Badges?

September 28, 2014

So pardon me for rambling on, but the title of last week’s blog was in fact derived from a blues song by Mississippi Joe Callicott that goes under several names including “Leaving Town Blues” and “Plow Hand Blues.” There are pretty similar lines in blues sung by Big Bill Broonzey and Leadbelly, though in those instances the blues seem to be an ingredient rather than a consumer of bread. I’m a poor philosophy professor and in no sense anything more than the most amateur of musicologists, so who am I to say who gets definitive credit. All of them are quite a bit less well known than “That’s Alright, Mama,” but in the spirit of last week’s blog, I think any of these blues could get sung during food songs month in Michigan.

Which is another way of saying that my obsession with sorting out what is and what is not a food song has gotten out of hand, I think. I mean who cares about the ontological commitments of song lyrics, anyway? I just got into that thread by accident, and if you want to sing Marvin and Johnny’s version of “Cherry Pie,” or Skip and Flip’s version of “Cherry Pie” or even Warrant’s version of “Cherry Pie,” during your own food songs festival, well go right on ahead and don’t let me stop you.

And while we’re the “passing references to food” category, let’s give a shout out to Gary P. Nunn’s answer to “What I Like about Texas”:

It’s another burrito, it’s a cold Lone Star in my hand
It’s a quarter for the jukebox boys
Play the Sons of the Mother Lovin’ Bunkhouse Band

There’s also a reference to Mi Tierra in the song, which used to be a 24 hour joint where farmer’s would catch a quick bite to eat after unloading at the adjacent San Antonio farmers’ market at 5:00 am. It’s now surrounded by tourist-oriented shops selling a blend of crap, works by local artists and genuinely interesting crafts imported from Mexico. Mi Tierra has made the transition along with them, and it may have become a bit too tourist friendly. It’s been too long since I was there, but on my last visit it was 6:00am, well before most of the tourists were awake but not too early for a table full of honkies to be wrestling with the meaning of “huevos rancheros”. One of them was getting cross because the waitress had failed to bring enough menus for everyone. If you know the drill, you can still order chilaquiles and fresh-squeezed orange juice just like in the old days, even though neither is on the new menu. So I did.

My waitperson took my order without skipping a beat, after which the Latino gentlemen (a total stranger) sitting near me tipped his head toward the table where the out-of-towners were still trying make sense of things with the patient Latino waitress. He gave me a smile and wink and then he said, “We don’t need no stinking menus.” One of my all-time greatest moments in food.

I also wanted to say something about another Trout Fishing in America song before letting another food songs month pass us by. You’ll recall that their “Pico De Gallo” sits atop the all-time food songs list, and I wouldn’t want to displace that. But they also have

All I want is a proper cup of coffee
Made in a proper copper coffee pot
I may be off my dot but I want a proper coffee
In a proper copper pot”

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots
They are no use to me
If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee
In a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea

We don’t need no stinking pumpkin-spice macchiato!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Blues Ate My Bread

September 21, 2014

So picking up right where we left off last week, and switching directions 180° there are reasons why I decided to do another month of food songs this year. I often sit in front of my computer on Sunday mornings listening to songs from my music collection on i-Tunes. I’ve had to struggle with the i-Tunes robot in order to get i-Tunes to cycle through my entire library, but I have figured out a way to get through pretty much everything on there once in a year. This means that I’m periodically reminded of some song that could putatively put forward as a food song, and then I say to myself “Oh, make a note of that. We’ll do a blog on that one when it’s “food songs” month.”

Of course then I don’t make a note of it, and then when food songs month rolls around, I can’t remember any of these songs. I do remember the Robert Johnson classic “Come on into my kitchen because it is going to be raining outside,” but as we’ve said in a number of cases, it’s not entirely clear that this really is a food song, even if I think you could creditably sing it at a “food songs fest”, should you ever decide to have one. And why shouldn’t you. In the same vein but a bit closer to incorporating some legitimate references to food, we could note another blues classic, “That’s Alright, Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. The version that Paul McCartney recorded for a Sun Records tribute a few years back has this verse:

You snuck up in my kitchen;
Ate up all my bread.
Baby when my back is turned,
You’re diddlin’ in my bed.

