What Do Americans Demand?

Consider the following quote from Joel Salatin (excerpted from this NY Times discussion):

Official government policy for nearly a century has been to grow everything faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper, without regard to higher moral or ethical considerations. As long as Americans demand food as cheap as ecological, emotional and economic abuse delivers, the corporate-government food fraternity will thrive.

Every day we can vote with our food dollars to patronize abusive systems or respectful systems. Today is a good time to start patronizing the respectful system.

He really captures the essence of the problem at hand and a solution in a few short sentences.

Read it again.

Now, focus your mind and really think about what you just read.

You may now be asking yourself, “How do I start patronizing respectful systems?” Start with these two links below:

Eat Well Guide

Local Harvest


Separating from the Foodies

We’ve all heard the term “foodie” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A person with a particular interest in food; a gourmet. (Sometimes distinguished from ‘gourmet’ as implying a broad interest in all aspects of food procurement and preparation.)”

This term brings to mind the idea of snobbery and elitism. I understand that…in fact I agree. I recently read The Moral Crusade Against Foodies by R.R. Myers that appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Atlantic and discussed foodie-ism. While far from perfect, he offered up some interesting criticism. I’ll skip commenting on most of the article, but I will highlight a couple passages.

Myers praises The CAFO Reader, which highlights the inhumane conditions of factory farms, and then writes “The contemporary gourmet reacts by voicing an every-stronger preference for free-range meats from small local farms. He even claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better though his heart isn’t really in it. Steingarten tells of watching four people hold down a struggling groaning pig for a full 20 minutes as it bled to death for his dinner. He calls the animal “a filthy beast deserving its fate.

Certainly if notable food critic Jeffrey Steingarten prefers free range meats from small local farms, and then writes books like The Man Who Ate Everything and describes a pig’s death as above, we might label him a hypocrite. Perhaps more likely is that Steingarten (and his contemporaries) don’t give a hoot about free-range meat from local farms. And if they do, it’s because it’s the new thing that’s more expensive, moral and can be lauded and labeled an exclusive taste, not because they actually care about the fate of animals or small farmers. If Anthony Bourdain cared about animals, he might not do well to be joyfully eating ortolan.

Myers continues,

“The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book [The Omnivore’s Dilemma] now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans — from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals — but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.”

Foremost, I certainly think Michael Pollan is doing more for any meaningful food movement than people like Jeffrey Steingarten. The documentary Food, Inc that featured Pollan is evidence enough.

Second, I wholeheartedly reject the foodie ethos that is embodied by critics like Steingarten, writers like Anthony Bourdain and everyone else the like. It’s true I care about eliminating factory farmed meat, drastically reducing our consumption of junk food, caring about small local farmers and the woeful dependence on oil to transport fruits and vegetables halfway around the world so we can have strawberries in January. However, I don’t want to be called a “foodie.” I don’t want to be associated with the crowd that dines at Top 50 restaurants and travels the world in search of the perfect balsamic vinegar. I don’t want to be a contradiction.

Myers goes on to comment on foodie’s gluttony, “We have already seen that the foodie respects only those customs, traditions, beliefs, cultures — old and new, domestic and foreign — that call on him to eat more, not less.”  I won’t tolerate gluttony from foodies who pretend to care about animals, farmers, local communities and the earth. Gluttony would fit on the long list of antitheses to the local sustainable food movement. But are all foodies gluttonous? No, but we’re not reading about restraint in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain nor are we watching restraint on Bravo or the Food Network.

There are certainly people out there who might teeter on the side of being called foodies that do earnestly care about the issues. There are also foodies who are harmless. But I believe Myers is correct that there are foodies we might not want to praise too much. Those are the ones we see with bestselling books, media coverage and TV shows.

There are some who want to make the claim that being a foodie isn’t elitist. But why be forced to make this distinction and fight for this nuance? I don’t think we should be fighting for foodies…we should be separating from them.

Consider this my official separation from being labeled a foodie elitist. I’m a food activist, but not a foodie activist.

The Chipotle Dilemma

I love Chipotle burritos. You don’t understand…it’s my favorite meal of all time.

However, I have a Chipotle dilemma.

To eat their meat or not.

Chipotle advertises “food with integrity” on their website and is generally known as the only fast food restaurant that actually tries to do something different with their ingredient sources. Luckily, Chipotle gives us a lot of information about their practices on their website.

About their pork:

There are ranchers whose pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet. It’s the way animals were raised 50 years ago before huge factory farms changed the industry. We believe pigs that are cared for in this way enjoy happier, healthier lives and produce the best pork we’ve ever tasted.

We call this style of ranching naturally raised, and since 2001, we have sourced 100% of our pork from producers who follow these guidelines.

