Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Super Bear

Taleb's Pessimism Lures CIC

China's Sovereign-Wealth Fund Is in Talks to Invest in Universa's Bearish Wagers

By JENNY STRASBURG, Wall Street Journal


Prof. Nassim Nicholas Taleb was in his native northern Lebanon last week, thinking about instability in the pricing of goods and services. He also was shopping for olive orchards.The mathematical finance scholar who lectures at New York University and wrote the 2007 book "The Black Swan" said he is as pessimistic as ever about the prospects for sustained global economic recovery. He suggests that investors around the world strap in for a wild ride of deflation and inflation. And, therefore, he said, it makes sense for him to pour money into farming, especially olives, which are indispensable to the Mediterranean world.

"Healthy investments are those that produce goods that humans need to consume, not flat-screen TVs," said Mr. Taleb by phone from near his family's ancestral home in Amioun. "Stocks are not a robust investment. Make sure you have a garden that bears fruits."

Some of the world's biggest investors are planting the same seeds. The Santa Monica, Calif., investment firm Mr. Taleb helped start and still advises, Universa Investments LP, is in talks with China's $300 billion sovereign-wealth fund, China Investment Corp., and Middle East government funds about investing in Universa, according to a person familiar with the matter. Specifically, sovereign-wealth funds are willing to pay the firm in the hopes that if the market dives, at least some part of their portfolio will profit.

Panic is a profit-driver for Mr. Taleb, who has gained renown for his pessimism, a viewpoint that proved prescient in the market collapse of 2008. The interest from the likes of the Chinese and Middle East funds, which control some of the world's biggest pools of money, suggests more mainstream adoption of Universa's bearish conviction. Some of the world's biggest investors are planting the same seeds. The Santa Monica, Calif., investment firm Mr. Taleb helped start and still advises, Universa Investments LP, is in talks with China's $300 billion sovereign-wealth fund, China Investment Corp., and Middle East government funds about investing in Universa, according to a person familiar with the matter. Specifically, sovereign-wealth funds are willing to pay the firm in the hopes that if the market dives, at least some part of their portfolio will profit.

The outcome of the talks isn't certain, according to a person familiar with the matter. But if the investments materialize, they likely would boost the Universa fund's client assets from $6 billion to about $10 billion, two people familiar with the matter said.

CIC didn't respond to a request for comment. Mr. Taleb said he couldn't discuss Universa client talks. But he has consulted with several sovereign-wealth funds about his "black swan" philosophy in recent years.

Such an approach represents an extreme downside hedge for China, whose export-heavy economy depends on global growth.

For investors wanting to guard against such events, Universa started the Black Swan Protection Protocol, a vehicle different from a typical hedge fund in that clients don't hand over their entire account for the firm directly to manage. Instead, clients designate a certain pool of assets, a notional value, that they seek to hedge, or protect against extreme losses.The term "black swan" refers to a long-held belief that all swans were white. Explorers then discovered black swans in Australia. The image came to reflect the occurrence of something highly unexpected, including events that could make markets nose-dive.

For example, a client with a $100 million account with Universa would pay the firm a flat annual fee of 1.5% on that amount, or $1.5 million. The client would transfer to Universa typically less than 10% to fund its account in the strategy.

Universa is run by 39-year-old Mark Spitznagel, a former Chicago Board of Trade pit trader and longtime collaborator with Mr. Taleb. His five traders buy put options on specific stocks and stock indexes.

The goal is for the value of the puts to pay off 60% if the market drops by 20% or more in a month. A put conveys the right to sell a security at a specified price.

This year, Universa clients on average have lost about 2% of their notional account value, one person familiar with the matter said. This year's volatility hasn't been extreme enough, or its losses steep and sudden enough, for Universa's strategy to pay off.

Universa's clients also lost money last year, when the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index gained 23%. At year-end, client portfolios were down an average of about 4%, one person close to the matter said.

But 2008 was different. That year, extreme market losses helped many Universa clients profit more than 100%.

