JR Organics Farm Tour 2013

Rodriguez Family FarmFarm TourRecycled Crayon Blockscolour blocksformerly-crayonstwig pencils
rock paintingmorning snackfresh fruitlemonade mustacheescondido farmlandCalifornia farms
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JR Organics Farm Tour 2013, a set on Flickr.

Lately a lot of people have been asking me about our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In addition to providing us with a box of fresh local produce weekly, our CSA membership buys us an annual tour of the farm, where we see and learn about where our food comes from. If you belong to a CSA, ask to tour the farm! It’s a great experience, especially for kids.

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The American Way of Eating: My Favorite Quotes

Let me be perfectly honest up front and say I’m about to quote liberally from Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating. I quote her for two reasons: first, to show you her excellent writing so that you’ll hopefully go read the book; and second, because I absolutely just LOVE the points she is making here (note that I put her italicized words in all caps since wordpress italicizes everything in a box quote).

Box meals don’t save us time any more than going out to eat does, and they don’t even save us money. What they do instead is remove the need to have to come up with a plan for dinner, something that’s easy when you’re a skilled cook–and bafflingly difficult when you’re not. The real convenience behind these convenience foods isn’t time or money, but that they remove one more bit of stress from our day….

The key to getting people to eat better isn’t that they should spend more money, or even that they should spend more time. It’s making the actual cooking of a meal into an EASY choice, the obvious answer. And that only happens when people are as comfortable and confident in the kitchen as they are taking care of the other endless chores that come with running a modern family–paying bills, cleaning house, washing the car. It only happens, in other words, when we can cook well. It doesn’t take advanced culinary acumen to know that making a pasta-and-ground beef one-skillet dinner from scratch isn’t actually any more difficult than using a box, but it does take education and training. Enough, at least, to convey that grilling a steak and steaming vegetables is just a basic household task….

There will be days for every person, every family, where it IS worth paying four times more for the service. That’s fine. But the longer I’m at Applebee’s, the more I think everyone should be making that choice from equal footing: with easy access to fresh ingredients, and a solid ability to cook. (pp. 212-213)

 

…the healthiest route through the American foodscape is a steep and arduous path most easily ascended by joining its top income bracket. So far as I can tell, changing what’s on our plates simply isn’t feasible without changing far more. Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop. (231)

 

It’s worthwhile, of course, to talk about food as a meal or as the product of a farm, but to engage with our meals solely on those terms is to ignore food’s core essence. Food is not a luxury lifestyle product. It is a social good.

 

AMEN sister!!

 

 

What you can do

Been writing on some heavy stuff this week, so I wanted to end the series on a positive note, with some ideas on how you can help make a difference in the lives of the people who pick your food.

Even I have found myself getting increasingly depressed as I think about my own small ability to change anything. Yeah, I’ve changed my shopping habits, and yeah, I write about it on here and maybe somebody somewhere reads it (though from the number of comments this series has garnered – exactly ZERO – I doubt it). Maybe we’re all just too tired and disheartened to think about changing the world any more.

Well, for what it’s worth, here are some things you can do. And I’m stealing some from other people because frankly I’m spent after reading and writing about this stuff for a week!

Here is the “Take Action” page from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about whom Tomatoland is written.

From Barry Estabrook’s original article, The Price of Tomatoes:

In the warm months, the best solution is to follow that old mantra: buy seasonal, local, and small-scale. But what about in winter? So far, Whole Foods is the only grocery chain that has signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, which means that it has promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses and, when buying tomatoes, to a pay a price that supports a living wage. [UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has since signed on; CIW’s Take Action page linked above has sample letters you can send to your local grocery conglomerate]

When shopping elsewhere, you can take advantage of the fact that fruits and vegetables must be labeled with their country of origin. Most of the fresh tomatoes in supermarkets during winter months come from Florida, where labor conditions are dismal for field workers, or from Mexico, where they are worse, according to a CIW spokesman. One option during these months is to buy locally produced hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, including cluster tomatoes still attached to the vine. Greenhouse tomatoes are also imported from Mexico, however, so check signage or consult the little stickers often seen on the fruits themselves to determine their source.

