Category Archives: Kristy Spouts Off

Last Blog Post (For a While, at Least)

The Get Your Pitchfork On! blog is three years old! I have faithfully updated it every Sunday since January 2012, even during graduate school. I am proud of myself for that. But doing so takes a lot of time and, because of said schoolwork, the things that have gotten pushed aside—playing fiddle, hiking, writing for publications, and making collage artworks—are starting to get impatient with me. And I’m starting to feel their absence. I’m also hoping to embark on a new project in 2015 and want to make room. Not sure what the next thing is yet—a job? A book? Whatever it is, I feel the need to create a vacuum for it to fill.

If you are a subscriber to this blog: THANK YOU. Please stay subscribed; once I have news I will certainly share it here. I will also continue to update the GYPO Facebook page and website. If you have been a guest post-writer: Thank you! You took some of the pressure off me and added a welcome breadth to the content and voice of this blog.

When I decided to suspend production of the GYPO blog, I started reading old posts. It’s kind of like a photo album and diary. Here are some of my favorites:

Phynn and the Baby Chicks. Boy, that dog was a pain in the keester, but she was smart.

Peepee. You never know what will thrill a three-year-old.

Organic Gardening: Not the Hippie Lovefest It’s Made Out to Be. Pretty much speaks for itself.

How Many Seeds Make a Plant? One of those moments when I was certain there was a place for GYPO in the world.

K&M Wellness Retreat. Our farm was a respite from the cruel world for more than just Mike and me.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines. A fun week in my life—the publication launch of Get Your Pitchfork On!

Farm-Inspired Art. Our farm inspired lots of people to create.

A Heart of Cheese. In which I compare my dual-heritage of Minnesotan and Wisconsinite.

The Art of Value-Added Products. This is the first in a series of pieces that got “picked” up by Handpicked Nation.

It’s Not the Size That Counts. How big is your bar?

Raising Rural Children. One of my most search-engine-driven posts.

Team Players. One of my few purely “Kristy Spouts Off” posts, about our polarized politics.

Celebrating 40 Years of the Encyclopedia of Country Living. An homage to the book that made GYPO possible.

Mending Day. One of the posts written in Portland, where it was more of a challenge to comment about living in the country—since we weren’t!

Seed Catalogs A-Go-Go. A compendium of companies, sorted by state.

Is Homemade Jam a Bargain? A cost-benefit analysis.

Cottage Industry Laws. Part of my transition into writing about food systems, inspired by my graduate work.

Until next time ...

Until next time …

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Christmas Records

In 1975, I had a banner Christmas. Santa brought a Barbie Doll with a full case and clothes (even go-go boots!) and a record player. The best thing about the record player was that my parents expressly instructed my sister, Linda, and me that this toy was special and I did not have to share it; it was all mine. This meant a lot because—and you elder siblings know what I’m talking about—I’d had to make a lot of concessions since she appeared on the scene two years prior.

A Barbie case in point

A (Barbie) case in point …

The record player was orange plastic with yellow trim; it had three settings: 78, 45, and 33. The 45 adapter was built in; you just had to twist it into place. It was perfect for playing Mickey Mouse Club, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and those books that came with a record to narrate them, sounding a chime when it was time to turn the page.

I took very good care of this record player. Such good care that, when Mike and I hosted our first Solstice party in our first home, in the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland, we used it to play Christmas records we’d scavenged that summer. We timed our interest in mid-century Christmas records perfectly—their original owners were dying off, and their children didn’t want anything to do with them and sold them to us at their yard and estate sales for pocket change. By December, we had gathered a fine array.

That "Swing Bells" is really something

That “Swing Bells” is really something

The orange record player lasted two holiday parties. By then, it was nearly thirty years old. We first noticed that it was failing because everyone who was singing sounded slightly flat. The motor was losing its torque. The records started getting flatter, and more drawn out, until everyone sounded absolutely macabre. Because the motor was encased in plastic, there was no getting at it to fix it. After decades of service, the orange record player was dead. <moment of silence>

The following year’s holiday party was saved by our friend Chris, who was a teacher in a nearby school district. She was leaving school one afternoon and happened to notice that a dumpster was filled with record players. Apparently the school district had determined them obsolete and either lacked the imagination to donate them somewhere, or (more likely) there was probably some ridiculous inventory-release protocol that made dumping them into a landfill more practical. In any case, Chris looked around for witnesses and then quietly loaded a half-dozen or so into her car.

