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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Eat Real Food

The Upchuck Rebellion

By Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown. Posted April 6, 2006.

The Good Food movement is leading the charge against expensive,
nutrient-free, artificial, unhealthy, corporate crap-food.

Even though winter is just beginning to release its frigid grip on most
of the land, I'm already thinking out of season, looking ahead to one
special thing: fresh, ripe, right-out-of-the-soil, good-and-good-for-you
summer tomatoes. Oh, I can taste them now! And eggplant, too. And
peppers. And all kinds of other edible wonders.

I'm a food guy. I've got a small but richly composted garden plot in my
backyard, I'm a regular at several farmers' markets, and I frequent a
number of great restaurants here in Austin, Texas. I love poking around
food stores of any variety, I like to browse through seed catalogs and
cooking magazines, and I always try to sample the local specialties as I
travel around the country. I enjoy friendships with quite a few chefs
and restaurateurs, and I love visiting with farmers and food artisans
who are doing creative things. Though it still pisses off the corporate
establishment, I was once the agricultural commissioner of Texas.

I know firsthand about the phenomenal cornucopia of good, fresh,
nutritious and delicious food that our country is capable of producing.
That's why it knocks me whopperjawed to see the stuff that dominates too
many American diets -- an array of industrialized, conglomeratized,
globalized products that have lost any connection to our good earth.
This stuff is saturated with fats, sugars, artificial flavorings,
chemical additives, pesticide residues, bacterial contaminants,
genetically altered organisms and who knows what else? Plus, the major
factor driving prices is not the cost of any actual food that might
still be in these products, but the cost of packaging, advertising and
long-distance shipping.

What has caused us to stray so far from the farm, so far from the
essential and wonderful sustenance provided by nature itself? The
answer, of course, is that the brute force of corporate power has been
applied both in politics and the marketplace to pervert our food
economy. During the past half century, control over our nation's food
policies has shifted from farmers and consumers to corporate lawyers,
lobbyists and economists. These are people who could not run a
watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the highway patrol
flag down customers for them! Yet they're in charge, saddling us with a
food system that enriches corporate middlemen while driving good farmers
off the land, poisoning our productive soil and water supplies, and
literally sickening those who consume these adulterated foodstuffs.


Do we have to swallow this? Of course not -- we're Americans, rebellious
mavericks -- and the revolt is on! For the past few years, a grassroots
movement has quietly but rapidly been spreading throughout the country.
I call it The Upchuck Rebellion: a growing number of people fed up with
the destructive power of industrialized food are declaring that they're
not going to take it anymore.

More than declaring ... they're taking action. Part of this effort is
political, trying to get the industrializers and globalizers to clean up
their act. At another level, however, America's food rebels are taking
on the idea of industrialization itself by creating their own
alternative food economies. These are based on local farmers, seasonal
consumption, organic and sustainable production, local food processors
and artisans, and local markets. The goals are (1) to build a system
that delivers tastier, healthier food; (2) to keep a community's food
dollars in the local economy; and (3) to treat food not as a corporate
commodity, but as a centerpiece of our culture.

Naturally, the Powers That Be have howled in derision at these efforts,
sneering that local farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs, chefs, marketers,
gardeners, environmentalists, workers, churches, co-ops, community
organizers and just plain citizens simply don't have the savvy to create
and run any kind of significant food system. However, my friend John
Dromgoole, who runs a successful natural gardening and composting center
in Austin, has a snappy retort to these elites: "Those who say it can't
be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

This is a movement that has antecedents going back generations -- both
J.H. Kellogg and C.W. Post, for example, were health-food visionaries
more than a century ago (and both would be appalled by the products now
bearing their names) -- but the modern-day movement is barely 20 years
old. In this short time, however, these innovative doers have made
astonishing gains. Just in terms of raw numbers, today's "Good Food"
movement is impressive:

