad cow disease that collectively are called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

In the last four years, 11 cases of a human form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, have been diagnosed in rural western Kentucky, said Dr. Erick Weisman, clinical director of the Neurobehavioral Institute in Hartford, Ky., where the patients were treated. "All of them were squirrel-brain eaters," Weisman said. Of the 11 patients, at least six have died.

I think I'll pass on this latest locavore trend.

World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin

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A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."

This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.

I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities

Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing. 

Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.

Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans. 

Girls Scouts Unveil "Locavore" Badge

image from www.thefoodsection.comAlongside Architecture and Water Fun badges, Girl Scouts can now get a Locavore badge by learning about local food and cooking up a meal with local ingredients. According to Alisha Niehaus, Executive Editor, Program Resources:

"All of our badges reflect what today’s girls said they wanted to know about -- girls are interested in what they eat and how it affects their health and the environment, so the Locavore badge gives them a chance to delve into those issues in their communities....Plus, what’s more fun than making your own food, and truly knowing it from farm to table?"

Neihaus points out that there is a strong history of food-related badges with the Girl Scouts, including a Canning badge from the 1920's. 

It might be time for the Boy Scouts to get with it and bring back their Beekeeping badge, (Go here to sign the petition) or their Poultry Farming badge. They already have a Gardening merit badge.

In another sign of the trend, a local Boy Scout chose to make a nice dual compartment compost bin for the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden as his Eagle Scout project. 

The heart of the local food movement is about developing a healthy connection to where your food comes from. It's hard for me to understand why some people are so concerned about it. It's as American as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and apple pie (made from organic, locally grown apples). 

Is the local food movement bad for the poor?

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I have an op-ed that will appear in tomorrow's Seattle Times titled, How the local food movement is helping solve the problem of world hunger. It was intended to be provocative so I expect/hope it will provoke some passionate responses from a variety of people in the food conversation. The gist of my argument is that it's inaccurate to say the local food movement is harming the world's vulnerable and hungry. (This seems to be the critique du jour of the locavore trend.) In fact, I argue, it is helping and holds great potential to address the issue of world hunger. 

It was hard to say all I wanted to say on the issue in 650 words or less so consider the following post as an extended-cut version of the op-ed, with more focus on the unfairness of the emerging critique of all things locavore. It is an edited (less sarcastic) version of what I posted earlier in the week.

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The local & sustainable food movement has been THE food phenomenon of recent years so it's not surprising that it has provoked a sizable backlash in defense of industrial food. What is surprising is the recent consensus among some that the local food movement is bad for poor people.

Charles Kenny got the ball rolling in last month's Foreign Policy Magazine. He calls the local and organic food movements "misguided, parochial Luddism" and is aghast that federal funds go to support farmers' markets. He writes:

...these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.

The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb. 

Judith Warner at Time followed suit last week with an article titled, The Locavore’s Illusions: As charming as it sounds, growing kale in your backyard won't solve the nation's food ills. She pushes back against the counter-cultural impulse in the movement that is suspicious of "the Man." She quotes a Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who tries to pull back the reigns on those trouble-making community gardeners that just want everyone to give chard a chance:

Sometimes thinking small and local — without an eye to the systemic and political — paves the way toward rollbacks of progressive policies that really work. Sometimes “The Man” can do a great deal of good, for example,when funding programs that add incentive dollars to SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

Josh Ozersky at Time joined the fray a couple days ago with an article titled, "In Defense of Industrial Food." Josh writes:

There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes.

Instead of actually engaging legitimate questions about the sustainability and health of the current industrial system, the new tactic is akin to picketing the local food co-op with signs that read: "CSA Subscribers Are Hurting Poor People."

The big picture here is that it's time for Congress to write the next Farm Bill and many people are concerned with the way that local and sustainable food activists are going to shape the debate. Kenny acknowledges that the current Farm Bill only designates 0.00025 percent of its funds for farmers' markets, but he is obviously concerned that they will have a greater influence on the next version. 

These latest criticisms are an evolution of the core argument in defense of industrial food over the last fifty years: There are billions of people in the world, and we can't feed them without intensive industrial agriculture. So the industrialists have for years promoted themselves as heroes of the poor, and given that logic, it's not surprising that those who oppose or question them are being characterized as enemies of the poor. 

