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Turning a food corner


Many ideas take a while to fully form, and some take longer than others. Perhaps you’ve shared the sense that despite the seemingly careful planting of many seeds—an idea in this case—nothing is really growing, or certainly not as fast as it should be.

During one week in March, conversations about the quality of the food we eat and the way it is grown, raised, processed and prepared, emerged like spring shoots and offered the promise of an actual bloom of significant change. It amazed us. And it gave us hope.

It started before we boarded a plane for Kansas City with the announcement by the Bruegger’s bagel chain that its Wisconsin stores will no longer use eggs from hens living in confinement cages. Decried by animal rights activists, these absurdly cruel production standards have also been cited by healthy food advocates for contributing to contamination and disease as well as degrading the environment.

Then, as we were driving around Kansas City, we noticed billboards for the popular chain Qdoba Mexican Grill, adver- tising its restaurants were “anti-antibiotics, and pro-beef.”

On the plane back to Madison, we read a New York Times editorial praising the famous chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck for his declaration that henceforth his various culinary enterprises would use products only from humanely raised animals, and his standards would be strict. As significant as the news itself was the fact that The Times found the topic worthy of an editorial! That hallowed page is a decidedly different and long overdue venue for such issues.

And our amazement didn’t end there. Two days after our return, Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, announced it would begin buying both pork and eggs from farmers who did not inhumanely confine their animals. Rome, we thought, is being built in a day.

But despite our excitement—and relief—we had questions. What had prompted this sudden and astonishingly broad-reaching activism on behalf of some of the largest players in the food world? As much as we’d like to credit some newfound sense of corporate responsibility—and, to be fair, there must be an element of that—these are not businesses given to simple altruism. Rather, it would appear to be a convergence of factors, subtle and otherwise.

It’s hard not to give too much credit to writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Over the last five years or so the movement to broaden the conversation about the quality of the food we eat and the way it is grown has picked up incredible momentum. Contributors have included advocates for local agriculture, community-based economies, environmental protection and resource conservation, as well as the Slow Food movement, organic growers and proponents of sustainable systems stretching from biodiversity to socially-just employment. During that same five-year period, serious thinkers on this topic like Pollan, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini and restaurateur Alice Waters, began to investigate and articulate some of the challenges to greater availability of healthier food choices, and a common thread emerged.

The market, as dictated by industrial growers and producers, corporate food processors and chain restaurants (with the help of friendly lawmakers and irrational incentives), were able to dictate such fundamental components as corn acreage, livestock regulations and food safety standards. Taken together, their work has had influence reaching further into the mainstream than that of so many other individual efforts, and has created a greater expectation of responsibility (and unquestionably profit potential) that before this had only existed on the margins.

Locally, consumers have had the option of choosing to support businesses like the Willy Street Co-op, Artamos Meats & Deli, Harvest, L’Etoile and Lombardino’s, where products matched their values. But similar practices by businesses like Burger King and Wolfgang Puck Companies dramatically expand the availability of these kinds of products both geographically (think airports) and to a broader socio-economic population.

It is a serious shift in policy. It is hopeful. And it is empowering. If this kind of growth can occur in a week, what else is possible? We’ll tell you next month.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to

Madison Magazine - May 2007
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