Month: May 2016

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad…

Disclosure: This blog post is sponsored by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Although this post is sponsored, all opinions are my own.

When we talk about food, and hunger, it’s almost impossible to avoid the topic of sustainability. I know, we hear that word a lot. As consumers, we now live in a world where, with every trip to the grocery store or every night out for sushi, there seems to be a Jiminy Cricket present to remind us about certain seafood that’s been overfished, or packaging that isn’t biodegradable. We’re conscientious shoppers, so it’s something we think about. But, sustainability isn’t just about the product itself. It’s connected to how it’s made, where it comes from, and what it takes to get it to market. Is that process one that is sustainable? Can it be continued as part of our food system well into the future without depleting valuable resources? How would we even know?

One of the most demonized raw materials today is palm oil. If you’ve heard about it at all, you’ve probably learned that production of palm oil destroys ecosystems, decimates virgin rain forests, contributes to air pollution, and creates real risk of extinction for several species of plants and animals. What you might not know is the production of palm oil can create a direct and immediate danger to humans. A July 2015 Wall Street Journal article shed light on severe human rights violations occurring in the global palm oil industry, including human trafficking, unfair wages, and poor working conditions (AL-MAHMOOD, 2015).  Palm oil crops produce at least quadruple, and in some cases up to 10 times more oil per unit of land than any possible replacements, such as sunflower or soybean oil, so the alternatives aren’t really so great, either.

What makes things tricky for those of us who really want to do the right thing is that palm oil is an ingredient in so many everyday items we all probably have in our pantries, refrigerators, and medicine cabinets that it seems almost impossible to avoid. It’s in everything from ice cream to chocolate…lipstick to deodorant.

The reality is that we probably won’t be able to keep every product that contains palm oil from crossing our threshold. But, now that we know how dangerous palm oil can be to people and the planet, what do we do?

We look for good palm oil, that’s what. I know, I just told you about how horrible it is, but after doing some research I discovered that it doesn’t have to be. If palm oil is grown using sustainable farming practices, it not only protects the ecosystems where it’s grown, but also the people who are growing and harvesting it. How will we know if a product contains responsibly produced palm oil? Just look for this symbol:
That symbol represents an effort by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to change the way palm oil is grown, harvested, and produced, and to “make sustainable palm oil the norm.” 13 countries have already adopted sustainable practices, earning designation as RSPO certified producers. Many companies are displaying the RSPO trademark on their packaging, making it easy to spot the ones who are doing it right. In order for more companies to start using sustainably produced palm oil in their products, they have to know it’s important to us. That’s where you come in.

You all know that I don’t post a lot of “Call to Action” type stuff on this blog. I’ve carefully avoided corporate sponsored posts, or high pressure pitches to use a certain product or company. However, this is different. This is about playing a role in creating a more sustainable food system—one that can feed the planet for our kids and their kids and their kids without doing harm to people or planet. We’re going to talk about local food systems in this series, of course, but we also have to recognize that the choices we make locally have global impact. If we can help make sustainable palm oil production standard practice, we’re making a difference.  Don’t just take my word for it, though. I encourage you to do your own research and decide for yourself. A few good places to start are:



Whatever your opinion is, please join the conversation using the social media hashtag #goodbadpalmoil.

AL-MAHMOOD, S. (2015, July 26). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. Retrieved May 19, 2016, from

Hungry at Home: What is Food Justice?

It’s 8am on a Saturday morning, and organizers of the Forward Food Summit in Denver are setting up tables, audio equipment, and projectors at the Mercury Cafe for a day of conversation focused on issues of food and economic justice.

It’s snowing outside, fulfillment of a promised spring snowstorm for the Denver metro, but attendees all received an email the day before letting us know that even Mother Nature wouldn’t keep the summit from happening. Last minute arrangements were made for those who couldn’t make it in on snowy roads to participate remotely, and that was about as much acknowledgement as the weather would receive. As people start to trickle in, the energy and excitement build and soon what’s happening outside becomes inconsequential.

