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September 20, 2006

Popeye's problem?

No spinach for supper—or lunch or breakfast, of course. Or for the rest of us, either, as the E. coli outbreak has stores clearing the shelves of all fresh spinach and growers destroying their crops. The story moved off the front page of the Chicago Tribune today to the inside, but what we read inside wasn’t good news: the impact on one local distributor/grower alone is 10,000 pounds of the vegetable destroyed, $30,000 in sales evaporated. Still this grower, Matthew De Jong of De Jong Brothers Farms, said: “I think we have a good, healthy product. But at this point, we have to be careful.”

The recall remains voluntary, pointed out the Chicago district director for the Food and Beverage Administration. But he added that consumer confidence “is at one of its lower points for fresh spinach and leafy greens.”

We wouldn’t have to be in such a state about food security across the country, suggests L. Shannon Jung if we changed our ways and ate the food that is grown locally. Jung is professor of Town and Country Ministry at St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Mo., and author of a new book from Fortress Press called Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment. He’s the former director of the Center for Theology and Land at Wartburg Seminary.

People in Wisconsin wouldn’t be eating spinach grown in California, he said, or getting sick from bacteria on it. One contaminated crop would never be shipped cross country. We wouldn’t not know where our food actually does come from. This isn’t just a what-if possibility, either. Jung suggests several organizations to check out: Community Food Security Coalition, Local Harvest and FoodRoutes.

And—not to push the panic button—but Jung admits he can’t help thinking about what no one seems to be talking about in the current spinach scare: bio-terrorism. If all this is happening from an unintentional occurrence, “consider how easy it would be for to jeopardize a food supply by a group that deliberately infiltrates a bacteria,” he said. “After all, you can’t check spinach with TSA at an airport or ask it too take off its belt at security.”

Local growing is one part of the solution to such a scenario. “But moving into my anti-war position,” Jung said, “I believe that long-term the only was to insure a safe food supply is to work for policies that produce peace.”

So it seems that Popeye's problem really is ours, too. Will we use it to "eat our spinach," so to speak, and take action? Or will  our response be "let them eat broccoli," echoing someone famously out- of-touch who didn't have long to worry about what she did eat?

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