OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG - Session #1 (9:45-11:00 am), Values Track, The Politics of Food ... and Food Blogs

Session description: We know food bloggers can change the world (see Session #2 in this track!), but food bloggers are also working to change the world of food itself. This panel will explore the very deliberate movement to change minds within and about the food industry. We'll meet bloggers who are working hard to use blogging's powerful platform to get various messages out. Jennifer Maiser, the woman behind the Eat Local Challenge, moderates this panel including Bonnie Powell, founder of Ethicurean, Greg Massa, an organic brown rice farmer, Eddie Gehman Kohan from Obama Foodorama and Elizabeth Castoria, managing editor of VegNews Magazine and author of their Cafe VegNews blog.

Jen asked Bonnie about the general approach of food politics blogs. Bonnie has historically said, "Politics blogs are like taking your medicine, recipe blogs are for pleasure." Bonnie referred to politics blogs as "the turd in the punchbowl," but reiterates that they don't have to be like taking your medicine. Food blogs should be about pleasure, and food politics blogs can be as well, in a different way. It's about thinking about your food: What are your food politics on a personal level, on a community level, on an altruistic level? For example, Soul Food Farms recently was greatly damaged in a fire, and the blog community has ben raising money to get them back up on their feet. That is food politics. Everyone can locate themselves in one or more food politics arena, and Ethicurean tries to facilitate that.

Ethicurean is a group blog, so there's a diversity of issues. Bonnie put up a post from a guy from Slow Food who went to a slaughtering class, and so is facing his food directly. Another about the Leafy Greens Movement, which is focused on green produce. Bonnie admits they could introduce a little more levity into the blog.

Elizabeth has been vegan for 10 years; Jen asks her how she uses the blog as a political tool. Elizabeth states that veganism is intrinsically a political act; the staff at VegNews has a staff lunch every day and reports on what they eat, discussing the kinds of new products and foods can support their cause and needs. They lead by example, demonstrating how to support a vegan lifestyle every day. Jen refers to it as "soft evangelism." Really, cashew butter is great!

Jen asked Greg about famers having really limited time, and asked why he blogs, tweets and takes advantage of social media. How does it help his business and the politics behind it? A few years ago, he and his wife decided to transition the farm from conventional to organic, and needed a way to put a face on their food. They sell wheat, rice at local farmers' markets. The packaging features their home, their kids -- really making a personal connection between the consumer and the farmer. Rice is very generic, grown all over the world in vast quantities; no one knows where their rice comes from, mostly. They were trying to reconnect their farm with people -- the blog is a great vessel for that. On the blog, the talk about what's going on at the farm, showing harvest, etc. Twitter is more for day-to-day observations, political statements about corporate control of agriculture, the methamphetamine problem in America, etc. When they first started going to the farmer's market in Chico, realizing they had to scale to multiple markets, they were losing their direct conncetion with customers. Social media has become an effective tool for them to retain that connection. Jen remarked that she has not seen Greg at the farmers market in a couple years, but feels that she talks to him every day via Twitter.

Jen is especially excited because she runs the Eat Local Challenge, and Greg is on the front lines of raising awareness of how corporate policies hurt local farmers.

Kim O'Donnel was the food blogger at the Washington Post for about three years, having been with them for twelve. (Kim stood in for Eddie of Obama Foodorama, who was not able to join.) Kim left the WashPo in July and moved to True Slant. Kim joined the WashPo the day of the Starbucks murders in DC, in 1997, and at that time didn't even know what the internet was. She and other journalists forged their own understanding and policies on the platform, learning how to tell stories in the new format. Kim launched a food web chat in 1999, which really took off (now on Culinate). Over all the years, she becaome aware that this is a medium that allows conversation in a very powerful way that affects people's lives. The WashPo came late to blogging; Kim didn't start until fall 2005 for the holidays. By way of the blog, learning more about where her food comes from and how to use it, and relaying that by way of telling a story, her blog became a way for people to learn and empower themselves -- news you can use, literally.

Last fall she started featuring a meatless recipe every Monday, now basis for a book coming out next fall. It's a tool people can use, but also a vessel to discuss why it's important to eat meatless once a week-- baby steps on introducing political issues into your every daylife. Bonnie called out her Canvolution intiative, bringing community together to do hands-on work to preserve foodways.

Jen remarked that food politics, and food politics blogs, do not have great definition, and that each person does it in different ways. Kim said there could be 10 more people on this panel and they would all have different opinions and approaches to food politics. Elizabeth says food is the new politics, with shows, stories -- food is the new way people are finding to express themselves, which is exciting. People are connecting the food they eat with their lives. Bonnie started blogging food politics because she was so depressed after the 2004 election. Jen noted Michael Pollan's statement that food is a way to vote 3 times a day.

