Losing Prop 37 Might Be the Best Thing That Could Have Happened to the Food Movement

Photo via Food Babe

I did everything I could, even from as far as North Carolina, to support the Yes on 37 Campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in foods. I posted links, I wrote blog posts, I talked to friends and family and I even volunteered for the campaign to cold call 10 people in California to talk about the issue and let them know how they can get involved. I’m as frustrated as anyone that we’ve had these ingredients in our food for so long without adequate research on their health effects. In my opinion, they are unnatural, foreign products and deserve safety testing. There is nothing I’d like more than to have them out of our food system. But I also know that sometimes small victories create a false sense of achievement that results in a cause stalling out before it truly matures. For this reason, I think the best thing that could have happened after the successful and far reaching campaign, was for it not to pass.

Before you get mad, keep reading. I will put this in perspective. I’m a goal focused person by nature. But I have also learned that sometimes the goal I set is not the best — or even the main — goal in the end. And I’ve also had enough experience falling short of goals to be able to appreciate the successes along the way.

What was the goal of Prop 37? To get food companies to label products that contained GMOs.

That was the immediate goal of the campaign, but the goal of the crusade is bigger: To raise awareness that a great deal of what we eat looks like food, tastes like food, but isn’t food. And might actually be poison. We don’t know.

This is an important crusade for many reasons. Obesity, cancer, diabetes, immune disorders are all on the rise. These diseases are largely preventable but diet and exercise are not working. People aren’t just giving up and ignoring their health. People are actually trying their damnedest to lose weight, subjecting themselves to dangerous surgeries, crash diets, fad diets, etc. While some are losing weight, there are a lot more who are trying their best and still not losing weight– maybe the are even gaining more! On top of that, people are getting very sick at younger and younger ages, with no reason behind it. Something is going on and we don’t know what it is.

Why? Why all these health problems?

1. We have lost an understanding of what our bodies need to function properly.

2. We have lost the knowledge of how to feed ourselves for our health vs. for our enjoyment.

3. We are eating, breathing and absorbing a grotesque amount of chemicals every day.

Companies are taking advantage of our trust and using ingredients that have not been researched for safety. If we want to make choices for ourselves, we need to know what we are really choosing between.

As far as I’m concerned, the campaign made great strides at raising awareness of these issues. The conversation about food, food politics, the real food movement, Big Food, GMO’s, and sustainable agriculture hit the big time with stories in big news outlets including Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine.

The campaign also helped propel some real food leaders, like Michael Pollan, Robyn O’Brien and the Food Babe to celebrity status. Celebrity cred is worth more than street cred, and the non-GMO movement has earned plenty of both by now.

Additionally, new organizations like Food Democracy Now, Just Label It, and the Non-GMO project have built strong foundations of supporters and are positioned to build on the momentum of the campaign.

The campaign itself was a massive success. It was executed brilliantly, using social media, grassroots efforts and individual volunteers to spread the word to others. This aspect of the campaign is the most exciting to me as it inspired thousands of people to step out and volunteer for something they believed in. These people became advocates and humanitarians, volunteering for the cause — and not the check– at a time when interests with big money were trying simply buy people’s minds.

The simple fact is that food-industry groups wouldn’t have spent as much as they did if there weren’t so much at stake. For them. For us. The amount they spent bought them another 5 years at least. But it buys us a kind of credibility we never could’ve bought ourselves — RESISTANCE. Think about it: every time one of their paid-for ads told people to “Vote No on 37!” someone, somewhere asked “so… what’s proposition 37 all about?”

And there’s more good news. Our opposition spent ALL THAT money just to fight a little bit of labeling. And a little bit of labeling is only the beginning of the solution. Real change doesn’t come from words — either here or on a little label — it comes from awareness. I wonder how expensive it will be for them to resist the whole shift in consciousness we’re ushering in!

Of course, the conversation needs to continue, and I believe it will, with or without food labeling. First of all, the companies that are responding to the consumer demand for non-GMO foods are already submitting their products for certification with the Non-GMO Project. And the consumers who desire clean food are buying it. Voting with our ballots happens annually, voting with our forks happens three times a day. And we are voting. We are doing the daily work.

The failure of Prop 37 illustrates that when people come together to fight for the common good, there is no such thing as failure. Prop 37 missed a target… that target was a label. But it succeeded in reaching several important goals, those of raising awareness, inspiring people to get involved, creating passion and energy around an issue and taking it onstage in a national debate. People who did not even know that food was genetically modified are now changing their behaviors, eating organic, and cooking at home.

