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The Living Liberally Annual Celebration - May 10th in NYC

Support the work of Living Liberally, honor our great progressive allies The New Organizing Institute and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and join a great party at the Living Liberally Annual Celebration on Thursday, May 10th in New York.

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Going Undercover in the Belly of Our Beastly Food Chain


Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table takes us on a vivid and poignant tour of a place we don't really want to go: the mostly hidden, sometimes horrible world of the workers who form the backbone of our cheap, industrialized food chain. Sound grim? It is, at times, but McMillan's lively narrative and evident empathy for the people she encounters make her sojourn into the bowels of Big Food and Big Ag a pleasure to read.

From the fields of California's Central Valley to the produce aisle of a Michigan Walmart, and lastly, the kitchen of a Brooklyn Applebee's, McMillan gives a firsthand account of the long hours, lousy wages and difficult conditions that are par for the course in these places. This is tricky terrain for a white, relatively privileged, middle-class American woman, and McMillan navigates it with grace and humility, remaining acutely aware of the pitfalls inherent in such a project.

I sat down with McMillan recently to chat about her populist odyssey and found her to be just as down-to-earth and plucky as her prose.

Kerry Trueman: What was the hardest part of going undercover?

Tracie McMillan: This was the first time I had gone undercover to do work like that, because I believe very strongly in the importance of being upfront with people about what you're doing and who you are and I am not a good actress (laughs). So the place where I was culturally the least good of a fit, in the fields, I was really protected by the fact that I didn't speak the language. I just seemed like a kind of dumb white girl, and that was really helpful.

The first thing was getting over my anxiety over doing that kind of project and coming to terms with it. It meant that I had to be dishonest with my coworkers. I don't really care so much that I'm not honest with the companies. It's very interesting, the same year that I was working at Walmart during the holiday season, Stephanie Rosenbloom at the New York Times went and worked for a day at a Walmart with the company's permission, and she had a very different experience than I did.

And that's why you do it. Companies and supervisors do not treat you the same, and coworkers won't be as honest with you, or as open. I've come out of this very convinced that undercover work is worthwhile, but it's a complicated thing. There's a tendency to think "I can totally do this, and how else can I get this information?" but I also understand why people react badly to it sometimes.

So there was the undercover thing, and then there was finding the right balance between my narrative and talking about the people I was with. It's not supposed to be about me as a white girl having that experience; the idea is that I can only tell my story and what I observed, but I'm using that to get to the stories of the other people around me.

KT: You found that farm work in California's Central Valley was extremely demanding, sometimes dangerous, and routinely underpaid. What do you think it would take to provide the people who pick our crops with better working conditions and paychecks that don't deliberately shortchange them?

TM: I was typically working alongside undocumented immigrants. You always hear the stories about how undocumented immigrants work for very low wages and how they get treated. It's one thing to hear about it, it's another thing to see how terrified everybody is, how unwilling they are to say anything.

They complained about it outside of work, we'd talk about how bad the wages were and the women were like, "Why don't you say anything?" For me that was really awkward, because I wanted to say "That's terrible, and I will march off and I will fix everything!" Which is not something you can do as an undercover reporter.

Even if you're undocumented, you still have legal rights, but they don't necessarily know that. And even the ones that do, it's not like they have a guaranteed job, you could be hired or fired at any moment. There's no job security. So, you keep working, and at least you have the stability of knowing that you will get your eight hours of work for which you're paid $25 to $40.

How do you fix that? You enforce the existing labor laws. You don't necessarily need new ones. I think it's important not to stifle businesses' ability to do their job, but I did observe when I was working in the fields that every week I was asked to sign a piece of paper stating that I had taken food safety training that I had never taken. One of the arguments around food safety is that farmers should be allowed to self-regulate that. I saw in my work that self-regulation wasn't working.

And in terms of labor law enforcement, you need some sense that people are going to get in trouble if they cheat workers. The average fine levied under the Agricultural Worker Protection Act is about $350. During my time in the fields I was underpaid by about $500.

A farm advocate in Ohio explained to me that it's cheaper to violate the law and pay when someone complains than it is to follow the law.

KT: Can you even imagine how different conditions would have to be for it to not be an anomaly to have someone with your own background choosing that kind of work?

TM: That's called unionization and massive social change! Factory work in the early 20th century was really dangerous and it didn't pay very well, but those became really good jobs because there was unionization and legislation to protect workers. My grandfather raised my mother and her two brothers and took care of my grandmother on the salary he earned working for Ford.

So, if you could figure out a way to make farm labor a better job in terms of wages and working conditions, more people would do it. The reason why people don't do farm labor isn't because they're, like, "Oh, we're too good to be in the fields," it's because it's really hard work that often doesn't pay minimum wage. Picking up garbage is a shitty job, too, but people still go do that, because it's a decent gig.

KT: What were your most miserable moments?

TM: This belies my upwardly mobile aspirations (laughs). For me, what was the most emotionally miserable was working the night shift at Walmart. I didn't see any daylight for the most part. That's also really physical work, so I would move half a ton of sugar and a half ton of flour in a night, by myself. It's isolated work, you're in an aisle stocking by yourself, so there's no social aspect to it.

But what I found most draining about it was that most of my coworkers, many of whom were married and had families, had been there for seven, 10, 15 years. One coworker was earning $11 an hour after working there for seven years, and she talked about how if you worked at Walmart for 15 years that's actually really good because you get a lifetime discount card.