And I’m going to steal from myself, too – here’s the little guidelines I wrote earlier this week, in my post about Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating:

  • To start, buy as much produce as you can locally. Cutting out the cost of distribution systems and nation- or even world-wide transportation goes a long way towards keeping prices low. If the farmer’s market seems to expensive, go at closing time – you’ll get great deals on whatever’s left.
  • If possible, join a CSA, which will ensure that your money goes straight into a farmer’s pocket (then get to know the farmer, and ensure he or she is paying a fair wage to fieldworkers).
  • Avoid large farming corporations (even organic ones), as their infrastructure prohibits paying close attention to conditions in the field (most subcontract their labor anyway), and their corporate obligation to profit requires them to cut corners (sadly, it is often easiest to hurt people, rather than product).
  • Avoid huge retailers like WalMart that make plenty of money off other goods but mark up the cost of fresh food (since it spoils and therefore cannot be bought in the huge quantities that are their advantage over smaller competitors). An orange may cost 50% more at WalMart than the local grocery store simply bc it doesn’t fit their pricing scheme (see McMillan, 136-7, for her comparison shopping between WalMart and the local Mexican grocery).

To keep it simple: buy fresh, buy local, buy in season, buy from small farms, and cut out as many middlemen as possible.

And to finish, some hope: things are getting better in some respects. The CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food”, seeking to raise wages by “a penny a pound” and ensure basic rights for tomato pickers started in 2001 and has successfully enrolled Taco Bell (2005), McDonald’s (2007), and Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods (2008). The next years were spent fighting the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which initially resisted (even though the wage increase was entirely paid for by the buyers and didn’t affect the Exchange or growers one way or another – except to ask them to treat their workers better). They finally relented in 2010 and now the extra pennies, previously sitting in escrow accounts, are finally reaching the workers for whom they were earmarked.

The CIW’s next target is grocery stores, and from their website I gathered that they have added to Whole Foods’ early participation the signature of Trader Joe’s and several food management companies (e.g. Bon Appetit, food supplier to many of the colleges with which I’ve been affiliated) to the growing roster of companies on board with the Campaign. Sadly, the rest of the major grocery chains – including WalMart, which takes in ONE of every FOUR food dollars in the United States (more than the next three grocery corporations combined) – have yet to sign on. Read more about the Campaign for Fair Food here: http://ciw-online.org/101.html#cff.

Summing up: big campaigns definitely help, but it’s also the choices you and I make every day that eventually will turn around the whole system. So don’t you be discouraged, and I will try not to be either!

Think you care about modern day slavery? How’s that tomato tasting?

“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”

Tomatoland, p. 75

Yesterday I wrote about tomatoes as a case study for farm worker rights – or rather, the lack thereof. This issue came to my attention when I heard an interview with investigative journalist Barry Estabrook on one of my favorite food shows, KCRW’s Good Food.

Estabrook was talking about the winter tomato industry in Southern Florida, and he began describing conditions there that sounded like fiction or ancient history. People chained up to sleep, forced labor without escape, beatings by “field bosses”, transportation in vans crowded with 25 or more men lying on the floor and not released for days, urinating into jugs and sharing maybe one bag of chips for sustenance.

But this is not history. It is now. It is happening. Right. Now.

Why? So that we can go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes in winter. So that we can go to a fast food restaurant and imagine we are having a “healthy” lunch of a salad. So that we can add a “vegetable” to our sandwich or burger, no matter the time of year.

But it’s fair to say that most of us had no idea this was happening. I didn’t, and I follow food news pretty closely. Fair enough.

But now you know.

If you’re like me, you probably think of modern-day slavery as human trafficking for sex, or maybe child soldiers. Both are abhorrent. Both have become big ISSUES that churches take on. Christians are all up in arms about modern slavery, but despite the fact that the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was instigated over an agricultural slavery case, none of us seem to realize that this hits a lot closer to home than we’d care to admit.

I’ve been thinking about why this is; why are we so gung-ho about stopping slavery in the sex trade, and ignoring it in the produce aisle? I don’t think it’s just ignorance. Does any of this feel like it might be true?

  • For the average American and certainly average Christian, the sex trade is fairly easy to look down upon. We are confident that we would never participate in such an unsavory activity, so it makes us feel superior to work against it.
  • Sex slavery also is, well…sexy. It’s salacious. It’s forbidden. It’s a lot more titillating than tomatoes.
  • It seems worse to us, as Christians, because we have a long and complicated history with the body and with sex generally. We’re quicker to jump on sexual sin than almost any other kind. It just “feels” more wrong. (maybe because it “feels” so right?)
  • Most of those trafficked in the sex trade are women and children. They seem more like victims than do teenage to middle aged men, most of whom are in this country without documentation. (never mind that many of them came seeking legitimate work and were forced or tricked into the situation that led to them being literally sold to a crew)

Maybe I’m terribly cynical, but I fear something: what if Christians aren’t forming organizations around and donating in huge numbers to the small groups fighting food slavery because this would touch our lives directly.

