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Produce Business

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London Produce Show Preview:
Chef Gerry Ludwig Talks About
Veg-Centricity At Foodservice Forum

One of the great benefits of events such as The London Produce Show and Conference is that we gather intelligence from all over the world, thus saving attendees from a lot of time and cost in traveling themselves. Rarely is that as true as with this year’s Keynote Presentation at the event’s Foodservice Forum by Chef Gerry Ludwig of Gordon Food Service.

Chef Ludwig conducts an annual tour de force of research, as he and his team visit new restaurants in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- all with the goal of identifying new trends and new menu options for the customers of Gordon Food Service. He presented the results of this research at the New York Produce Show’s “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, and the information has been extraordinarily well received and featured in our sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS.

This year, we bring him to the Foodservice Forum at The London Produce Show and Conference — held the day before the trade show on Wednesday, June 7 — to give attendees insight into what is hot and happening with fresh produce in the USA.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Gerry Ludwig
Corporate Consulting Chef
Gordon Food Service
Wyoming, Michigan

Q: Your keynote presentation in London will bring new perspective and spice to the diverse and burgeoning UK culinary scene. I revisited the dynamic Q&A we did back in 2015 for your first keynote at the New York Produce Show’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum. It turns out you were incredibly on point in your menu projections, and quite brilliant in pointing out the important produce trends and menu solutions for competitive advantage.  

A: We covered a wide range of issues that will be of interest to the London Produce Show attendees and we spelled out a lot of background information on our proprietary culinary research and development program.

Q: You’ve continued to stay ahead of the curve in foreshadowing produce-centric, foodservice trends in the U.S. and translating them to winning strategies. Since you target trend-setting U.S. cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, how will your menu insights be applicable to a London Produce Show audience?

A: My talk will revolve around the latest updates to my presentation at the Ideation Fresh in New York last December. I am certain that attendees, when they hear my talk in London, will find the ideas compelling and run with them in ways that make sense for their markets.

I am not going to speculate on exactly how these opportunities would translate into restaurants in the various European cities or countries, but food culture is increasingly global. Many of the restaurants we study have chefs that trained in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and many showcase cuisines from around the world. In today’s global food culture, there is an enormous cross-pollination of ideas.

Q: That’s fair to point out. At the same time, The London Produce Show proves to be a stimulating global venue for interactive brainstorming and resourcefulness among a wide range of leading industry specialists.  

A: I feel much more comfortable with that approach, as opposed to me saying, this is specifically what you should have on your menu. Then if that’s okay, I can go through the trends, and as people develop questions, we can open the discussion.

Q: I think that’s great. Let’s get started with a preview of your key points…

A: I’ll open my talk by addressing a major problem in the produce industry, or what I call ‘the produce monger’s dilemma.’ I’ll cut to the chase: I have been talking more and more to produce industry groups about “veg-centric” restaurant trends and the importance of rethinking how produce is used on menus. But produce executives always go back to the topic of increasing produce consumption, and the traditional business of selling produce.

Q: How are you defining veg-centric?

A: The whole idea with vegetable-centricity is that the vegetables, and to a lesser degree, fruit have to be pulled to the center of the plate. However, if you restrict yourself to a meatless scenario, it doesn't provide the flavor arsenal, the ingredient arsenal that you need to create vegetable or produce-based dishes that have had the same level of credibility as protein-based dishes.

You don't have to overload them with meat protein. You can just use a very small amount as a flavoring ingredient. That takes these dishes over the top.

Q: In that scenario, the produce and protein proportions essentially are flipped 180 degrees. So, when you say produce executives need to rethink how to reach restaurant consumers, are you suggesting they need to jump outside the produce industry silo, and stop viewing meat and other proteins as the enemy?

A: If you view meat proteins as your partner, it is going to be a winning relationship going forward. In theory, there's nothing the matter with an idea like Meatless Mondays. The problem is… it really hasn't picked up traction. I believe the reason is because when you're taking things away from people, they think they're being denied something. Whereas with vegetable-centricity, they're still getting everything that they're looking for.

I can't speak to the retail side, but I can tell you, as far as selling more produce to restaurants and lifting consumption in that segment, veg-centricity truly is the answer.

Q: And you have evidence through your latest research to back this up?

A: I’ve projected this veg-centric trend for many years.  A conclusion from this year’s presentation is that we're just seeing continued acceleration of more and more chefs jumping on board, and dining consumers are following their lead very enthusiastically. The solution with vegetable-centricity is banishing that meatless mindset and realizing you can pull vegetables to the center of the plate and then judiciously add proteins. That is really the key to getting consumers in restaurants to eat more produce.

Q: Why exactly? Is a vegetarian menu limited to niche market segments?

A: Being a consultant to restaurants, I am always thinking about the foodservice customer base. As I have been talking over the past few years to restaurant operators about vegetable-centricity, I have stressed to them that they should not think of it as a restaurant theme or a restaurant concept. It's really a new menu category.

More and more operators are eliminating the category of produce side dishes. They're just relegated to the bottom of the menu as an afterthought. Then they're actually creating and instituting a very carefully thought-out category of vegetables on the menu.

That said, I have been proven wrong with that assertion. Although, I still believe that's how the vast majority of operators should view it. Quite surprisingly, some very, very high profile chefs just over the past year have opened vegetable-centric restaurants. The entire theme is built around vegetable-centricity.

Q: Could you provide examples?

A: There’s a new restaurant on Randolph Street in Chicago called Bad Hunter. It's kind of a cute name. Bad Hunter is Native American slang for a vegetarian. It has been an absolute runaway success both from dining critics and from consumers.  Likewise, Chef Dan Kluger just opened a restaurant in New York City called Loring Place. There are some seafood dishes on the menu, but it is primarily a vegetable-centric restaurant based on the wood burning grill.

