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28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

Starting tomorrow, February 1, I will be reviewing 28 books in 28 days leading up to the release of my book, Year of Plenty, on March 1. Year of Plenty tells the story of our family’s experience in 2008 consuming only what was local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Our four rules, scribbled on a Starbucks brochure in a fit of consumer fatigue, led us into wonderful conversations about locavores (people who eat local food), going green, farmers’ markets, downshifters (people who intentionally seek to consume less), simple living, food not lawns, backyard chickens, and more.

There are already some great books on these topics. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan is a wonderful expose of how our far-flung food system has gone awry, and Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon pioneered the year-long-food-experiment genre with their book The 100 Mile Diet. (If I use the Canadian title to the book, it will be less obvious that I borrowed a little inspiration from their American released book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, for the title to my blog and now book. I wanted to call the blog Consuming Passions, but Nancy thought it sounded too much like a cheap romance novel or daytime soap opera. Of course, she is almost always right.) Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle took it a step further by telling the tale of her family’s year of eating local, and the beauty of her story is more than matched by the beauty of her prose. Colin Beavan firmly established the “bumbling eco-experimenter” genre with his book and movie, No-Impact Man, that tells the tale of seeking to live for a year with zero environmental impact in the middle of Manhattan. While Year of Plenty shares a literary eco-system with these books, it seeks to break new ground by offering a Christian reflection on these issues.

While Year of Plenty is based on a premise that there is a need for more Christian engagement with these important issues of the day, there certainly are other books that have already, in their own unique way, sought to flesh out an authentic Christian response. That’s where the 28 books in 28 days project comes in. Earlier in the week I consulted the wisdom of my Tweeps and Facebook friends, and based on their counsel, I came up with a list of some of the most important contributions to date. I chose books that were overtly Christian in their perspective, with the exception of books by Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Their writings draw from the deep well of faith and their works are highly influential, so I thought it was important to include them. I tried to have a good representation of books in the areas of environmentalism, food, simple living, and redemptive consumption practices, which are the main themes covered in Year of Plenty. Most are more recently published but there are some classics in the mix. I picked one obscure book, titled MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), that I found too intriguing to leave off. Some of the authors have more than one book on the topic so, in that case, I picked the one I thought to be the most important contribution.

Go here to see the full list on Springpad. The titles and authors are as follows in nor particular order:

  1. Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, Michael Schut, Editor
  2. Farming As a Spiritual Discipline, Ragan Sutterfield
  3. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill
  4. Living More with Less, Doris Janzen Longacre
  5. Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, Jim Ball
  6. Planetwise: Dare to Care for God’s World, Dave Bookless
  7. Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues [EARTH WISE 2/E], Calvin B. DeWitt
  8. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred H. Van Dyke
  9. MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), Calvin Dewitt
  10. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Engaging Culture), Steven Bouma-Prediger
  11. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben
  12. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Norman Wirzba
  13. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry
  14. Food & Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread, Michael Schut, Editor
  15. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen F. Davis
  16. Bread for the World, Arthur Simon
  17. Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God’s Earth, Mallory McDuff
  18. Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food [Paperback], Lysa TerKeurst
  19. Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, Will Samson
  20. Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Julie Clawson
  21. A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katharine Hayhoe
  22. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, Matthew Sleeth M.D.
  23. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, Ronald J. Sider
  24. Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, Jonathan Merritt
  25. The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Rodney Clapp, Editor
  26. Saving God’s Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church’s Responsibility to Environmental Stewardship, Tri Robinson
  27. Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, Scott C. Sabin
  28. The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, Leslie Leyland Fields, Editor

So what do you think? Does the list cover the most significant contributions or are there some that I’ve left off? You can lobby me to add books to the list but I’ll only add them if you provide the blog post review along with the reason it is important to the conversation. I’ve read many of these books already, but there are many I haven’t, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll offer my perspectives on each book but will also reference The Englewood Review of Books for some of these titles. They are currently the go-to source for book reviews of books on these topics. If you’re not following them already on Twitter or Facebook, you should be.

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

I reported earlier on the fears that the Food Safety Modernization Act now before Congress could put small farmers’ out of business and send a destructive ripple through the burdgeoning local food movement. Yesterday the bill passed a cloture vote in the Senate which means it will likely soon be passed and put into law. The amendments to lower the negative impact on small farmers are still up in the air, and it sounds like there is an epic battle going on right now among legislators, big food lobbyists, and locavores.

Huffington Post yesterday even went as far as to say “Locavores Hold Up Food Safety Bill in Senate.” They’ve subsequently changed the headline to “Local Food Advocates”, but yesterday it was all about those pesky, food-luddite locavores who were gumming up the works. I guess we officially have a Locavore Lobby in this country now.

Grist has been all over this so I’ll turn it over to them:

Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We’ve already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements.

It’s worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it’s growing fast every year — sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.

Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they’re taking the legislative route to block any further growth.

If you want to get your food wonk on, go to Grist and read up on the whole interesting process. Here is a good place to start:

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harms small farms and producers?

Grist reports that it’s still not too late to call your Senator:

There’s still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives’ contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Because if you’ve read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we’ve got now.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Food Fight, Ctd – A Critique of the “Culinary Luddites”

Food Fight, Ctd – A Critique of the “Culinary Luddites”

Rachel Laudan has written an article at Utne Reader titled, “In Praise of Fast Food” that takes on what the author calls Culinary Luddism. Luddism, in case your wondering, is an opposition to industrialization and technology. The backlash against the local food movement is gaining steam and the critiques are maturing beyond just dismissing food miles mathematics.

After laying out her foodie bona fides, the author says that she can’t abide in the extremes of the local food movement and concludes;

…the sunlit past of the culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?

It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that modern food allows us unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives. If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old.

I don’t have time to respond to this artictle today but plan on getting to it later in the week, along with responding to my previous post on the merits of the10,0000 mile diet.

If 2008 was the year of the locavore, 2010 is shaping up as the year of the backlash against the locavore.

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

…economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet,” that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if “you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong,” Desrochers said from his Toronto office. “I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area.”

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers’ Market where we haven’t had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.