Irene, farmers, loyalty and gratitude

Having grown up in Vermont, I have been following the post-Irene news out of the state with horror. Pictures of washed out roads (difficult for someone to understand the gravity of that when there is no concept that it may be the ONLY road in and out of a town), flooded fields, crops laid waste. What can you do to help, if you’re inclined to do so? There’s the always-welcome local Red Cross donation, a number of tshirt companies are donating proceeds from sales (check out Vermont Clothing Company and the Vermont Strong Store), and not surprisingly, a number of benefit concerts and similar events sprang up – it’s hard to keep Vermonters down for long! And I saw some truly original ideas floated by my Facebook friends: how about a produce “round-up” day at the farmers’ markets, where buyers voluntarily round every purchase up to the next $5 or $10? But isn’t there a bigger picture, one that will last beyond the news headlines and the desire to help in a time of need?

Vermont, of course, wasn’t the only state affected. Grist.org had a brief roundup of news from farmers throughout the swath cut by Irene. And if the producer end of our food system has suffered, the consumer must also pay the price – literally! And how I dread hearing (most) people complain about the price of food….

I recently watched a series of short films by Nourish, and I was once again struck by a statistic mentioned: in the last 50 years, Americans have gone from spending 18% of our national income on food to spending 9.9% on food. (In same time period, we’ve gone from spending 5% of national income on health care to spending 16% on health care.) Yes, there are those who truly cannot spend more on food, but what about the vast majority of us, who can?

As someone who tries to buy local and sustainable food whenever possible and one who is fortunate enough to be able to pay the premium often demanded by organic, this recent crop devastation, coupled with what seems to be a weird growing season nationally, has given me a lot to ponder. My first thought about the affected farmers was, “I hope the majority of them run CSAs!” Those farmers who run CSAs (community supported agriculture programs) charge a flat fee per share at the beginning of the growing season, then provide an equal amount of produce to each shareholder throughout the harvest season. If the farm does well and the harvest is good, the consumer gets a bountiful share each week. If there is bad weather or a natural disaster, then the harvest is poor or nonexistent, and the consumer supplements the share with food sourced elsewhere. So in a sense, it’s a gamble for the consumer, but how much less of a gamble for the farmer who produces our food? And in this age of disappearing small and mid-size farms, isn’t it important for those of us who can afford it to stack the deck in the farmers’ favor?

Now is the time to start thinking about next year’s crops and signing on for a CSA with a local farmer – out of loyalty, and because we can. And now is also the time to start supporting measures in upcoming Farm Bill legislation that will help small and mid-size farmers with crop insurance for situations like the one caused by Irene.

The LocalHarvest blog has a wonderful post about eating locally in a poor season that was supposed to be the height of harvest bounty. Erin Barnett concludes,

Ultimately, the thing that supports this loyalty and flexibility and acceptance is a sense of gratitude. Things change when we find the space within ourselves to feel thankful for what the land is providing, even, and perhaps especially, in challenging seasons.

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20 Hoops in 20 Days

No, we’re not talking basketball here, but something much more exciting: a fabulous local organization, SELMA Cafe, raises money and volunteers to help area farmers put up “hoop houses,” which are basically long plastic-covered greenhouses that enable the farmer to use passive solar energy to extend the growing season to 10-12 months of the year  – even here in Michigan!

On June 15, SELMA started a project to construct 20 of the houses for 20 different farms in 20 days. Most of our gang at Fair Food Network signed up for a team work day, and I decided to lend a hand in a more concrete way – not by sitting in the office working on food systems projects in the abstract but actually helping to build a hoop house. And so on day 1 of the project, we (including my 11-year old daughter – honest, teachers, it was a worthy, educational project!) found ourselves out in Stockbridge performing hard labor.

I wanted to share some photos of the day – not much else to say, except that it was truly inspiring to see the approximately 20 volunteers, led by builder-in-chief Jeff McCabe (who ought to write the Hoophouses for Dummies book), put this thing together. We had to leave before it was done, but K’s conclusion (again, sorry teachers!): “I learned much more today than I would have on the last Wednesday of the school year!”

