2012 is coming to a close and it is incredible how much we have accomplished, as a Co-op and as a community. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity and inventiveness that I have encountered in our Co-op’s owners in the several months that I’ve been in the Education position.
We’ve broken records for sales, and stayed on target with our projected deadlines for our expansion project, we’ve pulled together as community to make possible a challenging, exhausting, rewarding expansion that feels monumental to so many people who have lived in this community for decades, and a huge number of new faces as well to add to our complex and exciting owner base.
Here are some of the big things we did in education this year:
Classes and Events: We held more than 70 Common Ground classes and educational events this year, from Urban Chickens to Cheese 101 and beyond. We also presented Grow On programs in a handful of classrooms, and talked to dozens of children and parents about food and nutrition at three different wellness and environmental events.
Expansion: Expansion means the opening of the Flatlander Classroom, a space that will enable us to offer diverse and exciting class experience to the entire community and also work towards our Ends! Check out the Flatlander story here!
We have developed a new set of class policies for the new year to ensure a fair wage for our instructors and the best classes for everyone. We offer classes on a trimester basis: information about the classes we will offer January-April, May-August, and September-December will now be available on the first day of the respective trimester. As we start the new year we will be going online with our class sign up process! Customers may still come into the store to sign up, of course!
Food For All Educational Grants: In an effort to make sure that our classes and educational opportunities are accessible to folks of all different incomes and financial situations we are expanding our AWESOME Food For All Program to include Educational Grants. Anyone in need is eligible. It will be easy to use in-store and online!
Local Media and Community Engagement: Local media consulted Common Ground for numerous articles and stories. We are proud to be a community resource on food and sustainability issues. We also sent representatives to conferences on the health and safety of our food, and given presentations and workshops for community organizations. We have a representative on the Local Foods Policy Council (that’s me!), and are always innovating new and effective ways to stay involved in our community and effect change.
Newsletters: We sent out twelve editions of our monthly e-newsletter, From the Ground Up, to well over 3,000 community members. In addition, we sent out 4 e-newsletter Action Alerts about national-level food issues.
Here’s to an even more productive and educational new year!
Every day we make decisions about what it is that we are putting into our bodies. These choices impact our health, the health of our children and future generations, and the health of our environment. As a Co-op we strive to bring you information to help you make decisions about how to feed yourselves and your families. One of the hottest food issues right now is the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or Genetically Engineered (GE) foods. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) GMOs are part of an umbrella category of “techniques used by scientists to modify deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or the genetic material of a microorganism, plant, or animal in order to achieve a desired trait,” referred to as “biotechnology.” 1
This genetic engineering, when applied to foods, includes methods of DNA splicing to give the plant certain desired traits, anything from color to size. Genetic modification has been going on since the early 1970s with the creation of the first recombinant DNA molecules (2) but has sparked widespread controversy in more recent years as consumers have gained interest in their rights, as consumers, to know what is in their food, and as some studies have suggested health risks associated with the genetic modification of foods.
Here at the Co-op we’ve been working with the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit working to preserve and build sources of non-GMO products, educate consumers, and provide verified non-GMO choices for three years, with the goal of getting verified non-GMO products labeled on our shelves. They have a comprehensive verification process that we feel will allow our shoppers and our community to have control of our choices and information about what it is, exactly, that we are buying and we’re working hard to get those labels back on the shelf even with all the crazy expansion!
Our work with the Non-GMO Project is a good start, but what is the scope of the GMO conversation? While the Non-GMO Project is working to get non-GMO foods labeled, there are many other organizations working to make the labeling of GMO foods into law. Still other groups are doing research about the effects and safety of GMOs that are being broadly marketed without adequate testing (or without being tested at all).
As some of you may have read in our Action Alert in August there’s a Proposition on the ballot in California (Prop 37). The legislation proposes a GMO labeling mandate on food products within the state of California and proponents believe that this sort of legislation could spark similar legislative initiatives around the country. The response has been overwhelming. The companies utilizing genetic modification techniques have lobbied heavily against the passage of Prop 37. The Cornucopia Institute, a leader in research and investigations on agricultural issues, and provider of information to consumers, family farmers, and the media, has supported a comprehensive campaign to give you a picture of which companies are advocating labeling and which companies are trying to keep labels OFF of GMOs, and using a lot of consumer dollars to do so.
Also at the forefront of the GMO labeling discussion is a campaign called Just Label It that has gained wide spread accreditation in its battle to get GMO foods labeled, including partnership with The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGC) of which Common Ground is a part. The campaign advocates for GMO labeling and is responsible for a legal petition to accomplish these ends.
