The farmer’s market patron – clearly an out-of-state, well-to-do woman – asked, “when was this corn picked?” “Just half an hour before the market opened,” my friend replied. The woman grimaced and said she’d hoped it was fresher than that. The friend later said, “I wanted to tell her that she’s welcome to pick the produce herself – if she’s willing to get her hands dirty, that is!”
We all know this kind of supporter of local, organic food: the media’s stereotype of the well-to-do, white, liberal elitist foodie. The kind that has the money to spend on supposedly overpriced food and “artisanal” products. (But see Mark Bittman’s excellent editorial on the Farm Bill last year.)
The reality is, local food is not elitist: it’s traditional. It’s a way to keep money in local economies where it continues to enrich the community, to buy food from people we know under conditions we know rather than from large corporations who buy food from all over the world and whose concern for the health of their customers is a lot less assured. And it’s a way to economize while eating healthy, nutritious food. After all, co-ops were started in reaction to rising food prices, and CSAs and farmer’s markets make available a diversity of produce that’s healthy both for the human consumers and for the land. Most co-ops and farmer’s markets now take food stamps and other forms of food assistance, making their farming neighbors’ fruits and veggies and grains and meats and cheeses affordable even for those who are economically distressed. Many farmers also give extra produce to Food Shelves, as do some local bakeries and even some chains (shout out to Panera, who provides the Food Shelves in our area with lots of delicious breads, bagels, muffins, and scones).
When I do spend more money on “artisanal” products than I would at the grocery store, I count that as a plus as well. After all, buying Mt. Mansfield Creamery’s excellent Halfpipe cheese means I’m paying for something hand-made, not machine-made. And I’m putting the money directly into the hands of Stan (or his daughter), which means I’m supporting a small-scale, local business with more accountability to the community (unlike Cabot, which sprays its contaminated waste water on fields, has more than once spilled ammonia into the Winooski river, and has not been entirely honest about the presence of bovine growth hormone in its products). (I will say, however, that Cabot’s super-duper-sharp cheddar is my favorite cheddar. But I still prefer Halfpipe.) A smaller operation usually has more accountability because its success depends on its relationship with others in the community. A product sold all over the country has a huge market that is mostly ignorant or apathetic about the product’s environmental and social costs. Just as most Vermonters are ignorant or apathetic (myself included, much as I try to change that habit) about the environmental and social costs of the electronics or clothing they buy.
I find it ironic that an economy which preserves and supports ancient peasant skills and arts – dairy, meat, and produce farming; spinning, dying, and weaving; cheese- and butter-making; basketry; chandlery (candle-making and other wax arts); beekeeping; the fermentation of wine and mead; glass-blowing; ceramic arts – can seriously be considered “elitist.” It is the most democratic, grounding experience I can think of to go up to Montpelier’s Capital City Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning. The small parking lot next to the Episcopal church seems much larger when full of stalls and live music, teeming with dogs and children and sometimes the occasional goat. Not only do Tim and I buy nearly everything we can’t grow or make ourselves at the farmer’s market, we also share knowledge and pool resources. The agricultural activist organization Rural Vermont often has a booth with demonstrations of cheese-making, petitions for changes to ag laws, or information about the science behind raw milk. The Lost Nation theater has a table with information about their current production. I can talk natural remedies with the herbalist and mushroom-hunting and -drying techniques with the wild foods forager (who is also a silversmith). It’s pretty similar to a medieval market, actually, and worth going for the sense of continuity alone. Some folks may be on their mobile phones, and there’s a lot more skin showing, but other than that not much seems to have changed in several hundred years.
Even more exciting is growing food oneself. I see the recent surge in home agriculture – including growing produce and raising chickens – not as an elitist, food-snob sort of activity, but as a response to both the economic crisis and the sharp uptick in food prices, as well as the steady stream of recalls of contaminated foods. Growing your own is one way to ensure that you never have to worry about unsafe agri-industrial practices contaminating your peanuts, spinach, or cauliflower. The main cost is the seeds (okay, if you have rabbits, deer, or groundhogs you’ll need to splurge on fencing, too). And food stamps can now be used to buy seeds, meaning a family’s food assistance goes much, much further.
I keep chickens and grow produce for more than economic and health reasons, though. I do it because it gives me joy, and that is a profound reason. The work I do to provide for my physical needs – which also includes knitting and splitting and stacking wood – gives me an immediate sense of gratification. I love indexing and I’m in a passionate, committed relationship with the bible and biblical scholarship, but the work I do directly securing food and warmth is precious because it’s empowering: it gives me a direct, unmediated relationship with the nourishing capacity of the earth. It teaches me better than any book about my ecological place in things, which is to say it teaches me my limitations and my dependence, something often missing, even scorned, in the prevailing culture. And it teaches me thankfulness, the deep gratitude for the miraculous. No one could ever be reminded enough what a miracle it is that packets of seeds turn into armfuls of produce, or a flock of silly chickens produces not only amusement and companionship but also packets of precious vitamins and protein. Or that you can find and gather salad greens, herbs, mushrooms, fruits, and veggies on a simple walk in the woods.
Ultimately, it’s food coops and farmer’s markets, homegrown food and wild harvested, that sustains not only my body but my spirit, too. Getting dirty on the outside does a lot for my inside. Meeting those who produce my food and other things I need helps me feel connected. It helps me BE connected, part of a community that’s firmly tied to a particular place. It makes me more conscious of what I buy, what I think I need, and what goes into meeting those needs. I think more about what I pay, because that money is going directly to the person I see and talk to, and thus I’m more conscious of the labor and skill they put in. And I’m challenged to learn new skills and take on more labor myself, to push the boundaries of self-care and self-reliance, not in an individualistic, community-less way, but as a way to understand my neighbors, my ancestors, and myself. It’s the most anti-elitist way I can feed myself.