Thursday, November 06, 2008

Barack Obama & Food, From Arugula to Waffles

There were some Big Food Moments on the odd and often dirty 2008 presidential campaign trail, as food became a metaphor for the huge ideological divisions in the American electorate. President-elect Obama maintained a fairly moderate position on food and agriculture policy, though he did make some pronouncements that heartened forward-thinking advocates and activists. Herewith, a recap of the outpouring of Gastrobamica--the food created in Mr. Obama's honor--and the President-elect's evolving stance on food and agriculture policy.

Mr. Obama and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin seemed to attract food symbolism far more than Senator Joe Biden and Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Palin was an easy mark, with Moose Burgers, Baked Alaska and Obama Foodorama's own famous cupcake doing overtime to stand in for all that was wrong with Palin, while Waffles and Arugula became associated with Mr. Obama, who was accused of being both an elitist and a socialist. (Above: The Sarah "You Can't Blink" Palin cupcake)

Palin has now returned to Alaska, and it's unclear where she's headed. Sen. McCain will no doubt continue his exemplary public service.

Policy pronouncements...large and small...
Mr. Obama's home state of Illinois ranks fifth in overall agricultural output for the US, producing more Corn, Soybeans (primarily genetically engineered) and hogs than most states in America. It is worrisome for advocates hoping for a new approach to food policy that Mr. Obama comes from a state that is heavily dependent on conglomerate agriculture, and the kind of foreign trade irresponsibility that has plunged many small countries into food insecurity across the world. (Above: Mr. Obama campaigning in Adel, Iowa).

In July of 2007, Mr. Obama said he was not on top of agriculture policy, while he was campaigning in Iowa, as reported in the New York Times blog The Caucus.

“Although there are an awful lot of farms in Illinois, in the neighborhood where I live, the main livestock is squirrels,” said Mr. Obama. “So I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about agricultural issues.”

Ignorance about agricultural issues means ignorance of energy policy, of global credit markets, of health issues, of food bio-terrorism issues. Mr. Obama then sympathized with farmers who seemed to not be profiting from escalating food prices:

“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for Arugula?” Mr. Obama said. “I mean, they’re charging a lot of money for this stuff.”

This arugula comment caused much excoriation across the conservative blogosphere, because Iowa does not have a Whole Foods market, and it was initially reported that the leafy green isn't grown in Iowa (not true; Iowa does grow Arugula as a crop). Mr. Obama was accused of being out of touch with the lower-income segments of the electorate. What he should have been accused of was being out of touch with small, local farmers in Iowa, those who are not part of the global agriculture machine. But the accusations of arugula elitism, and the repeating of Mr. Obama's comment became so frequent that MediaMatters followed it (a lot!) and also wrote extensively about the wooing of Beer Track Voters vs. Wine Track Voters. Even off-shore reporters got in on the action: Alec MacGillis, a correspondent for the socialist-leaning New Statesman, looks back at Campaign 2008, including Arugula, here.

Real Leadership For Rural America: As the presidential campaigns rolled onward, little was directly said about Agriculture/Food policy emergencies by either Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, except when biofuels were mentioned vis energy policy, but neither candidate sufficiently addressed the huge problems ethanol-based energy has caused for the environment, but more importantly, for the global hunger crisis. Mr. Obama did, however, release the Real Leadership For Rural America.


*Defense of small and family farming: ...In an era of market consolidation, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will fight to ensure family and independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices.

*A challenge to the current Big Ag monopoly on Meat production: Four supercongloms control 60 percent of all US Meat, and Mr. Obama promised to ...defend small- and mid-sized farmers against discrimination by meat packers...strengthen anti-monopoly laws...and challenge large, vertically integrated corporate agribusiness.

*Encouraging young people to return to farming as a vocation and avocation: ...Establish a new program to identify the next generation of farmers and ranchers and help them develop professional skills and find work that leads to farm ownership and management.

