Michael Pollan on the Rising Food Movement in the NY Review of Books

“The First Lady has effectively shifted the conversation about diet from the industry’s preferred ground of “personal responsibility” and exercise to a frank discussion of the way food is produced and marketed. “We need you not just to tweak around the edges,” she told the assembled food makers, “but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.”

In his latest essay, The Food Movement, Rising, Michael Pollan chronicles the rise of the Food Movement. It’s a 5,400 word piece in the New York Review of Books that moves from the roots of the movements, to challenging today’s leaders, and, as always, encouraging us to join in.

A striking point comes when he calls out Al Gore for missing the critical role that agriculture plays in global warming. Citing his book/movie/presentation, An Inconvenient Truth,  for making “scant mention of food or agriculture”. Even though our food system makes up one-fifth of American fossil fuel use. Further, it emits an incredible amount of greenhouse gas even thought “(it) is the one human system that should be able to substantially rely on photosynthesis” (i.e. solar energy).

The health industry is also in the center of his piece, citing that 3/4 of all health care spending treats diet related diseases (heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and at least a third of all cancers).

“The health care crisis probably cannot be addressed without addressing the catastrophe of the American diet, and that diet is the direct (even if unintended) result of the way that our agriculture and food industries have been organized.”

Oddly, the good news portion of his essay comes from the government. The FDA is “cracking down on deceptive marketing”, the DOJ is “avowing” to “pursue antitrust” issues, and even the conservative USDA is getting involved. Most importantly, though, is Michelle Obama’s work. As the cited above her direct statements and in-the-field work seem to be having the greatest impact.

“Mrs. Obama explicitly rejected the conventional argument that the food industry is merely giving people the sugary, fatty, and salty foods they want, contending that the industry “doesn’t just respond to people’s natural inclinations—it also actually helps to shape them,” through the ways it creates products and markets them.”

My favorite part about Michael Pollan’s writing are always his euphoric references to our food future. Yes, there are problems and people are suffering, but the light at the end of the tunnel is awe inspiring.

“The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure…”

I love how he interweaves politics and beliefs into the piece (conservative libertarianism, comunitarian?). Then moves to explore the backlash against consumerism, “an attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement”.

Finally, a solid reference to our beloved Farmers Markets:

…an activity that a great many people enjoy…(someone) is playing music. Children are everywhere, sampling fresh produce, talking to farmers. Friends and acquaintances stop to chat. One sociologist calculated that people have ten times as many conversations at the farmers’ market than they do in the supermarket.

The piece is well worth reading: The Food Movement, Rising by Michael Pollan

Workout Buffs Are Wasting Their Time

Every time I ride my bike along the Potomac River I get so upset. There are all these folks best described as “workout buffs”. You know the ones in full running/biking gear. They would look like a hardcore biker gang if it nearly all of them weren’t overweight.

That’s the part that bothers me. Here is a group of people so intensely focused on being healthy that they will wear colorful nylon and short shorts. I can’t help but devolve into the raison d’être for A Clean Life (to help people get healthy through eating). I imagine these folks devouring a power bar when they get home, or even during the bike ride. They are surely drinking some sort of sugary “electrolyte” or “vitamin water” drink too.

Best case scenario is a hearty meal, but even then it has to be low quality food since only 2% of America is eating high quality food. It’s as if all of their working out is for naught when they go home and chow down on garbage.

I remember one youtube video where the professor says that running for several miles only burns through the calories of one cookie. Which means that these folks need to run/cycle for hundreds of miles per day just to lose weight. When most likely they are only burning enough calories to slowly gain weight (rather than quickly gain weight).

Ah well, such is the contradictions in American life.

Of course, if these same folks were to understand the nature of food everything would change. They could enjoy high quality food that would cause them to lose weight just by breathing. Soon their workout routines would lessen until they are no longer needed. A switch would happen to being outdoors for the fun of it, maybe even enjoying a little community activity like sports clubs (a European thing).

Not only that but their mental and physical health would improve, the environment would gain a boon in decreased pollution, local economies would flourish…but I digress.

