In the town of Madera, California, in the heart of the state’s agricultural Central Valley, teenager Yazid Alamari shows off the merchandise in his family’s business, Gateway Market. “We have some gloves over here, a huge variety. A lot of bandanas.”
He points out hats, water coolers, buckets, and bags made specifically to carry just-picked mandarins, cherries, and blueberries.
“Right there, we have shears to cut vines, for pruning,” he says. “The Felco #2 is one of our best sellers. Those are used for onions.”
They’re all supplies needed by local farmworkers, this market’s core customers.
The Gateway Market in Madera, CA. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)
The Wednesday afternoon I spend at the market, I see close to 100 men coming through after working in the fields. Farm labor contractors hand out workers’ checks, and Alamari—who speaks Arabic and English with his cousins and brother—switches to Spanish to cash the checks.
Alamari says customers come for more than checks and supplies.
“A lot of people who come in here are from Oaxaca, and they get their food right there,” he says, pointing to the tiny eatery tucked into a corner of the market. The restaurant, Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra, is co-owned by Sylvia Rojas and Rosa Hernandez, two women who have forged an alternative path to farm work while offering the many indigenous Mexicans in this part of the Valley a taste of home.
Take truck driver Carlos Santiago Gomez, who is taking his time with a traditional tamal filled with mole, wrapped in a banana leaf. He and a friend drove all the way from the town of Selma, 45 minutes away.
“It’s different in Selma,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of food like this,” referring to the traditional Oaxacan dishes with indigenous roots: tamales, picaditas, pozole, mole.
Rojas and Hernandez started working hours ago, Rojas forming some of the 70 tortillas she’ll make by hand today, Hernandez grabbing thick discs of masa right off the stove to make picaditas—small corn cakes shaped to hold different fillings—shaking her hands to relieve the heat. She pinches the hot dough to shape furrows or spirals, a form she says that, “goes on forever and doesn’t have an end,” and then spoons sauce and cheese on top. She says even if it’s covered, she wants her food to be beautiful.
Hernandez grew up eating eat picaditas in the morning with coffee and the sweet corn drink atole in her indigenous Mixtec community in the mountains of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico.
Sylvia Rojas (left) and Rosa Hernandez, co-owners of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)
A Different View on Rural America
While much of the media portrays the rural United States as white, that doesn’t match the rural California I’ve started to know in a decade of reporting. Huge swaths of rural central and Southern California counties have majority Latino populations. That mirrors some parts of the rural U.S., where nine out of 10 rural areas are more diverse now than two decades ago, fueled in large part by immigrants. In her research, Pennsylvania State University professor Jennifer Van Hook found that every region of the U.S. has seen those changes. A report by the Pew Research Center also shows that immigration has either slowed or overcome population decline in Middle America, including many rural areas.
California’s Central Valley has a history of inter-ethnic connections I see on display at Gateway Market. In Del Ray, outside of Fresno, I’ve visited the memorial to Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War Two erected by their neighbor, an Armenian farmer. In Delano, I’ve stood on the steps of Filipino Hall, the meeting place of the Filipino and Mexican farmworkers who staged the Delano Grape Strike. I’ve met many people whose racially diverse families represent the history of immigration to the Valley: Japanese, Indian, Jewish, Mexican, and Portuguese. I ate one of the best tacos of my life in a carniceria in the back of a Punjabi grocery store. So a Oaxacan restaurant in a market owned by a Yemeni family doesn’t really surprise me, but I’m delighted to have found it.
“Close to 50 million Mexicans are classified as indigenous, in the official count,” says Gaspar Rivera Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center. “Thirteen percent of Mexicans say they speak a mother language at home,” a language other than Spanish. Many of those people come from Southern Mexican states like Guerrero, Puebla, and Oaxaca. The traditional dishes from these regions can serve as important points of connection and a way to preserve indigenous culture.
Hernandez learned to cook Mixtec staples from her mother, grandmother, and her community. On the days when there were large parties, she says, “we all took the day off to go help, from making tortillas to toasting chiles, cooking the beans. And the men would take care of going out into the country and bringing back the firewood” to fuel the ovens.
Migration from indigenous Mexican communities to the U.S. started earlier, but rose significantly in the 1980s, says Salgado. “That coincided with a Mexican economic crisis that affected the countryside the most.” Part of the problem? Corn exported from the U.S. “NAFTA opened up that market, so all these peasants, it didn’t become cost effective to produce corn anymore,” he says.
“I think the corn price was a significant factor,” that led to a rise in indigenous migration, says researcher and agricultural economist Rick Mines, “but I’m a big believer in the pull factor. If employment is available and people can cross the border, they’ll come.” From 2007 to 2009, Mines directed the Indigenous Farmworker Study. He estimates that up to 15 percent of California’s farmworkers are indigenous.
As a young woman, Rosa Hernandez planned to become a teacher, but by the early ‘90s, the economic hardships that drove many people out of Southern Mexico hit her family, too. As the oldest, she felt responsible to come to the U.S. to work in the fields. She says, at that time, men usually came north and women stayed behind, but she already had female family members in Madera, to ease her transition.
“I always think of migration as being driven by pioneering networks,” says Mines, with family members and former neighbors going north to join those who settled in places alone. Rivera Salgado believes Madera draws farmworkers because of the diversity of crops nearby, and because its central location just north of Fresno allows people to travel to different work sites around the state. Mines also points to the area’s somewhat longer harvest seasons, and relatively low housing costs, compared with other farming regions in the state.
When Hernandez arrived almost 30 years ago, Madera felt a little familiar. “I would see people from Oaxaca here. Madera makes me think that I am with the people of my roots, of my indigenous tongue.”
At the time, though, she struggled to find some key ingredients essential to Oaxacan cooking, like chiles from the coast, and herbs like epazote or hierba santa. She says one woman lived outside of town and grew an hierba santa plant, but so many newly arrived Oaxacans came clamoring to buy the leaves, to have the bitter and sweet taste of home in their pozole, the woman had to turn people away.
Today, there’s such a large Oaxacan population in Madera that those ingredients are pretty easy to find at the local swap meet.
Rosa Hernandez at the swap meet in Madera, where local residents can buy many products used in Oaxacan cooking. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)
The day I visit her restaurant’s industrial kitchen, Hernandez prepares ingredients for the spicy mole specific to her hometown, Santiago Juxtlahuaca, roasting garlic and at least three types of chiles in a dry pan on the stove top for a long time. “You can never make mole in a rush,” she says. Oregano, cinnamon, sesame seeds, and cloves helped form a paste, to which she adds blended tomatillos and broth.
In other regions, mole may contain almonds, chocolate, or bananas, she told me. “But the Mixtec, we aren’t used to sweet mole, we are used to spicy mole.”
Building Solidarity Among Rural Immigrant Women
How did Hernandez go from farmworker to restaurant co-owner? She’d always been an advocate for immigrants’ rights and for sustaining Oaxacan culture in the community, and in 2000, she caught the eye of a group called the Pan Valley Institute (PVI).
“When we opened Pan Valley Institute in 1998, we convened a group of Latino leaders to ask how we could better serve immigrant communities,” says director Myrna Martinez Nateras. “They recommend that we support women, and that we build inter-ethnic relationships.”
Women immigrants living in rural areas face particular challenges. Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), says in its studies of farmworkers, many rural residents expressed a sense of isolation, going without services like public transportation. For women working in agriculture, says Wadsworth, “Their day doesn’t end when they get home from work, or start when they go to work. I’ve talked to women who get up at 3 a.m. to make their kids’ lunches, get them to daycare, go work in the fields and then come home and have the role of wife and mother.” Women, who usually shoulder the responsibility of meals, also feel the impact of food insecurity, a growing issue in all rural areas because of isolation and work that often pays low-wages, Wadsworth adds.
In rural areas with expensive or sparse housing, like Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, workers often have to live with people they don’t know, frequently single men live away from their families, creating an unsafe environment for women and families with children. The work itself can also be unsafe. Women in farm labor—about 560,000 throughout the U.S.—face the threat of sexual assault and harassment, and have historically been retaliated against when they’ve made complaints.
Under the current administration’s push to deport people in the country without documents, Wadsworth adds, “People are being separated from their families, and if they’re not they’re hearing stories.” They’re afraid to go to work, to take kids to school, for fear being pulled over and targeted. “This was happening under Obama, but it’s worse now, and people are terrified.”
But Wadsworth says in the last year, she’s seen a jump in the creation of Rapid Response Networks, coordinated efforts to monitor and respond to immigrant and customs enforcement activity. “We’re seeing a lot of intersectionality between ethnicities and religions,” she says. “The first person I talked to about this was an Arab Muslim woman outside of Stockton,” where the people most at risk of deportation would be Latinos. “It’s a clear recognition of people of color and people on the margins that this is impacting everyone.”
PVI’s Martinez Nateras echoed this sentiment. At a conference the organization held recently, she said the focus was on how women can support each other under the current administration—by understanding the policies that impact their neighbors, as well as the ones that hit home more directly. “Ultimately all immigrant and refugees of color are being targeted by the racist policies of Trump,” she says. They also discussed, “the urgency of building solidarity tides and using the power of those who can vote.”
When PVI invited Hernandez to join a leadership development program with immigrant women of Hmong, indigenous Mexican, and Central American roots, she soon learned the women had quite a bit in common, despite speaking different languages. “They love the place that they are from—their land, their village—they are here for a reason that is similar to mine.”
“A lot of those gathering were about sharing experiences,” says Martinez Nateras. “It was cathartic. For a lot of those women it was first time to share stories in a safe space.”
I sit at the restaurant, eating a picadita while Hernandez peels garlic and remembers one of those meetings. Everybody brought important objects to share, and hers was a photo of her mother and father, which she’d previously kept hidden, trying to avoid painful reminders of home. The women sat in a circle, and opened up to each other. “For the first time in a long time I was able to share something about myself that I had guarded very close inside my heart,” says Hernandez.
