Eating Liberally Blog

Eating Liberally Blog

Everything But The Kitchen Shrink


I can see the logic of choosing Sanjay Gupta for surgeon general. The job, after all, pretty much entails doing the kind of thing he already does every week on House Call: exhorting America to stop smoking, eat right, and get more exercise. It's not rocket science, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon, either--though Gupta happens to be one.

But if we're going to have a celebrity doctor for surgeon general, I would have preferred good living guru Dr. Andrew Weil. He strikes me as a physician who's more into small farms than Big Pharma--after all, he's got a 2,500 square foot organic garden at his home in Arizona. As an undergrad botany major at Harvard, he wrote his thesis on the narcotic properties of nutmeg. Weil's said to be a big believer in the power of medicines derived from natural plants over patented, high-profit pharmaceutical creations.

Plus, he's got that beaming, bearded Buddha kind of demeanor--much more soothing than the eternally wired Sanjay. Weil would be like a new-agey C. Everett Koop.

He doesn't have a chance, of course, because he falls into a demographic that's already over represented amongst political appointees: old white guys. His history of dabbling with drugs might be a problem, too, come to think of it.

That's too bad, because Dr. Weil has a lot of great advice on how to live a healthier, happier, less stressful life. One of my favorite tips from Dr. Weil is his suggestion that we could all benefit from going on an occasional "news fast." According to Dr. Weil, "research has shown that the emotional content of television news can affect mood and aggravate sadness and depression. Addictive watching of news programs can also promote a negative view of life."

Tell me about it. As a blogger and incorrigible media junkie, I find the idea of tuning it all out for a spell utterly alluring and yet totally undoable. I've been bogged down with non-blog obligations in recent months, and it's kept me from posting as much as I would like to. But no matter how busy I am, nothing can stop me from getting Googlemired and sinking into all kinds of scintillating links. Not to mention all the great new websites that keep popping up to pull me in.

Let's start with Civil Eats, the newly revamped website originally launched to help promote Slow Food Nation last summer. It's got a whole new look and a great roster of regulars, and I consider it a must-read along with the Ethicurean and the Eat Well Guide's Green Fork.

Then there's Change.Org's brand new Sustainable Food site, which gives veteran blogger and fellow Kossack Natasha Chart a well-deserved forum in which to share her incisive posts and air her ag-gravations. Natasha's one of the smartest people I know and can actually explain the concept of carbon sequestration in a way that doesn't make you sleepy.

Another must-see site is the Ethicurean's new favorite blog, the excellent Obama Foodorama. Presumably they'll be weighing in any second now on Ben and Jerry's latest flavor, "Yes, Pecan--An Inspirational Blend! Amber Waves of Buttery Ice Cream With Roasted Non-Partisan Pecans!." And though it's not new, I just learned via WNYC's Leonard Lopate show about Jonathan Bloom's terrific site devoted to the fascinating and appalling topic of food waste, wastedfood.com.

But wait, there's more! This one's been around for a few months, but was also new to me--a blog by an organization called the Center For A Livable Future. Lots of good stuff there, too.

Some other goodies you may have missed:

An eerie flow chart documenting the spread of Wal-Mart, looking like a noxious, creepy green pox.

A wet 'n' wonky keynote address that Rachel Maddow gave on December 3rd at the Fall Conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Long Beach, California. Turns out Rachel's dad is a prominent water attorney in the Bay Area and she has a lifelong fascination with water conservation. Who knew? Maddow was her usual adorably self-effacing, down-to-earth, wry self on the Daily Show last Wednesday, and I have been a fan going back to her days on Air America, but her speech calling for a commitment to invest in our water infrastructure endeared her to me even more, if that's possible. (hat tip to wideye at dKos.)

Dan Imhoff, who pulled off the astonishing feat of writing a book about the farm bill that's fun to look at and easy to read, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, had a great post on HuffPo the other day giving an overview of the kind of sea-change all us sustainable ag types are longing to see from the new administration.

Tom Philpott of Grist's been on a roll, too, with his proposal for a stimulus plan that includes a revamped food system, as well as his excellent rebuttal of a bone-headed op-ed by George McGovern and Marshall Matz, who, alas, is Obama's chief adviser on all things ag.

Mario Batali posted an exuberant, eloquent tribute to his 10th grade literature teacher on HuffPo that explains, in part, where his own passion for learning stems from.

What's next, Bono pontificating on the op-ed page of the New York Times? We'll have to wait till next Sunday for that.

In the meantime, we've got the excruciating spectacle of Joe the Plumber "pronunciating" from Israel for Pajamas Media.

If you've made it this far, and you're still awake, here's a bonus, related neither to food nor to politics--a sleepy bear from a website whose name is self-explanatory: cutethingsfallingasleep.org.

Let's Ask Marion: Is Our Diet Dickensian?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: The New York Times published a story the other day about a study that claims Charles Dickens exaggerated the extent of hunger in Victorian workhouses in Oliver Twist. The study, conducted by a group of British researchers including two dietitians, a pediatrician and a historian, concluded that a real-life Oliver Twist would not have been forced to subsist on meager rations of watery gruel, as depicted by Dickens, but was more likely to receive "modest servings of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese...with a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates that at least approximates today’s recommended intake."

You wrote a letter to the editor saying, in part:

Workhouse diets of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese were hardly optimal. Without fruit and vegetables other than potatoes, the diets lacked vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, if not calories. That is why they caused poor children in Dickens’s time, as well as now, to display overt signs of nutrient deficiencies along with stunting, wasting and greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.

What struck me about this story--aside from the question of why anyone would want to downplay the misery inflicted by these institutions--was that it also describes the mainstays of the average American diet, regardless of class: pizza, cheeseburgers, french fries, potato chips, sandwiches filled with cold cuts, and so on. The difference, of course, is that we eat these foods in much greater quantities, and wash them down with soda--an indulgence that Victorian workhouses presumably did not grant their down-and-out denizens.

If it was bad for the Oliver Twists of the world, how can a steady diet of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese be any better for the rest of us? Should we be saying "Please, sir, I want less?"

Dr. Nestle: The mere thought of a Twist-like diet is enough to induce a catatonic depression. For one thing, the colors! White or brown. The only thing missing is sugar, which was too expensive for the likes of Olvier Twist and his unhappy companions. Given enough of such foods, calories should be no problem. On the other hand, we might get so bored that we wouldn’t eat much—“The Boredom Diet.”

As we nutritionists are always saying, healthful diets are about variety, balance, and moderation. Poorhouses did moderation really, really well, which is why those kids were so hungry all the time. But balance and variety? Not a chance. Those are nutrition-speak for eating more—much more—fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The healthiest diets are based on food plants, with everything else as extras. The Oliver Twists were vitamin deficient, caught every illness in sight, and didn’t survive for long. I’m greatly in favor of eating less, but not in that situation.

But you are really asking about us now, not them then. You want to know how fast foods became the icons of American foodways instead of something healthier. Well, some fast foods do depend on New World staples: potatoes (chips, fries), tomatoes (pizza sauce), and corn (soda sweeteners). Food Studies scholars would tell you that American meals based on meat and potatoes at the center of the plate derive from the original Northern European settlers.

Eventually, regional differences developed but there still isn’t anything that you might describe as a typically American cuisine—other than fast food. Meat has always been the food that poor people flock to the minute they get some money, as shown so compellingly in Peter Menzel and Faith d’Aluisio’s book Hungry Planet. For immigrants to the U.S., vegetables were lower class. Meat is what counts. So your question has class implications. And we Americans never like dealing with those kinds of issues.

Time To Wise Up?

Here's hoping that 2009 will be the year that we finally wise up to all our follies, and, in the words of NY Times columnist Bob Herbert, Stop Being Stupid.

Let's Ask Marion: Are The USDA's Organic Standards A Sham?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: The Sacramento Bee reported on Sunday that a supposedly organic fertilizer used by nearly a third of California's organic farmers was in fact spiked with the synthetic fertilizer ammonium sulfate. In 2004, a whistleblower told California's Department of Food and Agriculture that this deception had been going on for five years.

The Department of Food and Agriculture tested the product and determined that the claim was true, but didn't order the company to take its product off the organic market until January 2007. "As a result," according to the SacBee, "some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables – including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm – wasn't really organic."

The SacBee adds:

"State officials knew some of California's largest organic farms had been using the fertilizer, the documents show, but they kept their findings confidential until nearly a year and a half after it was removed from the market."

