Archive for the ‘The Food System’ Category

Standing in line at the grocery store, I always surreptitiously watch the people in line around me purchasing their groceries. As I’m only in the store about once a month (and this number shocks me. I can’t for the life of me think what I’m buying), I feel like I maybe look around a little differently than the other people who buy a larger percentage of food at the store.

It absolutely fascinates me to see people buying the “foods” that I am constantly on here criticizing as fake foods. Things that come in boxes. Some people will have an entire cart full of nothing but boxes, and maybe one Perdue chicken. Now, you could say a Perdue chicken is local, because it probably came from the plant down in Salisbury. But god only knows what it went through to get to that cart.

It really fascinates me that in my monthly trip to the grocery store, I very rarely see anyone buying a vegetable. I in fact almost never see anyone in the produce section of the store, and even then they seem to be hovering around the bagged salads. When I was still eating a store diet, I was vegetarian, and I managed to avoid spending money at the store by buying almost exclusively the cheapest produce I could find. The sad thing is, for the same amount of money I could probably buy a much larger portion of calories in the form of a soda or chips or something. Alas, that those calories would not include a single nutrient.

I always wonder, when standing in that grocery store line, if the other people in line are being just as judgmental about what I’m buying as I’m being of their carts. Probably not. If they did judge what I have in my cart, they’d probably be somewhat confused. I decided, for the sake of curiosity, to go back over my grocery store receipts for the past few months to see what it was I actually bought (and what I could therefore eliminate in the next year, as my goal is to never go to the grocery store again except for toilet paper). I will also not deny that a certain part of my desire to go over these receipts was also to avoid doing anything more productive with my evening.

So let’s see. Back in April I bought pasta, box mac and cheese (Annie’s, a guilty pleasure), bread crumbs, black beans, salad dressing, ice cream, pretzels, nuts, and tortillas. I also went back for rice and some asian sauces, which I think was spurred by borrowing my mother’s asian cookbook. The combination of these two visits, which really didn’t amount to any significant part of my diet, probably cost more than three visits or so to the farmers’ market which would have provided me with about ten times more food. In April I also made one more trip to buy some things to make a salad for a party, or maybe for Easter or something. All things I could have avoided if I had thought of something to make for the party farther in advance than the day before.

In May I bought dish washing sponges, sugar (I think that was for wine, and the natural food store was closed), tortillas, butter, cream, soy sauce, granola bars, pretzels, bagels, cheese slices, hummus, and peanut butter. The butter and cream were for the handsome fella’s birthday cake, and thank heaven I will never need to buy them at the store again now that we have a regular supply of local dairy. The last section of things were for our weekend camping trip. I always find I’m shopping at the grocery store a lot before a camping trip, which is demonstrated in July when I bought pretty much all the same stuff, plus more pasta, more box mac and cheese, and paper towels. After returning from our trip I bought more pasta, mac and cheese, Ziplocs, coconut milk, more soy sauce (I think I had forgotten I had just bought it), soy milk, ice cream, aluminum foil, and cheese slices. August was nothing but trash bags and tortillas (I should mention I frequently eat ready made tortillas, plain, as a snack).

September was another big shopping month: lemonade, mac and cheese, pasta, hamburger buns (I think those are still in the fridge), cheese slices, tortillas, soap, toothpaste, vinegar, ice cream, and sponges. October led to crackers, pasta, batteries, hummus, mozzarella and grape tomatoes (a party again), flour, soy milk, mac and cheese, chocolate chips, tortillas, teriyaki, and ice cream. My November receipt is still somewhere in the pile of papers on my floor, but it would probably look pretty similar.

All of this is pretty much what I imagined: junk food, or emergency purchases for a party or some other event I didn’t expect, and all the camping stuff. Otherwise, all I buy is pasta, sauces, spices, and cleaning supplies. What was really shocking was how much this all cost (not as much as my other food purchases, but still a big chunk considering how little of it is edible). I think what I can conclude (and I hope you’re not all terribly bored by now) is that I need to stop eating so much junk food. I’ve already been thinking about New Year’s resolutions (mine are always food related), and I think one of the first will be to stop buying so much box mac and cheese (I should say it is 2-3 boxes a month). It is my comfort food, it is what I cook when I am stressed out and can’t be bothered with anything else. And unfortunately that is too often. The hope is that I will find a way to de-stress my life (ha!) and then I will stop with the junk food. De-stressing would eliminate the mac and cheese, the cheese slices, and maybe, to an extent, even the tortillas.

