Posts Tagged ‘policy’

Listening, Learning

In last week’s New Yorker, an article entitled Testing, Testing, written by Atul Gawande, details the author’s optimistic perspective on the Senate’s new health care bill.  Gawande highlights and applauds the bill’s inclusion of pilot programs reminiscent of those responsible for transforming American agriculture in the early 20th century.  “While we crave sweeping transformation,” he writes initially, “all the bill offers is [these] pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments.  The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of [such] magnitude [as that of our health care system].  And yet…history suggests otherwise.” 

Gawande goes on to explain that agriculture was, like health care, a ridiculously expensive and yet crucial sector in the early 1900s, when “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food…and farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American work-force.”  The author credits former “agricultural explorer” Seaman Knapp, hired by the USDA in 1903, with getting farmers to farm differently through efforts that started with a pilot program.  Knapp’s work began in Texas, where he encouraged a single farmer to test out a list of simple innovations, including “deeper plowing and better soil preparation, the use of only the best seed, the liberal application of fertilizer, and thorough cultivation to remove weeds and aerate the soil around the plants.”  The success of this initial program led other farmers to follow Knapp’s guidance, leading to similar “demonstration farms” across the country and to the establishment of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service, employing seven thousand extension agents nationwide by 1930.  Other USDA pilot programs led to comparative-effectiveness research, investment in providing farmers with weather forecasts, seasonal statistics, and tremendously helpful information broadcasting.  Gawande claims that the “hodgepodge” of pilot programs led to ultimately successful change, in that agricultural productivity increased dramatically, food prices fell by over fifty per cent, and farming came to employ only twenty per cent of the workforce by 1930.  “Today,” he goes on, “food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force.  It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.”

Testing, Testing makes several worthwhile, take-home points.   The author characterizes the reformation of the health care system (like the transformation of the agricultural system) as a problem which is not “amenable to a technical solution,” or a “one-time fix,” but rather one that requires a process of change.  He recognizes farming and medicine as both involving “hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country.”    And he encourages his readers to resist their cynical reaction to the government, writing that his solution is one in which the government “has a crucial role to play,” to guide the system, rather than running it.  He rather shockingly fails to mention, however, the failure of the agricultural transformation that is his model for modern day health care reform. 

The failure of the 20th century agricultural transformation is made manifest in the one product that (appropriately enough) both farming and health care would ideally generate: human health.

Over the past century, food prices have indeed gone down, agricultural production has indeed gone up, and America has, on paper, been relieved of devoting to agriculture the significant force of labor formerly required by farming.  This was all considered a success for several decades, until obesity, diabetes, early sexual maturity, and E. coli food poisoning (along with dozens of other health problems) were recently recognized as the effects of industrial agriculture.  The modern American diet – of highly processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup, meat from animals injected with antibiotics and hormones, and genetically modified foods not quite approved for human consumption – is one of the main causes of our deteriorating health.  Not to mention that industrial agriculture has irreparably damaged our nation’s environmental health, has dangerously demolished biodiversity, and still employs a fantastically under-paid, under-represented workforce of undocumented immigrants.

Gawande perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt, for his article is optimistic, and encourages the American people to see more in the new health care bill than 2,074 pages that do not “even meet the basic goal that [we] had in mind: to lower costs.”  But his comparison begs for the recognition of what went wrong in the transformation of agriculture, because of a lack of holistic thinking, of preventative solutions, of respect for resources.  This time around, unless we are careful, the price drop and the productivity increase will still not provide the one thing we all want more than a smaller bill.  It will not provide us with health.

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Over the last several months, I have conducted a research project with my friend Sam Lipschultz, who recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College.  Our research focused upon farm to institution collaboration in the United States, and particularly upon Farm to Hospital programs.  Below is a brief introduction to our final report, and you can download a full PDF file of the report by clicking here, or on the link that follows the introduction.  We hope our work might serve as an inspiration and as a resource for hospitals in the United States.  Your attention and feedback is appreciated!     

Real Food, Real Health: Reasons and Resources for Starting Farm to Hospital Programs in the United States

U.S. hospitals spend over $5 billion each year on food.  The average hospital serves over a million meals each year.   If shifted to support the healthiest, freshest food, this buying power would help hospitals meet their most basic goal, of nourishing human health, while supporting the food system infrastructure required to increase and maintain access to healthy food for years to come. 

