In Defense of Big Farms

Readers, I'm travelling right now, so please enjoy this post from Casual Kitchen's archives. See you in another week or two, and thank you for indulging me while I take a brief break from writing.

Anyone who bites into a rock-hard California tomato in February and compares it to a sweet Jersey tomato in August quickly learns an indisputable truth: there are certain things large-scale agriculture can do, and certain things it can't.

And that's one of the many reasons everyone enjoys driving over to the local farmstand to buy produce. Not only are you supporting your local economy, you get a tomato that, well, actually tastes like a tomato.

But what happens during a drought, or a flood, or a poor year for crops in your part of the country? What happens when there's a shortage of local food?

I'll share one recent, and sobering, example of what happens. Remember the rice shortage of 2008? Most Americans don't, for reasons we'll get to in a moment. But sadly, this shortage created severe problems in dozens of countries around the world. In fact, nations like Senegal and Haiti faced skyrocking rice prices, food hoarding--even food riots.

But in the USA, no one even remembers. Why? Because our ag and transport industries adapted so quickly that consumers hardly noticed. In fact, the only evidence of a rice shortage in our local grocery stores here in northern New Jersey was a brief limit of two 20-pound bags of rice per customer. And within two weeks, rice in our local stores was in oversupply and put on sale at 50% off.

Remember: this was a shortage severe enough to cause food riots in some countries. And while there was plenty of panicked media coverage of the horrors of the rice shortage, I never saw a single article discussing how our food industry adjusted to it so effectively.

Admittedly, Big Food and Big Ag can be hilariously easy targets to criticize. To the most paranoid among us, they represent everything wrong with America today: Big Food makes irresistible snacks as part of a master plan to fatten us all up, while Big Ag secretly grows genetically-modified produce, soaks it in e. coli for good measure, and then drives it cross-country in an orgy of fossil fuel consumption.

But this perception is parody, not reality. Today, the options available to American food shoppers have never been greater: the average American grocery store carries some 55,000 items, and in the dead of winter you can find anything from organic California raspberries at $6 a pint to regional potatoes at 59c a pound. I'll leave it to you to decide which is the better value.

In short, food is available to us in a range that is simply unimaginable to our grandparents' generation. And at the same time, American consumers are reaping the benefits of a full-blown renaissance in local food. A truly robust food industry -- one that can handle spot shortages, manage uncooperative regional weather, and adapt to the natural fluctations of food production -- needs to have both local and large-scale food production to work properly.

That's how we can protect the food needs of a nation of 320 million people.

A shorter version of this post ran in Dirt Magazine.

Anticipated Reproach, And Why Vegetarians Are Such Jerks

Readers, I'm doing some travelling right now, so please enjoy this post from back in Casual Kitchen's archives. See you in a couple of weeks!

I've never in my life met a vegetarian who was a jerk.

But whenever the subject of vegetarianism comes up--even highly flexible and inclusive versions like CK's Part-Time Vegetarianism--there's usually at least one or two vehement responses from meat-eating readers who presume that some jerk vegetarian wants to take their meat away.

Why is that? I mean, anyone spending five minutes at Casual Kitchen would quickly figure out that we're not vegetarians. We're not a threat to the meat-eating world at all. We're just trying to eat a little healthier and save some dough.

Here's the thing. When a meat-lover responds in an aggressive way to a post on vegetarianism, they expect to be pilloried for their food choices. They think a "reproach" is coming from a pack of tie-dyed vegetarian kooks, so they act accordingly.

That, in a nutshell, is Anticipated Reproach. Essentially, people are expecting missiles to be fired at them, so they fire their biggest missiles first--in a pre-emptive strike to protect themselves.

Anticipated Reproach explains how arguments spontaneously appear out of thin air. All you need is to have one person fire a defensive verbal missile, another person to react, and it's on.