So all those things are good, but why do I contend that it is great for the movement that GMO’s were not, in the end, labeled?

Here’s why:

Reaching the goal of food labeling would have created a false sense of accomplishment because food labels have little to no impact. Food labels do not protect human health. Food labels will not require food companies to be honest about how those ingredients affect the body. Food labels will not require Big Food to assure us the products are safe, nutritious or sustainable.

Labeling is simply, and obviously, the right thing to do, but it is such a small part of the picture. Food labels won’t protect anyone.

There is already a long list of approved additives, preservatives, fillers and other ingredients that are questionably safe in our food. Many of these are plainly labeled on the box. Most to all of these are completely ignored by the majority of people.

Simply labeling doesn’t ward off the dangers. It doesn’t make it easier for companies to study the health effects of the foods. It doesn’t do anything to change behaviors. It simply adds a label, a piece of fine print, that won’t get a second glance by your average consumer.

The real heart of the non-GMO movement is in educating others about how to kick the dependence on processed foods. How can we start cooking at home? How can we eat more whole foods? What do we use to substitute the ingredients we’ve been using for years and decades so that we can still eat the foods we like? How can we introduce new foods into our routines? How can we support more sustainable practices and habits?

These goals can only be achieved by the individuals who are excited and motivated to share this information from the goodness of their hearts, with others. These are the volunteers, friends, family members and acquaintances who have a whole food lifestyle and are willing to help those around them who are beginning on the journey.

Avoiding GMO’s isn’t easily achieved. It’s not like avoiding the sun by staying indoors, or like avoiding caffeine by buying caffeine free soda. Avoiding GMO’s requires an education in a new lifestyle. People must research, plan, prepare foods from home. They need to study labels, not just read them, to find out what the contents are in different products. They need to learn how to prepare foods from scratch. They need to open up time and space in their schedule for the extra learning, shopping and cooking they will need to do. Avoiding GMO’s is a process in changing the way we eat, one meal at a time.

Thankfully, those of us who are concerned about GMO’s have all been on the same journey. There are very few of us who were raised on organic farms with no processed foods. Most of us, even some of the most “healthy” of us probably ate a lot more processed foods than we’d like to think about. We’ve probably consumed far more GMO’s than we’d like to think about. And we probably had someone along the way to help steer us in the right direction.

The Prop 37 campaign created a huge force of individuals who are passionate about food and willing to stick their necks out for something they believe in. They are modeling the behavior and eager to help teach the habits that can change lives and health outcomes. They are devoting their spare time, spare energy, and if they have it, spare money for something they believe in. In addition to the health rewards, they are likely reaping tremendous spiritual rewards as well. There is really no greater satisfaction than in extending a hand to help others. And now we have a huge movement where we can pass it on. We have our momentum. And we may be defining new goals to take the movement further. But the burn of losing the campaign is going to do more to activate and accelerate it than a win ever would have.

Last Night I Did Something I’ve Never Done Before

Last night, I did something I’ve never done before. I snuck upstairs after the kids were in bed and I called 10 strangers on the phone.  I have never made cold calls, for any reason, ever before in my life.  Well, there was that time as a kid I dialed at random, giggled into the phone then hung up.  But this time, I wasn’t going to hang up.  This time, I was talking to the strangers.  I was trying to show my support and share information with complete strangers who live on the other side of the country.

You see, I volunteered to help CA Right to Know reach out to their database of people who had expressed interest in volunteering to support the Yes on Prop 37 campaign to pass a law to have genetically modified foods labeled in California.  Apparently, the response had been so great that the campaign needed volunteers to contact the volunteers.  And this could be done from anywhere, by anyone.

Volunteering is not new to me.  I learned the value of giving back, giving up and giving it your all from my mother who volunteered with her garden club, at the hospital, in schools, in parks.  I volunteered when I was a kid, in college and after.  I’ve volunteered in many different capacities with many organizations for many years. I currently volunteer as a Food Ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  And for the past 10 years I’ve been a volunteer with the Junior League.  Volunteering is just what I do when I have the time.  But with all my years volunteering I have carefully avoided the phone.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time’ they just have the heart.” Elizabeth Andrew

I would have to say that on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being not that busy and 10 being very busy, arguably too busy, I would be a 15.  But I am also the kind of person that when someone asks for help, I try to say “Yes, I’m here. I’m showing up. What can I do?”

And with the vote on Prop 37 so near, the importance of  transparency in our food system, of raising awareness of the state of our food system and the need to educate people to pay attention to their everyday choices, I wanted to help.

And so I helped in a way that I was able.  I called strangers from 10 PM to 11 PM, in my dark office, wearing my pajamas while my kids slept.  I expected to reach voicemail, dial tones, annoyed people, irritated people, and interrupted in their dinner people.  (Time change of 3 hours meant it was possible and likely they were eating dinner.)  Essentially, I expected to reach me on the other end.

I do not like telemarketers or cold calls or robot calls.  I rarely answer my home phone and I never give out my cell phone.  If I don’t know who is calling, I don’t answer and sometimes when I do know who is calling, I don’t answer.  I’m not a fan of the phone.  If I do answer and it is a robot, I hang up immediately.  If it’s a person, I wait for them to take a breath, tell them I’m not interested and hang up.  They could be offering me a million dollars and I would never know because I don’t like to be interrupted by calls.

So, I was bracing myself for the rejection and for the feeling I may have wasted my time in a fruitless task.  And guess what?  People answered.  Those smart, passionate, active people in California who were on my list answered their phone when a stranger called.  I tried the script, “This is Kathryn, I am a volunteer from North Carolina calling for California’s right to know Prop 37 …”  And the script felt all wrong but no script felt more wrong so I stumbled through with the script and then took a breath and said, “Do you have a minute for me to go over some of the volunteer opportunities and for me to tell you how you can sign up?”

Yes, always yes.  These voices on the other end breathed out yes like FINALLY.  They have been wanting to give their time, they were desperate to volunteer for the effort and finally, here is this stranger from North Carolina telling them the details.

And there we were on the phone, kindred spirits.  Volunteers.  We shared an interest in health and food and in advocating for transparency, advocating for information, advocating for each other.  We wanted to give our time and energy freely to a cause that meant something to us.

I called 10 people.  I reached voicemail for 4 and talked to 6. Of the six, I talked to one who had what sounded like 10 kids in the background, but maybe it was just 2 or 3, it’s so hard to tell.  Kids can be so loud when mom gets on the phone.  But she was ready to volunteer.  “Tell me where to show up,” she said.

Another struggled with her English.  I had a hard time understanding her but when she said, “I want to help educate my community.” I knew her heart.  I knew. I knew!

The last woman I spoke to was full of energy.  She was excited and passionate.  “I get so many emails” she said. “You guys are sending me so many emails!” I braced myself thinking she was about to complain about the volume of emails and my jaw clenched. “And I read every single one of them!” She exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting to find out where to go and what to do! Thank you for calling me.  Thank you!”

She and I got to chatting, across this great country, on the phone (what is that? A phone?  That old thing?) She told me about what it’s like in California right now.  “The ads are on TV and radio,” she said.  “All day long, sometimes it is one commercial after another telling people that labeling will increase their food costs by $400 to $600 a year.  There is so much money behind supporting the campaign against labeling, over a million dollars a day on ads.  It’s almost the only thing we hear about.  And the only way to counteract it is with the people, with volunteers,” she said. “Like you.”

“Well, I’m not really, I mean….” And right there I almost diminished my own efforts because who was I, really? In my PJs? In my dark office? Calling strangers at night? Compared to her, with her pickets and her flyers, her passion and her voice, her feet on the street volunteering.  But I stopped myself because my role was important too.  Me, losing sleep, calling strangers, being uncomfortable, reading from a script, sending follow up emails and putting myself out there to do something I’d never done before, had never thought I’d do, for a shared cause. I was just like her, a volunteer.  It was an hour of my time given freely to a cause I cared about that needed me.  And when you’ve worked with non-profits you find at some point, there are more people willing to give money than give time, so any time spared, is valued.

I am a volunteer.  And as a volunteer every effort from the person stuffing envelopes to the person organizing events to the feet on the street volunteers building homes, digging gardens, folding clothes and feeding bellies, every volunteer is priceless.

“Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.” Sherry Anderson

My experience leaving clumsy voicemails, sending pre-written follow up emails and talking to perfect strangers was a good one.  It reminded me of a valuable lesson.  People do answer their phone. They do show up.  They WANT to help.  Just give them a task and they will give themselves to it fully.  We all care about something, if we are not giving ourselves to it on occasion, we are really missing out on some fantastic experiences and some amazing people.