There's something really sobering when what you're aspiring to is that if you stick it out at $10, $11, $12 an hour you're going to get a lifetime 10-percent discount card.

KT: Walmart keeps touting its commitment to fresh healthy produce, but in your experience, they treated fresh fruits and vegetables just like any other non-perishable consumer good. Their blasé attitude toward the fresh produce engendered so much waste! How do you square that with their famous obsession for maximizing profit?

TM: I was really shocked to be working at Walmart and to see how inefficient the place I was working was. I have no idea if that department was just an anomaly, or if that's a broader problem.

Randy, the manager, was incredibly young, didn't really know what he was doing, and didn't particularly care. For that, I would fault the store management. It's one thing to be really bad at your job, but why did somebody give you that job?

What was really upsetting to me was that one of my colleagues, I think I call him Sam in the book, who's a black man, he had come to Walmart after the grocery store he worked at closed down. He had been working in produce for five years and knew a lot, so I could ask him anything, like "How do I tell if this is ripe?" Sam had applied for that job and they had given it to Randy instead. I have no idea who on the planet would have picked Randy over Sam, because Sam knew produce, whereas Randy had a background in electronics.

KT: You write, "When cooking instruction is paired with basic nutrition education, Americans cook more and eat more healthfully -- even when money is tight." What's your prescription for battling kitchen illiteracy?

TM: Almost everything people are eating at home involves some degree of convenience foods. That kind of thing usually tends to have a lot of salt and preservatives in it. But it's actually no more time-intensive to do a Hamburger Helper kind of thing from scratch, and it's actually cheaper.

The thing that sucks about a box isn't that it's quick -- it's that if you don't already know how to cook, you think you can't make a cake without a box. We need to start thinking about cooking as a basic life skill, not something that's optional. Incorporating that into public education to me seems like a smart idea. It can be a really great way to teach people other stuff. It's great for math, right? And for reading comprehension. Or learning to write recipes. It's an important survival skill.

I think one of the things you can support, no matter what your politics are, is that our schools should be teaching our kids how to be self-sufficient, how to take care of themselves and not to have to depend on large institutions. I would include in that not just government but also corporations.

We don't want to be raising kids who depend on corporations to tell them what to eat and how to eat. That's a really important part of American culture. People talk all the time about a nanny state, but there's the corporate nanny, too. And I don't like that either! If we want people to be self-sufficient, cooking and eating is a part of that. So, we need to include cooking as part of public school education. I also understand fully the difficulty of educational reform, but I think it's an important point to start discussing.

Originally posted on AlterNet

State of the Union 2012 - Parties and Games

Tonight, as the President takes to the podium in the Capitol, members of Drinking Liberally take to bars across America. This is the 9th year running that Drinking Liberally is hosting State of the Union Watch Parties, and you're invited to join.

Find your local chapter on our DL map and see if they've promoted a special watch party for tonight.

And whether you're a host or a guest, bring some games to your local event.

Here's a link to SOTU Bingo Cards created by Kathleen Thompson, our host in Mid-Cities Texas. These cards are pre-designed for you to print-and-play.

Check them out and print them out here.

And our Baltimore host, Robyn Henry, took it a different route: she supplied the words and you can fill in your own Bingo cards.

Her instructions: "Before the speech, fill in each space on a 5x5 grid from the choices below. During the speech, mark off each thing as it is heard or seen. The first person to BINGO and the person closest to blackout will win a prize."

Reward responsibility, Hard work, Bush Tax Cuts, Middle class, Fair share, Fair shake, Fair play, Progress, Blueprint, Buffett Rule, Manufacturing, Alternative Energy, Energy Independence, China, Iran, Insourcing, Equal Opportunity, "The state of our union is strong!", Unemployment, "special guest," Bipartisan Standing Ovation, Partisan Standing Ovation, Vice President Biden Yawns, Mic Check, Speaker Boehner is orange, Speaker Boehner cries, Michelle Obama's "guns," Nancy Pelosi looking unhappy, Arab Spring, Security, Budget, Diplomacy, Deficit, Energy, Pakistan, Private Sector, Elections, Food Security, Keystone XL, Partnership, Transparency, Environment, Results, HIV / AIDS, Hecklers, Someone wears a red suit

Does Capitalism Have to Promote Child Abuse?

If we're such a "family values"-friendly nation, why are we so willing to let our kids be abused for the sake of making money?

According to the allegations in the Penn State scandal, a pedophile was allowed to brutally assault/molest numerous young boys because no one dared to upset the very lucrative apple cart that is college sports. And, as commentator Frank DeFord speculated on NPR today, perhaps there was also some reluctance to sully our noble national pastime of oversized brutes battering each other in pursuit of a pigskin.

And now comes word that Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have torpedoed the USDA's attempts to reduce the amount of pizza, french fries and salt that our kids consume at school. Why? Because the frozen pizza companies, the salt industry and potato growers asked them to. Really. It's that simple.

The USDA wasn't looking to ban any of these foods, but rather to increase the ratio of non-starchy vegetables and whole grains. This would be a step in the right direction, instead of using our resources to make our kids sicker and fatter. But such a shift would also make a dent in some very lucrative government contracts. So, no go.

