Here’s some Tom Vilsack trivia I wasn’t aware of: The USDA secretary’s adoptive mother was a raging alcoholic and prescription drug abuser who, Vilsack says, spent most of her time “in the attic, dealing with her demons.”
But Vilsack did have one connection to his mother: somehow she always found a way to make him a brown-bag lunch to take to school–usually a sandwich and a piece of fruit. To some 800 school food professionals and industry representatives, assembled in Washington for a legislative conference, Vilsack said he considers the act of feeding children an endeavor with lifelong consequences.
School food, Vilsack said, is now a matter of national security–vital to maintaining the country’s competitive position in the world, and even its military. Lunch ladies can have a lasting impact on the kids they serve–and, by extension, the welfare of the nation.
“Kids need to be well educated, and they can’t be well educated unless they are well fed,” he said.
Vilsack spoke to members of the School Nutrition Association on Wednesday, along with a panel of officials from the USDA who took questions. School food service directors feel set upon by federal lawmakers and others who would like to dictate the terms for how they do their jobs.
Lately, they have particular issues with a new law that requires them to raise prices, potentially suppressing participation in their meal programs, and sets rules for tons more vegetables, whole grains and foods with dramatically less salt–all of which the federal government declines to pay for other than the measly six cents recently approved by Congress.
Lunch ladies are convinced that vast quantities of those vegetables and whole grains, while busting their banks, will simply end up in the trash, uneaten. A joke currently making the rounds among school food service directors is “out in 10,” meaning, they wish they could retire sometime within the next 10 years, before they are required to serve meals with less than half the current salt, food they are convinced children will reject.
The USDA says it has no idea how schools or food service manufacturers will meet the reduced-salt target. But the new guidelines would require schools to match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which hold that Americans consume far too much sodium, mainly from processed foods.
“I feel your pain,” Vilsack told the assembled dietitians, cooks and other school food professionals. “I understand what happens when someone wants to impose on you a set ofrequirements that just don’t fit in the real world.”
On Tuesday, SNA members fanned out across Capitol Hill, trying to convince law makers to pass–among other things–an appropriations amendment that would put a hold on the lunch price increases until they can be pilot tested by the USDA.
If what I see visiting my daughter’s cafeteria here in the District of Columbia is any indication, they are probably right about “healthy” foods being dumped in lunch room trash cans. One thing that has impressed me most after covering school food issues on a daily basis for more than a year now–more, I suppose, than almost any other journalist in the country–is the enormous gulf between policy making on the national level, and what actually takes place in school cafeterias.
It is certainly a fact that school food service operations, giant food service management companies, and their suppliers in the corporate food industry, have found ingenious ways to translate well-meaning government guidelines into processed junk masquerading as “healthy” school meals.
But it is also true that political leaders and well-intentioned advocates too often are far removed from the daily fray with their policy pronouncements. It’s a puzzle why they get so much ink in the press, while the views of our long-suffering cafeteria workers get so little. In the end, the only thing that really matters is not the latest thinking of some pinstriped pol on Capitol Hill, but the food that is actually presented on some 32 million cafeteria trays every day–and whether children actually eat it.
In that sense, the national school meals program, for all its successes, remains a quintessential government endeavor, layered with rules, guidelines, paperwork and accountability requirements. It could hardly be less kid-friendly. Listening to the plaintive questions from so may food workers with first-hand, daily experience in the field, I wonder if it isn’t time to re-imagine completely how we feed children in school every day.
I have a friend. He doesn’t mince words. He created “Truth” – the most effective anti-tobacco campaign in history.
And in a recent presentation that he gave, he talks about how the organic industry, through advertising, could grow from 5 percent of all U.S. food consumption to 15 percent and “hit a tipping point, where organic could really change the market in a significant way.” The kind of supply and demand altering economic impact that would make organic food more affordable to families on all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, an issue of enormous importance to me.
He demonstrated how other industries used advertising campaigns to achieve market awareness and sales growth. Like how the pistachio industry spent $15 million and then saw a sales growth of over 200%. Or how the orange juice industry spends $16 million a year to market its products. Or how the milk industry spends $27 million annually, asking us if we’ve “Got Milk?” in order to increase market penetration and strengthen demand for products in their $10 billion industry.
So what if the organic industry got together to launch ‘Got Organic?’ Would it manufacture demand for their products and reshape supply and demand, changing price points?
If the milk, orange juice and pistachio industries are any indication, the answer is “yes” – it would reshape organic food economics, making organic food an affordable option to more families, regardless of income.
Think about it. How great would that be? And all because the organic industry decides to come together in an ad campaign.
