TV review: Food Forward on PBS

food.forward.logo_-e1307320024221I recently started watching through episodes of a series called Food Forward on PBS via online streaming. The full episodes are available on their website – all 13 of them for the first season.

The series focuses on “food rebels” – people and groups across the country that are trying to make the food system more sustainable and just – as well as delicious. I watched the first three episodes (each about 25 minutes long) to determine if I wanted to go through the whole series, and I definitely do.

The episodes are very well produced. They feel like mini documentaries, but the editing on them is so good – there’s nothing extraneous (with the exception of a guitar player that has shown up in two episodes and makes it feel more hipstery than it has to). I found all of the first three episodes engaging, even though they dealt with topics that are old hat to me in some ways.

The episodes are sponsored by Chipotle and Applegate – two companies that in theory are dedicated to more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. In a culture where everything is sponsored and naming rights to everything are for sale and funding for public broadcasting is slim, PBS (I’m assuming) chose companies that operate under a mission most closely related to the programming. I can give them credit for that.

So about the episodes.I really like that the episodes focus not on problems with the current food system, but on solutions that are actually happening. Save for a brief outline of the problem that the food rebels are trying to solve, the episodes really focus on normal, everyday Americans who took an idea and ran with it. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit that you can feel behind the people in the episodes. And they’re not all Berkley hipster “foodies.” They are just regular Americans.

I watched the episodes in streaming order, with the first one being the pilot called “Urban Farming”. The episode asks the question – what if we stopped importing food into cities and grew it within the city limits? It focused on farmers (“food rebels”) doing some pretty innovative things, from rooftop aviaries in New York City to an urban farm with integrated hydroponics (fish and produce production together) in Milwaukee – from a CSA operation in an area of Oakland, California with no grocery stores to rebuilding vacant lots into farmland in Detroit.

An episode called “Meat of the Matter” addresses the issue of the cost of America’s meat consumption. Centering on the idea that we should eat less meat in general and eat higher quality meat when we do, it profiles several different ranchers and farmers who are producing meat by raising bison, cattle and hogs in a new way. Their practices focus on humane treatment, understanding the animal as more than just a commodity. They also spent a lot of time on the benefit to the earth of a polyculture system, where no one species is in isolation from the others surrounding it.

Overfishing is a big issue, not just in America, but worldwide. An episode called “Go Fish” profiled several American “fish rebels” who are fishing in different ways – going back to the way that fishing happened several generations ago. The practices used by these family and small businesses and cooperatives are less damaging to the environment and the fish population, and they are bringing a higher quality product to the marketplace while supporting their local economy. The most interesting part of this episode was a program called Dock to Dish, which is like community supported fishing. Subscribers get the freshest catch possible – same day caught. That would be so great – makes me want to move to the coast!

I will definitely be working my way through the other episodes. Take advantage of the free streaming of these, especially if you like documentaries and are interested in food systems.



book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak… 

a small, local victory for bluefin

I think it’s easy to feel sometimes like one person doesn’t make much of a difference. We spend time and energy sharing our passions, not knowing what type of return we are going to get. Will anything change as a result of our efforts? 

Recently, I noticed through Instagram that a local Pittsburgh restaurant – an icon, really – was featuring bluefin tuna as a special. 

Bluefin tuna are apex predators – top of the food chain. They help maintain balance in the ecosystem and are amazing, fierce and fast creatures. And a single fish can bring in more than $1 million at market, its flesh highly prized, especially for sushi and sashimi. So it’s vastly overfished and considered an endangered species by the World Wildlife Federation as well as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Not only are bluefin endangered, but the way they are caught includes high levels of bycatch, so it contributes even more to declining populations of other fish.

So I politely contacted the restaurant about their choice of entree. I stated first how much I loved their restaurant and that’s true. I then briefly pointed out bluefin’s status as endangered, with links to back up my claims. I requested that they take bluefin off their menu permanently, since their menu is already so delicious and strong. I also mentioned, as the ad above suggests, that if we looked at seafood like we look at other endangered mammals, we wouldn’t eat them. Customers would balk at panda on a menu, but bluefin is still considered a delicacy. 

