Solving the Spinach Scare
In the midst of the media frenzy over E. coli-contaminated spinach, there's a fact that few people are talking about: the supermarket isn't the only place to get the stuff.
It's hard to believe, given that our constantly replenished supermarket shelves are constantly replenished with pre-washed and pristine greens, as if packaged by elves. With gift-wrapped spinach always for the taking, who would want to bother looking anywhere else for salad fixins?
But sustainable agriculture advocates beg to differ.
"If there ever was a reason to shop local, this is it," says Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, a home gardener and food blogger from Syracuse, N.Y. The latest contamination scare makes it "more critical than ever to eat closer to the source," adds Baskerville-Burrows. "If we patronize smaller, local farms and something goes wrong, we can trace it back directly to the producer."
What's more, the coverage of the E. coli scare has been a bit like watching a new CSI spinoff where the good guys of "CSI: Food Safety" are tracking the source of the contamination and tackling the bad guys.
Of course, in all seriousnness, the FDA wants to solve the mystery and get to the source of the E.coli contamination, as it's become a public health situation involving 21 states. Its diligence, however, is being met with the enormous, complicated web that is American industrial agriculture. To wit, 31 brands of bagged spinach, all packaged under the corporate umbrella of Natural Selection Foods, the non-organic operation of Earthbound Farms, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., (and the largest organic grower in the country), have been recalled. Still with me?
In spite of the scare, there's perfectly good spinach to be had -- and it's not canned, frozen or pirated. You just have to wait for the high sign from Mother Nature.
In fact, spinach, a cool-weather crop, soon will make its fall debut at farmer's markets and in CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) boxes, depending on where you live.
Baskerville-Burrows said that her love for spinach and desire to eat it year round was a call to action, so she started growing it herself. While she waits for the spinach to harvest, she's eating "lots of chard, red Russian kale and collard greens."
Mark A. Kastel, a farm policy analyst from Cornucupia, Wis., is also willing to wait for the fall spinach to arrive in his local farmer's market. "There are plenty of greens I can buy today, not necessarily spinach, because it's a cool weather crop," says Kastel, who runs the Cornucopia Institute there. "It will be available in Wisconsin soon and for much of the fall."
Buying locally and seasonally, says Kastel, is a "chance to feel a connection with the earth and the people who are involved in their food." This is the "polar opposite of a farm that has 26,000 acres of production," referring the acreage owned by Earthbound Farms.
Greens from a local farm, says Kastel, "are probably picked one or two days before being sold," compared to the highly mechanized process of its industrial counterparts, which may be picked two weeks before arriving in supermarkets around the country.
Kastel acknowledges the trade-offs involved -- buy locally and you don't have the convenience of washed greens at any time of the year; buy industrial and you miss out on the community-building, fresher, and, in his opinion, more nutritious product.
Heinz Thomet, of Next Step Produce in Newburg, Md., argues that the choice over how and where we buy our food is a matter of priorities.
"People do all kinds of research to buy a plasma TV," asserts Thomet, who sells his vegetables at FreshFarm Market at Dupont Circle. "If you care for your well being, you will spend the same amount of time finding out how your food is grown."
When asked what consumers can do, Thomet talked about building relationship with local growers. "Come and visit your local farmer's market," he says. "Chances are better that you're going to be safer."
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