a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

Posts Tagged ‘food’

Don’t Be A Turkey This Season

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Maybe you only purchase turkey once/year. If you live in the U.S., it’s usually in November and/or December. So, if I only buy turkey this one time, how important is it that I buy organic and local? From a turkey’s point of view? Plenty!

Factory-style turkey farms do a huge business this time of year and to meet the “consumer” demand, they have been allowed and encouraged to raise and slaughter these animals in outrageous conditions. Turkeys have long been genetically modified with hormones for better eating (not theirs), causing them to grow flesh twice as big, twice as fast. Most unfortunately, their skeletons are unable to support the excessive weight, leaving them unable to walk and in pain. More messing with their genetics for the preferred breast meat leaves them with absurdly-sized chests, further limiting their mobility. This diabolical science also causes many painful respiratory, heart and skeletal diseases, despite heavy doses of antibiotics.

Turkeys raised in factory farms live in crowded warehouses – government standards require only 2.5 feet square of space for each hen and 3.5 feet square of space for each tom turkey – as many as 17,000 turkeys crowded together. For months, they are left to stand in the bacteria and amonia from their own waste. These unnatural conditions force them to literally fight for their lives, so they are debeaked and detoed without anesthesia. (FYI – You can apply these facts in various forms to all factory-raised animals. For more information (and happy rescue stories), visit Farm Sanctuary.)

I know I probably ruined your appetite, but before you stop reading, understand two things. One – we, as consumers, have allowed these practices to continue (we keep buying) and two, we, as consumers, can put an end to the horror, both for the animals and the environment that is also being abused in factory farming.

I used to believe the entire world could be vegetarians. Then I woke up. I understand now that it is important to change the hows and the whys of our food sources rather than perpetuate a “them and us” standoff. We used to know how to do this right and we can once again bring compassion and common sense back to all farming practices. But to do this, we need to make it impossible for factory farms to sell their products and- make it economically feasible for small (and sane) farming to survive. I support veganism and vegetarianism, but I’ve come to believe that my being vegan was less an “activist” model of change than my now unfailing support of local farms. And I’m not alone.

Humane Farm Animal Care is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the lives and welfare of farm animals by providing viable, credible, duly-monitored standards for humane food production and ensuring consumers that certified products meet these standards.

The impressive and extensive staff brings in knowledge and experience, including animal science, philosophy, systematic ecology, and government and international relations. Executive Director, Adele Douglass, launched the Free Farmed Program and was awarded the ASPCA’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2006. Their site can tell you more about this process and give you information about where to buy “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” animal products.

Keep in mind that very small family farms, possibly not yet certified, have almost always practiced compassionate treatment of animals and environmental stewardship – it’s tradition. Get to know your local farmers or read about them online at Local Harvest.

Your Money Or Your Life?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

A friend shared a story the other day about her experience of a would-be city mugging several years back. Though a truly frightening moment, it had a happy ending with the mugger running off. The punch line, only amusing in retrospect, was that for unusual reasons, my friend happened to have $2,000 cash with her at the time.

It got me to thinking about how some decisions are darn simple – based on an innate instinct of survival – one that could not be ignored. If the mugger holds a gun to your head and says, “Your money or your life?” It’s a no-brainer. You’re either James Bond, or you give up the money.

So, why, in contrast, do our sustainable “life and death” choices seem so difficult to make? For me, it goes back to my early work in nutrition. I could easily convince people to by supplements and exercise, but hit a road block when, with the organic food movement still young, I struggled to convince people that paying more to eat organically was truly a choice between their money or their life (and the life of the planet.) It took not just facts, figures and threats over pesticides in our bodies, water and soil, but the willingness of my clients  to see the larger, long-term picture that shed light way beyond their wallets.

I started to take small groups through the natural food store (newly owned by Whole Foods) stopping in each department to talk about the truth regarding conventional and organic choices. I knew my stuff and was nothing if not passionate about the topic. I even shopped on a tight budget myself and managed it while committing to eating close to 100% organic food. Surprisingly, my conversion rate was a mere 40%, leaving me feeling not just disappointed, but baffled. Wasn’t the choice obvious? Wasn’t this something that could make us healthier right now and protect our future? Wasn’t it simply a matter of money  – and not all that much of it?

