Perdurance

November 13, 2016

I had a great idea for this week’s blog sometime around Wednesday of last week, but then I forgot what it was. I don’t think that this is a sign of senility in my particular case, but it does suggest that I’m wearing out my willingness to dedicate some of my brain cells to cogitating on the Thornapple blog during the time periods that I am supposed to be focusing on my day job. I do, however, keep something of a list of possible topics and these are a few of the things that are on it:

  1. Fake Food. We have a unit at MSU that focuses on counterfeit foods. This may strike you as odd, because if you can eat it, it’s food, right? And how could you fake that? In fact, its food that is intentionally mislabeled, often with a brand name when some huckster has just stuffed substandard ingredients into packaging that looks so much like the real McCoy that you, me and our friend Bob will have trouble detecting it. That’s so obviously an ethical problem that I’m not sure what else I would have to say about it.
  2. Dual Use. This is the totally opaque term that national security geeks use to talk about what the bad guys are able to do with technologies that we typically extoll for their impressive benefits. Weaponization is a multi-syllable approach to the same idea. We might think of it as food bioterrorism. Again, so obviously ethical that what could I possibly add? And it’s just not that funny, either.
  3. Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats, better known as CRSPR. This is the new new thing in biotechnology, and the good news is that makes genetic engineering more precise in terms of where the new gene goes and the potential for screwing up other gene functions. The bad news is that it makes genetic engineering of anything—including food—a lot easier. Maybe so easy some jerk in his garage could do it. I’ve stayed away from this because I bore readers with too much emerging science as it is, but just conjoin this with numbers 1 and 2 above (or think what the supplement industry might do with it), and then it’s ‘nuff said.
  4. Vertical Agriculture. Have I hinted at this? Maybe. As I said at the top of the page, it’s getting harder and harder for me to recall. The idea is to combine business principles developed in the tech industry with the idea of producing food. The vertical part comes from the idea that we do this in skyscrapers instead of farms. I’m ruminating about it quite a bit in my day job, but I’m afraid it’s just not blog ready yet.
  5. The fate of MSU’s student organic farm. Another day job thing, and I try not to import too much of what goes down at the sandbox into the Thornapple outlet. This much loved local institution is under siege yet again. Meanwhile the University of Michigan is putting serious money into starting its own student organic farm. Wasn’t it my hero John Lennon who sang, “You don’t know what ya got (Dum dum dum) until you lose it.”

So it looks like I food ethics is purdurant (e.g. capable of going on forever, for those of you who love philosophical obscurities). Would that we were!

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

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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

Mansplaining Egg Prices

May 8, 2016

Hanging out with Jane Bush the other day, she mentioned the dramatic decline in the wholesale price of eggs. Here, I must note a disconnect because since Diane and I buy all of our eggs directly from Jane, I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the retail price of eggs. As such, I could be accused of mansplaining in today’s blog, but here goes anyway.

You may recall that it was just a little over a year ago that bird flu wiped out a number of flocks in the Midwest. According to a Wall Street Journal report, U.S. egg poultry producers lost 39 million birds in April and May of 2015. The same report notes that egg prices were soaring. As crazy as it might sound to a person with average economic understanding, the same thing explains why egg prices are plummeting today.

Here’s where the mansplaining comes in. With egg prices at record levels in June of 2015, anyone with the basic infrastructure to produce eggs is going to jump in and fill that infrastructure up. In some industries, you can indeed pump up your inventory to take advantage of an increase in the market price of the stuff you’re selling pretty much like you turn up the flow of water from a spigot. If Hot Wheels are selling like hotcakes, you order more. And if there are more orders for Hot Wheels, Mattel puts on another shift at the plant and orders up more supplies to make them. These things don’t happen instantaneously, but they can usually happen pretty quickly. Even more important, though, is the fact that once the fad cools, you turn down these flows just as quickly as you turn them up.