I don't mean to pick on meat-eaters (although admittedly, I'm using them as a rhetorical device in this post). And obviously, the veggie/vegan/meat debate is just one of a million places where you can see anticipated reproach in action. It shows up in all kinds of discussions: in political debates, in debates on taxes and entitlements, in debates on corporate power, about the level of government involvement in our daily lives, and in every other hot-button issue we face as a society today.

It helps explain why otherwise well-behaved people start up insane arguments on Facebook, and why people will waste hours attempting to correct the views of people they don't even know.

And if you think it's only other people who do this, think again. All of us are guilty of anticipated reproach from time to time.

But here's the thing: when you anticipate a reproach that hasn't yet been made... well, you're actually imagining something that doesn't exist. You are making it up. And of course it goes without saying, you haven't furthered the discussion by one millimeter, you've taken it backwards into name-calling and defensiveness.

There's a couple of takeaways here. First, for fellow bloggers: try not to take reader comments personally, particularly the nasty ones. Those comments are almost always about the commenter, not about you. Most likely they are thinking of other times when they've been reproached for their views, and they're simply anticipating still more reproach from you.

Second, don't fall unwittingly into the various anticipated reproach traps. Don't pre-emptively escalate your language. Try to use humor, but avoid sarcastic humor (this is a particularly tough challenge for me). Don't make declarative and pontificatory statements. Instead, ask questions, and try, sincerely, to learn the thought process of the people who don't agree with you. Hey, you never know, you might even learn you were wrong!

Nahhh, probably not. :)

In any event, here at CK, you won't find yourself reproached. Ever. This is my solemn promise to you, dear readers.

I created this blog so that we could all have a "no-reproach zone" to talk about cooking, our diets and the food industry. Yes, you will find your assumptions questioned here, and yes, you'll be challenged here to think differently--sometimes very differently--about things.

But don't anticipate a reproach... because that reproach ain't coming.

Readers! What are your thoughts?

Why I Clip Coupons

"I don't do coupons."

I hear this statement from time to time from various people, usually middle-class consumers.

I suppose if you're really rich you don't need to bother with coupons... although nobody's stopping you. And if you don't have a lot of money, couponing might be something you need to do.

Which indirectly implies yet another point, something Thorstein Veblen might say: if you clip coupons you risk sending a signal to others that you need to. Which, perhaps, explains why people might tell everyone around them they don't.

Well, I do clip coupons. And I do so for several reasons. At the most basic level, couponing (and occasionally flipping through store circulars) helps me remember the prices of things. As a result, it helps me keep context for value whenever I'm out in the consumer marketplace. What should a given product cost, what does it normally cost, and is the price I see right now a good value or not? Is it a great value, as in should I buy a year's supply of it at this price?

There are some early retirement/investment blogs out there that mock couponing. The point usually made here is that we're better off concentrating on the income side of the ledger (see for example Wall Street Playboys), or to focus on bigger or recurring savings wins (see for example Ramit's I Will Teach You To Be Rich).

These perspectives aren't wrong, exactly. But I look at the act of couponing differently, and this brings me to the most important reason why I do it. I consider couponing a practice of the skill of recognizing value, and I use this same practice in the larger-scale world of personal investing.

In fact, to borrow a term from the martial arts world, I consider couponing a type of kata, a daily practice or discipline, and practicing it helps me stay in shape for larger investment opportunities that could impact my personal wealth on a far greater scale. I look at stocks in much the same way that I look at items in the grocery store: What should this stock cost, what does it normally cost, and is the price I see right now a good value or not? Is it a great value? The two disciplines of shopping and investing are strikingly similar in this way.

In other words, couponing doesn't just save you money. It indirectly makes you rich.

You can save a few bucks here and there with coupons, and that's great. But in the longer run, you can make tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars with your investments as your investment capital grows. If you knew the former helped you with the latter, wouldn't you coupon too?

Food vs Feed

The other day I was wandering from blog to blog and I stumbled onto an interesting concept: the idea of "food" versus "feed."

