Articles in Politicians
As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.
But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.
"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon
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One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.
It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.
Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.
And that’s the good news.
The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.
Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.
Hard times can happen to anyone
I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle class, closer to upper-middle class growing up, I’d never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind — food stamps.
Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)
I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.
I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn’t squander precious food-stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.
Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.
I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.
In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, nutrition, doesn’t mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?
But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP’s education funding had already been cut.
Food stamps benefits multiply
Every time an EBT card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. For example, the federal reimbursement of an 89-cent head of broccoli benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition — for the full 89 cents.
Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.
If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.
Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn
Editor’s note: With the subject “A prosperous future for all: Gender, climate change and biodiversity in a globalized world,” Zester Daily contributor Trine Hahnemann spoke in New York last week at a United Nations event. Hahnemann, a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of 10 cookbooks, was invited by the Nordic Council of Ministers to participate on the panel.
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Organizers explained that people assume that women and men affect the climate in the same way, and that climate change affects both genders identically. But women’s and men’s lifestyles, behaviors and consumption are often different, and they leave a different environmental footprint. Hahnemann capsulizes the issues for Zester readers below.
How does being a chef and a woman affect your perspective on climate change?
I see the world through food; I have cooked hundreds of thousands of meals in my career. My cooking can only be as diverse and tasty as the produce that the farmers grow. I need diverse products to choose from.
My main focus is on vegetables and grains. I like fish and meat, but not necessarily as the centre of thinking and cooking a meal. I believe we need to change our diet so that 80% of our meals come from vegetables and grains and 20% from animals.
That is a radical change of the diet in many parts of the world, though of course not in India or China, and most parts of Africa. I think we in the Nordic countries should be leading this change, but also show flexibility in its implementation.
We have to change into a more climate-friendly diet: a diet of seasonal vegetables and fruit, more grains, less meat and dairy products. The New Nordic food movement includes ideas to change our daily diet. The new Nordic is in my opinion a frame to understand how this could be a worldwide movement about eating local produce but exchange the ideas globally.
How have our changing, globalizing eating habits affected climate change?
In 2012 in Brazil I met a group of female chefs who wanted to draw attention to organic farming and the use of local produce. One of their focuses was manioc, an indigenous root vegetable, which is not as important in Brazilian food culture as it used to be. It has lost popularity in the competition with wheat. Wheat is not grown in big quantities in Brazil; it is imported.
Brazilians also grow soya and maize, which are exported around the planet to feed cows, even though cows can’t really digest corn but should be eating grass, clover and hay. To do this, Brazilian farmers have cut down the rain forest.
This is an example of how we have changed our diet over the last 50 years. Instead of a diet that relied relatively little on protein, most developed countries eat a diet where about 50% of our calories come from protein from animals. This has had a huge impact on the climate. We have contributed to climate change just by the way we eat. About 18% of greenhouse emissions come from livestock. How we eat in the future is very important when it comes to climate change.
For their part, the Brazilian female chefs pledged to use of manioc in meals at all levels, from fine dining to street food to school lunches.
It can be used for many things, including baking, being cracked like bulgur, sauces and as crisp topping on food.
How is this a women’s issue?
Men and women work from different perspectives. In many aspects, men are more technical; they invent machines, they look for more technical solutions. They are more competitive and are looking for prestige and position and, therefore, the Michelin star system and acknowledgment like that is often very appealing to men.
Women are the ambassadors for the everyday meal. To change the way we eat we need women to take leadership. They cook public meals, which means they cook in hospitals, kindergartens, schools and elderly homes. Women, for the most part, prepare the daily meals in the households. The famous Michelin male chefs can make the light shine and create focus and attention on important issues, but they cannot make the change; they cook for the rich.
What can communities do to contribute?
One way forward is to create action around the way we eat locally, support organic farming and people who work toward a more holistic solution and look at the land and the people around them.
We need poly-faced farms with sustainable holistic systems where nature, humans and food are at the centre. Biodiversity is life, and maintaining biodiversity is therefore a key to understanding sustainable living on all levels, giving back to nature the same resources we are using, keeping the balance. Women around the world have to be an active part of ensuring that, and it should be a human right, that everybody has a right to decent meal day.
