Opinion: 5 Takeaways From The Holy Chicken Incident
Morgan Spurlock’s website lists his occupation as “writer, director and producer”. It could just as easily note, “raconteur, merry prankster and provocateur” based on past history. What hasn’t always been clear is his investigative methodology and the lengths that he is willing to go to prove a point.
Spurlock’s announcement last week that his four day pop up, aptly branded as “Holy Chicken” would open in Columbus and offer a new “chicken experience”, serve “fast-food made with integrity,” while using “100 percent natural free-range chickens” only to share at the restaurant tables that the chickens used were raised “pretty much the same as all industrial chickens,” isn’t too surprising, given his background. What is notable is how willing we are to believe the claims that restaurants make given that the terminology often used to describe their food has no substance.
Food system advocates struggle with the lack of meaning attached to terms like, “all natural,” “sustainably-raised” and even “locally grown,” and how these terms are coopted by restaurants, grocers and institutions to promote their brand. Even more preposterous to food advocates and farmers are the restaurants that call themselves “farm-to-table” and “supporters of local farms” when a deeper dive into their purchasing practices reveals something completely different.
Perhaps what is most frustrating of all is the fact that there is no agreed upon definition for many of these common terms, very little oversight by federal, state or local entities to verify the claims, and a lack of demand by consumers, or a watch dog organization to provide accountability. The challenge for the food movement moving forward is to create clear standards and metrics to hold businesses and institutions accountable, provide transparency for consumers to make informed decisions and significantly increase the amount of sustainably grown food in the marketplace.
Here are a few suggestions for how we can get this done:
- Let’s start by getting rid of the term “local food” as an organizing principle of food system reform. While “buying local” and being a “locavore” by proxy implies support of local farms, environmental stewardship and healthy food, in reality, it has no meaning and often reduces the conversation to geography.
- If you want to support farms that are following sustainable practices then look for the certified organic label. While not a perfect system, it provides a level of transparency regarding production standards and is a good indicator of how a grower views the craft of farming. And, buying more certified organic fruits, vegetables, meat and grains will insure that more acres of farmland are ultimately converted to organic production that supports soil fertility, lower pesticide usage and environmental stewardship.
- Let’s make farmer prosperity one of our goals and begin thinking of small and mid-size farms as “Agripreneurs”; essentially small businesses that have an expertise in good agricultural practices. This is important because if we are going to see a significant increase in the amount of sustainably grown food that is purchased by consumers, then farms and the businesses that support them will have to organize and create successful strategies to get their products into the places where folks shop and dine most often; using tactics that allow them to successfully compete in a marketplace that makes most of its purchasing decisions on price rather than value.
- Let’s find creative ways to invest some of our own dollars in small and mid-size farm businesses. Access to capital is often one of the greatest detriments to farm expansion and to creating the infrastructure necessary to successfully compete with the industrial farm model. Visit SlowMoneyCentralOhio.org for ideas on how you can help.
- Finally, let’s create a consumer-led, grassroots movement that challenges restaurants, grocers and other institutions to make more of their purchases from small and mid-size farms. Corporations listen to their customers, not to the farmers trying to sell them products. And while we’re at it, let’s create a purchasing metric for these same businesses that demonstrates sincere support of small farms; one that can be independently verified, and that ultimately rewards businesses for their support.
The food movement has always been hamstrung by what Michael Pollan refers to as, “a big, lumpy tent, where sometimes the various factions beneath it work at cross-purposes.” In essence, different interest groups collide in their attempts to create a food system that is equitable, environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and health promoting. We can begin to harmonize these efforts by providing clear definitions to our efforts and by applying metrics that measure our progress so that we’re speaking a common language.
As for Morgan Spurlock, perhaps we can find it in us to thank him for going to an extreme to raise issues about industrial food production and to challenge food system reformers to create a more effective and impactful response; but if he’s coming back to sell us more fried chicken, no thanks: we aren’t in the market.
– Michael Jones
Good Food Enterprises