It’s possible that Sir Paul improvised this verse with a little inspiration from Lightnin’ Hopkins, because you won’t find it in the classic Elvis Presley version of “That’s Alright, Mama.” I can also attest that you won’t find in 15 or 20 minutes of excruciatingly thorough and painstaking Internet research, so it’s possible that you are finding out that this blues classic is actually a food song for the first time here on the Thornapple Blog. In fact, you won’t even find it in the U-Tube video of McCartney doing “That’s Alright” with Scotty Moore on guitar. Maybe when Sir Paul reads the blog he will add a comment to settle this matter once and for all. Now I can accept the contrary point of view, to wit: this ain’t no food song even with the bread reference. At best it’s a passing reference. But I can tell you that if I were playing in a blues band and it was “food songs” night down at The Green Door, we would certainly include “That’s Alright, ama” in our set, and we would damn sure be singing about bread.

There are, however, more straight out food songs in the world. The Earthworks music collaborative did a whole album of them a few years back called “Something Fresh.” I couldn’t find it on the Earthworks website, so I assume it’s gone out of print, but here’s a link to an Oregon blogger who discovered the album and wrote about when it was something fresh. Unfortunately, while some of the songs on this album do justice to the foods they celebrate, some of them suck. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings so you’ll just have to figure that one out for yourself.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Have Some Pie

September 14, 2014

Back when my kids were really kids we used to play this dinky little cassette tape with a bunch of songs geared to Thanksgiving. You might think that this would be a good source for some food songs. Except when I think about it, most of those songs didn’t really say much about food. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,”: Well, you may imagine yourself sitting there, head bowed over a table spread with steaming sumptuous, but in fact, there are no direct references to food. “Over the river and through the woods,” ends with a “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” but it’s mostly about horses, snow and cold noses. There was “When I first came to this land, I was not a wealthy man,” which goes on to talk about farming and a cow called “No milk now,” always to come around to a refrain, “But the land was pure and good, and I did what I could.” Close, but not really a food song.

Let’s consider a new possibility: It’s not so much that there are very few food songs, it’s just that the food songs out there are not very memorable. If we stick with the Thanksgiving theme we come immediately to Adam Sandler’s “I like turkey,” from a random little thing he cooked up for a Thanksgiving weekend Saturday Night Live way back in ancient times. More recently we get Nicole Westbrook singing about turkey and mashed potatoes in the Patrice Wilson song “It’s Thanksgiving.” I’m not providing any links because I took the trouble to listen to these for you. There’s no reason why everyone should suffer.

More generally (but still following a thread) there’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” from Jay and the Techniques. It’s one of the amazing aspects of cyber culture that there is actually a Wikipedia entry on this group, where I learned that they also released another song called “Strawberry Shortcake”. Nope. Don’t remember that. And that’s my point.

There is a song that’s called “Pumpkin Pie” by Evan Taubenfeld, but following yet another thread we’ve chased down in the Thronapple blog before, it’s really about sex, rather than food. If you scroll back through the food songs blogs from 2012 and 2013 you will discover that lots of songs that are putatively about food are actually about sex. And some of the songs that are actually about food are also about sex. No harm there, I say, but we are chasing down the actual food songs this month, so “Pumpkin Pie” doesn’t count on that criterion, memorable or not. There must be 137 songs called “Cherry Pie,” and 1037 songs that reference cherry pie, but none of them are actually about cherry pie.

What set me off some three years back was a quest for food songs you might actually want to hear at a food party. And so far aside from the “Hit List” we ended with last year, I’d say we’re still looking.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Another Cup

September 7, 2014

Passing through an indiscernible hiatus our cruise vessel steams quietly into the safe harbor of routine activity. Yes, folks, it’s September. If you didn’t notice any major change of key it’s probably because the start of any month is kind of arbitrary. It’s the job of bloggers everywhere to chronicle these passages, holding them out for everyone’s attention just for a moment so that we can savor them, battle against them. If they generally fail to notice these transitions explicitly that’s just because they are appropriately engaged with the natural shifts in subject matter that go along for the ride.

