J500 Media and the Environment

“Clowning” with the Six Degrees of Food News

Anyone else find this photo creepy?

Opening of McDonald’s, Beijing

Something about the sunglasses, I guess. Or the export of American culture.

The photo dipicts clowns who were on hand to celebrate the opening of a McDonald’s in Beijing, and it was part of a New York Times article about the company’s record profits in February. McDonald’s profits jumped 11.7 percent internationally, fueled in part by Leap Year sales but also the weak U.S. dollar. You can get more Mac for your Yuan these days.

I’d like to use that story to play the Six Degrees of Separation game. But instead of people, in this instance, I’d like to look at the short distance between food news. We know McDonald’s is doing well – that’s one data point. Let’s put another marker by the story that University of Washington researchers determined that calorie for calorie, junk food is way cheaper than good-for-you food. According to the researchers, who compared foods in major grocery stores in the Seattle area, you pay $1.76 per 1,000 calories for sugary, fatty foods that have the most calories, but you pay $18.16 per 1,000 calories for the lowest-calorie foods (which are most often better for you, such as fruits and vegetables).

Now, here’s our third degree: increasing food costs overall. We’ve endured a 4.2 increase for meats, fish, veggies, fruit, dairy and eggs in 2007, and there’s a predicted jump of 3.5 to 4.5 percent in food costs for this year. May not sound like much to you as an individual, but when you add in higher fuel costs for gasoline and heating your home, you’re bound to notice it.

And finally, there isn’t enough grain to go around. We’re looking at a worldwide grain shortage brought about in part by more people on the planet, corn-hungry biofuels such as ethanol, and fewer acres to grow food successfully. Or, you can think of it the way Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource put it in this comprehensive look at grain shortages:

“Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,” Basse said. “But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.”

When I look at the big, big picture, taking all this news and more into account, I’m scared by what I see coming together. A faltering U.S. economy. More people are cash-strapped and rely on unhealthy, calorie-dense foods. Those unhealthy foods gobble up lots of resources (transportation, grain for animal meats, land and plastics for packaging, among them). Global warming may restrict those resources even further. At the same time, prices for all foods are going up, driven in part by scarcity of supply. Already, some nations have to safeguard grain supplies that are distributed to keep people from rioting.

There’s no easy way to answer such a complex economic web of problems. But I think that if anything would bring about change to the American, Western diet that the world seems to embrace more and more often, it’s going to be the force wielded by economics. If there isn’t enough money to buy meat, or bread or milk, at some point we will be forced to go without it. I wonder how that will affect that jump in profit at McDonalds?*

*And I’m not picking on McD’s as the evil empire, but they are a mom and apple pie export of American living, as well as an enormous corporate success. About 47 million people each day eat at the 31,000 McDonald’s locations worldwide. That’s roughly the entire populations of Greece, Australia and the Netherlands combined.

–Jen Humphrey

Can the Corn
March 4, 2008, 2:19 pm
Filed under: Food + Health | Tags: , , ,

A Biofuel corn field

I have this weird, unshakable addiction to canned tomatoes. I can eat a can a day as a tasty accompaniment to a salad or soup, but I have been known to open a can of stewed tomatoes and devour them a la carte. Canned tomatoes are my flavor and vitamin C bridge between the end of the fresh tomato season in August and the start of the new season in late June.

But corn is putting an end to my canned tomato addiction.

I found corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup in my can of tomatoes last night. Why would a can of tomatoes need that stuff? Then I read a few more labels to discover it’s in my Glaceau vitamin water, it’s in my breakfast cereal, it’s in the salad dressing I put on the salad, and it’s in the salsa I had.

A cursory Internet search will tell you that corn is used in the production or processing of 2,500 grocery store items out of 10,000. It’s used in manufacturing for things like adhesives, aluminum, antibiotics, asbestos insulation, aspirin, automobiles – and hey, we’re not even out of the A list!

One of the ways it gets into the food supply is via high fructose corn syrup. It’s strange stuff. The New York Times described the process this way: “It starts with corn kernels and takes place in a series of stainless steel vats and tubes in which a dozen different mechanical processes and chemical reactions occur — including several rounds of high-velocity spinning and the introduction of three different enzymes to incite molecular rearrangements.”

Sweeeeet, right?

A few years ago, there was an uproar over high fructose corn syrup. Rates of increasing obesity were commensurate with the increasing presence of HFCS in the food supply. The corn lobby didn’t want manufacturers to lessen demand, which relied on consumer demand, so they put up this slick, innocuous looking site to tell you “all the facts” about HFCS. You have to hunt around for the contact us page before you find out who is sponsoring the site.

Since then, the original studies about the possible relationship between HFCS and obesity have been called into question but I’m avoiding it nevertheless. No more canned tomatoes except for the ones I home can myself.