This record player was army green, industrial strength. Built to withstand being knocked off the teacher’s desk here and there. The turntable had a bit of shock absorption, which made it more difficult to cause the needle to skip by simply walking past (a definite problem with the orange one). It also had a larger speaker, so a room full of tipsy, chatting people was less able to drown out the sound.

Eventually that record player, too, gave up the ghost. We bought an actual turntable after that. Last weekend, we had our first winter solstice party in twelve years—as I mention in this blog post we switched to summer solstice parties when we lived in the Gorge. Out came the records! There’s something special about the pop-and-gravel sound of laying a needle on a record. And there’s something special about inviting a whole mess of people to your house to celebrate the solstice. Happy Solstice, and Merry Christmas!

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Gender and Race in the Restaurant Biz

My Food Systems and Society cohort is slogging through the first stages of writing our thesis projects. One of my colleagues, Nancy, is looking at discrimination and harassment in the restaurant business. I mentioned that I had some experience in that field, long ago, and she asked for details. In order to put it into a citable format, I’m posting it here. Go get ’em, Nancy!

I worked in two restaurants as a young woman. I was hired at Big B’s Pizza of Golden Valley (the suburb of Minneapolis in which I grew up) in 1984, when I was fifteen; I was thrilled to graduate from babysitting for $1.25 an hour to making real money ($3.18, if I remember correctly). I was not allowed to serve beer until I turned sixteen, so other waitresses had to deliver my mugs of Leinenkugels (the Wisconsin version of Rainier). The place was owned by a classic Greatest Generation couple, Jerry and Elaine, who dressed up and went dancing at the Medina Ballroom every Saturday night. In fact, Elaine was always dressed up. I drove her crazy because the hem on my uniform, a red pinafore apron and brown wrap-around skirt, had come undone and I was constantly re-taping it instead of sewing. Sewing?

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Because Jerry and Elaine ran a tight ship and were nearly always present, there were not a lot of co-worker “shenanigans” at Big B’s. The cooks were more like big brothers than predators. The closing cook often insisted on driving me home, even though I was prepared to walk.

However, there was certainly a gender barrier between the waitresses (“girls”) and the cooks (men). Big B’s was rather small, so there were no hosts, expediters, dishwashers, or prep cooks; regular staff did all those things. They were nearly all Caucasian. One of the waitresses wanted to cook, and she was eventually allowed to, but it took some convincing and it was quite a novelty. A girl cook! I was sort of envious but, at the same time, she gave up the ability to collect tips. So I was happy to keep my pinafore.

My second waitressing job, at the Boundary Waters, began in the fall of 1988. I had transferred to the University of Minnesota after a year at a different school, but was living with my parents in the suburbs. This was a much classier joint, the loss-leader restaurant of the most prestigious department store of a major shopping center. (Perhaps you don’t know but the first enclosed mall, Southdale, appeared in Minnesota in 1956. This was a sister location.) The restaurant had green velvet wallpaper and wainscoting, a bar area with tile floors, and brass fixtures and white tablecloths. The waitstaff wore bow ties and short green aprons over black pants and white shirts. Some of the waitresses had been there twenty years.

I had to start as a busser but was quickly promoted to waitress. You could make some real money there on Friday and Saturday nights, but the rest of the time it was shoppers stopping in for lunch or coffee, or, as a woman named Anne did at least three times a week, about six glasses of red wine over four hours while reading trashy novels.

There was a somewhat fluid gender division—both men and women were bussers; some women were bartenders; one man was a host; all the managers were women—but the race division was distinct. People of color were exclusively in the kitchen, and the more color you had the more lowly your job. All the dishwashers were African American. In fact, there was a white woman with developmental disabilities who was a busser, which is considered a harder and more prestigious job than dishwasher.

What was also distinct in the kitchen was the casual, culturally accepted sexual harassment. Once I was promoted to waitress, I had a closer relationship with the cooks—they were making or breaking my meals and, thereby, my tips. The kitchen manager, Jeff, was a nice guy who focused on making sure everything ran smoothly in the kitchen. His assistant manager, Randy, was another story.

The thing to keep in mind about kitchen-culture is that it’s extremely friendly, jocular, and fast-moving. When it’s the dinner rush, you all have to act as one to get tickets entered correctly, to get salads and soups out in time so the entrees don’t precede them, to communicate special instructions, to make sure the forks get washed before we run out, and to get the food out the door and onto the tables as soon as it’s ready. There’s no time for groping during dinner rush. It’s the beginnings and ends of shifts that you have to watch out for.

