Monday, April 29, 2013

An Innovation Coming?

A few weeks ago I heard a fairly new phrase during the What Now, Lexington un-conference put on by Progresslex. It was a session on local foods and some brainstorming about new funding and branding potions which might be available. The new label is a Food Innovation District.

First off, the skeptic in me does not want to hear “food “and “innovation” put together in a title since the revelation of gene splicing and genetic engineering. Mrs. Sweeper and I wish to keep our food intake to the most natural and local of ways possible. The taste of a tomato from the garden is so much fresher than one from the farm and way better than one which has been traveling for several weeks. I know how I feel and look after traveling for a few weeks.

Some of the recent innovations in GMO foods surely have not been tested as to their long-term effects on the human body, either from the steady build up or the interactions of seemingly separate and benign species experiments. These so called Frankenfoods have not been around long enough to understand if they “play nice” with your body and themselves.

Within the last two decades we have seen a “revolutionary new sweetener” come to market and be embraces warmly as well as used widely. It did its job of sweetening foods but was not absorbed into nor broken down by either the body or nature. Today there are huge concentrations of its base ingredient being located in the world's rivers and oceans. It can even be monitored as a component of the Gulf Stream off of the Atlantic seaboard.

Since the University of Kentucky has the goal of becoming a top 20 research university and they are a “land grant” institution, armed with all of the elements which would allow them to be true food innovators, does this bode well as a Food Innovation District?

The optimist in me (as well as one who loves to eat) hopes for the type of gastronomic wonders which Mrs. Sweeper and I have watched on such TV shows as Iron Chef (both the original and the Americanized versions), MasterChef, the Taste and many others. These are competitions where being creative can give you an edge.

I have talked about so many of the new dining venues which have sprung up lately and we have tried as many as we can. That same creative flair will give a restaurant an edge also. The Lexington area has quite a few quality chefs and will now have a former TV contestant as head chef at the soon to open TheJax Being a Harrodsburg native and working in downtown Lexington, will she help make the whole Central Kentucky area a Food Innovation District?

In reality, the concept comes out of the Michigan Good Foods Charter, a statewide policy platform. Their definition for it is: 
A geographic concentration of food oriented businesses, services and community activities which local governments support through planning and economic development initiatives in order to promote a positive business environment, spur regional food system development, and increase access to local food.
I think that Lexington could make a pretty good case for being a Food Innovation District, what with the research at the University and the land grant charge, our Kentucky Proud program of the state's Agriculture Department, our increasing numbers of farmers markets and local growers and local consumers. With planning and concerted effort it can work and we currently have folks who are striving for a few small, baby steps. Imagine what we could do with a little more focus.

For those of you who might like a little more information on the local food movement, I suggest that you check out the Lexington FoodHub site at your leisure. If you are a producer looking for a market or a consumer looking for a product, let them try to help out. If it is happening in local food, I think that you can find the information there.

Lets be innovative.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Whither A State Of Transportation?

Sometimes it is quite difficult to determine on what subject I want to write and at other times the subject just leaps at me. Lately I have been reading about the transportation situation facing us locally and nationally and how we will pay for it.

With all of the construction workers out of work will a resumption of the highway building and other major building projects help solve the unemployment problem? Will spending more money on highways prove sensible while Americans are driving less and the younger generation is buying fewer automobiles?

Back at the end of March, the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer Inga Saffron, posited that perhaps we American's are a bit too haphazard about how we allocate our transportation funds. We tend to push for lane and intersection improvements to some of our arterial streets in Lexington, huge Interstate interchanges in downtown Louisville, and massive new bridge projects in Cincinnati and Louisville. But, when it comes to any sort of mass transit style proposal the masses go all livid about the freedoms of movement and choice which will be infringed.

Highway funding is becoming increasingly tight, in part because Congress and States are unwilling to raise the gasoline tax on steadily rising fuel prices. The American Society of Civil Engineers believe that we are so far behind on infrastructure repairs that they recently gave an overall D+ to the conditions of our nation's bridges and roads. One must realize that it is in the best interest of the ASCE to chase new construction projects for their members. I personally feel that this grade is not from design and age, but from simple overuse of a “free”amenity.

Around the same time, a writer for the Washington Post revealed that the famous Capital Beltway was slowly dying beneath the turning wheels of about a quarter-million cars a day. As they called it, “turning to mush”before their eyes. In what sounds like an excerpt from one of our Council work sessions, “... the older base layers under the asphalt, the surface is not able to absorb the pounding the way it used to...” was used to describe the continuing situation.

I don't believe that the Beltway or any of our primary arterial roadways will die, but they will need to be relieved of much of the stress to which we put them. U.S. drivers, and the commerce on which they rely, are riding on baby-boom-generation roadways, which like us boomers ourselves are no longer so steady and sound. Nearly a third of the nation’s major roads currently need significant repair or replacement, with a far higher percentage in the busiest urban areas, to meet the demand now placed on them.

Bad roads are partly a cause of sticker creep at the checkout aisle, just as the the cost of fixing them is about to cause sticker shock at the gas pump. Delays and bad roads add to the $25 billion in goods delivered nationwide every day which is naturally added to price tags at supermarkets and department stores.

Many state's officials see roads that need replacement and highways that need to be expanded. They cite statistics which show vehicle travel jumped by 39 percent from 1990 to 2008. Despite an acknowledged decline in vehicle miles traveled over the past 5 years, the forecast is to increase another 35 percent by 2030. 

