Tag Archives: sustainable

Who Owns Your Grocery Store?

Take a moment and consider the following statistics:

Groceries and food are unique in that all Americans buy groceries and food—the difference being that food can be purchased both in its ingredient form (e.g. groceries) and its prepared form (e.g. restaurant meals)—regardless of income level, race, etc.  This is literally something that we all should be interested in.

I would contend, however, that most consumers do not give a second thought to groceries outside of what they write on weekly shopping lists.  Granted, there are informed consumers who seek to maximize their grocery dollars or seek to spend their grocery dollars on products that match a certain set of beliefs.  In a nearly $850 billion market there are a lot of people who just go about their business in a routine.

It’s not merely about funneling dollars from corporations that do not share your beliefs—although that is a big part of the allure—but also about creating an economic system where small purveyors can access markets.  If you are a producer of anything, be it food or lawn mowers or children’s toys, supply to Walmart means being big.  Like really big.  If you are a local grower with a seasonal schedule Walmart or Kroger will not even take your call.

However, these are the kinds of enterprises that we need to support in a world where our food increasingly comes from fewer and fewer suppliers.  It is not a sustainable or resilient system to have single points of failure for entire segments of our food system.  That is where we stand right now.  If Tyson Foods went out of business tomorrow how much chicken would disappear from the shelves of your grocery store?  My guess is a lot.

This is where our grocery spend comes into play.  We can choose to spend our grocery dollars on a daily basis at stores that support local providers.  The best part is that this is not a change that requires a serious capital outlay—like buying an EV or installing solar panels—and it does not require large lifestyle changes—you are still shopping for groceries after all.

The goal is to find a locally owned retailer of groceries and shop there as much as possible.  It’s a little like George W. Bush imploring the American people to go shopping after the attacks on September 11th.

It’s a little more complex than that, but the idea is extremely simple.

In my household we spend an average of ~$770 per month on groceries based on actual spend going back to last summer.  Yes, I have a problem with tracking things on spreadsheets.  My goal is to direct as much of that monthly spend to local retailers and providers of food.  It is fairly easy for me to shop local since I have access to an excellent cooperative grocery store—NewPi—and a vibrant selection of farmers’ markets when the weather improves.  I would contend that most people also have access to these kinds of retail outlets.  Take a moment and find your local coop.

As it stands right now for the year, our household spend is ~40% local.  There is much room for improvement.

Friday Linkage 5/24/2019

You may not believe climate change is here and you may not believe that the strange weather we have seen this spring is the future, but I have seen what our flagrant disregard for science has wrought and it is not pretty.

Rain events that were once rare are now common.  Floods in Iowa are an annual or more regular occurrence.  My prediction is that after a wet and cold spring we will have a hot and dry summer.  Nothing like a little baking heat and drought to bookend the seasons.

On to the links…

How the Baby Boomers Wrecked the Economy for Millennials—Let’s start a new trend where we replace “Millennials are killing…” with “Baby Boomers wrecked…”  Never has a generation produced so little when given so much and left such a mess for future generations to clean up.  As a member of the tail end of Generation X—whatever the hell that means anymore—I feel like we will spend the next twenty years sweeping up the rubble of Baby Boomers’ excess.

If 2020 Democrats Are Going to Be Serious About Climate, They Need to Cut Out Congress—The U.S. Senate is a retrograde institution run by a power hungry vestige of the post-Civil War southern power structure who cares for nothing other than his own political power.  The 2020 Democratic nominees need a plan that can be acted on from Day One in office.

Scientists Have Pinpointed the Mystery Source of an Ozone-Destroying Chemical—Trump may be wrong on almost everything, but his desire to realign our relationship with China may not be that awful.  His methods are crap, but there is something fundamentally rotten about the way that China does business.  Agreements are meaningless, business is paramount, everything else be damned…kind of sounds like the modern Republican Party.

Xcel’s Plan to 2030: Close Two Coal Plants, Extend Nuclear Plant, Add More Solar—Coal is dead.  It is just going to take some time for the dinosaur to roll over and actually know its dead.

Puerto Rico Got Rid of Its Coal Ash Pits. Now the Company Responsible Is Moving Them to Florida.—At what point can we just write off the entire state of Florida?  If there is a bad idea that has failed everywhere else, it will get a new lease on life in Florida.  If there is a grifter who has been run out of every town in America, that person will eventually end up somewhere in Florida.

Critics Question Ethics Behind Impossible Burger’s Rapid Fast-Food Expansion—The purity police are out to get Impossible Foods now that they are working with fast food chains.  This is ridiculous.  Every animal based burger replaced with a plant based burger is a win.

