Mark Bittman is excited.

About cafeteria food, of all things! So many times, Bittman’s comments on our food culture in the United States are typically very critical (as they probably should be).  It seems like a nice shift that he thinks things are looking up.  In a recent op ed for the New York Times, Bittman shed some light on a few cafeterias that are actually making real efforts to provide healthier food for their customers.  Menus are seasonal, and the food is prepared from the freshest ingredients.  Some cafeterias have even shown a real commitment to using local food.  Most people are exposed to cafeteria food at some point in their lives, whether its in primary school, college, or places of work.  A trend of healthier food options in cafeterias can have some real and exciting impacts on our food culture.

I’m excited too. But there are two things that need to be addressed more fully-cost and inclusive culture.  Bittman does briefly discuss cost-he says that the ingredients to make fresh food is cheaper than processed food, but the preparation of fresh, healthy meals is much more expensive because it requires so much more time. Outside of this, there is no mention of the cost of healthy food.  Unfortunately, cost is a very real dilemma for many people.  While many foodies consider cost as a secondary factor when choosing what to eat, this is simply not an option for many people.  Yes, it is exciting that cafeterias offering healthier food, but what would be even more exciting is if that food was actually affordable.  I wish Bittman would get just as irked at people not being able to afford healthy food the way he gets upset over people not wanting healthy food.

My second issue with Bittman’s celebration of revolutionized cafeterias: the food being served is of a completely different culture.  Less meat and less cheese is a good thing, I could agree with that. But there are people who only know that kind of food.  It is what they are comfortable with, and the culture that they seek.  I’m not saying that cafeteria’s should stay the same for the sake of preserving (unhealthy) culture; but a change like this shouldn’t happen immediately.  For example, look at the hospital at UVA.  Some of the workers are financially well-off, and face the option of considering cost secondly with food.   But many are not, and the food they have been able to afford is the food that we want out of the cafeteria.  But wouldn’t it be a disrespectful to say “You’re culture is wrong. And it doesn’t matter if you want this change or not, its happening.” How off-putting.  Instead of just looking at how we can change the supply of food, we also need to understand how to change the social demand of food. We need to be respectful and considerate.  It would be tragic if our food culture turned even more into a story of the haves and the have-nots.

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Takeaway from the Class

I have been thinking about the impact this class has had on me ever since my group got back from our trip to South West. Talking about what we all took away from the course after the presentations Wednesday night made thoughts more concrete for me and I’d like to elaborate a little bit here on the blog.

I recently took a job with the Fund for the Public Interest to run campaigns about environmental issues in DC. There is a good chance I will be working on grassroots organizing to garner support for changes to farm bill subsidies. But after 6 months I will move to another campaign which could be anywhere in the country. And one of the biggest issues the Fund addresses around the country is the building of new coal-fired power plants, specifically stopping them. So I could be working to stop a new coal plant from opening up in a small rural town. In an interview for another similar job, I was actually asked to create a campaign strategy to stop such a hypothetical plant from being built. I was strongly rooted in my stance against any new coal power plants. My view was that it is not environmentally responsible or economically viable for small towns to prosper.

I don’t know that the trip completely changed my mind about coal plants. But it has definitely complicated the issue for me. Going down to coal country SW VA and seeing the long-standing poverty and lack of choice for people shot me a good dose of reality. Coal is really all that they have. They do not have a lot of other industry down there and they have even less money to invest in new ideas. SW Virginia’s are going to take the jobs that supply a steady wage whether they hurt the environment or not. Even the argument of providing a healthy environment for the next generation is mute when the economic situation is so anemic. The trip definitely made me sympathize with those who are in that position and work in coal mines. They don’t necessarily want to be there and many do realize the environmental impact. Community leaders in SW VA even know that it is an unsustainable economic driver for the region. But frankly there isn’t much else to scratch some money out of. Perhaps agriculture and local food production can be a large economic driver in the future. But there is no certainty there either.

The trip to SW VA really revealed the personal and emotional aspects to the issue of coal mining and plants.

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Cutting out the middle man

After watching Black Gold, a movie about the importance of having free trade in coffee, I have been thinking about how farmer’s market and CSAs are a form of free trade as well. It helps to directly buy from the producers, it increases the farmer’s profit and decreases the consumer’s cost by cutting out the middle-man. The middle men in coffee are found mostly in the form of Kraft General Foods, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee. Most people are quick to contend to getting rid of the middle man/corporation, but I can’t help but wonder the possible problems of it.