*Organic Farming advocacy: Few real details are given, but the document promises to: ...increase funding for the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program to help farmers afford the costs of compliance with national organic certification standards.

Very hopeful reading, and indicative of a willingness for tremendous change in the US food system. But how will this be enacted in the coming administration?

One writer, Ari LeVaux, of the Missoula Independent, did an e mail interview on food and farm policy with Mr. Obama on May 29, 2008, at a time when Mr. Obama was not making himself freely available to the press corps. The title of the piece, ironically, is Flash in The Pan.

Mr. Obama said that he'd do a number of important things if elected president: He'll "work with farm state legislators to pass additional reforms to reduce wasteful subsidies;" and he'll "implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community-supported farms."

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Obama said he'll boost food safety via the USDA and FDA, by giving them more power and more cash. Unfortunately, giving FDA and USDA more power and cash to deal with food safety without profoundly revamping both agencies is like giving a recovering alcoholic a case of wine and suggesting he go cook with it. The worst-case scenario for both situations is disaster.

Last month, following author Michael Pollan's publication of Farmer in Chief, an open letter to the next president published in the Food Fights! issue of the New York Times magazine, Mr. Obama again addressed Ag Policy in an interview in Time magazine, published on October 26, 2008.

Mr. Obama quoted Pollan:

“I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs..."

A year after Mr. Obama claimed not to know much about Ag Policy, he does know what monoculture means. And he now seems to be aware that Ag Policy is directly connected to every other issue that is currently enjoying "emergency status," but what is he going to do about it?

During the summer of 2008, when peppers and tomatoes from Mexico sickened thousands of Americans with Salmonella Saint Paul, Sen. Obama took the wise step of introducing Bill S. 3358, “A bill to provide for enhanced food-borne illness surveillance and food safety capacity.” This Bill was largely symbolic, but at least Mr. Obama was paying attention. A flashier, more forward-thinking move for Mr. Obama? Pointing out that global trade, combined with an FDA that inspects less than 1% of foreign food, and the Big Ag love-affair promoted by USDA has wrecked the US food supply, and done the twin duty of exposing consumers to high risk of illness and driving small farmers out of business. And it's done the same thing in countries around the globe.

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama were hauntingly silent on China and the melamine contamination scandal. This makes sense; China will be funding our economic bail-out, and neither candidate wanted to offend our Sugar Daddy during a period when America has spun into disastrous economic times.

Waffles emerged as a flash point in the campaign, and remained a symbol for disgruntled conservatives. At breakfast in a Scranton, Pennsylvania diner on April 21, 2008, when Mr. Obama was still competing with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he brushed aside a reporter who was pestering him for a comment on foreign policy, as reported on the Reuters Tales From The Trail blog:

"Why can't I just eat my Waffle?" Mr. Obama said.

Fellow reporters screamed about lack of access, and Mr. Obama's unfinished Waffle was wrapped up and went on sale on eBay, before it was yanked off because eBay doesn't sell food. A painting of the half-eaten Waffle then went on sale on eBay. Waffles seemed a perfect metaphor for the campaign switchbacks of both candidates, but somehow they got permanently attached to Mr. Obama. Each time Mr. Obama changed his mind on a policy issue during the campaign, it was reported as "waffling." Obama Waffles, a conservative blog devoted entirely to Obama bashing, sprang into existence. Yesterday, the blogger announced plans to move to Canada. Packaged Obama Waffles, with an extraordinarily racist box, were also being sold at The Family Values Voters Research Summit during the campaign.

These competed with Obamabucks, "food stamps" created by a group of California Republican women, for top honors in the most racist category of election swag. No-one pointed out, of course, that packaged Waffles are also a symbol of grain subsides, that they're the kind of processed food that is a perfect metaphor for America's complicity in driving the rest of the world into food crisis and insecurity.

