Category: food for thought
Thursday, September 11
This post is sponsored by McDonald’s. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
In May, McDonald’s flew me to Chicago to visit their headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. I sat down for 60 minutes of discussion with some of their leadership team, including the senior directors of marketing and management. McDonald’s understands that they have a polarizing brand and they are making efforts to reach out to people who have neutral or negative opinions about the company (people like me!) to engage in a dialogue. When they first approached me about potentially doing a sponsored post on my blog involving an interview with members of the leadership team, in all honesty my initial reaction was “no way.” But I thought about it a lot and decided that this could be an excellent opportunity to talk with decision-makers at the company, ask them direct questions and hear what they had to say (as well as maybe get a chance to share my thoughts around their business).
I feel strongly that what we do in the kitchen has a strong impact on Mother Earth. My New Year’s resolutions always involve an environmental goal that’s directly related to how our family eats. I also try to cook at home as much as I can to feed my family a nutritious and balanced diet. But guess what? We also go to McDonald’s. Not all the time, but we go. Cate doesn’t like McDonald’s and normally doesn’t order anything (she’s well-versed in the concept of monoculture farming but also does not enjoy the food). Anna and Owen, however, love McDonald’s, and it’s a special treat for them when we go. That said, on the occasions that I visit McDonald’s, questions and concerns about sustainability and our food system are constantly swirling in my head.
When my girls found out that I was going to interview people at McDonald’s, I asked if they had any specific things they wanted me to talk about. They both said they wanted me to ask McDonald’s to please put baby carrots in the Happy Meals. I shared our family’s wish with Chef Jessica, so I’ve done my duty. Even though McDonald’s does not accept unsolicited advice – “Jane Maynard’s Requests” was not on the “How a Product Is Developed” infographic they shared with me – if baby carrots ever do appear in the Happy Meal, the girls and I are totally taking credit!
On to the interviews! Here are the folks that I had the chance to talk with, both in person and over the phone:
- Justin Ransom, PhD, Senior Director, Quality Systems, Supply Chain Management
- Erik Gonring, Manager, Global Government Relations & Public Affairs
- Chef Jessica Foust, RDN, Director of Culinary Innovation
- Cindy Goody, PhD, MBA, RDN, LDN, Senior Director of Nutrition
- Darci Forrest, Senior Director Marketing, Menu Innovation Team
In my discussion with Justin and Erik, we talked about food sustainability and supply issues, which have always been my biggest concerns with McDonald’s and other big food brands. I learned from talking with Justin and Erik that when McDonald’s looks at sourcing, there’s a triple bottom line that’s defined by three Es: ethics, environment and economics. Those three factors drive how the company sources their food. One interesting takeaway that I learned – and something that I honestly hadn’t thought about before – is that McDonald’s wants to get their food from sustainable sources, because they need those supplies to not disappear.
Erik gave the example of the Filet-O-Fish, an iconic McDonald’s item. At one point, the company learned that they were contributing to the depletion of the cod supply off the Atlantic coast. This problem had ethical, environmental and economic implications. McDonald’s knew they had to make a change, especially since they needed a long-term fish supply in order to continue serving the beloved sandwich. After years of work, McDonald’s USA has reached a point where all of the whitefish they use is sustainably harvested, and McDonald’s was the first national chain to serve whitefish sourced from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified sustainable fishery.
I also inquired about organic and local sourcing. Justin said that 14,000 restaurants using local and/or organic ingredients is a challenge. Taking into account their high standards for quality, safety and consistency, McDonald’s has to minimize risk in their supply chain, which makes organic and locally sourced foods difficult to implement. I understand this on a logical level, but it’s still a concern for me. I asked Justin if he was at all optimistic that, in the future, we could source foods in more sustainable ways at this scale. Justin said he is. Honestly, I don’t know that I am, but I’m glad someone is.
We also discussed waste. On the customer side, I asked about recycling and compost bins in restaurants. Erik said that when there is infrastructure to support recycling and composting, typically they get on board: restaurants in cities including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Austin have recycling bins, and many of those markets also compost organic waste behind the counter. But he also stressed that customer behavior is the biggest challenge when implementing these systems. On the supply side, I learned that the bulk of the waste at a restaurant happens behind the counter. McDonald’s recycles their corrugate and cooking oil in many restaurants, which makes up to 40% of that behind-the-scenes waste. The company is also taking actions like phasing out polystyrene coffee cups and joining the How2Recycle label program to make it easier for customers to recycle away from the restaurant.
