Michael Brunken Introduction

1/11 Update up to page 20
1/19 Revision
2/11 Added a few anecdotes

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The Importance of Food or Why Careful Eaters Ever Prosper

My first experience with food production was a visit to Merrymeade Farms in Lansdale Pennsylvania during a class field trip in kindergarten. There were goats, llamas, pigs, chickens and cows grazing in the fields or scratching in the dirt. It was perhaps more petting zoo than farm, but it was diverse and exciting and produced some of the best ice cream I have ever eaten.

Farming has been an intrinsic part of the American consciousness since the writings of Thomas Jefferson in 1787. The agrarian ideal held that those who practiced farming were the “chosen people of God”. The farm remains an ideal fixed in our minds as symbolic of a golden era while the reality around us has changed dramatically. Flash-forward to 2009, there are hardly any farmers left in America. Farming has been consolidated so that about 2 to 3% of the population of the United States feeds the rest.

Places like Merrymeade are more the exception than the norm. Most of the farms where food comes from belong to the “food industry”, two words that didn’t fit together in my mind. The word “industry” is suggestive of mechanical, a factory that takes inputs like steel and rubber and produces a car. It’s a process that you can set your watch to in terms of predictability and it produces a product of a standard quality. Food deals with all sorts of variables that don’t conform to the industrial process including weather and the quirks of living organisms.

However, there are organizations that specialize in offering food products that are of a predictable quality; McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Kraft come to mind. These firms are large enough to set the standards for farming in the United States; that means what gets farmed and how much of it. The typical American farm is either hundreds of acres of corn or hundreds of acres of soybeans, most of which go to feed land animals such as cows, pigs or chickens. These enormous monocultures require constant application of pesticides and antibiotics in order to keep out diseases that thrive on the lack of diversity.
Farming in United States has become a precarious enterprise rather than the idyll we are familiar with.

The modern farmer is under pressure to from food distributors to offer a low price or risk being left out. In addition, they must deal with the middlemen who arrange for the storage and shipment of their produce so that most farms lose money or break even. The government subsidizes the crops with tax revenue to keep the farmer afloat. When profit margins are razor thin, you need every bushel your land can produce and then some. Farmers have responded to this precarious situation by applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their land without precision. The excess runs off the field into streams, poisoning the length of a river before winding up in the sea where it creates a hypoxic “dead zone”, an area starved of oxygen unable to support life.

This chain of food producers and distributors has grown up for one reason; we, the eaters, asked for it. We wanted safe, cheap food of a predictable quality, and we have made some genuine progress in this area. Price is paramount and cheap food will sell while expensive food (grown locally and produced sustainably) languishes. However, this cheap food system has implicit costs that are not factored into the final product; namely environmental degradation, unfair labor practices and subsidies for certain crops that make junk food cheap. This glut of cheap food has resulted in an American population alternately described as clowns, cartoons and clowns of cartoonish proportion.

So, my objective is to convince the rationally self-interested eater that she should pay more money and spend more time with her food (not an enviable task). It is here that Lehigh University can make a difference. Lehigh’s contract with Sodexho and, by extension, Sysco is worth millions of dollars and supports the sort of agricultural practice described above. We can put our dollars toward local farmers who practice sustainable farming techniques. If we put the money out there, farmers will have a viable alternative to producing for the food industry. This is an opportunity to connect with the community in a meaningful way and learn about where our food comes from and how to feed ourselves.

A Truncated History of Industrial Food Production in the US

This problem became more prevalent in the 20th century with the incorporation of farming. In the 16th century, before colonists began arriving en masse, the American landscape was graced with over eleven feet of topsoil. Although the natives practiced farming, it was never the intensive sort that the new settlers practiced. The indigenous people would hunt animals and collect nuts and tubers, using the food they grew to supplement their diet. They lived lightly on the land.

The settlers relied on farming almost exclusively and, within decades the population exploded. Farming can support many more people than the method used by the Native Americans. When the settlements were just starting to grow, there was not much concern over soil erosion. After all, no one knew the exact dimensions of the new territory; it seemed to stretch on forever. As the soil eroded, settlers simply moved on to more fecund land. Without more land to appropriate and an expanding population, to feed chemical fertilizers seemed like a dream come true to entrepreneurs. The combination of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the first chemical fertilizer produced bumper crops on barren soil.

