Building Community At America's Table

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Meal Two: A Fence May Have Two Sides. It Is Still One Fence.

– written by Ellen

The subject of GMOs came up at a friend’s house over the Fourth of July dinner table. I can’t recall the whole of the conversation, it was brief and fleeting. But I do remember the last exchange:

“… there’s a ton of scientific evidence proving that GMOs are really, really bad…” a friend at the table said.

“Actually, no there isn’t, necessarily,” I commented.

And with that, my friend picked up his plate and stormed off.

Now, I get that emotion. I was there once — not too long ago. And I’d frankly find it much easier to be there now. It is, in fact, infinitely easier to just believe what you want to believe and be done with it. To storm off. To ignore the other side. To be convinced that what you think about food is immutably right and if someone doesn’t agree then, well, who even wants to eat with that person?

But Meal Two taught me a bit about the nature of the fence and its two sides.

Let me explain.

Grant and I were lucky enough to go to Chef Camp at Spence Farm. Chef Camp is an intensive two-day immersion in the life and ideas of a sustainable farm in Central Illinois owned by Marty, Kris and Will Travis. Sustainable isn’t actually quite right — beyond sustainable is how they describe it. Or maybe a better way to describe it would be a bucolic Valhalla of a Farm in the eyes of me and Grant.

To the Travises, sustainable involves everything from the environment, to the lives of the animals, their lives, the community, financials, marketing — everything. They are striving to live a life they can enjoy and feel proud of, doing work they believe in, growing food they know is healthful in every way and as nutrient-dense as possible.

And they work hard in their community to support, foster and grow the ideas of sustainability they believe in. They foster young farmers who want to get into business selling “properly raised food” to Chicago’s chefs. One 14-year old boy in their “stable” runs a two-acre farm, Windy Knoll Produce, and sells to the likes of Rick Bayless, you should know. These people are doing good works. More than their share.

14 year-old Derek Stoller of Windy Knoll Produce

And this is the thing: While there were a lot of great speakers to hear and experiences to share (and delicious meals cooked by fellow campers who were chefs!), my biggest take-away was a talk Kris gave to kick off the weekend. I’ll call it “Fences and the Family Farm.”

This was my take-away:  There is no right way or wrong way to farm — there is the way that each farmer chooses is right for him/her and his/her farm. That’s it. They farm their way. Across the fence, their neighbor farms another. Their goal is to try to work together.

In the world according to Kris, “We may not agree with the way they do things (on the industrial farm next door), but we care about them. They are our neighbors, a part of our community, and we’re all in this together.”

Kris Travis

It is some pretty powerful thinking, when you consider that the Travis family are so sustainably pure as farmers that they could be held up as a model for all that could be right in farming in America — they do things like bring back into production Brownie beans from seeds the Kickapoo Indians gave to their own ancestors on the farm long ago and then, after growing the beans, bring a bag of them to the remaining members of the Kickapoo tribe that lives nearby.

I can’t even imagine the soul-fulfilling satisfaction of giving a piece of real heritage back to American Indians. I mean really, you’ve accomplished a lifetime of greatness with that gesture, no?

If you, dear reader, are a sustainably-minded, family farm-focused, localvorey type, The Travises are your holy grail.

And they want you to know that they really don’t judge those who choose another way of farming. I’ll toss in that maybe I shouldn’t either.

Especially when I don’t have all the facts — or worse, if all I have is skewed facts.

Know this: I am still not going to eat GMOs. I will still campaign against pesticides and antibiotics that are baked into the commodity food supply. I am confident I’ll start crying when I end up having to face an animal in confinement.

I am in no way on the fence about this stuff. But I am starting to realize that burning the fence just because I don’t like what is on the other side actually does no good.

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Meal One: Gettin’ Sciencey

written by Ellen

You should know this is the third version of this blog post I am penning (well, computering). The first two were, rightly, rejected because the person with whom we had our first meal found too much wrongness in what I wrote.