My other goals for the next year will be to actually use my pasta maker, and to start buying ice cream locally (we have really good local ice cream. I just never make it over to the farm store to buy it…). I am always going to be buying things like salt, baking powder, soy sauce, and coconut milk at the store. At least until there are no more grocery stores. And I don’t think occasionally buying a container of Tribe hummus and a bag of pretzels is going to kill anyone (immediately).

The funny conclusion to all this is, of course, that anyone perusing my grocery store purchases would probably be surprised that I manage to survive on nothing but box mac and cheese, ice cream, and tortillas. But then again, I’m surprised they manage to survive on soda, frozen food, and industrial chickens.

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One more thing about S.510. Or maybe several more things.

1. I hope no one is under the impression that I don’t think giant industrial producers should be regulated. They should be. They make people sick all the time. I just don’t have any delusions that the FDA is going to use these new powers to regulate giant industrial producers. And if the bill had really been threatening to giant industrial producers, it NEVER WOULD HAVE PASSED. A lot of the so-called sustainable ag orgs are patting themselves on the back today, congratulating themselves for getting this bill passed so that there will be more regulation on large scale ag, but they are completely mental if they think they have more influence on the senate than the big time lobbyists from big dairy, big beef, and all the rest of it. Of course, this bill doesn’t apply to those two since they are regulated by the USDA, so maybe that IS how this passed…
2. I have been asked several times why the FDA would bother going after small producers. It has been said many times that the reason this bill was passed is apparently because the FDA doesn’t have enough resources to go after the big industrial producers. However, they seem to have more than enough resources to go around needlessly confiscating raw cheeses and raiding buying clubs. Really, just read some of the reports of the FDA going after farm after farm after farm producing raw milk or raw cheese, and you’ll have a hard time believing they are short on resources too. Believe me, it baffles me why the FDA bothers going after small producers when there are flagrant food safety offenders going free (tainted eggs, anyone? How about some peanut butter?), but then again the small producers don’t have legal teams on staff. Aha! I think we’ve found the reason! The FDA doesn’t have enough money or power to stick it out in long legal battles with big producers! Funny thing is, that’s the one power this new bill doesn’t seem to give them.
3. And the reason I’m not all thrilled about the inclusion of the Tester amendment, which will supposedly exempt small farms, is that we’ve all seen what happens with those kind of exemptions. The burden of proof will be on farmers. Farmers who find themselves growing because of the increased demand for local products will find themselves suddenly unexempt. Farmers who want to sell to urban markets that fall just outside the mile radius will find themselves unexempt. And next thing you know the FDA will come up with some other reason the exemption shouldn’t count at all. They already put in language that allows them to unexempt any farm they find to have a violation (and they can find violations anywhere, even in a sterile room). It’s called the erosion of freedom, and they aren’t going to like any exemption that keeps them out of shutting down raw milk farmers.
4. Speaking of which, I’m not convinced that the new powers won’t allow them to just declare raw milk generally unsafe and go around confiscating it all. And they will take my raw milk over my dead body.

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*UPDATE: It passed around 11:45 this morning. We’re all screwed.*

So supposedly they are going to vote on S. 510 this morning… I have been in a state of high nervous tension for the past week, wondering what’s going to happen. If this bill passes, it is going to completely change my plans to farm, because, well, good luck trying to start and run a small farm with the FDA breathing down your neck and forcing you to fill out mountains of paperwork with unheard of fees and possible jail time in store if you don’t comply.

There are many crazy opinions swirling around the blogosphere or whatever it’s called, and on both sides. Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser’s delusional op-ed in the New York Times, for one. The one where they first pretend the FDA currently has no power (not true) and where they then go on to assume the FDA will use its new tyrannical powers for the good of all, and not to shut down small producers (which they do on a regular basis with the powers they already have).

