Thursday, April 29, 2010

Food System Council

Jamie Oliver is a trademarked business and his marketing strategy is succeeding really, really well. Some people even love him naked which can’t be a pretty sight :-).

As charming as he is-I am a big fan of his show too, most Americans are conditioned to act on those feelings as they follow the information through the Internet and other marketing venues by buying stuff instead of using that energy to support something we could be and should be doing anyway in our own homes. He is selling a lot of stuff on his web sites. The emotional appeal to buy items he is selling should not be equated with making a contribution to or helping your community which has problems and problem areas that are as bad off as any town in West Virginia. In some parts of Vancouver, Washington the number of families whose kids that are eligible for free or reduced lunches is way more than fifty percent. Those kids are already at risk because of poverty, higher than average lack of stable family life, frequent home changes, lack of ties to the community and community resources, etc.

You can get a sense of how urgent the need to start taking action, to especially protect those neighborhoods from junk food that is indirectly subsidized by the Federal government, effectively stripping away any choice they have of which food to buy. This drives those families even deeper into poverty because they have far more health problems than people with the means to spend more for their food and it compromises mental and physical development. We have a lot of obstacles to implement the kind of change Oliver’s show talked about in our community.

Take as an example, the Food System Council, a group hosted by the Clark County, Washington “Health Department”. The “Health Department” representative to the FSC recently made this statement: Public Health is concerned about community health but is not charged with the responsibility to reduce food supply problems or protect individuals from unhealthy food choices. We function to work in a collaborative manner to improve community level wellness. This does mean that we will work with many others who don't always have the same goals and values as we may have but our purpose would be to find common ground and opportunity for change.”  I have several problems with that statement. First of all there is no urgency to deal with what I would describe as the largest public health crisis that we have ever seen in this country. The second is the assumption of what free choice is for people living in a market economy with a limited income. For the most part free choice for people of limited income is a myth and one of the most cynical arguments I have ever heard to cover up what is really a lack of choices. Third, is the bit about collaborating to make improvements. This suggests that even one concrete change has has ever even been discussed, let alone acted on by the council except as an abstraction or something it heard it in a report of what someone was doing all on their own anyway. In this abstraction putting ketchup on GMO corn chips fried in CAFO grown beef tallow could be seen as a health food.

Is the “Health Department” at best charged with having meetings to talk about side issues and keeping statistics while they count the germs on food that in many cases has little or no supporting nutrition and would make almost any kind of animal sick? Would a farmer feed the vast majority of goods we see in the supermarkets to animals they wanted to keep healthy? Of course they wouldn’t. Essentially what we have here is a local governmental organization that is giving businesses that trade in poison local, state, and federal resources as legal cover to keep poisoning our population for a profit.

The council works on a “consensus” basis in which no one should ever ask a vested money interest, that are very well represented on the council, a direct question that might expose their part in this train wreck of a food supply. Another example of how this consensus works is that if someone is selling products that are known to be harmful, then in order for the council to recommend any change all the businesses impacted by the change would have to agree to recuse themselves from the consensus or agree to change their business model, something that they can’t do. No recommendation could be made by this community council that is contrary to current business practices. Public corporations, companies that issue stock to investors, are legally obligated to manage their business for the profits of their shareholders, so how this council was formed, who was asked to sit on it, and it’s internal rules of governance were designed by definition to have no impact on the food system that would result in any kind of change.

Because the federal government subsidizes many commodity crops it predisposes people to choose energy and food sources that are the most affordable. It is cheaper to buy junk food that is derived from corn, a low nutrition energy food fed to livestock in the last months of their lives to gain weight and tenderize the meat by fattening them up, than it is to get fresh whole foods that have the nutrition necessary for good health and development of, among other things, the nervous system. The participation in the council of fast food companies, including burger joints and supermarkets whose largest profits are in selling the least nutritious food, has the added affect of virtually guaranteeing them legal immunity to keep on doing business as usual because now a “community standard” has been established by the existence of a council that never recommended a change. This is a combination of Orwellian and Catch-22 logic in which there is no possibility for the long term survival of any of the participants. Our food system is an early death sentence for a growing number of people and life imprisonment for anyone whose choices are limited by it because a person’s ability to grow physically and mentally is directly related to the quality of their nutrition.

Holding hands with snakes while singing campfire songs is not a way to improve our food system. If it can’t do any better, the “Health Department” should be legally required to change it’s name to what it really does, something like “Counting Germs”; or the “Counting the Dead and Dying Department” or something else that tells taxpayers in a more transparent way what they paying for. Jamie Oliver did show that it is possible to change the consensus in a community by encouraging people to demand better of their elected and non-elected community leaders. We need our governmental agencies to take leadership roles and be consensus builders, not consensus followers. Constructing a consensus arrangement in such a way as to sustain the status quo in perpetuity as was done with the FSC is not a public interest or service.

