Joe and his wife Alice were poor. Times were very tough and autumn had just begun. Things were so bad that families began rationing food. The stores were bare and all that one had to eat was what they had saved up. And much of that was spoiling by the day. Alice counted 400 portions left (assuming no spoilage) and since she had two children, this meant that there would only be enough food for 100 days. Things looked very bleak. Neither Joe nor Alice, nor any of their neighbors, saw a way out. Economic crashes on this scale had not be seen for several generations and memories of how their ancestors had survived hard times in the past were deeply faded. Understandably, psychological depression set in. The family ate enough each day to stay alive but that was about all.


Mary, the daughter, was looking out a window and noticed that a flock of birds had descended on to this group of weeds that had grown alongside their small abode. They all seemed to be delighting in the eating of the seeds that this plant produced. She wondered, would those seeds nourish humans too? Then, looking more closely, she noticed a grasshopper chewing on the plant’s leaves. It looked like a very healthy grasshopper. Could it be that the leaves would be edible for humans too?

Daniel, the son, simultaneously sitting on the other side of the house, peering out a different window, noticed a squirrel chomping on a green covered tennis ball-sized spherical object. He looked up and saw more of these objects hanging from a tree. Another squirrel appeared to be digging a hole with a sphere nearby. He wasn’t sure why those spheres existed but the squirrels seemed to know something he didn’t. Curious, Dan asked his dad to come check out the scene. Upon arrival at the window, Dan asked his dad, “What’s going on? Why is the squirrel eating the ball? What are those balls for anyway?” Joe wasn’t sure but he vaguely remembered his grandfather talking about how trees come to be and how these balls, if put into the ground, grow into new trees. Daniel, somewhat shocked, wondered if other plants did the same thing.

At dinner that night, the Jamesons were having the norm—a stew of beans with garlic and herbs. Looking down into his bowl, Daniel noticed that the beans looked like diminutive spheres, albeit a bit oblong. He asked his mom, “where did you get these beans?” Alice responded, “oh, they came in a big sack at the Big Box store, 20 lbs for $5. They were one of the last bags they had.” Mary, followed up, asking her dinner mates, “Aren’t they seeds?” Alice responded, “Yes, I guess you are right.” Daniel, followed with, “What are seeds?” Alice said, “Seeds, if planted, result in new plants.” Daniel, flummoxed a bit, “What do you mean? If we put these in the ground, we will get new plants and more seeds?” Joe spoke up, “Sure son. You didn’t know that?” Daniel responded, “Maybe. I guess I just hadn’t thought about it for a while.” Dinner continued, all feeling like the conversation was good despite the monotony of the taste. Ninety-nine more days, Alice thought. Times were tough.

Or were they?

are we moral?

In a world where people eat scrumptious meals in fancy restaurants while homeless people peddle for coins just on the other side of the glass, where others drive their $100,000 autos solo daily past hordes of bus goers (in sub-freezing temperatures) without considering offering a ride, and where increasing numbers communicate via “god-like” cellular devices while others, thousands of miles away, work feverishly in horrific conditions to collect enough “coltan” (a versatile metal alloy used in WiFi-transmitting electronics) to feed their families, one has to ask, “What’s moral these days?” And, relatedly, in a world so extreme in its inequality and maldistribution of resources, “Is it even possible for a person of economic privilege to live morally?”

Imagining an extra-terrestrial who happened upon our planet, I suspect he/she would unequivocally state that nearly all “first-worlders” live immorally. This judgment would come simply from his/her observation that we consume resources that are obtained, distributed, manufactured, and sold in ways that usually cause great psychological and physical harm to other humans and other forms of life. From the pesticide-laden plants (or hormone- and antibiotic-dosed meat) food that dominates food systems, our fossil fuels which often come from war-torn regions of the world where (despite the amazing amount of $$ that these resources must be worth) most people have remained severely impoverished for decades, or our everyday clothing and house “products” that are almost always made by workers overseas who live in inhumane work environments, this verdict is undeniable. If there were a functioning international court, we would be found “guilty” of immoral lifestyles.

