Solar panels on farmland stir debate in central Washington

Miami Herald

Solar panels on farmland stir debate in central Washington

By Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times      May 5, 2018

In this March 20, 2018 photo, farmer Jackie Brunson, right, walks with Tuusso Energy co-founder Jason Evans, whose project would place photovoltaic panels on some of the Brunson land and property belonging to three other Kittitas County landowners, in Ellensburg, Wash. The Seattle Times via AP Steve Ringman

Seattle: After decades of growing alfalfa, Timothy hay and other crops, Jeff and Jackie Brunson want to lease part of their farm to a Seattle-based solar-power developer.

Not a popular move. Neighbors and other county residents don’t want the green of summer fields transformed into a black expanse of photovoltaic panels.

“They aren’t happy. But it is a business decision we have made, and we don’t regret it one iota,” said Jackie Brunson. “We owe nobody a view. It’s our farm, and it’s a great way to diversify.”

As proposed by Seattle-based Tuusso Energy, the photovoltaic panels would spread across more than 80 of the Brunsons’ 1,000 acres, and another 120 acres owned by three other Ellensburg-area landowners. If approved, this would be one of the first solar farms to come on line in Washington — and for some, an unwelcome precedent for turning crop land over to solar-energy production.

In this case, the solar panels would sit on less than a half percent of Kittitas County’s 180,000 farm acres. Still, opponents worry that a project here, combined with a rising demand for clean energy such as solar, will swallow up whole swaths of agricultural land that produce the crops and livestock that underpin the county economy.

“These projects should not be on ag land. There are plenty of other places in the county where they can go,” said Richard Carkner, Brunson’s neighbor and a founder of Save Our Farms, a nonprofit formed to oppose the development.

Such concerns prompted county commissioners to reject an earlier solar project proposed for farmland and approve a moratorium for permits for all new ones.

Developers say predictions of solar sprawl are overblown, and that county delays put the project at risk.

They have asked the state to override the county moratorium, and on April 17 they achieved initial success when the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council approved an expedited review of the Tuusso project. Council members now have two months to make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.

“We are excited about the decision,” said Jason Evans, co-founder of Tuusso Energy. “If everything goes well, we could be breaking ground by the end of the year.”

County commissioners had hoped the state council would stay out of the permitting.

“The process really takes away the voice of the local government and the local citizens and local control of what the land is going to look like,” said Laura Osiadacz, a county commissioner. “It is a very disappointing decision for the residents of Kittitas County.”

The Kittitas County clash is part of a broader battle over solar siting, one that has escalated in recent years as developers fan out across the country in search of prime locations. Their projects range from a few dozen acres to mega-solar farms like Topaz, which spreads over 6,400 acres in San Luis Obispo County in California.

The industry’s dramatic expansion has been buoyed by favorable government policies and incentives and growing consumer demand for cleaner sources of electricity.

Developers also have benefited from huge declines in the prices of photovoltaic panels, which use silicon, an element found in sand, to convert sunlight into electricity. From 2010 through 2017, the average project costs plummeted by about 80 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In 2017, these solar projects generated about 2 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Solar’s share of the power market is expected to grow.

Even with the 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels announced this year by President Donald Trump, solar projects can be built for far less money than in years past.

“We have seen panels get more efficient, and a lot more inexpensive,” said Evans, who co-founded Tuusso Energy back in 2008, and through the past decade has helped to bring on five solar projects in four states.

But some developers have faced resistance for projects that typically involve tens or hundreds of thousands of photovoltaic panels.

In Oregon, for example, the state land-use board last year overturned Jackson County’s approval of an 80-acre project on farmland.

In North Carolina’s Currituck County, where two projects have been placed on 2,260 acres of farm land, neighbors complained about noise and dust during construction and poor maintenance that allowed weeds to sprout among the solar panels. These issues, along with concerns about farmland loss, helped persuade county commissioners in February 2017 to ban new solar developments, according to Laurie LoCicero, the county planning director.

In Washington, solar has largely been confined to rooftop installations on homes and businesses, and a small demonstration project at a Puget Sound Energy (PSE) site in Kittitas County.

Most renewable-energy development during the past two decades has focused on wind power. These projects, at times, also have faced pushback in Kittitas County, which is just over the Cascade divide from the Puget Sound region.

Then-Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2007 approved the Horizon Wind project that had been turned down by county commissioners. In a legal challenges, plaintiffs argued that the turbines, visible for miles, would spoil a scenic view shed and violate local ordinances, but the state Supreme Court allowed the project to go forward.

In Washington, wind power development has slowed, with many of the prime ridge-top and other sites already claimed.

