Friday, May 29, 2009

Local is the new exotic.

French cheese, Italian wine and Belgian chocolates. These three foods show a unique decadence that has come to demonstrate classiness, and perhaps even show off cultural awareness in American food culture.  Of course the grass is always greener on the other side, and that guy’s car is always better than yours, and certainly any spiked fruit that comes from an unpronounceable country is delicious—it doesn’t truly belong to you.  It’s exotic.  This is not a unique American phenomenon.  In fact, exotic foods, pomp, and circumstance date back to the Roman Empire.

In lieu of airplanes filled with “fresh” produce, the Romans had military triumphs.  Caesar and Pompey used to hold military triumphs when conquering a new foreign land, and this city-wide party was not surprisingly popular among citizens. They paraded not only tasty food (usually new types of fish) but different species of animals and even dancing women from these foreign conquered territories.  But one day circa 80's BCE, Pompey, always trying to show up Caesar, decided to make his grant entrance by marching into the center of Rome with (perhaps atop) an elephant from a recently conquered territory.  Pompey had taken the exotic a bridge too far, and the oversized creatures were unable to fit through the city gates.  He had to dismount said elephant and walk in stag. How embarrassing for Pompey.

So, French cheese, Italian wine, and Belgian chocolates.  We may not think of them as carrying any sort of cultural or social stigma, but instead as a privilege that comes with new developments in our globalized age .  But now that we've consumed pounds upon pounds of them, a Hawaiian pineapple and a Colombian banana may evoke different feelings in some of us, and make us grab an apple instead.  American consumers are gradually learning that appalling working conditions, harmful pesticides, and environmentally detrimental byproducts are all condoned when purchase and consume bananas and some other exotic foods. Perhaps the structural issues and resulting embarrassment presented by Pompey’s elephants are being mirrored, two thousand years later, when we hold our imported foods, grown in lands we’ve never seen by people whom we’ve never met.

 I know that I haven’t eaten any fruit grown in Chicago.  But the thought of it seems appealing… maybe even exotic.

Lettuce and other such norms

(being my first blog, i'm hoping that a link to a funny video will appear with this post) And based on that funny clip of two guys going through life, and snacking on lettuce--wouldn't it be great if walking down the street and chowing on some lettuce was the norm, rather than listening to folks crunching on Cheetos or other such nonsense...cherries and apricots in season: that's what i'm chowing on. how about you?

A toast to the jam of seasons!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Keeping It Local

If you get a chance and haven't already, check out "Local Food, Farms & Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy," the March 2009 report submitted to the Illinois General Assembly by The Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force.

The report describes the current state of Illinois' agricultural economy and presents a detailed plan calling for a more unified effort to keep the business of food and farming in-state. Right now, the percentage of Illinois food dollars remaining in-state is at just about four. The task force's goal is to raise that number to 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. 

Here are just a few important statistics from the report:

- Illinois consumers spend $48 billion annually on food; almost all of that money leaves the state.

- 80% of Illinois is comprised of farmland; 90% of that farmland has been deemed "prime" by soil scientists, the highest classification given, meaning we have some of the best farming potential on earth.

- Money spent at local businesses creates a multiplier effect, circulating the same dollars up to eight times within the local economy.

Among the primary objectives of the plan is the creation of an Illinois brand - an identifiable way of letting consumers know that the corn, soybeans, pork, or any other Illinois agricultural product they're holding in their hands was produced and processed here.

To make all this happen, all different aspects of the agricultural economy need to come together. We need more farmers and entrepreneurs, both of whom need to know that their investments and work have an awaiting market ready to buy in. Public awareness campaigns need to persuade consumers, businesses, and policy makers on the importance of seeking out and buying the Illinois brand.

Urban agriculture plays a large role. One obstacle is the lack of availability of local farm and food products in low-income, urban areas. The report describes these as "food deserts," virtually bereft of healthy choices, where so much of the food is bought in gas stations and convenience stores. All communities need easy access to locally grown food in the form of farmer's markets, as well as the opportunity to grow their own. Individual and community gardens are a way for people to increase their own sustainability and build an awareness and appreciation for locally grown food, helping to sustain Illinois' agricultural economy at the same time.

There's a ton more in the report, and it's pretty eye-opening. You can read it here:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Veggie trading online.

I discovered Veggie Trader the other day - a free online marketplace to swap or sell your own homegrown produce with other growers - and I am fascinated.

What a great idea for all that excess produce that often comes with home gardening. Growing up, my parents kept a 500 sq. foot garden in our backyard that produced more than enough to feed our four-person household. I remember boxes brimming with leafy greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, gourds and string beans, as my mother and father went down their phonebooks in search of friends who might like to share our bounty. Veggie Trader would have certainly simplified the process.

The listing process seems very simple - create postings with what you'd like to buy, trade or sell (including pictures are encouraged) and wait for a response. When someone responds, your identity is kept anonymous until you feel comfortable enough to arrange your exchange. Of course, there are going to be an array of legal issues involved from licensing to taxes to general safety, so you must trade at your own risk. Still, the idea is a great one, especially in tough economic times - encouraging community values and representing the idea that variety and choice are still available.

Browsing through the postings, I was disappointed to find very few from the Chicago area. However, as a pilot effort by a couple in Oregon, the marketplace still has a long way to go. I do hope that with our collective efforts, Veggie Trader will eventually be in full swing over here in Chicago.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

WeFarm Parties!!!

On May 6th, WeFarmAmerica and friends got together for our first ever WeFarm Party at Simone's on 960 West 18th Street.

The bar where we chose to hold our event is a bar that was built almost entirely from recycled materials. If you look around, you can spot seat belt straps that are being reused, science lab countertops used for tables, and other neat things. WeFarm is looking to partner with Simone's for a rooftoop gardening system and on this night we walked up onto the roof and saw some of the things they're starting with; a beehive and some basil and tomato buckets. Simone's is also looking to develop easy to use composting and we were able to discuss with them the possibility of composting with Bokashi as a solution. They were great hosts and we look forward to continue working with them in the future.

UrbanWormGirls were also present and it was an opportunity to learn about their mission and company. For those that are unfamiliar with their company, they provide a worm composting bin that uses red worms (I don't remember the exact type, just the color) to digest waste and turn it into soil. At Loyola's Earth day event they showed us one of their kits and it was interesting how it's setup and works. Additionally, these girls have been around for about a year and a half so it was informative to learn about they've done in that time.

Overall, it was a great opportunity to get everyone that supports us together in one spot to socialize and have a good time. A lot of drinks and laughs. Thanks to everyone that made it a great night. See you at the next one.

Food and Farm Bill

In an effort to improve IL's food system, the state legislature has presented the Local Food, Farm & Jobs Bill. Check it out: