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Archive for the ‘Food Policy’ Category

This past week Denver.Eater asked “How Denver’s Restaurant Industry Would Change the World Through Food.” They asked food editors, the governor, chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, coffee roasters, and restaurant critics. I enjoyed reading the answers and shared many of the sentiments. It was no surprise to me that there were no farmers listed with these other “restaurant industry” folks. I see this all the time across the national conversation about food; it’s not unique to Denver, but why aren’t we asking farmers and ranchers these questions? Hell, why aren’t we asking dishwashers, prep cooks, or the countless other invisible positions that complete the restaurant industry? Maybe it’s because these aren’t positions of power and we assume that the people at the top of the chain will have a better answer than the folks who are in the trenches every day. Maybe “How Dishwashers Would Change the World through Food” wouldn’t provide the necessary click-bait. But if we really cared about this question then maybe we should be asking everyone along the chain.

So here’s my answer to the question, “how would I change the world through food” even though no one asked me.

I think education is the foundation to lasting change and if we are going to instill systemic change we need to reeducate ourselves about what food is. Food, at it’s most basic level should nourish us. It should provide the necessary vitamins,  minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. for our existence. There are certainly “foods” that we consume that don’t meet this need and I think we’ve lost the ability to discern between foods that nourish and foods that don’t. My goal as a farmer is to grow the highest quality food I can. But the quality I’m striving for isn’t simply the physical appearance, it’s the nutritional quality of the produce. Nationally we have dropped the concept of nutrition from our language of food except for that often cringe-worthy term “health food.” We have documented science that shows that most of our nation’s produce has lower nutritional content than it did 60 years ago. This is largely due to our farming practices that focus on yield (pounds and bushels) and not nutrition. There is no incentive in the market to grow a healthier carrot because we have erroneously convinced ourselves that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. But a carrot’s nutritional content will differ based on where and how it’s grown. Imagine if you had the information to choose which carrot to buy based on the nutritional content of those specific carrots. Would you ever choose a carrot that was less healthy for you? Our food system incentivizes  growing cheap food with no regard to the health of the consumer. We can blame this on the “food system,” but we are all participating in this. Until we as eaters start to show that we care about the health of the food that we are eating there wont be change.

So how am I changing the world through food? I’m starting with my community and the 60 CSA members that pick up produce for 20 weeks of the year from the farm. I’m taking opportunities to explain why and how growing nutrient-dense food is our priority. I’m might not change the world, but I am working to educate my community on why food is important and that it’s their job to do the same.

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This morning I found a great blog post, written by a farmer in the UP of Michigan, that resonated with thoughts I’ve been having about the price disparity between local food systems and institutional food systems. Find the full post here. Head over to the Wintergreen Farm blog and leave a comment for her.

“But for all the excitement about local food and enthusiasm for farming, there is another wave that small farmers cannot help but notice: the wave of consumers gritting their teeth and quietly asking their farmers to bring down the price. We charge two dollars for 12 stems of kale and in our community (an especially low income area) that is considered exorbitantly expensive. What is that about? Why have Americans come to expect high quality food for unreasonably low prices, and what – if anything – can the current crop of small farmers do about it?”

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Check out the footnote, “Added fats and oils and added sugars are added to foods during processing or preparation.” Reducing processed foods in a person’s diet would drastically impact this portion.

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For nearly a year and a half I’ve been following a blog called Sustainable Food Jobs. The blog started as a very simple idea: post job listings that relate to sustainable food. In the beginning, things started pretty slowly. One post every few days, but now it seems to be averaging about five to seven listings a day. The job postings offer positions ranging everything from short term fellowship opportunities to assistant farmer/CSA manager to Executive Director for non-profit, sustainable food organizations. Even though I have a farm for myself, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts each day to get a sense for the types of positions that are out there.

This morning as I was skimming the posts, I saw a post for a position for a company that promotes sustainable agricultural practices seeking to fill a full time position with a salary around $45,000. (I would like to be clear on something before I move on. I am not being critical of this company or the salary that it is offering; I’m just using it as an example.) A few posts down from this one I started seeing posts for apprentice positions that, if they were year-round positions, would amount to $15,000. Certainly, there is a difference between the level of experience that the office position was seeking compared to the farming apprenticeship, but this reminded me of other discrepancies that I have seen before. It is a near-impossible thing to try to compare the value of two different positions, but it does make me wonder about how the positions are valued.