Top photo: Chef and author Trine Hahneman. Credit: Courtesy of the author
Kimbal Musk has an audacious plan to destroy America’s appetite for junk food.
His big idea? Plastic.
Musk wants to revolutionize Alice Waters‘ concept of school gardens as societal change agents by making the gardens easy to build and maintain. More gardens will be installed and more students will learn the joy of growing and eating healthy fruits and vegetables.
As it is, Musk says, school gardens are a laudable idea that is dying on the vine. Raised wooden beds that look pretty when they are first planted disintegrate in a few short years. The alternative — concrete beds — is an ugly, expensive and permanent albatross schools grow to hate. Tear up school-yard blacktop to create green space? No public school has that kind of money.
Musk made it a personal project to design a solution. His modular plastic garden containers snap together to create customizable outdoor classrooms that can sit on top of existing hard scape. His concept is so slap-your-head simple that less than a year after launching his nonprofit Learning Gardens, Musk has commitments for at least 60 gardens each from Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado to be installed by the end of 2013.
“I want to make the school-garden movement work,” says Musk, who was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to witness the planting of two giant gardens, a total of 3,000 square feet dedicated to fruits and vegetables, at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A.
The key to ensuring that the gardens flourish is local control. Musk partners with a local sponsor, who raises the funds and works with the individual schools to design the gardens. “I don’t make a dime from this,” says Musk, “which gives us credibility with the people raising money to build these gardens.”
The Wasserman Foundation, led by sports business entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, took the lead at Gompers providing all of the funding and 100 Wasserman employees for the planting.
If gardens increase student engagement, they are a good investment, says Wasserman. “The success of our kids in our schools is the leading issue for our city.”
High tech and an apron
Musk comes to the school garden party with a rare combination of technology expertise and kitchen cred. In 1995 at 23, he and his brother Elon founded Zip2, an early content management system that provided the first maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. The company built online restaurant and city guides in partnership with 100 major media companies, including the New York Times. It was sold in 1999 to Compaq for a reported $307 million.
Among several investments in startup software and technology companies, Musk helped his brother launch the company that would become PayPal. That venture was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock. Elon used his winnings to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors while Kimbal redirected his energies into his passion for food, attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
After traveling the country with his wife in search of a community to call their own, the Musk family settled in Boulder, Colo., and, in 2004, the couple opened The Kitchen. Its composting, wind-powered, recycle-everything culture earned immediate applause from Boulder’s environmental community. Food critics from across the country raved about Musk’s garden-fresh cuisine featuring ingredients harvested from the massive garden he planted near the restaurant.
Turning point for more than Kimbal Musk
From the earliest days, Musk’s vision included a modest nonprofit to support school gardens, an effort he named The Kitchen Community. The huge leap from supporting Boulder-area school gardens to today’s sweeping ambition to build gardens in every school in the country came after nearly dying in a tubing accident 2½ years ago.
“After my accident, the stuff that mattered was stuff that made a difference in the world, not the stuff that made money,” Musk says in his soft South African accent, a lingering artifact from his childhood in Pretoria. He moved to Canada when he was 18.
“After Kimbal broke his neck, it super-charged the giving philosophy,” says Travis Robinson, Kitchen Community managing director, who also traveled from Boulder to help with the Gompers planting. “Kimbal is a visionary, but he is pragmatic. It’s step by step, day by day to create communities and empower people.”
Building school gardens costs a fraction of what it would cost to lobby Congress to change farm policy, says Musk. And in the long run, it is the more effective way to change society. “Start with the young, work with them until they are adults, and they will demand real food. When you have the demand, you can change the government policies that create McDonald’s and junk food.”
“I knew if I could make this work in the South Side of Chicago with $2 million, I could raise $2 billion and make it work everywhere,” he says. “We will have gardens in about 20% of Chicago’s schools. That’s a critical mass of students, enough for a movement that can change the food culture in that city. You do it child by child.”
Students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Musk’s novel approach. Last May, I asked Musk for help on a project to overhaul the outdoor space for a shelter for homeless female veterans. The backyard of the Venice, Calif., home was one giant cement slab, and they wanted a vegetable garden.
