Are we living in a “Food Mirage?”

You might have heard talk of “food deserts” among people concerned about securing our food supply. They are referring to places where there is really no fresh, healthy food available to consumers. The only options are gas stations and convenience stores.

Here in River Falls we seem to be in more of a “Food Mirage,” where we have what appears to be a strong food delivery system that provides what looks like healthy food and plenty of it (more work needs to be done to assure that EVERYONE had access ~ as in “can afford it”). But in general most residents can get enough food, the shelves are full of bright packages, and the produce looks nice at least.

“Looking at the country now, one cannot escape the conclusion that there are no longer enough people on the land to farm it and take proper care of it. A further and more ominous conclusion is that there is no longer a considerable number of people knowledgeable enough to look at the country and see that it is properly cared for ~ though the face of the country is now everywhere marked by the agony of our enterprise of self-destruction.”
~ Wendell Berry
“Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food


However, as we are now learning, it isn’t “nice” for a whole load of reasons ~
1. Corporate agribusiness (environmental threats like chemical pesticide and herbicide use, unsustainable fossil fuel dependent fertilizer use, soil abuse and misuse, GMOs, farmer serf system, monoculture, etc)
2. Long distance trucking of products
3. Unhealthy food products
4. Animal cruelty in confined animal feed lots (CAFOs) and huge abusive meat raising systems in general
5. Manure pit pollution from CAFOs
6. Migrant worker (and food production/ slaughterhouse workers) mistreatment
7. Vulnerable production/delivery, a “just in time” system that operates on a three-day long pipeline from warehouse to market.

There’s more including overuse of antibiotics and hormones, food-borne illnesses that do not respond to treatment, loss of plant diversity and thus hardiness…

Knowing this about our food choices puts them in a whole new light.

The Future Is About Dignity and Cooperation

This is all going to end up being about dignity.

Our world is about to change markedly, and the question now becomes, “Will the changes take place in civility or chaos?”

Lawmakers are discovering that there is not a limitless supply of money available for them to spend on our behalf, and there will soon be less. Now we must decide, by some means or another, how we will handle this situation.

As federal lawmakers moved to cut back on “unnecessary” programs to diminish the deficit, they discovered that every program had its supporters and its ‘raison d’être’ or the reasons for its existence. There’s just not that much “low hanging fruit” to lob off. While I feel the military budget could be scaled ‘way back, others seem to think we can cut social programs and somehow not experience any difficulties, except for the poor, disabled and elderly, of course.

Something has to give.

When the Democrats were in control, they seemed to place their faith in a fantasy future of rising GNPs and increasing prosperity for all. They were totally unwilling to even politely ask that the wealthiest group of Americans and American corporations contribute a bit more of what they have in plenty – mainly cash. Nor were they willing to attack the sacred cows of government such as military spending, foreign aid for dictators, ludicrous pork barrel projects, or swollen government bureaucracy. They were too timid to risk their positions to support climate change legislation, or cure our addiction to oil by assessing a hefty tax that would bring down usage and create funds for public transportation initiatives. They could not find it in themselves to lift our country back to the moral high ground by repealing the Patriot Act and closing Guantanamo.

When the Republicans gained control, they acted with harsh impunity (or what they would call courage and conviction), immediately pushing ahead with their agenda and slashing programs they deemed unjustified or immoral, such birth control education. Initiatives to ban gay marriage popped up everywhere. They, too, had no intention of asking the wealthy to pony up for more money. Rather, as Gov. Walker has done, Republican lawmakers have used balancing the budget as an excuse to defang political opponents, pit taxpayers against each other in an increasingly ugly fight, and fulfill their promises to giant corporations and wealthy CEOs.

The only positive thing that will come of this that I can see is that it will contribute to downsizing our economy, a necessary step in bringing us nearer sustainable living. Democrats couldn’t accomplish this, largely because they were too worried about hurting people, including themselves and their careers, but also the poor and otherwise needy. Oh, and they are also beholden to giant corporations and their CEOs, many of whom contribute almost evenly to both parties to be sure all their bases are covered.

Republicans are bringing us down with breathtaking speed. Civility has gone out the window; rational discussion and careful consideration is to be avoided at all costs (don’t give anyone time to oppose these “emergency measures.”) None of the players are left with any dignity whatsoever, and that is a shame.

