Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Contrary to News Reports there is something Great About Living in Arizona

Arizona's image is suffering lately. I had an East Coast friend call me the other day to make sure we are OK. Based on the news she was concerned that we might be experiencing intimidation or the victims of crimes. I assured her that although from the perspective of the outside world it might sound like things are really lousy here in Arizona, actually we are getting along just fine. What I didn't tell her is that on top of that we are eating better than ever.

Nationally we are in the midst of yet another food-borne illness scare, this time with eggs. I never have to worry about these alarming events because I purposely seek out locally grown fresh food and I tell you it is very easy to do, especially with eggs. Hickman's grows eggs right here in the West Valley and they have a great reputation. How [over] easy is that?

It is amazing to me that ANYONE could think it would be possible to properly control a farming operation of the magnitude represented by the TWO farms responsible for the nearly 1/2 BILLION eggs involved in the recent Salmonella event. While amassing such operations in fewer farms should certainly improve the statistical chances of getting an actual FDA inspection (fewer facilities in the agency's inspection universe) it is of little help when these operations are just a few of the thousands of operations spread nationwide that the FDA is responsible for.

The farms in question in this event finally got an inspection (well after the discovery of the evil molecules) and as one might expect they found a nightmare in these joints. Yes, it does happen with smaller operations as well, but logical dictates that the bigger the farm the bigger the management problem. The inspections uncovered "widespread safety problems, including barns infested with flies, maggot and rodents, ... overflowing manure pits, improper worker sanitation and wild birds roosting around feed bins." And that may not even be the root of the problem; I heard at least one report that hypothesized the source might be the feed given the chickens. Can you even imagine the volume of feed it would take to keep these millions of birds pumping out the ovulation?

If you want a realistic overview of how the food industry works, and particularly chicken operations and what can happen, I highly recommend you put Food, Inc. on your Netflix list. The movie points out the paradox presented by the industrialization of food. Although we are able to support a growing worldwide population on a smaller and smaller agricultural footprint, the real costs involved are immense. As with all things the law of diminishing returns kicks in but with government subsidies and global trade it is difficult to realistically grasp when the balance actually tips. This approach may be all well and good when manufacturing TV's or regulating smut over the broadcast waves but when it comes to food we should not have to wait until we are rolling down the other side of the manure mound to find out--when that occurs it simply be too late.

There are two things to be learned from the eggs and spinach and ground beef recalls that seem to be piling up over time. The lessons are themselves somewhat paradoxical and as a result not very obvious.

First, with government intervention in the agriculture markets, the corporatizing of American food became the norm gaining the economies of scale that allow us to have whatever we want whenever we want it. Not only is this not natural, it is dangerous, both from a microbial standpoint and an overall health perspective. We are suffering from too much food and it is allowing us to stuff ourselves silly, if the creepy crawlies don't get us first. Second, we have blindly placed all of our trust in the government to protect us from our own food, thereby over–tasking it (it is just impossible to properly police it all as evidenced by one recall after the next). In doing so we have assumed a level of complacency and trust that is wholly unwarranted given the political pressures that immediately come to bear on an ever under-sourced regulatory program.

But not to worry, all is not lost. With the growing recognition of these problems as evidenced by documentaries like Food Inc. and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (see my April 20, 2010 blog entry), combined with a growing think local movement (see http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#!/LocalFirstArizona?ref=ts) not only is awareness being raised as to the options but more capacity is being gained. As farmer's markets become increasingly popular, access to the real McCoy becomes increasingly easy. We happen to have a burgeoning fresh food sector in Arizona. As an added bonus we also have a nearly year round growing season. Unlike those folks who experience hard freezes over the winter, our crops tend to wither only for a few weeks in the dog days of summer, but even then smaller operations are doing quite well thank you. Our bounty changes with the seasons and lasts through them all, providing an amazing variety of rotating eating pleasure and reliable quality.

So, in this time of bad economics, challenging statewide politics and an iffy national image, know that Arizona is THE place to be for fresh, delicious and healthy food if you take the little bit of time required to find it. But don't tell anyone--we can't afford to have the rest of the country move down here just to eat.


Monday, August 16, 2010

True Confessions: How Eat, Pray, Love Challenged My Preference for Non-fiction

    Amid the EPL mania of this past weekend, we also enjoyed the video of the JetFU "take this job and shove it" moment. I readily grasped how these two events are indelibly connected. They illustrate what, at the core, is a major symptom of the erosion of our American culture and perhaps even our financial well-being.

