Food for Thought
February 05, 2009
On campus and off, Lewis & Clark community members are stirring up the local food culture.
Next time you sit down to lunch, consider this: the turkey in that sandwich that seems so nutritious may be from a bird that lived in a crowded barn, eating feed laced with antibiotics that are now part of your diet, too. The banana may have traveled thousands of miles via a fuel-guzzling jet to your table. Those corn chips may contain grain genetically modified with rodent or fish DNA.
In a world where industrial farms produce vast amounts of corn, wheat, and rice, where some of us can buy grapes from Chile in December while others go hungry, questions about food production and consumption reflect the global economy. “Food is about relationships,” says Bob Goldman, professor of sociology. “Relationships between people and food, food and the environment, the environment and technology.” In his 200-level course on the political economy of food, Goldman challenges students to consider these relationships.
Goldman gives the example of a Portland restaurant buying squid for calamari from an Oregon fisherman. The squid are shipped to China for cleaning, then flown back to Portland. While Chinese labor is cheaper for the restaurant, it means fewer Oregon jobs, more jet fuel expense and pollution, and perhaps tacit consent to unfair labor conditions. “It’s not cheaper for the wider society,” Goldman says.
Goldman’s students also discuss whether the food we eat is good for our health, how farm animals are treated, and whether wholesome food can be affordable. As Goldman says, “If we abandon some industrial models [of growing food], will we be able to feed everyone?”
While Goldman’s students investigate, Lewis & Clark alumni are creating change up and down the food chain. From setting new standards for farming and production to delivering produce to customers’ doorsteps, these graduates are pursuing practices that could change the economy of food.
Pamela Brainin Boyar B.A. ’75 has been feeding consumers and supporting local farmers for years. After graduation, she moved to Southern California, where she and her husband made and sold juices. (Memorable customers included Don Henley and Cher.) Later, Boyar sold local produce directly to restaurants. “California cuisine was taking off,” she recalls, referring to a style of cooking emphasizing seasonal, local produce. While many restaurants buy directly from farmers today, “I was one of the first organic foragers,” Boyar says.
Eventually, Boyar sold her successful business and moved to Austin, Texas, where she worked for Austin-based Whole Foods Market, strengthening ties to farmers and organizing farm and winery tours to show customers the origins of their food firsthand. In 1997, she started what became Sunset Valley Farmers Market in Austin, recently named (along with the Portland Farmers Market) by Eating Well magazine as one of the top five markets in the United States. “Farmers markets create community,” Boyar says. They also educate. “We asked Texas kids where orange juice comes from. They said ‘Florida,’ even though their home state is a top producer. They need to know where their food comes from.”
Recently, Boyar moved to Hawaii, where she plans a farmers market on Oahu’s North Shore. She hopes a larger market will satisfy demand, educate consumers, and support farmers. “My goal is to keep the small farmers in business,” she says.
“Food is about relationships–relationships between people and food, food and the environment, the environment and technology.”
Bob Goldman, Professor of Sociology
Boyar also hopes to combat the spread of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), present in many commercial seeds, plants, and processed foods (agricultural lobbying prevents requirements to label food containing GMOs). To create GMOs, scientists modify plants such as corn or wheat by inserting genes from other plants or from animals, aiming to introduce qualities such as disease resistance. Because the technology creates organisms not found in nature, and genetically modified seeds threaten natural diversity, GMOs have many critics and are banned in much of Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Hawaii’s island ecosystems, where nonnative invaders have already crowded out many plants and animals, are especially vulnerable to GMO contamination. Boyar aims to educate consumers and support traditional growers, just as she has for the past 25 years.
Matthew Buck B.A. ’90 works to promote socially and environmentally responsible agricultural practices. Buck is assistant director of Food Alliance, a national nonprofit organization based in Portland that certifies farmers, ranchers, and food processors and distributors. As a Lewis & Clark student, he traveled to Senegal, West Africa, on an overseas study program. While there, he learned the importance of rural economic development. “I saw how social, environmental, and economic issues are intertwined,” he says. “What we eat reflects our dependence on a larger community and the surrounding ecosystem.”
Farmers and ranchers earn Food Alliance certification by meeting standards for safe and fair working conditions, healthful and humane treatment of animals, attention to soil and water quality, reduction or elimination of agricultural pesticides, and preservation of wildlife habitat. The group works mainly with medium-sized family farms and ranches. “Most of the farms we’re losing in this country are midsized,” Buck explains. “They’re too big for direct marketing, and too small to compete in commodity markets. But with certification they can differentiate, add value to their products, and target niche markets.”
Food Alliance has certified farm and food-based businesses in 23 U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico. One of the requirements is continual improvement. “Sustainability is not an end state,” says Buck. “We have to raise the bar as science advances, consumer concerns evolve, and industry practices change.” The organization asks companies to set one-, three-, and five-year improvement goals. For example, a farmer could adopt cultural and biological controls, such as crop rotations or creating habitat for predatory insects, to avoid the need for pesticides.
