Ten Top Food News Stories of 2011: Part One

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It's that ubiquitous list time. For every person who thinks foraging, food trucks, urban farming, and those French pastries known as macarons were the "it" thing of 2011, there's someone -- like, ahem, this writer -- who counters that was so 2010 (or, some may quibble, even older).

No matter. At the end of the year we all feel compelled to take stock and make sense of it all, though, granted, it's a pretty subjective exercise scouring the edible landscape of the past 12 months.

In this two-part post, we look at some of the national trends and topics in food that caught our collective attention in 2011 and serve up some local flavor on the side.

Feel free to weigh in with your own highlights in food from the past year. In no particular order:

Choose MyPlate.gov
Choose MyPlate.gov

1. So Long Food Pyramid, Hello My Plate: The USDA's famous (some may wager infamous) Food Pyramid, morphed into a dinner plate. Intended to help Americans visualize the correct balance of fruits, grains, vegetables, meat and dairy, My Plate did away with counting servings, which was central to the old image--bye bye to the "five a day" reference for veggies. The new icon was largely seen as an improvement over the old, though it's not, natch, without its detractors. The politics behind the plate (think government policies that support Big Ag's corn and soybean business) are at odds with the icon's message to eaters to consume more greens, argue critics.


Local angle: Oakland-based Michelle Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, had plenty of problems with the plate, as outlined on Grist.

Swapping crops in Berkeley. Photo: Christina Diaz
Swapping crops in Berkeley. Photo: Christina Diaz

2. Swapping: No, not that kind, folks, we're talking fruits and vegetables, baked goods and preserved products, and even meals. The New York Times saw fit to print two stories in short order on the food swap phenomenon, and while the East Coast seems to lead the way with this trend -- with active chapters in New York and Boston -- the West Coast is certainly catching up.

On the crop swap front, California's bounty makes it a perfect place for this cash-free concept to take root. And, risk-free prediction: In a continuing economic downturn, look for more resource sharing in food and farming in 2012.

Local angle: Oakland jumped on board the food swap train pretty swiftly; while Berkeley led the way on crop swaps.

Strawberries - Organic or not?
Organic or not?

3. Food Fraud, Mislabeling, and Other Acts of Deception: It seemed like everywhere you looked there was some kind of duping going on in the world of food this year. The (failed) Secret Farm Bill ring any bells for starters? Not to mention all that nonsense with Congress pushing to count tomato sauce on pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program, while politicians also catered to the potato lobby by blocking attempts to limit French fries in school cafeterias. And then there was that fishy matter about widespread fish mislabeling. Speaking of labeling: The battle over labeling genetically modified foods heated up this year too. Corporations intent on pushing genetically engineered edible products don’t want food labels, at a time when many consumers seek more information about what’s in what they eat. The Just Label It campaign launched this year to urge the Food and Drug Administration to make GMO labeling mandatory.

Local angle: Are organic strawberries as advertised? This signature California fruit may actually be treated with pesticides (including methyl iodide a dangerous pesticide that garnered attention in 2011 too), despite the organic sticker. Before they begin bearing fruit, virtually all strawberry plants — whether they go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides, The Bay Citizen reported.

Monica Martinez of Don Bugito, which served up insects at a recent dinner in the Headlands. Photo: Courtesy of Don Bugito
Monica Martinez of Don Bugito. Photo: Courtesy of Don Bugito

4. Eating Insects: After offal, beyond bacon, tiny creatures starred as the new food fad this year. Yes, people, as meat becomes a precious commodity, here and abroad, bugs are getting their culinary moment in the sun in high-end restaurants and among adventurous eaters. Eating bugs as an environmental choice formed the focus of a New Yorker profile on gourmet grubs. The six-legged creatures are packed with protein and easier on the planet than livestock, true, but will average American diners welcome creepy crawlies on their plate?

Local angle: The Headlands Center for the Arts held a bug-based dinner and Lush Gelato in the East Bay featured chocolate-covered grasshoppers on its menu. Monica Martinez of Don Bugito also served up crispy wax moth larvae tacos and toffee-crisped mealworm ice cream at the San Francisco Street Food Festival.

Berkeley Food Pantry offers emergency food supplies to local residents. Photo: Courtesy Berkeley Food Pantry
Berkeley Food Pantry offers emergency food supplies to local residents. Photo: Courtesy Berkeley Food Pantry

5. Surge in Hunger: A stream of stories about the uptick in hungry people heading to soup kitchens and food pantries around the country, served as a barometer of ongoing lean financial times for a growing group of Americans. The year saw record high demand for food stamps and sharply rising global food prices, making it tougher for many to get dinner on the table. In these enduring cash-strapped times pay-what-you-can restaurants have popped up around the country, including rocker Bon Jovi's JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey.

Local angle: Food banks, including the Berkeley Food Pantry, faced unprecedented need for their services and struggled to meet them because of federal government funding snafus.

More 2011 food stories coming soon in part two.