Then you have this intriguing and I think completely paranoid exaggeration of the bill:
Truth is Reason: Senate Bill 510 May Be the Most Dangerous Bill in the History of the US I mean, I do think it is one of the more dangerous bills ever to be passed. It basically turns farmers into terrorists. But the idea that it outlaws backyard gardening is a little extreme, and I’ve seen no evidence to that effect. At least so far, the FDA hasn’t started going after people that just produce for themselves. It’s only when you want to sell it someone else and compete with the big industries that Michael Pollan is convinced they are going to start policing.

Food Freedom: S.510 Summaries from Around the Web

And here’s some fun quotes from the FDA, just in case you think they are all fluffy pink bunnies who want to protect you and care about your rights: Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund: FDA Status

Really, it comes down to whether or not you trust the FDA. I don’t. Not after watching the videos of them raiding a food club at gunpoint. Not after hearing the stories of raids on farmer after farmer after farmer. Not after being fearful of them sending police after little ole me. No sirree. Someone in one of the comments on one of the above blogs said, why should I trust a food grower? Well, the answer is you don’t have to, if you want to rely on the FDA to do it for you. But if you know the grower, if you’ve been to their house, and eaten at their table, and speak with them on a regular basis and know their kids- well. Why trust your neighbors at all? Sure, just turn over all your rights to government agencies. That always turns out well.

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I was originally going to write a post on all the reasons it is hard to get started in farming if you are a new, young, and relatively poor farmer (or wannabe farmer). This was going to include a bulleted list of all the reasons, mostly economic or regulatory, especially in light of this new stupid food bill that is supposed to give the FDA more power to protect consumers from unsafe foods, but is actually going to result in the FDA persecuting more small farmers, amendment or no amendment, because that’s what the FDA does. If they wanted to go after big processors for violations they already have the power to do so. They just choose not to.

Anyway, in reading all this debate about the food safety modernization act (S. 510), I had a sudden vision of what the future of farming could look like. I should add that I was also reading The Complete Patient when this came to me.

If the Food Safety bill passes into law, it would potentially be possible for the FDA to make pasteurization law throughout the entire country, which would overturn the right of states to decide whether products (and not just milk) can be sold raw or not. Other products that have been under attack lately include raw cheese, almonds, and apple cider. Vegetables are probably next.

But how can you outlaw raw vegetables, you might be asking. Easy. Make irradiation required for “safe” food. Irradiation is the process by which produce is subjected to radiation in order to supposedly kill pathogens. It also kills the produce. When you go outside and pick a pepper and eat it, the pepper is literally still alive. Its cells are still functioning. As long as that pepper is still green (or red or whatever), it is still “alive.” This is how it is able to provide you with nutrition. This is why cooking vegetables reduces the available nutrition (it kills the pepper). Irradiation does the same thing… and adds radiation, just for the fun of it! Because we should all be eating things that have been subjected to radiation.

So raw vegetables might become illegal, as well as making raw milk and raw dairy products illegal nationwide. They could declare all raw juices illegal. They could declare freshly baked bread illegal, for all we know. The fact is, this bill gives the FDA such broad, undefined, sweeping powers that we have no idea what they’ll decide to do next.

Every time I think of this I get an image in my head of people farming underground, trying to escape the notice of the FDA, and distributing non-irradiated green peppers on the black market, meeting in back alleys and exchanging produce boxes of squash. Making surreptitious phone calls with code words and arranging to exchange a few ungassed tomatoes (if you buy a tomato in the grocery store, it was picked green and gassed to make it turn red) for a round of raw cheese.

I imagine people gardening under cover of darkness, in unused lots and abandoned corners of fields, trying to get by without being caught by regulators and suffering impossible fees or even jail time for failing to fill out paperwork (oh yeah- the House version of S. 510 includes ten years jail time for failing to properly file paperwork). I imagine people smuggling garden tools under jackets, hiding produce in secret compartments in the backs of their cars in case they get pulled over. And then I think, wow, this sounds a lot like the war on drugs. And then I think, oh right, this is happening now! Plenty of people are out there smuggling raw dairy and cider and other products, and jumping every time a police officer drives by their house in case they are about to be subjected to one of the raids that have been increasing drastically in the last four years.