And you know what? They responded. They said they were experimenting with potential summer specials, but in the light of this information, they wouldn’t serve bluefin tuna again on their menu. And they thanked me for my feedback and encouraged me to visit the restaurant again. I sure will.

So it’s a small victory – one restaurant in one state in one country not serving bluefin tuna. But it’s something, and it was as easy as sending an email. These little acts of activism can make a difference. And it’s a win for them, too, because they’re made me a customer for life by showing exemplary customer service and caring about something other than the bottom line.

For more info on responsible seafood practices, check out these posts and resources.

Image: WWF France ad campaign


book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I’ve thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you’re at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries – that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what’s driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (p.10)

The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice – from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England’s fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it’s not one single event or practice that contributes to a population’s decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It’s not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I’ll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you’re convinced that you should care, but you aren’t given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I’m reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable – for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 

movie review: the end of the line

This week, Marty’s Market hosted a screening of the documentary, The End of the Line. Marty’s has recently partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to sell seafood that is approved by Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program, so this was a fitting educational program for them to host. They also are partners with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium – the first store in the area to do so.

(As a side note – great place to watch a documentary. Comfortable tables, delicious coffee and nice people. Also a great place for brunch – I’m just sayin.)

I’ve known for awhile about the problem of declining seafood populations, having read Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.The End of the Line is based on a book of the same name by Charles Clover, and challenges the idea that we have operated under for centuries – that the sea is inexhaustible in its resources. (Come to think of it, we’ve pretty much thought that about land and underground resources as well.)

The film highlights the myriad of issues that overfishing creates – from environmental issues like drastically changed ecosystems. When a  species higher on the food chain collapses, there is a proliferation of the lower species. When those are overfished, there’s no way for the system to rebound. Bi-catch is also a big problem – the other sea life that is caught in trawlers and nets in addition to the intended population – making up 1/10 of what is caught. Bi-catch goes back over the side of the boat, dead. Bottom trawlers drag the ocean floor and destroy the life on the sea bed. None of it is so simple as putting a lure on a line on a fishing pole, which is the idea we have about fishing from the recreational fishing that people do as a hobby.

1.2 billion people depend on seafood as a key part of their diet, and many hundred thousands of jobs are dependent on it as well – everything from indigenous fishermen to international corporations. Overfishing might sustain jobs now, but as the populations of the fished species dwindle, those jobs will disappear anyway, since there will be no more fish left to catch. This is where the logic behind quotas and protected areas comes into play – but these are often completely disregarded. Indigenous fishermen in developing nations are also threatened by their own countries selling the rights to off-shore fishing to developed nations. The coastal areas where theses people have fished for centuries are now depleted, making it harder and harder for them to make a living in their own home areas.

The film also touches on farmed fish – often thought of as the solution to dwindling wild populations. But the problem is that farmed fish EAT wild fish. So using aquaculture for a species that eats fish isn’t actually sustainable in any way, since it takes many pounds of fish like anchovies, herring and mackerel to feed the farmed fish that seem to be such a great idea. There are also problems with these fish farms polluting and/or contaminating the wider ocean.

One of the ideas this film presents that I hadn’t really considered before was how we look at seafood as a different type of life than other animals, like dogs, cats, zoo animals, or even livestock. If restaurants served panda on their menus, the public would be outraged. Endangered species! How can we eat them? But yet restaurants across the country highlight bluefin tuna, which is highly endangered. As a society, we classify the life of animals according to our own use. We wouldn’t treat our dogs the way we treat cows and pigs. And we definitely wouldn’t treat a panda or cheetah the way we do bluefin tuna. 

So what do you do? The film suggested asking your legislators to “respect the science” – which I think is a great way of phrasing that governments can’t let private interests try to refute established scientific evidence. Both the film and Monterey Bay also suggest asking businesses and restaurants – is your seafood sustainable? If they answer that they don’t know or say that it isn’t, ask them to look into the issue and leave them with a Seafood Watch card. 

Also, if you’re going to purchase seafood on your own, choose from the Best Choices list, and from the Good Alternatives list, if the Best Choices aren’t available. Look for restaurants and businesses that prioritize sustainability and support those organizations. Download the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch app and check it out the next time you’re in the market for seafood.  

reading this week

Some exciting local stuff this week, as well as national news. There’s never a shortage of headlines in the movement for sustainable, just food. 

