Sunday, October 14, 2012

Philly + Farming + Fracking +Food = FNCE

Last week I flew to Philly for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' annual Food & Nutrition conference & Expo (FNCE).  After following the conference on Twitter last year I was excited to see if all the buzz was genuine or critical hype. I had to see it for myself.

The opportunity to attend FNCE presented itself when I took on the role of co-editor of the member newsletter of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (HEN DPG). I'd joined HEN after hearing many of the dietitians I admire rave about it, and with a focus on sustainable and accessible food and water systems, it is one of a few groups of dietitians who practice with the larger intention of creating a more just and equitable food system based on the belief that healthy soil produces healthy food which nourishes healthy people (a syllogism I borrowed from J.I. Rodale).

As a newly registered dietitian, I felt like a bit of a phony joining a leadership team and attending a conference with thousands of professionals who have far more experience. But from the moment I boarded the plane in Seattle I knew I was in for a treat. As I waited at the gate I looked around at the other passengers. It was clear that many others were dietitians too. So I wasn't surprised when the woman seated next to me on the place opened a folder with the conference logo on it. I mentioned that I too was headed to FNCE and we began to chat. She and her husband were heading there together, as they did nearly every year. We became quick friends and decided to make our way together from the airport to the city center. I was mortified when, aboard the train I realized I had no cash on me. But when the conductor came around my new friends paid my $7 fare. I was touched by their generosity. "Pay it forward," they told me. Still, I mailed them back their money earlier today.

And so it continued. On my first night in town I met the HEN leadership team I'd been corresponding with via email and conference calls and I was invited into their inner circle. It was an amazing experience to meet and speak with dietitians whose work I'd admired for years. Voices were familiar from podcasts and interviews and lectures I'd heard in the past. While I was clearly the new girl on the block I was welcomed as though I belonged and I marveled at the generosity of my colleagues. Later, as I tried to explain the feeling to my mother I remembered an incident that I hadn't thought about in over twenty-five years. When I was in kindergarten I boarded the school bus at the very last stop and could not find an available seat. I walked further and further along and could feel the lump forming in my throat as I searched for a place to sit. When I reached the back of the bus a group of eighth graders saw me and snatched me up. They must have seen my distress or thought I cute and they squeezed me in on the seat between them. For the rest of the school year I never had to worry about finding a seat. I knew the older kids had my back. FNCE was like that for me, only the support of the HEN members extends well beyond the conference.

In the various sessions I attended I heard dietitians speak about the inspirational work they are doing in their communities. I spent hours in the evenings debriefing with intelligent, civic-minded RDs about the field, the Academy and the future of our profession. I visited the Rodale Institute and an organic dairy farm. I attended a film "feastival" where I learned about the horrors of fracking (truly frightening! educate yourself!) and a non-GMO event in support of CA proposition 37.  At a breakfast one morning honoring leaders in integrative and functional nutrition I had the chance to thank the dietitian who had inspired me to study nutrition five years ago. Life had come full circle.

And finally, the expo did not disappoint. (Well, actually it did!)  I tried samples of more gluten-free items than I ever could have imagined and took pictures of the infamous booths of industry adversaries whose sponsorship undermines the work of dietitians everywhere. Had I not gone to into the expo I might now have believed all the critics who said that industry had infiltrated the profession. But then there was the program, with its alarming number of industry sponsored presentations and research. While I chose to spend most of my time in the sessions that appealed to me, I enjoyed following the live-tweeting of dietitians who were vocal in their criticism of these obscenities. (Three sessions sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association? Really?)