Connecting farms with nearby hospitals has positive implications far beyond environmental and human health.  Farm to hospital programs create a niche market for the types of farms that are often left out of both the conventional food system, and alternative local food systems.   Small farms, often farming with some variation on certified organic practices, tend to gravitate toward direct retail markets, such as farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture groups.  Large farms, often practicing chemical intensive farming, tend to produce for export to other regions or countries.  It is the mid-size farms that are disappearing fast.  And it is those mid-sized farms that are perfect for the wholesale market of farm to hospital programs.  Farm to hospital programs provide an increase in nutritional value and taste of food; a heightened capacity for accountability over food safety and worker conditions; increased food access and food security by offering fresh, healthy food to the entire spectrum of community residents; and key contributions to the much needed infrastructure for thriving local food systems.

For healthy food in hospitals to become the norm, hospital stakeholders must begin to act on their awareness of the pitfalls of producing and consuming conventional food, and on their knowledge of the advantages of purchasing locally grown and sustainably produced food.  The following study considers the unique and strategic location of farm to hospital  programs on the frontier of local, equitable and sustainable food systems.

FULL REPORT: Real Food, Real Health, by Annie Myers and Sam Lipschultz

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Americans are beginning to understand that buying and eating locally grown food is better for our health, the environment, and our local communities and economies than consuming the monocropped or factory-raised processed foods that we find cheaper, faster, and more readily available..

Local communities support farmers markets across the country. Through outlets known as Comnunity Supported Agriculture (CSAs), small farmers sell shares of their harvests to season-long customers. And after-school gardening programs teach elementary school children how to avoid diabetes and obesity by eating, and often growing their own, fresh vegetables. 

In New York, the Manhattan Borough President has called for the promotion of urban agriculture to help solve issues of hunger, food distribution, and nutrition education.  Michelle Obama has announced plans to use the White House Garden to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables.

As farmers markets and CSAs, community gardens and urban farms, tiny delivery companies and small locally-minded businesses gain ground, they are creating the potential for service to larger institutions.  Forty-one states have operational Farm to School programs, providing children in nearly 9,000 schools across the country with healthy lunches.  Students from nearly 300 colleges and universities report to the Real Food Challenge, and are working to increase the procurement of “real food” on their campuses.

Despite this progress, there remain two major dots we haven’t quite connected: the institutions that are in the business of serving our health, and healthy food.

Fresh, local vegetables are healthier than processed foods.  We should have them in our hospitals.  Access to nutritious food should be factored into policy as preventative care.

There are several significant reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.  First, four companies control 80 percent of America’s beef production.  Two companies process 75 percent of the precut salads in the country.  The voices of such companies are powerful in Washington.  Second, pharmaceutical companies aren’t big on preventative health care.  Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots.  Third, the industrialization of America’s food system destroyed much of the infrastructure that would have allowed large institutions to source locally.  In almost any region of the country (except perhaps California), it is difficult to coordinate the arrival of enough locally grown food at a hospital kitchen.  Fourth, our policymakers aren’t prone to holistic thinking, and so we are left struggling to find something other than band-aids to help heal our environment, our economy, and our health.  We don’t usually consider the complex options that might help cure, all at once, these ailing elements of our society.  And finally, we need a leader.  We need someone in Washington who will commit to introducing healthy food into hospitals, and who will integrate nutritious food into our health care plans.

Undeterred by these obstacles, little groups of ambitious individuals have begun creating models, hard-earned examples, of Farm to Hospital coordination.  One is in New Milford, Connecticut. 

In 2007, three women — a chef, a pediatrician, and a lawyer — came together to bring local, fresh vegetables into the kitchens of New Milford Hospital.  They found a powerful ally in the hospital’s CEO, a specialist in preventative cardiology.  Their hospital signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge, agreeing to adopt food procurement policies that “provide nutritionally improved food for patients, staff, visitors, and the general public,” and “create food systems which are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.” They launched their Plow to Plate program with cooking classes for the community and meetings between farmers, community members, and hospital representatives.  They changed their hospital’s contract to include local procurement policies, and made a request for proposals for a new food service provider.  Eighteen long months later, the Plow to Plate program is serving fresh, wholesome foods to their patients; supporting regional farmers through institutional accounts as well as the Plow to Plate farmers markets; and teaching local middle and high school students how to farm sustainably, cook safely, and eat healthfully.