The truth of food, agriculture, and world poverty is more complicated than any of us probably want to admit. The champions of organic and sustainable agriculture are loathe to acknowledge that Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution have actually been instrumental in saving lives and feeding millions of hungry and vulnerable people around the world. And the industrial food complex is hesitant to acknowledge that its subsidies and intensive farming methods have destroyed land and markets, and as a result have trapped millions of people in poverty and made them dependent on handouts. For example, it may look like we are the models of compassion for shipping food aid to places like Haiti, but our cheap, heavily subsidized grains undercut local farmers' efforts to grow crops and sell them. 

To his credit Ozersky hints at this complicated picture:

I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.

OK, I'll agree to not conflate industrial with bad if you'll agree not to suggest those that aspire toward an alternative are enemies of the poor. 

Photo: Volunteers make preparations for our monthly Millwood food distribution with Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest.

The Other GDP - Gardening Domestic Product Worth Over 21 Billion In Homegrown Food

This week saw the final harvest of our garden. There is a small mountain of potatoes, tomatillos, green tomatoes, cucumbers, and spaghetti squash in the garage. It got me thinking about what the dollar value of this year's harvest and I came across this infographic at Mother Nature Network that puts the dollar value of home food gardening in perspective. 

The statistic that jumped out to me the most is that $2.5 billion invested in home gardening resulted in $21 billion worth of fruit and vegetables. To put it more simply, for every $2.50 invested in home gardening we harvest over $20 worth of food. They calculate it more precisely and estimate that on a per household basis, the average home garden translates into $530 worth of fresh goodness.

image from www.mnn.com


"Project Hope" in Spokane Teaching At-Risk Youth Urban Gardening & Life Skills

Project Hope is a great model program in Spokane teaching at-risk teens life skills through urban gardening, backyard chickens, farmers' markets, and landscaping. Project Hope was initiated by a group in the west central neighborhood, with Salem Lutheran Church as a key sponsor. It's yet another example of how churches are leading the way in these kinds of earthy outreach endeavors. Here's a recent TV report

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Time to Sign Up for a Winter CSA with Rocky Ridge Ranch

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Gary and So Angell from Rocky Ridge Ranch are offering a 20-week winter CSA starting the first week of November and going up to Christmas. After a break it starts back up the first week of March and goes through the end of May. You can sign up for a produce & eggs program ($35/week) or a variety meats program ($65/week). Email Gary at info (at) rockyridgeranchspokane (dot) com for more info or call 509-953-0905. They will deliver weekly at Millwood on Wednesdays and at South Perry on Thursdays. Gary wrote a blog report about how the winter CSA growing season works. 

I feature Gary and So in the book and highly recommend their program. You may have come across products from Rocky Ridge Ranch at Sante' restaurant and the Rocket Market. 

Picture: So Angell tending to lettuce in the middle of winter last year.

Community Gardens Sprouting on Rooftops in Hong Kong

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CNN has the story of a growing, but still small urban farming movement in Hong Kong. 

For just $15 per month, Lam rents out toolbox-sized planter boxes to businessmen, elderly couples and families alike, and even runs horticulture classes. He uses imported soil from Germany to fill his planters and lets the humid, subtropical climate do the rest.

Fifteen dollars a month seems pretty steep but Hong Kong does have some of the highest property values in the world.

I thought this comment regarding resistance to gardening was interesting:

Outside of convincing politicians, Chau said Hong Kongers themselves have historically been resistant to the idea of farming as a suitable pastime.

"It is the lowest of our traditional caste system. In traditional Chinese culture, if you're good at nothing else, you work on the farm," Chau said. "Also, Hong Kong is a very money-minded place... land is also very expensive in Hong Kong, so people don't spend time worrying about growing their own food."

America has its own version of this caste system story. The consensus opinion on the growth of the US economy is that advances in farming freed people up from working on the farm so they could apply themselves to other more GDP-enhancing activities. This chart tells the story of the movement out of farm work in the U.S.:

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China has its own version of this chart but relative to the American move away from the farm they are in 1850. This chart compares farm employment stats around the world and puts China at 47% in 1999.

Screen shot 2011-06-29 at 9.55.57 AMIn countries that have moved dramatically away from the farm there are efforts in place to reconnect with land and food. My sense is that this, in large part, is what drives the local food movement, the interest in farmers' markets, CSAs, and rooftop gardens - even in Hong Kong. It's a kind of farming-deficit disorder. It may be awhile before perceptions in China change around farming but they are already shifting dramatically in North America.

