Thursday, March 25, 2010

From Personal to Social Responsibility on Food with Marion Nestle

If Dr. Marion Nestle (pronounced aptly like the verb meaning "to nurture" as opposed to the name of the food company) could teach the American public one thing, it might be that larger portions equal more calories. Alas, that is not as easy as it sounds.

Being healthy, Dr. Nestle, the author of Food Politics (which Kristin reviewed earlier) and What to Eat who spoke on campus yesterday for the Ellen Catherine Gstalder Memorial Lecture, explains, isn't difficult to do. In reality, it's quite straightforward: Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables, don't eat junk food, and enjoy your food. However, with the barrage of corporate messaging we see today about the health miracles performed by everything from your peanut butter hyped up on omega 3s to your Immunity Rice Krispies, a trip around the supermarket can become a mix of cognitive dissonance and visual overload.

How, though, did we get to be where we are today?

Dr. Nestle spent most of her early career focusing specifically on nutrition; however, she has with time realized that we need a more systematic or holistic approach to understanding our food, one uniting agriculture, food, nutrition, and public health (obesity, hunger, food safety).

She traces back the issue of obesity to the early 1980s, noting four major changes that have influenced the American diet. First is agricultural policy. In the 1970s, farm policy shifted; rather than paying farmers not to grow, the government began paying them to grow as much as possible. Something had to be done with all of that excess food, right?

Second was the wave of deregulation that came with the Reagan administration. With this wave came an increased marketing to children from corporations. This sector grew from $4.2 billion in 1980 to $40 billion in 2010. Granted, not all of this is food-based, but just turn on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel and count how many sugary snacks or breakfast cereals you see in the commercials. It's not hard to see.

The third factor cited is an increase in women working outside the home. Dr. Nestle, however, notes that this gets overemphasized too much because the trend had already been started in the 1960s, decades before the obesity epidemic hit.

Last but not least was the shareholder value movement. In 1981 Jack Welch of GE changed the dynamic of Wall Street, pushing for immediate return rather than consistent return over time. Food companies, then, had to sell a lot more in order to grow.

Over that same span of time, the price of fruits and vegetables has seen a steady increase (relative to inflation), and the prices of beer, butter, and soda have all fallen drastically. Not the formula for a healthy public, is it?

The information we are being fed along with the food has changed, too. Health claims on food were not possible before 1990, when the Nutrition Labeling Act was passed. Food companies, consequently, could say whatever they wanted to on their products regardless of the existence or nonexistence of scientific evidence to back up their claims. This has been upheld by courts out of a gross corruption of the First Amendment. Dr. Nestle aptly noted that when she was in school, she learned that the founding fathers included this in the Bill of Rights to protect the freedom of religious and political speech, not the freedom of corporations to lie to us about their products.

There is, however, some hope in the future. Dr. Nestle was very optimistic about Michelle Obama's commitment to this issue with her Let's Move campaign. Moreover, the health care legislation included an amendment mandating that all chain restaurants release nutritional information on their menus.

What does she recommend that we do, both as consumers and as citizens?

As a consumer (i.e. personal responsibility), you can buy food, not "products," you can make your own food or even grow your own food, and you can teach your children about where food comes from.

One of the best pieces of advice I can personally give about making sure that what you are eating is actually "food" is to look at the ingredient list. If you were given all of those items separately, could you put it back together? Could you take those monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, natural and artificial flavors, xanthum gum, dyes for every color of the rainbow, and make food out of it? Probably not. Stick to what you know and can pronounce.

Also, your food should be rich in color, naturally occurring color that is. I have always attempted to make my plate look as attractive as possible and have always gotten comments from friends about how colorful and crafted my salads look. Just look at the photo above of Marion Nestle from her Food Politics blog and try to tell me that the array of yellow, red, and orange does not catch your eye.

As a citizen, moreover, we must advocate for more nutritious school lunches, more access to sustainable food, and regulations on marketing lies and campaign financing.

In the words of Michelle Obama, then, LET'S MOVE!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Locating the Environment in Political Philosophies

Professor Patrick Deneen wrote an opinion piece in yesterday's edition of The Hoya about the environmental movement's position within political philosophy. I think that it is an interesting and valuable read for its attempt to relocate respect for nature in the greater scheme of conservative philosophy; however, I feel that I need to address a lot of the overstatements that riddle the piece as well. Overall, however, I think that a debate about our role as both citizens and consumers comes out of this piece, and it is one that is central to any form of positive social reform.

First of all, I feel that the opening is too much of an overstatement. He claims that there is a "near-universal embrace" of environmentalism by today's youth. If there is, that's news to me; I must have missed the memo. Few people, of any generation, will actively speak out against the environment--unless you are Jim Inhofe, the self-proclaimed worst enemy of the environment, or one of his supporters. Wearing a "save the planet" sticker does not make you an environmentalist. Our generation might preach well on the environment, but practicing well--that's a different story.