Universa's marketing pitch continues to be that something like 2008, or worse, will happen again.

"We break even, or lose tiny amounts or have tiny returns, for a very long time, but we know it's going to come," Mr. Spitznagel said. "I couldn't possibly be more negative on the markets."
Late last year, Mr. Spitznagel also launched a fund betting on a steep rise in inflation. That fund, which has remained flat this year, suffered losses in recent months betting against Treasurys.

Government-bond returns are up about 8% since the start of the year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch Indexes.

"The biggest home run would be if we went into '70s-style or worse inflation," Mr. Spitznagel said. "If I had a gun to my head, right now I'd fall on the deflation side, but that's going to flip at some point."

The Black Swan inflation strategy has less than $1 billion in client assets. Clients might have to tolerate steady losses in order to reach a hoped-for bonanza.

If the Black Swan Protection Protocol reaches $10 billion, Universa would make $150 million in management fees alone. The firm also is entitled to 20% of profits, according to fund documents.In 2004, Messrs. Taleb and Spitznagel closed a previous fund, Empirica Capital, after two years of mediocre returns.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spitznagel has jumped into the farming life as well, buying a few hundred acres near Lake Michigan, where he has a vacation home. He is growing cherries and apples, and planning to raise goats.

Mr. Spitznagel calls it self-sustainability, which, he said, is another good hedge.

