Category Archives: Food Systems

Industry, policy, politics, etc.

Linking Dolphins & High Fructose Corn Syrup

Note: This summary is from a blog post at The Snap Blog, where I will be blogging going forward.

Immediately after watching The Cove, I needed to catch my breath after the final 10 heart-pounding minutes. Neither my 10-year-old son, who had been sitting closely by my side, especially during the final scenes, or I could find words right away.

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Challenges in Expanding Regional Food Ventures

Note: This summary is from my newest post on The Snap Blog, where I will be blogging going forward.

When I blur my eyes, I see sustainable food on every kitchen table. The ramifications of this vision are tremendous, which is why pursing it is not for the faint of heart or timid. The obstacles are equally substantial, starting with an entrenched and massive industrial food system.

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Introducing The Snap Blog…Our New Home!

Hello Readers,

I’m guessing by now that at least some of you may have thought I fell off the face of the earth. Close.

Instead, about six months ago I jumped feet first into my own ProFood venture – Sugarsnap located in Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale. Candidly, I had no idea how consuming this transition was going to be and expected to continue writing on a regular basis.

Well, after putting together a comprehensive business plan and private placement memorandum, I am happy to report that we have nearly completed our initial fund raising, and will soon accelerate our expansion plans. These changes are allowing me to start breathing again about the critical issues addressed at Every Kitchen Table.

The exciting part is that I am now partnering with some great people that have their own stories to tell. So, with this post I am formally merging Every Kitchen Table into The Snap Blog, the official blog of Sugarsnap.

You will once again see me posting on a regular basis, and will get the added benefit of reading the well-informed thoughts of my Sugarsnap partners. It may take us a couple months to hit our stride, but rest assured we will and the content will be great.

See you on The Snap Blog!

Cheers,

Rob Smart (a.k.a., @Jambutter)

P.S. You can also follow Sugarsnap on Twitter and Facebook.

Top 10 Selling Grocery Items (Change Needed!)

Take a look at this information regarding the Top 10 items people are spending money on at food stores.

While you’re reading through the list, make a note of what is missing. Consider what it takes to create each product, e.g., value-added process, ingredients, etc. Think about which food crops are needed to create each product. And, if you can, think about how the money flows from your pocket to which participants in the food value chain.

For the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2009, the Top 10-selling grocery items are (NOTE – ranked by dollar sales, in $billions):

ITEM                                                  SALES ($B)                     % CHANGE

1.)  Carbonated Beverages                                     $12.00                                         1.86

2.)  Milk                                                                          $11.20                                        -8.44

3.)  Fresh Bread & Rolls                                             $9.57                                         4.77

4.)  Beer/Ale/Hard Cider                                          $8.17                                          5.42

5.)  Salty Snacks                                                            $8.09                                         9.75

6.)  Natural Cheese                                                      $7.64                                         7.75

7.)  Frozen Dinners/Entrees                                    $6.13                                          0.18

8.)  Cold Cereal                                                               $6.11                                          2.12

9.)  Wine                                                                            $5.49                                         3.72

10.) Cigarettes                                                                $4.63                                        -2.18

SOURCE: INFORMATION RESOURCES INC. (IRI)

While its great to see Milk on the list (although share is dropping fast), as well as Grains (i.e., bread, cereal), did you also notice that Vegetables (2-1/2 cups recommended per day), Fruits (1-1/2 cups) and Meat & Beans (5 ounces) were not on the list?  Considering how many empty calories are wrapped up in soda and snacks, you can start to see why America has a problem with its waistline.

The other important thing that jumps out is how much of this list is occupied by highly processed “foods”, including sodas, snacks and (many) frozen dinners/entrees. Lots of added sugar, salt and oils originating from heavily subsidized corn and soy crops, much of which is grown using genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Do you see anything on the list that diversified farms are benefiting from?  Dairy farms show up, but if you’ve been following their industry as of late you know most smaller dairies are facing serious financial troubles.

Without getting into the many influences that make this list look the way it does, from food science to marketing to consumer behaviors, I would like to issue a homework assignment to anyone interested in using your food expenditures to increasingly benefit farmers (rather than the industrial food system that dominates today’s market).

  1. Over the next 2-3 months capture information on your own household’s grocery purchases.
  2. Compare the data you capture to the list above.
  3. Develop a game plan to replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables and your preferred protein sources (meat, beans, etc.).
  4. After several months of effort, gauge how you and others in your household feel.

My expectations is that your body, mind and soul will feel nourished in ways that strongly reinforce your decision to shift how you spend your food dollars.

Give it a try. Make a difference.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday series.

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid about Food

Food is essential to our survival. It impacts our health and wellbeing. It has the power to bring people together.

Food can be manipulated in many ways, from cooking to processing to using it as fuel. It provides tremendous opportunities to create value, and, as such, food is big business.