With the industrialization of the food system, farmers became more reliant on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The Industrial Revolution propounded a specific ideology, a set of tenets and values that guided agriculture; Industrialization encourages specialization and homogenization to produce products and services quickly and at a standard level of quality. To take advantage of economies of scale, farmers began to produce monocultures on farms that had once supported a wide array of life, much like the farm I discussed in the introduction. The push to use pesticides was a result of two currents moving simultaneously, namely a scandalous exposé and the advantages of increases in scale. Upton Sinclair’s muckraking classic The Jungle exposed the filthy conditions in America’s meatpacking industry.

Consumers were horrified at the descriptions of sawdust and rancid meat pressed into sausage, the use of galoshes in the production of hotdogs (the last part was a lie, but if you’ve ever peered inside a hotdog, you know that it is impossible to recognize its constituent parts animal or otherwise). Sales of meat, beef especially, plunged 30 to 50%. To guarantee standards for food quality, President Roosevelt passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Farmers used larger quantities of pesticides to ensure that the maximum amount of product arrived on the shelves without the usual proliferation of critters. Clean food, food without blemishes, became a major marketing tool, a way to differentiate one’s product from others. This was also the era of Wonder Bread, the very image of which emphasized cleanliness and modernity. Canned foods, prepackaged foods in general, too gained market share by promising a clean airtight seal. The zeal for food purity was at its zenith. Pesticides became more attractive as the size of farms expanded and weeding by hand became increasingly expensive. At first, pesticides and fertilizers were a blessing for those who could afford them. Farmers who sold more produce and could differentiate their apples from the apples of their competitors earned greater profits.

Gradually, the entire farming industry, entranced by the prospect of treasure, adopted the technology. Producing more, faster wasn’t just good for business; it was emblematic of the postwar period. Technology could do it better than nature. For millennia, since the birth and growth of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, the wealth of nations was predicated on the quality of the soil. The Fertile Crescent itself was prosperous until seeping salt deposits destroyed once fecund fields. With the right mix of chemicals, scientists thought they had found the cup of everlasting life. The goal was noble; freedom from hunger, one of the four freedoms President Roosevelt had promised to the American people, would become a reality.

The increase in production made certain kinds of food exceedingly cheap, allowing Americans to put their money toward leisure activities. Also, the consolidation and incorporation of the farms into larger entities made food quality easier to mandate and control. Americans were getting a variety of foods in and out of season. This “bigger is better” perspective established deep roots in agribusiness; even as we become aware of its detrimental effects, it proves hard to eradicate.

It turns out that nature abhors a monoculture. Without intensive spraying of pesticides, acres of genetically similar corn and soybeans (bred for their productivity) become easy prey for insects and microbes. This has made spraying a necessity. At a farm like Merrymeade, I could run through the cornfield (an activity I do not recommend because of the coarse unyielding nature of the stalks). On an industrial farm, I would need a HAZMAT suit assuming I was allowed into the farm in the first place. Most have become no-go zones too toxic to risk the unprotected if they should wander too close. The “keep out” sign has become standard around almost every American farm that doesn’t rely on agritourism.

The chemical composition of the soil has dominated industrial discussions of fertility; elements are easy to add in the desired quantities. But, as erosion occurs, the soil gives up these nutrients, which produce magnificent plants but do nothing for the health of the soil. Often, excess chemical fertilizer washes off of the fields into rivers. The nitrogen causes algae to grow at an alarming rate, drawing the oxygen out of the water and choking off fish populations.

The treatment of animals in the system is another issue altogether. The meat industry is big is an understatement. Americans are eating more meat than humans ever have, sometimes three times a day. This overabundance of meat does not make sense in the light of biology. Steers require nearly ten calories of plant food to produce a single calorie of beef. Agribusiness accomplishes this inefficient conversion through an abundance of cheap corn and the advantages that come from scaling up. Most of the land under cultivation produces corn that serves as feed for animals that were never meant to eat corn.

Animals like cows are ruminants, meaning they feed on grass. They use their four stomachs and the miracle of mastication to break down the cellulose in the grass and make use of its nutrients. Business has tried to put the corn surplus to work by feeding it to cows, pigs and chickens in opposition to the animal’s evolutionary tendencies. In order to make the corn digestible, the cows must be fed a cocktail of drugs to help the stomachs and intestine do the work they were never designed to do. This triumph of industry has been so complete that it has even convinced us that “corn-fed” beef is a premium product rather than a by-product of a system that produces too much corn. Without the need for grass, cows can be kept on large patches of dirt meaning that the reality seldom matches the prints on boxes or gallons of milk .

The Concentrated Animal Feed Organizations (CAFO) are sprawling perpetually brown tracts that stretch for miles where hundreds of cattle are raised and fed at a time. The tracts are small so that the cows do not get much exercise increasing the fat content (another by-product of the industrial system that has been turned into a virtue through successful marketing). The concentration of animals produces tons of waste in a highly concentrated area (the reason for the perpetual brown color and repugnant stench of the CAFOs). Fortunately, scientists have found uses for the excrement and urea that the CAFOs produce in abundance.

