Mar 10 2014

Unearthing Tunnels

Tunnels bypass previously impassable areas, free up congestion in cities, and hide unsightly traffic. With family in Massachusetts and a husband who grew up outside of Boston, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the port city change and adapt as a result of the most expensive highway project ever undertaken. If you last drove in Boston before The Big Dig, you won’t recognize parts of the city anymore: the 15 year project transformed formerly dead spaces in Boston’s South End into walkable areas alive with commerce and parks, while connecting the North End with the rest of the city. Buried below, traffic hums along in a 3.5 mile tunnel, its noise hidden, its air pollution tidily filtered away.

Our nation’s agricultural system operates in a similar way, with above ground and below ground components that extend beyond the visible stalks of corns and their underground roots. Above ground, we expect to enter a grocery store and buy whatever food we want, seasonality be damned. Okra in March? It may not be possible to grow that viscous vegetable anywhere in the US in early Spring, but you can always buy a handful of Honduran okra, if you’re so inclined. Our above ground system showcases a system of plenty and excess, from the stocked grocery aisles, to heaping hot plates at buffet restaurants, to the 97,000 pounds of avocado that Chipotle goes through each day. If you only glance at the surface, it’s easy to think that all is functioning exactly as it should be.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll quickly uncover a network of consolidations, mergers, lobbyists, revolving doors and check-off programs, to say nothing of the reliance on illegal immigrant farm help, privately funded seed and pesticide research, and lax environmental and conservation requirements. This consolidated, corrupt system hums along because of its interconnectedness of grocery stores, slaughterhouses, meat and vegetable monocrops, restaurants, and food distribution.

It’s natural to evaluate the value and impact of what’s directly in front of us, whether we’re looking at buildings where a freeway once stood, or plants above their root systems. But what’s swirling underneath, be it roads and sewers or roots and irrigation, isn’t visible unless you look (or dig) for it. When we’re well-fed or when traffic is moving quickly, one doesn’t question the below ground components of the system, but when hiccups occur, these subterranean elements are unearthed, and the dialogue shifts: should we repair that broken tile or burst irrigation pipe and put it back up as it was...or should we change our entire approach?

Unlike Boston’s Big Dig, which eventually reached a completion with measurable improvements after years of delays and cost overruns, we’ve entered into what seems like a permanent traffic jam in the way we talk about and produce food. And bad news for those of you with claustrophobia issues: this traffic jam has a serious case of tunnel vision.

As Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle accurately point out, the West is experiencing the worst drought in recent memory, some say in 500 years. Drought is challenging in any geography, as it leads to water shortages, wildfire increases, disruptions of native habitats and ecosystems, and increased pollution without the cleansing rinse rain can provide. But, drought on the West Coast, specifically California’s Central Valley, is potentially disastrous. Why? California, including the Central Valley, grows a huge percentage of our nation’s crops (90% of our broccoli, 95% of our garlic, 99% of our almonds, etc), supplies 21% of our milk, not to mention a considerable percentage of our eggs and meat.

California’s industrial agricultural system demands a constant supply of water; without it, aquifers are depleted while crops die or become more susceptible to disease due to their weakened states and the increase in pollution. A vicious cycle follows, one that negatively effects everyone, from gargantuan almond orchards to organic dairy producers unable to pasture their animals on dried-out and dying grasses. Because of the nation’s interconnected food web, these disruptions harm more than just California consumers and growers; they can seriously effect other parts of the industry by putting more pressure on growers in this country or abroad. For example, because organic dairy farmers can’t pasture their herds (a requirement of selling their milk under the organic label), they have to buy more hay from organic suppliers in the Midwest, which depletes the nation’s hay reserves.

For all the times we’ve experienced drought (and flooding, and blizzards, and blight) before, we haven’t changed our industrial approach to agriculture. We maintain a system without safeguards, and as Roberts and Kytle write, we continue to forget that our actions directly effect the drought, and the subsequent recovery. Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute captures this sentiment eloquently: “We have a long history of panicking over droughts and then forgetting about them as soon as it rains. We really have to change our mindset."

