Thanksgiving Reflection

At this time of year, it’s popular to think about sharing food and access to food. Our post-harvest holiday traditions reinforce thankfulness and community. Massachusetts has one of the largest gaps in the nation between the wealthiest and poorest households. The Greater Boston Food Bank says that one in 9 people in Eastern Mass do not know where their next meal will come from.

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A recent article in the Boston Globe about inequality in Cambridge talks specifically about food prices. “Housing isn’t the only thing that’s gotten more expensive as Kendall Square’s influence spreads. Johnnie’s Foodmaster, the low-cost grocery store in nearby Inman Square, is now a Whole Foods. Hi-Fi Pizza and it’s $2 slices are gone, soon to be replaced by a Clover Food Lab serving $6 chickpea fritter sandwiches. The dollar store is closed, too.” Meanwhile, the community’s food pantry serves around 1200 people per month. While we continue to plan for wealthy consumers and residents who we think will be moving into these areas in the future, we neglect affordable housing and food for the residents who live in our neighborhoods now.

Agricultural policies are an important part of how we can reduce hunger in urban areas. Including community agriculture, like public gardens, and making sure that zoning in new and planned luxury commercial and residential areas includes allowances for local agriculture.

On a larger scale we need to be thinking about how we source and consume our food globally. Dan Nicke, associate director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center, mentioned that “forty percent of all the food in this country never makes it to the table — at a cost of $165 billion to the U.S. economy.” According to the US Department of Agriculture one in seven Americans struggled with struggled with hunger in 2013.

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There is a staggering gap in what is sourced, created and consumed. We have an obligation to bridge the gap between what is being eaten and what is being wasted.

 

The Solitude Challenge

This week I had an assignment for one of my classes to contemplate the role of technology in my personal life, and how the tools of technology both legitimize and dismantle our ideas of solitude and isolation. To start the assignment, I sat alone in a room in my house without any technology, other people, or reading material.

I need solitude, which is to say, recovery, return to my self, the breath of a free, light, playful air — Friedrich Nietzsche

Being away from technology doesn’t intimidate me. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a home without a lot of technology. We didn’t have a television or gaming system, and when we wanted entertainment, we had only ourselves as resources. Of course, with acres of land and four siblings, I wasn’t exactly challenged for ways to spend my time, but I did have to rely on my own imagination for entertainment and had to learn to be comfortable with empty spaces and long silences. I feel that I’ve brought a great deal of that into my adult life. In my home, I try to encourage my family and friends to set their phones aside, for example.

So, in many ways, I thought this assignment would be fairly uneventful.

But then I realized how accustomed I’ve become to “doing” something. About ten minutes in, my brain was leap-frogging from topic to topic, making mental lists of things to do at work tomorrow, reminding myself to price out snow tires on the Internet, wondering which of our friends had replied to an email thread inviting them to a birthday celebration.

This blogger calls them “thought goblins.” Maybe I wasn’t meditating, or longing for nirvana, but I still felt that nagging question of “Am I doing this right?” and “I can’t seem to relax.” I realized that, for me, relaxation often comes when I’m reading a book, listening to a beautiful piece of music, watching a movie, or talking with my partner. In this moment of solitude, when asked to empty my life of all the “things” that I do, you might imagine that I would find relaxation and peace, but instead I felt tense.

Maybe that comes from my parents, who never stopped working or looking for a project. In spare moments, my mother would throw up the piano lid and play a song or two. My father would find something to fix and, if there was nothing to fix, he might start “fixing” things which weren’t really broken.

A man and his thoughts...
from Giampaolo Macorig “A Man and His Thoughts”

But as the minutes ticked by, and tick they did, I found myself settling into a more comfortable place. Yes, my mind was still working, but now in larger and larger concentric circles. I thought about a piece of music I’d heard on the way home, the way, at that crucial moment in the song, the melancholy guitar solo was joined by joyous human voices. I thought about how I might want to redecorate the room I was sitting in. And then, for awhile, nothing at all that I can remember.

That reminded me of this awesome TED talk about the science of mind wandering, which found (yes, there’s an app for that) a strong connection between moments of human happiness and day-dreaming or mind-wandering.

I like the idea that there is something restorative in letting ourselves be “not busy” and “not surrounded.” That our brains, freed from restraint, might meander in ways that actually make us healthier or happier.

Customer Experience – The good, the bad and the ugly

In today’s fast-paced world there are an overwhelming amount of options for consumers. In the past, if you needed a specific item you would get in your car, drive to a specific store that specialized in the sale of that item, perhaps ask a sales representative about the different choices (if there were any) and either buy or not buy the item. If you were unhappy with the service, you would have the option to ask for a manager to voice your compliment/concern/complaint. If you wanted to take that compliment/concern/complaint further, you would have to look up a corporate phone number by referencing a billing statement or perhaps looking in the yellow-pages.

This is how many Yellow Page books I had to keep just to keep track of the surrounding towns.

