There’s a new kid in town, who, like the new kid before him and the kid before her, is stirring things up. He’s saying things differently than those who preceded him, and his new ideas are making some people feel a little uncomfortable. In the parlance of the much-admired entrepreneurial class, he’s a “disruptor.”
The new kid is Dave Rauch, the former president of the beloved Trader Joe’s. His new idea is the Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store that opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts in early June. The Daily Table is located in a low-to-middle income area which has not enjoyed much success attracting conventional supermarkets. Relying largely on the donation of “seconds”—food that is edible and safe, but just beyond its expiration date or a few days shy of the compost pile—Daily Table is, according to CBS News, “on a mission to solve two problems: preventing tons of food from going to waste and offering healthy alternatives to families who may not be able to afford traditional stores.”
The food, befitting its less than top-quality condition, is sold—packaged and fresh, as well as in the form of prepared meals—at prices that are often one-third of those found at conventional retail food outlets. Daily Table sources its merchandise from places as diverse as The Food Project, a nearby non-profit community farm, Whole Foods, and the Greater Boston Area Food Bank. When food isn’t available pro bono, Daily Table will occasionally resort to making cash purchases. And based on the comments of the people I talked to for this story, consumer response has been over the top, leaving Daily Table’s shelves virtually bare at the end of its first opening days.
Some sustainability and waste-reduction advocates are ecstatic, drooling over all that methane-churning matter that might not find its way into metro-Boston landfills. Rauch, who likes to use social math to describe the gulf he’s trying to bridge, says that the U.S. food system is wasting enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl. The USDA, which favors the old math, reports that about thirty-one percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. This amounts to about 133 billion pounds per year. With respect to what that might mean for the nation’s food-insecure households, Ben Simon of the Food Recovery Network estimates that we could cut hunger in half with just fifteen percent of our food waste.
I have to say that I’ve always been more than a little perplexed by our penchant to link waste reduction to food security. Though I’m an ardent composter—I’ll carry a small handful of overlooked vegetable scraps outdoors on a cold winter’s night to the compost pile rather than drop them in the kitchen waste can—the waste diversion fervor associated with feeding the hungry seems at times like a sanctimonious distraction from the more critical task of a moral society: ending hunger.
At the risk of being labeled a Tea Party toady or
right-leaning deviationist, I have to ask if the severing of the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) from the
Farm Bill by the Republican House Majority isn’t an opportunity worth taking
advantage of. And in the same breath, I have to ask if the lockstep resistance
to that move and piling on of liberal vituperation isn’t yet more evidence that
the left-leaning social policy machine is running on empty.
Federal spending on the food stamp program has been pushing
north of $70 billion a year. It has been justifiably credited with keeping many
people’s heads above water during the Great Recession while modestly
stimulating local economies. Representing some 70 percent of the current Farm
Bill– the rest being divvied up between the much reviled agricultural commodity
programs and the much beloved conservation and sustainable farming programs– food
stamp support has allegedly relied on an unholy alliance of sorts between Big
Agriculture and anti-hunger advocates. “I’ll support billions in agricultural
subsidies if you support tens of billions in SNAP benefits. That way we can eat
our food stamps and high fructose corn syrup too!”
By tearing asunder that which unlikely partners hath joined
together, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor put a lot of federal spending in
play for the government downsizing Neanderthals. As Emerson once noted, “There
is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatives,” and what can be
meaner than taking food away from hungry children? Though doing marginally
little to pull the current 50 million food stamp recipients out of poverty, the
program is one of the few tools that government has to mitigate it worst effects.
That being said, one can’t help but ask if we didn’t see
this dramatic House action coming. After all, food stamps have been under siege
for years, even before their association with President Reagan’s nefarious
welfare queen remark. Getting their start in a somewhat different form during
the Great Depression (not Recession),
and codified in its present form as the first executive order of President
Kennedy, food stamps and the food benefits they bestow reflect two sides of the
American character. Being as compassionate as any people, we simply don’t have
the heart to let anyone starve to death. But being up-by-the-bootstraps
individualists, Americans generally blame the poor for being poor and don’t
trust them to spend the taxpayer’s largesse wisely. Hence food stamps can only
be spent on food, and not any other of life’s necessities.
