There’s a new kid in town, who, like the new kid before him and the kid before her, is stirring things up. He’s saying things differently than those who preceded him, and his new ideas are making some people feel a little uncomfortable. In the parlance of the much-admired entrepreneurial class, he’s a “disruptor.”
The new kid is Dave Rauch, the former president of the beloved Trader Joe’s. His new idea is the Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store that opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts in early June. The Daily Table is located in a low-to-middle income area which has not enjoyed much success attracting conventional supermarkets. Relying largely on the donation of “seconds”—food that is edible and safe, but just beyond its expiration date or a few days shy of the compost pile—Daily Table is, according to CBS News, “on a mission to solve two problems: preventing tons of food from going to waste and offering healthy alternatives to families who may not be able to afford traditional stores.”
The food, befitting its less than top-quality condition, is sold—packaged and fresh, as well as in the form of prepared meals—at prices that are often one-third of those found at conventional retail food outlets. Daily Table sources its merchandise from places as diverse as The Food Project, a nearby non-profit community farm, Whole Foods, and the Greater Boston Area Food Bank. When food isn’t available pro bono, Daily Table will occasionally resort to making cash purchases. And based on the comments of the people I talked to for this story, consumer response has been over the top, leaving Daily Table’s shelves virtually bare at the end of its first opening days.
Some sustainability and waste-reduction advocates are ecstatic, drooling over all that methane-churning matter that might not find its way into metro-Boston landfills. Rauch, who likes to use social math to describe the gulf he’s trying to bridge, says that the U.S. food system is wasting enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl. The USDA, which favors the old math, reports that about thirty-one percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. This amounts to about 133 billion pounds per year. With respect to what that might mean for the nation’s food-insecure households, Ben Simon of the Food Recovery Network estimates that we could cut hunger in half with just fifteen percent of our food waste.
I have to say that I’ve always been more than a little perplexed by our penchant to link waste reduction to food security. Though I’m an ardent composter—I’ll carry a small handful of overlooked vegetable scraps outdoors on a cold winter’s night to the compost pile rather than drop them in the kitchen waste can—the waste diversion fervor associated with feeding the hungry seems at times like a sanctimonious distraction from the more critical task of a moral society: ending hunger.
At the risk of being labeled a Tea Party toady or
right-leaning deviationist, I have to ask if the severing of the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) from the
Farm Bill by the Republican House Majority isn’t an opportunity worth taking
advantage of. And in the same breath, I have to ask if the lockstep resistance
to that move and piling on of liberal vituperation isn’t yet more evidence that
the left-leaning social policy machine is running on empty.
Federal spending on the food stamp program has been pushing
north of $70 billion a year. It has been justifiably credited with keeping many
people’s heads above water during the Great Recession while modestly
stimulating local economies. Representing some 70 percent of the current Farm
Bill– the rest being divvied up between the much reviled agricultural commodity
programs and the much beloved conservation and sustainable farming programs– food
stamp support has allegedly relied on an unholy alliance of sorts between Big
Agriculture and anti-hunger advocates. “I’ll support billions in agricultural
subsidies if you support tens of billions in SNAP benefits. That way we can eat
our food stamps and high fructose corn syrup too!”
By tearing asunder that which unlikely partners hath joined
together, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor put a lot of federal spending in
play for the government downsizing Neanderthals. As Emerson once noted, “There
is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatives,” and what can be
meaner than taking food away from hungry children? Though doing marginally
little to pull the current 50 million food stamp recipients out of poverty, the
program is one of the few tools that government has to mitigate it worst effects.
That being said, one can’t help but ask if we didn’t see
this dramatic House action coming. After all, food stamps have been under siege
for years, even before their association with President Reagan’s nefarious
welfare queen remark. Getting their start in a somewhat different form during
the Great Depression (not Recession),
and codified in its present form as the first executive order of President
Kennedy, food stamps and the food benefits they bestow reflect two sides of the
American character. Being as compassionate as any people, we simply don’t have
the heart to let anyone starve to death. But being up-by-the-bootstraps
individualists, Americans generally blame the poor for being poor and don’t
trust them to spend the taxpayer’s largesse wisely. Hence food stamps can only
be spent on food, and not any other of life’s necessities.
But even then the hapless food stamp user must run a
gauntlet of consumer scorn. The smug conservative shopper will ask aloud why
“those people” are buying filet mignon with their food stamps, while righteous
foodies ask why “they” are allowed to buy Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and host of
other highly disparaged processed food products.
Being a food stamp recipient isn’t for sissies. Not only do you
wear a bull’s eye on your back for every cost-cutting politician to take aim
at, your purchases are relentlessly scrutinized and the subject of a never
ending public critique. You endure derision from every quarter all for the
princely sum of about $5 a day.
Whether we have more food stamp spending or less begs the
question of why such a major act of social policy that nobody, including the
recipients, seems to like, continues unreformed and unevaluated. With a national poverty rate locked at 15
percent and a near-poverty rate bringing the combined numbers to well over 30
percent, food stamps provide some relief but no solutions. With overweight and
obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as
America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to
encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating. And with high
unemployment, low wage jobs, and few prospects for growth— other than big box
stores and casinos— leaving the economy stuck in neutral, the $70 billion in
federally generated buying power helps Kraft Foods (food stamps are 1/6 of its
sales), but nearly nothing to infuse local economies with new energy.
But the anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of
the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever
an innovation is proposed, e.g. Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prohibit the use
of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders
bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even
one of SNAP’s holy sacraments. It may be that they are in bed with Wal-Mart and
others who have tragically dumbed-down American wages and whose workers are
subsidized by the food stamp program, or it may be that they are riveted to the
notion that they are all that stand between a modicum of food sufficiency and
mass starvation. Either way, the tenaciousness of their enterprise, which
opposes food stamp change at any cost, is only matched by an equally fervent
brand of conservatism embodied by the Tea Party. The result: A program now more
than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation that it
helps feed has changed in myriad ways.
Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did
not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for
generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be
out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s
social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds,
it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their
communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of
the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to
wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out
front with new ideas and positive energy.
Both history and biology amply demonstrate that change is
inevitable, and that those who resist the need to adapt and reinvent in the
face of new exigencies are eventually subject to denigration, decay, and
decomposition. While we cannot realistically count on the Republicans (though I
think exceptions do exist) to enthusiastically embrace a food stamp reformation
that places poverty reduction, nutritional health, and sustainable agriculture
above basic caloric intake, we might expect more from food stamps’ stalwart
defenders as well as progressive forces within the food movement.
The time to re-think food stamps is upon us. If the best and
most compassionate don’t do it, if we don’t find a way to build a model 21st
century social program around the bones of an aging 20th century
program, food stamps will become nothing more than carrion for circling vultures.
