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Friday, December 16, 2011

Why Our Food System Needs the Occupy Movement

Here in western Massachusetts, we are fortunate to be part of a community brimming with exciting efforts to build a new and better food system.  Farms of all kinds are starting up or heading in new directions: offering winter CSA shares, doing on-farm cheese or yogurt production, growing grains and selling them to local bakeries.  Non-farm businesses are using more local ingredients in their restaurants or using them to produce value-added foods like salsas, meads, and (in our case) fermented pickles.  New retail markets are forming for local/regional foods, such as winter farmers' markets and a new food co-op.  Non-profits are doing tremendously valuable work, as well, whether encouraging people to "Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown" or running an incubator kitchen for start-up food businesses.

To someone like myself who sees enormous social value in transitioning to a regionally-based, organic food system, these developments are very encouraging.  And, of course, such activity can be found in many other communities around the country (and beyond), not just in western Massachusetts.

In my view, this is an approach to social change that can produce substantial progress.  Small farm and food businesses create the building blocks for the new food system.  People generate increased market demand by choosing to buy their products.  Non-profit organizations help in all sorts of ways.  The momentum starts to build as more people come to be exposed to the benefits of a regional, organic food model–as more people get to taste the really good food it puts out, as they see the farms in their communities beginning to thrive.  And in time, people can even come to perceive a new food system taking hold (at least at the margins), and imagine the possibility that the corporate, industrial food system could truly be replaced.

But, while this work on a local/regional scale to start building the replacement for the current food system is hugely important (I would not have started a pickle business if I thought otherwise), I don't see a true transformation of the food system happening by this avenue alone.  We also need something like...well, the Occupy movement.

The Cheap Food System

A key challenge in trying to change the food system is that our political-economic system offers enormous advantages to the purveyors of industrial food.  The result is that the big food corporations can sell their products for extremely low prices.  With healthy, regionally-produced, organic food made to look expensive in comparison, it becomes difficult to compete.  Those who see the benefits–and have the ability to pay–will buy regional, organic food.  But, as long as we have a cheap food system, local efforts to change things will only be able to convince so many people to switch to the good stuff.   

Of course, cheap food is not actually cheap.  It's just that a portion of its cost is being paid for at someplace other than the supermarket checkout.  Our taxes, for example, fund the billions of dollars in subsidies–mostly going to the largest farms–for commodity crops like corn and soybeans, whose by-products can then serve as cheap ingredients for processed foods.  Our ever-increasing health insurance premiums pay the bills for the diabetes and obesity epidemics caused by high-fructose corn syrup and other refined sweeteners.

Other costs are being substantially passed off to future generations.  The current-day farm practices which are causing our agricultural soils to erode away ten times faster than they can be regenerated will mean less farmland from which our grandchildren will be able to feed themselves.  And, the burning of fossil fuels to transport our food thousands of miles from farm to plate will result in an outsized burden for our descendants as the effects of climate change further unfold.

These are the kinds of "externalized costs", as economists call them, which constitute the unfair advantage of corporate, industrial food.  (Regional, organic food has such costs, too, but to a far smaller degree.)  Until eliminated, this advantage will continue to stymie efforts to fundamentally change the food system.  And yet, those working on a local/regional scale–as opposed to a national scale–are not going to be able to change this equation.  This is where we need the Occupy movement.

There are, of course, the more everyday tools for effecting national political change–lobbying, petition drives, electoral campaigns.  And, use of such tools has yielded some progress, as illustrated by programs in the Farm Bill promoting local food and conservation (as limited as they may be).  But, as I see it (and I'm clearly not alone), not enough progress has been made.  The problems of our food system are serious and urgent, and the ever-increasing influence of money in politics makes the prospect for serious change by everyday means very slim.  Our food system needs a non-violent, direct protest movement that views our society's challenges in a systemic way and demands serious change.  The kind of change that would mean an end to the excessive advantage and influence held by corporations in our food system–and in our society as a whole.   Our food system needs the Occupy movement.

