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Today would have been my grandmother’s 91st birthday. I still miss her terribly. This is one of the many ways I picture her: at her farmers market, the Santa Monica Market in California.

In my family, local, delicious food and farmers markets are generational. Before she moved to California, my grandmother would take us to visit farms and farm stands on Long Island, NY. My parents took us to the weekly Greenmarket in a parking lot near our apartment in Manhattan, and to Pike Place Market when we lived in Seattle in the summers (Pike Place was more of a farmers market back then).

For those of you raising families or mentoring kids, bringing them to a farmers market doesn’t just make them more interested in healthy and sustainable food now, it plants seeds for their future interests and values. You don’t have to have your own generational history of a farmers market routine to enjoy building one. But when you bring kids with you, they grow up thinking of it as a tradition, the way food shopping simply is.

I have many of my grandmother’s small market-going habits. Aiming for favorite vendors who may run out of something delicious, and who we know have the best potatoes or raspberries. Talking to farmers and knowing many of them personally after years of going to the same market. Giving unsolicited recipe advice to someone wondering aloud how to use a vegetable with which they’re unfamiliar, or reassuring them that the strange-looking lemon cucumber is totally worth adding to their salad.

It feels trite to say I feel my grandmother with me at farmers markets (and in my kitchen and in flower gardens and on sailboats…) but a piece of her is there. She shaped how I experience them, as did my parents. I hope I can return and continue the favor.

Two weeks ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on selling soda sizes over 16 oz at restaurants, movie theaters, and arenas. Much of the public discussion since then has repeated the beverage industry’s framing, whether supporting or refuting it. Today, let’s take a step back and pay attention to the ban behind the curtain.

New York’s proposal places a limit on companies —indirectly, but functionally by restricting their sales of the most harmful serving sizes of a product. It still allows consumers to buy more, but restricts companies from using big cups as an incentive. This approach puts the responsibility on industry. It’s a win for health.

Why does size matter? There’s a concept in environmental health called the dose-response relationship. It’s pretty simple: a large dose of or repeated exposure to a substance may affect someone differently than a small dose or single exposure. A 200 mg pill of ibuprofen is safe. A 200 gram pill of ibuprofen, not so much. You will not find Advil Grande or Advil Venti anytime soon.

Unlike medicine, soda isn’t good for you even in a small dose. Of course, the health consequences of a large dose of soda aren’t so quick and dramatic as those of a giant pill. But those health consequences are real, and they’re made worse with larger doses and repeated exposure. So while small sodas are also unhealthy, a size ban sends the message that it’s irresponsible to market and sell large sodas. This is especially true if drinking large sodas begets drinking more large sodas. But does it?

In short, yes. Portion size can influence human behavior. In the case of soda, it can do so in two ways, one short-term and one long-term.

In the short term, people are more likely to finish whatever food is in front of them. In this study, one group ate more out of secretly-refilling soup bowls than a control group ate out of regular bowls. (Confession: I secretly want one of those soup bowls, maybe with some nice minestrone.)

In the long term, high doses of liquid fructose can impair hormones that regulate weight, appetite, and fullness, leading people to consume more and get sick. Sodas and other liquid fructose beverages are dangerous. But they’re especially dangerous in quantity and with repeated exposure. High doses of fructose over time change hormones, brain signals, and metabolism so that we want more soda and food. Also, liquid carbohydrates don’t trigger fullness the way solid ones do, so sugary drink calories may add to rather than supplant meal calories. Some animal studies even suggest that intense sweetness is more addictive than cocaine.

Diet is about much more than choice or behavior, as this and other research suggests. The idea of choice loses some meaning when a product impairs the body’s own built-in mechanisms for control. Similarly, “appetite control” takes on a more insidious meaning when a product itself changes appetite. What we consume is largely influenced by availability, income, marketing, culture, and other social factors that can help determine health. For example, the beverage industry disproportionately targets marketing to children and communities of color.

Soda’s health problems go beyond its role in appetite. Its impact on health and mortality is felt worldwide. Sugary drinks are overwhelmingly correlated with obesity and diabetes risk, among many other diseases. Fructose intake is connected with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. The dose-response relationship between soda and health problems is especially bad in children, who are smaller than adults and going through critical stages of development. A single increase in serving size per day raises a chid’s obesity risk 60%. Sugary drink consumption is also associated with high blood pressure, gout, lower nutrient intake, lower bone density, hypertension, and other health problems.