Musk came to the rescue with a “starter garden” that could sit on the cement. The lady vets loved how they could move the modules around to redesign their garden whenever they felt like a change.
Building the demand for fresh, wholesome food one person at a time.
Photo: Kimbal Musk with a student and special education teacher Holly Driscoll at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
In the face of global economic uncertainty, a nail-biting presidential election and record-breaking temperatures, my problem might seem small. Even at a half-inch long. Let me assure you, it isn’t.
For as long as I can recall, my guilty pleasure was Jelly Bellies, a mouthwatering burst of exquisite flavor. Toasted Marshmallow. Cream Soda. Café Latte. Until last Halloween that is, when I discovered that my high-priced sugar fix was being used to game the democratic system. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the floodgates were opened for Herman Rowland Sr., chairman of the board of the Jelly Belly Candy Co., to put his money where his heart is. And apparently, his heart is filled with the causes embraced by the Tea Party, Rick Santorum and other uber-conservatives.
It was OpenSecrets.org, the nonpartisan guide to money in politics, that burst my Jelly Belly bubble. I knew of Ronald Reagan’s jelly bean fixation. But I had no idea how far right of the Gipper the company tilted. Over the past two years, Rowland, his family and the Jelly Belly company (which also makes candy corn) have poured more than $100,000 into conservative candidates and causes, including political action committees and super PACS with flag-waving names like Tea Party Express, Citizens for Economic and National Security, and Americans for Accountability in Leadership.
No easy sweet spot for politically progressive candy
I clearly needed a new sugar fix. A Google search for “progressive jelly beans” returned 567,000 hits. Topping the list was a customized jelly bean gift company and a record titled “Jelly Bean” by a musician named Kinky Koala. How about “progressive companies”? Up popped Progressive Insurance and an article from Daily Kos about how to be a progressive company. Hint: Focus on core values. Nice advice, but no closer to filling my candy jar.
I’d already shared the bad news with my daughter, who immediately shelved her plans for a Jelly Belly candy table at her wedding. Honestly, it didn’t take much persuading. She’s a marine biologist, and for years, she has been helping me align my stomach and a better world. Thanks to her – and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch — I will never again enjoy Beluga caviar with sour cream and blintzes.
The helpful folks at OpenSecrets.org sent me a copy of the “The Blue Pages,” their in-depth ranking of companies based on their political contributions and practices. But a quick perusal of the 4,500 listings found no jelly bean producers, progressive or otherwise.
My next Google search – “rating companies by politics” — seemed promising. It took me to the GoodGuide’s Vote With Your Dollars Web page, which ranks major corporations based on their political contributions. Unfortunately, no candy producers were listed there either. GoodGuide’s smartphone app, where consumers can scan bar codes and retrieve product rankings by health, environmental and social performance, has been downloaded more than 1 million times.
But Dara O’Rourke, a University of California, Berkeley associate professor and co-founder of GoodGuide, said his job is getting tougher. Citizens United has made it much easier for corporations and wealthy individuals to disguise their political leanings while tilting the electoral playing field to their advantage. “A lot more money is flowing and it’s harder to see even than it was two years ago,” he said. “We’re really trying to play catch-up.”
O’Rourke warned me that consumer advocates aren’t big fans of the candy industry, citing concerns about links to childhood obesity and exploitative labor practices, particularly in the cocoa bean industry. “Have you considered making homemade jelly beans?” Clearly he hadn’t toured the Jelly Belly factory in Northern California, where visitors learn about the French-inspired, 21-day process that goes into the creation of a single jelly bean.
And then … the buzz words for politically progressive candy
O’Rourke’s advice? Look for a jelly bean made by a fair trade or organic company committed to progressive causes. That led me to Bert Cohen, the president of TruSweets, the Illinois-based producer of SurfSweets jelly beans and gummy bears. His candies are made with natural or organic ingredients, such as fruit juice and tapioca syrup.
Cohen set me straight. “We are politically agnostic. We are solely focused on producing better-for-you products that people can enjoy whether they have food allergies or not.” (Cohen came up clean in the OpenSecrets.org database.) But apolitical doesn’t necessarily mean uninvolved. Cohen donates a portion of his company’s profits to causes his customers deem important: energy conservation, a healthy ocean, dealing with food allergies. “We’re more about bringing people together than dividing them,” he told me.