Unless PSE and other utilities venture farther afield to prime wind states like Montana, the future here is likely to include a lot more solar power. In a recent planning document, PSE tagged Eastern Washington solar as the cheapest renewable option, and forecast buying up to 266 megawatts of power from solar producers by 2023.

Tuusso’s project — known as Columbia Solar — would meet only a small part of that demand. The sites selected — and leased for 30 years — would collectively produce 25 megawatts of power.

The project would provide enough electricity for about 1,000 homes, according to Evans. The panels would sit about 8 feet high, and trees and shrubs would be planted to help screen them from view.

The project is estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million, and is made possible by a 1978 federal law — the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act — that requires PSE to buy the electricity at a price equal to or less than the cost from a traditional power plant.

In Kittitas County, Tuusso Energy has found some support, including from the Chamber of Commerce board, which voted unanimously to endorse the project.

“The feeling was that we do have to transition away from carbon fuels at some point, and solar is a good way to do it,” said Jim Armstrong, the chamber’s executive director.

County critics say they are not against solar energy, but that farmland — under the state’s Growth Management Act — is supposed to be protected.

Carkner, a retired agricultural economist, says each planted acre helps support the broader community as farmers purchase seed, fertilizer, tractors and other merchandise from local merchants, and spend their earnings in town.

So Carkner wants projects placed in more remote, undeveloped parts of the county, some of which, he said, have the three-phase electrical lines needed to handle the power produced by photovoltaic panels.

Tuusso did initially look at such land but could find no suitable sites with the three-phase transmission network in place, according to Evans. It would be possible for a large solar project to build a three-transmission network in these out-of-the-way locations. But for a smaller project, such as Columbia Solar, Evans says such development would add millions of dollars in costs and scuttle profitability.

The economics look a lot better in the irrigated agricultural zone, where an extensive three-phase transmission system already is in place, according to Evans.

But even in this farm belt, the transmission system is limited, and would largely be tapped out once photovoltaic panels were placed on some 400 acres of farmland, according to Evans. Thus, he said concerns that county farmland would be overrun by solar photovoltaic panels are unjustified.

If Columbia Solar gets a green light from Inslee, opponents still may opt to pursue a legal challenge.

But if all goes according to plan, the alfalfa and seed oats now growing in two of the Brunsons’ fields be replaced next year by some 35,000 photovoltaic panels.

Jeff Brunson figures that, even on these lands, he still will be farming.

“The sun raises my crops right now, and the sun is going to raise them in the future,” Brunson said.

In this March 20, 2018 photo, Ellensburg landowner and Microsoft employee Jay Pittenger stands on his land that Tuusso Energy wants to lease for a solar farm, in Ellensburg, Wash. The tract has not been used to grow crops. It is one of five sites, belonging to four different landowners, where Tuusso Energy wants to put solar panels. The proposed solar farm has stirred controversy in the county, as did a ridge-top wind farm shown in the distance. The Seattle Times via AP Steve Ringman

This March 20, 2018 photo shows Jeff and Jackie Brunson’s land near Ellensburg, Wash. The couple, who farm about 1,000 acres plan to lease out more than 80 acres of their land for a solar farm. If the plan is approved, solar panels would cover that property, including the parcel shown here, which is bordered by trees at left, Highway 97 in the distance and Tjossem Road at right. The Seattle Times via AP Steve Ringman

In this March 20, 2018 photo, Jeff Brunson jumps a ditch by a 100-acre field he is seeding with Timothy hay, in Ellensburg, Wash. He and his wife want to diversify by leasing some of their Kittitas County land to a solar-energy developer while continuing to farm most of their 1,000 acres. The state is considering whether to allow the project. The Seattle Times via AP Steve Ringman

In this March 20, 2018 photo, farmers Jackie and Jeff Brunson speak about hearing complaints from neighbors and others who don’t want farmland used for energy development, in Ellensburg, Wash. The Seattle Times via AP Steve Ringman

Oh Lordy!

John Hanno     May 4, 2018

                                Oh Lordy!

Note to trump base. I won’t say I told you so, or actually “we” won’t say we told you so because thousands, more like many millions, pleaded with you to not vote for trump. But you went and done it anyway. You couldn’t force yourself to vote for a “woman,” even one as competent as Hillary. I realize you’re really pissed that America elected the first black president in history, and you’re all really ticked that he was so accomplished. You called him an elite, or much worse, and relished when all the old white Republi-cons in congress promised to block anything Obama proposed, to steer America back from the abyss or to solve America’s health care crisis, and righteously told yourselves, still to this day, he was unfit to be president. Well, this is where I point out the monumental hypocrisy associated with that kind of absurd  reasoning. trump has proven, way beyond all of our worst fears, that he’s the most unfit president anyone still alive has witnessed. But apparently none of this trump world chaos, corruption, deception, self dealing, treasonous conduct and utter incompetence, sparks any outrage within your conservative christian ethos.