That day, she says, she realized, “What united us was the sadness of having to leave something so important in order to be here. In that moment … we were one woman with the same very broken heart.” That was a turning point for Hernandez. While she’d always brought Oaxacan food to meetings, being part of that group gave her a clear sense of her cultural values, and the confidence to start a restaurant.
Rosa Hernandez, co-owner of Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)
Hernandez and her business partner Sylvia Rojas met with potential investors and the owner of the market where their restaurant is now. Martinez Nateras says, “Rosa, because she’s a natural marketer, brought a jar of mole and some tamales” to convince them to support the business.
Three years in, the restaurant is going strong. “They are so passionate about their food,” says Martinez Nateras. “Their cooking isn’t just for people to eat, but a transferring of cultural knowledge” from their Oaxacan upbringing. She points to another reason why starting and succeeding at this business means so much to Hernandez and Rojas: leaving a physically demanding, unstable, and low-paying job. “It let them get out of field work that is so exhausting,” she says, “and the money [farmworkers] make is nothing, sometimes $11,000 a year.”
“After all the years of doing farm work and cleaning houses, one day I said ‘All the people that taste my food tell me that it’s very delicious’ and so that was a motivation, an inspiration for me to realize that what my mama showed me how to make in her kitchen, I can live off of. I can struggle to have something more,” says Hernandez.
Gail Wadsworth of CIRS says across rural California she sees other examples of people—mostly women—succeeding as Hernandez and Rojas have. One group of farmworkers in the Eastern Coachella Valley, “they would make and bring food to the fields, and their co-workers said ‘You should start a business.’” They started a catering company. “What this does is so empowering to other women,” Wadsworth says. “It shows you can seize your power.”
This story was reported in partnership with KQED public radio’s California Report Magazine.
Top photo: Rosa Hernandez prepares chicken for mole, while Sylvia Rojas makes tortillas — about 70 a day. (Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse)
Jenni and Paul Callahan moved to Duncan, South Carolina in 2013 to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming. They left the political world of Washington, D.C., and established Harp & Shamrock Croft with the motto, “Small farm. Big promise.” The Callahans had anticipated this transition for years, and Paul held jobs off the farm until 2016. But in spite of their preparation and hard work, the Callahans found themselves struggling.
“We were having trouble paying the bills, so I looked at what we could do to lighten our load,” says Jenni. She decided to apply for food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—also known as food stamps—in early 2017, and qualified for nearly the maximum benefit for their family of six. In addition to the eggs, milk, vegetables, and meat they were able to get from their own farm, she says SNAP benefits let them buy more shelf-stable foods. “I don’t care who you are, you have to have some things in a box,” she adds, “And so much of this is because we don’t have the time—it takes a lot of time to work the farm.”
While there are no current statistics on how many farmers receive SNAP benefits, the rate of rural residents receiving food assistance rose from 12.5 percent to 16 percent from 2010 to 2015, exceeding the national average of 12.7 percent. Making a living exclusively from farming has proven difficult, if not impossible, for more than half of the farmers in the United States: According to the USDA, 61 percent of principal farm operators work off the farm at least part-time. And farmers like the Callahans benefit from SNAP in more than one way: the recent rise in programs that match SNAP dollars at farmers’ markets in nearly every state has also brought in much-needed income for small and medium-scale farmers.
At the Hub City Farmers’ Market in nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina, Jenni alternates between selling produce to shoppers and spending her own SNAP benefits, which are worth double as a result of the state’s Healthy Bucks program. Jenni buys fruit, meat, and grains at the market in order to maximize her benefit while supporting her fellow farmers. “We sell at this particular market because it’s [run by] a nonprofit dedicated to reaching food deserts. Healthy food should be on everyone’s table, not just the wealthy,” she says.
As market sellers, the Callahans also accept SNAP from their customers. Last year, 10 to 15 percent of their profits came in the form of SNAP dollars, while this year that number has increased to 20 to 25 percent. Any loss of SNAP benefits would cause a huge financial impact, and while the Callahans have discussed how to make up for such a loss, they don’t have many options.
“Our plan is for our SNAP use to be temporary, but if the benefits went away suddenly, I don’t know what we’d do,” Jenni says. “We might consider raising more [animals for] meat, although right now we don’t have the space.” Not being able to support their family without the aid of SNAP is frustrating for the Callahans, who devote most of their time to working their farm and growing their business. “How do small businesses make it?” asks Jenni.
Heather Raines, market manager of Hub City Farmers’ Market, is very familiar with the two-pronged value SNAP provides farmers. “We have close to 300 regular SNAP users who would otherwise be unable to afford fresh, local produce,” she says, “And if requirements changed for SNAP, our farmers would lose $43,000 in income.”
The House farm bill, which is expected to face a second vote later this month, threatens to cut or do away with SNAP benefits for a sizable number of low-income Americans. It proposes that those who retain the benefits participate in work training programs—a shift that would require time that the Callahans and other farmers don’t have to spare.
Eligibility requirements would also be stricter, and a universal work requirement has been proposed. Under the current regulations, about 3.5 million people meet the “able-bodied adults” classification. Under the new bill, that number may double, requiring twice as many SNAP recipients to fulfill work requirements. Critics of the bill argue that these new requirements would make many SNAP recipients unable to keep up with the demands of the program, causing them to forfeit much-needed assistance.
The Senate’s draft farm bill, which was released last week and is expected to be discussed in committee today, largely leaves SNAP programs intact, which if the Senate approves it will set up a significant challenge to reconcile the Senate bill with the House version.
SNAP is a Lifeline
Meighen Lovelace, standing with Massachusetts congressman Jim McGovern as part of a National Farmers Union event in May 2018. (Photo courtesy of Meighen Lovelace)
Meighen Lovelace grows four different crops on two leased acres in Avon, Colorado, where she practices diversified growing, planting different crops at different times to make the most use of her land.
In 2008, Lovelace—who learned how to grow food from her mother—says her family was hit hard by the recession. At first she didn’t sign up for SNAP, because she thought she could find other ways to make ends meet, like turning down the heat in her family home instead.
But the wake-up call came when she discovered that her children were hiding food in their pockets after attending public events where food was provided. She says her children were anxious about not having food at home, so they would stash hors d’oeuvres in their pockets for later.
“I would find it when doing the laundry,” she recalls. She worried that her children would become hoarders. “Once I utilized the [SNAP] program, I was able to afford my daughter’s medication,” she says.
Lovelace says she uses the benefits only when necessary. “This is a bridge program. I’m not going to be on it forever, but it’s my life right now. I don’t know what I would do without it,” she says.
As a farmer, Lovelace knows that every piece of food she grows is a dollar sign, and she works hard to maximize her profits, canning, pickling, and preserving food to sell in the off-season, since the Colorado growing season is so short. She says that during the growing season, putting in extra hours on doing job training to earn her SNAP benefits would be next to impossible.
Her local workforce center serves five counties and is currently closed because of a staffing shortage. Even online training would be difficult, since she is a single parent with limited time and access to broadband.
Woody Hartlove on the Harlan County Farmers’ Market’s Blender Bike. (Photo courtesy Renew Appalachia)
In Harlan, Kentucky, Woody Hartlove owned a motorcycle repair shop, until the closure of local coal mines dried up his business. He made ends meet doing odd jobs, but turned to farming two years ago, after his wife’s work hours were cut in half. What started as a small hobby farm became Hartlove’s business, with the help of the local extension office.
With only 1,000 square feet of farmland, Hartlove made $10,000 last year growing 18 crops and harvesting maple syrup. His goal is to acquire additional land, but in the meantime Hartlove and his wife rely on SNAP to supplement the food they grow for themselves.
Hartlove is also the farmers’ market manager for his county’s market, which is relatively new. At present, he says 10 to 15 percent of the customers use SNAP. “We don’t get a whole lot,” he says, “but it does help. If we lost it, it would put us in a bind.” And Hartlove expects the number of SNAP users to increase as the market grows.
While Congress discusses their future, farmers like the Callahans, Lovelace, and Hartlove are all in the middle of a busy growing season. But the thought of having to live without SNAP is on all their minds.
As Lovelace sees it, the rhetoric behind the farm bill’s proposed requirements—which often paint a picture of misuse and sloth—tell a completely different story than what she’s seeing on the ground, where SNAP is key to survival for many, including those who grow our food. But if those changes become law, she says, “Children and elderly people will go hungry.” And farmers like her will likely be among the first to feel the sting.
Lani Estill is serious about wool. And not just in a knitting-people-sweaters kind of way. Estill and her husband John own thousands of sweeping acres in the northwest corner of California, where they graze cattle and Rambouillet sheep, a cousin of the Merino with exceptionally soft, elastic wool.
“Ninety percent of our income from the sheep herd comes from the lamb we sell,” says Estill. But the wool, “it’s where my passion is.”
Wool, an often-overlooked agricultural commodity, has also opened a number of unexpected doors for Bare Ranch, the land Estill and her family call home. In fact, their small yarn and wool business has allowed Lani and John to begin “carbon farming,” or considering how and where their land can pull more carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the soil in an effort to mitigate climate change. And in a rural part of the state where talk of climate change can cause many a raised eyebrow, such a shift is pretty remarkable.
Rambouillet sheep. (Photo credit: Paige Green)
Over the last two years, the Estills have started checking off items from a long list of potential changes recommended in a thorough carbon plan they created in 2016 with the help of the Fibershed project and Jeffrey Creque, founder of the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI). The plan lists steps the ranchers can take to create carbon sinks on their property. And in the first two years, they’ve gotten started by making their own compost out of manure and woodchips and spreading it in several strategic places around the land.
