Clarkies are changing the way we think about food

April 5, 2012

There was a time when food was something you ate but rarely pondered. You did not know, or care, where your dinner came from, or how it would interact with your body once it was consumed.

That was then.

Sure, many folks still eat with abandon, but many others, like the Clarkies profiled on these pages, are trying to foster a healthier relationship with food — not only on a personal level through diet change, but also by cultivating some uncommon strategies to help fill the world's plate.

A moveable feast

Ah, the lowly shipping container. Existing only to transport items from here to there, it is an essential tool of mobile commerce but is itself a hub for nothing.

Graduate student Brad McNamara has other ideas about that. With business partner Jon Friedman, he's taking a giant step by using shipping containers to ensure food is locally grown — not to mention pesticide/herbicide-free, climate-independent and affordable.

Refrigerated shipping containers have long been used to transport fruits and vegetables from rural areas where they're in season (warm, sunny places like Florida and California) to regions where the growing season is restricted by snow, cold, and cloudy skies, and the population is too densely settled to support much agriculture (think New England). McNamara is reincarnating the containers as portable, stackable, greenhouses that can be situated on the site of any business or institution that wants fresh produce year-round — places like restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, and college campuses.

A shipping container has several advantages over the traditional greenhouse: it is wind-, water-, and earthquake-proof. Once retrofitted with lights, water and electricity, it can provide a computer-monitored and controlled mini-climate just right for leafy vegetables and herbs, McNamara says. And by being located near the customer, the not insignificant cost of transport is eliminated and there's less spoilage. Delicate vegetables can be bred for taste and nutrition, not durability.

McNamara and Friedman built and are operating their freight farm prototype at the site of the Clark Recycling Center and have sold a unit to a customer in Boston. They raised capital via kickstarter. com, where they described their project and solicited investors. Thanks to donations from 479 people, a month and a half was all they needed to raise more than $30,000. The project is one of 125 (out of 1,237) finalists in the 2012 MassChallenge global startup competition (masschallenge.org).

While studying for a career in radio as an undergraduate at Northeastern University, McNamara maintained a strong interest in the environment and sustainability. Several years after graduation, he turned to Clark, where he's now pursuing two concurrent master's degrees, one in business with a sustainability emphasis and the second in environmental science. He focuses on exploring creative — and profitable — solutions to what he describes as "our broken food system." His vision for Freight Farms, the company he and Friedman started, is big: "To create sustainable, local food economies around the globe."

For McNamara, taking environmental sustainability into consideration when running a business is good practice — not just ethically, but from a profit standpoint.

"Sustainability is no longer a side project in business," he says. "It's part of the bottom line."

Visit freightfarms.com for more information.

The importance of eating smart

At the tender age of 12, Janine (Grinberg) Whiteson '90 was diagnosed with severe hypertension. She endured the recommended kidney surgery and medications (some experimental), but to no avail. Her parents' online research suggested that diet modification and biofeedback might help. The doctors were skeptical, but with this new approach, her blood pressure returned to normal.

Whiteson's childhood experience led to a lifelong interest in the power of good nutrition, and she has devoted her career to spreading the word — through the media and in face-to-face counseling — about how to achieve and maintain health through a sensible, balanced diet.

As a sociology major/women's studies minor at Clark, Whiteson found her calling while researching the role and history of nutrition in women. Spending her junior and senior years in London allowed her to explore a variety of European approaches and attitudes toward food, and she eventually applied and was accepted to the master's degree program in nutrition at King's College London. There, in the company of students from around the world, she learned to consider nutrition from a global perspective, including the roles of poverty, malnutrition and over-nutrition in both developing and developed countries. She particularly liked how the program at King's "fostered debate and the cross-pollination of ideas and solutions from a multitude of perspectives."

Since completing her degree, Whiteson has forged a successful career as a nutrition expert. She says her greatest satisfaction "comes from reaching out and influencing many people, dispelling the nutritional myths and promoting health issues and affordable food choices."

Known for her work throughout Great Britain and the United States, Whiteson has provided nutrition counseling at exclusive sports clubs in New York and London, franchised her own successful weight-loss plan, appeared on television and radio on both sides of the Atlantic, and published "Get a Real Food Life: Janine Whiteson's Revolutionary 8-Week Food Makeover." She is a contributing editor to the popular "Cooking Light" series and authored "What to Eat: A Real-World Guide to Making Smart Choices." Whiteson also maintains an online presence at janinewhiteson.com.

Her nutrition advice is straightforward: control portion size, keep processed foods to a minimum, emphasize fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and include a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates and healthy essential fats.

Whiteson is deeply concerned about the nutrition challenges facing both children and adults in the United States, which arise from what she describes as "the American culture of portion super-sizing — the belief that value-for-money equates to large plates filled with fried and fatty foods; the readily available fast foods on every Main Street, and the direct marketing of these foods to children."

