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Making Connections

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This morning I want to explore where our food comes from, because it matters, and because that journey has been both exciting and rewarding for me.

Today’s texts: 1 Corinthians 11:17-29 and Matthew 14:13-21

By Marty Smith

Food is essential for life, so it’s not surprising that the Bible is full of references to food, both actual and metaphoric. Jesus often used the sharing of food in a communal setting as a means of connecting people from all walks of life and social classes. After his death the common meal became an important way for early Christian communities to share their lives, later incorporating the symbolism indicated in today’s second reading.

As affluent Americans, we mostly take our food for granted. As long as we can afford it, we simply go to the supermarket and choose almost anything we want at any time of the year. We rarely question how it got there. But this morning I want to explore where our food comes from, because it matters, and because that journey has been both exciting and rewarding for me.

Todd and Amy Carr live with their three children – Caleb, Valerie and Sophie – on a ridgetop farm about 4 miles west of the village of Hollandale in southeastern Iowa County. Todd’s family have been vendors at the Dane County Farmers’ Market since I began shopping there in the early 2000’s. Both Todd’s and Amy’s parents have farms not far away. They raise mostly beef, pork and poultry; I buy my eggs from them.

A couple weeks ago Todd and I were talking politics, and he reminded me of something I had forgotten. He said, “I know this guy who farms about 2000 acres of corn, and he told me he made about a million dollars last year from government subsidies alone.” Todd doesn’t make that kind of money. In fact, Amy works a second job at an IT firm in Middleton for extra income and to provide the family with health insurance.

What I had forgotten was how our national agriculture policy rewards large agribusinesses that grow genetically modified corn and soybeans, using large quantities of chemical pesticides, to produce commodity crops that are mostly intended for livestock feed, ethanol and other derivative products, only some of which are used to manufacture the processed foods we find on grocery shelves. This happens at the expense of small farmers, who often end up not being able to make ends meet.

Yet southern Wisconsin is a veritable food paradise. Think about it. We have the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country right here in Dane County. We have community-supported agriculture (CSA), where you can buy a share of a farm’s produce for a season.

We have world-class, locally-made artisanal products, like Nancy Potter’s organic locally-sourced crackers, Gail Ambrosius’ chocolates from eco- and labor-friendly sources, and Andy Hatch’s incredible raw milk cheeses from Uplands Creamery near Dodgeville – just to name a few.

We have a grocery co-operative that offers an abundance of local produce in season and top-quality organic foods in all seasons. The staff also researches labor practices and sustainability for the products sold there.

A growing number of restaurants are including and identifying more and more local products in their culinary creations.

Nine percent of all the organically certified farms in the country are in Wisconsin. When I visit the city in northwest Ohio where I grew up, I am struck by the scarcity of food choices. Farmers’ markets are almost non-existent. Grocery shopping is limited to large chain stores filled with processed foods, produce from large industrial farms, and meats from confined animal operations. When I went to visit my brother in rural tidewater Virginia a few years ago, the only choices were Publix, Food Lion and Walmart.

The abundance and diversity of local food does not come about by chance. It happens only because people make connections and commitments to farmers and producers so that they can make a living and not literally sell the farm or go out of business.

I have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that asks the question “Who’s your farmer?”

Do you know where your food comes from? Can you find out who the farmers are? Do you know how much of what you pay actually gets back to the farmer? Do you know if farm laborers are paid a living wage or, in some cases, whether they’re paid at all?

If your food is cheap, you need to ask yourself the question “Why?” because if you’re not paying for it, who is?

Organic Valley began in 1988 as a co-operative of organic farmers in the Driftless area of western Wisconsin, who decided to pool their produce as a means of getting it to market. Last year their revenues topped $1 billion, yet they remain committed to paying their contributing farmers first and paying them fairly. In 2015 their dairy farmers received $36 per hundredweight for their organic milk, nearly double the market price paid for conventional milk.

That’s a lot of money. In particular it means a living wage for the farmers, who are NOT selling their farms and going out of business. In fact the number of farmers becoming organically certified and selling through Organic Valley every year is increasing – in states all over the country where they have local distribution systems.

About 15 years ago novelist Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided they would eat only local food, which they arbitrarily defined as grown or produced within 100 miles of their rural Virginia farm, for a whole year. She described the year in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

One of their first realizations was that they would have to give up a number of life’s pleasures, like imported teas, coffee, bananas, and, of course, chocolate. Don’t think I could do that!

Living on a farm, they were able to grow and preserve a lot of their own food. They even raised their own animals. For the things they did not produce themselves, they made connections with other farmers in their area who did produce those things and either paid or traded for them.

If you’ve ever watched Inga Witcher’s Around the Farm Table on Wisconsin Public Television, she does pretty much the same thing from her dairy farm near Westby.

Odessa Piper, who founded L’Etoile in the early 1970’s, called it “cooking for the seasons” – using whatever local, fresh produce was available, or could be reasonably preserved, at the Farmers’ Market on any given Saturday and making commitments to those vendors for continued business.

It is commitments like these, some with restaurants as far away as Chicago, that allow local vendors to survive. You can’t make a living selling only at the Saturday markets. Odessa sold L’Etoile to Tory Miller with the understanding that he would continue that philosophy. I know he has because I see him and the L’Etoile staff almost every Saturday at the Market with wagon-loads of food.

