Hubba Hubba

December 30, 2012

I’m only about three or four years late blogging about food hubs. A food hub is an institution that performs many of the functions that used to be performed by food wholesalers. It connects food producers—farmers, cheese makers, small scale commercial kitchens and processors—with consumers. That’s us, folks, but it may also include restaurants, small scale retailers and institutional food service providers like schools or hospitals. Food hubs take a lot of different forms. One model is a virtual network where farmers can post the availability of fresh fruits, vegetables or meat, milk and eggs so that people (often chefs) can do a pre-order. Delivery might be accomplished at a farmer’s market, but the information exchange saves time and allows and allows the chefs a better opportunity for menu planning. Another model is simply a slightly less random farmer’s market; where there is a concerted attempt to ensure that the goods on sale represent enough variety for someone to do a major portion of their weekly food shopping. Still other models focus on coordination activities to get fresh, local foods from fresh local producers into schools, where the fresh local food is expected to wind up in the stomach of fresh local schoolchildren. Hence, the phrase “freshman”.

If you are keen on food hubs, you probably don’t want to be looking at the Thornapple CSA website. You probably want either the official USDA website, or the less official but more informative website that has been put up by the Wallace Center through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—an outfit that insiders like your blogger refer to (fondly) as WKKF. WKKF has rededicated itself to helping vulnerable children of late, and the “good food” network is configured as a collocation of projects organized around improving the nutrition and health of children. Food hubs are, in the mindset of WKKF, a part of that story.

Some food hubs operate successfully as for-profit businesses. The networking model, for example, can function with relatively little labor and a paid subscription by users to cover such costs as are incurred in marketing the food hub and maintaining the infrastructure. You’re probably not going to be the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffet with this business model, but in a city where a sufficient number of local restaurants compete for the favor of artisanal food patrons, you might be financially sustainable. Which is, as my local readers understand, a longwinded way of saying, “Don’t expect to see this in Lansing anytime soon.” Other models configure the hubbing activity as a public service—helping vulnerable children, if you have already forgotten.  Here the activity of identifying the network and connecting providers with consumers is more likely to be undertaken by a non-profit group or even by the government.

If you are of the neoliberal persuasion, you are likely to view these non-profit food hubs with deep suspicion. Even if they are using private funds (like a grant from WKKF), you are likely to think that they are at best a nuisance for those up-standing all-American businesses that are dedicated first and foremost to making a buck in whatever-manner-possible, and only secondarily to connecting people who have food (e.g. the producers) with people who need it. If you can make a buck by food hubbing, it’s got to be good, on this view. If you can’t, it’s communism, pedophilia and global terrorism. And if the gummit gets into it, well, needless to say, we are taxed enough already. Now we’ve covered the question of a non-profit entity competing with for-profit firms before, albeit without much closure. And there are a few of those old-fashioned wholesalers out there, still doing the hubba hubba without the benefit of a grant from WKKF. So if you are of the neoliberal persuasion, there is indeed some reason why you might look at this phenomenon and say: “Hub? Huh?” To which we could and probably should say volumes, but a brief comment on risk will suffice.

Old-fashioned local wholesalers have declined because they have been outcompeted in the commodity sector. In this case, we can define “the commodity sector” as that portion of the food system where you don’t know and don’t care where it comes from, and where you are primarily focused on price. For very large businesses (like grocery stores and chain restaurants) it has proven profitable to either absorb the process of sourcing, purchasing and distributing food products into your own organization, or to contract it out to other very large companies, often operating at a national or international scale. The guy who was running a wholesale outfit across the street from a regional farmer’s market in 1956 has found it more and more difficult to make any money delivering to local markets and restaurants as the local markets and restaurants have increasingly come to have names like “McDonald’s”, “Applebee’s” or “Kroger’s”. A guy who takes the risk of buying truckloads of highly perishable products on the off-chance that they can be sold for a profit to other local businesses winds up getting stuck with rotting Brussels sprouts now and then. And as guys like that go under after too many Brussels sprout episodes, businesses (restaurants especially) that don’t want to go the route of a commodity food system find it harder and harder to find high-quality, source-identified products to serve. And even those who have stayed in business tend to think that keeping track of where all that stuff is coming from is a nuisance they’d rather not deal with.

Hence, the food hub. Very much like the CSA, one model for a food hub is to figure out some way for the risk of rotting Brussels sprouts can be shared by all users—producers and consumers alike. But there’s an ethic behind this, and it ain’t the neoliberal ethic that celebrates profit above all else.

Now if we can just figure out some way to fund this!