The product was finally yanked for the vague violation of "improper labeling." The state chose not to pursue harsher penalties against California Liquid Fertilizer for violating California's organic product law, and also declined to refer the case to the attorney general's office for civil action as an unfair business practice. An agriculture department spokesman told the SacBee that "our priority was to remove the product from the market...More process would have delayed that."

This sort of incident perpetuates the notion that higher priced organic foods are some kind of scam, and vindicates the many small-scale sustainable farmers who've chosen to go "beyond organic" and opt out of the organic certification process altogether. Doesn't California's Department of Food and Agriculture have a stake in maintaining the integrity of the organic standards?

Dr. Nestle: What a dismal story, and on so many levels. Cheating is the Achilles’ heel of organics. The entire organic certification system is based on trust. If trust goes, the organic industry collapses like a house of cards. Organics means two quite different things. To people who care about the food system, organics is about growing crops and raising animals using methods that are good (for the health of people and animals), clean (for the environment), fair (to the people who produce the food), and sustainable (meaning renewing—not wasting or destroying—the earth’s natural resources).

To everyone involved in raising and selling organic foods, organics is a business. This business commands higher prices if—and only if—buyers believe that the food is produced according to those criteria and is better for their health and that of the planet.

The rules that govern USDA’s organic certification program attempt to address both food system and business concerns. As is usual for government agencies in the current political environment, business concerns take precedence. In setting the organic standards, the USDA tackled good and clean (although with some unfortunate compromises), but didn’t bother at all with fair or sustainable.

The “beyond organic” folks want to eliminate the compromises and deal with the missing pieces. Fine, but what they do also depends on trust, especially because if they aren’t certified, they are not inspected.

As I see it, trust in organic certification depends entirely on the integrity of the inspection system. The USDA certifies a motley group of agencies to visit farms and check to make sure that producers are following the rules. As I learned when researching the “organic” fish chapter of What to Eat, and even more from looking into the business of “organic” pet food, certifying agencies differ substantially in their application of the rules for organic production. Some take them seriously; some clearly don’t.

When I was writing What to Eat, I went to a lot of trouble to evaluate the integrity of the organic system. I interviewed producers, government officials, and inspectors. In 2006, everyone involved with the system told me that the system worked pretty well and violations were more a matter of misunderstanding than of evil intent. But large industrial vegetable growers in California told me that they think the organic system is corrupt from top to bottom. They have a vested interest in thinking so, of course. So whom are we supposed to trust?

One of the problems with the depressing instance discussed in the Sacramento Bee is that you have no way of knowing whether it is rare or common. We need to know this. Much is at stake. If, as is clearly the case, the organic rules don’t cover issues the public cares about, the inspection system is flawed, the USDA is constantly trying to weaken the standards, industrial producers are constantly trying to weaken the standards, and state departments of agriculture don’t want to bother enforcing them, why should anyone be willing to pay more for organics?

That is why strong organic standards, diligently enforced, are better for everyone concerned and especially for business. Everyone should be lobbying the new administration for stronger and better organic standards. But maybe the whole thing is moot? In the current economic climate, organic sales are tanking (see chart). While waiting for all this to sort out, here’s what to do: buy local from someone you know personally and think is worth trusting.

The Big Box Paradox: Should We Shop At Wal-Mart?

Image from G Living

(We're pleased as punch that Elanor Starmer, the Ethicurean's resident agriculture policy expert, found time amid all the holiday festivities to weigh in on whether Wal-Mart's been naughty or nice. Thanks, Elanor, and happy sledding!)

Kat: I used to shop at Wal-Mart, until I figured out that low prices based on lousy labor practices and shoddy made-in-China schlock are not such a bargain. But now that Wal-Mart--America's largest food retailer--has jumped on the organic bandwagon, it's making organic products available to folks who lack the access or means to shop at farmers' markets or, say, Whole Foods. Wal-Mart has also made a great show of going green, and just shelled out more than $352 million in what may be the "largest settlement ever for lawsuits over wage violations."

As you noted over at the Ethicurean a couple of weeks ago, global food companies such as Wal-Mart have a terrible track record when it comes to workers' rights. Can Wal-Mart ever be a force for good? Is it OK to advocate shopping there if it's the only way you can get your hands on organic stuff (even if it's industrial organic)?

