Pirate ships, untie.

Some of you may have heard the news earlier this year that Slow Food USA’s  Executive Director Richard McCarthy was stepping down from his command after six years. Of course anyone who reads this blog knows he was the founding visionary and 18-year E.D. at Market Umbrella* which is the NGO that manages the Crescent City Farmers Markets in New Orleans, and where I was lucky enough to work as Deputy Director and then as Marketshare Director for a decade.  I had departed its solidity and dynamic programs in 2011, feeling as if I needed to use the skills and resources I had gained to build the field of markets across the US and to focus on Farmers Market Coalition’s development, an entity that Richard had raised the initial private funding for and had served as the first board president when it became its own 501 (c) organization. He very graciously allowed me to take most of the materials we had developed at MU to grow my consulting business (Helping Public Markets Grow) and to use it later on as the basis of my current work as part-time staff at Farmers Market Coalition.

Since his move to NYC in 2012, we have kept in regular contact. I had even attended both of the Slow Food Nations events in Denver that happened under his leadership, partly to see if there could be an alignment between the work I did with FMC and with SF, but also to experience some of the synthesis he was famous for orchestrating between NGO leaders and chefs, private foundations and practioners, savvy media types and farmers, and a slew of others who share the theory of change that put farmers and markets in the democratic center of food systems. He always introduced me with the description that I know he had carefully crafted for me: “Darlene is a market guru and my colleague from the New Orleans days of running markets…” Like much of his wordsmithing, it was carefully open-ended and charmingly odd.

Whenever we met up, it was very much as if we were back in the cramped offices of Market Umbrella, discussing both the minute details of the work to put on a market, and the systemic trends and changes we noted and those we hoped to see. I often told him that I wished he would STOP running non-profits, and start to write, speak, and work at a different level on behalf of the entire system of organizers in the food and civic systems.

Now he is happily unmoored from his tether, roaming the world looking for places to put his efforts in the coming years.  My goal is getting him visiting the port of farmers markets regularly, and so I am doing my best to get him to work on a farmers market anthology with me, with part of the proceeds benefiting FMC and other worthy orgs. Maybe that will happen, but in the meantime, he is beginning to use the blog format to share his thoughts and to raise his flag.

The blog is called think like pirates, and I can offer a tiny glimmer as to why it is called that, although Richard has developed this idea in new ways since its unveiling. But here is the beginning:

Some years back, I watched a Charlie Rose episode with  Tori Amos and found this resonant:

Charlie: Now, this tour with Alanis Morrissette, tell me about her. Do you like her? Do you admire her? Is she good?
Tori: She’s a lovely person, good heart. She’s good at what she does.
Charlie: That’s it?
Tori: That’s good!
Charlie: I mean… well, was there conflict, was there tension? Or was it just a lovefest?
Tori: No tension because… I think honestly, she approached me and she did it in a way that was like, “Hey, lets be creative and put two shows together, two separate shows and um… I had to bring my own production. I didn’t want to do anything where I couldn’t bring my own production because that’s not how I work. I have a pirate ship, I have a captain…
Charlie: Yes.
Tori: I’m the ship. (giggle)
Charlie: Yes.
Tori: I have loads of chefs.
Charlie: Yes.
Tori: And all sorts of people floating around. Thieves, fantastic. A few harlots.
Charlie: Yes.
Tori: All on my ship.
Charlie: Yes.
Tori: And we all had to come and be respected that, you know, no compromise on any level. and, she has her captain, she is her ship, and of course that’s how it had to be approached. And, because of that mutual respect it worked out really well.

I went to the MU office the next day and told Richard about this interview. He immediately connected to it to our work, and came up with his pirate ship anthology for markets. (It is my memory that he had long been obsessed with pirates and maybe that’s why I told him. I believe he already flew a pirate ship flag on the front of his house.)

He began to say in presentations that we have to work as pirate ships, with our own flag, shanties and crew, but mooring together when needed. One day we even came up with a button that said, “Sail Alone, Anchor Together”; I still have one and wear it to market events where it is universally understood.

So I am pleased to introduce my readers to my pal’s new blog. His writing is practical, literate and metaphorical, and will encourage you to ponder it later on that day or week. Maybe over grog on your yardarm…

 

  • Market Umbrella was previously organized as ECOnomics Institute, and was a project of the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University from 1994-2008.

Deserts, swamps, or apartheid: the language of food organizing

Brilliant interview with Karen Washington as she breaks down the institutions and words that deflate the potential of our food work. I agree whole-heartedly with her assessment that the term food desert does not describe the actual problem that communities face. I remember when a local academic dismissed it some years back but only substituted the term food swamp because as he said, it is not a lack of food that is the issue, but a swamp of bad food choices. I thought then well maybe that’s slightly better but it still doesn’t define the issue.

In contrast, the term food apartheid is properly defiant and active. Apartheid is the system of segregation, most often based on race, and as such does describe the structural issues with food, in consumption and production, in rural, urban, and suburban places. The solution includes food sovereignty (and health to be understood as the most important type of wealth), but of course in the US, the structure of sovereignty and self-care has been entirely warped by our corporate food structure and our statist political structure.

