Shopping Matters

Three adults squatted in the cereal aisle of the Key Foods grocery store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Each had plucked a different kind of oatmeal from one of the lower shelves. They were trying to determine which was the most healthful and the most affordable.

It shouldn’t have been that hard. And yet, it took a good five minutes for three smart grown-ups to analyze the serving sizes, sugar and sodium contents and the price per unit before they could settle on a 2-pound-10-ounce drum of old-fashioned oats. It contained no sodium or sugar and was $1.06 cheaper per pound than the runner-up, a smaller box of quick oats.

It has become conventional wisdom that Americans don’t know how cook. But shopping for food, especially on a budget, is for many an equally daunting prospect. In a world where busy schedules mean that reheating a frozen pizza counts as cooking, shopping smart might be even more important.

Helping shoppers make good decisions was the goal of this supermarket tour. It was part of a course called Cooking Matters at the Store, developed by anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. The tours explore how to buy fruits and vegetables on a budget, how to read food labels and how to identify whole grains and compare unit prices. In 2012, 21,000 low-income adults attended a tour in 46 states; 68 percent of them were receiving some kind of federal food assistance.

Read the whole story at the Washington Post Web site.

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At this dinner, the guest is in the kitchen

City Grit in New York (photo courtesy of The New York Times)

For chefs, there is no credential like cooking in New York. Until recently, that generally required vying for a night as a guest chef at the James Beard House, the storied West Village brownstone where ambitious chefs pack their menus with luxury items like caviar, lobster, foie gras and Champagne. It was as if scoring a part on Broadway were the only way for aspiring actors to make their reputation.

Now there is an Off Broadway option: City Grit, a self-described culinary salon that functions as a kind of permanent pop-up, giving both unknown and established chefs the opportunity to drum up attention in the media and the food world.

City Grit is scrappier than the Beard House but more in sync with how most New Yorkers eat. Housed in a furniture store in NoLIta, it features communal tables, mismatched cutlery and jam jars for water glasses, and a giant chalkboard where the menu is posted nightly. It’s sexier, too, a place where modern dishes like that beef-heart tartare seem more appropriate than lobster pot-au-feu. By comparison, the price of admission is a bargain. Tickets to City Grit are $45 to $95 a person; most dinners at the Beard House cost $170.

Have you been to City Grit? Do you prefer it to a night of fine dining? Tell me what you think or read the rest of my latest article in the New York Times here: At This Dinner Party, The Guest Is In The Kitchen

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Beyond trayless dining

Not to make you feel guilty, but think for a minute about what you threw out of your refrigerator this week: that wilted lettuce, the yogurt that had passed its expiration date, the Tupperware full of mac and cheese that the kids had to have but never finished. It adds up.

Now imagine the amount of wasted food in a huge cafeteria that serves thousands of meals each day, a place like the South Campus Dining Room at the University of Maryland. That’s what three students did one day back in 2010. The quantities of soup, roast turkey, pasta and salads were so jaw-dropping, they decided to do something about it. They created the Food Recovery Network.

This month’s Smarter Food looks at the effort, which has blossomed into a national campaign to prevent food waste on college campuses. Good thing: Americans throw out 40 percent of their food, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, a total of $165 billion worth of food each year. In food service alone, including restaurants and cafeterias, waste accounts for $8 billion to $20 billion, according to LeanPath, a company that provides automated food waste tracking systems.

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Foodies’ new year’s resolution? Get antibiotics off the farm

Ask a dozen food activists what political change they want to see in 2013 and you’ll get a dozen different answers, maybe two dozen: Restrict sodium in packaged foods. Label genetically modified ingredients. End subsidies to big farms.

All are critical. But I couldn’t see any of those getting a bunch of tattooed chefs or idealistic college kids or suburban moms, let alone all of them, to lobby their member of Congress. But there was one thing that might: Getting antibiotics off the farm and out of the food supply.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States — about 28.8 million pounds — are given to animals that are raised for food. Most of those animals are perfectly healthy, but they receive regular doses of medicine to make them grow faster, to make up for cramped conditions on industrial farms. Those two “benefits” are part of how producers keep the price of meat cheap. The problem is that antibiotic overuse breeds drug-resistant ­superbugs that can move from animals to people in numerous ways, including via the meat we eat.

