J500 Media and the Environment

Service + Learning
April 28, 2010, 9:50 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 14, Society + Media

I never knew how much could be learned in four months. Wow, seriously? Four months?! This is sincere disbelief. I hadn’t realized that this semester was only 4 months long until just now.

My homemade pot pie, foreshadowing how happy all my food will be.

Okay, so I really never knew how much could be learned in four months, and I am someone who actively seeks out learning. Anyway, I learned more about the environment, our food, and our water in this semester than I have, well, ever. And I found it all fascinating.

Mostly we learned about food and what it will take to make our food better. I paid attention to what I ate before, but now I understand my food beyond my fridge. I understand what it means to be organic and why it’s important. I read labels, I seek out locally grown food, and I am more likely to go to a restaurant that serves humanely raised-livestock.

More importantly, I realize that paying attention to these things will make a difference.  Working with this class was a semester-long service learning project for the Douglas County Food Policy Council.  DCFPC is working towards a local food economy for Douglas County, and by working for them, I have slowly been able to see the start of something profound. We started with a class who informed a council who will change the community.

I love Lawrence and I’ve always believed it to be part of cutting-edge issues.  The Food Policy Council is no exception.  Lawrence is a culturally and ideologically fertile  place to instigate this project. The community is receptive and there is an endless stream of eager-minded students to facilitate in the effort. I believe that a local food system is imperative and important, and that many community’s world wide will soon follow suit.

I intend to follow the Council’s progress over the next few years, and eat locally and slow for the rest of my life, realizing in all situations that food is a solution.


Flotsam Freakout
April 20, 2010, 8:55 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 13, Society + Media | Tags: , , , ,

Last week I read a news report about a giant garbage patch floating in the Atlantic Ocean.  Drifting between Bermuda and Portugal, there are miles and miles of plastic junk and waste.

I closed out of the browser quickly, like I had some dark secret that I couldn’t let anyone see.  Like one of those polished, well-respected professionals who, in reality, has a home full of take-out containers and wildlife.

I was mortified.  I felt personally responsible for the undulating swath of debris pictured next to the article.

flickr.com, by Horia Varlan

Irrational and unbalanced response? Maybe. But I sat there staring at a beautiful Portuguese coastline littered with Tupperware and Gatorade bottles and I felt like I had put them there.

Now, I realize that I didn’t really pack up my sandwich baggies and shampoo bottles, go to Portugal, and fling them into the sea for fish food. But I felt like I might as well have because the story made me realize that what I was doing here had significant, far-reaching consequences.

There is another garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean.  Though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says it cannot accurately measure the size of the patch, sources have estimated it is roughly the size of Texas.

That much trash is dangerous, especially considering that most of it is plastic. According to a National Geographic article, approximately 10% of the plastic produced each year ends up in the sea.

That plastic pollutes the water, kills animals, and ultimately ends up in the food we eat. We can keep this from happening.

As the article notes, there is not really a realistic way to clean up the ocean. The plastic we have thrown away is going to sit unrecoverable in our oceans, forests, and landfills for a long time (think hundreds of years). But a realistic solution is to just use less of it.

Small changes like choosing paper milk cartons over plastic gallon jugs,  or using aluminum cans instead of plastic pop bottles can reduce the amount of plastic we consume by a lot.  And if you use something that’s plastic, recycle it.

I know using less plastic isn’t going to make our oceans fresh and free of flotsam and jetsam, but it will make a difference.  Someday, we’ll solve the problem of our polluted lands and oceans. In the meanwhile, we can at least take steps in the right direction.

It’s time to start cleaning up our act because, let’s face it, the secret’s out.


Focus on Life and Food will Follow

I never, ever ate school lunches.  I never asked my parents why, but I’m guessing it was less expensive than the meal plan at school. In addition to sack lunches being cheaper, they were probably healthier than what they served at school.  I’m guessing my homemade lunches are part of what made healthy eating a habit for me. To this day I pack a lunch box, and I’m essentially in the 18th grade.

After watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,  I could kiss my parents a thousand times for packing my lunches while I was growing up.  In the past 20 years the percentage of children who are obese has doubled. Obese children are more likely to have high blood pressure, are more at-risk for diabetes, and are more likely to be obese as an adult.

