Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Waste not?

The crisper drawer in my refrigerator is mislabeled. It reads “Fruits and Vegetables” on the front, but it should say, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In our household, there ain’t nothin’ coming out of there alive, or shall I say, edible.

The other evening, in a burst of unexpected ambition, I decided to clean out the fridge. There was a little bit of room left in the dishwasher, and I recalled seeing a couple containers of leftovers of dubious vintage in the refrigerator. If I threw those leftovers away, I reasoned, there was just enough room in the dishwasher for the empty containers.

Several smelly containers and a bottle of moldy apple juice later, I was still feeling energetic and decided to tackle the crisper drawer. I knew there was a package of aged celery in there that was probably ready to hit the compost pile. I pulled open the drawer and was abruptly faced with several weeks of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

There were two packages of baby Portabella mushrooms, one still unopened, both exhibiting impressive growths of furry white mold. (Reflect on that for a moment: fungus, growing on another fungus.) I had purchased them on sale with the vague idea of using some in omelets and the rest for an as-yet-to-be discovered recipe on Pinterest.

There was a shriveled orange still in its woven nylon bag, and no fewer than four plastic produce bags containing two to four wrinkled apples each. There was a half a bag of sprouting baby carrots. There was a large green pepper turning grayish and pitted with age (also intended for the omelets I never made).

There were several restaurant-issued, single-serve condiment pouches. (Why these were in the crisper drawer, I have no idea.) The unopened package of celery I had first thought of was there, the stalk ends turning yellowish-brown.

And on the very bottom of the drawer, partially flattened under apples and oozing a greenish, pinkish, brownish slime, was another produce bag containing something I could neither recall nor identify. Yuck!

I hate wasting anything, especially food. I hate having wasted the money spent purchasing it, and I hate that while others go hungry, food is going uneaten in my fridge due to my bad planning.

Recently, my food waste frustration intensified when I joined a Facebook group called My Job Depends on Ag. Founded by farmers in California, many of the group’s members are produce growers. Now my social media feed includes glimpses into the work of growing, picking, packing, processing, and shipping products like cherries, watermelons, or tomatoes.

It’s one thing to know that growing food is challenging and labor-intensive. It’s quite another to actually see it happening. I find it humbling to see the passion that farmers, farmworkers, truckers, and others have for their work to bring us food. Now, when a half-eaten bag of sweet cherries goes bad in my refrigerator, I am ashamed. I’ve seen the labor, time, energy, and resources that went into getting those cherries into my hands, and I feel like I’ve squandered it.

wasted food2

Wasted food that I discovered in my fridge. I took this photo in August of 2016, meaning the item on the left had been in my refrigerator for TWELVE YEARS.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten.” That’s nearly a third of our food! And the lion’s share of that—21 percent—happens at the consumer level. Yikes, that’s me. Me, my slimy forgotten carrots, and that leaky can of tomato sauce that expired seven years before my daughter was born.

Food waste is obviously a bigger issue than what happens in the far reaches of my refrigerator. But I can be a part of the solution. We all can. For my part, I plan to try these things: 1) have specific meals planned before deciding what groceries to buy, 2) take inventory of what is already in the fridge, freezer, and cabinets and use those items first, 3) buy less than what I think we need, and 4) stop purchasing perishable items with only vague ideas of how I might use them.

I need to clean out the freezer. Does anyone have a recipe for freezer-burnt fish?


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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Years after my grandparents got out of the egg business, the area just inside the back door of their farmhouse still smelled faintly of chickens.

That’s where they hung their “chicken clothes”—the overalls, coats, and hats they would wear when doing chores like collecting, cleaning, grading, and packing eggs.

It wasn’t an offensive odor, unlike the chicken houses themselves which smelled strongly enough to make my eyes water on the rare occasion I stepped into them. No, the smell of that small passageway was always a welcoming reminder that I had arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Throughout my childhood, their farm was place I loved to be. I played outside. I sang along to Grandma’s records. I followed Grandpa around. And I learned a whole lot about eggs.

In the summers, I often stayed the night. Many a morning would find Grandpa and me in the kitchen, he standing at the stove making breakfast, me at my usual spot at the table as sunlight streamed through the screen door. Naturally, breakfast was usually eggs. Grandpa liked to experiment with spices, and would often make each of us a uniquely-seasoned one-egg omelet.