There's more going on here than simple greed, though. Because the politicians who do the food industry's bidding are showing as much contempt for the expert opinion of nutritionists as they do towards the science of climate change. As Tom Philpott notes over at Mother Jones, the evidence that we need to feed our kids less of this stuff is solid: "Eat Your Greens, or Your Gut Gets It."

But who needs experts, anyway? Not the GOP. Their ideal nominee should evidently be a blowhard ignoramus with a moral compass that's shiftier than the San Andreas fault line, and at least as deeply cracked.

Take Herman Cain (please.) When the pizza mogul/motivational speaker/alleged serial groper was asked if he could define a man by the kind of pizza he prefers, he declared that "A manly man don't want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza."

And so goes the ongoing conservative war against vegetables, served up with a side of machismo. We can't let the First Lady instill a love of broccoli in our kids! And isn't Obamacare just a sneaky plot to open the door for legislation that would crucify Americans who reject cruciferous vegetables?

I guess those retired war generals over at Mission Readiness didn't get the memo about the sissifying powers of vegetables. Why are these military experts up in arms over the USDA's caving in to Big Food? Maybe because "Obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service, and children get up to 40% of their daily calories during the school day?"

As Amy Dawson Taggart, Mission Readiness's director, noted "This new effort to undermine school nutrition regulations raises national security concerns."

It should also raise questions about what kind of culture turns a blind eye to kids being brutalized and turns our children into vessels for commodity crop crap because it protects the revenues of some high powered institutions and politicians. What warped brand of capitalism have we created that permits our kids to be treated as collateral damage?

Looking for the American Dream? Try Denmark

Americans may be deeply divided about what ails our country, but there's no denying we're a nation of unhappy campers.

Danes, on the other hand, consistently rank as some of the happiest people in the world, a fact attributed at least in part to Denmark's legendary income equality and strong social safety net.

Forbes recently cited another possible factor; the Danes' "high levels of trust." They trust each other, they trust 'outsiders,' they even trust their government. 90% of Danes vote. Tea party types dismiss Denmark as a hotbed of socialism, but really, they're just practicing a more enlightened kind of capitalism.

In fact, as Richard Wilkinson, a British professor of social epidemiology, recently stated on PBS NewsHour , "if you want to live the American dream, you should move to Finland or Denmark, which have much higher social mobility."

While we debate whether climate change is real and a tax on unhealthy foods is nanny state social engineering, the Danish are actually trying to address these problems head on.

They can afford to, because they don't spend all their waking hours worrying about whether they're about to lose their job, or their house, or how they're going to pay their student loans, or their health insurance premiums.

Could Danish-style democracy catch on here at home? If the way to a nation's heart is through its stomach, there may be hope. After all, the hottest trend on the culinary horizon these days is the new Nordic Cuisine, "which seeks to turn the culinary dial back toward the natural world," as the New York Times reported a few weeks back.

One of the pioneers of this movement is the dynamic Danish chef and climate change activist Trine Hahnemann, whose latest book is The Nordic Diet. Trine has a genius for creating earthy, easy, elegant meals, but she's equally passionate about cooking up social change while she's at it. I had a chance to get her two cents on our respective cultures when she passed through NYC recently. Following is a condensed version of our conversation:

KT: The cover of your latest book declares that you can "Eat Your Way to Health and Happiness with The Nordic Diet." Americans are so stressed and depressed these days, we're more likely to Eat Our Way to Illness and Misery. And the worse we eat, the worse we feel. Any ideas on how to break out of this vicious cycle?

TH: To change the whole political system takes a long time, so, that's not my first suggestion. Cooking your own meals is essential to staying healthy, because that's the only way you can control your diet. And sharing meals with family and friends, having a sense of belonging, that's a very big part of happiness.

Your meal culture has been blown apart, it's a huge problem. I understand when people say "but I get off work at 8 o'clock and I have to shop and go home and cook," but it's a cycle that just goes around and around and nobody's breaking it. You have to start cooking your own food, and it is doable, even on a lower income.

Danes actually eat a lot of crap, a lot of frozen vegetables, but they cook at home every day and sit down and eat together. This is the main thing in our culture, because take-out and processed convenience foods are more expensive. Fruits and vegetables have to be the cheapest thing, cheaper than eating at McDonald's. It all comes down to economics.

So, we're not these 'holy people ' who can manage everything, we just have different ethics. We don't subsidize corn like you do, and also, there is a 25% VAT. And it's socially acceptable to leave work at around 4 or 5 o'clock and pick up your kids from school, go home, share a family meal. From a management point of view, if people have a nice family life, they'll be more productive.

KT: Denmark is famous for having so much less income inequality; do kitchen workers in Danish restuarants make a decent salary?

TH: Yes, a dishwasher in Denmark gets $25 an hour.

KT: Do they get sick days and benefits, too?

TH: Yes, and a pension, and health care, and maternity leave. To me, the more equal your society is, the better it is for everybody. It's not right for a country as rich as yours to have so many poor people. This thing with Americans and taxes, I don't understand it.

I make quite a lot of money, I pay 67% tax on much of it, and I don't mind. I like the idea that the girl who's sitting next to my daughter, whose mother is a cleaning lady, has exactly the same opportunity to get an education that my daughter has. I don't think that's socialism. To me, that's human decency. That girl didn't choose her parents, why shouldn't she have the same opportunities?

KT: The government of Denmark has a very ambitious agenda to eliminate your country's dependence on fossil fuels by 2050. The Danes are early adopters when it comes to conservation and renewable energy.

