Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Did Canned Food Drives Become Controversial?

Oh friends.

It's the last week of summer vacation here, and like the last few days of summer fun, my spark has waned. Maybe it's because I'm entering the hardest part of carrying twins. Maybe it's because I'm ready for a change. Maybe it's just because there are times I want to just beat my head against a wall because I feel as if I STILL can't advocate for conventional agriculture properly.

Case in point: yesterday. As I sat at a staff meeting at work, hearing all the great things our United Way staffers have been working on (have I ever mentioned how great it is to work for an organization that, with the help of the community and generous corporate matches raises roughly 12 million dollars a year? In just PEORIA, Illinois? That's pretty impressive.), we reached the point in our meeting where we discussed our rather large scale food drive that is organized in conjunction with our campaign's kickoff.

A very sweet lady on our staff raised her hand then and asked if we could please have the grocery stores and drop off points specify that we would prefer organic canned goods so that, and I quote, "healthy foods can go into our family's mouths."


As I sat there, with a few glances from some coworkers who know me well and read this blog…I froze. This was work. This was where I was a literacy project manager, not an agriculture advocate. However, my life as a spokesperson (well, the few years anyway) flashed before my eyes. Yet, I was frozen. FROZEN. Both of my bosses were there at the table, do I dare create waves? And was she SERIOUS? Isn't a canned tomato a canned tomato, and not a bag of Fritos? And weren't we feeding the hungry? Would they really turn down a food donation bag if it were all conventionally produced.

My head was swimming, and for what seemed like hours, I sat there, mouth agape, and still receiving looks like, "you're going to say something, aren't you?"

Finally, I pulled myself together and said something like, "As a conventional agriculturalist, I absolutely disagree with this, food is food."

And that was it.

Now, if you know me, I am rarely at a loss for words, but I hardly knew where to begin, and again, I WAS AT WORK. And since when did canned food drives become a battle ground for conventional vs. organic food? And WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? Why couldn't I speak up for myself, our plight, our beliefs, research I have quoted…


I blame it on pregnancy, but in reality, it was because I felt painted in a corner. I wasn't sure how to approach the topic in a staff meeting. It wasn't the appropriate time to have a discussion about organic vs. conventional practice and choice and statistics, etc. Even though I was frustrated about my lack of a poignant statement in regards to the food wars, I guess what frustrated me was that what she was suggesting that we, as a staff, as a marketing campaign, to market a more "healthy" campaign to our very generous donors of food. A choice was asked to be set out in the forefront of the canned food drive, and it was one that was based on false pretenses.

Now, I'm NOT contending that you're not allowed to go out and buy canned organic tomatoes and give them to the needy. I'm not contending that organic farmers are any less of a farmer than we are, but to market it as more healthy is FALSE. A tomato is a tomato. Wash it, peel it, cook it, dump it out of the can. It doesn't take a powerful statement to plead the case that a can of tomatoes (organic or conventional) in a food pantry basket is more healthy for a family than Cheetos or shells and processed cheese. However, to market it as healthy from a non-agricultural perspective, just an emotional plea is FALSE.

So why couldn't I have said that yesterday?

Oh well. The food controversy wages on, my friends, and it's not just what you put in your basket for your mouth. We're moving onto the needy.

So much more work to be done…if I just had the energy.


  1. Oh how frustrating!!! Our church does food drives and they made brown bags that have a label on them (breakfast, lunch, supper) and the list of things needed for like 3 of those specific meals. While I may not feed my own kids a lunch of canned soup, saltines, pudding, and pb/j (I love to cook from scratch); I would never turn it down if we needed it. And to buy that all organic??? We'd never be able to afford to donate food! I think I would have frozen too... can you imagine how many LESS people you'd be able to feed if people were only allowed to donate organic canned goods?

  2. The stuff a bus program would quickly become stuff a mini van if everything had to be organic. What's next only organic toilet paper and bamboo "paper" towels. Can you say out of control!!

  3. And here I thought I was the only one who replayed conversations in my head thinking about all the things I SHOULD have said! I think you handled it perfectly!

  4. I have been in your shoes (minus the twins part). My husband and I conventionally farm corn, soybeans, sorghum, wheat, cotton, pecans and cattle in central Louisiana. I also have an off-farm job, where I am the Communications & Events Coordinator for the regional Chamber of Commerce. In our office is housed the regional economic development alliance. Within the regional eda is a branch for food systems planning, where they concentrate on developing farmers markets, marketing for large scale home growers to sell locally, etc. The Chamber Board Chairman has started seeking my advice on how to get the ag industry more involved in the Chamber since central Louisiana is dominated by agriculture and forestry because I am a good resource of info. My husband and I are very involved with Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation (he’s our Parish President, I’m the Chairwoman of our Women’s Leadership Committee, we are district representatives to the State Board of LFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers, etc). But because of our conventional farm, the food systems planning coordinator repeatedly throws out, usually when there’s an audience, that we are not real farmers, we are “large commodity producers”, we “steal land that smaller farmers need”- I could go on and on. And I’m like you - WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THAT?! I can’t say a thing, I’m a professional, and I’m at my place of employment. More than likely, he’s upset that it’s me the Board is coming to and not him. Not soon after I began working for the Chamber, after seeing my Seal of Cotton decal on my truck, he asked me, in front of several people, if I knew how much local produce could be grown on just one acre of our cotton. I told him, “Probably quite a bit, but then you’d be naked, and that’s not appropriate for work.” I have to try to keep my hot head and tongue in check! Over time, I’ve learned to ignore him, throwing in the occasional “bless your heart” when needed. My response has morphed into something close to: ‘Whenever you want to discuss the differences in farming practices, how they can work together, and how not everything you read on the internet written by an activist group is accurate, stop by my office. And when you have time, stop by our place and I’ll show you.’ He’s taken me up on neither offer. Good luck!

  5. You should have suggested that low sodium might be more helpful for the whole community. Or creating diabetic-friendly packages of things like fruit without added sugars, whole grains, etc. Or even food allergy-friendly packages. Or perhaps she wanted to start a gleaning or garden-to-pantry program to make more fresh produce available.

    I do regularly buy IPM/organic produce. But it's not for my health, and organic has little to no impact on the health of the person eating it. It's for the health of farmworkers picking those tomatoes who may not be using proper PPE and/or taking residues home to their kids. It's for the guy growing grapes down the road that respond poorly to what's being sprayed upwind.

  6. WOW!!!!!
    We struggle with the same issues as a ranch family. I am not sure I could have kept frozen. Work or not. Kudos to you!
    Your response was spot on, in my opinion.
    Food IS Food!

  7. I had to go head to head with another girl who attacked my way of life the other day, on the worst of all platforms...Facebook. It was awful because I hate to bring any kind of controversy into Facebook, not to mention that this girl is also a representative for the same company that I also work for. But, as my boyfriend and my father both told me...I have chosen this way of life and it's up to me to advocate for it. So, I may push the envelope sometime but I'm going to continue advocating!

    Thanks so much for being a great figure to look up to!