This year’s West Coast drought has further exposed the inner workings of our agricultural tunnels, and with it, the narrow focus of conversations that go along with food reform. Along with some intense reform below ground, we need to shake free of the tunnel vision in our conversations above ground.

The New York Times recently published an article about the role of food cooperatives and the divisive mark they can make on communities. There are hundreds of food cooperatives across the country, all operating under somewhat similar mottos, the main difference being that some coops let anyone shop, and some are only for official members (Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop may be the best known example of the latter).

Vivian Yee, the author of this article, visited several food coops in New York and chatted with leaders of out-of-state cooperatives. She reported on a sharp divide between the high-mindedness of neighbors members (“‘You can pay a little bit more, you can get a really high-quality bar and know that you’re not supporting slave-trading’”) and the incredulity of neighbors (“‘You all know something that we don’t know about? What’s wrong with the produce we get in the supermarket?’”), shining a spotlight on the potential neighborhood divides occurring across the country and perhaps unintentionally fueling the divided conversation about food even further.

On her website, Marion Nestle has written that we operate in the environment of choices, whether the choice is to buy the 32 ounce soda or 99 cent hot dog instead of something more nutritious. As long as the environment remains the same – cheap food promotes unhealthy, but all-too-often enjoyable calories, with these calories owned by a few major players – the chance of changing shopping and dietary preferences, or even prompting a desire TO change, is agonizingly slow.

Change (so-called conversion) is the result of a multi-pronged attack. After all, do you think the UNC basketball team employs only one offensive strategy? In the “attack” against obesity and corporate control of food, the current sole approach seems to be of the same strain, notably “eat it because it’s good for you”. A multi-pronged full court press to healthier choices involves changes ranging from developing a national work culture that promotes a more predictable work schedule, the medical industry eliminating corporate control of their cafeterias, a breakdown of the rural/urban divide offering more opportunities to befriend a farmer, school systems taking the time to educate students in how to cook. And as far as the structure of food cooperatives goes, Joel Berg, director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, offers a roadmap for future cooperative iterations: “Making food available and affordable is not enough to attract some customers. You’ve really got to put yourselves in the shoes of a single mother who’s coming home from her job on the bus. Cultural compatibility is important, and whether you feel you belong to a place.”

Markets and distribution aren’t going to suddenly change; in fact, one thing that isn’t lacking is the number of farmers markets (there were 8,144 farmers markets listed in USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, a 3.6% increase from 2012). Yet, the potential over-saturation of these markets isn’t trumping shopping at a QFC or a bodega, and sometimes has the counterintuitive effect of stretching a farmer too thin. A potential consumer won’t shop at a food cooperative just because it’s in the neighborhood, especially if they view the business as elitist (a claim that “Big Food” gleefully encourages).

Before talking about food reform, there needs to be more focus on the shady dealings that prevent food reform. Consider check off programs, USDA sponsored programs that tax producers and use the money to promote said products. Those funny or annoying ads you see on tv, from the famous declaration of pork as “the other white meat” to Stephen Colbert schilling for pistachios, are funded by check off programs. Producers must contribute to these check-off programs – and they also have no say about where their money goes – which often results in small producers being forced to tithe to a check off program that fund ads that promote much bigger and more dominant business farming with methods opposite of their own. In 2011, the dairy check-off program raised $202 million, channeling some of that money to partner with Domino’s Pizza to develop pizza with 40% more cheese, as well as with McDonalds to develop “coffees” that use 80% milk.

There are multiple less overtly visible networks that skew our food environment, from subsidies, to commodity pricing, to which foods end up in institutions like schools and hospitals. More often than not, the onus is on the consumer to wade through the choices, or lack thereof. If you live in a neighborhood without farmers’ markets or grocery store options, you operate within the environment you live in and so, willingly or not, you buy right back into that system – a dairy check-off program funded cheese pizza from Domino’s fuels big dairy and more check-off programs, which in turn continues to promote the consolidation of the nation’s food supply. When natural disaster strikes, the resulting vulnerability is jaw-dropping.