The NYC plan is a simple starting place. There are other ways to limit the reach of the beverage industry, such as sugary drink taxes, restrictions on sugary drinks in schools, or rules about targeted advertisements to children. It will be interesting to see whether changes in fast food restaurants are associated with changes in soda intake at home too, where childhood sugary drink consumption is an even larger problem. A plan like Bloomberg’s has to be part of a larger public health effort that includes restrictions, collaboration across sectors, and public education and empowerment. Communities across the country are strategizing about this issue. But the beverage industry spends millions of dollars on lobbying and fighting public health efforts.

The largest size soda that would be allowed under this ban, 16 oz, currently costs just $1.19 at a McDonald’s in Manhattan. But many consumers won’t bother getting a second soda or a refill. Win for the consumer, loss for the industry. Until it figures out how to make a 16 oz secretly-refilling cup.

Image source: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/19684

Save the date! I plan on going to this and am excited to see who else will come too. The intersections are the places critical changes are going to happen; until we understand how things intersect –– public health and food policy, sustainability and social justice, nutrition and community, etc –– we’re not going to make systemic change. Come discuss how we can do this better.

PUBLIC HEALTH AND FOOD POLICY SUMMIT

Wednesday June 6th – 1:00pm to 5:00pm

The Regional Food Policy Council of the Puget Sound Regional Council invites you to attend a summit to discuss the linkages between food policy and public health, and how to better align food and health to foster positive health outcomes. The summit will broadly address

• how food can play a role in health decisions • how to better integrate food and health into retail and procurement • the interaction between economic development and health • the influence of agriculture on health • the nexus of food, health and equity

The summit will be divided into three moderated panel sessions that focus on:

1.Access to healthier food

2. Farm to institution

3. Emerging issues

The meeting will be held at PSRC, 1011 Western Ave, Suite 500. More information on the summit will be provided closer to the event. Please RSVP to FoodPolicy@psrc.org

2012 Farm Bill Updates

In case you haven’t been following the progress of the 2012 Farm Bill, which just came out of the Agriculture Committee to head to the Senate floor, here’s a thoughtful update from Environmental Working Group about the draft that just came out of the committee. While some relatively small investments (in the millions) have been proposed for local and sustainable food projects, there are cuts to programs addressing hunger and promoting healthy foods. Much of the proposed money (in the billions) is still being directed towards grain subsidies (corn, wheat, soy, rice, cotton) for wealthy companies, via entitlements and insurance.

If you track the foods that have increased the most during the last few decades of the obesity epidemic, these foods are all based on those same grains. (Here is a graphic I made about this topic.) Corn sweeteners, grains and grain fillers, and corn/soy/cottonseed/”vegetable” oils. Not to mention that continuing to subsidize grains means tearing up land for monocrop planting, and continuing the nutritionally-foolish and environmentally unconscionable practice of grain-feeding livestock.

That the farm bill stays this way and that it’s shaped by the deepest pockets in industrial agriculture is no surprise. But that doesn’t mean we should be cynical and do nothing. Call your senators and tell them you want a 2012 Farm Bill that reduces subsidies for large-scale grain production, and redirects billions of dollars to hunger programs, to investment in small-scale sustainable farming, to farm-to-school projects, etc.

If you want to get involved or informed locally, check out the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group (and their Facebook page). There is also a free opportunity to learn about the Farm Bill tomorrow (Thursday May 3rd 2012) at 6 pm in Ballard.

~

Thanks to Katie for the CC corn pic and to Cynthia for the info on tomorrow’s session.

My family and I first tasted lahmajoun at a street fair in New York City. I was probably eight or ten years old. I think it was an Armenian festival in honor of St. Vartan. It fit the formula of some of the best New York street fairs: It honored a saint probably unknown to people outside of the culture in question, and it featured old women making delicious things you should not pass up.

Lahmajoun are incredibly tasty pizza-like creations, so thin you can roll them up when you eat them, preferably piping hot and drizzled with lemon juice. They commonly have lamb, although could be made with other ground meats instead. A vegan version could probably substitute finely-chopped sautéed mushrooms for the meat, although I think the lamb is what makes this recipe particularly tasty.

After we discovered lahmajoun, we went back to the festival in subsequent years to buy stacks of them and keep them in the freezer. But after a few years we stopped going. Maybe the street fair no longer happened. Maybe my parents forgot.

For years the taste of lahmajoun stayed a memory. Then the craving started creeping in as I thought about foods I grew up with and hadn’t tasted in years. I hunted for lahmajoun. I couldn’t find them in Seattle. I ate some in Los Angeles, where there is a sizable Armenian population.