Many institutions are, in fact, working to create similar systems.  A total of 122 health care facilities across the country have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge.  The majority of these institutions are in California, Oregon, and Washington, but others are in Nevada, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Hospitals making the transition to serving healthy food have embarked upon a marathon thick with hurdles.  They face the difficulties of finding a food service provider willing to work specifically with regional sources; of identifying regional farmers who can reliably produce enough product to service a large institution; of competing with the growing strength of direct marketing at retail farmers markets and the higher prices farmers receive selling retail.  They have to find the right farmers, distribution centers, and distributors; to retrain their kitchen staff and perhaps renovate their kitchen facilities; and they have to teach their community of patients why healthy food is important.  They face their most daunting challenge in increasingly tight hospital budgets.

Policy could do a lot to eliminate obstacles.  Washington could require hospitals to source fresh, locally grown vegetables.  The immediate force of hospitals’ enormous purchasing power would find farmers ready to cater to their needs, distribution centers built overnight, processing centers and canneries springing up in every region, and food service providers overhauling their systems in response. 

Until Washington sees the light, locally elected officials can connect some dots on their own.  A representative of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets made clear to me this February that the mental and political divide between urban and rural areas is the largest barrier against developing a regional food system in New York City.  Farmers don’t know what hospitals need or how they could propose to service them.  Hospitals don’t know how many farms are nearby or what sort of demand local farmers could meet.  The rural and urban political representatives don’t even realize they have something to talk about.

Hospitals have got to start serving healthy food.  The change will be a challenge, but well worth the effort.  People walk or jog dozens of miles for Breast Cancer, MS, Heart Disease, and HIV/AIDS.  This is a marathon for Diabetes and Obesity, for Soil, for Community, for Local Economy.  We have to run it, for our health, and for the health and future of our kids.

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Last weekend, a few close friends of mine who care about where their food comes from, and appreciate those who produce the food they enjoy, voiced their curiosity as to whether the whole “local food thing” was just another diet fad. 

These friends, Bekah and Raphi, are a couple in their twenties living in Berkeley, working in music and magazines.  And it’s not as though I hadn’t heard the same type of curiosity before, but I sort of let my heart sink below my pelvis, sitting there in their conversation.  There are many occasions when I must explain how I feel about sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and how wonderful and important I feel it is to support them.  But I realized I’d rarely had to explain my total confidence and trust that I will be able to (not to mention, must) devote the rest of my life to work that is based upon these convictions.

Another occasion came, however, early this week, when a man whom I very much admire, who is acting to support local farmers in the most creative and permanent of ways, responded to my enthusiasm for his work with the eyes of a starving poet, suddenly inspired.  “Are there other people your age, who are actually considering regional food systems, as a field in which to work?  A goal upon which to focus their lives?”

Well, the fact is: Yes.  There are many of us.  For now, we are committed teenage gardeners, tireless volunteers, students doing related research, young farmers with the valuable gift of land of our own, and small business entrepreneurs.  We are learning how to mend the broken web of our current food system, a web upon whose strength we believe our future depends.  I learn something every day, maybe every hour, that assures me we are neither misleading ourselves, nor misdirecting our future.   My reasoning follows, and is based (finally!) not in the East, nor the West, but across the country, and around the world.

Of course, I must start where I (most recently) started.  This January in Berkeley, the first page in my little notebook had a list written, of several Bay Area organizations involved in urban agriculture.  I outlined several of these organizations in the essay New Yorkana, and their directors and offices were the first names and addresses I learned in California.  Little by little, one name linked to another.  A friend in Cartography class recommended I meet Nathan, a Ph.D Candidate in Geography, who’s doing a project similar to Diggable Cities in Portland, and who told me to contact Alethea, a close friend of another classmate and landscape architect, Nadine.  Alethea’s thesis work was for People’s Grocery, but she is now working with Sibella at SAGE (formerly of CUESA).  Sibella put me in contact with Eric (at Food First), who informed me of the HOPE collaborative.  My City Planning professor, Fred, put me in touch with Heather, whose thesis was an Oakland Food System Assessment.  Everyone knows Severine, who in ten minutes’ time, while biking me to her office from the Cheeseboard, rattled off a list of contacts that included David Ralston of CEDA, Raquel Pinderhughes of the Ecology Center, and Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers.  Severine is making a film about young farmers (you may have seen her quoted in the recent NYTimes Fashion Article), and attending her fundraiser/dinner party meant meeting dozens of youthful growers, working land no more than an afternoon’s drive away from San Francisco.  Through a brief internship at BALLE, I had learned of and joined the COMFOOD listserve, and as I began research on urban agriculture for my courses here, Severine reminded me to post a query on COMFOOD.  Enter the rest of the country.   Suddenly I came in touch with such a number of urban agriculture projects that listing them now might remind you of Michael Pollan’s list of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread ingredients.  I filled in multiple excel sheets (god help your pen-and-paper author: she uses the computer too often now) with lists of inspiring projects and names and contacts, all within a day.

