food chains resized

movie review: food chains

food chains resizedBefore I got really sick recently, I sat down to watch Food Chains – a documentary about labor abuses in the produce industry. I had seen a lot about this documentary online and in social media, and when it was added to Netflix, I knew I wanted to watch it.

The documentary spends a lot of time profiling the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers advocacy group in Immokalee, Florida – home to some of the nation’s largest tomato fields. I had learned about the CIW back when I read Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book TomatolandI’d also read about labor abuses in the produce industry from  The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Both of those books aren’t exclusively focused on labor abuses, but they play a huge part in understanding what goes on behind the scenes in the plant and produce side of Big Agriculture.

I think most people would balk at the idea that we have slaves in this country in 2015.  Often if we hear the term “modern slavery” we think of sex trafficking. But 150 years after slavery was legally abolished, we have slavery and indentured servitude in our fields – you know, those same fields that we sing about in “America the Beautiful.” And even those workers who aren’t slaves are working for what we’d call “slave wages,” unbelievably far below the poverty line. You don’t even have bootstraps to pull yourself up by when you work 13 hours a day in sweltering heat, being sprayed with pesticides and if you’re a woman, likely being sexually harassed, and come home with $40 for that work. Where’s the American dream in those fields?

The film goes into a lot more detail about the issues with worker rights, including why so many migrant workers have come to work in American agricultural fields from Mexico (big surprise here – we caused it). An interesting section details the disparity in the Napa Valley between the people who work in the vineyards and the people who buy the wine. That’s an area of the country I never think about when it comes to Big Agriculture, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The nation’s wealthiest have long been supported by the work of the nation’s poorest. I could go on, but you should really just watch this film.

I think Food Chains comes at a good time in this nation’s food consciousness. We’ve seen awareness of animal cruelty and the public health issues involved in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) come to the forefront in ways never seen before. More and more people are concerned about where their meat and dairy comes from and how animals are treated. Consider the rise in people eating vegan diets in an effort to not be a consumer of any animal products. I think this has led to many people considering how what they eat can have ethical implications – something that wasn’t even on the radar outside of a handful of activists a few decades ago.

All human diets contain fruits and vegetables because they are the building blocks of our health. So even a vegan diet is not without ethical implications, because being plant-based means that like all diets, it is very likely supported by workers who are enslaved, given poverty wages, harassed, sprayed with pesticides, the list goes on. I absolutely respect the desire to not harm animals or participate in cruelty toward them, but it’s also really important to consider the human cost as well. This is not a sweeping generalization of vegans, by any means. It’s just that anyone who consumes plants (basically everybody) needs to be aware that there are ethical implications present when you eat Florida tomatoes or California berries that go beyond pesticides and GMOs.

But that’s the really difficult part. Every decision that we make in our modern lives is fraught with ethical implications. It’s difficult to consider each and every one of them. I think about my mornings – whether or not the coffee I drink is fair trade, if the lunch I pack contains items that were produced by animal suffering or worker abuse or represent a public health risk, if the plastic bag that holds my pretzels will end up in a landfill, if the clothes I wear were made in a sweatshop, if my smart phone was built by children, if the diamond ring I put on is a blood diamond, whether or not my car is harming the environment with emissions. You can see how this gets easily overwhelming. I got overwhelmed writing that paragraph.

At the end of the day, you have to do the best that you can to reconcile those things. I think the key is being educated about it and being open to questioning your choices and determining which ones you can reasonably make. And that’s why films like Food Chains are so important, because they make you aware of these issues and dispel the ignorance surrounding them. So that perhaps when you go to the grocery store, you choose a store that participates in the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Or you support a local CSA and farms in your area, where you can confirm for yourself that there are no labor violations happening.

Perfect is the enemy of good. It’s better to focus on one or two ways you can make a better choice than to be overwhelmed and make none at all. You can support efforts to hold companies accountable for their own labor practices and lift your voice in support of those programs and government accountability. You can’t change everything for everyone, but you can open your mind and heart to others and look for opportunities to allow that knowledge to inform your purchases and choices.

 

book review: the chain

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a food book – awhile since I read a food book. I think that it’s almost like the feeling you get when you watch the news a lot, and you realize that the bad news is just a little bit too much. But when I saw many people in the food world talking about Ted Genoways’ The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food online, I thought it was time to get back in the game. I’m disappointed that books like this even exist for me to read, but I am glad I picked this one up and am putting my toe back in the water. It’s not a good habit to just turn my face to truth because it’s too hard to handle.

the chainThe art on the cover of The Chain is compelling and accurate. The pig shown has its body cut into parts, so you can see “inside” where the pig is filled with cogs and sprockets – the mechanics of a factory. While there are many books that detail the problems with factory farming, this book takes it down to the micro level and illustrates those larger problems by telling the story of two factories – one in Austin, Minnesota and the other in Fremont, Nebraska – that service Hormel by creating Spam – the ubiquitous hunk of gelatinous “pork product.”

