State Department introduces ‘food diplomacy’ program

I’m writing a final paper on the diplomacy of food right now… how cool is this? The establishment of a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and Chef Corps to “extol the virtues of American cooking and food products”- fascinating!

Eatocracy

Something was amiss in the White House kitchen.

The staff was already keenly aware that the newest residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a 40-something couple with a teenaged daughter) presented a significant cultural and demographic shift from the previous regime and they wanted things to go smoothly. A frantic call was made to the first lady’s office, and her assistant, Capricia Penavic Marshall, picked up the phone. “The first lady is in the kitchen, and she wants…a pan!”

“Am I missing something?” asked Marshall. Further explanation revealed that first daughter Chelsea Clinton wasn’t feeling especially well that day, and her mother wanted to make her some eggs. This, in the experience of the staff, had not happened before. They needed guidance.

“Welcome to a new day,” said Marshall. “Get her the pan.”

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IPM, Antibiotics, and Fire Blight- is there a happy medium?

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Applpy over at Thought + Food recently published an interesting article talking about increased antibiotic use in organic pear and apple orchards.  These antibiotics—Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline—are used to combat fire blight, a contagious disease that can destroy an entire orchard in a season.  It’s spread primarily by pollen-bearing insects such as bees, and although it’s indigenous to North America it has since spread to the rest of the world.[1]  It’s extraordinarily damaging, especially to organic farmers whose orchards tend to contain more pollen-bearing insects thanks to decreased pesticide use.  That’s why organic farmers received an exemption to allow them to use these antibiotics on their fruit—but applpy pointed out that organic labels don’t require disclosure of antibiotic use anyway.

So where do we draw the line between antibiotic use and orchard health?  Fire blight is devastating, but antibiotic use in food has proven to be problematic;[2] is there a way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of fire blight without the use of antibiotics?  Applpy raised this question, and I had commented on the potential of Integrated Pest Management/Control (IPM/IPC) to do exactly that.

But what is IPM?  Well, it’s integrated pest management—so just as pesticides won’t be effective, IPM can’t control this bacteria-born blight entirely.  However, IPM is a series of practices that dovetails perfectly with fire blight prevention.   Rather than dousing orchards in fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, IPM advocates a more sensible, measured approach.  From the EPA’s website:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.  IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

So what does that mean for fire blight prevention?  Rather than spraying affected trees and fruit with antibiotics, farmers would instead scan for early signs of infection and plan new orchards based on existing knowledge.  For example, nitrogen containing fertilizer and heavy pruning increases susceptibility; farmers would know keep that in mind when selecting fertilizers and pruning.  Infected shoots can be pruned during the dormant season to contain spread; IPM involves year-round orchard maintenance and supervision.

Essentially, IPM is a low-chemical, common-sense approach to pest management that has the potential to cut down on fire blight without excessive use of antibiotics or pesticides.  It’s not so advanced yet as to make pesticide and antibiotic use obsolete in fire blight cases, but it can drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed.  So what do you think?  Do you know much about IPM or exemptions for organic farmers?  What are your thoughts?

Liebster award!

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I’m very happy to have been the recipient of a Liebster Blog Award!  This is a cool award meant to recognize and encourage small and upcoming blogs (that is to say, blogs with less than 200 followers) and is awarded by other bloggers.  A big thank you to Janina at Food (Policy) for Thought for the nomination—I’d like to say I’ve never won anything before, but I did win a DVD of Clueless at a raffle once.  I can definitively say that I am prouder of this, though : )

So Liebster is a German word that means ‘favorite,’ and the award started in Germany in 2010.  There aren’t really any requirements for the award, other than having less than 200 followers.  There are, however, rules for receiving it!  And they are as follows—

  • Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog (Thanks again, Janina!)
  • Link back to the blogger who presented the award to you
  • Copy and paste the blog award on your blog
  • Present the Liebster Blog Award to 5 blogs of 200 followers or less who you feel deserve to be noticed
  • Let them know they have been chosen by leaving a comment at their blog

This is a really cool award—I’ve found a lot of wonderful food blogs to follow through looking at other peoples’ picks.  What a wonderful community builder!

Anyhow, here are my picks for the Liebster award:*

  1. food (digested)
  2. Food (Policy) for Thought (am I allowed to nominate my nominator?)
  3. Thought + Food
  4. Cami Ryan
  5. Science on the Land

*Disclaimer:  I am very, very bad at wordpress, and can’t figure out how to find out how many followers someone has.  So if I’m breaking the <200 rule I’m very sorry!

Happy belated Easter!

The Legality of Kinder Surprise Eggs….

