Entries Tagged as 'food politics'

An Instruction Manual for Fixing the Food System

For years people and organizations from Frances Moore Lappé to Slow Food have sought to repair and restore our broken food system, making noticeable but still negligible progress.  Surely more people today are aware that there’s a problem, and admitting that is the first step, as they say.

Thus far, all of these wise, talented and dedicated people have been navigating by the stars in an endless sea of industrialization and fake food.  Despite hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and essays and dissertations and lectures on the subject, there has been no guidebook, no specific “set of instructions” on how to fix our broken system.  To the rescue comes Phillip Ackerman-Leist, a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont, with Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable Food Systems, a part of a series sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute called “The Community Resilience Guide Series.”  Other books include one on locally-targeted financial investing and another on creating local energy projects. [Read more →]

Why America Needs a Public Hearth

I was raised in the fast food test-marketing capitol of the United States.  Nearly every major fast food chain and prepared grocery product company tests its new ideas in Columbus, Ohio.  Twenty major fast food companies (they prefer the term “quick service”) are headquartered in the Columbus metropolitan area, including White Castle, Bob Evans, and Wendy’s.

When I was five years old my father took me to the very first Wendy’s on its very first day, after which we crossed Broad Street to visit the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), where I first learned of the importance of science in the production of food.  We wandered the artificial streets of “Yesteryear,” only to turn the corner and see what progress had wrought – from woodstoves and grain mills and hand-baked bread to microwaves, TV dinners and Wonder® Bread, all in the blink of an eye, both figuratively and literally.

At the Agriculture exhibitions both at COSI and the enormous Ohio State Fair (where I would get lost that same year), I began my indoctrination into the world of consumerism.  It was made clear to me that “Better Living Through Chemistry” was not only possible, it was preferable.  Chemical inputs made food grow faster, last longer and taste better.  Companies like DuPont, Dow, and Battelle would promise to solve every problem a farmer or a consumer could face.

One year later Wendy’s would revolutionize fast food.  It was Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, who took Henry Ford’s assembly line to the next level when he began using it to turn out burgers at a furious pace.  But it was Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas who took it full circle, not only using assembly-line precepts in the construction of his “Hot & Juicy” hamburgers, but reconfiguring the old “drive-in” of bobby-sox and poodle skirt days into the drive-thru, which took us the next step closer to feeding our children the same way we fueled our cars.

Fast food was not the only industry that was evolving.  In a curious sociological coincidence of the time, we no longer had to leave our beloved cars to feed ourselves, but the service station gave way to the self-serve pump.  We needn’t expend any more effort than to press on the accelerator to feed our families, but to fuel our cars we then had to leave their confines and do the work we once paid others to do.

Three decades later, we would fuel both our families and our cars with the same ingredient – corn – which grows plentifully in my boyhood home of Ohio, and even more so in my adult home of Iowa, the heart of the agribusiness beast.

Over my half-century of life in America I have witnessed what might one day be referred to as the most rapid and uncontrolled period of social evolution in human history, in which a mind-boggling array of influences conspired in a perfect storm of high technology and rampant, vapid consumerism.  Cause and effect were conflated to a point where it was impossible to tell, most of the time, which was which.  And somewhere in that rigmarole, America made the decision, as a culture, that it was preferable to leave not just food production, but also the actual act of feeding our families up to large, distant corporations.  Our lives were moving so fast that anything that appeared to be a time-saver was immediately adapted as a saving grace.  This so that we could have more time for work, to make more money, so we could buy more of these timesaving products.  Or it was so that we could have more time to spend with our families, which we very rarely actually did, except when in our cars or in front of the television, made feasible with all our perceived extra time

It is at about this point, when I discuss such things with people, that someone will begin to formulate the accusation that I am a Luddite.  The first time it was alleged, I admit, I had to look it up.  It turns out that the original Luddites were early-19th century English garment workers, incensed that their jobs were being taken by machinery and low-skilled labor.  They responded my smashing the new automated looms and often resorted to full-scale battle with the Royal Army.  Today the term is used to label anyone who, according to Wikipedia, is “opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization or new technologies in general.”

I would like to think that the fact that I just referred to Wikipedia, or the fact that I wrote this blogpost on an iMac, might allay any such fears.  But then I find myself going on about the absurd fact that very soon after H. Cecil Booth invented the modern, motorized vacuum cleaner, wall-to-wall carpeting became the home flooring of choice, thus creating the need for more vacuuming.

