Category: public radio

NAFTA and the endless American summer

Fresh Produce

Photo by Flickr user Bill Couch, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ted Robbins recently reported for NPR on the impact of NAFTA on the U.S. diet. As he describes,

Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you’ll see things you’d never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter.

Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it’s the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month.

In the years since, NAFTA radically changed the way we get our fruits and vegetables. For starters, the volume of produce from Mexico to the U.S. has tripled since 1994.

There are several reasons why …

Head here for the full text and audio versions of the story.

NPR’s Ari Shapiro: A man in search of a pub


Photo of Ari Shapiro by Flickr user COD Newsroom, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro is giving up the White House beat to head to London.

Why, you ask, does that merit a mention on a blog about eating (and drinking) in the modern world? No reason, honestly, but he’s so dang smart and talented, not to mention out and adorable, that I couldn’t help but find an angle. Thanks to Punch, I’ve got one.

Ari, it seems, is a fan of local beer, craft cocktails, and the neighborly exchanges that take place between customers and their favorite bartenders. As Leslie Pariseau describes,

During the lead up to the 2012 Presidential election, Shapiro found himself on the campaign trail following Mitt Romney from swing state to swing state. “You feel like you see the inside of airplanes and busses and hotel lobbies more than you see any actual place that you’re in,” he says. “One of the photographers for AP had an Instagram feed of hotel carpets, and it was just one swirling pattern after another, which is kind of a metaphor for the way we felt.”

At nearly every stop, Shapiro’s oasis was the hotel bar. At the end of a long day in decidedly unglamorous cities like Cincinnati or Reno, he would find his way into a middling hotel chain bar (think Comfort Inn and Courtyard by Marriott) with nondescript carpet and bad lighting. Surprisingly, almost every time—whether in the belly of the South or the middle of Iowa—he could find a local beer. It gave him a sense of grounding that “was a really refreshing antidote to the sense that every place has become the same.”

Instead of disparaging Anywhere, U.S.A. Shapiro found “that there still exists a local food and drink culture that people are really proud of everywhere—not just in the rarefied niches.”

The article concludes,

“I’m told London is a city that enjoys its drink,” he says optimistically. But Shapiro is baffled at how the English manage to drink as much as he’s told without going bankrupt. He balks at the price tag of a regular cocktail converted into British pounds, and is instead focused on finding his own corner pub. “It seems to me that, in Britain, no matter your age or class or wealth, you have a neighborhood pub—like a communal living room.” A place to revisit, and most definitely a notch up from the anonymous hotel bar.

Head here for the full piece, which also reveals that Shapiro is renowned for his homemade Poire Williams. (I didn’t know what that is either, but it’s an amazing and lovely thing, so check out the article.)

TTBOOK on fermentation

Home Brew Day - Reedsburg Fermentation Fest

A home brewing demonstration at the 2010 Fermentation Fest. Photo by Flickr user Nic Stage [Analog Weapon], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yesterday I caught the latest episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge on my local public radio station. The topic this time? Fermentation. As their intro describes,

Something’s bubbling in American kitchens: a resurgence of interest in cultured and fermented foods. Fermentation revivalists share a slow food philosophy, a DIY approach to foodcraft, and a deep interest in the health of the American gut. Today, we explore fermentation culture in food, technology, art and science.

Guests include Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation; Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese; designer Suzanne Lee on growing fabric via microorganisms; and human microbiome expert Rob Knight. The episode also features a visit to Fermentation Fest right here in Wisconsin and a funny short story by John Scalzi called “When the Yogurt Took Over.”

Check out audio of the full episode (or any of its parts) here. If you’d rather read than listen, you can find Scalzi’s story here at his blog (though the audio version with reader Adam Hirsch is swell).