Which is why I probably should have just launched into a discussion of an Iriving Berlin song from the 1932 Broadway musical Face the Music. It winds up with this refrain:

Mister Herbert Hoover
Says that now’s the time to buy
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’ pie!

Both of my regular readers can probably remember another President who offered similar advice in the face of an economic collapse second only to the one that dear Irving was having his cast sing about in 1932. But that would be a tangent, and we never indulge ourselves with tangents in the Thornapple blog.

No, the point is that we have rolled around to that month of the year when we consider songs that celebrate food. I’ll admit that this theme may be getting a bit long in the tooth. I gave some serious thought to abandoning the whole idea this time around. Okay, okay—the thought crossed my mind as I was sitting in an airport lounge yesterday after having been prevented from getting home on Friday as planned due to the round of thunderstorms that swept through mid-Michigan. I was finishing a cup of coffee when the fact that I would need to be writing a blog today crossed my mind. Of course since this was yesterday, what crossed my mind was not the thought that I would need to be writing a blog today, but that I would need to be writing a blog tomorrow. But as there is virtually any time that you, dear reader, might be working your way through this temporally tortuous labyrinth of logic, I can’t speculate on what sense you will make of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow was the title of a wonderful Vittorio de Sica movie from the 60s. Yesterday and Today (but no tomorrow) was the title of a compilation album of Beatles songs released exclusively in the U.S., also in the 60s, but later. Neither of them had anything to do with food, so there really wouldn’t be any reason to mention them in today’s blog even if you are reading it at some time tomorrow. We are masters of space and time here in the Thornapple Blog.

So after finishing my coffee (or my pumpkin spice macchiato, as the case may be) I was wondering whether I should have another one, and “Bingo!” I had the topic for yet another blog on food songs. I Googled the song and found out it was by Berlin, and that it was set in an automat based on the Horn & Hardart chains of yore. I’ve never seen a production of Face the Music but I have eaten at a Horn & Hardart’s (which is just another way of saying “I’m as old as dirt,” I’m afraid). Horn & Hardart’s once had iconic status amongst foodies, so this is not really as tangential as it might appear at first. But more pertinent to the thread of our cruise into autumn, we will in plain fact be doing another month of food songs this September. More to come.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Labor Day Weekend

August 31, 2014

I dreamed I saw Charles Bukowski eating carrot cake from a clear plastic clamshell at the corner bakery in Chelsea. He was drinking fresh orange juice and chatting up Carolyn Cassady. I think he was hoping to ply her with baba ganoush and get her to give up her secret recipe for garlic-parmesan kale chips. Famous Neal was nowhere to be seen but Sonny Barger was sitting at a back table with a one-eyed Bob Creeley. Ralph was eating a curry-chicken salad with dried cherries and fennel on a croissant with arugula and heirloom black krims. He was laughing with his elbow on the table and his hand poised limply over the chicken-sal croissant, and the kerchief tied around his head had faint traces of thimbleberry jam. Creeley was sucking steadily on some pink concoction, a strawberry frappe topped with whipped cream, maybe, or a huckleberry infused banana smoothie ensconced beneath a dollop of Cool Whip and garnished with tiny leaves of fresh mint. Creeley was hard for me to read, but Barger was laughing easily, and toying absent-mindedly with the house-made sweet potato kettle chips with sea salt sitting next to his sandwich.