While we ate, we would talk. It was over those breakfasts when I learned that very young hens were most likely to lay odd-sized eggs or eggs with a membrane but no shell. Grandpa taught me how to divide a Julian date by 30 to figure out approximately when a carton of eggs was packed. If he happened to have recently collected particularly tiny egg, known as a “peewee,” it was at breakfast time when he or Grandma would wrap it in a paper towel and place it in an empty margarine container for me to take home.


After breakfast it would be time to head out to work. To me, the most interesting activity took place in the small egg packing room located on one end of one of the long, low chicken houses. Here, Grandpa dunked wire baskets of eggs into cleaning solution, Grandma perched on a metal stool candling eggs, and an automatic egg grader clattered rhythmically as it sorted eggs by weight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Grandma carefully rotating eggs in front of the bright bulb on the end of the grading machine, looking for cracks in each shell or blood spots on each yolk.


Grandma and Grandpa’s egg delivery route included restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, mostly in the Rochelle area but also in Rockford. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the day their blue “egg van” pulled up to the rear entrance of Kings School while I was outside at recess. I streaked across the playground in excitement to see them, bursting with pride. MY grandparents provided all the eggs we ate at MY school!

A year or so before he died, Grandpa told me about Pearl Valley Eggs, a modern Illinois egg farm he had recently visited. He was very impressed by it, and said he would like to take me there sometime for a tour. By then, I was working here at Farm Bureau and intrigued by any new farm experiences I could take in. But it wasn’t until some years after he passed that I finally got a chance to visit that farm.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I took groups of teachers to Pearl Valley Eggs during our Summer Ag Institute. Each time, I could imagine Grandpa being there with me, taking in the sheer size of the hen houses, the freshness of the air within them, and the clean, healthy birds in their cages. I could picture him shaking his head in bemused amazement at how many tasks are now automated, including collecting, cleaning, and candling the eggs. I could especially envision him marveling at the robotic egg packing process.

I’ve been told that Grandpa was known by many as “the Egg Man.” I wish he was still here, so we could talk some more about eggs.

Note: Julian date = day of the year. A Julian date of 094 on an egg carton means the eggs were packed on the 94th day of the year, or around April 4, because 94 ÷ 30 = 3 months plus 4 days (where an average month is 30 days long).


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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Have you seen this on social media lately?

“If you stopped spending money at the grocery store next week, they would never even notice you were gone. If you took a small fraction of that money and spent it at the farmers market you would help a local farmer pay the rent. You might even save his farm.”

I’ve seen it several times, and I’ve finally been able to put into words why it irks me.

DSC_0194Don’t get me wrong, I fully support locally-grown food. I love visiting Yaeger’s Farm Market, Honey Hill Orchard, Jonamac Orchard, and other area farm operations who market their products directly to consumers. But I also support lettuce grown in Arizona, mushrooms produced in Pennsylvania, and squash grown in California.

The apples I used to make sauce the other night weren’t grown locally… as I write this it’s March, and the local orchards are closed for the season. No, by the modern miracle of controlled atmosphere storage and refrigerated transportation, those apples were as fresh when I purchased them in midwinter as they were when picked on a Washington state orchard last September.

I’ve toured avocado orchards in Florida, cherry groves in Utah, and feedlots in Colorado. I’ve visited sugar cane fields in Louisiana and dairy farms in so many places I’ve lost count. I’ve toured—three times—a northwestern Illinois egg farm that has over 2 million hens. Of course I’ve also spent many hours visiting area grain and livestock farms.

The common theme across the dozens of farm operations that I’ve visited? They’re owned and operated by family farmers who take great pride in what they do and care about doing it safely and responsibly. Many of them hope their own kids will continue to live on and farm the same land.

Here’s the thing. Farmers don’t have to be located near you to care about how they produce food. When you pick up a grocery store zucchini, you shouldn’t have to see the face of the farmer to appreciate the fact that a real human being–probably several of them–cared about producing the best, cleanest, safest zucchini they could. Is a February grocery store zucchini from Florida as nice as a picked-this-morning July zucchini at the farmers market? No, but if you are craving that cheesy stuffed zucchini boat recipe, it’s still pretty awesome.