UC Santa Barbara Study: Local Food Consumption Doesn't Reduce Carbon Footprint

All the locavore haters will be dancing with joy at the results of a new study done by UC Santa Barbara. The premise of the study is that if any place can pull off a truly local food economy it should be Santa Barbara County that ranks as one of the top vegetable producing counties in the country. A professor and students set out to see how local Santa Barbara County's food system is, and to understand the carbon impacts of local food vs. non-local food. The results are surprising.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported, some of it from as far away as Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. The study also found that, surprisingly, if all produce consumed here was grown in the county, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions less than 1 percent of total agrifood system emissions, and it would not necessarily affect nutrition.

"Most of what's grown here is shipped out," Cleveland said while standing in a tomato field about a mile from the UCSB campus. "And most of what's eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy."

This is the same kind of craziness we discovered during out year of local consumption. Our biggest "that just seems crazy" moment was when we were told that we couldn't get local Darigold cheddar cheese because most of it was shipped to Wisconsin.

Here's another interesting tidbit:

"I talked to a manager who was very excited about his local fruit, Santa Maria strawberries," Radka said. "But he said he got all of his strawberries from the warehouse. I asked him where the warehouse was, and he said that it's not in the county. Turns out it's in the Bay Area. So strawberries from Santa Maria are transported by truck to a warehouse in the Bay Area and then trucked back here to be sold in stores."

The authors of the study still advocate for local food systems, despite the CO2 findings, but they say that local food systems should not be the goal but the means toward the end of improved nutrition and sustainability.

Greenhouse gas savings has never been the primse motivator for my advocacy of local food systems and these findings don't come as a surprise to me. I've heard them before. I think it's important to note in this conversation that the current far-flung food system is highly dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of oil. From fertilizer, to pesticides, to diesel fuel for semi-trucks and tractors. The main reason the transport of food is only 1% of total agrifood emissions is that there is so much fuel used in the rest of the system. When oil prices spike there are a lot of food companies that would love to shave 1% of their fuel expenses off the bottomline.

Here are some of my arguments for a local food system:

1. It helps develop relationships between farmer and consumer.

2. It helps build connections between consumers and land and farming practices.

3. It educates people, especially children, about where their food comes from.

4. It promotes seasonal eating.

5. It disrupts our assumptions that we can have whatever we want, and we can have it now.

6. It connects us with the seasons.

7. It connects us with a place and the story of a place, helping us shape a hopeful future community story.

What about you? What are your reasons for supporting local food.

Good Friday/Earth Day: How the Food Movement is Making the Church Green

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In a fluke of this year's calendar, Earth Day and Good Friday both converge today. I wrote an article for CNN Belief Blog arguing that these two events aren't such a bad pairing. The wider context of the article is that the Christian church and the environmental movement in North America have often struggled to cooperate and find common ground. Maybe the experience of sharing this day will be a trial run at a new future of collaboration. Go here for one of my many posts on this disconnect. 

It may not always be self-evident here on the blog, but I am a full-time Presbyterian pastor, and one of the motivations for this blog is to flesh out connections between faith and earth. Go here to see the "faith" thread on this blog. Year of Plenty is an extended exploration of the intersections of the environment and faith, especially the food movement. My experience with locavores, backyard farmers, and community gardeners makes me more hopeful than ever that despite past disconnects, the church may end up being the best friend of advocates for earth care.

Perhaps the greatest reason for a potential new future in this relaitonship is what some are calling the death of environmentalism and the rise of the food movement. 

Bryan Walsh wrote a provocative article in February describing significant shifts in the Go-Green movement. He says:

These are dark days for the environmental movement. A year after being on the cusp of passing landmark legislation to cap greenhouse gases, greens are coming to accept the fact that the chance of national and international action on climate change has become more remote than ever. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack by newly empowered Republicans in Congress who argue that the very idea of environmental protection is unaffordable for our debt-ridden country. Accustomed to remaining optimistic in the face of long odds, the environmental movement all at once faces a challenge just to stay relevant in a hostile political climate....

He even evokes the "death of environmentalism" mantra coined in a controversial essay from a few years ago. This decline of the traditionally framed debates about the environment may provide a helpful opening for the church. One of the reasons environmentalists and church leaders have often been at odds is that the issues fall so easily into the well-worn ruts of our cultural and political divides. I don't like that the Christian faith in America is politicized and held captive by powerful interests, but that is the current reality. As long as the environmental movement is robustly allied with one side or the other of American politics, I fear that it will remain a niche issue in liberal mainline churches, and fail to make real headway in more conservative evangelical circles.

