Eat ’em from the Can

July 17, 2016

What we eat reflects an ethic: a sense of what is right and proper. If beans are not for breakfast—a theme we explored last week—that’s because we (whoever “we” we happen to be at the moment) have adopted some culturally based presumptions about what to eat and when. For a lot of middle-class Americans, breakfast is a time for bowls of hot or cold cereal, a bagel or pastry, or possibly a hot breakfast with eggs at the center somewhere. The particular hold that this norm has on Americans is fading rapidly. There are plenty of under 40s who think nothing of chugging down some cola first thing in the morning, and that’s something that would have been unthinkable to the point of sacrilege for any of my immediate ancestors.

With only a little bit of prodding I could come up with a respectable philosophical defense of my grandparents’ culturally based disapproval of soft drinks. Empty calories dosed with caffeine give a quick buzz but drop you flat by mid-morning. And then there’s the long term connections with obesity and neurological triggers for sweet tastes. Beans would be another matter. Nothing wrong here, even if they are an incomplete protein in and of themselves. In combination with a little wheat or rice, they make a nutritionally sound choice for starting the day. But I grew up with the firm understanding that beans are not a breakfast food.

So when Johnny Cash sings, “Beans for breakfast once again. Hard to eat ‘em from the can. Wish you’d come back and wash the dishes. I’m a hungry nasty lonesome man,” he’s evoking a ton of cultural stereotypes. Not that he’s expressing approval, mind you. Like a lot of country music, Cash’s poetry trades heavily on the archetype of the “no good man”, insensitive to love and abusive to the woman who offers it. In this case, the love that is casually discarded (later to be rued over) takes the form of that prototypical hot breakfast we were talking about earlier. It’s hard to picture Cash’s love interest in this song pouring Frosted Flakes™ into a bowl and then slamming a carton of milk down in front the sulking, drugged-out hungover he-male that is narrating this particular slice of mid-70s American life.

At the risk of boring everyone, it’s probably worth it to linger awhile over just a few of the gender issues raised by Beans for Breakfast. If we are not supposed to be eating beans for breakfast, if we are, as Cash’s narrator is, brought momentarily (and even then only partially) to an awareness of the despicable state to which we have fallen by this indignity, then just as surely the absent referent (e.g. the women, who in previous verse we have learned has boarded a flight to somewhere else) is supposed to be frying up some eggs, brewing up some coffee and placing them subserviently in front of the man that she is, to quote yet another country classic of the era, “standing by.” You have to infer all of this for the song to work for you.

Maybe this is why Cash is not appreciated by a new generation listening to Kellie Pickler or Carrie Underwood through headphones as they drink Pepsi™ or Red Bull™ on their way to work in the morning. Maybe that’s progress, but can you forgive me for not being too sure about that? It’s not that I want to put women back behind the frying pan, nor is it any lingering prejudice against beans, for that matter. I’m as down with a bean and cheese taco for breakfast as the next gringo. It would probably be safest for me to advert to that nutritional line we tendered briefly above. But the actual fact is that I’m having trouble seeing any cultural resonance in swigging soft drinks for your wake-up meal, and that strikes me as a loss.

Maybe the problem wasn’t the beans, after all. Maybe it was the can.

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





Beans for Breakfast

July 10, 2016

After racking my brain for several hours trying to think of something funny having to do with cucumber beetles, I finally gave up. Bing tells me that there are two kinds of cucumber beetle, one with stripes and one with polka dots. There is apparently nothing funny about either of them because once they have gotten established, you might as just forget about all that bok choy you were hoping to stir fry up with some tofu about this time of the year. The robot on my computer does not think that bok choy is a word, which goes to show how “smart” robots can be of a time. Bing is telling me that picking off the cucumber beetles by hand and throwing them into soapy water is an effective way to control them, but I think that this advice is pretty much in the same category as thinking that bok choy is not a word. So much for the robots this week.