Write to Jenny Strasburg at jenny.strasburg@wsj.com

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fat Food System


August 21, 2010

Fixing a World That Fosters Fat

WHY are Americans getting fatter and fatter? The simple explanation is that we eat too much junk food and spend too much time in front of screens — be they television, phone or computer — to burn off all those empty calories.
One handy prescription for healthier lives is behavior modification. If people only ate more fresh produce. (Thank you, Michael Pollan.) If only children exercised more. (Ditto,Michelle Obama.)
Unfortunately, behavior changes won’t work on their own without seismic societal shifts, health experts say, because eating too much and exercising too little are merely symptoms of a much larger malady. The real problem is a landscape littered with inexpensive fast-food meals; saturation advertising for fatty, sugary products; inner cities that lack supermarkets; and unhealthy, high-stress workplaces.
In other words: it’s the environment, stupid.
“Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat junk food and you should exercise,” says Kelly D. Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. “But the environment makes it so difficult that fewer people can do these things, and then you have a public health catastrophe.”
Dr. Brownell, who has a doctorate in psychology, is among a number of leading researchers who are proposing large-scale changes to food pricing, advertising and availability, all in the hope of creating an environment conducive to healthier diet and exercise choices.
To that end, health researchers are grappling with how to fix systems that are the root causes of obesity, says Dee W. Edington, the director of the Health Management Research Center at the University of Michigan.
“If you take a changed person and put them in the same environment, they are going to go back to the old behaviors,” says Dr. Edington, who has a doctorate in physical education. “If you change the culture and the environment first, then you can go back into a healthy environment and, when you get change, it sticks.”
Indeed, despite individual efforts by some states to tax soda pop, promote farm stands, require healthier school lunches or mandate calorie information in chain restaurants, obesity rates in the United States are growing. An estimated 72.5 million adults in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, about 27 percent of adults said they were obese, compared with about 20 percent in 2000, as reported in a C.D.C. study published this month. And, the report said, obesity may cost the medical system as much as $147 billion annually.
So what kind of disruptive changes might help nudge Americans into healthier routines? Equalizing food pricing, for one.
Fast-food restaurants can charge lower prices for value meals of hamburgers and French fries than for salad because the government subsidizes the corn and soybeans used for animal feed and vegetable oil, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“We have made it more expensive to eat healthy in a very big way,” says Dr. Popkin, who has a doctorate in agricultural economics and is the author of a book called “The World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race.”
The inflation-adjusted price of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese, for example, fell 5.44 percent from 1990 to 2007, according to an article on the economics of child obesity published in the journal Health Affairs. But the inflation-adjusted price of fruit and vegetables, which are not subject to federal largess, rose 17 percent just from 1997 to 2003, the study said. Cutting agricultural subsidies would have a big impact on people’s eating habits, says Dr. Popkin.
“If we cut the subsidy on whole milk and made it cheaper only to drink low-fat milk,” he says, “people would switch to it and it would save a lot of calories.”
Health experts are also looking to the private sector. On-site fitness centers and vending machines that sell good-for-you snacks are practical workplace innovations that many companies have instituted.
On a more philosophical level, innovative companies are training managers not to burn out employees by overworking them, says Dr. Edington of the University of Michigan.
“Stress comes up. It can lead to overeating and obesity,” Dr. Edington says. At companies that see employee health as a renewable resource, he adds, managers encourage employees to go home on time so they can spend more time with their families, communities or favorite activities. “Instead of going home with an empty tank, you can go home with the energy that we gave you by the way we run our business,” he says.
CORPORATE-SECTOR efforts aren’t entirely altruistic. It’s less expensive for businesses to keep healthy workers healthy than to cover the medical costs of obesity and related problems like diabetes. For employees at I.B.M. and their families, for example, the annual medical claim for an obese adult or child costs about double that of a non-obese adult or child, says Martin J. Sepulveda, I.B.M.’s vice president for integrated health services.
I.B.M. has been promoting wellness for employees since the 1980s. But in 2008, it began offering a new program, the Children’s Health Rebate, to encourage employees to increase their at-home family dinners, their servings of fruits and vegetables, and their physical activities, as well as to reduce their children’s television and computer time.
In addition to helping prevent obesity in children, Mr. Sepulveda says, the program is aimed at employees who might neglect to exercise on their own but would willingly participate as part of a family project. Each family that completes the program receives $150.
All of these ideas sound promising. But the architecture of obesity is so entrenched that policy makers, companies, communities, families and individuals will need to undertake a variety of efforts to displace and replace it, says Alan Lyles, a professor at the School of Health and Human Services at the University of Baltimore.
And American efforts can seem piecemeal compared with those in Britain, where the government has undertaken a multipronged national attack, requiring changes in schools, health services and the food industry.
Britain now places restrictions on advertising fatty, sugary and salty foods during children’s shows, for example. And by 2011, cooking classes will be mandatory for all 11- to 14-year-old students in the nation. The hope is to teach a generation of children who grew up on prepared foods how to cook healthy meals, and perhaps to make eating at home — instead of at the local fried fish-and-chips shop — the default option.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Urbanism

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Urban farmers see opportunity in Detroit

Homegrown produce
Detroit farm enthusiasts want to turn the vacant one-third of the city into the world's foremost laboratory for urban agriculture.
Homegrown produce (MyFarm.com)
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by Sarah Cwiek Detroit city officials, entrepreneurs, and grassroots activists want to turn the vacant one-third of the city's 140 square miles into the world's foremost laboratory for urban agriculture. But the idea of turning a major part of Detroit's landscape into farmland is getting a lukewarm reception. One area where idea is starting to take shape is in the shadow of a former General Motors world headquarters, in neighborhood that's dotted by vacant land. One corner lot is getting a makeover, with help from a few gardening enthusiasts, including singer-songwriter Taja Sevelle, who heads a nonprofit group called Urban Farming. The group wants to put gardens like this in hundreds of other spots around the city. But it's not just grassroots groups that want in on the urban agriculture movement. Entrepreneurs also see fresh food as a potential growth sector in a city with few decent grocery stores. One company wants to build the world's largest urban farm here. Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms, says Detroit started as a farming community and there's no reason the cash-strapped city shouldn't make agriculture part of its economy again. He says Hantz Farms has visions of turning up to 10,000 city acres into farmland. "We have to get enough land put together for our farm to be financially viable." But Score says they'll have to start small, with as little as 50 acres. He says getting a hold of land is difficult because the city lacks a master land use plan. "The city's in a difficult position because they don't want to give away or sell land that might be strategically important to them down the road. On the other hand they don't want to hold onto foreclosed properties forever." Detroit must also revamp its zoning laws to accommodate commercial farms. City planning director Al Fields, who was at the Urban Farming groundbreaking, says that will take time. "The city planning commission and our team is working together to craft the best rules and guidelines for that." But the city appears to be moving cautiously to welcome big agriculture. For many, the idea of turning large swaths of the Motor City into farmland isn't easy to swallow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Affordable, Portable Housing