Concluding that we are living immorally shouldn’t be news to anyone, though it rarely gets coverage in such blatant terms. It also doesn’t have much meaning if it isn’t just an inevitable result of living in the 21st century (or at all). Clearly, humans must consume substantial resources to live, all large animals do by necessity. So, do we have any real choice? The answer is “yes.” First, we overconsume, producing excessive amounts of waste. Many of the products that we buy aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. Second, we, if we really cared to do so, could find many of the resources that we do need to thrive from producers that aren’t destroying the environment in their work. This is particularly true with food but is doable, albeit difficult, in other areas as well. (Here are a few articles that lay out some of these options, ref 1, ref 2). Third, all of us are entangled, whether we like it or not, in the most immoral component of our “consumption”: the trillions of dollars lost (which we pay in taxes) on the continued militarization of the world and its ties to resolving humanitarian and economic challenges with arms and violence, rather than diplomacy and peace.

All this said, it must be noted that many of those that live in “rich” countries, especially the U.S., live under great economic stress and this limits their ability to act morally with regard to their consumption patterns. Reasonably, until they are relieved of their structural impoverishment, their immorality doesn’t deserve much attention; though increasing their “take” and not causing further damage would necessitate a different type of growth than we are use to. On the other hand, the behaviors of those that live in middle- to upper-class lives cannot be overlooked. Sadly, much of what they (and “I”) consume falls into the category of “horrible.” Our educational system and mainstream media (both increasingly influenced/controlled by corporations), in their effort to ensure that we continue to consume, completely fail to teach us what we need in order to consume morally.

So, where does this leave us? I don’t think there are any magical solutions. But, just as alcoholics must admit their addiction before making headway, we need to admit our immorality as well. Perhaps part of the solution is something equivalent to AA (or NA) where people could meet regularly and figure out ways to modify our (individually and collectively) consumption patterns toward moral pathways. Such meetings are happening under other auspices (e.g., Green Party, First Nations Environmental Network, Urban Ag/Permaculture, etc.). Start your own group or check one of these out. Let us know what you find!

only two problems?

If we could solve only one problem, which problem should it be?
This is a question that I often get asked and it is one that I have pondered on my own as well. It presupposes that there is one problem that, if solved, could lead directly to the solution of other problems. Well, I haven’t figured what that one problem is, but I can tell you that if we solve two problems, we’d be well on our way to tackling most human challenges.

What must you do, each and every day? Eat food and drink water. So, assuming that these things were provided to you, you could get on with your “life.” What else would you need? Well, obviously, shelter of some kind. Would that be enough? Water, food and shelter may be enough to live, but there are other things that have become part of our “civilized” human condition. Most importantly among them is energy. We need energy to survive and to live a modern lifestyle requires quite a bit of it—to run our refrigerators, our computers, our water heaters, our cars and lawn mowers. Clearly, any future that looks anything like the present would require sufficient amounts of energy.
Here is the rub. Despite the fact that at least a billion people on Earth have sufficient access to food, water, and energy, many more do not. And while that is horrible situation (and how can we celebrate everyday things when so many go without, especially when there isn’t really any good reason why they don’t), the question I would like to examine here is, “How key are food and energy to our collective present and future?”

Clearly, if nearly a billion people on Earth suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1), “we have a problem Houston.” Obviously, every effort imaginable should be made to make sure that this problem is eradicated. A comparable but less recognized evil is the energy poverty that exists in the world today. Without basic allotments of energy, many people around the world cannot satisfy basic needs, such as, cooking food, heating/cooling their homes, or perform important tasks at night; consider that 1.4 Billion people do not have access to electricity (ref 2). Even in places where some energy is available for such things, it is often dangerous (e.g., kerosene) or detrimental to local environments (e.g., firewood). Without sufficient food or energy, more than 1,000,000,000 people suffer unduly.

Obtaining food and energy isn’t just an issue for those that don’t have much of them but also to those that live in areas where food and energy is plentifully produced but improperly distributed. How much current conflict in the world is due to “resource wars”? As these two sources indicate (ref 3, ref 4), many (if not most) of the conflicts occurring right now have strong drivers in resource shortages. And these shortages are not getting alleviated much because the current unbalanced distribution is due to the increased commodification (and profit obtained) of these resources. And sadly, the $1.4+ trillion dollars spent each year on militaries (largely to protect/secure these resources) creates a huge financial well that leaves very little left for other critical needs (such as education, health care, etc.).

