Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let's Move in the right direction

Last June I was lucky enough to join the team at Vermont Works for Women - Fresh Food Enterprise as summer intern.  This organization has a very unique model tackling some of America's most trying issues of today; an unsustainable food system, and health related issues such as obesity.
There are three layers of service that VWW- Fresh Food provide.  First it is a training program for women with barriers to employment to learn skills in kitchen work to place them a step ahead in the job market.  Next, the enterprise provides nutritious meals beyond the standards of USDA standards to child care facilities around the Burlington and Winooski area, promoting good health and awareness of fruits and vegetables amongst young children.  On top of all of that, VWW- Fresh Food utilizes local resources of fruits, vegetables, and other local products to create their meals.
This compilation of efforts makes this program a mouthful to explain, but also a wonderful example of how these broad issues can be tackled in clever and effective ways.

Since my time at VWW- Fresh Food has ended, I have been lucky enough to watch them grow exponentially in the past year.  They recently received a high mention on First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign blog!  In this blog post they discuss the importance of nation wide access to fruits and vegetables.

Access to fruits and vegetables continuously pops up on TheLocalGraze and many other discussions of food system issues.  How can we make local and healthy food less a matter of class and elitism, and transform it into a humans right to live a healthy lifestyle.  It is easy to dismiss the importance of food as a need for health and well being, but when push comes to shove it is the preventative measures such as a healthy diet that will transform our nations issues.  Creative ways to tackle some of the grand issues our nation has come to observe, such as Vermont Works for Women - Fresh Food and the Let's Go! campaign have done, are all ways this country is working together to innovate new systems to provide a healthier community.  We are building new (or some would even say reverting to old) ways to think about food, and its importance on this planet.

Children enjoying Fresh Food vegetables

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Food Feelings

As a food systems minor I have begun to feel as if there were no end in sight to the magnitude of problems our current food system faces.  Where do we start to make change?  By making this post? By purchasing the organic broccoli over the conventional that one time?  By making my own pickles? Sure.

By further understanding the objectives and values of the various food movements attempting to fix these problems, there is a clearer picture of how these changes might be made, slowly, but thoughtfully.  The local, organic, slow food, and other movements have independently had criticisms in their methods, though each movement is able to collaborate to fill in the gaps of the other.  Local is too expensive, organic is just a marketing tactic... yadda yadda.  I believe that if each movement grows in capacity, eventually the movements will overlap to shift the current food system paradigm.  This new food system will incorporate the health and wellbeing of the environment, the farmers and their workers, all the way to consumers.  This idea is validated by the ideals of the article Beyond Voting with Your Fork by Josh Viertel, president of the Slow Food Movement.  In the reading he explains the standpoint that though values on the food movements differ between groups, any positive value is a step in the right direction.  He states that “The problems with food and farming don’t come from people holding the wrong values, they come from people not applying the values they hold.”  (p. 139).

There have been many critiques of the organic movement concerned that it has watered down its beliefs and values and some say is even following the path as agribusiness.  The organic movement originally was comprised of multiple groups’ values.  Those that value an alternative to production technologies, those that value healthy food, those that value efforts back to the land, and those that value the health of the environment.  Through organic standard setting, organic has become a marketable practice, and since been manipulated so that large corporations are able to use it as a profitable act.  While some believe this has mainstreamed the organic values, and brought organic movement to the attention of the broader population, activists believe it has compromised its main objectives.  While I agree that some of the objectives of organic farming to revolutionize our food system have been lost, I agree with Josh Viertel’s statement that any value will do.

In order to compromise on a value through a broader population, a social movement must choose some objectives to focus on, while letting go of others.  When you look at the benefits of organic standards, it is clear it has made an impact by creating a market for organic food, when prior to the standard may have only been important to the early adopters of the movement.  Now, organic labeling and the organic standard have given individuals the opportunity to purchase organic no matter where their values in organic are held.  It has given consumers the ability to apply their values by making purchases that are a step in the right direction toward the food system they want.  We see that consumer demand for better food is what has created the need for an organic labeling system, and how in a sense consumers hold the power in controlling what corporations will do based on their demand.

So yes: As Josh Veirtel says, if you eat, then you are part of the agricultural system.  Today I ate a local and organic egg, I wrote this blog post, I contributed to making a paradigm shift… slowly but surely.

WP 5/7

Monday, April 29, 2013

Access to Food Access: WICked Local

USDA research on food access has shown some pretty frightening statistics.  For instance, 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low-income areas that are more than 1 mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store.  In 2008 86% of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) redemption were redeemed at these grocery stores.   Not only is this statistic alarmingly high, but on top of that, how much of the food being purchased is promoting good health?  In a culture where more is better, many people tend to substitute cheaper unhealthy foods for nutritious fruits and vegetables that they have no idea how to even cook.
Woof, so many barriers.

