Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Healthy. Sustainable. Affordable. FAIR. (Part I)

I may have mentioned this already, but in case you missed it, October 24th marks the third annual Food Day, organized nationally by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The four-word tagline for Food Day is "Healthy. Sustainable. Affordable. Fair." It will be on our local Food Day posters this year, and I wanted to write a little bit about what each of those words mean in terms of our food system.

(As it happens, this tagline has some of the same themes as the official Mission of the Community Food Council for DNATL: "The Community Food Council for Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands will build a vibrant, sustainable local food system through opportunity, education, innovation, advocacy, and promotion.")

This blog post will look at what it means for a food system to be FAIR.

A lot of people might automatically think of the Fair Trade labels that show up on coffee, chocolate, and other imported products. Fair Trade USA describes Fair Trade this way: "Fair Trade goods are just that. Fair. From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated."

There are a lot of debates right now about what constitutes "just compensation". Minimum wage laws in many states, including California, are raising the minimum wage significantly above the federal minimum wage, and the Obama administration is asking Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00/hour. One of the arguments for this is that a person working full-time at the current federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour) would still fall below the federal poverty line for a two or three person household. So all those working single parents? If they make the minimum, their family lives in poverty.

But in many parts of our food system, the situation is much worse. Federal minimum wage for farm workers can fall below even the federal minimum wage if they are paid by the "piece". Piece work means that pickers are paid for every crate or box of produce picked. For example, the going rate for orange pickers in Florida is 85 cents per 90 pound box. An average harvest rate for a worker is 64 boxes in an 8-hour shift, equivalent to 5,760 pounds of oranges, and yet the hourly rate works out to just $6.80/hour.

Picking almost 6,000 pounds of fruit in 8 hours is back-breaking work, and fruit picking is not as "unskilled" as many people believe. I've picked both apples and persimmons on a commercial scale and it's not fun. Persimmons, particularly, like many other softer fruit, take a light hand to avoid bruising. In my case, I was also expected to make split-second decisions about whether each individual fruit was export or domestic quality. And yet farm workers are paid so poorly that a full third of farm worker families live below the poverty line. (This is made much worse due to the seasonal nature of much farm work, of course, because workers may not be able to find full-time work year round.)

So what about the rest of the supply chain? It doesn't get a lot prettier as you move through the slaughterhouses, processing plants, and food service industries. 

Consider the front of house in food service as an example. Tipped workers (think wait staff in restaurants) can make as little as $2.13/hour (the federal minimum cash payment). Most states (but not all) have at least slightly higher minimums for tipped workers, but many are still under $3.00/hour. Now, the theory is that these workers will make at least minimum wage once their tips are factored in and this probably works for wait staff at higher-end restaurants where a bill for two people could be 50 dollars or much more. But what about diners and other inexpensive restaurants? If you walk in and order the $2.99 breakfast special, how much are you leaving as a tip? Will the collective tips on inexpensive meals raise that $2.13/hour to a livable wage? (And this leaves out the fact that many wait staff have to "tip out" to busboys and sometimes kitchen staff who do not otherwise benefit from tips.)

I haven't even mentioned farmers and how little of the price of a loaf of bread or box of cereal goes to the person who grew the grain, but trust me, it's not a lot.

So, FAIR. For our food system to be fair, the producers in the system would need to earn a decent (not extravagant, but decent) living for working full-time in jobs that are almost always physically demanding. All consumers would need to have equal access to healthy foods, no matter where they live and how much they make (I'll write more about this when I discuss AFFORDABLE).

That's my opinion, of course, and yours may differ. Please join the conversation in our comments section.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How Healthy Is Your Diet?

The folks over at the Food Day website have devised a 14 question quiz designed to show how healthy your diet is for you, the planet, and the animals. I have a few issues with the quiz. They don't, for example, ask if you produce any of your own food or how much of your food is locally-produced, which could have a fairly significant impact on the environmental footprint of your diet. Aside from a few other quibbles with their methodology, though, I think the quiz is a great starting point for a conversation about the health consequences of our food choices.

I got a solid A when I took the quiz, but that's not too surprising since I eat an overwhelmingly vegetarian diet. I answered that I eat fish once a week, but it's really more like once a month. Given that the quiz takes the environment and animal welfare into consideration, I was almost guaranteed an A. 

My vegetarian diet is mostly about the environment, not animal welfare. I do love animals and certainly became a vegetarian in high school because of my concern for animals. But when I became an outdoor educator in college, it became clear that the environmental toll of industrial meat production is a more important reason to avoid meat. Many people, from Paul McCartney to a former chief economist at the World Bank to the United Nations, have called for people to reduce meat consumption and move toward a vegetarian diet in order to mitigate against climate change. I am not militant about vegetarianism (obviously, since some fish sneak into my mouth occasionally), but I do think it's important to talk about the connection between eating meat and the environment.

I worked for a summer as the head cook at an environmental summer camp run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. I quickly learned that my coworkers were hard-core meat-eaters who demanded meat at every meal. It was disheartening, given that most of them were environmental studies majors in college and planned to stay in environmental education as a career. It was a frustrating summer. The last straw for me was when two of them were complaining about waking up in their tent on federal (probably BLM) land out west and finding cattle surrounding their tent. Even after I pointed out that those cattle were certainly beef cattle, not dairy, they could not see the connection between their desire for meat at every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the grazing of cattle on federal lands.

There are consequences to our food choices beyond our personal health and well-being. Take the quiz and share your score (if you'd like) in our comments section. Let's start this conversation!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Back Home On The Redwood Coast

Last year, my family and I left the beautiful Del Norte coast for parts east, driving out 199 the day before all the Food Day festivities started at the fairgrounds. After participating in many weeks of planning, I missed all those events as we drove through Great Basin National Park, traveled the "Loneliest Highway", visited old friends in St. Louis, and finally arrived in our new home state just as Hurricane Sandy smacked the whole region with devastating winds and flooding.

It was not the welcome to your new home we were anticipating.

Things didn't work out as planned, despite the wonderful proximity to parts of my extended family and my hometown. When I was offered the blandly-titled, but absolutely wonderful Food Systems Analyst position and my husband was told he'd be welcomed back to the parks here, the decision to come back wasn't all that tough. We will miss friends and family in the east, but I think we learned that we are all Westerners now.

I'm in my third week on the job now and in the midst of planning 2013's Food Day celebrations (see our dedicated Food Day posts here). There have been good and bad changes since we left town. Wild Rivers Market opened in their expanded space shortly after we left, but Ray's closed their stores in Crescent City and Smith River. 

Everywhere I've gone over the past three weeks, I've been welcomed back with open arms. It's hard to move a family across the country, but much easier when you're coming back to friends and the Redwood Coast.

We're going to be bringing the Growing Tables blog and our Community Food Council Facebook page back to life over the next several weeks. We want to be a place everyone can come to learn about food events, resources, and people. Keep checking back!