Sunday, October 20, 2013

Food for thought writing

In my 301 class we're moving into our unit on writing about food and agriculture issues, and this semester, students are reporting on a wide range of topics, including the moves by the local Swartz Farm into big-time hydroponic farming on a Bronx rooftop (wow!) to local land preservation activities to a story on the UMass Chicken Group, students who raise chickens. 

There is so much cool stuff going on at UMass around food and sustainability, and in the Pioneer Valley, that this is a great time and place to be a food writer. 

Food writing as a genre used to just be a mix of stories and recipes published every Wednesday. Not anymore. Food reporting now touches on every aspect of American life: health, culture, economy, public policy and politics. Journalists like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman,  Marion Nestle, Kim Severson and  Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, have shown us that you can produce great work and provide great service as a journalist around this topic.

There are also some great documentaries. King Corn is a terrific examination of the corn economy. The two young producers tell the story by driving out to the Midwest and growing an acre of corn. Food, Inc. is another good documentary on the industrialization of agriculture and its costs to us as a nation.

We've watched Food, Inc., we're reading Fast Food Nation, and we're visiting the Food Bank of Western Mass. this week to talk about hunger in our region. Here are a few things I've come across in the past week that relate to our topic that you might find interesting as well.

Democracy Now featured a report that details the cost to taxpayers of the low wages being paid by fast-food companies like McDonald's, which, in 2012,  generated profits of $5.5 billion. Here's the report. 

From Democracy Now:
New research shows more than half of low-wage workers at fast-food restaurants rely on public assistance to survive – a rate double that of the overall workforce. According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, low wages in the fast-food industry cost American taxpayers nearly $7 billion every year – that’s more than the entire annual budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A companion report by the National Employment Law Project found McDonald’s alone costs Americans $1.2 billion annually by paying its workers insufficient wages. Last year the top 10 largest fast-food companies alone made more than $7.4 billion in profits.

And there's a lot of talk about chicken in the aftermath of the recent salmonella outbreak at a poultry processor in California. Mark Bittman asks Should You Still Eat Chicken?
And New York Times columnist Nick Kristof asks,  Are Chicks Brighter than Babies? As a chicken owner, I would say, my hens are pretty dang smart. They have me trained, anyway.

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