Tag Archives: chickens

“Food Inc.”: Family viewing?

PBS is showing the movie “Food Inc.” tonight. So I’m pulling out a review I wrote when the movie debuted. Have you seen the film? Planning to watch tonight? Maybe recording it to watch later with your kids? (See more about kid viewing below.)

You’ll never look at food the same way again. I promise. So watch (check your local listings here), then come tell me what you thought.

Food fight

Real food. Whether we grow it or just eat it, here’s my definition: Something that grows in the ground or grazes on it, then is harvested with care and left in as natural a state as possible until it’s consumed. By us. Hopefully with appreciation for where it came from.

I think about this subject a lot. Like all the time, obsessively. And I talk about it, too, which gets mixed reactions. Some friends share my passion. Others wish I would shut up already. The teachers at my daughter’s preschool graciously indulged our practice of supplying our own snacks every day. But the counselors at her summer camp gave blank stares when I suggested that blue ice pops were not real food.

So it’s no surprise that my husband and I found ourselves at a screening of the documentary “Food Inc.,” which showed at the Little Theatre in May as part of the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival. The movie, which has just been released nationwide, argues for a simpler, more transparent and democratic food system — instead of the overly mechanized and subsidized, oligarchic system that has taken its toll on our collective health and the health of the planet.

Thanks to industrialized agriculture, “the way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” the food writer Michael Pollan says in the film.

Predictably, there are dark themes: the death of a 2-year-old boy who ate an E. coli-tainted hamburger; farmers intimidated into debt and out of business; chickens bred for breasts so large that the birds can’t stand; a family forced to choose cheap fast food over fresh produce because otherwise they couldn’t afford the father’s (diabetes-related) medicine; and a “hamburger filler” factory where animal parts are sanitized with ammonia and smooshed like fruit roll-ups.

But as people in the audience covered their eyes and cringed, I wanted to shout out for everyone to sit up, look straight ahead and face down the food on their plates. Then, maybe, hopefully, take a deep breath and next time make a different choice.

I’ve been encouraged by the growth of the local-foods movement in western New York, by the rise of so many new farmers’ markets and CSAs (community-supported farms). And by the new crop of idealistic — yet in no way naïve — farmers and producers who’ve embraced our agrarian roots and brought us closer again to food the way it was meant to be eaten.

But if enough of us vote with our forks, even Big Food will play along. With momentum and some loud voices, food policy could shift away from subsidies for monoculture crops like corn and soybeans and toward the development of diverse, sustainable agriculture, making healthy food the norm, no matter your address or paycheck.

Until then? Plant a garden or at least some tomatoes, visit a market, join a CSA, buy pastured meat and dairy, make some jam. And when it hits local theaters, see “Food Inc.” Popcorn optional.

For a little extra inspiration, check out this “Food Inc.” discussion guide from the Center for Ecoliteracy. It’s aimed at high school students, but, as I wrote in a previous post, there’s a case to be made for showing the film even to younger kids. Or at least for talking with them about the issues it raises. We haven’t shown our 7-year-old the movie yet, but we plan to soon.

Need help deciding whether to let your children watch? Check out these kid-centric reviews from Common Sense Media and Parent Previews.

This post originally appeared on Spoonfed in April 2010, when PBS showed the film in honor of Earth Day.

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Food (and propaganda) at the state fair

I realize that state-fair food is a category unto itself, a passionately defended paean to Americana and summertime. And to criticize it could cause a distracting uproar. Some might even offer me their fried-fave-on-a-stick with instructions to make it disappear right up my behind.     

Dumpling to go

So I’ll just say that we did not partake of the many fried delicacies during our trek to the New York State Fair. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t eat food-on-a-stick. Witness the tasty organic dumplings we ate on forks on the way. And you think I’m no fun.   

But there was another side to fair food that caught me by surprise. Sure, I knew there would be buildings full of cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. And I knew that many of those animals — despite the wholesome, gee-whiz facade — had come from or were destined for the industrial food machine that spits out the giant corn dogs being sold steps away. And yes, I went anyway. We’d never been. I write about food and agriculture. I wanted to see it for myself.   

What I wasn’t prepared for was the propaganda with a capital “P.” Big old greasy shtick-on-a-stick. And most of it aimed at kids.   

The most blatant was in the quaint, barn-themed “education center” sponsored by New York Agriculture in the Classroom, under the title “Dairy Fact or Myth.”   

Ponder these two “facts”:   

“Only happy, healthy cows give milk.”   

TRUE. “In order to produce high quality milk, farmers must provide their cows with a clean, dry and comfortable place to live, and plenty of food and water.”   

