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Food Insecurity

The Plants of Survival: When Every Bite Counts

You’ve put yourself in a camping predicament. Your easy-eats have run out, and you are hungry. When was the last time you had food? It’s been a while and you’re becoming very uneasy about your situation. It doesn’t matter anymore how careful you were when you planned this trip. Something has gone wrong, and now you’re lost. You need to stay put and wait for help, but what do you eat until that time arrives?

It’s time to look around your area, not to far though. The last thing you need is to wander away from your campsite. Lucky for you, somewhere in your mind you’ve studied survival tactics. All you need to do is pull the information out. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember this article and know what plants to eat safely.

It’s forage-time ladies and gentlemen. These tactics might not keep you alive for the next 50 years, but they can tide you over until help arrives. So, grab your notebook and study some of this plant-eating information. You never know when you might need it.

The goal is to retain energy until a better solution finds its way to you. Lesson one: think safe, not desperate. Eating an unknown substance is not like taking grubbing on old Fritos. It’s a dangerous undertaking, and your body will be sure to tell you all about it when you make that mistake. Here’s the guidelines to follow before your adventure into the wild.

  • Don’t guess before you eat. If you don’t know it, don’t trust it. Think stranger danger.
  • Mushrooms are a no-go. If you love mushrooms, stick to the grocery store.
  • Pretend you’re in a glass store and stop touching everything.
  • Get to know your allergies, they’ll be along with you for the ride.
  • Almonds and Cyanide have a similar smell. If it smells like an almond and its not an almond, drop it and wash your hands ASAP.

Plants poison through contact, ingestion, or inhalation. That’s a lot of ways to make you sick, so you need to think before you eat. Blanket statements aren’t really great for a plant knowledge-base. For example, the statement “Leaves of three, let it be,” is not always true. The best solution is to understand what plants are in your area. Plant species are in conjunction with the weather. In humid climates, you’ll stumble across common plants in the open; but, in dry climates, you’ll find the plants you’re looking for near water. Memorize the plants in those areas, and you’ll likely find them when you really need it.

Here’s a few you might recognize that can sustain you long enough to live:

Dandelions.

These plants dubbed “weeds” are safe to eat from root to tip, as long as they are pesticide free. They also happen to be pretty good for you as well. That doesn’t mean you should go outside and start munching on the trimmings. You can’t trust household pesticides exposures; but, with safe growth, these weeds are a source of Vitamin A, a solvent to digestion issues, and have a history of medicinal properties for much more nefarious diseases. Dandelions aren’t the weeds of the survival world.

According to the NIH, “The use of dandelion as a food is generally considered safe. However, some people are allergic to dandelion; allergic reactions are especially likely in people who are allergic to related plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies. The safety of using dandelion supplements for health-related purposes is uncertain.”

Cattails

You’ll want to avoid the fiber bits of these plants; however, the white bottoms and stalks are edible. Cattails are nutrient rich. Cattails are safe to eat raw (and rinsed as with all things), and provide potassium, vitamin C, and a stew of other goodies. Just a heads up, though, these plants are not for gluten-sensitive.

Clovers

Did you know the blossoms on clovers are part of the pea-family? Yep, clovers are stacked with protein; which, you’ll need to survive. Protein is essential in a survival situation for energy. In fact, it might be the most important nutrient in precarious situations. Clovers aren’t just lucky in stories, they could be the luck you need to survive. Clovers have vitamins B and C, but that doesn’t mean the taste is worth a pot of gold. Clovers are a hard swallow with their bitter taste, but try boiling them, and skip the brown blossoms, to make it a bit more palatable. However, eat clovers fresh, or completely dried. Do not ferment them, and steer clear of the white blossom clovers. White blossom clovers are safe in colder climates, but due to evolution, the same white blossom clovers can contain cyanide. Remember what I said about almond smells?

Berries, a trickster, but delicious.

Never put a berry in your mouth that you can’t identify, you’re better off hungry. It’s a tricky plant, with a lot of loopholes. White, green, and yellow berries are most often poisonous. Red berries are a problem fifty percent of the time. Black and blue berries are safe…ish. Approximately 90 percent of the time they’re good to go. What you really want are aggregated berries. Aggregate berries are small bits of fruit that join at the base, like raspberries and strawberries.

Here’s the quick-steps to make an impromptu tea out of your carefully chosen plants. Happy foraging!

  1. Collect, wash, and chop.
  2. Steep about one tablespoon per cup of boiling water for ten minutes.
  3. Cool, and enjoy.

Hungry for more? The blog, The Art of Manliness, compiled a list of 19 edible plants that you can find as you forage through the forest. There are some other tips there on what to keep an eye out for and what survival tests you can do when you just don’t know.

As ever, think before you eat. And if you don’t know if it is safe, don’t chew and swallow. Because the last thing you want to do when you are in survival mode is to make yourself sick or worse.

By: Heaven Bassett, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

September 9, 2018
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Think Before You Toss: The Implications of Food Waste

No one enjoys the prospect of having to throw food away, even though it may seem like a necessity. Aside from the essential action of disposing of food that has been recalled, tossing food into the garbage may make us cringe a bit, knowing that perhaps we could have put it to better use. We think about so many people in the world who are hungry and suffer from food insecurity, and ask ourselves: what could we be doing better or instead?

Our American populace throws away an enormous amount of food. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), we throw away more than 400 pounds of food every year per household. In 2014, more than 28 million tons of food waste was generated nationwide. That’s a staggering statistic. With the summer months, it’s certainly possible to see how food waste is manifested because well, it just spoils faster. Think about the fresh peaches you purchased at the grocery store, thinking that you were going to bake all those delicious peach pies, but, you just didn’t get around to it. Or you were at a barbeque and, given the fact that our eyes are almost always bigger than our stomachs, you tossed about half of your un-eaten plate straight into the trash.