Jen noted that there are those who do not feel that food politics does not belong at this conference, also feels that food politics is the redheaded stepchild, but no less important.

Jen asked Greg if there is a way we can better support our farmers. When Greg started farming there was a corporation that wanted to started farming a genetically modified version in the Sacramento Valley. There was a big fight about it in the industry, and a handful of farmers got together with outside groups for support and got the GMO rice kicked out of California. In retrospect, he wishes they had Twitter or blogs to deliver the message -- they were using press releases to try to get under the media's nose. It would have been much easier if they had access to social media tools at the time. Social media has the power to change the way things are done in this country. Greg follows more conventional farmers on Twitter than organic, sees them fighting with people on Twitter to justify themselves against ill will. Hopefully that will help them change their ways. Greg does not accept the "we are all environmentalists" notion for conventional farmers. Hopefully the farmers will see new ways of doing things as an opportunity not a threat.

Bonnie notes that big farmers don't normally hear directly from their eaters; Twitter is breaking down that barrier. Politics is about debate and conversation. "Monsanto baiting is a favorite sport of food politics bloggers."

Question from the audience: There's a woman at UC Davis who's doing GMO research but makes the distinction between Monsanto genetic engineering and the kind of genetics done by natural breeding. Organic farmers in Hawaii are losing their payapa trees to ringworm; a genetically modified version solved that problem. Should we make those distinctions between "good" and "bad" genetic manipulation? Greg: The GMO rice they were fighting had human DNA spliced into it to create a new protein that was extracted and used in anti-diarrheal medicine. Greg doesn't dismiss molecular biology in agrictulture; breeding can take a long time to derive new species. Bonnie doesn't believe that our technology is sophisticated enough to know where we are splicing genes in, and so there are unforeseen consequences. We haven't done enough of a risk assessment. It could be helpful and food politics bloggers aren ot against technology, but genetic manipulation is still a hot button issue. Audience member: This is where the bloggers are most useful, to educate on the difference between GMO practices, and advocate for better testing. Bonnie: Recommends "The Unhealthy Truth" by Robyn O'Brien. Her kids had food allergies, and looked into the industry and their collusion with the government on getting things approved.

Audience question: In writing about food politics, it's so easy to jump on a bandwagon too quickly, or even create the bandwagon. How do we find balance between responsibly presenting fact and yet not writing a huge treatise? Jen: That's a good point. A few years ago it was in vogue to talk about how organic standards were being watered down. She saw a talk with someone who justified that in fact things had not; agree or not, it was an eye-opener to really analyze and create meaningful content. Elizabeth: It's important to keep your messaging consistent and inform your readers. Kim: Several years ago she started researching seafood. At that time, there was too much information to parse. It took a month to report in small chunks, a good format for an online platform. Remember that you can't assume everyone is as up to date on the issues as you, so support with background information and reconnect with the key players and sources. It's important to break down complex issues, deliver content in smaller, digestible chunks.

Audience comment: Rep from Nature's Path organic foods asks for support getting the word out on Monsanto's practices and undermining their messaging that the price difference for organic foods is not worth it. They have farmers Tweeting from the field, and are trying to buy direct from farms. Whole Foods just started a non-GMO project, with great information. Jen: Good point, as most of us in this room live and breathe food politics, and therefore get wonky about it. She said something last week about Norman Borlaug died, and assumed people knew who he was and why we should talk about it, but many didn't know.

Greg is in the fourth generation to plant rice in California; he did not want to farm at all. He went to college, but decided ultimately that they wanted a more hands-on way of making a difference, so came back to the farm and started transitioning from conventional to organic. They created spaces for wildlife, made sure herbicides were not bleeding out into the environment.

Audience question: What sorts of obstacles have you had being a farmer and a social media user? Greg: Technology is one, and the availability of high-speed internet in rural America. His internet comes via radio. He can send text messages from his tractor to Twitter and Facebook. Has heard from customer that they were concerned for his safety as he was Twittering from the tractor too much.

Audience comment: Veggie Queen notes that the more farmers get the word out about what they do and why they do it, people will be more aware and mroe willing to pay the premium for local, organic and sustainable product. Once they know the people behind their food. It's the food bloggers' role to raise that awareness. Sam Breach notes that it is possible for it to be cheaper at the farmer's market than at Safeway.

Audience comment: Sam: There does tend to be high-mindedness from vegans and other political factions with respect to things like foie gras and animal slaughtering, but would happily eat an Oreo because it's vegan.  Elizabeth: There's always going to be a vocal minority, who will attack anything online that's non-vegan. She is vegan, but doesn't believe in attacking people or driving negative press. It's unfortunate that this minority causes people to be pigeonholed into perceived groups. She has a life outside of veganism, and feels it's important to keep the dialog alive and debate rather than attack.

