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From the Department of Good News: Farmers’ Markets Keep Growing

The worst drought since the 1950s continues to wreak havoc on America’s bread basket, shriveling up commodity corn and soybean crops and driving up food prices. But there is heartening news from the local agricultural sector: Farmers’ markets are booming.

Last week, the USDA released its annual update of the National Farmers Market Directory*, which is now 7,864 markets strong. It’s a 9.6 percent uptick since last year, and more than double the number of markets since 2004. Read more

Organic in Cuba: Something from Nothing

There’s a scene in Terry Gilliam’s 1991 movie “The Fisher King” in which a man plucks the discarded wire cage from a champagne bottle off a pile of garbage bags as he walks down a New York City street with a woman he is trying to impress.  He fiddles with the wire in his hands as they walk, eventually holding up what looks like a delicate and beautiful little metal chair, fit for a dollhouse. “You can find some pretty amazing things in the trash,” he says to her.  She is smitten.

That transformation of a piece of trash into a thing of beauty transfixed me then, and still does.  When I traveled to Cuba a few weeks ago, on a food sovereignty study trip with Food First, I had the opportunity to be transfixed again and again. Read more

Buy This Coat! And Support Civil Eats

We here at Civil Eats know you want to be sustainable and stylish. We want you to continue reading our site while helping us support our indefatigable editors and writers, all of whom help contribute to the national conversation about food policy completely as a labor of love.

With the incredible generosity of cool companies like Nau, an eco-conscious clothing company based in Portland, Oregon, we are able to make the site more financially sustainable through donations. For the next few months (or until it sells out) you can snap up this fabulous breathable, wind-resistant and water-repellent eco-dress jacket, modeled by a Civil Eats fan Allison Arieff, former Editor-in-Chief of Dwell magazine, a regular New York Times opinion columnist, and food advocate.

She is featured in Nau’s “Portraits” series wearing the Chrysalis dress from their spring collection–and five percent of every sale will be donated to Civil Eats. In addition, Nau has extended to Civil Eats readers a 10 percent discount on all other clothing on their site just by using the “CIVILEATS” promotional code at the point of purchase. Read more

Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz

Walmart made big news yesterday with a press conference alongside the First Lady to announce new company commitments. Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Walmart announcement seemed to buy the company PR that it was taking valiant steps to improve the affordability and health qualities of the food it sells. Among these commitments, Walmart said it will be working with food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in certain products by 2015; developing its own seal to help consumers identify healthier products; and addressing hunger by opening Walmart stores in the nation’s “food deserts.”

Do these Walmart promises really hold big upsides for health and food insecurity? The Times seemed to think so, running with this headline: “Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods.” (Am I crazy or does that read remarkably like the Walmart press release: “Walmart Launches Major Initiative to Make Food Healthier and Healthier Food More Affordable”?) Had the Times been aiming for accuracy it might better have titled the article: “Walmart Launches PR Campaign Promoting Promises to Win the Hearts and Minds of Urban Consumers.” Read more

Wal-Mart Promises Local Food, While Big Ag Gears Up for a Fight

Last week, Wal-Mart–the largest grocer in the world with over 8,600 stores in 15 countries, two million employees and sales of $405 billion–made news when it launched sustainable agriculture goals for the U.S. and emerging markets focused on regional food systems. The move is part of decade-long trend of food businesses–from producers to purveyors–adapting, or at least claiming to adapt, to the consumer demand for sustainable food.

Wal-Mart’s decision–the details of which I will get to in a moment–comes on the heels of the success of chains like Whole Foods, which also touts local foods. But unlike Whole Foods, which is considered “niche”, Wal-Mart is mainstream. Some say that this announcement is going to shake the ground under agri-business, which has vehemently fought against anyone suggesting changes to the food system for years now. But agri-business companies are not going to take this shift in consumer demand lying down.

In fact, agri-business elites have been trying either covertly or otherwise to convince the consumer that sustainable food advocates have misled them into thinking the current food system is unsafe, unjust, and unhealthy. And the evidence shows that more of the same is coming down the pipeline. Read more

Empires of Food: Food History Our True History

I spend a great deal of my time on extremely small-scale food production.  Growing, procuring, cooking, eating, and writing about locally produced food is my bread and butter.  Thus picking up a copy of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations was in some ways a departure for me.  Authors Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas are examining a world that looks to me much the same as the Grand Canyon must look to a mouse. Read more

Making a Place at the Table for Farmers in the Future of Sustainable Agriculture

Interest in how our food is grown has been rekindled in recent years, with particular focus on sustainable agriculture. But what exactly is sustainable agriculture? Recently, everyone from certifiers like the Food Alliance, to resource groups like the National Center for Appropriate Technology, to producer groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation, to multi-stakeholder efforts like the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture have been clamoring for authority on the matter, framing up widely varying definitions and criteria to steer the national dialogue.

Last week, the National Research Council (NRC) upped the ante with the publication of Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the 21st Century. The report will surely be an important milestone on the path toward agricultural sustainability. Read more

Redefining Sustainable Agriculture at PASA

One almost expected to see a Monsanto executive among the honored guests and presenters at the 19th annual Farming for the Future Conference held Feb. 4 – 6 in State College, Pa. After all, the St. Louis-based agri-giant was recently named “Company of the Year” by Forbes magazine. And in its well-funded advertising campaign that strategically targets such media outlets as National Public Radio, Monsanto proclaims itself to be the very champion of sustainability.

While many of the more than 2,200 attendees of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s yearly gathering would have gladly entertained a dialogue with a Monsanto representative, it’s safe to say they view the conference’s central concept in a quite different light. Read more