The whole truth: Even stressed-out, crammed-tight, poorly fed cows give milk. In fact, it’s the foundation of our country’s dairy industry. I wish it were true that only happy cows gave milk, because then we’d have a nation of pastured, sunlight-soaking bovines. But right now? Not so.

Happy cow. Grass. Fresh air. But, oops, it's a statue!

On a related note, a nearby chart cheerfully detailed cows’ ability to “serve as food recyclers by eating the leftovers of the food manufacturing process that would otherwise go to waste.” I suppose they get points for honesty. Many cows do indeed eat food waste. But that doesn’t mean they should. Or that it’s good for them. Or us.   

“Even very large farms are family owned and operated.”   

TRUE. “According to the USDA, 99% of all U.S. dairy farms are family owned and operated.”   

The whole truth: Just because a farm is owned by a family doesn’t mean the practices are sustainable. It doesn’t mean the animals are treated well. But this is what the dairy lobby wants us to think when it promotes the idea of the “family farm.” And since the vast majority of milk in the U.S. is bought and packaged by a few big corporations, most dairy farmers have to play by corporate rules or lose business. When you look at it like that, family ownership doesn’t really matter much, does it?   

(For another example of how Big Ag co-opts the “family farm,” check out the farmer image campaign announced during this year’s Illinois State Fair. Behind the campaign: Illinois Beef Association, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Pork Producers Association and Illinois Soybean Association. One big happy family.)   

Not a live birth, but still a star attraction

So, OK, I find the whole ag-education claim behind state fairs dubious, anyway. If you want your kids to see farm animals, well, visit an actual farm. Or a farm-animal sanctuary. It makes me sad to see animals cooped up and gawked at. It’s why we don’t do circuses or animal acts, and why, though I’ve come to terms with zoos because of their conservation work, I don’t really enjoy them. And thank god the New York State Fair doesn’t have live birthing exhibits like the one in Minnesota co-sponsored by one of the largest industrial pig farms in the country. Or like the one in California where a panicked pregnant cow was shot to death this summer.   

But here’s the thing: When a group like New York Agriculture in the Classroom (NYAITC) presents information, kids and parents assume it’s true. And why wouldn’t they? The program does a lot of neat things. It gives grants for school gardens, provides classroom resources and sponsors a student art contest to promote local agriculture. (I wrote about our experience with that contest here). But the fact is it’s funded not only by Cornell University and the New York State agriculture and education departments, but also by the New York Farm Bureau, which is an agribusiness lobbying group. And that makes things messy.   

Here’s another example: NYAITC posted a question on its Facebook page, asking for chicken-themed books to share with second-graders for an ag-literacy week highlighting the poultry industry. I asked if picture books would work. The reply: “as long as the (books) portray a realistic and positive look at all sides of the poultry industry.”   

Smart chickie

I responded with a recommendation for “Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken,” by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss (which I wrote about here). I explained the relevant plot point — how Louise rallies her fellow chickens to break free of a cage — and added something like: “I’m not sure what you mean by a realistic and positive look at all sides, since what’s ‘realistic’ isn’t always ‘positive,’ but second-graders certainly would benefit from learning that chickens should be raised outside, not in cages.”   

I say “something like” because I can’t remember the exact words. And I can’t check the page, because my comment was deleted.   

When I e-mailed someone from the group to find out why, she told me NYAITC censors its page “to be sure we aren’t distributing propaganda” or presenting “extremist” data as “agricultural reality.” Later, when I asked how she could deny that inhumane and unsanitary conditions are indeed agricultural reality, I got the end-run: “Quality agriculture exists on all scales and we protect them at AITC by trying to make sure all farms are represented fairly.”   

Fair enough. Just because a farm is big doesn’t mean it’s bad. But, really, when is it ever good to pack chickens in so tight that they can’t act like chickens?   

Never. The answer is never.   

Now back to the fair. Lest you think it was one big downer, let me say there were some up notes, too, like displays on farming techniques through history, a New York produce stand and two on-site restaurants serving local food. The New York honey and maple industries were well-represented. And on the non-food front, our 6-year-old loved the exhibits on tree and water conservation, and the woodworking and fiber-arts demonstrations.   

And, finally, there was “Dairyville 2010,” the 800-pound butter sculpture showing a small dairy farm on one side and, on the other, a town powered by the farm’s cow manure. At least that was a nod to sustainability. And after the fair, the butter was to be converted to biofuel for a nearby college’s buses. Good stuff.  

Propaganda? Not so much.

But the best thing of all? Turns out that state-fair butter sculptures were created by the dairy industry as propaganda to combat competition from margarine makers. Which is some delicious irony now that we know butter rules and margarine drools (as my daughter said this week in her new first-grade slang).   