The same sort of thing has happened to one degree or another, with almost every technological advancement of the last 50 years.  We have luxuriant cars and now must commute further than ever.  Our computers and mobile phones and hi-def televisions have made office work, communications and entertainment nominally faster, cheaper and easier, but we now spend hours upon hours glued to one or the other of them, often even all three, in lieu of real time spent with real people.  We have, in the words of the old original Slow Food Manifesto, fallen victim to “the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

In the meantime America was sold a bill of goods.  We were tricked. Hoodwinked. Hornswoggled. We were deceived, cheated and misled into believing that that most sacred of acts – that of preparing food to sustain our families – was a chore on par with washing windows: something to be avoided if possible, or better yet simply left to others, and then done only very grudgingly and quickly and only if there is no other option at hand.  The simple result is that if we are what we eat (and we are), then most of us are fast, cheap, and easy.  What’s more, if you are what you eat, then who owns your food owns you.

The worst of many bad results of this cultural regression which we were assured was progress was this: we reared an entire generation who never learned how to cook, and today that generation is rearing yet another.

“But no!” I am often reassured. “Look at the size of our grocery stores!  Witness the popularity of the cooking shows on television!”  These are intended as examples of America’s love of cooking.  In reality, they are examples of America’s love of consumption (which you may recall was once a name of a disease).  Those grocery stores of 50 years ago gave way to the supermarkets of 40 years ago, which gave way to the hypermarkets and “big box” stores of today.  The stores get bigger and bigger, but the amount of actual, fresh, wholesome food shrinks in nearly exact inverse proportion.  Variety and quality are sacrificed to the gods of expedient mediocrity.

Meanwhile on our televisions most (though admittedly not all) of the food programming is insipid, gossipy, self-flagellating melodrama of supposed cooking competitors stabbing each other in the backstage with name-brand cutlery.  The rest of it is pure pornography: people who are prettier than the rest of us doing things we’ll likely never do, in places we’ll never visit, and doing it better than any of us could hope to.  But this is America!  We love to consume that too.

Where once the great Julia Child ruled with a soft hand, admonishing us that “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients,” we now have Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, which are far more about judgmental insults and manufactured suspense than cooking.

Real cooking is about none of those things.  It is a very simple craft, yet it can inspire deep passions.  Like architecture it is built on a few basic fundamentals – a foundation if you will – and like architecture, if you have a strong foundation the possibilities are nearly limitless.  After all, the source of the word “foundation” is the Latin fundatio, which is also the root of the French word for soup stock: Fond, which in turn is the very basis of modern Western cuisine.

Cooking is a simple act of love.  It is, in fact, the single most tangible demonstration of our love for our families and our friends.  It deserves appropriate reverence.

How, then, can we recover from our industrialized computerized malaise?  We must rejuvenate the kitchen and table as vital centers of our everyday lives, and we must reconnect food and pleasure with awareness and responsibility.  Here I do not mean merely the upper-middle class McMansion types with their kitchens that cost more than most people’s homes (although in my experience those kitchens usually do not receive anywhere near the actual cooking activity necessary to justify their costs).  No, I mean everyone, and most especially the overworked single moms, the two-parent gotta-get-to-soccer-practice mini-van families, the recent immigrants who feel bewildered in a Walmart Super Center, the college kid with a dorm room hotpot, and the young couples with new babies, who never learned how to cook at their parents’ or grandparents’ apron strings

To do this, we must create legions of cooks, and then inspire them to create still more legions, and so on.  In order to be effective, it must be based on the precepts of what Slow Food calls “Good, Clean, & Fair” food.  “Good” means that it is good tasting, good for you, and good for the environment where it’s grown.  “Clean” means there is nothing in the food that isn’t food (and if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it still isn’t food now).  And “Fair” means that the people who produce the food should be justly compensated for their efforts – from farm to table.

The Public Hearth is an effort to create legions of cooks, starting in farmers markets and church basements, youth clubs and social halls.  It starts with a neighbor sharing grandma’s tamale recipe, sure, but more important than the recipe is the technique, the skills involved.  We must marshal the resources necessary to make everyone know the difference between roast and braise, to be able to choose the best potato for a salad as opposed to a French fry, to make a stock from scratch and feed two people three meals from one chicken.

Also more important is that simple act of sharing, of being with family and friends and passing along knowledge and skills.  That is what builds community.  In Colonial America, and many parts of the world before then, villages would often have a central community oven, where townspeople would bring their dough to be baked, thus saving time and money by sharing the labor and fuel.  They would trade ideas and community news and baking techniques even as they traded loaves of bread.  The Public Hearth was a gathering place where communities grew closer together though the simple act of breaking bread.  And at the risk of too much Latin etymology, it is useful to know that the word “Companion” come from con panis, literally “with bread.”

