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by Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics,www.gustorganics.com.

This is a fundamental question that, in an ideal world, we’d all be able to answer.

Knowing your farmer is about understanding his or her practices, motivations, challenges and ideas, but it’s also about transparency. Transparency in agriculture means better practices, and better practices results in better food. I truly believe that if all Americans were able to meet their farmers, we would have a much healthier population and society. 

I am fortunate enough to have met many of the lovely farmers who provide the organic meats, dairy, and produce for my restaurant, GustOrganics. And a few weeks ago, I got an invitation from Organic Valley to meet organic dairy farmers Susan, Aaron, and David Hardy on their farm in Mohawk, NY.

I completely understand that most people don’t have the chance to personally meet their farmers and visit their farms; therefore, I decided to ask the Hardy family some questions and share their answers here with you. —Alberto Gonzalez

Would you say you are a farmer or you work as one?

Susan: I am a farmer! Farming is our life, not just a job to us. We live with the land, we work with the land, we take care of the land, and it is in our souls. It is who we are. It has been wonderful to bring up our family on the farm and to raise our kids that way.

Why did you go organic?

David: There are a couple of reasons. When I was younger, I went to college and learned the conventional way of farming.  Then, in the mid-’80s I started reading this magazine called The New Farm (a Rodale Institute publication), and it opened my eyes to a whole new way of farming. In 1992, we bought this farm, and 1994 we started our new adventure as dairy farmers. We wanted to go the organic route because we didn’t like chemicals and we didn’t want herbicides—we like pasture. We particularly like the concept of rotational pasture because grazing is a more natural way of farming—it’s more sustainable and better for the cows’ health. If the soil and the grass are healthy, the cow, the milk, and the people are healthy. Going organic was something that came naturally.

What made you join Organic Valley Coop?

David: Because it is a farmer-owned and farmer-run coop. Everyone from top to bottom is farm-related or an active farm member. And everyone on the board of directors is an active farm member. So everyone has input. In regional meetings, all the farmers gather and share their experiences, and we learn and change based on that dialog. Organic farming is a community and Organic Valley is one big community.

Are family farms better? If so, why?

Susan: We definitely feel family farms are better. We would not have chosen any other way to bring up our kids and we think it teaches good work ethics.

David: Family farms are boots-on-the-ground rather than suit-and-tie kind of operations. Farming is a 365-day-a-year commitment, milking is a twice-a day-job, and each person contributes his or her time.

In a few words, what do you think about America’s food system?

David: The food system is controlled by a few large corporations, and what they pay the average farmer in the conventional world has been very stagnant for the past 30 years.  I think this is one of the reasons why conventional farms are so huge, because of the economies of scale. But as you get larger, you lose the localness and the connection to the land and the connection to the people who are buying your food. I think, if the corporations would improve the average pay of the conventional farmer, more farmers would change their practices to be more sustainable.

Is your farm sustainable?

David: We are a sustainable farm. We are an all-grass-based dairy farm. We are conserving soil

all the time, and we are building organic matter all the time. During times of excess rain, our soil keeps absorbing water and during the dry periods like this past summer, our pastures stay green, which is a testament to the resilience and the moisture-holding capacity of our soil. The longevity of our cows also speaks to sustainability. The average age of our cows is about 11 or 12 years old. In a conventional dairy farm, the average age of the cows is about 3.5 years.

Susan: I have 3 sons and 70 daughters [in obvious reference to her cows].

What kind of food do you eat?

Susan: We grow our own food.  We raise beef, pork, and chicken.  We have a large vegetable garden, and we pick apples and berries.  We bake our own bread with organic flour from the local coop. We also produce our own eggs and, of course, milk. During the whole year, we buy about 20 percent of our food from the store and 80 percent we produce ourselves.

What does happiness mean to you?

Susan: Working together and with my kids makes me very happy; having people like you with an encouraging vision and perseverance to see your vision through makes me happy, too.  Making a difference in the world also makes me happy. Having my family together at the table, sharing conversation and food, and having that food be all homegrown/homemade and taking a moment to realize and appreciate that—it’s quite a feeling of satisfying accomplishment.  I know that we have educated our children with strong work ethics and there is a ripple effect of that education, passing on an understanding of how important organic is (literally) from the ground up.

