I understand the United States is having one of those big sports moments when football fans come together to eat their favorite foods and see who will become champion. I believe it’s tradition that football and crunchy snacks go together. Why? That’s a question too big for an answer. Unfortunately, and especially when children are involved, the temptation is to get that satisfying crunch from chips, or some other form of convenience (i.e.: junk) food.
I admit I have been known to hover too eagerly over the potato chip bowl at children’s birthday parties and other events. But I like it when there’s a platter of something perhaps a little more wholesome available as an alternative or just in addition to all the other food.
So what if you like football, you like crunchy snacks, but you don’t really want junk food?
During the early days of my life in Rome, before I had a child, when there was just my husband James and I getting to know our new home by walking all over the city, eating in little restaurants, learning to cook by shopping in our local market, among my first impressions of life in this city was the pleasure people seemed to take in the simplest of meals. The anxieties that I often felt about eating, about making healthy choices melted away in the presence of all this delight in food. Objectively, much of the food could be considered healthy—the bean soups, the bitter greens—but health wasn’t the objective. James observed that we as outsiders could never completely understand the deep joy the Italians around us experienced when presented with a plate of pasta. A good fresh plate of ravioli with sage and butter continually reminds them of their own lives, their own history; it is a part of who they are.
So when some friends suggested that we spend a Saturday cooking dinner together with our children, I felt it was a good opportunity for my son to see how this attitude toward food is passed to another generation.
Highland Hills is one of those down-and-nearly-out communities that’s allowed a glimpse of prosperity but never gets to taste it. The Dallas skyline looms large and shining across the hazy north Texas horizon and is linked to this poverty-plagued neighborhood by a seven-mile ribbon of light-rail steel. Ledbetter Avenue crosses the train line passing by vacant buildings, vast stretches of empty parking lots, and a dizzying array of “For Sale,” “For Lease” and “For Jesus” signs. Named for the renowned guitar picker Lead Belly who did time in these parts – both in and out of prison – the Avenue speaks little in the way of promise, but wails the blues of poverty loud and clear.
Like cockroaches in a post-nuclear winter, the neighborhood’s only commercial survivors appear to be pawn shops, Dollar stores, and fast-food joints. One supermarket, a Minyard whose cinder-blocked and windowless façade is about as inviting as the entrance to Stalag 13, is the only retail food source in the several surrounding miles of food desert. But a lifeline from an unlikely source has been tossed Highland Hills’s way by a group of innovative academics. Paul Quinn College, a historically black college that sits just off Interstate 45 at the neighborhood’s eastern edge, is committed to lifting its neighboring community’s physical and economic health with a combination of food, farming, and servant leadership.
There’s no little irony in this partnership. To drive by the Paul Quinn campus is to, well, keep on driving. There are no signature ivy-clad buildings or tree-shaded quads to invite college-shopping families for a leisurely tour. In fact, the first roadside buildings you see are in various states of demolition, reflecting, in part, the plunge in student enrollment from 600 to 100 (it’s now climbed back to 200) and the school’s loss of accreditation (it’s been able recently to earn back probationary status). At first glance anyway, and like the adjoining neighborhood it wants to help, Paul Quinn appears to be hanging on to life by no more than a pea tendril.
But first glances are deceiving, and pea tendrils are stronger than they look. And when your back's to the wall and nobody, even your own government, will help you, you fight like hell, you do the unexpected, and you take risks.
In Paul Quinn’s case, not only did the college take risks, it committed a grievous sin, at least by Texas standards – they terminated their football program and turned their field into an organic farm. Yes, in the shadow of the Super Bowl, with the specter of Tom Landry looking down, and the holy glare of Friday night lights forever dimmed, Paul Quinn ripped up its sacred turf where football cleats once tread, and planted – goalpost to goalpost – peas, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and more, lots more.