Reading labels isn’t new to me, especially for calories and fat. But the idea of thinking about them, really reading them to consider what I’m ingesting, is. The fewer the ingredients, the closer you are to eating the real food instead of a chemical cocktail meant to seem like food. I’m going to try to eat the way author Michael Pollan (check out his thoughts on corn) says to: if something has health claims on the label, question whether it’s going to be good for you. Ever see a health claim on an apple?

— Jen Humphrey

Living with the Triple-R Mantra
February 25, 2008, 6:51 am
Filed under: Waste + Recycling | Tags: , ,

My typical trash
I used to live in rural Douglas County where there wasn’t any municipal trash service. We would hold onto our trash for a week and whenever the smell began to overpower the back porch, we’d haul it to town and toss it into an unsuspecting apartment Dumpster. We didn’t recycle. Nothing like living under the same roof with your trash will make you appreciate how much garbage you produce.

So over a period of several years, and after adjusting to the conveniences of city life again, we learned how to reduce our trash. We now recycle everything we can, re-use plastic Ziploc bags, compost our veggie and fruit scraps, and we try to reduce the amount of packaging in our purchases. Not that it’s automatic, though. Sometimes I am incredibly reluctant to do this. More times than I can count I haven’t wanted to shuffle across the yard with the compost or grumbled in the morning when I realized that I hadn’t emptied the reusuable coffee filter from the day before.

But living with the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra has paid off. We now go through about one small (13-gallon size) trash bag every 7-10 days. When I weighed out and photographed my trash, I wasn’t surprised that most of what I photographed wasn’t destined for the brown bin at the curb.

I’d made enchiladas for dinner, had leftovers for lunch before that and began the day with an egg and an orange. Round that out with a bottle of wine, the newspaper and the coffee grounds for the day, the junkmail and the dryer lint (ew), and it doesn’t amount to much. In fact, my total trash weighed in at 4.5 pounds, but the amount I threw away – the cheese bag, the tea bag wrapper, the aforementioned dog waste – amounted to what I’d estimate was about 8 oz (I wasn’t about to weigh my canine’s …um…trash contribution, but I’m confident in the estimate).

But this little experiment took place in winter, not anywhere near a celebration or holiday. At the visit to the landfill on Friday, I learned that the amount of trash spikes in the summer and after seasonal holidays (think of plastic easter grass, heart boxes at valentines day, gift wrapping paper and packaging, etc.). And in a college town like Lawrence, it also increases dramatically in August and May, the typical move-out/move-in seasons. How many of us have hastily left chemicals, furniture, clothes, junk mail and even our recyclables at the curb on move-out day, all because we just wanted to be done with the process?

–Jen Humphrey

Movin’ Out in Lawrence

No Hippie Daydream
February 21, 2008, 11:40 am
Filed under: Food + Health | Tags: , , , ,

I grew up eating real, juice-down-your-chin produce from my parents’ garden. On warm spring afternoons my mom could find me in a jungle of green vines devouring sugar-snap peas or sun-ripened cherry tomatoes.

My partner, Jessica, has similar stories about childhood on her grandfather’s Douglas County farm. It’s something that unites us in taste bud horror every time we bite into a restaurant sandwich and discover it includes a mushy, plasticine pale tomato shipped from hundreds of miles away.

Jess wants to bring the flavors of our childhoods to people who don’t have land or the time to grow their own food. That’s partly what prompted her to apply to the local farming program Growing Growers. Growing Growers strives to meet the increasing nationwide and local interest in locally raised and produced foods. The creators of the program hope it helps meet the needs of nearby restaurants, consumer groups and markets such as the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.

Growing growers helps aspiring newbies like Jess connect with small farms and growers already in business in the I-70 corridor. This leads to apprenticeships, some of them paid and some of them volunteer (read: unpaid). The program also includes monthly workshops and the chance to visit urban and rural farm operations.

Last year Jess spent her first day as an apprentice shoveling fermented soy goop onto the chilly March soil. Spreading that steaming okara compost at Moon on the Meadow farm in eastern Lawrence zapped any lingering romanticism for farm life and showed her what the real work of farming would be.

Lessons like that reinforce that if we want to start our own sustainable farm on her grandfather’s land, we can’t be all back-to-the-land 1960s wistful about it. We’ll have to be realistic about what it will take to feed other people, and ourselves. I’ll be honest and say that I find that intimidating.