In closing then, if we were able to tackle the food and energy problems, we would likely be on our way to solving most of the world’s current problems. We have enough (to be clarified in an upcoming BLOG), we just must begin to share what we have and look at each other as “brothers and sisters” rather than enemies.

our food challenges

I’ve been a vegetarian since 2002, and that decision was largely driven by issues of fairness (link for my 2003 article on this subject). I recognize that people’s choices surrounding their food intake are quite convoluted and very personal. However, the impacts and ramifications of these daily decisions are huge and far reaching. As such, it is often difficult for people to discuss their dietary choices with others without things quickly brimming with frustration and defensiveness. Yet, these conversations must happen, as the stakes are too high.

Our food system is broken. Way too many people in our country (USA) go without adequate calories (ref 1). Many also lack access to healthful and fresh food (ref 2). And industrial farms inject huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment (via pesticides, herbicides, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, highly concentrated animal waste products) and deplete aquifers (ref 3). The medical costs we bear through our high incidence of largely diet-driven disorders and diseases (such as coronary disease and type-II diabetes) are enormous and growing (ref 4). Clearly, things need to change. But how?

Many who come to terms with the above list of calamitous outcomes of our current food system are driven to reduce their meat consumption by staying away from particular meats or eliminating meat or animal products altogether from their diets. And while these shifts in our culture are meaningful and have had lasting effects on our health and environment, the tragic outcomes of industrial agriculture continue to occur, and in some cases get worse (as for example, the massive increase in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) throughout the country). Fundamentally, the problem is: not enough people realize or care what impact their food intake has on them or others or their options, largely due to economic stressors, are so limited that they continue to act in ways that are not in their best interests. Whatever the reason, we need to find ways to get more people to the point that they vote with their food dollars in ways that promote wellness, economic vitality (especially locally), and environmental health.

For those that choose to do so by becoming a vegan or vegetarian, consider that your vegetables and fruits will still largely come from the industrial agriculture system unless you make a conscious effort to buy them locally, in season, and from as close to the farmers as possible. If becoming a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t work for you (and apparently there are some for which it can be dangerous, ref 5 & ref 6), make sure you consider where your meat is coming from. You can almost guarantee that if the meat you are purchasing is from a regular grocery store or a restaurant, it is coming from the industrialized meat sources, which are much more interested in maximizing profit then offering some that is healthful to you or the planet. Sadly, very little meat available to us on a day-to-day basis isn’t industrially produced. Thus, it is critically important for meat eaters to become vigilant about purchasing meat that is properly raised (by requesting it at the store and restaurants in their neighborhoods, demanding cuts in governmental subsidies to corn and soy which are largely grown to produce meat, and finding local purveyors of “good” meat and sharing this information with others). If enough of them were to do so, they could make a huge impact on the state of the meat industry and the impact that it has now and in the future. Lastly, vegans, vegetarians, or omnivores, all need to ramp down the purchase of process foods as well given that they are big drivers of the industrialized farm system (which pumps us full of high fructose corn syrup and dangerous preservatives, see ref 7).

Additionally, and importantly, we need to look critically at the matter of how poverty (which is also rampant) restricts people from purchasing better food. Many of the options listed above are not “true” options for those that are challenged economically. People should not be forced to purchase high-caloric food rather than highly nutritional food because they can’t afford the latter. The battle to end poverty is one we all must contribute to.

So challenges & options exist for all of us. It is time that we spend a good bit more time thinking about the food that we consume and the food options available to other members of our community! We are what we eat, and so is the planet.

systemic food solutions

In an earlier BLOG, I argued that systemic solutions to our local hunger problems were necessary and that most current efforts, while very well-intentioned and very important to curb hunger in the immediate, are mere “Band-Aids.” Here is a letter I wrote to some local people to share my thoughts on what we can do in our City (modified a little to make it more relevant to those that might be reading this from other areas of the globe; please share your ideas too!).