Fast forward to 2014. You can pick up your smartphone, browse for items being sold from all over the world, read product reviews, check prices, live-chat with customer service, find corporate emails/phone numbers to directly to send compliments/complaints/concerns, and immediately share your experience with the entire world via numerous social-media outlets.  In this fast paced ever-changing landscape of e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar, what defines a good customer experience?

In my experience, in order for a company to attract and retain customers they need to master the following brand attributes: authenticity, content consistency across all platforms, subject matter expertise, and accessibility.

Amazon continues to set the bar as the leader for a positive customer experience. Most recently Amazon topped USA Today’s 2014 Customer Service Hall of Fame list. As a consumer, I consistently find myself valuing and trusting Amazon’s customer reviews. Amazon encourages their customers to provide product reviews and makes it easy for them to do so.

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I recently polled a group of my friends and asked which companies they had had the worst customer service experience. The top offender was Comcast, which is not surprising as they seem to be on every list outlining poor customer service, from Temkin’s to Ranker’s ratings.

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Social media is changing the customer experience landscape by allowing customers to immediately and publicly hold companies accountable when they are not being authentic, offering consistency, properly sharing expertise on the product/service, and/or being easily accessible. Successful companies know how to effectively manage and leverage compliments/complaints/concerns to turn them into a moment to debut their authenticity and to remain true to their brand.

American Express engaging a complaining customer definitively and in a timely manner.

Companies who are not able to manage social media crisis will need to immediately reevaluate their brand to ensure that they are not opening the door for their competitors to take advantage of this.

Example of poor customer service leading a frustrated customer engaging with a competitor.

Influences in the Industry

The change in the way that we eat happened gradually; the change from local farms to factory farms didn’t happen overnight. Today, most of our food comes from very far away.

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Factory farm locations in the US. Note the lack of equal distribution – factory farms tend to be far away from large population centers.

For a lot of us, we simply kept on buying and consuming food from local stores, irrespective of the source of the food. A small handful of people, however, have been very vocal about this change and have worked hard to keep food production local. These voices, coupled with the advances in social media outlets, began to shape the conversation and create a community.

The concept of producing and procuring food at the local level goes back to the Localism Movement. Those who subscribed to it wanted to keep production from becoming centralized, with the goal being that each local unit can benefit from both the production and consumption of a product or service. Community gardens, farmer’s markets, and farm shares are all examples of localism’s influence on food production.

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Orly Munzing founded Strolling of the Heifers in an effort to bring attention to the plight of local Vermont farmers. The event not only brought attention to the local economy, but grew in magnitude – in 2002 Strolling of the Heifers was a one day event, and by 2013 it became a week long affair and was rated one of 2013’s top 10 summer festivals. Orly’s dedication escalated local food from a niche movement to something that is well within the public conscience.

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Strolling of the Heifers collage.

Similiary, Carlo Petrini saw a local problem that he wanted to bring to worldwide attention; a new McDonald’s being built just outside the Spanish Steps in Rome spurred Petrini to start the Slow Food Movement. Slow Food is a movement which looks to keep the characteristics of food, such as production, consumption, flavor, and varieties, local and decentralized. Slow food has grown a simple manifesto in 1986 to having 100,000 members across 15 countries in 2011. Furthermore, the movement has spawned the opening of a university of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, which confers undergraduate and graduate degrees in food science. The success of the university has spawned similar programs in the US.

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Gastronomy students at UNH

Today, social media allows local communities to communicate and organize. Before social media, producers such as farmers and activists had to actively push their message. Now social media now allows consumers to speak directly to the producers to create a pull effect. More and more consumers are looking for fresh and local options, and farmers are responding. As such, food localism is becoming both accepted and mainstream.

Food Production and Climate Change

This week I have been reading a lot about climate change and how our food production and consumption go hand-in-hand with the causation factors for our planets increasing temperature. This topic can be very overwhelming but at the same time there substantial changes going on not only at the local level with community-based conservation, but also on a much larger scale like the The People’s Climate March in NYC last month.

My perspective on these topics really started to take shape after reading The Big Pivot by where author Andrew Winston specifically outlines the issues we need to tackle and provides thoughtful instructions on how we can go about doing so. Winston explains that our main issues are that we live in a “hotter, scarcer and more open world”, and that we not only need to slow down climate change, but we also have to prepare to live in a world already affected by it.

Food production and climate change is in a strange feedback loop – Our food production contributes to climate change, climate change alters our food production, and these alterations lead to worsening contributions to climate change.

For instance, the introduction of modern beef ranching has increased both beef demand and the distance between source and consumption. The methane produced by cows is a major greenhouse gas (that’s right – you can blame last year’s freezing winter on cow farts), as is the CO2 produced by the beef distribution network.  Ranchers will inevitably need to move their herds to more climate stable pastures, thus increasing transportation related CO2.

I believe my solution to this issue is fairly straightforward – we need to continuously evaluate our diets while favoring locally sourced food production. Though I’m not here to tell anyone to eat less meat or go vegan, I think it would be fair to acknowledge that our society’s meat consumption is considerably more than it used to be. Similarly, we rarely talk about just how far our foods travel to get to our plates. By buying from local farms, we simultaneously support out surrounding communities, reduce the CO2 output from food transportation, eat healthier and fresher. Seems like a win-win to me.