In Los Angeles, Joseph Centeno has opened a restaurant called P.Y.T. We don’t know exactly what that stands for. The waitress said it might be Pretty Young Turnips. P.Y.T. is strictly dedicated to vegetable-centricity. When Chef Centeno was interviewed about the restaurant he actually said, ‘You won't find animal proteins center stage in P.Y.T. Instead they'll be singing in the chorus.’

To me that's quintessential veg-centric. It's what we've been talking about all along.

Q: It sounds like a phrase you might use…

A: Yes, absolutely. In Chicago, there's a small group of chefs that have gotten together. In a few months they are going to be opening a vegetable-centric restaurant called Daisies. Dan Barber, who is the very famous chef at Blue Hill in Manhattan, has established a vegetable-centric offering at his bar.

Up until this point, Dan Barber has primarily been a vegetarian chef. With his new bar menu, basically he's putting vegetables and all greens at center stage with meats being used mostly as a condiment.

Q: What’s happening in restaurants traditionally focused on protein dishes?

A: Another thing we saw in our latest research that was really surprising was the large number of new restaurants in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles following this trend of eliminating the category of side dishes; and then prominently displaying the offering of vegetables either in the center or the top of the menu.

Some extreme examples would be a new steak house called GT Prime in Chicago. It has eliminated its category of side dishes and created a very well thought-out vegetable offering on the menu. It is no longer just your conventional steak house basic greens, spinach, or broccoli with hollandaise sauce…things like that.

Q: Could you describe some of the departures from conventional greens?

A: GT Prime does a spit-roasted cauliflower with ricotta, pepper relish with pine nuts. They do a classic vegetable-centric dish of grilled Brussels sprouts. It's topped with shards of crispy Iberico ham with maple butter and long peppercorns.Then, grilled maitake mushrooms that are topped with melted brie and local honey.

Q: You’re making me hungry…

A: The one we found really surprising in Los Angeles was The Cannibal Beer & Butcher, which started in New York. This is a nose-to-tail, meat-centric restaurant, and even they instituted an extensive menu category of vegetables. And once again, no longer any side dishes. Some interesting choices include a farmer’s market tomato salad with watermelon, cucumber and chilies. All of that is tossed in a fish sauce vinaigrette. It’s a great example of how the chef is integrating just a little bit of protein. With the fish sauce on, it’s no longer a vegetarian vinaigrette.

These are not your old typical, steakhouse sides anymore, which is why they are in their own dedicated category of vegetables.

Another unbelievable dish was whipped grilled broccolini. It was topped with a Calabrian chili and a bagna cauda, which is a classic Italian vegetable dip. It's simply made by combining olive oil, chopped butter and chopped anchovies.

Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve highlighted the trend of bagna cauda on restaurant menus…

A: You recall our original interview, where I had talked about the person who really started the entire trend in vegetable-centricity, Travis Lett at Gjelina. He was the first person to use bagna cauda. It was on the menu the first day that Gjelina opened. It was either grilled radicchio or grilled treviso that he brushed with bagna cauda as it was on the wood grill. All the chefs have picked up that flavoring ingredient, bagna cauda. I've got a dozen examples or more of vegetable-centric dishes where bagna cauda has been incorporated.

What we're seeing now is what I call this third wave of vegetables with an expansion of the number of protein addition that we're seeing on these dishes.

One would be lardons,which is the cured Italian back fat — the pork fat. For instance, Cafe Marie Jeanne in Chicago does grilled maitake mushrooms with pine nuts. Then they rest thin shavings of the lardon on top, which just melts all over the mushrooms.

We had talked about the crispy Iberico ham that was being used on top of the Brussels sprouts at GT Prime. Café Medi in New York did these beautiful wood roasted heirloom carrots. They were just roasted to an ideal caramelization — with the whole stem on and skin on. Then they were topped with thin shavings of Iberico ham that had been left to crisp in the oven until it was crispy-crunchy.

Q: You seem to be keen on Iberico.

A: Iberico is arguably the finest and certainly the most expensive ham in the world. It comes from Spain. It basically is the breed of hog. It's a black-footed hog that they feed in just a diet exclusively of acorns. That makes the hogs really fat. The acorn gives the fat a tremendous amount of flavor. That's what the Iberico ham is all about.

Q: Thank you for that prolific description in my admittedly produce-filled world!

A: Another protein ingredient that we're seeing is 'Nduja. It's a spreadable spicy Italian salami. This is really a unique product. Even though there's a smoked and cured salami, there's so much fat in it that it remains spreadable even after it's cured. Chefs are using this in a variety of different veg-centric applications. A great example would be Roberta's Restaurant in Brooklyn.

Q: Oh, I've been to Roberta's. Actually, it was a hit with New York Produce Show attendees during one of our urban agriculture tours.

A: The reason I'm calling this one out is because the chef took this 'Nduja sausage and made a vinaigrette with it. He took sweet onion and he cut it into pieces so that the pieces of onion fold like little cups. He poached the sweet onions in white wine, then chilled them. Then inside of these onion cups he put a half of goose berry. Then drizzled it with the 'Nduja vinaigrette.

Q: How creative…

A: I tell you it's one of the best dishes we tasted. Another example is a restaurant called Mardi in Los Angeles. They did wood grilled chicories with bitter greens. Then they topped them with a very small amount of a braised lamb ragu. It was actually ground lamb and they just made a savory sauce with it. Then they finished it with a sprinkle of the chopped pistachios.

We're also seeing liquid protein elements that are being used for flavor, like that fish sauce vinaigrette that was on one of the dishes. Another item we are seeing in dishes is XO sauce.

Q: Asian influences?

