Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ecuadorian Capital Promotes Urban Farming

By Nuria Segura

QUITO – Filling the city’s rooftops with vegetable gardens or small chicken-raising operations is one of the things that the city authorities of the Ecuadorian capital are doing to combat poverty and preserve food security.

The initiative was started in 2002 so that lower-income people could grow food at home or even organize with neighbors to create communal gardens, according to the coordinator of Urban Participative Agriculture, or Agrupar, Alexandra Rodriguez.

The project grew and in 2005 it passed into the hands of the municipal development agency, known as Conquito, which is pushing for the creation of more small urban producers who sell what they grow.

“The idea is to generate jobs, as well as improve the incomes and productive activity of small farmers so that they don’t depend on the ... government to subsist,” Rodriguez told Efe.

The project is directed particularly at single mothers, disabled people, the elderly, unemployed youth, alcoholics or recluses, whom Conquito helps with technical assistance, training and micro-loans.

Conquito practices what it preaches, at its downtown headquarters – an old metal shutter factory – and had 500 hectares (1,250 acres) on which the graduates of its courses cultivate assorted vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce and cauliflower.

“This same garden is a demonstration of what urban agriculture really is. We still find bricks and stones in the subsoil,” Rodriguez said.

A graduate of the garden workshop, Aida Proayo, said that the course is designed to help people “practice organic agriculture without using chemicals or synthetics to create a healthy product.”

So far this year, some 1,900 people have passed through the Conquito classes, and they are also being taught to make jams and jellies or cookies, and even to raise poultry on their rooftops.

Proayo and Diana Duran, another student, sell their products from their homes or at a farmer’s market, where they also offer jam, pureed fruit or salted beans.

Duran learned how to grow food at home to provide healthier meals for her family because, in her opinion, the products one buys at the market “are contaminated.”

Rodriguez said that a person who wants to learn about this activity needs an initial investment of $100 per year for seeds and fertilizer, a sum that one can recover almost immediately.

According to Conquito figures, in just one month, a small producer saves $35 by consuming what he or she grows and earns $65 from the products they sell.

“In this way, they get themselves out of a vulnerable situation with their own hands,” emphasized Rodriguez, who added that one of the other objectives of the project is to improve eating habits.

“According to the World Health Organization, each day a person must consume 460 grams (1 pound) of fruits and vegetables, and in Ecuador they don’t even eat 100 (grams),” she said.

Another of the advantages of urban agriculture, Rodriguez said, is that it fosters better environmental management because it increases the biodiversity within the city, ensuring that it’s “not all asphalt” there.

The production of the urban farmers has been growing gradually and now they not only sell their products at food fairs or to their neighbors, but also to restaurants and supermarkets.

“They have been able to create local brands with their own identity and with the prestige of selling organic products,” Rodriguez emphasized.

Quito has wanted to foster urban gardens as an alternative to the current industrialized ways of life in the big city and now, Rodriguez says, the capital authorities want to expand the initiative to other cities around the country. EFE

Monday, May 10, 2010

News flash: Organic food can still make you fat

A new study suggests people think organics have fewer calories. Here's what organics can and can't do for you


A version of this story originally appeared on Dr. Ayala's Open Salon blog.

We like to eat. We especially like indulgent foods: desserts, snacks and tasty treats. We'd love to believe it's OK to heap our plates with foods we perceive as "healthy." Studies have shown time and again that foods perceived as healthy or foods with a health aura drive us -- if only subconsciously -- to eat more. Foods with "low fat" or "low calorie" claims lead to overconsumption of snacks. A study using hidden cameras at Italian restaurants showed that people dipping their bread in olive oil will eat more fat and calories than if they instead spread some butter.

But organic food labels can lead to overeating, too. In presenting findings from their new study, Jenny Wan-Chen Lee and Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab showed that the organic seal appears to make people believe their organic snacks have a lot fewer calories than they do. For example, people who ate cookies labeled as "organic" believed that their snack contained 40 percent fewer calories than the same cookies that had no label.

Now, I'm a huge proponent and an early adopter of organic produce, but the organic seal, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with calories.

The benefits of organic food

The organic seal promises that the food and its ingredients have been farmed according to the organic standards, which are about sustainability, how we grow food, and how we treat our environment. These practices also tie to our personal health, given that the multitude of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used to produce conventional food actually remain in the food. While it's hard to prove that any single one of them, in small amounts, causes disease, it's impossible to prove that they don't; personally I'd rather minimize exposure to what's clearly not meant for human consumption (read more about why organic matters in my post here).