Book after book and essay after essay have been written on the problems with factory farms, detailing their detrimental impact on the environment, animal welfare, public health and food safety. But The Chain is different by primarily focusing on the meat packing that happens at the two plants and tracing the problems backwards.

Because all large meat companies, such as Hormel and Smithfield, are now vertically integrated, they produce their own grain, to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter, package, ship and sell them. One compelling section details the work of undercover workers in a factory pig farm that services the Hormel meat processing plants, there to investigate inhumane treatment of animals and violation of regulations (and basic decency). State legislatures are increasingly being asked by industry to pass legislation that outlaws this type of recording and whistle-blowing, collectively referred to as Ag-gag laws (For some background, this is not new. I wrote about this in April 2013).

Genoways interviews Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project, and her comments are too good to paraphrase (p. 39):

Ag-gag laws, as they’re know, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistle-blowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistle-blowing.’ In short, ‘you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.” She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that had been to regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do a favor and criminalize catching us?'” Amanda Hitt, Government Accountability Project

Ag-gag laws are just one of the ills that Genoways mentions – sections on water pollution and the fight of small towns to have their watersheds protected from contaminated manure lagoons as well as horrifically abused animals are both fascinating and horrifying. And the book is carefully and meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section and an index – one of the marks of good non-fiction.

But the thing that sets The Chain apart is its focus on people. The people who work at the Hormel plants in Austin and Fremont and what it does to them and what it does to the surrounding communities. It is truly heartbreaking that we pollute clean water, abuse animals who are dependent on us for their care, and expose workers to horrific working conditions for near poverty wages – all for something like Spam. Spam, people.

The section that detailed a mysterious illness that plagued workers at one particular plant actually made me sick to my stomach. Workers at a table that sucked out the pig’s brain matter with high pressure hoses had to work at such high speeds, that a cloud of brain matter always hovered over the table, because the matter never had a chance to settle before more was introduced. That’s right. A cloud of brain matter. Without proper safety equipment (that encumbered workers too much for them to keep up with the company-mandated line speed), workers inhaled the brain matter of the pigs daily for hours upon hours. It gave them nerve diseases that stripped their nerves of the sheaths that protect them, making it virtually impossible for them to stand or move without excruciating pain.

The fight for workers’ compensation and for the company to acknowledge these abuses is sickening. Workers were permanently disabled with their quality of life forever diminished for something like $10/hour if they were lucky. On my worst day in my cubicle job, I can’t even begin to comprehend what working on the kill floor or the butchering line would be like at a meat processing plant.

Why could Hormel (and other companies that have similar problems) get away with this? Having destroyed the unions that supported the workforce for decades, the companies rely on a workforce of primarily immigrant labor. No matter where you stand on the side of immigration reform or law, the situations created in these communities are no good for anyone involved. The workers and communities that are at odds against them are both under the same boot that’s pressing down on them – the corporate interests of companies who have free reign by government to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

I could go on for days. It was a great book. You should read it.

What I can’t seem to shake after reading it is the feeling that we so easily take horrifying abuses and problems and distill them to numbers. Commodities. We think of pigs as “pork” and not as animals, with the ability to feel pain and excitement and care and attachment. X number of chops and roasts. That’s it.

It would be easy to say that “only” X number of workers were affected by the nerve disease. But these aren’t just statistics. These are people. With faces and names and families. Hobbies and thoughts and dreams for a better life for their families – the same dream that all of us are working to reach. Does a human being, whether he/she has legal papers or not, deserve to inhale pig brain matter and suffer daily, agonizing pain, because the company increased the line speed so that we can eat more Spam than ever before? And so that Hormel can make increasingly more profit? Would the CEO of Hormel work at that same spot on the line, knowing what it’s done to people? I would venture to say no. Yet somehow, it’s okay to put someone else there. And leave them permanently disabled, physically and financially. Because that person isn’t a person. He’s a number. He’s a cog in a machine.

When you buy a package of Spam, or some Hormel bacon, you help that cog in the machine keep spinning. The machine doesn’t stop until we do.

TV review: Food Forward on PBS

food.forward.logo_-e1307320024221I recently started watching through episodes of a series called Food Forward on PBS via online streaming. The full episodes are available on their website – all 13 of them for the first season.

