The price of a cheesburger is not the true cost

nytlMark Bitman – NY Times – July 15, 2014

In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain. “The Cheeseburger Bill” (formally, “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”) attempted to legislate the message that the costs of fast food are personal, not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful food at addictively low prices.

The reality is different, as we begin to understand the extent of the financial and economic costs wrought on our society from years of eating dangerously. That’s a different kind of cheeseburger bill; the butcher’s bill, if you like: The real cost.

What you pay for a cheeseburger is the price, but price isn’t cost. It isn’t the cost to the producers or the marketers and it certainly isn’t the sum of the costs to the world; those true costs are much greater than the price.

This is an attempt to describe and quantify some of those costs. (I have been working on this for nearly a year, with a student intern, David Prentice.) It’s necessarily compromised — the kinds of studies required to accurately address this question are so daunting that they haven’t been performed — but by using available sources and connecting the dots, we can gain insight.

Whatever the product, some costs are borne by producers, but others, called external costs — “externalities,” as economists call them — are not; nor are they represented in the price. Take litter: If your cheeseburger comes wrapped in a piece of paper, and you throw that piece of paper on the sidewalk, it eventually may be picked up by a worker and put in the trash; the cost of that act is an externality. Only by including externalities can you arrive at a true cost.

Almost everything produced has externalities. Wind turbines, for example, kill birds, make noise and may spin off ice. But cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.

We estimate that Americans eat about 16 billion burgers a year of all shapes and sizes, based on data provided by the NPD Group, a market research firm. (The “average” cheeseburger, according to the research firm Technomix, costs $4.49.) And our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate. (Many costs can’t possibly be calculated; we’ll get to those.)

The big-ticket externalities are carbon generation and obesity. Environmental Working Group’s “Meat Eater’s Guide” (2011) estimates the carbon footprint of beef cattle at 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound; the use of “spent” dairy beef in burger meat reduces that slightly, but we can say that each pound of burger meat accounts for roughly 25 pounds of CO2 emissions. (Cheese counts, too: It produces 13.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound, and even bread has a carbon footprint.)

The cost of this carbon is hard to nail precisely, but the government’s official monetary valuation of greenhouse gas pollution is roughly $37 per metric ton of CO2 emissions. Many experts, however, double that rate; others multiply it nearly tenfold. So the monetary value of the carbon emissions produced by the average cheeseburger might range from 15 cents (the official government rate), to 24 cents (conservative independent sources) and $1.20 (high independent). The average of these three estimates comes out to 53 cents per burger.

The calculable chronic disease costs are similar. There’s some evidence that red meat intake may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, but like many of the speculative externalities discussed below, it’s impossible to assign a cost to this. (If red meat were further implicated in cardiovascular disease, the true costs of a burger would rise significantly.)

In any case, a main factor in the rise of obesity has been an increase in the availability of calorie-dense foods, and burgers played a big role in this process. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent, and the “food-away-from-home sector” grew to nearly half of all food we eat. Restaurants, of course, are the source of most burger consumption.

Between 2007 and 2010, 11.3 percent of adult Americans’ daily caloric intake came from fast food. Correlation is not causation, of course, and it seems likely that foods high in sugar and other hyperprocessed carbohydrates are most responsible for high obesity rates, but burgers certainly played a role in rising caloric intake.

To estimate the share of obesity-related costs resulting from burger consumption, we estimated the share of calories coming from burgers in fast-food restaurants, where the majority are eaten. Assuming that the 11.3 percent of calories is proportional to the incidence rate of obesity (it may be higher), its associated health risks, and its treatment costs, up to 15 percent of fast food’s share of direct and indirect costs arising from obesity (about 1.65 percent of the whole) are attributable to burgers.

The link between obesity and a handful of deadly chronic diseases — arthritis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, among others — is well documented, as is their enormous economic burden. Direct medical diet-related costs are currently pegged at about $231 billion annually.

These numbers above would mean that this cost of burgers is about $4 billion per year (from fast food burgers only!), which averages out to 48 cents per burger. (Some put these costs five or six times as high, and there are indirect costs as well; again, we’re being conservative.) And between 2010 and 2030, the combined costs arising directly from diseases related to obesity could increase by an additional $52 to $71 billion each year. This could double the cost per burger in additional health costs alone.