Let’s get cooking.

~kmf, February, 2013

The Last Word: A Girl and Her Pig

They’ll tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case perhaps you should make an exception.  In A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories, April Bloomfield delivers exactly what the book’s cover implies – a straightforward approach to food from a working class Birmingham girl who found her niche.

As a child in England, Bloomfield wanted to be a Policewoman, but circumstances conspired as they so often do and she followed her sister into cooking school.  Unlike her sister, though, Bloomfield found her way into the profession and on to New York, where her no-nonsense take on real food has won her accolades piled upon accolades.

This is not to say that her recipes are plain, nor are they always simple.  In fact she refers to many of them as her “fussy recipes,” ones that need to be followed to the letter (which I admit has always been difficult for me).  [Read more →]

Of Laws & Sausages: Infusion Bill Dies in Secret

As you may have heard, I started a campaign last fall that I called “Raise the Bar.” It was an effort to lift state restrictions on infusing alcohol in restaurants and bars. Our own Sen. Joe Bolkcom crafted the idea into bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate nearly unanimously, 48-2. Recently, behind closed doors in the Iowa House State Government Committee, the bill was quietly euthanized. No explanation given, no word on who killed the bill or why.

A little background: What we (I received considerable support from the Iowa Restaurant Association and fellow restaurant and bar owners statewide) were trying to do was make it legal for bartenders to do what you are perfectly allowed to do at home — infuse flavors like vanilla or raspberry into spirits like vodka or whiskey. Perfectly legal in dozens of other states. There is no fermentation or distillation of any sort involved in the process; it is merely a way for creative bartenders to bring you some interesting new flavors in your libations. The laws preventing it not only ban “adulteration” of liquor but also their storage in any container besides the original bottle. This all dates back to pre-prohibition laws that were aimed at the less-than-scrupulous tavern owners of the day who would drink the good stuff and replace it with rotgut or homemade bathtub gin.

That was 100 years ago. Carrie Nation is dead. And if you can trust me, as your chef, to put raspberries in your vinaigrette, you can trust me to put raspberries in your vodka. But some Iowa House members don’t see it that way, and we’ll never get to know which ones.

Only one group formally opposed the bill: the beer distributors’ lobby. They contended that it amounted to a “crack” in Iowa’s sacred “Three Tier System,” which governs all alcohol sales, distribution and production in the state. The supposition being that the proposal would make bars — who are part of the retail tier in this system — into producers like breweries and distilleries (a separate tier). Not so, since as I said there would be no distillation or fermentation, nor any off-premise sales of the concoctions, but that’s what they thought.

To her credit, Rep. Vicki Lensing had crafted an amendment to allay those concerns and some others, but she was never granted to the opportunity to introduce the language, and not even she knows exactly why. The committee was convened by Rep. Stewart Iverson, R-Clarion, who promptly dismissed all observers. An hour later, when observers were allowed back in, the infusion bill had been removed from the agenda, effectively killing it for the year.

They say there are two things you don’t want people to know how you make ’em: laws and sausages. Despite their loud advocacy for lifting restrictions on small businesses, too many representatives are protecting the status quo. I would name them but no one knows who they are.

This is not the end, mind you. We will bring the issue back up in the next session, and Iverson is not running for re-election this year, so there is hope that we may be able to at least get it out of committee. The only item to get out of that committee, by the way? A proposal to increase transparency government (but only local and county, not state). You can’t make this stuff up.

Now We’re Cooking: In conversation with Tamar Adler


tamar_adlerPhoto from the video Tamar Adler Talks About An Everlasting Meal.

Editor’s note: It’s unanimous these days: Cooking food from scratch at home is one of the best ways to eat sustainably without breaking the bank. It also enables eaters to easily support food producers who use environmentally sound, ethical, and humane practices. But most Americans can’t pull this off regularly. We recently invited Kurt Michael Friese and Tamar Adler — two people who have strong feelings about the importance of home cooking — to have a conversation for Grist. Adler is a chef, cooking teacher, and the author of the new book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace; Friese is a chef, the editor of Edible Iowa River Valley, and the author of two books, including A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland and Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots on the Chile Trail (which he co-authored with Gary Nabhan and Kraig Kraft).

