Tom Philpott

The Fake Meat Market Is Surging

Whether you’re a strict vegetarian or a contented carnivore, meat poses a vexing efficiency problem. Crowded into feedlots, the modern cow burns through an estimated 25 pounds of corn and soybeans for every pound of edible meat it generates. Pork, chicken, and egg production each requires an average of five pounds of feed per pound of product yielded, which is somewhat more efficient, but they, too, raise a provocative question: Why not just eat the protein-rich grain and beans that go into all that feed rather than running them through the body of an animal first?

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Confused About Wheat and Gluten? 4 Facts That Will Surprise You

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People on Food Stamps Make Healthier Grocery Decisions Than Most of Us

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Craft Beer Uses 4 Times As Much Barley As Corporate Brew

For decades, US beer lovers have denounced corporate-made brew as watered-down swill. Just how diluted is the product peddled by the two enormous dinosaurs that dodder over the US beer market, InBev (maker of Bud) and MillerCoors? In a delicious new report, the US Department of Agriculture has numbers.

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The Looming Olive Oil Apocalypse

The world's most celebrated olive oil comes from sun-drenched groves of Italy. But Italy is also a hotbed of olive oil subterfuge, counterfeit, and adulteration—and has been since Roman times, as Tom Muellar showed in an eye-opening 2007 New Yorker piece (which grew into a book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.)  Next year, getting real olive oil from Italy is going to be even harder than usual. Here's the LA Times' Russ Parsons:

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Has the Gluten Health Mystery Been Solved?

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How the Fast Food Industry Destroyed "Home Ec" to Hook Americans on Processed Crap

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7 Dangerous Food Practices Banned in Europe But Just Fine in America

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The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking

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Is Alzheimers Caused By Too Much Sugar? How the American Diet Is as Bad for Our Brains as Our Bodies

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5 Grotesque Fast Food Products Americans Scarf Down in Their Cars

Wednesday's post on the American diet focused on what people buy at the supermarket (short story: a vast amount of processed food). What do we eat when we eat out? The Wall Street Journal's Sara Nassaurbring has some data points:

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Arsenic in Your Apple Juice? How a Dangerous Poison Found Its Way Into Fruit Juice

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Why Eating Meat Could Give You Diabetes

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Industrial Ag Once Again Demanding a Free Pass to Crap in Your Backyard

I've long argued that chemical-intensive commodity agriculture could never flourish without the right to pollute freely and stomp on surrounding communities and landscapes. Evidently, Big Ag's greatest champions agree with me.

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Why Michael Pollan and Alice Waters Should Quit Celebrating Food-Price Hikes

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As their grocery bills rise, Americans should take comfort: the price they're paying for industrially produced food in the supermarket is starting to approach that of artisanally produced food at the farmers' market. And that might make more of them choose healthier, less environmentally destructive diets. At least, that's the message of a recent article the New York Timesarticle, titled "Some Good News on Food Prices."

To make her case, reporter Kim Severson turned to two Berkeley-based icons of the sustainable-food movement, author Michael Pollan and restaurateur Alice Waters. "Higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn't rely on fossil fuels," Pollan told Severson.

People struggling with their food bills should "make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes," Waters advised.

All due respect to Pollan and Waters, but I think they are grossly simplifying matters here. Nationwide, heightened food and gasoline prices, combined with an economy that's shedding jobs, are putting a hard squeeze on consumers. According to The New York Times, applications for food stamps have surged recently, and the program is projected to reach 28 million Americans over the next several months, the most since its inception in the 1960s.

I have a hard time imagining people who are struggling to put food on the table rambling off to the farmers' market on Saturday to fill cloth bags with the sort of fresh, local, organic produce so beloved by Pollan and Waters (and me). Indeed, higher food prices are likely to send many time- and cash-strapped people in quite the opposite direction.

Rising costs may end up increasing the allure of large entities with economies of scale, cutthroat buying practices, and experience in transforming low-quality ag inputs into stuff people like to eat. I'm talking about fast-food companies, which can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap -- and rake in profits. If that's true, prices at the drive-thru won't rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.

An informal recent lunchtime survey of fast-food chains in the Chapel Hill area yielded results that would make a Berkeley foodie gag on her omelet of pastured eggs, raw-milk cheese, just-picked kale, and green garlic. At McDonald's, I shouldered my way through a bustling crowd and saw Big Mac combo meals, complete with fries and Coke, going for $4.29. Wendy's, equally crowded, offered a similar package for a bit more than $5. Domino's advertised a one-topping large pizza -- "six foldable slices!" -- for $10. At a Papa John's down the road, $11 will get you a large pie with three toppings. Something tells me these places, not farmers' markets or restaurants like Waters' Chez Panisse, will remain the regular canteen of millions of Americans.

What, then, to do? The answer, it seems to me, is not just to hope that expensive industrial food drives people toward equally expensive sustainable food. It's to make sustainable food more broadly accessible and affordable. And that's happening in a few places -- most recently Washington state -- thanks to farsighted policymakers.

How We Got Here, and How We Can Get Away

Prices of corn and soybean -- lifeblood of the industrial food system, as Pollan has so eloquently shown -- hovered near 30-year lows just two years ago. Then President Bush declared that America was "addicted to oil," and responded by ramping up subsidies for corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel. The effort has done little to ease our oil fetish, but it has resulted in the doubling and then some of corn and soy prices.