It is also totally counterproductive. Studies of group social behavior show that cooperation is based on trust. And cooperation is what we absolutely must have to weather the coming storm of economic contraction, population relocation due to weather-related disasters, and increasing competition for scarce jobs and resources. In other words, we’ll have to learn to share.

Building trust demands that we treat each other with dignity. In soccer, it’s called sportsmanship. In church, it’s called compassionate Christianity. At work it’s called fair treatment. At my house, it’s called absolutely necessary for survival.

We can’t carry on acting as though we can win every battle, coming out the other side, having stepped over the inert bodies of the defeated, sated with victory and carrying our booty. A day of reckoning will arrive when we must face those we’ve robbed and mistreated, and we might just find ourselves reaching out our hand, not to strike them or steal from them, but in supplication, asking for their help.

We’ll be a much better position if we’ve been conducting ourselves with dignity and treating each other the same way.


I have “put my money (and my energy) where my mouth is” and helped organize a film series on current food issues. If you’ve been catching whispers of problems with the state of food production in America and want to learn more, make a point of taking in one or more of these truly excellent and well-made films, several of which are being shown right here in River Falls.

Also called “FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Ethics of Eating,” this series consists of eight contemporary documentary films being shown throughout the St. Croix River valley. Each film will have a well-qualified speaker who will introduce the film and lead an in-depth discussion afterword.

Admission to several of the films is free and tickets to the others are only $2.

Friday, February 4, 6:30 p.m. ArtReach St. Croix, 224 Fourth Street North, Stillwater
AND Saturday, February 19, 10 a.m. River Falls Public Library, 140 Union Street, River Falls OR Somerset Public Library, 208 Hud Street, Somerset, at noon
AND Saturday, February 26, 10 a.m. The Phipps Center for the Arts, 109 Locust Street, Hudson
What’s On Your Plate? (73 min) A witty and provocative documentary about kids and food politics Filmed over the course of one year, it follows two eleven-year-old multi-racial city kids as they explore their place in the food chain. Sadie and Safiyah take a close look at food systems in New York City and its surrounding areas. With the camera as their companion, the girl guides talk to each other, food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers, their families, and the viewer, in their quest to understand what’s on all of our plates.
The girls address questions regarding the origin of the food they eat, how it’s cultivated, how many miles it travels from the harvest to their plate, how it’s prepared, who prepares it, and what is done afterwards with the packaging and leftovers. They visit the usual supermarkets, fast food chains, and school lunchrooms. But they also check into innovative sustainable food system practices by going to farms, greenmarkets, and community supported agriculture programs. They discover that these programs both help struggling farmers to survive on the one hand and provide affordable, locally-grown food to communities on the consumer end, especially to lower-income urban families. In WHAT’S ON YOUR PLATE?, the two friends formulate sophisticated and compassionate opinions on the state of their society, and by doing so inspire hope and active engagement in others.
A selection of short film documentaries about food made by young Stillwater and Somerset students will also be shown.

Wednesday, February 2, 6:30 p.m. River Falls Public Library, 140 Union Street, River Falls
Food, Inc. (94 min) Based on the 2001 book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, this stunning film examines the industrial production of meat and grains (primarily corn and soybeans). The film’s final segment is about the economic and legal power of the major food companies.
Dr. Greta Gaard, UW-River Falls English Department, discussion leader

Saturday, February 12, 6:30 p.m. ArtReach St. Croix, 224 Fourth Street, Stillwater FREE WILL DONATION
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
(80 min)For close to a century, a great American epic has been played out in the tiny town of Caledonia, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. This film tells the story of one man, his farm and his family—a story that parallels the history of American farming.
Joci Tilsen, Minnesota Food Network, discussion leader

Sunday, February 13, 1 p.m. St. Croix Falls Public Library, 230 S. Washington Street, St. Croix Falls
FRESH (72 min) profiles the farmers, thinkers, and business people across the nation who are at the forefront of re-inventing food production in America. With a strong commitment to sustainability, they are changing how farms are run, how the land is cared for, and how food is distributed. Their success demonstrates that a new paradigm based on sustainable practices can be profitable and a model for our food system, if people choose to support it.
Dana Jackson, Land Stewardship Project Community Based Food Systems, discussion leader