In this month’s Smarter Food column, I argue that food activists should and can–and should–come together to push Congress to ban antibiotics on big farms. The move would keep antibiotics working for humans and go a long way to cleaning up factory farms. Read the full column here. Or let me know what you think will bring food activists together.

Here’s to better food in 2013.

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Turning garbage into food

Jeremy Brosowsky, founder of Compost Cab. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Trash, even “good” trash like compost, is not usually appetizing enough to make it into the pages of the Food section. But my column in the Washington Post’s mission  is to highlight businesses that fill the gaps in the sustainable-food chain. Composting is one of them: Americans generate 250 million tons of garbage every year. Nearly a third of what is sent to the landfill could be composted but instead sits in an airless hole where it decomposes and releases methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

That’s why November’s column spotlighted Compost Cab, a Washington, D.C. residential compost pickup service. The business makes it easy for customers–no dragging your compost to the local drop-off–and ensures that urban farms, which often need to improve their soil, get a stream of biodegradable waste.

For $32 a month, Compost Cab gives each customer an airtight bin, lined with a sturdy, compostable bag, to minimize smells and keep away rodents, always a worry with composting. Each week, Compost Cab picks up the bag, leaving behind a clean bin with a new liner. It delivers the waste to urban farms, including Eco City Farms in Edmonston, Maryland, and the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, which use the material to improve their soil and grow more food.

“I don’t think of it as the garbage business,” Brosowsky said. “I’m in the magic business. As I tell my kids, ‘I turn garbage into food.’ ”

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Will Uncle Sam give us a healthier food system?

Earlier this summer, the Association of Food Journalists invited me to moderate a debate on food policy between representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns at their annual conference in Washington. The Obama team offered up Dora Hughes, a special advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The Romney folks stalled, then asked for some sample questions. When we provided them, they stopped responding to all calls and emails. Radio silence.

It would be easy to write this off as a classic example of Republicans avoiding what seems like a natural issue for Democrats. But a look at Obama’s record shows tepid support for many important food issues, from labeling for genetically modified foods (GMOs) to food safety and food marketing to kids. Only the photo-op-ready White House garden has delivered, and exceeded, its original promise.

Food should be the kind of issue on which the government can easily take the lead. After all, everybody eats. As I argue in the IATP Food and Community election food forum, in our hyper-partisan political climate, it is difficult for even a progressive government to take action. Any move that limits personal choice or even suggests that the government wants to “tell Americans what to eat” are made to seem as radical as calls to legalize prostitution.

This was not always the case. During the First and Second World Wars, the government was very clear about what patriotic citizens should eat – and what they shouldn’t. Posters admonished families to “Eat more corn,” “Eat Irish potatoes” and to “Eat more cottage cheese; You’ll need less meat.” My favorite, distributed in 1917 by the U.S. Food Administration, is very specific, indeed. It reads: “Eat more corn, oats and rye products. Fish and poultry. Fruits, vegetables and potatoes. Baked, boiled and broiled foods. Eat less wheat, meat, sugar and fats to save for the army and our allies.”

But those were the days when the government was accorded respect, not despised and misunderstood. (Get the government’s hands off my Medicare!) Even if the government were brave enough to tell us how to eat, would anyone listen?

Government does have a role. But it will be a patchwork of homegrown solutions that will create a just and healthy food system. In some places, charismatic political leaders will fight for good food. In Oklahoma City, Republican Mayor Mick Cornett has turned his town into what The New York Times calls “a laboratory for healthy living” with bike lanes, billboards and posters declaring the evils of sugary drinks and programs that offer free medical checkups in exchange for taking health classes. In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino introduced an urban agriculture initiative to increase access to affordable and healthy food. In other cities, grassroots efforts will be necessary to inspire action.

Sad as it is, we, the people, cannot wait for the government to create the food system we want. We must build it locally and force the government to take notice and act.

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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 column, Smarter Food.

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