About their beef:

Today, thanks to increased demand, we purchase 85 percent of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards. We’re still working on it, and we won’t rest until 100% of our beef is naturally raised.

About their chicken:

They mention that their “ultimate goal is to have 100% of our chickens raised without the use of antibiotics.” They also “want to avoid any supplier that uses additional additives in their feed, like arsenic.

More Information:

But we haven’t forgotten about pigs and chickens. Though the process is more complex, we are trying to find suppliers who can provide us with pasture-raised poultry and pork. Eventually, we want all of our meat to come from suppliers who meet these standards. We’re definitely working on it. Stay tuned.

In 2010, Chipotle plans to serve at least 50% of at least one produce item from local farms when it is seasonally available (more than 50% and more than one item any time we can). Those vegetables include romaine lettuce, red onions, green bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, and oregano.

What to make of all this?

I’m impressed that they’re committed to sourcing 100% of their pork in the above mentioned way. It’s the way all pork should be raised across the country.

So, do I eat their pork to support the ranchers who raise their pigs this way? Or do I forego the pork because of these reasons 1) The meat must be transported long distances to reach my local Chipotle 2) My purchase does not benefit my local farm economy (although Chipotle at least makes an attempt to obtain some local produce).

My vision for the future of food in American involves first and foremost local sustainable humane farm economies. Chipotle doesn’t fit the mold. This is very rare, especially for a large corporation such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. But I think Chipotle is trying and I’d like to support that. Does my vision for the future include chain restaurants around the country sourcing their food as cheaply as possible and run by a centralized corporate structure? Nope. But am I leaving open the possibility that perhaps Chipotle will innovate its way in to the future? Yes. I would support a locally owned Chipotle restaurant based on the Chipotle “theme” that sources all ingredients locally. That’s a future I can look forward to and I believe Chipotle is a lot closer to this vision than any other fast food restaurant in America.

Best Choice: Eat a vegetarian burrito and enjoy quacamole on it at no extra cost, it’s $1.80 extra with the meat burritos if I remember right. Then go find a local farmer who raises meat the right way and bring some home for yourself or the family and cook a great dinner the next night.

Reasonable Alternative: Eat a vegetarian burrito with guacamole most times and enjoy a carnitas burrito every once in a while. You can feel good about this because even though the pork is transported from far away to your local Chipotle, at least it was raised the right way and Chipotle is committed to working towards the right things, unlike most fast food restaurants.

Not So Good: The beef and chicken…although Chipotle is trying…isn’t quite there. “Naturally raised” beef doesn’t impress me. But I do commend them for telling us the vision — even if it’s not realized — to use pasture-raised poultry. Don’t beat yourself up over their chicken and beef, but know there are better alternatives mentioned above. Chipotle is making strides with their ingredients, but it’s OK to tell them you’re not quite satisfied and they need to keep working hard.

We need to remember that no restaurant is going to be perfect…not by a long shot. But I feel a whole lot better eating at Chipotle than I do Olive Garden or other “sit down fast food restaurant.” I really do believe getting the pork at Chipotle is a whole lot better than getting a vegetarian dish at Olive Garden. We shouldn’t dismiss anything short of perfection, but we also can’t reward mediocrity and lack of effort. I think Chipotle is making a lot of good solid steps in the right direction and I think we can all support that!

Keep up the good work Chipotle!

Personal Choice or Government Intervention?

I was reading this article by Liam Hysjulien (that appeared on Civil Eats a few months ago) this morning and I found it intriguing enough to comment.

Below is quote from the article which proposes that should “move away from the personal choice narrative.”

“But without widening government support toward locally grown food, current food solutions will remain largely on the periphery—eating around the edges instead of tackling the middle of our increasing food crisis.”

I agree 100% that the government should support locally grown food. After all, when it comes to food all the government seems able to do is subsidize the corn & soy monoculture industry. I think those subsidies need to disappear because corporate food companies have benefited far too long from food that is sold for less than it costs to grow. What kind of market does that create? I can buy a McDonald’s hamburger for $1 because of subsidized animal feed, but I can’t buy fresh broccoli for less than $1.49/lb at the local Hy-Vee?

“If the 2050 food disaster-narratives are even half true, it’s not a matter of making better personal food choices, following rules of eating, or becoming awakened to a foodie manifesto, it’s about addressing a coming global food disaster the world has never seen.”

Is the way I choose to eat worth it? Are my personal choices and “foodie manifesto” changing anything? Alone — NO — I’m not changing much. However, I do think that my personal food choices certainly can have a positive effect on others who I share my views with. And if you add up the little things, you can make a large impact. But the question remains…in 30 years…is anything I’ve done going to amount to a hill of beans? Is a world food crisis coming despite my best efforts to personally eat ethically?