There are some parts of the food industry that are similar. Kellogg’s can crank up the supply of corn flakes because there is generally plenty of corn lying around, and the companies that supply baby chicks to the poultry industry can pump that up pretty fast, too. So last year at about this time, the orders for those baby chicks started to come in. By the time egg prices were peaking in June, there were lots of egg producers and a few wannabe egg producers who were either replacing hens they had lost or (in the case of the Farmers Egg Co-op that Jane is affiliated with) increasing their capacity. But here’s where things start to rub. It takes about six months for a hen to mature enough to start laying any eggs at all, and about nine to twelve months before they are really going to hit their stride. In the case of an egg laying hen, hitting your stride means laying an egg every day.

Economists call this “asset fixity,” and if you’ve ever experienced the constipation associated with a fixed asset, you know how uncomfortable that can be! More mansplaining (which as is typical for mansplaining mainly consists in saying the same thing over and over again): While in many industries you turn your production process off and on like a spigot in response to market prices, increasing your investment when prices are up, decreasing your investment when prices go down, there is a significant amount of irreversibility in the investments that farmers make in response to high prices. It’s going to take months for that crop to come in, and you can’t unplant it. Similarly it’s going to take months for those chicks to become hens laying an egg every day, and once you’ve invested in feeding them for all that time, well what are you going to do? Asset fixity is important in food ethics because it mansplains why farmers are so cantankerous, but that’s probably a topic for another blog, altogether

Amazingly, the robot who monitors my spelling actually thinks that mansplaining is a real word. Now that’s something even I won’t try to mansplain.

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

CSA Philosophy

February 21, 2016

Thornapple CSA is a community supported agriculture group in the Lansing area. They host the website for the Thornapple Blog. It’s not entirely clear whether they are supporting the blog, or whether the blog is supporting the CSA. It’s certainly true that the Blog sits on a website that is maintained by the CSA. All the other pages on the website are dedicated to CSA business. You can find information on the crops being planted, the membership fees and you are supposed to be able to find a form that you can use to apply for membership. There are also some photographs of the farm, or at least there used to be. This is also a place I could point out the we also maintain a Facebook page, where you will probably find more useful and practical stuff than you will turn up here at the website. All that would suggest that the blog is kind of an addendum to the activities of Thornapple CSA.

And it is. The blog was created after the first season in November of 2009. It was originally conceptualized as a weekly delivery that would continue over the winter months in Michigan, when CSA members wouldn’t be getting anything that they could eat. Food for the soul. That kind of thing. The blog was, in that sense, supporting the CSA. Trouble is, the blog just kept going even when the veggies started to roll in during the Spring of 2010. They just couldn’t stop the thing once it got started.

It’s now enrollment season for the 2016 season. It’s an occasion to shout out here in the mid-Michigan area in case anyone is looking to join a CSA, but it’s also an occasion for a brief thought on CSAs for the larger world of readers interested in food ethics. Maybe February is a good time to do this, because I don’t want Thornapple members to think I’m talking directly about them. This week, it’s about the ethics of the CSA idea, in general.

CSAs take many forms, but most of them are operated with a philosophical vision working somewhere in the background. Diane and I first got involved in CSAs when we lived in Indiana, where Jim Rose and Signe Waller were trying to get away from hawking their stuff at the farmers’ market every week by starting two CSAs, one that would deliver in Indianapolis, and another that would deliver in the area where we lived, around Lafayette. Their vision involved making a break from capitalism, though one could question whether farmers’ markets really represent a capitalist model.

What they objected to was wheedling and deedling over prices that they experienced every week. You know how that goes: Shoppers stalking the row of farmer’s lined up with their weekly harvest of squash, beans and kale arrayed before them. Going from one to one, comparing price and quality. Some show up early to get the best rutabagas, others show up late to get discounts on the dregs. The farmers often feel like they are themselves the wares being picked-over by these discriminating shoppers, however friendly and conversational everyone tends to be. It irked Jim and Signe and they idealized the idea of producing for a group of friends—members of their community.

The original CSA idea that came over from Japan held that the members would be subsidizing some of the risk that farmers take when the put a crop in the ground. Some years, the potatoes just don’t make, you know, and other years the mealy bugs eat up all the tomatoes. Members would share that risk with farmers by paying up front and being happy with whatever they happened to get.