I left FNCE knowing that there's a growing movement within dietetics that is trying to shift the internal and external focus of our field, to empower communities to take charge of their health and the health of the planet. I was inspired by their work and honored to be considered a colleague. Looking forward to Houston next year! A line I never thought I would utter...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Return of the Minimalist

Earlier this evening I attended the kickoff event of Seattle Arts & Lectures at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle.  Last time I was there I was onstage as Bastyr University's grad student commencement speaker, but this time I was in the rear row of the balcony to hear Mark Bittman's talk on "The Future of Food" followed by a Q&A.  In recent years Mr. Bittman has evolved from "The Minimalist" New York Times food and cooking writer into a voice for the food movement. His opinion column has raised important questions about the role of dairy in our diet, supported GMO labeling, and chronicled food pioneers from Maine to California, so I was interested in what he had to say.

Mr. Bittman is an important player in the current conversation around food, if for no other reason than he has a powerful platform upon which he can publish his views. Still, in person he is the least charming of the "food politics trifecta," with Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle far exceeding him in eloquence, likability and in my point of view, expertise. Yet there is something about his brashness, his everyman-ness, his minimalism that makes him more of a voice for the masses than either Pollan or Nestle. He paints a picture of Big Food as the Big Bad Wolf and hails Big Government as the solution. He is optimistic about the potential for an alternative U.S. food landscape - one that relies on small and medium sized farms which employ primarily organic methods to support what will be an increasingly plant-based national diet  - but is comfortable asserting that it will either come about by way of democratic change or post-apocalyptic necessity. He freely admits that little will come of the next farm bill but encourages the audience to think carefully about who they elect to the House and Senate where many of our food battles take place.

It was a safe choice for the inaugural SAL event. Talking about the food movement to forward-thinking, composting, gardening, PCC-shopping, CSA members in Seattle is just about the least risky event imaginable. Though I was surprised at how openly political he was (publicly assuming that the entire audience would be voting for Obama - not unlikely, but still...) I was also surprised by how little he was willing to share. During the Q&A he was asked about his favorite vegetable and what he likes to cook and he seemed openly irritated by these lines of questioning. When the moderator Chip Giller of Grist asked about his transformation from writing recipes to writing about the food system, he insisted that was his interest all along but it was not until recently that he had enough of a following to actually get the Times to give him the space. Though his cooking columns were his bread and butter, and his cookbooks have sold thousands of copies, he was far less interested in talking about those, much to the chagrin of some of the fans present this evening.  At the end of the night I felt like he'd touched upon many issues - from junk food marketing to kids, the obesity "pandemic", farm subsidies for corn, wheat and soy to veganism, food workers right and immigration policies - mostly in a superficial manner, refusing or perhaps unable to bother going deeper into these penetrating questions and uncertainties regarding the future of food in this country and worldwide. To Mr. Bittman's credit he was staying true to his minimalist roots, keeping it simple and straightforward. His take away message was that in addition to doing our part and making food choices that we believe in, we need tighter federal regulations, more public health initiatives and more Democrats in Congress (and of course The White House) to achieve that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Food & Money

Recently I was teaching a nutrition class to food bank clients and after introducing MyPlate asked them how they meal plan to ensure balanced meals. One client explained that he simply did not have the money to plan out meals in the traditional manner but based his meals around items from the food bank. We then spent some time sharing ideas and clever ways to build easy, affordable and healthy meals around a few staple foods. The exercise was a useful reminder that while some of us can decide exactly what type of meals we want to eat (ie. what am I in the mood for?), others must work with what is available.

The class was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch Food Stamped, a documentary about a couple that takes "the food stamp challenge" for a week, spending around $1 per meal while trying to eat healthy, well-balanced meals (read a nice review with great food budgeting tips here). The film features Shira Potash, a nutritionist who teaches cooking classes in low-income neighborhoods, and her filmmaker husband Yoav, who appear to be West Coast liberal Jews (not unlike me) with a preference for locally sourced organic foods. They do their shopping at Berkeley Bowl where they quickly learn some tricks to procuring free food. They hoard free samples, buy in bulk, painstakingly compare prices, forego many of their favorite foods, foray into dumpster diving and generally spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. For Yoav, in particular, food is always on the brain. He is never fully satisfied after a meal, and at the end of the project when the couple consults with a dietitian about their week's intake we are told that he has not eaten enough calories. Despite all their efforts and nutrition knowledge, they learn that for food stamps to provide the supplemental nutrition they are intended to requires a great deal of thoughtful planning and savvy shopping. Most people lack either the time or the know-how for such an endeavor.