A: Yes. Basically it's an Asian sauce that is made by simmering fish or shell fish, pork and soy together. Obviously there are some other elements, but those are the three basic ingredients. It really is a seafood-based sauce, very value-rich. For instance at Ocean Cut, a restaurant in Chicago, they grilled green beans and then tossed them in this XO sauce with a little bit of crispy roasted garlic. Another example of this liquid protein element is dashi. Of course, dashi is a combination of kombu seaweed and bonito flakes — shaved tuna flakes. They're simmered together. Normally, it’s used for Ramen noodle soup, things like that.

Well at Rose Café in Los Angeles, they crispy fry Brussels sprouts and then they serve them in a pool of dashi broth. You’ve got that rich broth that combines with the crispy crunchiness. It just works perfectly.

We also saw a lot of vegetable separate dishes simply topped with bonito flakes. An example of that would be at Restaurant Roister in Chicago. They're doing a house-made Yukon Gold fried potato garnished with ricotta cheese and just a generous topping of the bonito flakes.

Q: Okay. What other influences can you point to?

A: Of course, we're also seeing even more different cured meats, bacons and things like that being used as protein elements. A couple of interesting ones. Restaurant Animale did a sauteed Brussels sprouts topped with a soppressata Italian sausage they crisped in the oven. Likewise, restaurant Giant in Chicago serves a sweet & sour eggplant that's topped with bits of crispy pancetta.

We're continuing to see innovation with vegetable-base sandwiches. It’s an entire section in my presentation. Let me just talk about a couple that were really standouts. One of them is at restaurant Republique in Los Angeles. They did a maitake mushroom toast, but it was so over the top. It was just absolutely irresistible. It was garnished with thin shavings of country ham, scrambled eggs, wilted spinach. Then it was drizzled with hollandaise sauce and a red wine Bordelaise.

Q: Fancy sandwich…

A: Another one was at High Street on Hudson, in New York. The sandwich was grilled king oyster mushrooms with braised kale, honey-crisp apple, Gruyere cheese, and white truffle mushroom mayonnaise. It was unbelievable.

In a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles called Erven, I had a crunchy cauliflower sandwich. They literally fried the cauliflower till it was crispy. Then they topped it with a pine nut caper spread and golden raisins. We saw a fair amount of sandwiches that were based on cauliflower and this probably was our favorite. It is actually from just a deli in Brooklyn, called Foster Sundry. It was a grilled cauliflower on a baguette with pickled red onions, manchego cheese and chimichurri sauce.

Q: It is interesting because all these different descriptions you are giving are very multi-layered and complex. Is the trend to get more and more complex? Isn’t something to be said about focusing on the simple purity and natural flavors of fresh vegetables?

A: What consumers value most when they are dining out are the sorts of dishes they can't make very easily for themselves. I think these more elaborate dishes, where it is layer upon layer of flavor is really something the dining consumers appreciate.

Q: Right, because there is no way they are going to do that at home... What is happening specifically on the produce front… Are there any new or unusual fruits or vegetables making headway on menus?

A: The next section of my talk is what I call, “They are Everywhere.” These are produce items that were popping up on dishes all over the place. There were three of them. The first one was watermelon radishes. We did have one dish at Erven that was strictly based on watermelon radishes called pickled slaw.

In the vast majority, the watermelon radish was really being used more as an addition to the dish or a garnish. In one instance, watermelon radish was thinly sliced and stood up on top of a hummus with assorted vegetable crudites. There were also several instances where a sandwich contained watermelon radish as one of the ingredients.

One dish that we thought was really interesting was a gypsy salad from the restaurant Café Henrie in New York. This was basically a salad of market vegetables, avocado, chickpeas, and olives. Then, the salad was dressed with a beet tahini sauce. Really cool because they took a watermelon radish and put it on a spiral slicer. There was this long accordion of watermelon radish that ran through the salad. They have a very unique and really eye-appealing look to them.

Q: So, watermelon radishes, and what’s the second produce standout?

A: We've already identified several dishes that contain them, but maitake mushrooms were absolutely everywhere. We were seeing them in three different forms. I had talked about the maitake mushrooms that were covered with brie and the honey at GT Prime. Then also, we saw braised and stewed maitakes served on top of polenta, either crispy polenta or just a very nice smooth polenta.

Since maitake grows in big bunches, chefs would take very, very large pieces, what almost looked like a whole head of maitake mushroom and roast it or wood grill it and serve it in the center of the dish.

Mardi in Los Angeles first took a large head of maitake mushroom. And deep fried it until it was completely crispy and crunchy. They served that with whipped garlic ricotta as a dipping sauce. One of the chefs in our group commented, “This is like a mushroom version of a blooming onion."

Q: And what’s Number 3?

A: We encountered over a dozen different vegetable sunchoke dishes in our research this year. One of the reasons that we continue to believe that sunchokes are popular is because a lot of chefs are realizing they simply have to just score them up. Leave the skin on. Cut them in half. Oven roast and then there are all sorts of different things that you can do with them. One of the restaurants in Chicago is called St. Lou's Assembly.

One of the vegetables on their menu was simply roasted sunchokes tossed in brown butter. Then there was Restaurant Sauvage in Brooklyn, same M.O., just cutting the whole sunchokes in half and oven-roasting. Here they tossed in that 'Nduja vinaigrette just like they served in Roberta's.

We had a fascinating dish of caramelized sunchoke soup at a restaurant called Destroyer in Los Angeles. You get this creamy sunchoke soup, but they caramelize the sunchoke and really give it a lot of flavor before they puree that. To really put it over the top, they garnish the soup with thin slices of raw sunchoke and thin slices of banana.

Q: It’s inspiring to hear your passion…

A: When you take a piece of raw sunchoke and a piece of raw banana and put it in your mouth, it is one of the most heavenly flavor combinations. How this guy stumbled upon it, I have no idea. We thought it was absolute genius.