I could live with that. More than anything else, I value transparency and honesty in politics. If the profits from my jelly bean addiction are funding solar panels in schools rather than misleading, anger-filled political ads, I am happy. So I’ve made the switch. If you come to my door on Halloween, expect to find SurfSweets Gummy Spiders in your bag. Or maybe an organic apple.
Photo: Jelly beans. Credit: Evelyn Iritani
Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, is the author of the new release “The End of Cheap China,” which addresses, among other things, food safety and food supply issues in China.
Rein’s research shows that China is having an increasing impact on global food supply and that the Chinese taste for imported Western food is growing as is demand for a reliable and safe food system in that country.
Based in Shanghai, he writes for Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek. I spoke recently to Rein about his book chapter dedicated to food safety issues in China.
How is the consumer power of the average Chinese changing?
The book is meant to dispel a lot of myths about China’s economy. The first is that Chinese consumers are price-sensitive and cheap. I have a chapter on food safety, where I explain that they’re willing to spend money on healthy and safe food, so if you’re a producer, it’s worth selling into China. For example, Yum! Brands makes over 40 percent of its global revenue in China. So the Chinese consumer is a great consumer for Yum!, McDonald’s, Kraft and any company trying to sell finished products into the country.
It’s also a great country for the agricultural sector: sales of pork and soy are going up 300 to 400 percent a year.
How is this affecting the way the Chinese eat? How has that changed in recent years?
Meat consumption was very low. Meat consumption in China is only about 35 percent that of the United States, So, Americans eat a lot more meat, but that is changing. Chinese doubled (their average per person) meat consumption in the last 30 years. As Chinese consumers are getting wealthier, they’re eating more meats, and (the country’s wealthiest consumers) are actually willing to spend more per capita on meat than (their counterparts do) in the United States.
Are they domestically producing different kinds of foods to meet those demands?
Yeah, what you’re seeing now is massive investment on the domestic side when it comes to beef, when it comes to wine … all kinds of things. But the reality is that China’s food system has a problem: There’s not enough arable land, and the water is heavily polluted. So China is actually going to have to rely on food imports, from the United States especially, and they’re becoming a massive importer of pork, chicken feet, soybeans, pistachios, all kinds of products. These consumers trust American-produced food products more than they do stuff from China. So it’s really a boom for all different industries involved in the food sector. On the lower end and higher end.
Arable land is only 7 percent (of that available around the world), so it’s a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse going forward.
What are you noticing in terms of the impact on health in the way Chinese are changing their food consumption behaviors?
Right now, consumers are not worried that much about food when it comes to “is it healthy?” towards their overall diet. They’re eating meat, they’re eating fatty food, and they’re not overly concerned about long-term illnesses, which is why you’re seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketing.
But people are worried about being healthy from a toxicity standpoint. We interviewed 2,000 consumers in eight cities last year, and the majority said they feel that KFC, for instance, is healthy. They know it’s not healthy in the traditional sense, but people are worried about eating cooking swill oil [that is old, used oil which is filtered of solids and then re-used for cooking] on the streets, and dying right away.
What are the food safety concerns Chinese have, beyond swill oil?
We interviewed 5,000 consumers in 15 cities last year, and their biggest concern in life, ahead of being able to pay for their kid’s education or for medical costs for the family, is actually food and product safety. People are really worried. That’s why brands like Mengniu Dairy are winning, because they’re positioned as higher priced over Nestlé, they’re about 20-30 percent more (expensive), and consumers are willing to fork out the money because they think it’s going to be safe. So Dannon and Nestlé had to shut their factories in Shanghai this year, because they were competing on price and consumers didn’t want their cheap stuff anymore. Consumers find a correlation between safety and price, and feel higher price will be safe. Now I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in reality, but that’s how they equate it.
In your opinion, how are China’s consumption trends affecting the world beyond?
[They are affecting the world] in a few areas. First, China’s become the market to sell into, so a lot of brands need to think about how they’re going to sell to Chinese consumers, especially women, because women are the decision-makers when it comes to food purchases, predominantly, in families.
