Sunday, April 28, 2013

Composting Made Easy

Recently my house significantly cut down our food waste by signing up for this program called Bootstrap Compost. If you live in the greater Boston area and you're hesitant to start composting because you think it'll be a smelly hassle, Bootsrap makes it easy! They give you a bucket (with a smell-suppressing lid) and twice a month they'll pick it up from your door and give you a fresh bucket. Simple as that! PLUS, a few months after your first deposit, Boostrap gives back some of your contribution in the form of usable compost that you can feed to your plants. And if you dont want compost dirt they'll donate your share to a local school or garden that does. 

Still not sold? Consider this: you probably recycle (to some extent) in your home. A lot of people do nowadays. In fact, recycling has increased by 10% since 1990 - not such a big whoop, but its progress...sort of - while 62% of paper is recycled only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled (as of 2011). That's pretty shameful. If we can get on board with saving cardboard (and we all know breaking down boxes is kind of a nuisance) surely we can handle putting food scraps in a bucket. 

WASTE WATCHER ON HIGH ALERT! Its time to make moves.

Hi there! You might've noticed I've been gone for a while - sorry to leave you hanging. 

Now that I've crawled out of the woodworks, I'll do my best to make up for lost time. Here's a clever commercial released in the EU about food waste (also kind of a metaphor for my blog inactivity):

In the US, wer're used to seeing PSA's with messages like "Give More" paired with images depicting  consequences of our inaction (a hungry child, an abused animal.) We all know those commercials that really tug at your heart strings, the ones you can only bear watching for a couple seconds before promptly changing the channel.
Well, this commercial takes the opposite approach by depicting the idle culprit. Its interesting that many of the actors bear expressions much like that of the sedentary viewer watching this commercial. It quite literally, "hits home"by using images of people in or around their houses. What's more, I can actually sit through the entire thing.
This is how pretty much every other American commercial is structured - make the viewer identify with the people on screen. And those seem to be effective selling products. So why not use this model to raise awareness for social issues?

"Free Food" or "Garbage"? Seeing Past the Framing Effect

  I wasn't down with dumpster diving at first. It had nothing to do with food quality - I ate dumpster food without a second thought. Plus, I've ingested my fair share of unhealthy substances. It was the act of dumpster diving that really freaked me out. Dumpsters I’m familiar with are pretty much roach motels and I generally shy away from chance encounters with vermin. I imagined ripping open a bag and releasing a soupy river of moldy food and mysterious liquids. My mind was fretted with such gross hypotheticals, which all seem ridiculous now that I’ve seen the reality (and to be honest, that dumpster was cleaner than some college dorm rooms I’ve been in.)

 Before I could bring myself to go dumpster diving, I'd just help with post-dive tasks like sorting and washing food. Some mornings I’d wake up to find flowers hanging to dry, a fridge stocked with veggies, and bowls filled with fruit - all as if by magic. It didn't matter that the flowers were dying and the food had blemishes because it came at no cost. Well, no monetary cost. I had an idea of the labor involved, and I couldn't bring myself to engage.  It took a few nights of seeing my housemates return from excursions in the dead of winter shivering from head to toe before the guilt finally caved in. I could no longer reap the spoils without facing my fear: divin' down n' getting dirty in a dumpster.

It might seem strange that I had no problem eating dumpster food, but was so averse to dumpster diving. Or maybe not so strange when you think of the fact that omnivores have no problem eating meat, but few are willing to slaughter an animal. Sometimes mentally separating food from its source makes it more palatable. The dumpster diving case isn't quite parallel to eating meat because from cow to steak a number of “transformations” take place, whereas food that travels from to dumpster kitchen is identical. My initial qualm with dumpster diving was related to this idea of the Framing Effect. When presented with identical options, the context in which each is presented creates the illusion of a superior option. For instance, a glass half full is more appealing than a glass half empty, or a ton of feathers sounds lighter than a ton of rocks.

When it comes to dumpster diving, “free food,” sounds a lot better than “food from a dumpster” because the later frame comes attached with a slew of food taboos. The social convention is that things placed in the garbage become garbage (i.e. dirty, non-functional, and worthless), but dumpster divers know better. They see a free source of nutritious sustenance (much of the waste I’ve encountered are fruits and vegetables) that would otherwise become landfill. I could see the advantages, but couldn’t reconcile them with the social stigma engrained in my mind. So for a while I made a conscious effort to separate the two notions, seeing the food my housemates returned with as simply “free” and “nutritious” not that stuff deemed “unfit for consumption.” I was so worried that participating in dumpster diving would heighten my disgust and I’d see the process as degrading.

Luckily that wasn’t the case.  I’ll go into further detail about my first dumpster dive in another post, but suffice it say that I learned to reject the social taboos rather than consider them more valid. Scrounging for food in that dumpster felt respectable, not shameful. Because honestly, between a system that generates heaps on unnecessary waste and a community of people salvaging that waste, where should the stigma lie? 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Taste of Place - WIll U.S. consumers care about terroir?

Amy Trubek's Taste of Place explores the roles of geography and culture in creating local food flavors. The appreciation for unique, local tastes concerns the French concept terroir. Its difficult to provide a universal definition of terroir as Trubek notes, "terroir is to the French as Freedom of speech is to Americans: meanings are multiple, interpretations vary and consequences shift accordingly" (pg 94). I interpret terroir as sort of a precursor to cuisine: before the cooking style and other food preparation that characterizes a culture, there are, potentially, methods of food production (farming, tree tapping, livestock feeding etc) that reflect the terrain and traditions in which a culture is grounded. In France, terroir bears strong ties to local histories and social identity (pg 72) especially farmers efforts preserve local agrarian traditions in the face of globalization. 

Trubek goes beyond France to show the application of terroir in American contexts, particularly California wine country, a variety of local foods in Wisconsin and maple syrup in Vermont. American terroir differs from the French concept primarily because we are a relatively young country. French knowledge of local flavors developed over generations of experience growing food in particular areas. By contrast, American farmers are in the process of grasping the full potential of terrior by experimenting with different growing methods. For instance, some California farmers use biodynamic methods to bring out the fullest expression of their soils' mineral composition (pg 141). As terroir novices, American food producers who are interested in learning about the flavors of their geographic locales must gain this knowledge retroactively. This is the case for Vermont syrup producers hoping to identify the unique flavors owed to the region supporting their maple trees. Trubek extols these (and other) examples of American food-producers embracing terroir, but her case for a more taste-discerning American consumer is somewhat lacking. 

The first issue is that Trubek's only informants are farmers, chefs, and other taste-makers. She briefly addresses the fact that the vast majority of Americans know little about where their food comes from (231), especially those living in urban areas who's knowlege comes from recommendations, magaizines and cook books but rarely from personal experience or relationships. Given this remote understanding their foods source (and any superior qualities that might result therefrom) the bottom line for many American food shoppers deciding between the same food is price. To have a stronger understanding of the practical implications of terrior in America, it would be helpful to know what might incentivize consumers to consider terroir when buying groceries. 

My second source of skepticism about terroir influencing US consumers is the undeniable difference between the American palate and the (dare I say superior?) French palate. The French palate is fine-tuned to identify regional tastes from an early age. Their government makes large scale efforts to instill this knowledge by funding taste testings in public schools, where they ask young students to identify subtle flavors in different juices (67). This national effort to instill an appreciation for unique and subtle flavors contrasts with the American priority when it comes to food: consistent quality, and the subsequent tendency to choose familiar foods.  In one section, Trubek describes a taste testing of Vermont syrups. Presented with number of syrups, the testers attempted to pick out hints of terrain which add to a local flavor (250). While reading this description I thought of an interview I'd seen with Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat. He discusses this extensive, highly scientific process the Dr. Pepper company went through to identify the perfect soda flavor - just. one. flavor. And they aren't the only ones - many companies pour a gross amount of research and efforts into creating optimal artificial flavors. The juxtaposition between these multimillion dollar companies and their efforts in the way of standardization and the vermont syrup companies taste tests for the sake of differentiation is disheartening at best. Thus while terroir might be a consideration for upscale consumers who can afford locally sourced foods (and would likely pride themselves on being able to discern nuances in flavor), this concept is unlikely to influence the Average American when it comes to food purchases because most people are looking for cheap food with a familiar, pleasurable taste. This is obviously not the case for all American consumers, but the overwhelming success of companies like Doctor Pepper, Cheetos and other snack giants is hard to contest. Given the predominant food-views of US consumers, will terroir ever be truly relevant?