wrapped up our trip, and looking ahead

We wrapped up our trip on Sunday, and the class has scattered around North America. A few adventurous souls are traveling around Mexico (the beach!) while the rest of use returned to the US. All in all, we had a wonderful time studying the food system and food culture of Puebla and Oaxaca.  The final dinner, consumed at Casa Oaxaca, was full of joy and excellent food.

That brings me to my next topic: a book I assigned to my Organic Food Systems students. Turn Here Sweet Corn is a memoir by organic farmer Atina Diffley. The book is a rare treat, in that it is (1) very well written, (2) describes the benefits of organic farming, (3) discusses the struggles of being an organic farmer, and (4) is a sweet insight into a woman’s experience of life.  I highly recommend the book.

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coffee and CEPCO

On today’s agenda was the marketing side of organic coffee. We began the day by meeting with the people who run CEPCO, a coffee cooperative in Oaxaca. They explained the process of producing and marketing coffee, and also provided some background on the cooperative.  One of the people who began the coop (a man originally from Spain – I can’t remember his name) talked about why they are organic, and explained the process of training farmers to grow high quality coffee. The coop (very wisely, in my opinion) allows each grower’s coffee to remain separate until the beans are sold. This allows each grower to be compensated for his/her quality, and prevents growers from submitting low quality coffee (ie the classic adverse selection or market for lemons problem).  Our hosts also shared cups of their delicious, smooth coffee.


We next went to the retail store, Cafe La Organizacion, and bought some coffee beans and drinks. I am pretty sure we cleaned the shop out, since each person bought at least 1 kilo.

Next, we drove to the coffee roasting plant. We saw the quality control room, saw the warehouse, and watched coffee being roasted. It was noisy and exciting to see – this roaster only roasts organic coffee. While the coop does trade conventional beans (and interestingly, coffee beans produced on farms in transition to organic), they only roast organic beans in the Oaxaca plant.


All in all, a good day!


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Huevos and Oaxaca

We have finally made it to Oaxaca. Our last days in Puebla were fun: we visited the Museo Amparo, which was spectacular. An extremely knowledgeable  guide gave a fascinating tour of the museum, and explained some of the history of Puebla.  This was the first museum that I have encountered with paintings of the Virgin Mary’s parents (maybe I don’t get out enough!!) The museum also had a wonderful display of necklaces, or according to Barbara V, it had lots of “bling.”

The final day in Puebla was a free day, and we all had adventures of different sorts. One group of students explored the pyramids in Cholula; another hiked and met a friendly man, who took them on a great adventure.

After a stop at the El Calivero egg factory, we made it to Oaxaca today. We are settling in and getting ready for an intensive look at coffee in the state of Oaxaca.

So far, 3 of us (including me!) have been sick with some type of traveler’s illness. Hopefully we’ll all be fit as a fiddle for our next phase of the class.

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haciendas and lambs

Thursday was “barbacoa” day, where we visited a working farm/hacienda about 1 hour outside of the city of Puebla. We learned the traditional way to make barbacoa, participated in the slaughter of a lamb; note that only Alex was brave enough to help skin the lamb. Six of us (including me!) skipped this part of the day.


We toured the local town and the puppet museum, then headed back to the hacienda for a mock bull fight. The bull was a baby cow, and she wasn’t very interested in playing the bull fight game. Apparently this is the mechanism for screening “good” cows from “bad” cows, where the good cows will become mothers and the bad cows become food.  Madison is the star bull fighter in this show (sorry for the poor quality photo – bad conditions!). Amazingly enough, Madison managed to participate in this activity even though the sole of her shoe is attached via a string!


We had a meal of rice, salad, the barbacao soup, and lamb. So far, Sarah has managed to adhere to her vegan lifestyle, which is impressive considering that meat is everywhere you turn. See how happy everyone looks??


And this is what is left of the barbacoa:


Sorry for the short update! We have a busy day here, and I don’t feel spectacular after yesterday’s feast.






