Tag Archives: Marion Nestle

10 Thoughts About Farmers Markets (A Rebuttal)

It doesn’t happen too often, but after reading 10 Things Your Farmer’s Market Won’t Tell You, an article by Kelly Barron in SmartMoney Magazine, my blood pressure (normally low) spiked.  I admit I’m probably being overprotective of farmers.  I can’t help it.  They are already up against so much that I feel compelled to come to their defense whenever I see them being unfairly represented.

Without any introduction (other than the title of her article), Ms. Barron launched into a series of often unfriendly comments regarding farmers and farmer’s markets.  Using Ms. Barron’s Top 10 list as a basis, here is another perspective on farmers markets as they relate to our vast food retail options.

1. “You may not shop here, but your tax dollars support our market.”

While no jabs were made here, it is important to get some perspective.  The local tax impact of 3,700 farmers markets, representing less than two percent of all food retail outlets in the U.S., and a significantly smaller percentage of food sales, is nearly insignificant when compared to the amount of local money exported to the national headquarters of large supermarkets.

With federal regulations making local food system infrastructures difficult to not viable, e.g., slaughter houses, and federal subsidies continuing to favor large-scale monoculture crops, a lot of work, and even more luck, is needed before local food sales will begin to truly benefit local economies.  Thankfully, a lot of really smart and inspired people are working hard every day to make that happen.

2. “Our produce is a mite pricey.”

Small farms, representing a critical component in developing sustainable food systems, often choose direct-to-consumer sales because the better-than-wholesale margins they receive can represent the difference between financial viability and getting out of farming.  It is clearly a lot of additional, off-farm work, although less than running a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which should tell you how valuable it is to recapture margin dollars.  Still, they don’t have the volume, government subsidies, or infrastructre to compete against multi-national corporations on price.  But they do sell a premium product in terms of its nutritional quality, taste and sustainable, and it deserves a fair price.

What’s more, if we follow the advice of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Mark Bittman, who in different ways suggest eating less and proportionately more fruits and vegetables, we will likely end up spending about the same amount we do on the higher calorie, highly processed diet that is today’s standard.

3. “These ‘local’ tomatoes have more SkyMiles than Derek Jeter.”

Did the spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Agriculture have anything nice to say about farmers and farmers markets?  Citing third-hand stories about dishonest farmers sounds just about right for mainstream media.  After all, what could be better than a sensational story about the greedy farmer taking advantage of unknowing customers?  There is no way that this is representative of the vast majority of farmers that sell their wholesome, locally-grown products to happy customers.

Perhaps Ms. Barron should do her next piece on companies that own and operate multiple farmers markets.  Better yet, go after the industrial food companies selling “edible foodlike substances” and calling them food.  There’s a story for you.

4. “You don’t know from ripe fruit.”

Supermarkets are expert in getting consumers to view food as something to look at, admiring perfect shapes, sizes and colors.  The alternative, real food, is grown, harvested, and transported sustainably to maximize taste and nutritional content.  Unfortunately, consumers have traded in their taste buds for visual appeal, but I am confident that one (blind) taste test is all it will take to reconsider their decision.  Farmers markets are a great place to learn about what is important about food and how its grown, while exploring and reorienting our food senses.

5. “A little dirt on our carrots doesn’t mean they’re organic.”

My bet is that once “organic” became a federally regulated label requiring time and money to secure, many existing organic farmers likely opted to do without.  Should this be a surprise?

Farmers are not typically cash rich, and they definitely don’t have a lot of time for paperwork, except perhaps during the winter months, so why deal with one more bureaucratic system.  In addition, most family farms know the importance of sustainable farming (no chemicals), since their livelihood, as well as future generations, relies on maintaining healthy soil.  Using fertilizers, pesticides and GM (or GE) seeds has never been part of the process, but they are now being asked to pay to tell people that.

What would you do?

6. “Our crowds are worse than Monday morning rush hour.”

Despite mentioning that “many” farmers markets are a place where you can take a “stroll in the sunshine and leisurely chat with farmers,” Ms. Barron chooses to focus on the craziness of the Union Square farmers market in NYC.  How many places across the country resemble this location?  My guess is that nearly all of the 3,700 farmers markets in the U.S. are still community gatherings where people “stroll” and “chat.”