They’ve also planted more vegetation in the areas of the ranch that border on streams and creeks to help them absorb carbon more efficiently, and this year they’ll be putting in a 4,000-foot row of trees that will act as a windbreak, as well as a number of new trees in the pastured area, applying a practice called silvopasture.
All these practices have allowed the Estills to market their wool as “Climate Beneficial,” which is a game-changer for them. They’ve also sold wool to The North Face, which used it to developed the Cali Wool Beanie—a product the company prominently touts as climate-friendly. The company, which has marketed several other regional products as part of their ongoing collaboration with Fibershed, also gave the Estills a one-time $10,000 grant in 2016 that the ranchers combined with some state and federal funding to help them start enacting parts of their carbon plan.
Like the Estills, the owners of dozens of farms, vineyards, and ranches in 26 counties around California have drawn up ambitious carbon plans that take into account the unique properties of each operation and lay out the best, most feasible ways to absorb CO2 over the long term. In arid ranching counties like Marin, that might mean re-thinking grazing practices, while in Napa Valley it could mean building soil in vineyards by tilling less and planting cover crops, and in San Diego County, it may mean protecting existing citrus and avocado orchards from encroaching development and working with farmers to plant more orchards.
It’s early days for the effort, but in a state that plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—the most ambitious target in North America—these plans are laying out a solid plan to help farming and ranching become heavy hitters in the fight against climate change. They’re also helping create a model that is being watched closely by lawmakers in states like Colorado and Montana, where other carbon farming projects are coming together.
Agriculture accounts for around 8 percent of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but that number doesn’t quite reflect the impact of the gases themselves. Croplands in the state are the primary contributor of nitrous oxide, the most potent GHG, and account for 50 percent of the N2O that ends up in the atmosphere. While the bulk of the state’s methane emissions—25 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide—also originate on the state’s animal farms. And on a global level, food production accounts for between 19 and 29 percent of climate-warming GHG emissions.
Lani Estill. (Photo credit: Paige Green)
It’s not surprising then, that some farmers are eager to be part of a solution. But as the rubber hits the road in California, the big question is how farmers will fund these changes. While solutions like the ones the Estills are tapping into, which combine consumer interest with public funding, seem promising, there’s still a long way to go before the efforts scale up in earnest around the state.
The momentum may be growing, however: The Marin Carbon Project, which pioneered carbon farming in California, recently had its day in the sun with a New York Times Magazine feature. And success stories like that of the Estills may soon bring more food producers on board.
A Beneficial Partnership
For Lani Estill, everything began to change in 2014, when she developed a small yarn brand. But she was only able to sell a small percentage of the wool directly to consumers, and most of it went to the wholesale market, where it sold for next to nothing. Some years, Estill says, they’d store it to see if they could get a better price the following year.
In 2014, Estill met Rebecca Burgess, a persuasive enthusiast of California wool with a vision to reinvigorate the supply chain for regional fiber, yarn, and cloth while building a market for those things simultaneously. Burgess, who had built a statewide network of fiber producers through her Fibershed network, was connected with the Marin Carbon Project and several other nonprofits campaigning hard to make carbon farming a reality.
When the idea came up to write a carbon plan, with funding from of The North Face, Estill says it took some convincing. “Ranchers have been threatened constantly by the environmental community,” Estill told Capitol Public Radio in January. “So, we had to kind of open up our minds a little bit to accept what was being offered as a genuine offer.”
Burgess had also developed the “Backyard Project” with The North Face, which revolved around creating a shirt, and then several sweatshirts, using a transparent, mostly regional supply chain. The beanie made with climate beneficial wool was a natural next step.
“We make products so people can go explore and enjoy nature. And addressing climate is obviously an important issue,” says James Rogers, director of sustainability at The North Face. Based on their own internal lifecycle assessments, the company also determined that focusing on the types of materials it uses and how those materials are made offered the most effective way to address its environmental impact.
But Rogers says that the chance to make a positive impact was also appealing. “Frankly, a lot of companies are trying to do less bad, by reducing their environmental impact. And the thing that’s so exciting about climate beneficial wool is that through those ranching practices [the Estills] are actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it into the soil, while at the same time making that soil more healthy and retaining more water. So instead of just trying to be less bad, we’re actually doing more good.”
The Cali Wool Beanie was the top-selling beanie on The North Face’s website when it was released last fall, suggesting that some consumers are onboard with supporting carbon farming with their dollars.
The North Face’s promotion of the Cali Wool Beanie. (Photo courtesy The North Face)
But Fibershed’s Burgess adds that, although the climate benefits are front and center in the marketing, the carbon plans themselves are an ongoing process. “With the beanie, we’re working toward every pound of wool representing nine pounds of carbon sequestered. But we’re not there yet,” she says. “We actually need people [and companies] to buy more wool at a re-valued price, which that beanie provides. The more wool sells, the more carbon we can sequester at Bare Ranch. And that’s actually how regenerative systems work. It’s call and response between us and the ecosystem.”
Lani Estill, who has begun to sell more of her wool at non-commodity prices, agrees. She’s also created a community supported cloth project (a CSA for wool) as a way to invite home crafters and small brands to take part in that call and response.
The idea of crafting farm-specific carbon plans grew out of the Marin Carbon Project, a collaborative research effort between landowners John Wick and Peggy Rathmann, scientists at the University of California, and several conservation groups. Launched in 2008, the project has spent the last decade looking at the role that applied compost and grazing management practices can play in helping soil absorb more carbon from the atmosphere on the state’s 54 million acres of rangeland.
Whendee Silver, a professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, managed a team of researchers who compared the CO2 and water retained in a series of plots of land—one where a thin layer of compost was applied, one that was plowed, one where both compost application and plowing took place, and a control plot.
In 2014, the team published the first round of evidence that showed that compost applications and other carbon farming techniques have the potential to help mitigate climate change by building biomass and transferring carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil.
The researchers found that a single application of a half-inch layer of compost on grazed rangelands can increase grass and other forage plant production by 40 to 70 percent, help soil hold up to 26,000 liters more water per hectare, and increase soil carbon sequestration by at least 1 ton per hectare per year for 30 years, without re-application. And because the dairy manure the project used to create the compost would have otherwise released methane to the atmosphere, the result was particularly promising for the climate.
Spreading compost at Bare Ranch. (Photo credit: Paige Green)
“We’ve discovered is that there’s a version of agriculture that actually could transform atmospheric carbon into carbohydrates [i.e., grass] and soil carbon,” says Wick, who has spent over a decade evangelizing the benefits of carbon farming on his own ranch and envisioning a state where such practices become the norm. “So for us the challenge is how do we communicate that? Now that we have this new understanding, how do we inspire people to put new importance on the same old things that we’ve always looked at—like sunshine, rain, and soil?”
For Wick and others, this shift in perspective feels especially urgent. He points to the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) risk assessment. “It makes it clear that emission reductions will no longer stop this runaway destabilization of the climate. It says, ‘We must develop an ongoing strategy of removing carbon from the atmosphere that is sustainable.’ And that’s what we’ve done. Agriculture is the only system on earth large enough—directly under human influence right now—to actually transform enough carbon to actually cool the planet, not just stop how warm it gets, but actually reverse that trend.”
This year, Wick has returned his focus to his own land, while a handful of nonprofits such as the CCI and the California Climate and Ag Network, as well as county-level resource conservation districts (RCDs), are carrying on the change to scale up the statewide effort.
Since 2013, CCI has been working with RCDs all over the state to craft carbon plans that speak to the specifics of each farm’s geography, soil type, and lifecycle. “We’re not just spreading compost everywhere,” says CCI’s Torri Estrada. “We want to get on a farm and really understand the ecology, the farm production, and really push the envelope and give them a very comprehensive assessment.”
Nancy Scolari, the executive director of the Marin Resource Conservation District, says it has been interesting to see carbon farming go from a fairly abstract concept to an actual set of fundable practices in just a few years.
For many farmers, she says, the fact that they can’t actually see carbon in the air or the soil, made the Marin Carbon Project “hard to really appreciate at first.” But when Silver’s research was released, Scolari says it filled in some important gaps in the wider conservation world.
“The reason RCDs were created in the first place was all around soil, after the Dust Bowl. If you completely overuse your soils, you’ll feel it in the end. So to kind of reconnect with that past has been pretty interesting,” says Scolari. “All of the information around increasing soil organic matter and total carbon is like, ‘wow, this is the piece we’ve been missing for some time now.’ And it’s a piece that farmers really connect with.”
And while Estrada admits that the interest so far has mostly come from farmers who are already working outside the agriculture mainstream, in most counties the early adopters, who want to make—and execute on—a carbon plan for their farms still outnumber the local RCDs’ capacity there. Four northern California counties—Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Marin—have all developed templates that can be adapted in other parts of the state with rangelands, vineyards, orchards, and forests.
In Marin, 10 farms had completed carbon plans as of the end of 2017, and five more are working on them this year. But the Scolari says she only has a few small pots of potential funding—from land trusts, the state’s coastal conservancy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service—to offer farmers.
“The biggest barrier to scaling is the technical assistance of farmers,” says CCI’s Estrada. “It really requires planning assistance, implementation assistance, and then monitoring, which the RCDs and others do. But it’s really underfunded.”
For instance, planning to spread a layer of compost across every acre of your farm may sound relatively simple, but the cost of making it (or buying it), hauling it, and spreading it can add up quickly. And no farm has executed on every item in their carbon plan just yet. “We have producers doing one or two practices, which is really great. But the bottom line budget for [the whole plan] is hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Estrada.
Piles of compost to be spread. (Photo credit: Paige Green)
In 2017, the state set aside $7.5 million for the Healthy Soils Program and a larger Healthy Soils Act as part of its cap and trade program. That was a good start, says Estrada, but adds that Marin County alone “could spend that twice over with a full build-out of its plan.” And there are no funds allocated for healthy soils in the state’s current fiscal year budget.
