A Response: Kraft Foods and Community Gardens

Triscuit Urban Farming -- Somerville, MA

A Triscuit rep and town officials posing at a Somerville farm groundbreaking. How turned off should we be by this? (Associated Press)

 

Earlier this month, Kristi Ceccarossi of the excellent Boston Localvores crew penned an article for online op-ed syndicate OtherWords about a recently-built community garden in Somerville whose construction was financed by Kraft Foods (you can read her article here). Kraft, under their Triscuit brand, sponsored the garden as part of its Home Farming Initiative, in which it is directly sponsoring the building of 50+ community gardens across the country. Kraft is also putting packets of herb seeds in select boxes of Triscuits, with instructions for consumers on how to plant and grow them. Ceccarossi’s piece frames this initiative as an opportunistic corporate ploy to take advantage of our noble grassroots movement toward sustainable agricultural systems. Is this a productive way of looking at Kraft’s involvement, and if so, to what extent should we be concerned by it? The role of corporations in our agricultural future is a subject worthy of considerable and serious public debate, but I think that Ceccarossi — who takes an aggressively staunch anti-corporate stance — is off the mark with this one. 

 

At issue is the fact that Kraft is a global food monolith, a hugely major player in an irresponsible and destructive agricultural system. It can absolutely be safely assumed that Kraft has committed countless environmental atrocities in the name of their bottom line. As the world’s second-largest food conglomerate, they’ve got their hands in pretty much everything local food supporters hate: GMOs, monocultures, pesticides, factory farming, etc. We should absolutely condemn that behavior, and not support any products which were created using those methods. What does not immediately follow from this, though, is that we should condemn everything which Kraft Foods touches. Ceccarossi writes that she would “support this kind of project… were it not for the fact that it was built in partnership with Triscuit.” Should we turn these gifts away simply because we don’t like those who gave them to us? 

This is in many ways a serious moral question. However, I’d argue that we don’t have the latitude to waste our time dealing with it. We need to grow a lot more food within our communities. We need people to be able to buy local food that is seasonal, fresh, and free of chemicals. This garden helps to accomplish those things, but there is (probably) an advertisement next to it, and it (probably) lets Kraft feel good about itself. I’d wager that Ceccarossi is more bothered by the latter than anything else. It’d be great if we could drag these companies out in front of everyone and really shame them for their practices, but that’s not going to happen right now. We shouldn’t waste our energy on this sort of bitterness, or let it distract us from issues of greater importance. 

Triscuit Urban Farming -- San Francisco

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome at a similar Triscuit Urban Farming groundbreaking ceremony. (flickr/mayorgavinnewsome)

 

What’s the real harm? What is Kraft Foods gaining in doing this? Positive vibes, maybe, and brand recognition? These are specious benefits in the absence of a cash exchange, and we certainly do not have to go buy Triscuits just because there’s a sign for them hanging in the garden down by the church. The community gets vegetables and, more importantly, a working example of an urban garden. Kraft Foods gets the Triscuit brand out there.  It feels a little selfish to take umbrage with this otherwise acceptable tract of farmland simply because it was sponsored by a large corporation. This appears to be Ceccarossi’s only objection to the farm itself, and it’s ultimately no different from someone being “repulsed” by a garden donated to a community by gays, blacks, Argentinians, whatever. 

This whole thing would be a problem if Kraft were planting genetically modified crops, or planning on shutting the community out and pulling some sort of bait-and-switch so they could use all the vegetables for themselves. It’d also be a problem if they were requiring members of the Somerville community to pay them. As far as I can tell, none of these things have happened or are likely to happen. Instead, we’ve got some ordinary vegetables in an urban garden which were planted with help from corporate hands. 

Maybe corporations won’t be part of a better agricultural future. Then again, maybe they will. What if Kraft was going to pay to install 10,000 gardens across the country, with the caveat that each garden had to have a “Kraft Foods” flag in the middle of it? We’d irrefutably be much closer to having a better food supply — a supply whose effects are very real, mind you, not figurative. If you would try to stop that from happening, then your cause is anti-corporate, not pro-local food. That’s fine, but be honest with yourself (and everyone else) about where your priorities lay. 