She notes that even convenience stores offer healthy options, if you know where to look and how to read labels. Good food is out there, Whiteson insists. You simply have to be knowledgeable and make the right choices.

Digital dishing

The Tupperware shake. Chocolate library. Pizza4dayz. Breakfast for dinner.

These are just of few of the intriguing post titles on Deep Fried Epiphany, the equally intriguing name of the food blog written by Jennifer Cantin '11. An English student while at Clark, Cantin says her blog allows her to consider her favorite hobby — cooking — from a writer-philosopher perspective.

By turns freewheeling, irreverent and thoroughly practical, Cantin's posts at deepfriedepiphany.com confront such topics as how best to enjoy ice cream, whiners who complain about the inadequacies of apple slicers, and ways to minimize the number of dishes needing to be washed at the end of a cooking spree. She also experiments with enhancing or tweaking recipes she likes, and shares successes with her readers. "I like to add something new to the discussion," she says, citing her addition of caramelized onions to bacon and cheese potato skins as a "truly magical" combination.

While Cantin has always loved trying new foods, considering it a "safe way to be wild and experiment in life without losing anything of value, like your dignity," her foray into serious cooking is more recent. She describes herself now as "hoarding kitchen gadgets and filling the freezer with enough Tupperware to last all winter."

Cantin, who recently relocated from Worcester to Philadelphia, began Deep Fried Epiphany as a way to record random thoughts and impressions that arose when reading other people's food blogs, and take note of perspectives she thought were missing from the conversations. Contrary to some people's expectations, Deep Fried Epiphany is emphatically not about fried food. Cantin says that by joining "deep fried" ("something you know is bad for you but tastes and feels good") with "epiphany" ("a realization that is profound and intellectual"), she can juxtapose mind and body.

Cantin hopes to continue blogging long term, but says one of the hard things about blogging is staying motivated, especially when readership might not be as high as she'd like. She also finds it difficult not having an editor who can supply her a fresh eye and a boost of confidence.

But her blog has not gone unnoticed. Deep Fried Epiphany caught the attention of Small Kitchen College, a more established food blog that serves as a resource and inspiration for college students cooking on and off campus. Cantin has been writing a weekly post for SKC, two of which were published on The Huffington Post. The HP folks obviously experienced their own deep-fried epiphany.

The joy of (not) cooking

Unless you're immediately prepared to make a shopping list and head to your local farmers' market, don't visit Natalia Karoway-Waterhouse's website. There's no boring, beige food at nataliakw.com. Instead, the vivid tropical colors of her beautifully photographed appetizers, entrees and desserts will make your mouth water even if you've just eaten.

And no stove top, oven or microwave is required to make her luscious looking recipes. Karoway-Waterhouse '03 is a chef, photographer and cookbook author who maintains that adopting a raw-food diet changed her life.

Desperate to find relief from a variety of physical ailments plaguing her in her early twenties, the studio art major switched to a raw-food regimen at the urging of her brother. "I transformed my diet," she recalls. "All of my health challenges disappeared, and all aspects of my life significantly improved. Not only was I thriving physically, but I was so much happier and found all of my goals so much easier to attain."

Karoway-Waterhouse, a former Americorps VISTA volunteer and textile designer, also discovered a whole new way to be creative. Her enthusiasm for raw foods shines on her website, and she doesn't seem to be at a loss for new recipe ideas. She's also written two books, "Pure Pleasures" and "Cupcake Heaven," and coauthored a third, "Raw Food Juice Bar." Her husband, and fellow Clarkie, Adam Mills '01, designed "Pure Pleasures" and "Cupcake Heaven," as well as her website.

"I am blessed with constant inspiration to create new dishes," she says. "Sometimes I recreate classic comfort foods with a fun raw-food twist. Other times I'm just deeply inspired with the fresh produce I find at the farmers' market or with a certain herb or spice that catches my eye. I've definitely had my share of random ideas just popping into my head and having them work out beautifully."

Karoway-Waterhouse admits it took some rethinking to learn how to substitute raw foods like coconut oil and agave nectar for common staples like canola oil and sugar, and to find raw versions of old favorites like nut butters. A blender, food processor, and dehydrator are must-haves for the raw-food practitioner, she notes.

"It's so important to be prepared when you make a lifestyle change," she says. "With raw foods, you can chop veggies for salads and make your own dressings so that you can always grab a healthy meal when you're in a hurry. You can make energy bars with nuts, dates and chocolate to keep on hand for snacking. I always keep desserts tucked away in the freezer for when I want to indulge. Dehydrating is also a fun way to enjoy crunchy snacks. You can make seed-based granolas or kale chips and keep them for quite a while."

Adhering to a raw-food diet has also transformed Karoway- Waterhouse's shopping routine, admittedly made easier by living in California, where she can get fresh organic products almost yearround. Since the bulk of her diet is fruits and vegetables, she does most of her shopping at farmers' markets, venturing to the store for nuts, oils, sweeteners and spices. Some specialty items she purchases online.

