Thursday, June 2, 2011

From Farm to Kitchen

I've just about finished reading an influential book which helped lead to the green revolution (Hugo Osvald's The Earth Can Feed Us. Hugo was a Swedish academic, writer, and legislator.). I've also begun Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Fraser and Rimas (you have no idea how nice it is to have access to the University of Victoria library system...), a book that has helped clarify my thinking about famine and I'm only about fifty pages into it.
There's also the matter of the difficult-to-predict flood in southern Manitoba (and in Saskatchewan) and the sudden explosion of wildfires in northern Alberta (one of which took out almost half the town of Slave Lake). Both the floods and the fires are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting (both more frequent weather-related events, and more extreme weather-related events) and events like these are going to have tremendous impact on our future food production in this country.

But I would rather talk about my new volunteer position instead. It is now official; as of 23 May, I am the volunteer coordinator and kitchen manager at the Rainbow Kitchen in Victoria. Well, at least for the next six weeks or so.
This is an outgrowth of my long-held desire to feed the world. Or at least, the part of it I can reach. When we were growing vegetables on DoubleJoy Farm and selling them at market (what is called “truck gardening”), we would haul upwards of a quarter to a half tonne of veg to market on any given day. We tried to provide a high-quality fresh product, and while we did want a pretty good price for it, that price more accurately reflected the real costs of raising food. Sustainable agriculture is not cheap, and unless you can take advantage of cheap labour or major equipment (or both), small producers are always going to be asking a premium price. But they are offering a premium product. And there is something else they offer; contact with the farmer. After we'd been selling vegetables a while, I noticed that, at market, it wasn't so much the veg we were selling, but the contact. A link to the land, the product, and the producer was essential to the customer. It was also essential to us as producers. My mother, who started vegetable production on the family farm back in the mid-seventies, took me aside on day and questioned me about the pounds of produce we were giving away. We did it right from the beginning—people would walk by and we'd offer them whatever we had on hand. Peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, whatever. Mother couldn't get over how many we gave out. Fistfuls, one two, three at a time, to kids. More to their parents. That, mother pointed out, was money out of my pocket.

I made it clear that we weren't going to stop doing it. Mostly because I didn't think I could stop. Paula and I were happy to be growing food and bringing it to market. Seriously happy. And that joy in producing something real was something we wanted to share with everybody walking by. Difficult to share with the family—they'd been doing it forever and were pretty blasé about it. This was business, after all.

The great thing was that people responded to our joy—just like Paul Hawken said they would. And we very quickly developed a customer base that was both friendly and loyal. When we had beans but no zucchini, people would still stop by, saying “We don't need beans, but I wanted to stop by and say hello.” When we offered new cultivars, people trusted us and tried them. Eventually they were picked up by other vendors and the market was richer for it.

Back before Christmas 2010, a friend invited me to help out at the Rainbow Kitchen. I had a great day, chopping vegetables and preparing animal protein for about a hundred guests. The kitchen doesn't function in the same way that a restaurant kitchen does; there is no real “line” and meals are prepared en mass and served cafeteria style. It functions more like a community or church kitchen, with a host of people moving about in barely organized cooperative chaos. Which makes sense, as the kitchen is run by a collection of faith groups from the Victoria area.

That first week, I was approached to take the position of head cook for the next Monday. In the volunteer community, promotions come fast! I accepted that I would be coming back regularly, and got into the rhythm of the Kitchen.
It's very much an “Iron Chef”-like existence. You probably know what your protein source will be, but that's about all you know. Vegetables come in a couple of times a week, canned and frozen food arrives at odd times. You show up at 8:30am and by 12:00 you have to have a nutritious meal prepared—for a 100 people. Sometimes as many as 140. And the adrenaline rush is pretty addictive.
Now I'm in charge of coordinating the volunteers and managing the kitchen. The daily volunteers are not too much of a problem; most have been doing this for years and know how to manage. The homeless and the unwaged who volunteer are a different story. There is always drama, issues, problems, difficulties that keep things from flowing smoothly. Who needs a bus ticket. Who needs a couple of bucks for gas (and where the heck is that money supposed to come from?). Who can be relied on when they're here, and who can't. Who can be relied on to show up?

