Photo by Jay Paul
Stopping along Interstate 64 on the way from his home in Charlottesville to his law practice in Shockoe Bottom, Kirk Schroder stands in a gas station, unable to decide on a snack. He's passionate about where food comes from, the way in which food is grown or raised, and the politics of how food arrives on store shelves. He became a vegetarian in 1989 and is now vegan. But he was hungry and needed to eat. "Finally," he says, "I found some raw almonds." Problem solved.
Not all of us can remain as wedded to our convictions when the choices are slim and our stomachs are demanding food immediately. However, Schroder would rather go without than compromise on what he eats. A soft-spoken entertainment lawyer who hasn't aged in the 20 years since I first met him, Schroder is also Ellwood Thompson's Local Market's food advocate. You may have seen his smiling face on posters around the store and on tables in the dining area.
He's a single father with a 12-year-old daughter, Sarina, who is just as passionate about food as he is. "I was at the Movieland theater with her," he says. "I felt like some popcorn and had asked what kind of oil [they used] and thought, ‘Oh, that's not too bad.' When we sat down, she'd already taken my Android and gotten the complete lowdown on it." Schroder was a very different kind of kid. One of his favorite hangouts was the McDonald's on Broad Street, and in fact, he once was the fast-food franchise's "king of the circus" at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show that year.
These days, he writes weekly about issues such as the importance of bees in the food cycle, the corporate organics industry or the farm bill on Ellwood Thompson's blog. "When you go to all-natural food markets, you can get information about labels, about particular ingredients," he says, "but no one is attempting to help you understand what the policies are that are [providing] you with the choices that you're making."
He chooses his words carefully. Ellwood Thompson's is taking the next step to help people make informed choices, and Schroder wants to be clear when he talks about the issues. There's a lack of transparency about how food is regulated, he says. We assume that the products we buy are safe, but unfortunately, things aren't quite so simple. "There are many ingredients that we eat, that we consume, that have not been fully tested and reviewed for their safety," he says, "because of the way our government structure approves such items. In my view, that's a very serious proposition."
The balance between profit and the public good is a tricky one for businesses beyond the food industry. However, because of food's dramatic effect on health, most people start to pay attention when it comes to what we put in our mouths. "There's nothing wrong with [someone] saying that certain ways in which meat, for instance, is processed with antibiotics is something that [they're] comfortable with. However, if that choice is made on [incorrect] assumptions that someone has already checked it out, that's where the gap occurs."
Ellwood Thompson's owner Rick Hood is a good friend of Schroder's. "We would routinely get together to rant about food, and over time, [Hood] said, ‘I really want our customers to know more about the kinds of things we talk about [together].' " Schroder wasn't sure how they could do that, but after a lot of discussion, the two men decided that "focusing on food policy was a good first step." The blog was the result.
The next step will be to take a more active role. "For example, we have strong opinions about the GMO issue … if [legislation around] that issue became feasible in Virginia, we certainly would become proactive … anything from providing public comment, to perhaps lobbying or pushing initiatives that will make a difference," he says.
"We don't want to wake up one day and realize that the fundamental mission of the store is gone. It's a real concern, because there are so many policies that have impacted what can come in the store."
For Schroder, however, the blog isn't simply a soapbox to express his particular viewpoint. He works hard to write balanced posts, and he carefully includes what critics might say about the particular issue that he's focusing on, even though he might not agree with them. At the same time, he wants to cut through all of the noise.
"There's too much else going on in the news these days," he says. "Folks are being bombarded with too much information. I hope the blog can be concise, to the point and give people the right amount of information so that they can at least say, ‘Aha, I'm aware of that.' "
"If we can accomplish that," says Schroder, "then I think the first step [in our advocacy] has gone well.