Walsh says this so-called death of environmentalism may turn out to be a re-birth in the form of a thriving food movement.

Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm — away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables — but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.

This shift away from a politically entrenched environmental movement toward a vibrant food movement opens up a new opporunity for the church to enter the conversation and even take the lead in some cases.

Food is not so easily politicized. Not that the usual characters don't do their best to turn food into a political football, but the food movement is too complex and the interested parties too diverse to easily pigeon hole. 

Here's how I put it in a previous post on politics, church, and food,

Concerns about food short-circuit political divides in some wonderfully mischevious ways. Farmers' Markets may be the most politically diverse gathering in the community, with Glenn Beck conspiracy theorists rubbing shoulders with neo-hippie peace activists. The recent Whole Foods CEO curfluffle highlights some of this diversity and forces the question, "Is it OK for conservatives and liberals, who disagree on so much, to agree on food and work together in that agreement?"

I sure hope so. In today's intense, hyped up political landscape, a good potluck with arugala and country style pork ribs (and of course grandma's jello salad) could do us a lot of good. There's something about gathering around food that makes us more human.

Not only does food allow for more diverse entry points, it plays to the church's strengths - theology, history, and practice. Here's how I put it in Year of Plenty:

The pattern in the Bible of forming community is surprisingly down to earth…The first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat.” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat.”

In the wilderness it was the manna, gathered daily in the dew of morning that forged the faith of Israel. Once the people were settled in the land, the warning loomed large from Joshua to serve the Lord alone and remember that God “gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Joshua was telling them to nurture a deep connection between the harvest of the vineyard and the God who made them a people and gave them the land.

To a people disoriented by exile in Babylon, Jeremiah said, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer. 29:5). In other words, they were to attend to necessary things and do necessary things for one another. In doing so, they would find their way to God.

This pattern continued with Jesus as he sent the disciples out among the people to proclaim the kingdom of God. He told them to enter the homes of the cities to which they were sent. “Stay there,” he said, “eating and drinking whatever they give you, for workers deserve their wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:7-8). The disciples had this grand vision of the kingdom of God to proclaim and live into, but the proclamation was always in the context of shared meals, working side by side with others, doing necessary things.

I think if you look closely, the shift in the American church is already evident. Churches are taking the lead in their communities starting community gardens, promoting Plant-A-Row for the Hungry, hosting farmers' markets, and teaching classes on food and health. Churches and Christians of all political stripes are becoming environmentalists, but be careful - some of them may not like the label. They'd prefer faithful foodie or sustainable backyard farmer or guerilla gardener, but those are just different ways of describing environmentalists. And this earthy move in church circles bodes well for the big debates about land, CO2, and going green.

As Walsh points out in his Time article, this emphasis on food leads us into the heart of issues dear to the traditional environmental movement.

As the food movement matures and grows, it could end up being the best vehicle available for achieving environmental goals. The industrialized way we farm today damages our land, our water and our climate. Reforming agriculture and promoting sustainability won't just help us get better and healthier food; it will also fight greenhouse-gas emissions and water pollution....

Environmentalists once thought that the only way to create lasting change in the U.S. and the rest of the world was by controlling our carbon emissions. Not quite. As Brian Halweil, a leading thinker on sustainable food, put it in Saturday's TED conference, "If the environmental movement is dead, then I say, 'Long live the food movement.'" Environmental and social changes are coming — and they will be served up on our dinner plates.

Not only will they be served up on dinner plates, but the church will say a prayer before the meal.

Consumers and Retailers Wrangle Over the Definition of "Local Food"

The AP has a nice piece of reporting on the emergence of "local" as the newest hot commodity in food labeling and marketing.

The No. 2 official at the Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.

The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word "local" in food marketing. It's the latest big thing after the surge in food marketed as "organic," another subject of continuing labeling controversy.

But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

The emerging debate is around how to define local, and whether there will be a consensus definition that guides the industry. Some states are proposing new rules for governing the use of the term "local" in marketing food, but it seems unlikely that there will be a federal standard. According to the article:

Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.

How do you define "local" when it comes to food?

Deadline Approaches for Sunset Magazine "One-Block Feast" Contest

image from www.homebysunset.com There are still 5 days to enter this cool contest at Sunset Magazine. Here's the description at their One-Block Feast blog:

THE CONTEST

The One-Block Feast, our book based on this blog, gives you everything you need to grow a summer feast. It includes planting plans, gardening advice, and food project guides (how to make vinegar, raisebees for honey, brew beer, and more), plus over 100 recipes.

