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

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Shop Rite

July 20, 2014

Last week we memorialized the loss of a local Lansing area institution, Goodrich’s Shop-Rite. Apologies to those readers who felt that I did not take the closure of a commercial establishment seriously enough. Maybe I can work myself up to something more commensurate with the deep emotional attachment that people felt for Goodrich’s by considering its broader religious significance. It was called “Shop Rite”, after all. The robot who lives inside my desktop is telling me that “sacrament” is a synonym for “rite”, so perhaps there is something to explore here.

An anthropologist would tell you that all religions employ stylized and repetitive acts that take place at a set time and place. These rituals immerse the faithful in an experience that symbolizes the core tenets of the religious tradition. Participation in a ritual is generally an emotionally charged experience. As a simple Google search taught me, “The exalted feelings people experience during rituals provide positive reinforcement for continuing them.  When rituals make people “feel good”, they reinforce the belief that their religion is the “correct” one.”

Which brings us to the shop rite. What key religious tradition is this symbolizing? My cynical bone is telling me that it’s capitalism. The shop rite makes people feel good about being consumers; it reinforces their belief that capital accumulation is “Biblically correct,” and more in line with the metaphysical order of the universe than, say, socialism or Obamacare.

But this wouldn’t square with all my lefty friends who are bemoaning the loss of Goodrich’s. They’re especially peeved because our local food economy is being taken over by corporate entities like Whole Foods and Fresh Thyme. So it’s doubtful that the shop rite is a celebration of capitalism. So let’s see what Wikipedia says about the shop rite. There we learn that Shop Rite is a cooperative, but unlike ELFCO (regrets to my international readers, but I just don’t have the willpower to explain what ELFCO is today) ShopRite (notice the spacing) looks to all the world just like a supermarket company with a long list of locations in the Northeast. The ShopRite webpage explains that store owners (not shoppers) are members of the co-op, and that it allows them competitively priced access to the full range of produce, dairy, meat and canned, frozen or other processed foods that one expects to find at a local grocery store.

This would make ShopRite something like Piggly Wiggly, which is one of the oldest consortia of independent grocers. All the Piggly Wiggly stores use the same logo, and they save money by running chain-wide specials that allow them to print up circulars for a hundred locations instead of just one. Stuff like that, including the power of store brands. Here in Lansing we have Spartan stores, which is not quite the same thing, but similar. Goodrich’s Shop Rite was not actually a part of ShopRite, but they were a Spartan Store (or at least I think so). There may have been some long-past connection between Goodrich’s and ShopRite, but I have no idea. Maybe there was a schism over some minor point in theology.

So the rite that Goodrich’s shoppers were participating in was related to supporting a locally owned business, one that was especially responsive to some of the unique features of its location. Like for instance the fact that hundreds of foreign students and visiting faculty were living in walking distance. In contrast, the big chains mostly “adapt” to local environments just by dropping things that they would sell to more affluent white people from their shelves. It explains why the Meijer stores on the East Side are both better stocked and less dingy than the one on West Saginaw, for instance. Of course Meijer is at least a Michigan company, so maybe we should be shifting our allegiance in that direction now that Goodrich’s is gone.

This religion stuff is all pretty confusing for a poor philosopher.

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

Goodbye Mr. Chips

July 13, 2014

My apologies to the legions of readers in my national and international audience, but the Thornapple blog is going local this week. We’re waving goodbye to a longstanding food institution in East Lansing: Goodrich’s Shop-Rite. Although Goodrich’s won’t be closing their doors until later this week, there were only three cans of chili left when I was in there last Wednesday. And you know what all us local foodie alternative-agriculture pro-hyphen food-aesthetes always say, “When the canned chili’s gone, what’s the point?”

If you’ve spent any time in East Lansing, you’ll probably be inclined to visit the Goodrich’s website, so I’ll provide a handy link right here. But aside from the weekly ad telling you that groceries are now 50% with beer wine and meats discounted at 10%, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that this store was closing from the website. You’ll probably still be able to Google Goodrich’s a hundred years from now, but I’m telling you truthfully, there ain’t no canned chili left. But with great solumnity I report that my Facebook page has been bombed by “friends” paying tribute to their last visit down on Trowbridge Road, and only a few of them have been insensitive enough to say anything about the lack of chili.

