I recently had the great pleasure of reading Jill Richardson's soon to be released book, "Recipe for America" (available for pre order here or here), and my only fear is that I'm not a good enough writer to get across just how wonderful this book is. But I'll try...
Disclaimer: Jill wants me to mention here that this will be a very "biased" review, since she and I are good friends and all. BUT! I'll add my own "disclaimer" here, and make it very clear that this was really one of the most fun reads I've ever had.
Crossposted from La Vida Locavore; review below the fold...
I've been in a rut lately - lazy, kinda down - and the first thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to stop screwing around, jump up and start eating better again. Living better. That's what we're fighting for, that's what Jill's writing about and that's where the solutions Jill proposes in this book will lead us as a nation.
In "Recipe for America", Jill Richardson begins by telling us who she is and describing her own experiences in transitioning from conscientious eater to activist; while along the way sharing a few hilarious anecdotes involving spinach and canteloupes, which are much funnier than any stories involving spinach or cantaloupes should ever be. On the serious side, she also mentions her experiences living without a car in neighborhoods with iffy public transportation systems and without supermarkets or local access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a situation with which I've been all too familiar at times myself. And of course, a situation which millions upon millions of Americans face today, right now.
From there, Jill goes into how our society has gradually lost touch with the land and where our food comes from. The story of how the American chemical industry made the transition from warfare abroad to agriculture at home is covered in depth, and is in itself worth the purchase of this book. Fortunately, we get much more than that.
The effects of factory farms and CAFO runoff on our ecosystem in creating dead zones, the labor abuse engaged in by these entities, and other effects on humans and non-humans alike are covered; and we're only in Chapter 2 by now.
From there, we get an insider's look at what exactly makes a sustainable farm through tours of successful working examples of same; including a fascinating in-depth look at living soil at the microscopic level.
Jill goes on from there to discuss the history of organic standards in the US, the benefits and shortcomings of same as they currently stand, and the fact that many small local producers who do things the proper way (although technically not "certified" organic) may be the best way to go regardless. As I've found myself here at the Portland-area markets, she makes it clear that all we have to do is ask them a question or two. Jill gives us some great examples of which questions to ask. This quote pretty much sums it up -
To me, however, the best thing about buying directly from farms is the relationship you build with the individual farmers, the kind of relationship you cannot develop by being part of the industrial food complex. For example, a farmer I buy oranges from once told me that the reason she went organic was so her young niece would be able to run out into the orchards and eat the fruit off her trees without worrying about what had been sprayed on it. As a result of this kind of intimate relationship between eater and grower, I know that "my" farmers, in addition to growing food in a way I find appealing, also have the same vision for our food system as I do.
And this should be a sig-line:
If you meet most of your customers face to face, you do not need to pay an ACA to inspect your farm—your customers will do that themselves!
Jill goes on from there with a long section on her experiences working at a Whole Foods Market, after which she comes to a fair conclusion about them with which I completely agree.
From there Jill goes on into several segments of the local food movement - farmers' markets, restaurants which focus on local foods (reading one particular day's menu from her favorite local restaurant made my mouth water!), CSAs, Slow Food, community gardens / urban farms, school gardens / Farm-to-School, and local Food Policy Councils. As a past critic of Slow Food myself, I must say Jill makes a fantastic point about them in this paragraph -
One of the criticisms of Slow Food is that it is "elitist," and yes, it is hard to ignore the high price tag of many Slow Food events. Despite this, Slow Food International provides an important service by focusing attention on local food and bringing together those that enjoy it (and can afford it). And, those of us who cannot afford to dine in four star restaurants can still appreciate the business Slow Food brings to local farmers, as we all benefit from the positive environmental impact of eating food that is grown by farmers who respect the earth and promote biodiversity. I would be more critical of Slow Food for "elitism" if it were the only game in town, but fortunately the food movement is large, decentralized, and growing and I believe that there’s something for everybody, even if Slow Food isn’t it.
Jill heads on from there into discussing the barriers facing institutional purchases of sustainable local foods on the ends of both the producers and buyers, the current state of programs like WIC and the fight my fellow community food security activists are fighting to increase support for programs that bring fresh healthy foods to those who need them most, and the struggles we face in the dire task of regulating industrial agriculture.
After this, here's where Jill gives us her "Recipe for America", a platform upon which to fix our food system.
The importance of labeling - which allows us to make the decision as to what we'll eat, and also to beware of ineffective labeling measures supported by entities who'd like nothing more than for us to remain uninformed of what exactly it is that we're putting into our bodies; the importance of ensuring that our food safety laws actually tackle the real problems in our food system; and the absolute necessity of fixing the problem of the 'food' our children are currently fed in our public schools. Chapter 11 also makes it clear that the industrial food system takes just as much advantage of human workers as it does animals. From there we head on into an in-depth discussion of our Farm Bills -
First, we must provide a definition of what "food" is in our current agricultural system. Hank Herrera, project manager for the HOPE Collaborative, an Oakland, California-based group dedicated to sustainable environmental change, defines food as an "edible plant or animal that grows, walks or swims on the earth and its waters with no genetic engineering, no hormone-driven growth, and no synthetic chemical substances to mimic natural qualities."
and the "MESSes" they encourage -
To Herrera, any other edible substance is a "manufactured edible substitute substance," or "MESS." A "MESS" has "ingredients that depend on genetic modification and genetic engineering, hormone and antibiotic residue from concentrated production, and synthetic additives," which "subvert food cultures and food sovereignty....and contribute to the alarming toxic load that every human being now carries." Unfortunately, the current farm bill ensures the continued growth and manufacturing of MESSes, as well as the subsequent consumption of these MESSes by recipients of federal nutrition programs (such as food stamps).
Jill ends things with some suggestions on how to clean up those "MESS"es, and a discussion of the environmental effects of our food.
Throughout this book, Jill makes it clear that WE will be the ones to reform our food system - you and I. We have to take the steps, we have to take action. But the fact is, it isn't that hard. And we have the tools at our fingertips, right here. Our keyboards, our phones. Visits to our legislators if necessary. We must remain flexible though, because there are billions to be made in maintaining the (unworkable and unsustainable) status quo. They aren't standing still, and neither should we. Time to fight...
We can do it, and we will. But it's gonna be a fight. I'm up for it, and have been for years. Are we ready? It's time to take our food system back.