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this little piggy

Today was full of meat and animals. Also, for the first time our group was nearly complete – we are still missing our teaching assistant – but all students are present and we were able to spend an entire day together.

Our first stop of the day was the Granjas RYC farm, which is an industrial pig farm outside of the city of Puebla.  The farm is large – it produces about 40K pigs a year – and today it smelled very much like a pig farm. We saw the area with 18 day old piglets, who were still nursing, and living in gestational crates. The next area had weaned pigs – one group was 50 days old and the other 60 days old. The final area had the oldest group; I not sure how old the pigs are, but they are mighty fat, and are the smelliest.  I was surprised at the intense pig smell, since the farm has a biodigester which converts the manure to energy; the farm wasn’t quite this smelly last year. I think the pigs were all a bit older this year, and maybe that is why the odor was so strong.

The final stop of the day was the meatpacking facility. Most of the day’s production occurred before we arrived, but we did get to see some workers hanging pieces of pigs that were going to be bacon one day. The facility smelled of ham, and the odor was intense. I mentally noted that even after the facility was cleaned, there were little bits of raw meat and pools of blood around. Maybe the most amazing part is that several (more than half!) of the students were willing to eat the ham offered by our hosts at the meatpacking plant.

The company was gracious to let us inside their farm and packing plant; I am not sure many of us have the chance to see meat production from the inside. I will post some pictures of the day tomorrow; they are on our UPEAP host’s camera and I am waiting for her to email them to me.

On an0ther note, the group of food studies students is wonderful. On our drive today, the bus was filled with happy hums of people talking. The group is harmonious and a pleasure to be with!

My other thought for the day is that I need to remind myself to be more grateful for the food I eat.

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in puebla

This year, the Food Studies and Public Health students are in Puebla, Mexico, taking  a winter session course. The snow storm in the northeast and the subsequent cold in the US have taken a toll on travel plans. Despite the travel delays (for both people and baggage – mine took 4 days to arrive!), our classes began on time on Monday. As of Wednesday am, we are missing the two teaching assistants, but all students and faculty have arrived. Luckily, a doctoral student (Daniel) was willing to help me out, since the public health professor did not arrive until Tuesday evening.

On the first day (Monday), we heard lectures on culture and ethnicity in Mexico, and learned about the state of public health in the country. Mexico has the highest rate of obesity and overweight in the world, followed by the US (although the percentages are not that different).  We also discussed the soda tax, which has recently been implemented in Mexico (the doctor suggested it was implemented because of a rare set of circumstances). We toured the beautiful city of Puebla, and had dinner at the restaurant Entre Tierras. The food was excellent, fresh and well prepared.

Our second day (Tuesday) started with a Three Kings day celebration at UPEAP, the university that hosts us and organizes our activities. Somehow, a plate with a slice of cake with the figurine of Jesus ended up on my lap (thank you to Barbara, who is willing me to have a year of good luck!)

We next heard a lecture from Veronica Flores, a food studies grad who is currently on the faculty of the university in Mexico City. She spoke about the traditional Mexican diet, explained the nutrition transition in Mexico, and then gave a nice overview of food policy in Mexico. Again, we talked about the soda tax. She was followed by a panel of UPEAP students (about 6) who spoke about migration in Mexico, either within the country or internationally. It was fascinating to hear the perspectives of these young adults, particularly since at least one person in each of their families has migrated to the US. This group of students opted for an education at the university, with the plan of getting a better life in Mexico. More on this later.

The day ended with a trip to the food store (Mega), where the store manager gave us a tour of the facility.

And here we are (this photo includes everyone who went to the food store!)


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exciting new dataset

Food economics research examining consumer choices – for example, what they purchase, where they purchase, responsiveness to prices, income effects etc, – has long been challenged by lack of suitable data. Many researchers (including me) have relied on the Homescan data to study consumer behavior. That dataset has many limitations, most likely resulting from the fact that the dataset’s main use is for marketing research conducted by (or sold to) supermarkets and food companies.

