Little-girl salad, all grown up.

Alice Waters knows it. Jamie Oliver knows it. AmeriCorps knows it. Be honest, you know it too. The way we teach our kids about food? It matters. Let us know about your efforts, big or small, for a chance to win a copy of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

eggs basket

It’s not news anymore, but the story is no less startling for its age. In fact, age is precisely the issue. If we don’t change our food system—and I mean really change our food system, stat—our children will have a shorter life expectancy than we do.

Got children?

In theory I’d like to offer a recap of how our country’s food-supply system got to the point where shopping at a typical food store is in many ways equivalent to driving through McDonald’s, and driving through McDonald’s is in many ways equivalent to causing the earth to crumble under the very feet of our grandchildren, which might not matter all that much since they wouldn’t stand a chance in the face of rampant drug-resistant bacteria, anyway. You know, in case you’ve been too busy to follow the development of the American food crisis since approximately the beginning of the 1900s.

The problem is, the mere prospect of sitting down to write a couple of paragraphs about this issue consistently fills me with dread and bile and nausea. Sometimes tears. Not very appealing for a food blog, right? I think the general undesirability of mixing dinner with bodily fluids explains why I haven’t made an overt point of this issue all that frequently here in the past. (Occasionally I haven’t been able to help myself. But mostly I’ve shied away.)

I started this site when I was a coordinator for a Community Supported Farm, and a lot of the early posts were about kohlrabi, fresh horseradish and green garlic. It’s no secret that my family and I cherish real, local food and source our meals as much as we can off-the-grid. Still, I feel pretty strongly that the last thing the real-food movement needs is another excuse to take itself too seriously. Like early feminism, the cause would benefit from a little more lipstick and a little less stick-where-the-sun-don’t-shine. So I generally try to keep it light around here, cajoling and offering delicious alternatives rather than hitting you over the head with industrial chickens that can’t walk because they’ve been bred to have giant breasts.

For better or worse, and especially now that I’ve got my own family’s interests to think about, I tend toward chipping away at big problems with a teeny, tiny hammer. Put off by Tyson and Perdue? Buy from a local farm. Maybe eat more beans. Wish people would cook at home more? Write a recipe and cross your fingers that someone will read it. Tired of white cardboard strawberries imported from Mexico? Maybe go so far as to open your garage to your neighbors and a local farm. Want to teach your kids how wonderful food can be? Buy fresh ingredients and cook them together. And try really hard not to feed them school lunch.

I love the way it feels to live a daily life full of small, edible victories. In many ways, our family has already crafted a gastronomic existence to be proud of by simply opting out to a substantial degree. I have to admit that at times, I’ve been a little too satisfied by our own private solution and a little too complacent about taking bigger steps toward lasting, systemic change. Sometimes it’s too easy to pack a healthy brown-bag lunch for school, sign a petition or two, and call it a day.

salad nicoise-1

But for a variety of reasons, I’ve been feeling a recent push toward a little more activism. Don’t worry, there won’t be any toppled-over chickens gracing these pages (well, except these, but they resulted from a different kind of anatomical challenge). Now seems like as good a time as any to take a little step back to re-introduce some basic resources on sustainability, as well as a little step forward to join the busy folks working toward change on a national and even global level. (Also, apparently, a good time for doing a little spastic dance involving stepping forward and back simultaneously.)

Stepping Back: Along with many of the websites on Umami Girl’s Resources Page, especially Civil Eats, Culinate, Food Politics and Slow Food USA, here is the shortest short list imaginable of excellent introductory resources. If you haven’t yet gotten your hands on these, I’d really encourage you to do so.

  • If you’re inclined to read a skinny little book, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (comment below for a chance to win it!) is a solid introduction to the issue, and more bite-sized than The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
  • If you’re only inclined to read for 15 minutes, Time Magazine ran a quite good cover story last year.
  • If you’d rather watch a movie and can act quickly, PBS is streaming the movie Food, Inc. in its entirety, for free, through tomorrow, right here. I won’t lie, it isn’t easy to watch. But even from the perspective of someone who’s read just about all the recent books on the same or similar subjects, Food, Inc. is really worth the cognitive dissonance.

Stepping Forward: One of the reasons I’ve been feeling motivated this week is the news that AmeriCorps is launching FoodCorps, a farm-to-school program currently being built from the ground up under the auspices of (and, from what I can gather, in the model of) the well-established AmeriCorps organization. To date, all I’ve done is join their mailing list (and, ahem, encourage you to to the same). But in the coming weeks I’ll be learning and sharing more about that initiative, as well as a couple of other efforts related to sustainable food that are currently underway in our new town.

But I need your help here, too, my lovely, astute and engaged readers. I need to hear your ideas, your experiences, and your inspirations about building a better food supply for our children.

  • What are you doing (or aspiring to do) to help solve the food crisis? No effort is too small to share!
  • Where are you turning for inspiration and information?
  • Leave a comment by Monday, May 10 for a chance to win a copy of In Defense of Food. I’ll draw a winner at random.