Audience question: Food politics blogs are focused on awareness but not on action. Should we be inciting people to take action, and if so is there shorthand like SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) that we can use? Bonnie: There is a mistake in the notion that we can change everything by voting with our fork. You have to take the next step -- how do you improve what's on other people's forks? Get involved in things like school lunch programs. Jen: It took her a long time to realize she can make all her own changes herself, and make change by leading by example. Kim: Awareness is underrated because so many of us have our heads in the sand. Americans don't like bad news. There's a way we can enlighten and offer a little pleasure that will resonate with as little as one reader. As long as you keep up your messaging up, it's up to the reader to make their own decisions. Bonnie: Michelle Obama is a genius about this stuff, with the White House Kitchen Garden and the Farmers Market. She conveys the pleasure of fresh, seasonal food and getting it from the farmers market. It's not so hard! It's pleasurable to do this.

Laura's followup: There's market research that awareness is great, but without call to action, people are left flat. Users know what they can't eat, but not what they can. How can we develop a more cohesive message? Elizabeth: We show people what we're eating every day; they're delicious and healthy. The reader can see and do what they do. Lead by example. Kim: When she started the meatless feature, asked the readers what they want; they wanted to know what to do. She shared a new recipe every week, provide a tool that readers can take with them and decide whether and how to use it. Consistency is important -- if you promise this tool, deliver it. Other audience member: Show, don't tell is very important. The implication is you can do it, too. Elizabeth: Ellen does the same thing on her website now that she's vegan.

Audience question: The White House farm movement has been really effective to rally the masses. How can food bloggers also incite people around issues? Bonnie: People really care about what they're feeding their kids, so showing what kids eat can be horrifying. Explaining why this is, that schools are paid less than $3 per student to feed them, including paying staff. Then follow up with action on how to help make change. Greg: When his oldest started kindegarten in his rural town, they were surprised by the menu: Breakfast was super donut on a stick. So they made sure she ate breakfast at home, and packed a lunch for her. They've tried to get their rice into the schools, but pricing is an issue. Berkeley is using their rice in the school system, and Revolutionary Foods in SF is feeding Massa rice to students three times a week. Jen: That's a good example of an entry into food politics. Pictures of school lunches are a wake up call.

Audience question: This entire discussion, we've danced around class issues. How do you manage on your blogs talking about comparisons -- what if your kid brings his own food, and the kid next to him is eating the donut on a stick? What if people can't afford to follow the examples you lead with? Bonnie: There's a new $50MM farm to schools program that will optimally bring more fresh food into the schools, but the issue is valid. Good food is more expensive. Only thepeople who can opt to up their income to it can afford to vote with their fork. It's our job to get the government to spend their excess money not to buy crappy commodities, but to support farmers like Greg so they can feed more people. That's how we can attack the class differentials, on a policy level. Kim: Celebrate farmers markets that have coupons for WIC or seniors in your blogs. How do you get regular people to talk about these serious issues? Cook. Cook with your kids. Get another parent to come over and cook together. Cooking gets people talking about the food. Then kids appreciate the food they're eating. That filters out in many levels, in the schools. Similarly, gardening has the same impact. When kids watch the food grow, and it comes into the kitchen, they learn. Cooking cuts across class levels. Jen: I've had a series on Serious Eats called Cooking with a Friend, where she and a friend spend about $35 for food for the week for both of them, and they cook together, and discuss where the food comes from.

Audience question: Gayle Keck of the Hunger Challenge: As bloggers, how do you expand the audience from political blogging out to others with a message that they should be caring about these issues? Bonnie: Good question, how do you get people to care about other people? By being passionate and showing how much pleasure you get out of it. Elizabeth: There's a basis of compassion that people want to operate from, caring about animals or people without food. Finding some kind of commonality is important. For example, I'm not going to buy processed food because I want to support organic farmers. Everyone eats, so since we all have to do it, you can open the conversation with anyone.

Audience question: The food world is overwhelmingly female and white. In her stories, and the people she profiles, she tries to mix it up. Is this an issue that you've addressed? Bonnie: On Ethicurean they want to cover labor issues; people care more about animal rights abuses than human rights abuses. Food buyers at the market may be white, but the people who grow it generally are not, and they try to cover that. It's important how many people out there are looking at this from a pure survival perspective.

Audience question: Regarding accuracy in reporting. You're all in powerful positions to make statements on politics. Are there fact-checking policies in place to ensure accuracy? Kim: She comes from traditional media where inaccuracy was a fireable offense. That has carried with her even though she's now writing for a new media platform. Whatever you call yourself a blogger, columnist, whatever, you are putting your words out there, and you are still a citizen journalist, and we have a responsibility to provide accurate information to the public, to state corrections if you find the information is inaccurate, and to be transparent as possible.

Greg has provided rice for all!

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