Then I found out I was gluten intolerant. This wasn’t the end of the world, since I try not to eat all that many refined carbohydrates anyway. But I still craved a few foods, lahmajoun among them.

I don’t normally plug products (which means the people who have me on their email lists for product-plugging might as well send me pictures of kittens instead; I’ll pay more attention to those), but I’ve been appreciating Manini’s, the little gluten-free flour company that’s been selling at the U-District farmers market. Their flour behaves pretty much just like pastry flour. Discovering this is probably not the best thing for my health, but does make me happy when I want some perfect pie or to make my grandmother’s hamantaschen recipe.

So I decided to try using a very thin version of the Manini’s pizza dough recipe for a batch of lahmajoun. I consulted a range of different topping recipes and came up with a combination that tasted familiar. It worked perfectly. The result was a Proust-like experience, sending me to a memory-street in Manhattan, where I was eating a freshly-rolled lahmajoun for the first time.

I made these for a friend’s party in December and again for Pi Day. Here’s the recipe.

~

Gluten-free Lahmajoun

  • 1/2 batch Manini’s gluten-free pizza dough recipe
  • 3/4 lb ground lamb (grass-fed)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • a few cloves of garlic
  • 1 small bunch Italian parsley
  • 1 medium bunch fresh mint
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2/3 jar of tomato sauce or equivalent homemade tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes. Some people add tomato paste.
  • spices to taste (pretty generous quantities): paprika, cumin, turmeric, allspice
  • a little bit of ground coriander (optional)
  • a little bit of chili pepper (optional)
  • salt
  • olive oil or other favorite cooking fat
  • lemon wedges (Meyer lemon is nice)

1. Prepare pizza dough recipe.

2. While dough is refrigerating, work on the topping. Preheat oven to 425F-450F, depending how hot your oven runs.

3. In a food processor, combine the onion (pre-cut into a few chunks), red pepper (seeded and cut into chunks), garlic cloves, parsley, mint, and optional bit of chili pepper.

4. Heat oil. Add ground lamb and stir. Add salt, spices and tomato sauce or tomatoes, and let it cook at low heat together for a few minutes.

5. Stir in mixture from the food processor. Cook on low heat for about fifteen or twenty minutes or until the flavors have really fused well. Stir as needed to prevent sticking.

6. While the mixture is cooking, roll out your dough. To do make individual sized lahmajoun, about 6-8 inches across, break off chunks of dough about the size of an egg. Roll each into a ball with your hands. Then roll it out on a floured surface as thin as you can without it tearing, usually a little less than 1/8 inch. Place these on baking sheets, dusted with flour or covered with parchment paper.

7. When your topping mixture is ready, spread a thin layer of it on each round of dough. Bake briefly, about ten minutes. You want the dough just barely to cook through, so it’s cooked but still soft enough to roll with slightly crisped edges.

8. Serve hot with lemon wedges and extra chopped parsley.

I just got off a call with an MBA student from Minnesota who had found me online via some things I’ve written about soda, health, and homemade alternative carbonated beverages. She wanted to interview me about attitudes in Seattle toward new soda products. It turned out she was doing a student project with a Minnesota-based “natural” soda company, and wanted to ask me questions about the Seattle scene for the purposes of marketing here. She was very nice, and she accepted my feedback gracefully.

Instead of advising her on how to promote her product, which I told her I was uncomfortable doing, I asked her a few questions. It turned out the product she’s working on has as much sugar in it as a standard soda, even if it uses cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. I was polite but direct with her, and told her they should come back and try marketing in Seattle when they’ve created a product using no sweeteners or artificial sweeteners at all, and even limited juice. That there’s an untapped market of people who just don’t want to drink sugar. That non-sugary carbonated beverages actually can taste pretty good. (See my experiments with kaffir lime leaf soda and other flavors.)

And frankly, if you go into a Whole Foods or similar store, there are already plenty of way-too-sugary drinks infused with all-natural pomegranate-hemp-goji-açai essence (or, you know, other flavors) trying to trick the diet-craze-conscious but not necessarily informed consumer into slurping simple carbs. Even from a business perspective, health egregiousness aside, that market is over-saturated.

Fighting “Big Soda” is an obvious primary goal, since the larger beverage industry has lobbying/donor/marketing dollars in play, their products contain the worst of everything, and their products often target children and people with limited finances or access to healthy food. But what about Little Soda? One concern is that if more health-conscious consumers drink sweetwashed sodas, they may be less likely to get behind the idea that all liquid sugary drinks are unhealthy, and we might lose potential advocates and allies.