Here are some farm shares in my local area that I’m looking to trying out.

Stillman’s Turkey Farm

Walden Local Meat

Red Fire Farms

A Look At GMOs

There is a lot of discussion in the news about GMOs – organisms whose genomes were modified using DNA recombination.  Those who have a strong opinion on the matter tend to argue that GMOs are unnatural to nature, unhealthy to humans, and should not be part of our modern diet. While these arguments may have merit under certain circumstances, taken as a whole I do not believe that GMOs are a threat. In fact, I believe that GMOs can hold the key to bringing freshness, flavor, and supply to our food markets.

For the last 10,000-13,000 years, the only way for food cultivators to introduce a desired trait into a plant organism was to crossbreed sexually compatible species and hope for a positive outcome. Generally, this was a very positive strategy – we’ve created many species of food items which maximize edible parts, minimize useless parts, and confer characteristics that make agriculture easy.

Top: A cultivated, modern banana. Bottom: A “wild” banana, the kind you’d encounter before agriculture.

However, crossbreeding is a very imprecise act and desired outcomes often require scores of generations. DNA recombination sidesteps this process by allowing desired genes to be transferred with pinpoint accuracy. The most typical traits that are inserted into food species confer herbicide tolerance, resistance to pests, and resistance to viruses.  The basic idea is the GMOs can be grown in the absence or reduction of harmful farming techniques (i.e. pesticides, tilling, fungicides, virucide, etc.).

Anti-GMO activists tend to argue that these desirable traits can have undesirable consequences, ranging from unintended cross-breeding to serious health effects. Some of these claims are true but disingenuous: though unintended cross-breeding is a concern, it is not solely relegated to GMOs – all newly introduces organisms pose the risk. Other claims are patently false: there is no scientific evidence to suggest that GMOs cause generic illnesses. These and other unsubstantiated claims have caused a bottleneck in the production and dissemination of GMOs into our food supply.

Though I am generally wary of corporate farming techniques, I do not believe that GMOs are a part of the problem. I want my food to be grown in an environment that closely resembles my home garden, so I would much rather eat a tomato whose genes resist pests than one that was covered in neurotoxic pesticides or broad based herbicides. I would rather the world have a steady supply of high yield corn than to let people starve over unscientific hysteria. I would rather my food production be highly regulated (as is mandated for GMOs) than to eat food that has never seen scientific scrutiny. I would rather help craft legislation that controls the industry than dismiss GMOs as a viable production method for my food. I am no friend to Monsanto, but neither do I support pseudoscientific fear-mongering. GMOs have a place in our modern society, and I fully support having them as a part of my food source.

GrubHub Alternative?

As new mobile and web applications change the way we interact with food, The Foodery is looking at new ways to make local, organic meals available to Boston consumers through delivery services. Customers make a weekly order of meals that arrive a few days later, ready to refrigerate. With a focus on local, organic, and sustainable agriculture, these meals are a little different than your average GrubHub order and  probably a lot healthier, too. While the meals, at around $18 per person per meal, are probably more expensive than your average takeout order, they may not be more expensive than restaurant meals.

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As an avid Foodler user, the convenience of being able to open a smartphone app and quickly and efficiently order local foods is unparalleled. My only complaint is not having enough healthy take out options. As a consumer I would be willing to pay a premium to enjoy locally grown, sustainable and potentially much healthier food. In order to stay competitive within the changing market place, these online food ordering services should begin to explore the possibility of partnering with services like The Foodery.

It’s interesting to see the ways that our access to ever-improving and changing types of technology can start to challenge traditional ideas like the “take-out menu” or “fast food” with healthier options that support local farmers more than national restaurant chains. While The Foodery might not exactly be competition for GrubHub now, it’s great to see ideas like this enter the convenience/delivery arena.

I’m really interested to see the way that technology, and particularly mobile technology, continue to change the way we access food. Already there are some apps that are challenging the traditional ideas about access to restaurants. We’re all familiar with the line to get into a fabulous restaurant on a Saturday night and with the process of trying to make reservations at a small and trendy new spot. Apps and websites like OpenTable.com and NoWait allow us to follow that same strategy in a slightly more convenient way, but allowing us to make reservations or get in line at a restaurant faster and easier ways.

But some new websites and apps are challenging even the ideas of lines and reservations. Apps like KillerRezzy, ReservationHop, and Zurvu work by purchasing reservations at trendy restaurants ahead of time, and then selling those reservations back to consumers. While these increase our access to fine dining, they sometimes do so at the expense of dining democracy, allowing privilege and money to edge in.

Other apps approach food access with a slightly more equalizing perspective, including apps like Locavore, which allows users to quickly and easily find farmers’ markets and farms that sell seasonal, locally grown food.

It’s so interesting to watch how these tools of technology are changing the way we access food, think about food, and build relationships with food.