Posts tagged with Sustainability

Lawrence resident, journalist to address James Beard Foundation on trusting food sources

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Do you trust your food?

What that means and how to improve it are questions Lawrence resident Simran Sethi, an environmental journalist and former Kansas University associate professor, plans to address as a guest speaker at this week’s James Beard Foundation Food Conference in New York City.

The third-annual conference, “A Crisis in Confidence: Creating a Better, More Sustainable Food World We Can Trust,” is expected to draw chefs and other food-system stakeholders from across the United States.

“Underlying America’s growing conversation about and fascination with food is the notion of trust,” foundation executive vice president Mitchell Davis said in a news release. “So much effort goes into ensuring that healthy, wholesome, nutritious food gets to as many people as possible, but every E. coli outbreak or environmental accident chips away at consumer faith in our food system. What’s more, where people place their trust — in large corporations, in small local producers, in third-party certification, in government regulation — is always changing in our increasingly global world.”

Sethi, whose work focuses primarily on sustainability and environmentalism, said she hopes to break down the abstract concept of trust in the food system in a way people can relate to.

In many ways, she said, the scale of the food system has contributed to people’s mistrust of it.

“It’s too big for us as individuals, psychologically, to comprehend,” she said. “This idea of trusting monolithic agencies is very hard for people to understand.”

Sethi argues that’s for good reason. For example, she said, she once noticed that a single-serving packet of honey she picked up at a Lawrence restaurant contained products from multiple countries, including Canada and China.

Especially when a problem — such as E. coli — arises in the food system, that kind of globalism makes it difficult to trace the source of the problem quickly.

“That’s a really compelling reason to shop locally,” Sethi said.

From a business perspective, locally grown food helps keep money in the local economy and also reduces the need for food to travel long distances, she said.

For consumers, Sethi suggested first deciding how you define trust. If you only trust food that hasn’t been treated with pesticides, look for certified organic products. If you want to know where your food came from, find grocery stores that indicate the product’s source or farmers markets where you can ask the vendor in persion. Sethi praised restaurants that share where they get their food — a locally grown tomato garnish, for example, is good, but it’s better if they can also tell you where they purchased the main-dish meat.

Efforts such as Our Local Food — a regional network of farms, markets, businesses and consumers — have helped Lawrence make “great strides” toward increasing trust in the food system, Sethi said.

“We really see a lot more people coming in from other places to attend our farmers markets, and there’s a great emphasis on local food in our restaurants,” she said. “I suspect that it will only get bigger from here.”

The James Beard Foundation’s mission is celebrating and preserving America’s diverse culinary heritage and future. In addition to its culinary events and initiatives, the organization bestows annual awards to chefs and other leaders in the food industry.

Sethi, whose New York presentation is scheduled for Wednesday, said she was excited to share thoughts on sustainability with restaurateurs.

“I’ve talked so much about food, but I’ve rarely had the opportunity to speak with the people who are influences around food,” she said. “For me, the most exciting audience participants are chefs.”

Sethi has appeared on numerous national television news and talk shows and taught a number of courses at KU, including multimedia reporting, diversity in the media and environmental journalism. She chose not to return to academia this semester because she missed “being out in the world, meeting people and telling their stories,” she said in an interview for the Beard Foundation.

Sethi said she’s currently focusing on research for a book about seeds and their importance as the foundation for our food system.

Watch live

Video from the James Beard Foundation Food Conference will be live-streamed Wednesday and Thursday online at Simran Sethi is scheduled to speak on Wednesday.


Urgent The Progress We

URGENT: The progress we've made on the Child Nutrition Bill is in jeopardy-

Senate leaders are thinking about postponing the bill for another year or two. Instead of new funding for healthier food, stronger nutrition standards, and grants for Farm to School programs -- which are all in the current bill -- schools could end up with the same-old system next year.

A "Dear Colleague" letter is circulating in the Senate, urging Senate leaders to schedule time for the bill. The letter will be submitted to the leadership on Wednesday, May 19 -- so our Senators need to sign it ASAP.

Can you ask your Senators to sign the letter today? Click here to send an email:

You can also learn more about the issue at


Sustain A Change by Kelly Cochran

This post was written by Kelly Cochran as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

When I consider organics and the development of a sustainable food system, my opinions are always rooted in the same priority: people.