She features plenty of recipes on her website. For those new to the raw-food diet, Karoway-Waterhouse recommends starting with the Cherry Chocolate Truffles. Eat dessert first. Life is short.

Undoing the Livestock Revolution

Nebraska native and Clark geography Professor Jody Emel didn't grow up on the family farm, but while helping out in her parents' feed and seed store she had plenty of opportunities to rub shoulders with neighbors who raised pigs, sheep and cattle for slaughter. She now studies the social and ecological impact of the global livestock industry.

The "Livestock Revolution," which took off in the 1970s, was, and continues to be, an attempt to produce more meat at a lower cost by restricting large numbers of animals to unnaturally cramped spaces where their food is brought to them. Emel's scholarship paints a stark picture of factory farming made even bleaker when couched in dispassionate academic prose. The animals she sees during visits to industrial-scale pig, cattle and poultry production sites have lives very different from those on the relatively small farms of her Nebraska childhood, where animals could move around, choose sunshine or shade, and engage in some semblance of normal social behavior with other animals before being slaughtered.

Emel points out that most meat production in the U.S. is controlled by just a few large companies, which has an enormous impact on human communities both local and global. Factory farms are often located in poorer rural communities where residents have less control over what happens in their neighborhoods. Animal waste runoff threatens their water supplies and the reek of manure pervades the air they breathe.

The industry also generates unpleasant consequences for people living farther away, Emel notes. As the demand for meat soars, forests and grasslands are converted to grow food for livestock, and these land-use alterations — along with the methane released by livestock — generate carbon dioxide emissions that fuel global warming. Factory farms also crowd out smaller farms, or force farmers who want to survive economically to raise animals according to industrial protocols.

"Smaller farmers find it more difficult if not impossible to compete with these large operations," Emel says. "The larger corporations have a chokehold on the legislative process — to their advantage."

Emel likens factory farming to the mining industry: "Both produce a huge amount of waste and are not usually good for the communities around them." She recommends meat-eaters buy grass-fed beef because the cows are raised in healthy, humane conditions.

Emel, who rarely consumes meat or dairy, says you don't have to give up meat to help reverse these trends. "‘Lessen' is the key word," she insists. "In general, eating less meat and dairy means having fewer negative impacts."

A warrior in the hunger games

People caught in the chaos of war or a natural disaster can't afford to be too preoccupied with where their meals rank on the Michelin star scale, or the niceties of presentation. They just need something to eat. Now.

That hard reality hit Mahadevan "Mack" Ramachandran in 1997 when he found himself in the middle of the Angolan Civil War, surrounded by anti-aircraft guns, and armed only with geographic information system (GIS) software, a laptop, and a just-completed Ph.D. in economics from Clark. A newbie with the United Nation's World Food Program, Ramachandran was allotted a mere two weeks to figure out where and how many Angolans needed food aid.

Fortunately, his Clark education in economics and geographic information science prepared him well to analyze where the neediest people were likely to be found.

"The techniques I learned at Clark in terms of satellite data analysis and econometrics helped me produce a map that WFP used to target food to more than one million people," he remembers.

Angola was only the first of Ramachandran's global forays bringing food to people in crisis. Over the next 14 years of working for the World Food Programme, his successful response to his trial by, and under, fire in Angola led to rapid-analysis food-security requests in more than 25 countries. He went on to assist with large-scale food emergencies resulting from Hurricane Mitch in Central America, civil wars in Cambodia and Sudan, floods in Bangladesh, and the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

While Ramachandran's doctorate is in economics, the self-described "data hound" discovered the relevance of GIS technology to economic analysis while working as a graduate assistant in the Geography Department's Clark Labs. There, under the mentorship of the lab's founder, geographic information scientist J. Ronald Eastman, Ramachandran used IDRISI, Clark's home-grown GIS, to analyze vegetation indexes for Africa from 1981 to 1995 in conjunction with a data set of food prices in Ethiopia.

The application of GIS to economics was an epiphany for Ramachandran, and resulted in his dissertation, titled "Food Security: Economics of Famine, Food Aid, and Market Integration in Ethiopia."

"The idea for my doctoral thesis and my interest in food security was born out of the need to integrate the African vegetation index with the Ethiopian price data set," Ramachandran explains. "The results helped predict six months ahead of time how many people in each Ethiopian county would be in need of food aid. The model also indicated where food aid should be delivered directly, and where markets could be used to dampen prices, thus helping people buy more with limited finances."

Ramachandran, who completed his bachelor's degree and a master's degree in economics at the University of Madras in India, praises Clark for the flexibility that allowed him to conduct cross-disciplinary research.

"I cannot say enough about the support from Ron Eastman and my economics adviser Wayne Gray," he says. "I could never have done this at a big school."

Ramachandran is taking a sabbatical from the World Food Program to launch his own business, Offset4Poor.com, which brings the benefits of the carbon finance markets directly to those affected by climate change on the ground.

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, fall 2012.

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