And to nourish us through the long and winding journey, I’ve brought Little-Girl Salad. It’s a nod to my own childhood, which was never short on fresh foods and time to prepare them with Mom (who got to eat Big-Girl Salad). You’ll notice its similarity to Niçoise salad. This version is a little more froufrou than the original, but it’s still the essence of fresh, healthy simplicity.

salad nicoise-3

Little-Girl Salad (Niçoise Salad)

-serves 6-

1 whole fillet wild Alaskan salmon, 2-3 pounds
1 lemon, very thinly sliced
2 bunches asparagus, trimmed
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 pound haricots verts, trimmed and steamed or boiled until al dente
6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and cut in half lengthwise
1/2 cup kalamata, oil-cured or other black olives
8 cups baby arugula
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Chopped fresh herbs, such as basil, tarragon, and/or chervil, if desired
Salt and pepper

1. Heat a grill to high heat. Place the salmon fillet on a large, sturdy piece of aluminum foil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay the lemon slices over the flesh. Grill the salmon until done to your liking, about 10 minutes for just barely opaque in the center.

2. Rub the asparagus with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill until nicely charred, 2-3 minutes per side. (Flip just once.)

3. Make the vinaigrette: in a small bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, herbs if using, and a bit of salt and pepper. Whisk together to emulsify.

4. To serve the salad family-style on a large platter, remove the lemons from the salmon and line them up with the capers sprinkled on top. Either cut the salmon into portions or flake it with a fork, leaving the skin behind in either case. Arrange the salmon on the platter. Toss the arugula with two tablespoons of the dressing and arrange it on the platter. Continue by tossing the haricots verts and then the asparagus each with one tablespoon of dressing and arranging them on the platter. Add the olives and eggs. Sprinkle it all with a bit of finishing salt (such as Maldon sea salt). Pass the remaining dressing at the table.

  • Anne

    Carolyn, my small step is reading your blog each week (and others you have shared with me) and sharing it with everyone I know so that it too inspires them to cook fresh, cook often, and life passionately by the notion that my family as a whole will benefit physically and emotionally through the times we share in the kitchen and at the table together.ReplyCancel

  • More on FoodCorps here and here. So exciting.ReplyCancel

  • And Anne, thank you. You are, as always, just a lovely, lovely person. xxReplyCancel

  • I love the king salmon swap – great choice, and very seasonally appropriate.

    Let’s see, my small steps. Well, I read your blog to start, which is always refreshing. I also do my own writing, started a CSA (coming along nicely BTW – 30 shares so far), and pack my daughter a homemade lunch every day. But I think the most important thing I do is try to source fresh and healthy food from local farms – more than anything that has changed our household eating.ReplyCancel

  • anja

    my small steps are: buying fresh vegetables and fruit every day, packing lunchboxes with fresh stuff for my 10-year-old son, letting him help me cook,watching lovely cooking programmes on tv with him sometimes and then trying ot some things we have seen right away.ReplyCancel

  • mwoody

    i signed the jamie oliver petition. what our kids deal with in school is flat out WRONG! they don’t know what is or isn’t healthy to eat most of the time. we need to teach them healthier choices are just as tasty as greasy fries and what-not.ReplyCancel

  • Some of my steps with my kids is at I believe that kid’s palates are just like their mind: fresh, opened. So, here what we are working on our culinary playgroup is to expose them to all sorts of flavors and textures since toddler and preschool days. I hope that this will help them later to make wiser choices and proud to take a home made lunch everyday!ReplyCancel

  • I try to help show my friends that healthy, fresh local food can be affordable and delicious… it seems small but every one who thinks twice about eating processed foods is a step in the right direction.ReplyCancel

  • Lili

    I’m cooking with local ingredients instead of going out to eat a lot more. And I’ve been turning to blogs like this for inspiration! Nothing like a new recipe accompanied by mouth-wateringly beautiful pictures to keep me on track.ReplyCancel

  • Justin

    The farmer’s market in town just opened up for the summer. A great way to eat local and meet the people who grow the food!ReplyCancel

  • Hello – first time to your wonderful blog. That salad is just beautiful – so fresh-looking. I’ll be honest, I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed by the state of our environment lately, and food is a big part of the equation, I believe. I try to do my part by buying local as much as possible, feeding homemade, fresh foods to my family, cooking with my kids, and sending them to school with healthy lunches. My next step is to rally our elementary school’s PTA to encourage change in the lunch menus there. We’ve a long road ahead of us, but it’s worth the effort, I hope.ReplyCancel

  • Jing

    Hi there–clicked through to your blog through tastespotting and the picture of those lovely eggs. For what it’s worth, I think that it’s invaluable for people to be in the habit of cooking. I read a lot of blogs and food publications, so I try to suggest recipes, not in a pushy way, especially to friends who don’t have much time to look for recipes or who because of dietary restrictions aren’t so motivated to cook.ReplyCancel

  • When my children were in kindergarten (they are 19 and 21) I taught their respective classes about compost. I brought in three ziplock plastic bags. One with food scraps, the second had partially rotted food scraps and the third had compost and worms. Then I explained how compost is made, and basically how earth worms eat the food and their waste becomes soil. The open mouthed amazement was wonderful to behold. They asked so many questions and thought it was total magic. I like to think I turned some children on to composting at a very young age.ReplyCancel