This all may sound ridiculous, but it is happening, more and more every day. There was a farmer just a few years ago (two I think) who was interrogated into unconsciousness by a group of police, state, and federal agents for delivering raw milk to a group of eaters. There’s the now well publicized raid on Rawesome in California, where federal agents, guns drawn, lined volunteers up against the wall and frisked them. The more regulations the FDA enacts, the more we are going to be forced to go underground with our food production and distribution.

Unless, of course, we are all perfectly happy to eat Franken-foods made from GMOs and radiation and god only knows what else.

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I find the whole political process to be so tedious. So tedious that merely thinking about it makes me want to curl up and go to sleep (or maybe that is the rain and the cold). And the pizza I ate for lunch. Generally, a depressing sort of week.

However, I feel the need to comment, at least momentarily. There is a bill going up before Congress today, called the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Here is the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s take on it:
NSAC Update
And here is the actual bill:

I love how all the updates sent out by NSAC, PASA, and NOFA failed to include a link to the actual bill. Apparently you aren’t supposed to read it yourself! Just take their word for it that the proposed amendments will be good enough. I have to admit, I’ve tried to read the thing myself, and it’s a load of nonsense. It doesn’t help that it would take a smarter person than I to puzzle out which bits have been struck out and which haven’t. For all I can tell, the whole thing was struck out, but I haven’t the faintest idea. I don’t have the patience for all the political jargon- it intentionally is written to mean almost nothing, so that it can be interpreted by bureaucrats any way they like.

Point being, here’s a fun bill that is designed, supposedly, to put some restrictions on food processing, supposedly to make the foods produced by big industrial corporate entities safer. In my opinion, the best way to make those “foods” safer is not to eat them. At all. That would certainly solve the problem.

But no, that’s not how we work. We keep doing things that are flat out stupid, and trying to pretend we’ve worked out all the kinks and everything is going to be just fine (tons of nuclear waste, anyone?). Rather than say, oh, I don’t know, NOT producing GMO foods that we haven’t the faintest idea what the side effects of might be, we just say, oh, well, we’ll give the government the power to confiscate them if they kill anyone. That’s a great plan.

And in the meantime, we’ll force through bills that don’t make distinctions between humongous conventional producers and small, direct marketed farmers. Right. Well, that’s what the proposed amendments are supposed to do. Though as I’ve said before, and will say again, it makes loads more sense to just leave farmers who are direct marketing alone, and- well, here I am repeating myself. Educate yourself on the issues.

Here’s a Grist debate on the subject:
Grist: S. 510
My response to the mom arguing that all producers need to be regulated is simply this: if you try to regulate all farmers the same way, they all need to be producing in the same way. The regulations that supposedly make conventional milk safe include requirements such as having a loading dock capable of accommadating a certain size tractor trailer if you are going to process and sell milk. So if a small farmer wants to even pasteurize his milk and sell it for extra income, he has to be able to accomadate a tractor trailer. EVEN IF THE FARM IS TOO SMALL FOR A TRACTOR TRAILER. These types of regulations are ridiculous, and it has been proven again and again that the FDA will consistently attack small farmers who don’t have the resources for a legal defense, rather than go after the big processors who are really the culprits, but who can afford all the legal fees of a long and expensive lawsuit. And don’t you think it’s far more damaging for a small farmer whose customer base is very small to suffer the damage caused by an outbreak, versus the huge corporate brands that have suffered outbreaks again and again and again but don’t seem to lose the slightest bit of business over the long run? (because most people don’t even hear about the outbreaks)

Here’s an argument against the bill in it’s entirety from the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association:
NICFA: S. 510

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Originally posted to George Goes Green on March 24, 2010.