But of course, the devil has still to be advocated.  For it’s not entirely surprising that there are local food enthusiasts across the country, and even supporters of urban agriculture in particular.  Working towards a regional food system has its perks (good food, to be specific), and it’s become a popular and trendy effort to support.  Many “urban agriculture” projects are just plots in which optimistic, political vegetarians plant their hopes and dreams.  And many of the people I’ve met and spoken to could still wind up in obscure non-profits, going nowhere and constantly fundraising for a goal that has gone out of style. 

Idealist organizations and activists, however, aren’t all that’s out there.  Communities like Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illiniois; demonstration farms like Somerton Tanks in Philadelphia; and urban food production and distribution like that coordinated by 47th Ave Farm in Portland: entire cities are focusing their development upon human and environmental health, and thus farms, CSAs, gardening education programs, and foods produced by their residents.  The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007.  Centers of research like Public Health Law and Policy are publishing guides like How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans that include “Nutrition” elements, outlining the need to assess “Access to Healthy Foods,” “Number of Fast Food Restaurants and Offsite Liquor Retailers,” “Local Agricultural Resources,” and “Food Distribution” (as related to local produce).  The planning policy goals include “Providing safe, convenient access to healthy foods for all residents,” by identifying sites for farmers’ markets, linking efforts to preserve local farmland with the development of diverse markets for local produce, and encouraging farmers’ markets to accept credit and food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. 

This sort of planning is just one field into which the “local food thing” has been incorporated.  It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t just excitement, or hype, or marketing, for a trend that will fade out in a few years.  It is realistic, practical preparation for the future we recognize is not just not our children’s, but our own.

 The permanence of the movement to support local systems – and it will always be a movement, it will never stop moving – is apparent too in the variety of forms in 

which it has taken root.  College kids often consider eating locally grown and organic foods as a socially responsible diet, something they’ve learned through reading Michael Pollan’s book.  But our grandparents are reminded of the age of Victory Gardens during WWI, when the gardening of 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally.  Many families in the South already have gardens and mini farms incorporated into their housing lots and city neighborhoods, and consider growing their own food an element of their heritage, part of a tradition of cultivation.  Many Native American communities have worked for decades to preserve their culinary traditions through growing food for themselves.  And immigrant communities across the nation attempt to preserve the home-country flavors of their cooking by growing the foods that they know mustn’t be genetically-modified or processed or shipped overseas. 

All of that is in the  US.  And whether we are growing our own food or supporting our  regional small farmers, ours are all merely preliminary steps towards the sort of food sovereignty movements underway in South America, Central America, Africa, and India.  The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has supporters worldwide, much like Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement stretching across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  The Fairtrade Certified cooperatives in the Americas and Africa present only a sampling of the small farmers who have come together to ensure just compensation for their work.  In 2007, in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali, the Forum for Food Sovereignty brought together nearly 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers and environmental and urban movements.  All these came together to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty.

So, yes: there are people my age (and older) who are considering regional food systems as a field in which to work, and who regard eating locally to be slightly more than a diet fad.  We are no longer – we never were, really – just idealist students, determined activists, gardeners waiting to be forced off vacant land, and small farmers soon to go out of business.  We have a future to look forward to.  And we have developed a movement that will not go static.  The strength of our local webs will recede no longer, but will grow, till little webs string ‘round the world.

