What’s Cooking: Food Hub Hubbub!

This piece was published in the Wayne Independent on April 23. 2014. This column isn’t published on the Wayne Independent website, so I thought I’d replicate it here…

“Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers… Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers. By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy. In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.“
— USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, May 2013

Good thing we had our taxes done already… Otherwise, I might not have been able to attend the “Wayne County Food Hub” presentation that SEEDS, our local sustainable-community group, and The Cooperage Project co-sponsored last Tuesday evening, April 15 – and I would have missed out on a very interesting, informative, and thought-provoking discussion.

The first thing that impressed me about the gathering in the Cooperage that evening was the size and diversity of the group. I counted about 70 participants, including elected officials, farmers (young and old), local business people, educators, and members of the general public.

What seemed to unite the group was a simple conviction: Agriculture needs to remain a viable, thriving enterprise in Wayne County.

The other thing that impressed me was the amount of coordination and cooperation involved in the food hub concept, not just between different agencies but also between different parts of Wayne County’s economy and overall society – and the eager willingness all those people showed to get the ball rolling The food system, after all, has many stakeholders, and everyone can derive some benefit from anything that makes that system work more effectively.

This broad-ranging impact makes sense when you consider what a “food hub” is. As the meeting announcement from SEEDS defined it, a food hub is ”an effort to stimulate the economy of our local farming community by purchasing food from our local farmers and producers.” A food hub, for example, can help to expand markets – making it easier for producers to connect with and sell their products not just to individual consumers, but also institutional ones (such as restaurants, camps, schools, hospitals, and prisons). There are added benefits – in the process, a food hub can create jobs, provide educational and job training opportunities, enable farmers to share their knowledge, and knit a community more closely together. (For more information about food hubs, see http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/foodhubs)

Cindy Matthews of Wayne County Human Services led the discussion, ably assisted by Bob Muller, District Manager of the Wayne County Conservation District (who also works with the Agriculture Subcommittee of Wayne Tomorrow). Other panelists included Andrea Whyte of Wayne County Area Agency on Aging, Tom Eccles of Farmer in the Dale, LLC, Michele Sands of SEEDS, and Anthill Farm’s Sky Ballentine. Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith also appeared later in the program, speaking eloquently and encouragingly about the need for the kind of increased cooperation that a food hub makes possible.

Cindy started off by describing the basic elements of the food hub concept, and reviewed some of the possible benefits. Bob Muller reminded us that back in the day, Grange halls performed many of the same functions – helping buyers meet with sellers, and enabling farmers to get together and share ideas. Nowadays, people want more than ever to know where their food comes from, and that their food supply is safe and reliable. Food hubs, like farmers’ markets and CSAs, help the public make better, more personal connections with food producers.

Michele noted that local food production and distribution, where it is possible, has many advantages for a community – not only in terms of things like energy efficiency and lower transportation costs. but also community preparedness and food security. Every food dollar spent locally circulates many times throughout a community.

Tom Eccles talked about how getting connected with a institutional buyer – in this case, the Wayne County Area Agency on Aging – helped him to expand his business, add new products, and reach out to more new customers.

There are challenges ahead, to be sure, to get a local food hub up and running. Tom pointed out that farmers need to know more about food safety procedures and regulations before they can market to many institutional buyers, and those regulations need to be made more rational, more comprehensible, and easier to implement.

Sky Ballentine of Anthill Farm talked about a recently-formed regional initiative called the Lackawaxen Farm Company (www,lfcfresh.com), that enables consumers to order produce, meat, and other foods from a number of small local producers through one website.

The food hub system focuses more on cooperation and distribution, but it is not intended to be a replacement for, or even a challenge to, the traditional capitalist food distribution systems of large warehousers and competing grocery store chains. But it can make local food and local farmers more successful and more sustainable – and we can all profit from that.

Why I’m Walking in the Relay for Life

Leukemia took my Uncle John in 1970.
Melanoma took his brother Otto in 1973.
Their sister, my Aunt Rena, died from stomach cancer in 1986.
Finally, lung cancer took their brother Larry – my dad – in 2008.