Kurt Michael Friese: I think Americans have been sold a bill of goods: I think they’ve been coerced into believing that cooking is a chore akin to washing windows, something to be avoided if possible and then done as quickly and grudgingly as they can manage. Too many people believe they don’t have the time. That’s the most common excuse anyway. And of course they do — it’s all a matter of priorities.

Tamar Adler: My sense is that there are three variables. A study that came out earlier this year found that 28 percent of Americans stayed out of their kitchens because they were scared they didn’t know how to cook. The other two variables are obviously time and money. The same study found that one-third of Americans spent more time thinking about what to cook than actually cooking. In other words, we have a very skewed relationship to the act of cooking.

The thing about priorities is that if we don’t know what cooking actually means — that is, the kind of cooking that makes deep sense in our lives — then of course we don’t have time, or money.

It takes a very long time to cook in a way that isn’t sustainable, and it’s very expensive. And it makes sense to feel bullied by being told to make something that takes a long time and costs a lot of money a priority. But of course, that’s not what we’re saying. It just takes a lot of explaining and careful guidance to show the whole picture of cooking, and how much it can give you, if you do it with a certain mindset.

Kurt: I have long said that I may be a part of the last generation to have learned to cook at his mother and grandmother’s apron strings. And if people are no longer learning to cook from their parents (because their parents didn’t learn either), then we need to find some new ways to teach them. One thing I’ve called for is something I call The Public Hearth.

Tamar: That sounds wonderful.

There’s lots more!  Read the entire conversation @ Grist.org


In Defense of Iowa’s Food

Yes, meatloaf, casseroles, and other comfort meals can be found in church basements across all of Iowa’s 99 counties, but this is a state that knows its food and wine.


When I read Stephen Bloom’s screed against our mutually-adopted home state I was, like many Iowans (including his boss at the University of Iowa), insulted. I could not figure out which aspect bothered me more. My world revolves around food, and Bloom seems to have gleaned his information about what we eat in Iowa from a high school production of The Music Man.

Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals. Everyone loves Red Waldorf cake. Deer (killed with a rifle is good, with bow-and-arrow better) and handpicked morels are delicacies families cherish.

I do not mean to claim that these dishes cannot be found in Lutheran church basements in all 99 counties, even if he is wrong about cottage cheese being in Jell-O molds (the cottage cheese is served on the canned pears, or more often on cling peaches), and even if, as a restaurant professional for 32 years, I’ve never heard of “Red Waldorf cake” nor has my fifth-generation Iowan wife. We think he must mean red velvet cake, which is common, though not nearly as common as the magnificent pies that are baked here. All this food can indeed be “comforting,” but as in so many other parts of his diatribe, Bloom chooses a couple small examples of something he’s seen here and concludes that it must be so for everyone across state.

Read the rest in The Atlantic

Raising the Bar: Correcting Iowa’s Arcane Liquor Laws

In the US each individual state has its own set of laws regulating the production, sale and consumption of alcohol.  Naturally this results in a wide array of goofy, arcane, or sometimes just plain stupid liquor laws.  Some are enforced, others are not, and still others see that very enforcement lead to a reversal of the law, something I’d like to see here.  I’ll get to my problems with Iowa’s laws in a minute, but first, a little sampler from a few of the other states around the union.

Texas is one of the national leaders in this regard.  It is illegal in Texas to consume more than 3 sips of beer while standing.  But even if you sit down, you can be arrested for public intoxication while still in the bar.  And if you’re under 21?  Not a problem as long as you are with your parents – or spouse.  The age of consent in Texas is 17.

Pennsylvania has a whole slew of arcane laws (they still have the state stores that Iowa got away from during the 1st Branstad administration), but my favorite is that they apportion liquor licenses based on population. Philadelphia has more restaurants than their allotment permits, so restaurants are forced to go “BYOB,” or to buy licenses from closing restaurants on the open market, often for as much as $250,000.  Cushions the blow of losing your restaurant I suppose if you can get a quarter of a million dollars for a piece of paper. [Read more →]

Gagging on the Ag Gag Bill: Industrial lobbying and corporate overreach at its finest

Industrial agriculture, like most powerful business interests, has a very effective lobbying organization not only in DC, but also in state capitols around the country.  Over the last few years they’ve been stung by surreptitious video recordings taken on a few farms showing examples of egregious animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental degradation.  See examples here, here, and here.

Needless to say, it makes them look bad, which of course they don’t like.  Now let me state right from the start here that I and the organization I represent, Slow Food USA, are not at all anti-farmer, and firmly believe that a vast majority of America’s farmers are honest, hardworking, industrious and well-meaning keepers of their land and heritage.  That said, there are exceptions, and like in any industry, a few bad apples can make the whole bunch look bad.