I was reading the book Cunt (Inga Muscio) again last night and had a thought. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it is a feminist book that attempts to reclaim the term “cunt” as a woman-positive word. I was reading the chapter on rape and abuse, and she finished it by suggesting that if women loved their vaginas, really loved them, they would not be so inclined to allow the silence and shame in regards to rape and abuse continue. The thought is, that if you really love something, you will stand up for it. What allows women who suffered rape or abuse to remain silent, and not to run out trying to find their attacker and kick his butt to kingdom come, is often a feeling that somehow they are at fault, or that they deserved it, or some kind of convoluted psychological analysis that leaves them feeling helpless and victimized but blaming themselves, not the perpetrator.

We have this problem in general, in our culture. We blame the victim. An author whose book I am in the middle of reading was attacked last week while in the middle of giving a talk- attacked by people who were supposed to be on her side. On the radio and online, people blamed her for the attack. Oh, she deserved it. Oh, she brought it on herself. She is a slight, middle aged woman with a spinal disease that renders her body very fragile. She was talking about the harm that agriculture does the environment. And for that, she deserves to be attacked? Really? She brought it on herself?

The point I am aiming for is that this happens in the environmental field, too. Environmentalists very often blame themselves for allowing the environment to be destroyed, or something. Like somehow they are personally responsible for deforestation, because they use toilet paper. They may be against deforestation, they may dedicate their entire lives to eradicating deforestation, but somehow it must be their fault that it continues. I myself am often guilty of this supposition. I have dedicated my entire life to trying to stop the destruction of the environment, but it hasn’t stopped, and there are many times when I despair and blame myself.

There are two reasons, I think, for this tendency. First, we are taught to take it personally. Recall the ending to An Inconvenient Truth. If you haven’t seen it, basically you are given a list of things you personally can supposedly do to stop climate change. They include things like changing light bulbs. I have spoken before on this blog on why I don’t believe for a minute that changing light bulbs will stop climate change. But this is common: most environmental books, most documentaries, most news reports, all end with what YOU are supposed to do to end climate change. Not once (at least in conventional circles) does someone say, you know what, I bet there are some things major industrial polluters could do to stop climate change. Not once does someone say, wow, I bet if those big polluting factories shut down, that would really help at least slow down climate change. Because it is clearly our fault. It’s because of what we’ve done, not because of what the big polluting factories have done.

The second reason is related. I’m reminded of the scene in Grapes of Wrath where a neighbor comes along and tells the family they have to leave their farm (and I am majorly paraphrasing here, because I don’t have a copy), because the land has been foreclosed or something. A company owns it now. The family asks, well, who is this company? Who are they, so we can go shoot them? And the neighbor answers, they are no one, they are just a company. There is no one to shoot.

We have this idea that companies, or corporations, or the government, or NGOs for that matter, are these entities that have no faces. How can we hold them accountable, if we can’t find someone to shoot (metaphorically)? When people first become conscious of environmental devastation (for many of us, this happens when we are children), they want to lash out at someone, anyone. And they realize that major corporations are a pretty big source of the problems. But how do you stop a corporation? Who are they? And so we blame ourselves, because the prospect of attempting to defeat a corporation is just too much to handle.

But it is not your fault. It is not my fault. It is THEIR fault. And a corporation is nothing but a group of people acting together. They have faces. They have names. They have no more power than they are allowed- and by hiding behind an “entity”, as they call themselves, they have an awful lot of power right now. But we have NO reason to remain silent and shameful, about rape or about the rape of the environment. If we love our environment, truly love our environment, and stop beating ourselves up because we sometimes have kind of a shaky relationship with it, we will do anything in our power to stop the abuse. Won’t we? Or are we too afraid of a bunch of random people who are too afraid to make their individual identities publicly known?

Rapists get off because they are sure the women they rape will not speak out against them, and that even if they do, they will not take matters into their own hands to make sure that rapist can never rape another woman again. Corporations get off because they are sure people will not actually speak out against them, and that even if they do, they will not take matters into their own hands to make sure that corporation can never rape another woman, I mean the environment, again. They are so certain of their power that they count on our fear and our own sense of powerlessness to keep us from acting.

But we are not powerless. If we really love our land, if we can love ourselves enough to stop blaming the victims and start blaming the perpetrators, it’s just a matter of finding the right person to shoot.

