the country, a growing number of consumers are as mad as hell,
and aren’t going to eat corporate foods anymore
a food guy. I’ve got a small but richly composted garden
plot in my backyard, I’m a regular at several farmers’ markets,
and I frequent a number of great restaurants here in Austin,
Texas. I love poking around food stores of any variety, I
like to browse through seed catalogs and cooking magazines,
and I always try to sample the local specialties as I travel
around the country. I enjoy friendships with quite a few chefs
and restaurateurs, and I love visiting with farmers and food
artisans who’re doing creative things. Though it still pisses
off the corporate establishment, I was once the agricultural
commissioner of Texas.
I know firsthand about the phenomenal cornucopia of good,
fresh, nutritious, and delicious food that our country is
capable of producing. That’s why it knocks me whopperjawed
to see the stuff that dominates too many American diets—an
array of industrialized, conglomeratized, globalized products
that have lost any connection to our good earth. This stuff
is saturated with fats, sugars, artificial flavorings, chemical
additives, pesticide residues, bacterial contaminants, genetically
altered organisms, and who knows what else. Plus, the major
factor driving prices is not the cost of any actual food that
might still be in these products, but the cost of packaging,
advertising, and long-distance shipping.
What has caused us to stray so far from the farm, so far from
the essential and wonderful sustenance provided by nature
itself? The answer, of course, is that the brute force of
corporate power has been applied both in politics and the
marketplace to pervert our food economy. During the past half-century,
control over our nation’s food policies has shifted from farmers
and consumers to corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and economists.
These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we
gave them the melons and had the highway patrol flag down
customers for them! Yet they’re in charge, saddling us with
a food system that enriches corporate middlemen while driving
good farmers off the land, poisoning our productive soil and
water supplies, and literally sickening those who consume
these adulterated foodstuffs.
Do we have to swallow this? Of course not—we’re Americans,
rebellious mavericks—and the revolt is on! For the past few
years, a grassroots movement has quietly but rapidly been
spreading throughout the country. I call it the Upchuck Rebellion:
A growing number of people fed up with the destructive power
of industrialized food are declaring that they’re not going
to take it anymore.
More than declaring. . . . They’re taking action. Part of
this effort is political, trying to get the industrializers
and globalizers to clean up their act. At another level, however,
America’s food rebels are taking on the idea of industrialization
itself by creating their own alternative food economies. These
are based on local farmers, seasonal consumption, organic
and sustainable production, local food processors and artisans,
and local markets. The goals are (1) to build a system that
delivers tastier, healthier food; (2) to keep a community’s
food dollars in the local economy; and (3) to treat food not
as a corporate commodity, but as a centerpiece of our culture.
Naturally, the Powers That Be have howled in derision at these
efforts, sneering that local farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs,
chefs, marketers, gardeners, environmentalists, workers, churches,
co-ops, community organizers, and just plain citizens simply
don’t have the savvy to create and run any kind of significant
food system. However, my friend John Dromgoole, who runs a
successful natural-gardening and composting center in Austin,
has a snappy retort to these elites: “Those who say it can’t
be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
This is a movement that has antecedents going back generations—both
J.H. Kellogg and C.W. Post, for example, were health-food
visionaries more than a century ago (and both would be appalled
by the products now bearing their names)—but the modern-day
movement is barely 20 years old. In this short time, however,
these innovative doers have made astonishing gains. Just in
terms of raw numbers, today’s “good food” movement is impressive:
Organic food topped $15 billion in sales in 2004—triple what
they were only seven years earlier. Sales are increasing by
roughly 20 percent a year (compared to only about 2 percent
for all other foods) and are expected to reach $30 billion
four years from now. Nearly two-thirds of American shoppers
bought some organic foods last year—up from about half the
year before. About 40 percent of consumers now say that they
regularly buy some organic foods.
There are now more than 8,000 organic farmers, with thousands
more trying to make the transition from industrialized production
to organic (a rigorous and costly process that should be assisted
and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which instead
remains either indifferent or hostile).
