Thursday, June 25, 2009

Call to ACTION in Illinois! Stop the budget cuts!

We're in a sad, sick state of affairs in Illinois, and this is one of those situations where we CANNOT just sit on our hands and expect things to turn out well in the end. This is battle that needs champions fighting for our beliefs and our rights. Folks like you and me.

Here's the skinny:
On May 31, 2009 the Illinois General Assembly passed a partial year budget for FY 2010 that created a $9.2 billion funding gap, which is forcing drastic cuts in community- and state-provided fundamental social services ($5 billion in cuts for community-provided services and $4.2 billion in cuts for state-provided services, says Governor Quinn). (This issue is the "Current Focus" on the website.) We're looking at severe cuts in mental health services, addiction prevention and treatment programs, violence prevention programs, family planning services, child care and youth services, and education programs. The budget is set to go into effect July 1 (next Wednesday) and will be devastating to the people of Illinois unless we demand that our legislators return to Springfield and work out a budget for the full fiscal year that includes new revenue to support these critical programs in our communities (which can be achieved by a 2% tax increase).

When considering the breadth of the budget cuts, here are just a few of the numbers (and their sources) to give you an idea of how this budget vote could affect the every day lives of Illinois citizens. The budget cuts would result in:
Brutal. And the potential to be utterly devastating. And, it can't go without noting the ways in which these budget cuts unproportionately affect folks already dealing with issues of systemic inequality: the poor and working-class, people of color, women, children, the elderly, and those will mental or physical disabilities. The budget would pile additional hardship and discrimination on those who already carry its heaviest weights.

And to make it a bit more real, if you need even more concrete evidence of the budget's destructive potential, every week for the past two and a half years I've hung out with three and four year olds at the St. Vincent DePaul Center, which provides (in addition to other things) NAEYC-accredited child care and early childhood education. We have 25 classrooms, serving infants through kids in full-day kindergarten, plus before- and after-school care for school age children. The proposed budget cuts would entirely eliminate the child care and youth programs, affecting more than 800 Chicago children and families at this one site alone. Plus, all of our education staff will be cut, contributing to the statewide increase in forced layoffs. Many families the Center serves will literally be forced into the position of choosing between buying food for their family, paying rent and utilities, or paying for child care.

The proposed budget cuts would destroy our Center, spit in the face of our 94 year history, and devastate the lives of families with whom we partner.

But such tragedy is not the only option. With the passing of an as small as 2% tax increase, the citizens of Illinois can save the programs that support our communities. A 2% tax increase would raise our taxes from 3% to 5%, which for the average Illinois family is roughly $14 a week. While $14 a week, and thus $56 a month, adds up, it is a worthy sacrifice to maintain the programs that support the health and well-being of all Illinois citizens. This budget cut stands to hurt all of us and together we must be willing to tell our elected officials that we won't stand for it, that we believe alternatives to the budget cut are possible, and that we rely on their leadership and ability to represent our views by funding education, health care, and human services across the state.

To take action, you have numerous choices. You can:

Call your state representatives and voice your opposition to the “General Assembly’s 50 Percent Budget Cut.”

To locate your state representative, visit here. (It's easiest, I think, to provide your zip+4.) You can also call the Illinois State Board of Elections Chicago Office at 312-814-6440. Let the operator know that you need contact information for your state representative. You will need to provide your home address.

Before calling your representative, consider visiting Illinois Action for Children for suggestions on what to say to your state representatives. You may also want to see how your representatives voted in the original budget vote, which you can do by looking at the "House Roll Call on the Tax Increase" (pdf). IMAN has also provided a nice telephone call protocol you could use. Here's their suggestion:

Call your representative and senator along with the governor and say:
"Hi, my name is ______ and I live in ______. I would like to speak to Representative ______/Senator ______/Governor Quinn."
You will probably be told that he/she is not available. If so, ask to leave a message:

"I am calling to ask Representative ______/Senator ______/Governor Quinn to work with others in Springfield to resolve the current budget crisis. I support an income tax increase from 3% to 5% and an expansion of the sales tax base in order to fund education, health care, and human services across the state. I am counting on your leadership in this important effort! Thank you for your consideration."
Please call your state representative (Illinois House) first and then call Gov. Quinn (217-782-0244) and your state senator all this week. Ask five other people to do the same.
You can also utilize a number of online email formats to voice your concern. Planned Parenthood of Illinois has an editable form letter that focuses on the budget cuts' consequences for women and children.