The jury's still out on whether organic produce has more measurable nutrients than conventionally grown produce.

What organic food isn't

Organic produce isn't necessarily clean. All too often I see people skipping the washing of organic produce, forgetting that it comes from a field, and has been handled by many hands. Organic produce does need to be washed -- thoroughly. While organic food isn't sprayed with chemicals, microbial life is teeming on and between the leaves. Wildlife visits the fields and can contaminate produce in any number of ways we don't like to consider when we think of food. There's also the bacterial mixture from a multitude of human hands that have touched your produce before it gets to your table.

Organic food isn't automatically healthy, or something we should necessarily consume in large quantities. Organic candy, organic soda or organic French fries -- while a tiny bit better for us because they're free of pesticides -- are still junk food, and should be eaten infrequently.

Bottom line

The temptation to believe what we want to be true -- especially when it comes to diet and lifestyle choices -- sometimes overcomes the prudency of healthy skepticism. It would indeed be nice if there were a way to give an overarching seal of approval to foods -- especially to those foods we'd like to eat lots of. But the truth is that most foods are neither "good" nor "bad," and to make better decisions relating to nutrition and health we have to accept that nutrition and health issues are rather complex, but well worth digging a little deeper into.

If you want to have a clearer idea of what you're eating, read the ingredient list and nutrition facts, regardless of the atmosphere created -- or the claims to health -- on the front of the package.

Read the labels on organic foods as carefully as you'd read any other food label. If the food is full of sugars, fats, salt or calories, it should be viewed as a dessert, and should be eaten in moderation.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Baby food giant hails hungry adult market

Baby food giant hails hungry adult market

German firm Hipp says one in four consumers now grown-ups who find baby food easier to swallow and digest

Claus Hipp with two jars of Hipp baby food at the company's German  HQ

Claus Hipp with two jars of Hipp baby food at the company's German HQ. Photograph: Oliver Lang/AFP/Getty Images

Can't be bothered to chew your food? Too tired to cook and looking for a quick meal? It seems that in such circumstances a growing number of adults may consider opening a jar of baby food.

The world's largest baby food manufacturer, Hipp, has said an increasing number of adults are turning to its pre-cooked, pureed meals because they find them easier to swallow and digest.

About a quarter of those who eat the Bavaria-based firm's 100 varieties of pulped meals – from apple and cranberry breakfast to vegetable and beef hotpot – are adults, it says.

Claus Hipp said in recent years his firm's products had grown in popularity, particularly among elderly people, with stewed apple said to be a favourite.

He said the 50-year-old company – the world's largest producer of baby food, with 46% of the market – was increasingly turning its attention to the adult market rather than babies as Europe's population ages.

"Not so long ago, we had twice as many births as now, and that, of course, has a knock-on effect. As our society gets ever older, baby food is showing that it has a future in the adult market," Hipp said at a company birthday celebration.

Despite the fact that birth rates have dropped in most European countries, most notably in Germany, the company's profits rose by €90m last year to €500m (£450m).

A million and a half jars of baby food come off the Hipp production line every day. Hipp said calorie-conscious new mothers saw the meals – which are low in fat, sugar and salt – as a way to help them lose weight after giving birth and were among new customers it had won in recent years. Sportsmen and women looking for a light meal are believed to favour the jars, too.

The company, which recommends its organic meals to babies "at the start of weaning to three years of age", and makes no mention on its packaging of anyone above that age, said it had no intention of relaunching the products for a separate market.

"Older people can often cope with the mashed baby food better than regular meals, but we're not planning to change our advertising to target them … we want to keep our baby image," said Hipp, whose father, Georg, started putting baby food in jars in 1960.

Eileen Steinbock, of the British Dietetic Association, said pureed food could benefit people whose ability to swallow had been greatly reduced through old age, dementia or a stroke, and was already in widespread use in care homes.

But people who could still chew and swallow should continue to do so for as long as possible, she added.

"I wouldn't like to see people being given pureed food just because it's easier for a carer to give it to them that way. It should only be given when it's appropriate or essential," she said.

In addition, the protein content of food declines when it is pureed because extra water is added to help liquify it, leaving it with fewer calories. "That would be a bad thing because a lot of people who require pureed food find it hard to eat enough and are quite likely to be nutritionally compromised and possibly even malnourished," she added.