Since there isn’t anything funny about cucumber beetles, let’s change the subject. Let’s ask Bing about having beans for breakfast. I should start out by saying that this query does not please Bing. Bing offers some helpful suggestions:  “Beans for chili?” “Beans for diabetics?” “Beans for protein?” Then Bing goes back to the diabetes thing again, just in case you overlooked it the first time before deciding that you are just off your rocker and trying “Bean Ford West Chester” I didn’t click on that one. Even the best crazy tangent has to stop somewhere.

However, if you persist, you will discover that “Beans for Breakfast” is, in fact, a food song by Johnny Cash. We should be setting this blog aside for the next food songs month, I suppose, but I’m too deep into it to give up now. The general thrust of it is that a no-good man who won’t listen to his wife winds up eating beans for breakfast. This suggests that beans are not an appropriate breakfast food.

Bingo, Bing! It looks like we hit a food ethics vein that we can mine for a least another couple of paragraphs!

So why, you are asking I’m sure, did you and Bing get off on this peculiarly off beat tangent this Sunday? Well I’m sure it has something to do with cucumber beetles, but more to the point it was because I had beans for breakfast this morning, along with a fried egg, toast, some broiled tomatoes & mushrooms, a sausage, some streaky bacon and a black pudding. An English breakfast, you say. Actually it was Scottish, but their other differences notwithstanding, the English, the Scotts and the Irish have some similar breakfast habits, and they all include Heinz baked beanz. You might also be eating beans for breakfast at some taqueria down in Texas, but they wouldn’t be beanz and you probably would not have any black pudding with them.

So if there’s supposed to be some wrap up here, I’ve got nothing. Maybe it was flying all night and eating breakfast in Edinburgh. But I’d prefer to blame the cucumber beetles. It just goes to show that neither Bing nor Johnny Cash are particularly global when it comes time for breakfast food.

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

Just Desserts

July 3, 2016

I was down in Atlanta last week and had a couple of dinners-out with some friends & fellow workers. The names of the restaurants have been expunged to protect the innocent (not that there are any innocent victims in this story).

We started out a pretty good place, a bit high-toned and treadling the foodie vibe. All the signs encouraged us to expect that the chef (or kitchen, as the case might be) was taking their mission seriously. The fried chicken wasn’t Deacon Burton’s, but I would go back. I was sitting next to an acquaintance named José and we found ourselves ordering the same thing, happy as clams until we got to the mango sorbet on the dessert menu. I’m noticing that this sorbet has more of a reddish hue than I expect from mangos but I’m not deterred. A bite or two into it, I’m definitely experiencing that uncanny strangeness of being that comes over you when you are just realizing that some of your expectations are being subverted.

Then José says “This isn’t mango!”

He’s right, I’m thinking. Then I speak up: “And it isn’t sorbet.”

For some reason that probably had something to do with the wine and will not translate well into written form, this causes an outbreak of hilarity around the table. What we have before us is a rather ordinary orange sherbet. José points the ontological faux pas out to our waitperson and asks if he can get a scoop of vanilla to make it into “creamsicle”. She brings him the vanilla but whisks away the orange sherbet, at which point he’s through voicing complaints and just settles in to the ice cream. Me, I’m eating the orange sherbet.

We are out the next night at a place that is cultivating a more aggressive upscale ambiance. I mean, there may not be any restaurants in Atlanta that you can’t go into in shorts these days, so it’s not like we are wearing white tie and tails. Both of these places were white tablecloth joints (if white tablecloth and joint can be conjoined), but this one was deliberately abjuring any down home feel. (Don’t you love it when I throw a verb like “abjure” into the blog without any warning?) But the food was barely edible. Still and all, we stuck around for dessert, mainly for the camaraderie, I think, or possibly because we were not responsible for our own check.

