Chicken Testimony!

Tonight is the night: Hearing number one with the Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee. We’ll need to come out strong to make this happen. In an effort to help folks craft testimony I’m posting my draft testimony here for others to use to craft their own.

Good evening, my name is __________________________ and I live at ____________________________ or I’m here representing _____________________________organization/business/agency.
I am here to speak in favor of passing the proposed chicken hen ordinance.
Cities all over the nation have passed similar ordinances, allowing people to raise chicken hens for the purpose of eggs or to have as pets. There are many reasons why this is a good time for Worcester to pass such an ordinance. In a time of economic uncertainty and with more and more food safety issues, increasing localized control of our food systems is important for the health and safety of residents, our environment, and our food supply. In Worcester, where food security and hunger are very real issues, allowing residents to access an inexpensive source of protein is important. In addition, with our growing population of immigrant and refugee residents, many of whom have an agricultural background or connection to farming, it is also important they are able to continue to practice pieces of their heritage and enrich our city with their knowledge.
Opponents or skeptics of this ordinance fear that chickens will escape, will attract pests and predators, will be noisy, and will create problems for the department of Animal Control here in the city. These are common fears, but they are not supported by data or findings.
In 2010, a “Green Urban Policy” class at DePaul University conducted a survey of 23 municipalities – including nearby cities such as New Haven, CT; Belmont, MA; South Portland, ME; and Buffalo, NY. – that had enacted poultry ordinances between 2005 and 2009.
According to the survey, 17 of the 23 cities reported no problems with chickens getting loose. Ten cities reported finding no violations of their chicken ordinances, while five more reported four or fewer violations. Results were similar regarding a question on the number of citizen complaints about backyard chickens. Thirteen communities reported two or fewer complaints, and two indicated receiving between five and 10 complaints. One city remarked that because their ordinance required chickens to be in the coop at all times, they were having no issues with chickens getting loose or predators attacking. Our ordinance also requires chickens to be in their coop at all times as well.
Many of the cities that boast of their successful chicken ordinance programs have implemented educational programming to help residents understand how to raise chickens in compliance with the ordinance. Here in Massachusetts, the Northeast Organic Farming Association already holds regular backyard chicken raising workshops and has already offered to hold a series in Worcester for residents come Spring of 2012.
I hope you realize in considering this ordinance that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and that data has shown that with a properly written ordinance such as our proposed ordinance, issues of implementation will be minimal.
Thank you.

Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets

“Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets, study finds” is the title of an article that ran in the LA Times yesterday.  The article discusses a study that tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years and was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on Monday.   The study concluded that people didn’t eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods; instead, income and proximity to fast food restaurants were the strongest factors in food choice.  This is not information that should surprise any of us, really, but especially those of us that work in this world of community food security. Yet the article was written such that it implied that these results are a major blow to the movement to increase the number of grocery stores in areas that lack adequate access, such as urban centers and rural areas.  It is important that we don’t view healthy eating as dependent on one factor. It is also important to understand what “access” really means when it comes to food.  And, what we eat is not only dependent on access and our ability to consistently make good choices, but also on our mental and emotional well-being overall.

We cannot view “healthy eating” as something that happens in a bubble.  There is no “quick fix” to our nations issues of diet-related disease, complete disconnection from where our food comes from, cheap fast food, and emotional eating.  There is a complicated web of relationships between each of us and the food we eat, and we must work through that web in order to make lasting change.  Setting up grocery stores in communities that have no grocery store will not simply solve these problems.

Changing the way we all eat (and shop, and cook, and interact with food), and not only people of low-income, or people that are overweight/obese, should really be the focus of our work as community food security advocates and professionals.  Of course, people of limited economic means have added challenges that include the reality that healthy whole foods can cost more, or appear to cost more, or are assumed to cost more.  Healthy foods may also be harder to find in some rural or urban settings.  This historical and structural inequality is a key social justice issue that must be addressed with and by disenfranchised communities, yet rhetoric that frames the issue as “How can we make them eat healthy?” is paternalistic, disempowering, and really misinformed.  We should be working together to change the food system for everyone, rather than only focusing on changing the behaviors of a few people.  If we had a food system that was less industrial, not as consolidated, fair and just, environmentally sustainable, and not as commodified, we would most likely see fewer diet-related diseases and a lower rate of overweight and obesity, and we would not see these ailments disproportionately born by people of color or by low-income communities.