Under the name Nestle or Proctor & Gamble, it is easy see the corporations as some dehumanized entity, but the reality of the matter is that they are made-up of people and also have families to support. The CEOs of the corporations may be earning more than the GDP of several poor countries put together, but that’s just one person, or at most, a handful of people. There are endless other people employed by the one chain who aren’t earning the same exponentially large paycheck every week, and their livelihoods still depend on the existence of the corporation.

In addition, although it is true that the middle-man gets a much larger cut from the total profits than what seems rightful, it is important to not overlook the extent of their services. They have to take the risk of large shipments safely travelling across the seas using ports of politically unstable countries that often cannot provide any security or guarantees. They take risks that most people probably could not and would not. Although that does not justify their large cut of profit, it is a factor that needs to be taken into account.

As wonderful as farmer’s market are, and as great as the concept of free-trade may be, I do not know how feasible it is to focus all energy on changing the current system to one that cuts out the middle man as opposed to reforming the middle man that we already have. We are limited in resources, we can’t afford to work on both, but we may be doing injustice by only focusing one as well.

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Goodbye blog world. And now, a poem.

For my last blog entry, I want to share with the class a poem by Gary Snyder called “Steak.” It reflects our culture’s misunderstanding and disconnect with the source of our food.  I could continue rambling about it, but your time would be better spent just reading the poem.

STEAK (from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder)

Up on the bluff, the steak houses
called “The Embers”-called
with a smiling disney cow on the sign
or a stockman’s pride- huge
full-color photo of standing Hereford stud
above the very booth
his bloody sliced muscle is
/                 served in;
/                 “rare”

The Chamber of Commerce eats there,
the visiting lecturer,
stockmen in Denver suits,
Japanese-American animal nutrition experts
/                 from Kansas,
/                 with Buddhist beads;

And down by the tracks
in frozen mud, in the feed lots,
fed surplus grain
(the ripped-off land)
the beeves are standing round-
bred heavy.
Steaming, stamping,
long-lashed, slowly thinking
with the rhythm of their
frosty- breezy-
early morning prairie sky.

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Bloggin about a Blog

Yesterday marked my debut into the world of blogging.  Turns out it’s not just for middle school boys and girls to broadcast the latest news about their not-so-secret love interest.  Blogging is a great way for just about anyone to publish their opinions raise awareness about an issue that is important to them.

I was taking a little stroll through blog city, and I came upon this one called “Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project.” A woman, whose online alias is Mrs. Q, has been maintaining a blog for a while now that is dedicated to raising awareness about the poor nutritional quality of school lunches.  She alludes a lot to Jamie Oliver’s work in reforming lunches in Huntington, West Virginia.  Her blog includes pictures and descriptions of school lunches, and her tagline is “Mrs. Q: eating school lunch just like the kids everyday in 2010.”  It kind of reminds me of Supersize Me, and I hope she doesn’t have any health problems from eating the food everyday.   We’ve talked a lot in class about the importance of offering healthy food options for children in school.  It really upsets me when I see a Coca-Cola logo on a school’s sports board knowing that the corporation is profiting by making kids unhealthy.  I’m glad someone else in the world cares about this issue, and the blog is very refreshing! You can access the web page at

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The rise of mini-markets

One of the most simple, yet effective community ideas I discovered through the course of the semester was the concept of mini-farmers markets.

Most Charlottesvillians have been to the Saturday Charlottesville City Market at least once, though few know that there are a number of new markets popping up around the community. Just last summer, the Local Food Hub teamed up with the Boys and Girls Club to start a new farmers market in the Southwood Community Center. The two organizations began working together as a way to get fresh produce into more neighborhoods, while also involving youth populations and teaching the kids new skills. The process putting together the market was fairly simple: The Boys and Girls Club purchases produce from the Food Hub, and in return the folks from the Food Hub train local middle and high school students all about managing a successful farmers market. The members of the Girls and Boys Club learn everything from choosing what produce to sell, pricing, displaying the produce, and marketing strategies. The Boys and Girls Club receives all of the profits from the weekly markets, which means that the proceeds stay right in the community.

This model of a small, community-run market means less logistical hassles in starting a new market. In fact, the Southwood market was such a success last summer that there are plans to expand another market in the Cherry Ave. neighborhood this year.Part of the success behind the Southwood market in Charlottesville is the involvement of the local neighborhood. For instance, for the kids at the Boys and Girls Club who manage the market and learn how good a “real” tomato tastes – they are actually asking their parents to buy fruits and vegetables from the market! The Southwood community has a fairly significant migrant population, and much of the produce sold is catered specifically to the cultural food preferences of these populations. Rather than fancy mixed greens, things like tomatoes, peppers, and onions are the most popular produce items you can find at the Southwood market. Another reason behind the success at Southwood is time timing of the markets. Rather than Saturday mornings, this market is held in the afternoon and early evening on weekdays in order to fit into the work schedules of the community members.

