July 25, 2010

Now and again we need to remind ourselves that people are hungry. I happened to visit the new farmer’s market near the White House this week. This is the one that Michelle Obama was instrumental in getting started, arguing that there was a need for better access to fresh, local foods in downtown Washington DC. I was walking with Jaydee Hanson, and we were on our way to a dinner engagement on “Eye” Street. We perused the stalls and Jaydee schmoozed a bit with one of his former interns from the International Center for Technology Assessment. As we were heading off down Eye toward Tuscana West for our dinner, we were accosted by a homeless man soliciting funds. Jaydee’s response was, “I’ll get you on the way back.” To which he replied, “I won’t be here then,” so Jaydee digs into his wallet and gives him a buck or two.

I do this kind of thing occasionally, but maybe not occasionally enough. Thornapple CSA has also made commitments to help hungry people by donating one share and by giving any extra produce that is not picked up by members to Food Movers. From a food ethics perspective, efforts to address hunger by offering a little spare change to a homeless person or making occasional donations to the food bank are important, but they would only be adequate if the reality of hunger were somewhat different than it actually is. Spontaneous acts of charity are ethically important because they are good for the soul; I say nothing against them. They can also do a tremendous amount of good for the recipient, especially when that person is hungry in the colloquial sense. By this I mean that the person is feeling some hunger pangs that will be relieved by a good hot meal, allowing them to get along with the rest of their life. Given the current economic situation in the U.S., we know that families are experiencing hunger in just this sense, some having that experience all too frequently. Assuming they are adequately supported, food banks and relief programs like the Greater Lansing Food Bank or the one I visited in Detroit are a good response to this kind of hunger. They meet the short term food need, and they do so through one of the most basic and universal of human social forms: sharing.

There are some big scale international events that also fit this form. The earthquake in Haiti put most of that nation’s population at risk for hunger, and promises of international assistance can help relieve that hunger while the infrastructure for distributing food grown on the island are rebuilt. Again, the importance of sharing captures what is ethically significant here. But there are also people in Haiti who were hungry before the earthquake, and many of them were hungry in a totally different sense. These are people whose diets are so deficient that they become vulnerable to a large class of health ailments. They are often unable to work, even if work were available to them. Children suffer from deprivations that permanently affect the development of their brains and bodies. It is misleading to describe their problem as one of being hungry. Their problem is one of systemic poverty.

The World Bank estimates that one third of the world’s population is adequately fed, one third inadequately fed and one third starving. I won’t try to guess the percentage of people in that middle third that are “merely hungry” in the sense I describe above. Using phrases like “merely hungry” is actually kind of offensive, but it may be necessary if we are come to the important ethical point. Being merely hungry is a terrible fate, one that’s associated with suffering I am sure that I cannot adequately imagine. Indeed, the “merely hungry” very likely suffer more in terms of felt pain and anguish than do those whose persistent hunger is life threatening in the near term, and compromising their lifetime opportunities, to boot. The human body eventually adapts to this state of persistent deprivation, and silences the gnawing pangs that are impossible to ignore. Nonetheless, we face a global situation in which perhaps half of the world’s population is experiencing a state of food deprivation that both compels a moral response, and remains exceedingly difficult to address. We would be badly mistaken if we thought that acts of sharing or charity represent a morally appropriate response to their problems, even if continuing to provide support for food assistance whenever and wherever possible continues to be a moral duty for all of us in the one third who are adequately fed. These problems of persistent poverty are problems of development ethics, rather than food ethics. Development ethics is a tortuous domain in which our best intentions and our moral intuitions often fail us. The work here is serious, and frankly too complex to be taken up in a lighthearted blog.

I argue that food ethics enters into development ethics through the door marked “agriculture”, rather than the door marked “hunger.” Many of that third in extreme poverty are poor because they work in agriculture. Doing things that help hungry people in cities (like giving away food surpluses) actually hurts those poor farmers, who would otherwise get a more reasonable return for their crop. This is a problem I have once before described as “the fundamental tension” in agricultural ethics. It is a problem that is not going away any time soon.