While the roar from the football stands may have subsided, it doesn’t mean that the field has fallen silent. When Andrea Bithell, the farm manager, announced to student and staff volunteers that the kohlrabi had gone in last week, everyone cheered. Showing a group of farm visitors where the corn would be planted later this spring evoked a round of applause from several students who proclaimed their love of its sweet kernels. Indeed the competitive spirit and enthusiasm so much a part of college athletics is hardly lacking at “Food for Good Farm,” the name chosen to denote it’s larger mission of education, community service, and healthy food for all. Sounding more like a coach than a farmer, Andrea uses words like hustle to describe her student crew’s hectic effort to plant and seed the two-acre field. When the volunteers complained about working in the cold and the rain, they were reminded that football games are played in all kinds of weather. Even the plants are forced to compete in a set of 12 trial beds located in the field’s south end zone. Here students will test different growing methods and evaluate their potential financial rate of return.
Elizabeth Wattley, Paul Quinn’s Director of Service Learning, proclaimed with pride that the farm’s tomatoes were better than anything she’d ever bought in a grocery store (she confessed that until her introduction to the farm during its first spring in 2010 she had been afraid of dirt). One student, biology major Symphonie Dawson, giggled when she described the farm’s mascot emblazoned on their t-shirts. “It’s the ‘Fighting Okra,’ an image of the vegetable wearing boxing gloves. We chose it because last year’s okra crop seemed to go on forever.” The “Rah-rah, Go Team, Go!” energy previously reserved for football games has been channeled into the end-zone to end-zone planting of 1,500 strawberry plants, 6,600 onions, a new asparagus bed, and dozens of varieties of vegetables. “The farm is the light of the college,” is the assertive way Elizabeth put it.
For a school that was on the ropes, Paul Quinn has gained a reprieve by discovering the multiple benefits of farming while also turning its attention outward to the community. One prominent need that the farm is already addressing is healthy living and eating, no small concern on today’s college campuses, especially one that is surrounded by a food desert. “Before their work on the farm, students wouldn’t eat carrots unless they were smothered in Ranch dressing,” noted Andrea. But by getting their hands in the dirt – a task that usually took two or three visits to the farm to get past the “yuck” declaration – students started eating carrots right out of the ground, dirt and all. “They actually taste,” said Elizabeth, pausing for a moment to find the right adjective, “carrot-tee.”
By engaging students enrolled in the school’s biology and social entrepreneurship courses, the farm gives scores of people in their late teens and early twenties a chance to get hands-on laboratory experience at the same time they get their hands in the dirt. Even the students who don’t care to venture into the world of bugs and compost get a taste of the farm’s output. Paul Quinn’s cafeteria now offers a monthly feature designed to showcase the farm’s harvest and introduce students to food that is healthy, tasty, and oh-so local. But Jasmine Wynn, a freshman legal study major, may have summed up the farm’s health benefits best. “I’m a city girl from Dallas, and for me the farm was something new. I liked being out there. I also started getting serious about my diet last year and decided that organic food is better for you. It’s just part of a healthier lifestyle, and I want to stick around for a long time.”
The lack of farming experience or a farm background has not been a deterrent to anyone’s participation, including Paul Quinn’s President Michael J. Sorrell. With public policy and law degrees from Duke University, his stellar resume indicates he has represented American Airlines and Morgan Stanley, served on numerous prestigious commissions including an assignment at the White House, and was selected in 2009 as one of the 10 Best Historically Black College and University presidents. Notably lacking from Dr. Sorrell’s career synopsis, however, are any agricultural credentials, and ironically, his business achievements include representing top-flight athletes like Utah Jazz All-Star Deron Williams. So why did he eliminate the football program and then have the audacity to convert the field to a farm?
A big part of the answer no doubt lies in his personal commitment to the concept of servant leadership, which, like the farm, he brought to Paul Quinn. With such simple but difficult to live by ideas like putting others before self, leaving the world a better place than you found it, and maintaining a spiritual faithfulness, Dr. Sorrell not only preaches what he practices (he personally teaches a freshman course in servant leadership), he practices what he preaches. And the farm is at the center of that practice.