At a recent talk to promote her latest cookbook, author Deborah Madison passionately shared that she hated the word “veggies". No other food group or type of food has such a babyish nickname. Eat your meaties! Eat your whole-grainies! While the government promotes a certain number of fruits and vegetables, these promotions take the enjoyment and creativity out of food – there are thousands of types vegetables and fruits grown, and yet most children only know about a few of the big players (which is partially a result of those heavily funded check-off programs). One approach to shift our nation’s dialogue to healthier eating (ie: more fruits and vegetables) is to simply promote another vegetable in the same way. But, as intriguing as this article on the hypothetical rebranding of broccoli was, the better answer is the shift the conversation from its isolated sphere.

We shouldn’t feel like we’re swallowing a bitter pill by eating vegetables, and part of the reason that many Americans equate vegetables with an unsavory medicine is because out-of-season, less-than-fresh vegetables (often picked early so they can ripen on their long journey) taste bland and are eaten entirely out of context. Mark Bittman, he of much amazing work and fascinating insights, still frequently puts vegetables in a penance category (yes Father, I will say 3 Hail Marys and eat my asparagus) by writing, almost pleading, that vegetables deserve a center stage. In one recent article, he cheekily suggests adding meat to the side if the possibility of eating an entire plate of vegetables is too much to bear.

We need to move away from the lexicon of “go ahead you’ll like it...just try it”. We enjoy food when it tastes good and activates senses and positive associations (a memory of sitting at a dining room table for hours until you finished your broccoli does not lead to an eager broccoli-eating adult). Can you imagine the same scenario with french fries? But vegetables, when in season, when fresh, when grown by someone who cares about taste, and when cooked in fun ways that extend way beyond steaming (which means using, yes, salt, butter, and oil) are delicious and addictive. Vegetarian cooking isn’t about two sides plus a meat substitute; it’s about exploring a broad canvas of food traditions, and finding meals that can be created quickly and with maximum flavor. These meals exist.

But people don’t know they exist, and our current consolidated grocery system doesn’t inspire them to seek out meals that showcase a vegetable’s flavor (because...what flavor?). It’s easier to pass on the vegetables when vegetables are promoted as “veggies”, when vegetables as a side dish dominate recipes and cookbooks, when food coops and even the discussion around them remains divisive, when the underground check-off programs, subsidies, and the cheapness of other foods remain, and when this system continues to dominate in concentrated areas in our country – the Central Valley and much of California for fruit, vegetables and dairy, Texas and Kansas for feedlots, Iowa and the southern states for pigs and chickens, and the midwest for corn and soy monocrops. When we have these droughts or other weather disasters, the conversation needs to move firmly away from patching the broken tunnel piece and instead reevaluate how to rebuild the tunnel. If we can endure a drought that has the power to rip our entire food supply off its hinges, everyone – from so-called yuppies and foodies, to food stamp recipients and agricultural workers, and to some extent, even mega-corporations – is affected.

It’s time to force an uncomfortable conversation that recognizes all levels of our country’s food choices and environments, from how we grow food, to how we promote food, sell food, and talk about food. The current conversation is stale. We can no longer walk above ground pretending the underlying network of tunnels is out of sight and out of mind. And we need to expose the tunnel vision in our conversations and methods, like in how we talk about vegetables or structure food cooperatives. When this current drought ends (and as the recent rains indicate, we might be on the other side of it, at least in extremely narrow terms), our nation’s food supply will look unchanged from an above ground perspective. But, just as tunnels have to be dug and then maintained with care, whether they’re burrowing through a mountain or under a city, when problems occur, such as a fallen tile, inefficiencies have to be immediately addressed. Exposing corrupt and hidden systems, as well as the stale conversations that spring up, is the only way to transform our nation’s food culture and agricultural health into something sustainable and resilient.