Maybe you’re part of those unfazed rabid base of supporters, trump uses to run roughshod over the cowardly Republi-cons in congress, the ones who still think trump’s doing a fantastic job. trump said he could shoot someone dead in times square and those voters would still stand with him. He’s right for once; there could be a video of that shooting, dozens of eye witnesses claiming trump pulled the trigger and a signed confession from trump, but then a day or two latter, trump could recant and claim it was all fake news and those diehards, like yourself, would believe him without a single doubt.

Its impossible to convince these folks of anything not propagandized through the trump / Fox State News Media. Many have tried reasoning with these folks; Michael Moore spent a whole chapter in a book trying to sway these low information voters from their jaundiced ideologies. Unfortunately, any Republican with common sense, fondness for facts and the truth, adherence to reality, and a notion of integrity, has either left the party or was long ago exiled to history.

There really is no Republican party left. One half of our two party system, is now a conglomeration of un-conservative self absorbed millionaires, billionaires and predatory capitalists, congressional and state legislative self serving sycophants, and this unaffected, mostly Evangelical, 30% of the voting electorate, who’s willing to sacrifice their party for that one last chance of white Christian autonomy offered by self dealing flim flamers like trump. Regrettably, they and you are stuck on the trump tarbaby and quite willing to persevere right to whatever end Prosecutor Robert Mueller has in store.

They, you, seem to relish every crazy trump tweet; the more outrageous, the better. I guess it doesn’t bother you when he still spends weeks and months  ridiculing Hillary, James “Oh Lordy” Comey and dozens of other dedicated career civil servants with his tweets and is perfectly willing to destroy someone’s career at the drop of a tweet.

It’s not just the constant petty and inane tweets, which embarrasses himself, his family, his supporters, his party, and all of America; he takes fighting down to a new “low” level. More like a school-yard bully instead of an ethical world leader.

Can you remember when the biggest scandal Obama was accused of was when he wore that tan suit to a press conference. Folks were so outraged, they sent more than 4,000 tweets during the appearance alone.

I can’t think of a single trump cabinet member who hasn’t been caught in a scandal and some like EPA Director Scott Pruitt have challenged journalists and the media to try and keep up with his daily malfeasance.

You do realize there wasn’t a single scandal during Obama’s entire eight years in the White House. But as talented as he was, I think if he had tried his darnedest to find and hire criminal, conflicted and toxic employees to fill his cabinet, he still couldn’t have outdone trump’s unintended human resources buffoonery. More than 60 of trump’s best and brightest have cycled through this administration. And the few who tried to rain in his worst instincts and inclinations were quickly fired. He chooses people based on their fealty to him and not on qualifications or fitness for a job.

King donald proposes hair brained programs based on speculation and conspiracy theories, and without any input from the Democrats or Independents, who together represent a large majority of the country, and without even collaborating with his own cabinet. Then these half baked ideas are either struck down in the courts or have to be rolled back because of strong public opposition and protests. From health care legislation, to immigration, to trade, to assaults on the environment and even to their tax reform scam, this incompetent administration hasn’t a clue of how to govern responsibly or effectively.

Even stumbling into a détente with the North Koreans, realized by Kim’s Jong-un’s desperation, pressure from the Chinese and the South Korean’s bold initiatives, trump couldn’t help taking full credit for the authentic leadership displayed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. trump and his numb-skull sycophants have already floated the possibility of a Nobel Peace Prize for trump. I can’t help but think any chance at denuclearizing North Korea and a peace agreement deal that trump might attempt to negotiate, would have to include a trump hotel or golf course somewhere on the Korean peninsula. I think the Koreans should really settle their own peace accord and keep trump out of it.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met in the Demilitarized Zone last week. Credit: Pool photo, NYT

I can’t count the times trump bragged, “I’m the law and order candidate.” Yet his daily rant’s against our Departments of Justice and Intelligence and our courts proves he’s the most anti law and order president in history.

With attorney Michael Avenatti’s help, the latest presidential calamity threatens to speed up the resolution of America’s constitutional nightmare. trump’s new lawyer, Loony Giuliani said Wednesday that Trump repaid his personal attorney Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, directly contradicting the president’s and Cohen’s past statements. This after months of trump denying he knew anything about the Stormy Daniels affair at all. As most of us have known all along, trump’s been lying to anyone within earshot for the last year and a half. But maybe being lied to daily doesn’t bother you or trump’s unflinching base.

As Robert Mueller hinted, its quite probable trump will be ordered to testify before a Grand Jury, where all his past lies, deceptions and criminal conduct will be once and forever exposed and then probably leaked to the public by trump himself. Will you finally admit you were wrong for ignoring this Presidential degradation?

