February 23, 2007

Don’t Bite The Hands That Feed

LaCrosse, WI - Johari Cole Kweli, a certified organic farmer and former microbiologist, gave yesterday's opening keynote address for the 2007 Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. The conference is in its 18th year and has grown from a gathering of 40 to what's expected to be a convention with over 2000 attendees.

Kweli spoke passionately about something that she said had been near to her heart lately, the subject of how farmers are looked at in society. When she talks to people she knows who don’t farm, they seem to think of it as “a noble cause, but something you can’t really touch, can’t really equate with.”

Kweli however, thinks of farming as sacred, a responsibility for “providing for another life outside of our own.” Of the people farmers feed, she says that they “put huge amounts of faith and trust” in farmers to provide nourishment and nutrition for them and their families.

“We entrustingly wait for someone to feed us, … from day one. .. We can’t talk yet, but we know it’s supposed to happen.” Kweli said that the basic relationship between those she refers to as the feeders and the fed awakens the “esoteric senses.” The senses of place, caring, well-being, belonging, safety and love.

She said that her impressions of these relationships springs from memories of the food habits of her grandmothers. Having one grandmother from urban Chicago and one from a rural farm, she said that she’s “a hybrid of both nations,” both urban and rural America. While her rural relatives were careful to harvest only the ripest and most colorful food for their table, her urban grandmother was just as careful to hand sort her beans and buy only fresh produce. Because of this care even simple meals, she said, “tasted like Julia Childs was in the kitchen.”

Today, Kweli said that she sees this attention to quality in the requirements of the owner of the Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, who buys his chickens from her community. He wants only the freshest, healthiest birds, killed the same day. They have a waiting list of up to three months and charge $100 per plate.

But 50-60 years ago, she said that organic food was the norm. Now, it’s only accessible to the haves, it’s become “a designer food.” She said that she would like a good grocery store to open in her neighborhood, one that took care to select and sell only the best quality of food, like Whole Foods. But the nearest Whole Foods is around 100 miles away, while her farming community only has a small corner store that doesn’t sell much produce. She said that she’d like a grocery store like Whole Foods to feel justified opening in her neighborhood “before it’s been gentrified.”

Kweli said that back when African Americans lived closer to the land, they were among the healthiest Americans. While now, they’re among the most food-dependent and least healthy groups, often living in places where there aren’t any stores that sell fresh produce.

But the fed, she said, are starting to speak up. “It’s not fair for the markets to decide who gets to eat healthy and who doesn’t,” she said, quoting a woman she recently heard on the radio.

Kweli compared the attitudes of governments and multinationals to the oft-heard trope about the homeless, that they “just want to eat anything, and that’s what we feed them; anything.” She said that this attitude was being extended to people all over the world, anyone who could no longer “scratch the soil and plant a seed.” That people are now being fed just anything, “basically slop,” as genetically modified organisms are forced on resistant countries and staple crops are contaminated with transgenics.

Kweli urged farmers to remember that they were what stood between those they fed and nutrient deficient food, while lamenting that the public hadn’t taken enough notice as farmers were pushed off their land and control handed to dead corporate entities.

Natasha is currently an intern with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, an organization dedicated to outreach and education in sustainable agriculture and food systems issues. The opinions expressed in this post are her own and are not representations on behalf of MFAI. For regular legislative alerts about food sustainability issues, sign up with the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

Posted by natasha at February 23, 2007 10:10 PM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

Oh I noticed a long time ago, when I entered a couple of grocery stores in black communities, that there seems to be a conspiracy to kill them with processed crap.

I've never, before or since, seen grocers so loaded with starch and sugar, and with such pathetic and small produce departments.

On the other hand, the grocers in the largely Mexican neighborhoods are filled with produce, including cactus and eight kinds of chili peppers. The ethnic tradition there requires lettuce, tomatoes, corn, onions, plantains, and other fresh vegetables and fruits.

Posted by: Scorpio at February 24, 2007 12:41 PM