    My girlfriends bristle and wrinkle their noses when I tell them that EPL made me angry. Of course, they are caught up in the romantic aspects of Ms. Gilbert's world search for self, like most of the fans who mostly consist of young women raised in the Pocahontas era, at whom all the EPL merchandising is directed. I think my gals are at least not jumping on the consumer bandwagon with this thing. As for the younger set, I can hardly blame them; who can resist an EPL tea cup and yoga mat? Rationalizing the retail aspect of the EPL craze I heard one commentator explain that this is not just consumption for consumption sake, which is so 20-aughts; rather, it is strategic consumption in that it has a psychological purpose so it must be OK. Whatever. But my older friends should not take it personally. Even Ms. Gilbert was quoted in my favorite magazine THE WEEK as saying that she is open to honest criticism, just not the kind where people diss her without reading the book. I guess she will gladly take their harangue after she takes their money.

    With EPL I could never suspend disbelief long enough to rationalize her behavior. It seemed so put up and phony to me-so much so that her angst and the need to assuage it seemed premeditated from the get go. The basic reason for that, I suppose, is that rather being a cynic as many surely suspect, I am in fact a "benefit of the doubt"-type and I presume that most people are a bit stronger than portrayed on TV, even as I watch aspiring chef's and costume designers well up with tears week after week on their respective competition shows. (My affinity for quality reality shows no doubt comes from the same place as my affinity for non-fiction.)

    So when I finished reading EPL (ironically I read it while traveling in Europe) I wondered what was the redeeming quality of Ms. Gilbert's extended excursion? In my view she had not learned a damn thing, so what was the point? Short of making a fortune with a catchy gimmick the obviously had great appeal to the average American woman, I could not ferret out at moral to the story. Especially since the end consisted of her direct return to the exact same situation that set the whole thing in motion in the first place. She practically leapt at the first guy who came along.

    After some rumination I now see that this book hits home with so many people because it is a mirror on the contemporary American self. In short, it is completely consistent with the "All About Me" (AAM) mein. Greed, we try and convince ourselves by musing aloud in news reports, is relegated to the corporate world; the rest of us mere victims of capitalism. But who are the corporations but us? Stockholders consist of more middle Americans today than ever in history. And as part owners of these companies we demand a consistent and immediate profit. Meanwhile, on a micro-level we pursue retail spirituality by going green and attending hot yoga atop the finest felted wool mat any third world villager can weave. What this superficial quest for oneness cannot mask is the fact that our number 1 concern is above all things our own egos and needs. Sounds greedy to me.

    EPL was purportedly a healing expedition-just what the doctor ordered after an emotionally devastating divorce. Now, I am as emotional and sentimental as the next gal (I admit I cry at radio commercials) but I was truly embarrassed for Gilbert as I read her pathetic inability to drag herself off the tear soaked bathroom floor after being dumped buy her supposed spouse. I was reticent that anyone could possibly be so utterly clueless that her marriage was less than idyllic so as to be so caught off guard when the hammer came down. Her reaction was of one who was entirely unprepared and bordered on psychosis. And she apparently so ingrained herself in the (now obviously hollow) marital relationship that she had completely aligned her identity with it. Ironically, by doing so, she sunk the final nail in the coffin of that coupling because she apparently completely lost any sight of the fact that there was, indeed, another person involved.

    Having been married over 30 years and surrounded by people who have amazing longevity in their union by today's standards, I can say with some authority that a marriage is the most fatal context within which to be greedy. I even think the standard 70/30 rule people advocate falls short. Marriage, for each person, only works when it is not all about you but in fact all about the spouse. That said, a key component to achieving that is to never take your partner for granted, which means you must become self reliant and self confident enough to actually be all about the other person. Paradoxical perhaps, but true, nonetheless. This follows what in at least one book was called the Prayer of Jabez which reveals that Christian doctrine actually holds that it is OK to take care of yourself first for failure to do so will deprive you of the ability to take care of others-which is, of course, the one true aspiration of those who do not condone greed.

    So failing to recognize this, Gilbert apparently transferred her identity from herself to her status as a married woman. So without that framework she needed to go out and find herself. I totally get that part. The problem I have with the rest of the venture is that it was entirely superficial. I think she really may have been trying to achieve something but she never got out of herself long enough to truly do it, hence my suspicion that it was really the premise for a book from the outset and that is why it appears to have no moral; she repeats the same behavior in the end by self identifying with a new man and missed the truly spiritual boat.

    The same AAM fatality played out beautifully when a certain flight attendant, responding to the accumulation of disrespectful AAM detritus that piled up in the aircraft aisle to the point where his shovel could remove it no longer, demonstrated that he could take AAM to an even higher plane. His dramatic exit was the height of disrespect for himself and everyone else within even a remote orbit, exponentially topping that of more grounded mortals. And our collective reaction was to deify him. Next week look for JetFU teacups.

    As the truly prayerful person soon discovers, there is a reason that all the major religions of the world share a basic tenet-the Golden Rule. The ultimate paradox is that the more you give, the more you get. How is it that just like Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Slater we all seem to have overlooked this simple lesson yet are so quick to embrace unsatisfying superficiality? I am sad for these two and the rude air travelers. If only they/we knew how to truly love them/ourselves they /we would be so much better off.