Thought this article may be of interest. Deb
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [NEFOOD] Fw: Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?
Date: Sun, 22 Mar 2009 12:28:39 -0400
From: KATHRYN RUHF <[log in to unmask]>
To: NEFOOD <[log in to unmask]>
March 22, 2009
Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?
By ANDREW MARTIN
AS tens of thousands of people recently strolled among booths of the
nation’s largest organic and natural foods show here, munching on
fair-trade chocolate and sipping organic wine, a few dozen pioneers of
the industry sneaked off to an out-of-the-way conference room.
Although unit sales of organic food
have leveled off and even declined lately, versus a year earlier, the
mood among those crowded into the conference room was upbeat as they
awaited a private screening of a documentary called “Food Inc.” — a
withering critique of agribusiness and industrially produced food.
They also gathered to relish their changing political fortunes, courtesy
of the Obama administration.
“This has never been just about business,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief
executive of Stonyfield Farm, the maker of organic yogurt. “We are here
to change the world. We dreamt for decades of having this moment.”
After being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of
organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White
House, which has vowed to encourage a more nutritious and sustainable
The most vocal booster so far has been the first lady, Michelle Obama
who has emphasized the need for fresh, unprocessed, locally grown food
and, last week, started work on a White House vegetable garden. More
surprising, perhaps, are the pronouncements out of the Department of
Agriculture, an agency with long and close ties to agribusiness.
In mid-February, Tom Vilsack
the new secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to a patch of
pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s
garden.” Two weeks later, the Obama administration named Kathleen
Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University
and a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy food, as
Mr. Vilsack’s top deputy.
Mr. Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such
actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal
government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that
could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic
products. Already, they have offered plenty of ambitious ideas.
For instance, the celebrity chef Alice Waters
recommends that the federal government triple its budget for school
lunches to provide youngsters with healthier food. And the author
has called on President Obama
to pursue a “reform of the entire food system” by focusing on a Pollan
priority: diversified, regional food networks.
Still, some activists worry that their dreams of a less-processed
may soon collide with the realities of Washington and the financial
gloom over much of the country. Even the Bush administration, reviled by
many food activists, came to Washington intent on reforming farm
subsidies, only to be slapped down by Congress.
Mr. Pollan, who contributes to The New York Times Magazine, likens
sustainable-food activists to the environmental movement in the 1970s.
Though encouraged by the Obama administration’s positions, he worries
that food activists may lack political savvy.
“The movement is not ready for prime time,” he says. “It’s not like we
have an infrastructure with legislation ready to go.”
Even so, many activists say they are packing their bags and heading to
Washington. They are bringing along a copy of “Food Inc.,” which
includes attacks on the corn lobby and Monsanto
and intend to provide a private screening for Mr. Vilsack and Ms. Merrigan.
“We are so used to being outside the door,” says Walter Robb,
co-president and chief operating officer of Whole Foods Market
the grocery chain that played a crucial role in making organic and
natural food more mainstream. “We are in the door now.”
AT the heart of the sustainable-food movement is a belief that America
has become efficient at producing cheap, abundant food that profits
corporations and agribusiness, but is unhealthy and bad for the environment.
The federal government is culpable, the activists say, because it pays
farmers billions in subsidies each year for growing grains and soybeans.
A result is an abundance of corn and soybeans that provide cheap feed
for livestock and inexpensive food ingredients like high-fructose corn
They argue that farm policy — and federal dollars — should instead
encourage farmers to grow more diverse crops, reward conservation
practices and promote local food
networks that rely less on fossil fuels for such things as fertilizer
Last year, mandatory spending on farm subsidies was $7.5 billion,
compared with $15 million for programs for organic and local foods,
according to the House Appropriations Committee.
But advocates of conventional agriculture argue that organic farming
simply can’t provide enough food because the yields tend to be lower
than those for crops grown with chemical fertilizer.
“We think there’s a place for organic, but don’t think we can feed
ourselves and the world with organic,” says Rick Tolman, chief executive
of the National Corn Growers Association. “It’s not as productive, more
labor-intensive and tends to be more expensive.”
The ideas are hardly new. The farmland philosopher and author Wendell
Berry has been making many of the same points for decades. What is new
is that the sustainable-food movement has gained both commercial heft,
with the rapid success of organic and natural foods in the last decade,
and celebrity cachet, with a growing cast of chefs, authors and even
celebrities like Oprah Winfrey
and Gwyneth Paltrow
who champion the cause.