Elanor: This is the perennial question, isn't it? Wal-Mart is so huge that it's easy to make the argument that any "good" thing Wal-Mart does - from stocking organic food to changing to energy-saving lightbulbs - makes a huge impact. And in a sense, that is absolutely true. But its potential to make a huge positive impact in one arena can't be viewed in isolation from its potential to hugely screw things up in other arenas. Looking at the sum total seems to be the only way to answer that question fairly.

On the plus side, it's pretty clear that Wal-Mart has gotten organic food into the hands of people who might not otherwise buy it or have access to it. But a major caveat is the quality of organic product that Wal-Mart actually provides. Wal-Mart isn't just a seller -- it's also a buyer, one that is able to offer lower prices to consumers (and still turn a massive profit) in part by lowering the prices it pays to its suppliers. In many cases, lower prices equals a lower-quality product. We saw this play out publicly when Wal-Mart decided to offer organic milk: Organic Valley was originally bidding for the contract along with Horizon (owned by dairy giant Dean Foods, which controls some 60% of the organic milk market in the US). Reportedly, Organic Valley dropped out of the bidding process because it realized that it couldn't maintain its high standards, including the tradition of offering its farmer-members a "fair" price for milk, given what Wal-Mart was willing to pay. Horizon ended up with the contract.

So is that good for consumers or not? Not so much. Consumers buy organic milk for a lot of different reasons -- because the cows aren't fed synthetic hormones or antibiotics, because they have access to pasture (and some studies suggest that grass-fed cows produce healthier meat and milk products than cows fed grain), because organic producers have to manage their dairies in more environmentally-responsible ways than conventional dairymen may, or because they want to help keep family farms in business by paying them a fair price for milk. What we're seeing with Horizon and other industrial-organic dairies is that the pressure to sell milk cheaply becomes pressure to cut corners on the organic standards. Horizon and Aurora, another big organic milk company, have been sued by the Cornucopia Institute for violating the standards by confining cows in giant feedlots rather than letting them out on pasture. The USDA has been pathetically lax in forcing the big guys to comply with the rules. As a result, consumers buying organic milk at Wal-Mart are getting milk that is far closer to the conventional stuff than most of them would probably ever imagine.

If consumers want to pay more for milk from cows that are fed organic feed but otherwise raised in conditions not unlike those of their conventional brethren, then Wal-Mart will help them do that. If they want healthier milk from cows that munch on pasture, where family farmers are able to care for the animals and the land because they're paid a fair price, then Wal-Mart isn't the answer. And as the pressure on suppliers to provide organic food at very low prices gets stronger and stronger, we'll see fewer domestic family farms able to compete and more organic food coming in from China and elsewhere, where enforcement of the standards is even weaker than it is here at home. The U.S. organic movement has spent so long building strong organic standards - it would be a tragedy if the label went the way of so many downtown shopping areas, drained of all its life by Wal-Mart's market power.

There's one more angle to this issue as well, and that's the fact that in addition to being a seller and a buyer, Wal-Mart is also an employer. Wal-Mart's labor track record is horrendous -- riddled with union busts, gender discrimination, refusals to pay overtime or provide health benefits or pay decent wages (the average full-time associate's salary was $13,000 a year in 2001) -- and the result is a major population of workers who struggle to put food on the table. It's arguably Wal-Mart's pathetic labor record, not its organic food sales, that has the greatest impact on the health of low-income consumers. After all, Wal-Mart workers are also consumers, and Wal-Mart is the single largest employer in the United States.

I can't help but think that there has to be a better way to increase access to organic food. I recently read a 2004 report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that estimated that one Wal-Mart store with 200 employees costs U.S. taxpayers over $420,000 per year in subsidies for free or reduced school lunches for the employees' kids, Section 8 housing assistance, public health care coverage, and other programs. That begs the question of whether, instead of using that taxpayer money to effectively subsidize Wal-Mart's operating costs, we could use it to increase poor households' access to healthy and organic food in other ways. I mean, does it really have to be a choice between Wal-Mart organics and no organics at all? I am definitely not an expert on food access policy, but I know there are other options out there; WIC coupons that can be redeemed at farmers markets are but one small example.

If we want to increase low-income access to organic food, pay family farmers a fair wage for their sustainability efforts, and safeguard the strength of the organic label - all requirements for a healthy, functional organic system - we'll need new policy solutions. That's not a short-term fix by any means, but anything less won't get us where we want to go. In the meantime, each of us will have to decide whether or not to shop at Wal-Mart -- and not delude ourselves about what we're getting if we do.