Another food policy blogger has written an interesting piece on Kinder Eggs- it’s a great example of the power government has over our food!  Kinder Eggs are outlawed in the states because the FDA banned “non-nutritive (inedible) object[s] inside a candy,” for fear of choking- a notably entertaining headline she mentions is “American Children Finally Deemed Smart Enough to Eat Kinder Eggs.”

The True Cost of Industrialized Food 

The True Cost of Industrialized Food

I can’t say how many times I’ve tried to explain all of this when people complain about the higher price of local food- you’re paying higher prices for it no matter what, even if it doesn’t show up on your receipt.

Some salient facts from this really quite excellently written article:

  • People in the US spend only 7% of their income on food, compared with 13% in France, and an astounding 38% in Vietnam.
  • The US has lost 800,000 small farmers and ranchers in the last 40 years (in large part thanks to consolidation – Food and Water Watch has a great report on this)
  • From 1970 to 2006 the US lost 88% of its dairy farms, while the average size of the farms went from 19 to 120 cows.
  • The US uses 22% of all pesticides in the world- 1.1 billion pounds per year.

That cheap food isn’t as cheap as it seems.

Effecting change in and from within the system

At the NOFA Vermont conference there was one session in particular that stood out amongst an array of great workshops:  an executive who works for a major food service provider gave a talk on effecting broad food system change from within the food service system.  I’m not sure how she would feel about her talk being blogged about however, so I have chosen to keep her identity anonymous and I ask that my readership respect that also.

 

Having worked for this particular food service provider for a number of years, she gave detailed information on the ways in which she had helped them move towards a more sustainable business model.  She made an excellent point regarding corporate social responsibility:  it’s important for individual consumers to make mindful choices regarding their food, but it’s equally important—if not even more so—for those consumers to pressure the food service providers around them to do the same.

 

One consumer—or ten consumers, or one hundred consumers—can ensure that they’re buying local meat, or sustainable produce, or responsibly harvested seafood.  The importance of these individual choices cannot be underestimated!  But if that consumer (or group thereof) pressures their corporate or campus caterer—Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appétit, Chartwells, etc etc—to switch to more sustainable food, then they create an enormous market for that local and sustainable food.  Whereas an individual may spent $100 per week on groceries, a catering service may spend $100,000 per week for a campus or corporation.  That’s an exponentially larger amount of food dollars that could be going towards growing a better food system.

 

Moreover, food service providers have the capital—both monetary and social—to work with large food production operations to improve their standards.  This executive gave a number of examples from her time working with chicken, pork, and dairy operations to bring her contractors up to better standards.  Large-scale food providers have the means to do this– to say “I want my pork to be grown humanely/my vegetables to be grown organically/my coffee to be fair trade, and I’m willing to work together with you to meet that goal.”  This has an enormous amount of potential to effect large-scale change.

 

The question comes down to consumers.  If enough consumers demand that their food service providers source better food, then food service providers will listen—money talks, and if business is on the line then companies will stand up and take notice.  Market realizable, widespread changes in the food system are profoundly difficult to obtain, but by working within established food distribution frameworks we won’t have to reinvent the wheel.  By harnessing the power of these established businesses, we can ensure steady and sustainable market growth for local and sustainable foods.

Mutatoes

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I wrote a post last week on using imperfect fruit in supermarkets, and I’ve just stumbled upon this wonderful (if extreme) example of nature’s creativity. This is a mutated eggplant photographed as part of Uli Westphal’s series on unusual produce, but the artist’s statement puts it best:

The Mutato-Archive is a collection of non-standard fruits, roots and vegetables, displaying a dazzling variety of forms, colors and textures, that only reveal themselves when commercial standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project serves to document, preserve and promote the last remainders of agricultural plasticity.

Food Education Activities

Definitely one of the most engaging presentations I attended at the NOFA-Mass conference was a presentation by members of The Food Project, a farm-based youth outreach program in Boston.  It combines environmental stewardship with food education and youth leadership- all of our presenters were high school students.  They showed us a number of very useful and interactive activities geared towards community engagement around food.

One of the biggest problems with food system education involves surmounting the apathy barrier and making food issues seem real to people.  It can be hard to make people care about things that they don’t see- especially when what they do see is plentiful, cheap food.  The Food Project uses a peer-lead system similar to the WPI project from earlier in the week, and has developed a number of simple activities to educate and raise awareness around food issues.

