Call to Action: Corn Sugar, Campaigns, & Consumerism In General

grain.jpgA few weeks ago I admittedly got pretty riled up when I heard about the Corn Refiners Association's (CRA) petition to change the name high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar. The CRA claims that the goal is to eliminate confusion for consumers, but the US food system cynic in me immediately figured it was a ploy to change the now-well-publicized, mouthful-of-a-name HFCS to something easier to read. Because, you know, one thing pro natural food people like me will urge people to do is buy foods where you can actually read the ingredient label.
And then this week the hubbub extended to the blogging community by way of a sponsored blog tour by local marketing consultant group Mom Central, through which the CRA paid Mom Central to orchestrate a campaign in which they compensated a group of bloggers in gift certificates (from what I understand, $100 to Walmart) to listen in on a webinar and then blog about how corn sugar ain't so bad after all (again, from what I understand, with some content provided directly to them). I realize that everyone has different planes on which they operate regarding food, but as a blogger, this is the sort of campaign I would have raised a big stink over had it been pitched to me, and if I were an agency, it's the sort of campaign I would refuse to engage in.

Liz Gumbinner of Mom-101 (disclosure: a blogging colleague who has become a good friend) wrote an excellent post from the blogger perspective regarding the need to own one's words and be informed before committing to (seemingly sketchy) campaigns such as the corn sugar campaign. Stacy DeBroff of Mom Central (disclosure: someone I know professionally but not personally) followed by writing a puzzling rebuttal post, in which she came down on the practice of defaming fellow bloggers, yet proceeded to equate Liz to a bullying Borg. When I read Stacy's post, the comments were mixed (supporting either Liz or Stacy); later, Stacy apparently began removing negative comments, then closed comments (only leaving up positive ones). The comments have since been removed altogether but you can see screenshots of some comments at Liz's follow up post.

Yes, I was scratching my head too.

But more importantly, reading the posts, comments, and tweets about all of this in the last few days reminded me that there are much larger issues at play, and this is what I wanted to address with all of you. Liz already astutely discussed issues that bloggers should keep in mind, and all I can say there is that I share the mindset that bloggers (particularly if you are -- like me -- aiming to provide a useful and informed resource to your readers) must do their homework and not be swayed by things like gift cards or other opportunities in exchange for editorial; you can see how I handle the copious number of pitches I receive in my contact & disclosure page. But in short, suffice to say that I have turned down many well compensating opportunities because they make no sense with my editorial perspective. I mean, really, given my very evident green point of view, if you saw me post that you should go forth and freely enjoy HFCS (or CS) or wipe down all of your home surfaces with toxic bleach, you would smell shill, right?

But I digress. Today, in the aftermath (or continued-math?) of all of this HFCS campaign business, I wanted to call attention to what I see as the larger issues at play -- because our problem is way bigger than corn sugar. I'm talking about our role as consumers in general, and as people for whom one of our main sources of consumption is food. And I'm issuing a call to action. I value each and every one of you who pulls up a seat to tune into what I write here at Boston Mamas and today I want to encourage you to think about your role as a consumer and to think about change. Here are my recommended action items -- and truly, they are all doable:

1. Think about you, not just your kids. One common thing I see when adults become parents is that they take green action where it concerns the babies (e.g., feeding, household products, clothing, gear) yet do not do the same diligence regarding their own needs. I encourage you to think about your wellness with the same care that you do for your kids.

2. Educate yourself. It is never too late to educate yourself about our food system. Reading Fast Food Nation several years ago essentially sealed the decision that I would never again walk into a McDonald's, nor would I bring Laurel to one. And I highly recommend you watch Food, Inc. The general concepts were not new to me but it is a highly engaging movie (i.e., will only take about 90 minutes of your time) and it was sobering to be reminded of how such a small group of companies controls a vast proportion of our food landscape (which is bad on many levels). And despite living a very green lifestyle, I know I can learn more and be inspired to do more. So I plan on finally reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, and another book I just cracked into last night is The Coke Machine (by Michael Blanding, a friend and talented local writer). It's probably not surprising to you that I have a negative opinion of soda but I'm interested to learn what Michael has uncovered in this investigative book.