What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask what you did to resist trump’s assault on our Democratic principles and institutions?

John Hanno,

Giuliani today reacts to Giuliani yesterday? Wow!

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert posted a new episode.

March 3, 2018

What a difference a day makes for Rudy Giuliani.


What a difference a day makes for Rudy Giuliani.

Posted by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Thursday, May 3, 2018

Jillian Hishaw Wants to Help Black Farmers Stay on Their Land

Civil Eats

Jillian Hishaw Wants to Help Black Farmers Stay on Their Land

Through her organization FARMS, this farmers’ rights advocate is fighting for today’s farmers as well as the next generation.

By Korsha Wilson, Food and Farm Labor, Food Justice,  May 4, 2018

When Jillian Hishaw was studying agricultural law at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, she learned about the many the hardships Black farmers have faced in recent decades. Not only did Black families lose land at a rate of 30,000 acres per year in the 1990s, but the land rush fueled by developers and larger corporate farms has also left many of these farmers especially vulnerable.

Today, Black farmers make up less than 2 percent of the country’s farm population, and they’ve faced ongoing discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1999, a federal judge ruled that the agency had systemically denied Black farmers loans and disaster payments between 1981 and 1996, and awarded a group of farmers and their relatives $1 billion in damages as a result of the Pigford vs. Glickman lawsuit.

When Hishaw read about that case, as well as Keepseagle vs. Veneman—a similar discrimination lawsuit involving Native American farmers—she was moved to action. “The discrimination was so blatant to me that I wanted to do something about it,” says Hishaw. Her family had also directly experienced the toll that losing farmland can take. Hishaw’s grandfather lost his farm in Oklahoma; after they relocated to Kansas City, they learned that the lawyer they’d been paying to maintain the farm and pay taxes on the land had pocketed the money instead.

“There was oil on the property, so it was sold to collect the tax debts,” she says. And even though the troubles happened before she was born, it still weighs heavy on her grandfather. “Honestly, he did not like talking about the loss that much,” adds Hishaw.

Jillian Hishaw.

In 2012, six years after she graduated, Hishaw launched Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (FARMS), an organization that helps Black farmers in Southeastern states retain ownership of their land. Now, she spends her days visiting farmers in the Southeast who face losing their property and assets due to mounting debt.

FARMS is part of a growing number of organizations that want to assist Black farmers in this part of the country. “Our primary mission is to provide legal and technical assistance to aging farmers [who] don’t have many resources,” says Hishaw. She and her team help owners write and apply for grants, create fundraisers, and connect land owners to lawyers.

“It’s truly a blessing,” says LeTanya Williams, a farmer living in Chester, South Carolina, of FARMS’ work. Her livestock and alpaca farm was facing foreclosure when she reached out to the group for help applying for grants. The biggest obstacle was the fact that the land had been passed down from a slave owner to Williams’ mother’s family without an official deed.

Williams and Hishaw worked together to track down and contact the descendants of the original owners and then applied for grants to keep the property out of foreclosure.

“What Jillian does is so unique,” Williams says. “There are so many components to it, and she worked with us all the way.”

Hishaw and a team of pro bono lawyers step in to help farms navigate confusing agricultural law and avoid foreclosure. She also works with farm owners to fundraise or create additional revenue streams to keep their farms profitable.

In addition to working to keep Black farmers on the land, Hishaw also created the Farms Eliminating Hunger program, which helps farmers sell surplus produce and meat at a discount to food banks in their communities. “Three hundred thousand people in our local 20 counties struggle to have [at least one] meal a month, and her providing the meals is a tremendous way to feed the local community,” says Doug Groendyke, food sourcing coordinator at Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia, South Carolina.

Since 2014, Farmers Eliminating Hunger has delivered more than 200,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables to food banks. The program draws its success from farmers like Williams, who noted that her town of Chester was hit hard by the economic downturn. Fresh vegetables have been hard to come by there and Williams is happy to sell the corn, tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, and other vegetables she grows on her land for less than she would otherwise, if she knows it’s helping the community. “A lot of people here rely on the food banks,” she says.

Even though Hishaw’s work is focused on those who need immediate assistance, she says that she always has her mind on the next several generations of Black farmers. “The average age of the U.S. farmer is [nearly 60] and I’m seeing more and more abuse, predatory lenders, and Medicaid liens against farmland,” she says.

Given all these challenges, it can be hard to see a future for the Black farmer. But Hishaw has hope. One reason is that the latest agriculture census showed a small but significant bump in their numbers—up about 15 percent over 10 years to 44,000. She’s also heartened by the enthusiasm she’s seeing for urban agriculture among young people. “I would love to see people with urban farms moving to rural areas,” she adds, noting that she is currently creating a scholarship designed to support a next-generation family farmer studying agricultural science.