This idea is not well maintained in very many American CSAs. Members get huffy when they don’t like the share and tend to drop out. Sometimes they demand their money back. Other times members offer helpful suggestions about how the CSA could do a better job of “marketing” their product. Then they get into a snit when the farmers (who are generally overwhelmed just getting the crop in) don’t pick up on their suggestion. It’s not supposed to be the CSA way, but that kind of consumerism is pretty deeply ingrained in the American mindset.

Here at Thornapple, we’ve got a few special twists to CSA philosophy. One that’s not particularly unique is that we run with the idea that CSAs are supposed to promote edification about our relationship to food and to the broader natural environment. We do that by getting in touch with seasonality and the kinds of stuff you can actually grow in Michigan. We also try to get people out to the farm now and then for workdays and celebrations. The blog plays is small role in that, too. Our other special twist (unusual in our area) is that we are run by members and we hire our own farmer. We’ve learned that this involves a certain amount of risk sharing, too. This year we are feeling more confident because James Benjamin is coming back for another year. But generally speaking making this food thing work for both the farmer and the eaters is a major issue in food ethics. Thornapple CSA is just a microcosm of that problem.

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

 

An Additional Appearance by Our Favorite Satellite

August 2, 2013

We have finally made it to August. In Michigan, that means tomatoes. I realize that some of you may have been enjoying tomatoes for several weeks now, but give me a large break. It’s not only Michigan, where we never get tomatoes much before the last week of July, it’s been kind of a cold and wet summer. It’s still a little too early to tell how all that’s going to affect our tomatoes. Probably not for the better, but I’m still hopeful. We have a few little boys from last week’s CSA share sitting downstairs on the counter right now, trying their hardest to get just a little bit redder. You can hear them working diligently if you are quiet, squirming and a puffing almost inaudibly in that winning way typical of domesticated garden plants.

Diane and I went out to the farm on Friday night for the Thornapple CSA Blue Moon Party. I must say that it was pretty rowdy event, reaching a peak when core group member Ryan Apple (no relation to Appleschram) and Farmer Paul (no relation to Paul Thompson) broke out in a stirring fiddle toon. Or maybe it was a stirring fiddle tune. In any case a wonderful time was had by all and you can gaze at pictures on the Thornapple CSA Facebook page.

There is, in astrological fact, a bit of confusion about the blue moon. I suspect that it is closely tied to the confusion that prevented us from making an appropriately forthright statement about climate ethics a couple of weeks back. Thanks to John Zilmer for straightening that one out for the legions of readers that flock to the blog’s website on a regular basis. Or maybe they flock only once in a blue moon.

The confusion arises in virtue of the fact that a so-called “blue” moon is in fact an intercalary lunar phase—an extra cycle above and beyond the twelve normal (e.g. non-blue) moons that occur during a typical year. Those of us who are deeply schooled in metaphysics know that there is, strictly speaking, never a typical year. There are only years whose atypical nature goes unnoticed by the shuffling hoards. But that’s probably altogether much too depressing for an August blog, so forget that I brought it up. Unfortunately for those who like to keep their peas and their mashed potatoes from touching one another, our calendar (that would be the one by which we reckon that today is, indeed, the 2nd of August, 2015) is solar, rather than lunar. And there are about 12.37 lunations in every solar calendar. Which makes seven blue moons in every Metonic cycle.

I bet five dollars to a donut that you did not expect to encounter the word “lunation” when you opened up the Thornapple blog. This would be a good name for spells experienced by Larry Talbot (as memorably portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr.) whenever the moon was full. Remember, “I saw Lon Chaney walkin’ wi’ da Queen. Dah dah dah. I saw Lon Chaney JUNIOR walkin’ wi’ da Queen. They were doing the werewolves of London,”? Well it’s actually supposed to be the third lunation in a seasonal cycle with four instead of three moons that counts as the blue moon. But that’s just a little too complex for us lameheads to grasp, so we typically just call the second full moon in a month the blue one, which is what we did last Friday night, when the second full moon showed up on July 31st while we were out singing songs and cooking wienies at Appleschram orchard with Ryan Apple and Farmer Paul.

An intercalary chapter is a little extra insertion that does not advance the plot. Not that we would stoop to such nonsense in the Thornapple Blog! John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is loaded with intercalary chapters, providing American high school students of a certain era to become familiar with a crazy word that might show up on a pop quiz. Knowing this, we were not surprised when an intercalary lunation showed up last Friday. We didn’t see any werewolves, though.