If there’s one thing
that stands out for me during my 25 years in Connecticut, it was the quiet but
delicious return of good food and local farms.
For readers who are
less than 40 years old, please remember, there were no farmers’ markets in the
state until 1978. Today, according to the Connecticut Department of
Agriculture, there are 118. There were also no community supported agriculture
farms. Today, according to Connecticut NOFA, there are 70.
Throughout the latter
decades of the 20th century, subdivisions were consuming the state’s
farmland faster than you could eat a Glastonbury peach. Today, between the
state’s farmland preservation program and the Connecticut Farmland Trust, over
325 farms and 40,000 acres have been permanently protected. Overall, the number
of farms is no longer on the decline but actually on the rise. And with equal
importance, residents living in lower income neighborhoods are witnessing a
return of supermarkets to some of the state’s worst food deserts.
Progress like this
cannot be taken for granted, nor can it go unattributed. It was due to the
public will, meaning the actions of thousands of informed Connecticut citizens,
policymakers, and concerned organizations who thoughtfully reshaped the
direction of the state’s then atrophying food system.
I sense such a
destiny-making moment is before Connecticut again. The passage of House Bill
6519, “An Act Concerning the Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food,” would not
only make Connecticut the first state to require such labeling, it would also
give the state’s citizens a chance to chart the direction of their food system.
Labeling food products comprised of ingredients grown or raised by genetically
modified means will grant every Connecticut consumer the opportunity to make an
informed choice, just as they have done for local food, farmland protection,
and access to healthy food for all.
The efficacy and
safety of genetic modification is still in doubt and will be debated for some
time to come. Clearly, the public must engage in this debate and not concede
its outcome to a small number of profit-driven biotechnology corporations, scientists,
and federal officials. But given the pit-bull determination of the food
industry to fight every attempt to rein it in – a fight financed with
bottomless coffers – genetically engineered ingredients will remain on grocery
store shelves for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean that we have to
consume them if we don’t want to. Hence, the need for information, which is why
savvy marketers like Whole Foods will soon be labeling GE food.
It is prudent to beware
of food and farm corporations bearing gifts. Like a Trojan horse that appears
one morning on the town common, genetically engineered food proponents claim
that it poses no harm to humans or the environment, and that we need the
technology to feed the nine billion people expected by 2050. Consider the claims and the source. Already,
genetically engineered crops have been associated with the decline of monarch
butterfly populations as well as a greater degree of herbicide tolerance –
requiring more herbicides instead of less. Yields from GE seeds have shown
mixed results, not always exceeding those of conventional or hybridized seeds.
And United Nation’s bodies have not embraced GMOs as a way to feed a hungry
world, proposing instead more sustainable agriculture methods and a greater
emphasis on small-scale farming and social equity in developing nations.
uncharted territory where risk is prevalent, we should employ the precautionary
principle. This means that the introduction of new technologies require a much
higher level of certainty and scientific consensus than we currently have with
GMOs. As my mother taught me when I first learned to cross busy streets, look
both ways, look again and again, and then proceed with caution.
I’ve always been
proud of Connecticut’s independent streak. A tenacious refusal to accept pat
solutions and the mediocrity of market-driven events has served it well over
the years. Information is power because it gives people the power to choose and
to act. Labeling genetically engineered food will give the state’s consumers
the information they need to make their own choice while allowing its citizens
to choose the food system that reflects their needs and values.
For 25 years Mark Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication work for the Community Food Security Coalition. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap and Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas.
I’ll never forget the look on the desk sergeant’s face as he gazed down at me from the heights of his dark-paneled police podium. Before him was a neatly dressed, wavy-haired 18-year old cradling something seemingly as long as baseball bats wrapped in a tattered brown army blanket. Not fitting the profile of the regular string of miscreants who normally paraded before him – “hoods” as my high school friends called the few greasy-haired “bad boys” who inhabited our affluent North Jersey suburb – he targeted his puffy eyes at me and asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”
I cleared my throat and said, “Sir, I’d like to turn these in.” Laying my little bundle on a heavy oak table before me, I slowly pulled the edges of the blanket away to reveal a single-shot, bolt action .22-caliber rifle and a single-barreled, 16-gauge shotgun. For a moment, the sergeant appeared to drop his right hand to his sidearm, but quickly discerning I meant no harm, planted both his elbows on his desk and glared at me asking, “What do you mean ‘turn these in?’” I told him what I would later tell my parents and quizzical friends, that I was sick of the violence and the killing, that for any of us to keep guns in our homes was nonsense, and that the only way to end the killing was for all of us to give up our guns.
This was June, 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just been gunned down in California. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slain two months earlier in Memphis. Four years before that, I sat at my George Washington Junior High School desk listening to our principal announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That “violence was as American as cherry pie,” a notion reinforced daily with bloody TV and magazine images from Vietnam, the streets of Newark, and the Columbia University campus, had become for me a palpable reality to which I could either succumb, attempt to suppress, or perhaps, in a fit of youthful naïveté, resist.
My relatively benign weapons – the heft of their polished steel and wood across my eager teenage palms, the crack of their retort against my eardrums, and the sting of ignited powder in my nostrils – had once pointed a way to manhood and dominance. But like the progression from the toy Davy Crocket musket, to the six-shooter cap pistol, to the battery-powered rata-tat-tat of the plastic M-14, my “real” guns had only perpetuated the myth of power and control over the world around me. The young boy pointing his stick at an imaginary aggressor and screaming “bang, bang, bang!” is the precursor to the adolescent hunter, jolted at last to adult consciousness by the pellet-riddled pheasant now lying limp on the forest floor. The boy’s cocoon of security is at last shattered, his omnipotence exposed as an illusion, and the choice to commit violence or non-violence the only one that matters.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried, but I made up for the dry spell this past weekend. As a former resident of Connecticut, where for 25 years I did my bit to bring healthier and saner options to that state’s children, I could not help but steep myself in the misery that is now Newtown’s lost children. I will not patronize that community’s pain by claiming to feel it, but I can sense their loss more acutely having gained a grandson just five days before the elementary school shootings. Little Bradley is safe and secure with his 3-year old sister, Zoe, in the United Kingdom where my daughter chose to marry and live. Though their distance limits my time with them, I take some solace knowing that they have greater protection from the gun-toting mayhem that rules the U.S. and takes cowardly sanctuary behind the fortress of our Second Amendment. While the United Kingdom has its share of profoundly disturbed people, the prevailing wisdom is to protect people from guns rather than protect the gun enthusiasts. The fewer guns in circulation, the less means the tragically deranged will have to snuff out life. The United Kingdom is far from perfect, but at least I know that my grandchildren will not have to attend an elementary school bristling with the characteristics of a minimum security prison that will soon become the norm at U.S. schools.