One option is to store the waste in manure lagoons (taking a dip could be fatal). Many high-density pig farms have such excrement ponds. When the sun hits Lake Manure, the stench can cause nausea and other serious health problems for those who happen to live downwind. If the lagoon springs a leak, it has the potential to poison the ground and nearby bodies of water (a subject that served as a major plot element in the recent Simpsons Movie in which Homer drops a silo of pig waste into a lake, poisoning Springfield’s water and fouling its air). The other option is to use the excrement in other parts of the raising process. Chicken excrement is used as a part of cattle feed to provide protein. This is part of industry’s crusade to reduce cost; find a way to use a material that your farm produces for free to feed the animals.

Normally, we would consider these tactics and techniques repugnant. However, the industry’s goal is to produce as many animals as possible for the lowest cost. As an instructive side note on what animals are to industry, animals are not animals in the industrial farm system, but Specific Attribute Raw Materials (SARM). In other words, farmers select, breed and augment certain species of animals to produce the largest loin, or the biggest rump roast. Instead of looking at the whole animals, they dissect it into parts to the exclusion of the whole. This is the sort of atomistic perspective that leads to using excrement as food. The same is true of poultry. Chickens are bred primarily for breast meat. Chicken “manufacturers” have settled on a single breed of large-breasted chicken. They then inject growth hormones to augment the natural size of the breasts and bring the animals to term faster than nature usually allows. As always, the focus is ‘how to get more faster’.

Such ruthlessness leads to a severely degraded quality of life for the animal. The chickens produce such exceptionally large breasts that they cannot stand much less walk. Also, the fact that the chicken matures so quickly means that its internal organs cannot keep up with the rapid rate of growth. The chickens usually can’t take more than a few steps in the pen without falling over from shortness of breath. Keeping a large number of genetically similar chickens together in a small area means that these larger operations are especially susceptible to outbreaks of disease. This is also true for cows and pigs on high density feed lots. Keeping the danger of outbreak at bay requires constant application of antibiotics.

The real cost of the industrial food system is present in the growth of super bacteria, bacteria that are impervious to antibiotics. The antibiotics are introduced to the animal in the feed to keep outbreaks from spreading. They pass through the animals’ intestines and into the environment. This cycle exposes microbes to antibiotics allowing them to develop resistance. As recently as 1982, a new strain of E. Coli has arisen in ground beef. O157 H7 is capable of causing kidney failure.

Keeping animals penned up together has other nasty side effects. Chickens, who spend most of their lives in the darkness of the coop, become cannibalistic, attacking and eating each other. Pigs gnaw on the tails of their neighbors until they fall off causing infection. Cows live most of their lives knee deep in their own excrement. The respective solutions for each of these problems are as horrifying as the problems themselves. Chickens have their beaks removed; pig’s tails are cut off and, each package of ground beef comes with a warning label about E. coli.

Corporations push farmers to produce exclusively for them. That means that, if you live next to a farm that has this sort of contract, you can’t go next door and buy a pound of potatoes or whatever they produce. In essence; the industrial process has turned the farm from the cornerstone of the community into something opaque and vaguely menacing. In the meantime, the American public deals with outbreaks of e. coli in spinach and salmonella in peanut butter. Paradoxically, the system created to protect consumers from harm might do the most damage to them.

Every time I drive down route 1 to visit my grandparents in Delaware, I pass through land shaped by industrial agriculture. Beyond the asphalt and guardrails, I can see acres of ankle high soybeans. Giant sprinkler systems arc out over the fields in the summer time when the mercury bubbles to the top of the tube. All of these plants are sold to processors, sometimes as animal feed or reassembled into lecithin and vegetable oil among other things. Although these fields surround my grandparents, they must make the weekly pilgrimage to the Superfresh (a grocery store chain) to buy their fruits and vegetables. Soya, Soya everywhere, but not a bean to eat: Coleridge taunts us again.

Organics

Here, organic producers enter the picture. The organics movement is an outgrowth of the alternative food movement of the 1960’s. Originally, alternative farming was part of an alternative lifestyle; a recent iteration of the human drive to create utopian communities, which included sharing partners in common and a move back toward an idealized agrarian past. Over the decades, the organic movement refined its message into a rejection of the worst abuses of the industrial agricultural system.