Much of the food we eat starts as a simple seed, or one that has been genetically manipulated to achieve some desired objective. From there, food can be growing in any number of ways, from conventional to organic and beyond, before it finds its way to our plates.

Food touches nearly every aspect of live, so it is essential that we understand it in the fullest context possible to ensure we, as consumers, make well-informed, everyday decisions. Unfortunately, for many of us our days of being educated and/or changing our ways are mostly behind us.

That is why we must focus on our children by finding creative ways to reintroduce food in its broadest sense into their everyday activities, starting with school, in order to close the knowledge gap between farm and plate.

Here are the 10 things I would integrate into our children’s educational curriculum to give them a fighting chance at making the joys of sustainable food central in their lives.

  1. The Food We Eat – Since most kids have little knowledge of where the food they eat comes from, we start with an understanding of what we eat as a society. Showing them a simple breakdown of consumer food expenditures, e.g., 25% on fast food, will give them a sense of our food priorities. As kids mature, discussions about how our food choices impact other thing would evolve into a new Sustainable Economics (SE) track in middle and high schools. Sustainable Economics, in my mind, is the replacement for the traditional Home Economics, which carries too much baggage. As you will read below, SE shows up in a number of places.
  2. Farming in America & Abroad – If you are active in discussions regarding sustainable food, you have repeatedly heard about the knowledge gap that has grown over the years between consumers and where their food comes from. Ideally, kids at a young age should take field trips to diverse, working farms to see first-hand what goes on day after day on a farm. From there the discussion should turn to the history of farming in America, current trends, how farms are financed, what they grow/raise and so on. Along the way, kids should also be introduced to the idea of farming as a career, something that I can never recall hearing during my childhood.
  3. Plant Biology – Since kids love getting dirty, this might be one of the more popular topics during the elementary school years – playing in the dirt (soil). In addition to studying soil and its different compositions, every kid should witness firsthand the magic contained within a simple seed. Watching seeds germinate and grow into plants, bear fruit, die and return to the soil will help them understand one of the more important circles of life. With more basic science under their belts, attention can be turned to heirloom, hybrid and genetically modified seeds to expand their understanding of ways man manipulates seeds and why, as well as fertilizers and pesticides and their impacts on the water we drink, air we breathe and food we eat.
  4. Gardening – While understanding larger-scale farming operations is important, kids should also be taught the possibilities of human-scale gardening, something they can practice throughout their lives. This topic represents a cornerstone of my proposed Sustainable Economics curriculum since it gives kids the power to control where some of their food comes from, whether that food is used at school or taken home.
  5. Cooking – Another cornerstone of Sustainable Economics would be instruction on cooking, something that should be required just like physical education given the importance it plays in our health and wellbeing. Topics that can be superficially explored at the younger ages before more in-depth dives in middle and high schools might include techniques, tools, recipes, flavors, sensory experiences, chemistry, seasonal menus and more.
  6. Composting – Food waste is created throughout the food cycle, so teaching kids about the importance of composting is a final cornerstone of Sustainable Economics. Using Will Allen of Growing Power as an example, kids should be encouraged to embrace composting soil, dig their hands in it and get to know worms and other creatures working hard to break down our food waste. They should also learn the proper ways to use compost to help nourish the soil and help certain plants grow stronger and produce more tasty food.
  7. Industrial Food System – Moving into middle school, the emphasis on getting their hands dirty and familiarizing themselves with kitchens and cooking should be gradually replaced with expanding their understanding of food systems, i.e., how food is grown, processed and delivered to consumers. America’s industrialized food system could be nicely integrated into macro and micro economic studies, covering such topics as economies of scale, regional to global economies, industry consolidation, monopolies, process uniformity, etc. Kids should also be taught to contrast this dominate food system with historic systems, as well as (re)emerging regional food economies.
  8. Food Advertising – The food industry spends tens of billions of dollars every year promoting its food products. The level of sophistication used in food advertisements and marketing methodologies cannot be understated. Nor can its effectiveness at influencing choices people make about what, when and where they eat. Developing classroom exercises to help kids understand advertising techniques would go a long way toward ensuring that this highly targeted demographic learns to read between the lines.
  9. Government Programs – While it may seem a little dry on the surface, studying the changing role of our government in the food system could be turned into some pretty entertaining and impactful materials. Just look at some of the more popular food documentaries that have come out in the last couple of years, especially ones like King Corn. It may be difficult for kids to think about ways to influence government programs, but without a base of knowledge they won’t even bother trying.
  10. Food Entrepreneurship – When it comes to innovations in food, especially with regard to sustainable food, I have a strong bias toward teaching kids about the Pro Food framework I developed. Pro Food focuses primarily on regional food economies, so kids should also be exposed to entrepreneurs that are working to change the larger industrial food system mentioned above, since it will likely continue to be the primary source of food during their lifetimes. Like farming, there are many career opportunities in and around the food we eat, so it is important that we encourage young people to consider careers in sustainable food.