Becoming a man or a woman these days means making tough choices and often surmounting difficult obstacles. We eventually leave behind the security blankets of our childhood and learn that the best path to safety and happiness is through an open and creative engagement with others. The most society can to do is attempt to clear life’s minefield of man-made hazards like poverty, junk food, and yes, guns. And to better achieve that end may I suggest the repeal of the Second Amendment to henceforth be replaced with an amendment that reads: “A safe and healthy people, being necessary to the prosperity of a free state, the right of individuals to keep and bear arms shall be severely restricted.”
The rum-soaked beverage and balmy breeze were starting to erode my leftist resistance to luxury. Let’s face it, sipping a Mai Tai from a beachfront terrace with a million-dollar view of Diamond Head will dull the edge of the most hardened class warrior. But just as I was slouching into vacation mode, I made the mistake of cracking open Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. With my second cocktail in one hand and her book in the other, I soon discovered the whole sordid tale of how Christian zealotry, political chicanery, and ruthless exploitation dropped the Hawaiian Islands into the laps of America’s 19th century conquistadores.
Damn, just as I was starting to enjoy this place my social conscience kicks in!
Motivated – though somewhat reluctantly – to find Hawaii’s contemporary oppressors, I accepted an invitation from Derrick Kiyabu to visit MA’O Organic Farm on Oahu Island’s west side. The drive took me past Honolulu’s cheek-to-jowl ocean view condos and the Pearl Harbor Naval Base before the H1 Freeway deposited me onto Highway 93. This is the approximate place where the sign “Now Leaving Paradise, Welcome to Poverty” would be placed if tourist officials chose to acknowledge such things. But lacking most of what vacationers are looking for from a tropical getaway, the Wai’anae Coast, as it is commonly known, can only offer fast-food joints, scruffy commercial buildings, and residential housing that rival the worst of third-world Asia. I guess this is why the Lonely Planet guidebook refers to the region, almost quaintly, as “a little bit of Appalachia by the sea.”
My pre-farm tour reached a crescendo when I happened by a homeless encampment cobbled together along a one-mile stretch of state beach. Late model cars – many rusted and in various states of disassembly – jerry-rigged shelters, and a mish mash of makeshift camping and cooking gear presented such a scene of utter destitution that even knuckle-dragging conservatives would advocate for immediate relief.
As I moved inland a couple of miles, the landscape and impressions changed. Small sections of dry, flat farmland intermingled with vast tracks of military land – securely fenced and sporting giant arrays of submarine-tracking sonar towers capable of detecting a flushing toilet in a Russian sub north of Okinawa. It is here though, amid palm and banana trees, that you’ll find the peaceful acres of MA’O Organic Farms, armed with nothing more dangerous than wholesome organic produce and 40 or so farm interns between the ages of 17 and 24.
Like almost all the interns and staff, Derrick is wearing the farm’s “No Panic, Go Organic” t-shirt. Noting some of the underlying principles of the program, he reminds me that “pre-contact” Hawaiians were 100% food self-reliant and that their traditional farming methods were totally organic. In a more pragmatic vein, he also explains the program’s business model: “Organic produce generates the most revenue from our customers such as Whole Foods, numerous natural food stores, CSA members, and Honolulu’s high-end restaurants.” As a self-described social enterprise, the non-profit farm generates 40 percent of its million-dollar-plus annual budget from produce sales. This is how they support the youth development and leadership program that is at the core of the farm’s mission. Promoting food security in the surrounding region is secondary to the need to generate funds for instructional costs, community college tuition, and stipends for the workers.
Without a doubt, the produce is top-notch. The packing sheds – two retrofitted chicken coops – are filled with interns washing and packing perfect heads of green and white bok choy, glowing red radishes, and gorgeous greens. A big whiteboard lists all the customers and the number of units each will purchase that day. As the young people pack each order in MA’O Farms custom boxes and load them on to the refrigerated delivery truck, the pride is evident in their smiles; after all, they grew it, picked it, and packed it. From the sales revenue, they’ll be paid a monthly stipend by it. Moreover, the produce will help send them to college.
But MA’O isn’t just another scheme to reconnect kids to land, food, and a little income. According to Kamu Enos, MA’O’s Social Entrepreneur Director, the farm is a training and leadership development program designed to overcome the poverty and social dysfunction that was so evident on my drive in. He tells me that “this region of Oahu has the highest concentration of native Hawaiians on all the Islands. We also have a 20% poverty rate, which is disproportionately higher for Hawaiians. Over 40% of our kids drop out of school and only 10% of our graduating high school class goes to college, and many of those leave during the first year.” Derrick puts the problem more succinctly, “Our public education system has ripped off our kids.”
When I noted the unusually high number of very heavy people I saw in Wai’anae, Kamu explained that, like other Native American communities, the ravages of Spam, loss of land, and the decline of traditional practices have taken their toll on peoples’ bodies as well as their souls. In what might be called the second wave of white man’s disease (the first, as Sarah Vowell makes clear, was the 19th century smallpox and measles epidemics brought by missionaries and seamen that reduced the native Hawaiian population from 300,000 to 40,000), the American fast-food diet and the paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables are degrading the community’s health. “The root problem,” said Kamu, “is the disconnect between our land, people, and economy. Instead [of controlling these things], we exist under the predatory practices of the military.” Not only does the Defense Department control most of the land in the region, military recruiters find local Hawaiians easy targets for enlistment because good civilian job opportunities are so few.
Getting control of land, especially for farming, is a daunting challenge for Hawaiians – there’s not much affordable, arable land that developers don’t already have their mitts on. But sugar daddies do show up, and they are not always the kind that operated sugar cane plantations. In MA’O Organic Farms’ case, the sweet guy is none other than Pierre Omidyar, founder of E-Bay. He generously dropped a cool million on the program, which, with assistance from the Trust for Public Land, bought the 11 acres that are now the heart of the farm.
Pua, 21, is a MA’O youth leader and the first member of her family to go to college. She recently received her associate degree from Leeward Community College and is scheduled to start at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in August. She tells me that high school didn’t prepare her for college, but with her mother’s encouragement and MA’O’s help – counseling, remedial instruction, and peer support – she’s climbed some pretty steep personal cliffs and is now ready for bigger challenges. While she’s not likely to pursue farming as a career she credits the farm program with giving her the emotional tools she needed to succeed. “The farm experience is an inspiration. Like college, it’s hard work. The farm grounds you because you have to manage your time, you have to work as a team with others to succeed, and you have to face the consequences of your actions.”