I think this is a misguided question.

This kind of question puts too much weight on the shoulders of the average person. If we end up feeling so helpless that we can’t solve world crises then what motivation will we have to make ethical personal decisions. I believe that we will be held accountable for our own decisions. Therefore, personal ethical choices do matter. However, that doesn’t mean we need to become food snobs and scoff at problems like world hunger, etc. Quite the opposite…when you feel empowered by making personal ethical choices I believe your worldview opens up to include a passion to help those that are experiencing hunger.

Just because I think $4 a dozen local pastured eggs are the ethical choice in my life does not mean that I think socioeconomically disadvantaged members of society are unethical because they buy the cheapest eggs at the grocery store. You have to do what you have to do. But I am disappointed when members of society can make the ethical choice but don’t.

“This isn’t about accepting a future of “eight-dollar eggs” which will only exacerbate the division—mostly along class lines—between the well fed haves and the well fed have-nots, but about realizing that gravity of our food future requires a range of solutions.”

I agree 100% that the future of food does require a range of solutions. There’s no shortage of solutions…it’s the acting on them that’s the tough part. I can pay a local farmer $4 a dozen for pastured eggs which is a whole lot more than buying 18 conventional eggs for $1.99 at Hy-Vee. That’s a big price difference. But I think it’s fair. It’s fair to the farmer who can’t sell his product at a loss. I think it’s a fair price to pay for keeping my money in the local economy. I think it’s a fair price to pay for a sustainable humane operation.

As for the “have-nots,” I think they deserve these eggs too. When we use a free market economy we inevitably create a wide spectrum of economic classes; and the more unregulated it becomes…the wider the income gap between the richest of the rich and the poor. I think we can do 1 of 2 things. 1) We can allow apartment residents or homeowners to have chickens so that their hens can lay eggs for them…for a whole lot less than $4 a dozen. 2) We can correct the systemic ills of a market economy that creates a powerless lower income class. Raj Patel makes a good point (from this article), “The way to fight hunger in America isn’t to give money to big ag and big food. Nor does the answer lie in trimming environmental or labor standards to keep prices low. It’s to create jobs with living wages so that instead of being cheap, food becomes affordable to everyone.”

So if the question is “Personal Choice or Government Intervention,” I choose both. I put more value on personal choice though. I don’t think we can discount the power of millions of people making the right choices every day. 

Are We This Simple Minded?

I am very displeased by this blog post from the Des Moines Register about Prince Charles’ speech at the Future of Food Conference at Georgetown University.

For example, the following commentary:

“However, he really didn’t address the key long-standing objections to organic agriculture – that it can’t produce as much grain on the same amount of land as conventional agriculture does, because organic farmers rely on long rotations to maintain soil fertility, and that adhering to organic methods would raise food costs beyond the reach of the poor.” 

Adhering to organic methods would raise food costs beyond the reach of the poor? Is that it…end of story? The poor can’t afford organically produced food so we can’t do it?

Here’s a few ideas:

Instead of making food cheap to meet the prices the poor can pay, we should address the issue of poverty so the poor CAN AFFORD organically produced food.

Is conventional agriculture that is woefully dependent on crude oil sustainable in the long run as oil is eventually GOING TO RUN OUT?

So organic agriculture can’t produce as much grain on the same amount of land — perhaps we need to reclaim some land lost to SUBURBS to make the switch.

The arguments against sustainable organic food production are too simple minded. When all factors are considered…sustainable agriculture comes out the clear winner.

Prince Charles…Food Genius

I always thought Prince Charles was goofy. But now…I think he’s goofy and awesome!

I had no idea he was an advocate of sustainable agriculture and organic farming. BUT HE IS!

Check out this video  clip from his keynote speech at the Future of Food conference being held this week at Georgetown University. The video comes via the Washington Post Live website.

He really points out the issues facing modern food production and makes the case for sustainable agriculture. Now that’s “Royal” news worth reporting!

Assignment: Officially forget about the royal wedding and ponder the words of Prince Charles. Good day!

Real Food, exempli gratia

I love cheese. There, I said it and now you know.

So what happens when you watch someone make real homemade cheese? It makes you want to buy a goat.

Find out what I mean in this video.

The Perennial Plate is an online documentary series starring Daniel Klein (produced with Mirra Fine) that is “dedicated to socially responsible and adventurous eating”. The first season showcased the lovely state of Minnesota and the second season, which begins May 9th, will showcase the whole country. The first season was must-see internet TV…you won’t regret spending a few minutes of your time with a real guy and some real food.

Assignment: Bookmark http://www.theperennialplate.com and catch up on a year’s worth of missed episodes! Learning how to make Quiche in this video is a good starting point. Don’t forget to watch the new season starting in 3 days on May 9th!