FARMS turns six this year, and Hishaw is looking to expand her staff to help more people. Currently she has a program manager, an intern, and a few agriculture lawyers and attorneys who offer their services pro bono. “It’s really a group effort,” she says. This year, FARMS earned a $10,000 grant through the Renewal Awards.

“It reaffirms our mission,” says Hishaw, who is committed to helping to right past wrongs and ensure that today’s farmers can keep their land despite financial hardship. “I think from what happened to my grandfather to what I’m doing now, it’s all full-circle,” she says.

Photos courtesy of Jillian Hishaw.

Will Robot-Led Restaurants Be a Gift or a Curse to Food Workers?

Civil Eats

Will Robot-Led Restaurants Be a Gift or a Curse to Food Workers?

Spyce, a Boston restaurant built around a robotic kitchen that opens its doors today, might reshape the future of restaurant work.

By Steve Holt – Business, Food and Farm Labor       May 3, 2018

The menu at Spyce, which opens today in downtown Boston, isn’t noticeably different than the menus you’d find at a half-dozen other quick-service lunch places within a three-block radius. It’s filled with grain bowls with brown rice and freekeh, mix-ins including pomegranate, chicken, and kale, and toppings such as avocado, egg, and yogurt.

But what sets Spyce apart from the Dig Inn two doors down or the two Sweetgreens within a stone’s throw is who—or, rather, what—cooks the food. The star culinarian at Spyce is a nine-foot long, 14-foot wide robotic kitchen—so, not really an employee at all.

The machine wirelessly collects multiple orders from a bank of self-service menu kiosks, displays the names of the guests whose orders are being prepared, pipes the various ingredients from refrigerated hoppers into a spinning wok to be cooked and tossed, and dumps the hot meal into a compostable bowl waiting on the counter below. Only then does a human handle any part of your meal, adding fresh ingredients and handing over the order, a process designed to take as few as three minutes.

But, despite the small number of humans involved, Spyce’s co-owners appear to be taking the human touch quite seriously.

“At the end of the day, a restaurant is all about hospitality and, obviously, how good the food is,” says Spyce’s COO Kale Rogers, who built an early prototype of the robotic kitchen with his three current business partners in the basement of their fraternity house at MIT. “We see the automation as a tool to allow us to serve incredible quality to more people. A necessary component is the human touch—the presentation, the personalization, the handing it to you with a smile.”

One of Spyce’s robot-prepared dishes.

Spyce’s robotic system, plus a number of other recent advances in restaurant automation, may raise questions about the culinary future we want. They’re questions easily recognized in nearly every sector, from driverless cars in the automotive industry to self-checkout in grocery stores. Will replacing cooks with robots or cashiers with computers be good for the nation’s often-undervalued food workers? Or will it just make them obsolete?

Restaurant industry leaders have blamed fair pay movements like Fight for $15 for the rise of restaurant automation, with the assumption that more robots equals fewer human workers. But some workforce advocates note that automation may actually end up being beneficial to restaurant workers.

A Short History of Robotic Restaurants

In developing Spyce, Rogers and his co-founders had a lot to learn from less-successful experiments in automation over the last several years.

For one, they brought on renowned chef Daniel Boulud, who drew from his Michelin-rated restaurants for design and flow. Along with executive chef Sam Benson, Boulud helped develop Spyce’s menu. Boulud and Benson also convinced the co-founders, who may have been leaning more robot-centric, to place two French-inspired garde mangers at the front counter to garnish the bowls. Two more employees roam the front-of-house, welcoming guests and helping troubleshoot any snags with the kiosk ordering system. A handful of additional human workers prepare ingredients at an off-site commissary kitchen.

From left: Co-founder Luke Schlueter, co-founder Michael Farid, co-founder Kale Rogers, executive chef Sam Benson, co-founder Brady Knight, chef Daniel Boulud.

Kale Rogers, co-founder and chief operating officer, wouldn’t say what Spyce is paying its workers—though Boston’s minimum wage is $11 an hour, so assume employees make at least that much—but he acknowledged that customer service is key to creating an environment to which the lunch crowd wants to return week after week.

“It’s staff whose job is to enhance your experience in the store,” he says.

Technology and automation have been seeping into the restaurant industry for years now, dating back even to the automats of the early 20th century. But not all companies wear their automation on their sleeve like Spyce does.