Wednesday, February 16, 6:30 p.m. UW-River Falls University Center Kinnickinnic River Theater
A Farm for the Future
(this is our ‘foreign film’) A 50-minute BBC documentary in which wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Devon, England into a low energy farm for the future after realizing that most modern food production is completely dependent on abundant cheap fossil fuel, particularly oil. Alarmed by how insecure this oil supply is, she explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel through the idea of “permaculture farming.”
Dr. Kelly Cain, St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, discussion leader

Thursday, Feb. 17, 6:00 p.m. The Phipps Center for the Arts, 109 Locust Street, Hudson.
Ingredients: A Seasonal Exploration of the Local Food Movemen
t (67 min) A feature-length documentary, Ingredients illustrates how people around the country are working to revitalize the connection to where our food comes from. Ingredients reveals the people behind the movement to bring good food back to the table and health back to our communities.
Return to the Circle (35 min) Set on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, this is the story of the Anishinabe people’s journey toward health as they seek to return to traditional foodways. As they work to improve their lives, we discover that their journey is a circle for young and old, past and present, traditional and non-Indian, land and spirit.
Dr. Jacquelyn Zita, U of M Associate Professor and co-founder of the Women’s Environmental Institute, discussion leader

Sunday, March 6, 1 p.m. River Falls Public Library, 140 Union Street, River Falls
The Future of Food The disturbing story of agribusinesses’ introduction of GMO foods. Genetic engineering of food crops becomes a threat as large corporations position themselves as the answer to the world food crisis and consolidate the seed supply.
Faye Jones, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, discussion leader

The Power of Words

This post is not necessarily about the Arizona shooting. I’m just catching up with some of the other blogs on this site and have a bit to say about Mary Louise Olson’s posting on Jan. 1.
She alludes to the idea, gleaned from her college English professor, that “the map is not the territory.”
I, too, have admired that allusion and have interpreted it to mean that the words we use to describe something are not completely definitive, but rather offer a intrinsically biased explanation or characterization of that idea or issue, or place, or person.
We should, especially in dealing with issues that are hotly contested and laden with emotion, endeavor to use careful language.
Mary Louise went on to accuse the Obama administration of using phraseology to redefine (erroneously) such terms as terrorism, illegal aliens, and climate change. I disagree that the examples she cited are attempts to paint those issues in a more benign light.
Terrorism is an extremely vague word, being bandied about constantly and applied to many acts of violence worldwide. In my opinion it has not been applied to some that perhaps it should be, like U.S. actions (drones) in Pakistan; our new approach to discouraging “terrorism” by allowing our government the license to incarcerate anyone labeled a terrorist and keep them in places like Guantanamo without trials. This strategy has failed to gain us any real “intelligence,” damaged our Constitutional form of government, and far from curbing terrorism for fear of reprisal, has fueled the flames of hatred for the United States worldwide. The “terrorism” we are currently at war with is a “man-caused disaster” as Obama said and it’s high time we took some of the “credit” for causing it!
“Undocumented citizens” should probably more closely be “undocumented residents,” since they are not citizens, but “illegal aliens” is a phrase loaded with negative baggage that predisposes us to feel the need to “get rid of them” as though they were cockroaches.
“Global warming” was an earlier term for what is now labeled “climate disruption” for a good reason. Non-believers (what a funny idea, as though simply not believing in this phenomena would make it go away) were saying things like, “Ha! See, it’s colder this year. Global warming is a hoax!” Climate disruption is exactly what’s going on and the term is much more descriptive. If you want to view it as a ruse, go right ahead, but I’m thinking people can understand why the terminology has changes as the science has progressed.
Interestingly enough, Mary Louise’s next post takes the opposite tack, implying that Sarah Palin’s call for “targeting” Democratic opponents was just harmless talk, whereas the Obama administration’s definition of terrorism is an attempt to influence people’s thoughts and actions. Huh?