Here's the challenge: With the book as your guide, you and your family, and/or friends and neighbors, will grow a summer garden, following our plan—or planting whatever grows best in your area. Then you’ll throw a block party for yourselves, using (as much as possible) only what you’ve raised or made. For a preview of the book, which comes out March 22, visit our website.

THE PRIZE
We’ll tell your story and feature you in an upcoming issue ofSunset as well as on our blog. You’ll also get $500 cash to spend however you like.

ENTRY DEADLINE: MARCH 30, 2011

Send us a brief paragraph about why you’d like to enter this contest, plus a list of:

• Plants you’ll grow
• Food projects you’ll take on
• Recipes (original) you plan to make for your party
• Names of those who’ll be involved in the project

Include a contact name, address, email, and phone. Then send your entry to oneblockparty@sunset.com or Sunset magazine, 80 Willow Road, Menlo Park, CA, 94025 (attention: One-Block Party).

We’ll choose 10 finalists by April 8 and send each group a book (additional copies will be available for $10, a significant discount off the cover price of $24.95). Then it’s Go Time in your gardens!

This sounds like a good community garden project. I'm thinking of drawing up an entry for the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden. (FYI - we have a workday tomorrow, March 26, if you want to come and dig in the dirt for awhile.)

Go here for find out more about the One-Block Feast project or go here to get a copy. There is also a Kindle version. If you're in the no-man's land between print books and e-books you may find this Publisher's Weekly article interesting. They claim that print books are better in every case except cookbooks.

CSA Vegetable Box Programs Growing and Evolving Ctd. - Full Circle Farm and the Mega CSA

In a recent post I pointed out the growing popularity of CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) programs where consumers sign up with a farmer to receive a weekly "subscription" of food, usually a box of seasonal vegetables and fruits. They have grown in popularity because they are a boon to farmers, for whom cash flow is king, and they help consumers simplify the process of acquiring healthy, local, and in some cases, organic food. Go here to the LocalHarvest site for a more detailed rundown of how the programs typically work. 

The rise in popularity has led to growing pains, with farmers and customers sorting out expectations and relationships (see previous post), but there is another notable development - the rise of the mega CSA. As the Spokesman Review pointed out in yesterday's food section, Full Circle Farm in Carnation, WA, is expanding their delivery footprint beyond their current Seattle and Alaska markets to include Spokane. 

I spoke with Frank Paganelli, the Chief Operating Officer of Full Circle Farm, to get a better understanding of the business. The fact that they have a C.O.O. is the first clue that Full Circle is not a traditional CSA. In fact, as Frank explained, while they started as a traditional program, bound by the limits of the seasons and a single farm location, the business now delivers year-round, and no longer limits the food to local sources. So in the winter months boxes are filled with organic items from Mexico and California. Pagonelli explained that when summer rolls around, up to 90% of the food items are sourced from the Pacific Northwest region, but bananas and other non-local items are still in the mix.

The owners of the farm started moving in this direction because the traditional mode was a limited business model. They hated to send away workers and customers during the off season when local vegetables and fruits were in short supply. Paganelli said, "Customers want purpose all year round," when it comes to their food choices, so Full Circle has sought to bring that purpose to customers, one box at a time, 52 weeks a year. This has meant straining the definition of "purpose" usually attached to a CSA. In fact Full Circle has moved away from using the term "CSA" to define what they are doing.

The page on their web site that still comes up under the heading "CSA" on a Google search explains the shifting language:

Over time what was called the Full Circle Farm CSA program has evolved in response to the call from members new and old alike: more good food to your table. Our farm fresh produce delivery program networks with organic growers to provide members with a robust year-round offering to balance the crops from our own fields.

This changing language is also evident in the Spokesman article from yesterday describing their Spokane presence. It is described as a "farm-to-table delivery service" instead of a CSA. They are "Farm-to-Table boxes" instead of CSA boxes. They openly state that the boxes "include produce grown at Full Circle Farm as well as fruits and vegetables from an international network of other organic growers." Full Circle has shifted the definition of "purpose" to emphasize certified organic as the thread that holds it all together, and while they still seek to interpret the farmer relationships through printed materials that accompany the box, the connection to a local farm and farmers is no longer the defining center of what they are doing. 

Paganelli explained that they don't see themselves competing with traditional CSA programs that keep a laser focus on the direct farmer relationship. He said, "We're competing with the QFC's and Albertsons." In Spokane that would include Huckleberries. 