From white-tablecloth restaurants to barbeque joints, chefs
have been in the lead in introducing organic food to the public
and in creating the fast-growing market for locally produced,
The growth and popularity of farmers’ markets has mushroomed
in recent years, popping up in practically every city and
most towns. Some 4,000 of these bustling, vibrant markets
now exist, bringing local farmers and artisans together with
customers at all economic levels. Likewise, the community-supported
agriculture movement is fast spreading. These CSAs allow consumers
to buy “shares” in the production of a local farm or group
of farms, giving the farmers a defined and reliable cash market
and the consumers a weekly share of the crops. In addition,
the food co-op movement (once the rather funky domain of hippies)
is thriving. About 300 of them are in cities across the country,
doing some $750 million a year in business and providing local
producers another way around the corporate distribution system.
The demand for organic and locally produced food has become
so mainstream that major supermarket chains and such national
food wholesalers as SYSCO have had to alter their once-rigid
procurement practices to make some of their purchases from
organic and local producers.
By eliminating the corporate middlemen (with their voracious
profit demands, bloated executive salaries, advertising budgets,
bureaucracies, lobbyists, lawyers, and so forth), this localized
marketing system links farms directly to forks. The results
are salutary—small farmers get a fair price that lets them
and their families keep going, and we consumers get food that
is what it’s supposed to be: tasty and nutritious. In the
bargain, our food dollars stay at home, generating more economic
activity in our communities.
Yes, say opponents, but the food is extravagantly expensive.
No, it’s not. In season, organic tomatoes from a local farm
can be cheaper than the industrial tomato at the supermarket.
And as organic production has increased, overall prices are
coming in line with nonorganic. In Portland, Ore., for example,
a small chain of grocery stores called New Seasons features
locally produced foods, and about 75 percent of its stock
is organic. A monthly price survey of Portland-area supermarkets
shows that prices at New Seasons do not vary more than 3 percent
either way from those at the national chains.
But even when organic food costs more, it’s important to consider
what you get for your money. Price is not the same as value:
As one farmer says, “You can get a day’s worth of calories
for 99 cents at a 7-Eleven, but not a day’s worth of nutrition.”
Or of flavor.
Plus, Washington spends billions of our tax dollars to subsidize
corporate-produced food, and the food industrialists also
are allowed to escape paying for the extensive pollution,
soaring health costs, and ecological damage that are direct
results of their methods. Rather than paying for these enormous
costs when we buy corporate food at Wal-Mart or Burger King,
we pay for them in our tax bills . . . or by suffering illnesses.
Another strong force propelling the good-food movement is
cultural connection. People are realizing that our corporatized
world is out of control— empty, vapid, phony, valueless. One
place where folks sense that they might be able to get a grip
again is food. By linking directly with small farmers, cheesemakers,
and other homegrown producers, we reclaim our place, our cultural
identities, our values, our humanness. Food, after all, is
not merely fuel, but culture. It’s in our art, songs, and
literature. It’s in our memories: tastes, smells, sounds,
visuals, and feelings. It’s in our souls, giving us shared
experiences with family, friends, co-workers, and community.
By taking charge of what goes on our plates and how it gets
there, we begin taking charge of our lives.
It’s a cliché to say that our children are our society’s
future, but it happens to be true. So, what are we teaching
them about food? In class, they get lessons on the five components
of a good nutritional lunch, then the bell rings and they
go face the reality of their school lunch. Very few lyric
poems have ever been written in praise of the “mystery meat”
and blah veggies of school lunch, but lately this midday repast
has gone from merely being bad . . . to being bad for you.
In today’s schools, the idea of lunch has been reduced to
corporate-delivered sugars, fats, and calories, helping produce
a growing epidemic of childhood obesity and gross ignorance
of what food should be.
School cafeterias are eliminating cooks and even kitchens,
for their “meals” come prepackaged from food-service corporations
or are contracted out to McDonald’s, Domino’s, and other fast-food
chains. Two-thirds of America’s middle schools and high schools
sell junk-food snacks, usually under exclusive contracts that
bring big corporate money to the school system. Rather than
viewing school “food” as a natural resource for nurturing
and educating kids, administrators have turned it into a money-making,
But a big change is coming. With little fanfare, a grassroots
“farm-to-cafeteria” movement has been spreading from school
to school. More than 400 school districts and 200 university
cafeterias are now building their menus (and, in many places,
their educational curricula) around fresh, local ingredients,
much of which is organic. In nearly every case, the change
has come because some parent, farmer, nutritionist, or other
individual rose up to ask, “What the hell is going on here?”
