Excerpts from “Food Rebels”

Authority or Freedom?

Today, people are persuaded more than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. . . . And we alone shall feed them. . . . Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

As a food activist for nearly forty years, I have had days when I feel like I’m riding the perfect wave. Farmers’ markets are busting out all over, everybody I talk to seems to be gardening, and the media’s desire for organic and local food stories appears insatiable. It’s during those moments that I feel like I’m standing high and handsome on a shiny surfboard skating across an unfolding curl of warm ocean water. There’s an exhilarating sense of building momentum as the wave pulls energy from boundless coastal pools to form an ever-ascending crest. The force beneath me is gentle but magnificent, purposeful but wild with enthusiasm.

Although my career has provided enough moments like these to believe that the future might be better than the past, more often than not I find myself paddling in an angry sea where the threat of failure is far greater than the thrill of success. Experience has taught me that the industrial food system has become a tsunami that might very well engulf everything in its path. Big food corporations, unsustainable farming operations, and all their minions cannot check their momentum, nor do they want to. They are propelled by the seismic shocks that created them and are preserved by the failure of others to resist them. The wave that carried me, a nimble surfer on his dream ride, can easily turn hostile, hurling me onto shore. There I can lie, broken and beaten, my board shattered into a hundred pieces, or I can rise up, lick my salty wounds, and begin again.

This is a tale of the struggle that awaits. This is a tale of the choices we can make. As Hamlet said, “The readiness is all.”

The Fight for the Soul of the American Food System

The way we understand the struggle for control of our food system will determine the way we fight the battle. To that end we need an analysis that is balanced and relies as much on the evidence as it does on our values. We must, however, have a clear appreciation of what’s at stake. Though we may rightfully say that food is an equal partner in the holy trinity that includes air and water, it is, after all, just food. It is hard to argue with the fact that there is enough of it, and that the real challenge in providing equitable access to affordable calories lies primarily in the realm of distribution. But at another level the fight might be more than that. It might be that, to paraphrase William Blake, the road to the palace of wisdom is paved with food. Equally important as what is on our plates is what it says about who we are and how we live our lives…

…As the food wars heat up—as evidenced by, among other things, the avalanche of food books, films, and blogs—it does appear as if the battle lines have been drawn between two major camps. The first and by far the most formidable, in terms of numbers, resources, and sheer dominance, is what we loosely call the industrial food system. To put it simply, it is the system from which most of us eat whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not. It is highly organized, rational, efficient, and possesses a singular focus on the financial bottom line as both organization and management values.

The Alternative Food System

The other food camp is the alternative food system. While no easier to stereotype than the industrial food system, it is “alternative” because it has indeed evolved as a distinctively different model of food production, processing, and distribution, and in comparison to the industrial system, is a minority player, perhaps still an upstart. For some, the “alternativeness” expresses itself in direct opposition to the industrial food system, while others see it merely as a means to promote a more value-based approach to food, farming, and community.

One defining feature of the alternative food system is the near-legendary status accorded “local.” Whether locally produced and distributed food—and many definitions of “local” abound—staves off the inevitability of global warming, legions of consumers are seeking it out. Their reasons include its positive impact on regional economies, individual health, and the quality of community life. But I want to suggest a significant feature of local that doesn’t always find its way into the critique, and that is the notion of intimacy. If true intimacy between two or more people, whether in a family, between lovers and among friends, or with a higher being, is one of the most rewarding of all human experiences, then the intimacy that might exist between a person and nonhuman things—animals, plants, landscapes—may offer similar rewards. “Knowing where your food comes from” has become an unfortunate cliché in the local food movement, but if one is able to use food as a bridge to a richer world of possibilities—nature and the land, gardening, a heritage of farming and ranching, family meals, spiritual and religious practices—then a variety of doors are flung open that can lead to new pathways. I think of something that Charles Kuralt of CBS’s On the Road fame once said: “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Thanks to the industrial food system, it is now possible to eat whatever we want whenever we want it without having a clue about who produced it or where. Anonymity, that sad beast of modernism, is just one of many Achilles’ heels of our industrial food model…

…The food crisis of 2008 and 2009 – as evidenced by food price increases and elevated domestic and global rates of hunger and food insecurity – have sharpened the debate between the industrial and alternative food systems. Now what history has taught us is that price spikes come and price spikes go, and throughout the ages there has been a long history of frequent disruptions in food production, occasionally resulting in shortages, riots, rebellions, and even coups d’état. Things, however, have a way of returning to normal, of seeking a balance or a new level, whether through government intervention, international relief efforts, human migration, or, in the most extreme Malthusian response, populations dying off in proportion to available food stocks.