There has been some backlash to this shifting business model at Full Circle. A quick tour through their Yelp! page shows a steady stream of customers who were under the impression it was a more traditional CSA program sourcing exclusively from local farms. One commenter wrote, "Surprisingly little in the boxes is actually local. Strawberries from Mexico, fruits from California....We're not interested in supporting big farms from far away, even if they are organic." Another reviewer commented, " Everything delivered was stuff you'd find in a grocery store." From what Paganelli said, the company is working intentionally to move away from the CSA label, and more clearly set expectations, especially during the winter months when local supplies are limited. They still have a page at LocalHarvest listing their services as a CSA. 

Despite the growing pains, business seems to be booming. Spokane already has 14 sites to pick up boxes. They are well staffed and appear to have some serious capital funding supporting their expansion efforts. And there are plenty of customers delighted with their service. One reviewer from Seattle on Yelp! wrote,

I have been a happy, satisfied customer of Full Circle for over two years.  I love that I can customize my box when I am inclined (special recipes in mind, etc), and when I do not have time to go online and select each item, I still know that a beautiful box will arrive each week...I LOVE FULL CIRCLE!

Another commented;

I will admit that Full Circle Farm (FCF) does not conform to the "strictest" definition of a CSA. I will also admit that produce from Central America, even produce certified as organic, makes me nervous. But in defense of FCF, I recognize that they strive to provide the very best produce delivery service they can.  Their customer service is bar-none and they have always been very helpful over the phone....I happily give my $35 to FCF, even if they're delivering produce from California, rather than to the grocery store where sourcing information is not as transparent.

Full Circle is a new breed of food marketing and delivery, somewhere between a CSA and a grocery delivery service. They are stretching the brand of farm-to-table, and I'll be interested to see how their emerging business model plays out in the coming years. Here are some words of advice to Full Circle that I think will be key for the success of their expansion efforts in Spokane:

- Do your best to integrate your offerings with unique items from farms near Spokane. I was told they are looking to do this in the future, but for now they are just working to get their delivery systems in place. There is a unique and growing local food movement in the Spokane area and efforts to enter the market should be aimed at not just luring customer dollars and establishing market share. In order to have credibility as something more than a grocery-delivery business in this community there needs to be investment in farmers and farms in this region. There needs to be capital investment to accompany market share. 

- You say that you are not competing with existing CSA's but there is one CSA in Spokane that already follows a hybrid model very similar to yours. The CSA program through Fresh Abundance has a year-round vegetable box program that sources items locally when possible, and when not possible they include organic items. Both programs are around $35 per week. Fresh Abundance has been investing in the local food scene in Spokane for many years, so I hope that Full Circle won't undercut their efforts. I also think the marketing materials need to be as clear as possible that Full Circle is different from what someone like Gary Angell at Rocky Ridge Ranch offers. If you use the word local, make sure that you define that clearly. Most folks who use the phrase, "local food" around here have Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho in mind.

- Most farmers in Eastern Washington do not have the resources to get officially certified as organic, but they do follow organic practices. Given this reality I think you should be willing to flex on the "certified organic" label in order to embrace our local food system. For example, I don't see any reason why your boxes couldn't include lettuce from C&S Hydro Huts. Stewart is not certified organic, but is meticulous in the way he follows organic practices. I think this makes good marketing sense even if it does force you to compromise on your commitment to "certified organic" in some cases.

What Full Circle offers is not my cup of tea. I like direct relationships with local farmers. I like eating seasonally. The "certified organic" label is much less meaningful to me than having the food sourced from local farms and farmers. But I don't doubt that there is a market for them in Spokane and that there is room for their offerings in the Spokane food scene. I just hope that what's good for their western Washington business is good for local Spokane businesses and farmers.

CSA Vegetable Box Programs Growing and Evolving

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an innovation in food selling and buying that has finally broken into the mainstream. These kinds of programs that usually involve a consumer signing up with a local farmer to get a weekly box of seasonal vegetables. In some cases the boxes are picked up at a farmers' market, on the farm, or they can be delivered at an extra cost. These innovative arrangement first emerged in Europe and Japan as a response to hardships experienced by local farms and farmers, and in an effort to bridge the relational gap between consumers and growers. As the interest in locally grown food has skyrocketed in recent years these programs have proliferated.