Visit San Francisco-based eatsa—where customers order on kiosks and pick up their machine-made bento bowl or chile con quinoa from a space-age cubby—and you may avoid interacting with a single employee. And at Café X, a coffee bar also in San Francisco, your barista is a robot that pulls orders from a touch-screen monitor and pours espresso drinks, drip coffee, and cups of nitro cold brew. There’s also Flippy, the food-safe robot arm that has made national headlines for its ability to grill, monitor, and place burger patties on buns at CaliBurger’s Pasadena location.

Many other, more mainstream eateries are experimenting with automation and technology, such as digital menus and payment pads at the table, as a way to lower rising labor costs, says Patrick Maguire, a restaurant consultant in Boston and author of the blog Server Not Servant. Maguire says the idea of automation may make sense from an economic and efficiency standpoint, but it can end up harming the guest experience because machines and humans are not equal in their intangible service skills.

“It’s true that robots can’t call out sick or bitch about their schedules, but they also can’t ‘think on their feet’ or provide the same hospitality that humans can,” Maguire says. “And often, one of the best aspects of dining out is interacting with a great server, bartender, or staff member.”

And yet, some have predicted we’re moving closer to the widespread replacement of human restaurant workers with robots, computers, and other forms of technology. These predictions sometimes come in the form of threats from restaurant lobbyists to advocates of higher wages for food workers, such as the Fight For $15.

Robots and the Restaurant Workforce of the Future

Saru Jayaraman, cofounder of the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and one of the engines behind the Fight For $15, says she has yet to see robots replace humans in the restaurant industry. In fact, Jayaraman noted that data suggest automation could lead to increased restaurant employment in the future.

One need only look, she says, to California: ground zero for both the booming restaurant industry and for automation in restaurants. For starters, even as automation becomes more commonplace in California, restaurant employment there has exploded, increasing 45 percent from 2001 to 2016.

Many headline-grabbing robots and systems, like Flippy, were born in the Golden State, and fast-food chains have used California as proving grounds for technologies like self-service kiosks and tablets, mobile ordering and payment, customizable menus, and table service. A September 2017 ROC memo points out that on the whole, automation of some tasks has led to changes in the kindsof positions restaurants need, but not in the number of staff.

The memo notes that Starbucks has seen mobile ordering and payments boost its sales, allowing it to increase the number of baristas without needing to hire more cashiers; Panera is adding staff to handle greater order volume through its self-serve kiosks. And while servers at restaurant chains like Chili’s, which has added tablet-based ordering at its tables, can handle tables quicker and more accurately during the heavy dinner rush, their presence is still key to the dining experience.

“We see two futures in our industry: One future [leads to] higher wages, better benefits, and professionalizing an industry that has been undervalued for too long,” says Jayaraman. “The other future is what we call the ‘low road,’ and involves digitization and extremely low wages. Which future is tech supporting with automation?”

The real question may be whether consumers will buy wholesale into a more automated, less human-run restaurant industry. Eatsa, the quick-service restaurant where meals were placed into cubbies for customer pickup, closed all but two of its retail locations after sales flagged and shifted its business model to licensing its technology. Jayaraman points to chains that have scaled back automated systems following customer complaints that they were too impersonal. Another full-service chain she heard of rolled out automation on its prep line, only to find that it needed to hire more human employees to monitor and repair the automation.

“Our industry doesn’t lend itself well to workers being replaced by robots,” she says.

Time will tell whether Spyce will be able to find a happy medium in an industry built on hospitality and the human touch. Their model is yet unproven in one of the city’s busiest business districts, but Spyce COO Rogers says he’s confident in what they’ve built, and he and his team will “understand right away if the customer really values what we bring.”

Photos courtesy of Spyce.

Deforestation from palm oil

EcoWatch shared a video.

May 2, 2018

Read more:

Greenpeace International

A deforested area half the size of Paris has been found in Papua. The company responsible supplies palm oil to Pepsico, Nestle, Mars and Unilever.

These brands are failing to meet their promise to stop buying palm from companies wrecking forests. Help us spread the word.

Papau Palm Oil Deforestation

A deforested area half the size of Paris has been found in Papua. The company responsible supplies palm oil to Pepsico, Nestle, Mars and Unilever. These brands are failing to meet their promise to stop buying palm from companies wrecking forests. Help us spread the word.#WeAreWatching

Posted by Greenpeace International on Tuesday, May 1, 2018


This Congress Only Listens to Rich People

MoveOn shared a video.
May 1, 2018

A study showed that Congress almost always votes in support of the opinions of the wealthiest 10% of America, while routinely ignoring what the other 90% think.

If there’s an issue where 90 percent of Americans think one thing and the richest 10 percent of people think something else, Congress almost always votes in the interest of the wealthiest Americans. That is not democracy.

Congress is Only Listening to Rich People

If there's an issue where 90 percent of Americans think one thing and the richest 10 percent of people think something else, Congress almost always votes in the interest of the wealthiest Americans. That is not democracy.