We ripped that dessert menu apart like red Rizla to raas. Don’t ask me what that means, just roll with it. Everyone was asking for some special twist. The woman across the table from me had been asking for me to explain all the Italian dishes listed on the menu to her all night because she wants non-dairy and gluten-free. Nothing on the desert menu fits, but one item combines watermelon sorbet with a pastry. “Can I just get the watermelon sorbet?” she asks, and our waitperson replies, “Of course!”

So you’re thinking, “It’s neither watermelon nor sorbet,” and when it appears my companion asks me to taste it. I do and in fact it is watermelon sorbet, and probably the best dish that has been set on the table all evening. Except that the waitperson has referred to it as gelato, and when my companion asks a second time she (the waitperson) says “I served it out of a box that says gelato.” Well, it’s probably watermelon sorbet from the Atlanta Gelato Co., or something but my companion is taking no chances. The watermelon gets sent back on the off chance that it has some dairy in it. In the meantime, I’ve been served some panna cotta that tastes like Jello chocolate pudding with some crumbled up granola bars and Cool-Whip on top. Not that I am deeply opposed to Jello chocolate pudding but as we say in the South, my mouth was set for panna cotta.

Actually we wouldn’t say that. We might say that our mouth was set for sweet tea or fried okra, but not panna cotta. But you know what I mean. I would have liked to have had the watermelon sorbet that was undoubtedly thrown in the trash. (Speaking of food waste).

So you may be thinking to yourself now, “I get the food thing, but where’s the ethics.” Well, I could change the overall tone of this week’s blog by going off on the ethical responsibilities of restauranteurs, not to mention waitstaff who really should know the difference between gelato, sorbet and sherbet. And why that’s ethical in a world of touchy stomachs and food allergies. But that would not be mango.

Nor would it be sorbet.

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

One Last One on Food Waste

June 26, 2016

I have to bring this series of diatribes about food waste to a close, but there was one more thing that I wanted to write about when I started this thread six weeks ago. I’m reminded of a fascinating talk I heard from the former Vice President for Sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. It was a good talk with lots of good ideas. So I’ll warn both my regular readers right at the get-go that even though my memory of this talk is going to wind up being a dig on the Walmart Way of Waste (or the WWW, as us food waste insiders refer to it), I don’t really mean to be digging on this guy, or even Walmart. I’m sure that if one of my irregular readers happens on this week’s blog, I’ll get some sort of e-mail pointing out all this giant corporations’ flaws and warts, now that I’ve said something implying that they might not have been the supernatural entity that the Louvin Brothers were referring to back in 1959 when they wrote about the testimony of a poor fellow who had been “a leader in my community,” before this entity “came into my life.” And then…

I grew selfish and un-neighborly My friends turned against me And finally, my home was broken apart My children took their paths into a world of sin

No, that wasn’t Walmart, even if giant food companies like Walmart are responsible for similar events in the lives of some people today. Heck, Wal-Mart Stores wasn’t even around in 1959, so let’s just forget this little tangent because what I sat down to write about this Sunday was that little lesson in the WWW that I was talking about two or three sentences ago.

What this guy was proud of was the way that when Wal-Mart Stores started thinking about sustainability, they started looking at stuff like recycling the cardboard in their boxes and reducing the amount of energy they used to run their stores. They didn’t stop doing anything that was contributing to their business, but they figured out how to cut down on waste. Except I’m thinking to myself that in the food part of their business this probably means they are figuring out how to avoid having inventory they aren’t going to be able to sell, as well as maybe figuring out how some of the non-salable stuff can go to food pantries or soup kitchens and the like. And if they’re avoiding having food stuffs they won’t be able to sell, it means that they aren’t buying stuff that’s going to get wasted when it passes the sell by date. And if they aren’t buying that stuff, it means that somewhere along the food chain, there’s a farmer who isn’t selling it.