Why We Waste So Much Food

  • Leftovers – Too much food has been prepared and/or put on the plate.
  • Partially Used Food – Includes food not used and also leftovers that usually end up at the back of the fridge and are never reused.
  • Exceeds Use By Date – Primarily applies to dairy, meat, and fish which were not used in time.
  • Exceeds Best Before Date – Primarily applies to bread and other foods in the pantry.
  • Change of Plans – This can and does happen, but it helps to use the food you were planning to cook as quickly as possible.
  • Not Prepared to Expectations – Yes, it’s possible that the meal you imagined just didn’t turn out as planned or taste as good!
  • We are picky – Maybe that apple isn’t round enough or those limes have some yellow in them. People, especially those who get enough to eat, are picky about how their food looks as well as tastes.

According to the NRDC, food products account for 21% of what is found in a landfill. Of all the food we discard, animal products compose the greatest amount. About a third of animal products go straight to the landfill, and broken down, it looks like this: 11.5% is meat, poultry, and fish, 19% is dairy products, and 2% is eggs.

Another reason that we as American consumers waste so much food is due to our collective obsession with the appearance of our food products, especially when it comes to fresh produce. Over the years, as a population we’ve become accustomed to “pretty” produce, meaning the apples and oranges and even the avocadoes look like they could be in a commercial. This is why fruit is often coasted with wax or shined before placed out for purchase – to make it appear more appetizing. Obviously, the great share of the produce market is captured by what can be termed as attractive-looking products, however, what doesn’t capture that share is usually donated to food banks or chopped up and used in a grocery store’s prepared meals or salad bar. Sadly, the majority of excess or “unattractive” produce is neither donated nor recycled: it is trashed. A San Francisco-based company called imperfectproduce.com is attempting to change that by direct selling less-than-perfect produce to individual consumers. They currently distribute to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago.

The Cost of Food Waste

The economic and environmental impact of food waste is inextricably linked. The NRDC estimates that 40% of all food (approximately $165 billion worth) is discarded. This is in the United States alone. Add to this the considerable cost of water, fertilizer, and land that is used to produce food that is never eaten.

Fuel is burned for processing, refrigeration, and transportation. Greenhouse gases are emitted in the amount of 3.3 billion tons, and food waste that is left to decay emits methane, also a greenhouse gas. This rotting food is responsible for 25% of methane emissions. The amount of climate change pollution that is generated by discarded food is equal to the CO2 emissions of 37 million cars.

Some Facts About Food Waste

  • Twenty five percent of all fresh water usage in the United States alone produces all that food that goes unconsumed. To picture it, the amount of wasted water uses more fresh water than Texas, California, and Ohio
  • Meat requires the most water usage of any food to produce, and is one of the biggest culprits of wasted water. For each pound of beef to make its way from farm to table requires the equivalent of running your shower for over six hours (12,000 gallons of water)!
  • The economic cost of all that wasted food amounts to approximately $218 billion dollars that amounts to a four-person family losing $1,800 a year on food that is discarded. Cutting back on food waste could save, on an individual basis, $375 per year.

How You Can Reduce Food Waste in the Home

  • Meal plan – Time and time again, this has shown to greatly reduce the amount of food wasted in your home by forcing you to buy only the items needed for food preparation instead of buying on impulse.
  • Create a shopping list based on how many meals you will eat at home for the week – How often will you eat out this week? Unexpected meals out or take-out happen, but you will feel better about taking control of the costs of your grocery shopping.
  • Review what you already have in your refrigerator and pantry – We’ve all done it with the items we already have refrigerated, and it’s costly and a bit frustrating. Always make a list!
  • Buying in bulk is not always the best deal – This only saves money if you are able to use the food products before they spoil or exceed their use-by date. Think, do you really need 30 pounds of cheese? Unless you are having a party, likely not.

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

September 7, 2018
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Eating in my 30’s: An Algae Adventure of Nutrients

I’m taking a trip into adulthood eating, and it all begins with the superfood Algae.

I’ve hit the big 3-0. That’s 30 years-old. Let me say it again, 30. I’m obviously taking it well. I’ve realized it’s time for me to take a serious look at myself. I no longer have the safety-net of my 20’s to excuse my often-ridiculous eating habits, and my jeans are starting to fit tighter than they should. If I’d like to avoid aggressive exercise and maintain a semblance of health, I have got to get it together.

The roadblock? I’m a visual eater. This means if it looks good, I’ll probably give it a try. If it doesn’t, I’ll move right along to the more appealing feast. Basically, I’m a sucker for good presentation and clever marketing. I’m the gal that will eat the strawberry, but if the strawberries are dipped in chocolate, I’ll eat the whole platter. This is also partly due to my love of sweets.  Does this make me a picky eater? Maybe. This also might mean I just like pretty things. It also means I’ve turned my back on some nutritious habits. Dirty 30 has made me think twice.

Algae – My New Superfood Super Friend?

With that said, I’m not adverse to change; but, I’d be much more swayable with a deliciously decorated platter. This is why delving into the world of Algae eating is a splash of cold water onto the face of my food-loving history.

Algae simply looks unappetizing. I’m sorry Algae. However, unlike me, Algae is a specimen of health. There are an estimated 30,000 to one million strains of Algae, and each one harbors unique health benefits. We’re talking a lot of good stuff for any age. In fact, after research for long-term space exploration sustenance options was directed by NASA in the 1980’s, microalgae became an ingredient in many baby formulas. This is because of the abundance of DHA in Algae. DHA is the nutrient found in breastmilk that highly promotes brain, eye, and heart development. This Omega-3 fatty acid is the reason why a mother’s breastmilk wins the nutrient matchup between alternative choices, and still does. Even with the DHA added, breastmilk holds the champion belt because there has been some argument over the chemicals used to extract the DHA and the recommended amounts required per individual needs. Nevertheless, the DHA itself remains a positive force in healthy living.

Algae is not just for cooing babies either. One type of Algae called Spirulina packs a wallop of good-for-you-treats. Spirulina contains 60% protein by weight. Spirulina is also an excellent source of Amino Acids, Omega 3, as well as essential vitamins and minerals like Iron. In fact, Spirulina producers are matching the cholesterol free source of Protein against beef, and the results are looking mighty fine.