Food as a Right, Not a Privilege

There is a second reason why our food system needs the Occupy movement.  If we are to finally succeed in stripping the big corporations of their unfair advantage–the ability to pass off to society the social and ecological costs of their activities–then most of us are going to find our food costs increase.  Having learned just how expensive "cheap" industrial food really is, we will have substantially switched to healthy, organic, regionally-produced food.  The price on that delicious tomato from the organic farm down the road will finally beat out the price on that pale, sad excuse for a vegetable (or fruit, to be precise) flown in from who-knows-where.  But the local, organic tomato will still cost more than the industrial version used to cost.

For many people–I would venture to suggest the clear majority of Americans–this will be a manageable adjustment.  It will require a re-alignment of expectations about the percentage of household income spent on food: perhaps Americans will end up devoting closer to 24% of income on food as we did in the 1920s, up from the 9% we currently spend.  Many millions of Americans, however, will be able to handle this–especially when one considers all of the societal costs which will have been avoided (societal costs, of course, eventually translating into individual costs like taxes and insurance premiums).

Still, a substantial number of Americans will not be able to afford higher food prices.  Many of them cannot afford food even at current prices.  Thus, what is already an imperative will become even more critical:  that access to food be made a right, rather than a mere privilege.  Every person deserves to be able to afford to eat healthy, nutritious food, and we as a society need to figure out how to make that an assured reality.  This is not something that those involved in local efforts to change the food system can do much about.  Communities can develop good food pantry networks or organize fundraisers for low income shoppers at farmers' markets, but they're in a poor position to institutionalize food as a right.

The Occupy movement, however, can help get us there.  Just as with corporate advantage, this is not a challenge that is likely to be overcome by everyday petitioning and lobbying efforts.  Establishing access to healthy food as a right will come only as part of a bigger societal shift.  And, such a shift is precisely what the protesters at Occupy Wall Street have been talking about from the beginning.  As stated in their Principles of Solidarity: "We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers great possibility of equality."  This is about moving toward a society in which it is not just the 1% that are guaranteed to eat.  100% are guaranteed to eat.

If, then, we are to build a truly new food system, I suggest this:  Let us be engaged, wherever we are able, in that much-needed work of creating a better structure from the ground up–buying local/regional, starting or supporting small farms and food businesses, developing community gardens, joining support organizations.  And in our broader-scale efforts, may we not give up on the standard citizen tools of the political process (letters, petitions, etc.).  But at this moment, let us also give serious consideration to how we can best support and participate in the Occupy movement and help to chart its future direction. 

After all, we are the 99%.  It's our movement, too, regardless of whether or not we have yet joined a single street protest.  This is a moment with great potential to effect serious social change and move us toward becoming a more equitable and sustainable society.  May we make the most of it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lessons from a Muddy Season

Dave Chamutka of Chamutka Farm recently harvested the last of his 2011 cabbage crop and delivered it to our door.  By the next day, those cabbages were all peeled, cored, shredded, salted, and fermenting in barrels.  It was the final batch of vegetables for the year for us.  We're now stocked up until next season - the cooler is full of packed cucumber pickles, the warehouse extra-full of barrels of fermenting cabbage, beets, and ginger carrots.

This particular November, it's a bit of a relief walking through our warehouse and seeing all those barrels full of locally-grown vegetables on their way to becoming pickles. Given how heavily we depend here at Real Pickles on the success of the local farm harvest, there was a lot of uncertainty this season about how things were going to go. 

The first concrete indication that 2011 might be a little different came in June when Gideon Porth from Atlas Farm called up to say that he was re-seeding his entire main crop of pickling cucumbers, and so we should expect a delay in the harvest this year.  Many of the cucumber seeds had just rotted in the mud, as spring had been so cool and wet.  As we got further into the season, we learned that the spring weather had affected many of the other crops we were waiting on, as well.

