Before the Food Arrives on Your Plate, So Much Goes on Behind the Scenes

Dwight Garner, New York Times
Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table
By Tracie McMillan
319 pages. Scribner. $25.

One of the first things to like about Tracie McMillan, the author of “The American Way of Eating,” is her forthrightness. She’s a blue-collar girl who grew up eating a lot of Tuna Helper and Ortega Taco Dinners because her mother was gravely ill for a decade, and her father, who sold lawn equipment, had little time to cook. About these box meals, she says, “I liked them.”

Expensive food that took time to prepare “wasn’t for people like us,” she writes. “It was for the people my grandmother described, with equal parts envy and derision, as fancy; my father’s word was snob. And I wasn’t about to be like that.” This is a voice the food world needs.

Ms. McMillan, like a lot of us, has grown to take an interest in fresh, well-prepared food. She’s written for Saveur magazine, a pretty fancy journal, and she knows her way around a kitchen. But her central concern, in her journalism and in this provocative book, is food and class. She stares at America’s bounty, noting that so few seem able to share in it fully, and she asks: “What would it take for us all to eat well?”

… The book Ms. McMillan’s most resembles is Barbara Ehrenreich’s best seller “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (2001). Like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan goes undercover amid this country’s working poor. She takes jobs picking grapes, peaches and garlic in California; stocking produce in a Walmart in Detroit; and working in a busy Applebee’s in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She tries, and often fails, to live on only the money she earns.

The news Ms. McMillan brings about life on the front lines is mostly grim.
(20 February 2012)

Big Food Must Go: Why We Need to Radically Change the Way We Eat

Christopher D. Cook, Alternet
It is no longer news that a few powerful corporations have literally occupied the vast majority of human sustenance. The situation is perilous: nearly all of human food production, seeds, food processing and sales, is run by a handful of for-profit firms which, like any capitalist enterprise, function to maximize profit and gain ever-greater market share and control. The question has become: What do we do about this disastrous alignment of pure profit in something so basic and fundamental to human survival?

It is time — now, not next year — to de-occupy Walmart. And Archer Daniels Midland. And Tyson Foods. And Monsanto. And Cargill. And Kraft Foods. And the other large corporations that decide what ends up on our plates. Take all our money out, public and personal, from our shopping dollars to school district lunch contracts to the corporate subsidies that uphold these firms’ grip on our food supply, and invest it in a new system that’s economically diverse and ecologically sustainable.

These corporations’ stranglehold over food has wreaked havoc on the environment, our health, farmers, workers, and our very future. It is time for an end to Big Food, and a societal shift to something radically different. We all deserve a future where what we eat feeds community and land, instead of eroding soils, polluting water and air, and tossing away small farmers and immigrant workers as if they were balance sheet losers.

“Occupying the food system” has emerged as a rallying cry as activists and movements across the country, from Willie Nelson to more than 60 Occupy groups are turning up the heat on “big food” in nationwide actions today. Across the US, online and offline, thousands will be protesting icons of corporate control over food such as Monsanto and Cargill, and literally occupying vacant lots and tilling long-ignored soils in a mass-scale rejuvenation of community-led food production. (Find out more about the day of action here.)

“We want to ignite a robust conversation about corporate control of our food supply,” says Laurel Sutherlin, communications manager for Rainforest Action Network, a lead organizer in this growing coalition of food system occupiers. “Occupy has opened a national dialogue about inequality and the dangers of surrendering our basic life-support systems over to corporate control.”…

Consider a few quick facts:

  • Four corporations, led by Walmart, control more than half of grocery sales. Walmart alone gets more than one quarter of every grocery dollar spent in the U.S.
  • Three companies — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta — own 47 percent of the world’s seeds. And they own 65 percent of the global proprietary maize market.
  • Nearly every major commodity — wheat, corn, soy — is controlled by just four corporations.
  • Just four corporations control more than 80 percent of all our meat supply.
  • According to USDA statistics, America loses more than 17,000 farmers a year — one every half an hour.

(26 February 2012)
Long significant article on the industrial food system. -KS

We are the 2 Percent: Occupy our Land, Occupy our Food

Michael Ableman, Civil Eats
We are not out carrying banners and marching on Wall Street, we are on the land, in our fields, planting seeds, cultivating crops, nurturing livestock, harvesting the food that nourishes a nation.

There are far more people in prison than growing our food, more stockbrokers and lawyers than those of us who feed our neighbors. We are the 2 percent we call farmers.

There is nothing more central to our lives than how we secure our food. Yet the responsibility for this has been almost entirely handed over to someone somewhere else, to an industrial system where farms have become factories and food has become a faceless commodity. The results have been disastrous; epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, food that no longer tastes good or is good for you, polluted groundwater, soil loss at staggering rates, and most profound; an almost complete disconnection from the social, cultural, and ecological relationships that were once part of agrarian life.

One percent may control our economic wealth, but the true wealth of a nation may be in the fertility of its soils, the quality and security of its food, the health of its communities. This kind of national wealth cannot be brought to us by Cargill or Monsanto or Dupont, the corporate giants who now drive the industrial machine that brings us industrial food; it will have to come from individuals and families, neighborhoods and communities.

When the food system no longer fulfills the needs of the people, whether for economic or distribution reasons or because of concerns for food safety, or simply because people want corn that tastes like corn, or potatoes that are more than just a tasteless medium to convey ketchup and salt to their mouths, they take that responsibility back into their own hands.