But we have already seen this slimy, green machine in food products we can buy at the grocery store. Spirulina algae has quickly developed into a popular health food supplement that is put into smoothies and juices, like Naked brand’s popular Green Machine (which has 1.3 grams in every bottle). Algae is often found in vegan egg substitutes and even ice cream at your local Whole Foods. If you explore the web, dozens of health supplement companies offer spirulina and chlorella (another type of algae that lives in freshwater) as capsule and powder supplements.

It is even popping up on menus in various restaurants in the United Kingdom. (It is purportedly lauded by chefs for its intense flavor, having a strong umami taste.) In a February 2018 interview, chef Rob Howell, the head chef of the restaurant Root in Bristol, UK noted,

“Because we’re a vegetable-based restaurant, we have to think differently. Using seaweed and algae allows us to get more obscure, intense, flavour profiles. That hit of umami. We’ve got a dish at the moment, a charred hispi cabbage with seaweed butter sauce, which has become a favourite. It’s not come off the menu since we put it on. Everyone’s obsessed with it. We dry the seaweed out and then blitz it into a powder. We make a seaweed vinegar and an oil to go with beetroot. We make a really nice vegetable demi-glace. Instead of gravy or a meat jus, we roast off loads of vegetables with nori and kelp, and reduce it. It’s almost a better product than a beef gravy, which is crazy.”

Hmm. Sounds tasty.

Can Algae Do OTHER Good Things for Us and the Planet?

But wait, there’s more!

Studies are showing Spirulina can help fight symptoms of allergies. That’s right, it’s more than just a snack. Algae is proving to be medicinal.

Now, after learning what a few Algae strains can do, imagine the possibilities of thousands. Yeah, it sounds good to me too. It also sounds wonderful to the environment as well. Not only can algae be used as feed for farm life, Algae also produces oxygen. Single-celled marine plants produce 70 to 80% of the oxygen delivered to the atmosphere. That’s a big thank you to Algae from human-kind, am I right?

Algae can also be grown in areas where agriculture struggles. Deserts and salt-water arenas aren’t a problem when it comes to Algae production. With us Homosapiens increasing in population each year, we are going to need all the space we can get.

So, is this the super crop of the future? I’m leaning toward yes.

There are some hurdles we’ll have to overcome before we start using Algae to power our vehicles (yes, Algae can do that too), but it is definitely worth the work.

Algae has a tendency to smother itself. Algae likes to bask in the sun, which in turn makes it grow thicker and more nutritious. This density tends to suffocate the Algae beneath itself. So, either we utilize large land masses or we focus our attentions on innovation. It’s a good thing humans are the champions of innovation, and we’re already on the task.

Currently, there are a variety of ways to consume Algae, from pill to powder supplements, Nori sheets instead of breads and tortillas, seaweed chips, kelp noodles, and my personal favorite: a garnish to your Bloody Mary.

You know what? Maybe I’ll just kick my feet up and enjoy the Algae-wrapped sushi, or I might just enjoy that fruit smoothie with the Algae booster.

Growing up doesn’t sound so bad after all.

By: Heaven Bassett, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

August 20, 2018
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Food Safety & Food Banks

One in five households with children in the United States faces food insecurity; that’s more than 17 million households. Programs like SNAP and EBT provide something of a safety net, but not all families are covered, and not all families covered by such programs are entirely free from the specter of hunger. To fill that gap in the United States, smaller institutions at the community level provide food aid. A key part of this hunger relief infrastructure are food banks.

The Issue With Food Banks

Unfortunately, the principle objective of food banks – feeding as many hungry people as possible – is sometimes in conflict with another important imperative: ensuring that the food that they provide to people is safe to eat. Without guidelines on what food is acceptable to collect and distribute, food banks might inadvertently sicken the population that they’re trying to help. If the rules by which they have to abide are too strict, however, there’s a possibility that the food available to them could be limited, thus interfering with the food bank’s key function. There is also a growing concern that those with means donate recalled food items to food banks, without informing food banks that the items they are donating are recalled. Hence, could also open up those needing safe food to foodborne illness.

This tension is complicated by a key difference between food banks and commercial businesses that serve food to customers. Commercial businesses buy their food from producers or distributors; those producers and distributors are regulated by the government to ensure that their products are safe to eat. Food banks, however, aren’t in the business of buying food. They are in the business of collecting and distributing food; there is rarely a monetary transaction and sometimes, not even a record. Their principal source of food is from donations; often, those donations come from individuals or non-commercial organizations that aren’t subject to the same regulatory framework as businesses who sell food for commercial purposes. The sources of food donated to food banks vary widely and is often unknown. So is the history of the food in question, which may have changed hands multiple times before it arrives at the food bank. Documents in the chain of custody are scare, if even in existence at all.

The typical customer base of food banks is different than that of a commercial food establishments. Food banks typically provide for marginalized or underserved populations – populations that often include the elderly, the very young, or individuals with various medical problems, including nutritional deficiencies. These people are at higher risk of adverse consequences from foodborne illness like salmonella or E. coli. So, essentially, people who are at the highest risk of long-term complications of foodborne illness are even more at risk due to the under regulation of the food they receive from food banks.

Food Banks Are Not the Bad Guys. We Can All Do Better

Food banks often handle staffing differently than commercial food establishments as well. Restaurants are staffed by paid employees. There’s a clear hierarchy in their kitchens and the employees who work there are typically trained in food safety and licensed as food handlers. Because food banks are not for profit organizations, they do not usually have as many regular employees on their payroll. Food banks rely on volunteer labor, which is much more irregular than a model that relies on paid staff. The volunteers might not stay for extended periods of time, which can complicate training them in proper food safety techniques. Because volunteer labor is unpaid, it can also sometimes be difficult to properly motivate volunteer staff to follow rules that are in place to ensure food safety.