You may also have encountered the Let Me Decide campaign right here in town, or heard about the work that they have been doing in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey to put constituent pressure on state lawmakers to initiate GE labeling legislation. Let Me Decide is a campaign of Food and Water Watch. Locally there is significant momentum around this campaign whose objective it to get Senator Mike Frerichs to introduce a bill into the Illinois Senate requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Notably, also, Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan of Earth Open Source, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security, and safety of the global food system, based in London, UK, published a thorough investigative report this June titled GMO Myths and Truths: an evidence based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficiency of genetically modified crops. In the extensive 123 page piece these scientists and investigative journalists explore many facets of the GMO debate, including clarifying definitions of genetic engineering, delving into the scientific realities of genetically altering food commodities, examining the more or less laissez-faire U.S. government approach to regulation of these genetically modified foods, and exploring the scientific evidence behind claims of health risks presented by GE foods. The article wraps up with sections that talk about the way that the genetic engineering of food crops impacts our climate and discredits the argument that GM crops are an essential part of feeding our growing world population. Though it’s a hefty read, it’s definitely worth the time.
This is all to say that your Co-op is working hard to bring this information about GMOs to you so that you can stay informed and make educated decisions about the foods that you are eating and feeding to your loved ones.
Earth Open Source:
GMO Myths and Truths: an evidence based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficiency of genetically modified crops
The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 -colloquially known as the Farm Bill- has passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, so we’re likely to see it debated on the Senate floor in early to mid June. With June fast approaching, this may be our last chance to contact our legislators and let them know what kind of Farm Bill we want to see.
Unfortunately, the Farm Bill has so far been much of the same – continued subsidies for industrial agriculture, cuts to nutrition and farmer assistance programs, and some conciliation via slight funding increases for local food system and organic farm programs. The Farm Bill, as I’ve written before, is massive – I could spend several days typing up its failures and brighter points and still not cover it all. That’s why this is a blog post and not an Action Alert – there are so, so many issues that need action.
Luckily for us, there is a whole country full of food activists, political watchdog organizations, and consumer groups writing about the Farm Bill – I encourage you to read what they have to say, and take action on the issues that are closest to you. Listed below are some reputable sites with good Farm Bill info. Take a look, and take action!
Illinois Stewardship Alliance – Basic summary and links to in-depth coverage of Farm Bill topic areas.
Food and Water Watch – Information on the impacts of the Farm Bill and how America got to its current state of agricultural policy.
American Farmland Trust – Coverage of Farm Bill politics, information on the importance of particular sections of the bill, and more.
Thanks to everyone who made their voices heard on this issue, Champaign County will have its own local foods policy council! What’s the next step? Why, getting people on the council, of course! If you’re interested in the future of local foods in Champaign County, I encourage you to apply for appointment to the council. You can find the information you need to apply for the council here, fill out the online application here, and then submit it to the following address:
Champaign County Administrative Services
Attn: County Board Appointment Request
Brookens Administrative Center
1776 E. Washington St.
Urbana, IL 61802-4581
Need a reminder of what the local foods policy council is about? Have no fear, the link is here! Please share this info broadly – we’d love to hear that dozens of people applied!
Build Up (a.k.a. background info)
As Common Ground’s education coordinator, I get news updates and action alerts from lots of different organizations relating to Common Ground’s work: the Cornucopia Institute, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, C-U Fit Families, the National Cooperative Grocers Association, and more. I most recently subscribed to the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council‘s email listserv (appropriately enough, when I was working on Common Ground’s Action Alert about a local food policy council proposal), and it has been chock full of goodies – or, more accurately, goodies and baddies.
The most recent baddie is an Illinois bill amendment concerning industrial farms, like CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. You know, those animal farms you might have seen in Food, Inc., pictures of which you might see emblazoned across Mercy For Animals’ or PETA’s websites. Not good stuff, be ye carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, locavore, or other. No one wants animals to be treated like that.
So, what’s our government’s response to not only tales, but videos and photos of these unethical (and oftentimes, downright illegal) operations? Why, to amend The Animal Research and Production Facilities Protection Act. Okay, I think to myself, so this won’t be dealing with consumer protections concerning the pathogens to which animals (and their meat) are exposed, or reasserting our country’s animal abuse or rights policies. Okay. Maybe the amendment will relax the protection on CAFOs, so government investigators, or even citizen groups, could more easily visit the facilities to ensure our country’s food supply is safe, and even (gasp) ethically produced?
