How cheap is that chicken?

perdue chickenOn February 4, Spartan Staffing, a company known “For Great Jobs in Manufacturing and Logistics,” posted that they were seeking 30 people to fill jobs at a chicken processing plant in Beaver Dam, Ky., population 3,409.

Job duties would include loading products onto a conveyor, lifting totes of chicken that weigh 50 pounds or more, and counting product. Candidates should be able to work 8 to 12-hour shifts, lift 35 to 75 pounds continuously, and be willing to work in a cold environment.

Starting salary is $9.36 an hour. $19,468.80 gross yearly pay.

Those 30 people will be well under the federal poverty line for a family of four. A worker’s salary could DOUBLE and taxpayers would still be on the hook for his children’s KCHIP health insurance. She can get a $3/hour raise and taxpayers still would pay for her family’s food. In addition, we will pay for the children’s preschool, lunch and breakfast at school, supplemental food for children under 6 and pregnant moms, and summer meals. The families will qualify for home energy assistance and home weatherization, in addition to Medicaid.

I can’t believe the community in Western Kentucky is thrilled to have a factory paying adult workers a mere $2 more per hour than a fast food clerk. Scores of people making $19,400 a year can hardly contribute to a thriving community.

It seems especially ironic to me that the 2010 company annual report states that

“in a country as rich in resources as
ours, no one should have to go hungry. That is why
Perdue partners with Feeding America (formerly known
as America’s Second Harvest) and its network of
community food banks and pantries to ensure the safe
and effective distribution of our product donations. We
are committed to making a minimum annual donation to
Feeding America of one million pounds or $1 million
worth of food.”

My guess is those donations are all dark meat that are clogging up the Perdue supply lines anyway. And the 30 workers that will fill the jobs with Spartan will no doubt be eligible to receive some of those leg quarters.

So before we dash to Costco to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast for $1.99 per pound, let’s consider the real cost of cheap food, and think about where we want to spend our money.

While I don’t begrudge paying taxes to support my neighbors in need, I feel a little less enthusiastic about buying “cheap chicken” from a company that leaves me supporting at least 30 employees’ families and allows Jim Perdue to purchase vacation homes. The 2010 Perdue annual report revealed the company had $4.76 billion in sales.

Instead, I will buy chicken that is raised on Kentucky pasture, not on a factory farm. It will cost more to process in a small plant than in a factory where people are paid poverty wages. But my chicken will have less fat and more flavor than that factory chicken. So there’s a bone. As far as I’m concerned, eating around a bone just slows me down. I’ll eat less. It’s all good.

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Large volume users create a robust food system

I recently came across one of the most sophisticated regional planning documentsI have ever seen, assembled by dozens of experts, depending on scores of stakeholders, and designed to reach far into greater Chicagoland’s future. I was delighted to see that it had a substantial section on local food systems. Louisville has set the bar pretty high when it comes to establishing local food systems in this country; finding CMAPs plan gave me hope that I could compare notes with someone.

The report noted that “Illinois residents spend $48 billion annually on food, nearly all of which (an estimated $46 billion) leaves our state. Purchasing food that is grown locally can keep much of that money in the region. Based on estimates from other regions, a 20-percent increase in local food production and purchasing could generate approximately $2.5 billion in economic activity within the region, according to GO TO 2040.”

There’s a beautiful graphic on the website showing the relationship between production, processing, access, consumption and waste reduction.

But drill down a layer and you’ll find why I, at least, think the local food movement is not moving forward the way it should. CMAP’s explanation of access, for instance, is “The point at which people purchase their food at places like farmstands, markets, or restaurants.

People tend to talk about local food systems in terms of farmstands, markets and restaurants. Yet these parts of the food system are the smallest players and move relatively insignificant amounts of food through the system. I once worked with a 150 seat bistro to introduce them to local producers of cheese, meat and vegetables. The owner enthusiastically embraced the concept, and immediately began order local ground beef for all their burgers. End result: a delivery of 50 pounds per week.

Anybody who raises/sells beef will be happy with any ground beef sales, no matter how large the order There’s always ground beef left over when the center cuts are sold and ground beef seems always to be the bottleneck in the system. But there are more beef cattle in Kentucky than any other state east of the Mississippi. We are 9th in cattle production in the country. If cattle producers are going to find local markets, all of us in the food-system business are going to have to get serious about identifying large-volume buyers, who buy, move and use food more efficiently than a farmstand or a CSA.

Take, for instance, Jefferson County Public Schools and Fayette County Schools. Between them, they are hoping to order more than 40,000 servings of chicken wing parts and drumsticks for lunch service on one day. This order will be production for an entire season (April to November) for one diversified farmer (who also sells beef and pork).