Yet it’s not a reason to look the other way when a needy person approaches you for a handout. There are complex ethical issues here, too, and they can assume tragic proportions in certain cases. On the one hand, we know that there are people out there who exploit our praiseworthy tendency toward sharing. We feel stupid when exploited, and this may make us defensive and resistant to sharing. I know that I fall prey to this when I look away and walk past people like the man that Jaydee and I encountered on Thursday evening. On the other hand, loosening up and helping out on a case by case basis is not what’s keeping developing country farmers in extreme poverty. For that, you need to look toward international trade and monetary policies and toward bad governments in their own country. And many of those people asking for a buck or two are very hungry. Sharing with them is good all the way around.

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

I Scream

July 18, 2010

Summer time is the time for ice cream, I think. We’ve been making the rounds. Yesterday we were at the MSU Dairy store, where Diane opted for the dreamsicle milkshake (i.e. a milkshake made from dairy store orange sherbet,) while I went for the single dip of peach ice cream. The MSU Dairy Store is a much loved local institution, probably ranking second only to Tom Izzo in terms of generating warm feelings in the Lansing area for Michigan State University. Diane, however, is not really all that impressed with the ingredients list in MSU ice cream. I will say as a food ethicist that it is not really that bad, using only a few extras like guar gum. Guar gum comes from guar beans and it is used as a thickening agent, like corn starch. You don’t really have to have a thickening agent to make good ice cream, however, and Diane says “Fie to you, guar gum!”

Our daughter came into town on Friday evening, though she had a grueling experience losing her bag on the flight. We took her to Pablo’s in Old Town to cheer all of us up, which meant a walk across the street to the Arctic Corner. Arctic Corner has my vote for the best summer ice cream this year. It’s been a perfect consistency every time I’ve tried it and I actually prefer soft serve that is a bit less creamy and sweet over the putatively more premium mixes. I’m planning on heading over there later this week to celebrate my 59th birthday by having my annual banana split. As many of you know, this location at Grand River and Center St. was down for a couple of years. Rumor had it that it was an internal family dispute. Whatever. I’m glad they’re back. Arctic Corner has taken over from our usual Westside summer hang-out, the Frosty Corner on MLK. I don’t like the mix that Frosty Corner is using now as well as their old stuff, though the old guy inside (who I assume owns the place) likes to brag about the quality. No accounting for taste, I guess.

This afternoon we followed up a visit to the Kresge Art Museum on the MSU Campus with a stop at the new location of Tasty Twist. Tasty Twist has long had the reputation for “best soft serve” in the area, though we are such wimps that we usually don’t want to drive all the way to East Lansing to get ice cream. If you don’t know the story of Tasty Twist, it’s a good lesson in food ethics. I don’t know how long they had been at their funky little classic-style soft serve ice cream stand location on Grand River, but last year they were told they would need to vacate by the owner, only to discover a new business moving in with the name “Tasty Treat” and looking very much like the old Tasty Twist with the same blue awning etc. As a food ethicist, you will not see me frequenting Tasty Treat, so I have no idea how good their ice cream is. In fact, I suspect that Tasty Twist probably has pretty good grounds for a lawsuit against Tasty Treat, as theft of “trade dress”—the thematic colors and appearance of a successful retail operation—can be challenged under intellectual property law. It’s considered to be false advertising. Check out “Lanham Act” on Wikipedia if you care to have a look.

The solution in East Lansing has not thus far gotten the lawyers involved. There is a Facebook page to inform people where they should really be going for their summer ice cream, as Tasty Twist has moved down Grand River a block or so and is now occupying a spot in one of those low-rent down at the heel strip malls. This is the one next door to Bell’s Greek Pizza. There is plenty of parking, but frankly it doesn’t have the ambiance of the old locale. I hope they do okay there, but it just steams me to see a really good local food operation get the kind of treatment that Tasty Twist got. The ice cream is still great. I had a strawberry sundae. Go down there and buy a banana split if you live in East Lansing.