Impossible Foods’ Rising Empire of Almost-Meat—The buzz is there.  Now it is time for Impossible Foods to see if they can execute in an efficient enough manner to actually scale their business.

It’s Not Just Salt, Sugar, Fat: Study Finds Ultra-Processed Foods Drive Weight Gain—Maybe the new guideline should be “If you cannot figure out how to make the food at home you should not eat that food.”  Can’t figure out how to make a homemade PopTart?  Do not eat a PopTart.

It is Solved by Walking—Just putting one foot in front of the other is a powerful choice in a world defined by our mechanized transport.

Americans Need More Bike Transit – And these Nonprofits are Bringing It—Bicycles are a humble solution to the problem of transportation emissions.

There Is No Excuse for You to Casually Drink Bottled Water—Outside of people dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, why are we even having this discussion about bottled water?

It’s Time to Embrace American Hemp Production—Did you have that guy in your dorm who always liked to tell you about the magic nature of hemp?  I remember that guy.  Maybe he was not so crazy after all.

You Must Read—American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

We are what we eat, we are told. But we Americans do not eat what we truly are. We are an ocean nation, a country that controls more sea than land and more fishing grounds than any other nation on earth. And yet we have systematically reengineered our landscapes , our economy, and our society away from the sea’s influence. As of 2012, Americans ate a little less than 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, well below half the global per capita average and miniscule in comparison with the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry we consume. [Page 233]

Paul Greenberg is familiar to readers of this blog because I was a big fan of his prior book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The author is back with a take on seafood that is closer to home, which is appropriate given the rapid rise in local food movements across the United States.

51dbCQm3YhLAmerican Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is about the relative dearth of seafood eaten by American diners that is sourced from American waters. Through the lens of three types of seafood—oysters, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan salmon—Greenberg illustrates the odd market forces at work with respect to American sourced seafood.

Nothing illustrates his point better than the juxtaposition of Alaskan salmon and imported tilapia:

It was then and there that it hit me—the bizarre devil’s bargain that Americans have entered into with their seafood supply. Americans now harvest our best , most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish. [Page 190]

Yes, we basically trade Alaskan salmon for fish that is barely fish. Tilapia is fish with training wheels. It is fish for people who find the flavor of cod, haddock, or Pollock not quite bland enough. My father, who slurped oysters with the best of them, referred to it as “Chinese junk fish” because it offered none of the benefits of fish while serving up a host of economic and environmental concerns.

We, as a whole, do not really consider the bounty of the sea. Cattle and the steaks that are cut from their carcasses are the apex foodstuff that comes from American land followed closely by the legions of swine and chickens processed into McRibs and nuggets of various odd shapes:

We need to understand that the marshes of Louisiana are not just an idyll to observe egrets and alligators; they are a food system, one that provides a large portion of the catch in the continental United States. If we choose to , we can support the environment that is home to shrimp, redfish, bluefish, blue crabs, oysters, flounder, sea trout, and others. Yes, there is a small risk of contamination from eating wild seafood from the Gulf. But that risk, when compared to all the other food risks we take as a nation, is infinitesimal. [Page 155]

It’s about consumer behavior and realizing the bounty that is present on our shores. If we could just get out of the whole bland white shrimp, slightly pink salmon, and piles of tilapia complex their could be a huge outpouring of economic support for American seafood. The challenge lies in getting people to accept something that is outside of their comfort zone. Ironically, this has been done already with more familiar land based foods. A few years ago odd cuts of beef like flank or skirt were sold for a fraction of the price of more mainstream cuts, but now those flavorful cuts command a premium. Heritage breeds of pork and poultry populate our palates in increasing numbers every year. Why can’t we do the same with food that swims?

But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance , but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. [Page 16]

Take a weekend, read Greenberg’s American Catch, and think about the next type of seafood that you order at a restaurant or buy at the supermarket. Make it Alaskan salmon or Gulf shrimp or an odd filet that the fishmonger at the co-op is all excited about that week. America depends on it.

You Must Read—The Town Saved by Food: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food

Growing and making food is hard work. The story of the second half of the Twentieth Century is how the developed world essentially outsourced the production of food from the farm to the fork. We ceded control to a variety of interests including, but not limited to, industrial farms, mega corporations, ubiquitous restaurant chains, etc.

Fewer farmers feed an increasingly larger number of people, but the food being produced is increasingly suspect as it is designed to survive the rigors of industrial production. This means that tomatoes are picked green and rock hard only to be gassed with a chemical in order to turn red and sell. Animals are raised in horrific conditions in order to meet the exacting production schedules of slaughterhouses that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of health for both our bodies and communities so that corporations can profit from homogeneity and economies of scale.

