Two hens walk in a backyard in Urbana, where residents are allowed to raise chickens.
(Sean Powers/WILL)
December 04, 2013

Champaign Preparing For Backyard Chickens

In a couple of weeks, residents in Champaign can begin applying for licenses so that they can get backyard chickens.

City Planner Lacey Rains Lowe said there will not be a limit on the number of permits available, something the city had discussed. She said the city is confident its ordinance addresses potential problems that could come up with too many people getting backyard chickens.

“We do have a chapter in our ordinance already that regards noise and that regards other property maintenance standards, and we reference those in this new hen ordinance but it also includes specific language that says no odors detectable from the property line,” Lowe said. “So, we don’t anticipate that being a problem.”

Lowe said backyard chickens will only be allowed in most single family homes or duplexes, and roosters will not be allowed. People can begin applying on Dec. 17 for a permit to obtain up to six hens, but the licenses won’t take effect until Jan. 1.


September 20, 2013

U of I, Community College Open Food Pantries

The University of Illinois has opened a food pantry on campus that specifically caters to college students.

The pantry is open the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at the St. John Catholic Newman Center on the U of I’s Urbana campus.

Sister Maryann Schaefer helps run the pantry with the help of a group of student volunteers.

“I think it will help bring down the barrier of embarrassment when you’re talking about peer-to-peer rather than an adult situation handing out to students,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer explained that in order to get assistance, all people have to do is show their student identification, and promise that they are not earning 185 percent of the government drawn poverty line.

“It’s a growing trend throughout the United States on campuses that students who get into their upper classes and graduate classes are finding themselves stretched for money in order to pay for rent, gas, electric, as well as paying for food on the table,” she said.

Campus food pantries have popped up across the country to help students who don't have enough money to cover their expenses and keep themselves well-fed. Another pantry is slated to open soon on the Parkland College campus in Champaign.


September 19, 2013

House Votes To Cut $4B A Year From Food Stamps

The U.S. House voted on Thursday to cut nearly $40 billion over the next decade in food stamps (or $4 billion a year).

The vote in the Republican-controlled House came on a party line vote of 217-200.

The bill's savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville), who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, voiced his support for the plan.

“Just as I believe we must take care of fellow Americans who truly need the help, I also believe that we must address fraud and abuse in the SNAP program and provide opportunities and encouragement to put people back to work,” Davis said. “When unemployment declines, the number of food stamp recipients still increases under our current system. This is simply unsustainable.”

Food stamps' cost has more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession.

The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.

SNAP has traditionally been part of a larger, omnibus farm bill, but in July, House Republicans split food stamps from the rest of the agricultural measure.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that under the House plan, nearly four million people would lose food stamp benefits next year

The White House, in a statement, chided lawmakers for cutting "one of our nation's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty."

"These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work," the statement said.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Wednesday that the House bill "will never see the light of day in the Senate."


Fourth year Tulane medical school student Neha Solanki (far right) preps a Greek frittata during a class at Johnson & Wales.
(Kristin Gourlay/ RIPR)
September 18, 2013

Just What The Doctor Ordered: Med Students Team With Chefs

For the past few weeks, the culinary arts students at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., have been working with some less-than-seasoned sous chefs.

One of them, Clinton Piper, may look like a pro in his chef's whites, but he's struggling to work a whisk through some batter. "I know nothing about baking," he says.

Luckily, he's got other qualifications. Piper is a fourth-year medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine, and he's here for a short rotation through a new program designed to educate med students and chefs-in-training about nutrition.

"I think it's forward thinking to start to see, to view food as medicine," he says. "That's not something that's really on our radar in medical education. But with the burden of disease in the United States being so heavily weighted with lifestyle disease, I think it's a very, very logical next step."

So-called lifestyle diseases mainly spring from bad habits, particularly bad eating habits. Think obesity or diabetes. Piper says the goal of this partnership between New Orleans, Louisiana-based Tulane and Johnson & Wales is to change the way doctors think about food. As far as the program's creators know, it's the first time a culinary school and a medical school have partnered like this.