For other young people like Pua, the path out of poverty starts with a walk down the farm’s vegetable rows. Many start to eat better and lose weight. Kainoa is one youth worker who actually lost 130 pounds by exercising and changing his diet. But what the program cultivates even more than the farm’s well composted soil is the interns’ state of mind. Disempowered, brought up with low expectations, some homeless, they were staring at a future that promised little but a swift descent into diabetes and a life in the unemployment line. Now the steps out of poverty are more visible.
To grow and sell a half-million dollars of organic fruits and vegetables every year is no small feat. But to raise dozens of young leaders who can challenge the dominance of the condo kings and restore the economic and physical health of their people would no doubt bring a smile to the ancient kings and queens of Hawaii.
Dan and Isabelle sit patiently on the folding metal chairs in the tastefully decorated waiting room of Seattle’s Ballard Food Bank. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and in his late 50s, Dan is a chronically underemployed architectural draftsman who barely managed to eke out three days of temporary work over the past week. His unemployment benefits have long since evaporated and he’s thinking about applying for food stamps, although he cringes as the words leave his mouth. With his shrunken income dedicated to keeping a roof over his head, he and Isabelle are two among 1,200 or so neighborhood residents who will request a shopping cart-full of food this week at the food bank.
Peggy Bailey, Ballard’s Operation Manager, is one of those dedicated, unflappable souls whose work holds the lives of others together as the larger universe spins out of control. Her recitation of statistics is the “growth” story that you’ll hear from any of the 60,000 emergency food sites across America. “In 2001 we were serving about 350 people per week; four years ago it was 450; now we’re serving between 1,100 and 1,200.” Peggy escorts me past tattooed skateboarders, young women clutching babies, and unshaven men for whom a good night is a dry patch of grass underneath a bridge.
Like all the 25 volunteers (out of a total of 100) on hand this day – good neighbors who keep the flow of people safe and dignified – Peggy beams with pride over the food, large walk-in refrigerators, and the recently retrofitted 6,200-square-foot machine shop that’s been their new home for only a year (after relocating from their cramped, dilapidated home of nearly 40 years). Almost half of the available food is produce, some of which comes from nearby Pea Patch community gardens and local fruit tree gleaners. An abundant supply of artisan bread, fresh dairy products, and even enough frozen meat to give each person two packages, fill the shelves. Not only can you select from a rather remarkable range of products: e.g. microwaveable entrees that retail for $9.00 at Trader Joes, there’s also a “no-cook” section that, in an average month, serves 350 people without kitchens. In addition, nearly 100 bags are assembled and delivered weekly to shut-ins and people with special dietary needs.
Unlike food banks in days of yore, Ballard does more than give away food. If you don’t have a permanent address, they’ll act as your personal post office box, a service currently used by 480 people. Case workers from the Department of Social and Health Services try to connect food bank users with SNAP (food stamps) as well as medical and dental services. Need help paying your rent or electrical bill? You can apply for a $300 voucher for the former and $200 voucher for the latter.
When I asked Peggy how she keeps up with the demand for food, she told me, almost blithely, that enough food was not a problem. In a comment that would make her the envy of every food bank worker in America, she said, “We’ve never had to turn anyone away due to lack of food. This is a very generous community. We have Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Safeway and dozens of other food donors.” While supporting five paid staff, three trucks, and a good-size modern facility, the food bank gets 95% of its operating funds from private donations, receiving only $40,000 per year from Seattle city government. One anonymous individual, for instance, gives the Ballard Food Bank $2,000 each month just to buy fresh dairy products.
In contrast to the generosity of the surrounding neighborhoods, you have the U.S. House of Representatives. If the miracles that these Seattle residents pull off every day make Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 look like a cheap card trick, the House majority’s proposal to slash $3 billion from SNAP, WIC, and TEFAP makes Scrooge look like a Salvation Army volunteer. At a time when the nation’s economy is still on life support and when a record 43 million Americans are receiving food stamps, the House Republicans want to hack the safety net with a machete while leaving the silver cutlery of hedge fund operators untarnished. Take from the poor, but don’t touch a dime of the rich.
Ballard is a human-scale urban environment whose sloping landscape gently lowers you to the shores of the Puget Sound. On street corners, food bank volunteers greet the homeless people by name, who, in turn, respond in a friendly manner, pleased that there are people who don’t avert their eyes. Stroll a few blocks north of Market Street, and you’ll come to a lovely park where grassy slopes and park benches are populated by homeless men catching a ray or two of Seattle’s stingy sunlight. In the opposite corner is a small skateboard tunnel where young dudes, hat brims cocked at precise angles, practice their chutes and curls. Between the skaters and the homeless are several fountains that spray giggling toddlers cheered on by happy moms.
The park reflects Ballard’s values: there’s room for everybody, diversity is encouraged, and the community does its darnedest to meet everyone’s needs. But, beneath this cloak of tolerance, there is a creeping sense that there may be limits to what any group of caring people can do. Perhaps it’s symbolized by the police cruiser stationed just across the street from the “homeless end” of the park. Maybe you hear it in the voices of the young men at the food pantry who were too ashamed to give me their names, but did say that in spite of a couple of years of college they couldn’t find jobs. “We’re not trained for anything.” Or perhaps you can smell it on the breath of the middle-aged drunken man, who according to Peggy had been “doing so well up until now.”
If the House Republicans have their way, the Ballard Food Bank’s waiting room could very well become so crowded that the smiling volunteers will be replaced by stern-faced security guards. When I asked John, an 87-year old food bank volunteer of 12 years, what he thought was behind the ever rising number of clients, he said emphatically, “It’s all about the economy. I see how embarrassed people are who are asking for help, but you can either sleep on the street or come to the food bank.” One has to ask if that is the vision that the budget cutting, non-taxing conservative minority have for America. If that is true, and every statement from the Republican leadership seems to suggest that it is, then one has to ask where the rage is at this time in our nation’s history.
How big must food banks get to contain the ever-swelling legions of un- and underemployed workers? How much food will Ballard’s neighborhood grocers have to donate to ensure that all the young mothers can feed themselves as well as their babies? Is there indeed a tipping point when community compassion can no longer clean up the mess made by mean-spirited politicians who avert their eyes from the growing victims of a failed American dream?
Evelyn, 87, has been volunteering at the Ballard Food Bank for 15 years, longer than anyone else. She’s a feisty, retired machinist who worked for a Boeing Aircraft subcontractor. Sitting at a table where she was sorting nuts into small plastic bags for the home delivery sacks, Evelyn shared the most commonly expressed reason for volunteering at food banks. “If you’ve been blessed, you have to give back.” Yes, I said, I’d heard that sentiment from many people in the emergency food world, but I wondered if there wasn’t something else. At that point the fiery machinist union member took over from the charitable grandmother. Growing up during the Great Depression on a Minnesota farm, she did not need the reason for rage explained to her. “Things have to change in this country,” she said, eyes narrowing and pronouncing each syllable more distinctly. “The idea of not taxing the rich is ridiculous. We have to stop farm and oil subsidies. We got to get politicians to care about people all the time, not just when they’re trying to get elected.”
