Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Farmroots Effort.

Between my full-time job as a planetary scientist and caring for my one-year-old, it’s pretty tough to keep up with current events. However, a few recent headlines caught my attention and got me thinking about the best way to approach food system change.

Kid-tested, MOM-approved.

I’ve seen a few signs for MOM's Organic Market, a local grocery chain here in Maryland, but didn’t know much about them. MOM's is now making headlines because its founder and CEO, Scott Nash, has instituted a policy banning products that market to children. Anything with a cartoon character on the package, regardless of how wholesome it may appear to be, is being replaced. After his own toddler insisted they purchase a cereal she had never eaten solely because Clifford was on the box, he decided to make a change. According to Scott’s blog:
“Advertising in and of itself is a rather shady game. I think most of it is deliberately misleading and, at best, beside the point - focusing more on creating shallow emotional attachments to a product rather than pointing out the merits of the product. And unfortunately, it works. This manipulation process begins early when corporations target children. It’s irresponsible and, in my opinion, unethical. Let children be children and at least wait until they’re earning their own money before engaging them in the age of consumerism.”
Marketing to children is an especially contentious issue because scientific studies have shown that kids younger than 7 or 8 lack the capacity to tell truth from fiction [1]. They can’t critically analyze a health claim or see a marketing ploy for what it is. And while, in the end, the responsibility lies with the parent, using cartoon characters in advertising seems like a purposeful attempt to sabotage a parent’s good intentions. Unfortunately, regulating marketing to children has met with a lot of push-back, both from the food industry and from people who are concerned about their personal choices being further restricted. In contrast, MOM's approach offers shoppers a choice. If you would prefer to avoid marketing gimmicks and the potential for meltdowns in the cereal aisle, you can shop at MOM's.

Genetically-modified ordinances.

Recently, Whole Foods grocery stores announced that, by 2018, all of their suppliers will be required to label any genetically modified ingredients in products sold at Whole Foods. According to their website, the decision to require GMO labeling was based on widespread customer demand.

This is not a shocking choice; Whole Foods is all about organic food and sustainable agriculture. Or, at least, that is the niche in which they operate. Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction. Despite widespread popularity, it’s been incredibly difficult to pass labeling laws and other restrictions on GMOs at the state and federal level. But, as with MOM's, it seems like change at the retail level is much more feasible.

This new policy builds upon Whole Foods’ existing relationship with the Non-GMO Project, an organization that verifies whether food products contain any genetically modified ingredients. You can easily avoid GMOs by buying organic, but the Non-GMO Project labels provide extra certainty when it comes to processed or packaged foods. And Whole Foods’ new labeling rules will make it even easier to identify GM ingredients. Labeling is important because it allows consumers to show their preferences and exert market pressure.

Fair Food with Integrity.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has successfully convinced Chipotle to sign their Fair Food Initiative, assuring that the farm workers who picked the tomatoes served at Chipotle were treated humanely. Until this change, Chipotle’s Food With Integrity program had included concern for the growing conditions of their produce and the treatment of their animals, but issues of farmworker exploitation were notably absent.

The CIW has blazed a trail in improving the conditions for America’s farm workers. And they did so by targeting retailers at the top of the food chain, who can afford to pay a little extra (1 penny per pound) for their tomatoes. Chipotle now joins Burger King, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s in helping make sure farm workers have some basic protections, like access to shade during their workday. Their “Food With Integrity” message means a lot more when it includes the people who keep the food system running.

Customers making change.

In the past, I’ve pointed out the increasing concentration within the food industry. Through mergers and acquisitions, from production to distribution, most food products are owned and sold by only a few companies. Smaller, independent companies are free to make their own policies and offer consumers a meaningful choice. It may take a bit more effort or money to shop at these retailers (although Chipotle has become quite prolific!), but it really is critical that we support diversity in the marketplace.

In all three of these cases, retailers made changes that have been nearly impossible to achieve through governmental regulation, and they did so mainly in response to the desires of their customers. Perhaps this sort of “farmroots effort” is a better approach to changing to the food system than regulation at the state or federal level. Or, at least, it’s an approach we should take in tandem.

With this in mind, I tried to think of some other retailer initiatives that consumers could get behind. One idea is to push Trader Joe’s to institute a similar GMO labeling requirement. TJs already rebrands the majority of their products, so they have ultimate control over what goes on the package. And Trader Joe’s recently signed the Fair Food Initiative, which shows that they are willing to consider policy changes when their customer base is vocal and persistent.

Along the lines of marketing, I would definitely like to see retailers pull products with dubious health claims. I recently came across several sugar-laden cereals that claimed to be healthy because they included whole grains and were high in Calcium and Vitamin D. Careful label-reading revealed that those nutrients actually came from the milk that they expect you to eat along with the cereal. Dubious health claims are often purposefully misleading and set people up to make poor decisions. Somehow these claims do not fall under the category of false advertising, but they are clearly intended to be misinterpreted.

Are these things you would fight for? What else could we do?

There are many ways we can advocate for change within the food system. The simplest is to change what we eat. We can also vote for change, both at the polls and through regular communication with our elected officials. These recent events have revealed an additional option – working with retailers to promote change at the point of purchase. From GMO labeling to food marketing to farm worker rights, we can make a difference.

Related posts:
On the CIW - People for the Ethical Treatment of People
On Chipotle's Food With Integrity program - Eat at Steve's
On concentration in the food industry - To organic and beyond!

[1] I've heard this factoid several times, such as in this NYT article that gave an overview of recent studies on marketing to children. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify the actual study. More information about marketing to children can be found via the CDC.


  1. This approach is a lot more palatable to someone [ahem: me] who does care about what they eat, but not enough to really go digging and researching. I think my take all along has been that it's going to have to come down to trustable (and standardized?) labeling so people can make good choices without having to do a ton of homework.

    Also, I used to care a lot less about this stuff when I was younger (and poorer), but as I have more money I am far more likely to pay a little more for something local and/or better. The point here is that I do think psychologically this is a middle-class game (for example, how many poor people shop at Whole Foods, which has a serious reputation for being pricey).

    Btw, how backwards is it that McDonald's is on a short list of companies doing [some of] the right things? ... though you're right, companies with more money can adopt these changes easily (and then recoup the cost through marketing).

    And! I hate cereal for that same reason. I remember the day I realized their reliance on milk for a pretty big chunk of nutrition, and then the additional realization that the cereal itself was basically a vitamin sugar pill.

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