Jefferson County Public Schools has a $17 million food budget. If we can harness 10 percent of that budget for local food, we can begin to move the needle on the local food system in a much more significant way that if we concentrate on farmstands, CSAs and markets.

Meaningful work to change local food systems will have to include large-volume users, and will need to solve issues of large-volume distribution, aggregation and processing.

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Common barriers to changing the food system

chix pieces n summer veg

The Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis commissioned by Seed Capital Kentucky, has been released, quantifying the demand for local food in the Louisville area. It’s important work that will lend its weight to the welcome changes happening in Louisville under our forward-thinking mayor.

After scores of interviews, the report codifies the obstacles to buying local food. The report reveals that consumers, commercial and restaurant buyers indicate that cost, product consistency, distribution and volume are the issues that prevent them from buying local. Additionally, large-volume users cite inability to get food from their preferred “broadline” supplier (like Sysco).

In 2010, the Kentucky Farm to School Task Force enumerated the same barriers among school food service directors.

Anyone who spends 20 minutes talking about local food with people will hear about those same barriers. As an earnest newbie moving Kentucky product into Louisville starting in 2009, I eagerly sought out the least expensive local product, or the ones grown in large quantities over long seasons. But after months of talking to buyers it dawned on me that they had no idea what the costs were, or what the volume was, or what the product looked like or where they could easily get it. They, nearly to a person, believed that the world of local food was represented by farmers markets, and that they had to buy products in the smallest amounts at the highest prices.

Let me pause here to say that there are real barriers to any local food system. Aggregation, distribution and processing are all huge challenges in Kentucky. Many good people are working on those challenges.

However, as to cost, consistency, supply, and distribution, it is time to start asking people to reveal their data.

For instance, if you approach a caterer — whether it’s Centerplate at the Convention Center or a small independent — and you request local food for your wedding reception, or Biology Department meeting, or family reunion, your likely first response will be “it will be very expensive.” It’s time we pushed back.

I once worked with a hospital whose food service contractor mentioned how peeved its board of directors would be if they found out he had spent money on local beef, and within one minute was telling me about the ahi tuna he served at the board meeting. I think he honestly believed that local beef was more expensive than ahi tuna. I’ve had local bar owners think nothing of upcharging for a bison burger, but find it inconceivable to offer a Kentucky Proud burger in a similar way, though the beef, like the bison, has been grown on grass, offered free grain, and grown without antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

The truth is, if you try to replace CAFO boneless skinless chicken breast with pasture-raised, antibiotic-free boneless skinless chicken breast, you will have to pay an astonishing premium. But there are other parts to a chicken, as the Jefferson County Public School food service folks have discovered. They — and Fayette County as well — are exploring how to feed their students drumsticks, thighs, and wing parts from animals raised on Kentucky pasture. For Derby week, they are exploring mixing pasture-raised beef with commodity chicken and vegetables to make burgoo.

In fact, there are plenty of ways to keep costs in check during a catered event and on menus. Consumers, chefs and food service operators can ask themselves the same question the schools ask, “how can we make this food affordable?” People who are out to change the food system should be vigilant to recognize a straw man disguised as a rationale.

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Affordability, accessibility, local food

Louisville has a great reputation for being food-centric, with lots of activists and enthusiasts in all imaginable areas — urban gardens, local food, a lively independently-owned restaurant scene and more. Often these communities co-exist amicably, but not always. The affordability of local, healthy food is a subject that tends to make passions run high.

Louisville has made strides, but many of us struggle with the morality of accessibility. I attended a dinner party one evening where one of the guests asserted she wouldn’t shop at a farmers’ market until the food was affordable for everyone. Really? And the logic behind that is. . . .?

Many shoppers and chefs blanch at the higher costs of local food. Indeed, cost is the first of a list of barriers that are commonly listed as reasons to avoid local products.

At the risk of sounding defensive, let me aver that fresh produce is costly everywhere, even at the supermarket. Studies show that the squash and broccoli in the produce aisle are more expensive per calorie than the Cheetos and Pepsi.

That’s because of subsidies. The government, through previous farm bills, has allocated money to the farmers who grow corn, soy and wheat. We spent $56.2 billion from 1995 to 2006 on corn subsidies alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, which used USDA figures and which can give you all the mind-boggling statistics you’d like at

Michael Pollan reported on the work of researcher Adam Drewnowski, who took a hypothetical dollar into the supermarket to see what it would buy, and found he could get 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

Farm subsidies allow corn and soy (and corn syrup and soy oil) to be extremely cheap. Subsidies make Cheetos and Pepsi and fast food dollar meals extremely affordable.

How much are fresh produce growers and organic growers subsidized?

Oops. Not so much.