Turning less-than-perfect produce into food

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The New York Times Sunday Magazine just profiled the latest venture from Doug Rauch, a former Trader Joe’s president. Here’s how Hope Reeves’ interview with Rauch begins:

You’re opening a store called Daily Table early next year. It’s going to sell food that’s past its sell-by date. Can you elaborate?
Yes, and food that’s cosmetically blemished or food that is excess — like fish that is perfectly wholesome, but not the fish they were going out to catch. We’re going to grab all of this stuff, bring it on-site, cook prepared meals with it and also offer milk, eggs, bread and produce. It’s going to be priced the same as junk food, basically.

It’s an interesting (and not controversy-free) concept. Find the full interview here.

For more on Rauch’s plans for Daily Table, check out his appearances on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday and WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show.

For a look at what currently happens with expired and otherwise less-than-perfect items from the supermarket, check out this earlier post.

There’s more to corn than yield

flint corn

Photo by Flickr user Wanye Surber [angrywayne], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week while I was away (more on that in some forthcoming posts), I caught a story on NPR that focuses on a delicious heirloom variety of corn.

As Allison Aubrey describes,

chef [Dan] Barber made an arrangement to start growing the New England heirloom corn at the farm next to his restaurant. And for the past eight years, farmer Jack Algiere has overseen its cultivation.

During my visit, Algiere showed me one of the golden-hued cobs still growing on the stalk. “It will turn a golden orange when it’s dry,” Algiere said.

The vibrancy of this yellowish-orange pigment is indicative of high concentrations of beneficial called carotenoids, which make this corn appealing for its nutritional value. And it’s also fairly high in protein.

So why did farmers stop growing this corn? For everything that New England Eight Row Flint corn has going for it in terms of flavor, its big downside is that it doesn’t produce many cobs. It’s a low-yield corn.

I highly recommend the full piece; check out text and audio versions here.

A cleaner fish farm?

Salmon farm

A salmon farm in the Bay of Fundy. Photo by Leigh Angel [revafisheye] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last Thursday, NPR ran a very interesting story from Dan Charles that featured the efforts of Thierry Chopin, a Canadian marine biologist, to develop fish farms that are less polluting that most. As Charles reports,

[Chopin's] approach involves creating a whole ecosystem around a fish farm, so the waste generated by the salmon gets taken up by other valuable seafood commodities, like shellfish and kelp….

[T]here are rafts made of black PVC piping, sticking out of the water like catwalks. They are home to cultivated seaweeds and mussels — species that thrive on fish waste.

“What we are doing is nothing more than recycling the nutrients,” Chopin explains. “Instead of looking at them as waste, we look at them as nutrients for the next species.”

One of the best things about the story is Charles’ nuanced approach—he’s thoughtful enough not to present Chopin’s work as the solution to all the environmental downsides of farmed fish. As Charles describes, Chopin’s “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture”

addresses the mostly localized problem of water pollution, but it doesn’t address other problems with aquaculture: the spread of fish parasites, the escape of caged salmon, or — worst of all — the need to harvest wild fish to feed the salmon. That’s a big problem for inland aquaculture as well.

The full story is worth checking out; find both audio and text versions here.

One bean to rule them all


Photo by Hector Garcia via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The start of NPR’s special series on coffee yesterday couldn’t have been more timely for me, since I just got back from a trip that included several days in Seattle. (For the record, I walked past but not into the first Starbucks; more on my West coast trip coming soon.)

As science reporter Dan Charles describes,

Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it’s woven into the fabric of every day.

It also connects us to far corners of the globe.

For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of , a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.

On any random day, that truck could bring “10 bags from a farm in El Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.

Find the first installment (audio, text, photos) here, this morning’s entry here, and a lovely NPR coffee quiz here. For the rest of the series rolling out in the next day or so, keep an eye on NPR’s food blog, The Salt.

‘Linda’ targeted as prospective customer

In a pair of pieces for Harvest Public Media, Luke Runyon recently reported on food companies’ efforts to target influential consumers. As he writes,

Are you a middle-aged woman with kids at home and a penchant for cooking? To the potato industry, you’re “Linda.”

Do you like healthy snacks and small portions? To the almond growers of California, your name is “Jane.”

Have a taste for a more refined craft beer? Companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors like to call you “Joe.”

These three people are fictional, but at the same time, they represent huge sections of the American population. They’re target consumers.