Last month, the USDA released a publication entitled, “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs,” and in the publication they have a few graphic representations of the breakdown of each dollar spent on food. Here is a simple graphic expressing the percent of a dollar that goes directly to the farmer/rancher.

This graphic represents the difference between the farms share and the marketers share of the average dollar spent on food. This graphic is more representative of a bag of Dole’s baby spinach than of a bunch of spinach purchased from a farmer at a farmer’s market. It’s amazing to see that the people that are growing the food receive 5x less the amount of money than the company that is telling you to buy the food.

Seeing this graphic and reading through the publication reminded me about a podcast called Deconstructing Dinner. I remember listening to an episode a while back about a grain co-op that was getting started. The host was listening in on a meeting between the grain farmers and other co-founders of the grain co-op. They were discussing the possibility of hiring a CSA coordinator at the salary of $20/hour for 1-2 days of work a week. The discussion that followed was poignant. Here sat the grain farmers, who would be growing the grain for the co-op/CSA and would not be making $20/hour, trying to express how that felt. (Click the link above and skip to the 29th minute mark to hear the discussion.)

The people in the interview mentioned several times that the salary disparity between the grower and promoter of the food was “just apart of how things are now,” and I’m afraid they are correct. It seems to be the reality that those that produce the food will always retain a minor percentage of the money spent on food, and even organization that support, encourage, and champion small sustainable farmers will receive a larger paycheck then the farmers, themselves. What do you think about this? or perhaps a better question would be, do you think about this?

So what can we do to correct this financial disparity?

  • Go out of your way to purchase directly from the farmer/rancher/fisher.
  • Reduce the amount of prepackaged foods your family purchased.
  • Find a CSA to participate in.
  • Look for a restaurant in your area that is purchasing a significant amount of it’s food from local farms and ranches.

What else could we add to this list?

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Yesterday I attended a lecture entitled “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food”  The lecture topic and titled is also the title of the lecturers book.  I hadn’t heard of the book or the speakers before I heard about the lecture, so I didn’t have a very wide frame of reference to base any opinions about them or their material.  I have been hearing a growing discussion about the idea of combining organic farming practices with genetically engineered (GE) plants or genetically modified organisms (GMO), and I was anticipating this lecture to be in a similar vein of thought.

Here’s a brief bio of the two authors. (I lifted this directly from the lecture notes from last night.)
“Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her laboratory has genetically engineered rice for resistance to diseases and flooding, both of which are serious problems of rice crops in Asia and Africa.”
“Raoul Adamchak has grown organic crops for twenty years, part of the time as a partner in Full Belly Farm, a private 150-acre organic vegetable farm. He has inspected over one hundred organic farms as an inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and served as a member and President of CCOF’s Board of Directors. He now works at the U.C., Davis as the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on campus.”

Raoul began the lecture by discussing the problems that our current (global) forms of agriculture are causing throughout the world.  He wasn’t blaming any one type of farming for this, he was just stating facts and statistics.  It wasn’t really anything we all haven’t heard before.  He then spoke about what he was doing in the world of Organic agriculture.  He finished his time by stating that Organic agriculture was not enough of a solution to the global crisis that is caused by agriculture worldwide.  Pam spoke next about what GE plants are and how they are made.  She then spoke about her work on flood resistant rice.

Ok, now that that’s all out of the way, let me say how disappointed I was in the lecture.  I was hoping that the lecture would be a serious discussion of whether or not GE plants and organic agriculture can coexist, but this was not the case.  As Raoul spent the majority of his time talking about the problems caused by the majority of the agricultural practices and very little time discussing Organic agriculture.  I found this very disconcerting.  I have never seen or heard another organic farmer less passionate about Organic production.  At best, he appeared apathetic.  And what disturbs me most about it is that he is the president of the California Certified Organic Farmers board.

I found Pam to be an engaging speaker.  She was very clear about her points and purpose, however I found that her arguments were based upon false dichotomies that she would create.  She would argue that the majority of the world couldn’t afford to purchase organic foods, yet the majority of the world eats based on subsistence farming, and for the most part cannot afford to purchase chemical pesticides regardless of whether they are organic or synthetic.