The main focus of the movement has been pesticide and antibiotic use. Industrial farming uses a large amount of chemical fertilizer in order to maintain soil quality, which is eroded under the tiller. In the beginning, organics were confined to the edges of the market. In the 60’s, anti-corporatism became a facet of the counterculture movement. Monsanto, currently the biggest producer of herbicides for American farmers and genetically modified soybeans, received much of the criticism for producing Agent Orange (the carcinogenic defoliant used in the jungles of Vietnam) and. This anti-corporatist bent proved unpalatable for most Americans. There was also the environmental strain mixed in. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, detailed the detrimental impact of pesticides, especially DDT, used on large farms. Like The Jungle, Silent Spring impacted the public consciousness. The message was clear, human practices were having a decidedly negative impact on the environment. We could end up poisoning ourselves if we were not more careful, less reliant on chemicals to do the work of raising our food.

In recent years, organics have gained wider acceptance. The US Department of Agriculture has detailed its own set of regulations regarding the percentage of organic ingredients used in a given product. Some organic producers have buried the corporatist hatchet, opting to grow as big as possible. Cascadian Farms and Stonyfield farms are two of the largest organic producers in the business today. Stonyfield has reached a deal with Walmart to sell organic yogurt through its stores. Cascadian salad mix and breakfast cereals are available in most major supermarket. Supermarket chains like Whole Foods have built a solid customer base and reputation as a distributor of organic food.

In some ways, the growth of organics represents a victory for the clean food movement (clean as in food without the baggage of environmental damage). Instead of using pesticides to control insects, organic producers use cover crops like white clover that distract pests from the crops. Instead of fertilizers, organic producers use crops known as “nitrogen-fixers”. These plants convert nitrogen in the air into ammonia without the external application of ammonium nitrate (legumes are excellent for this purpose).

Using these techniques, the organic movement has removed thousands of pounds of pesticides from use. While this is a victory for those who truly embrace the organic ideal, the organic movement is not without its critics. Large organic farms still produce in large monocultures to take advantage of economies of scale. Without the use of chemical fertilizers, farmers have to resort to increased tilling. This practice precipitates faster erosion, degrading the quality of the soil.

When it comes to animals, some organic producers are hardly any better than their industrial cousins. The USDA regulations around chickens illustrate the case. Organic regulations state that chickens must have access to the outdoors. The key word in this instance is access. Corporations that purport to sell organic chicken will use the same crowded hen house with a small ramp leading to a small pen. The ramp is hardly used and the producer gets to put an organic label on his chicken and charge a premium price.

In this way, the word “organic” risks becoming just another brand. Producers know that consumers of organic food are willing to pay a higher price to ensure that their food was produced without pesticides or cruel practices. The corporations who operate the industrial farms in fact own some organic brands as a way of capturing an emerging market. Getting the label becomes the number one concern for the producer and the ideology behind the movement is lost. Also, the regulations around what is labeled organic have become more lax.

In 2006, the USDA approved the use of a number of synthetic pesticides as part of the organic label. Producers have argued that the pesticides are necessary to provide more customers with organic food. Others have criticized what could be the first step on a slippery slope toward an organic system that looks remarkably like the industrial system.

The Locavores

This is where the locavore critique enters the picture. Locavores advocate the cause of organic production – elimination of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and the consequent negative environmental impact. However, they also believe that a farm should feed its immediate community. There is no place in the locavore vision for, as James Kunstler infamously said, the three thousand mile Caesar salad (in other words, a salad grown in California and shipped to the East Coast). This is primarily an environmental concern – the burning of fossil fuel increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, which is particularly true in the case of organic food (the act of preserving and transporting perishable food when one cannot use preservatives such as high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils that industry uses is particularly difficult).

Ideally the local food system offers greater security and confidence for consumers. Consumers can talk to the farmer, find out what sorts of cover crops he uses, whether he uses chemical pesticides or not. In the supermarket model, there are regulations and rules but one is never sure. From picking to transportation, anything could happen in the chain. I was in the produce section of a Wegmans when a stocker knocked over a carton of strawberries, spilling them across the floor. Without missing a beat, he began to pick up the berries and put them back on the shelf. The manager walked over and promptly helped him pick them up and put them on the shelf with the other cartons.

