What you can do

Been writing on some heavy stuff this week, so I wanted to end the series on a positive note, with some ideas on how you can help make a difference in the lives of the people who pick your food.

Even I have found myself getting increasingly depressed as I think about my own small ability to change anything. Yeah, I’ve changed my shopping habits, and yeah, I write about it on here and maybe somebody somewhere reads it (though from the number of comments this series has garnered – exactly ZERO – I doubt it). Maybe we’re all just too tired and disheartened to think about changing the world any more.

Well, for what it’s worth, here are some things you can do. And I’m stealing some from other people because frankly I’m spent after reading and writing about this stuff for a week!

Here is the “Take Action” page from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about whom Tomatoland is written.

From Barry Estabrook’s original article, The Price of Tomatoes:

In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. [UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has since signed on; CIW’s Take Action page linked above has sample letters you can send to your local grocery conglomerate]

When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source.

And I’m going to steal from myself, too – here’s the little guidelines I wrote earlier this week, in my post about Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating:

  • To start, buy as much produce as you can locally. Cutting out the cost of distribution systems and nation- or even world-wide transportation goes a long way towards keeping prices low. If the farmer’s market seems to expensive, go at closing time – you’ll get great deals on whatever’s left.
  • If possible, join a CSA, which will ensure that your money goes straight into a farmer’s pocket (then get to know the farmer, and ensure he or she is paying a fair wage to fieldworkers).
  • Avoid large farming corporations (even organic ones), as their infrastructure prohibits paying close attention to conditions in the field (most subcontract their labor anyway), and their corporate obligation to profit requires them to cut corners (sadly, it is often easiest to hurt people, rather than product).
  • Avoid huge retailers like WalMart that make plenty of money off other goods but mark up the cost of fresh food (since it spoils and therefore cannot be bought in the huge quantities that are their advantage over smaller competitors). An orange may cost 50% more at WalMart than the local grocery store simply bc it doesn’t fit their pricing scheme (see McMillan, 136-7, for her comparison shopping between WalMart and the local Mexican grocery).

To keep it simple: buy fresh, buy local, buy in season, buy from small farms, and cut out as many middlemen as possible.

And to finish, some hope: things are getting better in some respects. The CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food”, seeking to raise wages by “a penny a pound” and ensure basic rights for tomato pickers started in 2001 and has successfully enrolled Taco Bell (2005), McDonald’s (2007), and Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods (2008). The next years were spent fighting the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which initially resisted (even though the wage increase was entirely paid for by the buyers and didn’t affect the Exchange or growers one way or another – except to ask them to treat their workers better). They finally relented in 2010 and now the extra pennies, previously sitting in escrow accounts, are finally reaching the workers for whom they were earmarked.

The CIW’s next target is grocery stores, and from their website I gathered that they have added to Whole Foods’ early participation the signature of Trader Joe’s and several food management companies (e.g. Bon Appetit, food supplier to many of the colleges with which I’ve been affiliated) to the growing roster of companies on board with the Campaign. Sadly, the rest of the major grocery chains – including WalMart, which takes in ONE of every FOUR food dollars in the United States (more than the next three grocery corporations combined) – have yet to sign on. Read more about the Campaign for Fair Food here: http://ciw-online.org/101.html#cff.

Summing up: big campaigns definitely help, but it’s also the choices you and I make every day that eventually will turn around the whole system. So don’t you be discouraged, and I will try not to be either!

Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting?

“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”

Tomatoland, p. 75

Yesterday I wrote about tomatoes as a case study for farm worker rights – or rather, the lack thereof. This issue came to my attention when I heard an interview with investigative journalist Barry Estabrook on one of my favorite food shows, KCRW’s Good Food.

Estabrook was talking about the winter tomato industry in Southern Florida, and he began describing conditions there that sounded like fiction or ancient history. People chained up to sleep, forced labor without escape, beatings by “field bosses”, transportation in vans crowded with 25 or more men lying on the floor and not released for days, urinating into jugs and sharing maybe one bag of chips for sustenance.

But this is not history. It is now. It is happening. Right. Now.

Why? So that we can go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes in winter. So that we can go to a fast food restaurant and imagine we are having a “healthy” lunch of a salad. So that we can add a “vegetable” to our sandwich or burger, no matter the time of year.

But it’s fair to say that most of us had no idea this was happening. I didn’t, and I follow food news pretty closely. Fair enough.

But now you know.

If you’re like me, you probably think of modern-day slavery as human trafficking for sex, or maybe child soldiers. Both are abhorrent. Both have become big ISSUES that churches take on. Christians are all up in arms about modern slavery, but despite the fact that the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was instigated over an agricultural slavery case, none of us seem to realize that this hits a lot closer to home than we’d care to admit.

I’ve been thinking about why this is; why are we so gung-ho about stopping slavery in the sex trade, and ignoring it in the produce aisle? I don’t think it’s just ignorance. Does any of this feel like it might be true?