In a testimony to Congress, Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services noted that, as a result of obesity, many children in this generation of children will not outlive their parents.  Many say unhealthy school lunches, with high fat and sugar content, contribute to the epidemic.

from flickr.com, by SpecialKRB

Jamie Oliver’s show is new on ABC and it is tracking Mr. Oliver’s fight to revolutionize American school lunches.

Apart from being appalled and heartbroken by the food those little children were eating, I was struck by something profound. Jamie Oliver is reaching into families, churches, and schools in order to revolutionize the food habits of the city.

There is undeniably a food movement going on in America and there are voices urging us to make food a pillar of our lives.  However, Jamie Oliver’s voice in the food movement is pointing out that it already is.

Food is a constant and important presence in all lives.  Meals are important to families, food affects our bodies and minds, and it is often an integral part of any religion.

But despite food’s importance and omnipresence, somewhere along the line we’ve gotten unfortunately uncomfortable with food.  If you listen to people talk about their food concerns, it becomes evident that a lot of people are uneasy about food, but for a myriad of different reasons.

Some want low fat, some want low salt, some don’t have time, some don’t have money. Some don’t like to cook, others don’t know how. Some people eat too much, others don’t want to eat anything at all.

Considering we encounter food at least three times a day, people face these concerns at least that often. Furthermore, there are messages about what is “good” food everywhere.  Between the TV, internet, radio, newspaper, food packaging, and neighbors, we can’t escape it.

It. is. too. much.

When it comes to food we’ve been informed to our detriment.  All of this information about food has made us think that it’s the food that’s important,  but that’s the thinking that has gotten us in trouble.  Our intense focus on food has distracted us from what we really hold important.

In order to change our relationship with food, we each need to isolate what is important to us and focus on it.  I believe that if you focus on what is important, the food will follow. Of course, each of us will have different priorities, but the results will all be the same: we can solve our problems with food.

If you want more time together as a family, plan to be together for dinner more often. If you need to save money, eat at home more often. If you want a sharper mind, figure out how to eat to help that happen. If you would like a new skill, learn how to cook.

It is time to appreciate that we live with food and that we need it. I urge you to refocus and realize that food is not our primary concern, but is instead woven throughout our higher priorities.  So pick your priority and honor it, and I guarantee better food will follow.


Sustain a Change

When I consider organics and the development of a sustainable food system, my opinions are always rooted in the same priority: people.

flickr.com, by Masahiro Ihara

With more than 300 million people in the United States alone, farmers are responsible for feeding an ever-increasing population.

Many believe that meeting the market demand of so many people requires large scale farming operations. However,  while the system we have now provides for us today, it is jeopardizing our security for the future.

Immediately overhauling our current agricultural system is impractical. However, starting the gradual process toward sustainable agriculture is not.

It is easy to dismiss those who encourage us to eat local and buy organic as people disillusioned by a yearning for the pastoral life of yesteryear, but that is a simplistic response to a demand for sustainable agriculture. There are positive environmental, economical, and political implications behind the demand for a sustainable food system.

A common complaint about organic food is that it is too expensive. This is understandable considering organic food can cost anywhere from 20% to 100% more than its non-organic equivalent.  However, as noted in a recent Washington Post article, the organic food industry is growing and, with that growth, the food prices are coming down.  Additionally, organic food can be found at traditional supermarkets such as WalMart, which has specifically stated its intent to make organic food affordable.

Another common question surrounding the sustainable food movement is whether a sustainable food system can feed a rapidly expanding world population. A study comparing conventional and organic crop production concluded that organic farming can match the industrial yield of conventional practices. Another study from the University of Michigan concluded that, not only can sustainable agriculture provide enough food, but it may even result in an increased yield.

In addition, it is important to note that a reversion to sustainable farming doesn’t disregard or ignore the agricultural progress we have made. It supplements it. We have made invaluable technological progress over the past century and we know more about our environment and about ourselves than ever before. With all of the information and experience we have, we are in a dynamic position to change our food system for the better.

We don’t all need to be farmers or gardeners to appreciate and respect the importance of agriculture. I wouldn’t be able to focus so intently on food policy if the quality of our food didn’t effect us as individuals, as families, and as communities.  People have a profound connection to food, which is why we have a right to question our food sources and demand that they be stable enough to provide for us in the future.