With more than 300 million people in the United States alone, farmers are responsible for feeding an ever-increasing population.

Many believe that meeting the market demand of so many people requires large scale farming operations. However, while the system we have now provides for us today, it is jeopardizing our security for the future.

Immediately overhauling our current agricultural system is impractical. However, starting the gradual process toward sustainable agriculture is not.

It is easy to dismiss those who encourage us to eat local and buy organic as people disillusioned by a yearning for the pastoral life of yesteryear, but that is a simplistic response to a demand for sustainable agriculture. There are positive environmental, economical, and political implications behind the demand for a sustainable food system.

A common complaint about organic food is that it is too expensive. This is understandable considering organic food can cost anywhere from 20% to 100% more than its non-organic equivalent. However, as noted in a recent Washington Post article, the organic food industry is growing and, with that growth, the food prices are coming down. Additionally, organic food can be found at traditional supermarkets such as WalMart, which has specifically stated its intent to make organic food affordable.

Another common question surrounding the sustainable food movement is whether a sustainable food system can feed a rapidly expanding world population. A study comparing conventional and organic crop production concluded that organic farming can match the industrial yield of conventional practices. Another study from the University of Michigan concluded that, not only can sustainable agriculture provide enough food, but it may even result in an increased yield.

In addition, it is important to note that a reversion to sustainable farming doesn’t disregard or ignore the agricultural progress we have made. It supplements it. We have made invaluable technological progress over the past century and we know more about our environment and about ourselves than ever before. With all of the information and experience we have, we are in a dynamic position to change our food system for the better.

We don’t all need to be farmers or gardeners to appreciate and respect the importance of agriculture. I wouldn’t be able to focus so intently on food policy if the quality of our food didn’t effect us as individuals, as families, and as communities. People have a profound connection to food, which is why we have a right to question our food sources and demand that they be stable enough to provide for us in the future


Warm Feelings for an Icy Chest by Jacob Muselmann

This post was written by Jacob Muselmann as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

Once upon a time last week, I decided to start making a change. I guess it was what is languidly referred to by communications and philosophy people as “cognitive dissonance” that finally caught up with me. I started staring at all those paper latte cups I had with me every day and thought, god, this is ridiculous. The sheer amount of cups and lids I use was not only a green atrocity, but also shed light on how much of a caffeine goon I am. So I finally drug my thermos and my computer around for a day to try on my sustainability hat.

All went well — I saved the lives of at least two cups, only to be used by the people in line behind me, and spared a few spiraled pages for another day. But guess what? That evening I found my computer charger — among other things — dowsed in my spoiled latte swill from eight hours ago. And I suddenly remembered why I had previously stopped lugging the adult sippy cups. Charger defunct. Spirits again tarnished.

Every time I attempt things like this, they end in folly, I often think. Then I look in my fridge and wonder how I was surprised. It is a sick sight: food wrappers I somehow couldn’t take out of the fridge; half a can of soup saved in vain; condiments that have been rifled through with messy hands halfway through a meal (likely the Ramen “needed something”); my prized thick, pulpy orange juice; yogurt, for those creamy personal moments I need after a long day; and most recently, evidence of my new-found appreciation for Kraft Singles, as articulated by an old friend. And in the thick of a terrible winter, my new way of storing groceries (wherein refrigerated items are extracted while the rest is left in bags on the floor until time of use) points to the subtle, horrifying laziness I am capable of. How is it again that I can stab at sustainability when my own lifestyle is so… dilapidated? Can a messy person make the world cleaner?

Indeed, to present oneself as sustainable suggests a certain degree of organization, say not virtue for those that can seem to pull it off—and that’s why it makes everyone feel terrible; it’s like self-righteous in-laws (by Mother Nature) with a political fervor to fuss until everyone feels bad, even for trying. But sustainability is also an idea — and a motivation — that emerges in odd, unexpected new shapes every day, and we should be open to them. Though we continue to discover dazzling complexities of nature each day, models to help the planet don’t have to be. Nor does someone have to trod weightless on the planet to recognize how ornate and delicate it is. And I thought lugging the thermos was too tedious.

Somehow, something wells up in me — call it guilt, call it sporadic moral compunction, call it optimism — to try new ways to render myself less abrasive for the environment, and, when they end in disaster, to try another way.