It has also been aided by more awareness of the obesity
epidemic, particularly among children, and by concerns about food safety
amid seemingly continual outbreaks of tainted supplies.
While their arguments haven’t gained much traction in Washington,
sustainable-food activists and entrepreneurs have convinced more
Americans to watch what they eat.
They have encouraged the growth of farmers’ markets and created such a
demand for organic, natural and local products that they are now sold at
many major grocers, including Wal-Mart
“Increasingly, companies are looking to reduce the amount of additives,”
says Ted Smyth, who retired earlier this year as senior vice president
at H. J. Heinz
the food giant. “Consumers are looking for more authentic foods. This
trend absolutely has percolated through into mainstream foods.”
While the idea of sustainable food is creeping into the mainstream, the
epicenter of the movement remains the liberal stronghold of Berkeley, Calif.
It was there in 1971 that Ms. Waters started a restaurant, Chez Panisse,
that used fresh, organic and locally grown products, a novelty at the
time that has been widely copied by other chefs. In the years since, she
has become a food celebrity, the “mother of slow food,” as a “60
Minutes” profile called her.
Mr. Pollan teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley,
and is among a group of authors who have tapped into a wide audience for
books that encourage local or organic foods while detailing what they
view as health and environmental risks of processed foods and
His book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” has remained on best-seller lists
since it was published in 2006. Another activist, Eric Schlosser
wrote “Fast Food Nation,” a critical look at industrialized fast food
that was published in 2001 and is now required reading at some colleges.
And Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University
has become a ubiquitous and widely quoted critic of commercial food
Beyond authors, academics and chefs, the sustainable-food movement also
owes much of its current success to pioneers in the organic and natural
foods industry. Many started their businesses for idealistic reasons and
have since turned their start-ups into multimillion-dollar, even
Manufacturers improved their organic and natural products, long confined
to musty natural-food stores, so they could compete with conventional
foods on packaging and taste. Whole Foods Market also lured more
mainstream customers by redefining what a grocery store should look
like, creating lush displays of produce and fish that have influenced
more traditional grocers.
Nancy M. Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s
said sustainable food activists forced the broader public to focus on
the quality and sourcing of food, which in turn has prompted demand for
farmers’ markets and local produce. She says that “continual attention
in the news” also gave the movement legs.
But Ms. Childs worries that some of the activists’ recommendations for
buying fresh, local or organic food cannot be adopted by many Americans
because those foods may be too expensive. “By singling out certain
lifestyles and foods, it’s diminishing very good quality nutrition
sources,” she says. “Frozen goods, canned goods, they are not bad
things. What’s important is that people eat well, within their means.”
“We’d all love to live on a farm in Vermont, right?” she adds.
Even Jeffrey Hollender, the president of the green cleaning-products
company Seventh Generation, worries that some of his movement’s messages
are a tough sell when consumers are stretched thin.
Although some people argue that there are hidden costs to cheap food,
from environmental damage caused by factory farms and fertilizer runoff
to the health costs associated with eating highly processed,
calorie-laden food, the fact remains that commercially produced food is
“The idea of the true cost of food?” Mr. Hollender asks. “That’s the
last thing consumers want to hear right now.”
The sustainable-food crowd isn’t alone in its love fest with the Obama
administration and Mr. Vilsack. Food-safety activists have praised Mr.
Vilsack’s remarks about creating a single food-safety agency, and
nutrition advocates are enthused about his comments on school lunches
and health care reform
“There are tremendous opportunities with health care reform,” says
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the
“Cutting sodium consumption in half should save over 100,000 lives a year.”
THERE is little in Tom Vilsack’s résumé to suggest that he would one day
be lionized by America’s food glitterati.
A native of Pittsburgh, he became a small-town mayor and lawyer in Iowa,
where he represented struggling farmers during the farm crisis in the
1980s. As a state senator and later as governor of Iowa, Mr. Vilsack
promoted ethanol production and agricultural biotech, leading one
consumer group to label him a “shill” for Monsanto.
When a coalition of food activists and farmers, Food Democracy Now,
circulated a petition urging President Obama to pick an agriculture
secretary committed to sustainability, Mr. Vilsack was not one of its
Mr. Vilsack said that he was a chubby child and maintains a deep
affection for cookies
But something has changed in Mr. Vilsack, an avid runner, including his
eating habits. “I’m much more inclined to eat fresh fruits and
vegetables,” he says. “I had organic yogurt for breakfast. Trust me, I
would have not have had that two years ago, or four years ago.”