Indeed, it's quite likely that the biofuel boom has done more harm than good for the environment. It's led to a surge in agrichemical use and phosphate mining, a dramatic expansion in genetically modified crops, and probably the growth of the infamous agriculture-related dead zone that snuffs out sea life in the Gulf of Mexico each year.

Rather than revaluing food, as Pollan and Waters seem to think, current policy seems bent on puffing up the profits of the very agribusiness giants whose produce Pollan and Waters so deplore.

Of course, there's another way. Just as public policy can be used to consolidate the grip of industrial agriculture, it can also be used to increase the accessibility of sustainable agriculture. Admittedly, the 2007 farm bill, still belatedly knocking around Washington waiting for agreement between the president and Congress, probably can't be counted on for much relief.

But that doesn't mean sustainable-food advocates need to sit on their hands and wait for the masses to discover the pleasures of a real tomato. All over the country, state and local policy is being tweaked to make fresh, local food more accessible.

Just last week, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) signed sweeping legislation designed to link the state's farmers with folks who normally don't get much access to fresh produce: schoolchildren, food-stamp recipients, and food-bank users.

As Washington Grows, So Grows the Nation?

The law, which passed with near-unanimous bipartisan support, will put real resources into farm-to-school: It will dedicate two and a half full-time state agriculture-department employees to running the program, and commit $600,000 annually to create a "locally grown fruit and vegetable snack program" in elementary schools with high numbers of low-income students.

It also clears one of the key obstacles that prevent school cafeterias from buying local: the requirement that they accept the lowest-cost bid and not discriminate based on geography.

The legislation has severe limitations. It can't change the National School Lunch Program's minuscule budget, which allots $2.47 to school cafeterias per lunch served to students who qualify for assistance, and $0.23 per meal served to students who pay. Once you account for labor and other overhead costs, schools have about a dollar a day to spend on actual ingredients.

Nor can the new law rebuild the cafeteria-level kitchen infrastructure that has been dismantled nationwide over the past 30 years. As Jennifer Langston wrote in an excellent Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece last year, "Schools have ripped out kitchens and replaced them with closet-sized rewarming centers with no capacity to deal with things such as dirty carrots."

But it does move the state's schools in the direction of providing healthy, nutritious food, for students who now access mostly industrial dreck.

I asked Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District and author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, how the Washington law might change things for the state's children. She told me that Berkeley rules, like the new Washington code, free her from buying from the lowest bidder. She recently switched from industrial white rice, which she had been buying for $0.46 per pound, to California-produced brown rice for $0.72. "On the plate, that only amounts to a penny difference per kid," she said. "In terms of nutrition and flavor, the difference is huge."

It's these kinds of policies, not the government biofuel scheme, that have real potential to revalue good food in the United States. I wish influential figures like Pollan and Waters would quit pushing to make industrial food more expensive, and ramp up their efforts to make sustainable food more accessible instead -- something they've advocated forcefully in the past.

How the Meat Industry Is Making a Killing

I, for one, looked forward to a slowdown in one of the globe's most environmentally destructive industries. (As the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization pointed out last fall, feedlot meat production spews more greenhouse gases even than automobile use.)

If nothing else useful came out of the ethanol boom, I thought to myself, at least industrial meat would take a hard hit. But a funny thing has happened on the way to my industrial-meat schadenfreude: the meat titans are shaking off higher corn prices and thriving. And now I'm the one complaining bitterly.

Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor and among the largest beef and poultry producers, recently reported that its earnings for the May to July 2007 quarter more than doubled over the same period a year ago.

Its rival Tyson -- the world's largest chicken producer, and a leader in pork and beef -- also reported what analysts hailed as a "stellar" quarter, handily exceeding Wall Street's performance expectations.

What happened?

No Bones About It

For one thing, Smithfield and Tyson have managed to raise meat prices, forcing consumers to carry the costs of pricier corn. As the investment site Motley Fool put it, "It's been relatively easy for Tyson to push price increases through to its customers [i.e., large food retailers like Wal-Mart], who in turn have pushed through food inflation to consumers."

The second factor propping up the meat giants is that they have entered what seems like the early stages of a long-term export boom: They're swamping Eastern Europe and parts of Asia with U.S.-raised meat.

In the most recent quarter, Tyson increased its export sales by nearly a third. Smithfield, meanwhile, reported a jump in operating profit for its international unit -- and promptly announced a sizable sale of U.S.-grown pork to China.

Note the contrast to the plight of large-scale U.S. vegetable farmers, which I laid out in the previous Victual Reality. Like meat processors, vegetable farmers have also seen the price of a key input rise: in their case, labor costs are up because of a crackdown on undocumented workers.

But unlike meat processors, vegetable growers can't easily pass higher costs onto the big buyers like Wal-Mart and other food retailing giants. Those buyers can simply reject pricier U.S.-grown goods and buy produce from other countries where labor costs are lower, such as Mexico and China.

Meat is a different story. Whereas thousands of U.S. vegetable farmers compete among themselves and foreign rivals for space in Wal-Mart's produce section, a precious few companies control the meat trade. Just two companies -- Smithfield and Tyson -- process 43 percent of pork consumed in the U.S. Their three largest competitors, Swift, Cargill, and Hormel, have together sewn up another 27 percent of the pork market. When players this big experience higher costs, not even a giant like Wal-Mart can say no to higher prices.

