J500 Media and the Environment

Reconnect: With Your Past

Farmers pass on more to their children than their name. They pass on their cultural legacy, in the form of  agricultural tradition. Their greatest fortune is the soil they cultivate.


By helping their children till this soil and plant seeds, farmers  pass along the tips and tricks that their ancestors had left to them. Years later, their children inherit the land, add their own innovations, and pass them on to their children. 

Try to remember when your land was this important to you. It was your cultural legacy, your unique perspective on life, and your fortune. It was the age of the family farm, in the truest sense of the term.

Now, we live in the age of the factory farm. Our food is abundant but obscure. Our land is simply a site for a house, a tree or two, and a manicured lawn. The convenience of the corner grocery store has killed our need to produce our own food.

Despite having to plant their roots in a new country, immigrant farmers Pov (pronounced Paul) Huns and Aye Aye Nu used their farms to reconnect with their heritage.

Pov, originally from Laos, farms untraditionally. “It’s common American practice to keep weeds out, and I’m the one that says keep the weeds in,” he said. And Aye Aye, from Thailand, grows chaibong, a Burmese sorrel that usually can’t be found in the U.S., at her Kansas City, Kan., farm. She has driven as far as Omaha to sell her crop to fellow immigrants.

Follow their example! Help your children start a garden this summer. Dig a plot near your house, plant some seeds, and water and weed every now and then. Spray each other your hose! Get muddy! Get some dirt in your fingernails! You’ll keep cool, and your kids won’t forget it.

-By Justin Leverett, Group 2


Issues (Think about it.)

Everything is connected. Behind every apple you eat, every piece of clothing you wear, and every product you buy, lies a human face. Behind every face lies a thousand stories, tragedies, traumas and triumphs. Journalists seek the truth, but the truth often contains so much more than any writer can ever hope tell. 

Aye Aye Nu, a refugee from Thailand, works at Juniper Gardens, an urban community farm in Kansas City, Kansas.

Aye Aye Nu, a refugee from Thailand, works at Juniper Gardens, an urban community farm in Kansas City, Kansas.

Discussions in this Media and Environment class and participation in its KCCUA service learning project have brought me face to face with the enormity of the human experience. I thought that by narrowing our focus and looking only at food issues, we’d find ourselves covering fewer topics in class. Quite the contrary. It seems that every week, we’d find our way into new and unexpected territory, everything from GMOs and organic foods to the merits of economic capitalism and the psychology of eating disorders. 

Frankly, it was overwhelming. I was reminded of the Flight of the Conchords song “Issues.” The song’s a joke, I know… but seek within, and you may find a grain of seriousness. Human society is riddled with issues. Poverty, racism, injustice, depression and obesity pervade American culture. Preventable diseases like cancer and heart disease kill people. Kids call each other names like ‘dork.’

Part of me wants to ask, “So what? When did humanity not suffer from poverty, racism, injustice, or depression? If it weren’t cancer, heart disease or AIDs killing people, it’d be something else! Do we expect people not to die? Not to feel sad every now and then?  Concerned citizens find a limitless array of worthy causes to advocate, and they’ll do it, by whatever means necessary! Concerned citizen, aren’t you really just a bleeding-heart panderer trying to vindicate some injustice in your past?”

Go ahead, call me a hypocrite; in reality I’m as big a bleeding-heart as anyone I know. But don’t dismiss my arguments!


Cypher, hedonist par excellence

The modern American has an unprecedented standard of living. We have access to the tastiest foods, the best books, and the sexiest technology. Why not just enjoy the lives we are living, to the fullest? The danger of this approach, of course is that it could lead to idleness, and hedonism. You may find yourself emulating Cypher, from The Matrix, whose famous philosophy was, “Ignorance is bliss.” 

But that doesn’t have to be the result. What struck me about the farmer I wrote about, Aye Aye Nu, is that she seemed  content. She worked in a place she loved, with people that she loved, and when you talked to her, this love showed through. Although there were problems in her life, she did not let them define or dictate her. She had real inner strength.

Finding this kind of inner strength is a very real personal struggle for me.  I see it as a certain resilience, a will to keep working even when none of your leads seem to be going anywhere. There’s a lot to do, and a lot to see, and often I’m afraid to even start.

It’s frustrating to bump heads with the world and its seemingly endless issues. We never will reach the bottom, or see the end of human tragedy in this world. But that’s the nature of the job: to persevere, to keep fighting, and to always find joy in the small victories.

