Green Island Lunch

I’ve been helping out Rebecca, the owner of Green Island Catering (a vegan catering company), and she started making these pre-packed foods. I got to try one – the stacked enchiladas – and it was truly excellent. The portion was huge and it had this creamy cashew-based “cheese” sauce that was so silky and delicious with a little spicy punch. The enchiladas had beans, corn, zucchini, and rice stacked between corn tortillas. The whole thing is gluten-free, too!

Rebecca is trying to get broader distribution, but she is currently selling them through Daily Juice on North Loop. So check it out and let the manager know how awesome it is!

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Eating this reminds me of one reason I decided to almost totally cut out my animal product consumption. It’s because eating plant-based food feels so much more wholesome. It doesn’t feel like a brick in my stomach like you get from meat and cheese. Plus you get more nutrients and when it’s well done you get more flavor, like in these enchiladas!

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Book: Eating Animals

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, has been on my to-read list for quite some time now. I’ve been a reluctant, uncertain, and on some occasions enthusiatic, meat eater at varying points in my life, and any thing or anyone who takes the time to stimulate my thoughts on the topic is nearly always worth my time.

Mixed Feelings

My mixed feelings about meat probably started when I was a child. My most salient memories of meat were of choking on huge, tough mouthfuls of steak and being saved from death by my parents. A wad of meat lodged in one’s windpipe creates a lasting memory, to be sure. Not exactly a promising beginning for a carnivore in training. The lesson? Meat is tough, dry and it will kill the eater if he or she is not careful. After reading Eating Animals, the idea of meat has me feeling no safer, but for different reasons.

Cover of Eating Animals

Foer is clearly biased against factory farming, which I sympathize with but which doesn’t endear him to me as a researcher/writer, but he makes good points which I happily share with you in bullet format:

  • Vegetarians are often accused of being to sentimental about animals. But who is more of an irrational sentimentalist: The person who doesn’t eat meat due to concern over the treatment of animals and the effect of raising animals on the environment, or the person who eats factory-farmed, unhealthy, arguably inhumane, and polluting animal flesh simply because “it tastes good” (i.e., “it makes me feel good”)?
  • The frequent use of antibiotics in the raising of animals has had a documented effect on weakened efficacy of antibiotics in humans.
  • Factory farming, with its high density of animals in one location, increases the risk of the development of superbugs that can create global pandemic.
  • Selective breeding of animals to increase their growth rate can also erode their natural abilities to withstand normal environmental conditions, requiring additional resources to support their survival. An example would be chickens with an over-large breast due to selective breeding whose legs cannot support the weight of their more profitable bodies.
  • The biggest ethical concern is not the mass killing of animals, which most people focus on, but the systemic mistreatment they suffer in their raising.
  • Why are we okay with mistreating animals to satisfy our taste buds* but not okay with mistreating animals for the sake of art, for example? Would creating conditions likely to result in animal pain for the sake of a museum display be acceptable?
  • A handful of reasons to not eat animals are offered: (1) better health (2) ethics of animal treatment (3) environmental impact of animal farming (4) increased risk of pandemic due to bird or swine influenza caused by factory farming.
  • Pig farms directly pollute the environment due to the prodigious amounts of feces produced by swine.

Summary

For me, the ideas in this book are not about passing judgment against meat eaters. We have to approach each other with understanding and empathy. I am an anxious part-time carnivore myself. It is about being conscious of how meat comes to your table, who brought it there, and what it does to the planet and your body.

* It appears to be sound science that humans in general can do quite well without animal foods by eating with a minimum level of conscientiousness, so I conclude that the only reason for eating animals is for whatever pleasurable experience that may bring. Some supplementation may be required.

School Meals That Rock

I found a mention of this Facebook site in Today’s Dietitian, devoted to school lunches that are made with care and healthfulness in mind. It’s easy for someone like myself to pick on school meals from my ivory laptop when the reality is that our school lunch planners and kitchen staff do yeoman’s work day in and out to give kids the most nutritious food the law and budgets will allow. I love the spirit of the page – www.facebook.com/SchoolMealsThatRock

Below: A photo of a lunch from School Meals that Rock. A bit much gravy and ham, I think, but major kudos for the roasted squash, baked apple, and peas. Overall, it looks quite good.

 

 

Dear Congress, Pizza is Not a Vegetable

This post is about one way we are failing our youth with respect to food, health, and life.