Now it’s just a matter of time before all this sustainable-agriculture “propaganda” shows itself for the truth it is.  

The NYS Fair is over for this year, but plenty of other fairs are under way or still to come. Did you go to a state fair this year? In years past? Any thoughts on kiddie propaganda and all that unfair food?  

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back FridaysVegetarian Foodie Fridays and Wholesome Whole Foods.

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My kind of carnival: Healthy kids. No fried dough.

A new Spoonfed post is coming very soon. (So much for stockpiling posts before vacation.) In the meantime, I’m participating in a new monthly blog carnival sponsored by Healthy Child Healthy World, a non-profit that is all about protecting kids from chemicals where they live, play and learn (food included).

This month’s theme, “Splendor in the Grass,” explores ways to inspire kids to connect with nature, sans pesticides and other nasties. My contribution is a recent post called “Clean food and dirty kids,” about how mood-boosting bacteria (found only in healthy, organic soil) is a good reason for kids to get up close and personal with their food. Other bloggers submitted posts on everything from non-toxic lawns to backyard habitats. Here’s the full list. And a few of my favorites:

For more on Healthy Child Healthy World and how even small changes can make a big difference, check out the group’s video, “A Wake-Up Story”:

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Let’s ban the phrase “picky eater”

It goes like this: Kids are picky eaters. They won’t eat food that’s green, brown or good for them. They are strong-willed little creatures who cannot be swayed. We must give up, give in, and feed them nothing but juice, crackers and white-bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Sigh. Is anyone else as tired of the term “picky eater” as I am?

To be clear: I understand that many children have serious food allergies or sensory issues that make them painfully averse to certain foods. But that’s something else entirely. And even then, I’d argue that calling them “picky eaters” diminishes these children’s very real challenges.

It’s a phrase that has been overused to the point of cliche, becoming a catch-all and crutch whenever a child refuses something new or a parent is too tired to argue (been there) or when a fast-food stop or children’s menu is the quickest path to appeasement. Food manufacturers and cookbook publishers have gotten rich persuading parents to sate kids’ picky appetites by feeding them vitamin-fortified junk or hiding spinach in their brownies.

But I just can’t get on board with that. Real, whole foods (not jacked-up semblances) are the best source of nutrients. And if you want to put veggies in your baked goods, go for it. Maybe even hold off on the truth if you really think your kid will balk at tasting it. But then fess up and point out why spinach is a good thing even when it’s not in a brownie.

Young children go on strikes (refusing certain foods) and jags (eating only certain foods). Older kids have the added influence of marketing and friends. And all kids — and adults — have foods they just don’t like. I get that. I also understand that it sometimes takes finessing to get kids to embrace good food. But that starts with educating kids, not labeling them “picky” and throwing up our hands.

To that end, I’d like to highlight a few cooking/eating resources that I think get it right:

  • Food with Kid Appeal, a blog written by Jenna Pepper, a mother of two, is spot-on in its message that kids should be taught how food affects their bodies. Jenna offers really good, low-fuss recipes, but her real strength is the companion advice that relates each recipe’s ingredients to how kids grow and develop. This mushroom post is a great example. (Though how ironic that when I went to check these links, I saw she’d just written a post about… picky eaters. At least it’s about “recovering” picky eaters.) 
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  • This Eat Real round-up from Liz Snyder, a mom and food activist, is one of the smartest and most useful pieces I’ve seen on raising healthy eaters. I’m not sure how active or updated the rest of her site is, but this list is timeless. It’s long, but worth the read.
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  • Everyone talks about how letting kids help in the kitchen will turn them into lifelong foodies. Sounds great, but we all know the reality can be messy and frustrating. That’s why I like this short post from Jamie Martin at Steady Mom. (One tip: When baking, give your child her own bowl and small amounts of each ingredient. Genius.)
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  • Speaking of cooking, ChopChop, a new magazine founded by cookbook author Sally Sampson, packages healthy recipes and food facts in an appealing, readable quarterly aimed at kids ages 5-12. I have a few quibbles, notably the recommendation to use canola oil (which is almost always genetically modified and not nearly as healthful as olive oil, which the magazine also suggests), and the emphasis on skim milk (junk food, not saturated fat, is the problem). But the debut issue also features an interview with Orren Fox, the young chicken farmer I mentioned in a post last month. (It helps that Orren is interviewed by Susan Orlean, one of my favorite writers, and apparently a chicken farmer herself.) Overall the magazine is a great resource sending the right message: Kids will eat real food. 

What do you think about this picky-eater business? Time to retire that tired phrase? Any other resources to recommend?

With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays, where bloggers come together to post links on topics related to eating and learning about real food.

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