"We basically learn how to take care of patients when things go wrong, which is sad," says Neha Solanki, a fourth-year medical student at Tulane. "I think that we need to learn how to be able to make nutritious meals and to discuss diet in an educated manner."

One of their assignments is to feed the Johnson & Wales track team. The team will arrive breathless and sweaty after practice. According to assistant professor Todd Seyfarth, an instructor in culinary nutrition, the assignment is to create a "recovery meal."

"We're going to try to take advantage of what's called an anabolic window, a specific period of time after the workout where we can give them the best gains," he says.

The first course will be a "recovery" bar with whole grains, spices and marshmallows to deliver some quick sugars. Then there's the frittata that Solanki is laboring away at, stuffed with baby zucchini, red bliss potatoes, red bell peppers, parmesan and feta cheese and spinach. It's a feast, says culinary student Briana Colacone, designed to refuel with lean protein and carbs. "It's going to be really good," she says.

Using med students as sous chefs brings its own challenges — Colacone has to slow down to show med student Neha Solanki how to chop a pepper. But Seyfarth says the benefits far outweigh any inconveniences.

"They have a better understanding than I ever will of how the body functions. And they can inform some of the decisions we make," he says. "I love having them here."

This is the culinary medicine program's inaugural year. But organizers hope to train more Tulane medical students and Johnson & Wales culinary students together on each other's campuses.

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A cornfield is shrouded in mist at sunrise in rural Springfield, Neb.
(Nati Harnik/AP)
September 17, 2013

American Farmers Say They Feed The World, But Do They?

When critics of industrial agriculture complain that today's food production is too big and too dependent on pesticides, that it damages the environment and delivers mediocre food, there's a line that farmers offer in response: We're feeding the world.

It's high-tech agriculture's claim to the moral high ground. Farmers say they farm the way they do to produce food as efficiently as possible to feed the world.

Charlie Arnot, a former public relations executive for food and farming companies, now CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, says it's more than just a debating point. "U.S. farmers have a tremendous sense of pride in the fact that they've been able to help feed the world," he says.

That phrase showed up, for instance, a few weeks ago at a big farm convention in Decatur, Ill. The seed and chemical company DuPont set up a wall with a question printed at the top in big capital letters: "How are you making a difference to feed the world?"

The company invited people to answer that question, and thousands of them did. They wrote things like "raising cattle," "growing corn and beans," "plant as much as possible."

Kip Tom, who grows corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of Indiana farmland, says he's very aware of the fact that the world has more and more people, demanding more food. Yet there are fewer and fewer farmers, "and it's the duty of those of us who are left in the business, us family farmers, to help feed that world."

That means growing more food per acre, he says, which requires new and better technology: genetically engineered seed, for instance, or pesticides.

And this is why the words "feed the world" grate on the nerves of people who believe that large-scale, technology-driven agriculture is bad for the environment and often bad for people.

Margaret Mellon, a scientist with the environmental advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, recently wrote an essay in which she confessed to developing an allergy to that phrase. "If there's a controversy, the show-stopper is supposed to be, 'We have to use pesticides, or we won't be able to feed the world!' " she says.

Mellon says it's time to set that idea aside. It doesn't answer the concerns that people have about modern agriculture — and it's not even true.

American-style farming doesn't really grow food for hungry people, she says. Forty percent of the biggest crop — corn — goes into fuel for cars. Most of the second-biggest crop — soybeans — is fed to animals.

Growing more grain isn't the solution to hunger anyway, she says. If you're really trying to solve that problem, there's a long list of other steps that are much more important. "We need to empower women; we need to raise incomes; we need infrastructure in the developing world; we need the ability to get food to market without spoiling."

It seemed that this dispute needed a referee. So I called Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell University who studies international agriculture and poverty.

"They're both right," he said, chuckling. "Sometimes the opposite of a truth isn't a falsehood, but another truth, right?"

It's true, he says, that bigger harvests in the U.S. tend to make food more affordable around the world, and "lower food prices are a good thing for poor people."