But even then the hapless food stamp user must run a
gauntlet of consumer scorn. The smug conservative shopper will ask aloud why
“those people” are buying filet mignon with their food stamps, while righteous
foodies ask why “they” are allowed to buy Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and host of
other highly disparaged processed food products.
Being a food stamp recipient isn’t for sissies. Not only do you
wear a bull’s eye on your back for every cost-cutting politician to take aim
at, your purchases are relentlessly scrutinized and the subject of a never
ending public critique. You endure derision from every quarter all for the
princely sum of about $5 a day.
Whether we have more food stamp spending or less begs the
question of why such a major act of social policy that nobody, including the
recipients, seems to like, continues unreformed and unevaluated. With a national poverty rate locked at 15
percent and a near-poverty rate bringing the combined numbers to well over 30
percent, food stamps provide some relief but no solutions. With overweight and
obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as
America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to
encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating. And with high
unemployment, low wage jobs, and few prospects for growth— other than big box
stores and casinos— leaving the economy stuck in neutral, the $70 billion in
federally generated buying power helps Kraft Foods (food stamps are 1/6 of its
sales), but nearly nothing to infuse local economies with new energy.
But the anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of
the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever
an innovation is proposed, e.g. Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prohibit the use
of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders
bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even
one of SNAP’s holy sacraments. It may be that they are in bed with Wal-Mart and
others who have tragically dumbed-down American wages and whose workers are
subsidized by the food stamp program, or it may be that they are riveted to the
notion that they are all that stand between a modicum of food sufficiency and
mass starvation. Either way, the tenaciousness of their enterprise, which
opposes food stamp change at any cost, is only matched by an equally fervent
brand of conservatism embodied by the Tea Party. The result: A program now more
than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation that it
helps feed has changed in myriad ways.
Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did
not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for
generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be
out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s
social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds,
it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their
communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of
the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to
wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out
front with new ideas and positive energy.
Both history and biology amply demonstrate that change is
inevitable, and that those who resist the need to adapt and reinvent in the
face of new exigencies are eventually subject to denigration, decay, and
decomposition. While we cannot realistically count on the Republicans (though I
think exceptions do exist) to enthusiastically embrace a food stamp reformation
that places poverty reduction, nutritional health, and sustainable agriculture
above basic caloric intake, we might expect more from food stamps’ stalwart
defenders as well as progressive forces within the food movement.
The time to re-think food stamps is upon us. If the best and
most compassionate don’t do it, if we don’t find a way to build a model 21st
century social program around the bones of an aging 20th century
program, food stamps will become nothing more than carrion for circling vultures.
If there’s one thing
that stands out for me during my 25 years in Connecticut, it was the quiet but
delicious return of good food and local farms.
For readers who are
less than 40 years old, please remember, there were no farmers’ markets in the
state until 1978. Today, according to the Connecticut Department of
Agriculture, there are 118. There were also no community supported agriculture
farms. Today, according to Connecticut NOFA, there are 70.
Throughout the latter
decades of the 20th century, subdivisions were consuming the state’s
farmland faster than you could eat a Glastonbury peach. Today, between the
state’s farmland preservation program and the Connecticut Farmland Trust, over
325 farms and 40,000 acres have been permanently protected. Overall, the number
of farms is no longer on the decline but actually on the rise. And with equal
importance, residents living in lower income neighborhoods are witnessing a
return of supermarkets to some of the state’s worst food deserts.
Progress like this
cannot be taken for granted, nor can it go unattributed. It was due to the
public will, meaning the actions of thousands of informed Connecticut citizens,
policymakers, and concerned organizations who thoughtfully reshaped the
direction of the state’s then atrophying food system.