The local food movement is just as susceptible to the power of the brand. The Simpsons provides a timeless caricature of the spirit of the manipulation of the meaning of a brand to serve existing interests. The American sitcom, The Simpsons, gives a prescient lesson in how business repurposes. In the eighth season, Lisa helps Mr. Burns (a wealthy tycoon) regain his fortune by creating a recycling plant. Mr. Burns “recycles” the plastic soda rings he finds into a large net that he uses to sweep the sea clean of fish. The fish are ground up and made into a multi-purpose solution (a sample of the uses mentioned include an explosive, engine coolant, and insulation). When Lisa calls him on this horrible practice as the anti-thesis of the concept of recycling, Mr. Burns is baffled. There is no conflict for him because the product after all is made of “100% recycled animals”. When ideology does the dance with pragmatic business, there is a chance the message will get lost or twisted.

Politicians and owners of big agriculture have tried to bend the word local to their own purposes. Live in Virginia? Eat Smithfield pork to keep your dollars in the Virginia economy. I recently found a quart of ice cream labeled organic and local. Upon closer inspection, I found that the ice cream came from Oregon. The nutrition information listed xantham gum and guar gum on a product that displays the USDA Organic label. I presume the next step is organic high fructose corn syrup. Some characterize local as the one hundred mile circumference around the home. The local food movement also has some anti-globalism, anti-corporatist and elitist quirks. People will buy from local farms because they refuse to send money overseas in a sort of zero-sum us versus them scenario. People will buy from local farms because Kraft, Archer-Daniels and Cascadian are simply too big to be trusted.

The elitism surrounding local food is the hardest barrier to break down. The movement is still rather young and buying local food is more expensive up front. Although the long-term consequences from eating subsidized cheap food are expensive (diabetes from ingesting too many products made with cheap high fructose corn syrup, reduction in the quality of air and water) people do not value them as they do near term consequences. This broadly observed phenomenon is known as discounting, the farther out the consequence in time, the less it figures into my decision today.

Hence, the farmers market has become the haunt of the wealthy or those who have time to source all of their food. Eating strictly local is difficult to do because you can only have what is in season. Also, farming is and always has been a contest with nature. An early frost could destroy months of work and leave you with nothing but potatoes. Sorry to break it to you but at least they store well. Houses that want to go completely local have to have extensive facilities for preserving and storing food, buying it when its abundant and eating what the farmer has to offer. For some, the information cost is too high. Scheduling and buying and learning all take time, effort and money. But, and here is the crucial pitch, we need to spend more money and time and effort on our food.

At one time, roughly around the end of the Second World War and into the late 50’s, Americans spent about a fifth of their income on food. These were the halcyon days for my parents; when the milkman made a trip to your house in the morning, you would go to the butcher shop after school to play with the lambs in the backyard, and the vegetable man came in the evening. The story of the lamb in the backyard is true (it is also true that the butcher shop sold mutton and lamb chops). Agriculture grew in a size appropriate to the neighborhood, and it was open for all to see.

This was all before the mainstream acceptance of supermarkets, when consumers started doing the work of pushing the cart, picking out the food and transporting it home. The scene was hardly pastoral (this was Philadelphia after all. But, the arrival of the supermarket spurred consumer demand for a variety of cheap goods. As farmers began feeling more pressure to produce, many quit the race altogether or were bought up by food conglomerations.

Farming became a routine almost robotic sort of function. The important times were spraying fertilizing and harvesting, a grind that offered an exceedingly unattractive lifestyle (Especially as the environmental movement advanced on them). As a result, the smarter people look to make money in other fields (bad pun intended) and fewer Americans understand what it actually means to be a farmer. This disconnect has produced a deep mistrust between producers and consumers, each ignorant of the other. There is a mutual antagonism. Farmers who pollute are considered a nuisance and consumers who complain yet demand cheaper food are confusing to deal with.

But, is this sort of cheap food really what consumers demand? There was certainly a demand for safer food after the introduction of The Jungle. The government reacted with the FDA. The push for clean sterilized food has swung too far and government regulation has become a straight jacket. Small producers often cannot get approval to sell their products to their neighbors.

I would like to add a caveat that the industrial system and the local system are not mutually exclusive. The Slow Food Movement (SFM), born in Europe, emphasizes quality of ingredients and time spent preparing food. In America, SFM looks to Europe as the antidote to the fast food based culture. However, Europe has embraced fast food establishments. The fastest growing market for McDonald’s is France, a country that we traditionally identify with fine food and meals that last all day. How do we explain this? Many have characterized it as a victory for industry.

But once we get past the headline, the situation becomes more nuanced. McDonald’s prides itself on using ingredients sourced within France. Also, it caters to French dining tastes, offering a two-course menu over which diners can linger. What is the lesson? There is a place in the world for the kind of convenience fast food offers. But, we, in America, consume too much of it. We have given companies like McDonald’s more control over the food system than any one company should have.