Moreover, while U.S. vegetable farmers rightly fear cheap imports from foreign competitors, the opposite holds true with meat. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that U.S. producers will "dominate" the growing global pork market over the next decade. By 2016, the FAO predicts, nearly one of every three pounds of pork traded globally will originate in the U.S. The FAO also expects the nation's beef and poultry production to thrive in the global market.

The lowly state of the U.S. dollar -- widely projected to remain weak over the next decade -- explains part of the power of the U.S. meat-exporting machine. A weaker dollar makes our exports cheaper, and thus more competitive, overseas.

But an even more important factor, I think, is that our huge and highly consolidated meat giants have managed to establish classic "Third World" labor and environmental conditions right here in the United States.

Have You Seen the Little Piggies?

In Iowa, the nation's leading pork-producing state, confined-hog operations churn out 50 million tons of excrement each year, the great bulk of which festers in massive lagoons, belching putrid fumes into surrounding communities and leaking into groundwater.

In Hardin County, where I visited this summer, 18,000 residents live amid more than a million confined hogs and hundreds of manure lagoons. The county's once-teeming creeks and waterways have become dead zones, and an eye-stinging stench hangs in the air. It reminds you who benefits from the arrangement -- not the remaining residents or the hogs, but rather the confinement owners and the companies they work for under contract: Smithfield and its few meat-packing peers.

In North Carolina, the No. 2 hog-producing state, similar conditions hold sway. And there, just as in the "Third World," the poor pay dearest for highly profitable environmental banditry. According to a University of North Carolina study, "There are 18.9 times as many hog operations in the highest quintile of poverty as compared to the lowest." People of color get it worst of all: "The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage non-whites."

Labor conditions, too, resemble those that might hold sway under a miserable dictatorship run by blinkered elites in thrall to foreign investors. In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report on labor issues in U.S. slaughterhouses. "Meat-packing is the most dangerous factory job in America," the report declared. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies -- and the government does next to nothing." The report also documents meat-packers' heroic efforts to squash unions.

Indeed, in its anti-unionism, the meat industry takes a hint from practices used during the 1980s-era heyday of death squads in Central America. Speaking of a Smithfield plant in North Carolina, one Salvadoran worker told Human Rights Watch that, "The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us ... It's especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists."

Thus, it turns out, it will take much more than pricy corn to cut down the U.S. industrial-meat behemoth. Global demand for meat is rising, and U.S. producers are well positioned to dominate the market. But why let the U.S. become manure lagoon to the world?

Without access to exploitable labor and comically lax environmental codes, the industrial-meat complex would surely wither away -- and the world would be a better place. What can ordinary citizens do? Rejecting industrial meat is a necessary but insufficient step.

Efforts to organize meat-packing workers deserve broad public support, as does the movement to force the industry to take responsibility for the extraordinary environmental costs now being borne by people who live near its feedlots.

Is Whole Foods Taking Over?

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In a high-profile exchange with Michael Pollan last summer, Whole Foods Market CEO and founder John Mackey took an avuncular approach to farmers' markets that might take business from his company.

"Whole Foods Market is committed to supporting local farmers' markets across the United States (and also in Canada and the U.K.)," he wrote.

Elsewhere, the executive has displayed a zeal to crush competition that might make his counterparts at Microsoft blush. Last spring, Mackey sent a blunt email to the Whole Foods board, explaining his intention to buy Wild Oats -- Whole Foods' only direct nationwide competitor -- for a price well above what many analysts thought Wild Oats was worth.

By taking over Wild Oats, he argued, Whole Foods would not merely be snapping up 110 fully functioning natural-foods stores across the nation. Grabbing Wild Oats would also buy Whole Foods the power to "avoid nasty price wars" in several markets, as well as "eliminate forever" the threat of a major nationwide competitor in the natural-foods space.

The Federal Trade Commission somehow got its paws on Mackey's provocative email, and is using it as the basis for a rare foray into enforcing antitrust law in the food industry. In early June, the commission sued to block Whole Foods' $565 million bid for Wild Oats, claiming the combined entity would act as a monopoly in many regional markets.

In a brief [PDF] released last week, the FTC subtly revealed that Mackey had made other, even more provocative statements about Wild Oats before the deal went down this spring. It turns out that Mackey, the CEO of a company valued at some $5.6 billion, had for six years been secretly posting on a popular internet message board, clashing with anyone who dared criticize Whole Foods or praise Wild Oats. Using the handle "Rahodeb" -- his wife's name scrambled -- Mackey regularly crossed swords with people calling themselves things like "Hog152" and "Dadajuiceboy."

As far back as 2002, "Rahodeb" was openly pining for Wild Oats' elimination, declaring that, "With the demise of Wild Oats, Whole Foods Market has no national competitors in their niche. This will accelerate their growth." By spring 2006, Mackey's alter ego could taste blood. "The end game is now under way" for Wild Oats, Rahodeb insisted: "Whole Foods is systematically destroying their viability as a business -- market by market, city by city."

Admittedly, it's hard to look away from the spectacle of a major CEO's descent into anonymous chat-room shilling. But what really interests me here is the FTC's bold decision to challenge a merger within the food industry -- after decades of standing idly by as fewer and fewer companies grabbed hold of more and more of the market.



Mackey vs. Mackey



The FTC's case against the merger can be summed up as follows: A combined Whole Foods/Wild Oats would be the only nationwide supermarket specializing in premium-priced organic groceries, with an emphasis on perishable goods (fresh produce, meat, and dairy products).