Meanwhile behind the counter Jimmy Baldwin was dipping ice cream and barista Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell was standing behind the La Pavani 3 BarL making making one pumpkin-spiced macchiato after another. Baldwin was trying to explain why the shop was out of pistachio almond gelato to Lester Young, encouraging him to try some fiore di latte instead. “You know I steered you true on that blood orange granita when you were in last week,” he said. Lester was not convinced. “Fiore di latte!” he exclaimed. “I don’t want no gelato made from cheese!” Anaïs was just putting her trademarked “delta of venus” froth on the macchiato, and overheard this exchange. “C’mon, Lester,” she exclaimed. “You know we only serve mozzarella di bufala campana, while mozzarella fior di latte is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk.” She was not letting on about the problems people are having getting unpasteurized fresh cheeses past the Michigan artisanal foods law. Jimmy was back in by now, too: “Nah, man! Fior di latte is just generic Italian for anything made from fresh milk!”

By this time John Arthur Johnson had come in through the old screen door that faces the corner of Main and Middle Streets. Jack is fluent in Italian, but he was not about to be drawn into this fracas. “You got panna cotta today, Jimmy?” he asked. “Sure I do. You want that with the raspberry coulis?” asks Baldwin. But this gets Bukowski’s attention. “Raspberry coulis?” he shouts. “Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted raspberry coulis with my carrot cake?” I’m wondering if a poet looped on cream-cheese icing and fresh orange juice can maintain a sugar-high that’s strong enough for him to take on the Galveston Giant over some thickened Rubus idaeus. I mean, Bukowski was known as a brawler, but that was back in the day, well before alienated aesthetes began to appreciate the virtues of organic tomatillos and were still drinking whiskey, smoking pot and shooting heroin. That was when the real punks in the world were out riding Vincent Black Shadows up and down CA Route 25, not sipping rooibos chai from a Dart cup as they steered their hybrids down MI 52 outside of Pinckney.

Wake up and smell the pumpkin spice macchiato, say I.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Goint to Mexico

August 24, 2014

Is there a robot out there who can help me with one of my more importunate research problems? Some time ago—maybe four or five years back—there was a particular aphorism that was circulating in sustainability studies. I wouldn’t say that it had gone viral, but I must have heard a half dozen different speakers recite it during the course of talking about sustainability. It went something like this: “If you are heading to Canada and you are driving 100 miles an hour in the direction of Mexico, slowing down to 20 miles an hour won’t help.”

When I heard this, I used to think, “Well that’s not right. Have you ever tried to execute a 180° turn at 100 miles an hour?” Not that I have tried to do this, but you get the idea. However, the point (I think) that people were trying to make with this was a good one. A lot of work in sustainability just focuses on increasing efficiencies that would slow the rate of resource depletion, but that “stuff” (water, soil, energy, rare earths) is going to be gone sooner or later in any case. It’s better to think of sustainability by identifying the appropriate “living space” for the human species and then aiming to work within those limits. I’ve tried to get at this by talking about people who think that sustainability is about “resource sufficiency” as opposed to people who understand “functional integrity,” but perhaps that’s just a symptom of my own peculiar Asperger’s disorder.

So maybe this Mexico aphorism makes the point better. I’m reasonably sure that half the speakers I heard reciting this little tidbit had no idea what it meant. They just thought it was sounded cool and was mildly thought provoking. Or they thought it was just a generic criticism of stupidity. Of course, it could be the case that they just disagreed with me, and that I was wrong. But this is my blog, so we’re certainly not going to take that possibility seriously here.

So for some time now (at least twenty minutes) I’ve been trying to figure out the original source of this heading to Mexico thing. And don’t tell me that it was Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (Pack my bags; don’t be too slow. I should of quit you baby a long time ago) or James Taylor (Wo-oh, down in Mexico, I never really been so I don’t really know). I might have been William McDonough, but the robots have not really been much help. McDonough is the guy who came up with “Waste = Food” and cradle-to-cradle. The robots keep directing me to things about immigration or they presume that (like Miller and Scaggs) I’m actually thinking about going to Mexico myself. If it was McDonough who coined this idea he should have put his little meme into a song lyric or ring tone so that commercially motivated search robots would have some incentive to find it. What is a lazy researcher to do in cases like this?