It’s also going to mean that there’s going to be inflation. In the last three decades, China has really been a deflationary force on the global economy. But because everyone’s getting fat, and wanting to eat more, better quality foods, you’re going to see a pricing strain on global commodity markets. So the world needs to be prepared for global inflation. American consumers better get used to higher prices at Shaw’s, or Tesco or Carrefour or Walmart, around the world.
Will the Chinese agricultural and food production systems have to change?
They absolutely will have to change. It’s an absolute mess, it’s a disaster, and an embarrassment for China to have such a poor food supply system. Though it’s being changed by two things.
The first is, the government understands it needs to do a better job of oversight. So what they’ve done is shut 50 percent of the nation’s dairies last year, for example.
The real change is going to take place by people willing to spend money when they feel that they’re safe. So brands are going to fix their supply chain and cater to these consumers and make money. The scope of the problem is enormous.
Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.
Photo: Author Shaun Rein. Credit: Courtesy of Shaun Rein
Mitt Romney caught a lot of flak in February when he told CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien that he was “not concerned about the very poor” because they have a “safety net.” While his opponents, Republicans and Democrats, took full advantage of the opportunity to capitalize on yet another Romney gaffe, the debate failed to bring attention to how inadequate that safety net is when it comes to meeting the needs of the poor and working class in this country. Furthermore, not a peep was uttered to address the fact that the “safety net,” holes and all, is under attack.
Thanks in part to the ongoing recession, the number of Americans living in poverty today has ballooned to 49.1 million. To keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, more families than ever are seeking public aid: unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (formerly known as welfare), food stamps. While the most obvious benefit of these programs is to help families in need, the entitlements have the added advantage of pushing money back into the economy, supporting business growth and sustaining and creating jobs.
Health-saving coupons create revenue
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, or WIC FMNP, is an ideal example of the positive impact a government intervention can have. Launched in 1992, the program has been providing coupons for low-income women who are pregnant or who have children younger than 5 years old to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. WIC FMNP is a win-win-win proposition, helpful to expecting mothers and parents who struggle to provide wholesome meals for their children; a boon to local farmers who depend on farmers market sales to earn their livelihood and sustain their farms; and a drawing card for low-income neighborhoods that struggle to attract vendors willing to provide fresh food in their communities. The communities with the least access to fresh, healthy food retailers are traditionally the ones most in need of them; lower-income pockets are riven with obesity and other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
In 2010, WIC FMNP helped more than 2.15 million families and provided income of about $22 million to participating family farmers. Despite its relatively small price tag of $20 million (compared to $6 billion for commodity subsidies that same year) and the immediate bang for those bucks in terms of income generation and healthy food supplies, the program was put on the budgetary chopping block by members of Congress in November.
Budget cut affects families and farmers
Congress cut the WIC program’s budget by about 30 percent for 2012. By one estimate, this means some 300,000 families will lose benefits. In addition, the cut will have a serious negative impact on many of the farmers markets operating in low-income and “fresh food desert” communities where the program represents a major source of revenue for small and mid-size local farms.
Farmers market and advocacy groups have been applying pressure to restore funds for the balance of this year as well as working to ensure that funding for WIC FMNP benefits will be restored to 2011 levels in the 2013 budget. Wholesome Wave and Just Food collected signatures from farmers, market managers and organizations before last week’s close of the comment period for the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees. You can still reach out to your representatives, an effort that will have an impact especially if your representative serves on one of the subcommittees. (See sidebar for list.)
Women and children are among the most under-represented voices in government. Please take a moment to let Congress know that WIC FMNP is vital to our markets, our farmers and to mothers and children in need. Tell them to restore the program.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Jacquie Berger, is the executive director of Just Food, a nonprofit that connects New York communities and farms with the resources they need to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all.
Photo: Jacquie Berger. Credit: Courtesy of Just Food
When it comes to food, comments from the 2012 presidential campaign trail sound downright scary. Republican candidates imply they want to emasculate all federal programs directed at food safety. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting a $5-million research program at the Department of Agriculture, the Microbiological Data Program, which tests fruits and vegetables for disease, without first finding a new place in the system to put it, perhaps the Food and Drug Administration. Once cut, it will be so hard to reinstate.
