Go eat an apple, or banana. Or get a little packet of sugar, the kind you might find on a restaurant tabletop, and put it into your coffee. Go on. I'll wait.
Enjoying your snack or cup of coffee? It probably traveled around 1,500 miles to get to you. The United States is somewhat larger than that, around 2,680 miles, so that bite of food you are enjoying may have traveled the distance between, say, Albany, New York and Miami, Florida. While most food likely travels in large trucks, or perhaps spends part of its journey on a ship, let's just suppose that the vehicle that apple traveled in got about 30 miles to the gallon. That's 50 gallons of gasoline to get an apple to you. An average rain barrel is about 55 gallons, so imagine one of those full of gasoline with an apple perched on top. That's what you're eating. Tasty, right?
In the process of that transport, your apple may have been bumped around, exposed to wildly fluctuating temperatures, stored in different containers and in different facilities, and touched by who knows how many human hands. As a result of these supply-chain necessities, food-borne illnesses have been on the rise, including multi-state outbreaks from a single source. Between 2010 and 2014, 71,747 people in the United States were ill as a result of a food-borne illness.
There are, of course, a complex and absurd number of regulations, agencies, laws, and programs dedicated to improving food safety, from setting standards for the processing and transportation of food to improving supply chain tracking so that outbreaks can be traced to their source quickly. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 granted the FDA broad powers to manage the nation's production, harvest, and supply of various types of food. And yet, people continue to get sick, despite ongoing investment in this area and the improvements in tracking and management offered by digital record keeping and new software programs.
I'd like to postulate a wild and crazy idea in an attempt to address food safety issues, the fragility of a supply chain 1,500 miles long (ask Napoleon), and the obscene amount of fossil fuel burned in the transportation of a single apple (to say nothing of any fossil fuels expended in the growing of said apple):
Buy your food from the farmer, or grow it yourself.
That's easier said than done for some folks in the country--food deserts are a thing, farmers markets aren't everywhere, and local, organic produce can be much more expensive than the equivalent conventional food available at the grocery store. Many people don't have the space to grow much of anything at all. Some folks are so far down the collapse curve that they need government assistance to feed themselves and their family, or they frequent food banks or soup kitchens--or rummage through the garbage, like we're a third world country. These are important issues and there is food insecurity in the United States. I expect that as we move further down the collapse curve, more people will have difficulties feeding themselves, and so they will not have the means to even worry about the quality and safety of the food they eat.
Nevertheless, I cannot solve all food-related problems. Food supply logistics is a passionate cause of mine, and so I am putting my money where my mouth is with an effort to create more local food production in my town. I already have a fairly extensive garden--I grow as much as I can in a small space, with only a single season of preparation. I will be able to do more next year, but even so my garden furnished several meals for myself and others this summer.
Since I have largely exhausted my own space, I have moved on to farming in other people's backyards. The plot in this picture is between 800 and 1000 sq feet (there are two portions not visible in the photo). It is located about a 10 minute walk from my house, close enough that I can bike most of my supplies over. Much work needs to be done on this plot, and so this fall and winter I am focusing on building soil health.
I am choosing to forgo more classical farming techniques such as using a rototiller to turn up soil in favor of more labor-intensive methods like lasagna gardening. Finding the plot required making connections in my community and allowing myself to be vulnerable with a stranger who courageously offered up her property to my not-so knowledgeable ministrations. She knows I'm learning as I go, and that's okay. That's how resilient, forgiving communities are formed.
Soil health is built in layers of organic material, and so that, too, comes from building community connections. Every Friday, I pick up grass clippings from a landscaper that is co-located with my part-time job. As the fall progresses, I will also obtain leaves from them. This rich organic matter is the foundation of lasagna gardening. I have agreements with local coffee shops--and even our local aquarium and fish store--to collect grounds and fish waste. I have a pending meeting with the local college to see if I might be able to use their food scraps on an ongoing basis--I may need to set up a large-scale composting enterprise on a separate piece of property.
My local community has been happy to support my efforts, and many people have reached out to provide materials and knowledge free of charge. I'm hopeful that my ongoing efforts to invest in my farm with free or low-cost inputs will allow me to keep the cost of my produce affordable in the summer.
This is my first year of farming and so I don't really know what and how much I'll be able to effectively produce on this property, but the farmer I buy grass-fed beef from has generously offered to split a booth with me next summer. This offer reduces my cost and liability--if I don't have any produce, I don't have to pay for a full booth, or take a space from someone else who might have been more successful. I also don't have to struggle to farm more property than I'm comfortable with in order to produce more quantity. If I run out of vegetables, the booth space is still productive and able to cover its costs with some of his other products. Even my insurance company has been flexible and creative in supporting my desire to do something a little outside of the box of traditional agriculture.
Growing and selling food must, by necessity, take place to some extent in the traditional (tertiary) economy. I must trade dollars for the supplies I need, and often those supplies come from big box stores that are involved in all manner of financial products. Sometimes, I even buy things on the internet!
If I cannot make enough of a profit to keep myself in business, I will not be able to continue farming in this manner in the future, let alone growing the scale of my operation in order to feed more people. Still, much of what I do relies on community connection outside of the tertiary economy. My ability to operate in the primary and secondary economies of my local community is a source of pride for me and hopefully a source of resilience for my community in the future. Eventually, I hope to offer volunteer and educational opportunities to folks in the community, perhaps partnering with the local high school to create a market garden that their students manage and sell produce from. I hope, too, to use my experience to bring my local HOA a community garden so that my neighbors are not limited by their small yards.
It is by far faster, and probably cheaper, and certainly less labor-intensive, to go buy an apple from Safeway than it is to grow my own. It takes time, maybe years, to build soil health. It is labor-intensive to build soil layers, to plant and harvest and process food by hand. It takes effort to connect with the local community in order to source the materials I need rather than simply purchase them.
Food is meant to be labor intensive. You are supposed to sweat for your sustenance--not in an office, clacking away, trading your time for money so you can trade your money for shitty food that might make you sick. If you cannot yourself do the sweating, then cut out as many links in that 1,500 mile supply chain as you can. Shop at a grocery co-op, sign up for a CSA, go to your farmer's market when it is in season. Learn to preserve some of your own food, via freezing, drying, canning, or pickling, so that you can enjoy your local produce in the off season.
If nothing else, if you get sick from a food-borne illness after buying produce from your local farmer Joe, at least you'll know exactly who to sue.