What bothered me the most about the lecture was that their argument for the use of GE crops was that their reasoning seemed to be, “we have the ability and science to do this, so we should.”  During the question and answer period, someone ask what they thought about seed ownership and how the consolidation of the seed industry impacts farmers.  Pam’s answer was that the rice that she has been developing is being done through a grant from the USDA, and that the issues of consolidation needed to be addressed by the Department of Justice.  This answer came off as so flippant, that any credibility that I was giving to them was gone.  The thesis of their lecture (and I’m guessing of their book as well) was that we need an integrated approach to agriculture, one that includes organic practices and GE crops, in order to feed the world without destroying it.  By it’s nature this thesis is broad, yet the answer they gave last night was narrow.  Any time a question was brought up regarding the ethics of GE crops, the speakers redirected the question without addressing the concern.  And when a question of  decreasing genetic biodiversity came up, the answer ignored the dependence on single varieties that GE crops promote.

While I was biking home from the lecture, I had some time to think about what was presented.  By the time I got home I realized what had left me feeling so disturbed.  The discussion of  “feeding the world” has so many moving parts that it’s nearly impossible to involve every aspect of the discussion.  The science of creating a GE seed cannot be divorced from the recognition that there are companies looking to profit from the seed, yet the speakers intentionally chose to ignore this reality.  I wonder how GE seed scientist feel about participating in a business that puts farmers into debt and when a crop failure occurs, 1500 farmers see no way out other than suicide? This is not a sustainable solution.

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Yesterday I had the chance to attend a Gardening Network Meeting at the Gardens on Spring Creek.  This was the first of these meetings that I’ve attended, but I got the impression that they have been going on for some time.  The particular focus of this meeting was to discuss growing food to alleviate hunger in collaboration with the Food Bank for Larimer County.  The room was filled with nearly 40 people, who are involved with gardening/growing food on some level.  There were people from a few hospitals in the area, which are using gardening as a means of horticultural therapy as well as the nutritional aspects of what they are growing.  There were a few people that are working with the school district to incorporate a “Farm to School” program.  There were people there that work with various community gardens throughout the city, as well as people from The Growing Project and Home Grown Food.  There was a lot of great energy in the room.

The meeting started with Kristin Bieri, from the Food Bank explaining some of what they do.  At the most basic level, they get food to people who need it.  This should seem pretty instinctual, however I was surprised at the ways they go about doing that.  They are much more “just” a pick-up location for people to come to and take food.  They have 3 different programs for how they give food to people.  One program is called Food Share.  This is the type of program that we often associate with a food bank.  Food Share is an on-site food pantry.  Another program is called Food Link.  This program works in partnership with other organizations that are assisting folks in need.  The third program is called Kids Cafe.  This program focuses on the needs of children 3-18 years of age.  There are 6 Kids Cafe drop locations, which are located within 1 mile of a school that has a population of over 50% free/reduced cost meals.  To get an idea for the capacity that the Food Bank serves at consider this: Last year the Food Bank served 27,000 people, 53% of those are children!

Kristin explained that 35% of the food that they are able to give away is fresh produce.  This is an incredible thing.  However, much of the produce is trucked in from other states and the Food Bank has to pay for it to be brought to them.  So, they may get a phone call from an orchard in Washington letting them know that they have a truck full of apples to deliver, but those “free” apples might end up costing #3000 in transportation and other fees.  This is an area in which the Food Bank really would like to find more local produce.  If there was produce available to them from within the state or surrounding regions, they would not have to pay so much for the donations they receive.

This was a great transition to the next presenter, Karen McManus who farms at Wolf Moon Farms.  Karen decided to grow 15 rows of “kid friendly” veggies for the Food Bank last year.  This is an incredible thing.  It’s not uncommon for farmers to donate produce that they don’t sell at a Farmer’s Market or if they have a bumper crop, but Karen was choosing to donate her time and resources and her “first fruits.”  This is extremely generous thing to do when the profit margins for a farmer are so tight.  One of the ways that Karen was able to offset some of these costs was by asking her CSA members to pay a little extra.  This is a great example of a community working toward a greater good.

I’m grateful for being invited to the meeting.  I got the impression that the group meets once a month, and I would love to join them again.  It was really encouraging to join a group of people in town who recognize that there are some in our community who are struggling to put food on the table, but more importantly, that we can do something about it.

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