Some other costs are only vaguely calculable, and we have numbers, but the ranges are so great that they’re useless; what matters, though, is that the numbers are above zero. There are elevated nitrates in water supplies resulting from the chemical fertilizers used to grow corn to feed cattle (the city of Des Moines has been forced to spend $3.7 million to build a water treatment facility for precisely this reason; then there’s the famous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico); the cost of food stamps and other public welfare programs made necessary in part by the ultralow wages paid at most fast-food operations; the beef industry’s role in increasing antibiotic resistance, which costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something like $55 billion a year; some measure of E. coli illnesses; and land erosion, pesticide residues, direct corn subsidies, injury rates at slaughterhouses, and so on.

Each of these adds pennies or less to the external costs of a cheeseburger. But although they may be trivial individually (unless of course, you’re being directly affected by them), they add up. Even more difficult to calculate are the “cost” of a shortened life, or the value of loss of biodiversity that results from the destruction of rain forests to provide land for cattle or their feed. There is even an emerging body of research linking decreased male sperm quality to mothers’ beef consumption.

Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the “benefits” (if indeed there are any other than profits). If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.

In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.

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Boosting Local Food, One Parking Lot And Hot Pepper At A Time

Click on the image below for the radio version of this report!neprToday, the idea of “buying local” is firmly rooted in our culture.

Farmers markets flourish almost every day of the week in western Massachusetts. Community-supported farms offer the chance to buy a share of a crop. And lots of farm stands and retail stores trumpet the sale of local produce.

The value of a “local” perspective is even rubbing off on other parts of the Pioneer Valley’s economy, including financial investing. In our series, A New Kind of Local, we look at the growth and the challenges of the movement, starting with a history of local food.

Local as a movement

Pigs at the Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

The idea that consumers can help preserve farms by choosing to buy locally-grown food first began to take root more than 40 years ago.

“A lot of us thought we could change the world,” Rich Pascale says.

Pascale, 65, started farming in Franklin County in 1974. It was a time when young people moved to rural areas to build self sufficient lives.

“Live simply, grow your own food,” he says. “And from that point it was like, ‘We have to make some money,’ so we have to sell our own food.”

He’s been selling at the Greenfield Farmers Market for four decades.

“So these are $3.50 for the six packs,” he says of his goods. “And these are $2.75 for tomato plants.”

A way to stabilize prices

In the mid 1970s, as more young people, like Pascale, were choosing to farm, the state was losing farms. Nearly half of them went out of business between 1964 and 1974

The Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass., grows more than 30 varieties of hot peppers as well as sweet peppers. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“The Massachusetts agricultural economy was on the downward skids,” says Greg Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources. “We were losing about 10,000 acres of farmland a year. And I think a lot of people had just given up.”

But not everyone.

“It was the summer of 1973 and Governor Sargent called me,” recalls Ray Goldberg, a professor emeritus from Harvard Business School.

Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent asked Goldberg to head up an emergency food commission.

“We had crop failure around the world,” he says. “Food prices were rising faster than general inflation.”

And the OPEC oil embargo forced up petroleum prices. Goldberg says the commission found Massachusetts was highly dependent on food from distant places.

“We were a high-cost food area compared to any other state in the nation,” says Goldberg. “So there was a great deal of encouragement to get more locally grown production.”

The commission’s work led to new policies. One program allows farmers to sell their development rights to the state, preserving more than 70,000 acres. The state launched an advertising campaign, with the slogan: “Massachusetts Grown and Fresher.” And it helped expand the number of farmers markets.

From farm field to parking lot

Agriculture Commissioner Greg Watson was a young man in 1978 when he was hired by the state to launch markets in poor areas of Boston. Watson says, at first, neither African-American residents nor the white farmers trusted each other.

“The first reaction of farmers to come into the city was ‘I won’t come out alive!’” Watson recalled. “And the residents were saying ‘Why should we go to the trouble of making the parking lot in the South End available for rich farmers to come in and get richer?’ So there were these really solid stereotypes, both of them really far from reality.”

Watson was able to sign up 20 farmers to come to the grand opening of the Dorchester market. It was a big deal. The lieutenant governor was there, and a bunch of television cameras.

“Opened up at 9 o’clock, not a single farmer,” he says. “About 9:20, people were getting impatient, they were nervous, a pickup truck comes down the street.”