Once July hit, the weather got hot and quite dry for awhile.  But, the dry weather, of course, was not to remain.  In late August, Irene dumped epic amounts of rain on all the farm fields in the area.  Within a couple days, the Connecticut River was overflowing its banks and flooding fields at three of the six farms we work with (among many other area farms).  Harlow Farm, in Westminster, VT, was especially hard hit - a significant portion of the farm was underwater before the river finally receded.  The sky was blue within a day of Irene's passing, but many more inches of rain came down in the weeks following.  By the time Dave Chamutka was ready to start harvesting his cabbage in late September, his fields were so muddy he wasn't sure he'd be able to get in there to cut them.

In the end, though, we managed to fill all those barrels with top quality, delicious, locally-grown, organic vegetables.  Amazing!  Despite the odds, the area's local famers came through for us.  Gideon re-planted those seeds and went on to grow us plenty of beautiful pickling cukes.  Dave and his crew had to walk those first heavy crates of cabbage all the way out of the muddy field before being able to finally drive a truck in, but in the end managed to deliver to us what we needed to stock up on Organic Sauerkraut for the year.  The losses at Harlow Farm included carrots we were planning to buy.  But, we struck up a relationship with Joe Czajkowski, a third-generation farmer in Hadley, MA, who was able to fill in so that we could keep making our Organic Ginger Carrots.

We are always appreciative here of our local farmers, but in a year like this one we are especially thankful.  This season we were reminded of the challenges of committing to buying our ingredients only from local farms.  If we hadn't been able to get enough cabbage, then come next spring we would be running out of several Real Pickles products.  But, even more, we were reminded of how resilient a well-developed local/regional food system can be.  After all, local farms still produced a tremendous amount of food this year, despite the adversity.

Resiliency is one reason why local/regional food systems make so much more sense than our dominant industrial one.  This has much to do with diversity and decentralization, as opposed to monoculture and centralization.  In our centralized industrial system, the majority of lettuce consumed in the United States is produced monoculture-style in Salinas, CA.  As a result, when the weather in Salinas is bad for lettuce, suddenly an important food can become scarce and expensive as far away as New England.  An even worse situation ensues when scary pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 (whose appearance seems to be a direct result of industrial agricultural practices - see Michael Pollan for details) show up on a crop like lettuce.  With agricultural production so concentrated, such contamination quickly leads to widespread illness and nationwide recalls. 

But, the diversity and decentralization that come with local/regional food systems promise to make us far less vulnerable than that.  On farms producing many different crops, rough conditions in a given year are likely to impact certain ones but are unlikely to impact everything.  In the huge October snowstorm we experienced recently, Atlas Farm's two-acre lettuce crop got squashed by the snow, but their other autumn crops survived.  In a decentralized food system, a critical crop shortage experienced by a particular region in a given year could likely be rectified by sourcing from another region.  No one need starve.

A food system's resiliency does not stem solely from diversity and decentralization, however.  As I think about all of those cucumbers the crew at Atlas Farm managed to harvest for us after such an inhospitable spring, and about all the heads of cabbage that were coaxed to maturity in the mud at Chamutka Farm, I am reminded that it is also the skill, tenacity, and creativity of the farmers that make a food system resilient.  Those farmers worked especially hard this season.  We at Real Pickles wish them a good winter's rest! 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: An Interview

As I noted last time, on the subject of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and Real Pickles:  We are doing essentially the same work, even if employing different approaches to making change in the world, and from mostly different locales.  But, some actual connections are being made these days between the two efforts.  A couple weeks back, we shipped two gallons of sauerkraut as food donation to the protesters in NYC as a show of support.  And, recently some staff members from Real Pickles have made opportunities to drop in on the protests.  Joe Mirkin, Real Pickles' stellar facility manager and co-production manager, joined in on the events in NYC for a weekend and came back with some thoughts to share.  Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with him:

DR:  What prompted you to travel down to NYC to join in with OWS?

JM:  After several weeks of reading news reports, it seemed the protests were gaining steam. What at first seemed like a flash in the pan quickly turned into the genesis of a popular uprising. Hey, who doesn't want to be part of a popular uprising? So I got restless, grabbed a couple friends, some sleeping bags, and drove down to OWS. I also have friends in NYC who had participated in the OWS protests in the weeks prior to my visit. They all said the same thing, "You gotta get down here and see it for yourself!" Which is now what I tell everybody who is interested in the goings on of OWS: Go see it for yourself!