The Meat (so to speak)
Hahahaha! No. Of course not. The Act originally dealt with the criminality of trespass on animal facilities, and the amendment –Animal Facilities Bill HB5143– will only strengthen and reassert that position. While protections are necessary –veterinary clinics, for instance, are protected under this bill. Who would want cameramen barging in while Fluffy is under anesthesia and getting his cancer (or other things) removed?- this amendment goes way too far and would make it very difficult to find out what’s actually going on in industrial animal farms. My favorite tidbit is Section 4.3, which states that
A person commits animal facility interference when he or she, without the consent of the owner, knowingly… creates a record, while on the property of the animal facility, which reproduces by a photographic, audio or similar medium an image or sound of a visual or audio experience occurring at the animal facility (HB5143)
Driving by a pig farm and you see raw sewage spilling out? Nope, you can’t get out and take a close-up photo. That’s an illegal criminal activity. Sorry! The next point goes on to state that simply possessing such a photo is illegal. So if your cousin Billy took a photo of the sewage spill with, say, your camera or phone, or stored the photo on your flash drive or SD card, guess what? You’re as legally liable as Billy. Such a pig farm sewage spill has all kinds of associated health effects – water poisoning, fish kills, heavy metal pollution, and my favorite, human illness, disease, and death. With no photos, Dirty Farmer Greg can say the spill originated at his neighbor Sammy’s farm, and while they have it out in the courts, the pollution continues and no one really wins. So much for consumer protections.
Just to make sure you got the point that this bill’s protecting the industrial farms, not the vast majority of the American public, the amendment includes this friendly tidbit:
Nothing in this Act shall preclude any animal facility injured in its business or property by a violation of this Act from seeking appropriate relief under any other provision of law or remedy including damages of treble the amount of actual damages…
So not only can Dirty Farmer Greg pursue action against you as authorized in the act, but he can also sue you for three times as much as any perceived damage you have caused him or his farm. Why is that one bit underlined? Because it’s the only portion of this quotation that the amendment adds. Food for thought.
Time to Take Action
If you’d like to read the full text of the amendment for yourself, you can find it here. The Chicago Tribune also wrote an interesting article about this amendment, and the bill passed in Iowa that might have inspired it, that you can read here.
Now, this amendment is the kind of news that usually makes me sit down a whip out an Action Alert. In fact, I was going to, when I saw when the public comment period is – Monday, March 5, until Wednesday, March 7, at 8:00 am. So, today’s the day, folks – we’ve got less than 24 hours left in which to comment. We’ve got CGFC emails going out almost every day this week (it’s nearing the end of owner loan time, let’s hussle!), so there’s no space for an Action Alert about this today. (However, I’ve got one on a different issue coming out this Saturday – make sure to check your inbox then!)
I do appreciate that, even if we the American –specifically Illinoisan– public can’t attend the hearing on the amendment, we have an opportunity to make our voices heard: Illinois’ new online Witness Slips program. You can go HERE to fill out a slip on this amendment, and you can be sure that as soon as I finish this blog post, that’s what I’m gonna do. And I’m going to put it on Common Ground’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and my personal ones, too. Good chunks of this amendment, HB5143, are wholly offensive to the American public as both individuals and an entity that participate in a democratic system and that deserve transparency about our food supply. Make sure you spread the word.
Edit: Here’s another tidbit for the curious – see if you can find how the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President links the Iowa version of this bill to decreased terrorism risk. When in doubt, shout “terrorism!” The quote is in this article.
The 2012 Farm Bill is a big, big, BIG piece of legislation, so I can’t cover it all here. Essentially, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation written and approved every five years that funds most government programs that relate (even remotely) to agriculture. The bill is usually approved through our government’s standard legislative process. However, because our congressional representatives won’t play nice with each other (excuse: budget crisis), and because the Farm Bill is an enormous amount of money, the approval of the Farm Bill is now the responsibility of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a.k.a. “Super Committee” (more info on them). Currently, most Farm Bill discussions are being held behind closed doors; the rationale appears to be that because the decisions to be made involve enormous amounts of money and an extremely short time frame (the first 2012 Farm Bill proposal is due November 1st), the public’s input would just complicate things.
Some -maybe all- of you received an Action Alert from Common Ground about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which some political entities are trying to undermine by denying it Farm Bill funding. Denial of funding is, unfortunately, the name of the game in American politics right now, so many other programs and initiatives dependent upon the Farm Bill are at risk of being cut or dramatically reduced: nutrition programs like food stamps, farmland conservation programs, programs promoting local food systems, etc. The House Subcommittee on Agriculture is auditing such programs as I type; you can learn more about that here (there is also a link at the bottom of that page for the 2008 Farm Bill, if you want to see what was approved the last time around). The current Farm Bill legislation is not available online, as far as I can tell, but you can look up info about it on basically any U.S. news site; the New York Times even has a whole section dedicated to the Farm Bill.
Main points: the Farm Bill is a lot of money. A lot of programs could be cut. The regular citizen input process has been suspended. Your input matters more now than ever – make the effort to share your perspective. If we don’t share our views, we risk letting corporate lobbyists monopolize the public input on the Farm Bill. (I hate writing “the Man” statements like that, but in this case it’s true – if individuals won’t share their points of view, only corporations will.) If you don’t know your U.S. House Representative, find him or her and his or her contact information here. Our U.S. Senators’ contact information is here. Just call them already: it’s only five to ten minutes of your time, and it helps make a difference!