But Denmark's a relatively small country with a temperate climate, and a homogenous population that doesn't doubt the science on climate change. What lessons do you think the US, with all its diversity and division, could learn from your example?

TH: We can't change the world. We're only five million people, but as you say, we're homogenous. Danes trust their government. Over 90% of our population votes. Our news is not as polarized as yours. We're a good place to try out a model.

And cities around the world can draw from our experience. If we don't adapt, there's not going to be water, there's not going to be electricity, why not find solutions now?

KT: How does your role as a climate change activist influence the way you cook?

TH: I use a lot of whole grains, I cut down on meat, I eat very seasonally. In my company, Hahnemann's Køkken, we have a very seasonal profile, our food waste is really low, we use everything that gets into the kitchen.

And I'm working with some engineers to design an energy efficient professional kitchen. We hope to convince people to buy new equipment. They say, "oh no, it's so expensive," but then you show them how much they could save over ten years on their electricity bill. There are so many old fridges out there that cost a fortune to run.

We need government guaranteed loans to buy new equipment, there are some very interesting models. There's a baker in Germany who has so much leftover bread because people come in at 6 o'clock and demand the same variety he has at 1 o'clock--that's ridiculous! But he'll lose business if he doesn't cater to that, so all the bread that's left everyday goes into his energy system. He burns it, and that runs the ovens for the next day.

KT: So it's like a kind of biofuel? Does it smell like burned toast?

TH: (laughs) I don't know!

KT: In the Nordic Diet, you note that folks in Denmark bicycle everywhere, to get to work, to go shopping--entire families routinely go bicycling together, and you don't let lousy weather stop you. You quote the Danish saying, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothing."

But even when the weather's fine, you might work up a sweat and get windblown biking around. Here in the U.S., our surgeon general got in hot water when she noted that too many American women don't exercise because they don't want to mess up their hair.

So, is it socially acceptable in Denmark to arrive at one's destination looking like a sweaty, dishevelled mess?

TH: We don't have an obsession with hair like you have over here, we don't have that hair that sits in one place; that's never been in fashion. But if you bicycle ten miles to work on a racing bike, let's say, you'll have your regular clothes in a bag and most work places in Denmark provide a shower and a changing room.

KT: And what about the time that it takes to get changed into your work clothes, are you on the clock? Is it like taking a lunch break?

TH: Yeah, but Danes are like the Swiss, we're always on time. Danes are not late--being on time is a big part of the culture.

KT: So, it's acceptable to show up with messy hair, but not to be late?

TH: Yes.

KT: How did you feel about the Copenhagen Climate Change talks, and where do you see the climate change movement heading?

TH: I was so disappointed. I was in tears. Our politicians failed us gravely. America and China came with nothing. And Saudi Arabia was working behind the scenes, I'm told, to sabotage it.

It's a shame people aren't more disappointed with the politicians. I am. I'm really disappointed that they can't step up and do the right thing. Why aren't we doing more? I'm not even satisfied with what we're doing in Denmark. I love that we have these goals and I will help to work towards them through the things I can do as a chef and a responsible citizen.

But I think it will have to get much worse before people realize how bad it is. It's potentially just as catastrophic as terrorism--or worse--but nobody's paying attention. Everybody's just hoping it will go away.

On the food side, I'm more optimistic, I see a lot of changes, a lot of goodwill, people wanting to cook and eat more ecologically.

We've got to change the way we eat, we've got to change the way we source, we've got to change the way we waste. For me, first of all, it's cutting back on the meat. Eating meat everyday has only been part of our diet since World War II. No matter what, only eat meat twice a week.

And everyone should get a composting bucket, so they can see how much they waste. You could save $2,000 a year if you stopped wasting food. Our grandmothers would never have wasted all that food.

We have to take that older mentality and new technologies and put them together for new solutions. I agree with Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner when he says, "Every time you shop, you vote." That's the best thing you can do as an individual who doesn't hold political office.

Laurie David on Why Sitting Down to a Meal Is Such a Big Deal

Laurie David is a force of nature when it comes to lobbying on behalf of Mother Nature. An author, film producer and environmental advocate, she's best known as the producer who convinced Al Gore that his climate change slide show could reach a lot more folks if he made it into a movie.

David's still concerned about melting glaciers. But her current campaign tackles another kind of erosion; the loss of community, civility and informed debate in our culture. Her latest book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, makes the case that the simple act of sitting down together to eat real food on a regular basis can jumpstart the kind of lively, enlightening discussions that get our friends and family engaged on the issues of the day. And isn't that the first step to pulling our civic discourse out of its muddied and muddled ditch?

She addressed this subject at the Omega Institute's Design By Nature conference in Rhinebeck, New York recently, and kindly agreed to answer a few questions while she was in my neck of the woods. So, with the historic Hudson River Valley--widely regarded as the birthplace of the modern environmental movement--as our backdrop, I sat down with David for a chat about where our country's at.

KT: How does this new mission to revive dinner table discussions mesh with your environmental advocacy? Is conversation the gateway drug to conservation?

LD: There are all kinds of environments. But the very first one we learn anything at is our family environment. I have teenage daughters, and I see from my own personal experience, how grateful I am that I insisted on this ritual of family dinner. It's not just about eating, it's about all the things that happen at the table that we're not even conscious of.