As I brought up in my last post, farmers markets are a great way to make sure you are getting fresh, healthy food, though can be expensive and less accessible to those who need it most.

Many programs are available that combat these barriers such as using SNAP benefits at the farmers market, or WIC (Woman Infants Children) that provide food vouchers for those who lack the access.  But there are still issues that stand in the way.  How does one use the voucher?  Where can you use it? What vegetable is healthy and filling, and HOW THE HECK DO I COOK THIS GOLDEN RADISH? (is that even a thing?)

Media can hold an important roll in passing along information and mimicking desired behavior.  I recently came upon a video tutorial for how to use WIC food vouchers at the farmers market.  It was very easy to understand, and made a trip to the farmers market seem way less intimidating.

Though the video is slightly cheesy, the presenter does a really great job making it clear and easy to understand.  The virtual tour also makes it less intimidating by calmly showing all the exciting parts of the farmers market, and showing it in a positive frame.  Not only that, but at the end she shows how much she was able to get, and how you can prepare it simply!

It is interesting to compare this trip to the farmers market to The Barefoot Contessa's trip.  I wonder if Ina was at that farmers market? Maybe local food wouldn't seem so elegant and elitist if they framed it more like Sarimin Rivera from WIC... They could call her show WICked Local!

N/P 4/30

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bursting My Vermont Bubble

As my time at the University of Vermont quickly comes to a close, I try to appreciate all the unique factors that Vermont has to offer.  One important part of my life here in Vermont is the Locavore mentality that Vermont supports.  I came upon an article on NPR about little Vermont, and surprise surprise, it was about their ranking as top in the nation on the Locavore Index.  This article just pointed out further that Vermont makes it much easier to support this movement, though I want to do my best to bring this mentality with me wherever I end up.

I investigated this Locavore Index a little further, and found a radio segment on the Vermont Public Radio interviewing the head marketer of Strolling of the Heifers, the non-profit that created and calculated this index.  It also features listeners to chime in with thoughts and questions about the topic, which created an interesting mix of opinions.  Considering Strolling of the Heifers is a Vermont-based company there are many things to examine before accepting this ranking.  Coming from the Boston area originally, the ranking did not surprise me very much.  The effort for local is quite loud and clear in my opinion, though others had great points to bring to the table.

One Vermont farmer from Montpelier brought to attention the fact that Vermont still only supplies less than 10% of the state through local food systems.  Even at the top of the Locavore Index, what can be done to make it mean more?  The interviewee acknowledges this as an issue, but explains that it is a slow moving process and can be built through the institutions that support it.  I found this to be a very interesting point, especially as I move out of the state of Vermont, I have been able to see best practice examples of institutions like the Fletcher Allen Hospital, Farm to School, Vermont FEED, Vermont Works for Women- Fresh Food, and gazillions more that are supporting this practice.

Another caller brings in the question of why local food is more expensive, especially if the transportation and processing costs are much lower by keeping it local.  This was a thought that has lingered my mind a few times.  The answer was formed quite eloquently, and nice to hear. The term local has been used as a value-added term for the farmer allowing the farmer to request a fairer, and therefor higher price.  Another thing they mention is the scale to which farms are producing.  According to the economic model the less a farmer produces, the higher a price they must place on the product.

I really enjoyed this discussion on VPR, and though it was based in Vermont, it had diverse opinions that allowed me to think for myself about how to move forward.  It doesn't surprise me that Vermont is on the top of this movement.  With such passionate citizens conversing about this issue, and recognizing its flaws and how to fix them shows the solidarity within the state.  I look forward to seeing the index change in the coming years.  I hope to see Vermont continue to grow (no pun intended), while watching other states fight to top the charts!

NP 4/23

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Second Age of Aquarius?

Is it the end of the 'Neocaloric era'?  This is the leading question in the article I mentioned in my latest post from The Economist.  Not only is the issue of sustainability facing future economic misfortunes, but there is also a demand from a new age of consumers, damaging the 'neocaloric era'.

Perhaps Mcdonald's, Coca Cola, and other calorie dense food products were appealing to the baby boom (also known as Generation X), but a new generation (Generation Y) is emerging leading consumer demand into a possibly new direction.  The ripple effect has been labeled The Millennials, and has marketers all over the country re-evaluating their target audience.  Millennials have birth dates ranging from the late 1970's to the early 2000's.  Millennials are the first generation to grow-up most connected to internet and technology, are turned off by fast-food, and are attracted to healthier alternatives.  They are also known as the new progressive America that "places high value on social responsibility, sustainability, and local, organic, grass-fed and hormone-free dishes." according to an article written by the Public Relations Society of America.  