Looking for additional markets throughout the week in Charlottesville? Don’t miss out on the Mead Park market, which takes place from May – September on Wednesdays, 3-7pm. For those of you further down 29N, check out the Forest Lakes Market, which meets on Tuesdays from 4-7pm. Another new market in take is held at Pen Park, also on Tuesdays from 3-7pm.

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Power to feed the world

As I think about last week’s class and the discussion that was held about what it would take to feed the world, I kept thinking about who holds the power. The problem lies not in the amount of food we are able to produce, but how this food is grown, distributed, and available for people. There are major fundamental flaws in this system that continue to create a land of plenty and excess for some and a land of hunger for others. The resources are available, but the system of how we produce and distribute food must change if we truly seek to feed the world.

This of course, leads to the issue of power. Whoever holds power, becomes a key player in the outcome of such resources. Powerful corporations seem to be extremely influential in society today. They hold money, are often involved in the government, shape policy issues, and control the media. I have often wondered why change is not more easily attained and rebellion against corporations seems so daunting. However, understanding the full impact just one of these consequences could have makes it clear that rebelling against corporate giants is not a fair or easy fight.  The issue of power and control and the intricacies of corporate control and government policy are deeply tangled. Today the main corporate giant people often refer to when thinking of government corruption and corporate exploitation is Monsanto. However, issues of exploitation and corporate money dominating resource distribution are not recent issues.

For example, in 1954 the United States CIA organized the Guatemalan coup d’état to overthrow the Guatemalan president, Arbenz. One of Arbenz’s main policies was land reformation – redistributing land to the poor because at the time two percent of population owned a majority of the land. However, the United States had stake in United Fruit Company and changing the landscape of Guatemala would likely change the profits of U.S. stakeholders. It seems completely unjust and unlawful. However, with very diplomatic procedures and propaganda campaigns convinced people that Arbenz’s threat of communism rather than the threat of land reform was the reason for such actions. Similar and dare I say, even worse, situations are likely taking place across the globe. The power of greed seems to be the ultimate factor in many absurd and unjust decisions. In order to feed the world we must try to promote a culture that does not value money and power above all else. Perhaps such a fundamental change will foster systematic changes in the way our food is produced and distributed.

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Speaking of Elevators…

In our last class, we were given the opportunity to be in an elevator with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to ask anything we wanted.   Interestingly enough, the next day I left for the 2011 State of Environmental Justice in America (EJ) Conference, and Vilsack happened to speak one of the mornings.  Unfortunately, he gave a short talk on what USDA has been up to and left after shaking a couple hands and asking one reporter question.  He left so fast I didn’t get to create an elevator moment, but he did tell me where to find information on the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, which I didn’t realize was a part of USDA.

I did, however, actually have conversations with many experts and others knowledgeable about different aspects of the food system and its affects.  Among those people was Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Sherman and Laura Turner Seydel (Ted Turner’s Daughter).   When signing up for this conference, I didn’t even think about food issues, but they actually came up often, in health disparity talks, quality of life, and improving EJ generally.

Sherman and Seydel both seemed very nice and willing to talk with me.  Sherman was very proud of all the programs his department has to offer, particularly that there were 6,000 farmers markets, many of which now take SNAP and 1,200 “people’s gardens” around the country.  Given that my group learned about how little people actually utilize these things because of the feelings attached, I had to ask him one question:  How do you reach out to the population that doesn’t take advantage of this new healthy alternative?  He seemed surprised that this was the case in Charlottesville, and remarked the way one would expect.  He mentioned and agreed with the “elitist” sentiment that many people have about farmer’s markets.  He also mentioned that these feelings occur at certain grocery stores as well, which I didn’t consider. Sherman said it was unfortunate and that we need to just push more on our suppliers/vendors, and on the people working at the market to make them feel more at home.   I asked Seydel (whose father started Captain America) a slightly different question:  how do you begin community engagement in starting community gardens? She answered differently than I expected:  with churches.  Her reasoning was that many churches have available land for gardens and that they already exist as a strong community tie, all they need are seeds and manpower.  I made a connection because reaching out to churches was mentioned in a class critique about our surveillance of available lands for growing in Charlottesville.  She was also in agreement with incorporating gardening and food into all aspects of education curriculum, like many of our community partners.

I will continue to look at things with heightened scrutiny because there are still questions that go unanswered that I didn’t get to ask.   Are the gardens more for production or for education? How do you bridge that gap and reach people on multiple levels?