Portable Housing, Made in Montana

By JIM ROBBINS, New York Times
Published: August 11, 2010

BOZEMAN, Mont.

The Abod house in South Africa by BSB Design. The corrugated-metal homes can be put up in a day.

A double unit.

Anne Sherwood for The New York Times

The honeycomb HabiHut, above in a Montana field; the sturdy but lightweight structures are being shipped to relief camps in Haiti and Kenya.

FOR years Eldon and Bruce Leep, father and son contractors, built condominiums at the very high end of the market in the cluster of affluent ski villages near here at the foot of Lone Mountain.

But there were clouds looming in Big Sky country. “They were selling faster than we could build them,” Bruce Leep said. “Then we noticed one day that we were five units ahead, and then eight or nine.” The slowdown worsened, and soon the jobs stopped. The change put 40 employees of the Leeps’ company, Envirocontrol Systems, out of work.

High-end home contractors in southwest Montana, near Yellowstone Park, have been as battered by the recession as those elsewhere in the country. Accustomed to putting up lavish mansions of native stone and logs for wealthy clients, many have folded, moved or gone down-market, remodeling homes or building ones costing $200,000 to $300,000.

For a time, the Leeps did a little of everything. “We were struggling to survive,” Bruce Leep said. “We traveled wherever we had to, concrete work for oil projects in North Dakota and even handyman projects.” When a storm with baseball-size hail walloped the region in June, they and other contractors got some welcome jobs putting in new roofs and siding.

All the while, however, the Leeps were hunting for a permanent line of business, something to sustain their 20-year-old family firm. Their choice was portable housing — still housing, but as far from their old work as could be. Instead of building homes with a labyrinth of rooms that cost $1,500 to $1,800 a square foot, they decided to construct one-room houses priced at about $2 a square foot. Such homes are basically shells to which owners can add baths and kitchens if they wish; some may even have lofts and high ceilings. Typically, the houses can be assembled with little labor in a few hours.

The Leeps and their partners have great hopes for their new work. The potential market, they say, includes the third world, where housing is scarce; disaster areas, where people may be displaced; and the homeless population. The recession and major events like theHaiti earthquake have bumped up interest in economical portable houses, which, they add, can also be used as ice fishing shacks, hunters’ shelters, temporary offices and the like.

“We were excited because it was something different,” Bruce Leep said. “We were burned out on construction, with its big ups and downs, and this would provide some stability, we hope.”

In 2008, while repairing his roof, the Leeps met Bob Sterling, an architect with an idea for a portable house. They also met Ronald Omyonga, a Kenyan engineer on a mission to house the slum dwellers around Nairobi, who live under tarps. That team soon developed a one-room structure that is 118 square feet and shaped like a single cell of a honeycomb. It is made of high-density polypropylene panels that attach to a lightweight, high-density aluminum frame.

“The shape seems simple,” Bruce Leep said. “But very precise dimensioning is required. It was difficult to figure out how all of these angles come together.”

But even with a sound design, the project soon languished. The recession was wearing on, and the Leeps simply ran out of money — to the point where even the heat in their shop was turned off.

Then, six months ago, the Leeps met Michael Weas, another refugee from the high-end home market. Mr. Weas had sold a software company to become a developer in Bozeman, and had built two spec homes at the Yellowstone Club, an affluent ski village, one for $3.5 million and one for $4.5 million. “Then one day I woke up, and the handwriting was on the wall,” Mr. Weas said. “Real estate was over.”