The Economic Research Service has a new dataset on food purchasing, which has a nice representation of households. The information on the website indicates that the 4,826 households include those of higher income, low income, and SNAP participants. In addition to recording food purchases, household information was collected. The household information includes a wide range of topics such as nutritional knowledge, time spent in food preparation, health status, vegetarian, in addition to questions targeting food security.

Key questions can be addressed with this data: how does cooking knowledge influence diet? How can SNAP participants eat healthfully, if they are vegetarians? Are there differences in diet quality across income levels, all else constant? How does lack of access affect diet quality?

I look forward to seeing the new threads of research that emerge.


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more new literature and policy thoughts

And one is a just published paper of mine! With my colleagues, of course. This paper explores low income consumers’ perceptions of the benefits of farmers market incentives (similar to the NYC’s Health Bucks program), and we find that those with constrained incomes and poor food access perceive significant benefits to the incentives. The consumers are those who participated in Wholesome Wave’s programs a few years ago. For some reason, I never can give a blow by blow description of my research, especially once it is published.

Recent thinking has led me to wonder about the income and substitution effects of different policies – and I should probably just write out the math and see what happens, but you know, it is Sunday. But if the goal is to change someone’s optimal food consumption bundle (ie buy more healthy food and less junk food), what is the best mechanism to do so? Raising someone’s income via a transfer of cash that can only be used for healthy food (the farmers market incentive), which increases income but doesn’t change relative prices? Taxing junk food (doing so changes the relative price of healthy and junk food, making healthy food relatively less expensive but comes along with a negative income effect)? Discounting healthy food, which also changes the relative price of healthy and junk food, but has a positive income effect? This would be a great question for a doctoral student qualifying exam, and maybe I will tackle it tomorrow morning.

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excellent paper on agrarianism

The article, “Critical Agrarianism,” is published as a first view article in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. This is one of the most refreshing views of agrarianism I have read, and the author nicely ties agrarianism to social justice and environmental sustainability in the food system.

The flow of the article is as follows (with some of my thoughts):

American agrarian thought was initially closely tied to land ownership, and thus belonged to white men: and farmers were the “bedrock of the nation’s morality and democracy.” (Think of the Jeffersonian ideal here).

Next, the conservationists – Muir, for example – were concerned with preserving nature in its wild state.

The next group – Leopold, Jackson, Berry and Kirschenmann – called for stewardship of the land, which suggested the best way to care for the land is through careful farming. The issues at hand were related to protection of small farms, threatened by the forces of agricultural industrialization. The solution to the moral crisis of urban life was to move back to the land, to the rural communities, to the farm.

The notions of the 4 modern agrarians are largely romantic, but moving.  Yet farmers struggle with earning profits, buying land, and remaining viable. The work of Guthman is commended by Carlisle for bringing to light the fact that the financial struggles of the farmer – specifically related to land access – are an integral part of farm life, and this aspect is largely overlooked in the romantic agrarian view of the world.

Carlisle contrasts the white landed view of agrarianism with that of the black farmer, who, depending on how far back you trace, is likely historically an unlanded sharecropper or slave. Will Allen – a farmer with roots in both sharecropping and slavery – is held up as someone whose work seeks to bring social justice and environmental sustainability into farming.

A healthy future would be an agrarianism that celebrates farming, without having to declare its superiority. Building bridges across the rural/urban divide and local food markets/global food markets, for example, might facilitate the creation of policy addressing the social costs of agriculture.

The article is worth reading. It is uplifting and empowering, and is one of the rare essays that bring hope to this dismal scientist’s hear. I loved reading this paper, yet I fear I do little justice to Carlisle’s articulate discussion, so read it for yourself!


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I just couldn’t resist

mentioning this funny photo op with Arnold and Smokey the Bear:


found on the USDA blog. Ok, in all seriousness, while the picture really amuses me, California is ahead of the rest of the country on many issues, including climate change. And I had no idea that Arnold was active in the global efforts to tackle climate change. Consider me both wiser and entertained by the information and visuals.


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