It’s a Make, Break, or Take set of moments. Get ready.

Dear Colleagues,

I am thinking of each of you,  your teams, and communities as you make decisions and adapt your Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) channels. If I can help, I hope you know you can contact me and also access our FMC resources,  and any updates.

Once we get get to the healing side of this pandemic, there are many things that markets may have to operationalize into best practices. Some of those we have noted already:

changing markets designation from special events to essential food and social space services.

writing rules for vendor food handling during outbreaks

having emergency layouts for smaller-than-usual markets

plans for fast pick up for items that don’t penalize the vendor with massive added fees or convert markets into something it cannot return from

communication plans for media

communication plans for vendors

          partnerships for emergency situations

and of course much more to come. And as always, those ideas and solutions will come from you and your community leaders, and mostly not from an academic or government partner or from other “experts.” At FMC, our team continues to scour the internet, participate on our listservs, answer emails, and be ready to pick up the phone to learn what is going on.


 

 

This moment is reminiscent of the disasters that we worked through here in New Orleans while I was Deputy Director of Market Umbrella, and is also reminiscent of so many of our peers work on their own emergency situations. It is similar, and yet it has new wrinkles that most of us have not had to address.

That is something that I dread will be the new normal: cycles of disasters that remind us of previous examples and that we can draw from, but that bring brand-new challenges that we need to quickly assess and master too.

And as important as it is as to bravely and clearly react to the moment, how we protect our fragile community from profiteers and bureaucrats and how we prepare to share any learning for the next one is equally as important.

Make moment examples

Of course, José Andrés World Central Kitchen team is already out there. Not only is WCK  immediately ready to deploy healthy food and community at the first moment necessary, the entity illustrates Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” model that is as crucial during emergencies as in everyday life. Because they are there and attract media attention, they are able to call out the policy changes that have to be made, especially challenging those that push aside local knowledge or responses.  Our DTC channel organizations can clearly learn from that approach in getting media attention during these events.

“In emergencies, locals know best how to take care of their own,” Andrés said as he decried the tendency of government personnel to tell locals “how you should run your lives” when they enter disaster zones. “We need to achieve a better moment where those organizations come in to help people in America or around the world, listen to the locals more and bring them into the solution.”

Beyond the famous chefs, there are so many of these types of interveners that come to us during these moments. In New Orleans we had tens of thousands of respondents over the decade of recovery: everyone from the Rainbow Family setting up a wonderful emergency camp and doing soil mitigation right after the levee breaks to massive numbers of faith-based volunteers that came for years every summer to build houses. Be ready to spot those for this emergency: it may be someone with a better temporary space for your pop up market, a policymaker willing to suspend rules that limit the exchange of healthy foods,  a school bus driver to deliver food,  a fellow NGO leader with an idea for getting healthy food to more communities, or a farmer able to deliver to a multiplicity of neighborhoods or towns.

Also crucial to remind ourselves is that any make moment uses the assets and goodwill of the local community to respond, but also accounts for the length of the disaster. Some  of these last days, some weeks, some months or years. COVID19’s length is still undetermined, which is deeply frightening  especially as this timeline relies on a the response level of a weak medical system and a lack of a concerted response from our national government.

What those of us who have been through an emergency know is that it is vital to recognize the different phases as stages, each of which may require different responses and partners. The GoFish YouTube videos we did at MU with support from Kellogg Foundation helped us capture some of what our markets and small businesses came up with as responses and allowed us to record them across the length of that response – and not least, get those businesses money for those innovations over the long official response to Katrina.

Break moment examples

Cities closing down open-air food markets because they are viewed as events rather than as essential services are the main break moment we have to prepare to meet in this moment. In the weeks after Katrina, I was called into New Orleans City Hall (which was still set up in an eerie, blackout curtain-covered, borrowed hotel space) to defend the idea of selling food from what had been flood-covered land. What was interesting about this question from City Hall was they were unaware that most of our vendors came from the surrounding parishes outside of the levee breaks that had inundated New Orleans with water.  Only three vendors were growing food in the city, and all had already sent in soil tests to LSU. So, by sharing that information and plan, we were able to move quickly past that question. And since we operated in parking lots, building renovation – which slowed other retailers down for months or for years – was not an issue that we had to deal with. The open-air and transient nature of our design absolutely helped us, taking what would have  been a break moment into a make moment for our small market organization in the months and years after 2005. We never forgot that lesson for our emergency-prone area.