We participate in this slavery because it gets us what we want: a winter tomato, good prices at the market, a false sense of adding something nutritious to our fast food meal. We are sacrificing lives for convenience and economy.

Perhaps you might say that this is how the business runs, and we can’t control what they do, it’s not our fault. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what people said about plantation owners, too. And who says we can’t control them? Activists have been stamping out slavery – and changing entire political and economic systems – since William Wilberforce and others organized boycotts of sugar in the 18th century, a hundred years before our country nearly split over the issue. 

If you truly care about human trafficking then you need to educate yourself about agricultural slavery and add it to your fight.

And – unless you know exactly where they come from – stop eating tomatoes in winter.

Eating as a Spiritual Act, Part 2

Remember when I said I would write up more of my notes from the panel I attended on this topic? I’m finally getting to that! Here is Part 1 in case you missed it.

So, the last thing I said was how eating opens us up to a number of realities: ecological, agricultural, social, and so forth. Dr. Wirzba maintains (and I concur) that religious traditions are an excellent key to helping us think through these realities. He said, “The opposite of religion isn’t atheism, it’s negligence.” In other words, by shirking our responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation, we are denying our very connection to God.

The fact that the creation story takes place in a garden is significant: the Deity of Christianity (and all the Abrahamic faiths) is not violent and powerful, but a farmer, who picks up and uses the soil to create life. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. “God loves the soil first, because without loving soil, there is no you or I.” The creation is ultimately an act of hospitality, wherein God “makes room for another to be…to become what they are most able to be.”

I would add that the story of Christianity ends at a great banquet – the telos (a word meaning ultimate destination, destiny, fulfillment of purpose) of the garden is this hospitable act of celebration and communion. The Sabbath was the culmination of creation (it was seven days, not six: humans aren’t the final word, but rather REST and appreciation).

Our life now is the growing, in the garden; our afterlife is the harvest, the enjoyment of the growth we have allowed and fostered in our lives. We are not meant only to sustain life together, but to celebrate it. To be hospitable: helping others – and ourselves – become fully who we are.

How would our worldview and self-image change if we thought of God primarily as a farmer or a gardener (or a vintner)? If we thought of the world we inhabit as a garden (and not a “resource”, another word for “superstore” in consumerist mentality), and of ourselves as the plants God is tending? A gardener understands virtues such as attention, patience, long-term commitment, the value of hard work, and the vulnerability and fragility of life. If we modeled our lives after God’s in this way, oh how our eating habits would change.

To drive this point home, Wirzba asked, “What if we thought of food as ‘a Gift'” – pointing out that the name we give to food is important. For example, thinking of a plant as a weed, or a flower, or a vegetable gives us different ideas in our mind of what that plant’s use is and how to relate to it. So with food: we relate to it differently if we think of it as fuel, or a commodity, or a Gift. “Naming something is the act of establishing a relationship with it.”

When we vote for “cheap” as our primary value around food (voting being what we’re doing with every dollar we spend – particularly on the Dollar Menu), we are not honoring the life that food represents (remember the quote, “for any of us to eat, others have to die”). We want to be able to say grace before meals with a clear conscience.

I wonder, how can we spend ridiculous amounts of money on our pets, or put up huge fights about abortion, but not honor the life that is represented by what is on our plates?

So how do we honor it? Here is Wirzba’s short list of suggestions:

1. Grow something (or if you’re like me, try and fail and appreciate your farmers that much more).

2. Know the people who grow what you cannot grow yourself.

3. Participate in your local food economy.

4. Share food with others.

5. Grow your food imagination: for instance, ponder the miracle and achievement that is a single loaf of bread.

6. Say Grace before meals – make eating a mindful act. Make that a time set aside to think about economy, politics, celebration, gratitude, mercy, and honor of the other lives sitting before you, which you are about to consume.

And one final word of wisdom from Dr. Wirzba: “The point is not to become the food police…the point is to become more merciful with each other.” We learn how to do that by paying attention to the incredible mercy God offers us through our daily bread.

Amen.