This movement is taking place in the most unlikely of places, on abandoned lots, on rooftops, in schoolyards, at farmers markets, in home kitchens and around the table, at community food events, and in the fields and orchards of those who are rediscovering the sacred art and craft of growing food.

Awareness around food and it’s place in our lives, and the incredibly precarious nature of the system that brings it to us, is growing. Language that many of us have been using for decades is now part of the public lexicon. Everyone seems to be talking the talk.

But talk is cheap and while there is an overwhelming embrace of local food and agriculture, there is an enormous chasm between those who eat well and locally and can afford to do so, and those who cannot. The nutritional divide has never been greater, the number of hungry people in the world growing at staggering rates…
(27 February 2012)
Related: Vandana Shiva’s take on Occupy your Food System here. -KS

“American Meat”: Not Just Another Food Documentary

Staff, HomeGrown

Over the past couple of weeks the mainstream media has been paying more attention to the industrialized meat system in America. During it’s telecast the Grammy’s featured Chipotle’s ‘Back to the Start’ advertisement, an animated critique of factory farming, to which the Farm Bureau and sustainable farming supporters published opinions in major outlets last week.

After the ad aired, two massive food corporations, McDonalds and Bon Appétit Management Company, have publicly committed to sourcing pork from farms that prohibit the use of gestation crates. Are we seeing the start of real change in the meat industry?

Recently I met documentary filmmaker Graham Meriwether at an Occupy Big Food event in New York City. Over grassfed burgers (his favorite), our conversation turned to the issues with our current agricultural system, and the future of food. Graham’s latest documentary, American Meat, takes an in-depth look at the problems with meat production and offers models for change in our current food system.

AMERICAN MEAT TRAILER from Leave It Better on Vimeo.

What really sets American Meat apart from other solutions-based, sustainable agriculture-supporting documentaries is its balanced and respectful expose of the meat system. Graham, an advocate for sustainable agriculture, originally planned to film a year on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, but realized his film did not include 99% of the real meat production, the prevailing industrialized system. “I tried to make the film as even-handed as possible. I do have an opinion and I talk about sustainable agriculture, but I want to respect commodity ag. There is a reason it is in place and that is because we decided as a culture we wanted our food as cheap as possible.”

Graham reached out to commodity hog producers in Iowa and poultry producers in North Carolina for inclusion in the film in order to provide an even-handed look on American meat production. I asked Graham how he was able to convince these producers to open up their doors to him. He said that “in 2008 Pilgrim’s Pride was the largest producer of chickens, and then declared bankruptcy and cut off 44 farmers in North Carolina. I found that to be an opportunity to talk to some farmers who were frustrated with the system. “

The openness of these farmers to camera crews, and the American public’s opinion, is something that you don’t often see in food documentaries. American Meat humanized these producers and fairly showcased their operations. While American Meat does present a strong case for encouraging sustainable models like the Salatin’s Polyface Farms, Fred Kirschenmann and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Niman Ranch, and corporations like Chipotle, it also provides factory farmers with an opportunity to tell their story. A huge risk for them to take on.

Per usual, the segments on Polyface were interesting and inspiring — it’s always wonderful to see farmers in sustainable production — but that’s not the story that stuck with me. I was more intrigued by how, when, and why farmers have vertically integrated into industrialized production. There is a strong case for farmers from the Midwest to expand and sign contracts with major corporations. In order for these farmers to make “big money” in the marketplace, they have to adhere to the status quo. And, even though production models are changing, today’s dominant system in place is industrialized production.

Many farmers vertically integrate into the industrial agriculture system in order to stay competitive. They invest millions of dollars into their operations in order to fulfill the margins of the companies who contract them, but many end up going into massive debt in order to meet their quotas. American Meat showcases farmers like Sam Talley, who became a poultry farmer for the independence and gratification of helping feed the world, who was contracted by Pilgrim’s Pride and required to build massive heated poultry houses in order to produce enough chickens to fulfill his contract. He was cut back in 2008 and 2 of his houses were put out of production. He is $420,000 in debt, and will pay it all back by the time he is 75.

The story of one hog farmer, Chuck Wirtz of Iowa, stuck with me. Chuck and his young son Carson operate a farrow-to-finish commodity hog farm. The film shows images of his 10’x18’ pens where 24 pigs live in confinement indoors. While he is still raising the majority of his hogs in these conditions, Chuck has converted a small portion over to welfare-compassionate production to reach new markets like Whole Foods. It’s been a challenge for Chuck, but he doesn’t regret it. And, he admits that the meat tastes better!

For Graham, transitioning operations are “just as important to this movement. Folks in Iowa and Nebraska, they’ve been doing [commodity agriculture] for generations. They have so much pride, they produce most of the food in this country and they will be part of the solution. We need our primary stake behind the middle of the country, it’s very important not to turn a deaf ear and to celebrate what people like Chuck are doing.”

Graham shared with me a story about screenings for the Future Farmers of America he and Chuck did in Iowa. Says Graham, “it’s an inspiring moment. [Chuck and I] would have young people in HS after the film who want to try to figure out a way to do [transition]. They are working on a commodity farm, but want to set up a new system. They ask us how to transition and how to convince their parents to do so.”

American Meat brings the good food movement full-circle. It goes back to the roots of the issue in our industrialized food system, fairly presents them, and offers models for change and sustainable solutions. Graham feels that “the pendulum has swung too far to this type of production. We need to expand sustainable production to be a much larger part of the market. Right now it’s only about 1%, but should be 10%.” Graham and his crew did a masterful job on the film, and I recommend everyone check out it out on DVD or at a screening near you.

(24 February 2012)