Can high tech grow on small farms?

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester County is an idyllic place. The grand fieldstone buildings overlook miles of green hills and woods. Dozens of heirloom crops grow in the fields. Even the poultry slaughterhouse, a shingled, lemon yellow building, is pretty.

It’s a model of sustainability. And as such, people expect it to be pretty low tech. But the truth is that Stone Barns and many other small farms use all sorts of technology to promote sustainable practices: portable energizers power lightweight electric fences; the roof on the greenhouse is retractable; and sensors ensure that plants get only the water that is needed. Most visitors are surprised. A handful probably leave disappointed.

My question is why?

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at how and where technology can be used to promote environmental and financial sustainability. As Danielle Gould, the founder of Food + Tech Connect told me: “Technology also has the potential to level the playing field for small and mid-sized farms, by making it easier for them to manage operations, better utilize resources and sell their products.”

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New fast food chains improve business as usual

It’s only natural that the boom of new healthy and sustainable fast-food chains would provoke an eye roll. But the new crop of healthy fast-food start-ups — Sweetgreen, LYFE Kitchen, Tender Greens and Native Foods —are not companies trying to dress themselves according to the latest fad. As I argue in my piece for the New York Times Room for Debate, they are chasing a multibillion dollar market of well-off moms and Millennials who are demanding healthy and sustainable food that’s also convenient. Things like kale-banana smoothies, grass-fed burgers and salads of local zucchini, squash, corn and chicken. These emerging brands will only succeed if they differentiate themselves. The incentives are there to do the right thing.

That’s the good news. The better news is that if these chains succeed, food that is better for us and the planet won’t only be available to those with a taste for quinoa or the means to spend $12 on a salad. The upstarts’ higher standards are already pushing mainstream chains to change their businesses, even though that change is costly and runs counter to their business model of offering food fast and cheap. Earlier this year, Chik Fil-A vowed to phase out meat raised with antibiotics by 2016. McDonald’s has been forced to revisit where it gets its beef. It has pledged to buy only “verified sustainable beef” within two years (even if what qualifies as “sustainable” is still undefined).

Read the rest of the piece here.

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It’s official: kale has peaked

There is a phrase in economics: when something has hit its high, saturated the market, it’s peaked. Marketplace Weekend started a new economic indicator on its show, and they’re saying it: We’ve reached Peak Kale.

Take a listen to my first commentary for Marketplace on kale’s mad rise to the top.

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The meat of the matter

The debate over meat—what kind and how much to eat—is particularly partisan. The vegans face off against the Paleos; the nose-to-tailers sniff at the no-holds-barred foodies who think that everything tastes better with bacon. It’s no wonder: In the 21st century, a juicy steak or burger off the backyard grill is probably more American than apple pie, and everyone has a point of view. It also makes sense. The meat on the center of our plates is central to the future of America’s health and that of the planet. Changing what we eat, even a little bit, can have a huge impact.

My latest column for the Stone Barns Center argues that we should encourage families to make small, painless changes: Skip meat—whatever kind they are eating–once a week, as Meatless Monday does. Reduce portions of meat by an ounce or two at each meal. (This is not as hard as it seems. At the recent Menus of Change conference in Boston, a chef from the Culinary Institute of America demoed a dish of soba noodles, vegetables, herbs, and just two ounces of grilled meat that could easily have sold at a chain restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory.) Higher-income Americans should cut their consumption, too, and buy only meat that is sustainably raised.

Check out the full column here.

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Back to the future: Food courts come to New York

From cupcakes to ramen, New York prides itself on setting culinary trends. Now, it seems the city is playing catch-up on one: food courts. Recently opened ones include Gotham West Market in Hells’ Kitchen and Hudson Eats at the edge of the financial district. Coming soon: Berg’n in Crown Heights and two more at and near Grand Central.

The big question is: Why now? And is their arrival a good thing?

My latest story on WNYC explores the new trend.

Have a listen and feedback welcome.

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going, going..gone? farmland in the balance

There’s a lot of talk about how farmers are getting old. But what we hear less about is the fact that when those farmers retire, their land may disappear too.

Call it a “quiet crisis.” Nationwide, America has lost 72 million acres of farmland since 1982, about one-third of it to development. That trend is likely to accelerate as farmers die and retire. In Iowa, people over the age of 65 own 56 percent of the farmland, and 30 percent is owned by those over 75. In Maine, some 400,000 acres—one-third of the state’s agricultural land—is expected to change hands over the next decade. The global consequences of losing that land are frightening. I explore them — and what we can do — in my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Take a look and as always, feedback is welcome.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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