Please check these videos from the organic farm story:

Biodiversity by Dr. Guy Jodarski

Susan Hardy’s cows names

So, while only in an ideal world everyone can shake hands with their farmer and visit their farm, we can all make an effort to know how our food is produced. To me, there’s nothing at all idealistic about that.  —A.G.

 

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by Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics,www.gustorganics.com.

U.S. food consumers are somehow programmed to buy food cheaply. Our national motivation to pay less seems to be in our social DNA. We suffer what I call The Cheap Disease.

This national sport has created a cancer that’s been growing out of control inside our food system and our society. Consumers’ consumption represents about 2/3 of the GDP in our country, therefore, whatever we buy is big business–and keep in mind that we all eat every single day.

As consumers, we are very vulnerable to marketing messages. When companies spend big money on advertisement and social media, we simply obey. We have been bombarded for years with messages prompting us to pay as little as possible for food. The idea is simple: The less we pay, the smarter we’re supposed to be.

Even today, most food advertisement on TV focuses on promoting cheaper prices. The “to-be-smart” message to pay less for food is always present. In other words, we have simply been brainwashed for years because, in fact, cheap food means lack of good nutrients, with huge amounts of artificial and chemical contents, leading inexorably to bad health and, of course, an obscene amount of environmental damage. While chasing the cheapest possible food, we have opened the door for the key decision makers in our food system to transform it into the oil/chemical monster that it is today, and at the same time, our collective health has deteriorated to a point beyond belief.

It is fair to say that cheap food does not exist. When we buy cheap, in reality we are paying a very expensive price because we are–or will be–paying the difference saved at the cash register with our health and with extraordinary damages to our environment, which also means that we are seriously compromising the health of future generations.

The companies providing us with the cheap food are in reality externalizing the true cost of those foods.

The “cheap” food disease is not only affecting our health, but also that of farmers, animals, soils, water, and air. Factory-farming and the huge level of consolidation in the agricultural sector (the main culprits for our Cheap Disease) are putting family farmers out of work at an alarming rate. According to Farm Aid, 330 farmers leave their land every week. This is more than 47 farmers per day.

I know it’s awkward to discover that we have not been smart at all but simply manipulated by Food Corporations and agribusiness, and in fact, our food-purchasing decisions during the last 50 years have resulted in very poor choices. Also, collectively speaking, we have become very sick.

Although, on more than a few occasions, many people pay high prices for food in restaurants, in general those prices are related to value created by the location, style, or chef; however, the ingredients are generally coming from factory-farming, so the economics of dining out are actually contributing to The Cheap Disease. In other words, the higher prices paid translate to better margins for the businesses, but don’t contribute to consumption and support of true organic and sustainable farming.

In this country, most people do not make the connection between food, health, and happiness. The most obvious connection that I am sure everyone immediately detects is the one between money and happiness, hence, through this paradigm, “cheap” seems to be the main virtue in our food system, and it has proven to be a recipe for disaster.

To put it succinctly, while pursuing the illusion of cheap food, America became the sickest country on the planet.

What we eat matters big-time. Food is who we are, food cleans, food creates positive jobs, helps local communities, food incentivizes life but also death, destruction, and wealth for just a few. The choice is all ours.

Let’s cure our Cheap Disease, now.


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by Alberto Gonzalez, founder and CEO of GustOrganics,www.gustorganics.com, the world’s first certified-organic restaurant, and one of the greenest and most progressive restaurants on the planet

America is an overfed and undernourished country.

About 80 percent of the population is considered overweight, and almost one-third is obese. According to the National Cancer Institute, serious diseases that are linked to what we eat kill an estimated three out of four Americans each year. These diseases include heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, some types of cancer, and diabetes.

So food is killing more people than anything else in America.

What is going on? Who is responsible for this gruesome situation?

For years, we have inadvertently been in a collaborative mission along with food and agrochemical companies to get cheaper and bigger foods, and we all did a simply terrific job. By making “Cheap” the main virtue in our food system, we dedicated our dollars to feeding ourselves in a totally wrong way that has deteriorated our collective health but also created a monster food system. Our behavior as consumers was, in my opinion, a key success factor in creating a Frankenstein that took over the health and destiny of most Americans.