Larger structural investments are also helping paving the way. Fifty million dollars from the cap and trade pool have also been made available to large dairy farms that compost their waste, at which point it can be made available to farms and ranches. And the state’s recycling agency has also set aside $72 million for new compost facilities.
When farmers are able to raise the funds to enact their carbon plans, they’re likely to see a return on their investment over the long term. “If we can increase organic matter in soils, we thereby increased water-holding capacity,” points out Scolari. And in drought-prone California, that alone has enormous value.
As John Wick sees it, money can definitely help kick-start the process of sequestering carbon on farms, but so can time.
In areas of Wick’s ranch where the soil was once losing carbon, he says, he’s seeing a slow but powerful process unfold. “Where we put compost, which we imported at first, we reversed that trend and that system is making more biomass so I can make even more compost on-site. So now making my own compost as medicine and putting a single dose on my poor soils creates even more [compost]. And so I have this sweet spot of success that’s expanding outward.”
Calla Rose Ostrander, a consultant who works with Wick as well as the People, Food and Land Foundation, acknowledges that the funding so far has been relatively small, but considering the scope of the work to be done, she believes the inflection point isn’t far off.
“It’s going to require funding from multiple places before farmers can fully get to where they are implementing this at scale on the landscape,” she says. “However, all those funding doors are open now. Now it’s just a matter of growing the size and amount of funds that come through to the ground. The pathways are built, the relationships are there, the interest is there. The crucial moment—and this happens in any movement—is how you get from, ‘we’ve got the ideas, we’ve got the policies’ to ‘we’ve got to get the money on the ground.’”
“We’ve built a new pathway from scratch,” adds Wick. “And it didn’t matter at first how much flowed through it—we’re testing it now for leaks and gaps. And so the first flow is trickling through. That’s the moment; and it’s a very exciting moment.”
Americans like their burgers. In 2016, they ate an average of 55.6 pounds of beef per person, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from 54 pounds the year before.
But beef producers face criticism for their product’s impact on the environment—from land degradation to high greenhouse gas emissions caused by manure storage, feed production, and even the way cattle digest food. Through her startup PastureMap, entrepreneur Christine Su hopes to improve those practices while helping ranchers increase their bottom line.
PastureMap helps ranchers raise climate-friendly beef. The software platform helps them manage their grazing land and strategically graze their herds in a sustainable way. “If you let your cattle run all over the place and continuously graze, they’ll overgraze,” Su says. But strategic grazing can prevent soil erosion, improve soil nutrients, and even reverse emissions by sinking carbon into the soil, she says. This is called regenerative agriculture. “It raises food in a way that heals the land rather than further extracting from and eroding it,” she says.
Using PastureMap on their phones, ranchers manage grazing history and planning, keep track of herd information like weights and health issues, document grass and soil health, and keep their whole ranching team informed. The information is stored in one place and is easy to analyze, for short-term decisions like where to graze the herd that day, to long-term decisions like planning out future pastures or placing water tanks and fencing.
A sample map image. (Courtesy of Pasturemap)
Su started PastureMap in 2014, and co-founder George Lee joined in 2016. Today it employs 11 people and is used by over 9,000 farmers and ranchers in 40 countries. Financial investors and social impact funders have pumped $3.2 million into the company.
The Startup Path
Su’s interest in the food chain evolved from her own food allergies, which developed when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. She sought out farmers markets to find locally raised produce and dairy products that wouldn’t give her hives. There, she began meeting local farmers, and her interest in food production was piqued.
Christine Su. (Photo courtesy of Pasturemap)
After she graduated, Su worked at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where she worked with large food brands. Later, she worked at private equity giant KKR & Co. as an operations executive. She built supply chain improvement processes and operations software in portfolio companies that were earning $500 million to $2 billion in revenue. She realized that she wanted to use her skills to help farmers improve farm productivity and profits.
In the Fields
Su started her MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2012 and spent her summer breaks working on farms. At an internship on a 60-cow dairy farm in Hokkaido, Japan, she milked cows, shoveled manure, baled hay, and helped birth calves. In her spare moments, she conducted a study measuring how fast the farmhands could milk, and drew a diagram of where to place the milking tools to speed up those times. “I couldn’t help myself,” she says of her passion for improving on-farm processes.
Her in-the-field learning did not end there. She spent a summer working at organics giant Earthbound Farm in California’s Salinas Valley, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” for its prolific lettuce production. At Mountain Hazelnuts in Bhutan, she learned the challenges of subsistence farming, and built an operations data tracking system for 150 field agents in the Himalayas to monitor tree health using mobile phones. And at the New Zealand Merino Co., she spent a summer interviewing high country merino wool shepherds about their grazing practices and measuring pasture quality data with field scientists.
“I kept noticing as I worked on more and more farms that these farmers keep all their records on paper,” Su says. “I would go into barns and see a chart on the walls. They run their whole lives on paper.” The record-keeping, she says, was cumbersome and often ignored, and the data wasn’t digitized in a way that could help the farmers derive the full value of their records.
“Here is something I can do,” she recalls thinking. “I can’t bale hay as well. I can’t pull a calf as well. I can’t doctor an animal as well as a farmer. But I do know metrics. I do know how to make the core value drivers of their operation run better.”
Photo courtesy of Pasturemap.
She talked to 3,000 farmers and ranchers in person, and designed her own additional MS degree on sustainable grazing systems in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences to teach herself more about grassland management. During this time, she put into practice Steve Blank’s well-known lean startup method—find a problem, develop a minimally viable solution, and immediately get customer feedback—to mock up some wireframes on the image of a phone. She printed out fliers and went to Columbia, Missouri, to a grazing conference and showed her prototype to ranchers.
The MBA graduate stood out among the ranchers.
“A kindly older gentleman with a big belt asked me, ‘Ma’am, are you lost?’” she says. “Whenever I go to ranching conferences, I stick out.”
But her biggest challenge was learning the nuances of agriculture: the various types of farmers and their varied needs. “There are a million farmers in the United States, and they’re incredibly diverse,” she says. Some are tech curious, some just want to save time. Some might never use a tablet computer, but are interested in handing down a sustainable operation to the next generation.
Infographic courtesy of Pasturemap
Their knowledge has helped her continue to iterate her product. Since those wireframes, the company has overhauled the platform three times based on conversations with customers, refocusing from graphs and charts to displaying more visual interfaces, such as offline maps that ranchers can carry with them into the field.
Finding investors also took a precise focus. While more investors are becoming interested in agriculture, she specifically looks for those who understand agriculture and food systems on a deeper level. “Whenever I meet an investor who has some agriculture and soil health expertise, I’m much more interested in talking to them. Otherwise we spend a lot of time doing education.”
What’s trendy in Silicon Valley often has little relevance to the Salinas Valley, she says. “VCs are often very interested in the tech part of agtech. I would encourage VCs in agtech to get more interested in ag.”
As it grows, PastureMap is focusing more on helping ranchers make money off their regenerative practices. “We are working with ranching cooperatives and beef brands now to help them monetize some of the data, not just for them getting more efficient on their own land base, but also being able to communicate that to the customer,” Su says.
For consumers, it could mean a label on the beef, indicating that because of how the animal was raised, it is more climate and environmentally friendly than the competitor on the shelf. It could also be digital. PastureMap is building an online map for consumers to find regenerative, climate-friendly ranchers—and for those ranchers to find each other.
“What we’re learning is you can optimize everything on land, but if we don’t help individual ranchers make more money marketing that beef, then they’re up against some pretty big industry barriers on commodity pricing,” Su says. “The regenerative beef sector is still small compared to commodity beef, but it’s the brightest light in beef right now and growing 25 to 30 percent every year. We are empowering these ranchers to find each other and build the future of the industry together.”
It’s pretty clear that those who have the most control over Detroit’s food system—its local growers, non-local growers, suppliers, producers, grocery store owners, distributors, restaurateurs, food writers, chefs, and so on—are mostly white.
That’s despite that the city’s population is nearly 90 percent people of color.
So it’s worth asking: How would things look if the food system centered around people of color and other marginalized groups instead of white people? A new project called the Dream Cafe and Community Food Hub spearheaded by FoodLab Detroit and Allied Media Conference (AMC) is not just imagining that, but developing a model of “food production and service that is truly equitable, sustainable, cooperative, and community driven.”
Brittiany Peeler Of Relish Catering. (Photo courtesy of V.W. Photography.)
And though there’s a deeper goal in the Dream Cafe, the June 14 through June 19 event is a welcoming celebration that includes a temporary full-service cafe run by local black-owned businesses that will take over the Cass Cafe; a series of pop ups featuring local and visiting chefs; hands-on cooking workshops; and an outdoor market showcasing local producers.
The entire event is made possible by collaborative partnerships among urban farmers, local producers, local chefs, visiting chefs, the chefs’ crews, and food sovereignty organizers. In that way, the event not only imagines how things could look, but also celebrates all the work that people of color who live here are already doing.
Diners will find a wide range of foods and meals, from a Palestinian brunch to a pan Caribbean feast to a cooking exchange hosted by a multigenerational group of indigenous chefs. Beyond the food, there will be comedy, music, meet ups, a dance party, screenings, workshops, talks, and more.
The end game is culinary and economic sovereignty for marginalized groups, and the laying of a foundation for a stronger local food economy that benefits groups the food system often exploits. In that way, the Dream Cafe is looking at food not just as “food,” but as a strategy to build community resilience and autonomy.
As FoodLab Detroit director Devita Davison puts it, Dream Cafe seeks to deconstruct and decolonize the food system, and instead center it around different cultures in a way that we don’t often see in Detroit, or elsewhere.
“What does it look like when you have folks not only from here but from all over the country who are Black, brown, queer, non-conforming people—what does it look like when they dream about what the local food system can look like?” Davison asks. “This is what it looks like when you are dreaming about a food system that puts these people in the center, and you have a food system that represents them.”