But the question of our food future remains, and perhaps this time with more urgency than in days gone by. Paul Roberts in The End of Food asks not just “whether we’ll be able to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050,” but “how long we can continue to meet the demands of the 6.5 billion alive today.” Population growth is approaching unsustainable levels, now certainly in the teeming cities of the developing world, and elsewhere by the mid-twenty-first century. Not only does this give us more hungry mouths to feed, but competing needs for nonagricultural land use will reduce the arable land base necessary for food production. The rush from agrarianism to urbanism has stripped away our land base, farming skills, and, perhaps most profoundly, a primal unity between humanity and nature.

There is no doubt that the climate is changing and that the impact on future growing conditions in different parts of the world is far from known. With increasing investments required to produce food, the last thing a farmer needs is more unpredictability. Humankind’s expanding skill in unraveling the secrets of nature and applying that knowledge to the needs at hand has taken more of us from barely understanding how “it” works into the realms of the utterly incomprehensible.

This mastery of science by a priesthood shrinking in numbers in proportion to the general population is as powerful as it is risky. When institutional food production, technology, financial incentive and distribution power are placed in the hands of the few; when corporate might and the pull of money set the agenda, we feel control of our food system slipping away and our tenuous grip on democracy loosening. Do we trade in a hands-on role in our food system for the promise we’ll be fed by others? Do we forfeit our intellect, our passion, and the muscles and tendons of our arms for the peace that comes from knowing that food will be provided? Do we mute our voices and let others who claim a higher wisdom in these matters make the decisions for us? These may very well be the questions we must find answers to, questions that are even bigger than how we feed a hungry world. Finding ways to reassert our control in the face of power, to relearn skills that have atrophied during ages of dependency and neglect, and to rediscover a triumphant kind individualism that embraces both the self and community are the tasks that confront twenty-first-century adherents of the alternative food system.

Maurice Small and the Greening of Cleveland

Maurice Small walked into the hotel lobby where I sat one chilly morning barely two days into spring. I had met him once briefly, and had seen him in a locally produced documentary film about food and farming in northeast Ohio. But these glimpses hadn’t prepared me for the tall, lanky black man who ambled through the revolving doors. Smiling and bespectacled, he sported a mass of salt-and-pepper Rasta curls that gushed like a fountain from a multihued headband.

We hopped into his 1974 pickup. Like its owner, the truck was a working vehicle—not beautiful but ready to do whatever had to be done. Seeing me struggle with my coffee container, Maurice apologized for the truck’s lack of cup holders, but he was decidedly unapologetic about the cab’s disheveled appearance or the malfunctioning passenger seatbelt. Comfort and safety were not the day’s priorities. Seeing Cleveland’s urban gardens was.

Heading east from a downtown that had seen better times, we were soon in neighborhoods where residential one- and two-family homes mixed randomly with commercial structures and vacant lots. On Euclid Avenue, once a proud golden mile of millionaire mansions, the properties alternated between abandoned houses, barren lots, and dingy small businesses. Like a barroom brawler who has seen too many fights, the neighborhood’s smile was missing every other tooth.

Crossing the border between Cleveland and East Cleveland is not noticeable to the casual observer. But gradually there is a sense that things have gone from bad to worse. We passed a former Tops Supermarket, probably 40,000 square feet with two or three acres of parking, which made it a decent-size store even by suburban standards. It had been closed for four years when the Giant Eagle chain bought it out. Now, the closest supermarket is almost 4 miles away, which might as well be 100 miles if you don’t have a car and must rely on public transit. About the only place that seemed to be thriving, aside from the Taco Bells and Burger Kings, was a locally owned rib joint that has been so successful it has seven locations throughout Cleveland.