The point here is that I want to help these folks. I really want to find a way to talk to them since they are a “target market” for the Clean Lifestyle. Instead, I am too busy feeling sorry for them or just angry at them.

Maybe one day I will figure out how to get to the “workout buff” crowd.

Being Obese Cost Individuals 37% More A Year

Just how fat are we as a country?

Well a recent report on obesity rates in America gave us an F. In fact, they even titled their report F as in Fat 2009, by the Trust for America’s Health. The reason being that they found that 2/3 of all adult Americans are overweight or obese. Where the “adult obesity rates now exceed 25 percent in 31 states and exceed 20 percent in 49 states and Washington, D.C.”

Only Colorado is exempt, but they have an obesity rate of 18.9 percent, not something to brag about. Especially considering that in “1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. In 1980, the national average for adult obesity was 15 percent.” We are now at more than 33 percent nationwide, it goes on to state.

1 out of 3 of us are obese.

2 out of 3 of us are overweight/obese.

I’m a little scared to pass along the facts about our children…

Utah and Minnesota had the lowest rate of obesity for their children at 23.1 percent. Our children are fatter than we are.  In some states the obesity rate is at rates of 35-45 percent.

Scary stuff.

If we look at this report (pdf) from the Center for Disease Control. It shows individual charts from 1985 to 2008. Each one lists all the states and their average level of obesity, based on BMI levels (body mass index; 30 or higher equals obese). I just flipped through the pages and watch the obesity trend like a comic flip book. In the beginning all of the states show no data or very low BMI’s. Then as the years progress all the states are in the fat quadrant.

They even had to add extra columns on the right to describe the higher levels of BMI.

What does this all cost us?

Cost is an interesting word. These obesity trends are having drastic impacts on the environment, our economy, and our family lives. But, here I just want to focus on dollars in health care since I have another report to share.

Many thanks to Ryan Huber for the tip on this article.

This report from a journal, Health Affairs, discusses the changes in health care spending from 1987 to 2001.

The Impact of Obesity on Rising Medical Spending, by Kenneth E. Thorpe, Curtis S. Florence, David H. Howard, and Peter Jorski. (pdf of full report)

The results show two things. Obese folks end up spending more on health care each year. It also hints that they cost the rest of us more money as well.

“Health care spending among the obese was 37 percent higher.”

The rate of obesity in America is increasing to and so are the costs. Being in this category means that we spend more on health care, that spending is increasing (compared to those not obese), and more of us are becoming obese.

This is normally due to the increased health risks that come along with this epidemic. They include risks of developing “diabetes, gallstones, hypertension, heart disease, hyperlipidemia, stroke, and some forms of cancer.”

Don’t think we’re safe though if we are just overweight since “the risk of death is higher among moderately and severely overweight men and women, regardless of age.” (bold added by me).

Finally, the report hints that 27% of all increases in healthcare spending are due to obesity. Since obesity is linked to so many diseases, each of which are on the rise, it is possible that we are all facing higher costs. This may just get worse too if our government move towards a more collective (socialist) form of healthcare.

Don’t Get Mad

I am not here to offend anyone. I am not here to place blame. But I cannot step around our obesity problem. In order to address it we have to face the issue.

In writing this piece I made sure to use we instead of you. This is not an individual problem or issue. It is a community issue. Together we must face it and together we can solve it.

I also understand how hard this is for us. I was once 60 pounds heavier than I am now. I understand how deep this feels.

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments.


A Clean Life Interviews – Dave Cacner

I love being a part of a community with A Clean Life. There are so many people living the way we all can/should. Here is one, Dave Cacner, an avid composter. Read on as Dave shares some of his clean lifestyle with us:

What is the favorite environmental thing you do?
It’s a toss-up between making compost and recycling/reusing what I can.  I’ll take whatever vegetable matter we don’t use in the house and compost it.  I’ve even been known to empty the vacuum cleaner bag or take out the dryer lint and add them to the compost pile.  In terms of recycling, I recycle whatever paper we have down to the paper price tags that come on clothing or even toilet paper rolls.

How close to zero waste are you?
Pretty close.  We don’t subscribe to the twice-weekly garbage service.  First of all it’s way overpriced, and since I live less than 3 miles from the Fairfax County transfer station, it’s really easy to justify not paying $30 a month for garbage/recycling pickup.  I estimate that our family of 3 puts out less than 1 large garbage bag a week, or about 3-4 plastic grocery bags worth of garbage.  The rest is composted or recycled!  Or reused.

How do the other people in your life take to this?
My wife and daughter tolerate my cause and of course recycle the standard fare; i.e. newspapers, junk mail, bottles, cans, etc.  And they also diligently fill up our composter under the sink.  Of course, I have to take it outside whenever it’s overflowing.  As far as my friends and neighbors, I think they are somewhat envious, especially when I tell them my garbage bill is around $6.00 a month.  I haven’t seen anyone give up the “convenience” of having the garbage trucks drive through the neighborhood at 7 AM during the week.

What are the benefits you have found in doing all this?
I feel good about how our family is making a difference by reducing the garbage we produce and even in suburbia I feel connected to the land through my composting.

What are you trying to do next?
Your questions have made me think about starting a garden next year.  Every year I think about it and then it’s too late to plant anything.  I’d also like to start buying more local foods and visit farmers markets as part of our normal grocery-gathering.

Do you compost? Describe your process, bins do you use (inside/out), any problems, has it become habitual?
Yes!  I’ve been composting since we moved into our home back in 1995.  I had been just putting the grass clippings in the woods when my wife came across The Rodale Book of Composting on sale at Borders one weekend.  I highly recommend this for beginners and those who want to understand the history and science behind composting.  It really energized me into composting more than just grass clippings.  I went out and purchased two plastic bins, one green and one black (similar to this photo) through a Montgomery County Maryland subsidization program several years ago.  The county was offering them for only $5 each while Home Depot had them for around $30 each, and I haven’t found anything so reasonable since.  If I could, I’d buy a couple more to put out in the woods.  As you research this, you don’t need fancy bins…and don’t waste your money on those rotating cement mixer-like contraptions offering to turn your garbage into dirt in mere days.  Just make a pile in the corner of your yard and toss your clippings and table scraps in there turning periodically.  You’ll be surprised how easy (and fun) it is.

As it is, if I fill up both bins and seem to have more to compost than can fit neatly into the containers.  I throw grass, hedge trimmings, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, dryer lint, dog hair, fireplace ashes, etc. into the green bin to work awhile.  Then after a few months (with no action on my part) or a few weeks (with periodic turning) I move the semi-composted muck into the black bin to work a little more until it’s ready for screening.  If I did nothing to the piles, in about a year I would have “black gold” or very rich dirt.  If I were to turn the piles more often, adding water and mixing everything up while exposing the bacteria to air, I’d have that rich dirt in a couple of weeks.

When I’m ready to make soil, all I do is take a homemade screen from 2X4’s and galvanized hardware cloth and sift out the twigs, rocks, and other materials that don’t break down so rapidly.  I place the screen over my wheelbarrow, mix in some peat moss, and shovel the resulting soil into used mulch bags.  Earlier this summer I made about 5 cubic yards of soil in about an hour.  The flowers love it!

Really I don’t have any problems with the compost.  Fortunately our HOA allows compost bins and the neighbors don’t mind.  Of course I offer them some of the dirt for their plantings.  We never have to buy dirt or potting soil and whenever we plant any bushes or flowers, I always add a shovelful of my compost to help enrich the clay soil we have in Northern Virginia.

What has been the hardest part about your composting?
Not having time to get out and work the piles.  It really helps to turn the piles as the more air you introduce the faster it turns into soil.

What are you growing in your garden?
Sadly nothing.  One of my projects this summer will be to build some boxes that I can attach to my deck…something along the lines of this.