Love Your Mother Earth by Kelly Cochran

This post was written by Kelly Cochran as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

In grade school we sang a song called, “Love Your Mother Earth.” In my mind, I was singing about an ethereal woman who soared through the skies on the wings of eagles. She spoke the language of the ocean and her hair was made of ferns.

We also sang about Santa Claus and the Headless Horseman.*

Over time these childhood characters fade away, only resurfacing as nostalgia or a great Halloween costume. Such was the fate of Mother Earth. Sure she is one of my favorite childhood memories, but Mother Earth, like the Headless Horseman, is kind of a weirdo. I mean come on, she’s made of plants.

It really is too bad because these images can make people see environmentalism as strange and inhuman. People generally aren’t comfortable with a woman who has the whole world in her womb and they are afraid that environmentalism will force them to honor an ideal akin to this weird plant lady.

I am here to clear the air.** I want to assure you that taking care of the earth does not turn you into one of “those people” who look, and smell, like compost. You will still be allowed to bathe, and you don’t have to weave your own clothes out of last night’s leftovers. It’s going to be okay. In fact, it’s going to be better.

Environmentalism speaks directly to what we need as people. It gives us healthy food, clean water, and breathable air. Adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle won’t ruin our lives. It will make our lives better. It can strengthen our communities, power our homes, and restore balance to our backyards.

Environmentalism is all about quality of life and reconnecting to what really sustains us. It starts with acknowledging the intrinsic connection between us and the earth. I realize that sounds dramatic, but it’s just true. Everything we need to survive is provided by the earth. We grow our food in it, we drink its water, and we build our homes on it from materials that come out of it.

Being an environmentalist means you acknowledge this connection between us and the earth, and you’re willing to respect it. It means you are committed to improving our quality of life. You want healthier food, clearer air, and cleaner water. You understand that your actions today can ensure that the earth will be able to provide for us tomorrow.

And there is nothing weird and inhuman about that.

*In retrospect, I realize it’s odd that we sang about the Headless Horseman.

**environmental pun intended.


Revert to Basics by Micole Aronowitz

This post was written by Micole Aronowitz as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

Every day, just before the sun rises, my grandmother walks three miles from her home to the open-air food market in her province in Pampanga, Philippines. Once she reaches the market she is greeted warmly by the familiar faces of the farmers and vendors she purchases her food from each day. As she saunters through the market, the vibrant colors and delectable aromas of fresh papaya, guava, mango, avocado and eggplant delight her senses.

Picking and choosing assorted fruits, vegetables and fish has become a daily routine for my grandmother. After a quick conversation with one of the local vendors, she walks the three miles back to her home, with a bag of food in each hand. Once home, she starts cooking, or what she refers to as “nourishment for the soul.”

My grandmother is 96 years old.

Living in an era where fast food is the norm, and eating out and take out are an integral part of our society’s culture, it seems awfully difficult to remember a simpler time. For my grandmother’s generation, it was standard for meals to be prepared at home. The moments spent chopping vegetables and simmering stew were savored.

Surprisingly, or maybe I should say, impressively, my grandmother has never set foot in a Wal-Mart, Target or Kroger. Those stores resemble words of a foreign language to her because she had never heard of them. That, in itself is quite an extraordinary feat.

Nowadays, food terminology can be like trying to solve the Pythagorean Theorem. Words like sustainable, organic and natural seem to all blend together. So why does it appear that it is about to become more complicated? As multiple cooks enter the kitchen, it is seemly becoming more problematic to agree on coherent definitions of sustainable agriculture.

The debacle about labeling food as “sustainable agriculture” is currently ongoing. While on the surface this looks like an encouraging way to entice food producers to stop using pesticides and genetically modified crops, it may actually do just the opposite. Some parties are advocating for this standard to encompass organic practices from farm to plate, while others want this to only affect one part of its operation and not have to adhere to all environmental regulations. I know exactly what my grandmother would say to all of this. She would declare ”there needs to be a return to nature. We need to feel a connection to food.” My grandmother cherishes her relationship with food and in return, she has been blessed with a life of longevity.

The outcome of these discussions is to decide on whether to implement a “National Sustainable Agriculture Standard.” On either side of the issue are General Mills, American Farmland Trust, National Corn Growers Association and the National Resources Defense Council. The Leonardo Academy is mediating the conversation.

