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Check Out These New Emojis for Foodies

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On a frigid Sunday morning in Manhattan this past March, several dozen people, many of them design students, gathered at the School of Visual Art's building in Chelsea. Their task: to perform a bit of pro-bono marketing for non-corporate food producers-the kind of small and mid-sized farms that grow produce without poisonous chemicals and tend their animals on pasture, not in fetid, polluting feedlots.

The meeting, organized by an innovative Los Angeles-based design firm called the Noun Project (whose founders my colleague Tasneem Raja interviewed here) and an accomplished New York-based sustainable-food advocacy group called the Grace Communications Foundation (the force behind the Meatrix video and Sustainable Table), was modeled on the techie concept of a "hackathon"-a bunch of people getting together to solve some problem. But whereas hackathons typically result in computer code, this "iconathon" would produce images, known as icons, that can wordlessly express concepts like "grass fed" and "heritage breed," free for anyone's use under a creative-commons license.

I was invited to help set the table, so to speak, with some remarks. I noted that the food system that has sustained the US for decades-and which is vigorously spreading to other parts of the globe-is failing. Diet-related diseases are mounting and workers are rebelling against the industry's poverty wages. Meanwhile, I pointed out, the two most important US crop-growing regions, the Midwestern corn belt and California's Central Valley, are both undergoing slow-motion and devastating ecological crises, involving soil and water, respectively.   

Yet despite these catastrophes, Big Food remains ubiquitous and highly profitable. One reason why, I suggested, is that like any smart industry, the food giants invest a portion of their annual profits bombarding the public with marketing. In 2012, fast food chains spent $4.6 billion advertising their goods, led by a cool $971 million from McDonald's. As for the processed-food companies, Kraft alone spends about $683 million hawking such delicacies as boxed mac 'n cheese in the US; and Coca-Cola drops nearly a half billion dollars pushing its sugary drinks. 


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