Food is Too Cheap

It’s the season of feasting, and food has been on my mind. At the co-op where I work the local produce on offer is of the hearty sort, cabbage and collards and late autumn squashes. It’s the food you come to want when the weather turns cold and damp and the sky is pearl white and the light of the day is gone by late afternoon.

Let’s bake bread. Let’s make soup.

Let’s figure out what to do with this rutabaga.

The other day I was in a local thrift shop looking for a set of salt & pepper shakers. As I contemplated little windmills (too dorky), little Buddhas (missing their corks) and a pair of ceramic Aristocats (too tall and unstable), I listened to a conversation between the owner of the shop and a customer who was complaining about the awful Thanksgiving dinner he’d been served at a nearby restaurant. “All they had on the menu was Thanksgiving stuff,” I heard him say. “Turkey and mashed potatoes. And it wasn’t even good. And the waitress was surly. Well,  it was late. They were getting ready to close. But still.”

But still.

Restaurant etiquette aside — you don’t go in when they’re about to close and expect them to be happy to see you — this man’s disappointment with his meal was hardly surprising. The meat came from a factory, the potatoes from a box, the gravy from a can. Yet that restaurant is a local institution, their tables full every day, and the tab for that turkey dinner was less than $10.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite local restaurants just closed its doors after five years, in no small part because the owner, who created her seasonal menus from locally-sourced meats, fruits and vegetables, couldn’t charge enough to cover what she needed to pay to her farmers, let alone to pay herself. Her plates pushed the envelop at $14 – $16, sometimes more. Not a lot by big city standards, but more than her rural community could ante up in numbers large enough to keep her going. She will be missed. But I hear she’s going to try again, in a bigger city. Hope springs eternal.

Like organic, local food is expensive. Right now the local food economy here is a boutique arrangement sitting atop an industrial food system that brings in 90% of our food from elsewhere to sell here for cheap.

At the co-op we sold freshly butchered Thanksgiving turkeys from a local farm. You had to order in advance and pick them up the day they arrived, because ours is a small store with no room in our refrigerators for more than a few 20-pound turkeys, and we had 50 or 60 coming in.

At $3.49 a pound, the birds averaged about $65 apiece. You can get a supermarket turkey around here for less than $20.

That $45 represents the gap we are struggling to bridge, as a co-op, and as a community, as those of us who care about such things try to figure out how to grow our local food economy. Right now that gap seems distressingly wide, a symptom of a two-tiered food system in which good food grown on small local farms is a luxury for most, not to mention hard to find, while food shipped in from far away is readily available and cheap.

People have come to expect their food to be cheap. They need it to be cheap. Money is tight, paychecks are shrinking, and people need to eat. At the co-op rarely a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me our prices are too high, that they can’t afford to shop there.

I know their pain. I can’t always afford to shop there, either.

Local food presents a conundrum, one whose solution, I suspect, lies outside the bounds of conventional thinking about food and economics. After all, those Freakonomics guys say the whole local food thing is misguided, that going local is inefficent, that a locally-based food system would cost more in fuel and resources than the global system in place today. Moreover, it won’t feed the world.

And yet.

Food is too cheap, writes Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, and he’s right. Our current food system is extractive, using more resources than it returns, and its costs are measured in lost topsoil and lost knowledge of good mixed-use land management and animal husbandry. But who’s going to tell that to the waitress making $2.30 an hour on a slow Thanksgiving shift?

Creating a resilient local food economy is not a sexy process. It requires infrastructure, ways to aggregate and distribute products, markets and retail outlets willing and able to accept those products, and end users who can afford them and have some idea how to use them. It’s going to be a slow process. And because it’s inefficient, and its goal is not to serve the bottom line merely, it isn’t on the agro-industrial agenda. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Rutabagas are excellent roasted, by the way. Peel them, cut them into pieces and toss them with a little olive oil. Roast uncovered in a shallow pan for 30 minutes at 425 degrees, stirring once or twice. They’re done when their nicely browned and you can pierce them easily with a fork.

Desire

I came home from band practice a few weeks ago with a little Meteor button accordion. It belonged to a bandmate. Now it belongs to me. I can’t do much more with it than pick out a simple right-handed melody. The left-hand bass buttons baffle me. No matter. For the first time in many, many months I looked upon something and thought, “I want that.”

I want that.

After the out-breath, the in-breath.

Desire.

Reading the Leaves

She sat with me on the porch and we shared tea
from an earthenware pot, a brew of gathered leaves,
long years of careful selection, berries dried on a tin tray,
saved in a paper envelop, their hard little tartness intact,
rosehips culled from long dead flowers,
we drank from small cups while the bees scuttled
over the tops of pale coneflower.
The days are long, she said, but life is short.
Or is it the other way around?
She laughed and drank her tea
as the leaves fell from her shoulders and scattered
around our shoeless feet, brilliant autumn red and weightless,
fading at the edges like stains on an old ledger.
I showed her the damp dark remnants at the bottom of my cup.
Long, she said. Or short. It’s up to you, little one.
It’s pretty much all up to you.