I’m an idealist, if not an optimist, so the wake-up call was difficult – though I did (not surprisingly) get offered a position at that store, where I continued to share my excitement about the whole foods/organic food business for several years. Local eating came along later and the transition by consumers has been similar in many ways – slow in coming, wrapped up in the long, arduous process of getting enough information out to enough people and the commitment of small groups of dedicated farmers and consumers.

Now our money and life choices have extended to living sustainably in many other ways and perhaps the questions change slightly when it comes to our cars, our homes, our use of resources, our wasteful habits. Your life or your luxuries? Your life or your conveniences? Your life or your ego?

The answers still feel knee-jerk certain to me – more no-brainers. What’ll it be? Your money or your life?

Anti-Bacterial is Anti-Life – get fermented

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

We’ve long known, but as long forgotten, that raw and/or fermented foods are important factors in the holistic picture of diet and health. Fermentation was first used as a way to preserve perishables before refrigeration existed and the ancient philosophy of Macrobiotics includes fermented foods for their enhanced and abundant nutrients. I’ve included fermented/cultured foods like miso, tempe, apple cider vinegar and kefir in my diet for years. Why are these foods so important? Bacteria, baby!

Our culture has become exceedingly germ-phobic and obsessed with cleanliness. And in the midst of trying to eliminate disease-causing bacterias, we’ve created a overzealous fear of all things microbial. Industry enthusiastically fed this fear and soon the marketplace was swarming with anti-bacterial soaps and other cleaners. Are we less sick due to our efforts? Actually, no and then some.

There’s no sign that fewer people are succumbing to viruses and other illness, but there’s plenty of evidence that our immune systems are continually becoming weaker and that new and antibiotic-resistant bacterias are gaining ground in our environment and bodies. Microorganisms cover our bodies and the surfaces of our home in the form of friendly bacterias that protect us and help develop the immune system. “The cleaner we live…the more likely we’ll get asthma and allergies” states Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of Allergy and Immunology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. In other words, Mr. Clean was wrong.

There are many facets to a whole and healthy life and discovering ways to work with the body’s diverse system, rather than against it, can be a worthwhile and fascinating journey. How to begin?

Step One: Don’t believe everything you’re told on television or radio – research, read and talk to others.

Step Two: Ditch the antibacterial soap and consider washing your hands, and other stuff at home less often. (Continue to wash hands when using public restrooms.)

Step Three: Play in the dirt.

Step Four: Eat fermented/raw/cultured foods. The process of fermentation makes food more digestible and nutritious, while live, unpasteurized fermented foods provide good bacteria in the gut. Fermentation creates new nutrients, removes toxins from foods and have been shown to function as antioxidants in the body. Think sauerkraut, cheese, miso, tempeh, kefir and yogurt. Home “brewing” isn’t as hard as you may think – Learn more from this book by Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation, The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

Culinary Adventures – deliciously local

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Brattleboro, VT

Our first meal in Brattleboro was at the local Co-op down the street from our historically amazing hotel (see below). Now that I think about it – while we enjoyed coffee, tea and homemade goodies from many other local establishments – our first, last and most meals in between were at the co-op down the street. This is not a coincidence. A food co-op is high on my list of priorities when I’m choosing a travel destination. It allows me to eat in a healthy, simple, affordable and local way, and on my own schedule. I can also stock up on wholesome snacks to stow away for other activities like hiking.

If you’re thinking this is some kind of sacrifice – think again. In addition to organic produce and bulk items like nuts and energy snacks, co-ops usually have “salad, etc.” bars and delicious-looking hot foods (which change daily), in addition to local specialties like baked goods and farm products. In this case, we tried various local cheeses and yogurt and even an outstanding chocolate bar by Taza, made in Somerville, MA. In fact, my first meal was entirely local and organic: baby swiss cheese, cultured daikon and cabbage, fresh-baked bread with local butter and even tapioca pudding – compliments of a cow named Stella. From the hot bar, we experienced excellent scrambled eggs, breakfast burritos, vegetarian lasagna and polenta.

