Just? Or Just for the Rich?

Before farm school, I ran a food pantry in South Boston that mainly serviced two nearby housing projects.  Every two weeks, we distributed 10,000 pounds of food to nearly 1,000 people struggling to make ends meet.  But for each person who regarded the pantry as a temporary stopgap measure, there were 20 others who were locked in a more structural poverty and for whom trips to pantries were as routine as trips to the grocery store.

food_pantry_dinas_06Though I felt of service, I couldn’t shake the feeling that our efforts were doing little to address the underlying issues that forced our clients to line up in the predawn hours week after week waiting for their bags of food.

So now that I’m at farm school working earnestly toward the righteous cause of providing healthy and sustainable food, all conflict is avoided right?  Not exactly.  Thanks to an intentionally provocative class on Food Justice led by Tyson, our head grower, it turns out I have traded a service that does little to empower poor people for a profession to often outright ignores and exploits them.

IMG_6086The first blow to my newfound professiont is the issue is of equal food access.  As it stands right now, the local food movement is largely a product of well-off college-educated folks serving other well-off college-educated folks.  Our class of student-farmers at the farm school is no exception.  And take one trip to your farmer’s market and you’ll realize ‘the movement’ is more about expensive mojito quinoa salads and artisan cheeses and less about Twinkie alternatives for the 29% of poor kids who haven’t eaten a vegetable in the last week.  Local food products are simply more expensive to produce and are therefore out of reach for many people.   And I think I’m hard pressed to call it a movement if everyone‘s not at the table.

Which ironically points to the second point: many of the people who can’t afford local, organic food are the farm workers themselves. Agriculture is notorious for exploiting workers, especially immigrant labor. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the average annual salary of a farm worker in California (where organic was born) is around $8,500, to say nothing of the lack of benefits and abysmal housing conditions. And it turns out that the organic movement hasn’t been able to do much better.

By forgoing pesticides and fertilizers, organic farms rely on back breaking “stoop labor” – that is, manual cultivation and harvesting. This costs money, and there’s a limit to how much more expensive organic food can be before it simply doesn’t sell. So though there have been efforts here and there to make organic standards include protections for workers, market forces and our own national laws have worked against this.

Add to this conflict the issue of messaging.

During class, Tyson showed us a video that nearly made me puke.  Over a tableau of idyllic agrarian scenery and moody guitar, a sympathetic male voice urges us to consider our beautiful but limited ‘living planet,’ the disappearing rain forests, the melting arctic ice and the challenge of sustainably feeding 7 billion people. ‘Right on,’ I think. But the video continues (watch below if you’d like) and breaks my heart:

“We pledge to do our part. We’re Monsanto. And we’re working with farmers and partners worldwide to realize a vision for sustainable agriculture.”

Monsanto. The reviled multinational corporation associated with the worst abuses of industrial agriculture and corporate greed. But Google ‘Monsanto’ and the first hit you get is “sustainable agriculture.”

This is an example of what Adam Davidson spoke to us about at Stone Barns last week:  how big agriculture uses the local food movement as a focus group to determine what customers want. Once they do, they deploy their nimble marketing machine to beat us at our own game.

What kills me is that Monsanto’s doublespeak video uses the same words I use to describe all I find sacred about serving the land and our fellow man. It’s a sad reminder that words aren’t intellectual property and language isn’t absolute.

I left Tyson’s class with my idealism bruised and I’ve been moping all week (just ask Dina). My relative privilege puts me in the company of others offering stale perspectives on the sustainable agriculture movement. What’s already been done to help our planet comes at the expense of exploited workers and mostly serves the elite.  And big agriculture seems poised to coopt and destroy whatever profit or good intentions are left in local and organic.

Sigh.  It was much easier to have convictions with blinders on.

But as we’re coming to the end of the year, perhaps taking stock of where I stand is good, if painful.  I’m on Christmas break from school for the next two weeks, so last Saturday, Dina and I celebrated my temporary return to urban life with our old stand-by date: sushi and a trip to the movies. We saw Lincoln, and if there is some hope for me in this “movement,” I think I comes from the struggle for civil rights.

While our current economy is no longer explicitly dependent upon the exploitation of an entire race of people, it is now dependent upon exploiting the defenseless and limited resources of our natural world.  And as much as we can’t address all the injustices or answer all the questions about where this movement is going, the same was true regarding abolishing slavery in 1865.  What would a country of freed blacks would look like?  Would they vote?  Intermarry with whites?

Elizabeth Keckley 1818 t0 1907 seamstress to presidents confederacy and union born a slave_jpg

In light of all these unresolved questions, on the eve of the vote for the 13th amendment Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln asked his wife’s black servant Elizabeth Keckley if she ‘feared for her people’ should they suddenly be freed by the 13th amendment, knowing that many white people didn’t want the system to change.

She replied evenly, “I have never heard of anyone ask what freedom will bring.  Freedom first.”

Just as Americans in 1865 could hardly imagine what a country of freed blacks would look like, I think I’m having a similar failure of imagination with regards to how we feed a ballooning population both sustainably and equitably.  I take heart knowing that profound cultural change is possible (we have a black man sitting as President in the White House after all), but I worry that we don’t have 150 years to learn how to live harmoniously within the limits of our natural world.  Bottom line, we have to rethink ‘cheap’ food and ‘cheap’ labor but if we remain paralyzed by these  problems, Nature will make her limits – and demands – very clear.

For those of you who made it this far, thanks for sticking through the photo-light rant.  The rest of the images from the week can be found HERE.


