Louisiana Food Policy- Pepper Bowen

I have been following Culinaria Center for Food, Law, Policy, and Culture work in my city for a while- I find it to be very impressive, inclusive, with systemic work being done.

This interviewer may seem a little too focused on fetishizing our culture including the odd choice of requesting a midday drinking resulting in featuring massive daiquiris from our walkup and drive-through drinking culture (which, as true as that is, could use more context in the description of it),  but still Pepper Bowen’s responses are excellent and thoughtful.

like this:

Bowen: What I find is that, especially for lawmakers, they really do want—as much as we give them crap—they really do want to do whatever it is that their constituents want for them to do. But the problem is that sometimes they are divorced from their actual constituents. They are also, sometimes, funded by folks whose desires and needs are at odds with their actually constituents. But by giving them the information they can make a more intelligent decision.

Still, if this gulp encourages you to check out the National Food and Beverage Museum, and Culinaria’s work, it is worth posting.

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.

Bob Dylan and Contract Theory

As excited as many are about an American folk/rock singer composer winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the economic prize is also worthy of mention here. First though, my favorite song lyrics of Mr. Dylan:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind Pa
She’s sixty eight, but she says she’s fifty four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

Many of Dylan’s interpreters suggest this is a criticism of capitalism or of the military industrial complex. That actually leads us to a chat about the economic prize this year, given to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström for their contributions to contract theory. (Disclaimer: not only am I not an economist or a lawyer, my understanding of these theories is very casual and centered on my community organizing work. I may over or understate many of these theories and will always edit when better information comes my way. Feel free to add to my knowledge via email as needed.)

Contract theory focuses on the relationship between the parties in a contract, especially those which are asymmetrical in terms of how much information each side has access. The world contains scads of examples of information asymmetry: citizens and media, citizens and police or the military, employees-employers, consumers and technology providers etc. When one party has access to more information than the other, the fairness of the contract should be questioned. The other contract issue relevant to markets and farmers is what are called incomplete contracts. This covers the likelihood that a contract in present time cannot always cover every possible outcome and so often must be renegotiated at some time; in th, t case it is possible that renegotiation can go off the rails because of lack of trust.

In many ways, these scenarios describe much of what drove farmers and their advocates to the creation of the alternative food and farming movement.  The desire for fairness and trust for both producers and for eaters led to transparency being one our chief indicators of success and in keeping the heart of our movement in direct marketing channels which offer simple ways to create fairness. But even within those models, there can be an information asymmetry. For example, some farmers markets have created systems where information only flows from vendor to market and not the other way around. In others, vendors cling to systems that ask little of them as far as information sharing with the market. One way to gauge whether this is an unequal contract is at the time that the agreement is being changed.

Still, the very nature of the mutual dependency and face to face nature of farmers markets and their vendors can usually correct these small imbalances. Same goes for other type of direct marketing contracts, especially CSAs which began as simple contractual relationships between producers and eaters for a single season and a single farm. More recently, some CSA relationships have become imbalanced: like when a farmer offers a member a credit for a bad season, even though the contract in a CSA explicitly states that the shopper loses their investment if the crop fails. Or, when a CSA farmer begins to morph into an aggregator of goods from nearby farms and cottage industry producers without creating a updated contract with their shoppers that outlines the new rules of bringing those goods to the shopper.

However, the concern over unfair contracts really “scales up”  when systems move into intermediate (back door or bin sales) and wholesale (middle-man or pallet sales) contracts. Here, I’ll focus on intermediate sales, as wholesale sales are a whole other kettle of fish and in most cases, are beyond the capacity or interest of small family farms. (The reason for that is that few of those systems have really changed anything about their purchasing policies or their regulations for small farms, and so the costs and risk are all on the side of the farmer still.)

The hope is still that restaurant owners and wholesale buyers will build contracts with producers with the same transparency and information sharing as those in the direct marketing sector, but often that has not been the case. The key to mutually beneficial agreements on all levels of our food work relies on building contextual contracts and incentivizing them for all  involved. What are the main benefits for a producer to sell at a  lower cost to a chef? Well, two might be consecutive, consistent sales and the ease in delivery (meaning the farmer can deliver when most convenient to him or her and get quick payment), and yet rarely are these benefits described in agreements for most of our producers when they sell at these levels. What is the main benefit for the buyer? Often it is the quality of the product or the name recognition of the producer attached to the goods and yet rarely are those benefits understood and outlined in these agreements.

One way to incentivize the fairness of the contract in these situation may be to create a shared asset owned by all of the parties, such as a mutually owned cold truck or even branding. Another way to make them contextual might be to have an external party monitoring the agreement. Maybe this is where farmers market leaders can grow their influence?

And of course, markets managing transactions through card technology has led  to lopsided contracts with processors. Markets scramble to understand these complex agreements which exist over different eras of management and open markets  to many new layers of liability.  Another issue is that the energy that markets must reserve for reaching and encouraging benefit program shoppers is often wasted by the lack of good information about the client lists from local or federal government authorities. Too many markets I talk to have no idea how and where to reach these shoppers in their area and when you take in the short time that the majority of these shoppers remain on these programs at any one time (also not shared by most government entities), successful outreach becomes even more unlikely. The market vendor in this situation is also underrepresented in a fair contract, as most markets – or the processors working directly with farmers – use boilerplate agreements about card processing with their vendors.

So, one can see from just these few examples that center around direct marketing and intermediate farmers how many contract issues arise. So maybe before the alternative food system becomes another one of Maggie’s farms, let’s spend some time on increasing transparency and incentives for everyone’s benefit.