The commission acknowledges that conventional supermarkets are rushing into organics, but counters that these chains cater to a group of shoppers distinct from the Whole Foods/Wild Oats set. Core "natural foods" shoppers, the FTC argues, don't venture into Wal-Mart seeking organic milk or broccoli. They flock to Whole Foods for the experience, and they're willing to pay extra for it. Thus if Whole Foods "devoured" (the FTC's word) its only national competitor, the combined entity would be free to gouge natural-foods shoppers without fear of competition.

Mackey has openly ridiculed this claim on his blog on the Whole Foods website. In an extraordinary 14,000-word treatise (very few CEOs would comment so voluminously on a pending antitrust case), Mackey claims that assimilating Wild Oats would actually do very little to reduce the competition his company faces.

"Most of our products that we sell in our stores can now be found in every large supermarket store in every market we compete," he wrote. "Excellent supermarket companies ... have very good perishable departments that compete very favorably with our own stores and they also have very large selections of natural and organic products. Competition with Whole Foods has never been greater than it is right now and Wild Oats is only a relatively small part of that greater competition."

And Whole Foods faces fierce competition from other sources as well, Mackey went on: "Trader Joe's has very rapidly expanded by more than doubling its store base in the past five years and has entered into numerous new markets to directly compete against us."

Mackey's logic makes good sense on the surface. Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. and a seasoned Whole Foods observer, essentially echoed it on his Chews Wise blog; other business-press commentators weighed in with similar support.

However, the FTC wields a powerful weapon to bolster its case: Mackey's own pronouncements from before the Wild Oats buyout. Over and over again in its 40-plus page brief, the commission trots out Mackey himself to make the case that Whole Foods operates in a different universe from its would-be rivals among conventional supermarkets. While the FTC document doesn't specify sources for the Mackey quotes, I talked to a press rep from the commission, and he told me they come from Mackey's chat-room forays and blog, as well as internal company documents.

In one instance, the FTC quotes Mackey as claiming that, "Safeway and other conventional retailers will keep doing their thing -- trying to be all things to all people. They can't really effectively focus on Whole Foods Core Customers without abandoning 90 percent of their own customers." At another point, the FTC has Mackey boasting of Whole Foods' "authenticity, integrity, and the power of their brand with their customers. This creates strong loyalty from their customer base -- something Safeway doesn't have and likely never will have."

Nor did pre-merger Mackey seem particularly impressed with the challenges mounted by specialty-foods retailer Trader Joe's on the high end or Wal-Mart from the low end. According to the FTC, Mackey wrote in 2006 that "Wal-Mart doesn't sell high-quality perishables and neither does Trader Joe's ... That is why Whole Foods coexists so well with [Trader Joe's] and it is also why Wal-Mart isn't going to hurt Whole Foods."

Given such pronouncements -- and the FTC has gathered several, from Mackey as well as other Whole Foods execs -- the agency will likely succeed in blocking the merger. In fact, the smart money is already lining up against the deal. "We believe the FTC case against the merger appears solid and are now leaning more toward the FTC prevailing in its injunction," a stock analyst for Bear Stearns recently wrote in a note to the Wall Street powerhouse's clients.

One Buyer Doesn't Fit All


So the FTC has moved decisively to protect the sort of consumers who adore Whole Foods and disdain conventional supermarkets. Wow. In this laissez-faire age, it's remarkable when a federal agency effectively challenges any sort of corporate merger.



But in my view, the agency could have mounted a broader challenge to the merger -- one that looked not only at the interests of people who buy from Whole Foods, but also entities that sell to it, including farms.

As Barry C. Lynn showed in a luminous essay published in Harper's last year, federal authorities since the Reagan era have narrowly defined antitrust law as an instrument for protecting consumers from price gouging.

In this conception of antitrust, the government steps in only when a company, unimpeded by competitors, gains enough market power to dictate prices to consumers. And the burden is on the government to show that the company is actually using its power abusively -- that is, charging higher prices than it would under competitive circumstances.

But these days, few dominant corporations dare attempt to gouge consumers. Rather, they use their market heft to boost profitability by squeezing their suppliers -- the firms they buy products from. Known as monopsony, this form of market power involves a dominant buyer dictating terms to sellers. In a market characterized by perfect monopsony, a seller can either accept the price the buyer is willing to pay, or exit the business.



According to Lynn, U.S. antitrust theory from the 1890s to the Reagan era included robust protection from monopsony. But in recent years, he writes, "it has become a truism that antitrust law is designed to protect only the consumer." As a result, he argues, huge firms have arisen whose very business model hinges on exercising monopsony power, which they use with impunity.

Lynn's example par excellence is Wal-Mart -- a company for which Mackey, under his Rahodeb guise, once expressed effusive admiration. Lynn shows that Wal-Mart uses its vast market heft to extract all manner of concessions from suppliers, including discounts unavailable to Wal-Mart's competitors. Wal-Mart and like-minded firms use monopsony power to "dictate downward the wages and profits of the millions of people and smaller firms who make and grow what they sell."

The effects are clear, Lynn continues: "We see them in the collapsing profit margins of the firms caught in Wal-Mart's system. We see them in the fact that of Wal-Mart's top 10 suppliers in 1994, four have sought bankruptcy protection."