He was motivated to eat healthier because he is expecting his first
grandchild and regrets that his parents did not live to meet his own
Mr. Vilsack’s brief tenure at the agriculture department has unnerved
the food lobby and cheered sustainable-food activists, who are in
agreement with many of his stated priorities.
He has said he hopes to devote more resources to child nutrition to
improve the quality of school breakfasts and lunches. He also wants to
make sure that only healthy choices are available in school vending
Noting that the department’s recently released Census of Agriculture
included more than 100,000 new small farmers, he said he wanted his
agency to help them develop regional distribution networks. The small
farms’ produce could be sold to institutional buyers like schools.
Ultimately, he said, agriculture and food policy should fit into the
Obama administration’s planned overhaul of health care, by encouraging
nutrition to prevent disease. It should also be part of the effort to
combat climate change
by encouraging renewable energy and conservation on farms, he said.
Of course, Mr. Vilsack will need the approval of Congress for any major
changes in farm policy, and therein lies his greatest challenge.
Congress passed a farm bill
last year that details farm policy for the next five years, and
farm-state legislators say they are not interested in starting over.
When the Obama administration recently proposed a budget that would cut
subsidies to the nation’s largest farmers and bolster child nutrition
payments, it was greeted with hostility in Congress, even by some Democrats.
It didn’t help that Mr. Vilsack framed the budget as a choice between
helping 90,000 farmers or 30 million children, a statement that he later
characterized as inartful.
Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma and the ranking
minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, said in a statement
that “this proposal is ill-timed, ill-conceived and completely out of
touch with the realities of agriculture production.”
FOR all the enthusiasm that sustainable-food activists and celebrities
have for the Obama administration, their sudden interest in Washington
has already ruffled feathers.
Ms. Waters wrote a letter to the Obamas in January suggesting that she
convene a “kitchen cabinet” to pick a suitable chef for the White House,
“a person with integrity and devotion to the ideals of environmentalism,
health and conservation.” Her letter touched off withering criticism in
the blogosphere, with one food pundit blasting what he called Ms.
Waters’s “inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness.”
The Obamas stuck with the existing chef, who it turns out was already an
ardent — though quiet — proponent of locally grown food.
In addition, some sustainable-farm advocates who have worked on these
issues for decades in Washington are chafing at the idea of celebrity
activists swooping into town.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition,
says that during the Carter administration he fought to get $5 million
in federal money to promote farmers’ markets (about the same as
allocated last year).
While he acknowledges that it has been an uphill fight, Mr. Hoefner said
the activists had made major strides in recent years, winning more
federal dollars for organic research and to help farmers convert to
organic methods and add value to their operations by, for example,
converting to grass-fed beef. As part of the economic stimulus plan
the Agriculture Department also plans to award $250 million in loan
guarantees, spread over the next two years, for local and regional food
networks, he said.
Mr. Hoefner said he was impressed by the number of people who rallied
for a White House garden. “We just want to make sure that interest in
that symbolic action can be channeled into some of the more difficult
policy challenges,” he said.
Senator Tom Harkin
Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee,
welcomes newcomers to the cause but cautions that farm policy “does not
have sharp turns.”
Mr. Harkin has spent years trying to increase federal dollars for child
nutrition and for conservation programs that reward farmers for
protecting the environment, relatively small programs that he says can
expand under the Obama administration.
“We bend the track a little bit and get the train going in a little bit
different direction,” he says. “We’re hoping we can bend it a little bit
more. Consumers are demanding it.”
There are already signs that the sustainable-agriculture track is
bending farther than before. The conservative pundit George F. Will
wrote a column endorsing many of Mr. Pollan’s ideas, and a prominent
food industry lobbyist who requested anonymity because he wasn’t
authorized to speak to reporters said he was amazed at how many members
of Congress were carrying copies of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“I’m not sure how much it’s penetrating the mom shopping at Food Lion,”
he says. “I’ve had so many members mention Michael’s name to me, it’s
Back in Anaheim, Mr. Hirshberg, the head of Stonyfield Farm, said he,
too, is optimistic that change is at hand. But he reminded the small
crowd that the organic industry remains a “rounding error,” roughly 3
percent, of the overall food and beverage business.
“We’re at the starting line,” he says. “This is our job, our government.
We’ve got to take it back.”
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
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