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Moving across the country during the election year might have required me to forsake much exploration, and strike out instead for more immediate community interaction and political participation.  My “mental map” of the Bay Area last week was a list of words: of sidewalk chalk, beards, murals, speeches shouted from VWs, black panthers, and protested police.  Yet still I thought it would be better to delay dwelling on the past, to wait on exploring the sites and signs and murals and parks, at least while the present so demanded my attention.  In New York my time usually felt divided between academics, community, and political action, and now (I thought) was the time for the latter.  Today’s politics seem too urgent to allow for a citizen to spend their time on history, and meeting a new city. 

  Yet my nagging conflict was that history and exploration, becoming native to a place, is my politics: being local to the out-of-the-way gurus, full of stories of old landmarks, obligated to my community, friend of the best of purveyors for my grains and ginger, cheese and carrots, coffee and bananas.  Perhaps most important to me politically, as a student, is to be both needed by my community, and to make my needs require them, who supply and produce the products of the policies, treatments, and trade relationships I support.  Yet I foresaw that in moving to California, I would have to jump blindly into politically-gathered groups of students, and let the scattered details of local life I found on campus replace a more deeply rooted connection with a place. 

What I’ve found is something very different than I expected.

  All three of my Cal professors began our first class Tuesday with a brief history of their department, their course, and themselves.  At first I thought it was a symptom of academic ego, of the (somewhat pretentious) assumption that their personal past contributed to the subject about which we had gathered to learn.  The cartography prof described how he had studied in the same classroom we were in, had used India ink and blotters to draw maps, and how his department had created that (yellowing) map of Oakland on the wall, the first of its kind.  The City Planning professor described his experience in the department when he was at Berkeley, and how he’d wished a class like the one we were in had been taught back then…so now, a professional lawyer, he’d come back to teach it.  The Urban Forestry guru breathed slow and heavy like my grandfather, and gave us a handout on his decades of experience with Asian foliage.  Upon hearing of my interest in Urban Agriculture, he rattled off the names of several individuals who’d researched with him on campus over the past thirty years, and wondered if I might like to consult them. 

  On Thursday, students across the country held a daylong event to Focus our Nation.  Focus the Nation is a project of the Green House Network, and this week over 1000 colleges and universities organized a day of climate-related education and activities, as part of a national teach-in on global warming solutions for America.  At UC Berkeley, the day included a panel that ended with a city official who reminded us of the powerful movements that have shaped our nation’s history.  Fifty years ago: Civil Rights.  Forty years ago: Vietnam.  In the last decade, whether we like it or not: Anti-Abortion.  We must initiate a movement, he said, with the old kind of demonstration (against something) and the new (on how to make change).  “And not just personal change,” he said, “but policy change!  Don’t just get on your bike – get off the campus!  Take over the streets!  This is Berkeley!”  And everyone clapped and agreed.   It is as though they all know the powers-that-be will be behind their insurgence.  The same way the Save the Oaks people, living in the trees on campus, shrug and shiver and say the “police are just bewildered about how to get us out!”

  The next night, several different student groups organized a night of “Art and Activism” on the Cal campus.  This event began too with a panel.  Though sitting in mixed order, the participants represented six consecutive decades of Berkeley alumni.  White, Asian, Black, and Latino, they spoke about participating in the Free Speech movement and acting with the Third World Liberation Front, using hip-hop to express their frustration in the ‘80s, and feeling the campus clam up in confusion after September 11th.  They reminded us: that action must include dancing.  Dancers danced, and poets read, slamming war, abuse, and intolerable silence.  The panel had explained the relationship between arts and action, and the way we use art, we need art, to imagine and express the world we might create, the world we hope to live in.   I thought of movements made, and murals, and felt something seeping through my skin, reminding me of a history I don’t really know.  It was just there.  And this decade was a part of it, just as it should be.

Yesterday I went on a field trip with my Landscape Architecture class, to explore the forestry of San Francisco.  I had stood at the top of the Twin Peaks two weeks earlier, but had not of course considered the trees scattered throughout the view, and how few of them there are.  Most of the trees in the city are not native, because it used to be prairie grasslands, inhabited by the Ohlone Indians.  We touched the type of grass that used to cover the peninsula where San Francisco has risen.  We visited the Dolores Mission, one of the first built by the Spanish padres, and stood under the olive tree, a species the Franciscans introduced here.  We checked out the Coast Live Oaks in the Golden Gate park; noticed the conspicuous lack of planting space around the city’s post-gold rush residential buildings on Cape Street; the London Plane Trees of City Hall Plaza, planted in the spirit of City Beautiful, after the Chicago World’s Fair; Presidio where the Army planted a forest of Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees before the World Wars; streets and neighborhoods and parks designed in the ‘30s and ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘90s.  We learned the controversial details of the planting of Canary Island Date Palms by the Embarcadero.  I learned when the earthquakes and the fires were, by what trees had been planted in their aftermath.