And all my prior testimony to the importance of reducing the environmental impact of food production to naught, this is a kind of waste reduction that I really have trouble getting behind. At the end of the day, I’m pretty seriously pro-farmer and I’m troubled by ethically motivated transformations of the food system that make it even harder for farmers to make a living.

Now as I said above, don’t hold this against Walmart stores. I think the WWW is fairly pervasive as a strategy for dealing with waste in the food system. It’s certainly not something that’s unique to this particular giant food corporation. Still and all it makes me think. Maybe, just maybe….Satan is real!

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

More Waste

June 19, 2016

We’ve been on a run of blogs focused on food waste. The topic can’t help but bring up memories of my Nana, an obsessively frugal woman whose closets always contained at least fifty rolls of toilet paper purchased with triple coupon savings at her neighborhood Publix supermarket. Although she never did, I imagine my Nana saying things like this: “When I go to restaurant, I hate to waste the water that they’ve insisted on bringing me, despite the fact that I’ve ordered something else to drink, too. So I ask for a to-go cup so that I don’t have to waste that water. I’ll take it with me. Except that they invariably insist on bringing me another cup of water in a brand new to-go cup. So I have to tell them, ‘No, I wanted that water. Now I have even more water to carry around with me until I get thirsty so I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting stuff.”

Then I’m imagining a plumber telling my Nana, that she needs to spend about four thousand dollars on the pipes in her kitchen because she has been so frugal in saving every last of water that might have gone swirling down the drain that her pipes have gotten clogged up with some kind of sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union. In actual real life fact my Nana did have to have a functionally new dishwasher replaced after a decade of non-use (so she could save on both electricity and water) because the rubberized seals had dried out from lack of use. So in my imagination her economy with water has not actually been an economy in the larger sense, and even if she hasn’t been wasting her water all these years, the plumber is telling her that she is now actually going to waste some money (not to mention time and presence of mind) paying to have the sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union removed from the infrastructure of her otherwise efficient modern ranch home.

Which brings us back to the ontological point at issue: what makes something waste, in the first place? I think that both my Nana (notice how she’s replaced the pointy headed intellectuals in my earlier blogs?) and the plumber agree that waste is expending something that did not need to be expended. The difference seems to be that my Nana is placing her chips on a precious natural resource while the plumber has a laser-beam focus on dollars and sense. Err, cents, I mean. (Freudian slip, there, n’est pas?) Not that he minds the fact that my Nana is spending $4000 on a plumbing repair, mind you, but he does consider this to be a wasteful expenditure in some yet to be identified sense. What is that sense? That’s question that should be bothering us, not to mention the question of whether there is any hope that the plumber and my grandmother could ever come to an agreement on the issue.

And maybe they just can’t and maybe there is some deep truth about waste to be revealed in that circumstance. I’m resisting the thought that waste is all in the eye of the beholder. After all my Nana, the plumber and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already circled the wagons around this theme of food waste, so doesn’t there have to be something more to it than the difference between strawberry and vanilla? I think there is. Nevertheless I am coming around to the idea that there might be some deep moral commitments—like the commitment to nature vs. the commitment to money—that are going to reverberate through anyone’s decision making about whether a given thing you’re doing at any random moment is frugal, wasteful for none-of-the-above. I think that coming to any kind of community based action plan on limiting food waste is going to require us to sit down together and hash some of that out.

Don’t you?

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

Waste (at last)

June 12, 2016

So finally after last week’s silliness and the week before that’s semi-seriousness I want to circle back to the week before that’s deadpan no-foolin’ serious talk about the moral dimensions of food waste. I’ll start by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the sarcasm or by the flippancy implied by the way I’m sidling up to what many people would take to be a deadly serious topic. Except by ‘apologizing’ I mean what Socrates meant right before drinking the hemlock; to wit, defending myself, (as opposed to what Paul McCartney meant when noting that the kettle’s on the boil and we’re easily called away just before launching into that ditty about Admiral Halsey, a cup o’ tea and a butter pie).