Congress recently passed, and President Obama signed, an agriculture appropriations bill which protects pizza as a vegetable, as well as French fries. Specifically, the tomato paste on the pizza would be countable as a vegetable. Critics express that tomato paste smeared on a thick, porcelain-white slab of bread, along with deep fried potato sticks doesn’t exactly exude healthfulness.

“It doesn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace,” said Amy Dawson Taggart, an official with Mission: Readiness, a group of former military leaders who promote investment in children (1). (Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/11/17/pizza-as-vegetable-congress-proposes-new-school-lunch-bill/#ixzz1e9mcFe4I)

This action was part of the agriculture appropriations bill that, in part, supports the national school lunch program, a program run by the US Department of Agriculture which requires school lunches to have a certain balance of food groups and nutrients to qualify for federal funding.

Some articles I read on the topic indicated the bill would put no maximum limits on vegetables and I initially thought this was a good thing. But what it really means, so far as I can tell, is that there is no limit to how much fried potato can be counted as a vegetable. So no need to steam some kale. Spinach, you keep your distance. We’re doing just fine with our fried potatoes over here, thank you.

For a quote from someone who sounds really defeated and confused, here’s Ray Gilmer, a VP for United Fresh, a trade association for the produce industry:

“At the end of the day, we are going to have more fruits and vegetables served to kids. If there is a little more tomato paste or a little more pizza crust involved, that’s part of the bargain you make to create greater access.” (Source: The Packer (industry blog))

Nutrition

Tomato paste is a processed and refined version of a whole food — and therefore nutritionally inferior. It’s heated, cooked for a long duration, and strained into a thick rich paste. How much tomato paste qualifies as a serving according to the USDA? Two tablespoons.

Furthermore, pizza involves delivering this smidgen of tomato paste with a good portion of refined flour dough and fatty cheese. There are far better ways to deliver carbohydrates and calcium to children than pizza dough and cheese.

A can of Contadina tomato paste.

Image via Wikipedia

One of the problems with refined tomato, pizza dough and cheese is they are incredibly energy dense. The fiber and water have been machined out of them. You can pack a lot more food into your mouth in a shorter amount of time when the fiber and water have been removed. Fiber helps make you feel full. Fiber helps slow the transit of food through your small intestines so they can get the most nutrients out of the food. Fiber then speeds the transit of food through the colon, which helps reduce incidence of colon cancer and enables regularity. If you want to overweight and increase your risk factors for disease, the FIRST thing I would recommend is stop eating fiber and foods with normal moisture content.

Photo: School lunch with pizza (see more “school lunch pizza” images on google)

Food Politics

Who is disproportionately more likely to get this pizza fest on a tray?

School lunches are offered at lower rates (or free) to children who come from families who are barely scraping by financially. So those kids will be getting the pizza. Kids whose parents have disposable income have the freedom to choose something more nutritious. But it’s all good since their parents probably just work harder, right?

These aren’t children of people who donate money to election campaigns, and their parents are probably disproportionately unrepresented at PTA meetings and in voting booths.

What Will the Kids Eat?

It was remarked by one industry official that pizza can help deliver nutrients to children in a way they will actually eat. I’d like to take a look at this in another blog post, but my short response to that is that he’s taking the easy way out. I’d love to hear comments from parents and others who are more qualified on this aspect of the issue.

Take Action

To write to congress and express your displeasure about allowing pizza to be served as a vegetable, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s website for nitfy tool to make it quick and painless.

(Thanks to the Natural Epicurean’s Leanne Valenti for sending me the CSPI link and getting me on this issue.)

Just for Fun

Photos of school lunches from around the world

(1) Mission: Readiness is rightfully concerned with the health of children and rightfully recognizes the broad impact it has on society. Their focus is on investing in children so they’ll be more military ready, about which I have mixed feelings. You take your allies where you can get them sometimes. :)

Richardson Farms Visit

After reading Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about junk food from September 25, I investigated the local chapter of the Slow Food movement – Austin Slow Food. I found out they were going to visit Richardson Farms near Rockdale, TX, the following weekend. $20 covered the tour and a portion of locally-raised meats, so I was in.

Richardson Farms is a 200 acre farm that raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks…for human consumption. I went to see where meat comes from. I wanted to look in the faces of the animals that many of us eat. I wanted to see where they lived and, yes, where they die.

If I choose to eat meat, I want it to be with this complete knowledge.

Granted, Richardson Farms raises it’s animals under conditions that I would consider more humane than your average industrial ag operation. Does that make a difference? An animal farm that is more humane is still a production facility of life destined to be killed for our food – MY food (I am what many call a “flexitarian”).