Compassion and “giving back” may not be sustainable when one class of Americans lives under the House Republicans’ Golden Fleece, while bourgeoning flocks live under highway overpasses. So that compassion may live, we must sometimes release the rage.
It’s pretty well known by now that I lean on Ralph Waldo Emerson the way a drunk leans on a lamppost. When my frustration with politics, society, or even the weather surpasses all understanding, I go running for the shelter of my Emerson-only bookshelf, a privileged nook that no other literary form is permitted to occupy. Like a sweaty boy seeking relief from a hot summer day, I plunge into his cool mountain pond of essays.
“Self-Reliance” gets me out of my funk over society’s impulse to commit mass suicide via mass conformity. Recent readings of “The Fugitive Slave Law” and “Letter to President Van Buren” (concerning the forced re-location of Native American tribes from the Southeast to the Oklahoma Territory) have steeled my resolve to fight today’s injustices. But where I found surprising relief from more personal and seasonal matters came from a lovely piece simply titled “Farming.”
You see, it’s springtime in northern New Mexico, which I’ve come to learn over the course of my seven year probationary term here means absolutely nothing. As a transplanted New England gardener I’ve yet to fully adjust to the unpredictable path our Santa Fe de primavera takes before it settles into a reliable pattern of warm, relatively wind-free days. Forget the lack of water; I learned early on that unless you “bring your own” in the form of a decent irrigation system you might as well find another hobby, or even worse, consign yourself to buying everything at the supermarket. No, I’m talking about those bewitching, blue sky days of May that are savagely followed by 25 degree nights and winds so strong you have to scrape the cat off the barn door.
Seduced by air so sweet, the kind that makes it a “luxury to draw the breath of life,” I fling myself at my garden to poke seeds and plant seedlings in beds that were diligently prepared only a week before. But as soon as the sun sets beneath the Jemez Mountains to the West, a cold blanket of air slips down from the snow-covered Sangre de Christos Mountains to the East. The soil – so friable and warm during the day – turns crusty and unforgiving at night. The coup de grace is administered by 50-mile per hour wind gusts that rise up from the plains to the South and scour the ground into submission. The seeds retreat into dormancy and the plants are found the morning after splayed across the drip tape.
Experience is supposed to be a buffer to surprise. The impact of so-called unpredictable events should be reduced to a manageable level through a reasonable application of probability. The prudent gardener slowly accumulates a number of actuarial tables in his head that check the urge to act only because the calendar tells him to. But when the gardener’s original experience base is New England and his actuarial tables were compiled on the banks of the Connecticut River, he may find himself proceeding before his own biological systems have fully adapted to the new place. And maybe more importantly, what if his circuitry had always been wired for action over contemplation and patience had always been regarded as the weak sister to initiative?
The farmer, “bends to the order of the seasons, the weather, the soils and crops, as the sails of a ship bend to the wind,” writes Emerson. Most farmers I’ve known, particularly the smaller ones whose methods are sustainable and markets local, move slowly and deliberately. They know when a field is ready to plant; they sense when an animal is sick; they intuit when it is time to speed up or slow down. The farmer learns “patience with the delays of wind and sun, delays of the seasons, bad weather, excess or lack of water and times himself to Nature, and acquires that livelong patience which belongs to her.”
In my rush to plant my garden, had I become like the consumer who must have tomatoes year-round and strawberries on demand, or like the industrial farmer who works outside the normal limitations of the seasons and seeks to out-smart nature at every turn? You would have found me in my garden this May cussing out the peas that never germinated or waving my angry fists at the New Mexico gales that had reduced my tomato plants to shriveled, burned-out matchsticks. Staring down at the once beautiful asparagus tips whose life had been cut short by the heartless frost I swore vengeance on the gods who had wrought such devastation.
But a sweeter notion is now pulsing through my veins. The slow drip of Emerson is taking effect; my heartbeat slows to a more natural pace; I’m learning to tack with the wind instead of forcing my way through it. I take a deep breath, stand still and quiet so as to better hear, see, and smell nature’s signals. “Nature never hurries: atom by atom, little by little, she achieves her work.” And I will too.
Highland Hills is one of those down-and-nearly-out communities that’s allowed a glimpse of prosperity but never gets to taste it. The Dallas skyline looms large and shining across the hazy north Texas horizon and is linked to this poverty-plagued neighborhood by a seven-mile ribbon of light-rail steel. Ledbetter Avenue crosses the train line passing by vacant buildings, vast stretches of empty parking lots, and a dizzying array of “For Sale,” “For Lease” and “For Jesus” signs. Named for the renowned guitar picker Lead Belly who did time in these parts – both in and out of prison – the Avenue speaks little in the way of promise, but wails the blues of poverty loud and clear.
Like cockroaches in a post-nuclear winter, the neighborhood’s only commercial survivors appear to be pawn shops, Dollar stores, and fast-food joints. One supermarket, a Minyard whose cinder-blocked and windowless façade is about as inviting as the entrance to Stalag 13, is the only retail food source in the several surrounding miles of food desert. But a lifeline from an unlikely source has been tossed Highland Hills’s way by a group of innovative academics. Paul Quinn College, a historically black college that sits just off Interstate 45 at the neighborhood’s eastern edge, is committed to lifting its neighboring community’s physical and economic health with a combination of food, farming, and servant leadership.
There’s no little irony in this partnership. To drive by the Paul Quinn campus is to, well, keep on driving. There are no signature ivy-clad buildings or tree-shaded quads to invite college-shopping families for a leisurely tour. In fact, the first roadside buildings you see are in various states of demolition, reflecting, in part, the plunge in student enrollment from 600 to 100 (it’s now climbed back to 200) and the school’s loss of accreditation (it’s been able recently to earn back probationary status). At first glance anyway, and like the adjoining neighborhood it wants to help, Paul Quinn appears to be hanging on to life by no more than a pea tendril.
But first glances are deceiving, and pea tendrils are stronger than they look. And when your back's to the wall and nobody, even your own government, will help you, you fight like hell, you do the unexpected, and you take risks.
In Paul Quinn’s case, not only did the college take risks, it committed a grievous sin, at least by Texas standards – they terminated their football program and turned their field into an organic farm. Yes, in the shadow of the Super Bowl, with the specter of Tom Landry looking down, and the holy glare of Friday night lights forever dimmed, Paul Quinn ripped up its sacred turf where football cleats once tread, and planted – goalpost to goalpost – peas, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and more, lots more.