It’s not unprecedented. The agrichemical industry isn’t shy about advertising- they have been running ads to manufacture demand for their biotech products, promising to feed the world, even in the face of research that continues to highlight the “Failure to Yield” of their genetically modified products.
And given a recent report out of the United Nations about the agrichemical industry’s role in climate change (from nitrogen oxide producing chemical fertilizers to methane producing factory farms fueled by genetically modified livestock feed), “Got Organic” could be a game changer not only for people and pocketbooks…but also for the planet.
Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food; Our Right to Know, Written by Neil Scheibelhut as originally seen on Scribd
It is no secret that genetically engineered food is being produced in the United States, and, for that matter, has been for some time. Any man or woman who was sent off as a teenager by their parents for a summer to detassle corn can tell you that. However, there is a debate raging over whether genetically engineered food should be labeled to tell the consumer of thatfact. Although there are many pros and cons to such labeling, the fact remains that consumers have the right to know what they are consuming.
To completely understand the need for labeling on genetically engineered food, we must first understand what the term ‘genetically engineered´ actually means. The fact is, the term ‘genetically engineered´ isn’t used very often. The more common nomenclature is to refer to these foods as genetically modified foods, or GM foods, or as GMOs, which stands for genetically modified organisms.
GM foods refer to foods made for human or animal consumption that have been genetically altered to enhance desired traits. These traits can be anything from the color of the food, to its chemical resistance to pesticides. Scientists used to enhance desired traits by breeding plants that displayed desired traits together so they will be more prevalent in future generations. This takes many years, of course, so to expedite the process, scientists started altering the plants on a molecular level. For instance, a gene that controls the color of the food could be isolated in a plant with the desired color, and subsequently transferred to other plants to ensure the color of the new plant will be the desired one.
Most people would agree that GM foods have revolutionized the agriculture industry and they are the future of agriculture. Producing crops that are more resistant to pests and chemicals, less dependent on water and fertilizer, and that grow bigger than their un-modified counterparts are great for farmers’ bottom lines. Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to bite into a bigger, juicier form of their favorite food?
But, at what cost? What are the disadvantages to genetically modifying foods? The number one problem facing GM foods is that there is little to no knowledge on the effects of these foods on human health. Evidence exists that GM foods could be harmful. In 2000, there was an article in Nature magazine that indicated that genetically modified corn pollen could kill the larvae of monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are famous for their bright colors and extreme migration patterns, travelling about 3000 miles. Their migration takes them through the heart of the Midwest, America’s corn belt.´ It was speculated that if the pollen from GM corn was in fact harmful to monarch larvae, approximately 50% of the monarch population could be in danger.
After a USDA workshop in which multiple scientists did multiple studies, it was found that only one variety of the corn was harmful to the monarch: Event 176. Fortunately, Event 176 was not a good seller and was not widely planted. It was a lucky break for the monarch butterfly. If Event 176 was a hot seller, the results may have been different. This example may not prove risk to humans, but it does prove that the government agencies tasked with protecting the environment did not do their job, and cannot be counted on to protect the safety of a butterfly, let alone a human.
In another study, Hungarian born researcher Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a world authority on lectins, a plant protein, called into question the safety of genetically modified potatoes. In his research, Dr. Pusztai fed a constant diet of GM potatoes to laboratory rats. He was particularly interested in a lectin called GNA, which acts as a natural pesticide. The rats were fed raw, baked, or boiled potatoes over a ten day period, then over a 100 day period. To supplement the poor nutrition an exclusively potato diet provides, Dr. Pusztai occasionally provided the rats with a protein supplement. What he found in a particular 10 day test was rats fed with GM potatoes had a significantly lower body weight than those rats who were given un-altered potatoes.
This suggests that the nutritional absorption rate of the GM potatoes was retarded in comparison with their pure counterparts. The study also showed the immune systems of the rats being fed GM potatoes were suppressed. If GM potatoes altered nutritional absorption and immune systems in rats, could it be possible in humans as well?
Scientists can argue the pros and cons of GM foods all they want.
The evidence remains, however, that these foods can possibly do harm. If the possibility is there, shouldn’t people be aware that their food is genetically altered. Surveys show the majority of Americans want tohave mandatory labeling for genetically modified food. Furthermore, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, especially if health and environmental concerns have been raised. Mandatory labeling will allow consumers to recognize and stay away from foods they think could be potentially harmful, or just plain don’t want; possibly for religious or ethical reasons.
The bottom line is, we simply have a right to know. Just like eaters in other countries already do.
