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2007's Best: Food
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Food is a topic we engage with frequently, and on many levels.

One of the Worldchanging classics is Sarah's Lunch at the Langar: Exploring a Free Kitchen in Delhi

The Gurwara Bangla Sahib langara has been feeding Delhi residents since 1935. Day in and day out a factory of human hands churns out what one member of our group observed as a day's peace of mind for hungry members of the community. "If you get your day's meal," he said, "you can relax. You can survive." It's not a matter of survival for everyone who eats there -- in fact, most people with whom we shared lunch looked happy and healthy, and had probably come as members of the spiritual community. But it's there for anyone who needs it, and in a city of 13 million (and rapidly growing), an open, organized, clean, reliable, and free food source couldn't be more valuable. It's a great testament to the stability of a well-organized grassroots effort. While countless hours pass in board rooms and over policy debates to establish government-subsidized and NGO programs for feeding the hungry, a crew of volunteers at Gurwara Bangla Sahib feeds thousands upon thousands of their neighbors with no intervention, no fuss, and no strings attached.


Kinderkookkafé

Debra Solomon told us about Kinderkookkafé by sharing a dining experience from the previous week, when her friend, 2.5-year-old Tula, invited her to lunch. Tula prepared a meal for Debra all by herself, having learned cutting and cooking techniques from her adult sous-chefs at the café.

The place is part restaurant, part cooking school. Parents drop their kids off in the afternoon and return to eat the meal the children have made. No adults are allowed to eat at Kinderkookkafé unless they've been invited by a child. Tula prepared a pizza with dough from scratch, fresh tomato sauce and plenty of vegetables. Debra told us she complained that the kid-proof knife was too dull to accommodate her masterful skills (certain safety precautions remain in place for baby fingers).

The point here, clearly, is to get kids connected with the food they eat, and to do it in a way that is serious and empowers them with regard to selecting ingredients intelligently and preparing them well. It's one thing to give kids a bowl of cake batter and let them make a mess while baking a cake; it's another to provide a setting where young people can be innovative and even semi-professional in their interactions with food.


Sarah and I tried to imagine what it might look like if there was a global NGO dedicated to tackling sustainable agriculture at a global level in a time of climate chaos -- seedPOD: A "Wikiseedia" for the Future of Food and Farming was the result

Probably the least hypothetical component of the seedPOD toolkit, seed banks already exist all over the world as preventative measures against the loss of barnyard biodiversity. The model collided with future scenarios with the announcement of plans to build a huge doomsday seed vault near the Arctic Circle which would be more secure and stable than existing banks -- able to withstand the more catastrophic possible outcomes of climate change (or war or asteroid impact).

SeedPOD seed banks will be a network of living facilities (rather than sealed vaults) where seeds can be deposited as they become threatened, or taken and planted where they couldn't previously have grown. Though seedPOD is primarily citizen driven, this will be one place where staff will be employed to catalog and archive records of the flow of seeds through the bank, and the locations from which they originate and to which they go. By supporting the existing, highly-stressed seed bank organizations around the world, creating such a network also meets the purpose of preserving existing seed collections.

Sarah's Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget

There's a paradoxical tension between rising public interest in healthy, organic, local food and rising rates of obesity-related illness in the US. To put it simply (and perhaps to oversimplify), there's not a lot of overlap between populations that eat healthy, organic, local food, and those most afflicted by obesity and its consequences, because it's hard to be in the former category when you live on dollars a day.

Nutritional value and cost usually have an inverse relationship, the outcome of which is quite obvious. And although there's a growing number of farmer's markets that accept EBT cards, most food stamp recipients purchase cheap food in big grocery stores. Rebecca Blood has been thinking about this, and she decided to undertake a one-month challenge with her husband, during which they would buy food strictly within the USDA's food stamp budget. But it doesn't stop there -- that challenge was recently completed by the governor of Oregon -- they planned to eat according to the same food standards they normally keep. Their eating habits fairly well match those of the first population mentioned above, so this is where the real challenge lies. They would keep their CSA box coming, continue shopping at the same groceries, and prepare their meals from scratch at home as always.

Erica's Urban Foraging and Guerrilla Gardening

One trend that has really caught my interest lately (to the chagrin of certain hygiene-obsessed boyfriends) is urban foraging. No, I'm not talking about the Freegans. (Call me elitist, but—although I love the idea of reducing waste—I hate the idea of Dumpster-diving; if you're not similarly inclined, you can find out more about that movement here). I'm talking about foraging for free fruits, vegetables, and other "wild food" around the city.