The biggest takeaway from my discussion with Erik and Justin is that McDonald’s won’t compromise on their final product. The McDonald’s fry is a good example of this. Justin said that the taste of McDonald’s fries must remain consistent around the world. This means that McDonald’s only uses a handful of potato varieties from specific regions of the world. I was told that identifying new varieties is a long and arduous process and McDonald’s would never allow customers to notice a change in their fries. For me, this is a perfect example of how our demand for one specific product leads to problematic farming practices. If there were more room for variation, we wouldn’t need to farm such limited varieties of potatoes. When there is such a high demand for just a few crops, those plants are susceptible to pests, which in turn necessitates the use of either GMOs – which McDonald’s made clear that they do not use – or pesticides. Industrialized monoculture farming, where you grow un-diversified crops, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our demand – what we will or will not buy – directly impacts how food is grown.
In my discussion with chef Jessica, nutritionist Cindy and marketer Darci, we talked at length about the menu, how it’s developed and efforts around nutrition. Here are four key takeaways from that discussion:
- When a new product is rolled out, it takes anywhere from nine months to four years to develop, from conceptualization to finally being sold in restaurants.
- McDonald’s has reformulated a long list of their ingredients, from the Big Mac bun to nuggets, to contain less sodium.
- McDonald’s is working on a set of initiatives for their top nine and top 20 markets to be fulfilled by 2020 that include, among other things, increasing the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables that are served, as well as offering more salads and produce as options with meals.
- Taste is key. McDonald’s won’t sacrifice when it comes to taste and is completely focused on serving customers what they want and will buy.
The Arches, a full-service McDonald’s restaurant in the corporate office building.
A lot of the issues that I have with McDonald’s and our food system in general map back to the consumer. For instance, I asked Darci why McDonald’s peels the apples in their Happy Meals. (I really wish that the apples were not peeled so that my kids would at least have the option of eating better.) Darci explained that McDonald’s serves apples that way because it was the best balance they could find of serving a product that parents would feel good about giving their kids but also one that the kids would eat, based on testing prior to the product launch. Corporations as large as McDonald’s have a social responsibility and should take a leadership role, but purchasing power is also incredibly important when it comes to effecting change.
So did I learn anything new through this process? Yes. Did I get some answers that weren’t completely satisfactory? Yes. Did I get some positive answers I wasn’t expecting? Yes. Could I have asked questions all day long? You bet. And do I still believe that we, the consumers, are at the root of the food system and that we can make a difference? Yes!
Let me know in the comments section below: if you could ask the McDonald’s team one question, what would it be?
Wednesday, July 10
One of my favorite places on earth is the coast between Big Sur and Monterey. When we lived in the Bay Area, the Monterey/Carmel area was our go-to weekend getaway spot and we have many fond family memories from those trips. Both towns are quaint and fun, but the coastline is what we really love. It is, quite simply, breathtaking. About a month or so ago I was invited by the team at Dole Salads to visit beautiful Carmel and attend the Taste of Spain Salad Summit with a great group of bloggers. Of course I had to go!
The trip was really wonderful. I had the chance to connect and re-connect with some really lovely bloggers (see list here!), the Dole Salads team was wonderful to work with, and it was very interesting getting a peak into how Dole produces their food (more on that in a moment). Dole put us up at the Carmel Valley Ranch hotel (which was AMAZING) and fed us an abundance of Spanish-inspired food. It was heavenly!
As I often mention, I am constantly thinking about how food production and food consumption impact Mother Earth. My new year’s resolution each year is always focused on that theme. When I say I’m constantly thinking about environmental issues, I’m not exaggerating. It’s maybe kind of an obsession.
Over the years we’ve modified and cut back on our meat consumption in order to make a positive environmental impact. As a result, I’m always on board with getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables, no matter where the produce comes from. Produce always requires less water and energy for production than meat does, so by eating more of those foods we are automatically using less valuable resources.
But I am still also concerned about industrialized farming and the increased use of monoculture over the past few decades. The concern with monoculture is that by growing one particular crop over a large area, the plants are more susceptible to disease, which in turns necessitates the use of pesticides (bad for our bodies and the environment) or GMO plants (which are engineered to be resistent to bugs – the jury is still out on the impact of GMOs on our health and the environment).
Needless to say, I was very happy that Dole invited me on the trip and I couldn’t wait to see their farms and talk with them about how Dole produces food.