What’s New in 2014? Sustainable Seafood (Marty’s Market blog)
Marty’s Market, a local store in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, has made a pledge to only sell seafood approved by Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch in an effort to focus on sustainable seafood. This is awesome for a lot of reasons. In addition to the post linked above, check out their post on the importance of sustainable seafood here. I’m going to Marty’s on Feb. 26 to view a screening of The End of the Line, a documentary about the problem of over-fishing.

A Valuable Reputation (New Yorker)
A story about a scientist who studied the effects of atrazine for Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world. You can guess how this turned out.    

For lower-income students, snow days can be hungry days (NPR)
Way too many children in this country depend on being at school to eat breakfast and lunch – meals they wouldn’t otherwise get at home. 

Kroger accused of being not-so-honest in ‘Simple Truth’ chicken labels (Reuters)
Grocery giant Kroger is under fire (and being sued) for labels that claim their chicken is humanely raised, when the birds are actually raised in standard confinement agriculture operations. Truth in labeling continues to be a big problem in this country.

Also, save the date for the 8th Annual Farm to Table Conference in Pittsburgh – March 21 and 22 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, downtown. This year’s theme is “Food Sources.” We attended this last year and met a lot of great local vendors and farmers, as well as some great speakers.

Don’t forget – I’m raising money for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank by running the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 4. Read more about it here and support ending hunger in our community.

Book review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

I chose Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg as part of my desire to learn more about the seafood I consume. I feel like I have a handle on what labels mean when it comes to treatment and nutritional content for meat and poultry, but for seafood the water is murky (if you can pardon the pun). Which is better? Farmed or wild? What do those words mean and is it different for types of species? How do we catch wild fish and how do we create fish farms?

I started eating seafood after I had a confirmed test that I was not allergic to shellfish, and around the time that Mark and I visited Boston on our honeymoon. It felt like a whole new culinary world was open to me. (Hello New England clam chowder.) But before I read (listened to) this book, I am ashamed to say I pretty much didn’t know what any of that seafood looked like before it was prepared for me to eat, let alone where it came from or what it ate. I still cannot tell you what different types of fish look like, except for maybe carnival goldfish or beta fish.

Like Twinkie: Deconstructed that I recently read, Four Fish is bursting with information that detail nerds will adore. The storytelling is a great frame for all this information; it doesn’t just read like just a bunch of facts. And I thought it had appropriate perspective: Greenberg fishes. He also relates a story about being shocked while on a party boat of people fishing that someone told him that Greenberg could have his dead fish, since he wouldn’t eat them. What is the point of killing a fish (as opposed to catch and release) if you aren’t going to eat it?

Greenberg highlights the plight of fish by highlighting the situations of four different types: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Each story is as different as the species are, but there are common themes – exploitation, over fishing, growing consumer demand, domestic farming operations (successful and unsuccessful, small scale and large scale), and that each species has particular needs. His book also raises a philosophical question of sorts that I had never stopped to consider. At what point do we consider living food that we eat wildlife, as opposed to just a food animal?

People balk at eating horse meat, but we have no problem eating beef, which comes from another four-legged mammal. At one point, it was common for humans to hunt for whales and eat them and use them for their oil. When their existence was endangered, people began a “campaign” of sorts to look at the whale as a species of wildlife that needed to be saved for the sake of its existence alone, not saved in order to find a way to continue to hunt it. Bluefin tuna is endangered too, but do we consider it wildlife or just a food resource?

After reading this book, it feels like the best direction is to support domestic farming of fish that has a constant eye on and consideration of the balance of the wild populations. We need to not give into consumer demand for particular fish as much as we need to be careful what fish we choose for our consumption – those which are efficient in converting energy. (It takes 20 pounds of food to create one pound of bluefin tuna. That’s insane.) This also has to do with the amount of fish we consume. Do we keep consuming more just because we can? Domestic farming of fish has to be non-destructive to wild populations of fish, where common diseases of domestication are less likely to spread to wild populations.