I sense such a
destiny-making moment is before Connecticut again. The passage of House Bill
6519, “An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food,” would not
only make Connecticut the first state to require such labeling, it would also
give the state’s citizens a chance to chart the direction of their food system.
Labeling food products comprised of ingredients grown or raised by genetically
modified means will grant every Connecticut consumer the opportunity to make an
informed choice, just as they have done for local food, farmland protection,
and access to healthy food for all.
The efficacy and
safety of genetic modification is still in doubt and will be debated for some
time to come. Clearly, the public must engage in this debate and not concede
its outcome to a small number of profit-driven biotechnology corporations, scientists,
and federal officials. But given the pit-bull determination of the food
industry to fight every attempt to rein it in – a fight financed with
bottomless coffers – genetically engineered ingredients will remain on grocery
store shelves for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that we have to
consume them if we don’t want to. Hence, the need for information, which is why
savvy marketers like Whole Foods will soon be labeling GE food.
It is prudent to beware
of food and farm corporations bearing gifts. Like a Trojan horse that appears
one morning on the town common, genetically engineered food proponents claim
that it poses no harm to humans or the environment, and that we need the
technology to feed the nine billion people expected by 2050. Consider the claims and the source. Already,
genetically engineered crops have been associated with the decline of monarch
butterfly populations as well as a greater degree of herbicide tolerance –
requiring more herbicides instead of less. Yields from GE seeds have shown
mixed results, not always exceeding those of conventional or hybridized seeds.
And United Nation’s bodies have not embraced GMOs as a way to feed a hungry
world, proposing instead more sustainable agriculture methods and a greater
emphasis on small-scale farming and social equity in developing nations.
uncharted territory where risk is prevalent, we should employ the precautionary
principle. This means that the introduction of new technologies require a much
higher level of certainty and scientific consensus than we currently have with
GMOs. As my mother taught me when I first learned to cross busy streets, look
both ways, look again and again, and then proceed with caution.
I’ve always been
proud of Connecticut’s independent streak. A tenacious refusal to accept pat
solutions and the mediocrity of market-driven events has served it well over
the years. Information is power because it gives people the power to choose and
to act. Labeling genetically engineered food will give the state’s consumers
the information they need to make their own choice while allowing its citizens
to choose the food system that reflects their needs and values.
For 25 years Mark Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication work for the Community Food Security Coalition. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap and Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas.
I’ll never forget the look on the desk sergeant’s face as he gazed down at me from the heights of his dark-paneled police podium. Before him was a neatly dressed, wavy-haired 18-year old cradling something seemingly as long as baseball bats wrapped in a tattered brown army blanket. Not fitting the profile of the regular string of miscreants who normally paraded before him – “hoods” as my high school friends called the few greasy-haired “bad boys” who inhabited our affluent North Jersey suburb – he targeted his puffy eyes at me and asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”
I cleared my throat and said, “Sir, I’d like to turn these in.” Laying my little bundle on a heavy oak table before me, I slowly pulled the edges of the blanket away to reveal a single-shot, bolt action .22-caliber rifle and a single-barreled, 16-gauge shotgun. For a moment, the sergeant appeared to drop his right hand to his sidearm, but quickly discerning I meant no harm, planted both his elbows on his desk and glared at me asking, “What do you mean ‘turn these in?’” I told him what I would later tell my parents and quizzical friends, that I was sick of the violence and the killing, that for any of us to keep guns in our homes was nonsense, and that the only way to end the killing was for all of us to give up our guns.
This was June, 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just been gunned down in California. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slain two months earlier in Memphis. Four years before that, I sat at my George Washington Junior High School desk listening to our principal announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That “violence was as American as cherry pie,” a notion reinforced daily with bloody TV and magazine images from Vietnam, the streets of Newark, and the Columbia University campus, had become for me a palpable reality to which I could either succumb, attempt to suppress, or perhaps, in a fit of youthful naïveté, resist.
