RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen
Eating Local and Eating in Season
Regarding places in hell, there must be one for people who crush the hope
of others. In this abyss will go advertisers that persuade high schoolers
that you'll fit in if you wear the right sneakers, salesmen that sell get-rich-schemes
to welfare moms, lenders who issue credit cards to college kids.
At the center will be the guys who've spent the last 50 years industrializing
farmers. Thanks to these industry flaks, government suits and university
tinkerers, the age-old hopefulness and renewal of the rural year is being
replaced by year-around drudgery, debt and despair.
Don't tell me it's "Economic Development." All around my rural
home, friends are going out of business. My neighbor Lewis just sold off
all his hogs, sending them to slaughter and ending generations of selective
breeding. He had taken a traveling job to support his farming habit, and
"it just wasn't right to leave my wife with all that."
And so, another voice leaves the choir. Around here, everyone used to have
hogs. The come-n-get-it--"Soo-ey!"--cries of farmers were once
part of a twilight symphony, blending with the sounds of peepers, crickets,
dogs and coyotes. The day after Thanksgiving, families butchered--and many
still do-- "one per person and one for company" to take them through
Lewis liked the diversity of his old farm--cattle, hogs, grains, hay, dogs
and a lot of cats. But rural America depends on consumers, and consumers
have chosen to listen to advertisers and buy at grocery stores and restaurants
that only offer industrially raised foods.
Don't tell me this is "Progress." In contrast to the family farmer,
who survived by raising for his family and customers in town, the industrial
producers survive by exhausting the land, dumping pollution on taxpayers,
and gouging consumers. The industrial giants--like ConAgra, Cargill, IBP,
and others--make huge profits which they pass on to their CEOs and use to
build facilities on fresh land overseas.
Our industrial food choices, from factory sausage to processed cereal to
veggie burgers, put family farmers out of business. Even worse, we eaters
have lost control of our own food supply. Buying at the grocery store, we
have no clue where our dinner stew was harvested or even what the ingredients
are. Big ships and big trucks haul food to our stores from all over. We
don't even know what ripens in each season. Strawberries in January? Asparagus
in November? No problem!
This consumer revolution has created a stir in some of the world, but Americans?
In Business We Trust. From confined animals to genetically altered vegetables--let's
eat! At least in part, our ignorance comes from our suburbanization. We
raise lawns, but each census reminds us that fewer people raise food. In
1995 the number of farmers was about 2%.
And, farmers don't have good access to eaters. Like alligators in the sewers,
Rural Legends flourish. One guy remembers being told, "You ought to
put a Nascar race track on that hay field. Then it would do somebody good."
Or, "We have grocery stores; we don't need farms." Or when USA
Today asked how many farmers we really need and decided we have too
many. And that, farmers think, sums up the prevailing policy.
Don't tell me the change is "Inevitable." Industrial desires move
the present food system. It's supported by government policies to create
jobs, which can be conveniently taxed.
We consumers play our part. We bought the system one bite at a time, and
we can darn sure change it. Eating "local" and eating "in-season"
puts consumers in control, increases our choices, and cuts the petroleum
used to bring industry's foods to the grocery.
A couple of months ago, I attended a symposium sponsored by the Kansas City
Greens and their Food Circle. All morning long, speakers reported on the
depressing state of the industrial food system. Animal abuse. Social injustice.
The KC Food Circle, founded by Ben Kjelshus and the Greens, has been around
a long time. So the afternoon presentations featured speaker after speaker
with their success stories. Organic vegetable growers and humane animal
raisers told how they worked and how their systems benefit the land and
At the end of the day, one of the audience raised his hand. "As a consumer,
how do I get started?" he asked.
Today, this minute, now, make a plan to get started. Factory foods are not
Economic Development, Progress or Inevitable. You can help family farmers,
the environment and yourself by buying local. Here's how:
Find the nearest farmers' market. Go to it. Take your shopping list.
Buy something. Talk to the growers. Talk to the market managers. Learn the
market rules because some markets allow sales of non-local foods. Find out
if there are networks, food circles, delivery systems that can make it easier
to buy local. If there are foods on your list that you don't see, ask the
growers how to get them from a local producer.
Learn how to cook what you've purchased. Some people won't eat local foods
until they taste exactly the same way as the fast food places. I am proud
to say that I can now make a local-ingredients pizza that tricks most Pizza
Read about food issues. There are probably a hundred websites you can tap
into. National Farmers Union, Families Against Rural Messes, In-Motion Magazine,
to name just three. And check out the homepages of your favorite brand names.
How do you feel about buying Oscar Mayer XXX XXX--all products of Phillip
Buy more. Traditional farmers can raise meats without antibiotics and hormones.
Our family-owned locker plants don't use radiation. Local farmers develop
networks with community kitchens to preserve things we grow. Buy more. Buy
more. Buy more. We can't rebuild the local system without your dollars!
Patronize restaurants that buy local. Those chain eateries with plastic
signs cheering the local high school Tigers or congratulating Joe and Suzy
on their 25th ought to have a warning label: "Eat here and put family
farmers, fishermen, oceans and rain forests out of business."
Finally, and this is the advanced version of the game, learn to substitute
local for industrial--like using local honey instead of processed sugar.
And, learn to preserve local foods for out of season. The first year, buy
a freezer. Next, a dehydrator.
But, first things first.
Find that Farmer's Market. Go to it. Buy something.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton,
Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on food circles see
"Food Circles Help Develop Sustainable Food System," 7/98 Progressive
Populist, or contact Ben Kjelshus, coordinator of the Kansas City Food
Circle, P.O. Box 30271, Kansas City, MO 64112; phone 816-444-4168; email
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