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

Chop Suey

December 23, 2012

It seems humanity survived the end of the world that some predicted in connection with the transition from one b’ak’tun to the next in the Mayan calendar. We’ve covered eschatology in the Thornapple blog once before, so there’s no compelling need to mine that thought for another pathetic attempt at humor. I might speculate on the deep metaphysical affinities between the Mayan Long Count and the rediscovery of Mihail Bahktin’s Philosophy of the Act in the 1960s. Bahktin noticed how human beings participate both actively and passively in being, creating the possibility for realization of being through action. The food-ethics moral of the story: You can participate in the realization of the universal by going to the kitchen right now and eating that last Christmas cookie! Of course, the cookie will no longer exist passively as an in-itself, but that was hardly the destiny of any respectable Christmas cookie, anyway. Better that it participate in the active expression of your for-itself, gurgling away down there in your digestive tract.

But of course the only rationale for a tangent like that would be the superficial similarity between the name for the 394 year long b’ak’tun of the Mayans and that of a Russian semiotician who died almost 43 years ago. Careening down the hill at 90 in a black ice whiteout, we’re heading straight into Christmas week. This means that it’s hardly appropriate to be pontificating about serious topics in food ethics or probing the connection between eschatology and ontology. No, Christmas cookies would seem to be about right.

Which brings me to the subject of traditional Christmas foods. And by that, of course, I mean Chinese take-out. I brought this up with Diane last night as we were stopping at the Fine China Restaurant on Waverly Road. She told me I was crazy. She had never heard of the idea that Chinese was a Christmas tradition. I must confess that this was kind of an emergent thought with me, rather than something I could assert with apodictic certainty. I’d been picking up occasional references to eating Chinese food on Christmas day, especially by Jewish comedians. And as we know, Jewish comedians (I know, I know—it’s redundant) are the sages who probe the zeitgeist of the coming b’ak’tun for people living in post-industrial societies. As a professional philosophical pundit, I learned long ago that the best way to appear profound is to reproduce some punchline from Buddy Hackett or Jon Stewart clothed in dialectical mumbo-jumbo.

“Mumbo-jumbo”, by the way, is the Mayan Long Count form for mojo. Many people naturally associate mojo with gumbo, another traditional Christmas dish if you happen to live on the bayou. I’ve got my mojo working this Christmas season, but we’ll be stirring up a vegetarian version of the tortilla soup recipe traditionally made with chicken stock. It’s pretty simple, actually. You’ve got your tomato base vegetable stock, translucent with a nice rich red. Then you drop a few cubes of jack cheese in a bowl with some tortilla chips and a few bite-size chunks of ripe avocado. When you pour the hot broth over it, the cheese melts. You’ve got to eat it before the tortilla chip turns to mush, but why would you want to wait, anyway? It’s the mixture of red and green that hooks this to Christmas. If you don’t get it, I’ve still got my mojo working. It just don’t work on you.

So determined to vindicate myself, I got up and Googled “Chinese food” and “Christmas”. Sho’ nuff, just last Christmas the Huffington Post is declaring that “for many people it’s become a tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.” The article in question doesn’t go into it, but there is, in fact, a pretty straightforward food ethics reason for this. The “many people” referred to in the story either don’t wish to cook, or (more likely) don’t know how to cook. And Chinese food restaurants are the only restaurants open on Christmas Day, whether for dine-in or take-out. So there you have it: A new post-industrial Christmas tradition in the making!

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

New Food

December 16, 2012

I looked out the window of my regional jet this morning just before the sun rose above an unbroken sea of clouds. A spray of pink and yellow-red spanned the entire horizon, and at the farthest distance there was a slight break in the clouds—just enough to paint the lower surface with luminescence, afire with phosphorescent orange day-glo. Beyond words, really. As the plane dipped below the cloud layer in its descent to the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport, I found myself below that placid layer becoming sunlit from above but now everything turned to a featureless grey. Below me  was another sea of clouds—this time more troubled and wavy—and that’s where we were headed. I thought of a layer cake and imagined myself flying through the translucent jelly of a middle level, headed for the next zone of denser yellow cake. Life, it seems, goes on.

I found myself hanging out with Joe Kokini this week. Joe is a food scientist at the University of Illinois. He has a vision for the food of tomorrow that involves a new kind of food chemistry for encapsulating what-have-you and incorporating it into ordinary food. Joe thinks of the what-have-you in terms of nutrients. They might be very specific things that your doctor has determined that you need based on the sequence of your personal genome. They might be things that would be good for anyone, but that for one reason or another, we don’t eat enough of right now. Joe’s example was fish oil, which (in case you don’t know) tastes awful and even worse, lingers long after the medicinal moment.

Joe’s vision is entirely well-motivated, but some people push back. This particular form of food chemistry is not well liked by the National Organic Standards Board. They seem to be on the verge of banning it from foods that can be labeled “organic”. But that’s not where I’m heading today. I’m still focused on Joe, who when challenged goes into a rant about needing to feed the world, and how organic methods can’t do it. This is pretty typical for a present-day ag scientist. These guys spend entirely too much time listening to one another, and as a result they don’t really appreciate how crazy they sound when push-back on encapsulated fish-oil incorporated into Wonder Bread or Cheetos is somehow responsible for all those starving people in Africa.