That was the only farmer to show up. But Watson says that night on the news, instead of pictures of an empty street, the cameras had zoomed in.

“All you saw was the farmer, his wife and his daughter,” he says. “They couldn’t get the food off the truck fast enough. People were clamoring. Next week we had 20 farmers.”

Back then, there were fewer than 10 farmers markets statewide. Today, there are nearly 300.

Although the middleman is cut out, in some cases the food at farmers markets costs more than at supermarkets. Watson remembers one customer who explained why she was willing to pay more.

“‘Because my kids eat it,’” Watson recalls her saying. “They were eating raw peas. ‘If I pay a little less and half of it gets scraped into the garbage is that economical?’”

Today, many farmers markets take food stamps. Watson says perhaps farms could become more efficient to lower the price of food.

“Are there things we can do to help make this not just accessible, but also affordable? And those are challenges,” he says.

A face on the food

The state has gained back many of the farms it lost 40 years ago. But they’re smaller now – about half the size.

Dean and Allison Landale cultivate more than 100 varieties of vegetables on their farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“Eggplant, cherry tomatoes, okra, tomatillos. We have about 30 varieties of hot peppers here,” says Allison Landale, as she points out neatly tended rows of crops she and her husband Dean cultivate on 15 acres in Deerfield.

The farm has been in her mother’s family since the 1800s. Her father farmed it. Allison says when she first started working with him in the early 1990s, at times it was tough.

“Local wasn’t anywhere near what it is today,” she says.

The farm’s sales have tripled in the past five years. The Landales say the nonprofit CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture gives them a lot of support. CISA first developed the Local Hero advertising campaign in 1999.

Back in Deerfield, Dean Landale is pounding stakes for tomato plants. For him, the concept of “local” makes farming more personal.

“We see our customers,” Landale says. “We don’t ship to a supermarket someplace. So our face is basically attached to what we sell.”

That connection between farmer and consumer is strong today. But local food advocates are still hard at work.

There’s a push to bring more processing facilities, including slaughterhouses. One group says by 2060, New England farmers could produce half of the food consumed here.

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Food is (relatively) inexpensive in the U.S.

When droughts or crop failures cause food prices to spike, many Americans barely notice. The average American, after all, spends just 6.6 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. (If you include eating out, that rises to around 11 percent.)

In Pakistan, by contrast, the average person spends 47.7 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. In that situation, those price spikes become a lot more noticeable.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service keeps tabs on household expenditures for food, alcohol, and tobacco around the world.

Americans, it turns out, spend a smaller share of their income on food than anyone else — less even than Canadians or Europeans or Australians:

Food_spending_worldwide_2

Note that the map above is based on data for food consumed at home — the USDA doesn’t offer international comparisons for eating out, unfortunately. Still, even if you do include food consumed at restaurants, Americans devote just 11 percent of their household spending to food, a smaller share than nearly every other country spends on food at home alone.*

Below is a chart showing numbers for a handful of select countries. Note that this doesn’t include spending on subsidies and the like — it’s just a measure of the fraction of household expenditures devoted to food consumed at home:

How_much_countries_spend_on_food

There are a few notable points here:

1) Richer countries spend a smaller fraction of their income on food. This makes intuitive sense. There’s an upper limit on how much food a person can physically eat. So as countries get richer, they start spending more of their money on other things — like health care, or entertainment, or alcohol. South Koreans spent one-third of their budget on food in 1975; today that’s down to just 12 percent.

That said, this relationship doesn’t always hold. It depends, at least in part, on what kind of food people favor, patterns of eating out, and the specific food prices and subsidy schemes in their country. Note that India spends a smaller fraction of its budget on food consumed at home than Russia, which is much richer. Likewise, South Korea spends a smaller share of its budget on food than wealthier Japan does.

2) Americans spend less than Europeans on food. The fact that Americans spend a smaller portion of their budgets on food than Europeans do is partly a consequence of the fact that Americans are richer. But Americans spend less on an absolute level, too.

The average American spends $2,273 per year on food consumed at home, the USDA notes. The average German spends $2,481 per year. The average French person spends $3,037 per year. The average Norwegian spends a whopping $4,485 per year on food.