While the roar from the football stands may have subsided, it doesn’t mean that the field has fallen silent. When Andrea Bithell, the farm manager, announced to student and staff volunteers that the kohlrabi had gone in last week, everyone cheered. Showing a group of farm visitors where the corn would be planted later this spring evoked a round of applause from several students who proclaimed their love of its sweet kernels. Indeed the competitive spirit and enthusiasm so much a part of college athletics is hardly lacking at “Food for Good Farm,” the name chosen to denote it’s larger mission of education, community service, and healthy food for all. Sounding more like a coach than a farmer, Andrea uses words like hustle to describe her student crew’s hectic effort to plant and seed the two-acre field. When the volunteers complained about working in the cold and the rain, they were reminded that football games are played in all kinds of weather. Even the plants are forced to compete in a set of 12 trial beds located in the field’s south end zone. Here students will test different growing methods and evaluate their potential financial rate of return.
Elizabeth Wattley, Paul Quinn’s Director of Service Learning, proclaimed with pride that the farm’s tomatoes were better than anything she’d ever bought in a grocery store (she confessed that until her introduction to the farm during its first spring in 2010 she had been afraid of dirt). One student, biology major Symphonie Dawson, giggled when she described the farm’s mascot emblazoned on their t-shirts. “It’s the ‘Fighting Okra,’ an image of the vegetable wearing boxing gloves. We chose it because last year’s okra crop seemed to go on forever.” The “Rah-rah, Go Team, Go!” energy previously reserved for football games has been channeled into the end-zone to end-zone planting of 1,500 strawberry plants, 6,600 onions, a new asparagus bed, and dozens of varieties of vegetables. “The farm is the light of the college,” is the assertive way Elizabeth put it.
For a school that was on the ropes, Paul Quinn has gained a reprieve by discovering the multiple benefits of farming while also turning its attention outward to the community. One prominent need that the farm is already addressing is healthy living and eating, no small concern on today’s college campuses, especially one that is surrounded by a food desert. “Before their work on the farm, students wouldn’t eat carrots unless they were smothered in Ranch dressing,” noted Andrea. But by getting their hands in the dirt – a task that usually took two or three visits to the farm to get past the “yuck” declaration – students started eating carrots right out of the ground, dirt and all. “They actually taste,” said Elizabeth, pausing for a moment to find the right adjective, “carrot-tee.”
By engaging students enrolled in the school’s biology and social entrepreneurship courses, the farm gives scores of people in their late teens and early twenties a chance to get hands-on laboratory experience at the same time they get their hands in the dirt. Even the students who don’t care to venture into the world of bugs and compost get a taste of the farm’s output. Paul Quinn’s cafeteria now offers a monthly feature designed to showcase the farm’s harvest and introduce students to food that is healthy, tasty, and oh-so local. But Jasmine Wynn, a freshman legal study major, may have summed up the farm’s health benefits best. “I’m a city girl from Dallas, and for me the farm was something new. I liked being out there. I also started getting serious about my diet last year and decided that organic food is better for you. It’s just part of a healthier lifestyle, and I want to stick around for a long time.”
The lack of farming experience or a farm background has not been a deterrent to anyone’s participation, including Paul Quinn’s President Michael J. Sorrell. With public policy and law degrees from Duke University, his stellar resume indicates he has represented American Airlines and Morgan Stanley, served on numerous prestigious commissions including an assignment at the White House, and was selected in 2009 as one of the 10 Best Historically Black College and University presidents. Notably lacking from Dr. Sorrell’s career synopsis, however, are any agricultural credentials, and ironically, his business achievements include representing top-flight athletes like Utah Jazz All-Star Deron Williams. So why did he eliminate the football program and then have the audacity to convert the field to a farm?
A big part of the answer no doubt lies in his personal commitment to the concept of servant leadership, which, like the farm, he brought to Paul Quinn. With such simple but difficult to live by ideas like putting others before self, leaving the world a better place than you found it, and maintaining a spiritual faithfulness, Dr. Sorrell not only preaches what he practices (he personally teaches a freshman course in servant leadership), he practices what he preaches. And the farm is at the center of that practice.
Isaiah 58: 9-12 gets prominent mention on the College’s website which also touts the school’s Christian underpinnings. The scripture admonishes us (some would say “teaches us”) “to pour yourself out for the hungry…then shall your light rise in the darkness…and you shall be like a watered garden.” Holding aside the self-interest in doing good (and why not?), The Food for Good Farm has its heart and mind set on serving the hardscrabble community that surrounds it. Though a share of the harvest goes to the school’s cafeteria, 10 percent goes to a local food pantry, a sizeable share is also sold on a weekly basis to the community from the field’s former hot dog stand, and just to preserve some historical symmetry, the Dallas Cowboys buy a small share of the farm’s organic veggies, which, if sustained over time, will no doubt catapult “America’s Team” into a Super Bowl.
The school’s initial attempt to solve the community’s food access problem was to offer free land to any supermarket that wanted to build a store there. But there were no takers in a marketplace where nearly 40 percent of the residents lived in poverty. So like in days of old when the nearest general store was 100 miles away, and your only choice was to shoot or grow your dinner, Paul Quinn took to farming. The “adaptive re-use” of the football area has been impressive under Andrea’s and Elizabeth’s leadership. Not only are the hash stripes gone but so are the top four inches of sod and dirt that were replaced by dump truck loads of pure organic matter. Reflecting the program’s absolute commitment to organic farming, there was simply too much distrust of the chemical residues from years of maintaining a perfectly green gridiron. The goalposts remain as do the blocking sled, scoreboard and the entire set of bleachers running the length of both sides of the field. But the former press box is about to be turned into a chicken coop and Elizabeth retains some hope that the bleachers can be retrofitted as a greenhouse. Acres of adjoining and nearly vacant land are already being eyed for farm expansion, especially if a recently applied for federal grant comes through. On the day this reporter visited, a local apiarist was scouting out locations for nearly a dozen beehives. And according to Symphonie, the campus’s coolest guy, a very sharp dresser from Brooklyn, NY, wants to join the “bee program.”
None of this extraordinary progress has come cheaply. Elizabeth estimates that well over $100,000 in capital expenditures have been required to accomplish this conversion, and the on-going operating costs –Andrea is on the payroll half-time as is a variety of students who receive some compensation, especially during the summer season – are only marginally offset by farm sales. An upcoming April fundraiser featuring urban farming rock star Will Allen will hopefully swell the coffers sufficiently to enable the farm to buy its own tractor (it now pays for contract equipment services).