However, a kernel of the “old ways” survived in place throughout the United States waiting for an environment which was more hospitable. As the Twenty First Century began ever growing numbers of people began to question the insanity of a food system that can produce a hamburger and a soda the size of a small barrel of oil for a buck.

9781609611378Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food Hardwick, Vermont provides a lens through which to document the emergent viewpoint that the future of food in America is local, sustainable, and on a scale that is easy to comprehend.

Hardwick is not the first place you would suspect to be a flashpoint for the growth of an alternative to the dominant foodways of the United States at the beginning of the new century. It’s best days are considered behind it as the granite industry withered in the face of competition from poured concrete and the rugged terrain of Vermont was never regarded as the best place to farm. However, these same characteristics make it ideal.

It’s hard to rebuild the food system in Iowa because every acre that can be farmed is slowly being aggregated into massive monocultures of corn and soybeans as farmers chase the elusive goal of scale. You are not going to find storefronts and buildings with reasonable rents or list prices in communities where tech companies flourish and yoga studios pop up like Palmer’s pigweed. Places like Hardwick offer a chance to fail without bankrupting your future and that of your children.

The interesting component of the story of Hardwick is that there is a central tension between the new practitioners of local food, the established community members who have been practicing these tenets for the better part of forty years, and the larger community. You’ve got people who came to the area in the 1970s, opened a co-op, and fostered the ideas for years only to be usurped in some ways by newcomers talking about scale and monetization and markets. On the sidelines you have locals wondering just what the hell everyone is making such a big deal about.

Maybe Rodney King was asking the right question years ago, “Can we all get along?”

There are two sides to the story of new businesses dedicated to ostensibly local food. In many rural communities local food has always been something enjoyed by the community and the bonds of community were not severed for various reasons. Shared poverty or hardship has a way of bringing people together into circles of friendship that serve as an insurance policy against the next bump in the road. When you receive help one day it is your duty to “pay it forward” when someone else you know might need a helping hand another day.

Local food can also become something that is elitist. In Hardwick the median income is estimated at $15,000 per year. That is one half of the population earns more than $15K while the other half earns less than $15K. It’s hard to see $20 per pound cheese being something enjoyed by the vast majority of the local community when that would comprise a good chunk of a monthly budget before other expenses were accounted for.

That is not to say the effort is wasted or misguided. If there are more producers of a greater variety of foodstuffs than the system is bound to be more resilient. If one farmer or cheese maker or brewer fails it does not mean empty larders, but only that a small percentage of the total production capacity has been removed from the market. It may mean higher prices—that damned supply and demand law—but the market should sort it out quickly. Producing food is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

The Town that Food Saved is not a blueprint for the revival of more localized and sustainable foodways, but it does provide insight into how one community is trying.

As a note, Claire’s—the restaurant that serves as a location through much of the book—closed in early 2014. In its place is another restaurant, the Vermont Supper Club.

Friday Linkage 1/18/2013

Friday turns into Saturday and all of a sudden it’s Sunday afternoon before you realize that you have failed to post the links.  Whoops.  Sorry about that.

On to the links…

In Rural Minnesota, a 70 Acre Lab for Sustainable Living–How many places like this exist throughout the United States?  Places where people are putting to the test all of the ideas and theories about how we can live in modernity without placing ever greater strain on the planet.

Will 2013 Continue 7 Year Trend of Decreasing Driving–Lost in the noise lately has been the continued trend of Americans driving less.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the graph:


Not only are Americans driving less, but if you listen to the car people at any auto show or in any trade rag and the primary concern is the waning love affair with the automobile.  Maybe there is hope for us yet.

Animals versus Automobiles–As someone who grew up in southeastern Minnesota, I was intimately familiar with the intersection of animals and automobiles.  Most notably, deer were a common hindrance to continued forward progress on the roads.  Wait a second, it’s an infographic:


Clean Energy Investment Fell 11% as Government Cut Subsidies–Okay, so for anyone who does not believe the production tax credit is vital to the continued growth of domestic renewable energy witness this story.  I take back that statement about their being hope for us yet.

Solar Could Meet all the World’s Electricity Needs by 2050 with 1% of Land–It will never happen, but can you imagine a world where we replaced all fossil fuel electricity generation with distributed solar?  Yeah, I cannot imagine that world either because it seems so wonderful.