And we also learned that adaptation is the key.  As described again by Andrés:

“If we plan too much, chances are that things are gonna be completely wrong. And once you have a plan, and everybody agrees on the plan, if the plan goes out of line, people freeze,” Andrés admitted. “Adapting always in these scenarios is gonna be more important than planning.”

So don’t let the urge to make each moment the exact right response break you.

In other words, do what market organizations do best:  pilot something, learn from it quickly, adapt from its lessons and regroup. 

Take moment examples

There are also what we’d down here call “carpetbaggers” in every disaster situation. Already the NYT had a story of someone hoarding tens of thousands of hand sanitizers hoping to profit from this pandemic. Luckily, online stores shut him down, although he made plenty before it happened, and there will be others who will not caught or penalized.

I have already been contacted by many online stores and developers about aiding DTC channels. Now some of them are absolutely dedicated to helping and not hurting and offering their expertise- but some are not. The wrong ones can break our small businesses with hidden fees and bad design. Good, indifferent, or bad, don’t let them take our value proposition or our message for theirs. They are still two different business models and even if we borrow from each other, we have to remind our shoppers that we will return to our model because our DTC farmers and vendors are still not able to benefit from most of those models. Use your peers to ask about these opportunities, and ask them a lot of questions too. Yes, take advantage of the right opportunity, but don’t make a good idea into a bad situation by not being careful.


Another important point is to be ready and open enough to take the gifts that will come your or your community’s way.  Whether it is a a friend offering to make dinner for you, a market shopper willing to help with social media,  asking a peer to get on a webinar on your market’s behalf, or stopping for a moment for a walk or to close your eyes even on a busy busy day, take it. Being givers, market leaders and vendors are loathe to take their share, but for this moment, it is vital that you do. 

I just dropped some juice off to local culture bearers and small business owners who have been feeding me this week with their art and with healthy food. That was my gift to them; the fruit I used was a gift to me from neighbors and friends.

the bit I left at my pals door, photographer Cheryl and musician Mark.

And I was able to harvest so much this last week due to a gift of time and help by my Vermont food system pal Jean Hamilton who was in town for the National Good Food Network meeting.

Jean up in that tree!

I’ll add more examples here as they come to me through the extraordinary, creative community of food and civic activists that make up my world. I know we will grow stronger through this trial, and hopefully rebound by reminding even more people and community leaders why local farmers and businesses and their markets, farm stands, and CSAs are vital to a resilient, healthy place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reckoning versus Tokenism: How can markets help?

Anyone who works on farmers markets (hopefully!) understands that one major area that is constantly hampering our effectiveness in creating this new world of community food systems is the lack of reckoning with the institutional racism within the systems that make up our material world.
Or, as Raj Patel said at Slow Food Nations 2018:
“You don’t fix the past with a certain type of tokenism; you fix it with a reckoning. And that reckoning is something the food movement has yet to have.”
To me, the argument among some growers and organizers that there are “too many farmers markets” indicates that the field is in dire need of growing its reach and thinking through re-positioning its outcomes. It seems clear to me that we need to turn back to prioritizing the production side of the equation, supporting growers and other producers more directly and more widely, and increasing purchasers at our thousands of markets by redefining the language of shopping at markets as transformative for the community and nourishing for ones own family even as we continue to make them truly welcoming to all types of people.