And the National Association of Social Workers Illinois chapter is sponsoring a more general but still editable email in which they use your address (or zip+4) to pull up all your elected officials' contact information. Then they allow you to choose to whom you would like to send your email. They also give you the option of sending a copy of your email to a large number of media organizations. It's a quick and easy way to go.

Please take action. Immediately. You can do it. It's important that you do it. It's makes a huge difference for the future of our communities.

(photo credits: These are some of my kids from the Center. These are the kids who stand to lose childcare if the budgets is implemented next week. The consequences to their families may be dire.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Food Inc. - "You'll never look at dinner the same way again!"

So, in the last month or so I've been bombarded with info about the film Food, Inc. Whether I'm just hooked in to all the right info feeds or what, I don't know, but I'm pretty jazzed about seeing this film, which is now showing across the country. (To find out if/when it's playing near you, check the listings here.)

The film is described (on IMDB) as "An unflattering look inside America's corporate controlled food industry." And it seems to address the food industry from a number of angles: animal conditions, worker conditions, food safety/quality, human health consequences, legislation and national food policy, and the general workings of agribusiness. A broad scope, surely, but integrally connected.

I was first introduced to the film by a message on the packaging foil that seals my yogurt tub. I'd never seen Stonyfield (or any other yogurt company) advertise for a film, and while I was a bit suspicious, I also trust Stonyfield to make conscious choices about their packaging. (Maybe I'm delusional, but at least I'm hopeful.) With a little investigation I realized that Stonyfield Farm President and CE-Yo (you know, YO as in yogurt) Gary Hirshberg is featured in the film; thus the connection and cross-promotion. But, Stonyfield's website features some great stuff about the film, including the trailer and an exclusive (and really good) interview with the film's director Robert Kenner, in which he talks about the film's intention to promote informed consumer choices. He says,
"[The film is about the] freedom to know both what's in the food, what we're eating, where it's coming from, and what we're allowed to say about this food. I realized this is a film about our rights to know as Americans."
Then, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition by Steve Inskeep, in which he talked with Kenner and food advocate and author Michael Pollan (who is also featured in the film) about the film. (Web-info and a link to the audio is available here.) Inskeep takes them to task to explain in detail each phrase from an single line early in the film which says, "Our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused and the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us."

And, talk of the film is making its way around the blogosphere (for example, this) and numerous news sites, including reviews on Variety and indieWIRE and interviews Kenner did with The Washington Post and The New York Times.

And the film's website itself is a wealth of good information. These folks have built bridges -- laying out the issues point for point, creating rich resource lists for information-seekers, offering suggestions for getting involved, particularly in the area of children's nutrition, and building alliances with important advocacy organizations. They even have their own blog called Hungry for Change which looks to be regularly updated and pretty informative.

But not everyone is happy about the film's release. Monsanto is so pissed they've go their own anti-Food Inc. webpage up and running, which I find hugely interesting because most of the time big agribusiness just ignores films and books that have the potential to discredit them. Perhaps we're getting near some point of critical mass and they're nervous... (Kenner talks about the film's efforts to work with Monsanto in The Washington Post article.) (Also, I'm not a fan of Monsanto, so I won't talk about them anymore, but Deborah Koons Garcia did a nice job making them look like asses in her 2004 film The Future of Food, another great documentary worth checking out.)