Vanessa Ruddy was one of them. In 2002, her son, Grant, enrolled
at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Wash., and when she
took a look at the lunch menu, she did not like what she saw.
While this school had long shown an interest in good food
(it had an organic garden, a children’s activity kitchen,
and a harvest festival in the fall), the lunch program at
Lincoln was definitely old school.
At the bottom of the menu was the name of Paul Flock, the
school district’s child-nutrition supervisor, and Ruddy decided
to call him. She put it off for a month, however, for she
assumed he’d be a typical bureaucrat, and she dreaded having
to make a big fuss and wrestle with the bureaucracy. Lo and
behold, though, Flock welcomed her call and was open to improving
Ruddy enlisted other parents to join her for a meeting in
Flock’s office, and he asked what she wanted. “Organic food”
was her response. Thus began an organizing process to get
teachers, cafeteria staff, the kids, farmers and other relevant
parties involved and working together. Sure enough, in October
2002, Lincoln Elementary opened its Organic Choices salad
bar, with a colorful and flavorful array of fresh, organic,
locally produced fruits and veggies. Ruddy said that the school’s
cook told her, “You would have thought it was Christmas! You
should have seen the kids’ eyes light up.”
The chief concern was cost. For example, while the romaine,
arugula, and mustard leaf have far superior nutrient content,
this mix of organic greens costs four times more than iceberg
lettuce’s price tag of 72 cents a pound. But the team of parents
and others overseeing the development of Organic Choices found
savings elsewhere, primarily by one simple act: eliminating
desserts from the lunch offerings (a move enthusiastically
applauded by teachers and parents). Lincoln actually has cut
its per-meal lunch cost by 2 cents, and the lunch program
even started making money, for teachers and parents are eating
lunch at the school.
Since 2002, the salad bar has become a full-meal option, with
cheeses, beans, eggs, whole-grain breads, etc. Today, all
elementary schools in Olympia have some version of Organic
Choice in their cafeterias. “It’s all about a long-term investment
in the health of our children,” says Lincoln Elementary’s
principal. “We are the responsible adults. We can do this.”
Meanwhile, Ruddy has become a Johnny Appleseed for the farm-to-cafeteria
movement, speaking to others around the country about bringing
it to their schools. She offers two major tips: Get active.
Don’t feel powerless.
Power of the Table
This grassroots movement is not out simply to change some
cafeterias, but to change the corporate culture of food. And
where better to start than with our children? Why shouldn’t
every school have an Organic Choices program, a school garden
and kitchen to give them the hands-on experience of growing
and preparing the food they eat, regular trips to farms and
farmers’ markets, and a curriculum that connects them both
to nature and to their local community?
As school after school is finding, it’s an awakening for kids
to learn that they have a relationship with food that is deeper,
richer, and far more exciting than a Happy Meal at McDonald’s.
Alice Waters, the wonderful pioneer of America’s good-food
movement who has created her own “edible schoolyard” and “edible
classroom” programs, is a tireless promoter of this educational
awakening. She says, “Students can learn fundamental truths
about where food comes from, about actions and consequences,
about the importance of stewardship of the land, and the civilizing
and socializing effect of the table.” The farm-to-cafeteria
movement has now had an abundance of experience in all sorts
of school systems and is willing to assist others who want
to give it a go. They have learned a few universal keys to
It takes a great deal of effort to break through the entrenched
Start with the right school, where parents, administrators,
and food-service personnel are open to the idea.
Begin small, proceed slowly, and build on success.
Reach out—be inclusive and transparent.
Be understanding of the realities faced by both the food-service
staff and your local farming community.
Contact everyone who has expertise, funds, connections, and
other resources to assist you.
Involve students in all phases of the process.
Build a strong curriculum component into the project from
Make it fun: Have community tastings, festivals, food art
It’s not easy to recapture power from an entrenched corporate
culture, but it is doable—and the prize most definitely is
worth the effort.
Hightower, the former agriculture commissioner of Texas, is
a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and
author of Thieves in High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country
and It’s Time to Take It Back. This story first appeared