Florida’s poisoned farmworkers, chefs schooled, Big Food’s raking it in
When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
The fruits of industrial agriculture
In the Atlantic, Barry Estabrook has a great, infuriating short piece showing an instance in which agribusiness has shown “utter disregard for the environment and for the welfare of workers.” It’s not pretty. It involves a tract of drained swampland at the edge of a lake in Florida, “almost in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom.” For decades, it was the site of chemical-intensive vegetable production, and workers and the lake were subjected to “a veritable witch’s brew of endocrine-disrupting organochlorine pesticides.” In the 1990s, the State of Florida bought the land and shut down the farms. The land owners raked in millions of dollars on the deal — but the lake is now dead, and the former workers are riddled with a variety of maladies. Like Estabrook’s award-winning 2009 Gourmet article on slavery on Florida’s industrial tomato fields, this piece draws attention to a group of people treated like disposable pawns for cheap food.
Can chefs change the school-lunch menu?
As part of the Let’s Move campaign, Michelle Obama and White House assistant chef Sam Kass are mobilizing America’s chefs, urging them to “adopt a school” and get involved with lunch preparation. The White House kicked off the program with an event last week, inviting hundreds of chefs to the White House to traipse through the famous vegetable garden and hear a speech from the First Lady on the South Lawn. Kim O’Donnel has an eyewitness account of the festivities on True/Slant.
I like the idea of linking chefs to schools in their communities. But it’s hard to fathom what they can practically do to improve lunches, given the harsh budgetary constraints, a widespread lack of cooking facilities in schools, and their own limited time. Volunteer chefs are unlikely to transform cafeteria offerings, but they could still play inspirational and political roles. Jane Black makes that point in a Washington Post piece, quoting “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper:
“We’ve grown a generation of children who think chicken nugget is a food group,” [Cooper] says. “I think the thing that makes the most sense for chefs who know nothing about school food, which is most of them, is to use our newfound celebrity status to get kids to think about food, taste food, cherish food in the way that we do.” As for larger political aims? “Maybe the answer is that in addition to adopting a school, we should all adopt a congressperson,” Cooper says. Maybe all we really need to do is take them to a school and show them what we feed our kids.”
And that’s exactly what Grist contributor Ed Bruske recommends in this post.
It takes a mountain to feed a corn field
Industrial agriculture relies heavily on mined phosphorous, a key macronutrient for plant growth. As I’ve writtem before, global phosphate rock reserves are pretty tight, and concentrated in a very few regions, most of them geopolitically perilous. Moreover, extracting it is ecologically destructive. (Remind you of any other society-underpinning commodity?)
The main U.S. deposits are in Florida, and mining them causes significant ecological damage. The mountains of Southern Idaho, too, have the misfortune of holding rich stores of the stuff. As this essay in High Country News by Jeff Welsch shows, the fertilizer industry has trashed swaths of the area in pursuit of phosphate, leaving behind no fewer than 17 Superfund sites in its wake. Despite its failure to deal with those messes, Welsch reports, the industry wants access to more public land. Did I mention that one of the companies involved is Monsanto, which evidently needs phosphate to make its Roundup herbicide? Writes Welsch:
Simplot wants to take the unprecedented step of purchasing more than 1,100 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands for a toxic-waste impoundment to accompany its new Dairy Syncline mine near Soda Springs. Monsanto is eager to build a mine almost literally on the banks of the Blackfoot River, already fouled by deadly selenium runoff. Agrium, a Canadian company whose advertisement for a new mine manager ironically touts southeast Idaho’s “beautiful mountains” and “great” outdoor recreation opportunities, is set to level some of those beautiful mountains at a new mine site near the Blackfoot’s headwaters.
Meat me in New York
As a New York resident in the early 2000s, I enjoyed the dizzying variety of fantastic produce available at the city’s Greenmarkets. But there was very little meat available. That has changed dramatically, Kim Severson reports in The New York Times. Writes Severson:
A record 34 sellers of local, pastured livestock will spread out among the 50 New York City Greenmarkets that will operate this summer. That’s on top of sellers of local chicken, whose numbers have tripled in the past couple years, said June Russell, the farm inspections manager for the outdoor markets.
By “livestock,” I’m sure she meant meat — I doubt they’re auctioning cows and pigs in Union Square (yet, anyway). But that’s impressive growth, especially given that “custom slaughtering facilities remain hard to find,” as Severson explains.
New York City is proving that cities don’t have to destroy their surrounding foodsheds by generating sprawl; they can also revive diversified agriculture by giving surrounding farms a robust market.
If oil doesn’t work out, BP should consider making TV dinners
While doing research on oil-industry profitability for a post on oil hacks in the Obama administration, I came upon some interesting info on the food industry. In Forbes’ reckoning of the globe’s most profitable industries, Big Food gives Big Oil quite a run for its, well, money. On the list of most profitable industries measured by return on assets, “Food Consumer Products” comes out on top, edging out Mining, Crude-Oil Production. As measured by return on revenues, Food Consumer Products ranks fourth, trailing mining, crude-oil production, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco, in that order.
Who knew that it was just as profitable to churn out Pringles as it is to produce gasoline? This is a powerful reminder: that corporations are making a lot of money from the food system as currently structured, and their shareholders are going to fight any reform attempts vigorously.
Are people still disrespecting dry rosés? That must stop.
Knowledge is flavor
For the home cooks among us, the great food-science writer Harold McGee offers a typically luminous discussion of a key topic: onions and garlic.