In the end, knowledge is power, and giving successive generations the power to demand fresh, environmentally sustainable and tasty food offers a glimmer of hope for the many advocates in the trenches today working to revolutionize our food systems.

Of course, like so many other things, getting sustainable food into school curriculums may be very difficult given many entrenched and powerful interests. The good news is that everything on this list can be adapted to our home lives. It will take a commitment of time, energy and probably a little money, but the results will be priceless.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday and The Kathleen Show’s Prevention not Prescription initiatives.

What the Heck is ProFood Anyway?

Guest Blogger: Orren Fox is 12 years old and lives in NoBo (North of Boston). He goes to school where there is a greenhouse and a bee hive! Orren has 24 chickens and four ducks (three Call Ducks and one beautiful Mandarin). He is really interested in farming and the ethical treatment of animals. Orren would love to change the way egg layers and meat birds are raised. He says he has a lot to learn. He blogs and tweets about these issues.

Every Kitchen Table is a proud supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

ProFood is two words smushed together. They were smushed together by people who were trying to get across a new idea. That idea was trying to get people to think about the food we eat in a different way. Right now there is a lot of “food” in the supermarket, but not much of it is PROfood.

So, what is ProFood?

“Pro” means you are “FOR” something. For example, I am pro ethical eating. That means I support it. I believe in raising animals in a way that is humane and respectful. I’m a humane-itarian. To be ProFood means you are FOR food. That sounds funny, but what I mean is that you think about food, you care about food and you will make an effort for good food. I am also Pro chocolate and Pro Red Sox.

Also, “Pro” means professional, to be a pro at something you are the best. I am really into Pro Sports and the people who participate at the Pro level are PROfessional. They have spent a lot of time working at their sport to the point where they are the best. I’d like to be a Pro Basketball player and play for the Celtics.

To me ProFood is both of these ideas. ProFood is the very best food and ProFood is a way of thinking and acting that is “For Food”: it supports and respects the farmer who grows it, the person who picks it, the land it is grown on, the person who cooks it and the people who eat it.

Right now it doesn’t seem as if America is very ProFood.

People don’t really think about food, we expect it to taste good, be available all the time, be convenient, be safe to eat and I guess not cost too much. People don’t value good food. It seems as if people are always trying to find the cheapest food, not the best food. I think people might care more about the quality of the gas they put into their car than they do about what ingredients they put into their body. I don’t think most people would say they are ProFood.

If America were ProFood we wouldn’t accept food with dangerous ingredients in it. Unfortunately there are chemicals in our food that aren’t good for us kids. My mom just finished a book called The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien, and she told me about the problem with artificial colors and artificial growth hormones. Think about it. We are kids and are still growing, think what happens when we drink milk or eat meat where the cow has been given artificial growth hormones. What do you think it does to kids’ bodies? I’m sure someone would tell me “Oh don’t worry about it, it won’t get into your body.” I don’t believe that. It just doesn’t make sense. If you feed it to the cow, and I drink the milk or eat the meat, you’re feeding it to me. I don’t want it. I’ll grow on my own.

Why do I think someone will tell me not to worry about it?

I think because everyone expects that the food we eat won’t be bad for them. We expect all food to be safe and maybe even good for us. Did you see the article on the front of the New York Times on October 4, 2009? Woah. A girl named Stephanie was paralyzed from eating meat that was considered safe. Why would a company make something that is so dangerous? Think about all the chemicals in some candy. It isn’t good for us. I imagine it is hard work to make everything safe all the time, but it seems as if this should be the top priority of a food producing company.

How can we make America or even just your own home or school ProFood?

  • Choose pesticide free, hormone free, and artificial color free foods
  • Drink water instead of high fructose corn syrup sweetened drinks
  • Eat fresh foods like an apple or sliced red pepper rather than foods that never rot.
  • Ask where your food comes from and how it was raised
  • Plant some seeds in the spring in a little pot and if you grow too much share it with a neighbor
  • Respect the farmer, rancher, farm workers, animals (they are farm workers too) and the planet. (Some of these ideas come from Food, Inc.)

I hope in the future we might see more small growers, farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, in our neighborhoods.  Obviously not everything we eat can come from right down the street, but if there were more, we would know how the food was raised and we would be able to support our neighbors. Having little farms throughout neighborhoods would really help people be ProFood. You can even do it in cities, just look at Will Allen and Novella Carpenter ( I’m reading her book now called Farm City) This obviously won’t solve everything but it is a start. I think at some point the big companies need to think in a way that is more ProFood than promoney. I’m sure people will say I’m naive. They are right. I have a lot to learn. But, hey it’s a start.