The series focuses on “food rebels” – people and groups across the country that are trying to make the food system more sustainable and just – as well as delicious. I watched the first three episodes (each about 25 minutes long) to determine if I wanted to go through the whole series, and I definitely do.

The episodes are very well produced. They feel like mini documentaries, but the editing on them is so good – there’s nothing extraneous (with the exception of a guitar player that has shown up in two episodes and makes it feel more hipstery than it has to). I found all of the first three episodes engaging, even though they dealt with topics that are old hat to me in some ways.

The episodes are sponsored by Chipotle and Applegate – two companies that in theory are dedicated to more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. In a culture where everything is sponsored and naming rights to everything are for sale and funding for public broadcasting is slim, PBS (I’m assuming) chose companies that operate under a mission most closely related to the programming. I can give them credit for that.

So about the episodes.I really like that the episodes focus not on problems with the current food system, but on solutions that are actually happening. Save for a brief outline of the problem that the food rebels are trying to solve, the episodes really focus on normal, everyday Americans who took an idea and ran with it. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit that you can feel behind the people in the episodes. And they’re not all Berkley hipster “foodies.” They are just regular Americans.

I watched the episodes in streaming order, with the first one being the pilot called “Urban Farming”. The episode asks the question – what if we stopped importing food into cities and grew it within the city limits? It focused on farmers (“food rebels”) doing some pretty innovative things, from rooftop aviaries in New York City to an urban farm with integrated hydroponics (fish and produce production together) in Milwaukee – from a CSA operation in an area of Oakland, California with no grocery stores to rebuilding vacant lots into farmland in Detroit.

An episode called “Meat of the Matter” addresses the issue of the cost of America’s meat consumption. Centering on the idea that we should eat less meat in general and eat higher quality meat when we do, it profiles several different ranchers and farmers who are producing meat by raising bison, cattle and hogs in a new way. Their practices focus on humane treatment, understanding the animal as more than just a commodity. They also spent a lot of time on the benefit to the earth of a polyculture system, where no one species is in isolation from the others surrounding it.

Overfishing is a big issue, not just in America, but worldwide. An episode called “Go Fish” profiled several American “fish rebels” who are fishing in different ways – going back to the way that fishing happened several generations ago. The practices used by these family and small businesses and cooperatives are less damaging to the environment and the fish population, and they are bringing a higher quality product to the marketplace while supporting their local economy. The most interesting part of this episode was a program called Dock to Dish, which is like community supported fishing. Subscribers get the freshest catch possible – same day caught. That would be so great – makes me want to move to the coast!

I will definitely be working my way through the other episodes. Take advantage of the free streaming of these, especially if you like documentaries and are interested in food systems.

 

what we deserve

run to fight hungerIt’s no secret that I support the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Last year, I raised money for them by running the Pittsburgh Marathon Half, and I was also able to donate produce directly this year, due to an abundance of tomatoes in our garden.

So last week, when I saw that one of the food pantries near my office on the North Side had virtually empty shelves, with Thanksgiving approaching, I asked them the best way to help and ended up buying something on their Amazon wish list and making a small monetary donation. It wasn’t much, but it will buy something for someone. I don’t say this to brag – many people support good causes with their time and money. But just after this happened, I found myself in two separate conversations where the following sentence was spoken:

I don’t support food pantries because too many people don’t really deserve help.

Well, then.

I hear many variations of this when I tell people about my support of food pantries and hunger relief. Lots of talk about fraud and abuse. The anecdotes people present about how they saw someone use an EBT card at the grocery store while wearing UGG boots and having their nails done. Talk about laziness and people who would rather take a handout than work. People up in arms about spending any government money to feed its people.

The truth is, that all of the myths about SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – what we call Food Stamps), have been shown to be just that – myths. Fraud accounts for less than 1% of benefits given out in SNAP, which is far less than Medicare or Medicaid. Most recipients of SNAP are children and the elderly. The average monthly benefit for a family of four ends up averaging $1.50 per meal per person. Have you tried to feed yourself on $4.50 a day? There are so many logical and statistical reasons why SNAP is a vital program for our communities.

But food pantries act as supplements for SNAP, because SNAP is not enough. So places like the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank step in and provide much needed food and services for the hungry.

But I want to go back to the sentence I hear the most, the one I’ve been chewing on in my brain for days. That too many people really don’t deserve help. It’s shocking to me that any one of us feels we are in the position to judge what someone else deserves, particularly when it comes to whether or not someone eats. Eating is a basic human need – drinking water and breathing air are the only more pressing needs.