We also saw several dishes in salads that were garnished with pickled sunchokes. Either thinly sliced or julienned and then just very lightly pickled used as an ingredient in salads.

Then the final one… It's a new steakhouse in New York called Quality Eats. Instead of doing a scalloped potato, they did scalloped sunchokes, which is absolutely dynamite.

Q: Okay. You have a fun job.

A: Yes, that’s true, but it takes a large amount of time.

Q: When you’re eating so many variations of different dishes, do you find it hard to distinguish the taste profiles after a while? 

A: You have to stay focused. You can't develop a flavor memory unless you taste it. As a matter of fact, we were experimenting with our own recipes with 'Nduja, which is extremely spicy. I tasted 10 different versions. You just drink some sparkling water in between the tastes and go on from there.

Q: So, after you discover all these delicious menu items and trends, how do you connect this back to helping your customers? 

A: We are doing research in casual and casual-upscale restaurants so we can consult our customers that are specifically in those segments. The translation is not all that difficult. However, just like almost everything that we talked about, if we're seeing more sunchokes on menus, that's not a trend, that's just a menu opportunity. Trends are really few and far between.

Examples of those would be like American comfort food that continues to evolve. That's a macro trend. I believe vegetable-centricity is a macro trend where we're just now at the very beginning of it.

The bottom line is that a lot of these concepts we're only going to be directing to our more key casual, and casual/upscale, operators in the larger metro cities at this point. I think it's going to be a while before this whole style of eating and this whole concept really makes its way through -- the secondary, the third-tier cities, and then on into the more remote parts of the United States.

Q: It will be interesting to get feedback from London Produce Show attendees on how this veg-centric phenomenon impacts them. What are the key messages you want attendees to take away from your talk?

A: One thing that really hasn’t changed. That old habits die hard. At The New York Produce Show and other produce events that I attended in 2016, I consistently got this message that people in the produce industry still consider themselves to be the underdogs. Really, that is not true anymore. Now, obviously it's an evolution, not a revolution.

Vegetable-centricity is going to evolve in the next decade and even further out. However, people in the produce industry really need to change their mindset. Produce is no longer the supporting act, and that is true by everything we've seen with the younger demographic groups, the Millennials, the Gen Z’s.

Produce is poised for a dramatic role on food service menus by everything we’ve seen with the younger demographic groups, the Millennials, the Gen Z’s… Even today we're seeing it with Baby Boomers. They're discovering all these vegetable-centric dishes. They're tasting flavors in vegetable dishes that they've never experienced before.

Produce can no longer be viewed in the industry as an accompanying ingredient. The fruits and vegetables have come to the center of the plate. People in the produce industry need to lose their meatless mindset and appreciate that their absolute best friends are animal-based proteins. They really need to become advocates and promote this partnership.

Q: Quintessential veg-centric…

A: It really is a simple as that. You take a look at these unbelievable vegetables that are being served. This truly is the road ahead. I guess the last point is that, people in the produce industry should be very confident in this direction.

*******

The produce industry doesn’t do a great job of selling to foodservice. Produce venders are conditioned by retail to assume demand for their product. They know that Tesco needs grapes or citrus or apples or berries.  Yet, foodservice is different. The volume is heavily concentrated on only a few items such as potatoes, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. If you want to sell even the most tasty peach, even at an incredible value, one needs to get the item on the menu first.

Few produce companies are well equipped to be persuasive in this area. They don’t often have their own research chefs or experts in menu planning.  And, besides, the process can take years. Plus, with commodity products there is always the fear that having spent money and worked hard to get an item on the menu, the producer that did all the hard work may not get the business.

Yet for a hundred years in America and most of the western world, the trend has been a steady increase of the percentage of consumer dollars spent on food to be consumed out of the home.  That is schools, hospitals, business-and-industry feeders, prisons, and, especially, restaurants of all type.

Chef Gerry Ludwig’s research points to a very bright spot for the industry. It indicates that vegetables especially are increasingly becoming the center of the plate.

This is, of course, the key answer to moving the needle on foodservice use of produce. As long as produce is relegated to a side dish, that boom in, say, kale, is likely to just mean a decline in spinach sales, as restaurants substitute one produce item for the other.

But if we can move consumers to things where the produce is the main ingredient and proteins are used for a little flavor, we can expect dramatic changes in produce consumption.

There is much to do, of course… many of Chef Ludwig’s veg-centric restaurants are a bit upscale. How this translates into more down-market and more rural restaurants has yet to be determined. But the opportunity is clear and we hope you will join us in London to see how America’s newest restaurants are innovating with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Please join us for a robust discussion on the implications of this for the UK, European and the global efforts to increase produce sales through the foodservice channel.

You can register for The London Produce Show and Conference and the event's Foodservice Forum here.

And you can book your hotel at The Grosvenor House, where the event is held and networking is best, right here.

We look forward to meeting and working to move the industry forward at the Foodservice Forum of The London Produce Show and Conference.




Where Dreams Come True
William Prevor and 360DegreesofDisney.com

The Junior Pundit Primo, aka William, has been engaged with the produce trade since he was born. He was nestled in this Pundit’s left arm while we hammered out columns with our right on the day of his birth. He swam with Joe Nucci at the PMA Board of Directors meeting in Cancun, Mexico, when he was not even six-months-old.  He has even contributed to our editorial product, providing inspiration for pieces, such as Little Taste Bud.

When he was asked if he might be interested in taking over the enterprise that publishes this Pundit one day, he laughed: “Dad, why should I do that when I can be the CEO of The Walt Disney Company.”

Finding his logic impeccable, we left him to his own devices, and in time he began to publish a web site dedicated to all things Disney.

He publishes his own columns. Here are a few of the Pundit’s favorites:

Will Disney serve the Enthusiast Market?