So in the meantime, especially after I’ve trudged home in the snow or slush from my office, I’m staving off my farming insecurities with daydreams. I think about the crunch of fresh spinach, the sugary rush of a honeydew melon and the way a heavy, ripened tomato feels in my hand, and when I do, I know that the work ahead will be worth the result. — Jen Humphrey

Only a few months between the snows of February and the joys of the farmer’s market. (Credit: DLFM)


A Compact Compendium: Jen Humphrey
February 17, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: Society + Media

As one who is often verbose,

I offer a six-word biography… (or two)

Realistic idealist Kansan wearing many hats

Sometimes a leader and secret keeper

Partner, writer, friend, defender, taste seeker

-Jen Humphrey

My Little (Dog’s) Sexy Poo
February 11, 2008, 8:11 pm
Filed under: Waste + Recycling | Tags: , ,

Don’t LaughYou want sexy? Well, here’s a topic that’s way overdue for a sexy makeover: pet poo. This is an environmental issue – no, really. Here’s what brought it to mind. There I was, bundled up like a six-year-old sent out to go sledding, head down into the gale North wind, a leash pulling my arm outward. At the end of the leash, my geriatric canine Millie took her dainty sweet time puttering along the sidewalk, exchanging “messages” with every other dog whose owner took leisurely strolls in 10 degree February weather. In winter, these messages manifest as yellow snow. We arrived at a fateful yard, where last summer my neighbor posted a sign that said in the polite but firm tones Kansans are known for, “Clean up after your dog. It’s a city ordinance (and it’s neighborly!)” The day he put up the sign, he nodded to me and said, “Present company excluded, of course.” Yes, I clean up after my dog. It’s my good neighborly duty to whip out a plastic bag, one of the billions we throw our groceries in every day. The problem is, being neighborly isn’t exactly environmental. I go all Woody Allen Annie-Hall-neurotic about it: I should clean it up, because it’s gross to leave excrement on someone’s lawn, what if they have kids that go running barefoot on the lawn even though it’s February and what parent would do that anyway, won’t my neighbors talk about me and whisper there goes the girl who doesn’t clean up after her dog…. But then I’m thinking about all those plastic bags, twice a day, into my trash bin and off to the landfill, how they pile up….etc.
But that kind of guilt for cleaning up dog poo is that same enviro guilt that Arnold Schwarzenegger is talking about when he says we need to sex up environmentalism. So, how do I come up with a way of dealing with poo that is sexy? Clean it up with a scooper and dispose of it at home? Impractical, and besides, the celebs would never buy into it (and who else but celebrities with pets can tell us what is or isn’t sexy?). Use biodegradable bags by DKNY and Prada? Unlikely they decompose.
And so, I give you: the poo butler service. Think of the glamour: someone comes to your home, disposes of the waste, puts it in worm bins to turn into some kind of compost – what could be more sexy than that. No mess, no fuss. If only all environmental problems were so easy to dispose of!

One further note on comedy (with apologies to the far superior Ranjit): see Science is Hard, a parody by The Onion, and a great collection/overview of climate change cartoons. –Jen Humphrey

Finding a Niche
February 5, 2008, 3:05 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

Water BuffaloI thought I had a hangover by the time I finished the Death of Environmentalism. Or that I was drowning in dramatic detail. Thirty years of environmental progress whittled to an argument that we must start over, that the current methods, as described by the authors, aren’t working. It sucked all the joy from highlights and progress over lo these many years.

I had an urge to quench my thirst by dismissing what the authors had to say. And I had a whole list of what I disagreed with, but then I realized it made me sound like a whiney environmentalist. Instead, I took a more sober view: what points had they raised that I agreed with? For one, I think that anyone who wants to change any aspect of the world – even someone else’s opinion – has to recognize the role that values play. Much has been written, in this article and elsewhere, about how much more effective policy change and even holistic social change can be when you tie it to individual value systems. I know from too many late-night conversations at a favorite brewery that if you cannot at least appeal to someone’s frame of reference, the values they already hold, you won’t change their mind. You have to make an argument personally appeal to their worldview.

I also agree that to some extent, environmentalists have defined themselves by what they are not. This is true of almost any movement I can think of. It’s part and parcel of our divisive culture. We are pro-this and anti-that, two camps for every issue. Then there was the claim that evironmentalists don’t know how to build effective coalitions or bridges across multiple groups (or that change would occur if X group would just join in).

But, they are straining in their overall arguments, such as environmentalism is overly tied to policy without politics, that it suffers from literal sclerosis, or that it is isolated from other movements and issues. Nothing crystallized this more for me than the rebuttal from Carl Pope. In Pope’s essay, I see the beginning of what happened between 2005, when “Death” was written, and 2008 – the monumental shift in public opinion to think about the impact humans have on the planet. As global warming or weirding has become more recognizable, it’s showing up as a component in news, the performing arts, economic news, global justice movements, insurance (think hurricanes), etc.

Pope mentioned that the only people the authors talked to were policy “wonks,” when many other people have an influence on environmental awareness and change – especially artists. This will be somewhat of a self-serving remark, but if you want to see how artists are approaching environmental change, go see the art installation “Niche” in Spooner Hall at KU next week. It’s art that can make people confront their assumptions about their environment and the consequences of their choices. It makes environmental choices such as housing and water bottles personal, a matter of (gasp) values. Perhaps that is something the authors of “Death” would agree with. -Jen Humphrey