I like meeting co-op employees and other patrons, too – friendly, interesting and interested folks who don’t look at you funny when you pull out your canvas shopping bag or your cloth napkin. We even stumbled in on a wine-tasting event one day – no plastic cups! They gave each person their own real wine glass to use for the event. We did buy a bottle at the local wine store and when we mentioned we were at the hotel, we were offered two glasses to take with us and return later.

I save sit-down dining for selected occasions, so I’m not sure how much less I spent eating this way, but I imagine it is significant in terms of the average traveler. As you’ve read, though, I’m in it for the experience, curiosity and to satisfy my green greediness. I’ve been munching my way through many miles this way and I always end up feeling healthy, energized and happy to be part of the local economy of each new place.

Happy and deliciously greener travels.

Hunting 101?

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto

I’m still thinking about death. And life. And death.

Where do I stand on hunting? That’s a tough one. I don’t like the image of it. But when I see large numbers of deer roaming through neighborhoods and lying dead on highways, I find myself grateful for the hunters that help in controlling a population that, without natural predators, can no longer control itself. When my sister, who lives in Nevada, walked out her door last year to find a bear in search of the food, I feel conflicted. Afterall, bears can break down doors as easily as we open them.

Yet, I was the kid who never recovered from the movie, “Bambi”, and still can’t watch “Babe” without sobbing. More recently, while on an Autumn hike in the mountains , I witnessed a newly killed black bear being dragged down a trail by hunters. My entire body reacted so strongly to the scene, that I took off running downhill, falling over my feet and in tears.

IS hunting the necessary balance? If so, is it simply an attempt at balancing a system which our overzealous land-hogging has messed up in the first place? Or, is it ultimately part of our story as humans? If we are carnivores, are we even obligated to be witness and participant in the process of killing the food we choose to eat? I’ve conveniently avoided these questions most of my life, being vegetarian for half of it and wistfully dreaming about birth control programs for over-populating wildlife, while hesitantly grateful for those that can pull the trigger when necessary.

Most hunters sincerely claim environmentalist status. From Sierra Magazine, “According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance, most hunters and anglers have strong conservationist leanings. A study the organization completed in January 2000 found that 83 percent of hunters and 86 percent of anglers support keeping the remaining wild areas in national forests free of roads.” This sounds like a logical, even necessary part of today’s politics.

I do believe that we cannot have it both ways. Rather than kill the wolves that mildly threaten livestock, it may have to be a considered the compromise for displacing them from a natural habitat. We cannot kill simply to support a style of living before we determine if our desired lifestyles are necessary. We are responsible for creating and maintaining some kind of natural balance before we sublimely continue our world takeover.

I have a friend, David Knight, who was raised in a family of hunters. He also happens to work in environmental law for the Nature Conservancy. His gentle nature and sweet personality always made me curious about his love of the hunt. Then one day, he told me that after he kills a deer, he wears, for that day, a cross of its blood on his forehead. My first, and only, meal of venison was with him.

The Greek goddess, Artemis, is considered the goddess of the Hunt, yet she is also considered the goddess of Childbirth and protector of the young.

There’s a lot to think about.

(Artwork in photo by Michael May)

Starbucks “Got” it wrong

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Have you seen the recent Starbucks/Got Milk advertisement? Not only a old and tired play, but as misleading as the original version.

It shows an aproned and smiling employee, holding up a latte with the “Got Milk?” tag underneath, including the misleading health claims about the getting “half the dairy you need” from the milk in your Latte Grande. Not a regular, reasonable latte, but a super-sized high-$ version.

