More Media Minding Our Meals
I've tapped a new vein of stories recently about food systems. "Food systems" may not sound like magnetic reading. I don't know what other term to use to describe the different explorations of a central question: What will it take to feed ourselves better than the present mainstream system feeds us? "Better" includes improved flavor, reduced negative environmental impact, and increased chances that somewhere, somehow, someone will still know how to farm near each of us, no matter what happens in the world. Thanks to good journalists, film makers, researchers, and writers, I find reading about food systems rather compelling.
For one thing, in living memory of many people, some of our country had functioning local food systems. Given that memory, the stories about the high-intensity humans who are trying to build new versions of functioning systems in a context dominated by mega-national corporations astonish me. All are classic underdog stories, with appealing heroes and heroines who work a lot harder than I ever have. Each story reveals a bit of the diabolical complexity of capital, labor, markets, consumer preference, policy, energy use, distribution, specialized knowledge, tools, and physical challenge any small-scale farmer, producers, or distributor faces. In the most thoughtful stories, underneath the optimism of the bright minds and bodies applying themselves to the challenges lies a palpable urgency to get things figured out before the present system, based on cheap petroleum, fails.
Two by two, here are articles, books, and movies of interest:
Their Daily Bread is a Local Call Away, by Marian Burros for the New York Times: Around Skowhegan, Maine, growers, eaters, and producers work to develop a local grain economy, starting with growers, and including a problematic absence of grist mills. One tool for working together on these issues is an annual Kneading Conference, which had 250 participants this year. (Hat tip to super info-spotter EM.)
Field Report: Will Work for Food, by Christine Muhlke for the New York Times: College-age summer interns, paid very little, play crucial roles in many small, sustainable farm operations. Competition for the internships is intense, as many people want hands-on experience on a working farm. Figuring out what to do with the knowledge has its own intensity for participating interns.
Eating for Beginners, by Melanie Rehak: The author, a young mother of a toddler who takes "picky eater" to new extremes, sets out to learn what it takes to produce and deliver the food at a restaurant she and her husband like best. Rehak spends time working alongside chefs, produce growers, meat producers and processors, and -- my favorite chapter -- a distributor without whom none of the other parts could work. I started the book with the intention to skim, especially when the toddler's eating habits held the spotlight, but I settled in to read as I realized the degree of respect Rehak brings to all the people whose stories make up the book.
The Town That Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt: I've mentioned this book already, but bring it up again because, like each of the other items so far, it has at its heart a great effort to figure things out, to solve a puzzle that has missing pieces, pop-up new components, and great importance. In this case, in a small part of Vermont that centers on the tiny town of Hardwick, several capable visionaries are collaborating intentionally and intensively to build a food system that will work for their region.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John: I recently saw this film for the second time, courtesy of the outstanding food film series Good Foods Market & Cafe have sponsored this year. The film follows one man and one farm's transition from traditional 50's style machine-based, large scale crop production to organic and biodynamic vegetable production for CSA shareholders. Along the way the story includes romance, tragedy, heartbreak, rumors of satanism, forgiveness, and a movie-within-a-movie of two "bees," one played by the farmer, responding to the effects of toxic chemical sprays. It is like nothing else I have ever seen. On second viewing I realized an obvious distinction in this film: its depth stems from home and "friend" video footage that covers virtually the entire life of Farmer John, starting in the 1950s. Few of us have that kind of life record in any medium, and if we did, few of us would share it, as happens here, with impact.
Coming to Ground: This documentary built by national powerhouse Media Working Group, uses Kentucky farmers' experience following the dismantling of the tobacco economy to make a case that other governments should adopt policies that follow the Kentucky model of state investment in small-scale agriculture. In Kentucky's case, those funds came from tobacco lawsuit settlements. I met MWG filmmaker Jean Donohue at the Lexington Farmers Market one morning, courtesy of a mutual acquaintance. Donohue was shooting some last minute footage for the film. That's her camera in the photo above. Even after its release, the film, like all seriously good documentaries, needs more funding to support distribution and help pay for the costs incurred during filming and editing. Shooting will continue for several more months. Online donations are welcome.
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The world is coming to visit central Kentucky this year for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. To help our visitors know more about Kentucky's food and food ways, Savoring Kentucky is rolling out 116 Savory Kentucky Bites, one for each of the 100 days before WEG begins, and 16 for the days during WEG, September 25 - October 10. Today's Savory Bite is number 90.