But the rapid development of the farm and the rising fortunes of Paul Quinn College have come with a price – small or large depending on your perspective. The Good Food Farm is the result of a fifty/fifty partnership between the college and PepsiCo’s Food for Good Initiative. The college makes it clear that this is an equal partnership and that PepsiCo has not placed any strings on their giving. While Elizabeth acknowledges some inherent contradictions – yes, Pepsi and other soda manufacturers have contributed more than their fair share of calories to America’s obesity crisis – she feels their support has been entirely above board. Other than cleaning up its tarnished image, one cannot detect either covert or overt sinister motives in PepsiCo’s support. Yet, with 11 teaspoons of sugar in each 12 ounce can of Pepsi-Cola and their ferocious attempt over the years to hook children with their iconic brand, one can’t help but confront the ethical contradictions: where does the greater good lie, and when does one begin to slide down the slippery slope? Though the Bible offers little in the way of guidance when dealing with the PR strategies of modern corporations (obesity, for instance, having not appeared on the world stage for another 2000 years), the college might choose to at least make the topic grist for future classroom discussions.
In the meantime, it’s hard to argue with the outcome of the Paul Quinn/PepsiCo partnership. Texas has one less football field and one more organic farm, clearly a net gain for humanity. Students from the captain of the basketball team to entering freshman are eating better, getting over their aversion to bugs, and getting their hands in the dirt (Symphonie noted that her nails look much healthier now that she regularly jams them into the soil). And the Highland Hills neighborhood is enjoying the health and aesthetic benefits of living adjacent to Dallas’s closest farm.
Under Dr. Sorrell’s able leadership Paul Quinn is rising from the ashes, or should we say compost pile. Elizabeth and Andrea are guiding the growth of what would be considered an ambitious venture at a major university let alone a college as small as Paul Quinn. And the Fighting Okra, well, they just might be on their way to a national championship.
This fall I had the privilege of releasing my second book Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture. As it makes the rounds of book reviews, and I tour the interview and lecture circuit – casting myself as it were to the lions of the marketplace – I have found that the book's first responders are drawn to its main title and less so to the subtitle. This is as I expected. People naturally want to hear stories about doers, real-life action heroes, and pioneers who might lead us out of the wilderness of the industrial food system. They are eager to get their hands in the dirt and less patient with the intellectual gymnastics required to deconstruct the half-truths of Big Food and its kissing cousin, Big Agriculture. The philosophical framework, so to speak, that mountaintop above the din and the thrum of the real world where many writers, including this one, love to dwell, is too often by-passed by the harried reader earnestly searching for a shortcut to the answer.
So allow me to use this space to reacquaint you, diligent reader, with the Big Idea of Food Rebels and why, in my humble opinion, it matters. I opened the book with a few lines from from Fyodor Dostoevsky's parable The Grand Inquisitor: "Today, people are persuaded more than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet…And we alone shall feed them…Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'" I spare little subtlety in drawing a parallel between this iconic passage of Western literature and the industrial food system's quest to control the hearts and minds of us, the dependent food consumer. After all, we know, as the industrial food system loves to remind us, that we are staring down the twin barrels of too many people and too little food.
Interestingly, the same lead was used in a recent review of Food Rebels by "Food Safety News." After going on for nearly three pages with an accurate, blow-by-blow account of the book's main points, the reviewer concludes with "Although Winne delivers strong arguments for the alternative food system, his book too glibly disparages the benefits of the industrial food system—namely, an inexpensive food supply, a system that can meet the growing worldwide food demand…." So, in the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, let me offer a selective retrospective of the industrial food system's sins for 2010 'less them "be forgot, and never brought to mind."
In our first post, we featured Connecticut's Working Lands Alliance and the National Farm to School Network. Today we profile the Sustainable Food Center, headquartered in Austin, Texas, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Food and Community Program.
The Sustainable Food Center's mission is to cultivate a healthy community in Austin, Texas, by strengthening the local food system and improving access to nutritious, affordable food. SFC envisions a food secure community where all children and adults grow, share and prepare healthy, local food. Through organic food gardening, relationships with area farmers, interactive cooking classes and nutrition education, children and adults have increased access to locally grown food and are empowered to improve the long-term health of Central Texans and our environment.
The SFC's major projects include the Grow Local program, which provides education to increase proficiency in food gardening, and aid in the establishment and long-term sustainability of community and school gardens; the Happy Kitchen, a cooking and nutrition education program; and Farm Direct, which runs the Austin Farmers Market and connects local growers with institutional consumers.
In December, the Happy Kitchen will hold a facilitator appreciation banquet at a local library. And SFC will benefit from a CharityBash fundraiser for young professionals on December 8th.
The W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Food and Community Program is focused on creating healthy places where all children thrive. The program includes efforts to improve school food, aid community-led initiatives to increase access to good food and opportunities for physical activity, and works to build movements to promote healthy eating and active living.
Among the many programs supported by the foundation is Double Up Food Bucks, a Detroit-based group which helps families receiving food assistance benefits purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. This brings benefit to both the families and to the local farmers selling the fresh fruits and vegetables. Watch a video here or at YouTube to find out more about the program.
Today we profile two groups of "Food Rebels": the Working Lands Alliance and the National Farm to School Network.
Working Lands Alliance at their "No Farms, No Food" rally at the Connecticut State Capitol in spring 2009.
The Working Lands Alliance was formed in 1999 with the sole purpose of preserving Connecticut’s most precious natural resource – its farmland. WLA is a coalition whose supporters include more than 600 individuals and 200 businesses and organizations that include farmers, conservationists, anti-hunger groups, planners and local food enthusiasts. This coalition has joined together in an effort to halt the loss of Connecticut’s remaining farmland.
This week, the Working Lands Alliance and the CT Trustees of the Eastern States Exposition announced the winners of the 2010 Farmland Preservation Pathfinder Awards. The town of Pomfret, a community of 4,100 residents, won the Pathfinder Group Award for their preservation efforts, including a bonding resolution of $4 million for land preservation and a one-time preservation of 17 parcels totaling over 700 acres in 2009 (unprecedented in the State of Connecticut). WNPR radio host Faith Middleton is the winner of the Pathfinder Individual Award for outstanding achievement in advancing farmland preservation in the State of Connecticut. And for their determination and success in restoring an agricultural asset to their community and founding a community farm that features educational programs about farming, raises vegetables for a CSA, and makes weekly donations of product to local families in need, the Woodbridge Conservation Commission & the Board of Directors of Massaro Community Farm is the winner of the Pathfinder Education Leader Award for significant contributions in the area of educating the public about the importance of farmland preservation.