Happy Holidays

Maybe Vilsack Won't Suck?


Tom Vilsack & Denise O'Brien

Obama's selection of GMO-lovin', bio-fuelish, feedlot-friendly Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture drew a resounding "Bleech!" from the blogosphere this week. Vilsack has a long history of Agribiz alliances that's giving progressive foodies a bad case of heartland heartburn.

Vilsack's cozy with that agrarian Antichrist, Monsanto, for starters--and if you don't know what's scary about that, you haven't heard that Monsanto's apparently hellbent on seizing control of our entire food chain. Kind of like a cheesy Austin Powers plot, except that IT'S REALLY HAPPENING.

His support of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) brings to mind another kind of movie--a horror film in which mad scientists tinker away in their labs and unwittingly unleash a Pandora's box of unforeseen--and disastrous--consequences. I know, it sounds like another low-budget sci-fi flick, but as Jill Richardson ably documented this week, IT'S HAPPENING NOW (apologies for invoking Wolf Blitzer.)

And don't forget the biofuel boondoggle. Clearly, corn-based ethanol--which Vilsack endorses--is a lose-lose proposition; it's not going to solve our energy problems, and it's exacerbating the global food crisis. What about cellulosic biofuels? Vilsack and Stephen Chu, Obama's newly appointed Secretary of Energy, are all gung-ho about those cowpie-in-the-sky fuels-of-the-future, too. But Tom Philpott's written a compelling post over on Grist about the folly of emphasizing biofuels over more low-impact energy sources, conservation, and public transportation.

OK, so it's pretty easy to villify Vilsack. He doesn't have much in common with the dream candidates endorsed by the more than 57,000 folks who signed on to the Food Democracy Now! petition launched by activist David Murphy, who, in the words of Ethicurean Bonnie Powell, "tilted tirelessly at Washington’s windmills like a madman with a laptop for a lance."

Then again, Vilsack is someone's dream candidate--that someone being Jennifer Donahue, who happens to be a personal friend of Vilsack's. Donahue, political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, wrote a post for HuffPo with the Onion-esque title "Vilsack Best Possible Secretary Of Agriculture," in which she lauded Vilsack's ability to listen.

Some snarky bloggers (I may have been among them) dismissed it as pure PuffPo. But in between the fuming and the fawning over the Vilsack nomination, a more even-handed "let's make the best of this and move forward" consensus is emerging, as exemplified by Brian Depew's post at the Center For Rural Affairs blog.

I honestly don't know what to make of the Vilsack nomination, so I asked Denise O'Brien, the organic farmer who ran for Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, to share her invaluable Iowan insights. O'Brien confirmed what Donahue asserted in her HuffPo piece--that Vilsack is a politician who actually seems to listen. Here's O'Brien's surprisingly upbeat take on Vilsack:

On the one hand people are ballistic because he is a trial lawyer and doesn't come "from the farm." On the other hand many who have known and worked with him in Iowa are not happy with him and his relationship with big ag, especially Monsanto.

Here's the story. Vilsack was the first Democrat to hold the office of Governor in Iowa in forty years - yes, forty. The last Democrat holding the seat was Harold Hughes when many of us were children or not even born yet.

Many were ecstatic that a Dem had made it to this high office and that at last, we would have access. There is no doubt about it; the Governor’s office was accessible. For the first time in years, Dems could walk into the office of the Governor and talk to a Governor of the same party. Expectations were high among the progressive farm and labor folk. We thought we could stop Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and do something about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and have a voice for fair trade. But alas, we found that even though we were of the same party, there were some differences.

Over the years the Governor's office was open for a number of meetings relating to trade, prior to the Seattle WTO meeting; for meetings to solve the farm financial crisis that emerges every few years; and for meetings developing food policy. During Vilsack’s administration we were in his office more than all of the past twenty years of farm activism.

It wasn’t far into his administration, it finally dawned on many that our Governor Tom Vilsack was a centrist as was the leader of our country - Bill Clinton - and that we were likely to disagree on a lot of issues. What's a progressive to do? Give up? Not bother to even engage in discussions about relevant issues? The best thing to do was to keep talking and to keep exposing the governor to a more progressive line of thinking. We resigned ourselves to the fact that our expectations of a Democratic Governor were exactly that, expectations and that there was still a lot of work to do.