But Mr. Weas is excited now by portable housing. After a single meeting with the Leeps, he and several partners assembled the funds the Leeps needed. Earlier this year, the group founded a company called HabiHut, after the honeycomb home the team had designed.

The HabiHut weighs about 400 pounds, packs down to a 4-foot-by-8-foot crate, and costs $2,500, which includes shipping with bulk orders. It can be assembled in an hour or two with just a screwdriver, will last up to 15 years, and can be combined with other HabiHuts as a family expands or other needs arise.

For a small structure, the HabiHut contains some surprises. It has a roomy 14-foot ceiling, for one, and the white panels are translucent, giving the cozy home a light, airy feel.

For the Leeps and their partners, HabiHut is a strange new world. Money is the major difference — “We used to build houses that would buy a village for 20,000 people,” Mr. Weas said with a laugh — but the marketing is different, too.

“I’m not really selling myself to a customer, which I was doing when I was building their home,” Bruce Leep said. “The product pretty much sells itself.”

Moreover, HabiHut has two dimensions. “It’s a project about providing shelter, but hopefully we can make money and create jobs,” said Mr. Weas, whose son Sean, a recent master’s graduate in architecture, is also involved in the venture. “The best of both worlds. There’s a moral aspect to it that wasn’t there at the Yellowstone Club.”

The first few dozen HabiHuts have been manufactured, with several in use in Kenya, two in Haiti and another 20 en route to Haiti for sale. HabiHuts are also being tested as water kiosks — a place where villagers can fill water jugs with clean water — by Umande, a Kenyan organization that helps the homeless, and one is functioning as a restroom at a trailhead in Montana.

The Leeps’ venture is just one of several developments in the portable-housing industry.

There has been a surge of interest lately, prompted by the earthquake in Haiti and other events, in designing even cheaper and more portable structures. One new model, the elegant Abod house, is being built by BSB Design of West Des Moines for single mothers in the shanties of Soweto, South Africa. The homes employ the strong shape of the inverted catenary arch — the shape of the St. Louis arch — so two children can sleep in a loft while the mother sleeps below. The 120-square-foot homes are made of corrugated metal; the frame stands on concrete or recycled rubber mats.

“It can be erected by one family in one day,” said Douglas Sharp, the designer. “Four women put the first one up in four hours.” The homes cost $4,900 apiece, or $3,500 each for orders of 50 or more.

On another front, California, facing growing homelessness, adopted a law in 2008 requiring cities and towns to make land available for homeless encampments. Since then World Shelters, a nonprofit group in Arcata, has seen demand grow for its U-Dome, a geodesic structure made of polypropylene panels. River Haven, a homeless camp in Ventura County, now has 19 U-Domes in use, including one with communal showers and a toilet.

The U-Dome 200 is 195 square feet, 10 feet tall and configured with a single bed, though two could fit. It costs $2,750 for individuals and $1,825 for humanitarian groups. World Shelters makes other shelters, including the new TranShel, a 192-square-foot rectangular modular home costing $500 that is aimed at the emergency market for displaced people.

Like the Leeps, World Shelters welcomes individual buyers; one is Caren Wise, a psychotherapist from Hoopa, Calif., who lived in a U-Dome 200 while she built her home in Northern California.

“I loved it,” Ms. Wise said. “It was a house in a box. It came and I put it up in four hours. I had a little kitchen, a bed, a wood stove and an old claw-foot bathtub.”

Ms. Wise lived there with her dog, Dexter, but she said, laughing, that two people could live in the U-Dome 200 “if they got along.”

She now uses the dome as a studio and a guesthouse.

Meanwhile, the Leeps are now working on a grand vision — a village of HabiHuts. The company wants to raise $200,000 to build a community for the people of the Vumilia tent camp in Gilgil, Kenya, who have been displaced by violence. The village will have 50 HabiHuts, two water kiosks, three sanitation kiosks, a cellphone charging station and a $15,000, three-kilowatt solar dish. In the United States, that dish would power just one 3,500-square-foot home.