Justin Leverett loves “Like a Hurricane,” by Neil Young. He’s getting blown away.

Water: A Terrible Thing to Waste



Every summer, my parents would ship me off to camp near Little Grassy Lake, in Illinois. The beach there was small and silty, with one dirty old port-a-potty and an ancient wooden dock. The water was a distasteful shade of brown. It was cramped, hot, and uncomfortable. I hated it.

But former Senator Paul Simon, a hero in my hometown, loved the lake enough to build his house on its edge. I attended speeches he gave in the yard in front of his house, with the sun setting over the lake behind him. He knew from experience that  water is a rare and precious resource, one that many midwesterners take for granted. So in 1998, he wrote “Tapped Out- The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It.”

 Simon argued that inhabited regions across the world are coming face-to-face with shortages of life’s most essential resource: water. Cities like Tucson and Las Vegas could spring up in the American West because people dammed rivers and diverted water into their system. With recent patterns of climate change, though, these rivers have begun to dry up, and left desert cities high and dry. In China, the most populous nation on the planet, consumption is increasing even as farmers cope with the worst nationwide drought in half a century. And, closer to Europe, the Aral Sea loses 60 square kilometers of water each year.

And for some reason, as a kid, I hated my lake! Later, I found out that Little Grassy Lake is one of the cleanest bodies of water in Illinois. I learned to swim there, I learned to canoe and kayak on it, I spent countless nights down on its beach looking at the stars. Over the years, that lake became my closest connection to nature. Paul Simon was right. Water is more than a natural resource. It’s a gift, and it’d be a crime to continue wasting it.

Justin Leverett is taking shelter from a rainy day.

The Other Side of Capitalism

2628417520_db5a2c2ac5You could say Jagroop Singh is succeeding. He has 65 times as many cows as he did just one decade ago. Of course, back then, he only had one cow.

He is now making far more money, though. He receives 15 rupees for every litre of milk — three times what he made just two years ago. The milk, he sells to Nestle India, whose nearby factory blasts it into a powder and sells it abroad.
But Singh, among others, has stopped growing grain. And thanks to droughts and the subsequent rice shortage, grain prices have skyrocketed. 

In a capitalist economy, increased efficiency = increased profit, and increased profit = improved lifestyle. This is the central guiding principle. By that standard, India, whose economy is growing 9% a year, is succeeding.

But in the agricultural sector, India's growth has declined, from 4.7 per cent between 1992-1997 to just 1.5 per cent between 2002-2006. And see, therein lies the rub. In places like India and China, more people have more money. They live in the cities, and naturally, they expect to eat more diverse food, food that is usually imported.
They have no grain, so they live off the grain of others. Americans pulled a similar trick in the housing market, when they bought up sub-prime mortgages using loans that were beyond their means to repay. In both cases, the idea is that future growth will make up the difference.
And in general, it has! US gross domestic product has risen constantly  for years, and along with it, inflation.  The idea that our production might flatten out... or drop... is unthinkable! That's why it's called capitalism, after all- our job is to convert resources into capital, and use that capital to encourage further growth. 
But, can we realistically expect this growth to continue forever? Singh may find himself with 65 bony cows, and not enough grain to feed them!
The wise man, they say, lives within his means. Capitalism pushes for growth at all costs, even if those costs are beyond your means. Can that possibly be wise?  
Justin Leverett no longer sleeps. 🙂

Savoring the Forbidden Fruit

What is this thing we call the Internet?

No, really. What is it?

dsouza_alanWe use it every day. Networking sites like Facebook let people access anyone, anywhere, in seconds. Google sorts and organizes more words and ideas in a minute than any human can hope to process in her life. Dazzling fortunes are made, used and wasted; overwhelming games and images are developed and stored;  trillions of stories are told.

This thing, this Internet, didn’t even exist 30 years ago. Now, it permeates our media environment. It is the purest manifestation of Enlightenment humanism, an endless library of human knowledge. Anything  and everything mankind has known and recorded probably waits in there like an apple in the Garden, waiting to be plucked and digested by some enterprising individual. It is collective human consciousness, literally resting in the palm of your hand.

Watch this video. You’ll like it.

Internet breakthroughs, like all technology,  advance exponentially. Where is this all leading us?

Some, such as the believers in the Singularity, would say knowledge and resultant technology are advancing to an impossible point where all knowledge will unite in a single ego, and individuality will cease (like at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.) Admittedly, the idea is a little crazy… but so is the idea that Christ died for our sins, or that Energy might equal Matter times the Speed of Light, squared. Right?