Everything that you worry about as a parent is improved by sitting down to regular meals. This is how we raise civil children, this is how we pass on our values. If we let go of this, we'll be letting go of the very basic things that teach us how to become part of the community, and how to care about the world.

Kids are spending something like seven and a half hours a day looking at some form of screen, and that doesn't include texting time! I call it digital overload. They're not outside playing, they're not spending time with their family. We're not even watching TV together anymore, everyone's on their own separate computer.

That's why it's critically important to hold on to the one ritual that the day gives you, so that everyone can stop leading separate lives and come together. I hope that my book will help make it easy for them. There are some amazing recipes, but also great conversation starters. For some people, it's just as difficult to figure out what to talk about at dinner as it is what to make for dinner.

We have to alleviate the pressure on ourselves that dinner has to be this fancy affair, three courses and a homemade apple pie. If you're having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole grain bread, that's good enough. The key to the whole thing is sitting down and connecting.

KT: I’d like to borrow a question that Prince Charles asked in a speech at the Washington Post's Future of Food conference earlier this year: "Why it is that an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatments, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit for purpose?"

LD: Why are we going down this industrial food supply road? I think the answer is money. This is part of what's exciting to me about the new food movement--we have the individual power to opt out of that system. And if we care about our health, if we care about the planet, we're going to have to do that.

But it's doable. And every piece of this, all the solutions to the factory farms, the industrialization of our food supply, and all the chemicals and antibiotics that are in our food, this is completely doable for us as individuals. We have to start cooking at home, again, we have to start buying fresh ingredients, organic if possible, locally, if possible.

We have to reject the trillion dollar processed food industry that's taken over our lives. Instead of buying salad dressing at the supermarket with nineteen ingredients, we should be taking the three ingredients and the four minutes it takes to make salad dressings at home.

We have to just opt out of that system and start supporting food locally to the best of our ability. It's not about being perfect. 'Perfect is the enemy of the good,' I totally believe that.

It's about saying, you know what? I can decide for myself how many chemicals I'm putting in my body, how many preservatives. All the repercussions of supporting that system, I can choose to opt out of that, and I can educate my small circle of friends.

You can choose to do better. A perfect example is Meatless Monday. I have a chapter about it in my book, and I make all the arguments you can discuss at the dinner table. You can decide, as a family, we're going to get off this treadmill of eating too much meat. We can't sustain this, it's not healthy for our bodies, it's not healthy for the planet, and it's a big myth that this is the only source of protein we can consume.

You want to help global warming issues? Start eating a little less meat. That's a small but perfect example of how powerful the individual can be. And then educate your friends and family.

KT: Speaking of educating folks, Bill Gates is putting his faith and some of his considerable resources into promoting biotech, agribiz-as-usual solutions for feeding the world. If you happened to cross paths with him, how would you try to persuade him to scrap the GMOs and really get behind regenerative farming methods?

LD: I would ask him, what do you want to eat at the end of the day? What's interesting to me is to find out what people who are part of the industrial/chemical system of growing food are eating themselves. I once ran into a gentleman who worked for a huge tomato company. You know, if you buy tomatoes from Florida off season, they're picked green and gassed to turn them red. This is a gazillion dollar industry.

And I said, "Do you eat these tomatoes?" He said, "Oh, I could never eat those! We eat organic food."

I don't understand the arrogance we have as a country that we can do things better than Mother Nature can. We have to go back to being humble, to respecting what Mother Nature provides us, and stop screwing with the system because we think we can do it better.

The oceans are being depleted, the air is being destroyed, because of us. The climate--who ever thought you could screw with the climate? But we're doing it, and it's not an opinion, it's not a theory, it's not a belief, it's a fact. The globe is warming and humans are causing it.

And the fact that we're not running to solve this problem when all the solutions already exist is just mind boggling to me.

KT: Neil Young once sang that “even Richard Nixon has got soul.” Well, at least he gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. Now Republicans want to abolish the EPA. Why don't today’s conservatives embrace conservation? And how did contempt for science become so rampant?

LD: The EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species act, they all had support from both sides. I don't understand it, honestly, I don't have an answer for it. You would think they would care just as much about clean air and water and protecting public lands as you and I do. The only explanation is that it comes down to greed and arrogance--arrogance that we're not going to run out of our natural resources.

The biggest problem we're facing is that people are getting misinformation from advertising, from politicians who are tied to lobbyists who are tied to corporations. It's very difficult to move forward on things when people are misinformed. We have to work on getting back to truth, inconvenient or not.

Let's Ask Marion: Is it Possible to Have an Unhealthy Obsession With Healthy Eating?


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

KAT: As one of our most influential advocates for healthier food choices, you must be pleased to see that more and more Americans are rethinking the way we eat and demanding better options. But is it possible to take a concern for healthy eating to an unhealthy extreme?

I have a friend whose son has become so fixated on what foods he thinks he should or should not be eating that he could be a textbook case of "orthorexia nervosa," a supposed eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Do you think this is a real disorder, and if so, how does one address it?

Dr. Nestle: “Orthorexia nervosa”? I’m not convinced it deserves inclusion in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but let’s leave that to the shrinks. One thing is for sure. If you think people have it, you need to deal with them in the same way porcupines make love--very carefully.

Nothing is more intimate than food. It goes inside our bodies. Nothing could be more personal than food choices. Unless what people eat is doing them serious harm, I would not dream of commenting.

