Hidden costs? Food perceptions explored at 'What's on your plate?'

news-contrarianjamesmcwilliams-mContrarian agrarian James McWilliams: "A lot of food writing is pretty puffy."

It was one of those University of Virginia events where the panel discussion may have been trumped by the after-party. Certainly, the October 7 "What's On Your Plate?" symposium gained zest from free local food, free local wine, and free local opinions.

Richard Bean, the infamously disobedient pork-maker arrested in 2007 for misusing "organic" labels, asserted during the Q&A session–- when he wasn't mentioning destitute farmers killing themselves–- that instead of the approximately one percent of Americans making their career in agriculture, he'd like to see farmers constitute 25 percent of the population.

"We need 90 percent more cooks," opined Rowena Morrel, the publisher of In the Kitchen magazine.

Nancy Hurrelbrinck then strolled up to a group gnawing on local kabobs to ask, "Do you know any local sources of rabbits?"

"For pets or meat?" cracked a wiseguy in reference to the famous Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me.

"Mainly, I want the manure for my garden," explained Hurrelbrinck, citing frustration with the $30 per cubic yard price of Panorama Pay-Dirt, the Charlottesville area's best-known compost.

Enviro expert Tanya Denckla Cobb wheeled around to say there are better ways to find economical fertilizer than becoming a rabbit farmer. At which point UVA Community Garden manager Sara Teaster gushed that one of Denckla's books is a mainstay of the Teaster nightstand.

And so it went.

The panelist billed as the "contrarian agrarian," James McWilliams, never got around to mentioning one of his hotter articles, the one in last month's Atlantic suggesting that high fructose corn syrup–- the satanic ooze of all hard-core foodies–- constitutes no bigger a dietary problem than other sugars.

"A lot of food writing is pretty puffy," said McWilliams, noting that the Canadian couple behind the celebrated 100-Mile Diet has been portrayed as a pair of happy localvores even as their diet blasted down their libidos due to micro-nutrient malnutrition.

"That's where the appeal," Mcwilliams said dryly, "really disappears for me."

All this was happening inside one of the more controversial buildings in town, the new home for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, a scholarship group that long operated out of a few rooms. It's now ensconced in a LEED-certified mini-campus, but it came at the cost of an architecturally significant mansion–- as well as about $21 million for 25,000 square feet of space. The scholarship group did donate the use of its auditorium and grassy courtyard for this event organized by an interdisciplinary group called the UVA Food Collaborative.

One panelist, Marian Burros, lamented the presence of ag subsidies for such thigh-padding staples as corn and beef. "Everything is backwards," said Burros, a former New York Times reporter who suggested ousting all politicians who'd vote for such government funding.

"The reason it's cheaper to eat meat is all the subsidies," said fellow panelist McWilliams. And though McWilliams refused to blast all large-scale food operations, he noted that making meat typically burns through energy, water, and other scarce resources.

"The vast majority of calories consumed in this country are not consumed by people," said McWilliams. "It takes 13 gallons of water to grow a tomato and 2,500 gallons of water to make a pound of beef."

The panelists talked of the hidden dangers of RoundUp-ready seeds, Chesapeake Bay-killing effluents, and a host of other "externalities" that hide the true cost of what many people consider inexpensive food.

Fellow panelist Tom Philpott, who writes a weekly column called "Victual Reality," points out that, for now at least, cheap food can still seem really cheap.

"You can go down to any McDonald's," he said, "and get an unspeakable amount of calories for only an hour's minimum wage."


Is this a parody piece?
If this was a real event, the question becomes,"why?"

Not a virtual but a real event, with lots of yummie food and spirited debate, about the economics and politics of food production. Thanks to all those who organized this, and thanks to the Brett Wilson's of the world, the times they are a changin.

from the Hook:

"It's delicious," says Brett Wilson, owner/operator of the area's biggest subscription food plan. "We get the best produce within 100 miles of Charlottesville from the best local farmers and get it to good local folks." The gregarious, overall-sporting vegetable purveyor got his start in 2006 after pressing scads of apples from a doomed orchard the previous fall. Today, his Horse & Buggy Produce counts 800 subscribers gathering goods from nine drop points--- including new ones in Richmond and Lynchburg. Instead of building stores, he keeps his carbon footprint small by setting up tables in parking lots with excess capacity. But because Wilson buys his produce (from myriad organic and nearly-organic suppliers, he declines to term his service a "CSA." In the local food movement, CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is the big buzzword, but it also typically comes with a big buzz-kill: a work requirement for subscribers, something that's not part of Horse & Buggy. Whatever the category, customer enthusiasm can run high. "It has saved me money," says Richmond subscriber Cecelia Horner. "You get stuff that goes together. And it's absolutely super-delicious."