At this point I’m about to resort to actual human beings. And don’t forget, the tomatoes are finally in in Michigan.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

The Blue Food

August 17, 2014

The late comedian George Carlin used to do a routine in which he feigned deep puzzlement in asking his audience “Where’s the blue food?” Of course folks in Michigan know blue food, and I’m here to tell you that even if they are “late” and even if, as some are saying, it isn’t a particularly good year, the blueberries are in. Diane and I were cruising the Oryana market last week and we found these big white boxes of organic blueberries sitting there. Ten pounds worth, to be exact. Pricey, to be sure but we decided to splurge. We had a bunch of company in and if there is ever a time when you can expect to consume ten pounds of fresh blueberries in a week, this was it.

And consume them we did. Blueberries with yogurt and granola, blueberries with ice cream and occasionally, just blueberries. No blueberry pie this year, but we did have several rounds of blueberry pancakes. We have a bit of a family dispute about exactly how many blueberries are supposed to be in a blueberry pancake. I’m of the persuasion that the entire middle of the pancake should be a pure mush of blue, while Diane is much more parsimonious. It’s the one time of the year when I prefer to cook my own pancakes.

I think it was last year when we did a blog on the nutritional attributes of blue food, so I’m going to skip that the second time around. I’m contractually obligated to do some blogs during the summertime extolling the virtues of fresh fruit and produce. Due to the aftermath of our polar vortex and the freezing of the Great Lakes, the fresh fruit and produce is coming in a bit late this year. The cold was really good for some of it, not so much for other bits. I’m told we shouldn’t expect much from our tomatoes this year. So in the spirit of the community supported agriculture, we just have to suck that up and celebrate what the season does bring us. If you follow the link above you will find that the blueberries were “in” for a blog on July 21 in 2013, so there does seem to be something to this polar vortex thing.

But maybe I should go back to Carlin, and quote him at more length:

Why is there no blue food? I can’t find blue food — I can’t find the flavor of blue! I mean, green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what’s blue? There’s no blue! “Oh,” they say, “blueberries!” Uh-uh; blue on the vine, purple on the plate. There’s no blue food! Where is the blue food? We want the blue food! Probably bestows immortality! They’re keeping it from us!

There are already a number of blogs on this floating around in cyberspace, as well as links to the original 1975 performance on U-Tube. If you are deep into Carlin’s question, I would refer you to a 2011 blog from Cecil Adams, the world’s smartest human. He insists that blueberries are blue, and I agree. Adams wrote this informative post in December, but I’m writing in August. If you are in December (and especially if you are in Michigan) you might want to spend an afternoon researching the scientific basis for the relative dearth of blue foods. But if it’s August you can be outdoors enjoying a spectacular day (especially if you are in Michigan). And of course you could be eating blueberries.

We don’t grow blueberries as part of the Thornapple CSA, but our experience attests to the indisputable fact that you can get some. And I would advise that you do it.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Curitiba Declaration

August 10, 2014

I ran into a character named Philip Low this week at a conference organized by Carla Molento, who runs an important research group on animal welfare in Brazil. It was the kind of week that makes the otherwise humdrum life of the peripatetic academic interesting. Philip is a brilliant neuroscientist who is currently trying to make a go with a start-up called NeuroVigil, Inc. He also has sociopathic tendencies. Of course we could say that about a lot of us—sociopathic tendencies, I mean, not the “brilliant neuroscientist” part. There was, for example, a strange exchange with Adroaldo Zanella (formerly at MSU) in which the two wound up virtually shouting at each other despite the fact that they were in total agreement about the point under discussion.

You run into a lot of scientists in my line of work who have an inflated sense of their own importance, but it is rarer to encounter one who thinks that they can change the world. Philip is in that category, bless him. Aside from his own research and his inventions for non-invasive brain research, he is keen on “declarations”—statements signed by lots of people with an inflated sense of their own importance. He was instrumental in engineering one called “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”. You might find it interesting to Google that, though don’t confuse it with the one calling on evangelicals to renew their commitment to confessional Christianity.