How does monopsony apply to Whole Foods and its attempt to buy out its only direct nationwide competitor? If Mackey is correct that conventional supermarkets can never effectively compete with Whole Foods in its core fresh offerings like meat, produce, and dairy, then Whole Foods and its lone remaining competitor will become increasingly powerful buyers of those goods from organic farmers seeking to serve local and regional markets. To protect those farmers from a single buyer wielding untoward power, the Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger should be halted.

I'd like to see the FTC use that logic to block Mackey's zeal to dominate the natural-foods market -- and then apply it to other sectors of the incredibly consolidated, monopsony-dependent food industry.



Food Becomes Curriculum in School Lunch Revolution

Even the most intractable pathology can disappear, sometimes relatively quickly. A sign above a water fountain proclaiming "no coloreds" would cause any American to flinch today. Just half a century ago throughout the South, such abominations formed a banal part of the built landscape.

I got to thinking about deep-rooted problems and rapid change a few days ago while talking with Ann Cooper, a former star chef who now proudly styles herself a "renegade lunch lady."

Cooper is on a mission to transform the nation's abysmal school-lunch system. I met her for a cup of coffee in Asheville, N.C., where she was promoting her new book Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. After our conversation, I began to wonder if the idea of pumping kids full of flavorless, nutritionally suspect convenience food at school might soon become as socially unacceptable as Jim Crow-style racism.

Cooper has certainly taken on a daunting task. She currently serves as nutrition director of the Berkeley Unified School System, a 16-school, 9,000-student outfit in California. When she took the job in 2005, she found that the district's food-service system had completely retreated from actual cooking. "When I arrived, 100 percent of the food arrived in plastic, was reheated in plastic, and served to the kids in plastic," she says.

Overcoming an absurdly stringent budget and severely limited cooking infrastructure within school cafeterias, she has already eliminated what she calls "plastic food" and is now serving fresh, made-from-scratch meals.

But she has no intention of stopping there. She would like to overthrow the logic that has made school cafeterias conduits through which convenience-food manufacturers reach children's impressionable palates.

That job won't be easy. Few school districts can afford to hire a skilled chef with a sterling resume (Culinary Institute of America, a celebrated run as executive chef at Vermont's Putney Inn) to oversee a cooking revolution. In fact, the Berkeley system can only afford to fund Cooper's salary through a three-year grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation.

For less-lucky school districts, the situation is grave. As Cooper puts it in Lunch Lessons, "a full 78 percent of the schools in America do not actually meet the USDA's nutritional guidelines." It's no wonder, really: Cooper says school cafeterias have $2.40 per day to spend on each kid -- 70 percent of which goes to payroll and overhead. That leaves 72 cents to spend on ingredients.

Given those Dickensian financial constraints, it's also no wonder that over the last 30 years, schools have replaced trained cooks with de-skilled workers and abandoned cooking for reheating.

All in all, Cooper told me, the U.S. spends about $7 billion per year on school lunches -- roughly equal to a month's worth of military expenditures in Iraq.

The comparison is not merely rhetorical. As budget deficits mount and the president keeps escalating -- pardon me, augmenting -- the nation's commitments to the deadly sinkhole that has become Iraq, it's going to become harder and harder to find money to improve the dismal state of school lunches.

Penny Wise, Dollar Poor

Although money that could be boosting school-lunch budgets is now vainly being dumped into Iraq, defense planners once saw great value in childhood nutrition. In fact, Cooper reports, the school-lunch program grew out of national-security concerns.

According to Cooper, it started during World War II, when military planners discovered that widespread malnutrition among the nation's youth was hampering their ability to fight effectively. In the initial post-war decades, the school-lunch program worked pretty well, Cooper says. "There were actually real people cooking food from scratch in every public school in the country," she adds. "And no one thought about charging -- meals were free for every kid."

But economic crisis in the mid-1970s galvanized the backlash against New Deal programs that continues to grip U.S. politics to this day. As kitchen equipment installed in the 1940s and 1950s began to decay, Congress didn't allot money to replace it. Skilled cooks -- the "lunch ladies" Cooper harks back to -- reached retirement age, and their jobs went unfilled. School kitchens gradually turned into reheating centers staffed by button-pushers, not cooks, and school districts began to outsource food preparation to a booming convenience-food industry, which was just then discovering the wonders of high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fat.

Fast-forward 30 years, and we've completed a vicious circle. If the school-lunch program started from an urgent need to counter rampant malnutrition, it now needs a complete overhaul to combat a new scourge: surging diabetes and obesity rates.

Cooper points to a recent finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that among children born in 2000, one in three white kids and fully half of African Americans and Hispanics will develop diabetes in their lifetimes -- most before finishing high school. If present trends hold, these Americans will be the first in the nation's history not to live longer than their parents.

"Already, diet-related illnesses [in the U.S.] are costing $70 billion per year in health-care expenses" among adults and children, Cooper says. "When the current generation of kids enters adulthood, that number will explode."

All over the nation, grassroots efforts to reform school lunches are springing up, yet they remain severely constrained by the budget situation. That's why Cooper is turning her gaze to national politics.

Today Berkeley, Tomorrow the World

For 30 years, cutting costs has been the dominant goal of school food-service programs. But the pennies pinched in school cafeterias will likely seem paltry compared to the cost of treating tens of millions of chronically ill adults.