Isaiah 58: 9-12 gets prominent mention on the College’s website which also touts the school’s Christian underpinnings. The scripture admonishes us (some would say “teaches us”) “to pour yourself out for the hungry…then shall your light rise in the darkness…and you shall be like a watered garden.” Holding aside the self-interest in doing good (and why not?), The Food for Good Farm has its heart and mind set on serving the hardscrabble community that surrounds it. Though a share of the harvest goes to the school’s cafeteria, 10 percent goes to a local food pantry, a sizeable share is also sold on a weekly basis to the community from the field’s former hot dog stand, and just to preserve some historical symmetry, the Dallas Cowboys buy a small share of the farm’s organic veggies, which, if sustained over time, will no doubt catapult “America’s Team” into a Super Bowl.
The school’s initial attempt to solve the community’s food access problem was to offer free land to any supermarket that wanted to build a store there. But there were no takers in a marketplace where nearly 40 percent of the residents lived in poverty. So like in days of old when the nearest general store was 100 miles away, and your only choice was to shoot or grow your dinner, Paul Quinn took to farming. The “adaptive re-use” of the football area has been impressive under Andrea’s and Elizabeth’s leadership. Not only are the hash stripes gone but so are the top four inches of sod and dirt that were replaced by dump truck loads of pure organic matter. Reflecting the program’s absolute commitment to organic farming, there was simply too much distrust of the chemical residues from years of maintaining a perfectly green gridiron. The goalposts remain as do the blocking sled, scoreboard and the entire set of bleachers running the length of both sides of the field. But the former press box is about to be turned into a chicken coop and Elizabeth retains some hope that the bleachers can be retrofitted as a greenhouse. Acres of adjoining and nearly vacant land are already being eyed for farm expansion, especially if a recently applied for federal grant comes through. On the day this reporter visited, a local apiarist was scouting out locations for nearly a dozen beehives. And according to Symphonie, the campus’s coolest guy, a very sharp dresser from Brooklyn, NY, wants to join the “bee program.”
None of this extraordinary progress has come cheaply. Elizabeth estimates that well over $100,000 in capital expenditures have been required to accomplish this conversion, and the on-going operating costs –Andrea is on the payroll half-time as is a variety of students who receive some compensation, especially during the summer season – are only marginally offset by farm sales. An upcoming April fundraiser featuring urban farming rock star Will Allen will hopefully swell the coffers sufficiently to enable the farm to buy its own tractor (it now pays for contract equipment services).
But the rapid development of the farm and the rising fortunes of Paul Quinn College have come with a price – small or large depending on your perspective. The Good Food Farm is the result of a fifty/fifty partnership between the college and PepsiCo’s Food for Good Initiative. The college makes it clear that this is an equal partnership and that PepsiCo has not placed any strings on their giving. While Elizabeth acknowledges some inherent contradictions – yes, Pepsi and other soda manufacturers have contributed more than their fair share of calories to America’s obesity crisis – she feels their support has been entirely above board. Other than cleaning up its tarnished image, one cannot detect either covert or overt sinister motives in PepsiCo’s support. Yet, with 11 teaspoons of sugar in each 12 ounce can of Pepsi-Cola and their ferocious attempt over the years to hook children with their iconic brand, one can’t help but confront the ethical contradictions: where does the greater good lie, and when does one begin to slide down the slippery slope? Though the Bible offers little in the way of guidance when dealing with the PR strategies of modern corporations (obesity, for instance, having not appeared on the world stage for another 2000 years), the college might choose to at least make the topic grist for future classroom discussions.
In the meantime, it’s hard to argue with the outcome of the Paul Quinn/PepsiCo partnership. Texas has one less football field and one more organic farm, clearly a net gain for humanity. Students from the captain of the basketball team to entering freshman are eating better, getting over their aversion to bugs, and getting their hands in the dirt (Symphonie noted that her nails look much healthier now that she regularly jams them into the soil). And the Highland Hills neighborhood is enjoying the health and aesthetic benefits of living adjacent to Dallas’s closest farm.
Under Dr. Sorrell’s able leadership Paul Quinn is rising from the ashes, or should we say compost pile. Elizabeth and Andrea are guiding the growth of what would be considered an ambitious venture at a major university let alone a college as small as Paul Quinn. And the Fighting Okra, well, they just might be on their way to a national championship.