So to see the recent strong emergence of the food justice movement, led by people of color, focusing on collaborative production and on innovative messaging on why choosing healthy food is activism at its purest form has been inspiring and humbling at the same time for many white allies. Inspiring to see how the work is imbued with innovation and collaboration at every level (see Dara Cooper’s quote and interview at the end as an example), and humbling because there is so much history around these injustices that many of us still don’t fully comprehend. With the emergence of this chapter, we will gain access to a new set of tools and pilots to learn how to better organize on systemic issues that depress our markets’ and food systems potential. Which means that when market leaders get to the “unconscious competence” level of their market work and build systems, their seasoned staff can join housing boards, mobilize on public transportation systems, work on greenways and environmental degradation hot spots, become a voice on county level policies to incentivize using productive land for food and so on to really grow our market communities.

Another massive contribution that black, native and other writers and organizers of disenfranchised communities are bringing to the food and farming table is a demand for context and disciplined language as seen in the rejection of the “food desert” label. I have long rejected that language, as it implies scarcity rather than the truth: a systemic denial of resources to that community. And often there IS food – sometimes it’s a lot of bad food which is hard to combat when using food desert language to organize, or the structure of food procurement is so informal that it is missed by those defining it (supermarkets are the main indicator of food security which is a pretty weak indicator) or the lines of the supposed desert are drawn in such a way as to not encapsulate actual neighborhoods or assets. This piece is  very helpful to keep in the front of ones mind when discussing this with fellow staff and with the larger community.

The great Karen Washington has said a lot on this subject:
What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid,” because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say “food apartheid” and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?

Also vital to think about the language of the “decolonization of food” as Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef  is working towards:

We’re trying to raise awareness of the history of the land and on how to live sustainability on what’s around us,”  Sherman notes that much of his work centers on recovering the cuisine that existed among American Indians prior to the arrival of European settlers. On reservations, American Indians were restricted in their rights to hunt, fish, or forage, and thus forced to make do with US Army rations of flour, lard, and salt—which were later replaced by the commodity food program.

Dara Cooper: “We need the ability to feed and nourish our communities, and the repair of the systematic harm that has and continues to be done to Black people,” Cooper says emphatically. To that end, NBFJA is working on a broad campaign in coalition and community with Black-led “Free the Land” focused organizations. We need to shift away from the ways in which capitalism teaches us to have private control over land. We have to move away from extraction of land for a very few, and shift toward land reform that addresses indigenous right to sovereignty and Black people’s right to self-determination in our communities in a collective way.”

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm / Farming While Black: “Food sovereignty is about who’s in charge … and ultimately what gets to our plates.”

She, The People: Dara Cooper On Food Redlining, Reparations, And Freeing The Land

The Edible South-Book Review

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While checking out the local/regional shelves at Lemuria Books in Jackson MS (yes you need to stop in there if you are a booklover. And if you live around Jackson, I might even suggest a nice trip one hot weekend to spend a half day in the bookstore, some time in the Fondren co-op and maybe a stroll through Eudora Welty’s garden), I spotted this large book facing out, published last year but one that I had not heard of previously. The title was underwhelming, but the subtitle did intrigue me, as did the identification of it being the same author as Matzoh Ball Gumbo, which I had read and appreciated.

The book is broken into 3 sections: antebellum and post antebellum Southern food (“Plantation South”), late 19th c/ early 20th c (“New South”) and post 1950 (“modern South”), which is a very useful way to think about food and folkways in any American region actually. Each section has fascinating information about growing food or cuisine and uses scads of citations from prior research and popular books to showcase each.

The author, Marcie Cohen Ferris is a professor of American studies at UNC Chapel Hill and is well known among local food activists across the South. She has taken a wide view of Southern food since Jamestown days, using a great many of our most respected scholars work to weave a compelling and absorbing narrative. What is tricky about the long history here is the need to address earlier inaccuracies and overt racism embedded in some of that scholarship. The author does a deft job addressing those shortcomings without deleting what is useful from her predecessors’ work.

The Plantation South section was less comprehensive than I had hoped, especially knowing the beginnings of my own region around New Orleans as a tobacco company for the French, which has led to a commodity and export agricultural system that extends to this day. I had hoped for more about that era and more details of the enslaved and forced labor system of the Southern agriculture system, but it is quite likely that the scholarship was just not there to use.