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

 

Book Tour

June 14, 2015

I spent most of last week on a mini book tour to promote my new book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. It was fun and pretty well received at all four of the West Coast locations. In Berkeley, CA a skeptical gentleman asked me to talk a bit about the case for eating organic food. My answer omitted something that was extremely important for several other people in the audience: You should look for foods that have not been sprayed with chemicals because of the risk they pose for agricultural workers. Less concerned about their own health and safety, at least two people in a rather small audience took me to task for not making this seemingly obvious ethical point.

I must say that my first reaction was to push back. Agricultural pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or as we farm insiders like to call it FIFRA. (Try saying “fifra” out loud. It’s fun!) It may seem like this list of poisons—to which we could add herbicides—are going to be inherently dangerous. Linguistically they all seem to be in the same family with homicide.

I periodically find myself applying something called Naftin™ to the fungus on my feet, so I guess I should confess that I’m not totally down on fungicides, at least. But maybe that has relatively little to do with food ethics.

The thought that was actually running through my head was an unverified story I heard a few years back: that some larger organic growers were bringing back the short hoe, known among migrant workers as el cortito. Here’s a quote from a PBS webpage for The Fight in the Fields:

In the late 1960s and 1970s, el cortito was the most potent symbol of all that was wrong with farmwork in California: The tool was unnecessary, and farmers in most other states had long switched to longer hoes. Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount, and some farmers would go bankrupt. As he prepared to take on California farmers, Jourdane quizzed many physicians—including Cesar Chavez’s back specialist—who said that without a doubt, the hoe was responsible for the debilitating back pain experienced by many of their farmworker patients.

Let me repeat the word “unverified”. The quote above explains why a grower might want to do this, but I have no hard evidence that it’s being done. Carefully regulated use of the more benign pesticides can save some of the “stoop labor” involved in farming, and I rather think that there are a at least a few cases where concern for the interests of farmworkers would run counter to the intuitions of my critics.

Then I reminded myself that the larger history of pesticide regulation has involved both manufacturers and industrial farmers relying on the difficulty of proving that exposure to agricultural chemicals harms farmworkers to resist “careful regulation.” And I remembered Angus Wright’s classic book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez. Wright recounts an episode of pesticide abuse accompanied by utter disregard for the health and safety of farmworkers. So I decided to bite my tongue and simply agree with the sentiments being expressed by the audience.

I’m glad I did.  The book tour comes to mid-Michigan on June 22. Look for me at Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall around 7:00 pm.

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

High Tunnel Time

March 15, 2015

After a full week of when daytime highs rose well above forty degrees and nighttime lows remained above freezing there is quite a bit of muddy green showing in the Michigan landscape this morning. There is also still a fair amount of snow in my yard. I doubt that the areas along the curb where it was piled high from shoveling will be clear even by tomorrow night, despite the predicted high for 2015 at 66°. Diane was out at Appleschram Orchard yesterday attending to the hoophouse where the early season pickings for Thornapple CSA will very soon be enjoying the convection-warmed air. Maybe I should take a week off from this season’s musings on food and culture to say just a word about the hoophouse.

First a note on terminology. I’m sure all the hipsters among my readers already know it, but we have some great new words to toss around over our pumpkin spice macchiato these days. Like, “Did you see that high tunnel going up on the North Farm above Chatham?” I could spin off a tangent here by explaining how I can be so sure that every enumerable hipster among my devoted audience of readers knows this, but I’ll resist the temptation for epistemological diversions. Both of my regular readers can probably fill in these details for themselves.

A “high tunnel” is a kind of hoophouse. A hoophouse is a kind of greenhouse, specifically one constructed by placing a row of metal hoops in the ground and then covering them with plastic. Generally speaking, a high tunnel is a hoophouse that is tall enough to stand up and work in. Low tunnels—hipsters may know them as “quick hoops”—are placed over plants to produce a little early season warming and to keep the frost off. They get taken off when the danger of freezing temperature is safely past. High tunnels are more permanent fixtures, though there are some very fancy ones mounted on wheels that can be rolled back to give the plants inside the full benefit of summer sunshine. You can also peel the plastic back off of a regular high tunnel, but that’s a lot of trouble. It’s not something you are likely to see at Thornapple CSA’s farm.

