What’s on your plate?

Wow, it’s been a crazy few weeks!

Over the past three weeks I turned in the first draft of my thesis (the thesis that inspired this blog!), hosted a lovely friend who came down to visit for a week, and then attended the NOFA-VT conference in Burlington, VT.  It’s been hectic, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular posting schedule- I’ve missed things around here!

On Friday I’ll be posting a recap of an excellent workshop I attended with the purchasing director of a major catering company about effecting meaningful change through institutional partnerships.  In the meantime, here’s an awesome video from the University of Vermont Continuing Ed on food systems- it’s an informative and entertaining overview of food issues in the US today.  Got someone who’s interested in food issues but doesn’t know where to start?  This is for them!


Do as I say, not as I fund…

How the government says people should eat, courtesy of ChooseMyPlate.gov…

…and how the government is funding those options (note: ‘protein’ here is code for ‘meat’). Courtesy of the EWG Farm Subsidy Database.

the writing on the wall?

Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976

I came across something really striking in my research today—I’m reading an old paper written by Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.  This is the guy who promoted ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ planting, opened up US markets to foreign trade (which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself—except that it opened them up to the volatility of the global market and lead to a mild depression in the 80s) and promoted a ‘get big or get out’ policy that was good for industry and bad for most farmers.  He was a controversial figure who came to represent the first of the ‘revolving door’ agriculture politicians—lawmakers and bureaucrats within the government who had extremely close ties to industry.  He would eventually leave his post in disgrace, but he left an enormous legacy in terms of business-oriented (and partisan) farm policy.

He was already an accomplished agricultural economist and the head of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department in 1952 when he gave a speech on the politics of agricultural subsidies[1].  In it, he offers a comprehensive critique of US domestic agricultural policy and analyzes the political climate leading up to the ’52 presidential elections.  I’m surprised by how much I like the guy—he’s concise and funny, and we agree on a lot of things when it comes to farm policy (chief among them that farm subsidies are out of hand).

However, what struck me the most was his analysis of the political climate under which farm policy was forced to operate.  Butz is harsh in his condemnation of Truman’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan’s partisan and anti-farmer endeavors but adds an interesting caveat:

I am not being critical of Mr. Brannan, the person, when I say that. I am convinced that, given time, a new Secretary of Agriculture, under a Republican administration, would be subject to identically the same temptations and the same pressures to use the system just at [sic] it is now being used… the temptation to use this set-up for political purposes is, I think, almost beyond the power of human resistance for anyone who operates in the political environment in which cabinet members must function.

Makes you wonder- this is the same guy who came to popularize unwise farming purposes that benefited his administration in its political goals (i.e., through food diplomacy, especially in regards to the Soviet Union) while arguably helping orchestrate the demise of the small-scale farmer.  What do you make of this?

[1] The Politics of Agricultural Subsidies

Earl L. Butz

Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science
Vol. 25, No. 1, The Election Issues of 1952 (May, 1952), pp. 54-68

Published by: The Academy of Political Science



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.

Would you buy ugly fruit?

There’s a cool article on the Grist today talking about selling ‘sub-standard’ apples for cheaper- this is an excellent way to both cut down on food waste and to make good, fresh produce more affordable.  Food waste in America is embarrassing- one 2004 study estimates that we waste 40-50% of our food.  One of the many reasons for this lies in grocery stores’ reluctance to sell ‘imperfect’ produce– not spoiled or old produce, but imperfect produce- for example, peaches that are too small or apples that have a smaller than desirable proportion of red to green coloring.  Seriously.

A consequence of this perfectionist view, though, is that we’re drastically reducing the amount of food that we consider fit for grocery store consumption, where most of the country gets its fruit.  And by doing that, we’re driving up produce prices.  The company in this article works with suppliers and grocery stores to create a supply of cheaper, imperfect produce– food that’s still fit for consumption, of course, but that’s not as pretty as the standard we’ve set.

So what do you think?  Would you buy imperfect produce if it was cheaper?  I know that I always loved it when the grocery store I worked at over the summer put out it’s 6-for-$1 bags of funny looking but incredibly fresh apples and peaches (cobbler, anyone?)- but do you think that this is a viable model?

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?

Regional Food Hubs


Another cool project by students at the WPI Center for Sustainable Food Systems focused on building a regional food hub in Southern New Hampshire.  I had heard of food hubs in the past, but didn’t give them too much thought (this was especially obtuse of me considering that I worked with the people behind the Intevale Food Hub last summer).  Turns out, food hubs are a really cool way for small-scale diversified farmers to build their markets.