Where do you get your food from? Farmers Markets? Hardcore locavore?
Mostly Wegmans.  I’m working on the Farmers Markets 🙂

What kind of trash bins does your city provide to you?
N/A.  We have some recycling bins and a wheeled garbage can that the previous owners left us.  I have two bins for recycling newspapers and other paper products including the paperboard boxes such as cereal comes in as well as the traditional junk mail.  I also have 3 bins for aluminum, plastic (1 & 2), and glass.  I really wish the county would start taking some of the other types of plastic…I really feel guilty throwing out the butter dishes and non-1&2 type PET.

Pure Drinking Water From Your Toilet

Would you do it?

The Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) has found a way to turn the county’s sewage into drinking water that “is of a higher quality than required by all state and federal drinking water standards and is similar to distilled water”.

They are using an “advanced purification process” with the latest in “water treatment technologies”. This is absolutely fascinating. You may not know this but Southern California is a very dry place. So dry that we import most of our water. It is extremely expensive to do that too.

water_cubesWe are not talking about expansive Roman aqueducts to bring the stuff into one city. We are talking about a sprawling metropolis of over 10 million people. Getting in the water means ginormous pipes, rivers, reservoirs, a whole webwork of water carriers. We buy water from other states, steal it from rivers, and even attempt to desalinate the ocean.

Now, we are on the road to a sustainable water system. Where the water we use and flush is sent back to us. My imagination quickly runs to the end of the line with this. Take this process, productize it, and put it in every house/building. Now houses need significantly less water, with some houses maybe needing no water. Get those houses completely off the water grid.

Ok, before I digress into Tatooine and Star Wars water capture technology let me get back to reality. This groundwater reclamation system (GWR) is still very new, opening in January of 2008. Tests can show it to of equal quality to drinking water, but what if we don’t test everything?

There are enormous potential issues here and so the brilliant folks at OCSD instead let nature do its thing. They send “half of the treated water…13 miles up along the Santa Ana River into ponds where it slowly percolates into the ground. The other half is injected into wells in Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley to build up a fresh water barrier and keep salty ocean water from seeping inland.”

Concerns aside this is radical but logical. These folks are showing solid leadership and management with something very serious.

It’s serious for me too since this water normally gets tossed in the Ocean. I can’t surf without swimming in it. The more they recycle this water the better. Now, I promise you there is so much more in this story. Cost savings, environmental impacts (in a good way), compost from poo, etc.

I highly recommend reading these three very short information pieces:

Food Inc

Food is in trouble.

You know I really struggled with writing this piece. I wanted to just present the facts with brutal honesty. To scare anyone who reads this into the movie theater to see Food Inc. Then I wrote a piece from a neutral point of view, to ease everyone into the story. I deleted both pieces.

On the suggestion of my Mom, maybe I’ll just provide the trailer:

I cannot escape what is happening here. I cried a little during the movie. I read the book it is based on, Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book changed my life. It set me upon a path toward this blog and this non-profit (A Clean Life) and this passion to make change.

I now call the book my ‘bible’ for what I do.

The movie didn’t touch me as deeply as the book did, but only because I had already known all the problems we have with food. It did bring a parallel to mind though, a similar book that is now legendary. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

An angry lion standing on a steer skeleton.
notice the angry lion standing on the steer head

Written around the turn of the century (20th) when the industrial revolution was in its infancy but going full steam ahead. Our government and personal policy was to let the best survive. Unfortunately, as Sinclair discovered, capitalism does not understand health and morality. The companies who could produce the cheapest food were doing so in filthy, nasty, and unhealthy ways.

The most famous example of this are the hot dog factories in Chicago at the time. Imagine a giant meat grinder that gets nearly anything thrown into it (horses, pigs, bones, dirt) and then served as hot dogs. As the book rose in prominence so did American consciousness. The results were new regulations about food safety and much safer and healthier factories for workers and food for us.

This is a great parallel because we are at the same crossroads. Food is again unhealthy as we are an obese society. It is again nasty in that it is ruining our environment and our waistlines. It is again filthy in that we are debasing animals and workers down into horrible circumstances.