Believe it or not, 95% of farms and ranches in the U.S. are family-owned and operated. I like the idea of supporting ALL of them, even if they’re not nearby.

DSC_0260Do you want to support local farmers? You may have noticed that around here most farmers grow corn and soybeans. Some also raise livestock, especially pigs and cattle. When you buy meat, milk, eggs, and fuel, you’re helping local grain farmers by supporting major uses for their crops. When you purchase bacon or steak, you’re supporting local livestock farmers, whether the meat came from animals on their farms or not.

You can also support local farmers by taking time to understand why and how they grow and raise the things they do. Support local livestock farmers by not assuming that every animal abuse video applies to how all farmers care for their animals. Support local crop farmers by recognizing that more often than not they live on the land they farm, therefore the crop production practices they use are dictated by the health and well-being of their own families as well as yours.

By all means, shop at the farmers market. But don’t think—and please don’t imply to others—that buying eggs and frozen peas at the grocery store is something that only people who don’t care about local farmers do.

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Read more:

The Locavore’s Dilemma: Why Pineapples Shouldn’t Be Grown in North Dakota

Buying local explained: Experts weigh in on the pros and cons

Local Farms vs. Factory Farms

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I had high hopes of accomplishing great things during the vacation days between Christmas and New Year’s. I’d finally sort through the piles and boxes in my computer and craft room at home and restore the space to peaceful sanity. I’d iron all those shirts and pants that I never wear because they’re too wrinkly. I’d organize the laundry room, sort through the upstairs hall closet, and pack up a bunch of stuff to be donated.

As usual, I set my sights too high. My computer room is still a disaster, I haven’t ironed a thing, and the laundry room is more cluttered now than it was a week ago. I’m discouraged. So is my husband Mark, who also had hopes of finishing some home projects in his rare free time.

And yet…

Our house is warm and secure, Mark and I are both happily employed, and we rest peacefully at night without fear of our home being bombed. (How many people in the world are living in cold and fear at this very moment?)

And, in a deliciously-smelling symbol of our many blessings, an enormous pot of ham bone soup has been simmering on my stove for most of the day.

ham bone soup_RCAn occupational hazard of teaching children about food and farming is that I am a compulsive reader of labels. I’m fascinated by what’s in my food and where it comes from. So it was no surprise that each time I stirred the pot or added the next batch of ingredients, I gazed at the rich mixture and thought about each component. Carrots, onions, celery, parsley, garlic, tomatoes, corn, chicken broth… each have their farm-to-table story.

The two main ingredients made this cooking endeavor especially significant to me, however. The first was the ham bone that inspired the project; the meat-laden bone from what was probably the best Christmas ham we’ve ever had. I’ve thanked that pig, the farmer who raised it, and the meat packing workers who processed it in my prayers on Christmas and every day since as we’ve munched on the delectable slices.

The other ingredient that made me smile inside was the beans. I used a pound of mixed dry beans and another half-pound of dry kidney beans, both bags given to me by my great-uncle Lloyd. He was proud of those beans. They were raised in Weld County, Colorado, on farms whose crops he insured. Uncle Lloyd passed away several years ago, but I still have a few more bags of those beans. Apparently, if you take good care of them, dry beans—like love—will last forever.

We didn’t finish most of the projects we had hoped to over these past several days. But as my colorful, nutritious, delicious soup proves, we are still incredibly blessed.

Now, who’d like some soup? There’s still enough left for about 20 good-sized bowls full.

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the January 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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flat-out lyingI’m not just frustrated by erroneous food “facts” anymore. I’m furious.

A lot of folks aren’t simply misleading the public about food choices. They are flat-out lying. I used to give them the benefit of the doubt. “They got inaccurate information somewhere,” I would think. Or, “They misunderstood what they saw/read/heard.”

But here’s the deal: Accurate information is readily available if you care enough to look for it and apply a bit of common sense in distinguishing credible vs. bogus sources. But in my book, if you spread fear and confusion without checking facts because it fits with your worldview or increases your sales, you’re lying because you didn’t bother to find out the truth first.

Here are two individuals currently topping my list of who NOT to trust with food information.

