Tag Archives: Michael Pollan

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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From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

The Evolution of Pro Food

Like most ideas, Pro Food didn’t just happen. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of thinking, reading and talking about food and related systems, especially over the last six months.

Pro Food’s timing had the good fortune of intersecting with several well established sustainable food movements, including organic food, school lunch programs, Slow Food and a series of thought-provoking food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, FRESH and King Corn) and investigative books (e.g., Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food).

The following series of blog posts provide the reader with a sense of how Pro Food emerged over the last four months, including several posts that build on the core principles put forward in Pro Food Is, the defining post of the Pro Food idea.

Chronological List of Key Pro Food Posts:

  • Is Organic Food the Answer? (March 18, 2009) – This initial post on Every Kitchen Table frames the need for new food systems connecting more consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. It highlights retail interfaces, sustainability labeling and narrow food product offerings. Read more.
  • Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough (March 27, 2009) – Much attention is being given to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these programs are not a scalable solution in dealing with large-scale food system problems. The post provides lessons learned that can be applied to new, scalable solutions. Read more.
  • 10 Ways to Save Real Food (April 14, 2009) – This post offered the first comprehensive list of strategies for attacking what Michael Pollan refers to as “nutritionism”, an effective approach used by food manufacturers to make highly-processed “edible foodlike substances” appear to be on par with wholesome real foods. The list touched on labeling, marketing claims, access, school food and low-income programs, among others. Read more.
  • Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really Grow Sustainable Food? (April 30, 2009) – Direct to consumer food sales are providing numerous valuable lessons for building regionally-focused sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, as this post spells out in detail, they are up against heavily subsidized programs for growing commodity crops as ingredients in highly-processed foods, which received nearly $17 billion in 2006. Read more.
  • 10 Reasons Why “Local”  is Challenging Industrial Food (May 14, 2009) – The sustainable food debate has tended to focus on industry and advocates.  This post begins moving toward the inclusive principle in Pro Food to find effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value. It also introduces transparency and general themes on decentralized food. Read more.
  • Closing the Farm to Table Knowledge Gap (June 19, 2009) – One of the largest factors in allowing our food system to get to where it is today, a system too complex and concentrated for most people to understand, is the gap resulting from people trading our historic farming knowledge for cheap, convenient food. This post focuses on the impacts this is having on our health, the environment and our livelihoods. Read more.
  • Pro Food Is (June 30, 2009) – After six months of intensive focus on food systems and entrepreneurial approaches to helping improve markets for sustainable foods, seven core principles emerged in this landmark post. The intent of Pro Food is to drive these principles into mainstream entrepreneurship and accelerate the development of successful alternative food systems. Read more.
  • Building Out Pro Food (July 6, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: With the release of Pro Food Is, Zachary Cohen spells out how we can now move beyond the traditional language of American politics, e.g., us versus them, bad versus good, etc. Next up is how to most effectively build out Pro Food from a modest statement of principles into something greater. Read more.
  • Why Pro Food Will Succeed (July 7, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zachary explains how the sustainable food movement is at the point in its evolution where new leadership is needed to push things to the next level. It is at times like this that individuals/entrepreneurs seize the moment and use the tumult to their advantage, which is at the core of Pro Food’s mission. Read more.
  • The First Pro Food Product? (July 8, 2009) – From Fredo Martin’s ihatetomentionit blog: Fredo Martin asks what form Pro Food might take in his thought provoking post. At a minimum, it will be important to relate Pro Food to each stage of the food chain in order to propel alternative food systems forward. Read more.
  • Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist (July 8, 2009) – The Slow Food movement has done much to reestablish links between food and terrior (location-specific traits) around the globe. In the US, where the industrial system was already well established, the movement faced an entrenched, centralized infrastructure, unlike what is typical around the globe. Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system. Read more.
  • The Five Stones of Pro Food (July 23, 2009) – With the introduction of Pro Food and the foundation basically set, this post shifts gears by focusing on the things that make Pro Food business ventures unique in the food business landscape. Establishing such competitive advantages will be a key part of realizing the Pro Food vision. Read more.
  • The Pro Food Primer (August 4, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zach offers up a great, more in-depth and narrative-based look at the history of Pro Food. Read more.