“Perhaps Kraft officials think Big Food can be absolved by tossing a fraction of its fortunes towards urban plots that will, realistically, feed very few people.” 

“Fraction.” “Very few.” In an article which labels what Kraft is doing as evil and dishonest, this is telling rhetoric, because it argues that Kraft isn’t doing enough of that supposedly evil and dishonest thing. This betrays a lack of confidence in the original argument: hey Kraft, you can’t buy our love with a garden… and besides, that garden isn’t even that great, anyways! It implies that Kraft actually could be good if they decided to use more of their revenue to plant larger community gardens. This isn’t an impossible future. These are corporations, and they respond to demand. The benefit of this garden is clear. We should suspend our paranoia in the interest of investigating these partnerships. Then, if they turn out to be evil, sure, get out the torches and the pitchforks. 

Our vegetable garden

Our tiny vegetable garden. Technically not our property, but hey, we do what we can.

 

I am certainly very sensitive to the annoyances and indecencies of advertisements, and agree that we should resist corporate invasion of our privacy. If someone from Triscuit came by in the middle of the night and hung a big sign next to my garden, I’d tear it down. If someone hung one in a nearby community garden in which I had a plot, I’d be happy if (ahem) someone else tore it down. I’d always admit that this was secondary, though. If you make me choose between a garden with ads or no garden at all, I’m choosing the garden with ads every time. The planet does not share my peculiar sensitivities toward corporate infringements on my personal life. 

Corporations control incredible amounts of money and power, but they derive that power from people. We often forget this; as a result, many positions we take intending to be anti-corporate actually end up being sort of anti-ourselves. We have been conditioned to believe that we are relatively powerless, but I don’t need anyone to shield me from a Triscuits ad. I’m perfectly capable of ignoring them on my own, and if there is any hope for us at all, so are you. What’s the use in touting the power of community if you don’t even think that same community can handle a smiling little Kraft PR representative? 

We, the people, have plenty of power. All we have to do to kill a corporation is not give them any of our money. We should be confident of and take pride in our ability to do this. If we assume responsibility for our own lives, we will feel significantly less threatened by the companies which depend on us. This is as necessary a part of our future as community-grown food is, maybe an even more necessary part. We don’t know exactly where we’re going yet. We do ,however, have the ability to largely determine that for ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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11 Responses to A Response: Kraft Foods and Community Gardens

  1. Ceccarossi here!

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. But, I have to say, opposing a giant corporate force and its presence in a community initiative is VERY different than opposing a marginalized social/economic or cultural group. Here you suggest there’s no difference:

    This appears to be Ceccarossi’s only objection to the farm itself, and it’s ultimately no different from someone being “repulsed” by a garden donated to a community by gays, blacks, Argentinians, whatever.

    If a community group said “hey, we’re putting together a community garden for gays, blacks, Argentinians or whatever,” I would have no problem with that. However, if Kraft said donated a garden to one of these groups, my opposition would stand — against Kraft.

    I’ll just say it again because I don’t think it can ever be said enough: If we’re really doing the work to transform our food system, which is actually a transformation of the way we live, we should set some meaningful boundaries in our pursuit. Saying “no” to this kind of participation from Kraft and the other corporate interests that got us here seems like a very reasonable and necessary line in the sand to me. Integrity matters. Because otherwise, what have we got?

    I would also say that my ideas on this topic have been influenced by reading I’ve done on the history of corporate power in America and the role it had in shaping our country. We can vote with our dollars, but those votes only go so far when our elected officials give contracts and subsidies to monopolizing powers. Sabes lo que queiro decir?

    One more thing: What kind of seeds do you think Kraft uses in its gardens? Does that matter?

    • Finn says:

      I wasn’t talking to a garden donated to one of those groups, but by one of those groups — like, for example, if the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force donated money to build this same garden. I understand that gardens make food, and Kraft makes food, whereas sexuality and food don’t have anything to do with one another, but at some level here, it’s Kraft’s ideologies that are being disputed. If you can use Kraft’s ideologies to hate a garden they pay for, you can use the same approach to a garden paid for by gays. I’m certainly sensitive to the “presence in the community” aspect, but I have hope that we can police ourselves to not buy Triscuits, say. The garden doesn’t make us buy Triscuits.