3. Think critically, even when "experts" are involved. While I was trying to recover from the blog battle between Liz and Stacy, I saw a post by Annie of Ph.D. in Parenting pop up in my feed reader. In it, Annie describes a recently announced healthy living partnership between the American Academy of Pediatrics and Nestlé. Um, yeah. As cognitively dissonant images of children exercising while holding Nestlé drumsticks floated across my brain, I immediately thought, "Well, this seems shady and contrived." You can delve into Nestlé issues via a series of thoughtful posts at Annie's site, but suffice to say, just because something (a product, initiative, whatever) is endorsed by an academic source doesn't necessarily mean it's on the level; don't accept things at face value. It's the same as needing to think critically when it comes to products labeled "natural." You still need to read labels and do your homework because US regulations just aren't stringent enough to truly protect consumers (as evidenced by the fact that in the US, cleaning and personal care product purveyors are not required to fully disclose their ingredients on their product labels).

4. Read labels. Over a decade ago, when Jon and I became avid label readers, at first it seemed completely tedious. At the time, we were living in a small town in Canada and there weren't as many options for organic food. Plus, label reading added time to an already mundane errand. And of course as a parent you're even more time pressed at the grocery store. However, I urge you to get in the habit of reading labels; it will get easier as you go and you will build up a familiar cadre of trusted products. Not to mention that it will be a wake-up call when you realize that a lot of your "food" actually isn't even food. The good news is that there are so many more natural/organic options now in regular grocery stores, and if you go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, you'll have a nice wide base of products from which to choose.

5. Don't accept stereotypes. Speaking of Whole Foods, I know the perception is that they are more expensive (and that organic/natural foods are always more expensive). And yes, I blow a lot of money at Whole Foods, but I think that actually happens because: a) I like really top notch cheese; and b) I am classically lured to endcap items and Whole Foods make their endcaps so pretty and appealing (i.e., I stray from my list and thus jack up my bill). HOWEVER, we've found that certain items at Whole Foods actually are the same price as or less expensive than at other stores. So don't simply accept the stereotype; be open to at least getting a few critical items at Whole Foods (I would start with organic produce and meat). Alternatively, I will say that we are always stunned (in a good way) when we shop at Trader Joe's. It's remarkably affordable and they have a lot of natural/organic options.

6. Consider a CSA next season or make regular stops at a farmer's market as long as they're running. I've mentioned our farm share periodically on this site (which we signed up for after studying April's excellent post on Boston area CSA options) and it was a truly amazing experience this fall. Every week I have felt immensely grateful that we are one person removed (i.e., the farmer at the pick up truck) from the food we are eating, vs. 5 or more people removed (e.g., farmer, pick up person, shipper, unloader, store stocker). I also don't think it's an accident that our once fickle eater Laurel all of a sudden started experimenting with new foods (including lots of vegetables) this fall. We haven't decided about next year, but we'll either repeat our CSA or instead make weekly visits to the farmer's market (our CSA was super prolific but sometimes we were overrun with more leafy greens than we could eat or just wanted some different options, including locally grown fruit).

7. Make small changes. No change is too small; we are all part of a system. If you're starting your green living efforts from scratch, start, for example, by looking at your grocery list and committing to substituting one additional processed food item (e.g., snack food) each week with a real food alternative (places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's offer lots of snack food favorites, but made without nasty chemicals). If you're already doing that, step it up a notch and opt for locally grown or organic produce, naturally raised meat, and/or other food, body, and household products free of chemicals in the ingredient list. (For household care, we buy Seventh Generation; last time I checked, they were the only company that fully discloses their ingredient list to consumers. I also clean a remarkable number of things with plain old baking soda.)

8. Break the addiction. Another important change? Try to wean yourself off soda; it's perfectly fine (it's more than fine, it's awesome) to start small, reducing your intake week by week, or you can try to go cold turkey. I was thrilled when I read on Facebook that my friend Rhoda kicked her Diet Coke habit. Honestly, I never knew she was a fanatic, but I know many people who are addicted to soda so I wasn't surprised. I was thrilled that she was able to make this change.

9. Remember that you are driving this bus (even if it's not a hybrid bus). I know it sounds basic, but I think we often forget exactly how powerful we are as consumers. And whether it comes to corn sugar or other products, we make our voices heard with our dollars. You drive this bus and you can make change, and doing so in whatever increment you can manage at this moment is fantastic. And more importantly, you and your family deserve change.

If you have any questions about transitioning to a greener lifestyle, please feel free to e-mail me. I'm always happy to answer your questions.

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