Despite these various difficulties, there are several steps that food banks can take to ensure that a proper balance is struck between helping as many people as possible and maintaining an appropriate food safety standard.

First, food banks need guidelines as to what food they will and won’t accept, and screening processes in place to make sure that those guidelines are followed. Feeding America is the largest network of food banks in the USA. On their website, they spell out the guidelines that members of their organization must follow. They follow the same rules for acceptable food as food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants. They also employ third-party auditors to ensure that the guidelines set out by Feeding America are followed.

Other useful tips: don’t accept salvageable food that’s a bit compromised by fire, flood, or some other event but can still be eaten. That works if you’re a freegan dumpster diving for you own kitchen, but it’s too risky for an official organization like a food bank. Stick to non-perishable foods, check their expiration dates, and make judgement calls about whether or not they’re still good to serve. Refrigerate low-hazard perishable foods, like fruit and vegetables, and dispose of them if they start to turn – you don’t want the unpleasant odors or flies that come with. Take extra care with more hazardous perishable foods, like meat or milk; take care that they’re packaged correctly, designate separate areas for their storage and preparation, and use specially-trained volunteers or team members to deal with them.

Speaking of volunteers: although they’re not employees, you should treat them like they are. Make sure that relevant labor is licensed to handle food, if that’s what they’re doing – even in cases where resources are stretched thin and certifications seem onerous. Make sure that volunteers practice proper hygiene (including the ever-important proper washing of hands, which is a pillar of food safety). Equip them with gloves and hairnets so that they don’t accidentally contaminate the food that they’re handling.

And lastly, when you donate to a food bank, think about the food you would want to eat. Don’t donate expired, recalled, or tainted food to food banks. If it is perishable, make sure it is properly stored (hot or cold) on its way to delivery or donation. A hungry person is a person, too. We all deserve to eat safe food.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

August 18, 2018
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GMO Rice May Be A Solution to World Hunger

Wondering of there are perks to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)? You would be surprised to learn that some researchers are using them to try to find a solution to world hunger and food insecurity – using a multi-continental, cross-cultural food staple. Rice! In fact, they have found a way to produce up to 31 percent more grain without making big changes to food safety or the integrity of the crop.

We were intrigued, and I bet you are, too.

Here’s what they did…

The Evolution of Rice

A new strain of rice developed by scientists at Purdue University and the Chinese Academy of the Sciences promises 25-31 percent grain without sacrificing survivability. The strain was developed using a CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. According to a press release put out by Purdue University, achieving a similar resulting using conventional breeding methods would have been virtually impossible.

The team used CRISPR to suppress genes in rice that improve tolerance of harsh conditions, like drought or salty soils, but limit potential for growth. The scientists played with 13 of these genes; all of them affect the production of a plant hormone called abscisic acid. These genes, also known as PYL genes, harden the rice plant against a range of environmental stresses. The hardening has a flip side, however – it slows down the plant’s growth, which ultimately affects the amount of rice that it yields.

Stress Tolerance vs. Growth

Thankfully, there’s a good bit of genetic redundancy in rice. Multiple different genes affect the plant’s ability to survive in environments with too much salt or too little water. The trick is to turn off the right combination of genes to encourage growth without also compromising stress tolerance. Allow the plant to get bigger, but make sure that there are redundant functions to cover the roles that would otherwise be taken up by the genes that you’re turning off. The scientists referred to this particular combination of genes as a “knockout.”

The researchers ultimately produced several different varieties of rice with different combinations of PYL genes switched off. Some weren’t much bigger than a run-of-the-mill rice plant. Others were bigger than normal, but also more fragile; they couldn’t hack different stresses that PYL genes would normally equip them to deal with.

One variety of rice, however, seems to have the knockout combination of deactivated PYL genes. It’s got more growth than your typical rice plant, which translates into more yield; on average, the strain produced between one fourth and one third more rice than non-gene edited controls. That increased yield, however, doesn’t mean that corners have been cut with stress tolerance. According to the paper published by the researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, tolerances to drought, high salinity, and other environmental stresses are as robust in this new strain as they are in unaltered plants.

The knockout combination was quite tricky to achieve, explained lead researcher Jian-Kang Zhu in the press release from Purdue. The different PYL genes are specialized to a certain degree, but they also have functions that are shared. Knock one out to try and change a specific trait and another PYL gene might step in to cover the function that the researchers were trying to suppress. Knockout the gene that stepped in, and you run a chance of compromising stress tolerance as a cost of increased growth.

CRISPR allows for Precise Gene Editing

The high-yield rice wouldn’t have been possible without the use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. CRISPR is adopted for a genetic editing system that was first found in bacteria. Originally, CRISPR helped those bacteria protect themselves against viral invaders. A snippet of RNA seeks out a specific section of DNA. Once it’s found the section of DNA that it’s looking for, the guide RNA binds itself to it. It also brings along an enzyme called Cas9. Cas9 snips the targeted section of DNA from the rest of the genome.

Originally, this technique allowed the immune defenses of bacteria to render viral pathogens inert. If the bacteria’s CRISPR genes recognized the virus from a previous encounter, it could send out sequences of RNA to target the genome of that virus and cut it to pieces with Cas9. With its DNA in tatters, the virus would be left dead in the water – unable to attack the bacteria and use it to replicate its damaged genetic information.

CRISPR isn’t just a blunt-force tool, however. Scientists have repurposed it as a technique for precise genetic editing in all kinds of contexts. Using the same combination of guide RNA and Cas9 enzyme, they can target specific sequences of DNA for binding, deactivation, and snipping. They can also, however, use the CRISPR toolset to duplicate, rearrange, or replace that DNA with a different genetic sequence.

The precise editing afforded by CRISPR allows scientists to edit multiple genes at once. Conventional breeding techniques to promote or isolate specific genes are somewhat sloppy; they do allow researchers to encourage or suppress the reproduction of specific genes, but there’s a fair amount of chance involved. Random genetic mutations are a wild card factor that are difficult to control for. Trying for a knockout combination of PYL genes through breeding, for example, would take multiple generations of plants with lots of sloppiness.