Every time I clocked in, Randy was waiting for me for his “hug.” I don’t remember how this started, but I was required to accept his embrace, which lasted at least 30 seconds, with him running his hand down my back (or lower) and making soft groans. Even when he started dating Kellie, an assistant floor manager, I had to endure this hug with every shift—sometimes in front of her! It totally grossed me out, but I was twenty years old and didn’t know how to make it stop. No one in the kitchen seemed concerned about it, including Jeff. I’m not sure if our main manager, Karen, knew about it but I’m guessing she didn’t.

Randy would ask me gross questions from his side of the line, or engage in a sexually explicit “conversation” with another cook, while I was waiting for my food to come up. He would make tongue-faces at me. He would whip his towel at my ass as I passed through the kitchen with a full tray in my hands. I made very sure to not get stuck in the walk-in cooler with Randy. It never occurred to me to talk to Karen about it, and since there were numerous witnesses in the kitchen, male and female, and no one ever said anything, I just figured it was something I had to endure.

Is it any wonder I really enjoyed the feminism classes I was taking at the university?! Too bad I only took those lessons to heart intellectually.

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Effects of USDA Organic-Certification Fee-Reimbursement Program

Okay, this paper is a little dry—but it explores the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the federal organic-certification program.

In order to reduce the impact of organic certification fees on small farming operations in the United States, Congress has authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs, which comprises the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program (USDA, 2014a). The former program’s funds are distributed to all U.S. states and territories, and the latter’s funds target sixteen states. The increased budget for organic certification fees will support sustainability in some ways, hinder it in others, and have a marginal effect on food security and social justice.

This incentive program covers up to 75 percent of a farmer’s organic certification fees (to a maximum of $750). In 2014, the USDA announced that the amount of money available to offset organic-certification fees for beginning organic farmers had doubled the amount assigned in the 2008 Farm Bill, to approximately $13 million (USDA, 2014b). Of that amount, $11.5 million will be allocated via the NOCCSP and the remainder will be allocated via the AMA program. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has endorsed this increase, finding the program “essential in helping farmers, especially small and mid-scale farms, become organic operations and maintain their organic status” (NSAC, 2014b).

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Defining “Sustainable”

In order to interpret the ability of this program to promote or hinder sustainability, the term should be defined (as is possible). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a sustainable entity as one that “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” (n.d.). Some of the ways an organic farm may be environmentally sustainable include using few or no herbicides and pesticides, transporting produce a short distance to market, and integrating agriculture with livestock. However, “organic” doesn’t guarantee “sustainable.” The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture notes that “organic practices may conflict with sustainability goals in certain situations” (2009). The institute doesn’t indicate any of those situations.

Promoting Sustainable Business

By encouraging more people who are interested in organic farming to pursue it, the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs promotes sustainable business—insofar as a small organic farm can be considered sustainable as per the preceding section. The USDA finds its program to have “helped increase the number of farmers markets nationwide to over 8,100, a 74 percent increase since 2008” (Vilsack, 2014). Eighty-three percent of small-acreage farms (10 or fewer acres) gross $10,000 or less, so this program will make a difference to those farmers (Newton, 2014).

To some degree, this program might encourage existing farmers to switch to organic farming; however, because of the $750 dollar limit, this would only be useful to farms with gross incomes of approximately $100,000 or less (Oregon Tilth, 2014).

Hindering Sustainable Business

Considering the above income figure of $100,000, it can be said that the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs hinder sustainable business, as the USDA estimates that a farm needs to generate $100,000 of annual sales to be solvent (Newton, 2014), and therefore this cost-share is ineffectual to an economically sustainable business.

Organic certification can be cost-prohibitive for beginning farmers; approximately $700 the first year, with more for inspections (Oregon Tilth, 2014). While the NOCCSP can help farmers, the funds only cover 75 percent of the total fee. This can create a hardship for small farmers.

After the first year, the certification base fee rises in accordance with a farm’s gross income, but not in an equitable manner. If comparing the base fee to income, one sees that the more money a farm makes, the lower a percentage of their income the fee represents—ranging from 6 percent at the low end of the income scale to 0.5 percent at the high end (See Table 1).