The $200,000 cost even includes shipping. “That’s everything you need,” Sean Weas said. “The solar dish, the water, sanitation and shelter.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Craving Sustainable and Real


Crop mob
There's a movement afoot for the landless to help out on sustainable and community farms -- not for money, but not for free either. The model of this movement is based on an age old economic model: the barter system. Janet Babin reports.
"Crop Mobber" Trace Ramsey works the farm on a hot Sunday in June at the Central Carolina Community College Farm. (Janet Babin/Marketplace)
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TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: It's easy to lose track of or ignore where a lot of our food comes from. Meat and processing animals, certainly. But tomatoes and corn and a lot of what you can find at a supermarket or at a roadside stand don't pick themselves, you know. So there's a growing movement that has the landless helping out on sustainable and community farms. Not for money. But not for free either.
Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.

JANET BABIN: It's just before 9 a.m. on a sweltering Sunday morning in the South. A few dozen people, most in their 20s and 30s, converge onto several acres of farmland just outside of Pittsboro, North Carolina. They're here for an event called a Crop Mob.
Co-organizer Trace Ramsey sips coffee and directs foot traffic.
TRACE RAMSEY: Crop Mob is meeting around the corner, there are a couple tables and we'll get started once we have a bunch of people. There's water over there. A little bit of shade.
A Crop Mob is a bit like a community barn raising. Here's how it works: Each month a host farm is selected. Facebook and e-mail lists announce where and when. And people just show up, ready to do whatever work the farmer needs done.
Today, The Mob attacks Bermuda grass. It's overtaken some rows of organic watermelon. Farm manager Hillary Heckler picks up a shovel and shows the group how it's done.
HILLARY HECKLER: So we got to get under it, get the roots out. Any questions? Alright, one, two, three, dig!
Soon, more than a dozen people are whacking the weeds with all they've got. The work is hard. The sun today, relentless. But the conversation is lively.
Trace Ramsey, the greeter, was part of Crop Mob's genesis in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, back in 2008.
RAMSEY: Crop Mob works on the model of mutual aid. It's not a free-for-all, it's not a charity. It's basically a model of reciprocity.
There are few rules to starting a Crop Mob, but one thing's non-negotiable: No money can be exchanged. And farmers who want Crop Mob to help out on their farm must first agree to work a Mob somewhere else. Many smaller farms are more labor intensive than larger ones, because they don't tend to use a lot of big equipment. So the helping hands can be invaluable.
Today, farmer Will Cramer is paying it back after a Crop Mob showed up on his farm a few months ago.
WILL CRAMER: They helped us build beds and putting down a lot of mulch, which really set us up well for the spring, especially when we started having tractor problems, we already had the beds made.
Mixed in with the farmers, are people with little or no experience. In exchange for their labor, the newbies get a meal, and learn from professionals how to grow stuff. And that's it.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jeffrey Bailey lives in the city, and works in a restaurant.
JEFFREY BAILEY: Our generation, and the generation behind us have this blatant sense of entitlement. I think we're realizing that everything has come a little too easy for us. So putting our hands back and actually sweating a little bit is a lot more fulfilling than just being able to look something up on Google.
And Crop Mobs are spreading: At least 40 have sprouted up in 24 states.
Trace Ramsey says its popularity is tied to a growing disillusionment among 30-somethings with white collar careers. He and his peers were taught that manual labor is beneath them. But Ramsey says they're no longer satisfied with office jobs either.
RAMSEY: At the end of the day sitting in your cubicle, after you've been done playing Solitaire and hanging out at Facebook all day, what have you really done? So they're looking for an authentic work experience.
The Pittsboro Crop Mob breaks about an hour early because of the heat, but they made a dent in that Bermuda grass. Now, it's time to share a meal: Eggs, tomatoes, greens, all from the farm...
HECKLER: Hey you guys a moment of silence. For you guys, we just want to thank you so much for coming out here and sweating with us. Whoo! Yeah!
It's just a few hours a month, but Crop Mob is convinced that this work strengthens community and fosters a connection with the land.
In Pittsboro, North Carolina, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Less is More


