On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article, While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn't going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn't seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino's marketing campaign.
This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino's for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:
Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”
Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberal Huffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”
The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.” Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers. Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying "Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas," adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”
Because of previous stories I've done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn't sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss, "ace New York Times Reporter" didn't do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that's been done on the story, I'm the only "reporter" that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.
Moss explained in the article why he didn't have those conversations:
The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.
The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn't speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I'm baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn't.
So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?
I'm flattered that the "So Good" food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;
The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?
I'll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn't take the "tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza" bait, like so many others.
There are a couple of lessons for me in this;
1. Don't believe everything you read on the internet.
2. Don't believe everything you read in the New York Times.
3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.
If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.
One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That's why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.
My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don't follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It's actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.