“What does it look like to tear up every single negative notion about Black and brown people, about their labor being undervalued, and start talking about how we can build something better together? This is what it looks like when you tear all of that shit up and come together and build,” she says.
Chinchakriya Un of the Kreung pop up. (Photo courtesy Detroit Metro Times)
The project grew out of Allied Media Conference and Feeding Emerging Resistance Movements, Envisioning Nourishing Traditions’ (FERMENT) effort to develop a food component. Last year, FERMENT held a dinner that brought together Earthworks Farms and visiting Cambodian-American chef Chinchakriya Un and her Kreung pop up, but this year’s event is on a whole other level according to Ora Wise, AMC’s culinary director. She notes that the program is in line with AMC’s core principles that include cooperation, sustainability, network building, creativity, autonomy, and interdependence.
“We’re applying that to food on an epic level this year,” Wise says. “We’re building out a food component intentionally designed to empower people and center the voices of people who are at the margins … and whose cultures are exploited by the food industry. And we will learn from and celebrate the brilliance and resilience of Detroit”
FoodLab is running the full-service restaurant component of the Dream Cafe and bringing together their partner businesses. On June 14, Ryan Salter of Salt + Ko and Reniel Billups of Irie Occasions Catering will prepare breakfast; Friday will see Lamont Mitchell and Viana Rickett of Simple Goodness Detroit prepare breakfast with Le’Genevieve Squires and Brittiany Peeler of Relish Catering; Jerome and Samuel Brown of Detroit Soul and Doniss Hicks of Nu Sol Bowls will work together on the June 16 breakfast.
FoodLab program associate Ederique Goudia, who is also a partner in the forthcoming Gabriel Hall creole restaurant, bar, and music venue, notes that the collaborations between businesses and people in different parts of the food systems is partly what makes Dream Cafe so valuable.
“People are going to be collaborating with each other in ways that they may not have before,” she says. “That’s the exciting part—building a circle and building relationships with each other and farmers of color. They can build on those relationships as they continue on with their businesses.”
FoodLab is also organizing the outdoor market, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 15 and June 16 on The Commons lawn across the street from Cass Cafe. It will feature FoodLab members and Black-owned businesses offering prepared foods, jams, teas, sauces, and other fare that one would find at a farmers’ market.
Among AMC’s exciting pop ups is Matriarchy in the Kitchen, which Wise describes as “an incredible collaboration by women of color across generations who are telling story about their food.” It’s an effort that features the cuisine of a queer Black chef from the deep south and a young Trinidadian and Jamaican chef of Supper Club From Nowhere and Kit an Kin.
Chefs from all of Dream Cafe’s events are mostly sourcing from 11 Detroit urban farmers of color, and the menus are largely designed around what those farms have available.
“We want to prioritize local growers, then work out from there,” Wise says. “The idea with all of this is is to build capacity and deepen relationships within Detroit’s good food movement, and strengthen an already inspiring, living local food economy. All of us who are from the outside are excited to be a part of that with Detroit.”
Stepping back and looking at the sum of it all, the Dream Cafe really appears to be creating a small model of what could be carried out on a regional and national level.
“It’s ‘Local Food 2.0’ This is the the beta version,” Davison says. “We in beta, baby, and then we gonna work out the kinks, work out all the bugs, and we gonna go across the country with it.”
In response, a group of farmers, business owners, and advocates are involved in a race to safeguard the term “heritage chicken,” to make sure it only applies to birds with a specific genetic profile that predates industrial animal agriculture.
Food and animal welfare advocacy group Farm Forward, for example, has been combing through hundreds of pages of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) documents to determine how the agency is currently policing the term on food labels. It will also roll out an independent verification and “Certified Heritage Poultry” seal within the next few weeks in an attempt to address confusion in the marketplace.
The group and its allies say that protecting the true meaning of heritage chicken is essential to preventing the loopholes that have been created in relation to similar labels such as cage-free and grass-fed. The advocates point to a USDA petition already filed by one producer looking to define “heritage chicken”—which they deem to be incorrect—as evidence that the co-opting of the term has already begun.
Why does a term related to chicken genetics matter at all? At the root are two big ideas. First, that distinguishing heritage breeds from modern chickens will safeguard genetic diversity for the long-term stability of the food supply. Second, that many of the conversations around raising humane chicken production focus on giving the animals more space while ignoring the real cause of the animals’ suffering—the way they are bred to gain weight much faster than heritage breeds, causing multiple health issues.
“Good genetics are the most important factor in humane animal production,” says Patrick Martins, founder of leading seller Heritage Foods USA and another advocate for protecting the definition. “If the animal grows too fast, it suffers. Period.”
Why Heritage Matters
No matter who is talking about heritage chickens or turkeys, all roads lead back to Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Central Kansas.
Heritage hens foraging at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Foods USA)
Reese is a fourth-generation poultry farmer—and one of the farmers featured in the upcoming film, Eating Animals, based on the book by Jonathan Safran-Foer and narrated by Natalie Portman. He is an exhausted evangelist for chicken welfare and thinks a lot of well-meaning people—from conscious consumers to animal rights groups—are making the wrong arguments.
“People think chickens are growing fast because of antibiotics or growth hormones. They grow that fast because they’ve been genetically engineered through multiple genetically mutated lines,” he says. “If I brought those chickens to my farm, they’d still grow to that size in that amount of time, and the animal pays a tremendous price. Ninety percent of all suffering that industrial chickens and turkeys go through isn’t about how they’re raised, it’s their internal genetics.”
Hybrid poultry breeding started in the 1950s as a way to produce a lot of cheap chicken quickly. Today’s industrial chickens have been bred to have large breasts (for more meat) and put on weight at an incredible rate. Both make it difficult for them to move around (since their legs are too small to support their body size), breed on their own, and survive past a young age. They also get sick easily since their immune systems are underdeveloped.
In recent years, animal rights activists have directed consumer attention to the way chickens are raised, in crowded cages without space to move around, for example. In response, the industry has shifted toward cage-free and pasture-raised systems, with companies including McDonald’s and Whole Foods committing to only sourcing “slower-growing” birds that have access to outdoor spaces.
But Reese says that ignoring the birds’ DNA while changing the conditions they live in can even be crueler. “Now you want to put these obese animals on pasture … and the poor things can hardly walk,” he says.
Add that argument to the fact that most heritage breeds are becoming very rare.
“Conserving history is definitely a significant part of why we [campaign to preserve heritage breeds], but our mission is also about keeping genetic diversity in agriculture,” explains Livestock Conservancy communications manager Ryan Walker.
Just like crop biodiversity is seen as crucial to managing the challenges of producing produce and grains in an era of climate change, Walker adds that livestock biodiversity can also be seen as protection against natural disasters and disease outbreaks.
“We don’t know what agriculture is going to look like 100 years from now, and we may need the traits these breeds carry in order to meet challenges that arise in the future,” he says. For instance, some heritage breeds can survive outside for longer periods of time, can be resistant to disease and parasites, and have more intact mothering instincts.
For all these reasons, chef Antoine Westermann serves heritage chickens at his poultry-centric restaurant Le Coq Rico in New York City, but he also points to an additional benefit: they have incredible depth of flavor.
“[Heritage birds] have time to develop flavors that quick-growing birds don’t, and they actually reveal a terroir, like fine wine,” he says, noting that he’s become a sort of “poultry sommelier” over the years. “Beyond that, I believe that when an animal lives a good life, you can taste it.”
The Defining Controversy
More than 50 endangered heritage chicken breeds exist, and few farmers other than Reese are raising them commercially. In 2009, the Livestock Conservancy issued an official definition of heritage chicken specifically to draw attention to the endangered breeds and support long-term conservation.
It was supported by many in the industry, including Reese. According to the definition, a heritage chicken must meet four criteria. First, it must be on the American Poultry Association’slist of “Standard” breeds, which includes breeds recognized prior to 1952 with genetic lines that can be traced back generations.
It must also be produced through natural mating, be able to live a long, active life outside, and have a slow growth rate that means it reaches market weight in no fewer than 16 weeks. (Industrial chickens are reproduced via artificial insemination and typically reach market weight at about seven weeks.)
After USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued guidance on how they would evaluate animal-raising claims on labels, those in the industry were under the impression that the agency would use the Livestock Conservancy requirements to evaluate whether a company could use heritage chicken on its label. But they started to notice the claim on some chickens that they felt didn’t qualify.
Frank Reese’s heritage chickens at Good Shepherd Poultry. (Photo credit: Jim Turner)
The most prominent example was Joyce Farms, a small North Carolina company raising slow-growing chickens using humane, pasture-based practices, which it markets as heritage poultry. Its Poulet Rouge chickens meet France’s well-regarded Label Rouge standards for humane production. The farm is also certified “step 4” (out of 5) by the Global Animal Partnership’s Animal Welfare Rating Standards.
“By and large, I think what they’re doing is great,” says Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s director of strategic projects and engagement, of Joyce Farms’ work. “But it’s not heritage [because of the breed]. This is about the actual label claim and how the USDA is interpreting it.”
Last July, Joyce Farms stirred things up further by filing a petition with the USDA to add a heritage chicken classification rule—which would spell out when the term “heritage chicken” can be used on a label—where one currently does not exist. (Rulemaking is different from “guidance” in the complicated world of government agencies.)
The definition of heritage chicken they requested in the petition did not include some of the Livestock Conservancy’s requirements. Most notably, the proposed rule did not include that heritage chickens would have to be verified as APA Standard Breeds. This would potentially mean that any slower-growing chicken, regardless of its genetics, could qualify for the label. The petition also defines slow-growing as reaching market weight at 12 weeks, versus the Livestock Conservancy’s 16 weeks.
