President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress can’t afford to turn their attention to reforming the food system. We’ve got two wars to fight, the Middle East conflict is raging again, the financial system is in chaos, and layoffs are mounting. And don’t forget the likelihood of trillion-dollar annual budget deficits for years to come. Food, it’s clear, is just too banal when matched up against those challenges. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. Even some veteran food-reform advocates accept the “food-must-wait” logic. “I think it’s somewhere between naïve and fairy tale to think [Obama's] No. 1 focus is going to …
Foodies have been wondering who will feed the Obamas when they move into the White House on January 20. Some gourmands and sustainable-food advocates have argued that a chef who will focus on local and organic foods should replace current White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford. Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and restaurateurs Alice Waters and Danny Meyer sent a letter to Obama asking him to pick a chef who is sustainability-minded, and might even use foods from a White House garden. Michael Pollan called for the same thing. Reichl and friends even offered to help Obama find the right chef for the job. "A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter," they wrote. "Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation." But sustainable foodies won't get their way on this one (just as they didn't with Obama's choice for secretary of agriculture). The Obamas are planning to keep the current chef, a transition official says.
The great Mark Bittman -- whose new book I am eager to get my paws on -- delivers a powerful spiel connecting the industrial food system with climate change and the health-care crisis. Watch it.
In the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to meet and experience a vast variety of inspiring food, environmental, and agricultural people and places. I met small-farmers in Ethiopia experimenting with pit composting instead of synthetic fertilizers. I shared meals with activists and writers in the sustainable food movement like Tom Philpott and Anna Lappé. Perhaps most exciting has been the increasing interest in sustainable food and agriculture throughout this country and among my family and friends. Helping my parents start composting, sharing books with friends, and watching the enthusiasm for a "Farmer in Chief" left me hopeful and excited at the end of 2008. My vision came to a screeching halt when I saw a television ad during the holidays that left me laughing: Burger King trounces around the world feeding Whoppers to unsuspecting indigenous peoples in hopes of spreading the gospel of fast food. What a great parody, I thought! Who could have thought up such an ironic idea? And as the website for Whopper Virgins flashed on the screen, I had a sinking feeling that, like those high-fructose corn syrup ads, perhaps this Burger King film was no parody. It turns out that the ad was actually an excerpt of a longer seven-minute film. The very concept of this idea -- flying around the world, feeding hamburgers to people who have never eaten hamburgers -- is in itself strange. For the first half of the film, the crew travels to Romania where they feed utterly confused people Whoppers and Big Macs from nearby restaurant locations. Strangely enough, it seems like the same number of people has no preference or prefers the Big Mac as compared to the Whopper.
Recycling is a hassle. Let’s face it, separating our garbage into distinct categories is a drag at the least and can sometimes feel downright foolish. You stand at your sink peeling the label of the can of tomatoes, rinsing it thoroughly, and making sure it goes in the right bin, all the while looking out the window at the smokestack on the horizon from the latest “clean coal” plant they built in defiance of your adamant protests. In my restaurant we have a similar dilemma, compounded by sheer volume and the weight of time constraints. Our smokestack on the horizon, …
Will Obama lead food and ag policy in new directions? He raised hope late in the campaign season, when he indicated he had read -- and understood -- Michael Pollan's "Farmer in Chief" essay. Since then, things have turned more dour. Obama made a boldly conventional pick for USDA chief -- a corn-belt ex-governor with ties to the GMO and biofuel industries. And now the chief adviser to this campaign on agricultural issues, Marshall Matz, has come out with a Chicago Tribune op-ed advocating a business-as-usual approach to ag policy. Matz co-wrote the piece with Democratic Party eminence grise (and farm-state politician) George McGovern.
Vermont's expansion of the food stamp program is an important story, one that demonstrates an increasing shift in our society's relationship to its food. Vermont's policy change on food stamps is likely to be mirrored by other states, and this represents both a fundamental shift in the reality of American need and also, I think, the final stake in the heart of the industrial food system. From the Times Argus:
Obama's nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as USDA chief is turning into a strange saga. First a crew of Big Organic execs join forces with a few activists to launch an enigmatic website to "support Vilsack" -- even though he's a shoo-in for confirmation. Now comes this, from the Daily News "Mouth of the Potomac" blog: A well-placed source says one option under consideration in filling the now vacant commerce secretary's slot is to tap ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for the job. Vilsack already has been named to serve as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary, and easily could move into the commerce position. The source tells The Mouth that Vilsack would be "a perfect choice" for Obama. Huh? I don't understand how it would be "easy" to move a nominee from one agency to another; seems like it would be politically messy. "He's the ideal USDA pick ... no, I mean, he's the ideal commerce pick!" But the transition team has already vetted Vilsack; maybe that's what the reporter meant by "easy." If the switch did happen, we'd be back to square one viz., the USDA: with the Obama team circulating a rather dismal short list, while activists push a more progressive choice. Update [2009-1-7 13:25:46 by Tom Philpott]:According to "sources close to" Vilsack, the ex-governor of Iowa won't be moved from USDA to commerce, Des Moines television station KCCI reported Wednesday. Vilsack is in Washington, D.C., "interviewing candidates for future [USDA] staff positions."
A group of NGO chiefs, activists, and Big Organic executives have launched a website and petition to support Tom Vilsack, president-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead USDA. Participants in the site, known as supportvilsack.com, include Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation; Iowa sustainable-food activist Denise O'Brien (who recently guest-posted on Gristmill); Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the U.S. Humane Society; Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic-yogurt giant Stonyfield Farm; Steve Demos, founder of soy-food giant White Wave (now owned by industrial-dairy behemoth Dean Foods); and several others. Institutionally, the Organic Trade Association -- whose members range from tiny producers of hemp products to global agribiz giant Bunge -- signed on. The effort strikes me as bizarre. Why band together to support someone who's a shoo-in to be confirmed? Vilsack is no firebrand reformer; his nomination will generate little controversy in the Senate. Moreover, I understand the argument -- made on Gristmill by O'Brien and by John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs -- that Vilsack is a relatively innocuous pick. After all, Obama's short list of USDA candidates included some real doozies, like agribusiness lobbyist Charles Stenholm. But Vilsack isn't likely to lead U.S. food/agriculture policy in new, more sustainable and socially just directions -- at least not without a real push from below. As I've written before (and many others have pointed out), he has been a fervent booster of the genetically modified seed and biofuel industries -- both of which proffer what I think are dead-end "solutions" to environmental problems and offer little to any but the largest-scale and most commodity-oriented farmers. I agree with the thesis that the sustainable-food movement should "work with" Vilsack, in the sense of pushing him to chart new directions in food/ag policy. But the "support Vilsack" movement (if it can be called that) seems less like a push than an uncritical embrace. Why, again?