When people are chronically hungry, all they want is food, any food, and right now. But we live in an age in which food is so abundant and so easily accessed that it’s hard for those of us who are pretty well off to remember what hunger feels like.

For us, food is no longer about relieving hunger and getting basic nourishment. For many people, it isn’t even about traditional culture or, heaven help us, pleasure. Food is just there for the eating.

For some people, this means food is the enemy. If they do not vanquish food, food will vanquish them.

Vanquishing means being in control. Healthy diets may be about variety, balance, and moderation, but food fighters—or “orthorectics” if you prefer—are not comfortable with moderation or balance. If saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels, don’t eat any fat at all. Whether high fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar or not, avoid it at all costs and never feed it to kids. Carbohydrates, trans fats, and color additives are bad for you when eaten in excess? Never touch them.

This may sound extreme but I can’t think of anything wrong with not eating these things. And I know lots of people who feel better when they don’t eat junk food and are actively controlling what goes into their bodies.

If your health food-obsessed friends are adults and their diets are reasonably varied, balanced, and moderate, they are probably doing just fine and don’t need an intervention. If they aren’t, and you think their dietary obsessions are harmful and causing them to lose too much weight, you can try an approach along the lines of “I love you and I want you to be healthy” and see if you can get them some professional help.

And if they are imposing extremely unvaried, unbalanced, and immoderate diets on children, you will want to get them some help right away.

Short of that, eating healthfully seems like a good thing to do and I have a hard time thinking of it as obsessive. What if eating healthfully were considered normal? As it should be, no?

No Contract, No Cookies: Is This the Way a Country Crumbles?

Isn't a 'jobless recovery' as preposterous as a fetus-less pregnancy? We've got a bloody pile-up at the intersection of Wall Street and Main Street, where reality collides with such corporate conceits. And it's the workers who wind up on life support, while the suits speed away from the wreckage undented and undaunted. Back to the bat cave, to plot the next leveraged buyout!

The new HBO documentary, "No Contract No Cookies: The Stella D’Oro Strike," premiering on HBO2 tonight at 8pm, tells the story of a beloved Bronx bakery, founded by Italian immigrants in 1932, that now lies shuttered, like so many factories all over America. The saga of how the company went from a thriving family-owned enterprise to a gutted equity fund acquisition is a success story only if you're rooting for our modern day robber barons. For the dwindling middle class and the unwashed masses, it's an American tragedy that's being repeated all over the country.

"No Contract No Cookies" puts a poignant face--or 138 faces, to be precise--on the massacre of manufacturing jobs that CEOs routinely commit in the name of prosperity. At the Stella D'Oro factory, folks from 22 different countries worked convivially alongside New York natives and gained a foothold in the American middle class, only to be kicked off the ladder when Brynwood Partners, a private equity fund, bought the company. In 2008, when the workers' contract expired, Brynwood demanded a 30% pay cut.

Brynwood claimed, as the New York Times' Jennifer 8 Lee reported at the time, "that the hourly wages of $18 to $22 an hour and nine weeks of paid leave made the factory unprofitable," and demanded "significant reductions in wages and benefits in order to move the factory to profitability."

Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill documented the 11-month strike that ensued, capturing the comraderie of the close-knit workers who hailed from wildly different backgrounds but shared the belief that their solid work ethic would lay the foundation for a decent future for themselves and their families, as it would have in the past.

But with our economy now founded on fictitious, bubble-based fortunes and sleazy sleights of hand, those who actually make--or in this case, bake--anything, are expected to accept stagnating or even declining wages even while the affluent few do better than ever. Middle class workers who banked on promised pensions and health care are now portrayed as pariahs and parasites, while the fraudsters who crashed our economy continue to call all the shots, as Frank Rich laments in his scathingNew York debut.

Brynwood refused to provide the union with financial statements to document its claims that the cuts were needed, and was found guilty of bargaining in bad faith. A federal judge ruled that the workers were entitled to their jobs, their pay, and their benefits, and ordered Brynwood to reinstate the workers.

So, the company invited the workers back and promptly announced that it would close the factory. Stella D'Oro was sold to a company named Lance, which shut the factory and moved operations to a non-union factory in Ohio where labor's a lot cheaper. Mission accomplished! Most of the former Stella D'Oro workers remain unemployed; some found a job at another bakery, only to be laid off again a few months later.

When will we stop lionizing business and demonizing labor? GOP hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain tout their supposed business acumen as proof that they've got the right stuff to steer our economy out of the ditch. But, honestly, if you've built your financial empire by buying up companies and then driving the workers who are the backbone of those companies right into that ditch, i.e., laying off laborers to boost shareholder profits, why doesn't that qualify you as a job killer?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned that "private equity's wealth extraction business model" creates a "hollow economy." We don't need a CEO in the White House; America is a nation, not a business. And a country where business owners can't figure out how to compensate themselves and their shareholders without screwing their workers is, simply, a country that doesn't work. "No Cookies No Contract" puts a face on the collateral damage brought to us by the Wall Street wizards who'll tell you they're conjuring up value. Value for who?

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?: National Archives Reveals How Our Government Influences The Way We Eat


Poor Uncle Sam's got a lot on his plate these days: a curdled economy, an overcooked climate, a soured populace. It's enough to give a national icon a capital case of indigestion. And anti-government sentiment's running so high right now that half the country seems ready to swap his stars and stripes for tar and feathers.