Perhaps one of the most devastating volleys against the local food movement is that it is an outgrowth of nostalgia. It is human to look back on the past as a simpler, often better time. My mother is thoroughly Italian; her maiden name is Alessandroni (like Smith in America!). After school, she would go to the Italian market on 9th street with the list of groceries her mother had given her that morning. She remembers those days, strolling up the street looking at the different stalls and shop windows with a fair measure of fondness. Critics charge that a move to local food is a step backward, or a marketing trick. After all, whole industries grow up devoted to feeding nostalgia for all kinds of things (old magazines, records, toys).

The problem with this accusation is that farmers know much more about soil fertility and the interaction between plants and animals than they did when this method of production was first introduced. They know that soil fertility can be determined by the amounts of the macronutrients nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. But, they also appreciate that fertility is governed by the biodiversity of the soil; in other words the microbes and other larger creatures that inhabit the hummus. Farmers also appreciate the role crop rotation plays in maintaining soil health. They also know, to a large extent, which plants and animals can help supplement the minerals and other elements soil loses when it is used repeatedly to produce crops.

While we are ahead in the knowledge game, there are certain genies that will not return to the bottle, genies that make a return to an all-local system anywhere from difficult to impossible. Anti-globalism activists want to protect American jobs by buying exclusively from American producers. However, people have spread to otherwise inhospitable places whose lives can only be supported by an international food system that has a shipping network sufficient to move produce. Every year, icebreaker ships take supplies of equipment and food to support settlements in Alaska. Without these supplies, Alaskans would fish and hunt populations of animals to extinction. One can argue that these people should not be living here at all. I personally don’t understand why you would want to live in a place where you have to worry about hypothermia on a regular basis. In fact, this case might become stronger as the price of oil increases and transporting food over long distances becomes more costly. But, as long as energy is inexpensive, places like the settlements in Alaska will continue to exist along with global trade in food.

More than this, many consumers, myself included, are not willing to give up bananas, coffee and other foods that the climate of the United States cannot produce. Imagine if you could only get coffee if you were lucky enough to live in Hawaii. You would have to get your fill of Kona in August before it disappeared. A reduction in caffeine intake could actually hurt America’s growth rate, which is calculated in part by the number of hours worked. Unfortunately for anti-corporation activists, large companies are often in the best position to develop far-reaching transportation networks. The question is one of cost. There is little incentive to create a commonly held pipeline for this food.

The population boom must also be a consideration for anyone for any one who wants to eradicate large corporations and the global food trade. In the 60’s and 70’s, the oncoming population boom was the terror of the day; ‘Malthusian’ was the word of the day. The biggest concern was hunger. What were we going to feed all those mouths with? Horticulturalist Norman Borlaug came up with the answer in the form of crops crossbred to produce more grain per plant. The introduction of petroleum intensive, pesticide and fertilizer farming averted a crisis that experts described as something between a hydrogen bomb and biblical apocalypse.

As a new decade dawns, we are set to face the same problems again. So far, local and organic production systems have not caught up with the demand. We argue with the adults about the ideals behind local production, but what do we say to the children who did not have a choice in their birth? I apologize for this mawkish last sentence (won’t someone please think of the children?). Industrial food production headed off the crisis once before. Now, the International Energy Association (IEA) has declared a date for Peak Oil, lending the event appropriate gravitas. In other words, without any major new discoveries, the worldwide supply of oil will start to decline. The kind of energy intensive agriculture we have been practicing might no longer be feasible.

There is also the matter of taste. I went to Subversions recently and I thought I’d pick up an apple as part of my meal. There was a bowl of red delicious apples as big as your palm all with white stickers printed with USA. At the time, all conformed to my idea of beautiful apples, shiny perfect dark red skin. I settled in to eat, and started with the apple. As soon as my teeth broke the surface, I could tell something was wrong. I have never had ash in my mouth but I believe that I came close with that bite. The flesh underneath was a brown color that darkened as you got closer to the core (I used a spoon to investigate after the fight my stomach put up with the first mouthful). I took the apple back to the cashier and showed her what I had found. She apologized and asked me pick out another. I inspected the pile, wary now. I tried to apply what I had learned with the first apple, but it was difficult. They were all rounded in the same way, colored the same way and, above all, shiny. Nothing on the outside suggested what might be lurking on the inside. I chose at random, sat down, took a bite and promptly expelled the contents into a napkin; same result. I took it back to the cashier. She apologized profusely and offered the bowl again. I declined.

