Posts by:

Roni Neff, PhD

Roni Neff, PhD

Research and Policy Director

Center for a Livable Future

Meat, Paris, and Next Steps

roni-neff-cop21-parisThis post appeared on Food Tank on December 17, 2015.

We were in a public eatery outside Paris, surprised to find ourselves stumped by the question of how to get a serving of vegetables without taking any meat. The server handed customers plates only after putting one of several meat options on them, and my colleague, Raychel Santo, and I were eyeing the vegetable trays at the end of the line. We passed on the meat, but when we got to the veggies, drama ensued: because we’d passed on the meat, we didn’t have plates. We had to go backwards and ask the meat servers for plates, at which point they started to scoop meat onto them. No, just the plates, please. Just the plates? What will you do with just a plate? Granted, my French lacks finesse. But surely it can’t have been that unusual for people at the world’s major climate change conference to skip meat?

The incident in fact reflected our overall experience of marginalization at the COP21. Read More >

Cooking Climate-Friendly without a World-Class Chef

Amateur chefs can make climate-friendly meals, too

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to participate, along with chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s famed Woodberry Kitchen, in development of a radio piece for American Public Media’s Marketplace. The story, by reporter Jon Miller, was the conclusion of his Food for 9 Billion series discussing how we could sustainably feed a planet with 9 billion people on it. Our assignment was to shop for, prepare (okay, Spike and his colleague Ben Lambert did the preparing), and eat a climate-friendly holiday meal, chatting all the while. The story aired on December 17, along with my culled-down list of four tips for climate-friendly eating and my blogpost. I was pleased with the story and glad that the message came through that while there are powerful reasons for changing our individual dietary behavior, that’s not enough—we have to work for change at the government and business levels. Read More >

Can’t Stand the Heat? Get Into the Kitchen

This blogpost appeared in the Center for Investigative Reporting on December 17, 2012.

As the year draws to a close, those who celebrate Christmas may be looking forward to breaking bread with family and thinking about what to cook. Those who celebrate Hanukkah probably already did that (except for my family, which will celebrate in January because we couldn’t get our schedules synched up in December). Regardless of your background, the holidays often bring a little time off and a little space for mulling our own fortunes and the world’s many miracles. And as the new year approaches, many of us turn to thoughts of making a fresh start and resolving to better match our behaviors with our values. Read More >

People Like Us: Food Chain Workers Speak Out

“When you buy meat, think about [how] that meat is coming from the hands of people like us who are being humiliated in the workplace.”

The woman who spoke these words, and asked not to be identified for fear of employer reprisal, works in a meatpacking plant and took a considerable risk to share her emotional story at a conference.  A single mother of four, she said, “We live it every day,” referring to the lack of sick leave; not being allowed to go to the bathroom; being laughed at for not speaking English; and lifting heavy things even though she is not supposed to.  “But I have to,” she said tearfully. “I need to work.”

The conference, held yesterday at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, marked the release of the landmark report, The Hands that feed us: Challenges and opportunities for workers along the food chain. It was the first such conference to bring together workers from around the food system, from farm to processing to distribution to retail to restaurants, highlighting their many shared concerns. Read More >

Peak Oil, Food Systems, Irene, Debt and Deadlines

Last month I watched in amazement as a small but inflammatory political faction forced its agenda on the American people—and got results.  The debt-ceiling advocates bullied the issue into Congress using two powerful tools—threats and a deadline.

Our food system depends on petroleum

Standing in line at the Giant last Friday, I reflected on our collective ability to mobilize for deadlines.  “This is not a storm to be taken lightly,” said Governor O’Malley to Marylanders, and we didn’t. We loaded up coolers of ice and refrigerators full of food, double-staked the tomatoes, charged the electronics, filled bathtubs with water, even put away patio furniture in case it might fly into the air and smash our windows. “I just scored the last eight D batteries in Baltimore!,” crowed a friend on Facebook. Read More >

Carnivores and Climate Change


New from EWG

You know what you ate this week—but do you know how it will affect climate change and the planet? As of today, you can use the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s newly launched website to get information on food carbon footprints.The “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health” helps users quantify the impacts of their current diets.Try adding up your meals’ impacts—you may be shocked, especially if you ate beef or cheese.

The carbon footprint of beef, for example, is 24.5 times higher than that for tomatoes. A 2008 study found that red meat and dairy comprise 48 percent of U.S. food-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).EWG’s analysis suggests that if the whole U.S. population committed to Meatless and cheeseless Monday (or otherwise gave up meat and cheese one day a week), the reduction in GHGs would be the same as that for driving 91 billion fewer miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.Meatless Monday sounds to me like an easier goal, and I say that not only because CLF is affiliated with the program.Of course it is not either/or, and we need to cut all forms of GHGs. Read More >

Poultry Processing Plant Receives Maryland’s Highest Ever Fine for Occupational Safety & Health Violations

Wow:  The state of Maryland has issued its highest ever occupational safety and health fine, to a poultry plant run by Allen Family Foods: $1.03 million.  I wanted to blog about it both because I think it is important that those working on food systems and public health issues keep in mind not only the environmental and nutritional health implications of our food system, but also the impacts on the nearly 1/5 of US workers whose jobs involve food.  I also wanted to blog about it because it is a big deal that MOSH (Maryland Occupational Safety & Health) and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration) are stepping up enforcement.


MOSH issued the million dollar fine after a worker’s hand was seriously injured from reaching under a conveyor belt that should have been guarded but wasn’t.  At the post-injury inspection of the Hurlock, MD plant, OSHA identified 51 violations – including 15 “willful” and one “egregious.”  In recent years, OSHA has found over 200 violations at that plant. According to the state’s MOSH director, “The biggest problem we have here is repeated warnings over the years, and a lot of times they’d repair something or take care of the problem and then go right back to the same habits.”

chickenworkersThe case follows a $182,000 OSHA fine last year to an Allen Family Foods poultry processing plant in Delaware for “hazards with industrial trucks, falls, personal protective equipment, machine guarding, electrical hazards, process safety management, respirators and emergency response” – incurred after MOSH suggested OSHA look at Allen’s non-Maryland plant.

While fines like these may not seem that high compared to those issued by EPA and other agencies, in occupational safety and health they are major.  For example, in Maryland, the average fine per “serious” violation (e.g., posing substantial probability of death or serious physical harm) was only $688.  That’s 78% of the national average, which itself is only $882.

Despite Allen Family Foods’ protestations that safety is its top priority, there is further evidence that the company has not emphasized a strong safety culture.  In a case decided last year, 250 poultry plant employees challenged the company under the Fair Labor Standards Act, saying that the company should pay them for their time putting on and taking off safety gear. Disturbingly, and with national implications, the judge said that personal protective equipment wasn’t clothing and that the company didn’t have to pay.  Way to encourage workers to gear up properly!

Allen Family Foods is less well known than a company like Perdue, but it is quite large. According to its website, the company sells 600 million pounds of chicken annually in the US and abroad, and owns breeding and hatchery facilities, feed mills, processing plants, feed grain production, and 28 company-owned growout farms.  Allen also works with over 500 independent growout farms that grow company-provided chicks.  About a fourth of the company’s processing staff are non-US born, and the company has an established partnership with the knifegloveImmigration and Naturalization Service.  Allen Family Foods announced plans to appeal the million dollar fine, and has also announced it is actually selling the Hurlock plant.  By contrast, after the Delaware fine, the company announced a 20% expansion of that plant, to enable producing 1.2 million chickens weekly.

Is Allen just a “bad actor,” and the rest of the industry is doing ok?  Is MOSH making an example of Allen with this fine in order to motivate better compliance throughout the industry?  I personally can’t say.  Perhaps both. Read More >

School Board Refuses to Hear Presentation on Public Health Risks

On Thursday evening, my colleague, Jillian Fry and I went up to rural southern Pennsylvania with the intent of speaking to the school board of the South Eastern School District. We had been invited to speak by members of Peach Bottom Concerned Citizens to provide a summary of potential environmental hazards to schoolchildren and bus drivers, resulting from having school buses parked one-quarter of a mile from a proposed large-scale swine production facility in Peach Bottom. Specifically, there are concerns about exposures to bacteria (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria), toxins, allergens, viruses and other substances from riding or spending time around the school buses.

I saw my role as providing a summary of the science, separate from the politics. As it turned out, the politics were unavoidable. When we got to the meeting, I was not on the agenda. Maria Payans, a community member who had invited me, pulled out a stack of documents indicating she had gone through proper channels to have my talk put on the school board’s agenda. The school board took what turned out to be a long break to discuss the situation. When they came back, they read aloud the entire policy describing who could speak at meetings, but did not directly explain how they were interpreting it regarding whether I could speak. Read More >

Baltimore: A National Model for Sustainable School Food?

Last Saturday my family and I went to check out Bragg Nature Center, soon to be the Baltimore school system’s working organic farm. They were having an open house and plant sale fundraiser. I thought I’d share some pictures and info. 

As a CLF’er and a parent of a Baltimore city schoolkid, I have high hopes about the arrival of Tony Geraci, the new city school food service director, from New Hampshire [p.18].  His plan to turn Bragg farm’s overgrown land and dusty greenhouses into an active farm serving the schools is just one piece of the dizzying list of creative programming he’s already initiated, in his quest to make this city a national model of healthy, green, financially sustainable food services. Other items on the list include buying local – contracting with regional farmers, food education, support and training to school food service staff, and happy meal-style breakfast boxes filled with healthy foods.  His enthusiasm generates a lot of in-kind support – for example, he got the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens to agree to have their faces on, and I think even to pay for logo toys inside the breakfast boxes.

(On a recent morning when we went to check out the breakfast boxes -which turned out not to be there – my son’s school breakfast  menu consisted of cinnamon toast crunch cereal, trix yogurt, apple juice (that’s a fruit, right?), regular or chocolate milk, and graham crackers for dessert.  Geraci’s got his work cut out for him, weaning kids off that much sugar.) 

But back to the farm. Here’s what it looks like now. (There were also goats tasked with eating the brush on a hill, but my camera battery died before I could immortalize them for this blog.)


As I said, Geraci’s got his work cut out for him. It’s fun to imagine the site bursting with organic produce.

The land near Catonsville, MD was purchased by the city years ago with the idea of turning it into a nature center, but that idea never came to fruition.  Geraci plans to turn it into a 33-acre organic farm, renamed Fresh Start.  The city will use it to teach students about nutrition and sustainability. Students will be involved in planting seeds, gardening, and preparing healthy foods.  Maybe some nights they’ll have campfires under the stars.  Geraci hopes the farm will be operational in a year, and paying for itself in two years.  It won’t grow enough to serve the schools directly in a substantial way, especially in the beginning. So interestingly, Geraci is looking into programs like farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture that can educate youth while generating income.

These are ambitious undertakings.  It will be useful to contribute to the small farm to school literature with rigorous evaluation.  Stay tuned for updates as Fresh Start gets started!

Ag Nominee Vilsack: Concerns on Ethanol, Biotech, Climate, CAFOs, Corporate Concentration, Hunger and Nutrition

In response to the blog post below, it is worth expanding, to clarify the reasons many in the sustainable agriculture community – and others who are concerned about sustainability, justice and public health – are feeling let down by the choice of the new secretary of agriculture, even as we try to remain hopeful about the overall direction of change.  
First, Tom Vilsack is a major proponent of ethanol production. Industrially produced corn ethanol has been disvalued for climate change mitigation because it contributes more emissions than it reduces. Further, industrial corn ethanol production leads to substantial environmental impacts from fertilizer and pesticide use. But the impacts go beyond environmental, to corn ethanol’s destabilizing effect on food prices around the world. The former U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to food has termed corn ethanol “a crime against humanity.” As of early December, the U.N. reported that nearly 1 billion people around the world are now undernourished; these numbers have risen substantially  in the wake of the food price spikes. Estimates on ethanol’s role in the rise in food prices range from a few percent up to 3/4. Vilsack does support moving over the mid-to-long term towards other forms of ethanol.  But even with alternate ethanol sources, significant problems in terms of land use for energy vs. food, corporate concentration, and unsustainable production methods are likely to remain. Read More >