So much so that I just started over.

That person is Natasha Godard, whom I will introduce to you as “she of a sciencey mindset” and kickin’ cooker of huevos rancheros. At the dinner, also, was her equally whip-smart husband Bill Weiss.

Natasha reached out to us after Grant wrote the post about the Research Fog. We, Grant and I, were experiencing, since kicking off One Hundred Meals and subsequently diving into a sea of generally boring though sometimes scary reports, a sense of general malaise about the whole thing. We were trying to get up to speed a bit, you see, realizing that while we may have started this project to learn, it might be nice if we at least had basic command of the issues at hand before we commenced barging into people’s lives and work to ask probing questions.

And what you learn when you dive into facts and figures of our food supply is that the water is rather murky.

Natasha wanted to help get us going on a good track. And, evidenced by my aborted blog posts, it has taken me longer than one dinner to find that track.

Actually, what I have discovered here by blog post draft three of Meal One — Gettin’ Sciencey is that I am not on the right track at all.

I can see the track, sure, but I am not on it.

In some ways I don’t wanna get on it either, frankly.

And, though I have committed to have an open mind about learning for this project — I am finding that more than anything, I am really emotionally challenged by the idea of being unemotional in approaching the topic of our food supply. Which is why the first two posts had to be kaboshed. They proved (scientifically, I should say) just how much of my own ideas and opinions and preconceived notions I lay over the top of conversations. And likely reading as well.

Let me explain with a thought experiment on corn, offered up at the dinner by Bill as an example of understanding the difference between thinking scientifically about a topic and thinking emotionally: Say I have two rooms. In one room, I grow 15 stalks of corn “the old fashioned way.” In the other room, I use test tubes and petri dishes and hydroponics to grow an ear of corn in my lab. The corn is genetically the same as the corn from the first  room. Is the corn different?

Personally, when presented with said experiment, I will admit I didn’t want to answer the question.

My chest tightened — yes, I had an actual physical reaction — as I processed the anger and frustration I felt about not wanting to admit the answer.

The corn, I am sure you know, is the same.

Of course it is the same — that’s the point of the word problem. But, really, I didn’t want them to be the same.

And probably, more than anything, that inner turmoil rejecting the idea that a scientist could make corn that was precisely the same as the corn I grew “naturally,” is the best way for me to describe my feelings and ideas about what is going on in our food supply as it becomes more and more dependent and dictated by science.

More than anything, I plain old just don’t really like when we get all science-y with our food. I don’t understand it and it seems scary. 

And I am not alone. Even when it does goodGMOs can seem bad. And I can’t seem to break myself free from that.

Which, of course, is why Grant and I started this project, even if I didn’t realize it.

But I guess I never really had to come face to face with the reality. And with the reality I realized that I kinda, down deep inside, don’t want to have to learn to be more objective.

But of course I have to be more objective if I want to be informed and not just an ignorant bundle of opinions. Which is what I learned from Natasha.

That and the fact that the only real way to to do this is to dig in and find as much research as one can about any and every topic, be objective when you read it, and make some informed conclusions from there.

But here’s the rub: it takes a lot of work to get to a place where you can make an informed-ish decision. And even then, and this is another thing I took away from the meal with Natasha — even then one can’t conclude that the science one is reading is definitively even conclusive.

Pretty much, you can only decide it is indicative of an idea, it seems.

Let me explain through an experience I had in learning about GMO salmon.

Depending on where you get your information, GMO salmon are cause for alarm or just some faster-to-your-plate salmon — same-same, just a little different. I was, prior to my research experiment, very much against GMO salmon as inherently scary and wrong. There was no informed reason for my position. It just seemed scarypants and wrong.

But, in the interest of the project, I started doing the reading necessary to understand if my opinion was actually valid or not.