This posts provides a Pro Food reading list of sorts, but the idea of Pro Food is surely much greater than any one list or collection of people. Those of us working at the forefront of Pro Food look forward to many new voices joining our efforts. If you have a Pro Food blog post or article that you want us to help promote, please email me at robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com.

Every Kitchen Table and Pro Food are proud supporters of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

Follow me on Twitter: Jambutter

10 Ways Mickey Mouse Can Get Kids to Eat More Veggies

Yesterday, I wrote about The Walt Disney Company’s licensing agreement with Imagination Farms (I-Farms) to market the Disney Garden line of produce.  While not a fan of no-good-deed-going-unpunished, I expressed my disappointment in one of the world’s most powerful brands getting into the produce business (read more).

Today, I wanted to share with you some of Imagination Farms “favorite ideas to help you get your kids excited about fruits and vegetables and help them start eating more.”  As you read, I encourage you to consider who is really benefitting.  Kids? Parents? Disney? (My comments are contained within [sample]. Everything else is from I-Farms.com).

  1. Look for Disney Garden branded fruits and vegetables. The exciting packaging that includes their favorite characters, as well as informational games and activities will help them relate to the products. [While Mickey Mouse may have done some gardening in a cartoon, shouldn’t we be showcasing farmers or their farms?]
  2. My Favorite Foods: Have your child make a list of their favorite foods. Make sure the list includes at least 3 fruits and 3 veggies. Then make sure that you always have those items in the house and include them in your cooking. [Good idea, especially if they add to the list from time to time.]
  3. Fruit & Veggie Quest: Kids tend to not want to eat things that they don’t know what it is [Excuse me? Considering how much highly processed and fast foods kids eat, this made me laugh]. Take them shopping with you and have them pick out at least one new vegetable and one new fruit every week. When you bring the item home, talk about its appearance, flavor, texture and other important characteristics of why they chose the new fruit and veggies. You can even spend time together on the internet researching where the item came from and new recipes of how to use it [Since not all Disney Garden produce is organic, this could make for some interesting conversations]. This will help your child feel engaged.
  4. Chart It: Use the Good Food Gauge on this web site to track your child’s eating habits. This fun and easy tool provides rewards as well. The goal is to eat at least 5 or more fruits and vegetables every day.  [Now things start to get interesting, as kids are encouraged to visit heavily Disney brand web site to tell them where they live, what they like, what they eat, etc., while engaging Disney characters in various activities. Unfortunately, farmers are invisible except in the Parents section]
  5. Collect It: Look for fruit with Disney Garden stickers on it. Have your children print out the collectible pages on our website and then look for that fruit in the store. This will encourage them to try new fruits and collect the stickers like baseball cards and bubblegum [Wow! You can print of 17 different pages with different combinations of produce and then put the little stickers on fruits and vegetables on the pages.  At least this will reduce the chance of the stickers ending up in the compost. Who needs baseball cards!].
  6. Snack Attack: Be sure to have snack size fruits and vegetables cut up in your refrigerator and ready for your little ones to snack on. The easier it is… the more they will eat. [The “eat more” message I found in several places is not the same as eating the right amount. Can’t someone start saying “eat less”, other than Michael Pollan?]
  7. Play With Your Food: Kids love to be creative. Look at our kid friendly recipes and help your kids create fun kid friendly fruit and vegetable snacks. [This and the next two items seem like they should be at the top of the list. Unfortunately, building the Disney brand is most important.]
  8. A Family That Cooks Together: Have your children help you prepare dinner. They can wash the fruits and vegetables, peel the corn or other activities that will make them responsible for their food and help them learn about fruits and vegetables. [See #7]
  9. Grow With Me: Pick an item to grow in a garden, flowerbed or pot. A tomato works great for this project. The child can help plant the seeds and take care of the plant. This will help them learn about where food comes from and they will value fresh food that they grew.[See #7]
  10. Healthy Kid Clue: Requires kids to – you guessed it – go to the I-Farms website to learn more by entering package code on the web site. [Every visit offers Disney another opportunity to learn more about brand preferences (characters not carrots).]

At first, it seemed like Disney was doing the right thing, but after considering everything I was able to find, I’m convinced that branding real food (e.g., fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk) with non-food brands (e.g., Disney which is branding all four) is about the worst thing we can do.  It further distances people from where their food is coming from, and does nothing to increase the financial rewards going to the hardworking people that grow our food.