My relatively benign weapons – the heft of their polished steel and wood across my eager teenage palms, the crack of their retort against my eardrums, and the sting of ignited powder in my nostrils – had once pointed a way to manhood and dominance. But like the progression from the toy Davy Crocket musket, to the six-shooter cap pistol, to the battery-powered rata-tat-tat of the plastic M-14, my “real” guns had only perpetuated the myth of power and control over the world around me. The young boy pointing his stick at an imaginary aggressor and screaming “bang, bang, bang!” is the precursor to the adolescent hunter, jolted at last to adult consciousness by the pellet-riddled pheasant now lying limp on the forest floor. The boy’s cocoon of security is at last shattered, his omnipotence exposed as an illusion, and the choice to commit violence or non-violence the only one that matters.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried, but I made up for the dry spell this past weekend. As a former resident of Connecticut, where for 25 years I did my bit to bring healthier and saner options to that state’s children, I could not help but steep myself in the misery that is now Newtown’s lost children. I will not patronize that community’s pain by claiming to feel it, but I can sense their loss more acutely having gained a grandson just five days before the elementary school shootings. Little Bradley is safe and secure with his 3-year old sister, Zoe, in the United Kingdom where my daughter chose to marry and live. Though their distance limits my time with them, I take some solace knowing that they have greater protection from the gun-toting mayhem that rules the U.S. and takes cowardly sanctuary behind the fortress of our Second Amendment. While the United Kingdom has its share of profoundly disturbed people, the prevailing wisdom is to protect people from guns rather than protect the gun enthusiasts. The fewer guns in circulation, the less means the tragically deranged will have to snuff out life. The United Kingdom is far from perfect, but at least I know that my grandchildren will not have to attend an elementary school bristling with the characteristics of a minimum security prison that will soon become the norm at U.S. schools.
Becoming a man or a woman these days means making tough choices and often surmounting difficult obstacles. We eventually leave behind the security blankets of our childhood and learn that the best path to safety and happiness is through an open and creative engagement with others. The most society can to do is attempt to clear life’s minefield of man-made hazards like poverty, junk food, and yes, guns. And to better achieve that end may I suggest the repeal of the Second Amendment to henceforth be replaced with an amendment that reads: “A safe and healthy people, being necessary to the prosperity of a free state, the right of individuals to keep and bear arms shall be severely restricted.”
Dan and Isabelle sit patiently on the folding metal chairs in the tastefully decorated waiting room of Seattle’s Ballard Food Bank. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and in his late 50s, Dan is a chronically underemployed architectural draftsman who barely managed to eke out three days of temporary work over the past week. His unemployment benefits have long since evaporated and he’s thinking about applying for food stamps, although he cringes as the words leave his mouth. With his shrunken income dedicated to keeping a roof over his head, he and Isabelle are two among 1,200 or so neighborhood residents who will request a shopping cart-full of food this week at the food bank.
Peggy Bailey, Ballard’s Operation Manager, is one of those dedicated, unflappable souls whose work holds the lives of others together as the larger universe spins out of control. Her recitation of statistics is the “growth” story that you’ll hear from any of the 60,000 emergency food sites across America. “In 2001 we were serving about 350 people per week; four years ago it was 450; now we’re serving between 1,100 and 1,200.” Peggy escorts me past tattooed skateboarders, young women clutching babies, and unshaven men for whom a good night is a dry patch of grass underneath a bridge.
Like all the 25 volunteers (out of a total of 100) on hand this day – good neighbors who keep the flow of people safe and dignified – Peggy beams with pride over the food, large walk-in refrigerators, and the recently retrofitted 6,200-square-foot machine shop that’s been their new home for only a year (after relocating from their cramped, dilapidated home of nearly 40 years). Almost half of the available food is produce, some of which comes from nearby Pea Patch community gardens and local fruit tree gleaners. An abundant supply of artisan bread, fresh dairy products, and even enough frozen meat to give each person two packages, fill the shelves. Not only can you select from a rather remarkable range of products: e.g. microwaveable entrees that retail for $9.00 at Trader Joes, there’s also a “no-cook” section that, in an average month, serves 350 people without kitchens. In addition, nearly 100 bags are assembled and delivered weekly to shut-ins and people with special dietary needs.