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Actually, that last leads nicely into the honesty discussion. Because, after all, why are we doing this local foods thing?

I’ve been guilty, lately, of one of the things I preached about the most on my old blog. It makes no sense to be running around organizing things if you don’t have a clear goal in mind. Once you decide what matters to you the most, you will find yourself doing almost anything to achieve it. And I have said many times that my ultimate goal is this idyllic vision of a farm that I carry in my head without any real confidence that it will be achieved in my lifetime. But at least it’s a goal.

But what about everything else? What about the organizing that I call my “work”? (And by that I don’t even mean the stuff I get paid for.) What are we trying to do? We spend a lot of time talking about how wonderful local foods are without talking about what our ultimate goals are- and that I think leads to a lot of conflicting ideas about how to go about actually creating a local food system. Because, like with drinking raw milk, it all sounds well and good, but we need to be honest with each other about the fact that it’s simply not easy.

To start, farming is hard work. It sucks as a job, in an awful lot of ways. And if our goal is to make things easier for farmers, then really we need to be joining hands with Monsanto and the GMO crowd, because they have made things easier for farmers. Doesn’t mean it’s an easy job, but at least driving a tractor up and down the rows is a lot easier than doing it by hand.

If we’re looking to help farmers make more money, then we can definitely do that with local foods. As I’ve already stated, you can make a lot more money producing specialty crops (which, by the way, can mean any number of things- unusual varieties of things, or rare ethnic vegetables, baby vegetables, grass fed beef, whatever) than you can producing commodities. This is because the price of corn or grain or even regular milk is set by a national market that fluctuates based on the international economy. Whereas the price you get for microgreens is set by how much you can con local restaurants into paying you for them. Even if you sell wholesale to Whole Foods, it’s obvious you’re going to get a higher price than if you’re selling to a broker who’s selling to Dollar General or something.

But if making farmers more money is the ultimate goal, that means we aren’t actually concerned about everyone having access to the wonderful benefits of local foods. Because in order to make farmers more money, they have to charge a lot more for it than most people can afford. I go back and forth with farmers on this one, and while it is true that if I am smart about it I can get vegetables at the farmers market for about the same as I would get them at the grocery store, the farmer’s market is only on Saturday mornings, and I often am working Saturday mornings (as are many others). And there’s no way around the fact that chicken is $3 a pound at the farmer’s market, and maybe $1.99 at most at the grocery store. You can go on and on about how eating grass fed chickens prevents health care costs down the line, but when you only have a certain amount to spend on food each month, that argument simply isn’t valid.

If, on the other hand, your goal is for everyone to have access to healthful local foods, we’ve got a big problem on our hands. It suddenly becomes a much larger issue than converting acreage to small scale “sustainable” farms. How do you keep farming profitable, while making the food affordable, without using subsidies? Which is, of course, how commodity foods are kept so cheap. How do you get food to people who only have that one hour to shop on a Tuesday night at 9PM? How do you help people to eat whole, fresh foods when they have no time to cook? Or don’t know how to cook? Or don’t have a kitchen full of the fancy gadgets that most of us are used to having at our disposal to prepare all these wonderful fresh foods we’re always getting? My kitchen is packed with crap I’ve bought at Williams and Sonoma, and I’ve gone broke doing it. Most people cannot afford fancy knives and immersion blenders. Let’s just face that fact.

It’s easy, when you’re writing blogs or magazine articles or books on local foods to go on and on about how great they are, because writing is as much about what you fail to mention as what you actually include. That’s why they say there is no such thing as objective journalism- even when you’re doing your best to simply present the facts, your choice of which facts to include and which to leave out creates a bias. So what do we need to do if we’re really being honest about the local food movement? Do we need to admit that maybe it’s not a movement at all, that maybe it’s a trend, that for a while a lot of farmers will do well selling specialty goods, and then they’ll move on when something else becomes trendy? That if we’re really serious about localized, sustainable food systems, we’re simply not getting to the core of the problem? It’s easy to make local foods sound like the silver bullet for all our problems. But there is something much deeper that’s wrong- something we’re not going to be able to ignore for very much longer.

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