As if that's not enough of a barrier, today the New York Times published a piece about Michael Bailey, a county health worker trying to improve diet and lifestyle habits among low-income residents of Oklahoma City.

Mr. Bailey argues that poverty is a big barrier to prevention. Hand-to-mouth living and the short-term thinking that often goes with it means many people are shopping at gas station minimarts where junk food is the staple. Exhausted mothers may let their children fend for themselves in such stores with food stamp swipe cards.“If you ask, ‘What would help your health the most?,’ people say, ‘More money,’ ” Mr. Bailey said.

And yet, a recent study shows that low-income families cook most of their meals at home and do not obtain them from fast food joints, as is commonly believed. When Share Our Strength released the findings they emphasized that most families are looking for ways to prepare easy, healthy meals for their families. (In another study last year fast food purchases were found to be more common among middle-income Americans.) Their Cooking Matters program aims to do just that, equipping teens, adults and families with the skills and resources to cook on a budget. (Full disclosure: I volunteer with Cooking Matters.)

Source: Share Our Strength

Emergency food programs like food banks, and supplemental programs like SNAP (food stamps) and WIC provide a tremendous net for many Americans.  While they help reduce hunger and the anxiety of food insecurity, it is only with additional education and training that they can be effective as nutrition and health promotion programs. To revise the old adage: Give a man a meal and he eats for a day. Teach him how to cook healthy meals on a budget and he can reduce his risk of chronic disease and dependence on the healthcare system for a lifetime. Or something like that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Feel Good Bar

Last week I found myself in the energy bar aisle at the supermarket, faced with the increasingly challenging feat of choosing a good snack. With so many gluten-free, dairy-free options on the market, it's tough to decide which bar is best, considering that so many of them are not only promoting natural, unprocessed ingredients but also the social causes they support. This type of do-good marketing is a popular trend lately as corporate social responsibility is now a way to capture the conscience of consumers who can justify the cost of their purchases by feeling like it includes a contribution to a good cause.

Case in point: TOMS. They sell shoes. Their shoes aren't that great - they provide little to no support and they're not much to look at and yet over the years I've already bought several pairs, spending more money than I believe they are worth. Why? Because TOMS is not a company but a movement, one that donates a pair of shoes for every pair purchased, to a child in need in developing countries. Connecting consumers' spending choices to a larger social good has been a successful aspect of their marketing campaign and has caught on elsewhere too.
Back in the supermarket it was a chocolate banana flavored Two Degrees bar that caught my eye. Featured prominently on the label is the tagline "Is Good: Does Good," offering that "For every bar you buy, we give a meal to a hungry child." Immediately I felt justified in paying close to $2 for this bar over the others, suddenly thinking I would not only be feeding myself but someone else with this purchase. It's the same rationale I remember using when paying over $40 for my first pair of TOMS: my spending was elevated from a selfish act to a magnanimous one. I felt good about buying the bar and it tasted pretty darn good too. I only hoped that the RUTF (Ready to use Therapeutic Food) that was being provided to the beneficiary of my purchase was equally as satisfying.