If I’m wrong, and there are many farmers markets that have turned into foodie “mosh pits” or worse, then that should tell us all something important – consumers want more locally grown food.   That should motivate all of us to push everyone we can in the food chain, including our elected representatives, to make more available.  Get to work!

7. “These days even supermarkets sell cactus leaves.”

Farmers do sell unique products when compared to nearly any mainstream, conventional supermarket.  They sell fresh, nutritions and tasty fruits and vegetables.

Supermarkets sell produce that is typically harvested early, kept refrigerated for long periods of time, and transported from hundreds to thousands of miles away.  During their time in the “cold chain,” as Marion Nestle refers to it in What to Eat, what started out destined to become, for example, an apple, hits the supermarket shelf as a “perfect” round red ball devoid of much of its nutritional value and flavor.  Definitely not an apple.

So go ahead and buy your cactus leaves at the supermarket, but you won’t find a better tasting, more nutrious one than at the farmers market!

8. “Conversation? Don’t much care for it.”

Have you ever tried talking to a clerk or shelve stocker at a supermarket (other than maybe at Whole Foods)?  I’ll take a grumpy, overworked farmer any day!  Enough said.

9. “Our samples are about as sanitary as a bowl of bar nuts.”

Building on Ms. Barron’s concerns for the cleanliness and safety of samples at farmers markets, I guess we should also eliminate pot lucks, picnics and cocktail parties.  Too many unknown or dirty hands touching our food is to be avoided.  Give me a break.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be concerned about food safety.  We must.  But from my perspective, we can’t let the significant food safety problems emanating from our industrial food system rule the day at the local level.  Of course, Ms. Barron’s reason for concern, i.e., many hands touching the food, is exactly the problem our industrial food system is having such a hard time dealing with.  Just consider how difficult it has been to track down where all the peanuts ended up in the latest salmonila outbreak.

10. “Fresh? Absolutely. Clean? Not even close.”

I wonder if Ms. Barron gardens.  In my family’s garden, as well as among the wild blackberries, raspberries and alpine berries (“fairy berries” as my four year old likes to call them) growing around our property, we pick and eat right from the plant.  We don’t use fertilizers or pesticides, so what should we be concerned about?  Most sustainable or organic small and family farms follow similar strategies in producing their food, so I ask the same question.  What are you concerned about?

It seems time for us to formally declare that there are two food systems in America.  The first, which is better known because of its size and influence, is the industrial food system dominated by commodity crops serving as raw materials for processed foods, large-scale food crops and livestock grown on thousands of acres, and highly processed foods coming out the other end.  It is also dominated by increasingly large conventional foot retailers, e.g., Wal-Mart, Safeway, Albertson. Then there are the many diverse regional food systems, which barely show up on radar in terms of food sales and volumes.

I have highlighted a handful of differences in this post, but there are many more.  One thing I hope we can agree on is that from writing about to regulating food, we must stop confusing the two.  With that in mind, perhaps Ms. Barron can leverage her considerable investigative skills and dig into the larger food system that is making us less healthy, making corporations more profitable, and destroying one ecosystem after another.  That is an article that needs to be written and published over and over until people truly understand the differences.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter asJambutter.


4 Simple Food Strategies to Live By

I woke up this morning with an Earth Day hang over, not from drinking too much, but from consuming way to much information.  Being on Twitter yesterday was like facing a fire house with an endless, and I mean endless supply of water.  Great energy.  Let’s just hope it lasts.

Being sensitive to my “information hangover,” I am dedicating this post to brevity by offering four simple ways for each of us to eat better until next Earth Day.  

  1. Do not get fat; if you are fat, reduce. Favor fresh vegetables and fruits. Avoid heavy use of salt and refined sugar. Get plenty of exercise and outdoor recreation. See your doctor regularly, and do not worry.  –Ancel Keys, Cardiologist, 1959
  2. There are no “secrets” to cooking – only good guidance combined with experience.  To cook good dishes you must start with real food. In general, the better the ingredients you have the simpler your cooking can be.  -Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything, 1998
  3. Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables…go easy on junk food.  -Marion Nestle, What to Eat, 2006
  4. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.  –Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, 2008

I highlighted the years to show what looks like a “dumbing down” of a message that hasn’t really changed in 50 years (no offense, Mr. Pollan) – eat less, eat produce, avoid junk, cook more, exercise. Repeat.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Happy eating!


Supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays

Have a Coke (Water Fountain) and a Smile!

According to Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, “just having drinking fountains in schools (and no sugary drinks) seems to be enough to reduce the risk of obesity in kids by 31%.”  A study published in the latest issue of Pediatrics confirmed what to me seems like a common sense finding.

“The study tested whether a combined environmental and educational intervention solely promoting water consumption was effective in preventing overweight among children in elementary school.  Our environmental and educational, school-based intervention proved to be effective in the prevention of overweight among children in elementary school, even in a population from socially deprived areas.”

Ms. Nestle’s thought-provoking question is whether this might work in the US, and in New York City in particular.  Her focus was on whether water fountains delivering clean, fresh, cool water can be made regularly available to students.

“Could we try this here?  The barriers are formidable.  First, the water fountain problem.  Water fountains must (a) be present, (b) be usable, (c) be clean and sanitary, and (d) produce water that is free of harmful chemicals and bacteria.  All of these are problematic.”

What a sad state our schools are in if the basic human need of fresh, clean water is not already available, but in response to Ms. Nestle’s question I have the following idea.cocacolasodafountain

Ideally, we will install working water fountains at the same time we take out soda vending machines, if necessary.  But given the cash strapped budgets of schools (and suspending any potential for stimulus funds to provide financing), we need a creative way to make this work financially.  Someone (me? you?) should develop a water fountain capable of delivering good, cool, clean water in schools, and use corporate sponsorships to pay for them. Just imagine a Coca-Cola Water Fountains serving free water to students, helping to reduce obesity in up to 30 percent of the student population?  Given Coca-Cola’s incredible marketing and public relations capabilities, combined with its near limitless resources (e.g., $5.8 billion of profit in FY’08), I am sure they could find a way to make this work for them, e.g., the water could be branded the same as their bottled water brand.

Regardless, it seems to me that this could be a win-win-win for schools, students and the companies that will lose revenues when schools pull out their highly-profitable sugary drinks, not that I really care about lost revenue in exchange for our children’s health.

Have a Water and a Smile!


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Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients

A funny thing has been happening to American consumers over the last couple decades regarding what they eat.  Actually, its not really that funny, and it reminds me of old “The Boiled Frog” story, which goes something like this:

If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. But, if you put it in a pot filled with cool water, and then gradually turn up the heat until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. 

Keeping in mind that this is a parable, and not factually correct (according to Fast Company), it still makes a great point; like the frog, our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.

Throughout history, humans have not needed to consult others to figure out what to eat.  We figured it out.  We learned what to look for, especially nature’s markers for “danger.”  And, we did it all without the benefits of industrialized food.  But, with industrial food’s so-called revolution, things started changing.  Like so many things related to food, I really like how Michael Pollan describes what has been happening:

“No idea [nutritionism] could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon.  Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.” –In Defense of Food

The evidence supporting Mr. Pollan’s statement above is steadily rolling in, including Marion Nestle’s latest post on Food Politics: “Antioxidants as a marketing tool.”

“Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year…

Like the frog in the “Boiled Frog” parable, we can continue being slow-cooked by large food manufacturers. Or, we can wake up to the reality they have created, discount the onslaught of nutrient claims (and counter claims) associated with highly processed food, and begin experiencing the wholesome goodness of natural and organic foods.


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Innovating the Food Buying Experience

In Sunday’s New York Times, Mark Bittman presented an idea that many readers might have found controversial: organic food is less important than getting Americans to generally eat better. His reasoning was that the impact of “a simple shift in eating habits” would have significant health and environmental benefits.

I agree.

Mr. Bittman belongs to a distinguished list of “real food” advocates that have been calling for important and overdue changes to the American diet, including:

  • Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
  • Marion Nestle: “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”
  • Alice Waters: “Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.”
  • Michelle Obama: “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

I doubt many people would disagree with these food luminaries, with the possible exception of the major food companies selling us “edible food-like substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan). To learn more about why they might resist, I recommend reading “The Perils of Ignoring History” on Bill Marler’s blog, which draws potential parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Food.

If it were as easy as suggesting to people that they eat less processed food (and possibly paid more per calorie), which is intuitively obvious but doesn’t play well in the marketplace, we would be well on our way. We are not.