      Per their seeds, as I said, it’d be a huge problem if Kraft was donating GMO seeds. I certainly don’t know where the seeds that were planted came from, so if it came out that they were GMO, I’d totally agree that this was a really bad thing. Assuming that this was vetted somehow, I made the assumption that they weren’t. Maybe that’s an ignorant assumption, but I’m talking about a garden here that contains neutral seeds.

      And I definitely understand your point about government contracts and subsidies. We shouldn’t give the government a free pass on anything, nor should we forget our ability to choose our elected officials and the policies which they promote. This is all very daunting, because it requires a whole lot of convincing of a whole lot of people who are unaware of these issues either by nature or — much worse — by choice. It requires serious, insistent, and sometimes angry people. I like people who are persuasively angry about these issues.

      I guess I think that we can be angry at Kraft for what they did (and do) while still seriously demanding that they change, instead of, I don’t know, demanding that they go away. Big companies are always going to exist, and I think that we just need to remind them that we’re not going to take any shit from them. I don’t think that size or scale are inherently evil. Integrity is important, but at some point, the line between maintaining integrity and holding a grudge starts to blur.

      • Kristi says:

        Me again.

        I’m sorry, Finn, but this is just wrong: You cannot compare my opposition to Kraft, its ideology or its interference in community gardening with a garden sponsored by *any* other entity with an ideology.

        Also, I would like to clarify that I don’t _hate_ any garden. Why would I? I am opposed to what Kraft/Triscuit is doing with this garden initiative.

        And here we will just agree to disagree: Size and scale are inherently problematic. Not “evil.” But you cannot have equal emphasis on bottom line and the public good in a giant corporation. History, “regulation” and the law has shown that over and over again.

        • Finn says:

          No, I very much agree that size and scale are problematic, but I just don’t think that you can look at that and say “okay, be smaller.” That, to me, is too ideological. I’d much more rather say “okay, we’re going to charge you for your emissions, because we can demonstrate that your emissions have x effect.” The latter accomplishes the same thing as the former, but for a much more indisputable reason.

  2. cathy says:

    You write: This whole thing would be a problem if Kraft were planting genetically modified crops, or planning on shutting the community out and pulling some sort of bait-and-switch so they could use all the vegetables for themselves. It’d also be a problem if they were requiring members of the Somerville community to pay them. As far as I can tell, none of these things have happened or are likely to happen. Instead, we’ve got some ordinary vegetables in an urban garden which were planted with help from corporate hands.

    Something to consider: Kraft might not be planting the GM crops, but where are they getting their ingredients from? Every box of a Kraft food-like product represents what is wrong with food and nutrition in our country. Offering free garden start-ups is greenwashing. If Pepsi offered free jump ropes with their 2 liter bottles of soda, it still wouldn’t make the product any more credible. And I love skipping rope. Just like I love TRUE community gardens. If the church really wanted a garden I’m sure there would have have been many, many people in Somerville they could have reached out to. Somerville is fortunate to have 10 community gardens, a garden club, a growing center, and access to two weekly farmers’ markets so the foundation is already established.

    • Finn says:

      Again, no one is forcing anyone to buy Kraft products, and Kraft didn’t force Somerville to allow this to be built. I disagree with what I’m sensing is an implication that Somerville didn’t want this garden.

      You are very much correct that this is greenwashing, and I’m glad you mention that, because it’s a practice that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and something that I failed to address in the post. But again, while I totally agree with pointing out all of Kraft’s horrible practices and policies, I stop short of rejecting the garden. Gardens like that — albeit ones which are free of ads — are literally what we do want and need. Similarly, if Pepsi offered jumpropes with their products, I’d certainly agree that we shouldn’t take pressure off of Pepsi, but I would not agree that the jumpropes should be thrown in the trash or something.