It is hard for many, but it is vital that all people see the food apartheid that has always been present in the US for people of color and now stretches to every  community. How to see? Look down: note the rolls of fat and the chronic illnesses inside; look around: see the lack of actual food growing in your public spaces and neighbors’ yards; look to City Hall and your state capital: see the policies that discourage or criminalize the production and sale of good food by neighbors. Once made, these observations can lead to action and unity and should become the core of our messages as farmers market leaders.

From the Karen Washington Guardian interview.

The conversation around actual food value is a conversation that we don’t have in low-income neighborhoods, regardless if they’re black or white, rural or urban. But things are changing. People are talking more than ever about food. It’s such a major shift, so you’re seeing major corporations offering different options, like fast-food chains offering salads. The consumer is starting to understand the relationship between food and health. It’s also happening in low-income communities. The rise in school gardens impacts children and they shift their parents’ perspectives. In my neighborhood, every year, we have a block party and they don’t serve soda anymore. The kids are asking for water! Education is working.

I think that food activists who see the work they do as truly measurable in terms of justice or of successful resistance to the dominant system are most likely to achieve actual change and will find themselves less frustrated by small disappointments and failures in their daily work. I also think that those food activists who see their work as organizing -and who see organizing as leadership development at the grassroots level – are also more likely to find allies and to be good allies, which to me is the primary goal of creating public entities like farmers markets or non-profit organizations.

I’ll leave the last words for agricultural leader LaDonna Redmond who eloquently said in the foreword to Professor Monica White’s Freedom Farmers:Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement:

While the white movement describes my community through a deficit model, Monica’s work describes agriculture as a site of resistance…The book is a conduit of those stories and memories that restore our dignity. I hope it will forever remind us that we are people of this land.

Another Fresh Food Initiative grocery store recipient may close in New Orleans

The owners received a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, a program aimed at increasing residents’ access to fresh food. According to reports at the time, $500,000 of the loan was forgivable.

 

Seems to be a tragic confluence of bad-faith investments, management disorder, new disruptive businesses taking away some of the sales, and the lack of resilience in the city around its increasing environmental challenges. Still, I’d like to see what else this fund ended up supporting and what those places are doing now.

Some relevant quotes from Ian’s story linked below:

One of lenders that funded the store’s reopening was First NBC Bank, the local financial institution that collapsed last spring and continues to send ripples through the New Orleans business community. Boudreaux said his loan was acquired by another financial institution which has been more aggressive.

“We opened with the finances upside down to begin with, and it got worse,” he said.

The city also provided a $100,000 Economic Development Fund grant, and the Louisiana Office of Community Development provided a loan for $1 million. The store also received $2.2 million in historic tax credit equity and $2.2 million in new market tax credit equity.

 

Meanwhile, Boudreaux has accused some relatives of stealing money from the family-run business.

 

While these issues have been ongoing, Boudreaux pointed to the August 2017 flood as perhaps the last straw for the business. That disaster, spurred by a summer downpour that revealed widespread problems with the city’s drainage systems, swamped the store and knocked out much of its food-storage equipment.

Here’s my post on the first store closure that had been a recipient.

I mention Circle Food in this piece on another public market site:

The Advocate story

 

From 0 to 35 in MS

I have worked with markets and farmers in Mississippi for a dozen years and have found more barriers to getting regional food accepted than in most other areas of the US, yet also have met some of the most optimistic and capable people  working on it there.
What’s interesting is that in going from a deeply (still) entrenched commodity/plantation culture of farming directly to a new economy of small family farming for markets and restaurants can mean that some of the middle steps can be skipped, which is beneficial to innovative growers.

In other words, the situations is similar to what has happened in many non-industrialized or colonized countries in regards to technology; having skipped the landline era, the new users adapt much more quickly to the technology of mobility*.
I can see this leapfrogging in play for sustainable farming in the Gulf States with new farmers pushing the envelope with pesticide-free and heirloom varieties at markets and in CSAs, rather than  being influenced by the less inspiring midcentury distribution system that hardened growers’ experience into growing the hardiest and tasteless products to ship.
The area around Oxford MS is one that is ready for takeoff. The small farmer markets offer organic products at a higher rate than the New Orleans farmers markets for example, and the average age of the vendors seems markedly less than the US average, to my unscientific eye. The chef quoted in the article below is a pal of mine and had been the Board President of the New Orleans-based Market Umbrella before Katrina, and now is a leader in the regional food movement in Oxford. He offers his knowledge to the markets and farmers around the area as well supporting the leading agricultural advocates, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN), which was founded with Wallace Center support a few years back. Corbin and MSAN are good example of the quiet revolution happening up there.

Additionally, the folks in Hernando MS (north of Oxford, closer to Memphis TN) are leading the state in innovative healthy living strategies and thinking deeply about how to expand regional farming to support those strategies. Their weekly market is large enough to attract serious attention from regional funders and even policy makers, and I have hopes that they might soon attempt to create a year round market.

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