What we eat has been the problem, and I think we now have a great opportunity to transform it into the solution. The best starting point to properly solve a problem is to clearly define it; therefore we should take a look to some definitions.

Real Food: I define it as food that is free of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Food produced with integrity, using clean and fair farming practices, developed and harvested by socially and ecologically responsible farmers. Today, these transparent food systems represent less than 2 percent of total U.S. agriculture.

Frankenfood: It is an obvious metaphor in reference to Frankenstein, which means food that is engineered and processed to be more appealing and profitable. I consider Frankenfood to be any food that is not Real Food. Today, Frankenfood represents about 98 percent of the food produced and consumed in America.

Mercenaries: For the purpose of this article, I call all marketing people using their talents to create distribute and promote Frankenfoods in any way mercenaries. Many of them are highly educated, from world’s best universities; therefore, they are extremely smart about achieving their goals while disguising their real intentions. As consumers, to be engaged in the food system, we must be very aware of them.

Food: Any substance or material eaten or drunk to provide support for the body or for pleasure. Usually of plant or animal origin, it contains essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.

It might be a good idea to ask ourselves, what is left from the previous definition in most food available today?

The problem we face as consumers is that Frankenfood is everywhere. No matter where we go, for the most part, that is all we find. When it’s about food, America seems to be a country of huge contradictions. We use our tax dollars to subsidize food that is poisoning us and our children, also mortgaging the future of the next generations.

We go even further, taking our own money–yes, what’s in our pockets–and giving it to food companies full of mercenaries that are producing Frankenfood just to maximize their profits. They also use the cash we give them to block any kind of change in agricultural policies, perpetuating the system to simply keep making money.

In case you did not notice it, fast-food companies are the great masters of Frankenfood, engineering and processing their products to taste and look great.

These companies are mainly powered by agrochemical corporations with big pockets, and their army of effective lobbyists in Washington is devising strategies to keep our subsidies and continue promoting more of the same products that have been contaminating our health for the last 50 years.

It is good to remark that the amount of food that we buy daily in the U.S. is so significant that at the same time that our collective health keeps deteriorating, we are also polluting the air as never before, contaminating our water streams in an outrageous way, and generating a tremendous impact in the environment overall.

Frankenfood companies have always had lots of marketing resources, so they have led us to believe almost everything they wanted.

I know it is awkward to discover that as food consumers, we have not been smart at all: We have been manipulated by the food corporations and agribusiness during the last 50 years, and in fact, our food-purchasing decisions resulted in very poor choices. However, we must now face this reality if we want a different future.

The good news is that what we eat matters big-time. Americans spend around $1.6 trillion annually in food; this is about 11 percent of the GDP.

Food is who we are. Real Food cleans. Real food creates positive jobs, helps local communities, uses sustainable resources, and most importantly, Real Food incentivizes life and well-being. The most effective and peaceful way to change the industrialized agriculture system that is killing our people is to simply stop buying Frankenfood and start supporting Real food.

Consumers’ consumption is one of the greatest ways to evolve capitalism. Profits can make miracles in the corporate world. This is true change coming from within, and it is very handy, we just need to use it. If we demand food that is free of chemicals, the chemical companies devoted to agribusiness will starve and disappear in the same way rats abandon a building that is empty of all sources of food. At least they will be forced to reinvent themselves in a sector away from our food and bodies.

The revenue that we provide through our purchases is to Frankenfood corporations or to Real food farmers what blood is to the human body. Those who make it or break it depend exclusively on our food choices.

I believe that as consumers we must nurture a new generation of food producers that will eventually take care of us, in the same way a mother gives birth to a baby that at some point in life, when grown, will take care of her. Conscious food consumption is not only a great way to change our health and preserve our planet, but also a chance to generate new meaningful jobs in a very powerful industry. This is a precious opportunity to activate our economy through true, sustainable development.

Many people go to Washington to petition for change in food policies. I think that helps, however, I am inclined to believe that the current administration has some other urgent matters to deal with. Politics is the art of the possible, and in the current economic situation, what is possible for this administration seems to be very limited, so I will not have high hopes for significant food policy changes at the speed we need.