King Cakes are a traditional Mardi Gras desert. The King Cake is sort of like a pack of cinnamon rolls that decided to hook up and form a cake. The royal colors of purple, green and gold used on King Cakes apparently are used to honor three kings.
A Mardi Gras tradition, the king cake is served on Fat Tuesday as part of the feast, and a figurine of a baby or, alternatively, a dried bean is hidden within the cake. The person who receives this slice is, according to tradition, to have good luck throughout the coming year. One word of warning, don’t bake the plastic baby. It’s best to insert it into the bottom of the already baked King Cake.
Most King Cake recipes contain a lot of butter and eggs and artificial colors to decorate the top, but this version uses coconut milk and dairy-free soy alternative (look for one that is GMO-free), so everyone has a chance at good fortune (and good food!)!
This recipe does take several steps, so feel free to prepare the filling and “sprinkles” a day in advance to ease party preparations.
Makes one cake/Serves 10 to 12
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
For the Cake:
1 package dry active yeast
¼ cup warm water
1 T. maple syrup
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1 t. salt
¼ t. nutmeg
3 T. organic white granulated sugar
6 T. GMO-free soy margarine, cut into pieces
3 T. Egg Replacer Powder mixed with ¼ T. hot water
¼ cup coconut milk (not “lite” variety), plus more for brushing
For the Filling:
¾ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup dairy-free soy margarine, softened
½ cup finely chopped pecans
½ t. cinnamon
For the Sprinkles:
Unrefined Cane Sugar (about 1 ½ cups)
Instead of using Yellow, Green and Purple Food Coloring, opt for decorating with Mardi Gras beads
For the Icing:
1 ½ cup confectioners sugar
½ t. salt
3 T. warm water
1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the yeast, warm water and maple syrup, mixing gently until the yeast dissolves and bubbles begin to appear on the surface. Set aside until frothy, about 5 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, salt, nutmeg and sugar. Add the soy margarine and process until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add this mixture to the yeast, along with the Egg Replacer mixture and coconut milk. Knead, adding flour as necessary, until a soft dough forms. Place in an oiled bowl, covered, for 1 hour, or until the dough is doubled in bulk.
3. Meanwhile, make the filling. In a small mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, soy margarine, chopped pecans and cinnamon until combined.
4. Get out the beads (and skip making sprinkles with artificial colors).
5. Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly oil a large baking sheet or round pizza pan.
6. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a large rectangle about 1/8” thick. Using a floured bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Cut each of the strips into triangles, each about 3 inches at their base. (Think of a zipper or zigzag pattern when you cut, alternating the tops of triangles with the bases.) With the tips of the triangles pointed inward, place the triangles in a circle on the prepared sheet, overlapping one over the other and pressing the edges to seal. Place an even amount of the filling on the centers of the triangles, and place the baby or dried bean somewhere on the filling. Fold the outsides of the triangles over the filling, so that the reach just over the filling. Fold the tips over, pressing slightly to adhere the tips to the outside of the ring. Cover the ring lightly with a paper towel or clean dish towel, and let rise for 20 minutes more.
7. Brush the cake lightly with coconut milk or soy milk. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow cake to cool completely on a wire cooling rack, and then transfer the cake to a serving platter large enough to catch excess icing.
8. Prepare the Icing. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the confectioners sugar and salt. Add the warm water and, stirring vigorously, stir until the mixture is a very thick glaze. Ladle the mixture over the cake in several additions, letting the icing run down the sides. While the icing is still slightly warm, layer the beads (rather than the prepared sprinkles) over the cake. Allow the icing to harden completely before serving.
In my work educating and inspiring families into creating solutions to the problems that we are seeing in our food system, I am often asked, “What can I do?” “Can one person really make a difference?” And my answer is always, “Yes, and never underestimate your ability to affect change.”
Because each and every one of us has a unique skill set and collection of talents that makes us like no one else on the planet. If you leverage those talents with something that you are passionate about, you can create extraordinary change in your life, in your own health and in the health and wellbeing of our country.
You can become a voice for change.
And that’s a beautiful thing, just like this incredible collection of individuals- 185 voices from 12 countries around the globe – joining in a “Virtual Choir” conducted by Eric Whitacre over the Internet. It has been said about Eric, who keep in mind received no formal training in music until the age of 18, “What hits you straight between the eyes is the honesty, optimism and sheer belief that passes any pretension. This is music that can actually make you smile.”
It is a gorgeous reminder of how collectively, leveraging our voices and our talents, we can create something new and extraordinary.
And that despite our separations, it reminds us of how connected we truly are.