When I looked at an apple off the tree, it surprised me. It wasn’t shiny and it wasn’t smooth. The tone of the skin was inconsistent all the way around. The skin at the top of the apple where the stem protruded looked like the floor of the Alkali flats, with its spider web pattern of cracks. Moving down, the cracks gave way to beige starbursts against a field of burnished green and gold. At the bottom, the apple resolved itself into a point decorated with a bubble pattern like the foam of a wave. The variety of surface textures was incredible, and the taste was vivacious, sweet, tart and crisp. It was like experiencing an apple for the first time. That is local food; food that is thoroughly alive.

Lehigh’s Role

So, where does this leave Lehigh, a largish private university? In my opinion, Lehigh has a great deal of responsibility because it has made eating Lehigh food a requirement. The school handbook states that students living on its campus must have a meal plan. With thousands of dedicated customers, willing or otherwise, Lehigh is a large buyer with more market power than a single consumer; we have the power to change local food from an expensive option into an affordable one. Essentially, the availability of local food is a supply and demand problem. If we can demonstrate that there is a large enough demand, then more producers will enter the market to fill that demand.

This coincides with the growing demand among people, especially those who receive welfare or use food stamps to supplement their budget, for local produce. The activity of a big buyer like Lehigh will have a trickle down effect, making nutritious food more widely available to our neighbors in the valley. According to the University’s strategic plan, the university has made it a goal to create a renaissance in the community. Patronizing producers in a community will put more dollars to use closer to home. Coincidentally, buying enough food locally to feed four thousand students is a viable option because of the extensive presence of small farms in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

There are some obstacles to using local food, which I imagine will lead to a hybrid system; buying local food while using larger distributors to acquire specialty items. For one thing, the school schedule still operates according to the harvest season. The fall semester starts in August when the growing season is winding down here on the East Coast. School runs through the winter until early May when spring is starting to approach. An idea that has received some play, which I would like to put forth here, is running school through the summer. Summers in the Lehigh Valley are especially beautiful. By the time I have finished my exams, I am looking forward to seeing my family. But a part of me wishes that I could stay on through the summer to enjoy the campus.

Running through the summer without a break until the dead of winter would allow the school to avail itself of the bounty of the growing season. Farmers have methods of producing food through the colder months. I attended a grower’s exhibition in Morristown where I tasted hoop-house chard, leeks, and chives with potatoes, carrots, and yams saved during the fall, all of them exceptional. The longer school year would also allow students to complete degrees in a shorter period of time reducing the daunting opportunity cost of attending college.

But, the decision of what to buy isn’t really up to the university anymore. At one time, the university was responsible for hiring chefs to prepare food; dining was run directly by the university. However, the dining apparatus became difficult to operate due to the cost and the risk associated with food poisoning. At the moment, Lehigh has an exclusive contract with the Sodexo Corporation as the sole food provider for its on-campus students. Sodexo provides training for the personnel who prepare the food, serve the food and operate the registers. Sodexo has the additional responsibility of contracting with food distributors to keep the kitchens and shelves stocked. Most of the food comes through two of the country’s largest distributors, Sysco and US Foods.

Chefs like working with distributors because of the low cost of food. For example, a 25-pound bag of rice can be got for around 20 dollars. Sodexo is one of the largest caterers in America, and can push the cost of service down in the same way Sysco can push the cost of food down. But, while Sysco can give us cheap food, it cannot keep track of where the food comes from. Most of the farms and distributors do not keep such records because of the increased cost of providing such documentation. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to keep track of food by proxy (through Sysco). The safest option is to buy directly from a producer you trust. Food purveyors say that cheap food is what their customers want. But is it? Are consumers truly aware of the consequences of the system that gives them cheap food? Not likely. Customers who cruise the supermarkets see the same images of red barns, cows in verdant pasture and smiling farmers no matter what system produced the items on the shelves. Who wants to see the inside of a laying house on his carton of eggs? The industrial system operates like the Wizard of Oz; pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and we’ll get along just fine. The low price is also a result of size relative to the market. Sysco, being the largest distributor in North America has the buying power to demand a price from producers. There are literally thousands of producer tributaries that feed into Sysco. Sodexo only buys from the few producers who have agreed to certain safety standard.

Fear of bad food is certainly a concern and the logistics with providing a campus with food are formidable. Food has to be kept at a certain temperature when it arrives; one must keep track of the length of time the food spends in the refrigerator, the temperature it is prepared at and when and how to heat it up. There is also fear of contamination from food that has just arrived off the truck. Cases of vegetables contaminated with salmonella have become more frequent. In the case of food poisoning, Sodexo assumes the legal responsibility for problems with food preparation and purchase. So, the big motivations behind our food system are fear of contamination, the drive to reduce cost, and produce more. Sodexo’s strength is that it promises its clients standards of cleanliness above those mandated by the FDA and the USDA. However, the regulations are designed to favor larger producers. For example, farmers who process chickens must have bathrooms and other facilities for workers and government inspectors. Also, you must have your own indoor slaughtering facility. If you have a small farm and your wife and brother are your employees, how can you afford the expensive equipment? One of the things we must change is our perception of what is dangerous. This an expensive step information-wise, but one that is worthwhile for the psychological benefit that comes from skirting the industrial system and the nutritional benefits listed below.