Is the Singularity what the Internet is moving us toward? Perhaps… If so, I think we’d all do well to keep our eyes on that sneaky bugger.

But then, maybe, as Zen Buddhists would tell you, all technology is insignificant. Perhaps the Internet simply is, just as a rock simply is, or a picnic lunch simply is, and the responsible human should relax, observe and contemplate it (try to grok it, to use the words of another ridiculously nerdy author for me to be referencing). After all, humans spend so much time altering their environment…

This spring break, let your environment alter you.

Justin Leverett is done for the week. Shabbat shalom, y’all 🙂

Reducing Your Restaurant’s Waste Size

Those who work at a restaurant develop a  relationship with their food. It is their capital and their craft; it provides them their weekly paycheck. Every dish they create is almost like a child to them.

A Restaurant Kitchen

While you prepare food, it is nobody’s but yours. Music blares from radio speakers as you chop onions and tomatoes and slice meat and fry potatoes. Prepping becomes habitual, and you sometimes even forget that you’re dealing with food.   If a sliced apple or onion falls on the floor, you don’t think twice about throwing it away. I once thawed an entire brick of ground beef too early, and had to throw all three pounds of it away.

I’m not the only one. Food waste in the restaurant business is relatively common. After all, when there’s a full freezer of fresh meats, cheeses, and produce at your very finger tips, why worry yourself over old spilled meat? You certainly can’t pick it up off the floor and serve it to your customers. The three-second-rule does not apply in a restaurant kitchen.

But, outside the kitchen, there are whole families who must  line up in the cold for soup and a chunk of bread. They may not have the means to buy a pound of ground beef, let alone to thoughtlessly throw it away on a whim. Why should we value our food any less, just because we have more of it? If anything, restaurant workers should value their food more. Make sure your restaurant buys sustainable produce… and DON’T WASTE IT.

Justin Leverett is ready to take your order, sir!

The Cheese Stands Alone
February 27, 2009, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Business + Politics, Food + Health, Society + Media | Tags: , , ,

When I stayed with a family in France, I had two roommates: Chris, from Kansas, and Victoria, from Ukraine. Chris hoped to be a museum curator, I hoped to be a journalist, and Victoria hoped to be… a cheese-maker.

Up until then I had not known any cheese-makers. A whole field, completely alien to me.  The only thing it brought to my mind was the Monty Python bit: “Did Jesus just say, ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers?'”


Worldwide Dairy Exports

I couldn’t imagine devoting the rest of my life to cheese-craft, of all things. “Doesn’t she have goals?” I thought to myself. “Is that what she dreamed of as a child? Seperating the curds from the whey, watching over vats of cream as it curdles into tomorrow’s Swiss, Gouda and Provolone? This will be her career? The fruit of all her labor will be  sandwich toppings?”

In fact, my cheese-ist prejudice was purely cultural. After all, France has a long, storied tradition of cheese-making. Victoria was learning French in preperation for a selective training program sponsored by a manufacturing company that had been in the cheese business for centuries.

Fast-forward to later on: I was at a party talking with this guy , and I asked what line of work he was in. “Les dindes,” he said. I didn’t have the best French, so I didn’t immediately believe what my brain was telling me he meant. Couldn’t be. “The bird?” I asked in French. “Like the chicken, only bigger?” “Oui,” he said. This man was a turkey breeder! His job was to make sure turkey bloodlines continued to improve. I couldn’t believe it!

In the context of European culture, this should not have been surprising. There is no shame involved in working for the food industry. Victoria worked and studied as hard as I did, and her aspirations were as valid as mine. It was ignorant of me to presuppose that because my parents are academics, only academic careers can be honorable (all around the world, no less). And realistically, she will likely make a good deal more money than I will. The turkey guy already does!

For me, working hard and making a difference in the world did not go hand-in-hand with food production. In fact, simply thinking about the subject brought unpleasant connotations to my mind, from the image of overcrowded slaughterhouses to the putrid smell of cow pastures back home in Illinois.

Wait a moment… that’s strictly meat production… Hmmm…

Where did my unfounded prejudice come from? Why isn’t the business of producing humanity’s food more respected in American society? I think the answer lies in our culture, and begins with our modern reluctance to go outside, get our hands dirty, and labor for our dinner.

Justin Leverett’s cheese is nacho cheese.