They start with basic facts and definitions- i.e., brainstorming a definition for ‘food system’ and using statistics from Michael Pollan about food calories vs. transportation calories (in case you’re wondering, it takes 10 calories of gas to produce and ship 1 calorie of non-meat food and 40 calories for meats).  The real gems, though, are the interactive activities:  there’s one that focuses on the food system as a whole, two that focus on the actual contents of industrial food, and two that focus on workers’ rights (or lack thereof).

The first one, concerning the overall food system, involves splitting the group in half and having each of them construct a ‘food chain’ by putting cards in order.  These cards have various pictures on them showing different stages of the food system- a field, a truck, a processing plant, a grocery store, etc.  The trick, however, is that one group has been given a conventional food system set of cards that has twice as many cards as the other group’s local food system deck.  This lays out for people in a simple and visual way the amount of energy that goes into the two different systems, and the fact that the local group is favored to win (due to its fewer number of cards) can act as a metaphor.

The second activity involves arranging drinks based on sugar content- groups are given a number of cans full of popular drinks and told to arrange them in ascending order of sugar content without looking at the labels.  At the end, the sugar contents are read out, participants rearrange their cans into the proper order, and the presenter passes around a ziplock bag full of the amount of sugar found in the most sugary drink.

Immediately after that, individuals are given slips of paper on which are written long chemical ingredients.  They’re then asked to read the ingredients out loud- a task that often proves difficult, if not impossible.  They’re then shown a piece of plate on which a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake was spilled several years ago (the plate has dissolved; the milkshake remains, unmolded, in a chalky solid form) and told that the ingredients whose names they read off are, in fact, the ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake.  This is reminiscent of the scene in Supersize Me wherein a number of McDonald’s products are put in jars to decompose. Most of the products mold over eventually, but the fries stay intact for six months or so (whereupon the intern throws them out).  This is another excellent way to engage people in what, exactly, they’re eating- it forces them to take a good, hard look at the contents of their food.

The final two activities are perhaps the most powerful, however.  They focus on Immokalee farm workers (for a great book that talks quite a bit about their working conditions, you should check out Tomatoland) and their working conditions.  The first activity involves filling up a basket full of heavy objects and running it up and down a hallway to simulate loading trucks full of tomatoes- this is a fairly lighthearted activity, but participants are constantly reminded that Immokalee workers (and, indeed, farm laborers throughout our food system) do this for upwards of ten hours at a time.

The final activity involves passing out a number of cards detailing heinous crimes- cases of human slavery, sexual assault, extortion, etc.  Participants are asked to talk about their perceptions of these events- when did they happen?  Where did they happen?- and are sobered to hear that a good percentage of the events happened in the US in the last five years.

These activities are an incredibly useful tool in teaching about the food system- they’re a good mix of lightheartedness and hard facts, and force participants to confront the contents and origins of their food.  And isn’t that half the battle?

Time for a New Deal?

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“I tell you frankly that [the Agricultural Adjustment Act] is a new and untrod path, but… an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means to rescue agriculture.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 16, 1933[1]

So pontificated FDR when he sent his draft of the AAA to Congress. I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a fair amount on New Deal legislation—it marked a huge change in American agricultural policy. FDR’s policies legislated direct government involvement in farming practices and land use of individual farmers, which was revolutionary—it was the first legislation of its kind of be implemented on such a massive scale.

Roosevelt was acting at a time of national crisis—hundreds of thousands of people were in dire straits, farmers included.  There had been murmurings over the previous decade about making the kind of changes that the AAA finally legislated—price supports, purchase of surplus by the government, etc.  In the eleventh hour, the government enacted decisive legislation that took effective steps to address the problem.

A lot of conservatives then (and some conservatives now), say that the New Deal only prolonged the depression by preventing the free market from correcting itself–but the laws of capitalism and the laws of nature don’t play well together.  Nature when forced to obey the laws of economics wreaks havoc- supply and demand combined with the seasonal nature of crops tends to be a recipe for disaster without intervention.  Industry given free reign over agriculture– combined with a variety of other things, of course- created quite the perfect storm.

Sound familiar?

The New Deal was critically effective at addressing the problems that it was given, and revolutionized American agriculture in doing so.  Say what you want of the system that it created (and I will, and do!), but hunger in the US today is much less common than it was pre-New Deal.

Today we’re facing truly unprecedented conditions—a meteoric rise in obesity and its related illnesses, truckloads of unhealthy food depleting our soil and our pockets, and widespread disenfranchisement from our most basic food sources and knowledge.  The Agricultural Adjustment Act overhauled our food system at a time when it was desperately needed.  Has that time come again?


[1] Rasmussen, Wayne D. “New Deal Agricultural Policies after Fifty Years.” Minnesota Law Review (1983): 356. Print.