As a food ethicist, I think we need to see that there is a better argument for Joe’s vision. Sure, we could all just learn to like fish oil. And beyond that, we could accomplish all this “nutrient” loading just by being more attentive to our daily diet. From that perspective, it would be better to spend the money that is currently being spent on confabs where I hang out with people like Joe on developing more farmer’s markets, or getting vegetables into the inner city. But there are flies in the ointment. One of them is that there are still plenty of people who are going to choose Wonder Bread or Cheetos even when there is a nice, crisp bunch of kale sitting right next door. So Joe has a point: In order to get those “nutrients’ where we need them, lets go for the Cheeto.

But there is more. It seems that our ideology of “choice” is also part of the problem. Excuse me if I offend, but our (and here I mean you, me and Bob) choices are not really what the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant would have called “autonomous”. More straightforwardly, what you, Bob and I want and what we choose is shaped by a vast social technology. Advertising is a big part, but it’s hardly the only part. More than we like to admit, what we “choose” is a complex mix of solidarity, image posturing, perceptual flaccidity and habit, often (in the case of food) reinforced by an evolutionarily induced propensity for sweet and salty tastes. This social technology is, with great effort, amenable to some limited steering. But who’s going to fund a steering effort?

The answer to that question is, someone who expects to turn a buck when he or she can steer the great mass of food consumers into one zone versus another. And there are people who have made a buck steering us toward Wonder Bread or Cheetos, as well as people who hope to make a buck encapsulating “nutrients” and incorporating them into Wonder Bread and Cheetos. But there is no one who thinks that they will make a buck if people start preferring kale, so no one is investing in the social technology that might (and one can’t be sure anyway) steer our “choices” toward a healthier diet, even without this hot new food chemistry for encapsulating “nutrients.”

Of course as a food scientist Joe is one of those people who benefits from this situation (even if he doesn’t make a buck off of encapsulation) simply because the current social technology is feeding research funding and publication opportunities into the food science program at the University of Illinois. I think we should notice this, but I don’t actually think it counts much against his vision. I benefit in the same way, mind you. There are other social technologies that might be implemented, social technologies that emphasize mutuality and common fate, rather than competition and individual choice. But how likely is that, given what we in Michigan have just heard about “the right to choose”?

Joe is just being realistic, and we should respect that.

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

Been There Done That

December 9, 2012

I could have sworn that I had some ideas about what to do for a blog this week, but I put things off. What with that talk about punkin pah & caroling ast we was rockin’ roun’ the Christmas tree, I plum just forgot what I was going to write about. I bet it was a doozie, too.

Mebbie it was that item I saw on the network news during the week about AquaBounty® salmon. Now, I hardly ever watch the network news I gotta tell you. So it was a rare pleasure indeed to see a network news reporter talking about genetically engineered fish. If you were to go read the text of this story on the network news, it would have seemed kind of reasonable. And if, like me, you first heard about genetically engineered fish when you were a mere sprat on the faculty at Texas A&M (this would have been nearly two decades ago, I’m telling you—but who’s counting?), you might have been surprised to learn…

[long pause here with baited breath]

Well, actually ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from this report on the network news. There was the least little hint that the AquaBounty company is finally about to go bust, waiting for the Ef DEE Ay to grant regulatory approval for their fast growing Atlantic salmon. {N.B. This is just the name of the fish. It’s projected to be grown in net pens—fish farming, for the uninitiated. It’s not supposed to get anywhere near the Atlantic ocean.} Now certainly this fish has attracted a few enemies, but frankly blog readers, we’ve been over this terrain before. If I’m not mistaken I wrote a rather confusing blog on this subject last summer, but I took pains to provide a link to a not very confusing (but frankly not very funny either) blog that I wrote for Science Progress almost a year before that ‘splains it all. And that blog mentioned that the last truly reportable events (to wit a news conference at the Ef DEE Ay) had in actual fact occurred two years before that.

So don’t look for any details here today in the present. The only thing worth noting here today in the present has absolutely nothing to do with this fish (which is, I admit, the putative connection to food in this week’s Thornapple blog). What’s notable is that there WAS nothing in the network news story this week. Most of us who’ve been following this saga for a major portion of our adult lives have been wondering how the Aqua Bounty (no connection to Mutiny on the Bounty) avoided going bankrupt in, say, 1997 or 2003. We’ve wondered whether there was some kind of corporate conspiracy to have this dinky little start-up company with the ugly fish take all the heat for getting the first transgenic food animal through the regulatory gauntlet. But the network news reporter didn’t have anything to say about that, so if you want to start internet rumors about corporate conspiracies, don’t let anybody know that you found out about here, cause I just made it up. No all the network news reporter did was mouth utterly prosaic stuff that could have been said at least 4 years ago, and in utter truth, could have and was said a good 10 or 15 years ago. But the network news reporter read the story (as they are won’t to do on television) in an astonished tone of voice. As if: “Can you BELIEVE this people? A genetically engineered fish! Look at how big the sucker was!” There was also a picture of the network news reporter eating some of the fish, but he was astonished nonetheless.