Right now we have about five new small organic farms that have popped up in our area, so we can go by and pick up fruits and vegetables that were picked that day. These farms are also canning some of their crops so they will be available through the winter. One local farmer, Matt, showed me how he has invented a drop ceiling for his greenhouse, so when it begins to get cold he can continue to grow greens without having to heat the entire greenhouse. He is doing this so the cost of the greens are not too expensive.

I am doing what I can to help my friends to be ProFood – I am hoping to start a Farm Club at school! Right now I’m struggling a bit, trying to figure out what subjects to cover. Someone on Twitter suggested start with soil. I think that is a good idea.

Mr. Smith Plays the Farm Card

Picture an angry young man with a sign. He appears to be agitated, holding a sign that condemns what his opponent stands for. There’s a chain link fence behind him.

Take a second to capture how you feel about those three sentences. Has your heart rate jumped? Do you associate with the protester? Do you want to get in his face?

Whatever your reaction, that is the first impression you get when reading The 10 Reasons They Hate You So, a clearly provocative post on the site Truth in Food.

With your blood now pumping, the author, Mike Smith, takes you through the first five parts of “his” defense of industrialized food (his agenda is clearly bigger than his own). Had he not presented the image I mentioned above or used words like “hate” in his title, the piece would have likely slipped under the radar. My guess is he knew exactly what he was doing.

Right from the start, Mr. Smith works hard to make “good food” advocates out to be a powerful force hellbent on destroying our abundant food system. He goes so far as to refer to these people as the “food-consumer-activist complex.” It’s laughable to pit citizens against the real force in our food system – the Food-Pharma-Health Complex, especially when you consider how unchecked these industries have become in the U.S. economy.

Now on to Mr. Smith’s Top 10:

#1:  They hate you because you trust in science.

Science is Mr. Smith’s answer to the world’s problems. The advancement of science has always offered tremendous power in improving our well-being. But when it becomes entirely controlled by for-profit entities that leverage it for the sole purpose of making money, all bets are off. You see, our democratically-elected government has been giving capitalism a free ride for decades, allowing near-monopolistic industries to hide behind science. Consumer health be damned, we’ve got to feed the world (and our shareholders) with calories (and cash), regardless of the side effects.  I’m fairly certain that most serious sustainable food advocates don’t question the value of science. What we do question is the application of scientific discovery, which has been concentrated in the hands of a handful of corporate giants through invention or acquisition with a single bottom line in mind – money.

#2: They hate you because you’re messing with their kids.

I’m not a highly educated woman, but I am the father of four kids. Does that mean I can’t be against industrialized food? Is it out of the question that I am concerned for more than my own family? It would seem that being concerned about the welfare of children equates to being a “new-age anti-tech advocate.” How does Mr. Smith rationalize such an absurd claim? He bashes leading sustainable food voices that have extensive knowledge backed by equally extensive research to back up their claims. Mr. Smith, I’m starting to believe you don’t like women; or kids for that matter.

#3: They hate you in order to fight the power.

What is science other than man’s way of trying to make sense of (and control in many cases) what is an otherwise complex world? I would never suggest that such a quest is without merit, but to put it ahead of the human spirit is what bothers many who push back against science-driven industry’s onslaught to reshape the natural world. Apparently, Mr. Smith believes that man has the potential to do this without harm. I wonder if he stopped to think that all of that is based on “belief.” On a related note, after bashing academically inclined thinkers several times by this point in his post, Mr. Smith is starting to appear very academic to me with his citing of Gandhi, Foucault, Borlaug, Berry and others. I wonder if he realizes that he may just be one of “us”.

#4. They hate you because you’re white.

Minority ownership of U.S. farms is concentrated in small, barely-getting-by farms, not the heavily subsidized, monoculture crop farms that feed our industrial food system. Stop playing the “Farm Card” Mr. Smith. It is without merit. I’d also recommend you stop acting like an academic with phrases like “today’s postmodern critics of food production deal in symbol and metaphor.” Letting your true colors show through like this can’t be good for your reputation in the non-foodie, profit-at-any-cost industrial food space.

#5: They hate you because you’re male.

Again, Mr. Smith plays the Farm Card, this time with regard to gender. He tries to make it sound as if all those women working on farms are on par with the male-dominated, monoculture, heavily subsidized farm operations that dominate farming acres and revenues. You miss again, Mr. Smith. The problem is that after making such an argument, first on race, then on gender, you give the reader such a clear indication of your bias. Did you intend to do that? Did you intend to convince those opposed to your position to convert? In either case, I must say your tactics lack sophistication and will have little impact other than to further polarize the debate. Well played. Not.

With that, I can hardly wait for Mr. Smith’s next five hateful reasons to further polarize the knowledge gap between farmers and eaters. I’m especially excited to read how he invokes Norman Rockwell and Ronald Reagan to make his points. Reagan is a no brainer, but Rockwell intrigues me.

Yipee!