So while the poor are shut out of nutritious eating, it really isn’t the fault of the farmer who is hand-planting and picking strawberries to sell for a premium at the farmers market to support his family.

How a new farm bill might change any of this is anyone’s guess. Congress’s inability to make decisions has currently thrown farmers in to Farm Bill Limbo.

The issue of affordability isn’t just produce vs. fast food. Local beef, milk and eggs are also pricey.

But striving to make robust local food systems should require more nuanced investigations into local-food affordability, and raise questions that may get answered in ways we don’t like and have to adjust to. What is affordable? People around the world spend much more of their income on food. Should subsidies change? Subsidies were invented to guarantee farmers an income, even in the bad years, so they would stay on the farm and keep farming. What is a fair price for food, when are we paying for the ineffieciencies of small farms and how efficient and large is the perfect farm?

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Does school food need the nugget?

chicken nuggets

The chicken nugget is the apotheosis of school lunch, for good and ill. It is the food that all children will eat, and many school food service directors believe it serves their most important goal — to feed children. Yet nuggets are the food that parents love to hate. Nuggets are the first, worst, aspect of everything that is school lunch, complete with the corn and potatoes that often come with them.

As a result of my work with local food and Jefferson County Public Schools nutrition services (in Louisville, not Colorado), I participate in a group called School Food Focus, a largely Kellogg Foundation-supported group that convenes the 33 largest school systems in the country representing about 4 million kids who eat school lunch. It is the goal of School Food Focus to make school lunches healthier, more sustainable and to include more local agriculture products.

One of the group’s issues involves “muscle meat” vs the nugget. School Food Focus worked with Chicago Public Schools (435 schools) and others to bring whole pieces of antibiotic-free chicken into the school lunch program to replace products made from CAFO chicken with more than 20 ingredients.

In Jefferson Co., Ky., the school lunch administrators will sit down next week with folks who run Kentucky’s first USDA inspected, 4-species, meat processing company that requires meat to be raised to specification — including minimum pasture access and no antibiotics. JCPS is interested in buying 27,000 pounds of dark meat chicken to serve to 60,000 students who eat school lunch. This processing company, Marksbury Farm, contracts with more than a dozen Central Kentucky farmers to grow beef, pork, chicken and lamb.

And this, fair reader and local food enthusiast, is where the challenges begin. How many chickens will be required if JCPS wants to buy 20,000 pounds of drumsticks and 7,000 pounds of thighs? If there are 6 drumsticks to a pound, Marksbury must ask its farmers to grow 60,000 more chickens than last year. Some of those farmers are already growing 2,000 a season (March through October). In addition, the processor must find a place to sell 60,000 necks and backs and 120,000 wings (the breasts will likely be no problem to sell). If 2,000 birds a day go through the plant currently, 30 processing days will need to be added, just for one client to serve chicken on one day.

Nobody is more thrilled than I am at the idea that 60,000 school children, most of whom qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, will have access to pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, bone-in chicken. The Central Kentucky community must be thrilled at the prospects of more employment and for the increasing market for farm products. These are the very goals of the local food movement.

But while we all promote the use of local foods, all of us need to understand that the system needs to increase at the same time that production and market increase. All the by-products of slaughter, the packaging, the distribution, the infrastructure on farms, aggregating like items from many small farms, processing and value-adding to those products — all these system parts, and more, need attention and focus from all interested parties. Local food is not sustainable without a robust system to get it from here to there in the form, quanity and quality that’s required.

One challenge particular to schools: federal rules require schools to seek competitive bids for what it buys. As a result, our local farmers often have no guarantee the food they raise will ultimately be purchased — not a superb business model. Procurement rules at schools are not only confusing, they differ from state to state. Jefferson County administrators feel confident they procure correctly — they have an entire department helping them follow the rules. But Kentucky has 120 counties and a few dozen municipal school districts that don’t have expert guidance and who therefore avoid purchasing local.

I, for one, would like our kids to eat more healthy food products, I want to stabilize the agriculture economy, and shorten distances that food travels. Growing such a food system is complicated and needs a wide range of solutions.

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A new year in local eating

The effort to promote local food systems proceeds apace across the U.S. In Kentucky, the Louisville Farm to Table project works to open the local food system to farmers while helping inform those farmers how to grow for particular markets, and investigate what kind of living they might make.

In Kentucky, there are 84,000 farmers who were raised in communities that depended on tobacco for a living, the way their fathers and mothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers did before them. Now they are wondering if agriculture holds a future for them, or if they should sell the farm for development.

Kentucky farmers and consumers are unique in some ways, but universally representative in others. This blog hopes to draw out the best practices and observations of those more skilled in local food systems, while posing the questions, challenges and understandings of one person’s experience. Please comment in a polite and professional way that moves us all forward.

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