293-3832 horseandbuggyproduce.com (Two others in the area: bestofwhatsaround.org 286-7255 and appalachiastar.com 277-9304 )

These people are giving pretentious, effete liberals a bad name.

well whatever your food tastes are it's hard to argue with the economics or local, sustainable agriculture which locally 'grounds'income destined for distant corporations, gives locals inter-connectivity unheard of before Facebook social networking, pays living wages for families who sacrifice and scrimp to run a farm, and makes the general population healthier through improved dietary products. Barter or exchanges are popping up and farmland is preserved helping in watershed preservation, cleaner air and less secondary pollution problems like smog and run-off. Why depend on banks, land and mortgage speculation, or any other kind of securitization of our output only to have the rug yanked out when the captains of industry screw up (which is often)? Is it effete to want clean air, pure water, non-gmo foods for your children and pets? no is the resounding answer. As a system of delivery for hundreds of millions is it perfect? no nor will it ever be. The reliance we have culturally on Sysco-truck laden deliveries of processed foods, or sugar-saturated happy meals has to end. It probably won't stop until we're all gigantic slobs but for now it's a start of something good.

In her early years of food writing - stretching back 40 years, Ms. Burrus noted that rarely was there an article about a food recall. Now, there are several a week. Another downside to industrialized food production.

US food policy is "bread and circuses" - keep the masses happy with cheap food at whatever cost. The costs are environmental, social and economic. But hungry people revolt. Is there any other industry where the producer has no control over what price he sells his product for? The futures markets decide, the processors decide, and if farmer's can't make a living too bad.

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Marion Burros only touched on the subject of people growing and buying fresh foods and not knowing how to cook it. To me this one of the most significant pieces of the puzzle. No matter how the food is grown, whether organically, economically, affordably, commercially, or locally--if people don't know how to cook it, it cannot create a healthy well fed population. Yes we need more small farmers, but we need more home cooks as well. There is a kitchen in every home and every apartment, but only 10-25 percent of them are used to prepare fresh food. We have at least 2, maybe 3 generations of people who buy 80-90 percent of their food already prepared. What is needed to increase the health of our population is more cooks in the kitchen. We need to teach more people to cook. Cooking is as significant to our long term survival as any other discipline.

Or we need to rethink the idea of living communally so we don't all have to cook. Trying to get everyone to cook is unrealistic.

I work at an onion ring factory, highly automated and efficient, electricity is used wisely, waste is recycled effectively.
Water use is one area we have not tackled, why? because it is still cheap in this area.

Eating rabbit turds are also a good way to get your fiber. Ask any child that has a rabbit. My kids think they are good and we tell them it is candy

At our house, we just recycle them by feeding them back to the rabbit.

When you feed them back to the rabbits it is not good. For they will not become plump and good to eat. On our rabbit farm we have many ways to cook rabbit and you can eat it raw, only after a fresh kill. I like baked, fried, black and blue, rabbit brain and the best is fried paws. The only problem is you can not make rabbit feet to sell,when you eat the paws. We sell rabbit coats,hats, shoes, rabbit heads, whole stuffed rabbits, and many more. We will send you any kind of rabbit you want or part also. Love that rabbit.

Perhaps VeggieGirl's suggestion (Oct 11) would be appropriate for the 11 people who live in a setting that would lend itself to communal living/cooking. The rest of us, particularly householders with spouses, children, houses, yards, full time jobs and often living at a distance from the urban center, we need to learn to cook. Cooking is not a chore we should run from but a human activity to be embraced, always a blessing, whether simple basic menus for most days or fancy special dishes for the lovely comforts of eating together with invited guests.
Having lived for a bit in a communal house (back in the day (1971) of the original counter-culture) I discovered that people who hated to cook made hiddious meals and thus over a very brief time the best cook (me) became the regular cook. Ah, human nature rears its ugly head! :) So let's all learn to cook, teach others to cook and cook, cook, cook!