One of the problems facing small-scale farmers is that it can often be difficult for them to find markets outside of CSAs or farmers markets, which constrains them to a relatively small consumer base.  The small scale of their operations also prevents them from accessing institutional markets, like nursing homes or schools.  These larger markets need a larger-scale food supply that can ensure their ability to feed large numbers of consumers.  These markets tend to be more stable, however, as they are reliable buyers over long periods of time.

Food hubs act as a middleman to bridge that gap:  they aggregate products from several small farms in one area and then sell those products to larger markets.  The aggregate nature of food hubs enables them to provide the consistency that these larger markets needs, and can also act as a low-commitment CSA for beginning farmers.  Instead of having to provide large amounts of food for weekly CSA pickups, a number of beginning farmers can contribute smaller amounts of their produce to a food hub CSA.

Food hubs are a way for small farmers to gain broader access to markets, and this particular project focused on building a physical structure for this farmer.  It was a wonderful application of engineering knowledge towards food system problems!  I had no idea that food hubs served this purpose, but what a great way to increase farmers’ access to markets!

WPI sustainability projects

I saw a couple of great presentations from Worcester Polytechnic students at the NOFA-Mass conference- they were from WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and their projects revolved around using practical engineering knowledge to solve social problems.  It seems to me to be an excellent way to apply learned knowledge while benefiting the local community- and the students definitely didn’t disappoint!  The groups had a number of different ideas, but one that especially stuck out to me was a project that focused on the whys and hows of youth eating habits.

Specifically, this group was looking at why high school students eat unhealthy food, and applied techniques borrowed from anti-smoking campaigns to help them combat this.  Chief among these techniques is peer-led introspection, a process by which one member of the student group leads the others in keeping and subsequently discussion ‘food journals.’

There are two phases to the journaling process:  the first week, students write down everything they eat and discuss it.  The second week, the students are asked to make note of the food advertisements around them.  The peer leaders again lead the students in discussion about the advertisements, this time looking at overlaps between the food journals and the advertisement journals.

This is an excellent exercise in mindful eating, for lack of a better term- why do we eat the things we eat?  What influences us to make those choices?  I’ve pointed out earlier that knowledge is power- the more you know, the less likely you are to fall prey to misleading advertising or unhealthy foods.  By directly confronting both their eating habits and their food environments, the students are facing that interconnectedness head on.  Hopefully this kind of exercise will help them become engaged, savvy eaters- this is the kind of activity that’s beneficial regardless of age.

Time for a New Deal?



“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.

Nature’s Perfect Food

We all think of milk as a healthy food- but why?  Turns out, the present day isn’t the only time when political issues were reflected in food issues- E. Melanie DuPuis in her book Nature’s Perfect Food traces the story of milk through American history.  She chronicles its rise to prominence as an instrument of Christian revivalist movements of the nineteenth century and the construction of a massive distribution and promotion industry around it as a result of its purported perfection.  She focuses on the societal beliefs and forces that contributed to its status as a daily necessity- of particular interest to me was the role that government played. The relationship between the milk industry and the government illuminates both the successes and the limitations of the industrial food system, and can inform a fruitful discussion around the creation of a more sustainable food system.

milk-advertisement-wpa-art-program-1940Both government and industry have had a hand in shaping perceptions of the rise of industrial agriculture, and recognizing this (as opposed to thinking of industrial agriculture as a natural consequence of modernity) leads to a deeper understanding of the society and food system that we live in.  The perfection narrative- i.e., the idea that society is forever improving and moving towards perfection- of the government and industry groups (and the polarizing decline narrative of some consumerist and anti-corporate groups) perpetuates the idea of the industrial food system as inevitable:  in order to maintain the quality of life that we enjoy today, industrial agriculture as it exists today is an indispensible necessity.  DuPuis’ comparison to the Cold War is apt here:  much like pro- and anti-industry groups, both the Soviet Union and the United States were convinced that they had created the ‘perfect’ system, and there was no room for argument (214).  In the words of George Bush, repeated throughout his presidency, “you’re either with us… or you’re with the enemy.  There is no in between.”