A serious issue facing the successful companies of Generation X, are how to keep up with this new generation.  Let's just say, it has not been easy, and has sometimes been hard to watch:

Here is a new commercial by McDonald's trying its best to appeal to Millennial's with its new healthy alternative the 'McWrap':

Not bad, though it's hard to think healthy any time I see the golden arches.  

Now compare that to the Chipotle Mexican Grill commercial:

Chipotle nailed it in terms of reaching the progressive Millennials.  One could even say "Back to the Start" is a reference encouraging this new progressive generation.

No matter what McDonald's does, they will always have a controversial reputation.  Not only that, but healthier, more sustainable fast food restaurants are gaining loyalty among Millennials, pushing others further and further away  from the top.  

What meal would you choose?

WP 4/19

Monday, April 15, 2013

Don't Forget the Farmer!

There is nothing like going back in government history by watching old presidential campaign videos.  It's interesting to see what issues were important in the past, and sometimes which issues have yet to be tackled.  I was casually browsing The Living Room Candidate from the museum of the moving image, when one ad in particular gathered my attention.  The ad that caught my eye was "Don't Forget the Farmer" produced in the 1952 campaign by Governer Adlai Stevenson running against Eisenhower.  The light-hearted cartoon, and cheerful song of "Old Macdonald" does not quite give this issue the urgency it deserves. The particular ad I am speaking of comes in at 5:20:00 in the montage of ad's from the Stevenson Campaign.

 According to the message of this ad, farmland has been on the decline since 1931!  Not only that, but farming and food systems have not been a key issue in political campaigns since this time.  It is clear that even then this was not an issue that sparked American citizens to vote for Stevenson.  Eisenhower proceeded to win the election by a landslide, which may be a reason you don't remember hearing of President Stevenson.  How long will it take for food system issues to reach political campaign highlights?

Assuming that target issues highlighted in campaigns come from economic problems, perhaps theres a chance food could be a hot topic in the next generation.  According to The Economist's report of The World in 2013 festival in New York,
"As energy and food production becomes more complex and expensive... Western society will be forced into changing its diet to a more ecologically sustainable model... the high cost of cheap food will be one of the big drivers of change"  
Not only that, but perhaps the high rates of obesity will start to correlate with the high rates of debt in this country.  We can only hope that food issues simmer their way to the political stage, and then perhaps shape what we as Americans find important.  It is amazing the influence political campaigns can have on what citizens openly fight for.  Maybe if the topic of food systems comes to the campaign agenda, people will find a true voice and opinion about it.

NP 4/15

Monday, April 8, 2013

Ina Dips her Barefoot into Local Waters

Honey vanilla pound cake with fabulous local honey from the farmers market, m√Ęche with atlantic mist cheese and apples from Mecox Dairy, garlic and lemon oil, and basil mayonnaise.  Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, always presents her recipes with the utmost elegance.  Her Food Network show along with her line of cookbooks has also been one to shed light on local food, and producers who make it.  In one episode called "Going Local", Ina challenges herself to make a full meal of local Hamptons Ingredients, while another titled "Local Food Heroes" highlighting some great local food artisans.

In the specific episode I watched called "Market Day", Ina creates a menu that is inspired by the local food producers of East Hampton, NY where she resides.  Ina does a great job marketing and romanticizing the local foods as special and exquisite.  She emphasizes the freshness and the color of the ingredients, and the loveliness of knowing where she got it.  To many people, Ina provides a elegant and exciting way to connect with local producers.

While I personally am highly attracted to the Barefoot Contessa meals, and the elegant edge of the show, I believe it could potentially do the opposite to promote the values of the local food movement.  The local food movement has had its critiques of being an elitist practice.  From my experience as a college student, I understand it is not as accessible to all as it should be.  The Barefoot Contessa's elegant and gourmet appearance does not do much to counter this argument.

As a pioneer in local food on television, I believe Ina does a wonderful job creating a vicarious warm feeling of utilizing local food and attending the local farmers market.  Though, if local food is going to be portrayed as a trend for the privileged of the world, I am not sure I can be on board.   I believe local food should be accessible to all.  There are ways to support local without getting the finest artisanal cheeses and honeys.  In fact, there are ways to grow your own local produce, or pay very little by participating in a community garden.

A fine example of the elegant life of Ina

NP 4/9