Thus Cooper would like to bring health and sustainability to the fore. She wants to see school lunches universally cooked from scratch with fresh and, when possible, local ingredients. And she believes strongly that the public sector, not parents, should pay.

"Kids don't just learn math and history and science at school," she says. "They also learn how to eat, how to take care of themselves. No parent expects to get a bill for math class. Why should they get a bill for lunch? Food needs to be seen as part of the curriculum."

Making that happen will require reinvestment in kitchen infrastructure and much higher annual budgets for the school-lunch program. To overcome the crushing inertia of U.S. politics and revive the school-lunch program, Cooper says, "We'll need to make children's health a key issue in the 2008 election."

How to make that happen in a political culture constrained by tax cuts and mounting war bills? "I've got to get myself on Oprah."

She's not joking. In the United Kingdom, where school lunches until recently were even worse than those in the U.S., chef Jamie Oliver put his considerable celebrity behind a successful push toward healthy, fresh food in schools. Oliver's highly publicized cajoling forced the government to boost the school-lunch budget by about 30 percent. No U.S. chef who emphasizes sustainability and health issues has anything close to Oliver's popular stature.

But Cooper, illuminated by Oprah's powerful media glow, could do something similar. If a Democrat gains the presidency in 2008, Cooper told me, she hopes to take a position in the administration as a kind of uber-Lunch Lady, from which vantage real reform could begin.

Can this chef-activist really change things nationwide? She has faced down challenges before. As a kid, she struggled academically, and eventually dropped out of high school in the early 1970s to pursue skiing opportunities in Telluride, Colo. ("Today, I'd almost certainly be diagnosed with dyslexia or ADD," she says.) Quickly finding herself penniless as a ski bum, she "did what any Jewish American Princess would do: I called my parents and begged for money." They declined, and Cooper sought work in the male-dominated restaurant world. Immediately, she fell in love with food.

Cooper shrugged off the chef profession's stifling machismo and established herself as an innovator in New American cuisine by the 1990s -- the trend that made local, seasonal, and organic key words in the high-end food world. She also shrugged off her lack of formal education and has authored four well-received books on food politics and culture.

Normally I don't place much faith in electoral politics, but Cooper's sheer force of personality made me believe she could use the system to make the change so desperately needed by an increasingly sick and overweight nation.

After more than an hour of intense conversation with the Lunch Lady, I needed some lunch myself. I chose a small restaurant in Asheville that specializes in local, seasonal food. I sat at the bar overlooking the kitchen, where a young woman chef, working at breakneck speed, ran the line all by herself. Clearly, someone hadn't shown up.

I reflected that not so long ago, Asheville had no restaurants focusing on local ingredients, and now it has several. Nor were there many female chefs, and here was one doing virtuosic work, and it didn't seem unusual.

Cooper blazed a trail for women in the restaurant world, and helped spark the local-food ethos that now grips high-end U.S. cooking. If I were a Kraft exec counting on school cafeterias for long-term profit, I'd be worried.

The Big Risks and Small Rewards of Farming

Before I became a farmer three growing seasons ago, I lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and reveled in the array of top-flight local produce available from mid-spring to late fall. Long about January, though, a kind of local-food withdrawal would set in.

By this time of year, the legendary produce aisle of the Park Slope Food Co-op would be given over mainly to dull vegetables trucked in from the mega-organic farms of California, Arizona, and Mexico. My beloved Clinton Hill CSA -- which introduced me to the community-supported agriculture model now in use at my own Maverick Farms -- was hibernating. And the usually bustling Grand Army Plaza Green Market would be operating in shell form, frequented by shivering diehards like me and a few dairy, meat, apple, and egg vendors.

I have to admit, while tending my winter braises and pining for spicy salad greens, I gave little thought to what was actually happening on the farms that sustained me during the growing season.

Now I know: Winter is the planning season on a small-scale farm, the time to sort out budgets, seed orders, and marketing plans, and figure out who's going to do what and when. Recently, while engaged in that process, I've been pondering lessons I've learned since coming to the farm that I wish I had known back when I was an urban local-food enthusiast.

One lesson I've learned viscerally: Small-scale farming is an inherently fragile process. In the summer months, farmers' markets across the nation bustle with vendors selling gorgeous produce at prices well above the factory-farmed wares sold at supermarkets. Surveying these vivid and life-affirming scenes, it's easy to assume that here in the U.S. we've managed to create a robust economic model for small-scale farming.

In reality, the economics of small-scale farming -- even close to booming markets like New York City -- are dismal. Large-scale industrial farming replaces human labor with energy-intensive machinery and health-destroying chemicals; the small-scale farms that supply the nation's burgeoning green market scene generally reject those methods, and are much more labor intensive. That means that the premium you pay for an heirloom tomato might not be covering its real cost of production.

Anecdotally, I know that the great bulk of small-scale farms operate on the following model: One spouse runs the farm, while the other one holds a full-time off-farm job, securing such luxuries as health care and retirement benefits and anchoring family finances. In my area, the off-farm spouse typically works in the public school system; in New York state's Finger Lakes district, which supplies New York City with some of the finest produce available there, the state prison system supplies farm families with gainful employment as guards.

USDA numbers back up my observation: According to a report issued early in 2006, the average farm with annual sales between $10,000 and $99,000 -- which describes the great bulk of farms geared toward local markets -- had an operating profit margin of negative 24.8 percent in 2003. Off-farm work -- whether as a schoolteacher, a prison guard, or a weekly food-politics columnist -- papers over the difference.