As I transitioned into buying my groceries at the Farmers’ Market and Willy Street Co-op, it was really difficult for me to break the habit of shopping at the grocery store because prices there were so cheap. It took self-discipline and some financial sacrifice, but now I know where my food money is going. Many of the people from whom I buy have become my friends. I know where their farms are and, in several cases, I’ve visited them on my bike.

The connections began about 13 years ago when I heard that Sugar River Dairy was selling milk at a small Wednesday market in the parking lot at Westgate Mall. There were only 4 or 5 vendors. One of them was Eric Johnson of Jorandal Farms near Albany in Green County. Eric and I usually talked for a few minutes each week, and sometimes I bought something from him.

Eric’s easy going, and I began to realize I liked this personal connection with the source of my food. As time went on I got to know his wife Carrie, who now runs a deli/restaurant in Verona, in addition to doing the Market on the Square during the summer. Things have not always been easy for them. In 2012 they lost all of their chickens to the heat. I worried about how this would affect them long term, although Carrie assured me that they would be okay.

The weekly commitments aren’t easy for vendors either. Pam Augustyn and her family leave at 2 am on Saturday mornings from Canopy Gardens near Antigo and drive over 3 hours to Madison. They started coming to the late winter market a few years ago with the most incredible hot house vegetables I’ve ever tasted – foot-long tender green beans, broccoli, and SunGold tomatoes that are almost as good as the ones you get in mid-summer.

Pam was moved because I made an effort to get to know them – many patrons of the Market seem hardly to pay the vendors any notice. Somehow we got talking about end-of-life issues, and our conversations widened from there. Pam’s traditional religious beliefs are quite different from mine, yet we agree on so many topics that conversation comes easily. She often stops and makes time for a chat and a hug when I drop by their stand.

We can teach our children to make these connections. The students at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California, have a one-acre garden from which you can look across San Francisco Bay and see the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are the usual beds for annual vegetables and fruit, but there are also lime and apple trees, passionfruit vines, and even a small flock of chickens – and one duck.

The afternoon my son Ryan and I visited last October, several girls had stayed after school and were rounding up the birds to get them into their overnight roost. Although most of the birds went willingly, a few stragglers had to be collected and taken individually, which the girls did by stuffing them up the front of their shirts. They were clearly enjoying every moment of it, and the birds didn’t seem to mind either.

This garden is part of the Edible Schoolyard Project, the brainchild of Alice Waters, whose internationally acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant is located just a few blocks away. In 1994 she noticed that the school had a large vacant lot that could be converted into a learning center for the school.

Their mission, to quote the website, is to involve “students in all aspects of farming the garden and preparing, serving, and eating food as a means of awakening their senses and encouraging awareness and appreciation of the transformative values of nourishment, community, and stewardship of the land.” All students now participate in the program.

An unassuming building accompanying the garden contains a fully equipped kitchen and dining hall, where students are taught food preparation and presentation skills, as well as lessons that connect to things they are learning in math, science and humanities. Different ethnic foods are prepared at all levels with lessons about the corresponding cultures.

Eighth graders learn about nutrition, social justice and labor, the environment, as well as the cost of and access to food. When parents come to visit, as our guide Krissa Nichols remarked, “you should see the looks on the parents’ faces when they see their kids wielding 8” Santoku knives.” Krissa is the daughter of former Memorial member Mary Upshaw.

In 1999 the Berkeley school district adopted a program in which local organic foods are included in school lunches. Processed foods have been virtually eliminated from the menus. Berkeley is not unique. The Edible Schoolyard Project also has sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Greensboro, N.C., and New Orleans.

Here in Madison, the REAP Food group works to get more local and nutritious foods onto the lunch menus of Madison and surrounding school districts, as well as establishing a Chef-in-the-Classroom program and a Farm to School educational curriculum. A farm-to-school position in state government is in jeopardy of being cut in the next budget.

Paying farmers the real cost of food seems expensive compared to the cost of food in grocery stores. I’m lucky I can afford to do it. Those of limited means, especially those who live in poor neighborhoods, have few food choices – and most of them aren’t healthy.

A few people are trying to change this. In 1993 former basketball star Will Allen started a program on his wife’s farm near Milwaukee that not only involved putting to work young people from some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, but also to provide food for these same areas. This project, called Growing Power, now has sites in Madison and Chicago as well.

Their goal is that “every neighborhood in low-income communities and communities of color [have] full access to fresh, healthy, local, affordable, culturally appropriate food every day.” Like the Edible Schoolyard and REAP, it has educational programs to help children learn to provide from themselves and for those around them.

A recent newsletter from the Dane County Farmers’ Market contained the phrase “where local meets global.” When we spend our food money, we are supporting whomever and whatever is in the chain between farm and market. If the people or organizations in that chain are insensitive to sustaining the environment or recognizing the rights of their employees, then we are supporting them.

In this, as with everything else we buy, we vote with our pocketbooks. These are frustrating times for many of us, and we wonder what we can do to counteract an environment in which even human dignity often seems under attack. This is one way.

The commitment I have made to my farmer friends was not easy, but I could never go back. Much of the food I now eat comes from within a couple hundred miles of my home. It nourishes my body – and my soul.