For instance, Chinese pigs are growing fat on cheap soybean meal grown by farmers in the U.S. and Brazil, and that's one reason why hundreds of millions of people in China are eating much better than a generation ago. They can afford to buy pork. So American farmers who grow soybeans are justified in saying that they help feed the world.

But Mellon is right, too, Barrett says. The big crops that American farmers send abroad don't provide the vitamins and minerals that billions of people need most. So if the U.S. exports lots of corn, driving down the cost of cornmeal, "it induces poor families to buy lots of cornmeal, and to buy less in the way of leafy green vegetables, or milk," that have the key nutrients. In this case, you're feeding the world, but not solving the nutrition problems.

Arnot, from the Center for Food Integrity, recently did a survey, asking consumers whether they think the U.S. even has a responsibility to provide food to the rest of the world. Only 13 percent of these consumers strongly agreed.

In focus groups, many people said that if feeding the world means more industrial-scale farming, they're not comfortable with it.

This is not a message farmers like to hear. "It is a real sense of frustration for farmers that 'feeding the world' is no longer a message that resonates with the American public," Arnot says.

He tells farm groups that they'll have to find another message. They'll need to show that the way they grow food is consistent with the values of American consumers.

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September 16, 2013

In Some Illinois Prisons, Two Meals A Day

More and more prisoners in Illinois are being served brunch, eating two meals a day instead of three. Prison officials say it is actually better for many inmates.

Feeding prisoners is a lot of work — not only cooking and cleaning up, but moving inmates from cells or dorms over to the mess hall.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said at some prisons, breakfast is served at 4 a.m., which means moving inmates in the dark.

So it seems obvious that it would be easier on staff to only serve two meals instead of three. But Shaer said it can be better for inmates, too — it's a more conventional schedule, and the portions are bigger.

"We wouldn't do it if it was not going to work for everybody," Shaer said. "We're not in the business of creating aggravation; we're in the business of keeping the peace."

But the John Howard Association, an independent prison watchdog, cautions that in Ohio, a similar brunch program caused health problems among inmates who had not eaten enough to property digest their medication.

An official with AFSCME, the union that represents prison guards, said brunch is OK as long as it's properly staffed and there's enough food to meet inmates' dietary needs.

Brunch is already being served at Illinois River and Hill correctional centers. In the coming weeks, it will be added at Western Correctional Center, and then at Jacksonville.


Chipotle Mexican Grill launched The Scarecrow, an arcade-style adventure game for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
(Business Wire)
September 13, 2013

Taking Down Big Food Is The Name Of Chipotle's New Game

Chipotle Mexican Grill prides itself on the fact that it serves only "responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken."

That means the meat it buys comes from animals raised outside or in comfy pens, who are never given antibiotics and are fed an additive-free, vegetarian diet.

Sourcing that meat is getting harder as the chain has expanded to more than 1,500 stores. But the strategy of marketing itself as a fast food alternative to Big Food has clearly worked well for Chipotle.

Now Chipotle is betting that it can sell even more burritos by lambasting the Big Food companies that drug animals in the name of profit. That's the message of a new short film and game the company launched Thursday that takes a cue from advocacy films like The Meatrix.

As the short film, The Scarecrow, opens, we see a spindly scarecrow entering the monolithic factory of "Crow Foods Incorporated," where conveyor belts ferry boxes of "100% Beef-ish" and eggs and chicken dubiously labeled "all-natural." Through the cracks of a factory wall, the scarecrow spies chickens being injected with growth promoters. Inside a sky-scraping tower, he finds cows trapped in boxes staring blankly as they're pumped with something.

The soundtrack for this dystopian scene is Fiona Apple crooning the song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

 

 

The dejected scarecrow rides home on the subway, and sees an ad and then a billboard for "farm fresh" Crow Foods "feeding the world" as pernicious robotic crows flutter around.

But this scarecrow is a proactive fellow. Rather than eating this shameful food, he goes out to the garden and picks a bright red pepper (subtle, Chipotle). We see him cooking in his small kitchen, and then presto! Our sad little scarecrow has become a happy little street food vendor, selling fresh tacos out of red plastic baskets that look quite a lot like what you'll get at the Mexican chain.

