Popeye would be heartbroken if he heard the warnings about eating spinach that occurred last fall. OK, I know he ate his out of a can, but just the same, spinach is a poster child for health food, and that outbreak of E. coli will undoubtably damage its reputation for some time. Because the evidence pointed to spinach grown in a few counties in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that consumers refrain from eating bagged, fresh spinach until further notice.
However, the outbreak has larger significance than posing a temporary inconvenience: It highlights our centralized food production and complex food packing and shipping industries. It's because of these that the outbreak has became national problem rather than being contained to an isolated region, and it underscores the importance of encouraging local farm economies. Plus, it's a perfect reason to plant a garden!
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is one of the main species of bacteria that live in the lower intestines of mammals, including humans. There are hundreds of strains of the bacterium; most are harmless and some aid in digestion, but others, such as the O157:H7 strain, produce a powerful toxin and can cause severe illness. This is the strain that has caused the recent outbreak.
Dozens of states had hundreds of confirmed cases of E. coli infection. (This is a small percentage of the estimated 73,000 cases of E. coli infection that occur annually in the United States, the major source of which is ground beef.)
What strikes me about this outbreak is that it's possible that a single, albeit huge, farm in California was the source. Think about it. Spinach from a single farm in California may have found its way into grocery stores in at least half the states in the U.S. -- in late summer, when locally grown greens are readily available in communities across the country.
Over the past few decades, we've handed over the responsibility of producing our food to huge agribusinesses, many of which are located thousands of miles from us. Raw food products, such as spinach, may travel from farm to packaging plant to warehouse to wholesaler to retailer before they end up in your kitchen.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, in the U.S. food now travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table, 25 percent farther than it did 20 years ago. Since produce from multiple farms may be mixed during packaging, a bag of spinach could theoretically contain leaves from dozens of farms. A leaf harboring E. coli could show up just about anywhere in the country!
So, if you want to eat fresh spinach you may want to grow your own or purchase it from a local farm. Of course, few of us have the time, space, and skills to grow all of our own food. But some foods, such as lettuce, spinach, and other greens, are particularly easy to grow.
Spinach is a cool-season crop that does best when days are less than 14 hours long and temperatures don't exceed 80 degrees F. The seeds will germinate and grow at temperatures down to the 40s. Sow some seed now and you should begin harvesting in about six weeks. Sow a row weekly for the next month or so, be prepared to cover the plants during hard freezes, and you may be able to harvest right up to the holidays.
Your local farmer's markets should be brimming with spinach and other cool-season greens. Fresh, vitamin-rich, "safe" spinach. However, buying local isn't just good for your health. It's also good for the health of your community. Local farmers spend their money locally and support local organizations, and their farms provide much-needed relief from urban sprawl. At the farmer's market, you can meet the people (or person!) that sowed, weeded, and harvested the food you are buying. Their fruits and vegetables are the next best thing to stepping outside and harvesting your own.
Article published on June 23, 2008.