We started our day driving to the beautiful Salinas Valley, where more than 80% of our country’s salad greens are grown. First we met one of the Dole growers (a.k.a. farmers). He was kind, humble and obviously loved his job. This particular farmer was growing iceberg lettuce. We learned that the crops are constantly rotated and that any food left behind during harvest is tilled back into the soil. We also learned the Dole does not use GMO plants but that they do use some pesticides. When we talked with the farmer about this, he mentioned how he lives on the farm and is raising his children there, so obviously he uses as little as he possibly can. He also said that if there was more business/demand for organic, he would gladly switch to that type of farming. It was really great meeting and talking with him and seeing the passion he has for his job.
Once the lettuce is grown, Dole hires harvesters to pick the produce. The farmer actually has no part in the harvest of the food. His job is to grow the food and keep the soil healthy. We watched a crew of harvesters picking lettuce and sending it up the conveyer belt, to be delivered to the packaging plant nearby. There were tanks of chlorinated water nearby, which is sprayed on the lettuce was soon as it is harvested. (More on the chlorinated water in a moment!)
Once the lettuce reaches the packaging plant, it is washed several times (in chlorinated and non-chlorinated water), cut, and packaged in super duper high-tech packaging that is designed to keep the lettuce fresh.
My big takeaways were as follows:
- Safety is of the utmost importance to Dole. All along the process the food is kept safe with different rules and procedures, including hairnets for everyone at the farm!
- Freshness is right up there with safety. From the way the food is handled to the packaging, every effort is made to deliver tasty, good-looking food to the consumer.
- We asked specifically about the use of chlorinated water and were told that it is food-grade and used to keep the food safe. As a person who tries to eat produce as locally as possible and mostly organic, I must admit that the use of chlorinated water gave me pause. The thing is, there are a LOT of people to feed and we are demanding large amounts of the same types of foods, which necessitates these safety measures. I don’t think the chlorinated water used on this particular iceberg lettuce is necessarily hurting any of us on its own (and testing shows that it is safe), but I can’t help but wonder what the cumulative effect of all of the food we eat that is produced in this way has on our bodies and health, not to mention the environment. And I don’t know what the solution is. GMOs have not yet been proven to be harmful, but there are still big questions about their true impact. We know pesticides are no good, but if we aren’t using GMOs, we need the pesticides to produce large quantities of food. It really is a catch 22 and we just keep circling around and around. We need to feed people, that’s the bottom line. Right now, this is how it is done for the most part.
- Dole tries to grow food as locally as possible. Obviously pineapples can’t be grown everywhere, but when they can, Dole does grow food as close to the place where it will be bought as possible. Yes, it’s not true local farming, but it is a start and I appreciate a large corporation making that effort.
- Dole also produces organic products. Let’s demand more of it so we can start to shift how our food is produced! We hold the keys to change!
The trip provided a great deal of food for thought (pun intended!) for me. I’m really glad I had the chance to talk with Dole and see first-hand what they are all about. The company has a really positive vibe and I walked away from the weekend feeling good, even with the bigger questions about our food system bumping about my brain.
Thank you to Dole for inviting me to attend the Taste of Spain Salad Summit. I am so happy they included me on the trip! Now, everyone go eat some salad!
For Dole recipes and to enter the Taste of Spain giveaway (you could win a $40,000 trip to Spain!), please visit www.dolesalads.com.
Friday, November 9
Photo courtesy of the inspiring Tracey Clark from Shutter Sisters
Today I feel sad. But with that sadness I also feel hopeful.
I feel sad for those who, still reeling from Sandy, were hit once again this week with more destructive weather. Weather that makes it hard to clean up the mess that is already there. Cold weather that is impossible to fend off without heat and electricity.
But I feel hopeful for these same people. Hopeful when I hear story after story of those sacrificing to help others, stepping up to comfort, feed and house those who can’t do so for themselves. Like Tad Long, a Dallas food truck owner I heard about through one of my high school friends in New Jersey. He’s heading to the Jersey shore this week. His food truck can serve 200 meals, so he’s serving those meals to people in need, even if it means driving 1,500 miles.
Despite the destruction, I have hope. People are resilient, especially when they lift one another up, love one another, serve one another.
In addition to the storms, the election has made me sad. Well, the election itself hasn’t made me sad. In fact, I’m grateful for the election, for the process, for what it represents. Taking my kids with me to vote was incredibly positive and uplifting. What makes me sad is watching the reactions of some people to the election results. I have been stunned at comments by friends and family, both online and in person. Hurtful comments that have brought people I love dearly to tears (I may have shed a tear or two myself, hurting for those hurt by the comments).
I know this is nothing new. It happens every four years. The losing side gets frustrated, sad, often angry. According to a Montreal-based immigration lawyer, every four years Americans start calling in September, convinced they will be moving to Canada in a month’s time. (In case you’re wondering, only 3 or 4 people in 30 years have made good on that promise.)
In spite of my sadness, though, I feel hopeful.
Hopeful…because of people like my amazing friend Amy, a committed Republican who posted on her Facebook wall the night of the election, “Congratulations to President Obama. He fought a hard race and, while I hoped it would go the other way, I salute him as my Commander in Chief and pray he is successful in his hopes for a better America.”
Hopeful…because of people like my thoughtful and passionate friend Carina. I don’t react very emotionally to the results of elections (even though I react emotionally to people’s reactions), so I have a hard time understanding where many of the negative commenters are coming from. But Carina does, and she has great empathy for those who are feeling sad/frustrated/angry this week, even if she disagrees with them politically. She wrote a letter to her conservative friends and it’s wonderful.
Hopeful…because of people like Emily Ley, a Romney supporter who wrote a touching letter to her son, teaching him about respect and love, in spite of differences.
And I believe that is the key: LOVE. I know it might sound cheesy or cliche, but love is transformative. It just is. If you stop and put your love glasses on, you see people differently. And, as a result, you treat them differently. And while love may not make things perfect, it does make things better. I believe John Lennon was right: all you need is love.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, we all have the same goal, to make our world a better place. We may have different means to reach that end, and that’s okay. That’s the beauty of our country. We all have the liberty to believe what we want to believe. For example, I am not libertarian and my friend Dennis is. We don’t agree, but I seriously love it when he comments on my Facebook posts. He’s thoughtful about his beliefs and I completely respect him, even if I interpret things differently.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
I’m going to stick to love, too. Let’s love each other, in spite of our differences. In fact, let’s love each other because of our differences. It’s hard sometimes, but I have great hope that we can do it. And, when we do, we’ll be that much closer making our world the better place we are all striving for.
Friday, November 2
I think we are all stunned at the damage that Sandy has caused to the East coast. Thankfully, all of my family was safe throughout the storm, for which I am very grateful. I’m from New Jersey, having grown up just 45 miles west of New York City. It is strange to turn on the news and hear the names of familiar places being spoken of in connection with such great destruction. Stranger still, I’m sure, for those on the ground. Mostly, though, I can’t stop thinking about all the people who have lost so much. My heart goes out to each and every one, wishing them strength in what is sure to be a long and difficult recovery.
This week I heard two great stories about people feeding people during Sandy, which seemed appropriate for this week’s Food for Thought.
First, a quick story about Uncle Paul’s Pizza, a four-month old restaurant that stayed open through the hurricane. Five of the workers were stranded there anyway, so they just kept cooking!
Second, Citymeals-on-Wheels. I heard a story about this organization on NPR yesterday afternoon that was awesome (unfortunately I can’t find the story on the NPR website). Citymeals has responded to Sandy by continuing to deliver meals to elderly people who are stranded in buildings without power. The NPR reporter joined the volunteers for a few deliveries, including one that involved a climb of 25 stories. Click here to read more about the organization and how you can get involved.
And, finally, a link to The Red Cross.
Prayers and love to all affected by Sandy!
Friday, October 26
One of my most favorite people I’ve met through blogging is Kristen Howerton from Rage Against the Minivan. Her blog is great, she’s a fantastic writer, and she’s even better in person, if you can believe it. The first time we hung out, we spent several hours just talking, you know, about those light topics new friends talk about…politics, religion, the purpose of life. She truly is a kindred spirit and I admire her very much. So, when Kristen posted about fair trade chocolate, well, it really got me thinking.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought much about fair trade cocoa. I mean, I sort of have. But, as Kristen points out, when something doesn’t affect us or our family directly, we as humans tend to not take much notice. I’m definitely guilty of that in this case. Her post is very thought-provoking and I recommend you go read it. She includes video in the post of a BBC documentary that is even more thought-provoking and, at times, gut wrenching. I’m not going to go into details here because I’m still learning, but please go use Kristen’s post as a springboard to start informing yourself about the issue. That’s what I’m doing. And, after reading and watching what I can, I’m going to think long and hard about how what I’ve learned is going to change my behavior.
My mom works for Mars and I grew up in a town next to the M&M factory. We could smell the M&Ms in the air in the mornings, which is a fond memory for me. I certainly have a soft spot for them. I did a little research to see what Mars has to say on the topic. Over 2009-2011 they invested $70 million in sustainability efforts and say they expect to (let’s hope they really do) spend $30 million annually going forward. As of 2012, 20% of their cocoa is certified sustainable. It’s a step. Which is good. But there is still a long way to go, and the press release, while encouraging, doesn’t explicitly mention child labor. I have a feeling, as with most of the big food issues, change will take time but what we choose to buy and eat will be powerful for effecting that change going forward.