Unlike food banks in days of yore, Ballard does more than give away food. If you don’t have a permanent address, they’ll act as your personal post office box, a service currently used by 480 people. Case workers from the Department of Social and Health Services try to connect food bank users with SNAP (food stamps) as well as medical and dental services. Need help paying your rent or electrical bill? You can apply for a $300 voucher for the former and $200 voucher for the latter.
When I asked Peggy how she keeps up with the demand for food, she told me, almost blithely, that enough food was not a problem. In a comment that would make her the envy of every food bank worker in America, she said, “We’ve never had to turn anyone away due to lack of food. This is a very generous community. We have Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Safeway and dozens of other food donors.” While supporting five paid staff, three trucks, and a good-size modern facility, the food bank gets 95% of its operating funds from private donations, receiving only $40,000 per year from Seattle city government. One anonymous individual, for instance, gives the Ballard Food Bank $2,000 each month just to buy fresh dairy products.
In contrast to the generosity of the surrounding neighborhoods, you have the U.S. House of Representatives. If the miracles that these Seattle residents pull off every day make Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 look like a cheap card trick, the House majority’s proposal to slash $3 billion from SNAP, WIC, and TEFAP makes Scrooge look like a Salvation Army volunteer. At a time when the nation’s economy is still on life support and when a record 43 million Americans are receiving food stamps, the House Republicans want to hack the safety net with a machete while leaving the silver cutlery of hedge fund operators untarnished. Take from the poor, but don’t touch a dime of the rich.
Ballard is a human-scale urban environment whose sloping landscape gently lowers you to the shores of the Puget Sound. On street corners, food bank volunteers greet the homeless people by name, who, in turn, respond in a friendly manner, pleased that there are people who don’t avert their eyes. Stroll a few blocks north of Market Street, and you’ll come to a lovely park where grassy slopes and park benches are populated by homeless men catching a ray or two of Seattle’s stingy sunlight. In the opposite corner is a small skateboard tunnel where young dudes, hat brims cocked at precise angles, practice their chutes and curls. Between the skaters and the homeless are several fountains that spray giggling toddlers cheered on by happy moms.
The park reflects Ballard’s values: there’s room for everybody, diversity is encouraged, and the community does its darnedest to meet everyone’s needs. But, beneath this cloak of tolerance, there is a creeping sense that there may be limits to what any group of caring people can do. Perhaps it’s symbolized by the police cruiser stationed just across the street from the “homeless end” of the park. Maybe you hear it in the voices of the young men at the food pantry who were too ashamed to give me their names, but did say that in spite of a couple of years of college they couldn’t find jobs. “We’re not trained for anything.” Or perhaps you can smell it on the breath of the middle-aged drunken man, who according to Peggy had been “doing so well up until now.”
If the House Republicans have their way, the Ballard Food Bank’s waiting room could very well become so crowded that the smiling volunteers will be replaced by stern-faced security guards. When I asked John, an 87-year old food bank volunteer of 12 years, what he thought was behind the ever rising number of clients, he said emphatically, “It’s all about the economy. I see how embarrassed people are who are asking for help, but you can either sleep on the street or come to the food bank.” One has to ask if that is the vision that the budget cutting, non-taxing conservative minority have for America. If that is true, and every statement from the Republican leadership seems to suggest that it is, then one has to ask where the rage is at this time in our nation’s history.
How big must food banks get to contain the ever-swelling legions of un- and underemployed workers? How much food will Ballard’s neighborhood grocers have to donate to ensure that all the young mothers can feed themselves as well as their babies? Is there indeed a tipping point when community compassion can no longer clean up the mess made by mean-spirited politicians who avert their eyes from the growing victims of a failed American dream?