      Kraft’s products are garbage, but it’s not because they are large, or because they are Kraft. It’s because our culture and our government have created an environment which demands garbage food, and rewards those who make it the most efficiently.

      If we imposed a total ban on all GMO food in this country, for example, it’s not like Kraft would instantly wither up and die as though they were the Wicked Witch of the West. They’d be forced to stop using GMOs, or risk going out of business. Companies respond to the environment they are in — supply, demand, regulation, and the like. We as a society should punish practices, but I do not recommend or endorse an attitude which does not allow for someone or something — even a major corporation — to change.

      • cathy says:

        When you say you’re sensing that Somerville didn’t want this garden, I’m not sure what part of Somerville you are talking about.

        To clarify, a Triscuit garden is located in Somerville, at a congregational church, which is private property. The Triscuit garden might be referred to as a community garden, but it is a community garden inasmuch as a church is part of a community. It is not overseen by, or the responsibility of, the city.

        Somerville does have community gardens, which are overseen by the city and its residents, and commercial-free. I think it’s important to make this distinction.

        • Finn says:

          Absolutely. This is not the best possible sort of garden in any way, shape, or form.

          I will note that the city wasn’t exactly silent on this issue; the smiling gentleman in the top picture is David Lutes, Director of Somerville’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. I don’t know about the city’s involvement beyond that photo op, but there he is, regardless.

  3. patty DiStefano Donahue says:

    Kraftfoods wants to jump on the whole food band wagon, but it can’t because thats not what they do. don’t fool yourself into thinking they do this for the better good, they are motivated to increase profits. people are changing their eating habits, moving from processed to whole foods. Kraftfoods needs to re-invent itself so they pair up with the feel good community garden movement, gambling that people make the connection and buy their products, Its advertisement, pulling the wool over our eyes, go back to sleep my little sheep.

    • Finn says:

      While it’s true that this is a Kraft advertisement, and it’s true that Kraft would love for people to assume their products are now “greener” without them having to do or change those products, it’s not true that Kraft “can’t [make whole foods] because that’s not what they do.” Kraft just makes profitable food products. They don’t have any particular attachment to destructive practices. If they had incentive to make responsible products, they would, because that would help their bottom line.

      There is nothing wrong with being motivated by profit! We consumers just have to make sure that the only way we give companies revenue (and, thereby, allow them to profit) is if they make products that are safe and sustainable.

  4. Rayn says:

    Two questions; 1) where should the money to start and sustain community gardens come from; and 2) what if the corporations want to build their own gardens for their employee community? I understand the resistance to corporate support but federal, state, and local grants are not able to fully support and sustain gardens either because they are written requiring matching funds, cover up to a certain percentage of costs, cover the garden for a limited time or are non-renewable. Churches, schools, and communities are all competing for the same funds and fundraising efforts need to become more creative and include all potential stakeholders. There have been multiple reports identifying community benefits facilitated by community gardens and given that government grants may not be available, the schools and neighborhoods with the greatest need will need to find other financial sources. Even if they can find funding to start gardens, how are they going to sustain them?
    The American Community Gardening Association lists many corporations as funding sources as does the National Gardening Association, and many other state and local community gardening associations. Many municipalities also collect Open Space Impact Fees from residential developers that are then used to support community garden projects, although indirectly through the city, these are corporate funds. This is an interesting issue because if part of the argument for funding is local supporting local, then foundations that are often seen as preferable for funding are counter to the philosophy as they are not local and would not reap the same community and economic development benefits.
    As for companies starting their own gardens, I think it is great, and wish I could protest using them as a benefit instead of increasing salary. However, if I believe in the benefits of community gardening then it definitely is a benefit. I would not want to see funding for corporate gardens with restricted participation to employees and their family gaining on or surpassing corporate funding to community gardens without that do not have those membership restrictions. Mostly I am glad that community gardens are finding funders as there are many food deserts in rural and urban Illinois and the need is high. Since the funding is for growing food, I think food and beverage companies and restaurants may be some of the most informed potential funders and by all means should be included as part of the support for the local food system.

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