The cost of the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution show is something that didn’t get a lot of press. ABC/Walt Disney pumped a lot of money into this show, at least hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it happen, provided a lot of behind the scenes staff to organize activities, and subsidized a lot of the food and activities in the show. The cost of that in Clark County would be cheap compared to the unfunded liabilities that grow every day we don’t fix our food system. What we saw wasn’t a reality show. It was a made for television fantasy propped up by a huge marketing organization. Making a change in our community will take leadership that won’t have as much capital to invest.

Unfortunately, this discussion in Clark County has been delegated to people that themselves have a vested interest in keeping their own jobs by not offending anyone so their ability and willingness to lead in this environment are limited at best. Call Tricia Mortell 360-397-8000 Ext 7211 or Jonnie Hyde (360) 397-8122 at the “Health Department” and ask them if they can tell you what they are doing to make sure that the generation that we are raising now doesn’t have a shorter lifespan than we and our parents will. Ask why they won’t even ask BurgerVille and Wal-Mart, FSC members, if they would stop selling products contaminated with high fructose corn syrup. Shouldn’t offend anyone to ask, right? Ask them when they are going to start being consensus builders, not consensus followers. You should share these same concerns with all of our elected officials. Ask federal officials why taxpayers subsidize high fructose corn syrup but not fresh vegetables which robs people of the ability to make healthy choices.

Let’s join Michelle Obama and Let's Move! But let’s not wait for someone in Washington D. C. to solve our problems. Let’s have a food system council in our county and every county that represents the people, not businesses that cannot and will not make changes that we need now.

Contact your U. S. Representative and ask that they become a cosponsor of and support:
H.R. 4971: Greening Food Deserts Act
H.R. 4607: Healthy Food for Healthy Schools Act of 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting the Most From Fertilizer

I have been looking for a way to band fertilizer in my vegetable beds. I only have about a quarter acre to play on so I work with smaller tools as a rule. Many organic materials are very dusty powders that are difficult to apply, especially if there is any kind of weather going on. Banding means to put a line of fertilizer within a few inches of the roots. Fertigating, a term coined by Steve Solomon-“Water Wise Vegetables”, helps conserve water and fertilizer by providing both where they are most needed.

This also makes it economically viable to add mycorrhizae to the mix in enough concentrations to do some good without spending a lot of money. The rationale is to provide good nutrition to the soil where the plants can get it. It isn’t helpful to put material where it is not usable because of a variety of field limitations that put the material out of reach of the plants. If the plants can’t get to the fertilizer then it either gets locked up in the soil or leached away by rain. Banding should help control fertilizer costs while maximizing your return on your fertilizer investment by accurately putting the fertilizer where it would do the most good. I looked at converting a regular garden drop spreader by masking off areas that I didn’t want to drop material with masking or duct tape but I wasn’t confident that I would get a good even drop because those units are primarily designed to work with material that is more pelletized than powder.

I had a epiphany one day where I had seen the device I was looking for. If you have ever been to a baseball or football game you may have seen someone freshening up the base lines with a “dry line marker”. After doing a bit of research it looks like this may meet all of my fertilizer banding needs. The first one I found was a Stackhouse 25 pound marker for $85 plus shipping that puts down a 2 inch wide chalk line but has no other calibration that I could see. The next unit I looked at, the Alumagoal, for $116.34 with free shipping has a way to calibrate the width of the drop from “Off” to 4 inches wide so a fairly reasonable method of calibrating the tool to drop the intended amount although you might need to make more than one pass to get the right amount down.

To calibrate a tool like this, or any drop spreader or seed drill for that matter, spread a tarp out on level ground and mark off a measured distance. Fill the hopper and set it to a medium drop rate and make 2-4 passes back and forth on the tarp. Make separate passes by not going over the same spot twice so you can see if your tool has any obvious variations in the drop rate on any of the passes. If it looks like you are getting way too much or not enough material adjust the tool and repeat after cleaning up the material that has already been dropped and start over. The more passes you do and the more material you drop the more accurate your calibration will be.

You need to weigh the material and divide the weight by the amount of ground the tool would cover. You should also pay attention to any variations related to the evenness of the drop. For instance, does speed make a difference in how much material per square foot is dropped? Does the applicator drop less at the beginning or end of a pass? Do coarser materials or materials with larger granules drop at a slower or faster rate than dusts? You should calibrate the tool for each blend of fertilizer you use until you have a good handle on how it performs. If you want to cover the hole width of a row then I would look at something like Scotts AccuGreen® 3000 Drop Spreader which is available in most hardware stores.

Banding may not be a good method for putting down all types of fertilizer. If you have a soil test that says you should put down a certain amount of lime to raise the pH then I would spread that evenly over the entire growing area. Other fertilizers, especially ones supplying nitrogen I would get as close where the plants are going to be as possible. A tool like this might not work well in beds that have soft, wet, or very uneven soil.
Baseball Field Dry Line Marker - 25 lbs Capacity
Alumagoal All-Steel Dry Line Marker

Contact your U. S. Representative and ask that they become a cosponsor of and support H.R. 4971: Greening Food Deserts Act.