This fall I had the privilege of releasing my second book Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. As it makes the rounds of book reviews, and I tour the interview and lecture circuit – casting myself as it were to the lions of the marketplace – I have found that the book's first responders are drawn to its main title and less so to the subtitle. This is as I expected. People naturally want to hear stories about doers, real-life action heroes, and pioneers who might lead us out of the wilderness of the industrial food system. They are eager to get their hands in the dirt and less patient with the intellectual gymnastics required to deconstruct the half-truths of Big Food and its kissing cousin, Big Agriculture. The philosophical framework, so to speak, that mountaintop above the din and the thrum of the real world where many writers, including this one, love to dwell, is too often by-passed by the harried reader earnestly searching for a shortcut to the answer.
So allow me to use this space to reacquaint you, diligent reader, with the Big Idea of Food Rebels and why, in my humble opinion, it matters. I opened the book with a few lines from from Fyodor Dostoevsky's parable The Grand Inquisitor: "Today, people are persuaded more than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet…And we alone shall feed them…Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'" I spare little subtlety in drawing a parallel between this iconic passage of Western literature and the industrial food system's quest to control the hearts and minds of us, the dependent food consumer. After all, we know, as the industrial food system loves to remind us, that we are staring down the twin barrels of too many people and too little food.
Interestingly, the same lead was used in a recent review of Food Rebels by "Food Safety News." After going on for nearly three pages with an accurate, blow-by-blow account of the book's main points, the reviewer concludes with "Although Winne delivers strong arguments for the alternative food system, his book too glibly disparages the benefits of the industrial food system—namely, an inexpensive food supply, a system that can meet the growing worldwide food demand…." So, in the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, let me offer a selective retrospective of the industrial food system's sins for 2010 'less them "be forgot, and never brought to mind."
In one of the more brazen attempts by a corporation to disguise itself as a locally owned business, Starbucks is un-branding at least three of it Seattle outlets.
The first of these conversions, reopening this week after extensive remodeling, will be called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. All of the signage and product labels will bear this new name. The Starbucks corporate logo will be no where to be seen.
We're continuing our commitment to delivering specialty coffee excellence while refreshing our store design approach with amplified focus on local relevance... Ultimately, we hope customers will feel an enhanced sense of community and a deeper connection to our coffee heritage.
This is the latest, and arguably most audacious, in a string of corporate attempts to imitate and co-opt local-ness (see a recent investigation at New Rules Project: The Corporate Co-Opt of Local).
Starbucks learned how to act like a locally owned, neighborhood café by studying several independent coffeehouses in Seattle. One was Seattle Coffee Works, a small, 300-square-foot café. On the café's blog, co-owner Sebastian Simsch writes:
Last winter, three separate delegations of Starbucks folks came by. Each time they filled our little store so that no one else could fit in. Usually they didn’t introduce themselves, and one delegation even lied, saying they were just a group of Japanese tourists. They didn’t buy a single drink.
Starbucks people also logged many hours at Victrola Coffee Roasters. "They spent the last 12 months in our store with these obnoxious folders that said, 'Observation,'" owner Dan Ollis told the Seattle Times.
In the most obvious rip-off of an independent business, the décor of the new 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, which the Seattle Times describes as a "rustic, eco-friendly style," is virtually identical to that of Smith, a successful bar next door. Owner Linda Derschang says Starbucks copied everything, from her vintage industrial light fixtures to her wooden seats, and even asked one of her managers where the bar's awnings came from. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she noted:
It's got a lot of salvaged wood, it's the same paint color inside as Smith and some of the wood framed chalkboards look very, very similar… Where's the independent spirit in knocking someone off?
Starbucks plans to convert at least three of its Seattle outlets to uniquely named neighborhood coffeehouses. If the experiment proves successful, the approach will be extended to more of the chain's 16,000 outlets.
Starbucks has struggled over the last year. Some 600 outlets have been shuttered in a bid to cut costs. Yesterday, Starbucks reported that same-store sales were down 5 percent in the last quarter, after declines of 8 and 9 percent in the previous two quarters.
This is part two of a two-part story. Read part one here.