On a separate note, I know many people will argue these organic and sustainable ideas with phrases like: “How are we going to feed the world with organic agriculture?” so I say, a) organic agriculture seems to be more productive than conventional agriculture if we take into consideration all the real costs involved. And b) aside from this, shouldn’t we start focusing on doing a better job of feeding ourselves before we try to feed the world? By the way, it looks like we have not been doing a good job so far, have we?

I feel that as consumers, we have somehow co-created this Frankenstein that is living among us. We should stop Frankenfood because we all deserve Real food. It looks like we now have the responsibility to pass the baton that we once gave to Frankenfood companies to the Real Food farmers.

Thinking about this food problem, I thought of this appropriate quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” I would love to set our goal as a nation to transform together America’s food system from Frankenfood to Real Food at pace of 2 percent per year. We should all be active part of this productive change, and we will surely live healthier and happier and be able to leave a better world for the future generations.

First published on huffingtonpost.com

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This week on Down To Earth Blog, Sequoia Lab Team welcomes Woody Tasch, Founder of Slow Money and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. Slow Money’s third national gathering takes place October 12-14 in San Francisco.

by Woody Tasch

Farmer Bob Comis recently suggested that the food movement is suffering from “multiple personality disorder.”

He argued that several vocal minorities—foodies, locavores and “smallists”—tend to dominate the food movement discussion, unrealistically distracting us from our ultimate objective: bringing affordable, organic food to all as part of a broader commitment to social justice.

For decades, now, organic farmers and sustainable food activists of all stripes have been vexed by the question:

Is this a movement? Can it scale and have meaningful impact?

At one eloquent and entrepreneurially-impeccably-credentialed end of the spectrum stands farmer Joel Salatin:  “Don’t let them confuse you. Organic farming is not an industry. It is a movement. It is part of a movement that began when the first indigenous peoples fought against the Conquistadors. It is fighting back against the modern Conquistadors, the multinational corporations, those who would patent and genetically modify life and destroy diversity.”

At the other eloquent and entrepreneurially-impeccably-credentialed end of the spectrum stands Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg:  “I hate the ‘m’ word. Organics is an industry. We must build and utilize industrial-scaled enterprises, if we are going to get toxics out of the food chain in one generation.”

There are 6,132 farmers markets in the U.S., up 350% since 1994. There were 60 CSAs in 1990; today there are almost 13,000. Some 400,000 people belong to them. That seems movement-ish, until you consider some countervailing data. 50,000 in Copenhagen, alone, belong to a single box scheme. More than 60 million people play Farmville online. McDonalds first quarter profits in 2011 were $1.21 billion, up 11% from Q1 2010.  So, despite FOOD INC.’s nomination for an Oscar, Michael Pollan’s single-handed splicing of the local, organic food gene into the American consciousness and Jamie Oliver’s much ballyhooed “Food Revolution” on TV, where’s the (grass-fed, organic) beef?  Where’s the movement?

The beginning of an answer lies with Paul Hawken, who beautifully argues in Blessed Unrest that it is a fool’s game to try to put a single name on the millions of initiatives emerging around the globe as an immune response to the destruction of natural systems. Add to Hawken’s prognosis Wendell Berry’s disdain for movements. Berry fears that movements, however well intentioned, devolve into warring special interests, abstractions that deflect us from reducing, in our daily lives, our complicity in the destructiveness of the modern economy.

Where does that leave us?

Well, being stubborn, slogan-loving Americans, we could try to come up with names anyway:  Foodie, locavore, vegan, localism, smallism, anti-GMOism, anti-Conquistadorism, anti-Twinky-ism, raw milkism, school lunchism, ethical treatment of animalism, family farmism, urban farmism, farmers market vs. Wal Martism, heirloom variety-ism, real foodism, slow foodism, indigenous culturism, nurture capitalism, biocharism, terroirism.

Or we can zoom out, and zoom down, and look for the broader and deeper process of which all this food related activism is a part.

THINK:  Eliot Coleman’s advice, “Feed the soil, not the plant.”

THINK:  Gary Snyder’s observation:  “Food is the field in which we daily explore our harming of the world.”

THINK:  Joan Gussow’s aphorism, “I prefer butter to margarine, because I trust cows more than I trust chemists.”

THINK:  Odessa Piper’s insight, “Local is the distance the heart can travel.”