The National Farm to School Network increases access to local food and nutrition education to improve children's health, strengthen family farms, and cultivate vibrant communities. Founded in 2007, the National Farm to School Network provides training and technical assistance, information services, networking, support for policy advocacy, and media and marketing activities in all 50 states with national staff and eight Regional Lead Agencies. The National Farm to School Network envisions a nation in which Farm to School programs are an essential component of strong and just local and regional food systems, ensuring the health of all school children, farms, environment, economy and communities.
Photo by Emily Hart Roth
In May 2010, the White House Childhood Obesity Taskforce Report recommended both Farm to School and school gardens as a community based solution to childhood obesity. Specifically, recommendation 3.6 of this report states: "USDA should work to connect school meal programs to local growers and use farm to school programs, where possible, to incorporate fresher, appealing food in school meals." Michelle Obama’s Let's Move campaign website also specifically promotes community gardens, school gardens and Farm to School programs.
Farm to School is involved with Root 4 Kids, a campaign from Annie’s that calls on parents and teachers nationwide to help one million kids dig and plant new veggies harvest 2010 through harvest 2011. Annie’s will award the school with the most people who join Root 4 Kids by December 31, 2010, with their choice of a garden, a new Farm to School program or gardening supplies for one year. In addition, for every 1,000 people who join, Annie’s will contribute funds toward a garden or Farm to School program in an underprivileged school.
The struggle between human freedom and authority is eternal and universal. With the advent of industrialism and its widespread application to our food supply (through factory farms, genetic engineering, and reliance on chemicals), that struggle has reached its latest stand-off. Will corporations fear-mongering about the lack of an adequate food supply and their promise of abundance prevail, or will we rise to the challenge of pursuing self-reliance and democratic control of our food system?
While the framing of Winne’s argument draws from great thinkers like Dostoevsky and Emerson, it also moves from philosophy to action, with the stories of myriad “local doers” leading the charge. Covering everything from urban farming in Cleveland, and buffalo restoration on Native American reservations, to food-education classes in diabetes-prone neighborhoods, Winne shows how people are reclaiming their connection to their food and their health. It’s hope is that these types of efforts, scaled up and adopted more widely, will allow the alternative food system to dethrone the industrial.
Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas challenges us to go beyond eating local to become part of a larger solution, demanding a system that sustains body and soul.
For twenty-five years Mark Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System in Hartford, Connecticut. He speaks and consults extensively on community food-system topics and is the author of Closing the Food Gap. Winne lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Picture this: three long-haired college kids are unloading crates of food from the bed of a battered pick-up truck. It's parked curbside at the Androscoggin Food Co-op located in the equally battered mill town of Lewiston, Maine. The year is 1971 and these kids are, unbeknownst to them, the vanguard of the local food movement.
They've spent the day rounding up goods directly from local farms and food processors, not because they're devout locavores (the word wouldn't be invented for another 35 years) but because sourcing locally was the cheapest way to get food for a co-op whose members were largely lower income. Some crates are full of apples from a nearby orchard; others contain 12-pound wheels of a so-so cheddar from a small cheese plant; and one cardboard box contains 30 dozen eggs from a chicken farm only 10 miles down the road. That box is labeled DeCoster Farms.
Yes, the product of this family egg farm (now headquartered in Iowa) at the eye of the current salmonella storm was being handled contentedly by these prehistoric foodies, I among them. As a company that was started with 125 hens in the mid-1960s by Austin "Jack" DeCoster in the farm town of Turner (pronounced "Turna" by everybody except out-of-state college kids), it was as local as you could get.
Funny how times change. Jack, now 71, was an ambitious man who wasn't going to be happy selling locally produced eggs just in northern New England. According to one DeCoster employee, Jack is a born-again Christian who doesn't engage in any leisure pursuits other than work, which he apparently pursues 18-hours a day. With a work ethic like that, growth was inevitable. Now operating under the names of Wright County Egg and Quality Egg, Jack's egg empire now produces 2.3 million dozen eggs a week in Iowa while his "starter" farm back in Turner, renamed Maine Contract Farming, keeps 3.5 million hens gainfully employed.
Today's post is from Alexis Rizzuto, the editor of nature and environmental books at Beacon Press.
In spring every gardener's fancy turns to thoughts of planting. But I cannot write about my own garden without first writing about my great-grandmother's. Though I never met that remarkable Sicilian, and her garden had become a parking lot by the time I was born, I long nonetheless for the place she made.
Biaggia Rizzo left Sicily in 1911 with her husband Salvatore, and settled in Malden, now a densely packed suburb of Boston, but then considered "the country." There, they bought a parcel of land with a small house on it. They added a third storey (for extended family), built a huge greenhouse, planted an orchard, and began cultivating the land, as they had in their home country. They also raised rabbits and chickens.
Salvatore died a few years later, leaving Biaggia to raise their only child—my five-year-old grandmother Josephine—on her own. From then on, she supported them both through the work of her hands. She grew vegetable and herb seedlings in the greenhouse, to sell and to plant. She raised peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, string beans, celery, eggplant, parsley, basil. And as my grandmother remembered, "Everything she planted seemed to thrive."
In Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, food activist and journalist Mark Winne poses questions too often overlooked in our current conversations around food: What about those people who are not financially able to make conscientious choices about where and how to get food? And in a time of rising rates of both diabetes and obesity, what can we do to make healthier foods available for everyone? In this video, he looks at encouraging signs that we are making progress toward closing some of the biggest gaps in our food system.
The outstretched limbs of Savannah's live oaks sent dappled sunlight along a wide promenade separating two rows of farm stalls in Forsyth Park. The Saturday morning farmers market was in full swing, with boxes heaped high with red peppers, collard greens, and bright orange carrots.
Hilton Graham was doing a brisk business in just-picked organic produce from his nearby Telfair County farm. Dressed in an old polo shirt and well-worn jeans, Graham was assisted by two sheepish teenage boys whose baggy shorts and designer sweatshirts gave them a decidedly un-farmer like appearance. While one hand was fluffing up bunches of greens and the other pointing his helpers in the direction of a waiting customer, he told me with a big wide grin that, "It's a great day for a market, and as crazy as this place gets, it still gives me peace of mind being here."
But the experience of Graham and other African-Americans farmers selling organic produce in this park at this time is not just another farmers' market story. Excluded for decades after World War Two from public funds that helped white farmers prosper, black farmers have also been left out of the growing ranks of organic farming, a movement that is giving small farmers across the country a chance at success. Fortunately, that is now changing. By taking matters into their own hands, black farmers formed the Southeast African American Organic Network (SAAFON). And at the same time that they were converting more of their members to organic agriculture, black farmers, with partners in local multiracial organizations, were organizing a farmers' market in a public space previously denied to them.