Here’s what I learned when I simply tried to find out what the hell it was:

  • According to AquaBounty, the makers of this GMO salmon: “AquAdvantage® Salmon (AAS) include a gene from the Chinook salmon, which provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. In all other respects, AAS are identical to other Atlantic salmon.” Identical! Well, what’s the problem? This one Chinook gene is basically a fish version of marrying your cousin, right? That’s legal in some states.
  • That said, if you read what the sustainability folks have to say, you learn this: “The fish, which is branded AquAdvantage, has been altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from a deepwater eel-like fish called an ocean pout.” Whoa, there. There’s a whole new gene from some whole different species going on. Why didn’t the AquaBounty people mention that? How can the addition of a whole gene from a different species go overlooked and what makes that even remotely “identical-ly.”
  • You may laugh at the ignorance of using it as a source, but I thought it may be prudent to check what Wikipedia lists: “The AquAdvantage salmon has been modified by the addition of a growth hormone regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from an ocean pout to the Atlantic’s 40,000 genes.” Ah-ha! Here we see what is probably a case of the AquaBounty people not being able to convince the Wikipedia folks to kill the pout gene so they settled on burying the one tiny little pout gene in a huge number to make it seem like dandruff. 
  • And if you were to delve into what pro-industry folks have to say, you’d find this: “Basically, two genes have been inserted into their genomes. One gene simply enables internal growth hormone production year round despite the cold (salmon ordinarily stop making growth hormone in cold weather and therefore stop growing during winter months). The second gene basically enables the first gene to activate and do its work. Most importantly, no hormones that are not native to fish are introduced to this fish, nor are they fed hormones in their rations. There is no reasonable scientific basis for suggesting that these fish are somehow hormonally disruptive of humans or other animals that might eat them, or even that the enhanced growth hormone production is damaging to the fish themselves, the arguments used against hormones given to livestock and dairy cows through feed or direct injection.” So, basically, when this gets all translated by folks who support it, the gene thing is tossed aside and the focus shifts, mysteriously, to a completely unrelated issue.

Seriously, what to do? I can’t even get a straight answer on what it is!

I decided to read the FDA briefing packet, since they are just now deciding the fate of these GMO fish.

Now, for the purposes of this blog post I will not address here the fact that our government, and its FDA, is heavily influenced by corporate dollars so one can’t really read the FDA report without that grain of salt. Let’s just agree, for the purposes of this post, that we have to go with the people who are charged with keeping our food supply safe.

I just felt like I needed to know what the decision is being based on.

The FDA packet is a 172-page scientific study of the fish, dense with acronyms. It begins with balls-out support for genetically engineered animals — they’ve been around since Carter was president! And it goes on in that vein. Only, more boringly, actually. But, by the end of the paper, frankly, I was even convinced they aren’t that bad.

But I also noticed what was missing: The things we don’t yet know we don’t know about.

Because we can’t say we know if this GMO salmon is going to develop new allergies as some studies indicate produce GMOs are. Or whether there will be a new and intensified need for antibiotics as the fish grow in their artificial environment, which seems so obviously going to happen I am not going to even include a link. We also don’t know if the “completely contained environments” in which they grow these things are going to remain as contained as they think.

And I think this point is where I and the pro-GMO folks part ways: I would like to at least have a semblance of knowing a few of the things I don’t know now, only 10 years into testing this new salmon. I’d like to have waited a bit on the GMO corn and soybeans, which now represent the vast majority of our corn and soybean harvests and are also starting to indicate some unforeseen problems.

Because I get the science — but to really get science, and I am never really clear on why scientists who are so pro-GMO don’t really seem to get this, you have to respect that there are unknown unknowns, just as there are unknown knowns and known unknowns. This was a big take away from the dinner with Natasha.

The scientists, of all people, know about the unknowns that are out there lurking in the future.

And I have to wonder: Why are they ignoring them?

•   •   •   •   •

read Grant’s post in response to Meal One: New Views On the Science of Food


One Hundred Meals “Launch Party”

written by Ellen

OK, to be honest, we didn’t have time for an actual launch party for One Hundred Meals, so Grant and I jumped at the chance to launch the project at the season’s last Soup & Bread (and Pie!) at The Hideout in Chicago.