With CRISPR, researchers can achieve different combinations in a single generation. Because they’re editing the DNA of a plant directly and precisely, they can achieve the changes they want and pass them onto the next generation without the messiness or compromise of breeding. CRISPR is still a young technology, and one that’s somewhat controversial; at the moment, the USDA’s proposed rules for GM (genetically modified) food don’t cover CRISPR edited crops. In the case of Purdue’s gene-edited rice, however, it shows real promise to take a bite out of world hunger and improve lives. If it is safe and helps feed the hungry masses, we are all for it — any positive steps we can take toward eradicating food insecurity.

Maybe, just maybe, all GMOs aren’t created equally. Pun intended.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

July 21, 2018
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Amazon’s Solution to Food Deserts

Don’t be fooled: it’s not food desserts; the following is information on food deserts. (I know…I myself would have enjoyed reading about all things gooey and absolutely delicious). But this whole topic deserves attention, and underscores the food insecurity problem that is problematic not only in the United States, but globally.

A food desert is defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers”. (United States Department of Agriculture). Additionally, the USDA delineates the definition further by stating that food deserts exist in communities where a minimum of one-third of the population lives at least one mile away from a supermarket in an urban area, and ten miles away in a rural area.

The only experience I have ever had with a food desert was trekking way up north in Minnesota to a friend’s cabin nestled in the tiny, tiny town of Togo (how’s that for alliteration)? Togo’s population was four…I do not exaggerate. There were only four permanent, year-round residents in the town. The nearest grocer, or anything even resembling a convenience store, was 25 miles away. I was appalled: here I was, a true Bronx girl at heart, contemplating the farce of having to drive anything more than a few blocks. I could not fathom living such a distance from access to fresh meat, produce, or God forbid, chocolate. Obviously, I was not a fan of the pioneer-woman approach.

Amazon Takes Over Whole Foods

On August 18, 2017, powerhouse Amazon acquired Whole Foods, Inc. in a multi-billion dollar deal. Amazon, who has infiltrated into virtually every available market, took aim at the grocery business, with the intent of streamlining food sales. Part of Amazon’s overall strategy in its Whole Foods takeover was to lure customers away from rival competitors Walmart and Trader Joe’s. This is not only economically healthy, but it turns out that this acquisition will help those living in food deserts.

Access to nutritious foods is at the center of policy making decisions when it comes to food insecurity. However, in a paradoxical turn, “food swamps” exist in low income neighborhoods that feature many more fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and can even be considered food deserts due to the absence of access to healthy food.

What is critical to understand about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods can be understood in the context of how just the addition of new grocery stores to an area may not be an adequate solution. For example, rural communities with a small population may not support a supermarket every ten or so miles, and some elderly and disabled customers have trouble even navigating the grocery store aisles. With the available option of purchasing groceries online, a significant percentage of those living in the US would have the access that they may not otherwise have had.

Recently, in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood a Whole Foods market opened. This neighborhood has many of the characteristics of a food desert: it is laden with convenience and liquor stores and fast food chains. Many of the hard working families who live there struggle to thrive due to the absence of nutritious food products.

“During our first year of serving the Englewood community, we’ve been able to increase access to fresh foods and offer healthy eating education to residents and families,” said Whole Foods spokesperson Allison Phelps.

The Link Between Food Deserts and Food Assistance

Approximately 13 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015 at some point during the year. For millions of Americans, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps to ameliorate this condition by providing money for food purchases. Participants are issued an EBT card: a type of debit card used only for these purchases. Unfortunately, many SNAP participants load up on food at convenience stores which do not provide much in the way of produce, fresh meats, and protein-rich foods. With the Amazon takeover of Whole Foods, those who receive SNAP benefits can purchase food online with their EBT card and have their items delivered.

It Takes More Than a Grocery Store to Eliminate Food Deserts

Low income communities have approximately 25 percent fewer supermarkets than wealthier or even middle class neighborhoods. Over the past decade, more policy initiatives have been launched at the local and federals level in order to map those areas most in need of assistance. However, Steven Cummins, a professor of population health in London, says that just the addition of a grocery store does not always equate to motivating people to eat healthier. According to Cummins, “It can improve perceptions of food access, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a behavior change.” In one area of Cummins’ research, a Philadelphia grocery chain opened up 88 new stores in underserved communities throughout Pennsylvania. What was discovered was that there was very little direct impact on diets as measured by consumption of fruits and vegetables. However, individual perceptions of increased access to their food environment were noted. That tells us that we are creatures of habit, and more importantly, how our collective diets have worsened over the years. But, that is the subject of a subsequent article.

Now a Fantastical Thought: What About Drone Delivery?

I can really envision that Amazon, in all its advanced technology, will someday invest into the development of drones to deliver food to food desert areas. Customers could order online, and pick up their orders at a pre-determined location the next day or possibly sooner. No online access? Amazon could build and service “ordering kiosks” in locations that are easily accessible. Oh, the possibilities…

By:  Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

July 16, 2018
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Fossilized Algae – A Key to Food Safety Testing

It is slimy, green, and lives at the bottom of the ocean – and other unfiltered water sources. Algae. Researchers believe fossilized algae can be a key component to food safety testing.

Looking into Algae 

A group of researchers from Oregon State University and Liaoning Shihua University in China are using fossilized bits of algae to create cutting-edge new methods for identifying contaminants in food. The algae, called diatoms, have a complex and unique cell wall structure that’s a natural fit for nanotechnology – it refracts light in interesting ways, allowing for novel and exciting applications in optics and imaging.

What is diatomite, though? You may have encountered it as “diatomaceous earth.” It’s available in most hardware stores, and can be used in all sorts of ways, including to filter water and to make everything from toothpaste to insecticides to TNT. It’s made from the crushed-up remains of fossilized diatoms, as mentioned above, and occurs in natural deposits of white, crumbly earth all around the world.

