Food Cycle

Photograph by Kang Kim, Food Styling by Stephana Bottom

Food Cycle

The eternal food loop--harvest, prepare, savor, cleanup--has never been healthier, and better tasting, than it is right now.

Published: March-April 2011

Even in tough times, everyone has to eat. Indeed, the one place where we could be tempted to make some small allowances is our food. Sure, we might feel a little guilty about indulging ourselves, but what if that dark, delectable chocolate bar you devoured at lunch actually did the earth a little good, or that cheese on your cracker helped protect a 200-acre farm and a variety of bird species, while keeping a family afloat. Maybe that delicious bread you bought was made from corn genetically engineered to need less water, those heirloom tomatoes from the grocery store lowered the cost of toxin-free food for all, and the rice in your sushi provided critical habitat for long-billed curlews. Far from being a health food fantasy, this menu is now, or soon will be, an everyday reality. So raise a fork (and a glass of wine made from grapes grown without pesticides) to eating well while doing great things for birds, wildlife, the planet--and you.

[gallery:8861|align:left|caption:Explore more food photos.]

HARVEST

Meals on Wheels
On a clear, brisk November day in Stamford, New York, three beef cows and 11 pigs await slaughter. They've been trucked here to meet their end in the Northeast's first mobile slaughterhouse, docked today at Jim Eklund's organic dairy farm. Under the watchful eye of a USDA inspector, Eklund stuns, kills, bleeds, skins, and eviscerates each animal in the 53-foot-long kill trailer. The organs are moved to an inedible-parts trailer, then Eklund quarters or halves the carcass and places it in a chilling compartment until it's driven to a butcher or a cut-and-wrap facility. "The meat goes to farmers' markets in New York City, to restaurants that want local, all-natural grass-fed beef," says Eklund, who's building an on-site cut-and-wrap operation so he'll have the capacity to process 50 cattle a day. "You know exactly which animal the steak or burger is coming from. Larger facilities take hundreds of animals, mix it all up." The Modular Harvest System (MHS) processes lambs, goats, hogs, beef cows, and veal calves. Farmers like it because it's closer than industrial facilities, and they can make appointments a month, rather than half a year, in advance. "Ultimately, we'd like to see a system of docking sites throughout the region, so the MHS can be moved around to serve more farmers," says Judith LaBelle, president of Glynwood, the nonprofit that created it. "It's ecologically sound--the animals graze in pastures rather than eating energy-intensive grains, the waste is properly disposed of. It's good for animals, people, and the planet."--Alisa Opar

Walk on the Wild Side
A parade of notebook-toting, camera-wearing students follow their leader, Leda Meredith, into Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Stopping at a shrub, she pulls off a clump of leaves and holds it to her nose. "I'm big on scratch-and-sniff foraging," she says. Its pungent odor gives the mugwort away. This invasive plant, which beer brewers once used to flavor their ales, is a natural muscle relaxer, Meredith says, and grows throughout the park. 

Her foraging class is one of many springing up around the country, from Los Angeles to Denver to Boston, demonstrating the growing public interest in finding tasty greens among the weeds. "It's exploded in the last few years," says Meredith, an ethnobotanist and author who foraged with her grandmother and great-grandmother in Golden Gate Park near her childhood home in San Francisco.

Fond du Lac County Audubon in Wisconsin, for instance, hosts an annual potluck where participants bring a course concocted with a wild ingredient--last year's event boasted a menu of savory burdock patties and mustard-greens pesto. Chefs are also digging the idea. At Noma, his Copenhagen restaurant, Danish chef Rene Redzepi serves dishes replete with local ingredients from nearby fields, like sorrel and wild herbs. Noma topped the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants poll last year, and Redzepi's foraging-infused cookbook, one of several that highlight wild foods, hit bookstores last fall.

A multitude of factors--from an increasing distrust of the industrial food system to foraging's zero cost--are accelerating the trend. On top of that, wild finds like maitake mushrooms (right) or mugwort may add a little zest to your meals. Says Meredith, "One of the great things about foraging for me is getting to play with ingredients that you can't buy."--Susan Cosier

 

PREPARE

Oyster Bar
Go ahead--slurp those farmed oysters, without the guilt. The mollusks are symbols for sustainable aquaculture. "[They're] environmentally, ecologically beneficial as well as economically beneficial," says Michael Oesterling, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. As filter feeders, the bivalves simultaneously eat and clarify water by sucking up algae that thrives on nutrient runoff. Also, cages and other aquaculture containment gear placed on sandy bottoms in coastal waters can provide habitat for other species. "It's an automatic oyster reef," says Doug McMinn, founder of the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, a leading aquaculturist in the bay region.

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