K. Cochran

When it comes to corn, I’m all ears.
March 5, 2010, 10:01 am
Filed under: J500 Week 7, Society + Media | Tags: , , ,

I love corn. If you tell me we’re having corn for dinner, I’ll look at you with wide, excited eyes, clap my hands and proclaim, “I LOVE corn!” That reaction is involuntary and I really can’t control it.

Most people would react this way to say, chocolate cake. Not me. I react that way to corn. And why not? It tastes like summer and is the color of sunshine.


However, crazy corn love aside, I had no idea I was eating so much of it.  After a little Google searching, it turns out that corn is in more of my daily diet than I realized.  The instant coffee and frozen waffles with syrup I had for breakfast? The peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread with potato chips and Coke that I had for lunch? The gum I chewed afterward? The grilled chicken caesar salad I had for dinner? My toothpaste?

Corn is in all of it. Sometimes it’s a sweetener, sometimes it’s a thickening agent, or it may be the feed used to fatten livestock.  Considering the sum of its uses, we end up eating a lot of corn.  And it doesn’t stop there. We’re wearing corn, writing on corn, and we can even put corn in our cars.

To some, it may sound resourceful to use one crop for so many things. I think it’s wasteful and unnatural. We’re planting acres upon acres of corn fields so we can have  sweeter food,  fatter cows, thicker soups, and cardboard.

Don’t get tricked into applauding the diversity of uses as innovation. In order to produce so much corn,  farmers worldwide have turned to the unstable practice of monoculture farming, which is the opposite of diversity. This method of farming allows a farmer to produce a lot of one type of crop, but it depletes the soil and destroys ecosystem diversity in the process.

We’re being thrown precariously off balance by little, unassuming ears of corn. We’re consuming thousands gallons of artificial sweetener at the cost of tons upon tons of soil erosion. We’re fattening cattle with food they aren’t designed to eat, which results in sick cows and an increased likelihood of  sick people. We’re plowing under forests to plant corn.

I hate to be concerned about corn, but I am. Food should be respected as food and modern agriculture is producing more than dinner. I hate that we’re feeding livestock food they shouldn’t be eating just because it’s cheaper. Furthermore, there are too many hungry people in the world for there to be corn in my toothpaste.

When it comes to corn, we have too much of a good thing.  I may love corn, but not at the expense of sick animals and exhausted farmland.

K. Cochran

If you are what you eat, in my case I’m . . .
February 26, 2010, 3:51 pm
Filed under: J500 Week 6, Society + Media | Tags: , , , , ,

Sometimes when I’m in the mood for a little self-awareness, I turn to the Internet quiz.  Those simple, short questionnaires are perfect for instant answers that have zero basis in scientific fact. So I opted to take a quiz designed to tell me what my food says about me.

Evidently, I’m “plain.”

“Plain,” according to the site, means “not highly cultivated, simple, natural, homely.” The homely part is unfortunate.  How did they come up with that?  Because I would choose to eat an apple over a mulberry? That makes no sense.


But in all other regards, that assessment is probably fair. On a day-to-day basis, my meals are simple, which is basically a result of two factors. Grad student glamor for one, meaning I have limited time and money. I’m sorry, I should be more precise: I have very limited time and money. Time is especially of the essence because when I get home for dinner I’m famished enough to eat my draperies. Which actually would not be simple at all.

Another factor is I just like simple meals. I find them satisfying and charming. Meat and potatoes? Perfection.  If I’ve learned anything in my 24 years, it’s that it is never a mistake to listen to how you feel, and it just feels right to eat this way.  However, while my meals are well-rounded and satisfying, there is a lot more to food than fiber and vitamins.

The food we eat effects our livelihood by nourishing our bodies and connecting to our emotions.  In my case,  grocery shopping and home-cooked meals make me feel responsible, healthy, and self-sufficient.  Anyone who has sat around the dinner table with family or friends knows that food is  much more than a solution to hunger.  Good food makes us feel secure. When I come home to beef and vegetable soup, I feel settled, calm, and cared for.

That’s the magic of food.  I believe that a person’s favorite meal can tell you a lot about their life. Was it a meal with friends or family? Was it formal or casual? Takeout or made at home?  I would assume that most people can associate certain emotions with those different factors. Furthermore, I have noticed that people who are comfortable with food are comfortable with themselves.

