ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

The Price of One Penny

In the long and sordid history of farmworkers, a few glaring examples manage to jump out of the background noise and make national news. Such is the case with the decision by Burger King to refuse handing out a one penny price increase to tomato pickers in Florida because it has been so vehemently opposed by conservative growers.

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, weighed in in on this issue in the N.Y. Times:

Migrant farm laborers have long been among America’s most impoverished workers. Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse. During the past decade, the United States Justice Department has prosecuted half a dozen cases of slavery among farm workers in Florida. Migrants have been driven into debt, forced to work for nothing and kept in chained trailers at night. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers — a farm worker alliance based in Immokalee, Fla. — has done a heroic job improving the lives of migrants in the state, investigating slavery cases and negotiating the penny-per-pound surcharge with fast food chains.

He pointed out that the pay increase was tiny compared with the bonuses reaped by Burger King's equity owners. It would also be tiny in comparison to the amount spent at this season's charity balls, which gather the  wealthiest to raise money for the needy. Were the root of the problem - poverty - addressed head on with decent wages, fewer feel-good band aids would be needed.

I would venture that this decision by Burger King's management - disastrous from a public relations point of view - will not go away soon.

Chefs: Eat Your Own Dog Food

In the high-tech world, they used to have a saying, "eat your own dog food." It's the equivalent of walk the talk. Here's the foodie world equivalent in a wonderfully considered piece on Alice Waters, who lent her good name to a controversial gated development in Montana. Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, who lives nearby, writes at Ethicurean:

I cannot see how a gated development of second-homeowners who will fly in and out on their private jets can be called sustainable or viewed as contributing to the health of our community. So I cannot understand why Alice Waters — someone who has always seemed to be deeply invested in the health of real communities, someone who wanted to build a restaurant that was like a home, someone who is creating gardens in underserved elementary schools, someone who is actively promoting real, slow, actual food purchased from real farmers – I cannot understand why she has lent her support to a developer who seems to represent everything that is antithetical to real community-building.

As I commented on the post, the food world has been caught in a closed-end loop on sustainability for some time, since it is accessible to so few. It needs to break out beyond this "leading" edge if it is going to get anywhere. And I think, in this piece, Freeman is offering a reality check. Are mission and values aligned in the work? A question, obviously, not just for companies who get most of the heat.

Cornography: New Doc Reveals All!

KingcornKing Corn might be part of a new genre, cornography, in which row after row of yellow haired, crunchy, leggy babes reveal all.

The first blockbuster in the genre was actually literary, via Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. Now two innocents, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, follow in Pollan's footsteps, relying on the often-used but still effective device of dropping into the picture. They decide to become corn farmers, albeit on a very small, one-acre, site. Filmmaker Aaron Woolf follows the two on their highly entertaining quest to find out how corn really grows, enters our national diet and what it all means.

Unlike other in-your-face shock documentaries of the recent past, the camera keeps a respectful eye on the midwestern farm and the choices such endeavors entail. More than a couple of farmers admit, in effect, that they are growing crap - whether in cornfields or feedlots - but that they have no choice. The doc also shows how amazingly easy the venture is, given chemicals and genetic breeds, but that the profit only comes by dipping several ways into the taxpayer's pocket.

The film opens in several markets, including Washington, D.C. Go see it and find new meaning in that bucket of popcorn you're eating.

- Samuel Fromartz

Bought the Farm and Other News Bites

The Wedge Co-Op in Minneapolis, one of the oldest and largest natural food co-ops in the nation, inks a deal to buy Gardens of Eagan organic farm. The farm's owners, Martin and Atina Diffley, have farmed organically for 35 years. "Martin and I knew we didn't want to keep farming into our senior years and that our children did not want to take over the farm," said Atina Diffley. "So, in recent years, we asked, 'how can we protect the integrity of the farm without owning it?' The answer was a deal with the Wedge, which plans to run the farm as an educational center for its members and customers.

Stonyfield Farm converts its entire product line to organic, completing a 25 year dream, according to President Gary Hirshberg. The company sources its milk from Organic Valley, the dairy cooperative that has seen a huge rise in supply with the conversion of a record number of farms last year.

The Galveston County Daily News has a good read on what's driving the current price rise in conventional milk (everything from the Australian drought to demand from China). "Debbie Loman of Texas City said she stopped buying fluid milk altogether after watching prices creep up week after week. Now she buys evaporated milk and mixes it with water. 'You learn to economize,' she said."

Organics in China & Other Blog Rants

Here's what I'm reading lately:

China Bound. Jim Harkness, the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (who is also fluent in Mandarin), is blogging about organic food and farming from China, including a fledgling organic store with its own farm and CSA-like business in Beijing. Speaking to a store clerk, Harkness reports: "I ask how he likes working for an organic business and he said, 'It’s wonderful!' And then, with a dramatic gesture sweeping his hand across his face, 'They’ve torn away the masks!' When I looked puzzled, he explained that most people hide their problems, cover up bad news or talk behind other peoples’ backs. 'Here if something’s wrong we have to acknowledge it and deal with it.'” Sounds a bit different from recent China headines.

Sustainable Business? Mark Powell, who works at the Ocean Conservancy making sure fish have a future, blogged from a Stanford Business School seminar on business strategies for environmental sustainability. Specifically, he looked at the possibilities of collaboration between environmental groups and corporations. "Flexibility of mind may be the hardest thing to ask people to do. If you've always hated big business, then you need to spend some time with people who work in big business. I assure you, they're not as evil as you think. If environmental groups leave you angry, then find someone who can talk about the real goals of the environmental movement. It's not the end of corporations, even though some people might say that."