This Manichaeist sentiment is inherently polarizing and doesn’t allow for productive discourse.  Not only does it create a considerable degree of animosity among groups working towards the same goal (a healthy, profitable, sustainable food system) but it denies crucial nuance.  By recognizing this divisive element of the political discourse surrounding the food system, one can clean a more comprehensive understanding of how to reform it.  In order to effect meaningful change, all perspectives must be considered, from recognizing the gains that the industrial food system has provided to acknowledging the valid claims of those who speak out against it.

For better or for worse, change must come from inside the system if it is to be meaningful, because to live as a member of society is to life inside the industrial food system.  Downfall narratives paint modern society, the government, and technology as the problem with the food system, but an anarcho-Luddite approach won’t benefit many people, if anyone.  Society, government, and technology are tools that can be used for good or bad; denying them that power would be to deny a good-food movement the avenue to succeed.  In order to become successful and effect lasting change, a movement must consider a holistic approach to both the cause and the solution—no single factor created the evils of the industrial food system, and no single reform will fix it.

Milk is not a perfect food, because nothing is a perfect food; despite Americans’ obsession with ‘superfoods,’ the only way to get a healthy diet is to consume a variety of healthy foods.  DuPuis’ thorough and repeated rejection of the perfection narrative provides a valuable common-sense counterpoint to the claims of both pro- and anti-milk crusaders:  there is no perfect food, and to subsidize industries as though there were is foolhardy and expensive. Government partnerships with ‘virtuous’ big business informed by deeply-held but not necessarily scientifically valid socially constructed beliefs do infinitely more harm than good.

The allowances that government has made to large corporations in the past twenty years has galvanized people—controversies surrounding rBGH milk struck a chord with consumers across America and introduced many people to the faults of the existing power politics surrounding food.  Writing blank checks to industries considered by some to be socially beneficial has proven questionable to public health, and people have reacted— it would be similar to the government subsidizing Twinkies because Twinkies were seen by some as wholesome and healthy.

The rise of organic milk without the support of the massive government and business infrastructure built around conventional milk over the last century attests to the fact that consumers (a word that interchangeable with ‘citizens’ in an interesting comment on modern America) retain a considerable degree of power.  Consumer awareness is increasing, and dismissal of ‘tofu politics’ (222) is unwise; this  idea that ‘the personal is political’ united people from all walks of life to mobilize their personal concerns for societal good in feminism’s second wave.

Organic milk is not the only proof of this; the explosive growth of organic agriculture, farmer’s markets, and even moves towards more humanitarian meat sourcing by major food providers and fast food restaurants.[1]  Powerful and deep-pocketed forces are arrayed against consumer awareness groups—the defeat of California Proposition 37 comes to mind here—but doesn’t that make the sentiment all the stronger, that despite this it has pervaded the national consciousness to the extent that it has?

The increasing awareness around food issues over the last few years, both by government and by private industry, suggests that consumers do have political authority—voting with one’s dollars is a powerful form of voting indeed.  But is there a way to harness this individual action into a broader form of activism?  Can there be a national movement, along the line of the populist agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, advocating a healthier food system?

DuPuis makes a valid point when she says that you can’t change the entire system by changing one element; you have to situate the problem in its sociopolitical and economic context (209).  Why is milk (or cheap ground beef, or a Happy Meal) so important?  To what end was the industrial food system created?  How can we achieve those same goals in a more sustainable manner?

She also cites veganism and vegetarianism as two movements that start as personal choices but create ‘communities of practice’ (217) that make their practitioners feel part of a larger whole, and thus more apt to advocate for their shared beliefs.  By considering the perils of perfection narratives, recognizing the power of consumers to effect change, and making a concerted effort towards the creation of communities of practice, I would argue that DuPuis lays a firm foundation for the construction of a stronger sustainable food movement.  By examining the relationships between government and industry, social movements and consumer behavior through milk, she analyzes the successes and failures of previous movements and provides a solid jumping off point for food advocates.

So what can we take away form this?  How can the milk narrative inform a discussion on healthy and sustainable food moving forward?  How can the relationship between government and milk illuminate the successes and limitations of the industrial food system?  And finally, what do you think would be the most effective way to effect change in the food system?

[1] Greenaway, Twilight. “Food Mega-wholesaler Sysco Pledges to Liberate Pigs from Crates.” Grist. Grist Magazine, 25 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://grist.org/factory-farms/sysco-the-company-that-bring-you-most-of-the-food-you-eat-dumps-gestation-crates/&gt;.