My favorite CSA in Spokane is the one from Rocky Ridge Ranch, located in Reardan. Gary and his wife So have summer, winter, and spring CSA subscriptions. They also have a meat CSA that's the best deal in town for locally, naturally raised beef, chicken, and pork. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that I help manage, is one of their two CSA pick-up sites.

As more farmers have offered these programs and they have grown in popularity there are some interesting growing pains and ethical dilemmas that are starting to emerge, both for shoppers and farmers. One regular reader of the blog lamented last summer that, after putting up big bucks for a summers' worth of vegetables, the offerings in the box were sometimes dissappointing compared to what the farmer had on display at their farmers' market booth. She discovered the uncomfortale tension that come with a direct relationship with a farmer. What do you do when you're unhappy? It's one thing to talk to the produce manager at the grocery store, which seems safe, but it's a whole other thing to file your complaints with the person who planted, nurtured, and plucked the plants out of the ground. To complicate matters, the skill-set required to be a great farmer does not necessarily lend itself to having good customer-service skills. CSA's make buying food a relational experience, which brings with it the mixed-bag of what we experience in human relationships. Here's how the unsettled CSA customer put it last summer:

But I’m wondering – here, finally, is my question – how you think we might navigate those imperfect relationships, with all of us imperfect ourselves, when we’re talking about non-negotiables, about food? In a local, relationship-based economy, there’s no room for mistakes. What happens if I have a bad day? Grocers, middlemen, long supply chains, all create room for me (and the growers) to be imperfect. How do we live without that when we’re, you know, human?

She makes a keen observation - that one of the hidden efficiencies of our long supply chains in the food system, is that they remove the human, relational element. They give the illusion of a transaction based only on price and quality, and erase the fingerprints of the farmers who grew the food. But this is only ever an illusion. CSA program that put us face-to-face with a farmer ultimately force us to give up our romantic notions, maybe the very notions that led us to sign up for a CSA, and encounter food, people, and land in new and responsible ways. In my mind, the purpose of CSA programs is the formation of community. It's an intentional complicating of life. Yes it's probably cheaper, easier, and more time-efficient to just go to Win-Co and load up your shopping cart on a weekly basis - but sometimes more expensive, more complicated, and less efficient is better. 

Which brings me to my next observation about this fast-evolving market segment. I knew we were in new territory when I saw a "CSA" program show up on Groupon here in Spokane. Full Circle Farm was offering a deal on subscriptions to their CSA program. I was surprised, because I'd never heard of Full Circle Farm, and I take pride in having my finger on the pulse of our local food system. I did a little investigating and was intrigued by what I found. I have a call into Full Circle and will follow up on this post with more details and observations when I have to chance to talk to them. 

28 Books in 28 Days - Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

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Starting tomorrow, February 1, I will be reviewing 28 books in 28 days leading up to the release of my book, Year of Plenty, on March 1. Year of Plenty tells the story of our family's experience in 2008 consuming only what was local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Our four rules, scribbled on a Starbucks brochure in a fit of consumer fatigue, led us into wonderful conversations about locavores (people who eat local food), going green, farmers' markets, downshifters (people who intentionally seek to consume less), simple living, food not lawns, backyard chickens, and more. 

There are already some great books on these topics. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan is a wonderful expose of how our far-flung food system has gone awry, and Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon pioneered the year-long-food-experiment genre with their book The 100 Mile Diet. (If I use the Canadian title to the book, it will be less obvious that I borrowed a little inspiration from their American released book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, for the title to my blog and now book. I wanted to call the blog Consuming Passions, but Nancy thought it sounded too much like a cheap romance novel or daytime soap opera. Of course, she is almost always right.) Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle took it a step further by telling the tale of her family's year of eating local, and the beauty of her story is more than matched by the beauty of her prose. Colin Beavan firmly established the "bumbling eco-experimenter" genre with his book and movie, No-Impact Man, that tells the tale of seeking to live for a year with zero environmental impact in the middle of Manhattan. While Year of Plenty shares a literary eco-system with these books, it seeks to break new ground by offering a Christian reflection on these issues.

While Year of Plenty is based on a premise that there is a need for more Christian engagement with these important issues of the day, there certainly are other books that have already, in their own unique way, sought to flesh out an authentic Christian response. That's where the 28 books in 28 days project comes in. Earlier in the week I consulted the wisdom of my Tweeps and Facebook friends, and based on their counsel, I came up with a list of some of the most important contributions to date. I chose books that were overtly Christian in their perspective, with the exception of books by Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Their writings draw from the deep well of faith and their works are highly influential, so I thought it was important to include them. I tried to have a good representation of books in the areas of environmentalism, food, simple living, and redemptive consumption practices, which are the main themes covered in Year of Plenty. Most are more recently published but there are some classics in the mix. I picked one obscure book, titled MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), that I found too intriguing to leave off. Some of the authors have more than one book on the topic so, in that case, I picked the one I thought to be the most important contribution.