Dr. Oz. Where do I start? His list of confidently-spouted untruths is so long, he’s even been called before Congress to defend some of his claims. In a recent example of how he stokes consumer fears, his program aired a segment titled “New GMO Pesticide Doctors are Warning Against.” In this segment, he warned that the recently EPA-approved herbicide Enlist Duo is brand-new, toxic, and contains an ingredient used in Agent Orange.

Some quick facts: Enlist Duo is a combination of two very safe herbicides: 2, 4-D and glyphosate, neither of which are new. They are both readily available to consumers for use on lawns, precisely because their toxicity to humans and pets is low. The ingredient in Agent Orange that was determined to be contaminated with a deadly dioxin compound was 2, 4, 5-T, not 2, 4-D.

In this example, Dr. Oz preys on fear of the unknown with emphasis on a “new pesticide,” and fear of harm by both emphasizing the term “toxic” and unfairly and inaccurately tying Enlist Duo to Agent Orange.

Vani Hari, a.k.a. “Food Babe.” Hari is the individual behind the revelation that a chemical (azodicarbonamide) used to make yoga mats can also be found in bread. More recently, she charged that Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte contains, among other suspicious ingredients, “Monsanto Milk from cows fed GMO corn, soy, and cottonseed.” A quick cruise through her website surfaces phrases like “processed chemicals the food industry is dumping in our food,” and “Shocking: Why Are Doctors Recommending This Toxic Drink?”

Some facts: azodicarbonamide is an agent used to bleach flour and condition bread dough. Based on extensive review of safety studies, the FDA recognizes it as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).

More facts: Cows and other livestock have been consuming genetically modified crops for nearly 20 years. Analysis of feeding study data, (representing billions of animals) collected before and after GMO crops were present in livestock feed, shows no impact on animal health. Over 2,000 credible studies have shown they have no adverse effect on human health, either.

Like Dr. Oz, Food Babe’s popularity hinges on what I call the gasp effect, as in “<Gasp!> I didn’t know that! Do you mean that evil company is trying to pull one over on me to make money?!” Fear is her tool, and she makes her living by instilling it. (I’m waiting for her to start a campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide. It’s a chemical that is tricky to pronounce and found in industrial solvents, breast milk, and baby formula.)

Approach new food factsUnfortunately, Dr. Oz and Food Babe are only two of the most notable culprits in the quest to frighten the public (and sell alternative foods or supplements while doing so). There are many more, and they are adept at preying on our deepest worries about our health and safety. My advice? Approach everything you read, see, and hear with skepticism. Watch for use of “scary” words like chemicals, toxic, processed, industrial, and unnatural. Don’t fall for fear-inducing images (like the ubiquitous syringe injecting a mysterious substance into an ear of corn). Check other sources, but be skeptical.

If you don’t have time to check other sources, then do me a favor: Don’t share anything you learn from Dr. Oz, Food Babe, or anyone else who gets your attention by trying to scare you.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite, accurate sources food and farming information:





This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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“Natural” is a friendly word. It conjures green, growing things, blue skies, clear water, winsome wildlife. It is the antithesis of all things man-made: cold concrete, sterile steel, loathsome landfills. The word “natural” seems to strike something deep in our psyche, perhaps a longing for things we miss as we race from home to work and back each day. Things like trees, wildflowers, and babbling brooks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarketers know this about us. We can’t seem to help but believe that natural is good. Natural is safe. Natural things are, well… natural. What could be better?

Natural claims frequently appear on products meant to be ingested or used on our bodies. Apparently if we aren’t going to eat or wear it, we don’t much care if it’s natural. Take cars or cellphones, for example: no natural assertions there! I suppose it makes sense that “natural” labeling in food, health supplement, and cosmetic marketing would be so ubiquitous. If I eat it, drink it, or put it on my skin I’d rather it didn’t make me break out in a rash, stop breathing, or develop cancer. If it’s natural, it won’t, right?

Unfortunately, “natural” is NOT a synonym for “safe.” Radon is natural. It’s an element found in rocks and soil. It’s also radioactive and the second leading cause of lung cancer. Consuming rhubarb leaves can cause convulsions and coma. Munching on mistletoe berries will kill you. Hundreds of other substances easily encountered in nature are both natural and unsafe.