Moving on, I feel that Deneen does raise the interesting point of personal accountability; however, at times, it feels a bit too much like an "Al Gore lives in a big house" style jab, if you know what I mean. Increased classroom technology can save paper although, at the same time, it uses energy. However, it helps to foment discussion and to promote knowledge--creating informed, well-rounded, reflective, engaged CITIZENS and individuals is the very purpose of a liberal arts education. And these citizens are the ones who make change.

However, I do feel, at times, that there is a tendency to ignore individual responsibility when advocating for corporate responsibility. One of my biggest pet peeves is environmentalists who smoke cigarettes. When you fight against the air pollution caused by the coal plant, why are you polluting the air yourself? And funding an industry that has no respect for your life? And doubtfully much for the environment either? We must be both good citizens and good consumers; they must exist together.

I disagree, however, with the issue of terminology that Deneen presents as the center of his argument. The word "nature" is a more distancing word, in my opinion, than the "environment." "Nature," as the word is commonly used, evokes the images of pretty postcards from national parks or tropical rainforests. The "nature," whether or not it should, implies an existence outside of the urban and suburban worlds. Even though the word "environment" can have the same pitfalls, at the very least, it can connote the entirety of one's surroundings. The air YOU breathe and the water YOU drink is part of your environment.

Moreover, it is not necessarily a "return to nature" that is being advocated in environmentalist discourse, but rather an "evolution with" or "growth with" nature. The problems with modern technology exist in the reliance on conflict minerals for their creation and the questionable issue of their disposal. Likewise, the electronics industry has based itself around the idea of planned obsolescence, making our iPods and laptops outdated by the time we buy them. Even though technology is the attempt to live beyond nature, we can still go beyond our natural abilities without destroying the environment to the extent that we do now.

It is true, as he notes, that early Progressive Movement often inadvertently caused environmental detriment in its aim at social liberation--just think of dams for a minute. Moreover, moving out of the scope of the US alone, just as there is no inherent respect for the environment in either socialism or capitalism. However, modern progressivism (and I will use the term "progressive" over the term "liberal") favors green jobs as a way to elevate labor by working with nature, not against it, and supports forms of energy that do not damage the health and well-being of the populace. You can harness the renewable sources of wind and sunlight rather than the nonrenewable sources of coal and oil.

However, Deneen is correct in that some elements of the environmental agenda do have firm roots in conservative principles. Take, for example, the desire to reinvigorate family farms, a system based on individual communities rather than on government-subsidized Big Ag. Growing your own food or using solar panels to get yourself off the grid are other great examples of an environmental ethos linked to a libertarian, individualist mindset. (Joel Salatin, discussed in an earlier blog post, is a self-described libertarian, for instance.) The intimate relationship between the GOP and Big Business has sadly corrupted these fundamental principles, which will hopefully blossom again.

Furthermore, I have always thought that the environmental agenda should not be ignored by those who claim to have a "pro-life" view of the world. The respect for the life of both humans and animals, wherever they are, lies at the core of the environmentalist ethos. If one purports to be "pro-life," how can one support mountaintop coal removal, which damages and shortens lives, or GMO foods that pose unknown threats to human life while under the guise of prosperity?

Ultimately, what one should take out of this is that leading a better future by working with (not over or against) the environment should not be a blindly partisan issue; however, as is the case with anything in this country, it inevitably will be.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sustainability Survey Results: An Overview

Last week, the results of the Sustainability survey carried out by Project Hilltop and CNDLS (with early recommendations put in by EcoAction members) were released. The survey, which was conducted in mid-January, had 645 respondents, which is about 10 percent of the undergraduate population.

With any survey, one runs into the risk of a self-selecting audience of test-takers; however, the feedback gained provides valuable starting point for understanding how the Georgetown student body envisions sustainability at their university now and into the future.

Most survey takers deemed the sustainability initiatives discussed "important" or "very important." Recycling, often the most visible form of sustainability, was valued by 94% of the survey takers. At the low end of the spectrum were purchasing local or organic food (55.5%) and including sustainability in curricula (55.5 percent). As we have seen a growing interest in food issues (with a well-attended screening of Food, Inc., and lecture by Joel Salatin), I was shocked to see the low valuation of food; however, it gives us an idea of how to formulate future messaging campaigns.

The only category for which students said that they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with Georgetown's efforts was recycling (55.7%); no other category saw a majority of students satisfied. Over half of the students participating in the survey, moreover, were unsure of Georgetown's efforts in investment in sustainable funds and endowment transparency. This latter point has been one of our major weaknesses in the Annual Green Report Card.

The survey results also showed a dichotomy between student's views and their practices. 82% of respondents claimed that water conservation is important , but only 48% reported that they take shorter showers (under 5 minutes) "always," "frequently," or "occasionally."

There was also a divide between students' perceptions of their own behaviors and those of their peers. For example, more than 65 percent of students reported always turning off the lights when they leave a room, but only 4 percent thought that their peers "always" do the same.

Overall, the survey proved that people do care, but that they are unsure about what Georgetown is doing. The promotion of knowledge and the creation of convenience are vital steps in moving ahead.