Which is, in effect to prod a little harder on the deadly seriousness of food waste. And speaking of butter, we’ve blogged about leftovers at least once before and even then we were poking just a little bit of fun. Yet there is a strand running through food culture that sees any waste of food as a huge sin. People who have lived through hard times come by this very honestly, and I don’t mean to poke fun at them. There are precious few Americans around these days who endured food shrortages during the Great Depression, but there are plenty of Chinese who lived through the Great Famine years in the late 50s and early 60s. The tragedy in both cases was that there was food to go around, but a breakdown in the economic system that kept hungry people from getting it. So there’s this one kind of running-short-of-food-that-leads-you-to-conserve-every-scrap-of-butter-because-who-knows-when-you-might-need-it-and-even-if-you-don’t-someone-round-the-corner-does kind of worry about food waste, and then there’s a somewhat different kind of damn-I’m-hungry-why-can’t-I-have-some concern that is actually a little bit misplaced when it is understood as a problem of waste.

Now remember that we’ve already allowed as how throwing away food that you could have meaningfully used to feed a genuinely hungry person is a moral shame. Shame on the communes in China who threw food into garbage cans when others were so hungry they were boiling tree bark and digging up fresh corpses. But not, I dare say, on the farmers who plowed unsaleable crops into the ground while others stood in breadlines during the Great Depression. Somebody needed to buy those crops to feed hungry people, else the farmers themselves were going to be the ones taking the biggest hit. The shame here in the USA was on people who refused to support programs to give hungry people the money they needed to buy those crops themselves. By plowing them back, the farmers were at least saving on next year’s fertilizer. Which is to say that they were not literally wasting them in a morally pernicious way.

But to push my larger point, while there are moral shames in both counts, it’s potentially misleading to characterize the failure as a problem of some person or group wasting food. Nevertheless, talk about food waste seems to be a very natural way to encourage people to do something about a situation where people are going hungry. So here’s my dilemma. I don’t really want to criticize the recent push among news media (and the USDA) to bring this huge problem of food waste to everyone’s attention. Using the word ‘waste’ here does engage our moral sensibilities in a way that might get us around to doing something about food security. I don’t want to short-circuit that.

Yet you might be mistaken if you thought that the solution to this problem was to give hungry people some of the food you were about to “waste”. They don’t really need the food that you were literally about to throw in the garbage (there are some exceptions to this, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come). And if you’ve got cans on the shelf or something in the freezer that you decide to give away, well it’s not at all clear that you were going to waste it. In most instances, you’ll just go right out and buy some new food for the shelf…and then you’ll waste that food instead of the food you gave away. So I think that we’re really just talking about a charitable gift on your part  when you contribute to a food drive, rather than something like “not letting it go to waste.” All well and good. I don’t want to dissuade you from charity, even if this is not really doing anything to address the larger problems of food waste.

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

Kale Field

June 5, 2016

Well I promise to get back to the serious talk about food waste sometime, really, I do. John Zilmer’s comment to the first blog on food waste has already made a few points I thought that I might get around to sooner or later, so if you are itching for something more pensive I’d recommend reading that. As for me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in South Georgia where the temperatures have gradually climbed into the upper nineties. I’m just not in a pensive mood as I sit down to write this.

And speaking of South Georgia, I am very happy to report making the acquaintance of Philip Lumpkin who endorsed my own view of one of the great food waste phenomena of the 21st century. To wit: kale. We were sitting around chatting with Philip about all manner of food related things, explaining to him how the Thornapple CSA worked up in Michigan and enjoying some very, very fine peaches that had been dropped off by one of his friends, reputedly the largest peach grower in Georgia. The peaches, by the way, were sensational despite being a tad early in the season for peaches. We had bought some rather puny samples from some guy in a truck parked under a shade tree outside the K-Mart store in Tifton, but even after four or five days of seasoning they had not ripened to the point of edibility. I doubt they ever will. Just picked too early for hawking to the gullible Yankee tourists who had stopped at K-Mart on their cruise up and down I-75.