The USDA doesn’t explain the variation. Some of it likely has to do with different tax systems in Europe (here’s a comparison of food prices in Europe), as well as differences in eating out. But there are also dozens of forces making food in the United States so cheap — from farm subsidies to advancements in industrial agriculture that have pushed down the price of food. (Over the years, the price of meat, poultry, sweets, fats, and oils in the United States have fallen, although the price of fresh produce has risen.)

There are fierce debates about the downsides of industrial agriculture — as well as the desirability of subsidizing agriculture. But one thing this system has done fairly well is keep the sticker price of food at the grocery store down.

3) High spending on food and malnutrition seem to go hand in hand. This is another perhaps obvious point, but worth highlighting. Poorer countries that have to spend a much larger share of their budget on food also end up with much higher malnutrition rates.

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One conclusion might be that most of us can afford to invest in a better quality of life for all by buying our food from local farmers.

 

Massachusetts Agriculture Defies National Trends

14373311117_8e652f5b29The Census of Agriculture is the most complete account of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. Every Thursday USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will highlight new Census data and the power of the information to shape the future of American agriculture.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts agriculture defies national trends in more ways than one. For example, while across the country the number of farms decreased four percent since the 2007 Census, Massachusetts was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in both the number of farms and land in farms in the same time period. In addition, while women make up 31 percent of all operators across the country, they make up 41 percent of all operators in the Bay State. Similarly, while the number of female principal operators decreased nationally since the last census, that number increased from 2,226 to 2,507 in our state. In fact, female principal operators compose 32 percent of all of our state’s principal operators, the highest percentage among the New England states and the third highest nationwide.

We also have a growing number of beginning farmers in Massachusetts. Although the proportion of all beginning farmers in our state is down slightly since 2007, it is still higher than in other parts of the country. In Massachusetts, 29 percent of all operators and 25 percent of principal operators began farming in the last decade, while nationwide, 26 percent of all operators and 22 percent of principal operators fall in that category.

Massachusetts’s agriculture has developed to meet the needs the needs of metropolitan area that stretches from Boston to New York City. To meet the needs of East Coast home owners and landscapers, in 2012, 1,039 of Massachusetts’s nurseries, greenhouses, floriculture, and sod farms grew and sold over $144 million worth of those crops. Sales of these crops accounted for almost 30 percent of agriculture sales.  Also, 1,223 farms produced just over $125 million of fruits, nuts, and berries. Our state ranks eighth in berry acreage in the nation, at 15,727 acres, and 89 percent of that is dedicated to what many consider to be Massachusetts’s signature crop, the cranberry. Massachusetts is the birthplace of the cranberry industry and currently has the second highest cranberry acreage in the nation, at 14,070 acres.

But what makes Massachusetts agriculture particularly unique is our direct- to-consumer sales, direct sales to retail outlets (such as stores, restaurants, and institutions), and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements. More than 28 percent of the Bay State operations engage in direct market sales, and our state ranks third in the nation for value of direct market sales per operation. In addition, Worcester and Middlesex counties are in the top ten counties nationwide for value of direct market sales. Over 13 percent of our sold to retail outlets which ranks 6th nationally.  CSA arrangements are also very prevalent in our farming industry. In fact, nearly six percent of farms in our state market products through a CSA arrangement, up from three percent in 2007. We rank sixth nationally for number of farms and first nationally by percent of farms using CSA arrangements. In addition, four Massachusetts counties – Middlesex, Hampshire, Worcester, and Franklin – rank in the top 10 nationwide for number of CSA arrangements.

As you can see, Massachusetts agriculture stands out in multiple ways, and it’s clear that we will remain unique and continue to grow.

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If you want to learn how to get involved in agriculture in Massachusetts, you might be interested in the B.S. degree or the ONLINE Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming offered by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Or at least, stay connected with whats happening at Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.

One-third of beginning farmers are over 55 years old

nytl

A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds – New York Times – JUNE 20, 2014

 Charles Nobel, a retired school administrator turned rancher, produces grass-fed beef in Stone Ridge, N.Y., for direct sale to customers. Credit Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

Charles Nobel, a retired school administrator turned rancher, produces grass-fed beef in Stone Ridge, N.Y., for direct sale to customers. Credit Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

 When Mr. Noble, a retired actuary and school administrator, started Movable Beast Farm with his wife in 2006, he would “get totally freaked out and have a battle of wills with the cows.” Now he reacts with calm and temporarily stops herding to avoid upsetting the animals.