Sure, Uncle Sam's always been kind of a drag, with his stern face and wagging finger. But to nanny state haters, he's a Beltway busybody in drag, democracy's Mrs. Doubtfire, a Maryland Mary Poppins. If you believe that government is always the problem, never the solution, then you have no use for, say, more stringent food safety regulations, or Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign to combat obesity.

But the new exhibit "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet" at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. offers an intriguing display of documents, posters, photos and other artifacts dating from the Revolutionary War to the late 1900s that serve to remind us that our government has long played a crucial role in determining how safe, nutritious, and affordable our food supply is.

So, after all this government-mandated meddling with our meals, do we eat better now than we did a hundred years ago? Curator Alice Kamps didn't set out to provide a definitive answer to that question. Her intent was simply to "add to the conversation" that we're currently having about how Americans eat.

Kamps gives us plenty of fodder for discussion, if not heated debate; the exhibit, which runs until January 3, 2012, treads gingerly around hot button topics like crop subsidies and factory farming. And it sidesteps the food stamp land mine entirely in an era when the very word "entitlements" is enough to make some folks' heads explode.

That's a shame, because there's a little-known aspect to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, that encourages self sufficiency and complements the kitchen garden revival that gets a shout out in this exhibit, thanks to Michelle Obama and White House chef Sam Kass.

The 1973 Farm Bill included an amendment to the Food Stamp Act that enabled food stamp recipients to use their stamps to buy seeds or vegetable plants. As any gardener knows, a few dollars worth of seeds can yield a return of $50 or even $100 worth of food. Senator James Allen of Alabama, who proposed the amendment, noted that "the recipients of food stamps would thus be able to use their own initiative to produce fruits and vegetables needed to provide variety and nutritional value for their diets."

The program continues to this day, but remains largely unknown, so few food stamp recipients avail themselves of this chance to literally grow their benefits at no extra cost to Uncle Sam.

Missed opportunities aside, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" does a fine job of documenting just how consistent our issues with our food chain have stayed even as the way we eat has changed radically over the past century. Consider the following nugget of dietary wisdom from the first federally funded nutrition research, launched in the 1890s. Wilbur Olin Atwater, Special Agent in Charge of Nutrition Investigations in the Office of Experiment Stations, concluded:

"The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear--perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease."

We knew it then, we know it now. And yet, we eat more than ever, egged on by a schizophrenic USDA whose dual missions--encouraging healthier eating habits and promoting the interests of the food industry--are in eternal conflict.

Check out the USDA's 1945 Food Group Poster (a precursor to the Food Pyramid, which debuted in 1992). A pie chart lays out "The Basic 7" food groups we should eat from each day for optimal health. Below it lies the message "In addition to the basic 7, eat any other foods you want."

No wonder Uncle Sam looks so pained; he's been getting his arm twisted by lobbyists for nearly a hundred years. Take the case of the seed giveaway program that Congress created in 1839. The original purpose of the program was to expand the range of foods our farmers grew and encourage them to test rare plant varieties. By 1897, the USDA was distributing 1.1 billion free seed packets to farmers, many of them more common vegetable and flower varieties.

The program was wildly popular with farmers, but a thorn in the side of the growing commercial seed industry. So, in 1929, after intense lobbying from the American Seed Trade Association, Congress scrapped the seed giveaway.

The exhibit does, of course, highlight Uncle Sam's more laudable legacies, such as the passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act, and the establishment of the School Lunch Program in 1946, which has since become "one of the most popular social welfare programs in our nation's history," according to the exhibit catalog. Geez, if that's how we fund our most popular programs, I'd hate to see what kind of resources we allocate to the ones we like least.

"What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" strikes a nice balance between the wonky, somber food policy and safety segments and more lighthearted elements such as White House menus featuring favorite presidential recipes and those classic wartime propaganda posters encouraging us to can, garden, and conserve. Other visual treats include the beautiful botanical illustrations commissioned by the USDA in the late 1800s to document the discoveries of the plant hunters we dispatched to far-off lands in pursuit of new fruit and vegetable varieties.

One of our more notable agricultural explorers, the intrepid, fur-hatted Frank N. Meyer, introduced us to some 2,500 new plants, including the lemon that bears his name. Meyer walked hundreds of miles through China at the turn of the century in his quest to "skim the earth in search of things good for man."

Now, we outsource the task of finding horticultural breakthroughs to corporations whose motto could be "to scorch the earth in search of things bad for man." Uncle Sam doesn't commission botanical illustrations or promote rare seeds anymore, either; for that, I have to rely on my friends at the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Kicky propaganda posters? Back to the private sector--see Joe Seppi's brilliant Victory Garden of Tomorrow posters on Etsy.

Uncle Sam hasn't got the time or the budget for such extracurricular activities these days. He's got his hands full just trying to maintain our food chain's mediocre status quo. As Mark Bittman noted recently, Republicans are on a tear to gut vital food safety and nutrition programs in the name of deficit reduction. Nevermind that the programs in question actually save us billions of dollars in health care costs in the long run. "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" Well, off the record, he'd probably tell you that what's cooking is our goose.

Cross-posted from AlterNet

Want to Save the Economy? Change What You Eat

Forks Over Knives is, in its own eat-your-spinach kinda way, a feel-good movie. Roger Ebert's declared it "a film that could save your life." So, once you get past the inevitable indictments of our disease-inducing diet, and the stock footage of headless obese people waddling down the street, you'll find yourself ultimately uplifted by the vitality the film's formerly sick and unfit subjects exude as they embrace a plant-based diet.