Add to all of the above the comments I heard at the forum on climate change held last week at the University of Kentucky. 

In his presentation on looking for “Free-Enterprise Approaches to Energy Security and Climate Change.”, Bob Inglis, former U.S. representative from South Carolina, expressed his thoughts that sometime, in the near future, we will be traveling the highways in packs of high-speed, robot driven and individually powered vehicles.

According to one description that I have read, this would be a whole new world of cars are packed nose to tail traveling at speeds in excess of current limits. They will weave their way through unmarked junctions, with no traffic lights. Lane markings are non-existent, and stretches of road may switch from being one-way in one direction, to the opposite, with no warning. Perhaps most alarming of all, very few of the “occupants” have even passed a driving test. I see more similarities of riding high speed rail in this than shopping for the family car.

This sounds like Utopia if it occurs out on the open highway lie an Interstate, but do we want this in our urban areas and residential streets? Just when we have made good gains in taking back the streets (Complete Streets planning) from the free-wheeling autos, will we have to redouble our efforts again?

From my personal experience of Interstate driving, I am either passing the casual drivers and the revenue generating long-haul truckers or being passed by, largely singly occupied, long distance commuters, but the common theme is that, unless it is rush hour, we all have plenty of room. 

Efficiency and logic should dictate that these packs of robotic driven vehicles be composed of like vehicles. Trucks with trucks, SUVs with SUVs, single occupants with single occupants on down the line. Also considered should be the fuel and maintenance compatibilities of those allowed in each pack. Sounds like it may be simpler to take the train.

Such vehicles may be much more aware of their own positions and of those vehicles around them, but they also need to be aware of all other animate objects before they are allowed to roam our residential streets. I would worry less about the auto leaving the street than I would about the random child/toy or the stray pet/wild animal entering the roadway.

But, let us assume that all of these possibilities are accounted for and that there will be NO accidents (Yeah, I laughed at that also). If there are no accidents, then there is no one at fault and there is no need for insurance. Norm McDonald, Flo and that Allstate guy will have to join the gecko in the audition line for work. Darryl the “Heavy Hitter” and all of those other law firms will have to fight over the remaining legal claims.

Making further assumptions, I see all of the auto dealers trying to differentiate their models from the other mundane “hop in and let the robot have all of the fun” vehicles out there. There will be no “thrill of the open road” if all are running in packs and we are watching the scenery flying by. The “sports car handling” so familiar to the earliest baby boomers and lacking on most all SUVs and trucks will not be a selling feature unless you are buying antiques.

I worry that the free enterprise of this will inflate the ranks of the unemployed while not solving the infrastructure cost dilemma. Young people are driving less, automobiles are costing more (both initially and over their lifetimes) and the real-time level of wages is stagnant so who will be able to afford such extravagances? And will the roads be there upon which to use them?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Some Questions For Readers

While I am searching for more information, just a few questions for the usual readers.

Kroger wants to provide more selection in their Chevy Chase market, yet The Fresh Market and Trader Joe's can bring in great selection and variety without exceeding to 70,000square foot floor plan.  Why is that?  Go check out the competition for  yourself.

EKU has begun a "Farm to Campus" program to supply more local Kentucky Proud products, yet the University of Kentucky, the flagship, land grant institution, built to train our states farmers wishes to "outsource" their food service.  Does this make sense?

If folks are driving less (for the fifth year in a row) and auto pricing is rising (as well as the length of financing required to buy), does it make sense to fund newer, wider highways rather than transit?

Does anybody have better suggestions?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Continuing Thoughts

I don't think the city really cares about food issues.”
Danny Mayer of North of Center

I, on the other hand, am sure that this city's residents do not feel that there are any real food issues to care about. As a whole, this city believes that food availability will be provided as it has through history, yet history is a poor prognosticator of future events.

Reading further in Danny's comments, it becomes crystal clear that he is wanting some action from out City government to compel food production for the poor or, at least, publicly purchased food to be distributed at little or no cost to the poor. I find this to be against even our Founding Fathers' concepts for our country.
I know that people in Lexington do not concern themselves with the possible long-term effects of global warming/climate change or the idea of Peak Oil. Private enterprise has always solved these problems and will do so again – but at what cost and to whom? It is what they think that our country was founded upon.

Private enterprise in America at the time of the Revolution was of the small, family owned variety and not the large multi-national corporations of today, especially when it came to food production. Government saw no need to force or limit food production until the large corporations got into the act. What was necessary was the freedom of farmers to farm and production was naturally limited by what they could sell. Frugal farmers would not expend the energy to produce more than a small portion above that distributed.

Today, our small, family owned farms are producing more than enough for themselves and a growing following of CSA members and loyal, farmers market enthusiasts. Many of them do it organically or with a minimum of chemical additives. Most of this food is priced accordingly and above corporately produced food. Most obvious of all is that these small farms cannot feed all of Lexington, regardless of ability to pay.

During the Second World War, small backyard and neighborhood “Victory” gardens were touted as a way to aide the war effort and stave off starvation. That time also saw the wide-spread use of family owned neighborhood grocers. It may well be that these two elements were the vital parts which enabled the country to get through that time. I worry what will happen if there is a next time, when these elements are missing.

I see some opportunities to create some of these neighborhood gardening locations (without impinging on public parkland) and locating some “pop-up” style markets within short reach of our residential areas. I think that more opportunities need to be thought of and allowed.

Now is the time to prepare. I do not think that we are prepared so I can only echo Danny. 

“I don't think the city (or the country) really cares about food issues.”