So, depending on my mood, I either giggle or rant when I hear phrases like, “It’s safe, all-natural, and it’ll work for you—guaranteed” shouted from the TV or radio. I always wonder, “What’s their definition of natural?”

Some people say natural foods are the ones that don’t contain chemical ingredients. Food writers like Michael Pollen espouse this rule: if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. The idea is that if you read the ingredients list and it includes chemical-sounding substances like phenylalanine, glutamic acid, or ethyl butanoate, you should avoid that product and reach for something natural, like a banana.

Natural Cheetos: the best of all worlds?!

Natural Cheetos: the best of all worlds?!

Some people say natural foods are the ones that don’t contain genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), weren’t treated with conventional pesticides, or (in the case of meat, milk, or eggs) don’t come from animals treated with antibiotics or hormones.

What do the regulators say? In case you wondered, in the U.S. there are no FDA or USDA regulations for the use of the word “natural” on food labels. Therefore, a “natural” claim on one label may not mean the same thing as a “natural” statement on another.

Personally, I try not to succumb to “natural” labeling. I’m convinced of the safety of GMOs. I’d rather rinse off a practically undetectable amount of pesticide residue from an apple than eat a worm. I know livestock treated with antibiotics didn’t suffer needlessly with illness and a withdrawal period was followed so my meat and milk are antibiotic-free. I know rBST used in dairy cows doesn’t change their milk, and that there’s a heck of a lot more estrogen in a potato than in a steak from a hormone-implanted steer.

And those unpronounceable chemicals I mentioned earlier? They are just a few of the many chemical components of a banana.

Country Fair Blog Part

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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Having long hair with a tendency for stringiness or frizziness—or both—I can spend a lot of time in the hair products aisle. Dozens of products claim to make your hair stronger, smoother, fuller and less oily. You can buy shampoos that rejuvenate, renew or add luster. If you’re in the store for a new shampoo or any one of dozens of other hair elixirs, good luck. You might be there awhile.

So there I was, hovering in the hair aisle hunting for my perfect shampoo when one bottle caught my eye. “Fortifying Shampoo,” it read. “PURE CLEAN,” it proclaimed in large letters. This shampoo promised “Stronger, healthier hair with no weigh-down” and even “Acerola Berry Antioxidant.” If it has fruit in it, is has to be good, right? Especially a fruit as exotic-sounding as acerola.

shampoo_biodegradable_croppedBut it was the lovely Earth on the center front of the bottle, with what looked like a venerable old oak tree growing out of North America, that had that (green, no less) bottle in my hand. Wrapped neatly around the bottom half of the Earth was this: “94% Biodegradable.”

“Gosh,” I thought. “Do all these other shampoos even biodegrade?” Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the shampoo that would make my hair shiny and lustrous and flowing, AND I would be helping the Earth.

Then the doubts crept in. What if this was just another marketing scheme, like the sports drinks labels that tout “NO HFCS” even though high fructose corn syrup has practically the same chemical composition as table sugar? Or the turkeys labeled “raised without hormones” even though a) nothing can grow without naturally-occurring hormones, and b) use of added hormones is illegal in poultry production? Or even the apple juice that gave me a conniption fit in the juice aisle because it was labeled “Gluten Free?” “Of course it’s gluten-free.” I sputtered to my husband, “It’s APPLE JUICE!”

I slowly put the shampoo bottle back on the shelf. I realized that even though this brand claimed to be 94% biodegradable, it was possible many of the other brands were equally, if not more, earth-friendly. Marketing isn’t the same thing as consumer education. Science is rarely part of advertising.

But how often do we fall for packaging claims? How many people know that HFCS is nutritionally equivalent to table sugar or that hormones aren’t given to turkeys? I read about this stuff every day for my job. Most people don’t. These aren’t topics we generally learn about in school, either.

Even my well-read, well-educated husband brought me up short when he asked, “What’s gluten?” Doggone it, could food (and shampoo) companies possibly prey on what we DON’T know to sell their products?

I gave up on the shampoo hunt and let my hairstylist pick something out for me. It comes in a half-gallon jug with a pump on top and lasts about a year. I think my hair is shinier, too. (Feel free to tell me so. It’ll make my day.)
And the apple juice? I was annoyed by the “gluten free” claim, but I bought it anyway. You see, it had a little U.S. flag on the side of the bottle….

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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