And to hear the candidates talk about deportation and immigration is depressing. Many immigrants are taking jobs in the world of food that no one else wants, like planting and picking our fruit and vegetables, or washing them. But that doesn’t matter to those who want to create a homogeneous America.
Some of the candidates recommend self deportation for reducing immigration populations. This program is based on making life for immigrants as unbearable as possible to force them to leave. Police sweeps of neighborhoods in places like Arizona result in mass arrests, creating fear in all immigrants, legal as well as illegal, and are causing a civil rights emergency.
Rebirth of a neighborhood
That said, I have seen two food films this year, both documentaries, that in some way draw attention to other ways of dealing with immigration and food safety. “City Farmers” was produced and directed by Meryl Joseph. First released in 1998, it recently streamed on the Internet for 48 straight hours. It is a journey of hope down the most corrupted New York City streets where inner-city residents have transformed rubble and rat-infested abandoned land into burgeoning vegetable and flower gardens, according to the movie’s promotional materials. And while there are more than 500 community gardens all over New York City, one of my favorites is on West 89th and 90th streets between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues.
There are more than 20,000 city farmers volunteering their time and labor. This has been going on since 1978, with the support of Green Thumb, an organization that provides programming and materials for community gardens in New York City.
More than 750 abandoned city-owned lots have been transformed into green oases. And as they tend their rows, these farmers remember their earlier lives in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy and elsewhere. They are immigrants sharing their knowledge and experience with city folks who have known nothing but hard concrete under their feet.
The gardens are shared sources of pride in these communities where there was none before. These neighborhood gardens are growing fruits and vegetables as well as respect from the wilder, younger generations, with school kids getting involved and sharing the plots. In these tough neighborhoods, from the oldest to the youngest and in-between, wherever there is a community garden there are miracles happening proving that everyone needs contact with nature. Some of the folks involved in these gardens have never before seen where the food they eat grows.
For immigrants, having a plot in a community garden is a way of entering into the community and growing foods that will feed one’s family along with the neighbors.
Food entrepreneurs on wheels
The other film is Mary Mazzio’s “The Apple Pushers,” narrated by Ed Norton. It chronicles the story of five immigrant micro-entrepreneurs addressing America’s obesity crisis by selling fruits and vegetables in green carts across the under-served (better known as food deserts) of New York City. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund provided money for the film as well as efforts to expand the number of “green carts” in New York City.
It’s an inspiring story that could ideally inform an immigrant looking for a creative, sustainable, entrepreneurial way to make a living while bringing fruits and vegetables to the very neighborhoods where they are needed most, often their own neighborhoods. This will not solve the entire problem of immigration, but it’s one of many viable possibilities.
All of this said, not every immigrant can either afford or is desirous of owning a push cart. And not all of those who get a cart will make it. But the ones who do are going to prosper.
Seeking real solutions
Deportation is not the only solution to immigration reform. And cutting money that would otherwise help to identify unsafe foods that will otherwise slip into the food system seems almost ridiculous. It would be like saying that consumers knowing their farmers will solve everything. Let’s not forget the outbreak last year of listeria in cantaloupe, as well as the alfalfa, tomatoes, lettuce, eggs and meat that sickened so many people. We need a diligent way to constantly monitor food safety. Knowing your farmer helps and knowing where the food on a green cart comes from also helps.
All over the United States, small farmers are taking to rooftops, back yards, and green carts. Let’s help these folks out by shopping at our corner green cart or nearby farmers market. And write to your congressperson to press the Department of Agriculture to formalize the new rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act, which are meant to bolster food safety and hold producers accountable. These measures were supposed to be issued in January.
Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.
Photos, from top:
An urban farmer’s hands from the film “City Farmers.”
A promotional image from “City Farmers.”
Credits: Meryl Joseph
Before you dig into your next meal, consider a few of the things Ben Hewitt has to say in his new book, “Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety”:
- More than 200,000 Americans are sickened by food every day.
- Each year, 325,000 of us will be hospitalized and 5,194 of us will die because we ate contaminated food.