An impressive infomercial about how Two Degrees bars address malnutrition

Both TOMS and Two Degrees are examples of a growing One-for-One movement where one person can directly impact another's life, in most cases someone in need who lives halfway around the world. But as I think of these business models, they would more aptly be called One-for-Two. Just as with Two Degrees bars, you buy one and feed two so that the double rewards of the purchase (ie. I benefit and so does someone else) empower us to feel good about our spending on multiple levels.  And while I don't believe the long term solution to hunger is in RUTF packets, they do address acute malnutrition and offer opportunities for us to engage in larger global health issues as we go about our daily lives.  Further down the line, it would be exciting to see smartphone apps that can scan items, see their social responsibility track record (in case it's not as clearly evident on the packaging) and encourage more of One-for-One (or as I argue, One-for-Two) model. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hunger Pangs

With this past weekend's release of The Hunger Games DVD, it seemed not entirely inappropriate to discuss the movie on a blog centered of all things food.  Over the past few months I have peppered my summer reading with The Hunger Games trilogy, mistakenly believing it was light fare. These highly engrossing page turners are anything but light. They provide a sort of post-apocalyptic look at a fragmented society divided into distinct districts that are enslaved to a gluttonous and frivolous group of wealthy rulers in the Capitol who amuse themselves with a televised fight-to-the-death competition of peasant children of Panem each year. It's Shirley Jackson meets Cormac McCarthy meets the Olympics. Though written for an adolescent audience the books have become bestsellers amongst kids and adults alike and as all bestsellers do, they spawned a movie franchise as well. At the forefront is protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who cleverly survives the Games and sparks a rebellion while sharing her every thought and conflicted feeling about her deceased father, her innocent younger sister, her broken healer mother and her two love interests with readers.

I made a point to read the entire series before seeing the movie, lest my mental images be corrupted by someone else's casting and style decisions. I was glad I did, not only for this reason, but because the film is less tightly framed around Katniss's character development and emotional experience. And also, because it proves once again that Hollywood can take a subversive novel and turn it into eye candy.

It’s hard to resist looking at the parallels between the alternate world of Panem and the reality we inhabit today. The all-pervasive media, the competitive reality-television, the fabrication of images through highly stylized fashion, interviews and back-story and the obsession with power, money and material goods is something that one needn't look to fantasy literature or the movies to find. The concept of hunger, an issue worldwide and in this country as well (where 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure) is explored far more thoroughly in the books than onscreen, and while The Hunger Games  movie is promoting the anti-hunger work of partnering agencies Feeding American and the World Food Programme, it doesn't make clear what the causes of hunger are (the organizations' sites and bonus materials do). The social inequities that keep the rich well-fed and the poor starving with government mandates of monoculture-type local economies was evenly conveyed in the books and could have provided a more interesting and compelling visual narrative. Instead, the movie succumbed to the very same tendency the book rails against by favoring style over substance, image over content. 

The Hunger Games provides a great opportunity to engage audiences in a dialogue about media literacy. What is the veracity of images conveyed to us? Whose hidden agenda controls those images? What agency do we have as viewers to change the types of images we are fed and expose the power players who work to promote the status quo?  It's a worthwhile exercise to ask young adults (or anyone, really) who read the book about their impressions of the film. What were some of the differences? What was left out of the film and why? Why were these choices made by the screenwriter/director/producer/studio and what can we learn about the role of media in shaping our social consciousness? Critical takes on popular works are some of the most potent and exciting way to  take a mediocre work and elevate it to an important classic while promoting our engagement as active viewers. Watching The Hunger Games left me hungry for this type of discussion. It may not have started yet, but there's always the sequel...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mastering the Art of Cooking

When I moved to Seattle I was determined to learn how to cook. Sure I already knew how to bake salmon, boil pasta and roast vegetables, but I wasn't comfortable in the kitchen, didn't speak the language of cookbooks (braise? blanch? julienne? chiffonade?), didn't own the right appliances (food processor? immersion blender?) and was terrified of dried beans. I remember confessing this to the man was not yet dating but would later marry. I had just burned another pot and ruined an entire batch of soup. "I can't cook," I explained in frustration. "Anyone can cook," he said matter of factly.Julia Child would have agreed.

