In my last post, I expressed some smugness about Rodale’s pioneering status in the healthy-food movement. I felt a little guilty about it at the time, but I feel vindicated now. While rummaging through our files searching for essays by J. I. Rodale, I came across a folder labeled “Rodale’s Food Center.” Inside it were a few brochures and a vintage article from Organic Gardening about the Food Center established at Rodale Press (now Rodale Inc.) back in 1979. That’s 1979—when Saddam Hussein became president of Iran, Sony introduced the Walkman, and the McDonald’s Happy Meal was rolled out nationwide. Microwave ovens were the latest craze, expanding from 1 percent of American households in 1971 to 25 percent by 1986. The organization Slow Food would not be founded for another 10 years.
But Rodale was already exploring the relationship between our food and our health. The Rodale Food Center had high ambitions when it was founded:
“From harvest to table,” the brochure reads, “we’re dedicated to improving the way people eat. We’re working to create the best in new crops, recipes, and food products, and to find the best in prepared foods and kitchen equipment. And we help the rest of Rodale Press make that information available to the widest possible audience—to consumers and industry, science and government alike.”
The building that housed the Food Center was itself innovative. At the time, adaptive reuse of older buildings was not common, but Rodale repurposed several buildings in Emmaus—including several former silk mills—as part of its philosophy of regeneration. The former Thaddeus Stevens elementary school was remodeled to become the Food Center’s first home (shown above).
To launch its new venture, Rodale chose chef Tom Ney, who had attended of the Culinary Institute of America. He became the director of the Test Kitchen and Food Services (which serves food for Rodale employees). Home economist and nutritionist Anita Hirsch served as the Test Kitchen supervisor. Their photos are featured prominently in the brochure:
“Harvest to table” is a common phrase today, but back then, this was a revolutionary concept. The Food Center worked with researchers at the Rodale Research Center who were developing highly nutritious but relatively unknown crops, such as amaranth, testing different varieties, recipes, and cooking methods to see which would appeal to American consumers. Rodale employees were the taste-testers. (Having had the experience of tasting amaranth, I can say there’s a reason it is seldom on the menu in American restaurants.) This relationship would be discontinued when the Research Center separated from Rodale Press and became the nonprofit now known as the Rodale Institute.
The brochure goes on to say, “We also create many of the recipes we publish because we prefer to use natural rather than overly-processed ingredients and, we’d rather do without certain ingredients like sugar, salt, and white flour in favor of fresh fruits, herbs and whole grains.” Again, these concepts are common in 2011 but were not in 1979. And Rodale continues its commitment to testing and refining recipes to make them tastier and more healthful. Many of the original recipes created by Organic Gardening authors have been tested by JoAnn Brader, current Test Kitchen manager, and her staff, and tasted by our staff at the magazine. They’re often adjusted and improved before publication. The Test Kitchen is also frequently called on to do recipe nutrient analysis for Rodale magazines and cookbooks, which allows editors to substitute healthier ingredients if a recipe is found to fall short of our health standards.
Plans are in the works for a new Test Kitchen facility, occupying part of one of the repurposed silk mills Rodale has renovated. Stay tuned for updates.
Today is Food Day, a brainchild of the Center for Science in the Public Interest to advocate for “healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.” Other organizations and individuals have embraced this day to hold informational events and social gatherings large and small.
While I certainly applaud this effort, I must confess to a certain amount of smugness as I say, “Glad you finally caught up to us!” The folks at Rodale Inc. (the parent company of Organic Gardening) have championed this message for the past 60-odd years. It started with J.I. Rodale, our founding editor, who brought the agricultural theories of Sir Albert Howard to the United States and was the first to use the term “organic” to describe it. J.I.’s son Robert built on this legacy, expanding the company’s agricultural publishing into Russia and establishing the Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side U.S. study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods. Robert’s daughter Maria, now chairman and CEO of the company, recently published Organic Manifesto, laying out the modern arguments for why consumers should “demand organic.”
But none of us can afford to be smug, can we? Our agricultural system is (still) broken. On the one hand, at least in America, it is highly productive and produces surpluses almost every year. On the other hand, the food often does not make it to the people who need it, and waste is built in to the system. Often the resources we rely on for life itself—soil, air, and water—are severely damaged by this “productivity.”
So those of us who have toiled in the trenches of the organic movement for lo these many years welcome the young blood that efforts like Food Day bring into it.
For more information about Food Day, click here.