  • For the average American and certainly average Christian, the sex trade is fairly easy to look down upon. We are confident that we would never participate in such an unsavory activity, so it makes us feel superior to work against it.
  • Sex slavery also is, well…sexy. It’s salacious. It’s forbidden. It’s a lot more titillating than tomatoes.
  • It seems worse to us, as Christians, because we have a long and complicated history with the body and with sex generally. We’re quicker to jump on sexual sin than almost any other kind. It just “feels” more wrong. (maybe because it “feels” so right?)
  • Most of those trafficked in the sex trade are women and children. They seem more like victims than do teenage to middle aged men, most of whom are in this country without documentation. (never mind that many of them came seeking legitimate work and were forced or tricked into the situation that led to them being literally sold to a crew)

Maybe I’m terribly cynical, but I fear something: what if Christians aren’t forming organizations around and donating in huge numbers to the small groups fighting food slavery because this would touch our lives directly.

We participate in this slavery because it gets us what we want: a winter tomato, good prices at the market, a false sense of adding something nutritious to our fast food meal. We are sacrificing lives for convenience and economy.

Perhaps you might say that this is how the business runs, and we can’t control what they do, it’s not our fault. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what people said about plantation owners, too. And who says we can’t control them? Activists have been stamping out slavery – and changing entire political and economic systems – since William Wilberforce and others organized boycotts of sugar in the 18th century, a hundred years before our country nearly split over the issue. 

If you truly care about human trafficking then you need to educate yourself about agricultural slavery and add it to your fight.

And – unless you know exactly where they come from – stop eating tomatoes in winter.

Raising a Foodie, Part 3

I didn’t really expect this to stretch to three posts, but turns out I have a lot to say on this topic!

"Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell

 

 

In the end, the primary reason for raising little foodies is found in the more intangible benefits of truly enjoying eating. I speak here of fellowship with other human beings, the satisfaction of being able to appreciate fine food, knowing your meal was prepared with love and care, and the connection, I believe, that we make to our spiritual selves when we acknowledge the provision of our food, the bounty of this incredible world, and the care and attention with which we are fed with so much diversity and flavor and fun by God.

 

 

And this necessarily must involve feeding others: you cannot fully enjoy filling your belly if your neighbor is hungry.

And, of course, it will involve our religion, for Christians (and those of many other faiths, in differing ways) believe that God has fed us with Godself, and continues to do so week after week, becoming, literally, part of us, as we ingest the Divine.

I feel like, when I feed my kids, I’m not only teaching them about how to taste. I’m teaching them about how to be human – how to be fully human (which, according to Iraneaus of Lyons, is the glory of God). How to interact with others, how to share the deepest bond we have – the very stuff that gives us life.

I’m teaching them to think beyond their own tastes and hunger when choosing what to eat, to consider also the farmers, the animals, the earth. To think about how far their food has traveled and what that’s done not only to the environment, but to its composition and flavor.

All of this, unfortunately, I teach only through example on many days. I’m not yet sermonizing at the dinner table (though that day will inevitably come). But I suppose I preach through their plates.

I do wish they could grow up thinking it’s so totally normal to eat tomatoes only in season that they wouldn’t dream of trying to find one in winter.

I want them to look for all the colors of the rainbow on their plates and protest when there’s no vegetables.

I want them to be lonely if they try to eat alone, to feel it’s not really a meal without company, believing it normative to eat with family or friends and share lively conversation. (I actually feel this way, so kudos to my parents!)

And I want them to see every meal as an occasion: an opportunity to share love, friendship, creativity, and deliciousness.

Every meal can be a feast; every bite, God’s love made edible.

Raising a Foodie, Part 1

I’m a relatively new mom – I have two children, ages 1 and 3 (3 1/2, she would correct me) – and one of my primary goals for their physical and spiritual well-being is to raise good eaters – by “good”, I mean responsible omnivores who love all kinds of food. Unfortunately, at their current ages, I am failing at the non-picky part. But I try.

I actually started feeding my kids a varied diet before they were even born, and during their exclusively-breastfed months. I ate a wide variety of foods, particularly focusing on spicy foods and vegetables. I’ve read that babies whose mothers ate lots of broccoli while they were in utero come out liking it, so I loaded up on broccoli and spinach and whatever else seemed especially nutritious.

I read a lovely story in Nigella‘s fabulous How to Eat about when she was pregnant and had the chance to chat up an OB at a party. He told her that breastmilk changes not only in nutritional content as the baby grows and her needs change, but also it varies in flavor depending on what Mom’s been eating. So, Nigella concluded, breastfeeding is really the best way to begin introducing variety in eating to a child!

Isn’t that the coolest thing? As a species, our most natural way of beginning life has been designed to include variety, to begin priming the palate for future adventure. What a wonderful concept. But we probably shouldn’t make too big a deal of it, or we’ll wind up with flavored formula from scientists trying to replicate the goodies.

