Here's a fine topic for a graduate seminar in anthropology: What makes food culturally acceptable? Cue discussions of values and taboos, tastes and traditions.
Now make room for diplomats and lawyers, because this question has popped up, improbably, during international negotiations at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
The FAO's member nations are drafting voluntary guidelines for "responsible investment in agriculture and food systems." It's a response to concerns over "land grabs" — big-money investors buying up farm land, often in Africa, where ownership of land sometimes is unclear. In some cases, these investors have displaced small-scale farmers, leading to protests and even violence.
The new guidelines are supposed to clarify the difference between responsible and irresponsible agricultural investments. Responsible investments, according to the draft guidelines, will increase "sustainable production ... of safe, nutritious, diverse, and culturally acceptable food."
When this phrase went into the draft back in May, no one seemed to object. But by the time the talks reconvened in early August, it had set off a severe case of indigestion in the U.S. delegation.
The U.S. "was concerned that it could lead to some barriers to trade," says Doug Hertzler, who participated in the talks representing the anti-poverty group ActionAid. (Several U.S. officials didn't respond to our request for an interview. One wrote in an email that "these are ongoing negotiations so it would be premature for me to discuss them.")
According to others involved in the negotiations, U.S. officials did not say which foods they feared might be unfairly singled out as culturally unacceptable. Some speculated that the U.S. was worried about restrictions on genetically modified foods.
In any case, American negotiators demanded a definition of culturally acceptable, and they offered one: "For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable." In other words, as long as somebody wants to buy it, it's fine.
That market-based definition didn't go over well with others. ActionAid and other activist groups pushed for a definition that recognized the right of indigenous communities to maintain their traditions.
A representative from Uruguay described the importance of sheep herding in his country, suggesting that agricultural investments that undermined these communities might violate the guidelines. Meanwhile, some majority-Muslim countries in Asia and Africa "were concerned about pork," and potential pork production facilities, says Hertzler, who, as it happens, got his Ph.D. in anthropology.
In the end, the African delegations struck a deal with the U.S., and their language is in the current version of the guidelines, which are still under negotiation. According to this compromise, culturally appropriate food "is understood as food that corresponds to individual and collective consumer demand and preferences, in line with national and international law."
Elegant and memorable, it certainly is not. Heather Paxson, an anthropologist at MIT who teaches a course on food and culture, chuckled when she heard it. But Paxson is happy that government officials are recognizing, however awkwardly, that food is "much, much more than a nutrient delivery system."
Hertzler says that he and his colleagues barely noticed the phrase when it first appeared in the draft guidelines in May. They had other priorities. They wanted the guideline to focus, for instance, on the crucial role of investments by small-scale farmers, not just multinational companies.
But the phrase "seems important now," he says. It points out that food should be adequate "in a number of dimensions, one of them being cultural."
The guidelines will be discussed and perhaps approved at the next meeting of the FAO's Committee on Food Security in October.
The Department of Homeland Security is settling a lawsuit with the ACLU, which deals with immigrants who were improperly pushed to leave the country. The suit alleged that DHS agents coerced immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to take part in a process called "voluntary departure."
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is giving both Republican and Democratic partisans fresh fodder for the talking points they've already staked out on the economy.
The country's gross domestic product, according to its new report, will grow at just 1.5 percent this year - proof, say Republicans, that President Obama and Senate Democrats have been unable to bring the country out of recession.
At the same time, the per-patient spending in Medicare actually decreased in the last year, a phenomenon CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf called "striking" - proof, say Democrats, that the cost-control measures in the Affordable Care Act are working, despite the GOP-led House's attempts to repeal the law.
Thursday's report is one of CBO's periodic forecasts about the federal budget and the economy. The group created a stir in February, when it projected that Obamacare would shrink the labor force because people would no longer feel compelled to work for an employer solely for access to health insurance.
Nothing quite as dramatic emerges from the new report, but it does contain a number of interesting tidbits.
Among those useful to Republicans:
- This year's budget deficit will be $506 billion, $14 billion larger than it predicted this spring, thanks to a weaker-than-expected economy.
- The labor market continues to be "slack," with an elevated unemployment rate and a decreased percentage of employees participating in the workforce.
- Medicaid spending is up 15 percent over last year, largely because the expansion of that program to cover more poor people was also part of the ACA.
And among the nuggets Democrats can use:
- The economy, which rebounded in the second quarter of this year after shrinking in the first quarter, should grow at a moderate 3 percent pace for the next couple of years.
- Inflation should remain below 2 percent a year through the next decade.
- The federal deficit, as a percentage of the economy, is under 3 percent - its lowest level since the financial crisis began, and should remain below 3 percent for the next four years.
Thursday's report does point out that, as a matter of policy, the CBO assumes existing law remains existing law when developing forecasts - even a law that is likely to change before the end of the year, like a package of tax breaks known as the "extenders."
Congress is almost certain to pass the dozens of large and small provisions benefiting businesses and individuals before its term expires in January - and when it does so, it will add about $100 billion a year to the deficit.
As these breaks are supported by both parties, neither party is likely to dwell on their cost.
The members of the Queen Anne Masonic Lodge near downtown Seattle are on the young side. The guy in charge is 26.
Danny Done, the lodge's worshipful master, is lounging on his designated chair in the room reserved for private ceremonies.
His title comes with a top hat, though he avoids putting it on — he says it makes him look dorky. But he does like other aspects of Masonic regalia, like his Templar sword. Done uses it to point to a diagram on the wall that charts out the different kinds of Masonry.