The founder of Soup & Bread, Martha Bayne, has built a thriving community raising money for good causes like, the Logan Square Warming Center, which was the beneficiary of last week’s event. For background, here is a good post from the New York Times (OK, really, I added that link because it is the NEW YORK TIMES WRITING ABOUT MARTHA’S CAUSE!).

Well, anyway, it was such an auspicious event, it being the last of the season, and such a good cause, building community — that it was a natural place to launch our project, designed to build community.

First Step Soup

I made what I called First Step Soup. I adapted a recipe that I got from Kristin Reese, who was at The. Breakfast. It is her family’s favorite soup and is a traditional Italian Wedding Soup that she got the recipe for from Ina Garten. Here’s what Kristin had to say about the soup:

“It as a recipe I found that tasted good and can be a meal. Meatballs can be made in advance and it is tasty. The kids like the meatballs. I used our ground chicken and add some spices to it. I love the chef Barefoot Contessa and I think this is one of her recipes…without looking. When I cook I always make little changes or ad in this or that…I bet that is how you are too. I use herbs out of my garden. Our children Campbell 4, and Parker 2, love to help cook.”

You can probably see already that learning about the lives of the people on the other side of the table can help begin to bridge gaps. The reason, of course, is that you learn to see them as people first, not just a faceless enemy force. And that was the point of this soup I was making, to use food — a tie that binds — as a gesture for building a connection.

Ellen serving First Step Soup

We thought it would be fun to add the recipe from each meal, so I made a page for that and you can go get the recipe for First Step Soup. I apologize to the “specific direction needed” folks out there but I write recipes mostly how I cook. I am sure as Grant adds recipes, they will be more organized and precise. So, there will be something for everyone over time!

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks, planning and plotting the project, reading and learning, that we haven’t really had enough time to communicate how this project is going to fall together. So, since this is the launch party post, I thought maybe it was high time to do that.

The foundation of One Hundred Meals will be a series of topics that Grant and I pursue as we set out to learn about our food supply. First up — learning how to read and understand the data and information that swirls around us, generally making us confused as we try to sort out what to believe. We’ll be announcing the first meal, whose topic is learning to research, in the next few days.

For each topic, we will be posting a preview post announcing the topic, sharing why we chose the topic and what we hope to learn, and listing a number of the questions we have about the topic. We’ll also be soliciting questions from you, so please feel free to let us know what you want to learn about each topic so we can share what we find.

Grant will be developing a photo record of the meal that we’ll share with you, and we’ll both work on follow up posts that share what we learned. We’re building a discussion board for the blog which will be incorporated into each post to try to keep the discussion strings on topic and easier to follow. We encourage you to chime in and get your voice heard on the boards.

Our target list of meals we would like to pursue will be going up shortly, as will an ever-updated reading list that includes learning and information from all sides of the issue.

Our goal is to try and sort out, really, the truth about our food supply and how regular people with busy lives and jobs can sort through the morass of conflicting information and arrive at a way of living that is in tune with their ideals.

That’s really the crux of the problem, to my mind, that it is nearly impossible to know what to choose when you don’t have ready access to real facts you can count on. And that’s what One Hundred Meals is all about — building community at America’s table while helping us — and you — understand the realities of the choices we make, instead of ignoring them or misunderstanding them.

We hope you participate, after all, we are trying to build a community here, and hope you end up getting some of your own questions answered. And, well, maybe meet a few people, like-minded and not, along the way.

Packed house at Soup & Bread!


Announcing “One Hundred Meals – Building Community At America’s Table”

written by Ellen

Recently, Grant and I had an opportunity to sit down with some “industrial farming” folks over breakfast, on the invitation of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. The group, which appears to have deep ties to Big Ag, was formed to help American farmers and ranchers of all stripes and sizes connect with the American public.