We need a game plan.

My recommendation is that we start with a vision of where we ideally want to be. This blog is dedicated to the vision of Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™, and our journey toward that vision begins by attacking the point where consumers make their purchase decisions – food retail, especially supermarkets.

Supermarkets, which account for nearly 60 percent of sales of food at home in the U.S. (75% when you include supercenters and warehouse clubs), are where consumers are confronted hundreds of times a year with tens of thousands of food choices covering everything one might imagine…and likley tens of thousands of additional food products that they would never have imagined.

The vast inventories carried in these stores are supported by over $10 billion spent on sophisticated food advertising and approximately 17,000 new “food products” flooding the market every year, making today’s supermarkets highly efficient selling machines. Unfortunately, leading food companies make most of their money selling highly processed foods, made up of inexpensive ingredients from monoculture crops (e.g., corn, soy, wheat); major contributors to today’s health and environmental problems.

My last blog post provided a potential framework for designing a new, consumer-oriented retail experience that connects consumers with real food. Whether that idea, a derivative, or something entirely different is part of the solution, without Real Food-oriented shopping experiences, preferred by consumers, it is difficult to imagine slowing down or effectively evolving America’s mechanized food system.


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Is Organic Food the Answer?

After recently posing a question on Twitter regarding people’s opinions on whether organic or sustainable food was more important, it became clear that our food problems are far bigger than this limited characterization.  Simply put, we must find innovative ways to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of the food people eat.

For example, a relatively small, but fast growing segment of the population is connecting with local farms to learn about where their food comes from through weekly farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.  While these rich and educational interactions are nearly ideal, they are not available to a vast majority of people who spent $535 billion at nearly 35,000 supermarkets across the country in 2007.  And it is unrealistic to assume farms could handle interacting with over 300 million Americans stopping by every week, even if we significantly increased the number of farms or expanded the size of current farms.

To reach mainstream America, we need new and innovative ways to connect consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. That will require redesigning much of today’s conventional food system; a system designed from the ground up to meet the financial needs of America’s leading food businesses (regardless of what they tell us).

I propose we start the redesign at the point where food and eaters meet and buying decisions are made – the retail channels, e.g., supermarkets.

First, we need to significantly reduce the number of food products offered to consumers, currently estimated at 45,000 items in the average supermarket. Reducing the massive amounts of visual information, including conflicting and (intentionally?) confusing messages associated with marketing and nutritional claims, will benefit consumers that are finding it nearly impossible to make their way through the aisles without picking up a lot of strategically placed, highly processed, unhealthy food products.

And even when shoppers make a list before entering the store, which research shows 70 percent of shoppers do, only 10 percent adhere to the list, according to Marion Nestle in What To Eat.  Ms. Nestle goes on to say, “Even with a list, most shoppers pick up two additional items for every item on the list.”  Such impulse purchases, which are highly profitable for the store, are no accident, nor are the confusing messages or lengthy aisles.  Today’s supermarkets are expertly designed to maximize what consumers see in order to maximize what they buy.  This simple formula has been refined over decades to a profit-generating science

Next, we need to introduce an entirely new in-store labeling methodology that visually helps consumers easily characterizes the overall sustainability of a food product in terms of its health (including nutritional information), environmental, economic and social impacts. Some customer may equally value all of these aspects of sustainability, while others may emphasis only one or two.  For example, someone concerned with global warming would look for products with the highest Environmental grade when making their purchase decisions.  Getting as many products in a store labeled in such a way will help consumers quickly find the raw and processed food products that best match their needs.

Finally, implementing these ideas will require an entirely new, consumer-oriented retail experience, one with far fewer products, especially highly processed and prepared foods, in a much more intimate space.  Within such a store, you would also rethink displays to ensure that the intelligent, easy-to-understand labels were clearly visible for every product.  This new retail experience will fit in a significant scaled down store when compared to today’s mega stores, with a median size of 47,500 square feet in 2007, according to the Food Marketing Institute, representing a complete departure from the more products, more product lines, bigger footprint mentality that has dominated food retail for decades.

What we end up with, after a lot more hard work (and a few waves of our magic wand), are intimate, consumer-friendly food stores in every neighborhood in America helping people to eat like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other leading voices in the food movement recommend.



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