What is Going on with Character Integrity?

Are Lilo and Stich Doomed?

Was Discontinuing Disney Infinity a Mistake?

And the overall website, which you can find at www.360DegreesofDisney.com, is chockfull of photos, videos and analysis in which William tries to identify how decisions made in one division —say the movies — impact other Disney divisions, say the theme parks.

He has a robust Twitter feed…

https://mobile.twitter.com/360DegreesofDis

A nice Instagram page…

https://www.instagram.com/360degreesofdisney/

You can find more than 100 videos on his YouTube channel…

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9tVw5pmJW3MDskyRT2kbgg/featured

And he would be thrilled if you connected with him on LinkedIn…

https://www.linkedin.com/in/william-prevor-449752133/

Or followed him on Facebook…

https://www.facebook.com/360DegreesofDisney/?hc_ref=

Nobody knows what the future holds, but it is a great thing when young people — or old people — try to follow their dreams. So forward freely, sign up for the updates on the website, connect on social media, and if you have any words of wisdom for William, you can pass those on here

 

 




In Social Policy And In Business
Open Minds Are Needed
To Solve Intractable Problems

We often talk about Americans being unwilling to work in the fields and stagger at the thought of what we would have to pay and how we would have to change the job to get Americans to do this work.

It is the same situation with teaching — except the issue is not finding a person to do the job but enticing people of high intelligence into the field. For many years, we got such labor on the cheap, because women were constrained from entering many other fields. So high-IQ women became teachers,  nurses or social workers. Today, comparable women become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

The New York Times recently ran a lengthy piece titled, The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools. Written by Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden, the article starts on the front page of the Sunday paper and then covers three additional full pages. It is the kind of commitment a paper such as the New York Times makes when its editors consider the story worthy of contention for a Pulitzer Prize.

The article is built around a premise:

Under a system created during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, eighth graders can apply anywhere in the city, in theory unshackling themselves from failing, segregated neighborhood schools. Students select up to 12 schools and get matched to one by a special algorithm. This process was part of a package of Bloomberg-era reforms intended to improve education in the city and diminish entrenched inequities.

There is no doubt that the changes yielded meaningful improvements. The high school graduation rate is up more than 20 points since 2005, as the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has built on Mr. Bloomberg’s gains. The graduation gap between white and black or Hispanic students, while still significant and troubling, has narrowed.

But school choice has not delivered on a central promise: to give every student a real chance to attend a good school.

Fourteen years into the system, black and Hispanic students are just as isolated in segregated high schools as they are in elementary schools — a situation that school choice was supposed to ease.

It is actually not clear that the system has yielded “meaningful” improvements at all. There have been efforts that relax graduation requirements for the 20% of students deemed to have disabilities, for students with low scores on required exams and an Occupational Studies Graduation Pathway option, which also relaxes graduation requirements. So to what extent the choice program has had an impact on graduation rates is quite unclear.

In any case the authors, in the end, condemn the system:

Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have.

New York is a unique place. Due to its scale and a robust public transportation system, it is feasible for the City to embrace “school choice” without engaging in the controversy over allowing private and parochial schools to be an option. Former Mayor Bloomberg opened the door only to students entering public high schools around the city.

Of course, there were select programs already in place that Mayor Bloomberg wanted to continue. New York has a long history of offering select schools based on merit or talent. Remember the movie Fame? That took place in New York’s High School of Performing Arts, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which was established in 1947. In addition to meeting academic requirements, students are selected to that school by audition. 

If students want to get into The Bronx High School of Science, founded in 1938, or Stuyvesant High School, which started restricting admission in 1919, or other select schools, the students have to take the Specialized High School Admission Test, and they receive a level of instruction, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, that is not available in the typical neighborhood high school.

A newer pathway to high school choice was an explosion of specialty programs, most that do not have a rigorous testing requirement. The article mentions a veterinary program at George Washington Carver High school for the Sciences in the New York City borough of Queens. There is nothing wrong with using these types of programs to sustain interest among students who otherwise would not be focused, but it is also not really clear that there is much to do in high school that prepares one specifically to enter veterinary school or become a veterinarian.

Mainly the students need to study and learn to read, write, do math and science and to think!

In any case, only a small percentage of students have such specialized interests and needs when they are 13 years old and considering where to apply for high school.

The real purpose of offering this program is the consensus that many inner-city schools are bad — this is why those who can do so often move out to the suburbs so their children can go to better public schools. Those with enough resources who want to live in the city often send their children to private schools or parochial schools, which typically offer a less expensive private option.

So, since the powers that be have found it very difficult to improve these inner-city schools, the idea is that those parents who find their children trapped in a geographic locale that has a horrid school could use this new option to get their child a better education.

The article is certainly interesting but, beyond the specifics of this situation, we found it intriguing because it also provides an example of how we allow our own biases and desires to lead us to often focus on the wrong issues and to make bad decisions.

Three points come to mind:

First, always define your terms. This massive article is filled with talk about good school and bad schools — yet the only way it actually evaluates the schools is by graduation rates.  The authors recognize this is somewhat problematic:

Graduation rates are not a perfect proxy for education quality. In many schools, students arrive far behind, and it is a major effort to help them graduate on time. Elsewhere, ninth graders show up on Day 1 doing work at grade level or above, so the steps required to get them diplomas are less onerous. And it is difficult to say how much of a school’s success is because of what happens within its walls — the curriculum, the teachers, the leadership — and how much is because of advantages children bring from home.

But graduation remains a meaningful measure of a school, and of the opportunities it provides. If parents felt they had another option, how many would be happy to send their children to a school where more than a quarter of students do not graduate?

Yet graduation rates, as mentioned earlier, have a lot to do with graduation requirements so it not a fixed measure.  Besides, high graduation rates really tell us almost nothing about how good a job a school does in imparting knowledge.