Because I am a Christian, I believe that I don’t actually deserve anything I have. It’s all been given to me by the grace of God. And for everyone, what is it that you have done in your life that makes you deserve to eat? You didn’t choose the family you were born into – whether or not that family was above or below the poverty line.

Life is too complex and people’s circumstances too varied for us to make judgements when we are deciding who should receive benefits or food from pantries. The people that run these food pantries are making the best determinations they can as to who can receive assistance with the limited funds that they have. I trust them to do this; I don’t need to get involved. When you donate a toy at Christmas to a Toys for Tots drive, do you ask the Marines what their screening criteria are for what child deserves a toy and what child doesn’t? I doubt it. When you donate to a children’s hospital, do you ask questions about whether or not that child or their parents deserve care? Nope.

When people throw their anecdotal evidence at me about seeing someone in the grocery store in fancy clothes using an EBT card, I always ask them – how do you know where that person got those boots and how? Perhaps they bought them five years ago, before a family member lost a job or had medical bills or a mortgage that needed to be paid? Maybe they were a gift. Maybe they were a splurge.

Who cares?

What happened to compassion for the sake of compassion, without strings attached? Is it really such a terrible thing if someone gets a box of stuffing and a can of green beans that might have been able to afford to pay for it on their own?

For me it comes down to this. “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:35). I’ve got news for you, Christians. It doesn’t say “For I was hungry, and you determined I was unworthy of something to eat because I made a decision you disagreed with.” (Let it be noted there are about 30 other Biblical passages supporting feeding the hungry, lest you think I took this out of context. You’ve got zero excuses, Christians. None.)

If you aren’t a Christian, I think the same applies. I would like to meet someone who has made no poor decisions in the entirety of their life. Or someone who has never had something unexpected happen that they weren’t prepared for. I’d like to think that if my circumstances were different, someone would feed me when I was hungry instead of interrogating and shaming me.

Since we’re nearing the holidays, you’ll see food drives out and about. In our area, the Fall FoodShare is going on at Giant Eagle stores. The KDKA Turkey Fund has started. Consider when you’re at the checkout and surveying all of the groceries you are purchasing for your family if you could purchase a few more, for someone else’s family.

Not because they deserve it. But because there are people who are hungry. And they need to eat. It’s as simple as that.

food-2Bbank-2Btomatoes

Donating produce to the food bank

After feeling pretty overwhelmed this weekend (and really the last few weeks) with our plentiful tomato harvest, I decided to quit moping about what I couldn’t do, and do something I’ve always wanted to do. Share our garden with people who need fresh produce.

Last year, we intended to give the contents of one entire raised bed to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank through its Community Harvest Program. Well, nature got the best of us and we basically had nothing to donate because nothing did well enough.

Not this year!


These two boxes are full of ripe and almost ripe tomatoes, complete with notes about the types included, ready to go to our local food pantry yesterday. 

It was simple. I visited the GPCFB’s Community Harvest page, and looked at the donation options. Because of other commitments, I couldn’t get to a Saturday drop-off, and I can’t make it to the actual food bank during their open hours because I’m at work the entire time and it’s too far to go during lunch.

So I looked up my neighborhood’s local pantry through their online tool and made a simple phone call. Within 15 minutes, I got a call back that they’d love to take them! I also contacted a friend who does a lot of work with a local women’s shelter, and they are willing to take the next batch.

I don’t tell you this because I’m an awesome person for donating tomatoes to a food pantry. But because if you’ve already preserved all you can and the alternative is for the produce to go bad, consider making a donation through Community Harvest. All it took for me was 5 minutes on the phone and a two second trip, basically across the street, to drop off the boxes. If you’re not in the greater Pittsburgh area, call your local food bank. You never know what resources they’d have to help you get the produce to people who need it.

I hope next year to plan a little better when it comes to the produce donation so we can make this happen more regularly, instead of waiting until I’m about ready to rip my hair out with frustration. Maybe that dream of the Community Harvest bed will be a reality!

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.


picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song “McDonald’s Girl” could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It’s where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it’s honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald’s had the best ones.  

That’s why it’s kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I’ve been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I’m defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby’s. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald’s as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you’d cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that’s not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won’t eat fast food at all – salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I’m not going to lie. I still smell McDonald’s when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It’s no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald’s isn’t good for you. And while it’s possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald’s (I ate A LOT of McDonald’s when I worked there.), weight isn’t the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It’s ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it’s about the farthest away from “clean food” that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It’s not just what’s in fast food that I have an issue with. It’s where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don’t eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don’t want the dairy or the eggs either.