Now for the “solution” part as it concerns our community directly and systemic solutions to hunger:

There are many steps to ending hunger in our community. First, we have to acknowledge it exists; the KPCK founders did this early on (we did research and shared findings). Second, we have to dig deep within ourselves and ask how important the fact that people and, especially, children are going hungry in our community is to us. Third, we have to determine how much time and effort each one of us is willing to give to remedying, and ultimately eliminating, this tragic situation. Once we do this, then we can begin to build systemic solutions.

What are systemic solutions? They are ones that will not only reduce/end hunger today but they will build an infrastructure in our community that will reduce/end hunger in the future. Here are a few things we can do (I’d love to hear your ideas and reactions as well):

1. Teach people to cook healthful food; weekly classes in a predictable, accessible, functional space.
2. Make healthful food available at affordable prices year-round
3. Greatly increase the purchase of locally-grown food (monies that will be reinjected in to our community and provide incomes to existing food producers)
4. Provide people opportunities to grow their own food (through repurposing open lots, providing raised beds, rain barrels, seeds, etc.; weekly lessons on techniques; daily camps for children)
5. Get the City’s leaders (governmental, non-profit, foundational, religious, educational, etc.) to acknowledge this is a major problem and get them to contribute their money & time to systemic solutions
6. Improve transportation access to healthful food centers, especially in winter.
7. Train future farmers who can rebuild the region into a diverse food production system.

Connecting the dots:
(1), (2) & (3) could be done through a Food Hub. We need to return to this solution; not sure why we stopped that push.
(4) is happening at various venues but they all need more volunteers and small monetary contributions to strengthen and we need new venues and supplies
(5) needs to be asked (or demanded)
(6) has been discussed by various groups but more push needs to happen to clarify how this can be best accomplished (perhaps, better bus routes, food distribution truck, neighborhood food stores, etc.)
(7) needs support of local extension offices, Community colleges, school districts, etc.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ottumwa, Iowa (2.5 hours west of here) started a Food Hub downtown just last year and it is booming (link). Chad Summers launched Healthy Harvest Urban Farms & Organic Garden Center (link) in East Moline just a few years ago (and it has been so popular that he will be opening a second store in Rock Island)! There is the Food Coop that just opened in Macomb (link). There is a new healthful food store, The Butter Churn, in Woodhull (link). The list goes on and on. Let’s make something happen here in G’Burg!

feeding people

Everyone deserves to eat healthful food, right? I would argue that this should be a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, thought so too. In its Article 25, it reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” But despite this, we know that nearly a billion people still suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1, ref 2) and among urban children rates are still 30% in Africa and 14% in Europe (ref 3). These are shocking statistics during a time when we have more than enough food for everyone (ref 4).

Hunger is not just a disease that affects people in poor countries. We have considerable amounts of it in the United States as well. According the USDA, 17.4 million households (or 14% of people) were food insecure at some point in 2014, where a food-insecure household is one that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” (ref 5). Two conclusions derive from this finding. One, it is horrifying that over 43 million people go hungry in the “richest” country in the world. Two, the chief cause of this hunger is poverty (and, by extension, economic inequality). If you wonder what type of people go hungry, Feeding America (an non-profit organization) provides a heartening look at the faces of hunger on its website. Answer: everyday people.

So what should we do about this? A lot of people in this country work on this problem as they, themselves or through their neighbors and friends, have felt the pangs of hunger for a long time (it is not a new problem). In my community, we have several food pantries operating, we have an organization that serves free meals twice a month, we have another relatively new organization that fills backpacks for school children on Fridays (so that the kids can get food on weekends when school lunches aren’t available), and we have a Farmers’ Market that ensures that LINK dollars (the IL version of “food stamps”) can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. And while these organizations and the hundreds of volunteers that make them function do incredible things for our struggling community members, the programs they run are largely “Band-Aids” rather than long-term solutions. Our community took one of these “Band-Aids” off this summer when, due to state budget failings, its school board eliminated summer school for elementary students. This cut hurts our kids’ minds as well as their stomachs because a summer breakfast/lunch program, that was mandated to exist in conjunction with any summer school offering, was cut as well.