At any rate, Philip gets a bee in his bonnet about having the illustrious figures at this conference (this would include yours truly, recall) to produce yet another declaration. So long story short, he, Carla and Daniel Braga Lourenço (another illustrious attendee) stay up until about about 1:00am on Thursday morning drafting a statement that says, in effect, “Animals are not objects and we should not treat them that way.” The actual text of the declaration was in Portuguese so I was not entirely sure of what it said, but a) I trust Carla and b) I could make out enough of it to be satisfied with it. So I signed it, along with a bunch of other speakers. Now just to be clear, despite what I’m about to say, I have no regrets about that. At least not until someone tells me that the Portuguese bits I couldn’t understand said something like “There were absolutely no sexual innuendos in the lyrics of Louie, Louie” or something else that I couldn’t possibly abide.

So we get down to the end of the conference after a very long day on Thursday and the declaration is read aloud, which gets a standing ovation. After which I beat it back to the bus with John Webster where we proceed to have a fascinating conversation about episodic memory (I told you it’s normally hum drum). Carla shows up on the bus looking for Philip and showing some agitation. Neither John nor I pick up on this too much, so we both congratulate her on a fine conference and continue our conversation. But then at dinner we get the details from Françoise Wemelsfelder. It seems that while the conference officials were congratulating one another, Philip has disappeared with the signed copy of the declaration.

He was eventually tracked down and he agreed to allow a Xerox copy. However, when Carla asked for the original (thinking quite reasonably by my lights that it should stay with the conference’s official sponsors), Philip says, “No. It’s mine.” And he walks off.

Françoise reports that Carla is deeply offended and shocked by this, and asks what can we do about it?  Françoise has confronted Philip in the elevator at our hotel and he has blown her off, too. It makes us wonder a bit about what Philip intends to do with this signed piece of paper, though again John and I agree that it seems unlikely that he could parlay it into something untoward. I guess John wasn’t too worried about that Louie, Louie thing, either. So I say that it’s the kind of thing that someone should write a blog about, just to let Carla know that we support her and also to get something into a somewhat public record, just in case.

So excuse my departure from the usual mid-summer foolishness, but that’s just what I’m doing.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Summer Cyborg Mailbag

August 3, 2014

Maybe it’s time for another Thornapple blog complaining about the robots in our midst.

As my many legions of irregular readers may have surmised, I have become somewhat reconciled to many robotic presences during the years that I’ve been writing the blog. Anyone who runs a website with an opportunity for “Comments” goes through a phase where they lose all faith in human nature. If you’re doing something kind of serious, all these nutcases show up to rant, expressing only the most extreme opinions and exhibiting the worst excesses of intolerance and crudity. Despite appearances sometimes, these are actually human beings. It’s not a problem that I have with the Thornapple blog, mainly because I’ve managed to remain incredibly obscure. And by “obscure” I’m referring both to the level of “hits” I get and also to the quality of my content.

The other problem with the “Comments” section is that occasionally you will turn on the computer and open up WordPress to discover that you have attracted 127 comments, all from “people” with different names, and all saying some variation of pretty much the same thing. Something like “ñïñ çà èíôó!!” The naïve blogger assumes that your site has gone viral in some foreign locale where an especially discriminating audience has appreciated your natural brilliance and responded with an unusual amount of enthusiasm in some language that you (unfortunately) do not understand.

Actually, ” ñïñ çà èíôó!!” is an expression in Urhobo dialect that (roughly translated) means “Your hot dogs are getting overly charred.” So it turns out that it does have something to do with food ethics in much the same way as our Bullwinkle blog of last month. But with 47 posts warning me about hot dogs on the grill I’m more inclined to think that another robot invasion has occurred. The consolation is that I do hear from human beings now and then. Sometimes they use the comment box, but they are more likely to wait until they see me. Then they will point out that that recording of “Handy Man” I referred to some months back was by Del Shannon. We could say more about Del Shannon, but that would be a tangent and we never indulge in tangents here in the Thornapple blog.

Other readers send me e-mail. Like Terry Link, who responded to my blog on the closing of Goodrich. He was concerned that I might be plumping the Meijer chain of grocery stores a bit too much. He writes: “there are any number of concerns I have with supporting Meier.”