The movie touches on all these points and more. There is so much to say. I dare not go into growth hormones, antibiotics, and the torture that we allow. Instead I want to tell you about the nature of power of money.

food-inc-posterThe nature of capitalism is to get more efficient as you make products. This naturally leads to consolidation and factories. Well what happens when our food is controlled by a just a few gigantic but private companies? What happens when we take gardens, farms, and animals and instead put them into factories?

The answers are in the movie or the book. They are also all around us. Our environment is being destroyed, our bodies the same, and we have lost one of our most basic connections to the earth through food.

That is the most direct way to state my feelings after watching this movie. There is so much wrong with food in this country that the movie almost felt action packed. Everyone is involved in this too, three times a day. We all eat and we all pay for food.

Share Your Trash Habits

Every couple of Sundays I put out a question for my friends on twitter. I ask them to update me on their trash habits and what they do for the environment. Below is my query from June 7 and here is one from May 10

The Query


The Answers

bindr we always use our made-from-recycled-material bags for grocery shopping so we don’t use disposable packaging #acleanlife

kttobin @robotchampion I refilled my water bottle at the baseball game, rather than use a new plastic one. #acleanlife

cheeky_geeky @robotchampion I kept myself isolated from the world so as no to do it harm. #acleanlife #opentointerpretation

lizdanzer @robotchampion #acleanlife I stopped buying cds and now instead use itunes to buy all my music! All that unnecessary plastic is saved.

cacner Srsly @robotchampion I make my own potting soil from compost & peat moss. Made ~5 cu yd and still have more compost #acleanlife

robotchampion #acleanlife – i spent hours this week removing the tape from my mailed home packages so i could recycle the paper

blairDC skipping out on rooftop parties @beaconskybar & donovan house. #lazybones but making enviro contribution by not driving #acleanlife :-p

robotchampion #acleanlife – strange but true, for the environment im asking everyone in my household to call it the landfill bin, not trash bin…

krazykriz Brought my own bags to the grocery store. #acleanlife (@robotchampion) http://myloc.me/2YgU

mcpaige @robotchampion Ive not bought water bottles still. #plastic

kstreetkate@robotchampion 1 thing I do for the environment? I handle green collar jobs for DC Dept of Employment Services… that’s a ton!!

j3@robotchampion weird one for you: I only write on unlined paper. Fit more, use less, more creative & flexible.

mrmerlot@acleanlife @robotchampion found a new way to conserve, a vitamix blender: throw in full fruits, veggies, blends to perfection! yum!

how to build community

More is better?

You might find this strange but the most friction I encounter in my work with A Clean Life is through food. Folks are okay with trash and recycling. Many even entertain composting. But when it comes to food we are in scary territory.

Imagine that…more people are okay with sorting their trash than with learning about food.

I am lost on this one, but I do have a little clue. That is to question one of our basic assumptions, more is better.

I mean if you go to the market and their is a sale, that is good. You can get more food for less money. At first glance this is very simple and logical. Food is expensive, we work very hard for money, obviously we don’t want to overpay for food.

At second glance, this is not so good. And this second glance is where I zing most people. Nearly everyone can challenge organic, green, expensive food, etc, but no one and I mean no one can answer our obesity problem.

We are an overweight society. The basic assumption ‘more is better‘ is starting to haunt me. I hate seeing children, active children, that are overweight. I cannot imagine what their psyche is like (I’m very active, I’m following the rule more is better, yet I’m fat).

If childhood obesity doesn’t bother you, then maybe healthcare does. You just might live a shorter life because of obesity. You just might have to help pay the healthcare of others (through taxes) who have health problems due to obesity.

Finally, if you care at all about the environment then you should know that ‘more is better‘ is definitely bad for the environment. Honestly, if all of this extra food solved world hunger I wouldn’t make this argument. But, it does not and it will not. Solving world hunger is not about chesseburgers for 99 cents. It is about something entirely different.