Chipotle's gleaming, super-efficient stores and revenue of over $800 million are more Big Food than taco stand. (McDonalds was even an investor for a spell.) But the chain seems to want to show solidarity with the emerging class of entrepreneurial artisans making food from scratch. We're the good guys, fighting the bad guys, it whispers.

The film, created in partnership with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios, is meant "to help people better understand the difference between processed food and the real thing," says Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle, in a statement.

It's also a teaser for the game, which is available for free on iPhone and iPad, and is all about taking down Crow Foods. According to Chipotle, the game encourages players to "tilt and tap your way through four unique worlds to protect vulnerable veggies, rescue caged animals, and bring fresh food to the citizens of Plenty, all while dodging the menacing Crowbots." Players who earn enough "stars" get a buy-one, get-one-free offer redeemable at Chipotle store.

The game is, of course, fictional, and doesn't name any of the livestock producers that cage animals and pump them with growth promoters and antibiotics in real life. But the aspiration is clear: Chipotle and its customers are coming for you, Big Food.


Ray Daniels inspects a glass of beer. A Chicago brewer, Daniels started the Cicerone training program five years ago.
(Johnny Knight/Courtesy of Ray Daniels)
August 24, 2013

Wine Has Sommeliers. Now, Beer Has Cicerones

If you've been to a fancy restaurant, you've probably seen a sommelier — those wine experts who make sure you get the best possible match for your meal. But what if you don't want a chardonnay or pinot? What if you want a nice cold beer?

A new program is working to bring this same level of knowledge to the world of malt and hops by turning out batches of certified beer experts known as Cicerones.

Ray Daniels, a Chicago brewer, started the Cicerone program five years ago. And he jokes that he did so for a fairly simple reason: bad beer.

"You'd go into a place that had a lot of taps, that you'd think might know their beer. And they really didn't," Daniels sighed. So Daniels came up with the Cicerone exam to standardize a canon of beery knowledge.

There are three levels of of Cicerones, starting out with Certified Beer Servers (an online exam), Cicerones (an in-person test, complete with a tasting component), and the top level of Master Cicerone (an in-person exam lasting two days). The exams focus on five basic components: keeping and serving beer; beer styles; flavor and tasting; brewing process and ingredients; and beer and food pairing.

This may sound a bit complex. And it is: Only about a third of test takers pass (and the numbers are even lower for the Master Cicerone certification). But Daniels stresses that he's not trying to set up some elitist system. Enjoying a beer is a simple pleasure. It's just that beer itself isn't so simple.

"Beer is a fragile product," Daniels notes. "It can be ruined instantly by certain types of handling. So the people in the beer business — from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress — need to understand the complexity of beer."

So far, only seven people have achieved the top level of Master Cicerone. But about 900 have passed the regular exam, and an additional 27,000 have become Certified Beer Servers. And the beer world is taking notice.

Many breweries encourage employees — from brewers to servers to distributors — to study for the Cicerone exam. Portland-based craft brewer Widmer Brothers has gone a step further: It pays for exams and sets up study programs, and it will even require the basic level for certain employees by the end of the year.

Widmer's brewing manager, John Eaton, says it makes a lot of sense. "The last thing a brewer wants," he says, "is for a consumer's first interaction with your beer to be not the beer that you wanted them to interact with."

And that bad interaction can happen when there's something wrong with the beer — from dirty keg lines to brewing mishaps — which the Cicerone training will help employees identify. But Eaton says a bad interaction could also happen when someone just doesn't know how to give you the right beer. While wine has its own language, beer servers are often at a loss as to how best to match a drinker to the right beer.

"That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves," Eaton notes, "is people will say something like a dark beer is automatically heavy or bitter — neither of which is necessarily the case. All different colors of beer can be all different ranges of bitterness and can be all different ranges of density."

And when Cicerones study up so that they understand — and can communicate — these differences, there's a better chance that they can help get the right beer into customers' hands. And that's something that any beer lover can drink to.


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