“Stress is the worst thing you can do for them in terms of quality” of meat, said Mr. Noble, a trim, tanned man with a white goatee. He sells grass-fed beef primarily by word of mouth. “In order to make any money in agriculture at this scale, you really need to be direct marketing,” said Mr. Noble, whose company earned a profit for the first time last year.

But money is not his primary motivation. Mr. Noble waited much of his life to realize his cowboy dreams. “When I was younger,” he said, “I never wanted to work inside at a desk,” so, of course, he said, he spent “30 years working inside, at a desk.”

 

After her position at Cisco Systems was eliminated, Debra Sloane started a one-woman farm in Washington, Conn., for which she is seeking organic certification. Credit Wendy Carlson for The NYT.

Though new agricultural enterprises typically demand long hours and physical stamina, many retirees turn to farming as a way to keep active and earn an income — or, like Mr. Noble, to at least supplement Social Security. The White House’s 2013 Economic Report of the President notes that “the average age of U.S. farmers and ranchers has been increasing over time.” One-third of beginning farmers — defined by the federal government as having been in business fewer than 10 years — “are over age 55, indicating that many farmers move into agriculture only after retiring from a different career.”

Brett Olson, co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit in Minneapolis, has noticed more gray hair at the New Farmer Summit, a conference for aspiring agrarians. Mr. Olson’s organization offers a workshop at the annual event that it used to call Young Organic Stewards but renamed New Organic Stewards in 2012 to “be more inclusive,” he said.

Local, state and federal programs devote considerable resources to promoting agricultural start-ups. Many states offer preferential tax treatment of farmland. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., compiles the various tax breaks on its online database.

The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency recently reduced the paperwork required to apply for its microloan program, which provides recipients with low-interest loans of up to $35,000.

The federally financed Cooperative Extension System provides farmers and others with access to advisers, classes and research, often free.

Age, suggests Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, can be a benefit rather than a barrier. She says she believes new farmers can use business skills, like management and marketing, developed during other careers. “My mother always told me we’re a family business, but we’re a business,” Ms. Harden said.

Lisa Kivirist, who coaches novice farmers as coordinator of the Rural Women’s Project at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, notes that many of her older students are poised for success. “When they come into farming at midlife or early retirement, they know there’s only so many years left,” Ms. Kivirist said. “There’s a stronger focus and a more realistic sense of a plan.”

Saundra C. Winokur, 74, acknowledges that she lacked a formal plan when she founded Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, Tex., in 1997. “I just threw myself into it and learned on the job, though I probably would have not made as many mistakes as I did had I written a business plan,” Ms. Winokur said. If she had written a business plan, however, she might have become discouraged. “There were no olive orchards at the time in Texas,” she said. “It was thought that it couldn’t be done.”

Ms. Winokur, a native Texan who worked as an elementary-school teacher and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology, traveled extensively to research olive production. She noticed that renowned olive-producing regions — southern Spain, southern Italy and Egypt — “looked a lot like Texas.” In 1997, she bought 276 acres of sandy land, which she describes as “oceanfront property without the ocean.”

She planted 450 trees, but lost about half in the first winter because she had yet to master irrigation. Despite that setback, her business has flourished. In addition to producing olive oil, she owns a nursery and a restaurant. Ms. Winokur has had considerable help along the way. Experienced farmers in the area served as mentors. One neighbor briefed her on the history of her land, which had long been fallow when she bought it.

She later received a $98,000 Agriculture Department Value-Added Producer Grant, which helps farmers create derivative products from crops. Ms. Winokur used the money to market her olive-leaf jelly and hire a chef. The grant “gave me that kick-start I needed to move the business to the next level,” she said.

When she started her orchard, Ms. Winokur could hoist 80-pound bags on her own, but she now must rely on employees to handle strenuous chores. She estimates that it took her 13 years to recruit a “first rate” team and advises new farmers to pay well but hire carefully: “Don’t hire because you’re desperate, the first person who comes through the door. Really take your time.”

Ms. Winokur considers her teaching background a training ground for farming. When she encountered confused children, “I could see that they were looking at me with a blank look,” she said, “then I would have to shift gears, another avenue to explain a concept to them. And I think that’s what you have to do in farming: If something doesn’t work, you have to be willing to shift.”