  • December 26, 2012 at 2:08 am // Reply

    Your comments apply equally here in Europe and I share your qualms about the movement. I think though the only way to tackle the fact that so few urban poor have access to fresh food is for the fresh food to be grown in the city by them. Spaces need to be opened up for food growing in cityxcapes a bit like the Edible towns projects http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/
    and food swapping http://www.foodswapnetwork.com/. At least these endeavours should open up the spaces for more people to gain access to good food.

  • December 27, 2012 at 8:55 am // Reply

    I work in the mental health field. Whether it is mental health, physical health, spiritual health the task of change is daunting, overwhelming if we look at the immensity of the task. Instead I choose to focus on one bit at a time. I think we each have a small bit which is our part and if we can stay steady in our work will make a big change overall. Global change is overwhelming to me to take on so I keep going one person at a time. You will never change what is awful like greed and bigotry by hitting it head on. I think it is changed one by one by one by one. Another small but large idea is that I focus on things I CAN do instead of things I CANNOT. I can’t take on a big company that is greedy but I can live a different kind of life. These are just musings after reading your last review. xoxoxo

    • December 27, 2012 at 11:24 am // Reply

      Pronouncements of what everyone else should be doing tend to be based on our own projections as we each fail to step into what is right. We are frightened and we live in self-doubt. Cynthia practices one step at a time, and what she can do vs what she cannot do. These behaviors are the foundations for change.

      As much as Erick/Dina intellectually and practically experience their helplessness (not quite) in a world run by greed and bigotry (Cynthia’s words), we can only do what we believe is right in the moment. Erik’s food pantry was a step, now revealed in a changing light. Farm school is a step, slowly revealing a bigger world in a tainted light. In less than 4 months, the birth of new life that will change the (camera) lens again.

      Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and May the Lessons of Time to Come be fruitful.

      • December 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm // Reply

        Carlyle himaself, after musing, fretting, and reflecting as only a Victorian intellectual can (i.e., in VOLUMES OF DENSE PROSE), concluded as follows: “Do the work at hand.”

        This is to say that not even the best of the best thinkers can offer more than Cindy and Nancy have here.

        All I can think to add wisdom-wise is that the FIRST thing to do is to keep the FIRST thing the FIRST thing.

        • December 27, 2012 at 12:41 pm // Reply

          Well said Kate, Well said

          • April 15, 2013 at 6:26 am //

            Some people talk a lot instead of doing , if people would do hands on they would find out very quickly , that reading about ,is not the best thing to do. Each one of us has different way’s of doing it , and the best method of doing it , is to find out for yourself, and do it instead of thinking what you read is always right.

  • December 27, 2012 at 12:03 pm // Reply

    I re-read what I wrote and saw that I was preaching back. Bad Dog on me. What I wanted to convey is that each of us are responsible for our own “foot-steps” on this earth. I choose personally to do what I can with the means that I have. How I do it is my choice and my responsibility is also to ensure I do not tread on others approaches. I missed that last part in my original post.

    I did not include myself in the ending as a “Will Do” because I have yet to attain what I consider my hopeful degree of self-sufficiency. I fall into the “Moving Towards”. I also left others off – such as Nathaniel, Sabrina, Ethan, and Elayna Rosalie – and others.

    We each do what we can when we can. It will take many of us making the decision to live gently on this Earth to enact change. And, like everything else, that statement will mean different things to different folks.

    Cynthia – thank you for working in the Health field ; Nancy I agree with you about projections and how the lens of our lives is constantly changing. We are here together, support each other as we can, and help those in need.

  • January 3, 2013 at 10:10 am // Reply

    Dear Erik,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the issue and to tell you the truth I always hoped I was wrong about this movement being a product for the elite.
    I’m obviously not as well-informed as I should be on the issue but I’ve never understood how simply going organic will help attain equal food access when the product is more expensive. Wasn’t the whole point of buying directly from the farmers to decrease the costs by cutting out the grocery store middle-man?

    I know this might be completely unrelated but I don’t think you could have ended the post with a better analogy. Elizabeth Keckley’s quote is so relevant to what is happening in my native country, Syria. I find it absurd that after 40 years of terror and oppression from the Alawite regime, a revolution has finally taken place but people are mainly concerned with what will come after the end of this group of tyrants (possibly a bunch of Islamists).
    This is why Keckley’s words really hit the spot for me, because indeed, freedom first.

    Anyway, back to food. I know that this ‘movement’ is fairly new and we all have trouble imagining or predicting where it’s going. The same with the situation in Syria.
    But the issue of a farmer’s well-being, protection and financial prosperity is one that has existed for the longest time. Still does.
    Again, I’m not as well-informed as I should be, possibly even naive, but how is it that one of the most vital professions seems to be the least valued and least rewarded.

    I find it absurd that Dr. Phil gets to make $1,000 in 2 minutes and 42 seconds, when it takes a farmer 57 hours.

    Thanks for the good read,


  • January 4, 2013 at 3:31 pm // Reply

    I just listened (and read) the presentation made by Mr. Mark Lynas Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013. It is very educational and, being given by an individual who was centric to the anti-GM movement in the EU, point blank enlightening.

    May I suggest anyone interested in the combination of “Population explosion + feeding everyone equitably + GM + Organic vs. Other farming practices” spend the time to either listen to the speech (video link is on this site) or read the presentation text.


    PS: Through Mr. Lynas’s presentation I also learned where the projected explosive population growth numbers are coming from especially since birthrate has been dropping across the board. Now I also understand this.

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