Hoop build 9:00am

How it looked at 9:00am

Hoop build 2:45pm

Looking more like a hoophouse by 2:45pm

To view all the photos, go to my Facebook album.

Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All

Happy Mother’s Day! If you are concerned about the sort of world we are leaving our descendants (and what mother or nurturer is not?), today seems to be as good a day as any to commit to making sure that our children and our children’s children inherit a world that includes a healthy, sustainable food system to nurture them.

Where are YOU on your journey toward helping create a more sustainable, more equitable, fairer food system for our future generations: Just starting to think about buying more local food? Seriously into buying local, sustainable food? Involved in food systems change at the community level? Ready to influence the movement on a national scale?

For the past 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working at Fair Food Network as executive assistant to the organization’s founder and president Oran Hesterman. I’ve done my share of the mundane executive assistant tasks, but I’ve also had the pleasure of helping Oran to edit his book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, coming out from PublicAffairs in June.

Regardless of where you are on your food systems journey, I recommend this book as one that gives everyone practical steps to take to move us beyond what’s on our own plates and in our own refrigerators toward what we can do in our neighborhood, our greater community, and our country (and maybe even globally!) to make healthy, fresh food available to everyone now AND into the future.

Ready to get more involved?

Where to find great takeout in Ann Arbor

We’re so spoiled being able to cook healthy Chinese food at home, that we are almost invariably disappointed when we eat in a Chinese restaurant. Most Chinese restaurants in America are not at what one could call the forefront of the SOLE (sustainable/organic/local/ethical) food movment, and our bodies notice the difference. Add to that what we call the “MSG moment” so often experienced after a Chinese meal, and we are often left moaning, “Ugh, why did we DO that?”

When people say, “You blog about Chinese food and your husband’s Chinese – you MUST know the best places to get Chinese food in Boulder/Chicao/LA  (fill in the city in which we happen to be living),” my inclination has always been to respond, “Well, um, yeah…that would be my house!”

I’m pleased to report, though, that we have discovered a new alternative in Ann Arbor! If you live in our city (or in nearby Ypsilanti), you can now get free delivery of delicious and healthful Chinese food by ordering from Mei’s Organic Chinese Kitchen. Each week Mei offers a menu that includes 2 entrees, a salad, a soup, two steamed rolls, and rice – all made with predominantly organic and locally grown ingredients. Mei frequents the farmers’ market and local independent grocers, such as Arbor Farms Market, which means she supports the local economy and local growers, too! In addition, her recipes are gluten- and (refined) sugar-free! One order is plenty for 2 adults for a meal plus leftovers for lunch, so if you have a family, I recommend ordering extra rice, soup, and rolls.

We’re wishing Mei and her crew success – it’s awfully nice to be able to eat Chinese takeout without regrets!

Fossil-fuel-free farming and CSA bounty

The oil spill in the Gulf has not left the headline news. I heard Senator Stabenow speak about “the perfect storm” inherited by the Obama Administration. And perhaps watching The Road  was a mistake given the way the week went – it has depressed me about the direction we’re headed as a country, but I found some hope on CedarMountain’s greenopolis blog: read a straightforward summary of why we need a local food web in The High Cost of Cheap Food.

And for those of you struggling with too much produce in your CSA boxes (if you’re not, you soon will be!), some great tips to be found on the Crisper Whisperer. I particularly love the conclusion:

Finally, a couple of bonus tips. If all else fails, start a compost pile. At least you’ll be putting your waste to good use. Instead of dying a slow death under the weight of silent veggie guilt, you’ll become the instant envy of all your friends. And remember, breathe. Though it may be the last thing on your mind in the middle of CSA overload, the world really does need your carbon dioxide to grow more plants.

Silent veggie guilt must be a lot easier to deal with than guilt about the sins we’ve committed against Mother Earth recently….