Saturday, September 19, 2009

Come on Down to the Farmers Market (Bring Your Wallet and Your Food Orthodoxy)

In the mood for a bacon-gouda scone? A $5 pint of raspberries? Some $11-per-pound pork chops? How about the $4 bunch of parsnips? Well, you’re in luck: First Lady Michelle Obama has just cut the organic ribbon on a new farmers market just one block north of the White House. We just returned from the grand gathering of Washington DC’s food cognoscenti, and it had all the charm of wealthy debutantes trying to out-smug one another. A whopping $29 later, we had a pittance of food to take home—plus memorable exchanges with a scientifically challenged reporter or two. Where to begin?

The environmental value of this exercise was apparent right from the get-go. There were two metal detectors, 21 law-enforcement vehicles on the surrounding streets (with lights flashing), oodles of plastic take-home bags, and a gaggle of energy-draining TV cameras. Traffic was slowed all day as a result of the street closings near the White House, which kept cars on the road even longer than usual today.

Plus, there’s already another farmers market going on this afternoon. Just a five-minute walk away. Run by the same company. So twice as many fossil fuel-burning vans as usual were trucking farmers’ wares into the city, just to fill another 20 booths. Only six of which actually sold fruits and vegetables—supposedly the whole point of planting this “people’s market” so close to our nation’s executive mansion. (Michelle Obama told the crowd: “I have never seen so many people excited about fruits and vegetables.”) The others were hawking pricey organic meat, cheese, bread, cookies, and even yarn.

It made no matter to the city’s resident foodie elitists, though, who came out in droves despite the falling rain. The market’s organizers noted (via Twitter) that White House Chef Sam Kass was “welcomed like a rock star.” Organic chef doyenne Nora Pouillon showed up, as did José “Made in Spain” Andrés.

Ultimately, we bought seven ears of corn, seven jumbo apples, six tomatoes, and a loaf of multigrain bread. If that doesn’t seem like a lot of food to get for $29, that’s because it isn’t. (A supermarket just 4 miles away priced the same bounty for us at just $12.25.) So much for the admonition of the professional hand-wringers at Mother Jones to make the produce as cheap as possible.

Since there were very few people actually buying anything at the prevailing prices, our armload of plastic bags made us an easy target for reporters. But they weren’t the only ones taking notes. One TV reporter chatted about “how wonderful it would be to see real people eating real food all the time like this.” To which we replied: “Sure, if by real people you mean the few Americans who can afford a $5 heirloom tomato.”

“Well, I hope it makes everyone feel good anyway,” she offered. “That’s really the point anyway, isn’t it?”

Moving a few yards down Vermont Avenue, we encountered the former New York Times food writer Marian Burros (now writing for Politico). She asked about the corn in our shopping bags. “Ridiculously overpriced,” we said. “Maybe, but this corn is special,” Burros insisted. “It wasn’t produced using any biotechnology.” And a vendor sharing in the conversation agreed: “It’s a marvelous hybrid corn.”

“But hybrids are the result of biotechnology.” Burros snapped: “No they’re not. I know these things. I’ve been writing about this stuff all my life.”

We were so busy asking Burros what planet she lives on that we didn’t get the chance to ask if she’d recommend the new market to impoverished DC residents on food stamps, or those receiving benefits under the Women, Infants, and Children program. Many of the vendors were accepting both, including a two-for-one redemption on WIC “Farmers Market Nutrition Program” vouchers. But even at a 50 percent discount, we didn’t see a single person cashing in on the offer.

That may be because the White House farmers market doesn’t seem to be targeted at ordinary people. Judging from today’s crowd, it’s more about attracting well-to-do lawyers, gourmet snobs, and fans of the emerging fascination with eating “local.” For our money, though—and we did spend quite a bit of it—a trip to your local supermarket is a better bet. On balance, for one thing, it’s better for the environment. And even though pushing your cart through an ordinary grocery store might not fill you with gleeful self-satisfaction, you just might have enough money left over for dessert.


New virus from rats can kill 80 per cent of human victims

Sounds alarming

A PREVIOUSLY unknown virus that killed four of the five people it struck in an outbreak in South Africa last year has been identified as part of a family of viruses humans can catch from rats. The virus, named Lujo, is an arenavirus that over nine days caused rash, fever, muscle pain, diarrhoea, severe bleeding, vomiting, organ failure and death, said Nivesh Sewlall, who treated the first patient at Johannesburg's Morningside MediClinic Hospital. He reported the findings at an infectious disease conference in San Francisco yesterday.

Lujo appears more dangerous than other arenaviruses and related hemorrhagic fever syndromes, with the exception of Ebola and Marburg, which have similar fatality rates of about 80 per cent. Outbreaks of illness from these viruses have been sporadic and not widespread, but the World Health Organisation has said population growth into remote areas and urbanisation have led to new diseases emerging more quickly in recent years.

''It wasn't the outer jungle, this was suburban Lusaka,'' said Dr Sewlall, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Morningside. ''There are parts of Central Park that are more rural,'' he said, referring to the park in New York.

Scientists do not know where the pathogen came from, although humans usually catch other arenaviruses such as Lassa fever by inhaling dust contaminated with rodent droppings, according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Human-to-human infections may occur through contact with bodily fluids or open skin cuts, the centre said.

The Lujo virus is named after Lusaka and Johannesburg, where it was first detected. The first case of Lujo virus was a critically ill tourist guide and polo player in Lusaka, Zambia, who was flown to Johannesburg for treatment in September last year.

The first patient died, as did three health-care workers who treated her. A fifth person, a nurse who treated one of the secondary cases, also caught the virus but survived after a barrage of treatments including the antiviral drug ribavirin. It was almost a year before she was able to return to work.

At one point, Dr Sewlall himself developed a fever after caring for the dying patients. ''It was [among] the hardest three hours of my life'' waiting for the test results to see whether he had caught the virus, Dr Sewlall said. The results were negative.

The research was presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Francisco yesterday.


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