Too often we focus on certain measurements because they are easy to measure — not because they give us valuable information.

Second, make sure you are focusing on the correct problem. This whole article is about a problem that has been defined as middle school children without advantages, being unable to navigate the system to get into the available good schools. But that is not actually the problem at all:

Last year, 146 seventh graders at Pelham Gardens took the state tests. On the English exam, 29 passed, which requires a score of at least 3 out of 4. Fifteen did that well in math. Only seven scored at least a 3 on both tests.

This means that a majority of the children had no real chance of getting into the most selective schools, like Manhattan/Hunter Science High School or Townsend Harris High School in Queens, where students must have a 3 or higher on the tests. 

So we have this whole saga — thousands of words — about the unfairness of a system that doesn’t get students from poor neighborhoods the chance to get into good schools — and only seven out of 146 students are academically ready for 9th grade work. That is less than 5% of the students!

The whole article is written with the assumption that the differentiating factor between those who can work the system and those who can’t or won’t is either poverty or race — but the clear facts of the case tell a different story. The problem is not that these students are all prepared to succeed yet are being denied the opportunity to do so because they don’t know how to work the system. The problem is that 95% of the students the writers are referring to are not ready to go to high school!

And the article does nothing to establish that where these students go to high school would actually make much of a difference. The authors present not one study, not one statistical measure, indicating that students who in 8th grade are failing the state tests, will catch up and graduate high school ready to go to college — if they get in to “better” high schools. A Jesuit maxim, often attributed to Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit order, is “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

In many ways, the situation is a Catch-22.  When people say a school is a good school, they typically have no way of evaluating if it is any more effective at teaching than other schools. What they mean is that it is a school where almost everyone graduates, almost everyone goes on to four-year colleges and, indeed, the high school reputation is likely to shine in direct proportion to the extent the school’s graduates get accepted at highly competitive colleges.

So, a “good school” is a school that does not have students like these ill-prepared students. If, say, the crème de la crème of the New York Public School system, Stuyvestant High School, was to suddenly accept all these students, it would no longer be considered a good school because the vast majority of students who cannot pass 8th grade will not suddenly start succeeding at higher level work and get into MIT and Caltech, no matter what high school they go to.

Maybe Stuyvesant has better teachers — and so the students would thrive? We have no indication that would be true. We have some indications that a few highly charismatic inner school teachers, Jaime Escalante for example, can make a difference, but there is nothing scalable. Besides, who says that teachers who do a great job with Brainiacs are going to do a great job with remedial work? Possibly it is also a chicken-and-the-egg situation… if “good schools” have better teachers, maybe that is because good teachers prefer to work with students who are smart and studious. They like students whose parents will support the teachers. They like students focused on studying — not gangs — so the teachers can be in a safe environments. 

Third, don’t prejudge what is relevant; look for secondary effects.  The article is filled with small insights:

By Ms. Bryant’s estimate, there are only about 15 high schools in the Bronx doing a consistently solid job. The rest have disappointing records, with too few students graduating and even those who earn diplomas not possessing the skills they need for college.

But families at Pelham Gardens often choose schools in their home borough anyway. Getting to a school in Upper Manhattan, like the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a successful school in East Harlem, can take an hour. Plenty of parents do not want to sign up their 14-year-olds to leave the house before sunrise and spend three hours a day on the train.

So they choose more local options, like Herbert H. Lehman High School, in the Westchester Square neighborhood of the Bronx, just two miles away from Pelham Gardens. But there, only 52 percent of students graduated last year. Ms. Bryant has warned Pelham Gardens students about the school, but 15 students have matched there.

When we were in high school, our suburban Long Island public school debated against Bronx High School of Science. The kids were wicked smart, well prepared and tough to beat. Many had stories about taking two trains and a bus and having to leave home at 4:30 AM to get to school on time. One can focus on the unfairness of this, but it also served as a kind of entrance barrier that proved one would succeed in a very rigorous school.

These were not rich kids. They were mostly poor immigrants from Asia, but their families valued education enough to say, yes, it is worth it to struggle and sacrifice to go to the best school. And, not shockingly, they found it worthwhile to struggle and sacrifice every day for four years to succeed in the school. So when other families don’t see the value in that sacrifice, it tells us something.

Many educators believe that some sort of preference should be created for low-income students, for example. That way, children whose parents do not have the ability to take them to open houses across the city are not competing so directly with those from families that can make the high school quest their mission. 

Note the assumption is that the key variable is financial — that poor families, busy working, unable to pay transit costs or miss work, are the ones who are unable to take their children to see schools or to make an application.

No support is presented for this assumption, and it was not our experience with the students at Bronx Science. The difference in our experience was not financial, but cultural. The schools in New York are very segregated, but the best schools are filled with Asian students, not because of any bias in their favor, but because their families value the education and make it a priority.

If a family is not motivated enough to make the sacrifices necessary to apply to a school — a one-time thing – are they likely to be motivated to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed over four years? Doesn’t it “take a village” to succeed?

******

The lessons go on. For example, why the focus on schools? Maybe the focus should be on teachers. McKinsey had a famous research study basically finding that the bulk of teachers were not in the top third in SAT scores. There is some indication there has been some improvement since that report was issued. But if we were to make as a prerequisite for teaching that a teacher had to score in, say, the top third on overall SAT scores, a good 60% of teachers would have to retireAnd if we said we want the top 20% in both the math and English portion of the SAT, the numbers aren’t public but it seems likely that more than 80% of teachers would have to retire in New York City.

Think what dramatic changes we would have to make to teacher salaries if we constrained the supply by requiring all teachers to score in the top 20% of both the Math and English SAT.