Table 1

Oregon Tilth Base Fees, Ratio of Fee-to-Income

Gross Income Base Fee Percentage of Income
(calculated using maximum income in range)
$0 – $4,999 $299 6%
$15,000 – $24,999 $431 2%
$150,000 – $174,999 $1,339 0.7%
$400,000 – $499,999 $2,500 0.5%

Source: Oregon Tilth. (2014, May 1). Oregon Tilth Certified Organic Fee Schedule. Retrieved from http://tilth.org/files/certification/OTCOFeeSchedule.pdf

The NOCCSP, which is responsible for allocating the bulk of the 2014 fee-reimbursement budget, distributes funds to different states and territories in vastly different amounts—for example, Mississippi will receive $5,000, Wisconsin will receive $1,032,200, and California will receive more than $2 million (USDA, 2014c). The AMA funds target sixteen specific states, so most states will receive none of this program’s funding. These disparities may result in encouraging organic farming in some states while discouraging it in others.

Program Impact on Food Security and Social Justice

The NOCCSP does little to specifically affect food security or social justice, other than to promote a few small organic farms. Those farms are most likely to sell their produce at a farmers’ market or a CSA, both of which might be set up to accept SNAP—but SNAP is underutilized at such outlets (Athens et al., 2013).

The USDA as a whole understands, at least on paper, the demographic situation facing agriculture in this country, noting that new agricultural producers may come from farming backgrounds or be new to agriculture; they may be college graduates coming home to farm with their families, veterans, second career seekers, immigrants and people from all ethnic backgrounds. Tomorrow’s producers will be representative of America’s diverse heritage and population (Vilsack, 2014).

However, the USDA’s true commitment to women, minority, and other disadvantaged potential farmers is better revealed by its funding of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers. NSAC notes that this program, “funded at $20 million per year in the last farm bill, has provided only half that amount in this year’s bill—despite the new farm bill’s expansion of the program to also provide outreach to military veteran farmers” (NSAC, 2014a). So, unless a socially disadvantaged farmer is also a veteran, they have much less chance of being reached by this program. Additionally, funding for this program was suspended in 2013 while the terms of the 2012 Farm Bill were being negotiated. So, including backlog, there will be more demand for a program with a wider scope and less money (NSAC, 2014c).

Organic farms require more hand labor, with weeding and picking of specialty crops. The Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program has no mission to improve the working conditions of farm workers, nor does the Farm Bill as a whole (Furgurson, 2012; Lilliston, 2014). The NOCCSP supports small farmers but doesn’t have much affect on larger problems, such as the environmental sustainability of large farms, social justice for farm workers, or food security for low-income eaters.

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GMOs: To Label or Not to Label

During the “Food Policy and Law” course that I took this summer, students were asked to write about the recent GMO-labeling ballot measures in California and Washington, which failed, as well as the laws that were passed by state legislators in Connecticut and Vermont. We were asked to compare and contrast the measures and indicate which is the better law and why. I’m posting my response in case it’s helpful to anyone in Oregon who is considering their vote in the upcoming election for a similar law. Please note I am not advocating for a particular vote!

One consideration I would add to what I wrote this summer is that a good share of the GMO products grown in the United States are not for human consumption–most corn is for fuel or animal feed; cotton is, obviously, for textiles. On the other hand, if you’re eating something non-organic with added sugar (i.e. nearly any processed food), soy, or canola oil, you can assume it’s GMO.

It’s difficult to compare VT/CT and WA/CA for two reasons: 1) Their agriculture economies are tiny vs. ginormous, respectively. 2) The former were legislative acts, and the latter were popular referenda. They have similar motives but very different implications.

In any case, the measures were all written similarly, with exemptions for alcohol, animals (via meat and milk) that are fed GMOs but not directly modified themselves, restaurant food, and certified organic food. All of the proposed measures use as their basis a “right to know” tack; that is, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, similar to the nutrition labeling that was promoted in the 1995 USDA video. There are all kinds of irony in this, as consumers also generally don’t understand how genetic engineering works nor how it compares to traditional cross-breeding (they are not the “sophisticated crowd” which Nina Federoff was addressing [2006]). The label would simply identify specific processed foods that contain some amount of ingredient that was a GMO.

Instead of seeking more information about GMOs, people operate under fear and perception of potential harm. At the same time, the companies that own GMO patents operate under secrecy and contempt for consumer concerns, and have prevailed (many claim) in these ballot measures due to outspending the pro-labeling efforts by remarkable margins—five times more in California (Voter’s Edge, 2012) and 2.6 times more in Washington State (BallotPedia, 2014).