Food is important to our physical health but it’s necessary for our emotional well-being too.  When we’re confronted with the problems in our food system today, we need to acknowledge the gravity and depth of the issue.  We should be concerned about the environment and human nutrition, but an unstable food system also implicates our cultures and our connections to other people.

When you sit down for a meal, consider what food does for you. I think you’ll realize that the importance of food is not so plain and simple.


Love your Mother Earth

In grade school we sang a song called, “Love Your Mother Earth.”  In my mind, I was singing about an ethereal woman who soared through the skies on the wings of eagles.  She spoke the language of the ocean and her hair was made of ferns.

Mother Earth photo: flickr.com

We also sang about Santa Claus and the Headless Horseman.*

Over time these childhood characters fade away, only resurfacing as nostalgia or a great Halloween costume.  Such was the fate of Mother Earth.  Sure she is one of my favorite childhood memories, but Mother Earth, like the Headless Horseman, is kind of a weirdo.  I mean come on, she’s made of plants.

It really is too bad because these images can make people see environmentalism as strange and inhuman.  People generally aren’t comfortable with a woman who has the whole world in her womb and they are afraid that environmentalism will force them to honor an ideal akin to this weird plant lady.

I am here to clear the air.** I want to assure you that taking care of the earth does not turn you into one of “those people” who look, and smell, like compost.  You will still be allowed to bathe, and you don’t have to weave your own clothes out of last night’s leftovers.  It’s going to be okay.  In fact, it’s going to be better.

Environmentalism speaks directly to what we need as people.  It gives us healthy food, clean water, and breathable air.  Adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle won’t ruin our lives. It will make our lives better. It can strengthen our communities, power our homes, and restore balance to our backyards.

Environmentalism is all about quality of life and reconnecting to what really sustains us.  It starts with acknowledging the intrinsic connection between us and the earth.  I realize that sounds dramatic, but it’s just true. Everything we need to survive is provided by the earth. We grow our food in it, we drink its water, and we build our homes on it from materials that come out of it.

Being an environmentalist means you acknowledge this connection between us and the earth, and you’re willing to respect it.  It means you are committed to improving our quality of life. You want healthier food, clearer air, and cleaner water. You understand that your actions today can ensure that the earth will be able to provide for us tomorrow.

And there is nothing weird and inhuman about that.


*In retrospect, I realize it’s odd that we sang about the Headless Horseman.

**environmental pun intended.

Sustainable is Obtainable
February 10, 2010, 10:35 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , , ,

Every time I hear talk of sustainability, I think, “ah, wouldn’t that be utopia?”  The picture in my head is all green and sunshine, warm and busy. There we are, wasting not, wanting not, and all of our food is bright and delicious.

Unfortunately, I think most people believe that the idea of sustainability is more akin to a perpetual motion machine than an actual possibility. A community-wide agricultural system that supports the local ecology, biosphere, and human population? Please. I can barely sustain my Wednesdays.

There is no doubt that the idea of developing such a system is daunting. But even though I may I say utopia, I don’t mean to flippantly disregard the idea as fictional.  Quite the opposite, in fact.


Defining a sustainable food system helps us see  just how possible, and desirable, a sustainable food system really is. Of all the definitions of I’ve seen, I like the American Public Health Association’s definition the best.  Let’s consider my favorite elements of that definition.

A sustainable food system:

Provides healthy food today: Let’s admit it, we need better food. We’re a nation plagued with obesity and diabetes. There may even be a connection between our food and our moods. And we don’t need that food tomorrow, we need it today.

Ensures  food for generations to come: A sustainable food system helps us take care of people tomorrow by what we do today. Isn’t it a comfort to realize that with some care and effort, we can keep ourselves from leaving the next generation hungry and struggling?

Makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all: The socio-economic disparity in food choices today is upsetting. A sustainable food system can help balance our food resources and give people access to their human right to healthy food.

Is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities: This is my favorite part. A sustainable food system is humane and helps us help ourselves. It strengthens our communities, provides jobs, and protects farmers‘ livelihoods.

Has a minimal negative impact to the environment: We need to start taking better care of the earth if we expect it to take care of us.  We need to start avoiding pollution and soil erosion before there is an irreversible impact on our environment.

