Friday, February 25, 2011

Sonoma County Food Forum

I'm going to write an off the top, eyewitness account here - before I have to engage all the official data for the report which I'll be working on over the next few weeks.

It was a good day yesterday, with about 300 people over all involved and representing many sectors of our community: agriculture, health, food justice, eco-justice, government, and just foodies.

I still find it difficult to condone men wearing hats inside, but in yesterday's case it was somewhat instructive - a way of sorting the various subcultures. Everything from woolly caps worn over hair that would've been dreadlocks if it had been better cared for to 10 gallon stetsons. (Old men in rural Nevada taught me that real cowboys don't wear their hats inside. Apparently that does not extend to dairy farmers in Sonoma County.) In between: ball caps and a brimmed cap like a certain vintage of men wear when driving, and even one of those dreadful little synthetic hats with the narrow brim. Footwear (boots to birkenstocks) works sometimes, but yesterday it was headgear which revealed the diversity of the crowd.

Two things contributed to the success of the day, I believe. One was the relationships many of us have been building among ourselves, and across the various sectors. The other was a balanced design, where neither those who wanted an old-white-male conference format or those of us who would have liked an all open space format prevailed. Short addresses, panels, a modified cafe process and a response from the politicos provided a balanced day.

The food was great, too. Local as far as possible, beginning with buns and yogurts, wending through a luncheon salad buffet of great variety, and ending with a local cheese tasting.

I always enjoy listening to the farmers, because I always learn something, and realize that across the political divide there is still a lot we have in common. I learned where a lot of wool from all purpose sheep here goes (to a wool mattress maker) and the difficulties of running a diverse produce farm in this county. And I did not realize that the past president of the Farm Bureau has a full organic operation - and was the first FB president for whom that was true, a shocker at the time.

A take home from both the panels was a new appreciation of "value added". I have thought of this as meaning making cheese or jam from what one grows/produces - but often the added value is in terms of relationship - knowing or feeling a connection with your farmer/rancher. Of course, it is!

Tom Scott of Oliver's Market told a story of an experiment - selling oranges marked California oranges for $.99 per pound - and also, in a display featuring more info about the source, a pic of the farmer, etc. for $1.29 per pound - and selling more of the latter. This is instructive, and it's wonderful when it's my local market - not so good when it's Safeway or Whole Foods exploiting people's good will with a constructed narrative.

One of my ongoing concerns is community education, helping people to learn more about food system issues and to do some reskilling in food growing, preparation and preservation. What I realized yesterday is that the hook we have for this is marketing, and working with the markets. A little of this goes on - samples and cooking demos at our local supermarkets - but there could be many more tie-ins, I think. Beyond the local, it occurs to me that a regional chain like Raley's could do more with tips on seasonality and sustainability issues in their free magazine without hurting their business - maybe even enhancing it.

Later, when I've done my preliminary review of the input from the cafe tables, I'll make some informal notes here about priorities in vision and action steps. But for now, I want to say that I do get a kick out of watching the pols and the bureaucrats in action. We had four of our county supervisors there yesterday, some other locals, and a former local who now works for the USDA in DC. They represented many points on the smooth operator scale. Perhaps most interesting was to see the degree to which they really were - or weren't - engaged in the conversation. Time will tell, as our report with priority recommendations for policy and program will go to them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More than just gleaning

Sunday's reading from Hebrew scripture will be from the 19th chapter of Leviticus, including these verses:

19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

What struck me on first reading these again was that the poor were actually allowed onto the fields to glean; the leftovers were not managed by the landowners and distributed according to the landowner's policies, but the gleaners came onto the land, and their labor yielded their gleanings. Somehow, this seems more dignified and just than the ways we in our place and time usually manage our charitable activity. Perhaps it shows more trust, and more of a relationship, between the poor and the rich than we experience.

And here is something else - the Hebrew word and its variations for glean is the same word usually translated "gather" in the story of manna in Exodus. So these same folks who are being exhorted to leave something for the gleaners have themselves been dependent on gleaning.

The Israelites in transit have been dependent on gleaning that which was provided by God for their sustenance. They know this radical dependence.

In effect, then, they are doing what has been done for them when they leave the grain at the edges, and the grapes which are not quite ripe, and the windfalls of their fruit. Their awareness of radical dependence helps them understand and act generously toward others - to give not just of their stuff, but out of their own lived experience.

We may be on a roll

here in Sonoma County.

Yesterday things began to move ahead in using county-owned land to grow food.

The land is out there -in parks, the open space district, water agency land, and General Services controlled land.

County officials are working to identify land that could be used for community gardens, small farms of 10 acres or so which could do much to boost the county's produce totals and make growing it almost affordable for farmers, and larger parcels of rangeland.

Yes, I know, there are people who might question these uses environmentally - but the facts are in: organic farming and well-managed rangeland increase carbon sequestration. And anything we do to increase local sourcing of food is an eco-justice plus.

Two of the stars of next week's countywide food forum
are mentioned in the news story - Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, our county public health officer, a champion of win-win solutions, and Stephanie Larson, our head of UC cooperative extension here, whose office will be doing the assessment. Getting to know these two women has been a plus for me as a member of our Food System Alliance.

And I know that the Forum will be identifying more do-able goals for improving our food system for everybody.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It was 1 p.m. today

before I knew who won the Super Bowl. The luxury of having no TV and no interest in violent sports - or even in all American advertising.

So I didn't see the ad against taxing sugary drinks.
30 seconds for the freedom to consume corn syrup.

As the commentary on Grist points out, if supermarket shoppers think the government is not already interfering with their food and beverage choices - well, they've got another think coming. Our subsidy system is what has made these bevvies ubiquitous and cheap.

I loved the fact that Walmart found a stealthy way to help fund the ad, too, as a member of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association.

Say - did any football fan point out that they already tax beer - which I'm confident has more naturally occurring vitamins and minerals than 7-up?

Scripture reflections

Here are some interesting ones, on the Food and Faith blog related to the Presbyterian (PCUSA) Hunger Program. I particularly liked the one on dandelions and mustard, since it's mustard season here in the wine country.

This has me thinking - why I am not doing more scripture reflections here? I very much enjoyed doing lectionary notes for Interfaith Power and Light's Climate Change Preach-In - this coming Sunday. [] So why not do some notes from time to time with an ag and food perspective?

The PCUSA curriculum on Just Eating still looks good, and is available for adults and middle school, English and Spanish. Free for the downloading.

Why don't Episcopalians do things like this? Oh yeah - some of us do... But there is precious little institutional support for developing resources that could engage our congregations around themes like eating which are important for every one of us - and the rest of creation.