By Elena Day
A number of articles found their way across my “desk” (computer) this past month that were troubling food for thought.
I read about the pig poop from the hog operations in eastern North Carolina. The Tarheel State, well known for fine barbeque, boasts a population of 8.9 million hogs and 9.8 million people. North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the U.S.
Since the 1980’s, hog farming has evolved into huge agribusiness operations providing cheaper meat for a pork-hungry U.S. and, more recently, Asia. (Note that the Chinese bought Smithfield in 2013.) Hogs spend their lifetimes in metal-roofed barns chomping on who knows what kind of industrially-dictated feed and laced with which weight-enhancing chemicals and antibiotics. The concentrated waste of thousands of hogs is washed into lagoons. Lagoon water is then sprayed on farm fields. Contamination of water resources is difficult to avoid.
Another article reported that between the 1960’s and 2000’s Americans became 24 pounds heavier and one inch taller. An average man currently weighs 194 lbs and an average woman weighs 165 lbs. One third of our children and teenagers are overweight. Five reasons were listed for the general population’s over-weightedness.
Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock to produce rapid weight gain. Antibiotic residues in meat and milk do the same to people. Other weight-increasing drugs that might figure into population obesity are Ractopamine (marketed as Paylean for pigs, Optaflexx for cattle and Topmax for turkeys) and hormones used by cattle growers such as oestradiol-17 and zeranol, among numerous others. The hormones are banned in European countries.
Pesticides and endocrine disrupters such as BPA and Triclosan (found in Colgate toothpaste and some dishwashing detergents, of all things), artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, and government and industry advertising roundout the “five reasons” we are bigger than ever.
Researchers claim that sugar substitutes slow metabolism, but even worse, they train people to crave sweets.
Government groups like the USDA warn people about high-fat, obesity-linked foods. The USDA, however, created a group called Dairy Management which, with 162 employees, helped Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Domino’s and the other usual suspects “cheesify” their menu options in order to increase milk sales. Although Dairy Management is mostly funded by dairy farmers, it received $5.3 million from USDA in one year to promote an overseas dairy campaign. It is noteworthy that the yearly budget of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion that heralds better diets for all is $6.5 million.
I am a proponent of eating locally, but probably more, of eating seasonally. For example, I feel that asparagus as a menu option year round is not appropriate (and neither is the availability of heavily-pesticided California strawberries). Asparagus is grown year round in Peru’s arid, and thereby irrigated, coastal strip. Peru supplies most of our fresh asparagus, other than that harvested in season from April, in the eastern United States, to July in our Midwest. California produces the bulk of U.S. grown asparagus with a season that extends from late February to early June and a secondary season in September/October.
Peru has a skewed income distribution translating into plenty of low-wage workers. Crystal Valley Foods controls 90 percent of Peruvian asparagus production. It is a Florida-based company founded in 1994 to supply specialty vegetables in all seasons from Peru and Guatemala, and now Mexico. Its other products include French fillet beans, snow peas and sugar snaps, blackberries, baby vegetables, heirloom tomatoes and colored bell peppers.
There are plenty of vegetables in the autumnal season with which we could reacquaint ourselves. Our diet would benefit. The vegetables would likely be fresher and at peak nutritionally. Less fossil fuel would be expended to transport asparagus and other “specialty” vegetables by air from South and Central America.
Local agriculture is rising to the challenge. Maybe it helps to have a drought in California. A green grocer quipped to me recently that you can’t get any good organic lettuce out of California these days. Remember, the coastal plain of the Carolinas once supplied our Eastern cities with their salad greens and cole crops into autumn and then again early in the spring.
Collards, kale, mustard greens, and even turnips are making a comeback. The smaller Japanese salad turnips are crunchy and appealing. Radishes, which seemed to have suffered a 15-year hiatus, are once again included in green salads. Nowadays green salads comprise not only lettuce, but arugula, mache, orache, mizuna, and a host of Asian greens, all cool season crops. I find that cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower grow well into early December here in Charlottesville. Of course, there has never been a problem with cabbage storage.
Other vegetables and fruits that store well include apples and pears, numerous varieties of winter squash (not just butternut), potatoes and sweet potatoes. Of these vegetables, sweet potatoes are my favorite. This year we had a bumper crop, with some sweet potatoes as large as a baby’s head.
It is believed sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, originated somewhere between Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. They may have been domesticated as early as 5000 years ago. Ipomoea is the genus of morning glories and the sweet potato flower resembles a morning glory. Polynesians traveling to and from South America likely spread the tuber to Hawaii and other Polynesian Islands and New Zealand from coastal Peru/Ecuador. Sweet potatoes were introduced into China in the late 16th century from the Philippines and into Japan in the early 18th century. There was a northerly expansion into the southeastern U.S. as well. Until the mid 20th century they were a staple in U.S. diets, especially in the Southeast. As we became more affluent, sweet potatoes were overlooked.
Today we know full well their versatility. They can be roasted, pureed, baked, grilled, and added to soups and stews. They are rich in vitamins B6. D, C, potassium, beta carotene and other carotenoids and magnesium, the so called “relaxation and anti-stress mineral.” They grow easily even in poor soils from cuttings.
In Asia and Africa, the greens are also consumed. Obviously, if raised for the greens, the tubers will not develop as well or at all. I recently came upon a two-acre garden dedicated to growing Asian vegetables in suburban Falls Church. Most of the garden was taken up with sweet potatoes grown for the greens rather than the tubers. Note that sweet potatoes are distinct from yams, genus Discorea, native to Africa and Asia.
The sweet potato is North Carolina’s state vegetable. So not only is our neighbor famed for barbeque, but it also grows the greatest tonnage of sweet potatoes in the U.S.
Sweet potatoes can be more than once a year as traditional Thanksgiving fare. (often laced with miniature marshmallows—Ugh!). These tubers can be incorporated into one’s autumn and winter menus with a small amount of creative effort.
Let’s hear it for sweet potatoes!