So I’ll take just a paragraph or two to fill the thousands who read this blog to keep tabs on what’s what in mid-Michigan in on some details. The owners of Trowbridge Plaza have decided to do a major remodel and overhaul. Maybe we’ll say more about that in some future Thornapple blog, but for now I’m tempted to go off on a tangent about how anybody could name an establishment “Trowbridge Plaza.” To “trow” is to think or believe, as when people say “A bloody man I trow thou be, for many a heart thou hast made sour.” I say things like that all the time, don’t you? So a trow bridge must be an aid to thinking, a heuristic or mnemonic device. So far so okay, but what does that make a trowbridge plaza? A place where a bunch of old geezers sit around the fountain drinking beer, gleefully trowing and trading acronyms or philosophically obscure aphorisms? Of course, I digress.

Now there have been lots of rumors about why this upgrade meant death for Goodrich’s, but the straight poop is that you really can’t expect to stay closed for six months in the world of independent grocery stores and expect to stay in business. Goodrich’s has many friends, however, and only partly because it has been the go-to place for auto-less MSU students living in the adult housing facilities in Spartan Village and Cherry Lane. I’ve stopped at Goodrich’s about once a week on my way home from work. Especially on Tuesday. It was always vicious on Tuesday because that was Senior Discount day. But I would be in there throwing elbows with the best of the over-60s. Ahh, yes. I wlll miss the blood, the sweat and the physical contact of Senior Discount Day more than anything else.

But seriously now, there are hundreds and probably thousands of folks here in the mid-Michigan area who are now wondering where they are going to find that special item only Goodrich’s carried. The Boar’s Head deli meats score high on the Goodrich’s Yelp page, but if you take a gander there check out Eric P.’s review. There is a man who speaks the truth. For some other people I know, it will be the European chocolate and LU biscuits. Or the wine selection, especially the Grüner Veltliner and the Goats Do Roam that someone would unfailing bring everytime we had a party at Thompson house. I know other places to get bread from the Stone Circle Bakehouse and C.F. Burger dairy products, so I suppose I will survive.

But it won’t be easy. I have no idea where else I can buy Fritos for my canned chili.

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

 

Hokey Smoke, Bullwinkle!

July 6, 2014

Both of my regular readers probably know that our word “wiener” is derived from the German word for a sausage that comes from Vienna, and that a frankfurter is straightforwardly a sausage from Frankfort. We did this once before in the blog, if you missed it. But what about a few more food-related fun facts?

  • Back in the 1850s a particularly ineffectual cook named Mo ran a local café and boarding house in Northern Michigan. Mo had trouble getting his hotcakes out of the pan in a timely manner. The loggers who were his primary clientele were recently arrived from back East, and they had curious way of pronouncing the distinctive trait of Mo’s blackened fare. They complained that the food at Mo’s was always “boyned”. They started referring to Mo’s joint as “boyne city.” And that’s how the town that grew up around it is still known today.
  • The Owston’s palm civet, native to Laos, has learned to feed on coffee beans from plantations that coexist with wildlife preserves in the Cuc Phuong area. Their highly adapted sense of smell has made them picky eaters who choose only beans at the very peak of flavor and aroma. Connoisseurs of fine coffee will pay a fortune for kopi luwak or kopi musang, both made by collecting civet droppings and washing out the remaining beans. Producers in Sumatra have started keeping the civets in battery cages and force-feeding them beans.
  • William Faulker’s script for the 1958 film “Long Hot Summer” originally started out as light comedy about a summertime weenie roast around a bonfire in Southern Mississippi. The action tends more heavily toward slapstick as the characters engage in bouts of raucous drinking and carousing until finally the fire gets out of control, burning down the main character’s barn. Bluesman James Cotton wrote a song named “Hot Dog” for the film, which went, “Just got into town today to find my girl who’s gone away.” Ultimately the bonfire and Cotton’s music were scrapped and the barn-burning became part of the back story for Paul Newman’s romance with co-star Joanne Woodward.
  • And speaking of picnic-related song lyrics, though now a vegetarian, Yusaf Islam once wrote a song about a picnic he went on with Bill and Hilary Clinton when they were all students at Yale University in the 1960s. The original lyrics referred to his own contribution to the picnic. He brought “tea for Hillary’s man” and “steak for their son”. Islam apparently thought that the youngster accompanying them was Bill and Hillary’s child, but it was actually the child of Yale anthropologist Othneil C. Marsh, who Hillary was babysitting. According to later reports, Bill enjoyed the tea, but did not inhale.

And here’s the most shocking thing: Some of this is true!

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