Diatomite allowed the researchers to combine two existing technologies used in imaging and food safety testing. The first is thin-layer chromatography, or TLC. A thin, absorbent layer is applied to a transparent glass plate. A sample is added for analysis, the plate is tilted sideways, and a solvent mixture is added – dissolving the sample and drawing it up along the tilted surface of the plate. The solvent and sample seemingly defy gravity and move up along the plate through capillary action. It’s the same principle by which liquid wax passes through a wick to the flame of a candle, or water travels upwards through the stem or trunk of a plant. Different substances ascend the plate at different rates, creating spots or streaks that are differentiated from one another. By looking at those spots and shining different wavelengths of light on them, it’s possible to determine how pure a substance is, or whether particular molecules are present.

The second technique that the researchers used is surface enhanced Raman spectrography, or SERS. It’s somewhat harder to wrap your head around SERS than TLC, but the basic idea is this – molecules on top of certain surfaces, including rough metal and nanostructures, bounce electrons around in such a way that the “signal” they emit is amplified by a factor of ten. The technique is so powerful that it can be used to identify individual molecules. It’s useful for detecting biological molecules that are present in small enough amounts to not be registered by other, less accurate detection methods but nonetheless there. Scientists have used it to single out particular genetic sequences and to detect biomarkers associated with pancreatic cancer in the blood.

The unique crystalline structure of the diatomite is particularly useful for SERS technology. The fossilized cell walls of ancient diatoms are tiny structural marvels. They’re crystalline in structure, with tiny nanopores made from silica – perforations smaller than molecules that amplify and redirect light. These qualities make diatoms a naturally-occuring source of the nanomaterials used in SERS, with the same unique capacity to amplify the signal of individual molecules to the point where it’s detectable by researchers. The researchers have been able to push the amplifying qualities of diatomite even further by adding a microscopic matrix of gold molecules to the mix.

The researchers claim that they’ve able to pick up signals ten times stronger than conventional techniques using diatomite and SERS. That means they can detect contaminants, pathogens, or other molecules in food whose presence might be otherwise be missed.

A press release from Oregon State University announcing the findings cited the detection of histamine as one potential application. Histamine develops when meat that has not been stored properly starts to break down; it causes itchiness, rash, and headaches when consumed. Because meat is complicated at the molecular level, however, histamine has historically been very difficult to detect.

“In solution it’s very easy, but buried in food it’s very hard simply because of all the background interference resulting from the complicated components of the meat,” he said. “Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, they all obscure the signal of histamine when you’re trying to detect it.”

By applying the unique nano-molecular structure of diatomite toexisting SERS techniques, researchers were able to suss out the presence of histamine in both salmon and tuna.

That is, of course, just one application – the team hopes that they’ll be able to use the technique to detect pesticides, herbicides, allergens, and other harmful chemicals using the new technology. They hope to make the new technique portable and easy to use. The press release from OSU touted a “lab on a chip.” This is quite different from conventional food testing technology, which sometimes requires extensive preparation work and machinery that takes time and the kind of equipment that’s usually found in a fully equipped scientific laboratory.

Food Safety 

Food safety is a pressing issue – every year in the United States, millions of people are sickened by tainted food, hundreds of thousands end up in the hospital, and thousands do not survive. In the developing world, where the regulatory infrastructure for food is lax or nonexistent and healthcare coverage is often quite poor, the problem is magnified. Assays which allow for quick, accurate, and precise determination of whether or not there are contaminants in food are thus needed at every level, and new technologies which bring down the price point, processing times, and necessary skill level have the potential to drive down healthcare spending and save lives.

Alan Wang, the OSU professor who led the study, is no stranger to diatomite and their unique refractive properties. He’s previously combined them with inkjet printing to create special fluids with powerful magnifying properties. Another application saw Wang use diatomic crystals to detect trace amounts of gases. The aim of these novel applications of diatomite is to create techniques that are not only more precise than existing technology but also cheap, fast, and applicable to everyday situations. And hopefully, to help reduce the prevalence of food poisoning and illness.

 

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

July 3, 2018
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Kids Are Still Hungry When School is Out

Programs that provide free meals for children during the summer months when school has let out are popping up all across the United States. And for good reason, too! These often carry over from programs that provide meals for children for weekends and extended holiday breaks.

A study shows that an average 16 million American kids struggle with hunger. This breaks down to 1 in 5 children being hungry at some point every single year. Many of the families involved in hunger studies have mentioned they have to choose bills, such as rent and electricity, over food – resulting in empty cabinets.

A recent interview showed that 3 out of 4 teachers notice hunger in their own classrooms each year. This not only means that the child is not nourished, but that he or she doesn’t learn as well as a nourished child would. A huge number of families who struggle to put food on their tables do not qualify for any sort of public assistance and therefore struggle even more.

Many school districts have the free breakfast and lunch programs, but what happens after breakfast and lunch? Organizations like No Kid Hungry offers summer meals for children and some have even started meal delivery services because they found that students who were hungry had no means to make it to meal sites when school was not in session due to varying issues such as parental work schedules.

A rising issue with local programs is that the meals while free are lacking seriously in nutrition. The programs are mostly created on public donations and are non-profit and do what they can, but the funds often lack what is needed for real nutrition. We have seen locally that often these meals are created with kid-friendly foods in mind but also things that children can prepare on their own due to the fact that many kids are left alone for a great part of the summer. Easy to make macaroni and cheese, pre-packaged ready to eat pasta and other foods packed with sodium and other not-so-great ingredients fill these bags and while they are filling, the nutrition is still lacking.

A Game Changing Program in Pennsylvania

Fresh Connect in Bucks County, PA is offering fresh (yes you read that right) foods to kids year round.

“It may be cheaper to get pasta, dry goods, and canned goods, but nutritious fruits and vegetables are a lot more expensive and people will do without if they can’t afford them. So we want to make sure that they have those available to them. They can get a selection here every single week throughout the year,” said Eileen Albillar with Bucks County Opportunity Council.

