I just wanted to talk about mostly some ideas for how a person can implement your ideas at a local level. There’s been a lot of attention to Obama and his ideas about food policy on a national level, but I’m wondering what municipalities can do considering that they’re more connected to the local scene.
Well one of the things they can do that many of them are doing is commissioning these foodshed assessments or food system assessments where a municipality—and this is happening in San Francisco I know and several others, Sacramento is doing it and several other cities around the country—where they basically start by figuring out what resources are available to the citizens of the city within, say, a hundred miles, and they take stock of all the farms. The exercise forces them to look at the city as connected to the countryside, and where those farmers are marketing and how they might be induced to market in the cities more locally. And it often leads to support for farmers markets or databases where people can learn about CSAs—you know, these are farms that you can sign up to join and get a weekly box of produce—and various information resources and help for the farmers to reconnect them to the city. So that’s one important step. I know that the borough president of Manhattan is doing one of these, so it’s happening on all different scales, and it’s really the beginning of connecting the cities to their foodsheds and helping people conceive of what a foodshed is. Strange idea. We all know what a watershed is, but we all live in a foodshed as well. So, I think that that’s a good place to start.
I think that cities can do a lot to promote farmers markets, indeed, the best thing they can do is build one. Farmers markets in America are still kind of primitive affairs—just a parking lot, usually, where farmers can come and pitch a tent. But you go to Europe and certain cities in America and you see that there are actual buildings, sometimes quite beautiful, where farmers can lease space on a monthly or annual basis and be less dependant on the weather and have a source of water and sanitation for everybody. That’s another really important thing cities can do.
Are there any sorts of legislative actions that citizens should be pushing for at a state or a more local level?
It depends on your state and locality, but there’re a lot of issues around food safety and there are efforts to tighten up the rules around food safety. And I think it’s important that citizens get involved in these efforts to make sure that these laws do not penalize small farmers, because they often do. The way a small farmer does business is much different than a huge feedlot or meat processing plant. They shouldn’t be regulated the same way, but there’s a tendency to have a one-size-fits-all approach. That really could choke off this rise of the renaissance of local agriculture.
I think the first thing citizens can do is figure out what their local farmers need. What are their hurdles? What are their obstacles? How is the local health department standing in their way? In many places the local health department won’t let a farmer who’s growing beautiful pork smoke a ham without erecting a giant, $100,000 facility.
If I wanted to help promote this local food revolution in a given community I would start by figuring out who the good farmers are and ask them what they need from the government. Sometimes they just want hands off; sometimes they need some help.
And so, aside from making sure there aren’t any restrictive legislations or rules in place for the small farmer, what kinds of things could be put in place that might encourage or help the small farmer?
Well, a lot of small farmers are not very good marketers, or they’re too busy to market effectively, so one thing that’s very helpful is having good sources of information. Having a town prepare a brochure or having a web site where you can type in your zip code and learn about the farmers who are direct marketing in your neighborhood. Because people don’t often realize that they might live a mile or two away from someone growing really good stuff, very good produce or meat. They just don’t know it’s available because the farmers have not always done such a good job getting the word out. Using new technologies to connect food producers with consumers is very valuable. There’re often more resources than people realize.
So, going even narrower, what in your opinion is the most important change that a single person or a single family can make that would have the most impact?
I think the single most important thing people can do is to begin cooking if they’re not cooking right now. It’s very hard to support local food if you’re a restaurant eater or a processed-food eater, because you’re not going to find that kind of food at the farmers market, obviously. Getting in the habit of cooking from scratch, even if you can only do it a few days a week; but if you religiously do it two, three, four days a week, you will then be in a position to support farmers selling real food rather than giving your money to people who are selling you, really, convenience. So, I think that’s really key. And in general, eat real food and avoid what I call edible food-like products.