How should we respond to these continued cuts and hunger in general? We could organize volunteers to feed children this summer. We did just that about five years ago when the local schools closed in early January for two weeks to save money on heating bills. It, the Lunch Spot Program, was a great success (and even received high commendations from the State) but it required a lot of intense volunteerism over a two week period. In the situation we are facing now, we would need at least that level of support during the summer (a harder sell for volunteers than winter) for ten weeks. And, even if that were to be accomplished, it would still be a Band-Aid. Thus, we need to create solutions that solve the problem of hunger, not just ones that relieve it temporarily. This will take new ideas and new visions of what is most important in our community. If food truly is a human right, today is the day to offer up these new visions. Ideas?

out of sight

Most of us know that terrible things are done on our behalf each and every day. These awful deeds may come at the expense of the our food which, if meat, probably comes from animals living in concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones on a daily basis, or, if vegetables and fruits, probably come from farms where the laborers are grossly underpaid, overworked and exposed to harmful chemicals broadly sprayed by industrial agriculture techniques (farm workers have poverty rates double other paid workers) (ref 1, ref 2). They could come from the clothes we wear, many which are made in factories here or abroad where workers are treated horribly and suffer many human rights abuses (ref 3). They also come by way of our ubiquitous use of electronics. Nearly all electronic devices that transmit Wi-Fi (which includes phones, video games, and computers) have a metal alloy called coltan in them. Sadly much of this rare metal comes from regions of the world mired in war and conflict (such as The Congo), which the valuable resource has largely exacerbated (ref 4). And every time we use energy, in virtually every form it comes in, whether its source be fossil fuel or renewable (e.g., in solar panels that are increasingly made in China), large amounts of toxic material is produced and many humans are abused. (The Story of Stuff puts a lot of this into perspective: the Book & the Videos).

Not a fun paragraph to read, was it? Well, if all this harm is being done on our behalf, especially those of us fortunate enough to live affluently, why aren’t more of us doing anything about it? Many answers come to mind but the most telling may be that the bulk of the harm done is done “out of sight,” somewhere far from us. I believe that humans are moral beings. Most of us are not intentionally and purposefully doing harm to others. We wouldn’t. Most of us would be sick to our stomachs if we were forced to live this way. Wouldn’t we? Perhaps this is why when presented with “facts” that implicate us, and our lifestyles, we ignore them or get defensive. This creates a real existential problem then. The people that need to change (us) to make the world more humane aren’t willing to accept responsibility for the damage being done. So what can we do about it?

This blog is largely dedicated to exploring answers to this question but I think the first step for everyone is to familiarize themselves with the various “pains” created by our way of life. This knowledge can be very liberating. It motivates us to do something to make others’ (and by extension our own) lives better. This revelation is extremely eye-opening for many. And many of us definitely recognize this. Consider how many people in your community donate/volunteer 100’s of hours a year for the greater good! We do get greater satisfaction from intrinsic rewards even though our culture (especially that component that is trying to sell us something or another) puts so much emphasis on extrinsic ones (ref 5). So by knowing more about the true impacts of our lives and, then, intentionally acting to make them more humane, we can all begin to heal and feel better all the while.

growing up

I know a lot of you grow food. It is an amazing thing to do, isn’t it, especially if you do it from seed! A seed is one of the most incredible things on the planet that we can visibly see; notice that “see” and “seed” are so close in spelling. Consider an okra seed, about the size of a small pea. Visibly it looks like a tiny pebble, seemingly inanimate. However, if you plant this “pebble” about 1 inch below the Earth’s surface and water it regularly, an amazing plant will emerge. About 7 years ago, that is exactly what I did and the result was unimaginable. Three months into the watering, I stood next to a plant twice my height with a “waist” of at least 7″. I had to grab it and bend it over so that I could reach its upper fruits. Somehow, in merely 90 days, a speckle of a dark-green “pebble” had grown to be a gigantic organism replete with beautiful yellow flowers and delicious lantern shaped pods rich in Vitamin C!

This plant, just one of ~400,000 plant species on the Earth, taught me so much. It clarified for me how spectacular and intelligent life forms are. It reminded me that all life serves other life; the okra through its flowers (for pollinators), and its oxygen and fruits (for 200-lb primates and other animals). It challenged me to grow “13-feet” in three months using only light, water and soil. Two-thousand days later, I still think about this okra plant and all that it taught me. It is no wonder though, as I still have some of it inside of me.