Hunger, food insecurity, and food justice are complex issues. While I understood this on an intellectual, “Oh, I read an article about that,” level, it wasn’t until I found myself in this room full of people on the front lines of the fight that I began to really feel the full depth and breadth of what’s at stake. Even my own experience didn’t prepare me for just how enormous a topic we were about to tackle. The day, designed through cooperative effort of the Denver and Boulder Food Rescues, would leave us all wondering how we could learn more, say more, be more, do more, to bring light and resolution to these often overwhelming issues.


Our discussions that day started with an introduction to the Community Language Cooperative, whose volunteer translators helped make sure both English and Spanish speaking participants could be included in the conversation. That was lesson one—the recognition that people from every background, socioeconomic status, and country of origin have a role to play, and that means a multilingual approach is absolutely vital. Not every hungry person speaks English, and in order to help them, to have the best perspective on their experience, we have to make sure that we can understand them, and they can understand us.

This discussion flowed naturally into the topic of privilege. What advantages do you have that make your access to even the most basic necessities less challenging? Access to food—nutritious food to fuel your mind and body to learn and grow… to education—quality education that will prepare you for a future that gives you options, and even greater access to jobs that pay well enough to support you and your family in a way that helps foster a cycle of greater access to the next generation. The advantages or disadvantages of each generation is what sets up the next one for success or struggle. By recognizing what privilege is, and how it becomes a living, breathing character in the story of a life, we start to see how the deck can be stacked against entire groups of people—your neighbors, your friends, your kid’s classmates, your colleagues.

Throughout the rest of the day, we would talk about and dispel many of the myths surrounding living wage legislation. “It’s will raise the price of everything!” some say. But what if, instead, it gave more people the wage needed to not just subsist, but to thrive? Economists will tell you that more people buying more new things—new TVs, computers, cars, and homes, is what allows for economic growth, job creation, and better investment in education and infrastructure. What if, by raising the minimum wage, we were giving another entire population of people the ability to contribute to their local, regional, and national economies?  Living wage panelist Maggie Gomez from 9 to 5 Colorado summed it up best when she said, “If you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to feed yourself.” A living wage provides dignity to every job, simple as that.


We would talk about food deserts—entire neighborhoods without access to a grocery store, farm stand, farmer’s market, or community farm. For those without cars, this means a long, physically demanding trip to and from the nearest food source, which could be as much as an hour away by bus. Or, it might mean it’s just easier to go to the fast food restaurant up the street, where, thanks to cheap, low quality ingredients, dinner for a family of four can be had for about 20 bucks. All of us can understand the snowball effect rolling from that scenario—health problems due to poor diet that aren’t addressed due to lack of access to proper healthcare and nutrition education, no time off from work to go to the doctor anyway, and children who are going to school under-nourished, making it harder for them to pay attention in class and retain what they’ve learned. This is how a cycle is perpetuated.

We would talk about the successes, too. An entire Denver neighborhood full of families who helped teach each other how to grow their own food.  They’re now in the process of opening a local food cooperative called Re:Vision Co-op. Or, a group of women from the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver who are working together to start several food related micro-businesses. They’ve spent weeks and months taking advantage of every bit of training and education they could get their hands on to learn about topics from nutrition, to sanitation, to how to start a business. One woman dreams of owning a fleet of food trucks, serving healthy Latin cuisine. Another wants to open her own bakery, utilizing fresh fruits to help make traditional Latin American pastries lighter and more nutritious. Looking around during this panel discussion, there didn’t seem to be a single one of us in the audience who wasn’t inspired and moved by these women, who, despite a pile of disadvantages, understood the value of what they could do for their neighborhood with just a little help.

“We need help to make these businesses successful. What we offer in return is our hard work, and job creation…To dream is a beautiful thing, and together, I know we will achieve our dreams.”

This is the first of a four part series on hunger and food insecurity, as told through the experiences of the authors. We’ll share their personal stories, and find out that hunger is exactly where you think you’d find it, and in many places you wouldn’t. In the meantime, please join in the discussion here, on Facebook, or Twitter. What’s happening in your town to help fight hunger, and create food justice?