Big Risks, Small Rewards

Before I get a spate of triumphant emails claiming that small-scale farming doesn't work because it's an economic disaster, and should thus be scrapped, consider this: Farming has always been an economically vexed activity. Every spring since the birth of agriculture 10,000 years ago, farmers have deposited little pellets in the ground and crossed their fingers. You never really know what's going to come up -- or whether flood, pestilence, drought, or some other calamity is going to wipe out your efforts.

As Richard Manning shows in his Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, human history since agriculture's emergence has been regularly marked by famine, or periods when the economics of farming collapse and people starve.

According to one comforting fantasy, large-scale, chemical-intensive farming -- which has been providing a steady supply of cheap food for as long as most people can remember -- has resolved agriculture's economic dilemmas.

There are at least two problems with that statement. First, in historical terms, industrial agriculture was born yesterday. For just five decades now, we've devoted the great bulk of our arable land to an agriculture that supercharges yields not by carefully building fertile soil, but by dousing it with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while relying on an ever-narrowing genetic basis of plant and animal varieties. There's absolutely no reason to believe such practices can sustain themselves over time.

Secondly, farmers' earnings have plummeted since industrial agriculture's rise. Surging yields have meant steadily dwindling prices for farm goods, forcing farmers to "get big or get out," in the notorious phrase of Richard Nixon's USDA secretary, Earl "Rusty" Butz. But to "get big" and get outfitted with the latest yield-boosting technologies proffered by seed and equipment conglomerates, farmers have to take on ruinous debt loads and watch their profit margins plunge.

If small-scale farm operations look mainly to off-farm work to supplement incomes, their large-scale counterparts look to Washington, D.C. The government doles out about $20 billion per year in farm subsidies; the largest operations, which according to industrial-agriculture dogma are the most efficient, capture nearly all of that money.

So let's be straight: Agriculture is and always has been a tough racket. Societies support it because people like to eat.

The question is how to support it. The new Congress will soon begin cobbling together the next farm bill, the five-year plan that dictates federal food and agricultural policy. I'll turn my attention to that topic soon.

For now, as farmers and consumers await the next growing season, remember that while all farming is economically precarious, small-scale farmers operate without much of a safety net at all. They're subsidized not by the government but rather by their own and their families' off-farm labor.

How can you help? One way is to join a CSA. By buying a share in a farm's harvest now, you're injecting cash into a farm at a time of year when little other money is coming in and seeds need to be bought. And you're sharing in the inherent risk that farmers take every time they drop little pellets into a field and cross their fingers.

Biofuels Are an Environmental Dead End

Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University.

In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee's conclusion: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it delivers.

That assessment didn't stop the government from enacting a variety of subsidies for ethanol, which has since developed into a multibillion-dollar industry. Nor has Pimentel refrained from issuing a series of scholarly articles claiming to show that, after decades of steady government support, ethanol remains an energy bust.

Over the years, Pimentel has become an increasingly controversial figure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now claims that corn ethanol delivers a modestly positive net energy balance [PDF], a conclusion recently endorsed by a study from University of Minnesota researchers. Yet Pimentel's provocations continue. Not only is corn-based ethanol a net energy consumer, he says, but cellulosic ethanol -- simultaneously biofuel's holy grail and sacred cow -- is "worse."

Pimentel thinks biofuels are an environmental dead end and enthusiasts for crop-based energy would do well to at least examine his analysis.

Philpott: You claim corn ethanol's energy balance is negative, and there's a growing consensus that it's positive. Why the difference?

Pimentel: Pro-ethanol people make it out to be positive by omitting many of the inputs that go into corn production. For example, they omit the farm labor -- I'm not talking about the farm family, I'm talking about the farm labor. They omit the farm machinery. They omit the energy to produce the hybrid corn. They omit the irrigation. I could go on and on. Anyway, if I did all of those manipulations, I could achieve also a positive return.

However, that's not the way these assessments are made. You can go check the noted agricultural economists who have looked at corn as well as other crops, and they do include the labor, they include the farm machinery, they include repair of the farm machinery, and so forth and so on. And so, those are all inputs that the ag economists include. Why are the pro-ethanol people leaving them out?

Philpott: When you say that the ethanol crowd fails to include the farm machinery, are you talking about the energy that's needed to manufacture a tractor, for example?

Pimentel: That's right. Or an automobile used by the farmer.

Philpott: From your experience, how do these researchers justify that omission?

Pimentel: They don't. They just omit it.

Philpott: I also see that in your studies, your calculation of how much energy goes into producing synthetic fertilizer is higher than the USDA's assessment. Why that difference?

Pimentel: Our data come from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. We're actually using a lower number than [the FAO's]. We're using 16,000 kilocalories per kilogram [of fertilizer], and I say the FAO is using 18,000. So again, we're using the most accurate data that are available, and not trying to manipulate these numbers.

Philpott: Another place where you clash with other researchers is over the byproducts of ethanol: stuff like distillers grains that go into animal feed, etc. For those researchers, byproducts are what push ethanol's energy balance solidly onto positive ground.

Pimentel: We do account for it. Distillers grains, incidentally, are being used as a substitute for soybean meal. So we went back to the soybean meal, and examined how it's produced, and the energy that is required to produce it. Instead of giving [distillers grains] a 40 to 60 percent credit as the pro-ethanol people do, we found that the credit should be more like 9 percent. They [pro-ethanol researchers] are manipulating the data again.