There were a number of times that Governor Vilsack did act on issues that were more in line with a progressive agenda. He brought people together for problem solving. He appointed a strong leader as the head of the Department of Natural Resources who worked hard to reign in the CAFOs but was ultimately unsuccessful. The Governor also appointed people to the Environmental Protection Council who were intelligent and outspoken in their opposition to the CAFOs. Alas, big ag still had the upper hand.

One of the best issues that addressed a progressive agenda during his administration was the creation, by Executive Order, of the Iowa Food Policy Council. This was the second one to form in the United States. A number of progressives served on this Council and were able to make inroads on issues of food security, local foods, farmer's markets and programs addressing the needs of people in poverty - food stamps and WIC. Yes, this happened in Iowa, the "Belly of the Beast" of agribusiness, and Vilsack was the leader who made it happen.

The bottom line is that we can work with Governor Vilsack. I know this from a personal perspective. When I ran for Secretary of Agriculture in the state of Iowa, I had to first win a primary. Vilsack encouraged and supported a man who had worked for him during his governor years. My opponent had much help - money and volunteers - to make his campaign successful. It didn't work. I was able to win by a margin of fourteen or fifteen points. And, you know what? The night I won the primary, Governor Vilsack called me up and told me that a large check would be waiting for me when I saw him the next day. I admire that. I beat the pants off the man he supported, but when the contest was over, he gave his full support to me.

During the months prior to the election, Governor Vilsack was often at the same events I was and he heard my platform many times - "Safe and Healthy Families, Safe and Healthy Farms and a Safe and Healthy Iowa". I can't help but think that some of what I said has taken root and that he will be an ally to us.

Please, please, you say, don't go all emotional on us! I want you to know that I am not selling out. I am not naïve – I am a realist. My principals are still intact. I am a progressive from the word go. I am not happy that someone from the progressive foodie constituency was not chosen. The sustainable/organic ag/foodies/local foods progressives have not quite arrived to the point of having as much influence as we would like to believe. Many times I feel that I live in a bubble and that everyone is on the same page with me. It is at a time like this, when a mainstream person is appointed to an influential position, that I realize there is still a lot of work to do.

My years of being a farm and food activist have taught me how to work with what I've got and to never give up. What we have is Tom Vilsack and what we have to keep in mind is that he knows the sustainable/organic/foodie community in Iowa and beyond. He knows we are hardworking, serious individuals who believe passionately in the issues of food and farm. My hope is that this will be present with him as he moves into his work as the Secretary of Agriculture. Our work is cut out for us. It is important to keep the pressure on and continue to recommend people to fill the positions that will facilitate the scaling up of the work we have already accomplished. The pathway of agriculture and agribusiness is complex. The new Secretary of Agriculture needs our help to maneuver that path.

We have much work to do and we must continue to carry the message of HOPE.

Let's Ask Marion: Is NY's "Fat Tax" On Soda A Good Idea?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: New York Governor David Patterson's new budget plan calls for plumping up the state's coffers by slapping a so-called "fat tax" on non-diet sodas. This measure would reportedly raise $404 million in much needed revenue--and would presumably encourage some folks to cut back on sugary beverages. What do you think: is this a win-win, or a nanny state no-no?

Dr. Nestle: The governor must be desperate for money to take on soft drink lobbying groups, who reporters tell me, are already in Albany hard at work. This is an old idea, first attributed to Kelly Brownell at Yale and Michael Jacobson at Center for Science in the Public Interest, who based it on the success of high taxes in reducing rates of cigarette smoking. With cigarettes, there was a clear link between cost and usage. The higher the cost, the fewer people smoked.

The governor is picking on soft drinks for good reason. They have calories but no other nutritional value, which is why CSPI calls them “liquid sugar.” Much evidence demonstrates that children and adults who habitually consume sugary soft drinks take in more calories, have worse diets, and are fatter than those who don’t.

But my understanding is that the tax will be 15%, meaning just 15 cents more for something that now costs a dollar. It’s hard to believe that 15 cents will make a difference in consumption levels. Cigarette taxes are much higher. Also, the tax will not apply to milk, juice, diet soda, and bottled water. I suppose this means that juice drinks and sports drinks are also excluded, sugary as they are.