The Power and the Politics of Big Dairy
Nothing gets as big as the dairy industry in New Mexico without political support and the strategic exercise of economic power. The hardhat adorned photo of New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson, proudly displayed by the New Mexico Dairy Producers Association at statewide agricultural expositions, breaking ground at the Clovis cheese plant is testimony to political support for the industry. In the words of Cindy Padilla, [former] Director of the Water and Waste Management Division of the NM Environment Department (NMED), the state agency responsible for issuing and monitoring dairy wastewater discharge permits, "our agency must balance the need for economic development with environmental protection." The question, however, is precisely where is that balance.
Under the provisions of the U.S. Clean Water Act a prospective dairy operator in New Mexico must first obtain a wastewater discharge permit from the NMED. The evaluation of the application is based solely on the conditions at the proposed site of the dairy farm and representations made by the applicant. The NMED does not evaluate conditions in the surrounding area such as the number of dairy farms already in existence, the proximity of those farms to that of the permit applicant, or the total impact that a certain number of farms could have on the public's health or environment. In fact, according to Ms. Padilla, there is no upward limit on the number of permits the department can issue, which means the number of dairy farms is only limited by the amount of land and water rights dairymen can purchase.
Air quality oversight fares even worse. In spite of the concerns raised by residents of Curry and Roosevelt counties, including the high rates of asthma, the NMED does not monitor air quality anywhere in New Mexico except in the state's southern-most region. According to department spokesman, John Goldstein, "we have no plans to monitor air quality in dairy areas at this time."
Just an hour west of Texas, the gentle swells of New Mexico's high plains calm to a pancake flat sea of grass. Crossing into Curry and Roosevelt counties at the state's eastern edge, the empty landscape, broken only by the occasional grain elevator and abandoned village, quickly gives way to a discomfiting motion. Strung out along the highway's edge in a nearly unbroken chain are cow pens filled with thousands of black and white Holsteins slithering in the summer heat like giant schools of beached eels.
Got milk? Eat Taco Bell cheese? Slurp Yoplait yogurt? Chances are pretty good this is where the main ingredient comes from. Curry and Roosevelt counties now enjoy the dubious distinction of being at the heart of the Great American West's dairy industrial complex. With barely 20,000 dairy animals in 1992, the two counties now feed, milk, and clean up after 120,000 cows at 58 operating dairy farms, a number that by all accounts will double in a few short years. And to sop up all this milk (only 30% is used for fluid consumption), Curry County is now home to North America's largest cheese plant, which extrudes a Velveeta-like product at the rate of one truckload per hour.
What do these many farms do to a place? At four tons of manure per cow annually, 120,000 cows produce as much excrement as the city of Los Angeles. The odor in the surrounding communities is bad enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon, and the hordes of flies stop outdoor picnics before the potato salad is uncovered. Besides being a nuisance, the winged insects are also disease vectors for a variety of bacteria-related illnesses. They may be one reason why Curry County's asthma rate is three times higher than New Mexico's statewide average.
But the dairy industry's most problematic contribution is not easily seen or sniffed. Since large dairy farms – labeled by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – and milk processing facilities use more of the region's limited water supply than other users, they present a serious threat to the counties' main water source, the Ogallala Aquifer. And at the same time that the industry is sucking the ground dry, nitrates from the manure are finding their way back into the ground water in such concentrations as to alarm public health workers and state officials.
For some, these events may mean that those weekly strolls down the tastefully lit aisles of Whole Foods now become monthly. For those who have naturally spurned such discount pariahs as Wal-Mart, second thoughts may be in order.
But for another class of American shoppers, rising food prices, whether organic or conventional, is just another bump in the road on an already trying journey. I’m speaking of low-income families, and increasingly low-to-middle income families who now find themselves treading closer to the lower end of the income spectrum.
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statute would be to refrain from publishing this material entirely,” He
said. “Attempting to determine, book by book, what may fall under the
purview of the satute, including whether there are any ‘sexually
explicit’ portions and if so whether such portions ‘serve some purpose
other than titillation’ (even if I knew what that meant) is totally
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Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.