An interesting difference in the laws is the market each state reaches: California sells primarily within the United States, providing nearly half the country’s produce (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2014); Washington exports most of its ag products to Asia (Washington State Dept. of Agriculture, 2014); Vermont has little agriculture outside of forestry and dairy products (Jeffords, 2010, p.5). So each has different motivations and nuances within their laws. The American Council on Science and Health notes the reason for Connecticut’s condition on its law (that it won’t go into effect until a critical mass of neighbors have also passed such a law) is to ensure at least a regional market for labeled goods (2013). I’m guessing they are also trying to avoid the lawsuits that Vermont seems to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, all of these laws miss the actual problems of genetic engineering: corporate proprietary control of the world’s food supply, and overuse of herbicides, which the corporations also own and sell to farmers. Many commodity farmers are basically lessors of their own operations, as they work under contract with seed/herbicide companies that dictate when and how much chemical to apply to their fields (CitizenWorks, n.d.). I find the crime in livestock-raising to be confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), not whether the animals are eating GMO feed. Because of this, I don’t feel that any of the laws is the better one. I feel they all, while well intentioned, miss the mark.

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Apple Ball

How do you relieve stress: Massage? Herbal tea? Video games? How about smashing rotten apples?

My friends Ed and Devon live in the Oak Grove area of Portland—Milwaukie, actually—in a neighborhood near the Willamette River that boasts extra-large house lots and mature trees. Many of those trees are oaks, giving the neighborhood its name, most are pines, and many are neglected apple trees. Because these trees were left to run amok for decades, and haven’t been pruned or culled, their fruits are scrawny and wormy. While these apples do not lend themselves to fresh-eating, they still serve a very important purpose.

In 2009, Mike and I were invited to a Labor Day party at the house in Oak Grove. “Apple Ball” they were calling the party. Intrigued, we showed up with some beer and snacks.

Those of you who are up on your Get Your Pitchfork On! chronology know that 2009 is the year we sold our land in the Gorge. The sale closed at the end of July. It’s safe to say that on Labor Day we were pretty stressed out.

We walked around our friends’ house to the backyard, where we could hear everyone congregated. In addition to the usual murmur of voices and music, I kept hearing a high, metallic tink! sound. As we rounded the corner, a smile lit up my face. Our friend Ed was pitching rotten apples to one of his neighbors, who obliterated each one with an aluminum baseball bat. I couldn’t wait to get in on this!

Once it was my turn, I picked up the bat and faced Ed. He pitched an apple, and tink! it exploded, and then rained apple-shrapnel on us and anyone who had ventured too close. This was great! This was cathartic! This was exactly what I needed!

2009: Action shot!

2009: Action shot! Please note flying debris in upper-right corner of photo

The following Labor Day was the same story. More rotten apples. More silly giggles.

2010: Apparently, I was still using “tutu therapy” (https://getyourpitchforkon.wordpress.com/?s=tutu)

2010: Apparently, I was still using “tutu therapy” (https://getyourpitchforkon.wordpress.com/?s=tutu)

Last year, Ed and Devon understandably decided to take a break from throwing this huge party. I was sad to lose my opportunity to take out some aggression on unsuspecting apples, but we were preparing to move to Wallowa County, and I was in the middle of a yard sale.

Throughout the month of August this year, at our house in Enterprise, I have been dealing with windfall apples from two trees in our backyard. I’ve gotten a few crisps and a batch of applesauce out of the deal, and also buckets of windfalls too damaged to salvage for food.

And then, Ed came for a visit. We have a wooden bat, which makes a duller sound, but it did the trick.

Look at that form!

Look at that form!

I know that a lot of people enjoy Apple Ball, but I’m pretty sure no one enjoys it as much as Ed or I. I submit this video as evidence.

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Join Me in Conversation About Food

Oregon Humanities is one of the nation’s most innovative humanities councils, welcoming discussion rather than lectures. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have been accepted into their Conversation Project roster. My new program is called “Good Food, Bad Food: Agriculture, Ethics, and Personal Choice.” I hope you’ll join me in the conversation!

A slide from my PowerPoint: Conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there--someone who helps grow food who is on food stamps

A slide from my PowerPoint conversation-starter! I found this receipt in the field by my house. It was dropped by someone who works there–a person who helps grow food who is on food stamps

How can you do that? The process is a little chicken-and-egg at first—an organization must contact me directly (kristy @ kristyathens.com) to talk about potential dates, and then apply to Oregon Humanities. However, if it doesn’t work out with them, or if the event is a fundraiser, for a private group, or some other qualifier that makes OH unable to sponsor it, they encourage CP leaders to make private arrangements. So you people in Hawai`i, please feel free to fly me out! January is open.

You can hear a little more about my topic in this video.