Why do I feel as if I am being deceived? Though I realize it is unrealistic to think that we can all buy our food from open air markets and have conversations about the origin of that food with the people who grew it, as a nation of consumers, we deserve to know where our food comes from and the techniques used to grow it. Hopefully, that will be a unifying point for the committee.


Sustainable Is Obtainable by Kelly Cochran

This post was written by Kelly Cochran as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

Every time I hear talk of sustainability, I think, “ah, wouldn’t that be utopia?” The picture in my head is all green and sunshine, warm and busy. There we are, wasting not, wanting not, and all of our food is bright and delicious.

Unfortunately, I think most people believe that the idea of sustainability is more akin to a perpetual motion machine than an actual possibility. A community-wide agricultural system that supports the local ecology, biosphere, and human population? Please. I can barely sustain my Wednesdays.

There is no doubt that the idea of developing such a system is daunting. But even though I may I say utopia, I don’t mean to flippantly disregard the idea as fictional. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Defining a sustainable food system helps us see just how possible, and desirable, a sustainable food system really is. Of all the definitions of I’ve seen, I like the American Public Health Association’s definition the best. Let’s consider my favorite elements of that definition.

A sustainable food system:

Provides healthy food today: Let’s admit it, we need better food. We’re a nation plagued with obesity and diabetes. There may even be a connection between our food and our moods. And we don’t need that food tomorrow, we need it today.

Ensures food for generations to come: A sustainable food system helps us take care of people tomorrow by what we do today. Isn’t it a comfort to realize that with some care and effort, we can keep ourselves from leaving the next generation hungry and struggling?

Makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all: The socio-economic disparity in food choices today is upsetting. A sustainable food system can help balance our food resources and give people access to their human right to healthy food.

Is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities: This is my favorite part. A sustainable food system is humane and helps us help ourselves. It strengthens our communities, provides jobs, and protects farmers‘ livelihoods.

Has a minimal negative impact to the environment: We need to start taking better care of the earth if we expect it to take care of us. We need to start avoiding pollution and soil erosion before there is an irreversible impact on our environment.

I see no reason why a sustainable food system cannot succeed. I believe it can and, with inspiration and motivation, will. A system of efficient balance takes time, planning, and dedication. An agricultural system that provides the environmental and human health that we need is too invaluable to dismiss as a dreamland.


Sustainability, but ‘Shh, Tame the Ability’ by Jacob Muselmann

This post was written by Jacob Muselmann as part of Simran Sethi's KU journalism course "Media and the Environment," which focuses on environmental reporting through the lenses of food and agriculture.

For a long time I thought I had been talking about sustainability, but it was really just me becoming glassy-eyed and warm as I imagined tiny, delicate green plants emerging through the smoggy, wicked epicenter up to Mother Nature’s sky, where we all belong, with the sun, and…

It was usually downhill from there. What were people even talking about? I didn’t know, but I thought it was noble, and, you know, wanted it to happen. But what though? Thankfully, my emotionally delusional days are over, and I’ve sobered up enough to want to know what sustainability actually is, minus the imagery. I wanted something objective and concrete. Now that, I quickly realized, was delusional: I found out about as many definitions of sustainability as there are ways to do it. Often, it is defined as the balance of people, planets and profits. But there’s something missing in this equation, something intrinsically bound up in the root of the word, sustain: time. Balancing people, the planet and profits becomes skewed when we do no think about the long-term. As someone probably told them, Monsanto, like almost every business involved in the business of food, needed to acknowledge sustainability. And let’s just say its approach sounded, well, familiar.

Theirs is a three-pronged message. The first two focus on increasing populations equaling increased food production (help us, Monsanto!), and the last one pledges, over the next 10 years, to help all “their” farmers, plus an extra five million people/contestants! It is among the many stabs at sustainability that makes one feel good without knowing why, and that should raise red flags.

So should the USDA definition, which fixates on efficiency and “enhancing.” Efficiency is code for corner-cutting and rationalization. And to enhance the environment? Hang on, doesn’t something have to be good and well before it can be enhanced? Be wary of vague interpretations of sustainability that prey on your lack of understanding.

I’m glad the DCFPC, a council that creates and promotes healthful and environmentally conscious food initiatives for Douglas County, has adopted a definition focused on the future, on maintaining and enduring. Because without a vision for tomorrow, a falling elephant is flying right up until it hits the ground, and we’ll start conserving when we need to—but not yet.