Today marks 100 years since her birth. She is remembered by chefs, celebrities and lay folks alike for bringing cooking - specifically French cooking - to the masses in a straightforward manner that was also joyous and celebratory.  It's true that my only memories of her from childhood are brief blips on the television (accompanied by an oddly high-pitched voice) as I quickly flipped channels to a some more flashy and exciting programming, and it was only later on in life that I met the woman through her work and her legacy. Years ago when I read Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, the famed blog-turned book-turned movie, I grew interested in Julia Child, having discovered small bits of information about her. She was over six feet tall, she was in her thirties when she got married and she signed up for classes at the Le Cordon Bleu to learn to cook because she was bored living in Paris. It was enough to drive me to read My Life in France and learn more about her personal life. She adored her husband. She valued taste over nutrition. She built a successful writing and television career later in life.

photo source

I have never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and probably never will. But I'm inspired by Julia Child because she didn't take herself too seriously and believed that anyone could cook. She pioneered cooking programs, paving the way for the Food Network and celebrity chefs, for better or worse. And she taught people like me how to have fun in the kitchen.

Monday, August 13, 2012

High Maintenance Guests

Four and a half years ago I eliminated gluten from my diet. Going gluten-free was a bit of a challenge at first, but in time with reframed dietary parameters I easily adapted to my new diet. The aspect that continues to be challenging is how to tell hosts about my eating practices, so I came up with some practical pieces of advice for hosting "high maintenance" guests. Read all about it in my post on The Jew and the Carrot.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How Bout Them Apples?

An Apple A Day: The Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths About the Foods We Eat
by Joe Schwarcz
354 pp. Other Press. 2009
The key to perfect health?
Click here for photo source.

The title was appealing enough (no pun intended). Last year a nutrition friend of mine was reading this book and I was curious about it. Myths? Misconceptions? Truths? Count me in. About midway through the book I wanted to count myself out. But I stuck with it, despite reading the author's introductory disclaimer on page three: "Chances are that most of you will be as picky with this book as you are with your food." Indeed.

An Apple A Day is divided into four sections, each looking at hot science topics in food. "Part One: Naturally Occurring Substances in Our Food Supply" primarily examines the claims around phytonutrients, such as antioxidants and other bioactive compounds that have been isolated in research and touted for their health benefits. It's like taking a tour of Super Supplements and asking whether any of the supplements are worth the investment. Presented in the proper format, this section has the potential to be very insightful. Perhaps because I spent several months studying bioactive compounds during grad school or the fact that the book is now three years old and already feels dated, but I found this section to be lackluster. After nearly every chapter he comes to the same conclusion: phytonutrients have potential to be miracle substances but lack conclusive evidence to back up their claims. Many of these compounds (resveratrol! lycopene! sulforaphane! lutein!) likely rely on a specific synergy that can only be achieved through the entire food matrix. Incorporate whole foods into your diet and cover all your bases. I agree with his bottom line and just saved you from reading the first 150 or so pages of the book.

In "Part Two: Manipulating Our Food Supply," Schwarcz looks at additives like MSG, natural and artificial sweeteners, nitrates, food coloring and GMOs. In each he mentions (but doesn't cite) research debunking the "alarmist" claims made against these substances. He goes even further in "Part Three: Contaminants in Our food Supply" where he finds no convincing health concerns regarding pesticide use, hormones, and endocrine disruptors in the research. His conclusions are weak concessions. On the issue of BPA he wonders why we're considering banning a substance that is only theoretically harmful when both cigarettes and alcohol lead are known to kill millions of people theoretically. He hesitates to tell people to only buy organic produce or wild fish because they are expensive and eating conventional apples or farmed salmon certainly outweighs the potential harm of pesticides or PCBs. There is a certain truth to these arguments but the problem is that they justify the status quo rather than rely upon emerging science to stir a change to the food system system so that we wouldn't have to choose the lesser of two evils to incorporate into our diets.