* Organic food topped $15 billion in sales in 2004 -- triple what
they were only seven years earlier. Sales are increasing by roughly 20
percent a year (compared to only about 2 percent for all other foods)
and are expected to reach $30 billion four years from now.
* Nearly two thirds of American shoppers bought some organic foods
last year -- up from about half the year before. About 40 percent of
consumers now say that they regularly buy some organic foods.
* There are now more than 8,000 organic farmers, with thousands more
trying to make the transition from industrialized production to organic
(a rigorous and costly process that should be assisted and funded by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, which instead remains either indifferent
or hostile).
* From white tablecloth restaurants to barbecue joints, chefs have
been in the lead in introducing organic food to the public and in
creating the fast-growing market for locally produced seasonal foods.
* The growth and popularity of farmers' markets has mushroomed in
recent years, popping up in practically every city and most towns. Some
4,000 of these bustling, vibrant markets now exist, bringing local
farmers and artisans together with customers at all economic levels.
Likewise, the community-supported agriculture movement is fast
spreading. These CSAs allow consumers to buy "shares" in the production
of a local farm or group of farms, giving the farmers a defined and
reliable cash market and the consumers a weekly share of the crops. In
addition, the food co-op movement (once the rather funky domain of
hippies) is thriving. About 300 of them are in cities across the
country, doing some $750 million a year in business and providing local
producers another way around the corporate distribution system.
* The demand for organic and locally produced food has become so
mainstream that major supermarket chains and such national food
wholesalers as SYSCO have had to alter their once-rigid procurement
practices to make some of their purchases from organic and local

By eliminating the corporate middlemen (with their voracious profit
demands, bloated executive salaries, advertising budgets, bureaucracies,
lobbyists, lawyers and so forth), this localized marketing system links
farms directly to forks. The results are salutary -- small farmers get a
fair price that lets them and their families keep going, and we
consumers get food that is what it's supposed to be: tasty and
nutritious. In the bargain, our food dollars stay at home, generating
more economic activity in our communities.

Yes, say opponents, but the food is extravagantly expensive. No, it's
not. In season, organic tomatoes from a local farm can be cheaper than
the industrial tomato at the supermarket. And as organic production has
increased, overall prices are coming in line with nonorganic. In
Portland, Ore., for example, a small chain of grocery stores called New
Seasons features locally produced foods, and about 75 percent of its
stock is organic. A monthly price survey of Portland area supermarkets
shows that prices at New Seasons do not vary more than 3 percent either
way from those at the national chains.

But even when organic food costs more, it's important to consider what
you get for your money. Price is not the same as value. As one farmer
says, "You can get a day's worth of calories for 99 cents at a 7-Eleven,
but not a day's worth of nutrition." Or of flavor.

Plus, Washington spends billions of our tax dollars to subsidize
corporate-produced food, and the food industrialists also are allowed to
escape paying for the extensive pollution, soaring health costs and
ecological damage that are direct results of their methods. Rather than
paying for these enormous costs when we buy corporate food at Wal-Mart
or Burger King, we pay for them in our tax bills or by suffering

Another strong force propelling the good-food movement is cultural
connection. People are realizing that our corporatized world is out of
control -- empty, vapid, phony, valueless. One place where folks sense
that they might be able to get a grip again is food. By linking directly
with small farmers, cheesemakers and other homegrown producers, we
reclaim our place, our cultural identities, our values, our humanness.
Food, after all, is not merely fuel, but culture. It's in our art, songs
and literature. It's in our memories -- tastes, smells, sounds, visuals
and feelings. It's in our souls, giving us shared experiences with
family, friends, co-workers and community. By taking charge of what goes
on our plates and how it gets there, we begin taking charge of our

What's for lunch?

It's a cliche to say that our children are our society's future, but it
happens to be true. So, what are we teaching them about food? In class,
they get lessons on the five components of a good nutritional lunch,

Then the bell rings and they go face the reality of their school lunch.
Very few lyric poems have ever been written in praise of the "mystery
meat" and blah veggies of school lunch, but lately this midday repast
has gone from merely being bad to being bad for you. In today's schools,
the idea of lunch has been reduced to corporate-delivered sugars, fats
and calories, helping produce a growing epidemic of childhood obesity
and gross ignorance of what food should be.

School cafeterias are eliminating cooks and even kitchens, for their
"meals" come prepackaged from food-service corporations or are
contracted out to McDonald's, Domino's and other fast-food chains.
Two-thirds of America's middle schools and high schools sell sodas and
junk-food snacks, usually under exclusive contracts that bring big
corporate money to the school system. Rather than viewing school "food"
as a natural resource for nurturing and educating kids, administrators
have turned it into a money-making, corporate-branded commodity.