Stick by Stick

Chip Ward is a big-picture thinker attuned to the importance of the small, local, persistent acts of reclamation and restoration. In this article he writes of the “original geo-engineers” that helped create the vibrant watersheds of the western U.S., watersheds that are now running dry, due in no small part to the eradication of those geo-engineers — dam-building beavers — by fur trappers, ranchers and irrigationists. The perspective he offers, the wisdom in his words, extends well beyond the species in question.

I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner.  As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected.  Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way.  For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.

But the beavers don’t care what we do.  They just do their own thing.  They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.

Read the entire article here. 

Telling Stories

I’m sitting next to Frank at our weekly gourd band practice. Frank is a journalist. He writes a local history column for the paper in his Kentucky town. He has a love for old railroad songs, for quirky folk customs, for community music.

During a pause in our attempts to draw tunes out of our crazy assortment of gourds, Frank asks me about a local storytelling event that took place the week before. A couple members of the band, myself included, had skipped practice to go the event, to listen stories, to tell them.

“You would like it,” I say. “You’re a good storyteller.”

He shakes his head. “I’m not a storyteller.”

This from a man who tells stories for a living. But I understand: he was thinking of stories as things people make up, fictions, fairy tales. O’Henry short stories.

“Not fictional stories,” I say. “True stories, personal stories. About real things that really happened. To us.”

“Oh.”

I don’t know if the explanation brought him closer to the idea or pushed him further away. It’s daunting, the prospect of sharing personal stories in a live setting, with an audience, most of whom you don’t know. It’s also powerful. Very, very powerful.

Our local storytelling event is new. We follow the basic Moth guidelines of brevity and first person, but we are not a Moth event, and we allow notes, even reading, if that’s what the storyteller needs to get up in front of the group. We want people to get up. We’re good listeners. We put away our devices, give the storyteller our attention. We bring adult beverages and share them. Some of us want those beverages before we speak. No judgment.

We put our names into a hat. Or a bowl. Whatever is handy. Then we draw names, and one by one, people get up and tell their stories.

Some of the stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Others have no real structure, they’re just loops of emotion and a search for understanding. No narrative thread, just connecting dots, one thing happens and then another. Life. Connection. It’s what we come for, though nobody has actually said as much, at least not to me, perhaps because to do so might break the spell, might make the whole thing seem forced, like a 12-step meeting. But I do believe it’s what we seek when we show up each month, ready to listen, ready to speak.

And we find it. Somehow, just by telling our stories. It’s astonishing.

And it makes us cry. Every time.

I don’t tell Frank about the crying. I’m not sure it’s a strong selling point. But it ought to be.

After a few more attempts to bring our gourds into tunefulness, we set them aside and sing a cappella. We’re not pros, but we know how to listen, which is what matters most when you’re making music with other people. We sing the same song again and again, working out harmonies on the fly, leaning in to hear the voice next to us, the voice across the circle, finding our note, or not finding it, going a little sharp or flat. Or a whole lot sharp or flat. Nobody is chastened for getting it wrong, and by the ninth or tenth time through, we have something, and then we just keep going, because it’s magical and we don’t want to stop.

Sometimes I feel bereft. The world is on fire, and I don’t know how to fix what’s broken. But I am suffused with these stories. These songs. These connections.

This life. This astonishing magic.

Rush Hour

The man in the SUV didn’t understand the concept of the merge.

He didn’t realize, or didn’t accept, that the onus was on him to integrate himself into the flow of traffic. He didn’t realize, or didn’t accept, that the flow was already flowing, and that, while it would certainly adjust to his arrival, it would grant him no privilege.

The execution of the successful merge required that he acknowledge the established position of others. That he allow for their right to be where they were. That he moderate his speed, be it faster or slower, in order that he might join with and participate in the community of commuters.

The successful merge would not be facilitated by his head-long hurtle down the on-ramp, close on the wheels of the car in front of him, in full expectation that the community of commuters would magically accommodate his sudden, hulking presence. That it would cede to him the space he so favored, that it would not ask him to wait his turn, that it would simply make way.

Driving makes me crazy. Drivers make me really crazy.

That’s all.

We Do What We Do

I have a friend who takes to the woods each morning with her camera. She photographs insects and snakeskin and dew on spiderwebs, orange daylilies opening themselves to the world, fiddleheads unfurling, bones of a long-dead creature disintegrating under a canopy of cottonwoods and bramble. Every day there are new things to see.

I have no skill with a camera.

I write poems.

I hear the birds in the elm across the yard, a conclave, starlings and mockingbirds and cardinals and finches. The rattling hum of cicadas and the baritone murmur of a barge on the river, passing by. Some days the birds have a lot to say. Some days they don’t. I try to get it down, either way.

In the space between my kitchen window and the outside screen a spider has amassed an impressive collection of dead bodies wrapped in silk, suspended by threads invisible except in a certain light, morning light. My coffee goes cold in my cup as I watch her move her parcels from one part of her web to another, grouping them like sculpture, to what purpose I can only guess.

I don’t drink much. But I love this song all the same. We do what we do. Fish swim, birds fly. My friend takes lovely photos. I write poems. And you?