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Connecting the Dots Between Fracking and the Food Supply

By Ellen Hall
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Hilary Baum remembers clearly the moment her life’s work shifted. “I was at a regional sustainable agriculture conference and somebody stood up and said, ‘You can’t talk about the future of the local food movement if you don’t know what fracking is doing and what a threat it is to everything that we’re talking about.’”

Baum had been a food systems advocate and consultant for many years, furthering the sustainable food movement both personally and professionally. Living in upstate New York, she had developed a deep understanding of the link between the land and food production. Now, she began to realize the serious repercussions fracking could have for the food business.

New York State’s main agricultural area lies atop a geological region known as the Marcellus Shale. This energy-rich formation extends not only through New York, but also Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio – and much of the area has already been turned over to fracking. 

The fracking process uses chemically treated water to break up the shale and extract natural gas. Those toxic chemicals can end up in the local water supply and in the air. Baum estimates that the Catskill-Delaware watershed, which supplies the New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore areas, supports some 17.5 million people – so the potential for fracking to contaminate the regional food supply is very real. Soon after Baum learned about this danger, she co-founded Chefs for the Marcellus, a campaign intended to help raise the voices of food and beverage business leaders against fracking.

Her connections in the food business and her years of planning events and conferences served her well when initiating the campaign. Along with her co-founders, restaurateur Jimmy Carbone and chef Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez, Baum began a deliberate, very focused campaign to engage food professionals. They believed the people who were buying food from areas that could be harmed from fracking would best understand what was at stake.

Since Chefs for the Marcellus had limited financial resources, they needed to be creative in their communications approach, and make good use of the influencers within their network. At a local farmers market, rather than approaching the public directly, Baum’s team asked producers to post an “M” logo on their booths referencing the Marcellus campaign. Buyers were then directed to an information table where they could learn about the risks of fracking.

Many local chefs also got involved with the campaign, hosting fund-raising events or “Frack-tail” parties featuring regional food, wine, and spirits. One prominent industry publisher allowed Baum’s team to set up a table at his chef’s convention. Another invited Baum to speak to his restaurant staff at their communal meal. Several food-related retail stores held educational events for the public, and one famous New York retailer, ABC Carpet & Home, filled their windows with anti-fracking posters designed by Yoko Ono.

Baum stresses that there are many ways for businesses to spread the word, and they don’t need to cost a lot of money or effort. It could be a simple as placing an attractive piece of literature in the restaurant check folder, or a stack of cards in the restroom. Businesses could allow their employees to write letters to public officials during shifts, or use their social media presence to engage and educate their customers.

So far, more than 250 chefs and food professionals have endorsed the campaign. Due in large part to their efforts, Governor Cuomo decided to impose a state-wide ban on fracking in New York in December 2014. Chefs for the Marcellus has inspired parallel campaigns in other states as well – in June of this year, the professional food community helped achieve a multi-year moratorium on fracking in Maryland.

Baum feels that her campaign stands out because it is targeted to a small but well-connected niche who can engage both their customers and their colleagues. “It’s really about public awareness and helping to create an environment for people to talk about this issue,” she says.