Because of hormones, pesticides and antibiotics, non-organic milk is not healthy in the first place. And although I enjoy lattes occasionally (the soy version), I’m not going to be convinced that it’s part of a healthy diet. We don’t need the daily “goodness” of super-sized caffeinated drinks, nor does the planet need the paper cups and plastic lids that comes with them. From

According to, we used and disposed approximately 14.4 billion paper cups in 2005 — or a mind-boggling 410,000 paper cups every 15 minutes. That number is expected to grow to 23 billion by 2010 unless we change our current coffee-drinking ways.

I had heard whisperings about Starbucks moving to organic milk last year, and maybe a few stores carried it briefly, but it’s been confirmed that the initiative has been dropped. Looks and feels a lot like their same half-hearted efforts to support Fair Trade. And just what about all those paper cups?

Like many mega-businesses, Starbucks had an opportunity to make a positive impact on consumer habits as well as the organic coffee and milk industries. They missed the mark and then some.

Cattle Call – cows good for the planet

Monday, March 10th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Stay with me here. I know what you’re thinking. After all, I became a vegetarian and then vegan at the age of 16 and I did it for the animals and for the planet. Following a lot of personal research, I returned to eating dairy and eggs after moving to Carrboro, where I was introduced first-hand to the natural and humane practices at local farms. I saw chickens completely free to roam (and in fact, hanging out on the farm-house porch), as well as contented cows and goats grazing in spacious pastures.

But could I eat meat again? I wasn’t completely sure. What about the land and the resources used to raise grazing animals? I’ve read about the carbon footprint created in this industry and the release of methane – a potent green-house gas. I needed to know more.

It turns out I didn’t have to look farther than my local Independent news source. Reporter, Suzanne Nelson does her homework and then goes directly to the source – the farmers – to give us the whole story. In fact, there is so much enlightening information, I encourage you to read the entire article here.

The bottom line turns out to be that animals grazing on small farms in fact keeps soils rich in nutrients and allows for the aerobic decomposition of manure, preventing the release of much methane into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cattle are raised in feedlots or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which, besides being inhumane, is proven to be an environmental disaster in every way.

Here’s a couple of excerpts and only a few of the fascinating facts of raising our animals in humane and environmentally sane ways. Read more!

Rich, fertile soil contains large quantities of carbon. Poor soils contain very little. So grazing cows on depleted soils not only makes the land more fertile, in the porcess it traps carbon. Happily for climate stability, the process of making soils rich in organic matter, and thus carbon, can be accomplished relatively quickly. And the catalyst is the presence of ruminants.

Yet by far the most abundant contributor to nitrous oxide emissions [300 times as potent as methane in terms of greenhouse gas] is “agricultural soil management,” according to the EPA. And here again, feedlot animal operations – and the chemical fertilizers used to grow crops when cows are taken off small farms – are directly connected.

The Clean Plate Club

Friday, March 7th, 2008

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Food leftovers are the single largest component of the waste stream by weight in the United States. Households throw away more 25% of our food – about 96 billion pounds of food a year. Meanwhile, the average restaurant generates 50,000 pounds of waste a year – 50% of it is food. Overall, about half of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted.

The rest of the developing world is catching up. Food waste in Hong Kong has doubled over the past 5 years – restaurants are now fining patrons for uneaten food, by the ounce or by the sushi. Although restaurants are ultimately responsible for controlling their end-of-day waste, it’s up to the consumer to change habits. Order only what you can eat and take home what you can’t (come prepared with your own to-go container or ask for your food to be wrapped in foil rather than put into a box). If leftovers are not your doggie bag, at least you can feed your home compost.

When did we start throwing food away – before or after we started installing disposals in kitchen sinks? Food and water make the world go ’round, yet we take both for granted. Shifting this perspective is especially important for children – some of the biggest wasters at home and in school lunchrooms. It’s up to parents to make an early impression. I remember my mom often saying, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” It was really unusual to throw any food away. (Parents, give your kids what they need, not only what they want, establishing better eating habits – and less wastefulness in the future.)

Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than CO2. Most of the methane produced is from anerobic kitchen waste, which, when oxygen depleted, ferments rather than composts. As it turns out, food in landfills causes more problems that non-biodegradables. Food for thought.





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