Sarah's Natural Vending Machines and the Psychology of Snacking

These days, if you wanted to, you could find food every time you thought about it, whether you were at the car wash or the hardware store or the park. This landscape of ubiquitous munchies has a real social and psychological impact on eating behaviors. It may make us feel secure, but it's also making us collectively less healthy, one Snickers at a time. One of the participants as this year's Doors of Perception conference, Margie Morris -- a senior researcher at Intel -- gave a provocative presentation about the social behaviors we construct in order to be sure we have food around us. For example, we may bring a bag of cookies to a friend's house as a "gift," knowing that the next time we visit, those cookies will be there and we will be able to eat them. It amounts to a stashing ritual in which we separate ourselves from the tendency to overeat by placing treats strategically in other people's pantries, but then permit ourselves the indulgence when it's not from our own kitchen. Seems extreme, but ask yourself if you've ever done it, even unconsciously...


Erica's Eating Really Local
Forget the 100-mile diet. What's really in vogue these days is the 100-yard diet, where eating locally means eating what's in your and your neighbors' backyards. Particularly intriguing are the new breed of urban farmers, city dwellers who've made it their mission to produce most or all of their food within whatever (confined, urban, often difficult to cultivate) space is available.


Erica's How to Fertilize Urban Food Deserts

The urban "food desert," a neighborhood in which residents typically must travel twice as far to reach the closest supermarket or other mainstream grocer as people in better appointed neighborhoods, is not just a problem of social or economic justice; it's about public health as well. Faced with a lengthy trek to stock the kitchen with fresh food, many residents of food deserts instead rely on "fringe" retailers -- convenience stores, liquor stores, gas stations, and drug stores -- to provide basic food items. The result is a serious nutrition gap between those who live in areas of plenty and those who lack access to the basics. And poor nutrition leads to poor health and premature death.


Erica's Mindful Eating Crusader To Take Top US Nutrition Post

Wansink is the author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think -- a groundbreaking work on the psychology of eating.... Among Wansink’s fascinating conclusions about the macro-food environment:

* The larger the serving dish and the greater the variety of foods on the table, the more food people serve themselves. With snacks, for example, people took 50 percent more food if it was served from a large bowl instead of a small one. In one of the most fascinating examples of this principle, researchers served a free soup lunch to 54 adults. Half were given soup in normal 18-ounce bowls; the other half received bowls that, unbeknownst to them, were attached by tubing to a vat of soup that constantly replenished the soup in the bowl. Those who had the refilling bowls at 73 percent more soup and reported feeling no more full than those whose soup came in regular bowls.

* In virtually every case studied, people who bought bulk packages of food from discount clubs like Sam's or Costco had eaten half of what they bought within a week after buying it. That was true whether the item in question was a five-pound tub of pretzels or a 32-pack of Fritos corn chips.

* In another experiment cited in the book, Wansink and his grad students handed out stale, five-day-old popcorn to moviegoers, using medium- and large-size buckets. Despite some complaints about the quality of the stale corn, those who received larger buckets ate more popcorn than those who were given smaller containers.

* In what he has dubbed the "McSubway study," Wansink found that people were more likely to overconsume at restaurants they perceived as "healthy" (a Subway, for example, as opposed to a McDonalds) -- and less likely to be aware they were doing so. In fact, people tended to underestimate the number of calories in food at "healthy" fast-food restaurants by an average of 35 percent.


Erica's Eat Organic! Eat Local! Eat...What?

First, we were all told to "buy organic" food because it's better for our health, and for the earth. Then we were told that buying organic wasn't enough, because organic standards vary from country to country (and even within countries), making it difficult to know what you're really getting. And then there are the greenhouse gasses emitted by shipping all that organic produce thousands of miles -- from China, say, to the United States. Those lengthy "food miles" obliterate much of the environmental benefit of buying organic in the first place.

So next we were told to buy locally produced foods (and organic, if possible), in order to eliminate those global warming concerns. Plus, purchasing food grown locally benefits small farmers and local economies, is better for air quality and pollution, and supports responsible land development. And it gives people weaned on supermarket food -- i.e., most of us -- a chance to taste food that's both seasonal and impeccably fresh. So "buy local" has become the refrain, and not just among hardcore sustainability advocates: "locvaore" was the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year for 2007.

But it turns out eating local can have unintended consequences as well. Recently proponents of strengthening fair trade markets in emerging economies have pointed out that the trend toward "eating local" may hurt farmers who depend heavily on overseas markets to make a living. ...Food miles, then, are not the single most important measure of responsible food consumption; how our food choices shape local economies (including those thousands of miles away) may be just as important.

Sarah's Tales of the Self-Sufficient City is a wonderful romp through the kinds of projects that are expanding our mental conceptions of farm and home.

Somewhere at the intersection of New Urbanism, DIY culture, and the resurgence of gardening for self-sustenance, an active and growing community of artist-maker-activists is redefining urban survivalism. While their work addresses our tenuous food security and the threats of catastrophic climate change, it's not a fear-driven movement. Rather, the best of these "new survivalists" are embracing radical self-sufficiency because it fuels their creativity, arms them with a sense of personal empowerment, and strengthens their communities.

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Comments

Hi Alex, thanks for a nice summary of my favourite subject! There's a small mistake in the article though, the last link directs to this exact document instead of the real post here: Tales of the Self-Sufficient City


Posted by: Ewout on 12 Jan 08



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