And view the entire catalogue here.

We’ll talk about the power of food in our personal and cultural mythologies, and how that correlates with our purchases. But exactly what we talk about will be up to you! I hope your library or other civic organization will invite me to visit! I’m looking forward to it.

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New Icon, Same Game: “MyPlate” and Industry Interference

I’m taking summer courses—crazy, I know—because they were too good to pass up. I just finished a great class called “Food Policy and Law,” and here is one of my papers for it. I have a question for you: Both my husband and I distinctly remember getting a worksheet with the food pyramid in elementary school, i.e. the late 1970s. But according to my research this is impossible, as it didn’t get published until the 1990s. Does anyone else remember the food pyramid from earlier than that?

United States dietary policy is communicated via a publication entitled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which is updated every five years (most recently in 2010). The purpose of the document is: “to be used in developing educational materials and aiding policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs, including Federal nutrition assistance and education programs. The Dietary Guidelines also serve as the basis for nutrition messages and consumer materials developed by nutrition educators and health professionals for the general public and specific audiences, such as children” (USDA and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2010, p. i).

This explanation is rather practical, compared with the loftier purpose stated in the introduction of the report itself: “The ultimate goal of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations by facilitating and promoting healthy eating and physical activity choices so that these behaviors become the norm among all individuals” (ibid., p. 1). This goal engages the culture of the United States, as well as its eating habits.

To make the guidelines more palatable to the general public, the USDA has issued a number of graphic pamphlets over the years. Their titles illustrate the culture of the time, such as “Food for Fitness” in the mid-1900s, when cars and household machines made leisure time (and, therefore, a sedentary lifestyle) a possibility for the middle class for the first time, and the “Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide” in 1979, when women began entering the workforce while still being expected to run the household (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2011). Starting in 1992 the department made the illustration more cartoon-like, ostensibly in the service of their above-noted goal of appealing to children: first a pyramid and now a brightly colored plate.

Food for Fitness guide

Food for Fitness guide

MyPlate

MyPlate

The Food Pyramid, its fin de siècle tart-up MyPyramid, and most recent MyPlate schemes have many things in common, but some important differences. None of them reveals an invisible major player in how their guidelines were created: agriculture lobby organizations.

Effectiveness

The USDA Food and Nutrition Services is successful at the first goal stated above (developing educational materials and aiding policymakers), partly because their programs, such as The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are required to base their guidelines and practices on the federal dietary guidelines. WIC is the most prescriptive of the programs, indicating exactly what the shopper may purchase. NSLP provides a participating school reimbursement for meals served, rather than supplying ingredients, with the exception of “bonus” foods, which are agricultural surpluses (USDA, 2013). SNAP is the least prescriptive, with individual recipients using a charge-card-type device with the cashier of a grocery store. While a few purchases are forbidden (tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, non-food items), the recipient has freedom of choice over brand, size, etc. (Fitzgerald et al., 2012).

The government’s effectiveness regarding its second, “ultimate” goal (to improve the health of our Nation’s current and future generations) is abysmal. The Trust for America’s Health reports that adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15 to 30 percent, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled (n.d.). In an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service program Frontline, Dr. Walter Willet noted the disastrous effect of the country’s well-meaning nutritionists encouraging people in the 1970s and ‘80s to abandon butter (saturated fat) for margarine and shortening (hydrogenated or “trans” fat), causing heart disease and other health problems.

“[The Food Pyramid] is really not compatible with good scientific evidence, and it was really out of date from the day it was printed in 1991, because we knew, and we’ve known for 30 or 40 years that the type of fat is very important. That was totally neglected (emphasis mine)” (Willett, 2004).

Additionally, the federal government has lagged in considering culturally appropriate foods and non-carnivorous diets, and providing its information in languages other than English and Spanish (though some states have translated the materials, depending on the needs of their population). An organization called Oldways has attempted to fill this gap with its Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, African Heritage, and vegetarian/vegan pyramids (n.d.).

Harvard University’s School of Public Health has refuted the value of the new MyPlate design roundly, criticizing it for not mentioning healthy unsaturated fats (e.g. olive or canola oil), for not condemning openly sugary drinks including fruit juice, and for supporting dairy products and refined grains (2011). MyPlate has absolved itself of any real responsibility on its website: “MyPlate is designed to remind Americans to eat healthfully; it is not intended to change consumer behavior alone (emphasis in original)” (USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2013).