You should also know that to produce so much food means we go to great lengths to exploit nature. This includes growing pigs in factories (pic), chickens in 6 inch coops (pic), and cows in manure pens. Our food is washed over with fertilizer (that is oil based) and pesticide.

The waste from fertilizer and pesticide goes into our rivers, streams, and waterways. It ruins beaches, bays, and entire ecosystems. Our factory animals are ridden with disease (so we shoot them up with antibiotics), or better yet we just fatten them up earlier in life and then turn them into food before their bodies fail (about 18 months for cows).

As with most things in life more is not always better. We are ruining our own land, fattening ourselves up, and burdening our society (taxes, healthcare, children).

So, I challenge everyone to re-think ‘more is better’. Come up with a better rule for yourself. May it be ‘less is more’ or ‘better not more’, whatever works. Perhaps, person by person we can start to transform ourselves into a fit people and through that improve our food system and our environment.

P.S. – For those of you interested in learning more from an expert. Here is a talk from Michael Pollan titled “Where does your food come from?”

Share Your Trash Habits

Reduce-Reuse-Recycle: Broken rocking chair from curb+hay bale twine=the fourth R, relaxation by K.Muncie on Flickr.

On Sunday, May 10, I put out a call for my friends on twitter. I asked them to share their trash habits and what they do for the environment. Here are the results:

The Query

robotchampion: Friends, I’m interested in ur trash habits, share one thing u do for environment..reduce-reuse-recycle. Send responses w/ #acleanlife tag

The Answers

robotchampion: ive made a bigger effort to recycle all paper in my life, including carrying stuff around and from work to recycle bin at home

kmallwein: still more to do but traditional trash recycling + turn stuff & magazines into art http://www.twitpic.com/4x31h

selil: i only have one computer for work and home thereby keeping my stuff in one place and removing need to print stuff.

selil: In a family of seven we combine loads of a laundry so every load is a full load. saves a ton of water.

kufflink: my wife washes ziplock freezer bags.

kmallwein: when the weather’s nice I dry clothes outside – nice fresh smell and saves electricity

robotchampion – I removed my trash can at work to see of I can reduce my output..it worked and now I’m trying it in my bedroom at home

blairDC: i use a 100% recyclable/reusable bag for groceries (it replaces 50 plastic bags!)

j3: Clean Currents 100% windpower for our house, only about 8% more than regular Pepco Coal.

kmallwein: Electric lawnmower dead (+10yrs old) – have to dig out the push mower that I just bought to go totally green

kmallwein: My new push mower is very green but it doesn’t do weeds very well which is mostly what my yard consists of right now #conundrum

robotchampion: 4 mothers day instead of mailing card, saved paper/CO2, wrote a post and asked siblings to comment – http://stevenmandzik.com

deyarrison: I only purchase products with recyclable packaging. I give Kleen Kanteens and tote bags as gifts to help others reduce too.

Mandatory Compost in San Francisco (via marketplace)


I don’t know how it works for you, but at my house anyway, it’s the blue garbage can for recycling, the green one for yard trimmings and the brown one for trash. Nothing though, for leftover food. Unless you’ve got a composting heap in your backyard, you throw scraps right in with the regular trash, no? Not so in San Francisco. The city wants to boost its already high recycling rate by making composting mandatory.


“to push the recycling rate to 75 percent or beyond.”

The Story

This is an interesting piece that highlights exactly why A Clean Life is getting started. The story hits on all the right notes: how introducing compost into the trash stream cuts costs. In fact, in most cases it cuts them in half. A huge savings that does not even touch on the environmental impact, which itself is huge.

Then it moves onto education. Of course, everyone wants to save money and the environment but nobody knows how to compost. The companies and business involved are doing their best, but learning a new method takes time.

Unfortunately, the city of San Francisco is doing two things wrong. They are not passing on the cost savings to the people and then fining folks for not composting correctly.

Definitely progress though. We will be following this closely and even contacting the folks involved.

Though, honestly, this story is partly a press release for Recology who recently changed their name and goals to capitalize on this new market. Still it shows that the money is there and in some cases so is the political motivation.

Check out the story..