Not that we had been cruising up and down I-75 our own selves. As I said already, we’ve been here for a couple of weeks (well actually it’s just ten or eleven days if you want to get technical—we were in Alabama for three days before we got to Georgia). Aside from the peaches we got from that guy in front of K-Mart, it’s been good eatin’. Not only were there some fine peaches at Philip’s, there was good Carolina melon, fresh sweet corn and zucchini picked the same day from Chris Ponder’s fields, and a couple of stops at Fat Boy’s Homemade Barbecue in Sylvester. The pulled pork is just the way we expect it here in South Georgia and it comes with a tub of that yellowish (not yellow, just yellowish) sauce that they only seem to do in these parts of the country. It’s especially good slathered with coleslaw. And not only is the barbecue pretty damn good, you have the extra pleasure of getting it from a place named “Fat Boy’s”.

So there may be one or two readers of the Blog (I know. I should just stop there and put a period after that phrase.) who don’t appreciate the virtues of fried okra and other types of Southern cooking. If so, you may not catch the humor of Philip speculating that Chris had left a box of zucchini as some kind of cruel joke, because you would not know that Southern folk do not eat zucchini. “Those little yellow crooked-neck squash—we love ‘em. And we’ll eat that other kind of straight-necked yellow squash, but zucchini? We’ll grow it,” says Phillip, “and we’ll ship it up North, but we don’t have to eat it.”

Now truth to tell, I’m not really down with Philip on zucchini. We had two meals last week where zucchini featured heavily in the main dish. One was a casserole which I will not attempt to explain except to say that it also included potatoes. The other was a stir fry I cooked up myself with some Vidalia onions and the peppers and tomatoes that Chris brought by. The only things we needed to get down at the Piggly Wiggly were garlic and soy sauce. We did buy some peanut oil, but heck, we probably grew those peanuts right here on the farm! It is a sign of modernity that you can get soy sauce at the Piggly Wiggly in Sylvester, but you can.

However derisive Philip was of zucchini, it was nothing compared to the hilarity with which he regards the thought of eating kale. Here, I’m as Southern as the next fellow. Now as my Thornapple friends know, we get plenty of kale in our boxes, and most people seem to like it. It’s the signature food of the hipster generation, I’m told. But though we’ll eat collard greens or turnip greens or mustard greens, you are just not going to get Southern folk to eat kale. Or so Philip says. And I agree: a prime example of food waste if I ever saw one!

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

Food Waist

May 29, 2016

So picking up right where we left off last week, I’m going to loop back to the week before last when we were wringing our hands about our own pointy headedness at the 4th Annual Food Justice Workshop. Galen Martin was one of the pointy-headed academics who showed up all the way from Eugene, Oregon to regale us about food waste and food justice. I hope Galen will forgive me for calling him a pointy-headed intellectual here in THE BLOG. He’s on the faculty in environmental studies at the University of Oregon which according to the rigorous technical standards applied here on the Thornapple CSA website automatically qualifies him as a pointy-headed intellectual. If you are a sophisticated practitioner of de-colonizing rhetorics (and I’m sure you are) you have already decoded the irony and sarcasm and seen that this is in no way intended to be a slight to Galen on a personal (which is to say sure-enough human-to-human) level. The chance that he will ever see this infinitesimally small, but every now and then someone that I have made highly ironized and triply rebounded significations around does in fact get on the website and take things the wrong way. It’s all part of my contractual obligation to make fun of myself by parodying the non-parody-able.

Take that, Frederic Jameson!

