Thinly sliced: Required reading from Beard Award nominees, Netflix and till, and more

This is the web version of a list we publish twice-weekly in our newsletter. It comprises the most noteworthy food stories of the moment, selected by our editors. Get it first here.

Bravo. Congratulations to this year’s James Beard Award finalists. We’re not in the business of showering praise on chefs and restaurants and cookbooks, and we’re not changing that anytime soon, but writers and journalism? Always. We loved Ted Genoways’s piercing story about a fight to stop Costco in rural Nebraska, Helena Bottemiller Evich’s deep reporting on the great nutrient collapse, Liam Baranauskas’s personal history of seltzer, and Baxter Holmes’s exposé on the secret staple snack of the NBA. And, of course, our very own Joe Fassler’s story about the reckoning a criminal Iowa egg mogul.

More Netflix and till. Five cabinet secretaries testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday to drum up interest in a billion-dollar infrastructure bill. As proposed, a quarter of the federal outlay, or $50 billion, mostly in the form of federal block grants to states, would go to rural America. Among the priorities Secretary Perdue pressed? Money for new roadways, water treatment systems, and a significant investment in broadband on the scale of era-defining electrification and telecommunications acts of yore. It’s that last one to keep an eye on. Perdue cited precision agriculture systems as a reason for making sure farmers are connected. But most farms in America are losing money, which means there could be more households depending on the internet to hold down an off-farm job and sign up for public benefits than those plowing capital back into geolocated Deere tractors.

Out the coop. Last week, we published what sounded like a pretty outrageous headline: poultry farms aren’t small businesses, finds government agency that had been loaning them almost $2 billion. If you’d read on, you’d have learned the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) finding is actually, in some way, amplifying the real problem: those growers aren’t considered small businesses because they are bound by contracts from “integrators,” or large chicken companies like Tyson and Perdue. At the behest of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on Wednesday, the Senate Small Business Committee passed an amendment to force the SBA to take a closer look at the relationship between those integrators and their (sometimes small) suppliers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) issued a statement in support.

A contact sport. This is odd: Metta World Peace, the eccentric pro basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest, has jumped on a campaign led by Compassion Over Killing, the animal welfare group, to bring down a recent proposal from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to speed up swine processing. “Basketball players are meant to be fast,” a new ad reads, featuring The Panda’s Friend on bended knee. “But high-speed slaughter is dangerous and cruel. Join me in telling the USDA, ‘Not so fast!’” Still don’t get it? Neither do we. Start by reading our primer on USDA’s plan to raise those processing speeds.

Bad cop. In Etowah County, Alabama, a local sheriff is spending money allotted for inmate meals on personal vacation homes, lawn care, and lavish fundraisers. For the past three years, Sheriff Todd Entrekin has pocketed huge sums—more than $250,000 per year—from a fund intended for the county jail food program, reports The craziest part is that the practice is not unheard of in the state—and may actually be legal. “Many Alabama sheriffs contend that the practice of keeping ‘excess’ inmate-feeding funds for themselves is legal under a state law passed before World War II,” according to the article.

We first learned about Entrekin a few months back in our investigation into why the food served in jails and prisons tends to result in food poisoning more often than it does in the general population. As it turns out, perverse economicincentives are a common culprit. In situations where the people tasked with feeding inmates are personally rewarded for spending less, meal quality can plummet. It’s one reason why incarcerated Americans are six times more likely to be sickened by their food.

Foreign matter. If you drink bottled water, you’re likely also drinking plastic particles, according to new study commissioned by non-profit Orb Media. Orb hired scientists at the State University of New York at Fredonia to test common brands of bottled water for “microplastics,” tiny strands of man-made material that range in size from the width of human hair to the size of a red blood cell. (The highest individual reading was in a bottle of Nestle Pure Life, with 10,390 particles found in a single liter-sized bottle.) These materials are ending up in our bodies, but how bad is that? No one knows. The World Health Organization (WHO), for its part, is concerned enough about the findings to have launched a formal review of risks, The Guardian reports. But if you wanna continue drinking the bottled goods without losing your mind, the BBC will bring you back to earth.

The Counter Stories by our editors.