WHAT WE NEED IS HERE: Making the most of a new world

I belong to a group, based at The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, that is called “What We Need Is Here.” The title comes form the following poem by Wendell Barry.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

The group’s mission is to use the Arts to spark creative thought and action about how to build sustainable communities.
As I walked the White Pathway last evening, touched to the core of my being by the beauty, peace, and gentleness of this extraordinary piece of nature that anchors our community, I thought about the previous day’s election and how it will affect us. Such divisiveness and anger, so much the opposite of peace. And yet, we will have to find our way, as the geese in the poem, to the clear understanding that if we cannot trust and rely on each other in these coming years of worldwide challenges, we will stand with empty hands. We will have nothing.
What we need is here: the resources to feed and shelter ourselves; the intellect and courage to weather the coming changes; the strength of character to hold out a helping hand to each other.
We obviously cannot look to our government for policies and legislation to carry us through. Focusing on what we have in common rather than on our differences is our best chance for survival.
What we (truly) need is (already) here. So let’s get started.

Simply a Lack of Imagination?

Not only our nation but the whole planet seems to be in dire straits, and I keep wondering how this came about. Today I’m thinking it’s just a colossal failure of imagination.

One aspect of our common problem is peak oil, or in other words, the moment when worldwide oil production tops out and begins to decline. It seems to coincide with the point at which we have used about half of all the oil that exists, including that in hard to reach places (like under the oceans) and that which will be difficult and expensive to produce (like from Canada’s oil sands).

I want to talk at another time about what our dependence on this finite resource means for Americans, but today I’m just thinking about what it has done for us and what it could do for future Americans if we don’t use the last drop (besides saving them from the worst of climate change).

The myriad of petroleum products – from plastics to fertilizers to fuel – have created modern life as we know it. It will be very difficult to produce even things that aren’t directly made of oil-based materials without the energy to run factories and fuel to distribute products.  Some are just wishful thinking, like bio-fuels or hydrogen.

Alternative energy ideas are often highly reliant on the existence of enough oil: to build and run nuclear plants, to build and distribute batteries, solar panels and wind generators, etc.

I can easily imagine a not-too-distant future for my grandchildren where oil is scarce and expensive, and life is very, very different. What is harder for me to imagine is what I’m going to say to them to explain why I and my fellow Americans didn’t foresee this disaster and seriously curtail our use of fossil fuels.

Will “I couldn’t,” or “I’m just wasn’t ready,” or “It would have hurt the economy” stand up to their scrutiny as acceptable excuses for our lack of commitment now before it’s too late. Or will we just have to drag out that old saw, “I didn’t know this would happen.”

What will you say?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Ethics of Eating

CHEW ON THIS: MEAT CONSUMPTION IS AT A RECORD HIGH! In 2007, Americans consumed an average of 78 pounds more meat than they did annually in 1950, up to 222 pounds from 144 pounds per year. (Humane Society of the United States estimate confirmed by USDA statistics)

My mission – should I choose to accept it – is to talk about “local issues.” In my mind, many issues customarily labeled as “global issues,” are really local. I want to take a look at old ideas in a new way by examining our beliefs about how we should live our everyday lives, and what the consequences of those choices might be.

Well, we have to start somewhere, and I thought this would be a good topic to begin with. Everybody eats. Each of us, as consumers of products generated by today’s huge agribusinesses, are “voting” to continue business as usual for America’s food productions system. Are we supporting a cruel and environmentally disastrous system with our food dollars? Let’s consider a few facts about the current state of the food production system.

In our busy daily lives, far removed from the feedlots and chicken sheds, the reality of how our food is grown is not even on our radar screens. We are immune to the suffering of the beings that produce American’s glut of animal protein. Although meat and poultry production in 2007 reached 91.5 billion pounds (American Meat Institute numbers), you’ll notice that people don’t actually see very many of the animals that are giving up their lives for us.

According to USDA statistics, 33.3 million head of cattle – also known as sentient individual beings capable of feeling fear and pain – were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2009. Where are they? Picture a huge feedlot mired in many inches of old manure with cattle squeezed together and baking unsheltered in the sun. To add to their suffering, they are being fed corn, an unnatural diet that results in painful stomach ulcers for them while they wait to be trucked to the slaughterhouse.

Using USDA statistics again, The Humane Society of the United States  estimated that each American would consumer 222 pounds of red and white meat in 2007.

Compare that to 144 pounds in 1950, a 77% increase.

Chicken consumption is up (from 21 pounds to 87 pounds), turkey is up (from 3 pounds to 17 pounds), and beef is up to 66 pounds from 44 pounds in 1950.

Meanwhile, the way these animals are raised has changed drastically, and not for the better.

More on this later.