What you eat plays a part, perhaps the most important part, in your attitude and performance in physical and mental activities. Organically grown food has a higher nutritional value than industrial food. Plants that have to defend themselves against microbes in the soil that are alive grow to maturity stronger; their defensive mechanisms augmented. Edible weeds like dandelion greens, which are nearly impossible to exterminate, have some of the best nutrient profiles of any fruit or vegetable. Eating these plants transfers those protective properties in the form of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to us. Organic foods have larger amounts of vitamin C. Grass finished beef has a higher amount of unsaturated fats (the good kind) including omega 3 fatty acids that protect against cardiovascular disease. Also, the interaction between peat and hummus, the two constituent parts of the soil we have identified so far, is more complex than we can treat with application of chemical fertilizer alone.

The industrial food system picks the food while it is still growing and brings it to maturity while in transit. The ripening process can be accomplished while the crop is in transit or with the use of ethylene gas. This makes the food look ripe, but because the crop has been separated from the plant, it does not have the chance to take in more nutrients while it ripens. Instead, the food simply begins to break down. Living close to the farm can solve this problem so that food has the chance to ripen fully and arrives at the consumer in prime form. Providing more nutritious food has a similar trickle down effect; i.e. fewer classes missed (at least absences that are not alcohol related) and better performance in class for a start.

We want to build a community, but this is difficult because the population rotates every year. There is a perennial problem at Lehigh that local agriculture can also address: Growing food together in communal gardens around campus can help us develop meaningful interdependent relationships. This initiative should be complemented with the construction of a common dining room within each residence hall. Each dining room would have a long common table and kitchen where students can prepare and serve food. Food forms the cornerstone for relationships. In ancient Sparta, boys in training would eat meals together. The practice of breaking bread together made them into comrades who would lay down their lives for each other. Meals have a great symbolic importance. One of Christ’s final actions before the crucifixion is to share a meal of bread and wine with his companions. These are bonds consummated by war and death: a little macabre for what we are trying to accomplish at Lehigh, no doubt. But, cooking and eating together in a space designed to accentuate the pleasures of both allows conversation to happen, fosters conviviality and promotes friendship. This option could be available as an alternative living community if campus wide acceptance is slow. Now, some might call this option unnecessary or extraneous to education. After all, Lehigh’s professed mission is to prepare students for their first career and their last career. But, the university is also a place to play, to experiment and we should put a premium on inquisitiveness and real experience.

In addition to creating an alternative living community, Lehigh could establish a university farm. Students would work and live on the farm during the summer, learning about soil, plant and microbe biology and chemistry. Farming is also an activity that has produced some of the most beautiful poetry and prose from Steinbeck’s ode to the migrant to the more recent works of Wendell Berry. Lehigh has an abundance of land on Goodman Campus near the athletic fields. Turning the land to organic farming would improve Lehigh’s overall carbon profile. Growing plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, making it edible. But, it is also a way to get intelligent people interested in farming, its practice, its perils and its pleasures. If this is not possible, then establish internship programs with some of the farms in the area. Get Career Services to print up a sexy brochure. It would start us in the right direction.

In short, buying food locally positions Lehigh for the future. Embracing this future means acting in a way that supports the welfare of the environment and the people responsible for providing us with the stuff of life.

Comments:

I think this is a very good introduction. I have three minor suggestions:
1. you're missing some commas in key places that I think may suggest a meaning different than what you intend.
Can you point out some the areas?
after going back over this, I cannot find the places where I thought there were comma issues. I probably imagined them.
2. The sentence about hospitals is kind of unsupported. I can't tell how the food industry's attributes are supposed to be like those of hospitals.
The hospital analogy referred to the tendency for disease to spread when a large number of a single species is crowded together in an environment, I'll change that
3. I think it may make sense to talk a little bit about Lehigh's current food system? Just to give a hint of what's to come? I don't know if that's applicable, I guess we'll work it out in group…

-David

This is good Mike. I think if we were looking at book progression, we would want to put this somewhere with Mario's and David's chapter. I can see how the book would logically progress that way. I look forward to see what you write next.
Aaron

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