(In response to a request for comment on whether heritage should include a breed requirement, Joyce Farms emailed Civil Eats saying that they believe heritage chickens “should be slow-growing … suitable for outside (pastured) production, have a carcass appearance reflective of older breeds… be able to mate naturally, and generally have colored feathers.”)
No one disagrees with these broad requirements; it’s what’s not in the definition—the specific breed requirement—that’s causing the contention.
DeCoriolis is quick to point out the fight is not with Joyce, a small farm that shares a lot of the same values as it is with those on the opposite side of the issue. But he fears that if what Joyce proposed as a definition were approved, it would be much easier for large, industrial producers to take advantage of and bastardize the label.
That’s why his team is quickly moving the “Certified Heritage Poultry” program forward. Two producers will begin using it on eggs within the next few weeks, and others will follow soon after.
“In our minds, heritage breeds are the only breeds we think can truly be separated from the factory-farmed industry,” says DeCoriolis. “If we can’t protect these terms and help [Reese] and others differentiate what they do, they won’t be able to compete. Having a certification behind that effort, he adds, “will give us some legal protection to police the term.”
Farm Forward is also helping Reese establish the Good Shepherd Poultry Institute, where he plans to educate more producers on the importance of heritage breeds and how to raise them and invite groups like 4-H and college students to learn about the issue.
“My mission is not to shut down factory farms,” Reese says. “My mission has been to save these breeds from disappearing off the face of the earth.”
Top photo: Frank Reese’s heritage chickens at Good Shepherd Poultry. (Photo credit: Jim Turner)
School districts across the U.S. are beginning to close their doors for summer vacation, giving students a respite from classes and exams. But for millions of young people from food-insecure households, there’s less to celebrate—because summer break puts an end to the free and reduced-price lunches they’re eligible for during the school year.
Since 2011, in California, young people have found sustenance and assistance in an unlikely place: the public library. That’s the year the Oakland Public Library in Northern California started serving free lunches of sandwiches, fruit, and milk to local children at three of its branches. “We were seeing hungry kids coming in and staying the whole day,” says Derrick DeMay, Oakland’s supervising branch librarian. “Hungry kids act in ways that are unproductive. One solution is to say, ‘You’re out for not following the rules.’ But that doesn’t help anybody.”
The library’s decision to feed kids instead of ejecting them was quiet testament to the long, lingering shadow of food insecurity, which, despite some fluctuations, has remained consistent at around 12 percent of the nation’s households since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began tracking it in 1995. (That figure is 14.4 percent in Alameda County, which encompasses Oakland.) “A very basic need was not being met and we realized, these kids just need to be fed,” says DeMay.
At the California Library Association (CLA), program director Natalie Cole watched Oakland’s summer lunch experiment with interest, while amassing reports from librarians in other parts of the state about encounters with ravenous kids acting up and asking for snacks. In 2013, she and Patrice Chamberlain, director of the California Summer Meal Coalition, received a private grant to follow Oakland’s lead and pilot a summer lunch program at 17 California library branches.
This year, 198 public libraries across the state will serve an estimated 275,000 free meals, all fully reimbursed by the USDA, through the Lunch at the Library program that Cole—who is now program consultant at the California State Library—and Chamberlain established. Libraries in Ohio and other states have also adopted coordinated summer lunch programs in the wake of California’s efforts, although no one is keeping an official national tally.
Summer Food Program History and Challenges
Federally reimbursed summer lunches have actually been available for more than three decades. The USDA, which declined to comment for this story, enacted the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in 1975 in order to bridge the summer feeding gap. By 2011, the year the Oakland libraries started serving lunches amid their stacks, the USDA was reimbursing more than 130 million meals a year, served at community-based sites across the country (including the Oakland libraries) over the three-month break.
In California at least, those sites were often, logically, schools; kids were already congregated there for summer school and enrichment programs, and schools had the means to cook and serve food. But the 2008 financial crash caused schools to scale back their summer offerings. As a result, Chamberlain says, more than half the sites serving summer meals fell away—although, even before the crash there weren’t enough “to accommodate all the kids in need.” In fact, California misses out on millions of dollars worth of federal aid, partly because it has too few sites.
If a school without summer programs continued to serve lunch anyway, kids were less likely to turn up for it. Transportation was, and still is, an issue, and with no programs, there were no school busses to shuttle kids around. Stigma is also a barrier. “[Kids] stand out when there are no activities” for them, says Chamberlain.
In this context, libraries-as-lunch-sites begins to make a lot of sense: They’re often centrally located, offer books, activities, coveted air conditioning, and safety, and the USDA doesn’t require them or similar participating sites—including Boys & Girls Clubs, local parks, recreation centers, and churches—to ask for proof of need; Anyone under the age of 18 who shows up eats for free, no questions asked.
There are obstacles to bringing in California’s 1.7 million summer-hungry kids to libraries, however. Finding the space to serve lunch at tables in the reading room or elsewhere, such as the foyer—where some busy branches set up—can be challenging.
And sites all need sponsors. These can be school districts, food banks, or YMCAs that do most of the heavy lifting in terms of finding a vendor to make food and deliver it, training and hiring staff, keeping track of meals served, and filing for reimbursement. But getting the word out to families in need is also challenging. “Schools try to reach [them] before summer, but a lot of times it’s a flier [that just gets] shoved in a backpack,” says Chamberlain.
For a site to be eligible for SFSP, 50 percent of kids in the area must qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. In a city like Oakland, for example, where high rents have pushed out some residents, or wealthier residents may skew stats for their lower-income neighbors, some critical sites might no longer qualify.
And some overtaxed librarians balk at serving meals. Cole says she frequently hears concerns, including fear of chaos and mess, resistance to taking on responsibilities that are “not our job,” and worry over dealing with stringent USDA regulations. For instance, some locations receive hot dishes from their sponsors, like the “taconados” and corn dogs served at Southern California’s Ontario City Library, which must be served at a precise temperature.
The Evolving Role of the Library
Advocates, though, say the effort is worth it, since the program allows libraries to pull in new kids, then sign them up for reading programs and library cards. Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) branches offer an ever-changing roster of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) activities at their summer lunch sites, which, says LAPL’s youth services director Eva Mitnick, gives kids in high-needs communities access to fun science learning they may not get at school.
Adult caretakers, who are not eligible for free SFSP meals, can access helpful information at libraries about strengthening their resumes or enrolling in citizenship classes; in some locations, food banks and local farmers give away fresh produce.
Many sites also attract teen volunteers who can earn community service credit, gain career training, and learn “how to be stronger citizens,” says Courtney Saldana, Ontario City Library’s youth services supervisor, who is thrilled for teen help during the three daily lunch seatings she juggles at the main branch to meet overwhelming demand. Some libraries pay the $15 fee for teens’ food-handler certificates, which they can also use to get restaurant jobs.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Chamberlain would like to expand Lunch at the Library to affordable housing communities—with libraries bringing in bookmobiles and story-time sessions. Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), which promotes summer lunch nationwide, thinks lowering free-lunch-qualifying site requirements from 50 percent to 40 percent will increase access to kids in need, as will convincing municipalities to fund their transportation.
FRAC is also monitoring the 2018 Farm Bill and its proposed changes to SNAP benefits. While most outcomes probably wouldn’t have a direct impact on summer lunch, FitzSimons says, “Whenever there’s an increase in need, you expect it to be more taxing on emergency food providers.”
Which circles back to Lunch at the Library’s main hurdle: increasing the number of sites. Chamberlain hopes to double the number of California’s library participants over the next 10 years. Saldana has offered a loud supporting voice to that effort since Ontario City started serving lunch in 2015. “If somebody needs it, the library should provide it—and to walk into a room and see hungry kids being fed is a slap in the face” to “traditionalists” who think their sole job is providing reading materials to patrons, she says.
The California Library Coalition’s Cole agrees: “What a library is and does is changing. [Summer lunch] positions us at the heart of the community, and emphasizes our role there.”
When Leah Penniman and her family founded Soul Fire Farm, in Petersburg, New York in 2011, they had a vision of a multi-racial, sustainable farming organization that would run food sovereignty programs with the goal of ending racism and injustice in the food system.
To achieve these goals, Soul Fire Farm offers training to Black and brown farmers, activism retreats, food justice education, subsidized food distribution, and, as of February, is leading a movement of Black farmers who are calling for reparations for centuries of slavery, systemic racism, and racial inequity in the U.S.
“If African-American people [had been] paid $20 per week for our agricultural labor rather than being enslaved, we would have trillions in the bank today,” Penniman says. She adds that those numbers don’t include the many other ways Black and brown people have been excluded from the tools that have allowed white people to succeed for centuries, such as access to credit, education, and home ownership opportunities.
“There is a reason why the typical white household today has 16 times the wealth of a typical Black household,” Penniman says, noting that the gap is “often traceable back to slavery.” According to the Brookings Institute, 35 to 45 percent of wealth in the U.S. is inherited rather than self-made and a recent report from the Center for American Progress on disparities in wealth between Blacks and whites suggests that long-held, structural racism is the biggest reason for the gap.
The farm team. (Photo courtesy of Soul Fire Farm)
Many organizations and individuals have called for reparations—financial payments made today to help make good on the systemic injustices of the past 400 years—as a way to begin to level the playing field and create equity.
Penniman’s online mapping tool currently includes 52 organizations around the country led by farmers of color who are calling for reparations. The map details farmers in need of land, resources, and funding, and aims to connect them with organizations, foundations, and individual donors to support their work.
Clicking on one of the participating farms on the map reveals details of its operations, its needs, and how to engage with the people who run it. Penniman is careful to point out that the reparations map is an effort designed to be complementary to, but not a substitute for, the larger national effort for reparations being coordinated by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.
