Archive for August, 2009

green-archesI’ve posted on greenwashing before.  I like Wikipedia’s use of the synonym “green sheen” in their description of the term.  In June I posted a link to an article in the Guardian about advertising and misinformation in relation to actual sustainability and environmental benefit.  Greenwashing is common, it’s unregulated, and it’s big money.  But I read an article the other day about McDonald’s from the Environmental News Network (ENN.com) and CleanTechnica.com that was very interesting.  It’s worth reading.

The main question the article poses is this: Is McDonald’s a green company?

Well, what constitutes a “green” company?  And how would one go about evaluating its “greenness”?  That’s an awkward term, I know.  But is the company doing things like cutting its emissions, purchasing renewable energy, reducing its overall carbon footprint, building sustainably, supporting local farms?  McDonald’s can answer “yes” to some of those things, but not to all of them.  How about if it was partnering with organizations to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel (Brazil, Chile, Argentina), reducing water usage (Australia), and providing electric vehicle recharging stations (North Carolina)?  Sure, points for those things, and it’s great that they’re doing anything along those lines.  But then you need to weigh those positive efforts against the company’s existing footprint and/or track record.  And this is where you lose points.  In the case of McDonald’s, many points.  Now we’re into the issues of fast food and obesity in America, liberal use of high fructose corn syrup, conventional beef and the major problems associated with CAFOs, support of monoculture crops (by sheer tonnage of what they purchase), genetically modified crops and transgenic produce, contributions to overall human health; the list goes on.  Is “green fast food” an oxymoron?  Maybe.  I’m not saying that it has to be.  But it’s not as cost effective if you don’t cut all those corners, you know.  (See Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” for more on externalizing costs).  If another company was taking some of the steps listed above that McDonald’s is taking (according to its own Corporate Responsibility page — “Look, we’re green!!”) would we laud those achievements?  Is it a step in the right direction, or just a drop in the bucket?

I’m not shilling for Mickey D’s here.  I’ll answer my own question and say that I think it’s a small drop in a big bucket, hence the title of this post.  I’ll admit, I like their fries, and I’ll stop for a chocolate shake on a long road trip, but I don’t generally eat there.  If it comes down to a gas-and-a-burger stop on the road, whether it’s the golden arches, BK, or Wendy’s, I don’t care that much.  It’s either that or gas station Fritos.  Others have bemoaned the beast that is Fast Food in America, and I’m not going to rehash that now.  There’s plenty of research out there.  For additional reading and watching (for a cheery summer afternoon), see Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc…

Let’s put aside the oxymoron for a second.  What if McDonald’s is becoming a force for good?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they’re not there yet, I know.  Long way to go.  Maybe here’s the real question: What would they have to do for you to say that McDonald’s has become a force for good? There’s plenty of room for improvement.  According to Yahoo! Finance, at the end of 2008 McDonald’s was operating 31,967 restaurants in 118 countries.  Think about all the potatoes and beef that they buy!  Small changes in policies and purchasing from the front office could have huge ramifications.  Well, they do have huge ramifications now, just not good ones.  Think of what they could be doing.


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An interesting and detailed article from the Ethicurian on a study reported by The Chicago Tribune on pesticides and peaches; includes info on local, organic, local non-organic, imported, etc.  Lots of options, and generally lots of residues.  Well reported, with lots of links to the original studies and background information.  A nice counterpoint to the recent UK study on nutritional value of organic vs. conventional food, explained in this excellent post from two weeks ago on Marion Nestle’s blog Food Politics.

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Hungry Monkey

hungry monkey cover

Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton

Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa over at Ideas in Food turned me on to this book Hungry Monkey with their review a few weeks ago.  And when my sister-in-law read the cover and subtitle, she laughed and asked if it had been written for me.  A Food Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater?  Yup.  I really enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to making several of the recipes for the kid at some point.  Author Matthew Amster-Burton has an easygoing voice, and he writes with wit, self awareness, and humor.  He explains how parental anxiety about baby food can be overwhelming, and that the research out there on allergens, the timing of food introductions, and food philosophy (if you can call it that) varies hugely.  Then you realize that over the course of recorded history (and before that too, I’m sure) parents have, after breastfeeding, been feeding kids adult food in some form, with developmentally appropriate degrees of mush, chunks, and spice.  And it’s likely that over that span of time there have been kids that have been picky eaters.  It’s not a new phenomenon.

So it was refreshing to read Amster-Burton’s book, which finds a kind of middle ground (leaning towards the adventurous) on what to feed your kids.  He’s not overly cautious, but not reckless either.  The other thing I appreciated is that he seems to be realistic.  There’s only so much you can do as a parent to steer the tastes of your children.  (It’s possible that you can’t do anything.)  You can control what comes into the house and where you choose to eat out, but beyond that, it’s a total crap shoot.  Being adventurous eating parents does not necessarily beget an adventurous eater (supertasting and nontasting genes notwithstanding).  His daughter doesn’t like vegetables, or cheese, for example, and that’s okay.  (Apparently having your kids help in the kitchen is not a surefire way to get them to eat vegetables.)  Maybe she’ll grow out of it.  What comes across clearly in the book, is that he and his daughter share an appreciation for cooking and food, while recognizing the quirkiness of individual taste.  I enjoy cooking, and I’m at the beginning of this whole feeding a kid thing at home.  So the timing of this book, for me, was perfect.  And it’s a hilarious read.  If you’ve got kids, or have some on the way, and you think about food ever, it’s worth checking out.

By the way, Chapter 12 – The Monkey and the Meat Grinder: hysterical.

Amster-Burton’s blog is called Roots and Grubs, and you can get the book lots of places.

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Ah, food TV, where have you gone?

Oh, food TV, where have you gone?

Michael Pollan’s article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch is the cover story of today’s New York Times Magazine. And it’s a long one.  But it basically says that cooking at home is actually good for you.  This is good to hear.  I like to cook at home.  He means to really cook at home, though, not just to reheat frozen things, or to assemble a sandwich (which apparently technically counts as cooking, according to the people that gather statistics on these things).  In short, by letting other people process and cook for you (by buying processed and pre-made foods), you’re giving up control of what goes into them.  Salt, sugar, and fat are cheap, so it’s no surprise that they end up as prominent ingredients in many ready-to-eat or reheat options at the grocery store.  This is one of the main premises of Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  The simple act of preparing your own food puts you way ahead.  But that’s not what the vast majority of Americans are doing.

People are certainly interested in food now. Watching cooking has gained tremendous popularity, as evidenced by the success of many shows on the Food Network and Bravo, but increases in ratings have coincided with a decrease in the number of people cooking at home (see article for stats and references).  It’d be great if Top Chef got more people cooking at home; maybe add a quickfire challenge to the sibling rivalry?  Apparently that’s not the case.  Pollan also notes a change in the type of shows that are broadcast.  There’s a shift from shows that used to show you how to cook (like Julia, back in the day; and Alton Brown, more recently) to more shows just about eating (Guy’s Big Bite, the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, etc).  I’m all for travel shows, and sure, I’d love to hear about a great diner, but this is a somewhat disturbing trend.  Get thee back to the kitchen!

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Update 8/4/09

Some other responses online to this article:

Ruhlman‘s post is right on target.  He asserts that more people are cooking; he is one of them.  As he states at the end of his article, “we have just begun to cook, and not a moment too soon.” He’s a champion of a new era of home cooking.  Making your own pie crust, pickles, curing bacon?  But it takes so much time, they whine.  Some people are cooking more, and the movement among locavores, foodies, and food bloggers is definitely growing.  But in America as a whole?  I think in that case, Harry Balzer is right.  I don’t want him to be right, and I don’t think he’ll win (see his points in the original Pollan article).  But he’s a cynic.  He’s a food-marketing researcher.  It’s his job to capitalize on the fact that Americans are lazy and cheap, and he’s going to provide plenty of options for them at the grocery store.

And an article from Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries, that discusses whether Pollan’s article was sexist in its assessment of women in the kitchen, specifically regarding some generalizations he makes about income and spending.  She points to this passage, “In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”

I agree that this statement doesn’t apply to all women, and that is the word Pollan uses.  But the trend is clear, that Americans in general “allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”  Ease, convenience, cost, time.  Look at the rise and popularity of processed and prepared foods!  Someone is buying them.  I also hear her point that Pollan’s article is depressing (especially if Balzer’s opinions are taken as fact), I think it’s probably a healthy — sorry, wrong word, accurate — assessment of what’s going on in America.  If you look at obesity rates, increases in TV viewership, and decreased time spent cooking in the kitchen (as Pollan does), those are objective pieces of data that highlight what’s going on.  The situation is depressing if we don’t do anything about it.  Barbara, you’re right that many people are cooking.  There is a movement here, and I agree wholeheartedly with Ruhlman’s take on it (which has a more positive spin on it), but in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we cook from scratch doesn’t mean that millions of Americans don’t.  I believe there is hope.  And Pollan’s article just points out pretty clearly why we need it.

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