Lest you wonder, Joe Schwarcz has a PhD and has some serious academic cred as the director of McGill University's Office of Science and Society. Which is why I was confounded when the 330+ page book contained no footnotes. Where are the citations for all the studies he refers to? In Kessler's book there were over 100 pages of references alone (just one of the reasons that it was a faster read). Schwarcz's tones is uneven and changes over the course of the book, from light and curious in the Part One to more neutral and probing in Part Two, growing more conservative in Part Three to downright cynical and dismissive in "Part Four: Tough to Swallow," a section that discusses kosher diets, detox diets, goji juice and green tea and seemed more like a miscellaneous addendum to the book.

By the end of the book I was looking for something redemptive about the whole experience. I found it in the three page conclusion, which could be further whittled down to this clumsy sentence:
"When you carefully scrutinize the scientific studies that are being rolled out on a daily basis, most amount to no more than tinkering with the basic nutritional princiles we have tried to lay down: eat mostly foods based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, and don't overeat."

Sound familiar? It's yet another iteration of Michael Pollan's Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much. If healthy eating is so simple, why is it so hard for people? Now that's a book I'd like to read.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Salty, Sweet and Out of Control

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
by David Kessler
320 pp. Rodale, Inc. 2009

The root of American overeating is summarized in Dr. David Kessler's book, The End of Overeating, in three words: sugar, fat and salt.  Each of these alone will trigger certain amounts of pleasure in our brains, but together, the trio is irresistible.  Kessler launches into many scientific reasons why this is the case and uses anecdotes to show that many smart, rational people he knows cannot resist eating excessive amounts of tempting yet high calorie junk foods, despite knowing better. Few of us need that illustrated by example.

Perhaps more interesting then, is his exposé of the ways in which the food industry manipulates consumers utilizing the latest science on taste and pleasure. As the former commissioner of the FDA he has inside information and quotes industry professionals attesting to the lengths to which they will go to create an addictive product. Combined with their marketing efforts ("Betcha can't eat just one"), the book certainly paints a picture of a food environment where the public is damned to overeating, or as Kessler fancily calls it, "conditioned hypereating." 

Thankfully, he offers up a treatment program, called Food Rehab. Just as in other substance-related rehab programs, it is meant to help people become aware of their conditioned hypereating, rewire their brains, create new habits to restore control over eating and think differently about food. The main distinction in his work from others before it lies in his conviction, backed up by research, attributing the undesirable eating behavior (ie. the conditioned hypereating) to actual biological mechanisms rather than willpower. It's a nuanced approach that takes the blame away from the individual. Overeating isn't a flaw, it's a physiological urge that must be overcome through treatment and training. 

I certainly identify with the type of hypereating Kessler describes. Since I was ten years old I could tell you that I was absolutely powerless in the face of sugar cereals - I could literally eat boxes of them and never feel full. While I know that I'm not alone (my sister has the same weakness), I was intrigued to learn that this constant craving and insatiable desire is by design. Cereals get special attention in the book as they do in the recent Corby Kummer article in Smithsonian Magazine's Food Issue where he too admits to being "helpless before a box of dry cereal." 

As in most research related to caloric intake and weight gain, the science of conditioned hypereating points to yet another instance of our bodies working against us. The brain wants more pleasure. Sweet, salty and fatty foods provide it. One of the reasons many diets and weight loss plans fail in the long run is because they are restrictive and lead to feelings of deprivation. There is tremendous potential for lapses under Kessler's plan, which he freely admits. And I agree with his call for awareness about hunger cues and creating a new relationship with food. And yet I can't help but wonder what would happen if rather than constantly fighting our bodies we find a peaceful middle ground? Can we ever learn to "eat just one"?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Summer Reading

After a long break, I'm happy to be back blogging about my summer reading.  When I was a kid, summer reading was certainly not something I would have elected to do.  Assigned reading was more of a chore then, to be squeezed in sometime during camp while I would rather be playing sports or gossiping with friends. Now, having completed my credentials after four years of schooling, I'm excited to have the time and freedom to stock up at the library on the recent books that I missed the first time around.