Find the full piece here, then check out his examination of the Potato Board’s efforts to get “Lindas” to purchase more spuds.


Photo by UGA College of Ag via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

You are what your food eats

Pig in the wallow

Photo by Clyde Bentley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“You are what your food eats.” That’s the headline for this audio story from Harvest Public Media. In it, reporter Jessica Naudziunas visits two locations to report on livestock being fed their breakfast. The first stop is the University of Missouri’s Swine Teaching Facility, where the pigs get a carefully controlled diet comprised primarily of corn and soybean meal with some vitamin and mineral supplements. That’s not all pigs may be fed, though. As the report notes, per FDA regulations “if a feed producer wants to, polyethylene—plastic—can be used as a roughage replacement.” In the MU facility, the pigs’ feed includes rendered pig products (like bone and blood).

As described by MU Swine Nutrition Specialist Marcia Shannon, “When they process and slaughter pigs for market, we use everything out of that.” The report continues: “Pig blood is dried, cooked and then used as a supplement in the animal feed these pigs had for breakfast today. Shannon says it’s a cheap way to make the feed more digestible and protein rich. ‘What we’re trying to do is basically take a not very valuable protein source and convert it into a more valuable protein source, because we as humans aren’t going to eat blood—we’re not going to sit down and drink a bowl of blood soup, but you know, we’ll sit down and enjoy a nice bacon cheeseburger.’”

Talk about food for thought, huh? On the one hand, it seems not only reasonable but admirable to put every last bit of a slaughtered pig to use. And yet, there’s something creepily cannibalistic about feeding dried pigs blood back to pigs. And then there’s Shannon’s assertion that “as humans” we won’t eat animal blood. In fact, many cultures not only include animal blood as a protein source (including the traditional diet of the Maasai), but it’s the key ingredient in sausage and even soup in a host of world cuisines. While the typical modern American diet may not include animal blood as a protein source, that doesn’t make it’s consumption any more inhuman than eating “a nice bacon cheeseburger.”

The second half of the Harvest Public Media story makes a stop at Sally Angell’s cattle farm in Centralia, Missouri. Like the visit to the MU research facility, it’s an interesting and informative look at the raising of livestock. If you have a few minutes, give the story a listen.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared on December 5, 2011.

Needless granary deaths a persistent problem

Grain Storage on the Prairie

Photo by Macomb Paynes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last fall I posted about coverage in The New York Times of, as I wrote then, “the cause of a small but persistent number of deaths on U.S. farms each year: grain storage buildings, or—more accurately—employers’ failure to ensure that proper safety procedures are followed when workers are inside them.”

It was a great piece of reporting that helped bring to light needless and senseless worker deaths. I was glad to see the issue getting additional in-depth coverage last week from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in a special series titled, “Buried In Grain.”  A number of audio pieces from NPR’s Howard Berkes aired throughout the week, and print versions are available online. I highly recommend them. As reported in the first entry,

on a stifling hot day in July 2010, [14-year-old Wyatt] Whitebread joined his buddies Alex Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex. Piper had begun working there the week before, and it was Pacas’ second day on the job.

The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to “walk down the grain,” or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.

The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.

Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.

The story details how simple safety precautions, which are required by current law, can prevent such tragedies. It also documents how ineffective the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been at tackling this ongoing problem. As the report describes,

“At some point we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] somebody’s really making horrendous decisions that approach a criminal level,” says [Bill] Field [a professor of agricultural and biological engineering] at Purdue, who is often enlisted as an expert witness in grain death lawsuits and as a safety consultant for the grain industry and OSHA.

“It’s intentional risk-taking on the part of the managers or someone in a supervisory capacity that ends up in some horrific incidents,” Field adds. “The bottom line is if you ask them why they did it, it was because it was more profitable to do it that way.”

Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18.

Head to the home page of the series here , where you’ll find links to NPR’s four stories, photos, documents obtained in the investigation, and links to related reports from the Center for Public Integrity, the Kansas City Star, and Harvest Public Media.