I could go on about the things I learned and the people I met, but if you are interested in hearing more about the other things I learned and the benefits of the conference, I would be more than happy to talk about it.  I left the conference with a confirmation of what we have been observing and researching all semester, and a feeling that there are many people out there working toward the cause in many different venues.  Although the answer to solving the problem of food access is neither clear nor easily achieved, I do believe that due diligence in research, education, and positive interaction with the entire community are steps in the right direction.

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Another Urban Farmer; Closing the Age Gap

In the spirit of alternatives and innovations in our food system, we have discussed the possibility of urban food.  I ran across this article about Will Allen, a man doing just that.    This farmer, I think an urban Joel Salatin innovation, has found a way to create a very successful urban farm.  Although it’s only 2 acres, the article remarked that the farm could provide food for 2,000 people.  If Allen could do this on just two acres, imagine what we could do around the world in all of our underutilized or wasted spaces, in places where the central city has been abandoned, could this be the chance for a revival?

His organization, Growing Power, is working to balance and lessen the impacts of the industrial food system. It is no small feat, and he was awarded a “genius grant” to continue his work.  It’s great that many people are trying to make a change, realizing the need in the under-served community.  The thing that worries is the divide between older farmers and newer farmers.  Not to say that the newer younger farmers are not as involved, but Allen is 59.  He’s a part of a new generation of farmers, but not age wise.  The success of all those that are older is teaching and creating interest in the very young generations, working from the top down and the bottom up.  Hopefully they can meet somewhere in the middle.

Allen’s mission is not only to feed people, but to grow a younger generation of farmers, of people concerned about our food.  This is admirable, and this initiative is just one of many that need to take place.  Reaching into social institutions, religious institutions and education institutions as part of a united front to make America’s children shrewd and informed consumers is extremely important.    Let’s leave money out of it for a minute (as an excuse) and focus on the importance of serving the under-served and teaching them how to help themselves.  I think an old saying goes: you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

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Are Fast-Food Stamps a Problem?

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Yum! Brands has officially stated its interest in allowing food stamp users to redeem those welfare benefits at some of its restaurants.  Yum! Brands famously owns American fast-food giants like KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, and are headquartered in Kentucky.  Currently Yum! officials are lobbying the Kentucky state government for this policy change.

On the one hand, relaxing the limits on food stamp purchases will expand access of hot, prepared, cheap meals to people that cannot typically afford adequate amounts of food.  Many of these recipients are strapped not only for cash, but time; thus, fast-food is an attractive option that fits in with an overwhelming schedule.

Yum! officials also point out that consumers will have access to nutritional information, so they should be able to make healthy choices.  Further, a Yum! vice president, Paul Carothers, notes that consumers can already use food stamps to buy unhealthy foods in grocery stores:

“The only thing they cannot use their benefits for … now are household products, alcohol, tobacco and those sorts of things…”

Let’s be clear:
Yum! stands to gain from this expansion, and will tap into a new market (government food assistance recipients).  Yum! executives “haven’t tried to compute that [amount],” but we can assume it will be non-zero.
Low-income consumer preference in fast-food is a tricky subject, given that marketing is incredibly strong and these particular consumers are highly price-sensitive.  We cannot assume that a consumer will eat healthier because nutritional information is available to them.

Certainly, food stamps are used to purchase unhealthy foods all the time in supermarkets.  However, the government is in a different position when it deliberately expands access to these unhealthy foods.  Grocery stores probably carry roughly more healthy options than unhealthy ones, whereas KFC may be troubled to make the same calculation.

Fast-food retailers can deliver unhealthy foods in a highly convenient method that is attractive to people short on time and money.  When Yum! Brands insinuates that expanding food stamps to their retail locations is a pro-poor, pro-food security move, we should consider the complexities of both the short and long term.

However, before we jump on Yum!, let’s think more about the question of food access.

To help with this question, I’ll point to a 2005 USDA study of food stamp usage in the United States.  By and large, when people in the US redeem their food stamps, they do it at supermarkets (about 83% of all benefits).  Add in large and small grocery stores, and the figure comes to over 93% of all benefits redeemed.

The bottom line is that the convenience factor does not appear to sway people to shop at convenience stores.  These food retailers only make up about 3% of all benefits redeemed.  Even in Washington DC, a city with well-documented “food deserts,” about 70% of benefits are redeemed at supermarkets.

In sum, I think there are plenty of logical reasons the government would not want to expand food stamp usage to fast-food retailers.  However, it appears that food stamp beneficiaries highly prefer to use their money at supermarkets.  I wonder if fast-food would entirely change this well-documented characteristic.

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