I am lucky enough to work in an academic setting, where with some regularity I have access to guest lecturers who share their expertise with bright eyed students (and lifelong learners like me!).
Earlier this week I got to sit in on a double header that featured Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and Kathy Lawrence, Director of Strategic Development at School Food FOCUS. Under the public health and food access umbrella, they both shared some revelations with the audience.
In Kathy’s work with school districts across the country, she’s helping to coordinate efforts of school food service directors and leverage their collective purchasing power to shift the dial on procurement. If you know me, you’ll know that this is an issue quite near and dear to my heart. The school districts have decided to take things one step at a time, and to begin with a focus on procuring better chicken, since it’s the #1 protein source in school meals. Apparently the supply of responsibly-administered (more on that clunky term shortly) antibiotic chicken is outstripped by the demand: Whole Foods and Chipotle have a corner on that admittedly niche market, and once they’ve stocked up there’s virtually nothing left. Turns out, though, that a Mennonite supplier (to Whole Foods) in Illinois had a surplus of chicken drumsticks – a product that isn’t generally that desirable to WF, yet is ideal for small portions on school lunch trays – so Whole Foods connected the supplier to School Food FOCUS and now they have a sourcing partnership.
About that responsible-administration-of-antibiotics phrase? It’s just another example of how the industry manipulates terminology to its advantage. The “antibiotic free” label does not mean that antibiotics weren’t ever given to the animal. That’s right; it simply means that antibiotics weren’t given to an animal a certain number of days before slaughter so that there are no antibiotics remaining in the blood stream when it’s sold as meat. Given that antibiotic overuse in livestock is a concern for human health (take a look at Pew’s excellent Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming), getting the language right is really important, so “responsibly administered” it is.
Another perception worth clarifying is an individual’s role in the democratic process. Believe it or not, we matter to legislators! Kathy has worked on Capitol Hill (as Executive Director for another terrific organization, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition) and her tenure there gave her plenty of up close and personal experience with lawmakers. She shared with us this heartening fact: 7 or 8 phone calls from individual constituents is all it takes for a legislator to put an issue on his/her radar. These guys are bombarded day in and day out by professional lobbyists, so when an actual voter makes a call, that registers loud and clear through the industry white noise.
Joel Berg’s talk also touched on misconceptions, though of a different variety. Yellow fever, cholera, and malaria are all maladies that we’ve eradicated domestically, via public health measures. Before those measures were taken, though, people used to erroneously believe that poor people were responsible for their illnesses — they must have brought it upon themselves, they would always have to live with these problems, etc. But as a result of government-led public health interventions, those diseases are now a thing of the past in the US. He believes that just as people were enlightened about the root causes (and blame) of those extinct diseases, so too can we today shift society’s perceptions about hunger and poverty. No, poor people are not to blame for their food choices (and ensuing health problems). No, we cannot permit some level of hunger to simply be accepted. Altering our perceptions won’t solve hunger, or food access challenges, or poverty, but it can be a surprisingly powerful tool in working towards solutions.
Pardon the preachiness, but hopefully I conveyed a little bit of Kathy and Joel’s enthusiasm and inspiration. And hopefully perceptions will continue to shift.