So now on to some stuff that people who actually eat vegetables can make some sense of. Galen introduced his talk on food waste and food justice by pointing out to us that the Pepsi he was drinking was actually a good example of food waste, even though he was planning to drink all of it. He did in fact drink most of it while he was standing there, so if you think that food has to go unconsumed in order to be wasted, you would be puzzled by his introductory comments. Well, not being so inclined to bury his points in indecipherable sarcasm as we are here in the Thornapple Blog, Galen explained what he meant. He meant that he did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi. The energy he was going to get from high-fructose corn sweetener in his Pepsi was a form of wasted calories. The Pepsi was, to engage in some punning that explains the title of this week’s blog in an uncharacteristic moment of direct explanation, an instance of waisted calories.

Being a professor of environmental studies, Galen went on to make the general environmental ethics point that we mentioned last week: Isn’t it a shame that we had to grow the corn that this high-fructose corn sweetener came from, in the first place? His answer: Yes, it is a shame because, as we have (I think) already established he as a food secure citizen in an industrialized society did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi to maintain his basic bodily metabolism. There were already plenty of calories (we can surmise) in whatever it was he had for lunch that day, which was probably some delicious vegan food from Altus. I realize that this won’t mean much for the readers outside the East Lansing area, but being the sophisticated practitioners of de-colonizing rhetorics that you are you can probably Google it if you haven’t already figured out that it’s a local Ethiopian restaurant. I surmise that Galen had eaten something from Altus because that was what we had catered for the workshop, but here I have to admit that I might be wrong.

So I guess Galen made his way down to the vending machines after eating to buy a Pepsi. Maybe like me what he was craving some caffeine, though what I wanted was a cup of coffee. It’s something that can’t be had in that vicinity of the MSU campus on a Saturday in May. I’m not sure that there is a waste in my own inability to satisfy my post-lunch cravings with a cup of joe, much less something going to waist. But I did rather like the way that he pointed out to us how probing more deeply into the very idea “food waste” can lead us to some surprising ethical conclusions. So I decided to encode his subtle but still well-formulated point into a sarcastic parody of pointy-headed intellectualism for consumption here in the Thornapple blog.

No need to thank me for it.

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

What a Waste!

Here we are as usual, a day late and a dollar short on the latest hip fad in food ethics. That, of course, would be food waste. We are so dang slow on this one that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has beaten us to it, having announced a major initiative on curbing food waste way back in the fall of 2015. We (and by “we” I mean folks in general) are launched on a headlong assault on one of our big numbers: the amount of food that goes uneaten.

I actually have quite a bit to say about this, and it’s going to take me more than one blog to do it. I might as well start by admitting that I’m being just a little bit disingenuous there in the first paragraph, because we have in fact visited this question once or twice in the last half century that we have been reading and writing the Thornapple Blog. It is not as if the whole phenomenon of waste has escaped my attention altogether. As a matter of larger metaphysical facticity, I included a little discussion of waste in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. Of course the point there was to notice that while you, me and our friend Bob might think of waste as food spiraling down the garbage disposal, from the typical farmers’ point of view waste is a plot of land that doesn’t have a crop on it. Which just goes to show how the very idea of waste has quite a few norms and judgments already bound up in it. It’s an inevitable topic for food ethics.

But for today I think I’m just going to certify the common sense perspective that has led lots of God fearing Christians (not to mention the USDA) into paroxysms over wasted food. This starts with the obvious thing: It is a crying shame when someone goes hungry while someone else is swilling perfectly good food down the garbage disposal. I’m not sure I want to go from this observation to judging the ethics of the person swilling food down the garbage disposal, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The common sense perspective is indeed a perceptive and perfectly valid ethical starting point. It identifies a problem and it points to the sense in which this is an ethical problem, one that calls for all of us to make a reflective and responsible response that addresses the mismatch between food insecurity, on the one hand, and edible food swilling down the garbage disposal, on the other.