That’s a great segue to my next question. It seems to me that there are a lot of skills we’ve lost in the most recent generations, so what kinds of skills do we need to be remembering? What do we need to be learning from our grandparents and what do we need to be teaching each other so that we feel more comfortable with these new food choices we’re making?
I think we do need to cook. A lot of us don’t have a lot of confidence in the kitchen. They’ve been mystified and intimidated by looking at cooking shows on television—which don’t actually encourage you to cook; they discourage you from cooking, I’m convinced, because it makes it look way too hard and complex. So getting more comfortable in the kitchen is really, really important. I think people, also, have to learn how to eat again and realize the difference between a real local strawberry that actually tastes like something and a big gorgeous supermarket strawberry that, if you think about it, has no flavor at all, or tastes sour. Getting reacquainted with our taste buds is important too. I think learning how to cook and even learning how to eat are things that a lot of us are forgetting. I mean, how to choose produce, for example: using your senses to choose quality produce, using your sense of smell to see if something is really ripe and ready to eat. A lot of people don’t even know how to choose produce any more. That was something my grandfather was always good at. He knew exactly how to sniff a melon or where a pear should be a little bit soft when it gets ripe. You can tell, holding an apple, whether it’s going to taste good or not. There’re all these skills we’ve lost.
And I think people are intimidated a little bit by new things if they don’t know how to pick them.
Yeah. Even looking at a piece of meat. People don’t always know. Packaged food trains you to think everything’s the same. We assume that if food comes in a package, it’s perfect. Of course we’re learning from all these food safety scandals that’s not always true.
Are these the kinds of skills we should be teaching in our schools?
Yes. Without a doubt. I think we should be teaching kids how to grow food, how to cook food, and how to eat food. That sounds funny until you realize that we already are teaching them how to eat food. If you give kids chicken nuggets and tater tots and you give them 10 minutes to eat, you’re teaching them how to become a fast food consumer. We need to teach them how to become a different kind of consumer.
What’s your response to people who think that this renaissance in local food is an elitist movement?
I think they’re responding to the fact that it costs more money to eat locally very often, and I think they’re right. I think we need to work harder to make good, healthy, fresh food more available. That’s going to take some work at the policy level. We erect a lot of barriers to farmers selling local food at a reasonable price. Meat processing is a big barrier. But I think the movement is very sensitive to that charge and is working very hard to democratize this kind of food. But I don’t think it’s damning that a movement begins with so-called elites. A great many movements have begun that way and gradually they spread out and democratize. I think you’re seeing that with the food movement. There’s a very active food security component. You have lots of people working on bringing fresh produce into the inner cities. So it’s something people are working on. Some of the image just comes from the way the media depicts it. There’s been lots of attention to chefs and high-end fancy food. But of course there are lots of people in the inner cities who are equally interested in fresh seasonal vegetables. Part of it is where the media decides to aim its camera.
For that portion of the population that might be convinced that this is an elitist movement or that isn’t necessarily thinking in these terms yet, what could be some steps we could take to help people understand that it might be worth paying a little more?
I think people are learning that. When we’ve offered farmers market vouchers to people on top of their food stamps or their WIC program, they flock to get those vouchers and then they use them. The demand is there. I think the challenge is expanding those voucher programs into the inner cities, encouraging farmers markets to set up in the inner cities. It’s not as if people are happy living in food deserts. They really want something different. I think it’s something the government can do; I think it’s something local municipalities can do. Land is cheap in the inner city, and that’s a perfect place to develop a four-season farmers market. I would consider things like that. And teaching about food and cooking in schools—all schools, public schools. That’s how you train people to get comfortable with food. People who learn the pleasures of good, local, healthy food will bring those ideas home; if they learn it in school, they’ll bring it home.
Because we’re in this challenging economic climate right now, I wanted to ask if you had any strategies for people who are having to watch their budget closely—that maybe are not at a food stamp level yet?
