Savory, Scrumptious (and Safe) Spinach
First published on garden.org on September 28, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn
Popeye would be heartbroken if he heard the current warnings about eating spinach. OK, I know he ate his out of a can, but just the same, spinach is a poster child for health food, and the current outbreak of E. coli will undoubtably damage its reputation for some time. As of this writing, the source of the outbreak isn't known for sure, but because the evidence is pointing to spinach grown in a few counties in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises 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 become a 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 fall garden!
Understanding the Outbreak
As of September 24, 2006, 25 states have reported a combined total of 173 confirmed cases of E. coli infection to the CDC. (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 is 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.
Where Does Our Food Come From?
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!
Grow Your Own
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.
If You Can't Grow It, Buy Local
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