Small Farm Voice. Simon Huntley, who has a novel venture setting up web sites for small farms, blogs about the difficultly of principled small-scale farming. "People want adjective-laden food (micro, local, sustainable, et al) instead of chemical-laden food, but it takes extra care and smaller scale to bring these products to the marketplace. Small farms are well suited to the task of producing high-quality food, but the costs are higher. Will Americans pay the extra price that sustainable, small-scale production requires? If not, can farmers find a way to bring down the price to point that the general public can pay? Or failing the first two options, will farmers be forced to scale up to survive?" My humble opinion: The answer to these questions is yes, yes and yes. There is no single monolithic market or producer but many producers that can meet our various needs. Let a thousand organic flowers bloom.

Rural Divisions. Bruce Cole, who edits Edible San Francisco, directs us in this engaging post to John Ikerd, who is the Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri. Ikerd exposes what CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are doing to rural America. "CAFOs completely disrupt the community life of rural people. Some have labeled this the most divisive rural issue since the Civil War. In many communities, multigenerational family farmers are leading the opposition, often pitting neighbor against neighbors who have been their friends for years." (Thanks Tana!).

Holy Cow! And for a more spiritually enlightening take on the Aurora Dairy dust up, check out Amanda's post on Ethicurean, "Confessions of an Organic Mega-Dairy."

With My Re-Entry, A Fat Post

By Samuel Fromartz

Whew! What a nice break.

I did the unthinkable and went on vacation for 2 weeks without a laptop. I checked email a couple of times  at a public library, but truth be told, I didn’t miss it. Not a bit. Without pending deadlines, I had very few emails that demanded attention. And as for all those pesky email lists and alerts, I just scanned and tossed them once I got back.

What I realized was something I already knew but found hard to accept - that email and the web are an incredible time suck, with a plethora of minutia sapping your attention and brain power. It’s the intellectual equivalent of eating too many corn chips in front of the tube. You wonder where all the time went and what you got out of it. (Perhaps I’d even include this post in that -- actually, I will. Take it or leave it).

But now that I am back in this unnatural position, in front of a screen, consuming my metaphorical brain corn chips, a couple of items have grabbed my attention. Like fat. It’s been on my mind this summer. In the summer lull, I happened to catch Shaq’s Big Challenge on ABC in which the giant basketball star corralled a group of morbidly obese kids from the Sunshine state for months, trying to get them to lose weight and get in shape.

The show itself had its moments, leaving me teary-eyed and bleary-eyed. The challenge these kids faced was truly heartbreaking at times, but it was also difficult to dramatize what was a months-long slog of weight loss, exercise and diet change. Shaq helped. He’s actually entertaining. The kids were also heroic. But it’s a crime that they got to such an extreme stage before there was any sort of intervention. Indeed, the public school, with its lack of a physical ed requirement and its fast-food lunches, was an enabler of the epidemic. The parents didn’t help either. In fact, they were part of the problem, which shows how love, spoiling, and nutritional ignorance are a recipe for disaster.

The key, though, was you couldn’t finger anyone for the blame: The clueless school, trying to offer food kids would actually eat (for $1 a meal); the parents, who obviously had their own food issues; the kids, who bellyed up to the trough of candy, soda, burgers, pizza and fries at any opportunity and the culture at large, which provides this smorgasbord and offers absolutely zilch in the way of accessible healthy food alternatives or education. Yes, the critics will claim, these kids and their parents were just exercising free choice to eat what the hell they wanted. But frankly, that’s like saying they were choosing to stick a very slow acting gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger. The bullets were edible and called food. We know the result - an epidemic of obesity that is only getting worse.

As everyone knows, the only way to lose weight is to eat less and move more. Both are difficult. Even with a personal trainer in the mold of Attila the Hun, Shaq’s personal counseling sessions, an obesity doctor, a nutritionist, a receptive school principal and a chef re-engineering the school lunches, it was difficult. And people without resources are expected to do this on their own? No wonder dieting is a $35 billion business which people perennially fail at. (It’s kind of an ideal business model for it ensures repeat customers). All of these kids, however, lost weight, some dramatically. But the big winners were clearly in the minority, which shows you how difficult it is -- even with the most extreme sort of intervention -- to succeed.

There have been several TV shows along these lines (ABC seems to be flogging the genre with its current Fat March in which several obese adults walk from Boston to D.C. to lose weight). Why the interest? There’s a growing audience for these shows -- literally. We are now told that we are getting fatter, according to a widely reported study this week. Not a single state has shown a drop in obesity rates in the past year. People in 31 states have gotten fatter. So there's a entertainment genre for couch potatoes worried about  being couch potatoes. (Now if TVs were powered by treadmills rather than enjoyed with potato chips we might actually get somewhere...)

Forget for a moment the impact on heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. (Obesity-related hospital costs for children ages 6 to 17 more than tripled from 1979 to 1999, rising from $35 million to $127 million, according to the report.) Just consider the quality of life issue. The overweight kids in Shaq’s show were unhappy, depressed, with extremely low self-esteem. Their parents, schools and society had failed them. Everyone recognized the train wreck but no one knew what to do. Even the Superstar was flummoxed.

But at least he (even at the behest of a prime time ABC show) tried. The Washington Post mentioned a couple of other examples in its report on the latest statistics, like a "Shape Up" program in Somerville, Mass., that added school crossing guards to previously unattended corners and alerted parents to the change. That boosted by 5 percent the number of kids who walked to school.

But here’s the kicker quote to the Post story, which we should all keep in mind. “Interventions are important to put in place," said Jeffrey Koplan, who directs the Global Health Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "But none of this is going to turn around [the obesity epidemic] in a year or two, or three and maybe not even in five. We have got to be in this for the long haul."

Kind of sounds like, well, exercising.