Hoophouses have revolutionized the production of vegetables for local markets, especially in Northern climes. By this time of year the late winter sun comes through and warms the air inside, creating an internal convection inside the tunnel that can add 15-20° to the outside temperature. This is not a big deal on days when it does reach 66°, but that doesn’t happen every day of the week in March (or April, for that matter). Nor does it happen every day in October and November. The extra warming is big on days when it fails to crack 40°, and huge when that late March snow comes in and it’s 22° at 9:00 in the morning. And, obviously, the physical barrier of the plastic is important for just keeping the snow off of the tender plants during their early season moments of vulnerability—something working for low tunnels, too. It’s less clear that you get a lot of protection from insects and plant diseases, but there is a shield that works as a first line of defense.

The hoophouse is one of the reasons why it is just fallacious to suggest that organic and local production is a nostalgic return to the farm production of yesteryear. Next time you are down at the coffee bar, try using the term “high tunnel” very casually in a conversation. If you are very ambitious, you can explain the bit about fallacious inferences too. Just remember that ‘fallacious’ rhymes with salacious, and be prepared for someone to take it the wrong way.

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

Plastic Houses

November 23, 2014

There’s an old saying to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Good advice for bloggers, I think. If you are “out there” and visible, you should think twice about digging in to someone for something that you could be dug into yourself. There’s also a variation on the adage that has something to do with grass houses and ends with the admonition “…shouldn’t stow thrones.” Figuring out what that has to do with a food ethics blog would be a fine tangent for this week, don’t you think?

But as has become my custom of late, I resist the temptation to make sense of that to get right along with the main theme for the week, which has nothing to do with bloggers who expose their own vulnerabilities (not that I would ever do that) or glass houses, for that matter (though here we are getting nearer to the point). The point such as it is being not glass but plastic houses.

Thanks to my friend John Biernbaum plastic houses are all the rage among sustainable agriculture types here in Michigan. Of course no self-respecting hippie farmer would refer to them as plastic houses. They’re high tunnels or low tunnels (depending on whether they are high or low) or maybe it’s the hippie farmer who’s high or low. They’re also hoop houses. This would not need explanation if you have actually seen one of these babies. A bunch of my students and I went up to the UP earlier this summer to help John build a particularly big one, and I was caught on film (well maybe it was pixels) with a sledgehammer in my hand putting up the support for one of those hoops. I wish I could put that photo in my annual report.

So even though us calloused hands, sledge-hammer swinging, hard-working, dirt on the face sustainable farmer types wouldn’t literally live in one of these plastic houses, the whole routine about not throwing stones would still be highly relevant. Holes are a bad thing. They kind of screw up the whole convection heating phenomenon that allows Michigan farmers to grow spinach or broccoli well into this time of the year. Maybe not this year, because it has been so damn cold, but you know what I mean.

But stones thrown, thrones stowed or what have you, a hoop house is going to occasionally need some first-order maintenance. Which basically means another plastic sheet big enough to cover the whole damn thing. Not cheap, mind you, but also something that requires a whole raft of people just to maneuver around and actually get on top of the skeleton so that it can be fastened down to keep the little budlings toasty when it’s freezing outside. And that whole raft of people thing brings me to my true and honest reason for posting a Thornapple blog (aside from the fact that it’s Sunday). Which is that it’s time for the hoophouse out at Appleschram farm where we grow veggies for the Thornapple CSA to get a new sheet of plastic.

The big event is scheduled on Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, assuming the wind is not blowing too hard. Cold will not deter us, but wind well might. If you’ve longed to be part of barn-raising on the day before Thanksgiving, this may be as close as you’re going to get this year. Call Diane (you know the number) if you have any questions, and bring your own sledgehammer if you are in it for the photo op.

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

 

Summer Cyborg Mailbag

August 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)     Great wealth accumulation by the Meier family

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

3)      Family and executive donations exclusively to Republican candidates

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

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

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

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

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

 

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