Posted by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on Sunday, April 29, 2018

Ordinary, Everyday Life in America


Ordinary, Everyday Life in America

Let’s talk about a mass shooting in New Orleans.

By Charles P. Pierce     May 2, 2018

Getty Images

Let’s talk about a mass shooting. Let’s talk about an ordinary, everyday mass shooting. Let’s talk about terrorism. Let’s talk about ordinary, everyday terrorism. And, because we are talking about an ordinary, everyday mass shooting, and ordinary, everyday terrorism, let’s talk about guns. Let’s talk about ordinary, everyday guns and their ordinary, everyday use. Let’s talk about St. Claude Avenue, in the lower Ninth Ward in the city of New Orleans. From the unconquerable New Orleans Times-Picayune:

“NOPD said the shooting was reported at 12:46 a.m. in the 3200 block of St. Claude Avenue (map), which is between Louisa and Piety Streets in the St. Claude neighborhood. Those shot were ages 25, 37, 34, 35 and 38.”

“According to preliminary information from NOPD, officers were responding to a report of gunfire in the area when they found three victims, which were taken to a hospital via EMS. Two additional victims later showed up at a hospital after they were taken there in private vehicles. A preliminary NOPD report issued Tuesday states the victims were at the same location when they heard gunshots coming from the direction of Piety Street.”

(Why does New Orleans so fascinate writers? Because names like “Piety Street” can appear in police reports. And, just for the record, there are two St. Claudes in the Calendar of the Saints and they have given their name to two cities in Canada and five cities in France, as well as a neighborhood in another part of New Orleans.)

OK, that’s the ordinary everyday use of guns in an ordinary, everyday mass shooting. What about the ordinary, everyday terrorism? That’s the second-day story for Emily Lane of the Times-Pic.

“Three U-Haul boxes sat stacked on top of each other in the living room of a St. Claude Avenue home on Tuesday morning (May 1). The resident at the double shotgun said he bought and filled the boxes with his belongings that morning, hours after opening his front door to find a gunshot victim leaning on his front stoop.”

“The man, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety, said violent crime in his neighborhood has gotten “progressively worse,” in the last two years. He had thought before about moving, he said, but Tuesday’s shooting in his block that left five people wounded “was the last straw.””

“In the four years he’s lived at the St. Claude neighborhood home, he has three times opened his front door to find a person who had overdosed lying unconscious or dead on his front stoop. He estimated hearing nearby gunshots about once a month. Just last week, he said, a car was shot up across the street.”

That is terrorism—disorganized and apolitical, devoid of ideology or even coherent thought, but there’s been so much shooting that this guy is moving away because of it, and that’s terrorism by any reasonable definition, and certainly, by his.

My eye was caught by this story because, three years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the simultaneous arrival in the Ninth Ward of Hurricane Katrina and the Industrial Canal, I was walking down St. Claude Avenue. I visited a remarkable place called the All Saints Community Center about 20 blocks from where five people were shot on an ordinary Monday night. But, if it weren’t for that transient connection, this mass shooting would have gone unremarked, at least as far as I was concerned. It was an ordinary, everyday mass shooting in the inchoate terrorism of ordinary, everyday life in America, where so many ordinary, everyday people have ordinary, everyday guns.

Freedom, as they say, isn’t free.


The Country Is Broken. The Kids Are Alright.

Incredible creatures! Jellyfish

EcoWatch shared Hashem Al-Ghaili‘s episode.

Incredible creatures! #Jellyfish

Some of the most amazing and unusual jellyfish

Incredible creatures! #Jellyfish

Posted by Hashem Al-Ghaili on Sunday, February 11, 2018

Food Policy Councils are Mobilizing to Defend Food Stamp Recipients

Civil Eats

Food Policy Councils are Mobilizing to Defend Food Stamp Recipients

As the 2018 Farm Bill takes shape and proposes significant changes to the nutrition safety net, community groups nationwide are joining forces to defend SNAP.

By Amanda Abrams – Farm Bill, Food Justice       May 1, 2028

More than 50,000 people struggle with food insecurity in Durham, North Carolina. So when a group of public health workers, farm advocates, and member of the Duke University community came together in 2016 to create a food policy council in the region, access to healthy food was at the top of their list.

First, the council—called the Durham Farm and Food Network—mapped out the resources available to hungry households in order to gain an understanding of the depth of the problem in the 300,000-person county.

Then, when the federal government proposed cutting almost $200 million over a decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) last year, the group mobilized. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, formerly known as food stamps, helps 12 percent of the county’s households get food on the table and is a critical component of the area’s food system.

“We recognized are these federal programs [are effective], and any amount of effort we can apply for hungry people should be put there,” said Neal Curran, one of the Network’s leaders.