So I’m a bit worried about the slippery slope. Juice drinks also predispose to overweight, and that’s no surprise. It’s easy to take in lots of calories from juices if you drink enough of them. And then there’s the diet soda paradox: people who drink diet sodas also are fatter, perhaps because they retain the taste for sugars and make up the calories in other ways. It looks to me like this tax is more about raising money than preventing obesity. But it’s an interesting experiment, and it should be most entertaining to watch soft drink lobbyists go into action.

Weekend Cat Blogging

...because when times are hard, you need a little feline fun. Check out YouTube sensation Broccoli Kitten:

Over at Daily Kos, in the comments thread on a "Frugal Fridays" dairy on how to eat cheaply, KateCrashes posted this pic of a "pootie" who doesn't share Broccoli Kitten's fondness for veggies, under the caption "I HAZ SOM WORREEZ":

Finally--or, rather, "finily"--who knew that the eternally earnest economist/NY Times columnist Paul Krugman has a weakness for lolcats? Krugman flew to Sweden last week to receive his well-deserved Nobel Prize, and blogged about feeling guilty that he didn't have time to blog about the auto bailout and Obama's stimulus plan. He illustrated the post with the image below:

The O'Brien Retort: Hope For A "Secretary Of Food"?

(a Q & A with our favorite Iowa farminist, sustainable ag advocate Denise O’Brien (pictured right, with me), who sets down her spade to take up our questions about all things ag):

kat: Progressive foodies have been vigorously debating the "who should be Obama's Secretary of Agriculture?" question for several months now. There's been a movement to draft Michael Pollan, who has no interest in the job, and a letter to President-elect Obama, signed by nearly ninety luminaries in the good food movement galaxy, imploring him to buck the Big Ag/biotech brigade in favor of some more sustainably-minded candidates. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof weighed in on the subject this week with a terrific column explaining why this appointment is so critical.

This is all well and good, but we want to know what you think. Big Ag had a big fit back in 2006 when you ran for Iowa's Secretary of Ag and nearly beat your Republican opponent, a conventional commodity crop farmer. You went on to advise John Edwards about food and ag policy. What are you hoping for from this new administration?

O'Brien: As a farmer of thirty plus years, I am intrigued by all of the emails, blogs and websites devoted to the selection of the United States Secretary of Agriculture. My mind swirls with all sorts of fantasies of what a progressive “Secretary of Food” could do for our country. But alas, today as I check out the latest candidates, I am brought back to the unfortunate reality of our current situation - the United States, just like our little state of Iowa, is owned solely by big agribusiness interests with the American Farm Bureau Federation leading the corporate interest pack. It has often baffled me how an insurance company has been able to “speak for the farmers” when they are certainly not a farm organization.

My first introduction to national farm policy was in the early 1980’s when the farm sector of our economy marched headlong into the “farm crisis’. Few people realize that we had an incredible restructuring of the agricultural system. In fact, from my experience, I would say that is when agri business took firm hold. Farmers were told that farming is a business not a way of life when in reality it is both. There were suicides, a rise in domestic violence, foreclosures, auctions – such an upheaval that rural areas entered a chronic depression.

These things happened before there was a food movement, before people started asking questions about where food comes from and what is in our food. They happened before the introduction of genetically modified organisms, bovine growth hormones and the concentration of animals in confined feeding operations.

So where does that bring me today with my ear glued to the radio and my eyes glued to the computer screen waiting anxiously for the announcement that I am sure to be disappointed in? It brings me to what I have been taught for thirty years, that grassroots organizing is the way to get things done. Why do you think that the food movement has come to where it is today? It isn’t because someone, say Michael Pollan (not to pick on you Michael), woke up one day and said “this isn’t right.” No, it is because people for the past thirty years have been developing strategy, asking the right questions and implementing plans to create the “food movement”.

Sure, it would be swell to have a person at the head of the Department of Agriculture who understands what the food movement is about, but seriously, that would be an incredible leap for corporate interests. Food justice is just not a concept that sector can even begin to grasp.

I have had firsthand experience taking on corporate ag and although I was not successful in my bid for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, my friends all tell me I scared the sh… out of them! What this indicates is that we all must continue to work for food democracy. In my humble opinion, food democracy is about economic democracy. That is where we need to be heading.