But a big change is coming. With little fanfare, a grassroots
"farm-to-cafeteria" movement has been spreading from school to school.
More than 400 school districts and 200 university cafeterias are now
building their menus (and, in many places, their educational curricula)
around fresh, local ingredients, much of which is organic. In nearly
every case, the change has come because some parent, farmer,
nutritionist, or other individual rose up to ask, "What the hell is
going on here?"

Vanessa Ruddy was one of them. In 2002, her son, Grant, enrolled at
Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Wash., and when she took a look at
the lunch menu, she did not like what she saw. While this school had
long shown an interest in good food (it had an organic garden, a
children's activity kitchen, and a harvest festival in the fall), the
lunch program at Lincoln was definitely old school.

At the bottom of the menu was the name of Paul Flock, the school
district's child-nutrition supervisor, and Ruddy decided to call him.
She put it off for a month, however, assuming he'd be a typical
bureaucrat, and she dreaded having to make a big fuss and wrestle with
the bureaucracy. Lo and behold, though, Flock welcomed her call and was
open to improving the menu.

Ruddy enlisted other parents to join her for a meeting in Flock's
office, and he asked what she wanted. "Organic Food" was her response.
Thus began an organizing process to get teachers, cafeteria staff, the
kids, farmers and other relevant parties involved and working together.
Sure enough, in October 2002, Lincoln Elementary opened its "Organic
Choices" salad bar, with a colorful and flavorful array of fresh,
organic, locally produced fruits and veggies. Ruddy said that the
school's cook told her, "You would have thought it was Christmas! You
should have seen the kids' eyes light up."

The chief concern was cost. For example, while the romaine, arugula, and
mustard leaf have far superior nutrient content, this mix of organic
greens costs four times more than iceberg lettuce's price tag of 72
cents a pound. But the team of parents and others overseeing the
development of Organic Choices found savings elsewhere, primarily by one
simple act: eliminating desserts from the lunch offerings (a move
enthusiastically applauded by teachers and parents). Lincoln actually
has cut its per-meal lunch cost by 2 cents, and the lunch program has
even started making money, due to teachers and parents eating lunch at
the school.

Since 2002 the salad bar has become a full-meal option, with cheeses,
beans, eggs, whole-grain breads, etc. Today all elementary schools in
Olympia have some version of Organic Choice in their cafeterias. "It's
all about a long-term investment in the health of our children," says
Lincoln Elementary's principal. "We are the responsible adults. We can
do this." Meanwhile, Ruddy has become a Johnny Appleseed for the
farm-to-cafeteria movement, speaking to others around the country about
bringing it to their schools. She offers two major tips: Get active.
Don't feel powerless.

The power of the table

This grassroots movement is not out simply to change some cafeterias,
but to change the corporate culture of food. And where better to start
than with our children? Why shouldn't every school have an Organic
Choices program, a school garden and a kitchen to give them the hands-on
experience of growing and preparing the food they eat, regular trips to
farms and farmers' markets, and a curriculum that connects them both to
nature and to their local community?

As school after school is finding, it's an awakening for kids to learn
that they have a relationship with food that is deeper, richer and far
more exciting than a Happy Meal at McDonald's. Alice Waters, the
wonderful pioneer of America's good-food movement who has created her
own "edible schoolyard" and "edible classroom" programs, is a tireless
promoter of this educational awakening. She says, "Students can learn
fundamental truths about where food comes from, about actions and
consequences, about the importance of stewardship of the land, and the
civilizing and socializing effect of the table." The farm-to-cafeteria
movement has now had an abundance of experience in all sorts of school
systems and is willing to assist others who want to give it a go. They
have learned a few universal keys to success:

* It takes a great deal of effort to break through the entrenched
food-procurement system.
* Start with the right school, where parents, administrators and
food-service personnel are open to the idea.
* Begin small, proceed slowly and build on success.
* Reach out -- be inclusive and transparent.
* Be understanding of the realities faced by both the food-service
staff and your local farming community.
* Contact everyone who has expertise, funds, connections and other
resources to assist you.
* Involve students in all phases of the process.
* Build a strong curriculum component into the project from the
* Make it fun -- have community tastings, festivals, food art
projects, etc.

It's not easy to recapture power from an entrenched corporate culture,
but it is doable -- and the prize most definitely is worth the effort.

From The Hightower Lowdown, edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer,
March 2006.

Jim Hightower is the author of "Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush"
(Viking Press). He publishes the monthly Hightower Lowdown; for more
information about Jim, visit

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