Just a few blocks from where fifteen people waited at a bus stop, all of them overweight and most of them obese, sits Huron Hospital, a satellite facility of the Cleveland Clinic. The hospital specializes in the treatment of diabetes and other diet-related illnesses like cardiovascular disease. It serves the community with hundreds of jobs; its often treats people who have no health insurance coverage at all; its cafeteria is modeling such “green” behaviors as the composting of food wastes and changing over to biodegradable utensils and plates. It even gives its waste cooking oil to City Fresh to power the latter’s produce-delivery vehicles. To most people, that might sound like a highly responsible public institution, but in Maurice’s words, it’s also part of “a perfect system—no supermarkets, lots of fast food joints, diabetes running rampant, and a first-class diabetes treatment center just around the corner.”

Contradictions like these are lodged in Maurice’s consciousness in the same way they are for any aware African American who grew up in late twentieth-century America. For some, however, the pain is too great and anger eventually consumes them. But for those like Maurice, a combination of survival instincts, caring parents, and spiritual faith have enabled them to outmaneuver what might have otherwise been a grim fate. They climb over their despair like embattled troopers mounting a pile of rubble, grabbing pieces of useable masonry along the way with which to build new foundations. In Maurice’s case, the trooper is clutching a rake and a hoe instead of an AK-47.

“I got tired seeing the same vacant lots that I’ve been looking at ever since I was a kid,” he proclaimed with only a smidgen of bitterness, the most I’d hear him express in our two days together. We stood on a postage-stamp-size piece of open ground next to one of the Huron’s smaller outbuildings staring at Maurice’s most recent horticultural creation. It was a twenty-foot by fifty-foot garden shouldered on all four sides by two courses of hay bales. The space in between had been backfilled with several dump-truck loads of compost and earth. The garden, which has been growing vegetables since May 2008, was wedged into a spot that had a high brick wall on one side (“We’ll be growing espaliered fruits trees against it,” said Maurice) and a small hedge on the other (“That’s where the raspberries are going”). In the only remaining unplanted corner was the compost pile, which was now in the process of being filled with biodegradable waste (safe and hygienic) from the hospital.

While admiring the compact image of sustainability that lay before me as well as the industry of Maurice and his colleagues, I wondered out loud if projects like this were really enough to turn around the kind of social and economic dysfunction that I had just witnessed only blocks away. At that point Maurice grew animated. He lowered his gangly frame to the ground in a basketball crouch as if challenging me to dribble past him. Pointing to the garden, he said, “We’re going to make this the model, man! You gotta tweak ’em; get that virus in their [the institution’s] veins. Yes, it starts in a poor community because a wealthy community wouldn’t accept a compost pile.”

It was then that I realized Maurice had a plan. He wasn’t just some hip-hop version of Johnny Appleseed planting vacant lots across Cuyahoga County. Gardens like the one he was now jumping up and down in were part of a longer-term, hands-on vision of revival that used the resources of empty land, institutional strength (including a dash of white guilt), and small groups of willing neighbors and sheepish teenagers to make something happen now. In his opinion, this would take people down the path to bigger, more difficult tasks like building housing and creating good-paying jobs. “I’m crazy, man. I’m not patient. People are dying all over these communities,” he howled as if in pain. “I can’t wait for the politicians or policy to turn this around. This [the garden] is the kind of practical politics I’m talking about.”

Finding the Fire Within

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

When confronting the ravages of the industrial food system and its quickening ability to dull our minds and our appreciation of good food, I can think of no better person to turn to than Ralph Waldo Emerson for a swift kick to our collective rear ends. Though he opposed the evils of his time—the displacement of entire Native American nations, slavery, and the forced annexation of Mexican territory—the specter of American corporatism and the manipulative hand of consumerism were still inchoate in the nineteenth-century minds of our early industrial elite. Yet Emerson sensed full well that the threat to the individual spirit sprang from many sectors, not just commercial institutions, and included dogma of any stripe, whether it was business, religion, or politics. In other words, the pressure to conform to the prevailing realities was as much the single greatest challenge to human development then as it is now.

Our world in the 2010s is little different from the one Emerson described in the 1840s when he wrote: “We are parlor soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.” Instead of struggling against our conditions—whether imposed by poverty, privilege, or culture—we allow them to dictate the terms of our surrender. We don’t do as Jean-Paul Sartre said of the imprisoned members of the French Resistance: “It is not what they do to you, it is what you do with what they do to you that matters.” We may not be able to control the fate that is handed to us, but we damn sure can control our reaction to it.