DR:  When you arrived, did you find what you were expecting?  How did things match your expectations?  What surprised you?

JM:  Heading down there, I figured I'd find just a bunch of young people having meetings and sleeping in the park. What I encountered was deeply surprising and, for the most part, encouraging and inspiring. Volunteer cleaning crews roaming the park 24/7 collecting trash and recyclables; a composting/gray water operation for recycling food scraps; a makeshift kitchen serving thousands of decent meals every day; an extraordinarily well-stocked, well-organized People's Library fully staffed with friendly and competent librarians offering free reading material on all matter of subjects; people of all ages and various social classes; successfully facilitated General Assembly meetings with hundreds or thousands of participants; spontaneous classes and workshops organized and attended by interested people; clothing and bedding donations arriving by the carload, all sorted by volunteers and given away for free to anyone in need.
One of the things I did expect to find was a very significant amount of police present, and that was certainly the reality. The NYPD has these surveillance towers which can raise and lower from the ground to a height of almost 30'. The only other times I've seen anything like them were at Obama's inauguration in Washington, D.C., and overlooking Beale St in Memphis, TN. The police apparently prepare for the worst when it comes to large gatherings of peaceful people, whether it be in protest, in celebration, or to hear blues music and eat barbecue.

DR:  How do you see OWS fitting into the work for social change that needs to happen?

JM:  Having untold numbers of people marching and demonstrating in the streets everyday allows for a whole slew of other social change to take place. The primary benefit I can see is that the protests allow all the groups that were already engaged in making change to expand their imaginations on what kind of progress is possible. They can demand more in their lists of goals, they can intensify and amplify their tactics for winning change, and they can build relationships and coalitions with other groups that may not have previously had specific overlapping issues. You've seen all sorts of labor unions come out in support of OWS, and now you're seeing OWS link up with other movements for change around the city. The same dynamic is playing out at Occupy protests all over the country. I don't think the camping out part alone is going to bring down corporate greed and all its associated ills, but it does seem to be a catalyst for a more networked and energized movement for justice.

DR:  What's your assessment of the "message" coming out of OWS?  What do you think of the criticism that the movement doesn't have a clear, coherent message?

JM:  The moment people at OWS begin pushing a single demand is the moment a lot of people will decide to stop participating. The real strength of the protest - the actual power that makes the city and the banks so bloody nervous  - is the broad base of support OWS has. Any action taken to weed out some issues in favor of others will only weaken this power, and so it is best to avoid any such thing, in my estimation. That certainly does not preclude OWS from issuing messages about the protest, which they have done. Nor should it keep individuals from teaching and talking to others about those issues close to them, which some people do. Keeping the message as broad as the 99% of people in this country is no easy task, least of all because of the pressure from media to present clear, concise demands. But it's well worth the effort if OWS is to maintain the strength it has gained.

DR:  After posting my blog entry, "Occupy Wall Street and Organic Pickles", we heard from a couple Real Pickles customers who were frustrated over our support for OWS.  They cited several reasons for opposing the protests.  One was that the protests were "disruptive".  Any thoughts about that, having participated in them?

JM: My response to that criticism is:  Ask the millions of people losing their housing due to mortgage lending practices if they consider the protesters "disruptive". Ask any farmer who's been taken to court by Monsanto for intellectual property theft if they think OWS is "disruptive". Ask any teacher or firefighter in Wisconsin if the word they would use to describe OWS protesters is "disruptive". It goes on and on. Hard to imagine that a single protest in New York City can be even remotely close to being as disruptive as modern-day global neoliberal capitalism.

DR:  Another criticism we heard was that direct action (i.e.-street demonstrations) is not the way to go about changing the world.  Instead, it is best to follow Gandhi's precept to "be the change you want to see in the world" and focus on, say, making organic pickles from locally-grown vegetables or buying locally-grown food.  What are your thoughts about the relative importance of these different approaches to making social change?