Most of the world’s babies aren’t treated with the kid gloves we use when it comes to  spices (though they are exclusively breastfed longer), and so I have held back on super hot but certainly not flavorful ingredients. The kids get lots of curry, garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, and so forth. I try not to give them bland foods – while maintaining the natural taste, of course. Can’t mask the flavor, or they’ll never truly love the food itself.

Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes: children’s menus at restaurants. Ugh! The same crappy, flavorless six or so items on rotation: chicken nuggets, hamburger, mac and cheese, hot dog. All designed to appeal to the least common denominator while teaching our kids nothing about food and offering them nothing in the way of nutrition. Yuck!

I once went off on a poor waiter who brought my kid neon orange macaroni and cheese. The adult menu listed a four cheese mac and so we assumed the kid version would be a smaller portion of the good stuff. So when it came out Kraft, I said, “What is this?” And he said it was the “kid’s” mac and cheese. I said, “What do you mean? Do you think my kid doesn’t like good food? That she wants something that tastes like plastic and cardboard instead of having flavor?” And on and on about the sorry state of children’s palates today, and how of course they only want that stuff because that’s all we offer to them – we never challenge their palates so they have no idea what food tastes like!

Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He did replace the orange stuff.

Before my eldest was even a year old, some of her favorite dinners included beets with goat cheese, coconut curry, sweet potato gnocchi with rustic pine nut sauce, and potato-green garlic soup. She loves broccoli (only raw) and tofu. Recently we had a seafood paella and she was not that interested in the rice, but begging for, “More squid! More octopus!!”

Her brother will eat anything as long as it’s in mac and cheese. So I throw kale in there, bacon ends, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. He also loves pasta with tomato sauce, which is easy to puree greens into, or he’ll shovel in mushrooms, onions and sausage as long as there’s pasta with it.

Both my kids love plain yogurt to death, and of course fruits. They think a frozen puree of watermelon or cantaloupe (in a cute shape, of course, thanks to IKEA ice cube trays) is a treat. And for each, their first solid food was guacamole – not avocado, which they can kind of take or leave, but GUAC!

Of course, now the three year old in particular now often turns up her nose at most of the strongly flavored things we offer. When this happens, the “Party in my Tummy” song from Yo Gabba Gabba helps a lot. I once told her that her tummy was sad and waiting for its party, because only vegetables get the party started – and it worked! Now often when she eats a fruit or veg, she’ll say, “Mommy, the strawberry/broccoli/apple/etc. got the party started in my tummy!”

And yes, I do bribe with dessert. Often. But if it’s good dessert – and one me and Daddy are planning to eat anyway – I don’t see much harm in it.

The fact is, introducing a child to the wonders of food in all its variety, color, flavor, and creative potential is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever done. And I really look forward to the days when the kids will be big enough to help in the vegetable garden and the kitchen (they do try the latter, but it’s kind of more trouble than help right now). They love going to the farmer’s market, and spend many hours watching my husband and I cook.

Most importantly, they know that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. They’ve been to farms, they’ve met cows, they’ve picked strawberries and gathered eggs.

Because really that is the most basic lesson that we all must keep in mind: that food comes from hard work and a generous God. And for this we must be grateful.

The FoodiEvangelist

Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2010” included real-food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules), urban farmer Will Allen, animal welfare championTemple Grandin, and deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (the first federal legislation establishing standards for the “organic” title).

Over the summer ABC ran a second season of the series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” in which the British celebrity chef fights to replace the processed food in school cafeterias with fresh produce and whole foods, and teaches Americans how to cook simple meals instead of patronizing the drive-thru, all the while emphasizing that this is a “life and death” issue.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made diet-related disease her primary cause, planting a teaching garden at the White House and encouraging Americans to get to know their farmers.

There is no denying that a foodie frenzy has taken hold in this country. Suddenly it is not enough simply to eat organic – you must find the most local produce possible at the farmer’s market. The new “status lawn” is a backyard homestead, complete with Victory Garden, compost bin, and free-ranging chickens. The Food Network has spun off a second cooking channel and has already spurred many competitors (from TLC to The Travel Channel) to feature food-centric shows. And just recently I read on my Starbucks napkin that they no longer use artificial colors or flavors, hydrogenated oils, or the real boogie man, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The backlash against the “industrial food complex” is strong and vocal, demanding an end to the prevalence of convenient but unhealthy food produced in non-sustainable ways. The major players also call for an end to the prevailing wisdom of “Nutritionism” (Michael Pollan’s term): the idea that food is merely biological fuel in the form of key nutrients, and no matter how they are consumed, it is the nutrients that matter the most. No longer is the nutrition info box on the side of the carton the only place one should look to know whether something is good to eat (good not only meaning healthy, but also tasty! Which actually matters to these people!).

I call this lifestyle choice the “religion” of the foodie – it calls for a change in one’s eating habits that makes them less convenient, more expensive, and ultimately more satisfying and nurturing. I call myself a “FoodiEvangelist” because I believe that this dogma can be instructive to persons of faith (particularly those of my own persuasion, which is Christian). Continue reading