Emerson’s aging and ailing aunt Mary once asked ironically if there was any hope that her malady could end in death. Can we reasonably ask the same question of the industrial food system? Will it simply implode, either through some cataclysmic event or slowly, over decades, as it gradually exhausts the earth’s natural resources and depletes our souls? If the industry carries on unabated and unchallenged, that may be the way our world ends, “not with a bang but with a whimper.” But it will no doubt take us down with it. The poor will go first, as they always have, with no time or means to find alternatives. Those in the middle will endure a few moments longer, struggling against the certainty of their own defeat, trying not “to go gentle into that good night.” And the rich, the privileged, those perched on high ground and sandbagged against the deluge, will hold out mightily to the bitter end. With their private security forces and the most advanced environmental technology capable of converting toxins to clean air and water, they will be the ones to witness the last dawn, the final sunset. But even they will find that Nature will turn the lights out on them.

So what is the antidote? Because, as my high school wrestling coach used to tell his less than stellar athletes, for every move there is an equally effective countermove, I can find reason to be optimistic about the contest, but only if the millions who now embrace an alternative food system can become the billions—before it’s too late. To do that we must find a countermove that undercuts a system that demands our conformity, a system that clearly “is in conspiracy against the manhood [and womanhood] of every one of its members.” Too many accept our food system not only as the norm but as our destiny. It’s often an indifferent acceptance, but acceptance nevertheless. “Our food system works well enough,” “There’s plenty of food,” “It tastes good,” “There’s no problem that I can see” are the lukewarm endorsements of the status quo. The “billions” are susceptible to a contagious cold of fast food, an epidemic of cheap and convenient meals, and a serious infection of alienation from nature. In such a state of passivity one has little inclination to engage in “the rugged battle of fate.”

The argument we must make is for action, not contemplation; we must engage the food system, not presume that all is well because the food system feeds us. Hands in the soil, vegetables on the cutting board, and voices in the city council chambers will be the way that we strengthen our muscles. It will be through experience and participation, those rough but nimble teachers, that we re-create the skills we once had and now need again to attract the billions and send the Grand Inquisitor packing. “Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity,” admonished Emerson. “If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve.”

It was a privilege to meet Maurice Small, who grew up in Cleveland’s housing projects, and Dorothy Morrison, who still lives in the housing projects of Austin. Neither one has succumbed to what could have been his or her fate. Tired of seeing the same vacant lots in his city as an adult that he saw as a child, Maurice set out to put his hands in the soil in the same way that his father did. He became comfortable with his own nonconforming brand of rugged urban individualism and transferred that confidence to others. Gardens grew, but more importantly, so did the community’s self-esteem. Taking an even stonier path to self-reliance, Dorothy knew hunger as a child, succumbed early to single motherhood and five children, but refused to stew in her poverty or accept the cards her fate had dealt her. Through community service and ultimately mastering her food skills and learning to improve her family’s health, she began to take charge of her life and play an even greater role in helping her peers. Like Maurice, she found an inner strength from a quiet spiritual voice inside her. We don’t know precisely how that dialogue went, but we do know that they both have evolved a soul as firm as a New England stone wall built from experience, faith, and confidence.

Robin Chesmer, Connecticut dairy farmer and entrepreneur, will not allow the corporate milk conglomerates to determine his fate any more than Lynn Walters, Santa Fe food educator, will allow another generation of children to fall prey to America’s junk food culture. Both stand firm in their belief that the road to food independence and an understanding of farming can be traveled only by those willing to engage in the direct experience of both. To break down the walls between the producer and consumer will not only sell more local milk, it will bring people closer to their food, the land, and nature. The taste of real food and the sight and sound of farming will win out over the mere idea of them any day of the week. Just as there is nothing like a live “moo” delivered by a 1,200-pound Holstein from ten feet away to remind you of the sanctity of life; there is nothing like a delicious meal made from farmers’ market ingredients prepared by a fourth grader to cement his or her bond with cooking. The senses lead. The ears fill with the thrum of life. The eyes confirm our subjective experience of the world around us. The nose advises the palate of what’s to come, and the palate never lies. By bringing what’s outside of our bodies into them, we experience a kind of ecstasy, a joy in life that, in turn, takes us outside of our bodies. We are displaced but happily so. As Emerson said, “[T]he power and genius of nature is ecstatic.”

Read: Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture