FERN’s Friday Feed: The cheap-banana backstory

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

New Food Economy

As Joe Fassler writes, bananas are America’s most popular fruit, in part because they are impossibly cheap (with the emphasis on impossibly). “According to a 2018 report from Fairtrade International … modern banana production causes a host of social and environmental problems, from chronic underpayment of workers and workplace harassment to habitat loss and water pollution. The costs we don’t pay at the register—about $6.70 per 40-pound wholesale box, according to the report—are externalized onto smallholder farmers and the employees of banana plantations, as well as onto the land itself.”

When the late actor Paul Newman put his face on a bottle of his own salad dressing, no one was sure what would happen. But after racking up around $1 million in sales in the first year, Newman felt so guilty that he gave it all to charity—launching the still-vibrant philanthropic food company, Newman’s Own, that’s given away more than $540 million to charities around the world. Cathy Erway writes that Newman was involved in every new product launch up until his death in 2008, including perfecting the crust of frozen pizzas. “He had this innate sense of rightness about everything,” says Michel Nischan, a four-time James Beard Award–winning chef and the founder of the nonprofit Wholesome Wave. In the article, Nell Newman (a funder of FERN) talks about the family’s dinners and reveals the secret to her father’s still-popular salad dressing.

Where produce fields get water, farmworkers do not

The New York Times

“They labor in the region’s endless orchards, made possible by sophisticated irrigation systems, but at home their faucets spew toxic water tainted by arsenic and fertilizer chemicals.” So begins Jose A. Del Real’s story about unsafe drinking water in more than 300 public water systems, “a slow-motion public health crisis that leaves more than one million Californians exposed to unsafe water each year.” Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a $140-million tax on urban water districts and the agriculture industry, but even this unpopular measure feels distant for communities like “East Orosi, a farmworker community of about 500 nestled along the foot of the Sierra Nevada that is surrounded by fields of oranges. There, residents complain of conditions that resemble the developing world, not the richest state in the nation.”

Don’t scoff at the early-bird special

The New Yorker

“Despite its connotations of denture-friendly fare and penny-pinching, early dinner is the most decadent meal there is,” writes Lauren Collins. “You’re familiar with dinner and a movie? Well, how about dinner and a movie and a bath and a book and sex and rearranging your whole spice drawer if you feel like it? Early dinner is great in a restaurant, too: getting a reservation is no problem, the dining room is clean and fresh and running smoothly, nobody at the table is worrying about her meeting the next morning … Five o’clock is when the real gossip goes down—make that two Martinis! … You can drink them guiltlessly—according to medical professionals, eating early brings a number of health benefits, from weight loss to better sleep to lower rates of certain cancers.”

A precarious future for street vendors


“Netflix’s hit new series ‘Street Food’ is more than a glimpse at the world’s finest street-side chefs,” writes Sarah Orleans Reed, a research associate at Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. “While other shows, most notably, Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown,’ have featured the down-home goodness of street cuisine, ‘Street Food’ may be the first to acknowledge the threat street-food vendors face in increasingly exclusionary cities.”