A Dozen Eggs for $8? Michael Pollan Explains the Math of Buying Local

By BEN WORTHENWall Street Journal

Michael Pollan, author of "Omnivore's Dilemma" and other popular books, has become a figurehead for the local-food movement, which advocates buying in-season produce from nearby farms.
Proponents say such food is healthier and that the way it is grown and shipped is better for the environment. But it often is more expensive. Mr. Pollan says the real problem is that subsidies keep the prices of some, largely mass-produced foods artificially low.
Still, he tries to strike a middle ground between advocate and realist. In his Berkeley living room, the 55-year-old Mr. Pollan discussed where he shops for food and why paying $8 for a dozen eggs is a good thing:
[Pollan]Zuma Press
Michael Pollan in the backyard of his Berkeley home in 2007.
WSJ: Do Bay Area residents eat and shop for food differently from people elsewhere?
Mr. Pollan: The food movement really began on the West Coast, and you can make an argument it began in the Bay Area. There is a much higher level of consciousness here about where food comes from, about eating seasonally and locally, than there is in the rest of the country.
But we have certain advantages that few other places in the country have. We can eat from the farmer's market 50 weeks of the year—the only reason they close is to get a break Christmas and New Year's.
WSJ: What do you attribute the greater enthusiasm to?
Mr. Pollan: A consumer who is willing to pay more for better food. That's a matter of consciousness and a palate that has been educated by the chefs locally. Paying $3.90 for a Frog Hollow Peach, there are a lot of people here willing to do it. I don't know if you can find a more expensive peach in America. My little rule, "Pay more, eat less," is followed by a lot of people in the Bay area.
WSJ: Where do you shop for food?
Mr. Pollan: I shop at the farmer's market on Thursdays. I shop at Monterey Market, and I shop at Berkley Bowl. Those are the big three, and then I'll get household cleaning products, cereal, things like that at Safeway.
WSJ: How do you suggest people in New York or other places with a long winter eat seasonally?
In much of the country eating seasonally in winter is challenging, though there are options people overlook. A salad of grated root vegetables, for example, is a refreshing change from lettuce, and far more nutritious. But it all depends on how hard-core you want to be. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition.
WSJ: Do you only buy certain things from certain places?
Mr. Pollan: No. I'm pretty flexible. I'm not a zealot, contrary to what people may think. I've told stories about being busted at Berkeley Bowl buying sugary cereals for my son when he was younger.
WSJ: Are there rules for shopping that people interested in eating better should follow?
Mr. Pollan: The most important is to buy things that are in season.
It's nice to skip [things] until they are in season when they are so much better and cheaper. It becomes something of an occasion when the tomatoes come into the market, or the strawberries, or the asparagus.
WSJ: Does eating local, sustainable food have to be a lifestyle priority, or can people do it casually?
Mr. Pollan: People can do it casually. There are people who go [to a farmer's market] every week, and there are people who go when the mood strikes them. To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It's either rewarding to you or it's not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can't be bothered, and they're going to eat with less care.
WSJ: Is eating well just an indulgence for people who can afford it?
Mr. Pollan: If you're in the supermarket buying organic versus not buying organic, you are going to spend more. But buying food at the farmer's market, if you compare it to the prices at Safeway for stuff that's in season, it actually beats the prices in my experience. People shouldn't assume that they are going to go broke at the farmer's market.
WSJ: What do you wish people here understood about their food that they don't now?
Mr. Pollan: We've been conditioned by artificially cheap food to be shocked when a box of strawberries costs $3.
But it's important to know that farmers aren't getting wealthy. When you see strawberries being sold for $1 a box, picture the kind of labor it takes to pick those strawberries and the kind of chemicals it takes to produce those kinds of strawberries without hand weeding.
Eight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that's $1.50. It's really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives.
Write to Ben Worthen at ben.worthen@wsj.com