They are privately held so we have less available information with which to judge them. Some of the concerns I would include (in no particular order of importance):

1)     Great wealth accumulation by the Meier family

2)      Illegal efforts to affect local development decisions (see Traverse City area case a few years back)

3)      Family and executive donations exclusively to Republican candidates

4)      Mislabeling produce as organic and or local/Michigan based

5)      Fighting the unit pricing regulation – I’ve caught them a few times running higher prices on items than shelf lists

6)      Not sure of their minimum wage/benefits for employees to know whether or not if they are better or worse than Walmart or approach a living wage.

Indeed, Terry, there are a few food ethics concerns in that list.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

 

Zucchini for Peace

July 27, 2014

I’m just back from the International Development Ethics Association meeting where I blew everyone away with my presentation on food security. Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit, but people did seem to appreciate what I had to say. And come to think of it, what I had to say was not really all that original, having been said in 1960 by T.W. Schulz. I’m sure all of you will recall having read his scintillating screed “Value of U.S. farm surpluses to underdeveloped countries,” in the Journal of Farm Economics. Schulz was writing about the “Food for Peace” program. He was noticing that if you take a boatload of food from the United States and ship it off to some country where people are suffering from hunger there are two things that are very likely to happen, one of them good and one of them bad.

The good thing is that when this food is off-loaded in some port city where people are suffering from inadequate diets, they are going to be better off. Whether the food is literally given away or whether it is sold at some concessional price (as is, in fact, often the case) hungry people in urban areas are going to benefit. Now, this is not going to be surprising to anyone, because that is, after all, what the whole point of food aid is, isn’t it?

But here’s the bad thing. In most cases of hunger, there are supplies of locally produced food available. Sometimes there is a true shortage, but other times it’s just a case of sheer poverty among the hungry that prevents their access to food. And then when this boatload of grain shows up, all of a sudden there is a glut of food available in this locale. If the whole operation is being managed well, some hungry people get fed, but the fact that there is now a glut of food in that local market means that the situation is something like zucchini day at the local farmer’s market. You know what I mean. We sit there all winter long, hoping for some great summer zucchini, and then it seems like everyone’s garden comes in all at the exact same instant. You go to work and there are mountains of zucchini sitting there in the main office with a little hand-lettered sign saying “Help yourself- – – Please!!

And what I’m saying is that all of a sudden you can’t give that zucchini away. You can make zucchini bread and fill your freezer with it till the cows come home but you sure aren’t going to sell any of that zucchini for anything like what it cost you to buy the seeds, water it and possibly pay for the mulch or fertilizer you spread around that garden plot. Well, this analogy transfers pretty nicely to the town in Africa or Asia where a boatload of food from the U.S. has just been off-loaded. If you were sitting there in the market place hoping to sell a few beans or some millet that you grew on your small plot outside of town, you are pretty much in the same situation as the poor schnook who thinks that everybody down at the office is going to slap him on the back and invite him to their daughter’s wedding because he showed up in the middle of the summer with a basket full of overgrown zucchini. In short, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Of course since we’re doing a food ethics blog here I’m obligated to point at that the stakes are somewhat higher in this African or Southeast Asian locale. The woman sitting there with her basket of beans or millet is every bit as poor as those hungry people that the rich nation charitably intended to help out of their generousity and sheer goodness of heart. She may not be literally hungry at that moment because she does have a basket of beans or millet sitting right in front of her. But staying fed throughout the year depends on getting a decent price for those beans and now this boatload of food aid being off-loaded down at the town docks has pretty much put pigweed into that mulligan stew (as Mark Knopfler might have said it). That’s the bad thing.

In short, it’s more complicated than you think. It’s not an argument against charity for people who are in need of a helping hand, but it is an argument for being thoughtful about how you do that. The folks at the IDEA conference (who spend a lot of time thinking about how to help poor people) experienced one of those forehead slapping “HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO STUPID!” moments, and that’s why they liked my paper.

Now if we could just figure out a way to deal with this conundrum!

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University