Last week at the DailyBuzz Food festival I was introduced to the company Madécasse. Madécasse was founded by peace corps volunteers who lived in and fell in love with Madagascar. They decided they really wanted to make a positive impact on the country, so they started a chocolate company, one that doesn’t just source fair trade cocoa from Madagascar but also actually produces the chocolate in the country. This has 4 times the impact of straight up fair trade cocoa and is also good for the planet. The chocolate was delicious and it was really neat chatting with them and learning their story. Madécasse isn’t the only company out there trying to do right by cocoa, and it’s exciting to see thoughtfully-built companies like this doing such great things to make a difference.
The cookie nabber is also a chocolate nabber…
Friday, October 19
It’s Friday. Time to party, right? Nope. Time to think and think hard, people! I feel like by the end of the week, I often have heard and read lots of “stuff” that really gets me thinking. So, I’m going to process my thoughts with you, share what I’ve learned, get your thoughts, see where it gets us. Thinking is good, even on Friday.
So, for our first Food for Thought Friday post, I’m dropping two big bombs. Get ready.
Alzheimer’s is probably the “new” diabetes
As if two kinds of diabetes weren’t enough, several studies are indicating that Alzheimer’s could be considered Type 3 diabetes. Mark Bittman wrote a great piece on this subject on the New York Times recently that is worth a read. No, really, go read it.
I love dessert. Nate often teases that I should rename my blog This Week for Dessert. In all seriousness, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how bad sugar is for our bodies. One study after another indicates the great amount of havoc that sugar wreaks on our systems. I still stand by the adage “everything in moderation.” But, I must also admit, my sugar intake is not always moderate (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one). How many times have I looked at people with Alzheimer’s and thought, “Oh, I hope that never happens to me.” Genetic predisposition plays a role, but it’s looking like what we eat plays a much bigger role in whether or not our brains go to pot. Which stinks, because I really love dessert. And french fries, for that matter. But I also really want to be lucid until the day I die. If I can affect whether or not that happens, I should seriously consider what I’m putting in my mouth every day.
California’s Prop 37 and why it affects all of us
If you live in California, you most certainly have heard of Prop 37. If you don’t live in California, let me give you a quick rundown.
First off, as we all know, California is kind of a crazy place and here is just one more example. We have this initiative process where laws are proposed and get voted on by the people directly. The California constitution is probably 3,000,000 pages long because of all these propositions that get passed. I actually kind of hate the whole process because, well, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff and neither are most people. I think people in general tend to vote on many of these issues in an emotional way, which may not be the best way to, say, make budgetary decisions for a state in astronomical debt. But this is the system and it’s what we have to work with. You can read more about California’s ballot initiative process here if you like.
Proposition 37 is one of these such initiatives that will be on the ballot in California this November. In sum, Prop 37 mandates labeling of genetically-modified food. And, if it is passed in California, it will impact the rest of the country somehow, somewhere. You know, setting wheels in motion and all of that.
As with all propositions, I approach it skeptically. Especially after learning how poorly it is written, including so many exceptions to render the labeling almost meaningless. In addition, while I feel very strongly about the various impacts the industrialized food system has on our health and the health of the earth, I don’t think we can say that GM foods are all bad and evil, and mandating a label implies as much. (P.S. I reserve the right to change my mind as more information comes to light, of course!). I’m married to a scientist, a bioengineer at that. Nate and I believe in science and it’s ability to do a huge amount of good.
HOWEVER, genetically-modified crops are a mainstay of Big Food (i.e. the big, rich, powerful companies that drive the industrialized food system). They are fighting this proposition tooth and nail and they are the reason there hasn’t been labeling from the get-go. And, as flawed as the proposition may be, it just might be the first time we can take a real, meaningful stand against a broken food system.
I’m torn. This must be what a legislator in Washington feels like when a bill they believe in ends up with riders they don’t agree with but are necessary to get the bill passed. Politics are messy. I am sooooo glad I am not a politician. But, like it or not, voting on Prop 37 in a few short weeks gets me involved politically. And it puts the food system on the political map.
Michael Pollan wrote a piece about Prop 37 for (you guessed it) the New York Times last week. He puts it all down on paper far more eloquently than I have. Go read it. It is, at the very least, thought provoking.
I’m not telling you how I’m voting. Although, I have to say, I can’t imagine ever being on the same side as Monsanto. Much to ponder, here, my friends. Much to ponder.