One of my favorite sentences of the whole book is when Greenberg says it ultimately comes down to approaching seafood with these three things: restraint, care and rationality. So you don’t really finish this book with exactly an idea of what fish to eat and which ones not to (although it’s a definite no on the bluefin tuna). But you walk away with much more of an appreciation for what a fish really is – a living creature – that demands as much respect as a food source as I give to cows, pigs and chickens.

Greenberg does mention the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has a rating system for what the “best” choices are for seafood to eat. They also have an app, so you can look it up on the go if you aren’t interested in keeping a card in your wallet. I think I’m going to start with this guide for my seafood choices until I can continue to do more research.

Also, Four Fish was written just as word was getting out that genetically engineered salmon was on the horizon. Now it’s almost to the point of FDA approval (with no labeling requirement, big surprise), and Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Aldi have come out in advance pledging not to carry GE salmon at their stores.

resolved – 2013 is the year of sustainable seafood

In a previous incarnation of this blog, on January 1, 2012, I wrote the following:

Before I got really serious about food, both physically and philosophically, I always made new year’s resolutions that would last for about 6 weeks if I was lucky and then fade away, only to resurface again the following year. The “lose weight” and “get more sleep” variety. Last year I made only one new year’s resolution, and I stuck to it: to stop eating chicken. More specifically, to stop eating chicken from unknown sources. If I didn’t know for sure that the chicken came from a specific farm or a store that only sells chicken up to my standards (Green Circle Farms, Whole Foods, etc.), I wouldn’t eat it. We don’t cook with CAFO-raised chicken (or any CAFO-raised meat for that matter) at home, but the biggest change was at restaurants. No more chicken nuggets, no more chicken dishes at all, except for a small handful of restaurants who have taken a stand against industrial agriculture.

At first it was brutal. I always wanted the buffalo chicken dip when I’d be out someplace, or a chicken panini or pasta. But the more I got used to it, the more I discovered other menu items I liked, and realized that over the course of the year, it really added up to something. When I think about how much chicken I would have consumed outside of my house the year before, that’s a significant number of chickens saved for just one person. I like to think sticking with the resolution made a difference.

Which brings me to my first resolution of 2012. I’m going to expand the chicken resolution to encompass all meats (including beef and pork in all forms). If I don’t know where it came from (and consequently how it was raised, what it was fed, and where it was slaughtered and processed), I’m not eating it. I will be eating like a vegetarian (or pescetarian if I know the fish was wild and not farm-raised) at all restaurants and as many occasions as I can outside of the house. 

This is going to be brutal at first, I’m sure. Sister loves her bacon and particularly hamburgers and steaks. But real change sometimes comes at a cost. I’m not going to be party anymore to a system that negatively affects so many parts of our lives. Cheap meat has a very high cost: a cost to the environment of which we are to be stewards, a cost to the animals involved, a cost to the workers who are put in danger every day in slaughterhouses across the country that have minimal to no government oversight both in workers’ rights and safety, a cost to communities and small farmers when we source everything we buy from somewhere other than home, a cost to the person who gets poisoned from e. coli or salmonella or even staph simply from eating a hamburger at a summer picnic.

Amazingly enough, with a only few exceptions of personal weakness, I was able to stick to this resolution for 2012. Now it feels like a way of life, not a resolution that I have to struggle to incorporate into my life. While in some ways it feels like this resolution is designed to stop directly and indirectly giving money to CAFOs, I have realized how much it actually had a positive economic impact. My money this year supported local farms, grocery stores that provide humanely raised meats, and restaurants willing to make a commitment to sustainable, humane and local meats in their establishments. 

Many of these same restaurants also have a commitment to local farms for produce and dairy as well as meats. And while I don’t mind giving my money to Whole Foods (which is a post in and of itself!), I am happy that much more money went into my local economy as a result of my “resolution.” 

I’ve even discovered some new vegetarian dishes that I never would have ordered before I restricted the type of meat I eat. I also ate more seafood than I would have previously (and am now enjoying more types of sushi than I ever did before!)

But this brings me to my next area of research – sustainable seafood. I’m going to explore this more this year, after being inspired by a report on NPR about what a “sustainable seafood” label really means. I am worried about what this means for the sushi delights I discovered in 2012, but if I can cut out problematic chicken, beef, pork, and other meats, I can do seafood too.