National Food Day and a carrotmob boost healthy eating

Posted: October 24, 2011

Arnett Woodall heard that a crowd was poised to converge on his West Phillie Produce store Friday, and was greatly relieved to learn it was a mob of the carrot variety.

A carrotmob is a good thing, especially when it marks the first National Food Day. But if the term carrotmob is strange and new, National Food Day - Monday - probably is too.

A project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, National Food Day celebrates the changed place of healthy food in the national consciousness. Think of it as an extension of Earth Day, with people coming together for panel discussions, plantings, documentary screenings, and, of course, dinners.

Andrew Toy of the Enterprise Center and Patricia Blakely of the Merchants Fund in Philadelphia thought it auspicious to organize the East Coast's first carrotmob here to mark National Food Day.

A carrotmob (nothing like a flash mob) is the opposite of a boycott.

Boycotts block shoppers from a particular business because the organizers disagree with the owner about something. A carrotmob aims to help a particular business grow because the organizers strongly approve of the way the owner operates.

It's the positive-reinforcement side of the carrot-or-stick equation.

Woodall, 47, who is struggling to keep his two-year-old produce shop afloat in the fast-food vortex that is 62d and Ludlow, was grateful to be on the receiving end of the carrotmob's attention. And proud to be part of a larger national effort.

Food Day was the brainchild of Michael Jacobson, who had a hand in the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, worked for Ralph Nader, and went on to start the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Jacobson has high, perhaps apple pie in the sky, hopes for the project.

Food Day could mark the moment American consumers demanded that the federal government level the playing field for small, sustainable growers. But if it simply draws families to the table for a meal they prepared themselves, Jacobson said, it will be a success.

To that end, there is no central event planned for Monday. No grand march on anyplace. Each community was free to organize classes or conversations.

In Philadelphia, the kickoff was an Oct. 15 Harvest Festival in Hunting Park.

The Department of Public Health, Fair Food, the Food Trust, Philabundance, and SHARE are among the local organizations with events scheduled (see a list at food.visitphilly.com).

The idea behind Food Day, which Jacobson hopes will be annual, is to bring all the stakeholders together: foodies and farmers passionate about sustainable agriculture and urban vegetable gardens; activists who fight against food insecurity and in favor of fair treatment for farm and restaurant workers; environmentalists intent on preventing pollution; parents and public health officers battling childhood obesity.

He hopes the day will highlight issues such as the safety of the food supply and the humane treatment of animals, the dangers of genetic engineering, and the need to control carbon emissions.

Food Day's legislative agenda basically calls on Congress to put ethics and integrity over government subsidies to agribusiness giants.

"Occupiers" here and on Wall Street will find themselves in step on Food Day because the mission is about not getting rich by depriving others.

Much - but not enough - has changed between the first Earth Day and Food Day, Jacobson said.

Gasoline was 39 cents a gallon in 1970, so trucking produce across the country was not as obvious a problem. There was no Food Network, no Cooking Channel, and this country's only celebrity chef was Julia Child.

Since 1970, fast food has been supersized and instances of childhood obesity have tripled.

On the upside, the number of farmer's markets and food co-ops has doubled nationally as well as locally, and a shopper carrying a cloth grocery bag is no longer an oddity.

The carrotmob, a loosely organized attempt to support a business owner's efforts at sustainability, is also an extension of the values expressed on that first Earth Day.

The phenomenon started in San Francisco, spread as far as Australia, and, despite some attempts, never really took hold around here, said Toy, who works with new-business developers.

Folks learn about a planned event via social media. They show up at an appointed place and time to shop at the business and then spread the word that so-and-so has a good thing going, a business worth supporting.

In this case, Woodall, a former teacher's aide at a disciplinary school in Lima, Delaware County, who bought a vacant lot near his 62d Street home, built a two-story building with retail space on the ground floor, and opened West Phillie Produce two years ago.

Unlike the competition north and south on 62d, Woodall sells apples and oranges, not hoagies, cheesesteaks, candy or cigarettes.

That has won him support in the form of loans for commercial equipment like a freezer, juicer, and blender from the city Health Department, the Food Trust, the Enterprise Center, and, now, the Merchants Fund, a nonprofit founded in 1854 to help small business owners facing financial hardship.

Woodall has the equipment and permits to do catering and sell prepared salads. His prices are fair, hours long, and he takes food stamps.

But he's not making a profit. And, like many of the entrepreneurs Toy works with, Woodall has to work two jobs - keeping his landscaping and construction business going, until the produce store can pay its own way.

It was Blakely's idea to call for a carrotmob at West Phillie on Friday. That night, Woodall announced his store would become a pickup site for SHARE, which sells low-cost, nutritious boxes of food for as little as $20.

"I see the carrotmob as a strategic business move," Blakely said. "We hope other communities will pick up the carrotmob idea. It's a viable model for small business development."

For now though, Woodall's potential customers are not lining up, and Blakely thinks that cuts to the core of the challenge ahead.

"Buying local is nothing more than a nice concept - it's not sustainable if it doesn't go beyond hipsters," she said.

"We need John Q. Public, mom and pop, and everybody in the neighborhoods to understand that by shopping at places like Woodall's they are helping their own communities."


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

 

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