An unforeseen circumstance dashed my hopes, and perhaps yours too, of a new episode of the podcast today. But there’s no point in being your own boss if you can’t occasionally give your staff a break. Next week, and that’s a promise.
In the meantime, some long reads and some short for your entertainment.
One astute reader poked fun at my quote last week from Marion Nestle about raising cattle regeneratively, saying they thought contaminated sprouts might be a better option. That may mean that “regenerative” has already had its day in the sun, like sustainable, local and organic before it.
Jason Lusk has written an interesting article looking at The Ebbs and Flows of Fashionable Food and in my opinion there’s a lot of truth in his analysis. He describes a cycle driven initially by some radical, attractive ideas that create a movement, which then doesn’t so much die as be absorbed into the mainstream, thereby losing “their moral force and cultural cache”.
Lusk offers up some thoughts on why this happens, first among them, the need for standardisation. At the beginning, there’s no standard definition for what any movement means, although adherents think they share one. Along comes a set of rules, which Lusk says “improve transparency and consumer communication”, and that’s where I believe the rot sets in, because rules are inevitably a substitute for philosophy. As Lusk says, “choices made in the process can alienate ‘true believers’,” but there’s much more to it than that.
Danone’s recent decision to abandon at least 89 dairy farmers of New England for much larger operations in the US southwest will have absolutely no impact on the Certified Organic status of its Horizon brand yoghurt. People who buy that yoghurt probably will not notice any difference. But if they’re buying it because they have some rose-tinted vision of what “organic” means, and found out about the kinds of operations Danone is making new agreements with, I suspect they would be shocked.
Would they be willing to pay more for their organic yoghurt? And if so, how are other organic producers supposed to market the fact that they are “more organic” — and therefore more expensive — than Danone?
As Danone is to “organic” yoghurt, so Gruppo Ferrero is to chocolate-flavoured hazelnut paste.
Last week my friend Luigi sent me a link to an article in the Financial Times, about how insatiable global demand for that over-sweet, hazelnut-poor, palm-oil enriched stuff threatens farmland and biodiversity here in Italy. (The FT has a fearsome paywall, but there seem to be sites that have no problem ripping them off.) Now, Fortune magazine is on-board with essentially the same story although with a lot more background and much easier access. (To be fair, Deutsche Welle had a really interesting article about the same problem almost a year ago.)
My prejudice, which naturally I prefer to think of as my good taste, is amply on display above. Just as one farmer told Deutsche Welle — “We are not against hazelnuts, but against these agro-industrial methods that don't respect our land” — I am not against chocolate-flavoured hazelnut spread per se. At least here, there are alternatives on the shelf, if you look, and though they are more expensive, they are so much more delicious and incomparably better for the environment.
The Brookings Institution has a new report out on ways to reduce food insecurity in the US. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they’ve chosen to frame it in terms of the failings of conventional ideas of food deserts.
There are definitions of what exactly “food desert” means, like the 2008 Farm Bill’s “area .. with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” That’s pretty loose, and the report lays into it, but while may be true that people live across the street from a giant supermarket that happens not to be in their geographically defined distrct, or that people may shop on the way home from work (if they have work) rather than locally, is that helpful? Only, I suspect, if you think that oases of fresh food in the middle of food deserts will somehow magically improve matters, when the real problem is poverty.
The report acknowledges as much, quoting with approval a USDA conclusion: “Geographic access to food was generally not associated with the percentage of households that were food insecure.”
What to do? Better cartography helps. Rather than the here-be-dragons of food deserts, some studies are much more nuanced. Michigan State University, for example, surveyed much more granular access to 447 different items of produce in Greater Lansing. That lets them map how many different items are within a ten minute walk (or drive) of how many food items. (Alas, I have not been able to find the interactive version of that map linked in the story.)
The Brookings’ report mentions other research showing how the presence of farmers’ markets, community gardens and other sources of food also result in a different picture of food deserts. In the end, though, as the report makes clear, it isn’t about food supply, it is about demand:
The food desert narrative overlooks the basic relationship between supply and demand; increasing the supply of food will only increase consumption if there is enough demand to meet it. In the case of food, demand is suppressed among lower-income households. Low-income households spend less than a third of what high-income households spend on food each year, yet food expenditures account for a disproportionate share (36%) of their disposable income. This forces families to make impossible decisions between food and medicine, heating and cooling, housing, and education.
The report offers some suggestions as to how to improve people’s ability to buy the food they need.
Three good long reads.
On the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people.
It isn’t so, as I learned from Part Two of Jonathan Katz’s illuminating series on autism and food. While “a few commonalities abound”, as Jonathan explains, there are also plenty of differences, resulting in “a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens”.
That’ll do for now. Thanks for reading, and have a good week.