The New York Times article is really not very strong when it comes to analyzing the problem at hand, but it is exceedingly valuable in helping us note the importance of adopting a thought process where we are not blinded by our own assumptions but are open to alternative ways of seeing the situation.

Only this willingness to shed our own prejudices opens the door to finding new paths to success.




On The Nature Of Friendship:
Funny Trump Video From The Netherlands Hits A Nerve About NATO

As a result of launching The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference, we now have many friends throughout the Netherlands and many have passed on a video that the producers of the Dutch TV show “Sunday with Lubach” broadcast that was designed to introduce The Netherlands to America’s new President:

Put together by two Jewish guys from Illinois, Greg Shapiro and Pep Rosenfield, who have lived in the Netherlands for two decades, it is not clear how much it reflects Dutch attitudes. But it raises the question of how the world will perceive the whole “America First” attitude that President Trump is promulgating.

Scholarly critics and journalists critique the phrase because, in its original usage, it was isolationist and anti-Semitic – although notably, the America First Committee, which had spearheaded opposition to the US joining in World War II, often via prominent speeches from Charles Lindbergh, was dissolved three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is, however, doubtful that the phrase retains that meaning today to President Trump or many Americans. Today, it is more a slogan that means to many Americans that their concerns and their well-being should be preeminent in policy decision-making process used by their own elected representative.

The problem, of course, is that no President would have ever claimed that America was anything other than the first priority. Dating back to the Marshall Plan, what consideration the US showed others was, most often, a form of enlightened self-interest.

Even if President Trump is right that, say, NAFTA has helped Mexico more than America, it is also true that a case can be made that America’s long term economic and security interests are served by a more prosperous neighbor.

Yet, these are not the post-war years. Europe is not impoverished. There is a feeling in America that prosperous countries, such as the Netherlands, could do more but are choosing to not do their share when it comes to investing in the defense of the West:

The Netherlands is no longer cutting on the Defense budget, but NATO is still concerned that too little money is being put into it. At present the Netherlands spends 1.14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product on Defense. Other European NATO countries spends an average of 1.43 percent.

NATO wants the Netherlands to invest more in additional personnel, equipment, training, supplies and support services.

According to Hennis, NATO is concerned that the Netherlands' week defense spending will lead to "other allies providing a disproportionate share of the necessary capacity". 

And it is not just Donald Trump, or even NATO, that have noted this issue:

The most powerful statement was made by the leader of the Dutch liberal party VVD: "the Americans paid for our security, while we were building up our welfare state". Or just to put it in other words, the Netherlands were free riding with the US department of defense. 

There are different ways of measuring these things, but the CIA World Factbook says the Netherlands in 2014 was spending just 1.27% of its GDP on defense. In contrast the NATO standard is 2%, the UK spends 2.49%, and the US spends 4.35%.

The Dutch are a gifted people, and they are good at finding opportunities. The video ends with a joke as the Dutch acquiesce to America First but ask that it might be Netherlands Second! Yet it is important to pay less attention to Donald Trump and more attention to the forces that brought him to the presidency.

Have you have ever had a friend who didn’t chip in for his fair share of dinners and outings? And maybe, one day, you just felt that you weren’t being treated fairly in this friendship. A lot of Americans feel that way, and it is not clear why the nations of Europe that are not even meeting the 2% NATO standard would think that situation acceptable.

 




Pundit’s Mailbag — Unemployment, Automation, Modern Technology and Envy
Will ‘Our’ Civilization Crumble?
Is A Moral Renaissance Possible?

Our piece Putting Aside Pesticide Residue Levels And Climate Change: Will The City Of Light Be A Beacon For The West To Combat ISIS? We Can Never Prosper If Our Civilization Crumbles was followed by Pundit’s Mailbag – Thoughts On Global Warming and Wealth, which included letters from both Doug Stoiber and Deidre Smyrnos.

Now that piece has brought a response of its own:

Your article, "Thoughts on Global Warming and Wealth," linked to quite a collection of perspectives, including a discussion of the ISIS phenomenon and what, if anything, can be done to contain it.

The underlying question, I think, is the subtitle, "We can Never Prosper if our Civilization Crumbles." I feel this is both completely true, and a very elusive idea — the ambiguity being, what we understand by "our civilization" appears to be quite different depending on who you talk to — for example, a Trump supporter vs a Sanders supporter?

It's obvious that even within "our (geographic) civilization," there are big divisions, and different perceptions of how to keep it from crumbling into a pile of rubble.

At the same time, many, if not all people in different cultures around the world are seeing their respective civilizations crumbling.  One of the most destabilizing forces being unemployment, closely associated with the erosion of a whole set of cultural values and social structures.

The culprit in this case may be the success of human beings in automating processes that were once done by hand. Although some argue that automation creates higher paying jobs, the main rationale behind automating is to cut labor costs, so each higher paid technician replaces many previously employed workers.

Associated with this displacement of labor is the bombardment of images of affluent lifestyles that are out of reach for increasing numbers of people, which can only breed a sense of hopelessness and, yes, anger.

I realize that when someone is shooting at you is not the best time to engage in philosophical debates about the nature of violence and the pros and cons of various responses. But if we're all in the same frying pan, it's a mistake to think that someone else in the frying pan is the primary cause of our discomfort. 

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan's Sprouts
Marion, MA

Bob has been a frequent contributor to the Pundit with pieces that include the following:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organics And Manure

Insights On The Alfalfa Sprout Advisory

Testing Sprout Seeds

Pundit Mailbag — Honor ‘Green’ Attempts

Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Prices And Free Markets

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Acceptance Of Risk

Pundit’s Mailbag — GMOs And Hawaii Papaya

Pundit’s Mailbag — Sprout Lessons Echo Food Safety Dilemma

Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Manure

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Tyranny Of Economics And The Goals Of Fairtrade

Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Irradiation Follow The Path Of Pasteurization?