For graphs from the survey, visit here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Story Time with Annie Leonard

If you have to have a neuroses, Annie Leonard, the brain behind "The Story of Stuff" who held a book reading at Politics & Prose here in DC yesterday, would recommend hers.

When she sees an item--be it a chair, an iPod, or a bottle of shampoo--she immediately thinks of all of the stages of its life, from the factories to the landfills--all of which she has visited over the past 20 years. These materials, what she calls "stuff," exist in a specific context for her, a context of which most of us have lost focus.

If you have not already seen Annie's video, "The Story of Stuff," click this link and watch it now---it is a valuable, informative, engaging 20-minutes summary and tutorial on the relationship between your life and the lives of the stuff you buy, including the laptop from which you are probably reading this.

Annie's video and her book, which provides more in-depth information, demonstrate how so many of the issues that we face are interconnected, and in order to make positive, lasting social change, we must understand this. Rather than trying to get someone else to work for your issue, show them why their issue and your issue are intrinsically the same, and then work together for the solution. The environment, workers' rights, the treatment of women and minorities, global poverty, and more are all caught up in this web of "shop-watch-buy" and its effects. Moreover, if you really cared about "family values," you should value quality time with your family over the endless cycle of material consumption. Just saying.

The value of Annie's message, moreover, is that it speaks to the heart--to that deep, vibrant core in all of us that wants to see a difference and make it happen.

One of the most commendable traits that Ms. Leonard embodies is persistence. She has been working for over 20 years on the issue of waste, one that has not gotten a lot of attention in comparison to more aesthetically pleasing of topics. However, one of the best lessons to learn is what her good friend and notable environmental advocate Van Jones told her: "It's good to be marginalized for 20 years. By the time people start listening to you, you've gotten really good at saying it."

Returning to the crux of the topic, however, two fundamental paradigm shifts lie at the heart of the solution:
1) Waste is not an essence: it's a location. If a can is sitting on the table, it is a can, but as soon as it gets thrown away, it becomes "trash" or "waste." Break the paradigm that says that all things must end up in the trash can; buy the products that have the least amount of packaging, and find creative ways to reuse what you end up with.

2) The revitalization of the "citizen" part of our identity to match and surpass the "consumer" part of identity. As members of any collective body, we engage with others as both consumers and citizens. From an early age, we are taught to consume, to participate in the rituals of shopping. However, the lessons of citizenship often get lost, and an engaged civil society , one imbued with the ability to think critically (perhaps the most valuable asset of all), is essential to any attempt at lasting change for the public interest.

"The Story of Stuff" will soon be followed by more videos because of its unexpected, but decidedly well-deserved, success of the first. Premiering on March 22nd (World Water Day) will be "The Story of Bottled Water," a tale of manufactured demand. Soon to come, as well, will be "The Story of Electronics" (planned obsolescence), "The Story of Cosmetics" (toxics), and "The Story of Corporations" (on the recent Supreme Court decision).

A quick, amusing after-note: During the Q&A session, one guy came up to the mike holding a disposable cup and asked her if she would sign it for him. She replied, "Only if you promise never to throw it away."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Farming Extraordinaire Joel Salatin

This past week, I had the true pleasure of speaking to Joel Salatin, the author, farmer, and most important, owner of Polyface Farms, a holistic “beyond organic” farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Salatin describes himself as a “Christian-Libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer,” and after hearing his lecture I can tell you, none of those is an exaggeration.

To me, Salatin represents everything that could be right in agriculture, and if extrapolated, in business. Polyface Farms is a for-profit entity whose goal is simple: create value through their core competency of producing great meat. However, this value-generating purpose is couched in an understanding that most industries ignore: the fact that every successful long-term business venture must internalize the costs of its actions. Right now, the American food system relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and federal government subsidies. These create several external costs that go unrecognized by the market, including soil erosion, dead zones in our seas, and aquifer depletion (the list can go on and on, but I’ll spare you, dear reader). What does it mean to externalize these costs? Well, basically, our food system is causing long-term costs for which we will have to eventually pay, but fails to include these costs in their prices. This is why Americans spend less on food (as a percentage of income) than any other society in the history of the world, why McDonalds French fries might be cheaper than the potatoes at your farmers market, why our food system is obsessed with cramming extra calories into any processed food it can find.

Joel Salatin defies this system at Polyface Farms. Polyface Farms, in its current operation, could still be around 500 years from now. Think you can say that about Monsanto, or any other food giant?

The lessons Salatin is teaching to the agriculture industry are valuable for all business ventures. The baseline responsibility for all businesses should and must be to internalize the costs of all tangible externalities their operations create, whether environmental, social, or health-related. This is easily accomplishable if done voluntarily, rather than by government regulation. Salatin understands farming, his farm, and his land. For these reasons, he is in the best position to make his operations sustainable, and it shows in his product. It also shows in his costs and, subsequently, his prices.

It has been said that the slave of destructive business practices is the consumer who makes purchasing decisions based on price. It doesn’t need to be that way. If the food industry internalized costs the way Salatin does, Polyface Farms would be the cheapest meat you could find.