  New York has Onion Tours and tourist plaques, movies made about our historical gangs, and marquees proclaiming the “oldest” establishment of each neighborhood and community.  But the past has often been built over and forgotten.  And I expected the Bay Area history too would be hidden in its own way, in the gardens perhaps of the baby boomers’ backyards.  But instead, it peeks out at you from panels, calmly coaches you in classrooms, looks down at you from every tree.  In my courses, at the campus events, during the field trip in the city: history and politics and culture were not separated or distinct.  They were not angry, did not demand that I divide my time into periods of learning and fighting and living day-to-day.  They hung in the air, and asked me, somewhat casually, to dance.  

The primary vote is tomorrow.  And the future of our nation is very desperately in need of young people to commit themselves, and vote for their lives.  Yet whether Obama’s elected in November, or Clinton, Romney or McCain, the nation will not transform itself by naming a new president.  And the answer is not to fight harder.  Politics, particularly in relation to our climate, must cease to be a battlefield.  It is simply urgent, and there is no more time for sides and divisions.  We must let our values seep under our skin like music, take history and the present on our arm, and dance into the future.  Politics must be our ballroom.  We must demonstrate, yes, but demonstrate dancing, rejoicing in the wonderful change we will create, the waves we will surf, the world we will imagine, and enact through the art of our movement.

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pollanquote.jpgLast week I attended two events featuring journalist, author, and professor Michael Pollan.  He joined chef and restaurant owner Dan Barber on Tuesday evening in a lecture hall of the 92nd Street Y, and Wednesday he spoke at a Just Food fundraiser, in a beautiful Flatiron District apartment.  Prompted by the queries of Joan Gussow at both events, Pollan had to address the “elitist” question with which he’s become familiar.  Aren’t you (and your ideologies) a little out of touch with the average American eater?  How can the average American afford the foods you recommend we eat?  And she wasn’t talking a meal at Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill.  It’s the farmers markets with $4 tomatoes, and mixed greens at $6 per ¼ pound. 

Barber is finally admitting he’s an elitist.  And, he added, a day at Stone Barns (including enjoyment of the grounds, hiking trails, farm facilities, and food) still costs less than a day at Disney World. 


pollan2.jpg Pollan responded that the prices of local products will go down as demand goes up.  He also pointed out that Americans currently spend 10% of our income on food in America, while “when he was a boy,” we spent 18%.  Meanwhile, while we once spent 5% of our income on health care, we now spend 15%.  According to Pollan, there’s a direct correlation: factory farmed, processed foods lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart problems.  Add the costs together, and we may think (industrial) food today is wonderfully cheap, but our expenditure on food and health care has risen from 15% to 25% in about the last thirty years.

Amidst my Pollan-event-hopping, flush with a Christmas check, and increasingly nervous at the prospect of leaving an apartment in Brooklyn and friends I love (for Berkeley, California), I decided to prepare a farewell feast that would be as local as possible.  Fifteen people, lots of money: it would be a final splurge. After working at Saxelby Cheesemongers for two months, it seemed about time I bought a significant poundage of local cheeses.  Plus, I’d been waiting for a reason to try Karen’s lamb from Three Corner Field Farm. A search for less-than-$12/lb. local honey took me to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg.  And I bought apples and pears from Migliorelli Farm, to dip in whipped heavy cream from Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery.  I prepared an elitist meal, by all accounts.

As far as I’m concerned, the meal for a party of fifteen cost about the same as one pair of jeans from Seven.  It’s a lot for food, but the evening was worth more than any clothes I’ve ever owned.  Granted, most people can’t afford Seven jeans, and they can’t afford the dinner I served.  The meal essentially spoke to Pollan’s point on the expenditure of our income.  We need to learn to spend more on food.  We will be healthier people.  As Joan Gussow pointed out, we don’t want the prices of local, organic, family-farm products to go down too far with the market demand, because there is a bottom-line cost of production for the types of food we want to support.  For small farmers to stay in business, they must make a profit.  Real food costs something.  What we actually need to work on is the other side of the equation: minimum wage should be enough that people can afford real food.