The article also does not tackle the complex issue of “access”.  “Access” is a three-pronged issue.  It could be geographic. Whether or not someone lives close enough to a grocery store, as opposed to having to rely on a corner store or fast food restaurant, is a piece of food access.  “Access” is also financial.  Having enough money to buy the foods that are healthy and that are available is a major component in food choices.  As long as fast food continues to be (or be perceived as) the cheapest and easiest way to feed a family, it will continue to be a primary choice for many folks.  “Access” is also about knowledge, ability, and attitudes.  If preparing meals from whole ingredients is out of the scope of someones knowledge and ability, then fast food or snack foods will again be a primary choice.  If people think that anything healthy will be bland and unenjoyable, then they will choose what tastes good, however unhealthy it may be.  Without cooking skills and knowledge of foods and basic nutrition, many people will be at a disadvantage in making healthier choices, or really being able to stick with a healthier diet.

Yet even if someone has the access, there are other factors that come into play.  A persons mental and emotional health is always a major factor in food choices.  For people that are stressed out, over-committed, depressed, lonely, etc. food can often become something that soothes and comforts.  Many of us turn to comfort foods from time to time, but people that are consistently in an unbalanced mental state turn to food regularly, and of course to fatty, sweet, salty, delicious foods.  And with approximately 12 million women and roughly 6 million men experiencing clinical depression each year, there are increased possibilities for instances of overweight and obesity amongst that population.

Hopefully what this study brings to light is that changing our food system is much more complicated than only grocery store access.  While concrete strategies like increasing healthy food options in communities is a key part of the equation, we must all work together across professions, across race and class lines, and across communities, states and regions to build a healthier food system for everyone.

The Color of Food

Those of you that know me know that I really love to talk about food and racial and economic justice.  And I don’t just love to talk about it, I like to read about it, research it, and find other people that are exploring these topics as well.  I recently stumbled upon a great blog – Brown.Girl.Farming. by Natasha Bowens.  I came across it from a series of articles she wrote on Grist called the Color of Food.  And then through that I stumbled upon a recently released report, also called the Color of Food by Yvonne Yen Liu and Dominique Apollon and the Applied Research Center.  So, if like me, you are also interested in the connections between racism, racial justice and our food, there’s some great reading for you.  Or, if you are reading this and thinking “what are the connections between racism and my food??”, well, then here’s some good reading to get those wheels turning.  And if you need more reading, or different reading, WHY Hunger has a whole resource page to chose from!

And while I’m very excited to people of color writing and blogging and exploring these issues, and I’ve met some great folks from the Detroit Black Food Security Network that are really diving into these issues head-on in their community, I would love to see more white people speaking up about these issues.  If we’re not all engaged in the conversation, we won’t be able to make the change we need!

Mark Bittman’s Food Manifesto

Mark Bittmans’ Food Manifesto that appeared in print in early February and is online in the NY Times Opinoator Column is a pretty spot on call for change in our food system.  We (aka those of us in the nutrition, anti-hunger, public health, farming, food justice, food eating realm) often talk about the complex nature of the food system and the intersection of hunger, obesity, farm subsidies, food deserts, fast food, and the general American perception that food should be cheap and convenient.  We – as a country – have landed ourselves in a conundrum where solutions need to be locally based AND embedded in a larger national and global movement to remake our food system.  Mark’s top solutions were:

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

The attractive part of Bittman’s vision is the encompassing nature of it; it recognizes that we need to look at the whole food system, including marketing, labeling, and regulation or oversight.  AND what individuals can and know how to do with changing options and systems.  If we have a generation that cannot cook, our food revolution will never stick.  If we all still believe that Vitamin Water is great for us (the reverse osmosis water and evaporated cane sugar get me every time!) then we’ll have trouble moving beyond it.

And as with all our work to improve the food system, end hunger, reverse childhood obesity trends, save farming, and improve environmental health, we must always make sure that in our goals we are explicitly addressing racial and class inequities that have pushed many of these ailments upon people and communities of color and low-income.