The New South section should be required reading for any researcher or embedded activist working in the South. The founding of the Extension Service, of the home economics and demonstration movement and the research into healthy foods to reduce diet-based illnesses across the impoverished South are examples of the rich tapestry Cohen Ferris does explore and, for my money, is the best part of the book. Many times, I found myself referring to the notes and bibliography to record the name of the book she refers to in the section. Additionally, I much appreciated the section on Old Southern Tearooms and the account of the deliberate development at the turn of the 20th c of the myth of the genteel South, where a “southern narrative of abundance, skilled black cooks, loyal servants and generous hospitality of gracious planters and their wives” was displayed at places like Colonial Williamsburg, Charleston and of course New Orleans and as a result was completely accepted as the true story of a much more complicated and less romantic time. I certainly hope that her detailed work here separating fact from fiction may help put these embellished or completely fabricated stories of the “old South” in their proper place.

The Modern South section adds history on civil rights (how does it relate to food you say? lunch counter sit-ins, men’s-only lunch rooms anyone?), and history on federal programs like national school lunch program which are thoughtfully offered. The pieces on organizing natural food coops and buying clubs were so very welcome as little is available in popular research about how important these efforts were to the beginnings of the current local food/farmers markets) movement happening today. That leads to my main disappointment with the book – the scarce information on the farmers market/community garden movement of the 1970s-1990s, much less over the last 25 years which has been a dizzying and somewhat gratifying time for food sovereignty work. I can understand how the author was able to extract more from the researchers and writers of the Southern food system who focused on home cooking rather than to the (largely) nameless and transient activists and ideas of those same systems, but still, much has been written in the last 45 years not covered here. I can only hope for another book from this author that has the same level of detail, covering the last era from a grassroots or even a policy point of view. In any case, as I told a market leader in one of those vibrant places of local food in the South, this book is definitely a keeper and one destined to be used extensively among researchers, activists and policy makers.
View all my reviews

The American Scholar: Local Fare

Here is a piece in The American Scholar from a New Orleans writer on the argument over what constitutes local when it coms to restaurant fare. I do think his “gated community” comment seems misplaced and overwrought, since the French Quarter remains the most dynamic and constantly evolving neighborhoods in town. However, his suggestion that we need to maintain some perspective is apt:

…But when you take the long view, that alarm may be misplaced. After all, much of the city’s most beloved fare today resulted from an invasion followed by hybridization. New Orleans loves to talk about food, and after considerable argument, many newcomer dishes are eventually given a seat at the table. Restaurants that serve “red gravy,” like Pascal Manale’s and Mandina’s, are artifacts of a Sicilian influx in the latter half of the 19th century. What’s today considered classic Cajun (itself imported from western Louisiana) emerged when African fare favored by slaves met Acadian French. Even the city’s vaunted Creole dishes emerged out of a cultural meeting ground once populated by French, Spanish, Caribbean islanders, Africans and their descendants, and Native Americans.

Clearly, what we mean by local is elastic and that elasticity is a big part of what confuses the eaters who don’t read the blogs or follow producers by name on social media or talk regularly with them at markets. That confusions seems magnified as an active value in the restaurant field, so describing what is indigenous/native versus what is inspired by the cultural mores of the place seems to need better words to describe the steps in the chain. Maybe market organizations can write some grants to create a “brand” that can be shared by those restaurants that truly support local producers and harvesters and help to define what it means to be serving local fare versus locally sourced.
The American Scholar: Local Fare – Wayne Curtis.

“Where Farmers Markets and CSAs Fall Short” An interview with Mary Berry

Be forewarned-if you know me, you are going to hear and see excerpts from this link many, many times in the future. An articulate and necessary interview with Mary Berry of the Berry Center (yes, daughter of our agrarian apostle* Wendell Berry) on the shortcomings (or pitfalls if you prefer) of our good food work so far. I think all of her points are spot on and all have potential actions to take to push forward.
In These Times

*Don’t worry-The term “apostle” is used here in the Classical Greek context of messenger. No idle idolatry intended.