And of course there were all kinds of lovely Baked Goods created during the campaign in honor of Mr. Obama, and they all tended to be similar--his campaign logo, or the words "Hope" and "Change" scrawled in sugar. Future First Lady Michelle Obama also had a recipe for Shortbread Cookies in Parents Magazine during the campaign; unlike Cindy McCain's recipes, posted on John McCain's website, which were lifted from Food Network, these are ostensibly Mrs. Obama's own creation. No naughty, drunk interns at work in the Obama camp!

During the presidential campaign, foodie blog So Good did a wrap up on Mr. Obama's fave foods here. They noted that he loves to cook chili, and he apparently dislikes "British Food." On the blog His Aura Was Orange, Mr. Obama's favorite "foods" are identified as Planter's Trail Mix, Dentyne Ice, Water, Nicorette gum, and MET-RX bars, according to Mr. Obama's aide Reggie Love, whom the blogger refers to as Mr. Obama's "weed carrier." (Above: Love and the President flying to a campaign event)

Yesterday, Mr. Obama's 86-year-old Kenyan Grandmother, Sarah Obama, announced that she will attend inaugural festivities in January, and that she'll be bringing her grandson's favorite food, Chapatti, a traditional Kenyan pastry/flatbread. We're thrilled Mr. Obama will have his Gramma at the fest, because it was unbelievably tragic that his maternal grandmother died before seeing him elected president. Will Mr. Obama's family roots in a poverty-stricken African country make him any more likely to get up to speed on good, fair food for all? On land for the landless, and dismantling the current global food system? (Grandma Obama, above)

Mr. Obama's influence on food had another international angle during the campaign. After Mr. Obama's election to the US Senate, East African Breweries Limited, of Kenya, started marketing Senator Keg beer, known to its fans simply as "Obama." The bev has become even more popular as Mr. Obama has ascended the political ranks, and there was a mass drinking fest on November 4 as Kenya celebrated US Election Night. Senator beer was designed as an industrialized, "hygenic" version of the local traditional brew chang'aa, which can have such a high alcohol content it can cause death, or blindness from additives.

African health officials are now worried that the cheap price of Senator, its popularity, and its wide availability are going to cause an uptick in alcoholism in local populations.

And the Obama Foodorama moving into 2009:

The US Government Accountability Office has just listed "revamping oversight of food safety" as one of the top thirteen priorities for Mr. Obama to consider as he develops his transition team for the White House. But equally important, in their opinion, is "ensuring the transition to digital TV" (yes, TV is right up there with global food security and terrorism).

Just hours ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called on Mr. Obama to make food a priority. In a message congratulating Mr. Obama on his election, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf (l) said:

"...the United States should call a World Summit on Food Security in the first half of 2009 in order to reach a wide and common consensus on the definitive elimination of hunger from the world."

The summit should seek $30 billion a year to boost rural infrastructure and farm productivity in the developing world, aiming to double output to ensure food security for a world population that is set to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to Mr. Diouf. Many activists believe that FAO policies on global trade, industrialized Ag, genetic engineering of crops are directly implicated in the current world-wide food crisis.

To celebrate Mr. Obama's election, here is the Obama Family Chili recipe. The President-elect loves hot sauce, he has said, so use liberally when enjoying. At left, Mr. Obama holds up a bottle of hot sauce during a meal/photo-op at the legendary Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, while on a campaign stop.

The Obama Family Chili Recipe

1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground turkey or beef
1/4 teaspoon (each) of ground cumin, ground oregano, ground turmeric, and ground basil
1 tablespoon chili powder
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Several tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
1 can red kidney beans

1. Sauté onions, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft.

2. Add ground meat and brown. Combine spices together into a mixture, then add to ground meat. Add red wine vinegar.

3. Add tomatoes and let simmer, until tomatoes cook down.

4. Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes.

Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.

*Recipe from the Missoula Independent e-interview with Mr. Obama. This recipe was also on Good Morning America.