But what I really wanted to talk about was home-made ice cream. My Grandaddy Thompson used to go down to the ice company in Springfield, MO and get this old beat up green insulated 5 gallon bucket filled with chipped ice. I think it was free for the asking, but I don’t really know. He would bring it back home and then stir up a fantastic mix of homemade vanilla. We would turn the freezer by hand with a crank, and the ice was so chunky that it usually took one person to hold the freezer down, a second to turn the crank, and a third to add rock salt and more ice chunks. I don’t remember his recipe, but I do remember my Dad’s. He would break a dozen raw eggs into a bowl, and stir in two cups of sugar as he beat the eggs very lightly. Then he would add two tablespoons of vanilla extract, stir and pour the whole thing into the freezer drum. He would swish out the bowl (always coated with a thick egg-sugar mix) with some whole milk, then he would fill the drum almost to the top with whole milk. Four ingredients and no actual cream. Because he filled the drum so full, there was very little room for the mixture to expand as it froze, so it would take forever for that stuff to turn into anything solid enough to eat. And it would start to melt as soon as it came out. Eventually the leavings would go to the freezer inside, where they would take on the consistency of a popsicle: crystallized frozen milk. However, the stuff tasted great. We loved it and I’ll have to find an excuse for making some ice cream right away just thinking about this. I use a fewer eggs (like four instead of 12), about half the sugar and I leave a good three inches for expansion. Sometimes I’ll use some heavy cream, too, but you really don’t need it. And I’ve been known to make decent strawberry and peach ice cream, myself. But I’m still down with the raw eggs.

As a food ethicist, I can’t really recommend this. Eggs can become contaminated with salmonella, and there is very little beyond cooking the egg slightly that can be done about it. Once or twice a year, I’m willing to take that risk. My Dad’s recipe, however, is heart stopping.

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

Oranje in Defeat

July 11, 2010

Like most of the world I spent a huge chunk of the afternoon watching the FIFA World Cup Final. What is more, I’ve spent enough time in the Netherlands that I am a mild fan of the Dutch team. So I had someone to root for. It was, as most of you probably know, a hard fought game that Spain won in the last two minutes of overtime by the score of 1-0. And we are not done watching television in the Thompson household, either. Tonight there is the premiere of Murder on the Orient Express with David Suchet as Poirot.

In the meantime, it looks like we’ll spend the waning hours of this Sunday afternoon wringing our hands over CSA beeswax. Yes, folks this is the Thornapple CSA daytime soap. It’s a cavalcade of escapades, trauma and drama. Here are just a few of the highlights.

So what should the CSA do about members who do not sign up at the very beginning of the year? Now I hasten to add before getting into this that I am not a member of the Thornapple CSA core group, and what I think about these questions means absolutely nothing. It’s just that I happen to overhear conversations on such questions while I am puttering around on my computer listening to Roger “Jim” McGuinn singing “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” on my i-tunes. I’m long past the time when my hair’s just right and my pants fit tight, and I get easily distracted. I’ve undoubtedly failed to get all the plot twists right, but nonetheless here’s what I think.

Don’t go there! This is a quagmire. There will be no principled way to sort this out once you get started trying to figure out a fair system for pro-rating. It’s not, for example, fair to just divide the number of weeks by the number of dollars, because the earliest weeks in the distribution are the weeks when the size of the pick-up is the smallest. And then there is all that chard we have to endure before we get to the really good stuff at the end of season. And of course there is the fact that people who signed up on time have actually been working on the farm for the last twelve weeks. “Sweat equity” as the core group charmingly calls it. (Not that I do any sweat equity—Diane’s contribution more than makes up for my share). We can all understand why latecomers might think it’s fair to pay less, but this is a case where all the time spent trying to figure out what would be fair is an unfair burden to place on the core group members.

And then there is the question of what to do about the carrots. Our next crop of carrots have apparently become so overrun with weeds that they are getting strangled out. Do we recruit extra “sweat equity” to save these sweet chubs, or should we resort to hired labor? One point of view is that they are not worth the money or the aggravation, but that just brings up another issue: do we just let the members suck up this casualty of the wet spring (that’s the CSA way, after all), or do we dip into the meager treasury and buy some carrots from another farm? Here, I remain agnostic. It’s not up to me, anyway.  Carrots are certainly better than chard, but I’m not going to risk a knockdown brawl the next time the core group meets in my dining room by venturing an opinion on this one.

And finally there are the interpersonal relationships that make belonging to a CSA the next best thing to Peyton Place or As the World Turns except without the sex. These include clueless boobs who complain about the “hired help” that takes charge of distribution day. Wake up folks. This is a volunteer activity. There is no hired help (well, maybe just a little in the case of the carrots). If you don’t like it, pitch in and do it yourself. Then there are the personality intrigues that make life interesting, but probably don’t belong in a blog that can be read by any idiot with an internet browser. Sorry folks, I’m not going there either. I’ll be in enough trouble already if people start bugging Diane about carrot futures.