It’s worth noting that just recently McDonald’s announced that it would “commit to sourcing sustainable beef” in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of “sustainable beef,” it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald’s generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you’ve got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either – CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald’s and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn’t get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn’t required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It’s also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale – and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It’s true that most 6 year olds don’t get to McDonald’s on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald’s to very young children – ones unable to discern what advertising actually is – is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald’s, with parents who didn’t just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren’t the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren’t either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald’s is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let’s state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There’s no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald’s uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter’s necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon’s report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald’s, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that’s why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it’s cheap and convenient, I choose to go without. 



  

why Superior Motors is so important – and not just for Pittsburgh

This past week a Kickstarter campaign started by a local chef, Kevin Sousa, was not only fully funded, but became the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a restaurant in that site’s history. The campaign was for a community restaurant concept called Superior Motors, named as such after the Chevy dealership formerly located in that space. Also notable about the space? It’s located in Braddock, a Pittsburgh neighborhood devastated by the loss of the steel industry, with a 90% population loss. It doesn’t even have a McDonald’s, let alone a restaurant with dinner service. (View the videos describing the project here.)

Mark generously contributed to the campaign as a birthday gift to me. For awhile it looked like they weren’t going to meet their goal. Which would have meant the end for the concept, since though Mr. Sousa is a James Beard semi-finalist chef with a loyal following, banks are not interested in investments in such an economically distressed area.

But in the eleventh hour, a dramatic surge of support pushed the campaign way over the top and it was fully funded. 124% funded, to be exact. 


From Kickstarter campaign website


Superior Motors will be an accessible restaurant for Braddock’s residents, and will help to educate Braddock youth with free professional culinary instruction. A greenhouse on the roof, with room for raised beds, a hostel next door with free housing for workers, a nearby apiary and flock of hens, plus the Grow Pittsburgh Braddock farms nearby, providing the majority of the produce for the restaurant are just some of the layers to this ambitious concept. The Kickstarter information indicates that a core principle will be that no Braddock resident will be excluded from partaking based upon household income. (Visit the page and read more about the details of this project. It’s fascinating.)

And that right there is what makes this concept revolutionary. Yes, the success of the campaign should be looked at as an example of what can happen when Pittsburgh comes together. It truly is an amazing place to live and even when I’m shaking my fist in my car at the traffic approaching the Fort Pitt Tunnel, I am blessed to live and work here. But this goes beyond Pittsburgh.

Fine dining is virtually inaccessible to anyone below a certain economic threshold. And because of that, it’s often thought of as elitist. The same holds true for many issues around health and food. People validly argue that only focusing on issues like organic agriculture and GMO labeling obscures the fact that thousands of Americans don’t have enough FOOD, let alone healthy food.

I am so moved by this concept because it holds at its core the value that good, fresh, quality food belongs to everyone – even communities that have been largely abandoned by society. The idea of Superior Motors embodies the word ‘community’ by feeding, nourishing and sustaining not just the people, but the land and the place and history. It places value there and encourages others to follow. Other communities across the country will look to this project as well, and hopefully attempt to rally around similar investments in their own areas.  

I am so excited to see Superior Motors develop and can’t wait to go eat there someday. It’s going to be worth braving the tunnel traffic, that’s for sure.    

reading this week

I’m still processing all that I learned and saw at the Mother Earth News Fair, but look for recaps on that soon. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading this week.

The USDA recently changed the process of exempting prohibited substances in foods labeled as organic, without having any public comment period. Previously, prohibited substances were given five year periods in which they could be exempted, while alternatives could be found. After that period, they’d expire unless a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board allowed it, AFTER a public comment period. 

Now, all of that has been erased and these substances can be allowed indefinitely, and with no public comment period, outside of the public view. Not only does it weaken the already relatively weak organic standards, but it pulls more of our food processes behind closed door and decreases transparency.  

CDC’s thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance (Food Politics)
A great infographic on how antibiotic resistance is created, plus links to other stories explaining the issue.

A Washington state farmer’s alfalfa crop has been found to contain a GMO trait, which has stopped him from being able to export it (as European nations have much more strict laws regulating GMOs than the U.S.). How this plays out will be interesting, though I’d venture to guess the government will not go out of its way to protect the farmer.

Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms (Wired)
Enhanced images from satellites of the feedlots that house industrial meat production

Food banks are a ‘slow death of the soul’ (The Guardian)
A really interesting take on food pantries from someone who runs one. What he does? It’s my dream job. I was asked once in a job interview what my dream would be, and I said if I had capital, I’d open a food pantry that was a community garden and had cooking and gardening classes. To help people get on their feet and empower them to make good choices.

10 Reasons for Gardeners to Love Chickens (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Self-explanatory. :)