Philpott: All of that is very controversial, but let's get to the really provocative part of your work. You claim cellulosic ethanol's energy balance is "worse" than that of conventional ethanol. How can that be?

Pimentel: It's quite easy. Number one, if you have a handful of sawdust, and a handful of corn, which one has the most starches and sugars? That's easy. It takes almost twice as much sawdust to make the same gross energy as [corn] from cellulose, or wood.

Number two, it takes two additional treatments to release the starches and sugars [from cellulose]. That is, you're going to treat the cellulose. It's held by the lignin, and the lignin is the stuff that holds the trees up straight. And the cellulose is trapped inside that lignin. And you've got to release it, and that requires an acid or an enzyme. And so that's one treatment, and then you've got to use an alkali to stop the acidity at some stage. And now you can introduce the bugs for the fermentation. But No. 1, it takes more cellulose, and No. 2, you've got two additional treatments.

Philpott: But wouldn't the response to that be that it's a lot less energy intensive to grow material for cellulosic ethanol because you don't need to focus on plants that have high sugar concentrations?

Pimentel: That's right. And we did that [in a recent study (PDF)]. But we found negative energy balances for both wood and switchgrass.

Philpott: Don't you figure that after 35 years the industry will figure out how to make cellulosic ethanol work? We're always hearing about a big breakthrough that's about to happen.

Pimentel: Well, we know how to make it work. The question is, can you do it energetically, with small amounts of energy? That I seriously doubt.

Philpott: You recently wrote that "green plants in the United States collect about 53 exajoules of energy per year from sunlight. Americans consume slightly more than twice that amount, however." How did you arrive at these figures?

Pimentel: All you do is sit down with a pencil and paper, total up all the crops being produced, along with any of the additional biomass that goes with it. Like with corn, you not only total up the corn, but the corn stalks. You total up all the crops, and then with the wood material, you total up all the annual production in forests, and we use a rather optimistic number, three tons per hectare per year, under a range of conditions. So you can make this calculation yourself.

Philpott: So if we converted 100 percent of a year's worth of solar energy stored in plant matter to fuel, we'd only supply half of our current energy consumption. What's that telling us?

Pimentel: It's telling us we're using too goddamn much fossil energy! And another thing it tells us is that you're not going to be self-sufficient, or even produce half of our energy from biomass in the U.S., if we want to eat. And that's using an optimistic figure for ethanol production. I don't know why [biofuel proponents] don't sit down with pencil and paper and make these calculations instead of spouting off on all the wonderful things we can achieve.

Philpott: One of your critics, David Morris, has written [PDF] that the basic thrust of your work is that "the world's population has vastly exceeded its biological carrying capacity." Is that an accurate characterization?

Pimentel: Yes. The World Health Organization is reporting now that we've got 3.7 billion people who are malnourished on Earth. That's about 60 percent of the world population, and that problem has been getting worse each year.

Now look at the production of cereal grains per capita. That's an important number, because it is per capita that we eat and utilize resources. And you will note that since 1983, per capita grain production has been declining continuously. Declining for more than 20 years. Now why?

Philpott: Population growth, right? Because overall production has actually risen over that same time.

Pimentel: That's right. But it's not increasing as fast as the population.

Philpott: What do you think about the prospects for sustainable or organic agriculture to meet these increasing population demands?

Pimentel: I don't want to say that organic can supply all the food in the world, but it can be much more sustainable than conventional ag and just as productive. I recently coauthored a 22-year study of organic agriculture utilizing corn and soybeans, which are certainly two dominant crops in the United States. Yes, we can produce these crops organically, with less energy, while improving the sustainability of the soil. [The study involved] rotating corn with soybeans in conjunction with cover crops. We had one field that was dependent on legume cover crops [for fertility], and one dependent on manure.

Philpott: Which came out better?

Pimentel: Well, the manure was slightly better in terms of increasing soil organic matter. Slightly ... I think the yields were about the same. In both cases, the yields equaled those in conventional corn.

Philpott: Now let me ask you a trick question. What if we took some of that organic corn and soy and turned it into ethanol and biodiesel? Would that achieve a positive energy balance?

Pimentel: No! It's not going to do it. It certainly would improve [the energy balance], because we were able to reduce the energy inputs for corn by about 30 percent.

Philpott: Is it theoretically possible to turn biomass into a fuel with a positive net balance?

Pimentel: The difficulty is that plants do not collect very much solar energy. On average, plants collect one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy available. Photovoltaic solar cells collect at least 10 percent, which means 100 times the energy collected by plants. But you can get a positive energy balance by simply burning biomass.

Philpott: But not by converting it into a liquid fuel?

Pimentel: No. I don't care what kind of imagination you have, it won't work.

Philpott: A lot of earnest people support biofuels as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and displace fossil fuels. What do you tell them?

Pimentel: Conserve! One word. And no one talks about it, including the environmentalists. When these people talk about biofuels providing us with our energy, they need to look at the facts right now. Eighteen percent of all corn is going into ethanol production. We're getting 4.5 million gallons of ethanol. That's 1 percent of U.S. petroleum use. It's 1 percent.

If we use 100 percent of U.S. corn, and we won't do that, but if we used 100 percent, what would that do for us? Six percent. And ethanol is being subsidized at 45 times the rate of gasoline.

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