The History of Reparations
The call for reparations dates back to the federal government’s failure make good on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves after the Civil War under General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, created in January of 1865, and later approved by President Lincoln. By June of the same year, 40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of what was known as Sherman Land in the South.
The money generated from farming that land gave Black families the opportunity to create financial mobility and economic security. By 1920, Black Americans owned 925,000 farms, or 14 percent of the farms in the U.S. at that time.
Yet, the promise didn’t last. Over time, millions of farmers, including 600,000 Blacks, lost their farms—often because they lacked legal deeds to the land. By 1975, just 45,000 Black-owned farms remained. The 2012 Census of Agriculture estimated that Black farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers and 1 percent of rural landowners.
According to Penniman, the promised 40 acres and a mule would be worth $6.4 trillion collectively today. The call for reparations, and efforts like the map, are ways to help make Black farmers and their families whole. Penniman says her group used Google Maps to build the tool because “it’s simple to use and decentralized,” although she says she would love for “a techy person to take this over at some point and make the platform more sophisticated.”
The process is simple: Farmers file an application and Soul Fire adds their information to the map. From there the farmer can go into the map and make changes and add information on his or her own farm or needs. “We found that the mapping was more visually engaging compared to using a spreadsheet. Everyone can edit their own pin on the map without a gatekeeper,” Penniman says of the farmers who apply to be a part of the project. To date, more than 53,000 people have visited the map.
The Birth of the Reparations Map
The original idea to take on reparations came out of a conversation Penniman had with Viviana Moreno, a farmer from Chicago, at Soul Fire Farm’s Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI) program. “We were all talking about two farms, Harmony Homestead and Wildseed, as examples of reparations and restoration, and she said we need more of this type of people-to-people giving,” Penniman says.
“The realities of being Black, Indigenous, and brown people in the United States means many of us have little to no access to land, [or] many of the resources needed to run a small vegetable farm sustainably,” Moreno says. “As we were discussing this, I asked Penniman ‘Why, if there are so many of us, don’t we create a sort of database that would feature all of our collective needs and projects?’”
Penniman liked the idea, and she gathered with a group of Black and brown farmers to create the map over the next few months. As soon as it was up, the group sent invitations to all the farmer-alumni from the BLFI program, as well as to other Black, Indigenous, and brown farmers, asking them to add their projects to the map.
The farms and projects currently listed on the map are broadly diverse: Farmers identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and multi-racial, hail from large cities and rural communities, and are seeking help getting started or expanding their work to reach more farmers and eaters.
Moreno’s Catatumbo Cooperative Farm is now listed on the reparations map, seeking funds to start farming land in rural Illinois. Moreno and her partners, Jazmin Martinez and Nadia Sol Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, are all queer, immigrant worker-owners. Their long-term goal is to acquire land in rural Illinois while maintaining a connection to communities in Chicago.
Eduardo Rivera is another farmer that signed on to the reparations map. Currently leasing land outside of Minneapolis for Sin Fronteras Farm, he hopes to use the map to help him buy land or secure a much longer-term lease than his current leased lands. “I signed on after I saw what Soul Fire was doing and was hoping that it will help me acquire the land I need,” Rivera says.
“Being organic gives you more opportunities and access,” he says. “My plans are to grow organic year-round, but I can’t do that on leased land—I think the cost is prohibitive.” Rivera hopes to expand his operations to grow more foods for the Latinx/Mexicanx community and also create an incubator for other indigenous farmers and farmers of color. While it is still too soon to know if the mapping project will get him the land he needs, he says it has gotten him noticed, and he is hopeful.
Eduardo Rivera in the fields at Sin Fronteras Farm and Food. (Photo courtesy of Sin Fronteras)
According to Penniman, there were other projects that informed and inspired them in creating the reparations map. Pigford v. Glickman, the famous 1990s lawsuit from Black farmers who sued the USDA for racial bias in its lending practices, was the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history, and it still was not enough to stem the tide of Black land loss, according to Penniman. But she adds that they cannot rely on organizing around policy alone. “We need to rely on reaching out, and touching hearts, and catalyzing action in our communities.”
Soul Fire Farms trains farmers to become advocates for reparations. “Someone has to be doing the right storytelling and facing the foundations,” she says. They are calling upon funders to be partners in helping to make Black and brown farmers whole. “It’s not just about money. It’s about power and control. It should be the people who are directly affected who have that power and that control, not those who inherited extracted wealth,” Penniman says.
Penniman has a list of specific actions for foundations and other donors who want to help end racism in the food system as part of her upcoming book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Definitive Guide to Liberation on Land. “Some of the things foundations can do are to have more geographic, class, and racial equity, prioritizing funding for the Deep South and underfunded regions, as well as, streamline the reporting and applications process,” she says. “They need to transform the expectations and relationships tied to their funding to support the organizers on the frontlines.”
“Being a part of the project also helps us to start a discussion about issues around land justice, reparations, solidarity economies, and much more,” says Moreno. She adds that it is important because their work is not independent of other issues our communities face. “We definitely want to receive tangible resources, yet we are also looking to engage in conversations where we creatively think about what distribution of resources and wealth means and how to center the needs of historically oppressed communities.”
Penniman says that both systemic and policy change are important. “Some policies that we should all advocate for [include] passing H.R. 40,” Rep. John Conyers’ long-introduced but never-discussed proposal for a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African-Americans. Penniman says the bill could lead to such restorative solutions as a guaranteed minimum or universal basic income to cover all basic needs and free and universal education for pre-K through university.
While the reparations movement in the U.S. gets the most attention, Penniman points out that it isn’t the only place that is dealing with issues of land and money stolen from farmers of color. “I think there’s a lot of groups within Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, that have called for reparations as well,” she says. “Our work here is echoing that larger global movement in calling for the return of stolen land and resources.”
Top photo: Kevin and Amani tending onions at Soul Fire Farm. (Photo credit: Jonah Vitale-Wolff)
The United States is importing more organic corn and soybeans than it’s producing, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
Despite a steady increase in demand for organic products among consumers, U.S. crop growers have been reluctant to make the switch from conventional crops, even if it could mean higher profits for farmers struggling with low commodity prices.
“Corn, soybeans and cotton have pretty much the lowest (organic) adoption level of any crop we grow in the U.S.,” said Catherine Greene, an agricultural economist at the USDA Economic Research Service. “We’re orders of magnitude lower in the adoption level of feed grains than we are for many of the fruits and vegetables.”
But soybeans and corn, the two crops that dominate much of the agricultural landscape in the Midwest, have become lucrative organic imports since the USDA implemented the National Organic Program in 2002.
The volume of imported organic soybeans increased from $41 million in 2011 to $271 million last year. Organic corn imports jumped from about $24 million in 2013 to nearly $122 million in 2017.
Greene said increased demand for organic corn and soybeans are fueled by the need for organic livestock and poultry feed.
India was the leading exporter of soybeans to the U.S. last year, followed closely by Turkey, the leading exporter of corn to the U.S.
Meanwhile, incomes for American farmers have been trending downward. According to the USDA 2018 Farm Sector Income Forecast, net farm incomes are expected to decline to the lowest levels in 12 years. Many row crop farmers are barely breaking even, which makes premiums offered for organic corn and soybeans more appealing.
Enticing Price Premiums for Farmers Who Grow Organic
“We have had three large farms convert from conventional to organic in the last five years,” said Jim Traub, a merchandiser at Clarkson Grain Company near Cerro Gordo, Ill. “In 1992, we did not know what organic meant.”
Clarkson Grain Company processes both non-GMO and organic corn and soybeans. Farmers who sell non-GMO soybeans to Clarkson, even without the full organic distinction, have access to Japanese markets, where Midwestern beans are used in tofu, soymilk, and other food products.
Traub said it’s a relationship Clarkson has had with a Japanese trading company for more than 20 years that provides growers a $1.50 premium per bushel compared to genetically modified beans. Farmers who grow non-GMO corn see a premium of about 75 cents.
The price for organic corn and soybeans is even higher, paying farmers two to three times what they might make on a bushel of conventional grain.
But Traub said making the switch to full organic is not a quick and easy transition.
Farmers cannot use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers on their land for three years before they can receive the green and white label conferred by the USDA that has appeared on an increasing number of food labels.
“That’s the big barrier,” Traub said, adding that it’s part of the reason so much organic feed comes from overseas.
The organic standards, first established by the 1990 Farm Bill, go beyond using non-GMO seeds and forgoing chemicals. Equipment can only be used on organic crops, which can add significant costs for farmers wanting to grow both conventional and organic.
There are financial assistance programs offered for the transition period, including the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, but it is capped at $20,000 a year, and some lawmakers say assistance is nowhere near the level of the agency’s other programs for conventional farms, where risk is more controlled.
“We need thousands of additional farms to convert,” said Peter Golbitz, CEO of the agricultural consulting firm Agromeris. According to Agromeris, imports of organic corn and soybeans for feed have been growing at an average rate of 33 percent over the past five years, outpacing growth of organic feed grains produced by American farmers.
Golbitz said during a presentation at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in February that skyrocketing imports in recent years have not only created a trade gap, but also raised questions about fraud. He questions whether countries like Turkey and India can produce as much organic product as they are reportedly contributing to the U.S. market.
Trade Gap Leaves Room for Foreign Fraud
A 2017 audit from the Office of the Inspector General found that controls on organic imports are weak. In some cases, products coming into U.S. ports that were labeled as organic were treated with pesticides upon arrival in the same manner as conventional products.
The audit also provided little assurance that the necessary documents required under the National Organic Program were reviewed at ports of entry to verify that foods labeled as organic were from certified farms.
The audit came after a Washington Post report from May of last year revealed that nearly 36 million pounds of Ukrainian soybeans en route to California had been fumigated with a pesticide, then relabeled as “organic.” A shipment of Romanian corn underwent a similar relabeling from conventional to organic during its journey to the U.S., the Washington Post investigation found.