Unless, of course, your heart's been hardened by all those artery-clogging animal fats that the film implores you to rethink. The premise of Forks Over Knives--that we could save millions of lives and billions of dollars simply by switching to a diet of fruits, whole grains and vegetables--offers a compelling solution to both our financial and physical woes.

Mark Bittman made essentially the same case in his recent column How to Save a Trillion Dollars, in which he noted that "a sane diet alone would save us hundreds of billions of dollars and maybe more."

The film's vegan agenda may inflame the meat and dairy industries, but when it comes to inflammation, Forks Over Knives has got nothing on meat and dairy. The film makes effective use of graphics, animations and case studies to illustrate how animal proteins adversely effect our health in multiple ways, from inducing inflammation that appears to spur tumor growth, to blocking our blood flow. And not just the blood flow to our hearts, but to the rest of our bodies as well--which doesn't bode well for you, whether you think with your brain or other appendages located further south.

In fact, the film notes that erectile dysfunction is "the canary in the coal mine" for heart disease. Can't you just hear those hipster "hegans" having the last laugh--and maybe, the better bonk?

It's hard not to be impressed by the vigor of the two veggie-touting seventy-something nutrition pioneers whose research forms the basis of the film: Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the eternally best-selling China Study, and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., a highly regarded surgeon and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. It's Dr. Esselstyn Jr., along with his colleague Dr. Dean Ornish, who inspired Bill Clinton to adopt the mostly vegan diet that helped him lose weight and keep his heart healthy.

The film also features Esselstyn Jr.'s son, Rip Esselstyn, the Austin firefighter who's got his own best-selling vegan cookbook, The Engine 2 Diet. Rip Esselstyn studiously avoids the 'vegan' label, preferring the term "plant-strong." And that's probably just as well, because asking Americans to forego all the animal-based foods that form the cornerstone of our diet--including cheese and dairy--is a pretty tough sell as it is.

But Forks Over Knives doesn't just dwell on the harmful consequences of eating anything that "has a mother or a face." The movie devotes equal emphasis to the many life-enhancing, disease-fighting nutrients and other compounds contained in the fresh, whole foods that most of us don't eat enough of. As comedian Bill Maher notes in the film's opening segment:

There's no money in healthy people. And there's no money in dead people. The money is in the middle: people who are alive, sort of, but with one or more chronic conditions...Someone has to stand up and say that the answer isn't another pill. The answer is spinach.

The film's writer and director, Lee Fulkerson, serves as one of the case studies in the movie, working with a pair of physicians who successfully treat his high cholesterol and elevated CRP level (a risk factor for heart disease) by putting him on a whole foods, plant-based diet. Fulkerson's numbers improved dramatically in a matter of weeks, further proof that such health issues can be addressed through diet instead of drugs.

Other folks featured in the film overcame diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. The film does not imply that conventional medicine can't be effective at treating these illnesses, but rather faults it for too often treating the symptoms while ignoring the underlying causes.

I wanted to confirm the powers of a plant-based diet to prevent and even reverse illness from a credible source who wasn't affiliated with the movie. So I spoke with Dr. Kelly A. Turner, co-founder of Shuniya Health & Healing, where she treats cancer patients with a holistic approach that combines the best of eastern and western medicine.

Dr. Turner told me, "I have seen many, many cancer patients help turn their health around by changing to a whole foods, plant-based diet. And although the woman in the film chose not to have western treatment, I've seen this diet change work wonders for many cancer patients who are in the midst of their western treatment. The two are not mutually exclusive, not at all."

She added that for those of us who aren't facing a life-threatening illness, it may seem like too much of a sacrifice to give up all animal products cold turkey." Yes, doing that will have a profound effect on your health," she said, "but most people who feel fairly healthy won't feel the need to do that. I would encourage them to see the film and hopefully be inspired (and informed) to make small, gradual changes to their diet...even gradual changes will have very healthful effects on your cell membranes, your blood glucose level, and your colon health."

But fresh, unprocessed, wholesome foods haven't got K Street lobbyists and Madison Avenue marketers to promote them, while Viagra and Lipitor are making a fortune for Big Pharma, helped along by Big Food's low-cost, high-calorie, nutrient-poor products.

Forks Over Knives could have been subtitled "Pork Over Lives," because it highlights the addled agricultural policies and industry meddling that keep our government agencies more focused on protecting corporate profits than promoting good health. Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign may be wholehearted, but our government's overall efforts to halt the diet-related diseases that are crippling Americans young and old have been half-assed, to be blunt. The Federal Trade Commission's latest dietary guidelines are as toothless as a gummy bear, and only marginally more sound, nutritionally.

The free-market fanaticism that lets our children to be shamelessly targeted by food corporations sets them up for a lifetime of ill health. The end result is profits for those companies, their shareholders and the health care industries who profit from disease.

Meanwhile, our politicians insist that we're bankrupting our childrens' future with our reckless spending. They're slashing budgets left and right, pulling the plug on crucial programs, all so that little Ethan and Emma won't be saddled with crushing debt in a few decades.

But forget about unbalanced budgets. It's unbalanced diets we really need to worry about. Because the soundest economy in the world won't save a nation of ballooning bellies and mushy muscles.

Cross posted from Alternet