- We now eat hamburgers made from the fleshy bits of hundreds of cows and adulterated with an ammoniated slurry intended to protect us from the real possibility that any one of those cows, which may have come from different continents, was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
- The curtain that hangs between you and where your nourishment originates is thick and dark, and doesn’t come with draw cords.
Hewitt is on a mission to draw back that dark curtain. To that end, he takes readers on an idiosyncratic journey from dumpster diving to President Obama’s food czar. The book begins and ends with peripherally relevant (albeit entertaining) chapters on the “freegan” lifestyle. In between those bookends, “Supper” covers a broad range of important food safety and food system issues, including food-borne illness statistics (more Americans die every year from eating contaminated food than have been killed in Iraq since the outset of the war) and the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies charged with ensuring safe food.
Corporate irresponsibility revealed
Some of the most engaging chapters are those that profile individuals, such as the world’s premier personal injury lawyer specializing in food-borne illness, Bill Marler; the country’s largest producer and most evangelical proponent of raw (unpasteurized) milk, Mark McAfee; the family of a young girl who came close to dying after drinking contaminated raw milk; and the founder of Fedco Seeds, C.R. Lawn, who stopped carrying many favorite vegetable varieties after their owner, Seminis Seeds, was acquired by Monsanto.
Hewitt devotes an entire chapter to multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria, MRSA, which he explains have evolved rapidly in response to the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. This irresponsible use of antibiotics is ushering in what one microbiologist calls “the post-antibiotic era,” when antibiotics will be useless, and what used to be a mild, treatable infection can now kill you.
Another chapter is devoted to the recall of 550 million eggs in August 2010, some four months after the CDC noticed a huge uptick in Salmonella enteridis cases. It took that long to determine that all the people getting sick had eaten eggs and that all those eggs (packaged under 16 brand names and distributed to14 states) had come from the huge salmonella-ridden facilities in Iowa owned by Jack DeCoster.
Near the end of his book, Hewitt points out that, bad as it is that 5,000 people die annually from food-borne illnesses, the figure pales in comparison to the 300,000 people who die each year from food-related health problems other than those caused by bacteria or viruses. He traces the insidious chronic diseases related to obesity and diabetes directly to U.S. agricultural policies of the 1970s. Those policies, along with massive taxpayer subsidies of a few crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, have brought us to the nonsensical world where a carrot straight out of the ground costs more than highly processed food items that go through many stages of manufacturing and many stages of packaging and transportation. Ubiquitous “cheap” food is the culprit in 300,000 deaths a year, and so leads Hewitt to conclude “the unspoken truth about food safety in the United States. Our food doesn’t even need pathogenic bacteria to sicken. It does just fine on its own.”
Consumers are on our own
Making supper safe, then, is a DIY job. When we can’t trust food companies to put consumers’ health over corporate profits and when we can’t trust government to put public health over ties to industry, then people have no choice but to take things into their own hands. And more and more people are growing some of their own food and/or buying from producers operating on a scale and with an ethos that provides a clear view of what, where, how and why that food is produced and processed.
The 16 short, unnamed chapters in Hewitt’s book barely scratch the surface of the complexities of our unsafe food system, but they are a good primer. Taken together with his first book, “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food,” Hewitt has joined the growing cadre of journalists examining food production and consumption, industrial and local. These books run from bestsellers such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” to cult classics such as Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” to genuine classics in the “what corporations are forcing us to eat, drink, and breathe” genre such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream.”
I did have a couple of quibbles with the book. I found the juxtaposition of Hewitt’s glib, folksy commentary and earnest, hard-hitting reporting odd, even jarring at times. Also, I was dismayed to find no footnotes and no bibliography. Food safety is a serious topic and demands serious attribution to give the book credibility, and to point readers to where the author found his facts and where they might go for more in-depth information.
But as it stands, the book is a good introduction to our dangerously opaque food system. It also provides readers with more than a few draw cords to tug on to part those heavy curtains separating us from our food. Only when we insist on transparency can we begin to take back our food system and make supper safe again.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Images: Ben Hewitt and “Making Supper Safe.” Credit: Courtesy of Rodale.