That lesson is not lost on Debra Sloane, who recently started a backyard farm in Washington, Conn. She suffered a blow to her self-esteem last year when Cisco Systems eliminated her position as director of global health care. “I went through a grieving process,” said Ms. Sloane, who still uses corporate jargon like “customer interface” when discussing farming. After Cisco, she planned to grow exotic mushrooms, having received encouragement from several farm market managers. She then took two seminars for “mushroom nerds” and scrapped the idea because of the capital investment required and her desire to work outdoors. “You need a lab,” Ms. Sloane said of mushroom production. “You need to have a grow room with the right temperature, humidity, air circulation, and I said, ‘Uh-uh.’ ”

Instead, Ms. Sloane, a petite woman in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and bright blue plastic shoes covered in grass clippings, decided to sell produce at several farmers’ markets, manufacture a vegan cereal and start a C.S.A. — a community-supported agriculture program. Her 11 customers pay in advance for weekly allotments of fruit and vegetables, easing her company’s cash flow.

Ms. Sloane, who declined to give her age, also started working out more, because while she once managed a small staff, she now must count on herself to plant, weed and harvest. She runs twice a week and trains at a nearby CrossFit gym four times a week. Her biggest challenge, she predicts, “is actually not physical but mental. It’s really figuring out how to be exact enough to know that I’m going to have enough to fill 11 bags all summer.”

She forecasts a “four-figure” profit in her first year and, like most farmers, will supplement her agricultural income with a second job; she is working part time as a consultant for Avizia Inc., a telemedicine technology company.

She acknowledges that working for a giant multinational corporation was “ego satisfying,” but she finds that life on the farm is “soul satisfying” — and humbling, especially when she must ask for help from more experienced colleagues. “I can tell you this,” she said near her raised beds of asparagus and strawberries. “I wasn’t humble at Cisco. My daughters have said, ‘You are so much nicer now.’ ”

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NOTE:   many of our 200 students in the ONLINE Sustainable Food and Farming Certificate Program at UMass are second-career farmers.  For information on the courses being offered for new farmers see: http://sustfoodfarm.org/online-classes/.

 

New York Times Editorial blasts “Big Food”

Parasites, Killing Their Host  – The Food Industry’s Solution to Obesity

Mark Bitman – New York Times – June 17, 2014

You can buy food from farmers — directly, through markets, any way you can find — and I hope you do. But unless you’re radically different from most of us, much of what you eat comes from corporations that process, market, deliver and sell “food,” a majority of which is processed beyond recognition.

The problem is that real food isn’t real profitable. “It’s hard to market fruit and vegetables without adding value,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “If you turn a potato into a potato chip you not only make more money — you create a product with a long shelf life.” Potatoes into chips and frozen fries; wheat into soft, “enriched” bread; soybeans into oil and meat; corn into meat and a staggering variety of junk.

How do we break this cycle? You can’t blame corporations for trying to profit by any means necessary, even immoral ones: It’s their nature.

You can possibly blame them for stupidity: Even a mindless parasite knows that if it kills its host the party’s over, and by pushing products that promote “illth” — the opposite of health — Big Food is unwittingly destroying its own market. Diet-related Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease disable and kill people, and undoubtedly we’ll be hearing more about nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, an increasingly prevalent fatty liver disease that’s brought on by diet and may lead to liver failure.

Food companies are well aware of the health crisis their products cause, and recognize that the situation is unsustainable. But one theory has it that as long as even one of the big food companies remains cynical and uncaring about its market, they all must remain so.

Chief among the hopeful arguments is one that goes something like this: The first big food outfit to recognize that its future lies in creating a market for healthy and even environmentally neutral food (let’s throw in justice for workers and animal welfare while we’re at it!) may show the way to the future of healthy food as a sound business model. Some profitable corporations nibble at the edges of this already, but — as a piece in the current Harvard Business Review points out — American capitalists have become poor innovators.

Only the naïve, however, would believe that Big Food is generally working toward this. As Nestle and Michele Simon, author of “Appetite for Profit,” have been saying for years, these organizations represent not the public interest but the corporate one, and since they haven’t devised a way to improve or even maintain their bottom lines selling real food, they have to appear to be selling “better” food.