We need real change in our food system, not more Mickey Mouse ideas.

Supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays

Related Posts:

  • Disney Garden: A Figment of Our Imagination
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  • Man v. Nature on Soil and Food: Nature 2, Man 0

    While diligently planning my family’s significantly larger vegetable garden (thinking Victory Gardens), especially studying how to care for the soil, I was struck by the similar paths that soil and food have travelled during the industrialization of our food system.

    Let me explain.

    According to one of my favorite gardening books, Shepard Ogden’s Straight-Ahead Organic, published by Chelsea Green (a favorite publisher), the chapter on Caring for the Soil opens as follows:

    By volume, a productive garden soil is 25 percent air, 25 percent water, 40 to 45 percent minerals, and about 5 percent organic matter, including a whole Noah’s Ark of plants and animals ranging from microscopic fungi and bacteria to worms, insects, and burrowing mammals.

    Seemed pretty straight forward; until I read the very next sentence:

    A double handful of this soil contains more organisms, mostly microscopic, than there are people on Earth.

    Granted, this book was original published in 1992, so the world population was approximately 1.3 billion less than today, but there were still an estimated 5.4 billion people on the planet, so we are talking about near-astronomical concentrations for such a small space. Despite this incredible diversity, a fateful decision was made to change how we would feed this highly complex, fertile soil.

    Quickly, here are three key contributors to that decision:

    1. German chemist Justus von Liebig’s determination that plants primarily need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (mid 1800s; you’ll likely recognize this as the “N-P-K” found on nearly every bag of fertilizer)
    2. German chemist Fritz Haber’s method of synthesizing ammonia (won him 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry; described by some as “father of chemical warfare”)
    3. End of World War II, which left the military-industrial complex with the need for new markets, since demand for explosives and warfare chemistry dropped off significantly

    Industry found its way to repurpose factories by industrializing a major component in growing food – “feeding the soil.”  The products? Chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But it turns out that the industrial food system they built, which has made many corporations a lot of money, can not be sustained (assuming a triple-bottom-line v. profit only perspective). Yes, it produces massive amounts of food, much of it inedible monoculture crops used in feeding livestock and producing sweeteners and oils for processed food.  But the price our soil has had to pay is “a legacy of death, destruction, and pollution that continues to this day,” quoting Shepard Ogden.

    How does this relate to food?

    Through decades of research (mostly funded by food companies), marketing claims (often contradicting other claims), and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising those claims, we have ended up with food retail shelves dominated by highly processed, fake foods. These “edible food-like substances”, as Michael Pollan likes to call them, provide consumers with one or more key nutrients that are supposedly key to healthy living, at least according to the ideology of nutritionism (read more).

    Unfortunately, for consumers, fake food has done a poor job mimicking the actual nutritional value, flavor and experience of highly complex, yet 100% natural, real food.  It wasn’t that long ago that Americans ate real food, which was used in preparing nearly every home or restaurant-cooked meal.

    Like soil, we have not come close to understanding food well enough to replicate it in an industrial system. Some may say I’m crazy as they point to the claims and supermarket shelves filled with fake foods. But like the “death, destruction, and pollution” propogated by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fake food has its own dark side, including obesity, diabetes, shortened life spans, fewer specialty crop farms, dead soil, dead zones in our oceans, massive carbon emissions, bankrupt local economies, etc.

    It’s high time we return to a simple organic principle (no USDA labels required). Feed the soil, so the soil can feed the plants, so the plants can feed us. Even better, do so in a way that ensures we leave the soil richer and more productive than we found it – without chemicals.  That, in turn, will allow us to accelerate the supply of real food to replace as much fake foods as we can, as fast as we can.

    A tall order, no doubt. But considering the alternative, do we really have a choice?

    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

    10 Ways to Save Real Food

    Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better.  I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.

    My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level.  There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.

    Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy.  I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!

    1. Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food.  Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
    2. Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study.  As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
    3. Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses.  States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
    4. Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products.  While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough).  One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up.  A happy problem to solve!
    5. Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time.  For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying.  It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time.  Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
    6. School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards.  This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
    7. No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens).  Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
    8. No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time.  The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
    9. Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases.  While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
    10. Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off.  We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

    The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase.  Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes.  What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.

    Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…

    If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

    Related Information and Links: