Food, elephants and the carpenter theory

Carpenter Theory
Seven blind men go to ‘see’ an elephant, they touch one part
of the beast and come back and describe it as if that one part is the whole
animal. The carpenter theory: because he has a hammer in his tool belt, the hammer
is the go-to tool to fix all things.


Since I’m back in NY, I’ve been to two ‘food politic’
events: a screening of Food, Inc. and this morning’s unveiling of the blueprint for 
New York’s FoodWorksNY program and the F.R.E.S.H.  supermarket initiative. The blind men
with hammers were present at both events.


After watching Food Inc., there was a Q&A section and
the questions were so far ranging, I wondered if we had all watched the same
film: the impact of Nestle micro-loans, do growth hormones affect obesity, were
the tainted pistachios really repackaged, why can’t the media cover more
holistic stories, should home ec be reintroduced into schools, is TV’s Top Chef
part of ‘the problem’, we are all ill because we eat animal products etc etc. I
started writing down the question topics because I was fascinated by all the
different elements that people saw as being THE defining issue of our ‘food
problems’. Everyone represented one small part of the Food World, and no one
seems to be filling the void as a guiding light spokesperson. (Really, who
would want that job?? Making peace between vegans and the Beef Council…I don’t
think so.)


This morning’s event was described as City Council Speaker
Christine C. Quinn
will “deliver a major food policy address.”  “Speaker Quinn will discuss the future
of New York City’s food system, and ways she and others are working towards
developing a more sustainable system that also creates jobs for New
Yorkers.”  -Taken from The Council
of the City of New York’s Office of Communications, Media Advisory.


Well, that sounded good enough to get me out of bed early on
a Monday morning and to be up at the New School by 9:00 am. There was an amazingly
lavish breakfast buffet, and I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves but
remember healthy eating, local, seasonal and sustainable were all topics for
the meeting.

 Danish Plate Seasonal Fruits

I got a little twitchy when I saw that one of the movers and
shakers for this new initiative is Bruce Both, President of the UFCW Local 1500
that represents supermarket workers. I’m all for protecting the rights of
workers, but I was skeptical that his motivation would be the same as the grass
fed beef farmer and the press release didn't mention anything about supermarket workers. Sure the union guys wants to create jobs in supermarkets, but
is it the UFCW’s mission to help New Yorkers realize that a potato chip is not a
fresh vegetable (even though the work fresh is printed right there on the bag)?
This quote is taken directly from the UFCW’s blog: “She [Christine Quinn] also
touted the expected passage of F.R.E.S.H., an initiative aimed to bring more
supermarkets to NYC’s low-income communities.”  Nope, he’s not worried about what’s on the supermarket
shelves, he just wants supermarkets.Peggy Shepard


Peggy Shepard, Executive Director for We Act for Environmental
probably brought the most tools on her carpenter’s belt. Sharp,
articulate, direct and engaging, she laid out the challenges of living in a
neighborhood of color, where there is a KFC but no permanent farmer’s market.
If there were anyone that I’d like to share dinner and a debate with, it would
be her. She described a pattern of environmental racism that would challenge
anyone to eat healthy.  Again, I can
see the supermarkets responding to this persuasive woman, but I still see
aisles of processed food, not vegetables.


I rode my bike up to the Harlem Fairway yesterday and stood
in wonder at $2.49 grapefruits and that’s for just one grapefruit. And in order
to get to the grapefruit section you must first navigate the Aisle of Chips and
Cookies at the entrance. It’s formidable… I confess to keeping my eyes on the
ground lest I be seduced by the selection of potato chips. I’m not that
strong.  So, bring on the
supermarkets, but how much has the neighborhood gained by kicking out the KFC?


 Dan Barber
Dan Barber, of Stone Farms spoke next and he compared what is
going on now in the food world to Black Sunday of April 14, 1935. After years
of dust storms, the mother of all dust storms picked up 100,000 acres of
available topsoil and blew it from the Great Plains all the way to Washington
DC where coincidentally Congress was debating if they should sign the Soil Conservation
Service bill. As the dust darkened the windows and choked off all further
debate, the Congressmen signed the bill. 
The comparison was that we are standing in the midst of a decaying food
bowl and that perhaps the initiatives being voted on this week would help us on
the road to healthy, enjoyable eating. Chef Barber was the only one to address
my concern: we can give people supermarkets, but they still aren’t cooking. Until
people return to the kitchen they cannot take command of their personal food world.


Finally Speaker Quinn delivered a rousing speech that
clearly demonstrated her genuine passion and zeal for creating jobs in NY and
feeding people. She believes the F.R.E.S.H. initiative and FoodWorksNY are valuable
holistic tools for helping New York Citizens. She believes this with all her
heart, but maybe these initiatives are missing some key ingredients. Citing an
example of how to bring local produce to our school children, she praised the
benefits of a wash-cut-bag facility that could process romaine lettuce. Ms.
Quinn seems to think that we can replace California romaine with NY romaine all
during the school year, which would be OK if we had the same climate as
California. They’re growing romaine in California because it’s naturally easier
to grow it there, and if you factor in the cost of maintaining a heated
greenhouse and above average irrigation requirements v. consolidated shipments
and economies of scale, I wonder which is actually greener.


One suggestion is to stick with what is local: namely dark
leafy greens that survive pretty well, at least until it snows.  My other suggestion is to eliminate the
wash-cut-bag facility all together, and literally wash and prep the natural
produce onsite. Kids would see the vegetable crates lined up at the side door. They
would physically see the whole broccoli plant, not just the tips. Science
projects would make use of composting. And somebody, somewhere in the kitchen
would actually have to cook instead of opening a can. It’s mind bending to think
of all the positive reinforcement that could come from handling raw produce.
Life style classes would be mandatory and everyone gets a turn in the kitchen.
Those who like it, get to stay for extra credit. Oh, if only I was queen of the
universe there would be a dish rag and a sharp knife in everyone’s tool kit.


Of course, actually cooking and getting people back into the
kitchen is the hammer that I carry in my tool belt and I really do try to see
all sides of the various elephantine food debates.  I know home cooking isn’t going to solve everything that’s
wrong with our food culture, but I do believe that until we make an apple as
appealing and affordable as a Coke, we’re spinning our wheels. I think we need
more Cooking Activists, and honey, I am not talking about Paula Deen, so quit
hanging out on the computer and go make something in your kitchen.

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