And then there's the food. Where does it come from? We have a great list of donors—small in number, but large of heart. B&C Foods is a rock. makes sure we get produce (organic, even) twice a week. And we are part of the national food bank group.

I am one of those old guys who remember the 1980s. I remember the Mulroney years and the sudden need for food banks as our country took a strong turn rightward—as did so many others, like the UK under Thatcher and the US under, well, everyone. Like so many other Canadians, I was unhappy at the thought of people in my own country going hungry, and we donated to the food bank when we were able. I also remember when it became clear that this wasn't going to be a short-term problem to be solved by voting a band of idiots out of office (and we did, reducing the Mulroney Conservative party to two seats after two majority terms).

The political landscape changed in the Eighties along with the rise of neo-conservative or Chicago School economics. The Keynesian model, it was decided despite having broadened the middle class and reduced poverty since the depression of 1929-35, did not allow sufficient opportunities for the rich to become obscenely rich, and so it had to go (You have doubts? The results speak for themselves...). And with it went any pretence of caring about the less-fortunate in society. Welfare rates were hammered early on—possibly because the Chicago boys knew how many more truly poor people there were going to be, so cut early and cut hard, leaving more money on the table to be divvied up by the wealthy—and fear was re-established as the prime motivating force in society, replacing the sense of reasonable security and hope for the future. There's really no surprise that we haven't gone back to the moon: as real wages have stagnated, hope has been abandoned, optimism destroyed. And without those, why bother to explore off-planet?

During the Eighties, the general sense was that once we as a society dealt with some of the issues raised by the neo-conservatives, we'd deal with the neo-conservatives themselves and get back on track. One food bank in Toronto actually closed—not for lack of need, but to point out that the problems they were dealing with were more properly societal and structural, and as such needed to be addressed by governments rather than ad hoc organizations.
Since then, of course, it has become clear that ad hoc-ery is all we've got. Representative democracy, in the following years, has been badly undermined, democratic education (and education in general) brutalized, and the population in general so cowed, battered, and abused that we've seen the return of racism, slavery, and demagoguery. And soup kitchens and food banks have become institutions, a permanent part of the landscape.

In terms of food security, food banks and public kitchens are not a bad thing to have around. They ensure that food is always available to anyone. With the current commodities speculation (which, honestly, is looking more and more like a speculative bubble), global climate change, production and food supply-chain uncertainty, small local responses like these are essential. Particularly with national governments abandoning their historical responsibilities to ensure a safe and secure food supply (internationally, food grain stocks are at historic lows , for example).

But our clients are simply an obvious example of what all of us actually are; utterly dependent on an invisible food supply chain that we don't see functioning. And our clients, so able to find alternatives in other areas of their lives (particularly in generating additional income), have almost no alternatives to the industrial food system. They are not themselves peasants, but they are the metaphorical grandchildren of the peasants moved off the land by industrialization. And there are no real alternatives available to them; no common land to farm, no way to raise rabbits, chickens, or guinea pigs (traditional small-space livestock), and while there is plenty of wildlife to harvest, killing urban deer or grey squirrels is considered a barbaric crime by most urban dwellers. Even the “Freegan” movement (harvesting food disposed of in grocery store dumpsters), while an alternative in some ways, is dependent on the industrial food system.

At the Rainbow Kitchen, we're not the only source of meals in town. But even so, our resources are being stretched pretty thin—particularly the volunteers doing all the work. Stress, burnout, and exhaustion are ever-present. Joy is replaced with obligation, and obligation with resentment. The faith-groups that operate the Kitchen take their responsibility to feed the hungry very seriously, but being staffed by human beings, fall prey to all the ills flesh is heir to.

And so I do my part to ensure that we feed people with clean, safe food properly prepared, and people leave better than when they arrived. But the structural problems remain; the creation of a permanent underclass, the persistence of the flawed economic models that perpetuate it, and the use of the underclass as a threat to keep the working class quiet and obedient. And fear, always the fear, keeping us distracted from the erosion of our democracy and our rights.

1 comment:

  1. We did have joy, producing food.
    And even as most people in Canada are trapped in the industrial food system, we keep finding examples of the gift economy. The food donors for the Rainbow Kitchen don't donate as a sheepish way to make up for their sins -- they donate because food is for eating and this food must be given away in order to be eaten. The tyranny of buying and selling does back down sometimes.