"Here, you have the first three degrees of Masonry," he explains, motioning to the chart. "Which gets you to, basically, the beginning step of this section, which is called the Scottish Rite. And the Scottish Rite was invented from a lecture series by a Scotsman in France."
Yes, one of America's oldest fraternities, the Masons, is still around. And in a conversation with Done, you quickly find they aren't nearly as secretive as you'd hoped — particularly in Washington. Rules in each state are set by a "Grand Lodge," and Washington's claims to be relatively liberal in the rules governing what can be shared about the organization's ceremonies.
And there's so much information on the Internet about those rituals, many Masons say, that there's little point in being mysterious about them.
Forging In-Person Connections In An Online World
For Done, the appeal of Freemasonry is pretty basic. "A lot of my best friends are here, and all of their friends typically come around, too, and it just becomes a really interesting social network that's not online," he says.
A generation ago, Freemasonry began to decline, and many of the fraternity's buildings around the country were being turned into movie theaters. Membership in the U.S. fell from almost 4.1 million in 1960 to about 1.3 million in 2012. While membership is still falling, those declines have been less steep in recent years.
"Twenty years ago, I would not have been optimistic," says William Moore, a scholar of American Freemasonry who teaches American Studies at Boston University. "I would have said, "Yes, they were relics of a time that's left behind.' "
But historically, he says, the fraternity does well during times of economic instability for men. The U.S. is in that kind of time right now.
And some millennials, Moore says, are looking for the kind of long-lasting commitment available in a lodge.
"They know that those men will be their brothers no matter what their economic structure is," Moore says. "So they know that they can change jobs five, six, seven times in their careers, but they won't be changing the lodge they belong to, they won't be changing the men who are their fraternal brothers."
On a warm Saturday, 150 brothers are on their lunch break in a private masonic park about an hour outside of Seattle. They're in the woods, but they're also wearing suits, because they're here for the outdoor version of the masonic initiation ceremony.
There are brothers here from Prince Hall lodges, which are historically African-American, as well as brothers from Canada. In fact, the grand master of British Columbia, Philip Durell, is here — his proper title is grand master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Freemasons of British Columbia and Yukon.
Still 'Just Guys'
If you ask Durell about the fraternity's rule excluding women, he admits that it's "tough to defend." But, he says, the rule means a lot to the brothers. "Men behave differently when women are there. And they don't open up the same way as they will when it's just guys there."
A few lodges in the U.S. do initiate women, but they're not recognized by the more traditional masons. The organization instead points to special sister organizations for women, like the Order of the Eastern Star, and the fact that wives are often part of a lodge's social life — they just can't take part in the ceremonies.
So back at the Masonic Family Park, the women do crafts while the men hold their ceremony. Vicky Roberts, the wife, or "lady," of Washington State's grand master, says she doesn't resent being excluded.
"Men are generally not as social as ladies are," she says. "They get stressed out — they don't really make the time that the ladies do to connect with other men."
The men need that time, Roberts says. And besides, she adds, the women are probably having a better time in their part of the campground, eating and chatting, while the men spend the day in the woods, sweating in their suits.
The ALS ice bucket challenge continues to bring in huge donations this summer for efforts to cure and treat what's commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As of today, the viral campaign has raised more than $94 million for the ALS Association. That's compared with $2.7 million raised by the group during the same time last year.
Now the association faces a challenge of its own: figuring out the best way to spend all that money.
"It's amazing. It's perhaps a little overwhelming," says Barbara Newhouse, the group's president and CEO.
She says it's a huge responsibility, handling more money than the group has ever had before.
"It's sort of like the lottery winner that receives a lot of money and four years later is looking in the mirror saying, 'What did I do with all that money? Where did it go?' " she says. "We don't want to be that kind of lottery winner. We want to take this money and very thoughtfully plan out exactly what we're going to do with it."
Newhouse says the group has already begun consulting with clients, volunteers and its 38 chapters across the country on how the money should be spent. She says the focus is on expanding the work they already do — funding scientific research, providing care and counseling for ALS patients and their families, and advocacy. Proposals will be discussed at a board of trustees meeting in October. And then, she says, decisions will be made — very carefully.
"It's not about spending money quickly. It's about spending money thoughtfully," she says.
Ken Berger agrees, with a caveat. He's president and CEO of Charity Navigator, which rates and analyzes U.S. charities. His group gives the ALS Association four stars, its highest rating. But Berger also says the ALS charity faces a tough balancing act — investing the money well, but not sitting on it for too long. He says most donors expect the money they give to be spent in a timely way.
"You'll see situations where charities have stockpiled money when they've gotten an influx like this, and donors have gotten very upset about it," Berger says. "Because their expectation is: The problem is now, the need is now, the organization needs to step up and dramatically increase its services."
He and others recall how outraged donors were when the American Red Cross received hundreds of millions of dollars after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and then diverted some of the funds to other needs.
Berger says, no matter what it decides, the ALS Association has to share its plans as soon as possible, so people know what to expect.
Patrick Rooney, associate dean at Indiana University's School of Philanthropy, says he thinks most donors understand that curing a neurodegenerative disease such as ALS is a long-term investment, but he warns, "Everybody will be watching. So a year from now, people will say, 'Where did that money go, and what's the social return on that investment?' "
Newhouse says she's well aware of all this and that she has already been inundated with advice.
"I'm getting emails, everything from, 'Spend the money this way' to emails that say, 'Take your time, do it right' to people who say, 'I've got the cure for ALS, so just pay me, and I'll give you the cure.' I'm getting it all," Newhouse says.
She admits, though, that for someone running a charity, there are worse problems to have.