But sweetwashing isn’t just from small companies. Another — much bigger — concern is that many of the perceived smaller soda companies are actually owned by larger Big Soda type companies that make energy drinks and other sodas, the companies on whose behalf the American Beverage Association lobbies. These companies may see owning small brands as a way to expand their market and distract from their detrimental role in public health. Seen Izze Soda around your “natural foods” supermarket? It’s owned by Pepsi. (I wrote four years ago about how Naked Juice is owned by Pepsi.)* Hansen’s is owned by Monster.

There are really some small companies out there making products they genuinely want to be healthful and taste good. It seems unlikely but possible to convince some of the starting companies to counter the liquid sugar trend by coming up with truly unsweetened, low-carb, additive-free beverages. And if so, Little Soda might actually prove helpful. But I’m skeptical.

~

*With apologies, the above link may not work after June, as Apple throws out all the old MobileMe websites made with iWeb. Any web developers out there who want to help me rescue my several years of blog entries and their comments on that old site?

Credit to Judy for the Creative Commons photo.

This is my new favorite thing.

I already harvested nettles once this spring, and stocked my freezer with this year’s batch of addictive nettle pesto. But this recipe has me wanting to go back out this week for more nettles and freeze them blanched and ready for future batches of nettle saag paneer. The time to harvest nettles is NOW, while they’re still young. I go for the short ones, about eight inches or shorter.

Saag paneer, also called Palak Paneer is an Indian dish of mildly-spiced, creamed, puréed spinach with cubes of paneer cheese, which is firm and mild.

Full credit for the idea of nettle saag paneer goes to my brilliant friend Karyn, who came up with it while we were out harvesting nettles. She also made a batch, and made her own paneer, a step I skipped in favor of some paneer from Appel Farms. [Note to Karyn: I just noticed that name!] It turns out nettles make amazing saag paneer. They have a darker, richer flavor than spinach, and I think the dish tastes more interesting with them.

There are all kinds of ways to spice saag paneer; use the approximations I give below, or find your own recipe online.

~

Nettle Saag Paneer (Nettle Palak Paneer)

Serves 2-3

  • About 2 cups of nettles, measured after blanching. I’d guess this is somewhere between a quarter and a half a pound.
  • Water for blanching
  • Gloves or tongs
  • Half a pound of paneer cheese, bought or homemade
  • One medium onion
  • Five cloves of garlic or to taste
  • Cream – about a half pint or to taste/consistency preference
  • Fresh ginger
  • Whole cumin seeds
  • Garam masala
  • Ground coriander
  • Ground or fresh turmeric
  • Salt
  • Ghee, butter, or your preferred cooking fat
  • Fresh cilantro or sorrel for garnish (optional — I found some nice sorrel in my yard)
  • Rice or riced cauliflower for serving (optional)

1. Harvest nettles carefully or buy them from a forager. They sting, of course, so either wear gardening gloves or gather them with a scissors or tongs. Some people swear by tricks for grasping them just so they don’t sting. I have no patience for that, but props to them if it works for them.

2. Heat a pot of water to boiling. Using gloves or tongs, put the washed nettles into the water just long enough to wilt. Remove immediately with tongs. You can save the water and use as a broth or tea. Let the nettles cool a bit and then run them through a food processor briefly, just for a few pulses. Leave them in there.

3. Cut up half a pound of paneer into cubes or rectangles. Dust with turmeric, coriander, and a bit of salt. In a large frying pan, preferably something thick like cast iron, heat ghee or other fat. Fry the paneer, turning the pieces side to side so they get golden-brown. Take them out of the pan and set aside.

4. Add more ghee/other fat to the pan, leaving bits of spice residue from the paneer in it. Add the cumin seeds, wait a few seconds, and then add the onions and garlic and stir. Cook slowly on medium heat until the onions soften fully and start to brown a very little bit.

5. Take the garlic and onion mixture out of the pan and add it to the food processor. Pulse again a few times.

6. Add the whole mixture from the food processor back into the pan and set to medium heat. Slowly add cream until the consistency is somewhat liquidy but also thick. The mixture should bubble  lightly but not boil. Add spices to taste, including plenty of fresh ginger grated in. Adjust salt. I tend to like the flavor heavy on the garam masala and ginger.

7. When the flavor is right, add the paneer back in, stir, and let it simmer a few moments. Serve, with optional rice or riced cauliflower, and with garnish of cilantro or sorrel.