All that said, I'll stop talking about the film and hopefully see it soon. If you see it before me, let me know what you think! Here's the trailer:

(photo caption & credits: Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin is an organic farmer and an agribusiness critic featured in Food, Inc. Magnolia Pictures)

I watched Food, Inc. last weekend at my local indy film theater and earlier this week a friend emailed asking what I thought of it and whether it was worth seeing. An edited version of my reply is below. (It may be of value to note that my friend is a farmer living and working on a very new, organic, family-owned farm in New England, so he knows way more about food than I do and has spent considerable time really thinking about the importance of food and our food industry.)

The film was decent. I didn't learn much that I didn't know before. Very little, actually. But I think the film would be a decent introduction for folks new to thinking about the role of corporations in U.S. food culture and food industry. The film hit on a number of issues – food labeling, foodborne illness, health consequences of our current food choices, factory farming, corporate influence on family farms, animal rights, worker rights, environmental impact, law and governmental policy, and so on. And I think the filmmakers made an effort to give voice to a number of viewpoints, though they didn't pretend to be entirely ‘objective’ in their response and analysis. (And why should they?) Interestingly, they made a point NOT to villainize big business, using interviews with Greg Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, and Wal-Mart buyers (meaning product purchasers, not public consumers) to talk about the power of public opinion and consumer demand. Long and short, I think the film has the potential to rattle mainstream folks who haven't thought about where their food comes from.

Plus, the film spends a good chunk of time talking to Joel Salatin, a mighty spunky farmer for Polyface Farm in Virginia. The farm seems to deal mostly in meats – beef, pork, poultry – but in all the ways you wish meats came to market – organic, local, free range birds, grass fed cattle, and so forth. Joel serves as a powerful voice in the film, but I wonder if the audience 'got' it, because most of his talking was done while he was doing farm work, including slaughtering chickens and preparing them for market (as compared to most of the other interviewees, who have the backdrop of their kitchen or office). With the typical consumer/film-goer so removed from the origin of our food, folks watching the film with me seemed unsettled and/or shocked to see animals slaughtered. (There were numerous audible gasps and lots of uncomfortable squirming in the theater.) While I’m glad folks had this response, I’m also really afraid that they won't think about why they felt that way, but will rather push it to the corners of their mind, ignore it, or – worse – consider Joel and farmers like him 'heartless' – which is about as far from the truth as you can get, but that is a mental jump I can understand when folks have never seen an animal slaughtered before. Mind you, the film also shows animals in factory slaughterhouses, but not at the moment of death and often as animal parts rather than whole creatures, which makes it easier, I think, for folks to distance themselves. I wished there was a bit more explanation in the film about what was going on in both of these situations, such that film-goers would have guidance to better understand what they were seeing. (For example, for folks who’ve never seen or read anything on slaughtering poultry or beef, they wouldn’t recognize or understand what the most humane, painless way to go and why. They just see slitting throats and freak.)

I also went back to reread Monsanto’s retaliatory website after watching the film. Comparing their views and those in the film is one of those "nobody's lying, still the stories don't line up" situations (Ani lyrics). The film, I think, sought to question the ethics of Monsanto and their influence – on food policy, with GMOs, with patenting, on farmers, and so on. Monsanto doesn't address these ethical concerns, instead highlighting that they are obeying the law (which they helped frame and influence) and justifying litigation between themselves and farmers featured in the film as an effort to ensure that that others are following the law as well. Personally, I’m not convinced. This is a situation where I think it’s of importance to question laws that put the well-being of corporations ahead of the well-being of people, which is what I believe these laws do. For example, I believe in the importance of seed saving (Dr. Vandana Shiva is a great resource about this issue in India if you’re interested in reading more), and knowing the workings of Mother Nature and how seed spreads from field to field, I think Monsanto's patent infringement politics are shady. Monsanto's website also went out of its way to say that the film demonizes farmers, which I think is utterly untrue. I thought the film demonstrated how many farmers are trapped in an unworkable system under the thumb of corporations like Monsanto.

But that's just my two-cents. All in all, I was glad I saw it. It’s one more piece of media to add to the repertoire. But also nothing ground shattering. As to whether or not you should go watch it, that's your decision. In the meantime, that’s enough rambling from me for one day...