Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Food Justice (Part 2)

Round these parts casually mentioning Monsanto is like a J.K. Rowling character uttering the name Voldemort in passing. To some it evokes the very notion of evil itself and so a brief reference to Monsanto in Part 1, begs revisiting.

Monsanto gained notoriety in The Omnivore's Dilemma (I can't promise I won't refer to this book again and again) but it first captured my attention when I watched the documentary, The Future of Food. Ominously narrated, the film focuses on genetically modified crops and how large argobusiness is affecting the agricultural landscape in America. Using biotechnology, Monsanto created and patented Roundup Ready seeds that enable it to grow even while Roundup herbicide are sprayed on it to remove the threat of weeds. Each year the seeds must be purchased anew which locks in consumers and Monsanto has sued several farmers who have saved seed or have used their seed without authorization. The latest and perhaps greatest problem is the emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds. These are some of the reasons Monsanto's generous seed donation to Haiti has met with such - pardon the pun - resistance. Farmers there are threatening to burn the seeds to make a statement about their interest in food security, sustainability and sovereignty. For more about this check out last week's post from an oddly eponymous blog I came across for the first time today: La Vida Locavore.

As an interesting counterpoint in corporate philanthropy, Wal-Mart has recently pledged a whopping $2 billion donation to food banks across the country - one of the largest corporate gifts on record. This is big news at a time when more and more Americans are relying on food banks. To their credit, Wal-Mart has been donating significant amounts to food banks for years, but is now allocating a third of their donation to provide for fresh foods. Since fruits and vegetables have shorter shelf lives and require refrigeration, the company is focusing its resources toward improving food banks' ability to provide these important foods to customers. For the past two years I've been involved with food banks and have seen that the foods they receive from corporate and private sources tend to be those foods that are cheap and somewhat less desirable. When I go in for my monthly visit and there's a specialty item - sometimes as simple as oil - that we can provide to homebound seniors, it's an exciting day. Not to say that general donations aren't worthwhile or appreciated; many of the non-perishable items collected provide basics for customers: canned fruit, vegetables, peanut butter, in addition to the items like bulk grains that food banks purchase from wholesale distributors. But from what I've seen, most prized are the donations from grocery stores, bakeries and natural food markets that provide brightly colored fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and freshly baked breads. These are the items that disappear quickly and on days when I can grab some for the clients I work with, I feel really good about the food bank system. I look forward to seeing an increase in the availability of fresh foods and commend Wal-Mart on taking a step in the right direction.

So there you have two sides of the big business coin: both illustrate attempts at food justice on a macro scale. But there are ways to see it play out on a micro-level every day. Most of us are concerned about our own health and will spend money on quality foods for oursleves, but perhaps it's time to extend that offer to others as well. About a month ago I was volunteering at a rock concert/can-drive and on my way there I grabbed a can from my pantry. When I placed it on the table I received comments about my can, an Amy's Organic soup and I joked that if I choose to eat organic, shouldn't I be willing to give someone else that opporunity? In all honesty, I'm not all that pious - I grabbed this soup because it had wheat in it and I don't eat wheat, which may then beg the question, what about gluten-intolerant food bank customers?

But back to the point, since low-quality foods have created many of the health problems that now threaten our health care system and economy, how can we break this cycle if we only provide low-quality foods to the poor and hungry? I am fortunate to see this cycle broken regularly: through my CSA which specifically purchases shares and donates extra produce a local shelter with a teen feed program, through farmer's markets that donate leftover items to Seattle area food banks, through gleaning programs that invite farmers and even individuals with fruit trees to contribute to hunger programs. Small efforts like these that can make a food desert bloom.

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