Effects on Consumer Demand

In a general and surface-level way, Americans care about eating healthy food, or at least thinking about it. What matters, however, is when the fork hits the plate: Actual food choices are more relevant than intentions. What Americans understand about nutrition can affect their choices.

In this way, the inaccuracies of the Food Pyramid, and now MyPlate, can be devastating to the average consumer. People who think French fries are healthy because potatoes are listed as a vegetable, or that white dinner rolls are an appropriate grains serving, must know to look elsewhere to find better information (Green, n.d.).

There are a few possible reasons for the failure of the national nutrition standards to have resulted in worse, not better, health of the general populace. The main two are the success of marketing efforts for unhealthy food and beverage choices, and the flaws built into the Food Pyramid/MyPlate paradigm itself. The former is simply the result of a free market and consumer free will, which often results in unhealthful choices. The latter can be attributed to industry interference.

What is missing from the seemingly innocuous, even noble, goals of the USDA and HHS is the behind-the-scenes influence of agribusiness. This influence has affected what is in the dietary guidelines, and in the illustrated version of the guidelines, at least since Sen. George McGovern endeavored in 1977 to update the nation’s nutrition guidelines in light of new scientific findings—which recommended reductions in salt, meat, and sugar—and was soundly crushed by the American National Cattlemen’s Association, International Sugar Research Foundation, Salt Institute, United Egg Producers and numerous state egg councils, and National Live Stock and Meat Board, ultimately resulting in the complete corruption of the guidelines and the transfer of their purview from the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs to what is now the USDA (Greger, 2013).

Because government-funded food-supplement programs like SNAP and WIC are significant sources of funds ($78 billion in 2011 and $11.6 billion in 2012, respectively), agricultural lobbies work hard to keep their food items recommended. The most recent fight is over white (russet) potatoes. WIC does not provide potatoes, and the potato lobby is trying to change that. Not because they are concerned about the health of America’s low-income mothers, critics say, but because of the money they are missing out on (WIC is a $600 million program) and because of the public perception that potatoes must be “bad” if they’re not included (Nestle, 2014; Rampell, 2014).

Meanwhile, people who keep more rigorous habits than what MyPlate recommends rely on studies and reports from entities other than the federal government for their nutrition information, and tend to shop at farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and other farm-to-table outlets. The efforts of supporters of non-industrial, organically grown food have made some inroads with the federal government, but the results have been minimal. For example, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program received $16.5 million in funding in 2011, which amounts to approximately 3 percent of the total WIC program (USDA, 2012). Of the $71.8 billion redeemed in SNAP benefits from 2010 to 2011, only $11.7 million was redeemed at farmers’ markets (Roper, 2012). Farm-to-school programs are gaining popularity but have a long way to go before they put a dent in the NSLP; hospitals and prisons are even more marginalized. Some restaurants voluntarily specialize in locally grown ingredients, but these are mid- to high-scale establishments.

While personal choice will always create a place for unhealthy foods and beverages, the federal government should at least provide accurate, sensible information about the components of a healthy diet. Until its dietary guidelines are separated from the USDA, which is essentially the chamber of commerce for U.S. agriculture, and overseen by nutritional scientists with no financial connection to the outcome of their findings, the United States will continue down its path of preventable diet-related obesity and disease.

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“Evil” in Corporate America

Dear Friends: I am taking summer-term classes and, once again, am behind on everything! So I’m, once again, taking the easy way out and posting an excerpt from a paper I wrote during winter term.

I have been a viewer of public television my entire life: I was raised on Sesame Street’s first broadcasts and have watched through the decades. I remember about ten or fifteen years ago hearing about some nefarious practice of the company Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM. That evil company!

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “The ADM that advertises on PBS?”

This was one of my first awakenings to the problematic nature of corporate sponsorship. How could PBS accept money from ADM and—more importantly—run “underwriting announcements” that tout ADM’s products and practices? Doesn’t PBS’s running that announcement (whether it should be called a commercial is the subject of another essay) imply their support of ADM? I suddenly found my lifelong trust in PBS disintegrating a bit.

Since then, I’ve witnessed many instances of corporate trespasses against humanity, animal rights, and ecology that are tempered by impressive public relations efforts to the contrary. Monsanto’s “Golden Rice” campaign. Ethanol. “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

My personal hesitation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has less to do about their potential health hazards and more to do with the business practices of the corporations that are developing them. If those companies want to develop GMO seeds, for example, and then let farmers buy them and then save them, resell them, or whatever they want; fine. But the idea of one, or even a handful of corporations, owning the world’s supply of seeds—the building block of life itself—well, that seems problematic. And it seems to be exactly what Monsanto and its ilk are up to. They have not shown themselves worthy of trust by mercilessly intimidating and chasing down small farmers who try to save their seed, and releasing teams of lawyers to sue them over patent infractions.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It all comes down to how one looks at the purpose of commerce. Do businesses exist to generate profit for an individual or group? Or do they exist to provide a means for people—all people—to live comfortably? My answer would be that the current American mindset is the former, and we need to move toward making it the latter.