But instead of working hard to stop those few bad actors, Big Ag’s response is to try to criminalize the whistleblowers.  And their first attempts, in four states (Florida, Minnesota, Iowa and most recently New York) are so far reaching as to beg obvious 1st amendment questions to say the least. [Read more →]

Envisioning a New Public Hearth for Public Health

“Sustainability doesn’t mean a thing if we can’t get people to cookElissa Altman
“The more I work on these issues having to do with our whole food system, the more I realize that our problem is a cooking problem.” Michael Pollan


There’s plenty of food, we just need to get into everyone’s hands and then make sure those hands know what to do with it
The impressive growth of community farmers’ markets in the US over the last fifteen years presents us with a great opportunity.  While food deserts and other inequities remain a serious problem, access to fresh, local food is on the increase.  However, for this trend to gain real traction and have a permanent impact on food access and health in underserved communities, we need systems in place that teach and encourage people to cook, to see the healthful and economical advantages of home cooking, and to share that knowledge with others in the community.


Many organizations do parts of what is necessary, in piecemeal fashion, at a handful of markets each.  Now what is needed is a networked clearinghouse of ideas and best practices, recipes, demonstrations, and clear and concise methods for getting people excited about preparing and sharing fresh, wholesome, local food. We can do this while respecting local traditions and cultures, without condescension, using economically, culturally and ethnically appropriate ingredients and methods.

My vision for farmers’ markets is that they aren’t just places to buy food you can believe in, but community centers that support change in the food systems with resources and education.  They are already gathering places for people with some common values, and they are, more and more, playing a role in food assistance.  With some key, specific interventions, they could become places that seed deep structural and cultural change.

I envision a “Public Hearth” for public health. It was once common for communities to have a large oven in the center of town where everyone brought their dough to be baked, and everyone shared in the bounty.  A modern-day version would not be so much an actual oven per se, but would bring people together to learn, to share, and to cook.  Imagine a young mother finding not just a farmers’ market within reach of her home, not just fresh, local whole foods, but knowledgeable local people she knows and trusts and resources to help her make the most of the ingredients available.  Farmers’ market cooking demonstrations with trained chefs and local home cooks, once solely the province of high-end markets, now right within reach of the people who need it most. [Read more →]

The Factory Farm Environmental Degradation and Animal Cruelty Protection Act

Remember all those videos you’ve seen lately depicting various forms of animal cruelty and other heinous practices in some large agribusiness facilities?  Here’s one I told you about last year.  In Florida, the newly ensconced legislature is about to make the production of such videos a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison.  Had this bill been in force a few years ago, it might well have been used to put all the people behind the famous documentary Food, Inc. in prison.

The bill, filed as SB 1246 by Florida state senator Jim Norman, (R-Tampa), is likely to pass both houses of the Republican led legislature and be signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

While no one condones breaking and entering or trespass, this bill is clearly not meant to address that.  It may as well be titled “The Factory Farm Environmental Degradation and Animal Cruelty Protection Act.”  It’s sole purpose is to prevent the embarrassment and public exposure of the uglier side of American agriculture.  They want to make sure that the only story you see or hear is the bucolic rolling hills and Old-MacDonald image that large agribusiness and their lobbyists want you to see.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of great farmers in Florida and across the country who do not use such practices as have been exposed in undercover video by PETA and others.  And it’s true that such videos tend to cast a light that is as broad as it is stark, making well-meaning farmers look worse than they are.  But this is not about the farmers, nearly all of whom are good, honest people trying to earn a living from the land and leave something tangible for their families.  No, this is about image and branding and it is brought to you from on high.

As my friend Chris Bedford pointed out recently,

“This development (perhaps part of a larger American Legislative Exchange Council ALEC initiative) in and of itself does not signal the end of anything.  But proposals like this one and Michigan’s HB 4306 (which mandates privatization of non-classroom school functions including food service) should be seen in the context of the larger push back against the local food revolution… that will be at the heart of the Farm Bill 2012 debate.”

Ghandi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”  While noble efforts are being made at reconciliation between food activists and agribusiness conglomerates, make no mistake that we are now at stage 3 of Ghandi’s theory, and very powerful interests are turning their full attention toward the people and organizations (many of them farmers themselves) who are at the front of the real food movement.  We should be prepared to face them with clear eyes and full hearts.