JM:  Changing the systems of food production and consumption in this country is of obvious importance to creating a better world. Sometimes in order to achieve your goal you need a diversity of tactics. Say you want to purchase food that was produced by workers who are paid fair wages. It may be as easy as going to a different store or market and maybe spending a little bit more money. But, sometimes one may have to do as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers down in Florida has done, and head out to the streets to demand that corporate grocery chains pay fair prices for hand-picked produce!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Organic Pickles

In lower Manhattan and in cities and towns across the country, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand change.  We are the 99%, they are saying, here to put an end to the societal injustices perpetuated by the 1%.  Those occupying Wall Street and elsewhere are speaking out against the concentration of corporate power and its negative impact on people and ecosystems, including problems ranging from joblessness and lack of access to health care to loss of biodiversity and accelerating climate change.

Meanwhile, in western Massachusetts, a small crew is hard at work inside a solar-powered food processing facility, peeling and shredding cabbages freshly harvested from an organic farm ten miles away.  The cabbage will ferment for several months, and then be sold as raw sauerkraut to stores around the Northeast.

Occupying the streets.  Making organic pickles.  Any connection here?  I would say so.

At first glance, what happens here at Real Pickles appears to be merely ordinary business activity.  Just a small enterprise trying to yield a reasonable profit by producing food for people.  An observer not so familiar with the workings of contemporary America might be tempted to think it normal, as well, that we source our vegetables from a small organic farm down the road, generate our own power, sell our pickles in raw and fermented form, and only distribute within our own region.  But of course, in 2011 here in the United States, there is nothing ordinary at all about such practices.  Nor is it typical these days for people to be eating food produced by a small business.

While the representatives of the 99% are seeking to occupy Wall Street, we should probably be thinking of the 1% as the real occupiers.  Climate activist Bill McKibben, in a recent address to the demonstrators in NYC, noted: "Wall Street has been occupying the atmosphere.  That's why we can never do anything about global warming.  Exxon gets in the way.  Goldman Sachs gets in the way."  Indeed, Wall Street has long been occupying many realms of our lives.  And our food system is a prime example. 

Local food production and distribution by small businesses certainly used to be the norm.  But these days, our food system is primarily national and international in scale.  It is dominated by huge corporations with massive influence over what we eat and how it is grown, processed, distributed, and sold.  These companies have spent significant sums of money to convince us that there is nothing wrong with this picture.  Monsanto's public relations message is that we need them if we are to "feed the world".  Kraft Foods assures us that they're there for us, "fighting hunger and encouraging healthy lifestyles".

Increasingly, however, people are starting to see through the slick PR campaigns.  They are starting to see connections between the corporate control of our food system and a wide variety of societal problems - the diabetes and obesity epidemics, the huge "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions, just to name a few. Indeed, I think the evidence is robust and convincing enough to say quite clearly:  A global, corporate-dominated food system has profoundly negative consequences for people and ecosystems.  We are, without a doubt, in need of a new food system.

Here, then, lies the connection between Occupy Wall Street and a business such as Real Pickles.  Among the Wall Street protesters, some are more radical than others in their demands for change.  But there appears, by and large, to be a unified determination to alter the balance of power in our society away from the corporate elite and in favor of the 99%, and thereby begin to remedy a long list of social and ecological problems. 

At Real Pickles, we are doing essentially the same work.  Having recognized that a corporate-dominated food system does not serve our society well, we have set about helping to build a new one.  Real Pickles is small, people-centered, ecologically-conscious, and local/regional in scale; and puts out food that is authentic and nourishing.  The aim is that this business will serve as a model as our new and better food system emerges.  Just like those protesting on Wall Street, we also recognize that the problems stemming from corporate control extend far beyond the food system, and hope that our work has impact as part of a broader re-shaping of our society, as well.

Occupy Wall Street and Real Pickles represent different approaches to the same effort.  Many approaches are needed, as there is much work to be done and no one simple path to an equitable and sustainable society.  So, it is with excitement that we witness the latest social ferment on the streets.  Here at Real Pickles we love fermentation!  We fully support the Occupy Wall Street protests and are delighted to be engaged together in the work for a better world.