However, I agree with Will Allen, executive director of Growing Power, that it’s in no one’s best interest to exclude America’s largest corporations from the conversation of creating an equitable food system. While it may seem counterintuitive to work with entities that ultimately have created the inequitable system we have, acting as though they are The Enemy simply guarantees the failure of grassroots equity efforts. It’s not a matter of righteousness, it’s a matter of scale.

Companies like ADM and Wal-Mart aren’t evil; they are simply wildly successful at the game of capitalism. So long as our society holds up capitalism as its model of success, there are going to continue to be ADMs and Wal-Marts. Refusing to work with such companies, including to refuse a monetary donation if offered one, will not eliminate them. It will simply starve an already cash-strapped effort.

This isn’t to say that any entity should accept money from a corporation like Wal-Mart that has any kind of strings attached. As Andrew Fisher pointed out during the FSS560 webinar on January 6, 2014, his organization refused a donation from Chipotle that required implicit endorsement on their part. But once his organization had refused it, Chipotle came back with an unrestricted donation, which they accepted. So long as a donation is a donation, and not a bribe or exchange for services (which keeps PBS on the hook as far as I’m concerned), and as long as the beneficiary doesn’t change its mission or operations in order to ameliorate the donor or attempt to attract other similar donations, I feel such donations should be welcomed as a step toward dialogue with members of the system that needs to be changed in order to achieve food justice.

Compromise is the key. There is no one effort that is going to change things overnight, and no one route. And, while we’re at it, no one vision of success. I’m generally not a process-oriented person, but I recognize that, in this case, process is the goal.

I appreciated Robert Egger’s encouragement of business leaders to embrace the “charity begins at home” notion by paying their employees living wages—very perceptive considering the efforts in 2013 by low-wage workers to demonstrate and make their plight known. Corporations have figured out how to game the system by paying their employees poverty wages, knowing they can make up the difference using taxpayer dollars via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing subsidies, Women Infants and Children, and other federal entitlement programs. This, in my view, is cheating. Profit comes after paying overhead, and dodging overhead is bad business.

But, again, the corporate world considers this creative and successful accounting maneuvers. They are right. Ethically their actions are wrong; financially they are brilliant. Again, they’re not “evil,” just successful capitalists.

In order to change the actions of corporate America, we have to change the discourse of success in corporate America. The term “good corporate citizen” exists; we just have to make it mean something, and make consumers value that so they can pressure corporations to value that. It’s not profit that is the Enemy of the People; it’s the daisies that get trampled on the side of the road to profit.

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Food Libeling

I got a check in the mail the other day. $8.57.

photo

A year ago, a case was decided against PepsiCo for misrepresenting “all-natural” Naked Juice, which actually had a few synthetic ingredients in it, including (according to this website) “Archer Daniels Midland’s Fibersol-2 (‘a soluble corn fiber that acts as a low-calorie bulking agent’), fructooligosaccharides (an alternative sweetener), other artificial ingredients, such as calcium pantothenate (synthetically produced from formaldehyde), and genetically-modified soy.”

I honestly don’t remember how I learned of this class-action lawsuit, but I had indeed downed a few bottles of Naked Juice between Sept. 27, 2007, and Aug. 19, 2013, most of them at airports when I was on tour to promote Get Your Pitchfork On!, because it was one of the few remotely healthy items available. So, I filled out a claimant form.

This lawsuit—and its $9 million settlement (of which $3.12 million may go to the attorneys)—is chump change for PepsiCo, which denies wrongdoing and blames the lack of a federal definition of “natural” for the misunderstanding. But it’s indicative of the “food fight” that’s ramping up in the United States over who makes our food and what’s in it. Labeling efforts in New England, California, Washington and now, it appears, Oregon to identify genetically modified organisms in processed food are only the beginning. While I, personally, am less concerned about the health effects of GMOs and more concerned with the business practices of their parent companies (a big statement, I know), I do applaud this movement to know what’s in one’s food. It’s an old fight (think The Jungle by Upton Sinclair) and an important one.

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