Taking A Fork To Pessimism

When I write about high-tech gizmos like the Intel/Kraft Meal Planning Solution, which scans faces for basic demographic input and then constructs a mass-customized menu and shopping list recommendation, there's always a voice in the back of my head wondering if this is what consumers really want or need. Busy as we are, are we resigned to having a computer chip do our meal planning for us?

And then something crosses my desk that points to a countervailing trend, as it did yesterday. Word Spy's neologism of the day was garden-to-fork, a recent coinage "describing or relating to food grown in a person's own garden." And just a couple of weeks ago, Paul McFedries pointed to locapour, a morphing of locavore that means "a person who drinks only locally produced wine or beer."



The answer, of course, is that our future will accommodate both trends. Kraft's Donald King says most people only have 10 recipes at their disposal. But you can now go to many websites and/or smart phone apps -- take Whole Foods Recipes as one example -- plug in the ingredients you have at hand (or see mysteriously beckoning you at the Farmer's Market) and have a recipe on your screen instantaneously. It's the what-to-do-with-a-spaghetti-squash alternative to the knee-jerk reaction of just nuking another box of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

In a recent blog post calling for the resuscitation of the family dinner, Mark Hyman, M.D., writes that "the slow insidious displacement of home-cooked and communally shared family meals by the industrial food system has fattened our nation and weakened our family ties" and says that "the most important and the most powerful tool you have to change your health and the world is your fork."

I tend to agree wholeheartedly (pun intended). But I'm not sure that yelling at people to eat their Brussels sprouts is the most effective approach. If it didn't work for mom, it's not going to work for people with letters after their names. People aren't willing to throw away all the "comfort" foods in their pantries and completely upend their routines. I think a more incremental approach might work better.

I've recently been reading the Rancho Cappuccino blog of Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Mother Earth News, which is mostly about his experiences on a small, diverse farm his family works in Kansas. You may remember Mother Earth News from its hippy-dippy origins in the Sixties. Articles on how to build your own vehicles for a few hundred bucks (as I dimly recall) were not likely to attract the likes of General Motors to the back page.

Then Owen Lipstein, a founder of American Health and, at the time, publisher of Psychology Today and other hot titles, acquired the magazine. I remember discussing its future with him in a trendy French bistro in Manhattan in the late Eighties. The zeitgeist of the boomer generation had changed, and I was skeptical about the economic prospects for a back-to-the-earth publication in that pay-for-your-house-in-the-burbs environment. But it turned out Lipstein was right, though he would not be at the magazine's helm for long.

An editorial in a recent Fortieth Anniversary issue claims that Mother Earth News is the "most read magazine in America" based on a 2009 survey that found readers spend an average of more than 70 minutes with each issue. Circulation is up 38% since 2005 with an 80% rise on newsstand sales. It estimates its current audience at three million.

A good part of the success of Mother, as it's still known among its faithful, is the way it melds technology and ecology, blends diverse voices, looks for the common ground. It's more about teaching than preaching. To be sure, you're more likely to see an ad for some sort of composting toilet than Kohler faucets, but it straddles the idealistic past and a pragmatic future in ways that anyone who is dealing with consumers can learn from.

And Welch, who has also just published Beautiful And Abundant: A Future Worth Living, seems to embody those principles. He is, judging by anything I've read that he has written, eminently reasonable. And wouldn't most of us like a heaping tablespoon of that nowadays? Just take this opening statement from his bio:

"I believe that magazines like Mother Earth News and Natural Home have been successful because they focus on cool stuff you can do. They are not about the dire consequences of technology. They are not about impending doom. They are optimistic journals of personal action. And they are not dogmatic. We figure there's a long continuum of personal action. At one end, there are folks who grow all their own food and bicycle everywhere they go. At the other end of the continuum folks are considering maybe switching to organic milk. We find excitement at both ends of this continuum."

In his book, Welch says we should constantly be asking ourselves four questions as we attempt to build a sustainable society:

1. Is it Fair?

2. Is It Repeatable?

3. Is it Beautiful?

4. Does It Create Abundance?

You can read more about what each of these questions embody here .

Welch's abiding principle is that we "need to stop defining our vision one partisan issue at a time and look at our future holistically." It is an optimistic philosophy. Put me down for two.

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