Why the Government Should Pay Farmers to Plant Cover Crops–As if we did not know our domestic farm policy was crap, there seem to be so many sensible, low cost ideas out there to make things better that it seems even more stupid when you really think about things for a moment.  I suppose if the government promoted cover crops then Monsanto and company would sell a few bags less of GMo seeds.  Now I get the problem.

Beijing’s Air is so Bad…–This is just a story that begs for a series of jokes patterned on the old “Your mama is so” meme from the 1990s.  Oh yeah, I referenced the 1990s like it was sooooo long ago.  First, what the heck is in the air?  The Guardian took a stab at it:

Climate desk Beijing air pollution

Or, you could go the NPR route and wonder what it looks like from space

Black Carbon Larger Cause of Climate Change than Previosuly Thought–We do not know what we do not know until we really spend time researching the problem.  It’s too bad that scientists have to spend countless hours defending their work on climate science because a small percentage of people–hack scientists and quack politicians–have “doubts” about the integrity of their work.  How come no one every gets to question a Republican politician’s integrity when it comes to positions that they take on issues?  Like, what is their agenda exactly?

Sweet Sodas and Soft Drinks May Raise Your Risk for Depression–Basically, soda and soft drinks are just bad stuff.  There is no place in our diet for such beverages.  Just put down that one gallon soda from the corner conveinence store and grab a bottle of water.  Make sure it is not water in a disposable container.  Okay?


Friday Linkage 12/14/2012

I don’t have an open this week.  Everything just seems a little off today with the school shooting in Connecticut.  It’s a sad and scary world.

Here are the links…

The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement—Every few years someone writes an essay about a particular shift in the green or environmental movement.  A while back it was about how the environmental movement was dead.  Now, it’s about a shift to so-called eco-pragmatists.  Okay, whatever.  Here’s my two cents.  It’s not a shift, but an expansion of eco-consciousness that now comprises more demographics than those commonly associated with patchouli and Birkenstock sandals.

The people who have concerns about the environment and the natural world are still present, but a new crop of people are taking to the cause in a different way.  It’s a big enough tent for everyone to participate in the discussion without this turning into the progressive version of the right wing’s “purity tests” that lead to political candidates for high office like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee.

Another Look at a Beverage Ingredient: Brominated Vegetable Oil—Do we really, as a country, have any idea what the ingredients are in the food we buy?  Hopefully, we buy as much unprocessed food as possible because it seems like something comes up every day that is more frightening.  Today, it’s brominated vegetable oil in your soda.  Basically, the stuff is banned all over the world except for the U.S.  Surprise, surprise.  The line that scared me those most from the article was as follows:

“About 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to foods, about 3,000 of which have never been reviewed for safety by the F.D.A., according to Pew’s research. Of those, about 1,000 never come before the F.D.A. unless someone has a problem with them; they are declared safe by a company and its handpicked advisers. “

Teaming Up to Make New Antibiotics—Antibiotics are one of the true miracles of modern medicine.  Through the use of these compounds humans and animals have been freed from the cycle of death related to infection.  Now, through humans’ overuse of antibiotics and a general malaise with regard to developing new compounds, our mastery over infection is waning.  The time to act is now.

How Agroforestry Can Help Combat Climate Change—I read articles like this and it makes me wonder if we have even begun to explore the myriad ways our traditional agricultural systems could adapt.  It seems that if it is not using a giant machine from John Deere the world does not notice.  BTW, don’t the pigs in the pictures look happy?

How to Feed the World without Destroying It—Unlike what some boosters of industrial agriculture say we do not need to destroy the natural world in order to feed humanity.  Plus, the answer is in infographic form:


Bringing Local Food Communities Online—Farmigo is trying to make the farmers market experience so easy that it’s like ordering the latest garbage book about strange bondage behavior from Amazon.  Sure, you might lose the experience of walking the farmers market, interacting with growers, and being part of a community but it is better, way better, than getting your produce from WalMart.

U.S. Solar Photovoltaics Install 684MW in Q3 2012—The figure of 684MW in quarter 3 of 2012 represents a 44 percent increase over the same period in the prior year.  The installed capacity brought online in the first three quarters of 2012 already exceeds the total for the entire year in 2011.  These are good numbers, but it is my belief that it only represents a fraction of the potential of solar photovoltaic in the U.S.

Solar Panels for Every Home—A resilient power grid would add as much distributed generating capacity as possible because disruptions like those post-Sandy would be lessened.  Furthermore, the condition of our national power grid does not really accommodate the addition of a lot of new power.

Wind and Solar Paired with Storage Could Power the Grid 99.99% of the Time—I think what is missing from the discussion about expanding the use of renewables is that these technologies have moved beyond fringe, in terms of being able to provide power.  Now, the question becomes how much of our grid can be powered with renewables.  Bring it on.