It didn’t go over very well. But, if you look in the comments, it did, in fact, start a conversation.

We learned about folks who are experimenting with half GMO corn in their field this year because the corn borer just might be extra virulent this year, since winter wasn’t winter at all. You know, we get that. Really — though we still have a lot of questions about GM crops we’d like to discuss.

We started learning a bit about the finances of big meat from a former board member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We might not agree with him — OK, we don’t agree with him — but we started feeling the need to at least understand him.

We got challenged about feeding the poor. It seems no one has any good answer about that, to be honest, but it does loom large over all our heads as the world’s exponential population growth makes the magnitudes of future peoples who will need food nothing short of staggering.

We launched discussions with an industrial dairy man about why we can’t get raw milk and while he talked a lot about safety, we talked a lot about how the dairy idea of safety and our idea of safety are two different things. And we want to know where we can turn to, maybe, get our voice heard.

And we learned that industrial farmers are often terrorized in their homes by “well-meaning” foodies who commit violence, vandalism and other hate crimes in the name of saving the food supply. Scary but true.

In other words, we started learning what the other side is thinking — and that they were, in fact, thinking — and we realized that what seems to be missing in the food dialogue is active conversation with people who don’t agree with each other.

We’re not talking about groups of people setting out to educate the other side. We definitely are not talking about getting the propaganda right. We’re talking about actual dialogue. The kind that sparks new ideas, broader thinking and maybe even builds some new communities.

Because in a world where one Obama is greenlighting GMOs while the other is promoting a family garden, we believe it might be time for all of us to take a step back and learn. Time to unravel the crazy contradictions, to wade through the misinformation and disinformation and get to the bottom of the hypocrisies we all have about our food supply.

Our goal is to at least understand where our food supply went off the rails and how we are supposed to live — and make good decisions about what we eat — within the bubbling mess.

After all, it can become a little difficult to make the right decisions when the answers to just about all the questions are murky and complicated. Heck, we’d venture that even the questions are essentially murky and complicated.

So, we decided to start a project.

The idea is pretty simple: start sorting out the questions, meet with the people in our food community that can give us some answers, experience first hand the realities of food, and build a platform for people on all sides of the conversation to come together and discuss those questions and answers.

To, really, bridge the divide and build community through One Hundred Meals.

Here’s the rundown:

  • We’re gonna eat One Hundred Meals with people who are involved in our food supply. We want to eat with GMO advocates, urban foragers working with the homeless, farmers of all stripes, policy makers, and even some regular folks.
  • Each one of those meals is designed to get us out of our comfort zone and into a learning zone — helping us stand up and face parts of our food supply we don’t want to think about but should probably know about.
  • We’ll share photos and stories from the meal, inviting all participants to weigh in and present their ideas and thoughts so that everyone has an equal opportunity to say what is on their mind.
  • We don’t know how long it will take. We have a website to build, funds to raise, plans to make and a lot of learning to do. And, since this is just a project and not our jobs, we likely won’t be racing through the meals one after another, either.
  • Our goal is to open up productive discussion. On the website, we are planning an extensive discussion platform and we’ll invite all to participate. But, we’ll also work to keep the conversation civil — so we hope you’ll join in but we also need you to add to the discussion, not just drag it down.
  • We’ll share an extensive reading list from all sides, helping our readers learn about topics holistically, instead of just from their own vantage point — an opportunity sorely missed in most everyday discourse.
  • Although we definitely have opinions, our goal for the site is to try to approach each topic as neutrally as possible and with as much humility as possible. We invite you to tell us if we veer off course.
  • We’d like to be a platform for building a community of food that helps everyone learn, grow, and hopefully, eat.

As I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium — an expression of game theory where, in order to win, each person in food needs to make choices that contribute to everyone’s welfare.

After all, food is not a zero sum game. We either all win or, frankly, we are all going to lose.

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To read the blog post from Ellen that started it all: Just Because the Canary Is Alive…

To read more about Grant’s food learning curve: MyFoodshed