So come to think of it, that particular nothing of a non-event really couldn’t have been the good idea I had last week. Mebbie it was “Christmas Food Songs”—as in “Egg nog! Yeah, I’ll have some egg nog!” ‘Cept we did that last year.

[insert long pregnant pause here]

Mebbie I’ll remember it by next week. For now, go back and read the entire blog over again but this time as if it were being spoken out loud in an astonished can-you-believe-this tone of voice. It’s much better that way, I promise.

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


December 2, 2012

December rolls around and it’s very tempting to look backward, make an inward turn and reflect upon the past. I assume (wrongly perhaps) that both of my regular readers are down with the whole Christmas thing. There’s the religious part of the Christmas season, of course, but there’s also the historical fact that long ago church fathers cleverly appropriated some pagan rituals associated with shrubbery when they pegged this time of the year for the Christmas season. I’m not talking the Knights who say Ni, here, by the way, but that’s a subject for another time and place.

No, the inward reflective turn has more to do with some secular aspects of the Christmas season. A big thing is that we are gearing up for the end of the year, which is a natural time to look back at how the year went. One of the network news shows was running its “News Photo of the Year” during the last week of November. Apparently, nothing both notable and photographable could possibly happen in December. Before we know it, we’ll be inundated with “best of” lists. I gave in to that temptation in Thornapple blog back in 2010, but it didn’t turn out all that well.

But beyond the feeling of compression as the year winds down, there is a keen sense of seasonality that sets in with a noticeable change in the air. It’s cold. It’s often grey, but we’re not sick of it yet, and that misty quality looks kind of pretty. If you looked out the window in Lansing this morning like I did, the silhouette of the leafless trees might induce a melancholy feeling that’s conducive to looking back before looking forward. So maybe that’s why the blog in 2010 had so many reflective and backward looking entries, and maybe the fact that I was in Portland, OR last year is the reason that the blog in 2011 didn’t.

There’s also the fact that I sit down at my computer to write the Thornapple blog on Sunday and all manner of holiday music comes pouring out of i-Tunes. Sure, there are carols by the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, but in my case, at least, they blend in with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings doing “Christmastime in the Projects”. Then Dennis Wilson is saying “so if you happen to be listening to this album right now,” that he’d like to wish season’s greetings from himself along with Allan, Mike, Brian and Carl. This always struck me as a rather kōan-like thing to put on a Christmas Album. I mean, if you are hearing the sound of Dennis Wilson’s voice recorded in 1964 being reproduced in 2012, how could you not be listening to the album “right now”? When is right now, and what gives with the “if” anyway? But maybe that’s why I became a philosopher.  So the music thing reinforces the seasonality that’s evident in the trees outside.

The marketing folks who run our commercial culture are keen on pegging the retail décor to the time of the year, too. After 2013 rolls in, we’ll have a very dead time for about four weeks until all the pink hearts show up and we can celebrate Valentine’s Day. Then it goes green for St. Patrick’s day, when we can all pretend to be Irish. Next we become Mexican for Cinco de Mayo, and before long everything is Uncle Sam, red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. Autumn marketing revolves around Halloween and Thanksgiving, when the crepe paper in the stores mimics the bright orange and then the muted tones on the trees outside (at least if you live in Michigan). But there’s no contest, really. The commercial side of Christmas just accelerates the boost that comes with all that red and green décor. Robert Lamm asked, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” When the stores are red and green, at least we think we do. Whether it’s 1964 or 2012, it’s right now.

So I’m back in Michigan and it looks like I’m getting reflective again in 2012. It’s not like we’re altogether lacking with signs of seasonality here in industrial culture. So why, you might ask rhetorically, is seasonality such a big thing in the CSA way? Our peculiar seasonality says that it’s time to be scarfing down the very last of that late season fresh produce that we cajoled into production with our hoop houses, and turning to the root crops we’ve been storing in the basement. Dig out those recipes for squash casserole and pumpkin soup. Eat the spaghetti squash this month, (hint: it’s better with an Alfredo sauce than a red sauce) because the acorn, butternut and other varieties of cucurbita pepo you might have down in the basement will last into January. Of course, January and February are the months when we are supposed to be turning to thoroughly dried foods, Michigan dry beans being the prince among them. In short, we think that eating in season is somehow morally correct. Before next week, I’ll have to look back over some past blogs to see if I can figure out why.

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