Permafrost 101: Why We Need To Account For Thawing Ground In Climate Projections—The world may not end in 2012 as many people believed the Mayans predicted—I believe they just figured it was too far out in the future to worry about so why waste the time—but there are still things to be worried about.  Zombies?  No.  The effect of permafrost thawing?  Yes.  Honey Boo Boo?  Hell yes!

The Bayou Corne Sinkhole: Massive Oil and Gas Disaster You Probably Know Nothing About—I admit that I had heard nothing about this and I read a lot.  Most of it is not even about Honey Boo Boo.  Honest.  It’s not a natural disaster either.  It’s the result of oil and gas drilling.  This is just horrific.

Friday Linkage 1/6/2012

The Iowa caucuses are now over.  Thank god–though not in the way that Rick Perry thanks god because those ads are just too funny.  Now I can open my paper and not see an ad for Mitt Romney.  Now I can turn on my television and not see an ad attacking Newt Gingrich, though none of it was paid for by Mitt Romney.  It was just an organization staffed by former Romney associates and paid for by Romney supporters.  I never thought I could actually feel bad for Newt.  Now I can answer my phone without fear of a robocall.  Finally, I can finally stop worrying about someone Googling “santorum” at work.  Whew!

One thing that tires me about the caucuses and the coverage of the event is the generalities that commentators paint Iowa with.  60% of Republican caucus goers were evangelical Christians. Listen to the most of the pundits and you would think that 60% of Iowans were evangelical Christian.  No, 60% of the 122,000 people who attended the Republican caucus were evangelical Christians.  At least the pundits were not as bad as this jackass.

Top 10 Anti-Environmental Things Congress did in 2011–As if we needed a reminder of how lame our elected government can be and the near victory of Rick Santorum proves this out.

The Rhetoric of Fossil Fuel Independence is Dead–The U.S. is now a net exporter of refined fuel products.  We are part of the global system whether twits like Palin or Boehner want to believe.  Ironically, renewables allow the U.S. to actually be energy independent.  Thank god–not in the way Santorum thanks god–I do not have to hear “Drill baby drill” anymore.  It did not make sense four years ago and it makes no sense now.

EPA Regulations will Create More Jobs than Keystone XL Pipeline–As if the claims about the Keystone XL pipeline’s job creation ability were not overblown enough, it looks like the “job killing” regulations to restore the Chesapeake Bay may actually create jobs.  Of course, this is like listening to people receiving government salaries from government jobs telling people that the government cannot create jobs.

Republicans Don’t Want to Talk About Infrastructure–Just like they will not admit that the government can be effective at creating jobs, Republicans are adhering to a policy of not talking about spending money on infrastructure which is something that only the government is effective at accomplishing.  Clowns.

Difference Between Resilient and Sustainable–Okay, using a zombie apocalypse is probably not the standard fare for describing the difference between sustainable and resilient but it works.  We need to make sure our systems are both resilient and sustainable.  The best systems are paragons of both concepts and the only path forward that makes sense.

Greasy to Gourmet–The parade of stories about schools improving lunch programs is encouraging.  It is also one of those moments that I have at the grocery store all the time.  Go into the grocery store and get excited about the produce and the organic section and what not.  Next, go to the aisle with Hamburger Helper and realize how much of that crap is still on the shelf and how many people are buying it.  Ugh!

Walmart is Taking over Our Food System–As if the Hamburger Helper scenario is bad enough, just start thinking about the impact that Walmart has on our food system.  Aside from the macro level problems associated with so much control exerted by so few entities, really pay attention to the value that Walmart puts on an excellent produce section.  Compare that to my local full service grocery store–in this case Hy-Vee–that has people dedicated to produce and the same people work in those jobs for years.

Another Reason to Eat Locally–As if the thought of Walmart taking over the food system does not make you shudder enough, the spectre of big organic should as well.  Just because it is organic does not mean it is good.  You can produce organic milk in a feedlot and you can have an organic industrial tomato.  It’s just a label that specifies a certain number of practices, it does not represent an equitable regime.

Slab City–I remember reading about this place in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild about Christopher McCandless.  The place always seemed like a weird nowhere out there in the wide open space of the American southwest.  The desert does weird things to your mind.

Salvage Creativity–I wish I could be as creative as some people are with salvaged materials.  I am never able to see a pile of old door knobs and say, “Wouldn’t those make a great surface for a patio?”  Wait a second, that sounds like a Portlandia skit.