Lawns Into Gardens

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The seed catalogs have arrived, and for the roughly 15 percent of Americans who appreciate the joys and rewards of growing some of their own crops, this is a more encouraging sign than Groundhog Day or even the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training.

Yet several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando[1], where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables.

As if gardens were somehow an official eyesore, or inappropriate. (Jason Helvenston, my hero, said: “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”) If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers.

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Coke Blinks

Once again, Coke has blinked. It famously did so in 1985, when it introduced “new” Coke, replacing its original formula with one it thought would have greater appeal with its audience. It was wrong then.

This time it might be right, but it isn’t going to do the world’s best-known brand any good. It’s hurting from decreased domestic sales and smarting from the piles of evidence that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are not only our biggest source of calories, but also among our most harmful. So it has struck back with a two-minute video whose ostensible message is that too many calories will make you fat (true), that those in Coke are no worse than any others (false), and that we’re all in this together (ridiculous).

The video is brilliantly executed. Its honeyed, heart-rending voice-over and stirring images — as American as a Chevy commercial — nearly caused me to go out and buy a case myself, as I recalled those innocent days of the ’50s and ’60s when Coke and cigarettes and Our Country and I were all (it seemed) young together, happy and happening and eating burgers and fries like there was no tomorrow. It took me back to when Coke was the real thing, it was “it,” we were teaching the world to sing together, and even Mean Joe Greene was just a cutie. There’s always been Coca-Cola.

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Stop Subsidizing Obesity

Not long ago few doctors – not even pediatricians – concerned themselves much with nutrition. This has changed, and dramatically: As childhood obesity gains recognition as a true health crisis, more and more doctors are publicly expressing alarm at the impact the standard American diet is having on health.

“I never saw Type 2 diabetes during my training, 20 years ago,” David Ludwig, a pediatrician, told me the other day, referring to what was once called “adult-onset” diabetes, the form that is often caused by obesity. “Never. Now about a quarter of the new diabetes cases we’re seeing are Type 2.”

Ludwig, who is director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center in Boston, is one of three authors, all medical doctors of an essay (“Viewpoint”) in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Opportunities to Reduce Childhood Hunger and Obesity.”

That title that would once have been impossible, but now it’s merely paradoxical. Because the situation is this: 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, 16 percent are food-insecure (this means they have inconsistent access to food), and some number, which is impossible to nail down, are both. Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

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Dietary Seat Belts

Here’s some good news: Seat belts save lives[1] . So do vaccinations. The world’s population is living longer. The childhood obesity rate has declined[2] in parts of the United States.

That’s miraculous, because the policies for food, energy, climate change and health care are, effectively, “let’s help big producers make as much money as they can regardless of the consequences.”

Except for just after the most visible tragedies, public health and welfare are barely part of the daily conversation. When New York is flooded, climate change dominates TV news — for a week. When innocents are slaughtered with weapons designed for combat, gun control is a critical topic — for a week. When 33 people die violent, painful deaths from eating cantaloupe, food safety is in the headlines — for a week. When nearly 70,000 people die a year, from mostly preventable diabetes, most media ignore it.

Forget the fiscal cliff: we’ve long since fallen off the public health cliff. We need consistent policies that benefit a majority of our citizens, even if it costs corporations money.

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Pesticides: Now More Than Ever

How quickly we forget.

After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides[1] and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before.

And the threat is more acute than ever. While Rachel Carson[2] focused on their effect on “nature,” it’s become obvious that farmworkers need protection from direct exposure while applying chemicals to crops[3] . Less well known are the recent studies showing that routine, casual, continuing — what you might call chronic — exposure to pesticides is damaging not only to flora but to all creatures, including the one that habitually considers itself above it all: us.

As usual, there are catalysts for this column; in this case they number three.

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Hunger in Plain Sight

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.

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All Hail the Sweet Potato

For more than 30 consecutive Thanksgivings — including this one — I’ve written about turkey in all of its guises. Occasionally I’ve protested, pleading with editors that although the bird in its wild form may be traditional and is indisputably indigenous, whether the one you buy is free-range, wild, natural, organic, pumped up with antibiotics or even injected with “butter,” it’s just about the worst piece of meat you can roast.

 At the hands of all but the most experienced, careful or lucky cooks, the more than 700 million pounds of turkey we’ll buy this week will wind up with breast meat that’s cottony-dry and leg meat that is underdone, tough, stringy or all three. And although a friend of mine claims that this is how people like it — “it’s exactly how our grandmothers did it, and it’s what we grew up with,” he says — I believe this explains why we waste an estimated $282 million worth of turkey each year, enough to feed each food-insecure American with 11 servings.

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