There is something else to be said, however.  If market demand won’t take care of affordability, and if we agree that minimum wage isn’t anywhere close to paying for $4 tomatoes, we must look elsewhere to defend our local food movement from the damning critique of elitism. 

The connection between health care and what we eat is a pretty good hint at some other solutions.  Medical centers can establish nearby farmers’ markets and source their institutional food locally.  Their patients might get healthier than they do now, eating from nearby falafel and hot dog stands.  The government could increase the allotment of food stamp funding to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.  Medicaid costs would go down.  Health insurance programs could support clients who purchase CSAs.  Emergency food organizations, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters can coordinate with local farmers and restaurants that source their food locally, and through donation, receive fresh produce, meats, and dairy products much more healthy for their eaters than the canned and processed surplus foods they are normally given.  Pollan didn’t particularly expand on these possibilities, essential to the movement he has come to represent, even while he spoke for Just Food, a leader of food justice efforts in New York.  But he did say: we need to vote with our votes, not just with our forks.  Those who can afford farmers market prices must learn to accept them.  But we also need to support policies that recognize the correlation between our health and our diet, and that recognize the (financial, and hedonistic) prudence of spending government money to support the production and consumption of real food.  


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On Monday, November 12th, the Wagner School of NYU hosted a panel entitled “The Farm Bill 2007: Understanding the Political, Agricultural, and Nutritional Impact” with guests Marion Nestle, Dan Barber, and Christina Grace.Michael Pollan must have come up eleven times in the two-hour event. With all due respect for the author to whom I might as well dedicate most of my writing, I can’t help but wonder who the next hero will be. We need a new one.First up of the three guests on the Monday night panel, Marion Nestle lowered a magnifying glass on one, minute proposal of the Farm Bill, that of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), regarding nutrition standards for school lunches. The rather dysfunctional proposal has brought on excitement and anger from all sides, including both emotions from the very people who had advocated for just such a bill. The “its-better-than-nothing”s endorse the proposal, the “its-too-easy-for-corporations”s say no, and Nestle herself supports the bill with extreme hesitation, and a roll of the eyes. Her reason for speaking about the proposal at all was that “no issue is too small” for the Farm Bill. Even this one little provision attracted pages of published controversy, and it’s one of a gazillion clauses included in a monster legislation. Over a thousand pages long, the Farm Bill is accessible to no one, and understood by not a single member of the House of Congress. Clearly, Nestle concluded, there’s something wrong with how this legislation works.Nestle was hinting at a perspective I’ve found particularly lacking in the movement for agriculture guided by sustainable, worker-supportive, fair trade principles. We who are up for it sludge through the Farm Bill, and the best of us – whether we’re organizations, institutions, or just crazy individuals – come up with proposals that cut subsidies, end subsidies, fund specialty crop research, or at least somehow cut down on this CORN production, that we’ve all learned from Michael Pollan is a major reason for why we’re stingy, fat, and hated.What we DON’T consider, is scrapping the Farm Bill altogether. It’s demonstrably ridiculous, in and off itself. To address 3 million square miles of land with 1 Farm Bill simply doesn’t make sense. Agriculture is regional, for one thing. Not only are the culture and politics different in Iowa than in New York, but the land is too, and the climate. A bill with provisions for avocados in California should not be legislating the cows in Maine. Nutrition and Hunger and Agriculture and Trade may be much like adults playing Twister – mischievously intermingled, entirely inseparable, and always (somewhere) hurting – but these forces of the economy need not share the same budget and bed. Money to support agricultural research should not detract from Emergency Food Programs, and whomever pens provisions for popular exports should not simultaneously sign off on subsidies deemed illegal by the WTO. Not to mention that politicians hassled by agricultural lobbyists shouldn’t be forgiven for forgetting nutrition programs in the meantime! And New York City representatives who disregard something called a “Farm Bill” just because they’re city folk shouldn’t have to be told that the “ag” legislation is crucial to aid New York City’s nearly 1.3 million food insecure individuals. How can we blame politicians for siding with big industrial agribusiness, or settling for the status quo, when the alternative (of actually reading the Farm Bill, and figuring out what’s best for one’s state) is as daunting as Tolstoy! It’s much easier to let Monsanto, Archer Daniels, or Cargill explain the Farm Bill like a bedtime story.Of course, the Farm Bill proposals of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Oxfam, and the National Family Farm Coalition, for example, are innovative and progressive, and are certainly steps in the right direction. But we need to think bigger than a Farm Bill proposal. We need to take the twister-playing issues in the Farm Bill and get them interacting through a different game: synchronized swimming, perhaps, or a maypole dance.In response to my concerns, Nestle said that election funding really has to change. As long as we have the Iowa Caucus, she said, no presidential candidate is gonna stick their neck out for truly progressive agricultural policy. Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure what we need. But we can at least take the new, trendy interest in the Farm Bill further than the “Buy this! Buy that! Vote with your dollar!” mantra, and foster some truly innovative, political thought. If people did it in the ‘30s, and the ‘70s, we can sure as hell do it now.LinksInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working GroupMidwest Sustainable Agriculture Working GroupOXFAMAnd for more coverage of the panel, visit the Wild Green Yonder.Some Parties with PotentialNyeleniLandless Workers MovementVia Campesina