Go here to see the full list on Springpad. The titles and authors are as follows in nor particular order:

  1. Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, Michael Schut, Editor
  2. Farming As a Spiritual Discipline, Ragan Sutterfield
  3. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill
  4. Living More with Less, Doris Janzen Longacre
  5. Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, Jim Ball
  6. Planetwise: Dare to Care for God's World, Dave Bookless
  7. Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues [EARTH WISE 2/E], Calvin B. DeWitt
  8. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred H. Van Dyke
  9. MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), Calvin Dewitt
  10. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Engaging Culture), Steven Bouma-Prediger
  11. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben
  12. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Norman Wirzba
  13. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry
  14. Food & Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread, Michael Schut, Editor
  15. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen F. Davis
  16. Bread for the World, Arthur Simon
  17. Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth, Mallory McDuff
  18. Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food [Paperback], Lysa TerKeurst 
  19. Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, Will Samson
  20. Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Julie Clawson
  21. A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katharine Hayhoe
  22. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, Matthew Sleeth M.D.
  23. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, Ronald J. Sider
  24. Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, Jonathan Merritt
  25. The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Rodney Clapp, Editor
  26. Saving God's Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church's Responsibility to Environmental Stewardship, Tri Robinson
  27. Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God's People, Scott C. Sabin
  28. The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, Leslie Leyland Fields, Editor

So what do you think? Does the list cover the most significant contributions or are there some that I've left off? You can lobby me to add books to the list but I'll only add them if you provide the blog post review along with the reason it is important to the conversation. I've read many of these books already, but there are many I haven't, so we'll see how it goes. I'll offer my perspectives on each book but will also reference The Englewood Review of Books for some of these titles. They are currently the go-to source for book reviews of books on these topics. If you're not following them already on Twitter or Facebook, you should be. 

KFC, Jack in the Box, and Other Fast Food Restaurants to Accept Food Stamps

The California Restaurant Association is lobbying San Diego County supervisors to allow participants in the CalFresh Food Benefits program to use their federally funded debit cards to receive hot, prepared meals at restaurants. North County Times reports:

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved early plans to allow elderly, disabled and homeless recipients to redeem their county-administered benefits at local restaurants. With the vote, county staff is charged with crafting a way to put the plan in place, and presenting it to the board in three months.

Supporters say restaurants should be an option for food stamp recipients because many have no way to cook or store the food they receive at grocery stores. About 10 percent of the county's 213,000 food stamp recipients would be eligible for the program, county officials said.

"A lot of the elderly and the homeless don't have kitchens," said Andrew Casana, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Association, speaking to the board at its downtown chambers.

The association brought the idea to board members last year, saying it would boost business and fill a community need. The number of people receiving food stamps countywide has spiked by 79 percent in two years, according to the county.

At first blush this seems like a terrible idea to me, but I can see why they are taking the proposal seriously. The option would only be open to the 10% who are homeless or don't have access to a kitchen. The menu items would be limited to supposedly healthy options, but the list of participating restaurants doesn't inspire confidence -  Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, Jack In The Box, KFC, and Carl's Jr.. I am thinking of one homeless person I'm working with lately who doesn't have access to a kitchen and he mostly just wants peanut butter from our food pantry. The worst fast food would be a better option for him than just peanut butter. So for him, and people like him I would support something like this.

What concerns me is that this is the beginning of a shift in the way federal dollars are used to help the poor. This door has already been opened in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I'm wondering how long it will take the lobbyists to suggest that the program has been so successful that they need to open it up to people who have kitchens but who don't know how to cook. That is a major problem for many people in poverty. In working with the EBT program in Spokane County at the farmers' market, I know there is hard fast rule that benefits cannot be, in any circumstance, used for hot, prepared foods. I think that's a good thing, but I'd like to see more resources go into helping people in need develop skills for preparing healthy meals with low cost fresh foods subsidized by the government. Another helpful direction would be to help people learn to grow their own foods and preserve them. Ironically, the local food movement that is much maligned as elitist, is the cultural resource that is best able to help people poverty develop these skills. 

The Food Sense program in Spokane County is a doing some of this important work.