 The idea of this program is set up like a farmer’s market where reliable and much needed foods are set up for 57,000 residents 32% of which are children. Volunteers show up at the same times each week and unload trucks and set this farm stand up, deliver the produce to the needy citizens and then clean everything up at the end.

A huge perk of this amazing program is that it is open year-round, rain or shine as long as the temperatures outdoors are over 32 degrees. There is a volunteer sign-up sheet online and the slots fill up so fast with people wanting to help their community which really brings out the team spirit in this great little town.

The number of farms participating in this amazing program are great and while this program is great for the community it is also great for the farmer who sees less waste.

Cut the Junk

Programs, like Fresh Connect, are helping families cut out the junk foods that are often more affordable and providing them with great in-season produce. It is estimated that 12% of a child’s diet consists of junk food. This number is staggering when thinking about how much sugar that kids are consuming among the other junk foods on the market, especially when thinking that the number is higher with those who can’t afford to buy more nutritious foods.

Fresh Connect and other programs around the country are helping children to cut out the junk. There are often programs in communities that teach people how to safely handle and prepare nutritious meals. These programs are great for people who do not otherwise know how to handle fresh foods and they can also limit the number of cases of salmonella poisoning and other food borne illnesses. The classes are often free and come with the perks of getting a certificate at the end that can allow the attendees the ability to prepare foods for groups of people while being safe at the same time. This certificate is often needed for certain jobs as well, so this can help with employment.

How Can You Help

Check your local newspapers and social media forums for ways you can volunteer to help feed hungry children in your area. There are so many opportunities that arise and in writing this article I found a great way to help in my own community through a program that I was not aware existed. There are several ways to volunteer that even allow children to help such as just simply helping to unload trucks and packing bags of weekend/summer meals for local children in need and manning pick-up stations for those meals.

If you are in need of summer or weekend meals be sure to check with your local school district as many are setting up programs throughout the summer for free children’s meals at lunch time and often sending home supplemental meals throughout the school year as well.

It truly does take a village to raise children and working together we can all help others to provide a means by which parents can know their children are fed when they can’t necessarily do so themselves. Many of these programs allow participants to volunteer as well, so while you may not be able to contribute financially, you can give some time and feel as if you are giving back to the programs helping your family. A true community feeling!

 

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

July 1, 2018
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Food Insecurity Doesn’t Just Mean Hunger:  Part One: How Do We Feed the World: An Overview

I’ve written on this topic of food insecurity before, but it continually amazes and even startles me out of my complacency when I read the related statistics.

It is a problem that is not going away anytime soon, and sadly, we are running out of resources. Follow me as we take a moment to discuss food insecurity, and what it means for all of us.

What is Food Insecurity?

To define, food insecurity refers to a “lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household.” The United States Department of Agriculture offers yet another definition as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In 2016, an estimated 1 in every 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 42 million Americans, including 13 million children.

Who Are the Food Insecure?

So as not to arouse contradiction and misunderstanding, food insecurity must be distinguished from hunger. When hungry, an uneasy or perhaps painful sensation is caused by lack of food, whether it is intermittent, constant, or recurrent. Hunger can cause malnutrition over time, and is a potential result of food insecurity. Those who research the phenomenon of food insecurity find it difficult to provide a measurable way to evaluate it because hunger itself is hard to measure. Hunger can be characterized on an individual level as a construct of physiological symptoms, whereas measurable economic and social patterns of food insecurity can be discerned and analyzed. Again, hunger is often a consequence of food insecurity and it is far easier to address it when, under the guise of food insecurity, it can be mapped, measured, and reported.

With this distinction in mind, chronic food insecurity can be equated with chronic hunger. Hunger is experienced by 11 percent of the global population, and numbers are on the rise: the amount of undernourished people (those that are most food insecure) on the planet rose from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2017, and that includes individuals right here in the US. The statistics are staggering, and as I’ve stated in previous articles, there is really no conscionable reason that people should go hungry, or remain in a state of constant food insecurity.

Multi-Faceted Reasons for the Existence of Food Insecurity

The problem of food insecurity is impossible to encapsulate in one all-encompassing approach. Essential components in the drive to reduce and eventually eliminate food insecurity must be comprehensive, integrative, and exhaustive. Not only is chronic hunger an element, but food insecurity can also be expressed in the overwhelming numbers of individuals who are obese or even though having access to food on a daily basis, are still under nourished because of the lack of essential nutrients needed for a healthy life.

In a recent United Nations summit in Brazil, the Secretary General emphasized worldwide focus on a lofty initiative known as the “Zero Hunger Challenge”. Initiated in 2012 by the UN, this initiative has a five-pronged approach that relies on development partners to pledge their resources into policy and program implementation as well as mobilization of such resources. These five SDG’s, or sustainable development goals, are:

  • All food systems are sustainable: from production to consumption
  • End rural poverty: double small-scale producer incomes and productivity
  • Adapt all food systems to eliminate loss or waste of food
  • Access adequate food and healthy diets for all people, year round
  • End malnutrition in all its forms

The United Nations initiative offers comprehensive ideas to confront food insecurity through several programs, including:

  • The World Food Programme (WFP) responds to emergencies by bringing food assistance to more than 80 million people in 80 countries as well as the sponsoring of programs that employ food to build assets and nurture communities.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) endeavors to ensure that people have regularaccess to high quality food in order to promote healthy lifestyles. The FAO has three primary goals: to eradicate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; to eliminate poverty through social improvement and progression; and to sustain the effective management and utilization of natural resources. The FAO additionally issues the food price index: a measure of the monthly change in international prices of food commodities.
  • The World Bankinvests in rural agricultural development in order to increase food production and therefore nutrition by encouraging climate-smart farming techniques and restoring degraded farmland.
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) exclusively focuses on reducing rural poverty in developing countries and working with these populations to raise productivity and improve the quality of their lives. The IFAD has supported over 400 million poor rural men and women over the past three decades.