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I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development.ncdc_ict_04_640.jpg I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.

This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting.  Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate– versus the family-owned.seedsofhope2lo_new.jpg These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about peacecall.jpg opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.

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The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest This week, the reading for the Food Systems I: Agriculture class at NYU included The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest, by W.K. Barger and Ernesto M. Reza. The book documents the history of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), particularly the establishment of a national boycott of Campbell Soup products from 1979 to 1986, as well as the method and ideology of social reform adapted by FLOC in their struggle to improve the living conditions of migrant farm laborers in the Midwest. When discussing the method of reform, which they term “sociocultural adaptation,” the authors commend FLOC for working within legitimate channels of the existing social order, and restructuring the system to be more beneficial to a particular group in the society. Stowing away my more revolutionary, socialist inclinations, I finished the book impressed with FLOC’s achievements, and wondering if farm labor and immigration policy will ever be an effective method of addressing the lives and livelihoods of legal and undocumented migrant farm workers.Boycott Campbell'sThe measurable success of the FLOC movement began in 1986 with three-year contracts signed by Campbell Soup (and their tomato and pickle growers), which established set hourly wages for workers on harvesters and for truck drivers, piece rates for hand-pickers (and incentive payments for higher yields), a paid holiday (Labor Day), and an experimental health insurance program. In addition, the contracted laborers were to receive a full, itemized, written report of all earnings and expenses at the end of the season. The less quantifiable and yet more substantial success achieved by FLOC was the establishment of farm worker participation in determining wages and benefits. The victory of those contracts, after seven years of the boycott (and many more of organizing and struggle), lent farm workers a newfound sense of security, and feeling of freedom from the threats and dishonesty of their employers. FLOC established a “more complex, stronger, and democratic organization of Midwestern farm workers.” The unity and solidarity established by FLOC resulted in personal individual growth and healthier lifestyles among its members, as well as a broader identity as part of a community that had organized itself, with mutual dialogue and respect. The greatest gift of FLOC to Midwestern farm laborers was to give them the opportunity to establish their voice within their community, industry, and country.Policy-makers will always be addressing legal and undocumented farm laborers as the other. In migrant farmer communities, politicians may recognize poverty, exploitation, and instability, and will perhaps listen to the occasional testimonial or heart-wrenching story. Yet the constituent population, the migrant workers themselves, will never participate in writing new immigration and farm labor policy. Not only does this make it unlikely that new policies will work in their favor, but it is nearly impossible that any policy will give them the room to establish their voice. So, is it worth wasting our time on policies that can never achieve a goal of empowerment and growth? Perhaps community-initiated, social reform movements are not only a viable way for illegal migrant laborers to struggle for social justice, but are in fact the only means of achieving a sustainable increase in quality of life.Source:Barger, W.K., and Reza, Ernesto M. The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest(University of Texas Press, 1994).Links:Farm Labor Organizing CommitteeCoalition of Immokalee WorkersSoutheast Georgia Communities Project

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