  • My small steps: I am part of a CSA farm share every summer and enjoy the amazing produce and knowing that I am helping a local farm to thrive. I also just signed up for a community garden plot. Can’t wait to grow some of my own food! I hope to inspire others through sharing recipes and ideas. I am trying to read more books, blogs like yours, and articles to inform my decisions on food, health, diet and what I can do. Thank you for sharing these informative links.ReplyCancel

  • dan

    Hi Carolyn,

    I don’t mean to be a crank here, but: while It’s a visually gorgeous salad, to be fair, Alaskan salmon isn’t very “local” to New Jersey. Yes, a lot of the wild salmon harvested in Alaska is *relatively* sustainably harvested, as compared to factory fishing. But nearly every season, restrictions are necessary as people do over-fish it; sometimes the harvest seasons close early, and occasionally don’t even open. There is consistent conflict between commercial harvesting, primarily for sale to the lower 48, and subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives.

    The carbon footprint of getting fresh salmon from, say, the Copper River to Hoboken is pretty huge. It’s only marginally better to get it from Ship Creek (Anchorage) to Hoboken.

    I agree pretty much entirely with the rest of the post, where you use the word “local” three times. I’m just not sure that the Alaskan salmon is the best way of illustrating the point. (And yes, I appreciate that I’m probably coming off as one of those real food movement people who take themselves too seriously. So I won’t ask about the origin of the olives.)ReplyCancel

  • I never realized how terible the food situation wa until earlier this school year when I stopped in to have lunch with my children in the school cafeteria. I could not eat my food. it was horrible! And the option my children had were dreadful.

    I joined a produce co-op in January 2010. So far, that has been my main effort in improving the food in our lives. We have a bushel of fresh fruits and vegetables to eat every week. These foods are bought at the farmer’s market 50 miles south of where we live. The farmer’s market gets its food mainly from local farmers and farmer’s in the surrounding 5 states.

    Since joining the co-op, I have watched the movie Supersize Me. That has almost completely ended our eating fast food. We will be a fast food free family entirely before the end of the summer. I am adding the movie you mention and the books you mention to my “to be read/watched” list.

    Thank so much for this article. I am going to backtrack and read some related things you have written.ReplyCancel

  • Kristina

    What a great post on a topic that is so close to my heart these days.

    After we watched Food, Inc. we just started getting our meat from a local farm, where we actually can meet the farmer and see the animals running and grazing and maintaining their health from fresh grass, rather than antibiotics. We shop as much as possible at farmers markets, and as much as possible focus on shopping local and seasonally.ReplyCancel

  • Rachel

    Great post on a difficult but cannot-be-ignored issue. Our standards are not high enough if all we have to improve upon is the real food ignorance displayed in Huntington, WV via J.O.’s Food Revolution. I appreciate that you are bringing higher standards to the table, to the snack-filled playground, and to our conversations and considerations!

    Generally, the small steps that our family attempts are simply: community gardening and family discussions surrounding food choices. More specifically, I try to bring my family to events and activities that remind us of the importance of our food:


    Looking forward to FoodCorps!ReplyCancel

  • I don’t have kids but I’ve been on board with this process of eating healthier since seeing the movie Food Inc. last year. My husband is an elementary school teacher and I myself was a “free lunch” kid. That’s enough to make me want to be an activist for better food in schools.

    I can’t help but proselytize a bit about healthy eating when I’m at work. I’m sure my coworkers, many of whom eat fast food every day, are sick of hearing me talk about it.
    But get this…yesterday a coworker sent me an email telling me how she went shopping over the weekend for the first time in a long while. She bought stuff to make sandwiches for her lunch and some steam-in-a-bag veggies. She said I had influenced her to do it! Baby steps…I was so happy to hear that.

    Personally, now I try to make better/healthier choices when I shop. Even places like Costco are now offering more and more organic choices. I just bought two organically raised whole chickens there over the weekend. Yes, they were 2.5 times the cost of the Foster Farms chickens, but I’m hopeful they were healthier (both for me and for the chickens).
    I’m also growing my own vegetables in my back yard and hoping I will be able to freeze/preserve quite a bit for the winter this year.ReplyCancel

  • […] seemed like low-hanging fruit (and vegetables and grains, oh my!) to add Meatless Monday to my own small steps toward sustainability. We already eat meatless or meat-light many days of the week, and I liked the idea of joining […]ReplyCancel

  • Lovely post. Lovely photo. Those brown eggs look so pretty.ReplyCancel

  • I couldn’t agree with you more about the food movement taking itself too seriously. The feminism analogy is spot on. Until we can open our arms wide and embrace everyone, recognizing that American parents are darned tired and need to go to the drive-through every once in awhile, we will stay marginalized. Accept, appreciate, support change. That’s my motto.ReplyCancel

  • Thank you so much to everyone for sharing your ideas and inspirations on sustainability. I’ll be posting about my favorite ideas and the winner of the book this afternoon. xxReplyCancel

  • […] week’s small steps: A lunch of spring greens from the year’s first farmers’ market, giving a special book […]ReplyCancel

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