Evelyn, 87, has been volunteering at the Ballard Food Bank for 15 years, longer than anyone else. She’s a feisty, retired machinist who worked for a Boeing Aircraft subcontractor. Sitting at a table where she was sorting nuts into small plastic bags for the home delivery sacks, Evelyn shared the most commonly expressed reason for volunteering at food banks. “If you’ve been blessed, you have to give back.” Yes, I said, I’d heard that sentiment from many people in the emergency food world, but I wondered if there wasn’t something else. At that point the fiery machinist union member took over from the charitable grandmother. Growing up during the Great Depression on a Minnesota farm, she did not need the reason for rage explained to her. “Things have to change in this country,” she said, eyes narrowing and pronouncing each syllable more distinctly. “The idea of not taxing the rich is ridiculous. We have to stop farm and oil subsidies. We got to get politicians to care about people all the time, not just when they’re trying to get elected.”
Compassion and “giving back” may not be sustainable when one class of Americans lives under the House Republicans’ Golden Fleece, while bourgeoning flocks live under highway overpasses. So that compassion may live, we must sometimes release the rage.
Today's post is from Alexis Rizzuto, the editor of nature and environmental books at Beacon Press.
In spring every gardener's fancy turns to thoughts of planting. But I cannot write about my own garden without first writing about my great-grandmother's. Though I never met that remarkable Sicilian, and her garden had become a parking lot by the time I was born, I long nonetheless for the place she made.
Biaggia Rizzo left Sicily in 1911 with her husband Salvatore, and settled in Malden, now a densely packed suburb of Boston, but then considered "the country." There, they bought a parcel of land with a small house on it. They added a third storey (for extended family), built a huge greenhouse, planted an orchard, and began cultivating the land, as they had in their home country. They also raised rabbits and chickens.
Salvatore died a few years later, leaving Biaggia to raise their only child—my five-year-old grandmother Josephine—on her own. From then on, she supported them both through the work of her hands. She grew vegetable and herb seedlings in the greenhouse, to sell and to plant. She raised peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, string beans, celery, eggplant, parsley, basil. And as my grandmother remembered, "Everything she planted seemed to thrive."
In Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, food activist and journalist Mark Winne poses questions too often overlooked in our current conversations around food: What about those people who are not financially able to make conscientious choices about where and how to get food? And in a time of rising rates of both diabetes and obesity, what can we do to make healthier foods available for everyone? In this video, he looks at encouraging signs that we are making progress toward closing some of the biggest gaps in our food system.
The outstretched limbs of Savannah's live oaks sent dappled sunlight along a wide promenade separating two rows of farm stalls in Forsyth Park. The Saturday morning farmers market was in full swing, with boxes heaped high with red peppers, collard greens, and bright orange carrots.
Hilton Graham was doing a brisk business in just-picked organic produce from his nearby Telfair County farm. Dressed in an old polo shirt and well-worn jeans, Graham was assisted by two sheepish teenage boys whose baggy shorts and designer sweatshirts gave them a decidedly un-farmer like appearance. While one hand was fluffing up bunches of greens and the other pointing his helpers in the direction of a waiting customer, he told me with a big wide grin that, "It's a great day for a market, and as crazy as this place gets, it still gives me peace of mind being here."
But the experience of Graham and other African-Americans farmers selling organic produce in this park at this time is not just another farmers' market story. Excluded for decades after World War Two from public funds that helped white farmers prosper, black farmers have also been left out of the growing ranks of organic farming, a movement that is giving small farmers across the country a chance at success. Fortunately, that is now changing. By taking matters into their own hands, black farmers formed the Southeast African American Organic Network (SAAFON). And at the same time that they were converting more of their members to organic agriculture, black farmers, with partners in local multiracial organizations, were organizing a farmers' market in a public space previously denied to them.