Much criticism of industrial farming emphasizes the hazards of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Of the 25 most commonly used agricultural pesticides, 5 are toxic to the nervous system, and 18 can damage skin, eyes, and lungs. About half have been classified as cancer-causing chemicals.
Antibiotics in livestock feed may contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” Buck says, “More than 70 percent of antibiotics [in the U.S.] are used in livestock.” The drugs are used to promote growth, and to prevent diseases that could otherwise spread easily on so-called factory farms, where many animals live in quarters so cramped they cannot turn around or lie down. Since the drugs stay in animal products, we consume them, too. Eventually, Buck says, we may face an era in which overuse has diminished the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics for humans.
Arika Menzies B.A. ’95 and her husband, Michael Menzies, run the opposite of an industrial farm. Braeside Farms, in Estacada, is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, selling produce directly to consumers and at a local farmers market. Customers purchase shares of produce in advance, and collect the goods during the growing season. (Many CSAs, including Braeside, also deliver to customers.) “I learned about CSAs from my friends at Lewis & Clark,” says Arika, who grew up on a family ranch in South Dakota.
Braeside is a family farm. The couple have no employees–they do the farming, marketing, and delivery themselves. They raise animals on pasture, supplementing their diet with certified organic feed. A local, USDA-inspected butcher slaughters the animals “safely and humanely,” says Menzies. She notes, “The food we grow is healthful because we use organic methods. We don’t use synthetic pesticides and herbicides, so our customers aren’t consuming the toxins that are found in conventionally grown foods.”
Braeside Farms uses solar power to pump water and compost to fertilize crops. “It takes some energy to raise and bring our food to market,” says Menzies, “but not nearly as much as conventional farming.” For naturally better crop yields, they raise plants and animals that thrive in western Oregon.
Restaurants With a Local Flavor
Piper Davis B.A. ’87 finds locally grown food tastes best to her restaurant customers. Davis is a co-owner of Grand Central Bakery, a family-run company with bakeries and cafes in Seattle and Portland. After working as a teacher, Davis came home to Grand Central.
In the 1990s, Davis attended a meeting of the Chefs Collaborative, an organization fostering links between restaurants and local farmers. “I was inspired,” she says. “The first thing we did was take tomatoes off our sandwiches. Now we use them only when we can get Willamette Valley tomatoes.” Grand Central’s pastries incorporate seasonal fruit; their ham comes from a family farm in Walla Walla, Washington; and most of their other ingredients come from Northwest growers. While it is easier to find local suppliers for some foods than others, Davis says, “We’re constantly increasing local and direct sourcing.”
Davis credits Lewis & Clark with her global perspective on food: “A liberal arts education helps you see connections.” To Grand Central, business is more than the bottom line; it’s about relationships, the very thing Bob Goldman encourages his students to see. “We offer people good jobs that pay a living wage,” Davis says, “I prefer doing business with the farmer down the street. I can visit the farm, and the farmer can come in and have a pastry. It’s more than a business–it’s a relationship.”
The Real Cost of Food
One criticism of local, sustainably produced food is that it costs too much for middle- and low-income shoppers. However, Goldman notes that poor health and poor food quality go together. Fast food, often cheaper than fresh, carries “an enormous social cost,” because of its impact on health, Goldman says.
Buck concurs. “In the U.S., we’ve been conditioned to expect cheap food, but we have to ask whether we’re paying the full cost,” he says. “There are social and environmental costs that don’t show up in grocery store prices.” The Food Alliance supports development of local economies and fair wages for farmworkers–measures that will help consumers buy better food.
Davis says food must be fairly priced for both farmer and consumer. “At Grand Central we try hard to maintain quality and affordability. Our prices are based on food costs, and we work to stay in line with our competitors while offering high-quality food.”
Part of the Food Alliance mission is creating incentives for growers to change the way they produce food. Buck says college students have played a key role in creating new markets. “They deserve a lot of credit,” he says. “Campus activism has gotten direct corporate attention. At first, [corporate leaders] thought it was just one or two campuses–‘oh, those radicals’–but it’s been a movement all over the U.S. Students have demanded fair-trade coffee and better food, and corporations have had to respond.”
Seeds for the Future
What changes do these alumni see coming? “My passion is to take the priciness out of ‘local and sustainable,’ ” says Davis. “To do that, we need more farms making 100 percent of their money growing their own produce and selling it to restaurants.”
Of his students at Lewis & Clark, Goldman says, “I want them to be able to ask questions about their relationships with food, other people, and the environment.” To put it another way, he says, “Once you know where your food comes from, how do you respond?”
Braeside Farms’ Arika Menzies recommends starting small and local. “Visit your local farmers market and try a vegetable or fruit you normally wouldn’t. Strike up a conversation with the farmer and ask how to cook it. When you shop at the grocery store, look for food that is in season.” As our grandparents knew, you can grow food in your own backyard. Menzies suggests starting an herb garden in pots on the kitchen counter, or for the more ambitious, planting garlic and peas in fall for a springtime harvest. Those peas, she says, will taste even sweeter when you know exactly where they came from.
Genevieve J. Long is a freelance writer and editor in Portland.