I see no reason why a sustainable food system cannot succeed. I believe it can and, with inspiration and motivation, will. A system of efficient balance takes time, planning, and dedication. An agricultural system that provides the environmental and human health that we need is too invaluable to dismiss as a dreamland.


Trend Today, Trite Tomorrow

I love a good ad slogan.  They’re catchy, creative and stick in your head.  Really good ones actually affect behavior. For instance, I check myself before I wreck myself and  I occasionally enjoy an incredible, edible egg. I’ve also gone green.

I don’t use disposable lunch bags or water bottles, I recycle, I take my own bags to the grocery store and I buy organic fairly often. I even make a special effort at the gym to use those machines that generate their own electricity.

A well-crafted slogan is a great public relations tool and it can do big things for movements like environmentalism. It has the power to raise money, spread awareness and inspire action.  With the help of a good slogan, a movement like environmentalism becomes the crusade du jour.

Unfortunately, there is the inevitable effect of time on trendiness. Once a phrase has lost its momentum it becomes trite and  lifeless, unlikely to surface again except for maybe on a novelty t-shirt. But while the the slogan may have died, the issue is still an issue. And, my apologies to advertisers and wordsmiths worldwide, the issue is what’s really important.

If someone asks me why I buy organic, I’m not going to throw them a slogan and say I’m going green. If someone wants to know why I recycle, I don’t say I give a hoot and don’t pollute. How does that answer their question? That answer is too vague and leaves you sounding uninformed or, worse, insincere.

Instead, I tell them about minimizing waste and pollution. I explain that organic food keeps pesticides out of the ground and out of our bodies. I inform them about the issue. Anything less and you’ll end up like Woodsy Owl,  motivating people to do hardly more than shake their heads and smile at your silliness.

While my love for slogans is strong, my love for the environment is stronger, so I pay attention to what it means to go green. Now, I’m better at recognizing when something is environmentally friendly without the help of  a “go green” label.

Slogans help start a movement, but it’s people that keep it going. If a slogan catches your attention, research the underlying issue. Get educated about a movement or a cause. Save the slogan from itself by turning the trend into a habit, because information will outlive any ad campaign.


Glycerol in my Grocery Bag

Ah, food. I love it.  I love seeing it, smelling it, cooking it, reading about it, shopping for it,  eating it, and sharing it.  Because I love it, I pay attention to what’s in it. A few years ago, I stopped buying anything made with high fructose corn syrup. I thought that ridding my diet of the processed sweetener may give me more energy. Recently, I decided to choose foods with familiar ingredients. Whatever it is goes right back on the shelf when I see a word like, “carrageenan.” If it’s an ingredient I can’t put in my own pantry, I try to avoid it.

Unfortunately, reading labels still doesn’t mean you know what you’re eating. Twinkie Deconstructed, by Steve Ettlinger, answers questions about processed food that a lot of people didn’t know needed to be asked. What are we eating, really?  When you look into it like Ettlinger did, you may find out that, if you are what you eat, you’re increasingly becoming drywall.

What's on your grocery list? photo credit: K.Cochran

We need to start asking questions about our food. Knowledge helps us make decisions about what we will, and will not, put in our bodies.  It’s one thing to use food as fuel, but using fuel as food? We deserve better.

Knowing what’s in our food gives us control. Will companies keep making foods that we simply won’t buy? Of course not. Take my personal boycott against high fructose corn syrup. Two years ago when I started, I was very limited in the foods I could buy. Today, I have many  more options.

It seems that enough people started avoiding high fructose corn syrup, so companies stopped using it. Imagine that effect on a larger scale. Little Kelly in Lawrence, Kansas couldn’t have had that impact on her own. People need to buy better food before companies will give us better food to eat. They will feed us what we’re willing to be fed.

Start making decisions about your food.  You can do what I did and choose one ingredient to avoid, and build on that list over time.  Go organic if you can.  Find your local farmer’s market for healthy produce grown close by.

Bottom line: food is important.  If I wanted to eat wood chips, I’d gnaw on my floorboards. But I don’t, and I can’t imagine too many people do. Do some research and make some changes. I love my food, and it’s time it loved me back.

K. Cochran


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