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!

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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

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

foodhub_logo_4c

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.

Community Gardening: a concrete step towards a better food system

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Beautiful community garden in Idaho!

America as it exists now devotes massive swaths of the South and Midwest for production of both food and commodity crops, but localized community gardens would provide for a more stable, economically viable food system.  Rather than massive egg-producing factories (not hen-houses!) in North Carolina or corn farms in Iowa feeding the entire nation, a localized and regional method of food production would make more sense from an economic as well as a community standpoint.   By focusing on construction of community gardens, society can make great strides towards being more successful and sustainable.  By using a selection of readings as a springboard for exploration into the benefits of community gardening, the benefits that gardens bring to their neighborhoods become clear.

Much like the triad of nonprofits, gardeners, and governments that work together in tandem to reap the best benefits from community gardens, these readings play off of each other’s strengths and address each other’s weaknesses.  Nowtopia provides an outline of how community gardens are working in America today as a jumping off point, while The Transition Companion lays out how to create and propagate them to help create the sustainable metropolises seen in Register’s Ecocities.

Nowtopia demonstrates the success that community gardens have had in the United States throughout the 20th century and how they exist today.  In World War I, the establishment of intensive ‘victory gardens’ produced $520 million worth of food within two seasons, while in World War II, those same victory gardens provided 40% of America’s vegetable supply (Nowtopia, 83).   However, they began to decline in the post-war years, and in the 1970s funding for them was cut drastically.  Simultaneously, however, hippies and other counterculture activists were planting community gardens on vacant lots and popularizing a ‘back to the land’ movement’; the community gardens we see today are the heirs of victory gardens but the product of the hard work of counter-culture gardeners.

Today, community gardens are part of a movement that seeks to fight against corporatization of the food system.  Despite a lack of government funding, they have proved themselves to be exceptionally productive and sustainable endeavors.  However, by broadening the scope of the movement—making it about more than just counter-culture (although obviously its counter-culture roots remain an integral part of the movement), community gardens can become an everyday part of life for a broad scope of society.  The Detroit Agriculture Network puts it well when they emphasize that their community gardens aren’t just about food:  “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time” (Nowtopia, 91).

By establishing even half as many community gardens as there once were victory gardens, the government can maximize food subsidy dollars both in terms of nutrition and in terms of production.  The American food system is fundamentally skewed by our current subsidy system:  unhealthy choices are the cheaper ones, as massive amounts of taxpayer dollars are funneled into the pockets of agribusiness and food processing corporations (Hamerschlag, “Subsidy Buffet”).

Federal and state governments could support peoples’ health and local economies by making community supported agriculture (CSA) shares an option for EBT and WIC participants.  Community supported agriculture shares involve an individual paying a farm a certain amount of money for a weekly ‘share,’ or box of vegetables grown on the farm or in the garden.  In this way, the farmer is guaranteed income at the beginning of the season when it’s most needed, and the consumer is guaranteed a large quantity of inexpensive produce.  This system would work excellently in community gardens, enabling gardeners to purchase needed resources and guaranteeing them a steady market while ensuring a flow of inexpensive, healthy food towards low income groups.

By creating locally-based food systems reliant on human labor and urban cultivation, there will be less reliance on unhealthy food in ‘food deserts’ such as inner cities and rural areas.  Residents will be enabled to either grow food in the gardens for cheap or benefit from low-cost community supported agriculture programs.

The Transition Companion, a guide to creating more sustainable communities from a grassroots perspective, provides a concrete guide for how to go about establishing these gardens on a larger scale, complete with examples of previous communities who have established them.  It proposes an alternate model of consumption based on a district-region-nation model, wherein goods and services are divided up by whether they should be produced on a local level (like crops and waste recycling) or on a larger scale (like electricity, building materials, and machinery) (The Transition Companion, 50).  It lays out concrete steps towards achieving Register’s “ecocity” model and discusses the successes and failures of previous projects, making future projects more feasible.  Building upon the foundations laid by modern urban community garden efforts seen in Nowtopia, it aims to give readers the tools to turn community gardening and other sustainable building efforts into a concrete movement with tangible goals for broad swaths of society.

Finally, Ecocities is the end goal—sustainable cities where human potential is maximized while deleterious effects on the environment are minimized.  Register argues that cities need to be rebuilt along ecological purposes.  Community gardens are the perfect first step towards ecologically focused cities:  they promote land stewardship, productive use of compact space, and a sustainable food system.  He argues that buildings need to be conceived not only as standalone structures, but as part of greater communities (Register, 33), which community gardens will help to foster.  By bringing residents of a particular area together, gardens create the dialogue necessary to communicate needs with developers and local government in order to ensure communally-focused building projects.

Register advocates redesigning cities and suburbs to maximize population density, and establishing neighborhood gardens are a solid step towards ensuring that people have a stake in their community and are willing to change it for the better.   Residents of a particular neighborhood or town aren’t going to be willing to make drastic changes overnight (or at all) if they don’t feel connected to a community that will benefit; it’s human nature to want to take care of one’s own.  Community gardens help ensure that ‘one’s own’ includes one’s neighbors—and thus they are an integral part not only of growing food, but of growing community.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns.” EWG .Agriculture. Environmental Working Group, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Murphy, J. Michael. “The Edible Schoolyard: Improving Behaviour and Academic Results.” .Scribd. Botanical Garden UC, Center for Ecoliteracy, Apr. 2003. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Smith, Christopher M., and Hilda E. Kurtz. “Community Gardens And Politics Of Scale In New York City.” Geographical Review 93.2 (2003): 193-212.

Schmelzkopf, Karen. “Urban community gardens as contested space.” Geographical Review (1995): 364-381.

Baker, Lauren E. “Tending Cultural Landscapes And Food Citizenship In Toronto’s Community Gardens.” Geographical Review 94.3 (2004): 305-325.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Companion. N.p.: Chelsea Green, 2011. Print.

Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today. Oakland, CA: AK, 2008. Print.

Register, Richard. Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola, BC: New Society, 2006. Print.