Pundit’s Mailbag — A Look At Organic Versus Conventional Yields

Pundit’s Mailbag — Irradiation, Pasteurization and Labeling

Pundit’s Mailbag — Pesticides And Cancer

So we appreciate Bob’s engagement on this important topic.

He makes four points:

1) It is easy to lament civilization’s collapse, but harder to define what civilization one is actually talking about.

2) That unemployment is a key factor is the destabilization of civilizations.

3) That automation is a key factor causing unemployment.

4) That modern technology, which places photos and video of affluent lifestyles in everyone’s hand, arouses hopelessness and frustration among people, making their situation even worse than it might have been in previous times.

ALIENATION

Indeed, the anger of Islamic terrorists is, to no small extent, fueled by frustration that the decedent West is causing the collapse of their own civilization. But here in the US, Bob’s point is exactly the same as mine. When the Pundit’s great-grandparents arrived in this country, their children were thrown into public schools that had as an explicit goal the Americanization of these immigrants. They were expected to learn English, ideas were inculcated via “Civics and Citizenship” courses. The civilization had a set of norms that it believed were worth defending. The goal was a “melting pot” in which — well... E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one.

In time, the self-confidence with which this society interacted with the world dissipated. The ideal became not the melting pot, but the salad bowl — in which each group would maintain its own identity and values.

The consequences are vast. Although many like to attribute hostility to immigrants as a function of economics, in a democracy, an immigrant ultimately becomes one’s partner in governance. So, one doesn’t have to be prejudiced to believe one would like to avoid changes in government policy based on values that are alien to you.

UNEMPLOYMENT

Being without work is surely destabilizing. Indeed, one of the major problems in the US is that, though the official unemployment rate is low, the percentage of people in the work force has dropped substantially. In the year 2000, 67.3% of the working age population was, in fact, working. Today that percentage is around 62%, although some of this drop may be due to demographic changes. The male labor participation rate has declined particularly steeply, perhaps reflecting a decline in the availability of blue-collar work.

The country would be a different place if we had an extra 12 million people with full time jobs in America — which is roughly what this translates to.

But, of course, people are not keeling over from starvation all across the land. So how is it possible to have so many people not working?

All too often, the nature of a job is misunderstood. The assumption is that jobs are something that employers create, and the jobs either exist or not. But, in reality, there is a constant dance between those who would provide employment and those who accept employment — and a job is only created when the offer extended is accepted.

So, the fact that I might like to have a personal chauffer is nice, but if my offer is work in exchange for free rice and my table scraps, and no one accepts that offer, there is no job, even though I am offering employment.

So, even though the decline in manual-labor-focused jobs would, logically, seem to imply safer employment, disability rates have skyrocketed. Although nationally, a bit over 5% of the working age population is on disability — up from 2.5% in 1990 — in some troubled counties, about 20% of the working age population receives Social Security Disability benefits.

In other parts of the country, minimum wage increases establish that the community would rather see low skilled people unemployed or that low wage work is aesthetically unappealing and should be done elsewhere. A new Harvard study found, predictably, that raising minimum wages impacted high end restaurants less than low end restaurants. Key findings:

“a $1 increase in the minimum wage corresponds to a 4% to 6% reduction in the number of new restaurants opened.”

and

“a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to an alarming 14% increase in the likelihood of closure for a 3.5-star restaurant (which is the median rating), but had no discernible impact for a top rated 5-star restaurant.

So the lower-ranked restaurants that cost less have a harder time surviving the increased labor costs of a higher minimum wage.”

The issue may not be that there is no work, but many people need both carrots and sticks to do something difficult — like work. We may be organizing society so that these do not exist or at least not to the extent necessary to create the jobs needed. How can we on one hand say that jobs are essential to our very civilization, but on the other hand set up all kinds of restrictions that prevent people from creating jobs and reduce the urgency for people to accept jobs?

AUTOMATION

Automation has the great drawback of removing very visible jobs. So, if we develop autonomous trucks, we won’t need truck drivers. The usual answer is that the process will create better jobs, say in developing the software needed to run the vehicles. There is, however, no particular reason to believe this is a one-to-one ratio. In fact, the reason it will be cheaper is precisely because it will not be a one-to-one ratio.

This is, however, the wrong way to think about the issue. It is really the work of Joseph Schumpeter and his well-known concept of “creative destruction” that should guide our thoughts.

Creative destruction refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones. It was coined by Joseph Schumpeter (1942), who considered it 'the essential fact about capitalism'.

The idea is that the resources of a society, if held to their current use, will stratify that society and its economy. It is only through innovation and replacement that resources — land, capital, labor, etc. — are freed up to be redeployed in new ways. So when we liberate these resources, nobody can know what, ultimately, that resource will be used for — although John Kenneth Galbraith, in his classic, The Affluent Society, told us way back in 1958 that individuals had pretty much all they needed, and the future would be all communal goods. Turns out that consumers have managed to find needs for plenty of things that Professor Galbraith never imagined — anyone have an iPhone, an Internet connection, fly non-stop from London to Perth? There is little reason to doubt the infinite flexibility of consumer needs and desires.

SEEING AFFLUENCE

We actually don’t know if allowing people to see things they can’t immediately have is a cause of motivation or despondency — maybe both in different people at different times. Envy is, however, one of the Seven Deadly Sins and it is probably a mistake to give into it.

When television was just starting, there were many earnest pieces about how this new tool would make it easy for people to learn Latin and Greek from the comfort of their homes. Didn’t work out, but maybe this time, with all the time freed up through automation, people will be able to study the Ten Commandments — especially that one that begins: Neither shall they covet…”

Many thanks to Bob Sanderson and Jonathan’s Sprouts for helping us think through this important issue.

 

 

 

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