I don’t have any moral judgements or philosophical certitudes to pass on, but what I can show are the images I captured.

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At around 90 degrees or so, it was warm, but it was a lot better than 105, which has been the high temperature range most of the summer.

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Jim Richardson (khaki shorts and baseball cap), the man who runs the farm, speaking to the Slow Food Austin group. Mr. Richardson is a veterinarian who says he loves his new career. The man knows his stuff when it comes to raising animals in a healthful, ecologically thoughtful manner.

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Above – Turkeys for Thanksgiving. It’s hard to read the mind of a turkey, but I can tell you it sure looks like there isn’t much going on in those brains. They gawk and honk, mouths open, most of them with their heads turned in your direction. Like photocopies of a turkey, photoshopped onto the dirt landscape in front of you.

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Above – Chickens. I saw one chicken sitting in the corner, seemingly unable to stand (I saw it make an attempt). I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but it did seem either hurt or sick. One pig kept tilting its head to one side, which they said was due to an ear infection and which they treated the pig for with antibiotics (they said the pig would not be sold for this reason). We did discuss how some animals die on the farm prior to slaughter. It seems that just like people, animals get injured or sick and some don’t make it. Still, I felt a pang of guilt for my small contribution to the confinement and eventual slaughter of animals who sometimes suffer various disabilities or injuries with/without notice from those who could correct the problem (lest we forget, many humans in our world also suffer disability and injury without notice). Is it my fault these animals are hurt? Does their pent-up animal prison condition increase the odds of injury? Am I the cause of pain for the occasional bite of chicken I enjoy?

Many of the chickens were missing feathers in patches, often on their backsides. According to Mrs. Richardson, this is because they peck at each other. You put a mob of birds in fairly close quarters and things are going to happen. I didn’t see any injuries or bleeding sores, but these weren’t the robust birds, fully feathered and ready for a magazine cover photo shoot, that I had in my mind. Still, I’m not sure that was a realistic image in the first place, and overall they looked healthy to me.

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Above – A young turkey. I guess it’s fair to say that most of the birds had some part of them which was red and featherless where you’d expect feathers.

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Above – It’s tempting to anthropomorphize animals (imagine they are more human than they really are), such as this pig, which seems to be smiling. Still, the pigs had shade, and mud to roll in. On the other hand, it would someday have it’s life prematurely ended for human gastronomical enjoyment (certainly not for the nutritional benefits).

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Above – A shot from the “killing room.” Chickens’ heads go into the tubes and out the bottom. This is where their throats are cut. The silver box on the left is filled with scalding water to aid in feather removal. I considered not mentioning this part, but that’s part of the problem with today’s food culture in America – we don’t think about how the meal comes to our plate. I figure it’s better to know and decide on a particular food than to make a thoughtless decision. When we think of meat as easy to get, I think we’ll be more likely to mindlessly indulge in more of it than if we were fully away of the effort and grim realities that go into it’s delivery to our dinner table. Many understandably choose to not eat meat because they find these images repugnant and unnatural, and I understand completely.

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Above – This machine spins and removes the feathers of birds dipped inside (they’re dead by this point).

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Above – A pig wallow. Let me tell you, after a couple of hours in the dusty Central Texas heat, it looked inviting.

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Above – Sorghum leaves.

My convenient, middle class, and Western lifestyle has meant I have the luxury of thinking animal farming and slaughter is a bit brutish. It’s not necessarily so for all the world’s people, who may raise or hunt animals for necessary food without a twinge of moral confusion. For we Americanos not wanting to bloody our Banana Republic slacks, Richardson Farms falls somewhere on the sunshine-y side of the continuum of livestock operations which starts at bucolic, idyllic pastures where you’d almost imagine the animals are happy to be your meal and goes to behemoth, frightening flesh mills. The Richardsons seem to be genuine people who care about the animals, the ecosystem, and their customers.

But do the animals notice the difference? Do our bodies notice the difference when we consume animals from “nicer” farms as opposed to grimier operations? Do our spirits notice a difference? What about the spirits of the people slaughtering animals repeatedly? (I once read that violent crime is higher in areas with more slaughterhouses.)

Does anyone deserve judgment for enjoying a meal of their choosing? Aren’t they doing just what they’ve learned? Is the morality of animal consumption relative – or absolute?

My research into correct diets leads me to believe that minimizing our consumption of animals is in our best interest. Beyond that, it’s up to each person to decide if, and how much, they should consume them. In any case, it behooves us to know from where our food comes and make choices which align with our personal values.

What do YOU think?