It was here, at an unusual blog that covers a range of topics, most of which have nothing to do with the content here at Casual Kitchen. But this blogger's idea of thinking of the food industry's processed, packaged and shelf-stabilized food products as "feed"... I mean, it's a just an excellent metaphor, a really useful lens to think about the kinds of food I want to avoid.

According to this blogger:

"Soda, chips, candy, cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, frozen meals, microwavable fare and most fast food and chain restaurant gross national products all qualify as FEED...

Food is grown, raised, harvested and processed--and if not consumed while fresh--preserved in as natural and organic a state as possible to keep most of its nutritious and nourishing qualities intact.

Feed is mass produced by a few large multinational corporations using bio-technological innovations to quickly and efficiently manufacture product units ready for global distribution and a near infinite shelf life. Its primary traits are using genetically modified grain products to create a marketable product that is usually adulterated with preservatives and flavor enhancements designed in a laboratory to stimulate the taste buds to fool the human body into thinking it's something good for you."

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, couldn't say it better.

Here at Casual Kitchen, we use the term second-order foods to describe packaged and processed foods-made-from-other-foods. But the word "feed," with its overtones of factory farming, of the literal fattening up of human beings... it's a far more interesting and rhetorically powerful word. And using this word, thinking about food in this way, it helps put extra power and agency back into consumers' hands. After all, we're not barnyard animals. Who wants to eat feed?

Finally, one more quote relevant our many discussions about branding here at Casual Kitchen:

But above all, the primary difference between Food and Feed can be discerned by this: most real food requires little (if any) corporate mass media marketing campaigns to sell product and expand market shares and waistlines alike.

In other words, branding and advertising is a key cue to distinguish food from feed. It's not always the case, but in general, if a food needs to be advertised and marketed to you, you don't want to eat it.

READ NEXT: The Do-Nothing Brand
And: All-Time Best Articles on Branding, Advertising and Consumer Psychology [ARCHIVE]

If Big Food is So All-Powerful, Why Aren't They Increasing Prices More?

I was going through some old papers from my parents' home recently and, randomly, stumbled onto a page from an old weekly free newspaper I delivered in my early teens. Here's a blow-up of a tiny square of text from the bottom left corner of the paper's front page:

Not too shabby for my very first job!

Unfortunately, this post isn't about my beginnings in the business world. The truly interesting thing about this piece of paper was on the other side, where an old local grocery store listed sale prices for various foods:

William's was a smallish, family-owned grocery store, and it happened also to be my mother's favorite. She thought it had the best prices in town, and she shopped there consistently each week. Until it closed, driven out of business in the late 1980s by larger chain grocers.

But what's stunning about this ad is how little many of these prices have changed. Some prices are nearly the same today as they were in 1985: think chicken or frozen veggies. Other items--once you think about how long a period much time 32 years really is--represent surprisingly low levels of per-year inflation. For something to double in price in 32 years, you'd have to have an inflation rate of about 2.2% per year. Quite a few food items on this page (apple juice, Polish sauce, bacon, tomato paste) would fit roughly into that category or better.

Keep in mind, this is like a list of promoted items, which means prices you see in the photos above are sale prices. Compare these prices to sale prices today at a typical grocery store, and you'd find even less inflation.

And, sure, some products are more meaningfully more expensive: today, onions in my store cost around $1.99 for a three-pound bag, haddock fillets cost perhaps some four times more, and now that Pabst has become a hipster throwback brand, forget about it, that price is off the charts. But those are exceptions. At the bottom of it all, it's quite stunning to see so little inflation in food prices over such a long period of time.

Now, there are plenty of food bloggers and food pundits out there who use "the greedy food industry is trying to make us all fat" as a default explanation for everything.

But if the food industry were really that greedy, wouldn't they raise prices far more relentlessly? After all, food is a basic necessity. We have no choice but to buy it.

If food companies were as all-powerful and domineering as many food pundits seem to think, why wouldn't all food prices go up at the rate of, say, university tuition costs, which have increased a haddock fillet-like three to four times over this same 32 year period? Makes you wonder who's really greedy, doesn't it?