Along this Coleman-Snyder-Gussow-Piper axis lies the connection between the food movement and its deepest roots, which reach all the way to nonviolence.

This enterprise that we are a part of, with its new organic farmers and the host of small food enterprises that are emerging to bring their produce to market, is about an economy that does less harm. It’s about rebuilding trust and reconnecting to one another and the places where we live. It’s about healing the social and ecological relationships that have been broken by hundreds of years of linear, extractive pursuit of economic growth, industrialization, globalization and consumerism. It’s about pulling some of our money out of ever-accelerating financial markets and its myriad abstractions—called, with more than a little irony, securities—and putting it to work near where we live, in things that we understand, starting with food—creating a more immediate and tangible kind of security.

This attention to and, even, celebration of the small, the slow and the local can seem, at times, rather precious against the scale of global economic, political and environmental challenges. But it was agriculture that gave birth to the modern economy, and, as Paul Ehrlich recognizes, it must be agriculture that we fix if there is to be a postmodern economy:

“The agricultural revolution led to a period of cultural evolution unprecedented in its rapidity and scale…. It is a story that starts with the obtaining of food but returns us to two aspects of human behavior that, although present in hunter-gatherers, became even more important in sedentary groups—religion and violence.”

CSAs to the rescue. Local Harvest and Greenling and Green Mountain Creamery and  Mamma Chia and Revolution Foods and People’s Grocery and Gather Restaurant and Shephard’s Way Cheese and High Mowing Organic Seeds and Growing Power and Slow Food and the Business Alliance for Local, Living Economies and RSF Social Finance to the rescue.

Can we imagine a pro-soil, pro-earthworm, pro-small farmer, anti-fiduciary-razzmatazz, pro non-capitalist-pig movement that becomes as robust in this second decade of the 21st century as the anti-war movement was in the 1960s?

Peace Now.  Fertility Now.  Food Here Now.   Slow Money.

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by Seth Goldman

For the past few years I have been disappointed when I consistently see market research that indicates consumers don’t view the word “organic” as a meaningful term. In fact, most market research suggests that consumers view the term “natural” as far more valuable than “organic”, when the term “natural” is a completely empty word in terms of packaging language. Alas, most of the surveys suggest consumers interpret “organic” to mean less tasty, too expensive, and even a term associated with false promises.

The irony is that “organic” is one of the few packaging terms that is actually federally enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A manufacturer cannot display the USDA Organic seal on a package unless at least 95% of the product is made with organic ingredients, and the manufacturer must be able to present a paper trail for each one of those ingredients. 

So it is clear more education is needed. Given 1) the stakes for our earth and our diets; 2) the gap between perception and reality, and; 3) the fact that today is April Fool’s Day, we are taking radical measures. So today we are releasing our first, (and perhaps last?) rap video, Rethink What you Drink.

Our video was inspired by my longtime board member and friend, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, who released “Just Eat Organic” last month. Gary and his chorus of three Moms highlight the importance of organics to our diets and to the earth. I enlisted two of our field marketing managers, along with members of our staff and unsuspecting Bethesda residents, to join me in our video, which offers a different way to think about organics, and to highlight the importance of selecting organic beverages. Two of my favorite lines are:

Middle age guys rapping, what could be sadder?
I’ll tell you Holmes, what you put in your bladder!

Organic tastes better cause nature got it right.
You don’t need chemicals to keep a drink tight.

When my three sons first heard I was going to star in a rap video, they started thinking about changing their last names, but when I told them I was more concerned with getting out the message than embarrassing myself (or them), they became supportive. In fact, my oldest son (and his chest) makes a guest appearance in the video.

I will admit that ever since college, I had wanted to record a rap. My Harvard college roommates and I actually had a group called the Educated Devastators (back in the 80’s), but we never recorded anything. So this is probably as close as it gets. And so, with the extra license that it’s especially OK to laugh at yourself on April Fool’s Day, we (very) humbly offer www.justdrinkorganic.com.

In the hopes of expanding the reach of the organic message, and in the interests of encouraging others to share their organic vibe, manufacturers and consumers alike, Stonyfield and Honest tea are sponsoring a rap video contest.

This blog post first appeared on Seth blog post on Treehugger.com

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