In order for the U.S. to rely less on imports and help meet growing demand for organic corn and soybeans, American farmers would need to convert approximately 600,000 more acres, according to Golbitz.
Dallas Glazik in a organic wheat field his family farms near Paxton, IL on Friday, April 13, 2018. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)
Price of Making the Switch
Tyler Young farms 3,500 acres of conventional corn and soybeans in east-central Illinois. Young has done his research on organic growing options and what transitioning his farm might look like. But he’s not convinced it’s realistic for an operation of his size, even with the enticing price premiums.
“Larger operations like ours are adopting some of the things that come out of organic agriculture without going whole hog,” Young said.
He plants cover crops, a natural way to promote soil health and prevent runoff. But when it comes to going all-in on organic, Young said weed control and using natural fertilizer would pose big challenges.
“Other than switching to a vegetable crop, you’re looking at labor bills and hand weeding,” Young said. He currently uses five different herbicides to keep weeds under control on his soybeans, something that would be prohibited by organic standards.
Young said he would also have to consider bringing cows back into his operation, something his grandfather had as a dairy farmer, to provide a natural fertilizer.
The transition to organic on smaller farms, on the other hand, can be more manageable.
Dallas Glazik, 24, is a fifth-generation farmer in Ford County, Ill. He said his family was one of the first in the area to become certified organic in 2003.
Will Glazik with some wheat the family grows on their farm near Paxton, IL on Friday, April 13, 2018. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)
“We transitioned 400 acres when I was in second or third grade,” Glazik recalls.
He also remembers walking the soybean rows during the summer, picking weeds on the family’s farm. “But now we have the procedure down a lot better,” Glazik said.
It was partly the farm’s size that made the switch to organic easier for the family. Now, they have a five-year rotation of corn, soybeans, small grains (wheat, oats, barley, and rye), as well as pasture. Glazik and his two older brothers have also started a distilling business, making their own whiskey.
“We decided to make more money on what we already had instead of buying more land,” Glazik said.
While overall yields are lower and the cost of labor higher for organic corn and soybean farmers, USDA surveys have shown that there are higher returns in organic crops.
Greene, with the USDA, said corn and soybean farmers also face challenges finding access to markets and access to non-GMO seed. But there is long-term payoff.
“In the studies we’ve done, organic production tends to be more profitable,” Greene said.
Glazik explained that while the three-year transition period to organic can be less lucrative, it will determine the future success of the farm. He recommended framing the investment in another way.
“You have to go into it with a mindset of you’re not going to make much money in the transition,” Glazik said. “You’re investing in the soil.”
Top photo: Dallas Glazik (right) and brother Will Glazik with some of the corn varieties they grow on their farm near Paxton, IL on Friday, April 13, 2018. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)
Anna Casey is the Audience Engagement Fellow at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The fellowship is sponsored by Illinois Humanities, a private 501(c)(3) state-level affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The story was inspired by a listening session the Midwest Center hosted in Tuscola, Illinois, where a diverse group of farmers spoke about some of the misconceptions about transitioning from conventional to organic farming.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org
On paper, Marion Nestle has recently retired. But there’s no sign that the New York University (NYU) nutrition professor—and one of the leading voices on nutrition and the food industry—plans to slow down.
In April, NYU hosted an event series to celebrate Nestle’s 30-year legacy. When Civil Eats caught up with her a month later, she was in her university office, surrounded by shelves overflowing with books, awards, and clever knickknacks (a box of “Cap’N Corn Starch” cereal boasted “2 scoops of sugar in every bite!”).
Although she’ll be teaching fewer NYU classes, Nestle says she’ll continue talking, thinking, and writing about the food system, starting with her latest book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, which will be released in the fall. (It will be her seventh book about food, and she posts commentary on her blog nearly every day.)
“I’m not finished yet. I’m right in the middle of it,” said Nestle. “And I’m having so much fun.”
In the three decades since she pioneered the country’s first real academic Food Studies program at NYU, Nestle has had a hand in changing how food is studied, understood, and even—many would argue—produced. NYU’s program forged an interdisciplinary field that goes beyond nutrients and looks at food as a complex political issue, from field to fork. And while there are now Food Studies programs at many universities across the country, Nestle faced plenty of obstacles early on.
She remembers trying to convince the NYU provost of the value of food as a serious academic pursuit. “They thought we were crazy,” she says. Now, students are clamoring to study food. And, she adds, “it’s considered fabulous!” Along the way, Nestle (who is also a member of Civil Eats’ advisory board) has also been a first-hand witness to major shifts in how and what Americans eat. She recently sat down to talk about what has changed in 30 years and future of good food.
At one of the NYU events, you said that you think the biggest issues in food right now are undernutrition, overnutrition, and the effect of food production and consumption on the environment. Would you have had the same answer 30 years ago?
I think the environmental impact part was less understood. When the New York Times wrote about the [NYU Food Studies] program in 1996, Marian Burros interviewed Alice Waters, and Alice Waters said something like, “I don’t understand—where’s agriculture in this program?” And I thought that was ridiculous. Where did she think we were going to be doing agriculture in Washington Square? But of course she was absolutely right, as she almost—well, I think—always is.
And we [now] do have agriculture in the program because it’s obvious that if you’re going to deal with the issues that food represents, you’ve got to do it in a systematic way, going from production to processing to consumption to the big issue these days, which is “How do you deal with food waste?” So all of those are connected, and you can’t really study one without studying all the rest of it.
Academia understands those connections, but there’s surprisingly little overlap between people working on different issues in food, like nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and hunger. Often it seems they’re even at odds with each other.
That’s a huge issue. The food movement is very different from typical social movements in that it’s enormously fragmented. For example, it isn’t even that people are working on hunger, people are working on different kinds of anti-hunger advocacy. There have been attempts to try to do coalition-building, and they haven’t worked very well. One of the big flaws of the food movement is that every time there’s a new organization, that means there’s a new competitor for a very limited funding base.
You’ve written a lot over the years about how confused people are by nutrition advice. Now, it seems eating healthy is having a moment—it’s trendy.
Well that’s been the case for the entire time I’ve been involved in this! I went into nutrition in 1976. And everybody was saying, I remember quite vividly, “We want you to teach this nutrition class because there’s so much public interest in it.”
Three books had just come out. Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, which is still in print, was cataclysmic in its impact. I mean, think about what she talked about in 1975: Eat less meat, and it’ll be good for health and the environment. You know, we’re still right there. And then Linus Pauling had come out with a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold, in which he advised everybody to take 10 grams a day of vitamin C. That has not held up so well, but there was a lot of public interest in vitamins and supplements at that time.
And then the third one: The Center for Science in the Public Interest had started a few years earlier, and one of the first books they published was a collection of readings called Food for People, Not for Profit. I’m telling you, you could use that book today in a class and it would be just as relevant. It was a series of articles about hunger, obesity, and the role of the industry in our food supply. It’s an astonishing book.
I think there is much more interest now. It’s broader. Certainly there was not a huge college-age population … or there was no huge Millennial population that thought food was really important, and that was Instagramming food. So that’s new. It’s just bigger, but the issues are the same.
If we’ve been talking about the same issues for more than 30 years, why are people still so confused about what they should eat?
The food industry and agribusiness—and even many small farms—have one goal and that’s to sell more of whatever it is they’re making and to produce it at the lowest possible cost. That’s a business goal. And that’s inherently conflicting with public health goals. People would be healthier if they ate less—and better quality—food.
That hasn’t changed, and the power dynamics haven’t changed, even though there’s this big consumer “movement.” I’m putting it in quotes because there’s a big argument about it. I think it exists … but critics of the movement, like Michael Pollan for example, said the movement doesn’t exist as a political force and that’s correct.
It exists as a bottom-up political force in the sense that the kinds of food choices that individuals make have a big impact on what companies are producing and how they’re marketing their foods. The whole “vote with your fork” thing, that really works, and companies have responded by taking out artificial things, labeling GMOs, producing gluten-free foods, and these days, making a big deal about waste, because it’s what the public is fussing about.
But to do something about hunger, for example, requires changing the political system. I think doing something about obesity does too, and certainly doing something about the environment requires a level of regulation that’s not really possible in our country.
Speaking of regulation, you’ve been involved in evaluating the Trump administration’s food policies. What’s the big takeaway?
I have nothing good to say. I mean, all of it’s bad. A lot of the things seem really small, like the school lunch rules … and yet it’s part of a much bigger picture. I went through anti-hunger policies, anti-obesity policies, health policies, and environmental policies. There has been a whole series of measures that the Department of Agriculture has passed that make the food system less sustainable, not more. And we don’t know what’s going to happen with the farm bill, but it’s unlikely that it’s going to be anything that’s going to improve fruit and vegetable production, sustainable agriculture, or organic agriculture.
It sounds like you feel that many things are moving in the wrong direction. Are you at all optimistic about improving the food system?
I think where the optimism comes from is that there are so many young people interested in these issues. I teach food advocacy and I think there are ways to do food advocacy that are likely to be much more effective than others. There’s plenty to teach based on examples from other kinds of movements. I mean, we know what works in advocacy.
The Berkeley soda tax is a good example because they did everything by the book, and it was wildly successful. They had a goal; they had a strategy for reaching that goal; they had a strategy for encouraging allies to join them; they did door-to-door community organizing; and they got the vote out. That’s what you have to do. So if you teach students how to do this, hopefully they’re going to take it to whatever groups they’re working with.
The real question is: How do you get power in order to be able to do what you think is right? You don’t advocate just to advocate, you have to advocate for something, and you have to know exactly what that is. And getting power means people have to run for office and I know most students I talk to are appalled at the idea … because the electoral system is so corrupt and requires so much money. But if you do it at the local level, it’s still possible. You want better lunches in school? Join the school board. I think that’s what has to happen.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.