Members reached out to another food policy council in eastern North Carolina, which includes the district of House Agriculture Committee member David Rouzer, suggesting that the two collaborate on an advocacy effort aimed at protecting SNAP in North Carolina and nationally.

In the end, 11 food policy councils from around the state joined the effort, co-signing a letter that urged no cuts to SNAP or other federal nutrition programs, and 120 other North Carolina organizations and municipalities signed on as well. Letters were delivered to Rep. Rouzer, both of North Carolina’s senators, and several other members of Congress last month.

It’s not clear what impact the letters will have, if any. In fact, when the House Agriculture Committee’s first draft of the 2018 Farm Bill was unveiled earlier this month it included significant changes to SNAP that raised red flags for the council members. But the group will continue pushing for a bill that protects SNAP. The organization just co-wrote an op-ed with several partners and is discussing coordinating with other food councils in key states.

This type of coordinated action marks a big step forward for the state’s food policy councils, and one that’s being echoed throughout the U.S.

Food Policy Councils on the Rise

Food policy councils have taken root around the country over the past decade, creating grassroots political power to address the specific needs of their communities. And the recent effort to protect SNAP is just one example of the ways these groups have begun to draw powerful connections between their local work and federal-level policies.

Food policy councils, which tend to be city- or county-based, often consist of a range of stakeholders—including unusual allies like longtime farmers, social services staff, and educators—who convene in order to expand dialogue about the local food system and address food insecurity. The first groups originated back in the 1980s, but the movement didn’t reach a critical mass until about 2010.

With 35 councils, North Carolina may be the state with the most in the country (an official tally underway at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, which tracks food councils around the country, isn’t final yet). Much of that growth has been attributed to Community Food Strategies, a North Carolina nonprofit collaborative run by several major food-related organizations; it’s one of the biggest and most active food council networks in the country.

The group itself does not advocate on issues, but it does provide training and information to food councils on topics including how to hold community forums, reach out to elected officials, and conduct advocacy campaigns. It also hosts gatherings that bring the state’s councils together, allowing their members to learn from one another.

“We’re interested in having local councils that have a sense of what’s happening, that can be a go-to group for the community and also for decision makers,” said Abbey Piner, the project lead at Community Food Strategies.

For instance, the organization works with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council, one of the state’s oldest and most active. In 2015 and 2016, the council held candidate forums to draw attention to issues of food insecurity and healthy eating; by 2017, it had become an authority on the subjects. These days, the council works closely with Rep. Alma Adams, a local congresswoman who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, providing her with information about regional needs and receiving regular updates on federal activity.

Community Food Strategies also works with smaller food councils like the one in the town of Alamance, which started out by conducting a community assessment outlining the area’s food system. Three years later, the collaborative is launching a branding campaign, “Authentically Alamance,” to educate residents about supporting local produce.

For the group’s members, who had never engaged in federal advocacy before, signing the letter opposing cuts to the SNAP program was eye-opening—and vital.

“[SNAP] is a very important program for our community,” says Ann Meletzke, director of the Alamance Food Collaborative. And not only because it supports low-income families, she adds. “The farmers [at our farmers’ markets] are running small businesses; there’s a reciprocity between them and those who are using SNAP to shop there. It needs to be cultivated.”

Gearing Up for the Farm Bill Debate

North Carolina is ahead of the game when it comes to federal-level advocacy, but food policy councils around the country are responding, especially when it comes to the farm bill, says Karen Bassarab, a program officer at the Center for a Livable Future. “With reauthorization [of the farm bill], we’re seeing an increased interest—and also since the change in the federal administration.” But local and statewide groups vary greatly in their strategies, she added.

For example, Kentucky’s food council network, the Community Farm Alliance, is launching statewide community forums about the farm bill next month. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council is hosting an awareness-raising party this month; the group will also be working with the mayor’s office to pass a resolution in defense of SNAP. Michigan’s Center for Regional Food Systems, the state’s food council convener, regularly meets with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. And the Chesapeake Food Policy Leadership Initiative has launched a series of webinars educating the councils in its network about how to engage with the bill.

Many groups around the country are still getting up to speed on the intricacies around federal nutrition programs and the farm bill, says Bassarab. “Some are not at the point where they can engage immediately,” she explains. And that means they’ll probably have to wait until the next farm bill cycle—or another federal food issue—comes around.

However, given the widening gulf between the Democrats’ and Republicans’ approaches to the bill, there’s a chance the House Agriculture Committee will be too deadlocked to move it forward, and might simply extend the current bill for another year. That might give the country’s food policy councils more experience and clout: In another year, many more councils might just be prepared to go to battle to save nutrition benefits for the country’s neediest.