Of course from this common sense perspective, there would not necessarily be an ethical problem with that spiral of edible food disappearing down the garbage disposal if it were not for the fact that some hungry person would have liked to have eaten it. So there is one more obvious point to certify before heading off into the ozone of metaphysical facticity, and that point would lie in the domain of environmental ethics. Producing food (e.g. farming) can be hard on the environment. A pointy-headed intellectual would say that food production has inevitable environmental costs, and this is, indeed, probably a slightly better (if also wordy) way to put the point. So if even if we managed to solve the hungry people part of wasted food, it would still be a crying shame to have produced some stuff that we didn’t really need in the first place. We might have saved the farmland that was used to grow the food spiraling down the disposal for some endangered butterfly, and if not that, we might have at least let the voles and mice whose bungalows were turned up by the plow sleep in a little bit longer.

These points are correct. They provide a starting point for recognizing that waste is an ethical problem. From this starting point, it’s possible to start making mistakes, and I’m going to examine a few of them from time to time over the coming months. I’ll be linking back to this cornerstone blog when I do so.

As the real-estate developers out there say, “Watch this space!”

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


May 15, 2015

The 4th Food Justice Workshop was held at MSU yesterday. There was some hand-wringing about “who is at the table.” Mostly academics was the answer, though a few people active in various community organizations dropped by for short stints. By the time we got around to the serious hand-wringing they had all gone home, as had all but one of the non-White participants. I’m sure that the “drop-in” visitors to the Thornapple Blog (as distinct from my regular readers) must have some sympathy with the thought that there can’t be anything more useless than a bunch of pontificating academic types sitting around in conference rooms talking about food justice.

Some of the hand-wringing comes out of the thought that the young scholars who were there (mostly graduate students) want to “make a difference” and they are aware that most people who are active in trying to change food systems for the better are totally bored by what they are writing in their dissertations. The activists already know what food justice is and they are only interested in very practical discussions that help them do it. And even that is a bit of an overstatement, because even practical discussion is a lot less useful to them than greater resources of money and time. So why waste money (albeit the registration was only $25 and you got three great vegan meals + coffee for that) and especially time sitting there listening to a bunch of 30-somethings gas about food justice? And for the most part, young scholars agree with this assessment. They are keenly aware that it would be presumptuous of them to expect food activists to find participating in their rarified conversations about the male-privilege embedded in our cultural construction of what it means to be a farmer interesting.

As ripe for sarcasm and parody as that scenario is, I’m going to take a serious turn this week. I’m going to say that we academics need this kind of space and that the food system activists out there need be patient with us. First off, I need to point out that the Food Justice Workshop is, in fact, a pretty unusual thing. Most of the people who attend represent fields of study (philosophy is the big one) where food is not a standard topic. It’s a good sign that young academics are taking up the study of food justice. They will think about it, talk about it amongst themselves, write books and articles about it, and most importantly teach about it in courses that will be taken by hundreds and possibly thousands of students who are disaffected from politics and unconnected to the food they are wolfing down between classes. Just getting food justice outside the narrow coursework in food and agricultural science or rural sociology will be a big thing. Take my word for it.

I was ranting against “stink of the lamp” food ethics in this space just a couple of weeks back, so don’t take me wrong. It’s too easy for a bunch of philosophers to get totally sidetracked. Yet I do think that maybe, just maybe, some small percentage of this highly rarified and over-theorized talk actually will come back and make a difference. It probably won’t happen because some food activist showed up “at the table” and decided to take a pearl of wisdom back to the streets, however. Change in ideas occurs through a process of diffusion that’s a bit like those homeopathic treatments they use in biodynamic farming. Too small and indirect to make a difference according to the basic principles of physics and chemistry, somehow it works anyway.

So give us a break and the space to sit around at these annual workshops. We’d love to have you drop by next year, and be assured that you’ll be taken seriously if you do. Don’t expect to come out with a recipe for food justice, because you can teach us more than we can teach you. But one more thing: what you can teach us IS NOT that we are a bunch of pompous gasbags sitting around talking nonsense that means nothing on the street.

We already know that.

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