I should say that I love reading fiction far more than non-fiction, so I plan to pepper my reading with novels (Hunger Games!) and short stories as well. Mostly, though, I will blog about the food and nutrition-related books. And anything else that pops into my head.

Here's my list so far:

The End of Overeating by David Kessler

An Apple A Day by Joe Schwarcz

Cerealizing America by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom

Why Calories Count by Marion Nestle

It's an ambitious list, and my success will rely upon the help of fellow Seattlelites who have placed numerous holds on these books at the library. They will determine whether/when I can actually get my hands on these.

It is an exciting time to explore the current food landscape. So much has changed in the past few years and while I've tried to keep abreast of the latest work in the field, I can't wait to dive right into the books themselves.

What books do you recommend?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

RD Day

Sometimes it seems as though every day of the year is a special day. And certainly it is - each day is a gift and should be celebrated. Today is no exception and shares the distinction of both Pi Day (3.14!) and Registered Dietitian (RD) Day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly known as the ADA) created this day during National Nutrition Month:
to increase the awareness of registered dietitians as the indispensable providers of food and nutrition services and to recognize RDs for their commitment to helping people enjoy healthy lives. 

It's true that RD's must complete rigorous academic and professional requirements to attain their registration.  In addition, RD's must continue education to maintain registration status with no less than 75 credits every five years. And yet, having completed my master's degree in an accredited nutrition program and a dietetic internship - two-thirds of the way to being an RD myself - I have mixed feelings about the significance of the day. Probably because there are still many hurdles the RD profession has to overcome to achieve the respect and recognition it deserves. And probably because I'm still not an RD. What stands between me and this credential? A three-hour exam. So on RD Day 2012 I salute the incredible, talented, driven RD's who have guided me, preceptored me and inspired me over the years. I hope to soon join your ranks.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Edible Inspiration

Imagine you are walking through a forest. Behind you are nut groves. To your left a pond with ducks. Ahead are orchards with unusual fruit trees like persimmons and Asian pears. Beneath the trees were once berry bushes that have since been removed as the canopy above it has grown. All around are herbs and native plants designed to promote the growth of these trees. Imagine this forest also includes playing fields, education programs, community p-patches and harvesting parties. Last weekend I visited the much-heralded Beacon Food Forest in South Seattle and took this imaginary tour. Beyond an inspiring project the food forest was a lesson in community organizing, dedication and creative vision.

I'd heard about the food forest as most people did, through Facebook.  It was an article on a local Seattle non-profit news site about "the nation's largest public food forest" that went viral and first drew public attention to the project. As word spread other major media outlets reported on the edible food forest and the three year project was suddenly in the national spotlight. So I was excited to learn about the opportunity to take a tour of the site, fittingly hosted by Crosscut.

And so on a cold and rainy March day I joined close to fifty others at Jefferson Park in Beacon Hill to hear about the genesis of the food forest. I had read the articles and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

This is the site of the future forest. Not much to see right now. But as we walked along the gravel road we were asked to imagine. Imagine the trees, the insects, the bushes and groves. Imagine the potential.

Interestingly the forest began as a final project in a permaculture design class. As the idea gained momentum the original designers formed the Friends of the Beacon Food Forest which includes community members and activists involved the project. The group received a $100,000 award from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods and P-Patch Community Gardens Program, and beyond working on the project they gathers for social events including potlucks and movie screenings to foster community. 

Site plan as posted on NPR's food blog, The Salt
Work will begin this summer with planting starting in the fall. The forest will rely on many volunteers and will take years to reach fruition. But there is a lot of energy around the project and there are many exciting aspects to this edible landscape - the application of permaculture principles, the use of public land, the issue of community revitalization and of course the food justice component. And no one involved with the project seems concerned that people will take advantage of the forest and pick all its fruit. Instead, they are firm in the belief that the food forest will be a place of community, respect and of course, imagination. And by the end of the tour as this group of locals stood around eating home-baked cookies, I found myself reminded of the famous quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."