The thing to do is look at your ancestors and how they dealt with this, because people have dealt with money scarcity and food before. One thing they did was to cook several meals at once, for example. To think ahead when you’re buying and instead of buying two chicken breasts, you buy a whole chicken, which ends up being about the same amount of money. And you get three meals out of that chicken, not just one. You cook a couple of soups or casseroles or stews on a Sunday and freeze them.
One important thing people can do—you know we talk so much about fresh local food, but frozen vegetables are one of the great deals in the supermarket. That’s not expensive at all. Anybody can do that, and those are very simple, real foods. So people shouldn’t overlook that. Canned food a little bit less so, because they usually add a lot of salt, but still not a terrible choice. If you’re eating real food of any kind—fresh, frozen, canned, whatever—you’re better off. And the frozen and canned varieties tend to be really cheap. They can be even more nutritious because the food is often frozen or canned at the moment it’s completely, perfectly ripe, which isn’t always true with fresh produce, depending on where you live in the country. Once again, if you’re willing to cook, you will save money, but I think you have to realize you have to put in time instead of money. But we seem to be entering a period where people have more time than money.
Just to go back to the national level for a moment, I was wondering how you felt your letter to our Farmer-In-Chief had been received and if you’re seeing any bright spots?
I’m very encouraged by what I’m hearing from Washington and seeing from Washington. The letter to the farmer-in-chief was—the new president was surprisingly receptive to it. He gave an interview to Time magazine, which I think you can find it online if you search, he did it with Joe Klein in October, where he spoke about the article and summarized it basically in very sympathetic terms. And since then, he has instructed his new secretary of agriculture to try to enlist farm policy in dealing with the crisis of health care and the crisis of climate change. And, of course, Michelle has planted a garden.
Now, I don’t take credit for any of these actions, but I think it suggests that these ideas are closer to the mainstream and closer to realization than any one of us would have hoped a year ago. I think the way Michelle Obama is talking about the importance of real food and local food is very encouraging and is already having an influence. And Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has definitely talked in a way that suggests he’s sympathetic to reform. His first big appointment, his number two, Kathleen Marigan, is a proven reformer. I mean, she comes out of the organic movement and is just an absolutely terrific pick.
So, I’m encouraged that we may see some change. I think we’ll see a lot more resources going into local food from the federal government. I think we’ll see much more sensitivity to small farmers and people selling fresh food than we have before and hopefully we’ll see some progress on the school lunch program as well, which is coming up this year for reauthorization.
So, if you had a number one on your wish list of what you’d like to see happen, what would it be?
I don’t think I have one. I was very eager to see a garden at the White House, so that was a pretty great one. You know, I think a food system that is dedicated to health—both the health of its eaters and the health of the environment—is really the key. And there are many, many things that have to happen to get there. We have to look at the way we subsidize agriculture, we have to look at the kinds of calories we support and we don’t support, so I don’t think there’s any one thing. There’re a whole lot of things. I think the challenge is whenever a decision is made in this area that we assess its impact on the health of Americans, children in particular, and on climate change, and that we bring that lens to our agricultural and food policy. And I hope that happens.
I mean, I guess one thing I’d like to see is somebody responsible for connecting the dots like this between food policy, agricultural policy, healthcare policy and climate change policy. It would be great to have one person in the White House who is bringing all these different parts of the government into communication. We can hope. Yeah! It could well happen.
I just have one final question, and that would be, do you still consider yourself a journalist just reporting on this or have you become more of an activist in this movement?
Well, I’m definitely an advocate. But I am still a journalist. My first responsibility is to my readers. It’s not to the movement, it’s not to a sympathetic department of agriculture, or any organized group. I speak as an individual. When I hear myself speaking because it’s really good for the movement or something like that, I know I’m in trouble. I’m very eager to preserve my identity as a journalist. Not to say I don’t have a clear point of view and I don’t make clear arguments for one kind of policy and against another, but I speak for myself and nobody else. That for me is the important distinction.