A Deadline is Looming

As I’ve previously stated in articles regarding food insecurity, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go hungry, or remain in a state of food insecurity. This is especially true for well-developed countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and others. Indeed, this also applies to worldwide food insecurity, though the reasons for both homeland and world food insecurity is multi-faceted. The causative factors for food insecurity and various approaches and schools of thought will be further explored in future articles. And we need to begin now, for according to the World Bank branch of the United Nations,

            “The world needs to produce at least 50% more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. But climate change could cut crop yields by more than 25%. The land, biodiversity, oceans, forests, and other forms of natural capital are being depleted at unprecedented rates. Unless we change how we grow our food and manage our natural capital, food security—especially for the world’s poorest—will be at risk.” (World Bank, 2016).

Our world is growing. Our food sources are dwindling. We are running out of space. Our current crops will not be able to sustain our growing population for long. The time for change is now before it is too late.

By:  Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

MakeFood Safe is proud to announce this is the first post in a series on Food Insecurity. Stay tuned for upcoming related posts on Food Insecurity from our amazing contributor Kerry.

 

June 7, 2018
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What’s Being Done to Combat Food Waste: Two Tales

Food waste is a travesty in the industrialized world. Approximately a third of the food produced for human consumption in the world each and every year gets wasted. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons of wasted food. This translates into 30% for cereals, 40 to 50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds and meat and dairy, and 35% for fish. The food lost or wasted each year equals to more than half of the world’s annual cereal crop (2.3 billion tons).

Having raised three daughters to adulthood as a single mom, I am regretfully guilty of wasting food. It was easier to just buy in bulk without realizing the consequences of my behavior. It was almost a flippant attitude: after all, I was a busy working mom and therein lay all the convenient excuses. Purchasing items in bulk was convenient, and I thought that what I purchased would eventually be used. Then all those huge containers of fruit, yogurt, cereals, and snacks would find their way into the trash. And that’s not all: packages of meat that I thought I would use for meals eventually expired, and into the garbage they went.  Even small jaunts to the local grocery store sometimes resulted in the same way.

I clearly remember my both my mother and grandmother chastising me for not finishing the food on my plate, stating that there were “starving people in China.” Turns out, they weren’t wrong, at least in the overall scheme of things.

The French Food Waste Law

Each morning at a grocery market in Paris, Magdalena Dos Santos has a meeting with a driver from the French food bank: a gentleman by the name of Ahmed Djerbrani. Magdalena is busy setting aside prepared dishes that are close to their expiration date: yogurt, pizza, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cheese. Yet this is not just a philanthropic gesture. It is now a requirement under a 2016 law that bans grocery stores from throwing away edible food. If grocery stores do not comply, they can be fined up to $4,500 for each infraction.

The food is then loaded into Djerbrani’s van and to a church that will distribute the food to poor families.

Throughout France, about 5,000 charitable organizations rely upon the food bank network that now receives nearly 50% of its donations from grocery stores under this new law. Gillaine Demeules, a volunteer with the St. Vincent De Paul Society, states that the law helps cut back on food waste “by getting rid of certain constraining contracts between supermarkets and food manufacturers.” For example, the charity now receives 30,000 sandwiches a month from a manufacturer that previously was unauthorized to donate their sandwiches that it made for a particular grocery brand and those sandwiches had to be thrown away.

American Food Waste Is Stunning

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, states that Americans waste approximately 200 billion pounds of food per year. Two hundred billion! That’s enough to fill the 90,000 Rose Bowl stadium each day. In industrialized countries such as the United States and Europe, most of this waste occurs at the end of the food chain, meaning that food that is ready for consumption is thrown away. In underdeveloped nations, the culprit for food waste exists at the beginning of the food chain: at the harvesting stage due to inadequate storage facilities. In the United States, where does all that thrown-away food go? To the landfills, of course, and that adds up to almost $165 billion in losses, not to mention the environmental resources such as land and water that are utilized to grow the food products. Let’s also not forget the billions of tons of greenhouse gases that are flooded into the atmosphere by decaying food.

Meanwhile, In Italy

Mossimo Bottura, a renowned chef, opened a five star restaurant called Refettorio Ambrosianaoin Milan, Italy in 2015. It accepts donations of unsold food from grocery stores and supermarkets and uses volunteers from professional chefs who want to donate their time to feed the hungry. What these disenfranchised individuals receive is far from the ordinary soup kitchen fare. The chefs collectively prepare food that would otherwise be discarded, and these remnants turn into gourmet meals. The “guests” are served rather than waiting in line, and incorporates dignity rather than mere feeding. These patrons feel, if just for a moment, like royalty and indulge in gourmet meals.

We Need to Do so Much More

In the United States, one of the largest offenders of food waste, much more needs to be done, and perhaps modeled on what individuals in France and Italy have already accomplished. Political discussions need to be pushed aside and partisan conversations abolished in favor of serving the needs of individuals who are truly in need and suffering from various degrees of food insecurity. Allowing millions of our fellow citizens to go hungry should never be allowed.

As a person concerned with food waste and the problem of hunger, there are things that you can do:

  • Shop smart: Plan your meals and use grocery lists. Avoid impulse buys. This will help you use what you have before it expires.
  • Be realistic:If you rarely cook, don’t stock up on goods that have to be cooked
  • Buy produce that is “funny looking”: This is one of the biggest culprits to the enormous amounts of food that is wasted based upon American consumers desire to buy produce that is uniform in shape and color. So much produce is thrown away just because it does not meet standards of so-called “perfection”. Less than perfect-appearing produce tastes exactly the same. In fact, less than perfect-looking produce can (at times) have less additives – like wax – to give fruit a desirable look for customers.
  • Practice “FIFO”: This refers to “First In, First Out”. Move older products to the front of the pantry and fridge.
  • Designate one day a week to “use up”: Look in your pantry or fridge for things you haven’t used, and look up a recipe that would utilize those products.
  • Eat your leftovers!! This one goes without saying. One of the best ways you can now throw good food away, is to eat it!

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)

April 12, 2018
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