Yes, it really is part of what the CSA experience is all about, especially when the organizational base for the group is the membership itself as opposed to someone who, say, already is a farmer. This ain’t a grocery store and it ain’t even a business enterprise. It’s a social movement, folks, and as Oscar Wilde himself once said “The only difficulty with socialism is that it requires too many evenings.”

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

Independence Day

July 4, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. Time to dust off the old ‘68 vintage Kalamazoo SG knock-off and haul out the ’72 Bassman head from attic, and plug them into the Altec-Lansing 15s that I made homemade cabinets for out in the garage on Long Island from left-over particle board. All this stuff goes out on to the side porch where I treat the neighborhood to my version of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone loves this stuff, you know. And no one complains about that annoying hum I have never been able to get out of the Bassman head. It’s tradition, after all.

Not that I have much more to say about today’s celebrations, but this little opening got me out of the need to title this week’s blog something like “Another Pick-Up”. I got in enough trouble for the last one.

Diane tells me that things are humming down on the Allen Street Farmer’s Market on Wednesday afternoons. I haven’t gotten down there yet myself. Thornapple is apparently handing out the shares “buffet style” this year. This means that everyone does a take one from column A and one from column B when it comes time to pick-up your veggies. Diane says that this approach has several advantages over the “pre-bagged” option, which is certainly quicker for busy people trying to do a quickie pick-up. For one thing, you get a bit more choice. If you like several little baby heads of lettuce instead of one big one, that’s in your control. And people just aren’t picking up the stuff they don’t want. This is important because research shows that “too much food” is the number one complaint that people have about belonging to a CSA. What is more, the extra food is being picked up by Food Movers this year and being distributed through the Greater Lansing Food Bank.

But the main thing that Diane likes about this approach is that it forces people to slow down a little bit. This draws people into conversations that would not happen otherwise. And as Diane reminds me (and I suspect others), the first word in CSA is “community”. This idea that something which entails taking extra trouble and bother, but that has the unintended and often unnoticed benefit of drawing us into more meaningful relationships is a key theme in the work of one of my favorite living philosophers, Albert Borgmann. Albert calls the things that make us do this “focal things” and the practices that they engage us in “focal practices.” He contrasts these focal things with technologies that deliver what we need with the flip of a switch or less. These conveniences make life easier, and Albert is not “against” them. It would be impossible to get along in the modern world without these devices that make things go smoothly, and that do not require us to become deeply involved.

Albert’s point is that when our life become totally dominated by these simplifying devices, it also becomes emptied of meaning. He calls this “the failed promise of modern technology.” In days past, people’s entire lives were consumed by tasks such as cutting wood and tending the stove. While this was a pain, the hearth in the traditional farm household was a natural focal thing. It drew people in the household and the tasks needed to keep a wood-fired hearth going provided rhythm and structure that created a sense of community among those who lived in or visited the household. Although modern technologies such as the instant-on kitchen range and the central heating system have replaced the toil needed to keep a hearth going, these technologies have also failed us in fundamental ways. There is little in the modern lifestyle to replace the structure, rhythm and engagement that came naturally before.

This is not to imply that we should go back to wood-burning stoves. That would be pretty bad for global warming, for one thing. No, what Albert says is that we must now mindfully dedicate ourselves to focal practices that may have been part of the natural rhythm of life in ages past. He offers examples of focal practice that include running, and hiking in the woods. One of his extended examples is what he calls “the culture of the table”: an extended set of focal practices that are organized around the tasks of acquiring, preparing, serving and enjoying the food that we eat. Well structured food practices bring people together, and create meaningful lives. So take a minute to say “Hi” to Diane when you are picking up your veggies at the Allen Street Market next Wednesday. And if you are over on the Westside and hear something that sounds like badly played Hendrix wafting through the trees, you will know what that is, too.

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

Readers interested in reading more about the culture of the table should consult Albert Borgmann Real American Ethics, 2007 or Paul B. Thompson The Agrarian Vision 2010.