But the key remains selling. A new paper in the journal Social Currents by Ivy Ken, an associate professor of sociology at George Washington University, discusses Big Food’s strategy of “working together” with communities to fight the obesity crisis. The goal is threefold, according to Ken: Corporations want us to focus on the importance of their role in “solving” childhood obesity and presenting themselves as part of the solution. “Their part of working together is re-engineering their products; our part of working together is to buy more and more of this food that’s not real,” Ken said to me.

The food industry also wants us to ignore its use of that strategy to increase its market share and profits; and it wants to maintain legitimacy at a time when community groups and public health officials are, writes Ken, “demanding limits to their involvement” in supplying food to children.

Our efforts to demand limits on the sale of junk to children are a threat to Big Food. If we succeed, it fails, or at least suffers. But if industry succeeds, whether in selling blatant junk or re-engineered versions that are low in fat or sodium or gluten- or sugar-free or reduced-calorie or high fiber or whatever — companies can create any frankenfood they feel will sell — we will continue to suffer. (Nestle often says, “A slightly-better-for-you junk food is still junk food.”) Our health will decline further, the environment will be further degraded, and our health care system (and therefore economy) will spend an increasingly disproportionate amount of money on diet-generated chronic disease.

If the most profitable scenario means that most food choices are essentially toxic — in the sense that overconsumption will cause illness — that’s a failure of the market, not of individual choice. And government’s rightful role is not to form partnerships with industry so that the latter can voluntarily “solve” the problem, but to oversee and regulate industry. Its mandate is to protect public health, and one good step toward fulfilling that right now would be to regulate the marketing of junk to children. Anything short of that is a failure.

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“Big Food” pressures Congress to roll-back progress on healthy food for children

NY Times Op-Ed by Michelle Obama – May 28, 2014

WHEN we began our Let’s Move! initiative four years ago, we set one simple but ambitious goal: to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation so that kids born today will grow up healthy.

To achieve this goal, we have adhered to one clear standard: what works. The initiatives we undertake are evidence-based, and we rely on the most current science. Research indicated that kids needed less sugar, salt and fat in their diets, so we revamped school lunch menus accordingly. When data showed that the lack of nearby grocery stores negatively affected people’s eating habits, we worked to get more fresh-food retailers into underserved areas. Studies on habit formation in young children drove our efforts to get healthier food and more physical activity into child care centers.

Today, we are seeing glimmers of progress. Tens of millions of kids are getting better nutrition in school; families are thinking more carefully about food they eat, cook and buy; companies are rushing to create healthier products to meet the growing demand; and the obesity rate is finally beginning to fall from its peak among our youngest children.

So we know that when we rely on sound science, we can actually begin to turn the tide on childhood obesity.

But unfortunately, we’re now seeing attempts in Congress to undo so much of what we’ve accomplished on behalf of our children. Take, for example, what’s going on now with the Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC. This is a federal program designed to provide supplemental nutrition to low-income women and their babies and toddlers. The idea is to fill in the gaps in their diets — to help them buy items like fresh produce that they can’t afford on their own — and give them the nutrition they’re missing.

Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars. Now, there is nothing wrong with potatoes. The problem is that many women and children already consume enough potatoes and not enough of the nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables they need. That’s why the Institute of Medicine — the nonpartisan, scientific body that advises on the standards for WIC — has said that potatoes should not be part of the WIC program.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated occurrence. We’re seeing the same kind of scenario unfold with our school lunch program. Back in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which set higher nutritional standards for school lunches, also based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Today, 90 percent of schools report that they are meeting these new standards. As a result, kids are now getting more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods they need to be healthy.

This is a big win for parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don’t want their efforts undermined during the day at school. And it’s a big win for all of us since we spend more than $10 billion a year on school lunches and should not be spending those hard-earned taxpayer dollars on junk food for our children.

Yet some members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school. They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches. These issues will be considered when the House Appropriations Committee takes up the annual spending bill for the Agriculture Department on Thursday.

Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense. Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.

Our children deserve so much better than this. Even with the progress we have made, one in three children in this country is still overweight or obese. One in three is expected to develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. And this isn’t just about our children’s health; it’s about the health of our economy as well. We already spend an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. Just think about what those numbers will look like in a decade or two if we don’t start solving this problem now.

The bottom line is very simple: As parents, we always put our children’s interests first. We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures. And when we make decisions about our kids’ health, we rely on doctors and experts who can give us accurate information based on sound science. Our leaders in Washington should do the same.

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