Four siblings out of seven. Four different kinds of cancer. Coincidence? Genetics? I don’t know. There are so many factors that can lead to cancer, it’s hard to say. But whether or not my family history has increased my personal risk of developing cancer, it has certainly increased my awareness of it – as have the battles that other friends and relatives have fought with cancer in recent years, some successfully, some not.

Fortunately, in the last couple of generations, tremendous progress has been made in expanding our understanding of cancer, and in developing increasingly effective methods for preventing, detecting, treating, and even curing it.

That progress has been made possible, in large part, by the work of the American Cancer Society.

So when Katie Collins suggested that some of us employees at the Gatehouse NEPA newspapers might want to field a team in this year’s Relay for Life and help raise some funds for the ACS, something inside me said, “Go for it.”

The ACS knows what it’s doing. It has been attacking cancer on all fronts for more than a century. Its first task was to bring cancer out of the shadows – as the article on the ACS in Wikipedia states, “At the time of founding, it was not considered appropriate to mention the word ‘cancer’ in public. Information concerning this illness was cloaked in a climate of fear and denial.” Now it not only funds research and publishes some of the most important academic journals in the field, it conducts public education campaigns and provides important resources both to patients and healthcare providers.

And here’s one of my favorite reasons to support ACS – it’s also been in the forefront of the battle against Big Tobacco, via programs like “The Great American Smokeout” and its educational outreach efforts to curb tobacco use among young people.

Is it perfect? No. There are some valid critiques of the organization, and goodness knows there is much more work to be done, for example in the area of identifying and preventing some of the environmental factors that cause cancer. But I can’t argue with its track record, and its ability to bring members of communities together against one of the most pernicious and widespread public health threats there is.

So please join us – consider walking with our team (the “Independent Eagles”!), get involved with another team, start your own – or just donate by clicking here.  Thanks for your support!

LOVE IN THE WINTRY MIX

It was just getting dark
as we walked in the park
we didn’t notice the storm clouds roll in
the rain started to fall
but we cared not at all for our romance was set to begin

soon the air became colder
my arm wrapped round your shoulder
ol’ cupid was up to his tricks
as the rain turned to sleet
my heart skipped a beat
love was waiting in the wintry mix

I’d forgotten my mittens
my nose was frostbitten
but I was so smitten
and your smile kept me warm

midst the sleet mixed with snow
love continued to grow
as the breezes turned into a gale
you slipped into my arms
and I fell for your charms
as the skies blessed our new love with hail

we sloshed through the slush
and my brain turned to mush
but I knew that your touch
would soon help me to thaw

now here we are stuck in bed
with such colds in our heads
but never have I known such bliss
between sniffles and sneezes
come kisses and squeezes
it’s all thanks to that wintry mix
love was waiting in the wintry mix

THE PEACE & JUSTICE FILES: GAME CHANGERS

(My column for January 2014…)

For me, 2013 didn’t go out with a bang: it went out with a cough and a wheeze and a snore. After a year-end barrage of long workdays, a persistent chest bug sent me to bed around 9 PM on New Year’s Eve, and I didn’t stir till late the next morning. It was just as well; I was perfectly happy to be done with a year that had brought more than its share of challenges.

But don’t get me wrong – not everything was dire in 2013. Even in the midst of all the stress and difficulties, a number of new developments – dare I say, “game-changers”? – emerged that give me some hope for 2014 and the years ahead.

POPE FRANCIS: The moment that I saw that the new pope had chosen the name “Francis,” I broke out in an ear-to-ear grin – it was very clear what implications such a choice was meant to convey. For decades, the Catholic faithful were kept focused primarily on the hot-button sexual issues of homosexuality and abortion, to the detriment of the Church’s powerful (and equally unambivalent) teachings about economic and social justice. (I am convinced that this was no accident, by the way; it has well-suited certain interests to have the gaze of the faithful steered away from the seamier aspects of modern capitalism, which frankly cannot withstand a great deal of moral scrutiny.) Pope Francis’ ascension, and his call for a reappraisal of the Church’s priorities in the face of current economic realities, have shattered some very cozy arrangements in the halls of Vatican power. At the same time, he reminds us all that power and influence can be wielded effectively while maintaining an attitude of service and humility – indeed, that such an attitude can be powerful in and of itself.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: In the course of less than a year, the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai rebounded from being the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt to eldering the President of the United States about the American use of drones in her country. In attempting to get rid of her, the Taliban instead created a potent counterforce to their brand of Islamic fundamentalism, one far more powerful than a dozen NATO brigades. Hopefully, she will also prove to be more powerful than the Western machinery of celebrity, or the political machinations of those who might try to exploit her image.

RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA: This community in the suburbs of San Francisco, the largest municipality in the country with a Green Party mayor, sent ripples of fear through financial circles last year. The city council has raised the possibility of using the city’s powers of eminent domain to seize the mortgages of foreclosable properties, restructure the debts, and theerby make it possible for homeowners to stay in their homes. The idea is starting to spread – Newark and Irvington NJ are among the many cities also considering similar strategies. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/les-leopold/our-most-powerful-weapon_b_4486413.html for more information.)

These are but three examples. I could also mention the elections of unrepentant leftists like Mayor Bill DiBlasio in New York, and City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in Seattle. There’s a man in Wisconsin named Amar Kaleka who is gearing up to unseat Paul Ryan in Wisconsin – Kaleka’s father was a local Sikh leader who was shot by a white supremacist. Robert Reich’s documentary “Inequality for All” has added fuel to the growing discussion about the longterm effects of income and wealth distribution in the US.

I don’t expect 2014 to be a cakewalk – far from it, in fact. I’ll go on the record now with a prediction: it’s gonna be a hard, messy slog. But I am more hopeful now than I was a year ago – and it will be up to us to make that hope grow into new realities.

I’LL HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS (IF IT KILLS ME)

 Well, the holidays are nearing
And once again I’m fearing
The spirit of the time may fail to fill me
But I’ll have a happy Christmas
A jolly little Christmas
I’ll have a happy Christmas if it kills me

 Yes,. I’ve made up my mind
To be generous and kind
Though I’ll admit the prospect doesn’t thrill me
But I’ll have a happy Christmas
A jolly little Christmas
I’ll have a happy Christmas if it kills me

(bridge)
In my mind I’ll carry mistletoe
Look around for reindeer in the snow
And if I see a baby with his eyes aglow
I’ll know someone found the candy

 Well, the holidays get hectic
So don’t get apoplectic
Or have a heart attack when Visa bills ya
Just have a happy Christmas
I wish you Merry Christmas
And I sure hope that Christmas doesn’t kill ya

 (bridge)
In my mind I’ll carry mistletoe
Look around for babies in the snow
And if I see a reindeer with his nose aglow
I’ll know someone found the brandy

Well, the holidays get hectic
So don’t get apoplectic
Or have a heart attack when Visa bills ya
Just have a happy Christmas
I wish you Merry Christmas
And I sure hope that Christmas doesn’t kill ya

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: THE COLD HARD FACE OF POWER

(My column for December 2013…)

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela brought my mind back to 1978.

In 1978… well, let’s tell it how it was: I was pretty clueless.

I was in my senior year at Harvard College. In my undergraduate years I had not paid much attention to political issues – I was more involved in theatrical productions, the campus radio station, and the other, um, pursuits that concerned a young man of college age in the late 1970’s. (And, oh yes, I was also trying to keep my head above water academically. That too.)

But there was a certain fervor on campus that year, something that was starting to boil over – something happening that I didn’t know or understand much about.

Something about South Africa – and apartheid – and money.

Harvard University is fueled by its massive endowment – and by the income derived from its investments. For some time, student activists had been trying to persuade the University to divest – that is, to pull its investment money from any companies that did business in South Africa. In this way, they hoped to exert economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime to change its repressive and discriminatory policies.

Opinions ran strong on all sides. Divestment advocates felt that Harvard could make a strong and influential moral statement by divesting. Some opponents maintained that mere moral considerations should have no effect on investment decisions. Others feared that divestment would remove Harvard’s ability as a shareholder to affect corporate policies for the better, while yet others were active supporters of the South African government, seeing it as a bulwark against Communism.

In response to the controversy, the Harvard Corporation (which runs the day-to-day affairs of the University) announced a series of open meetings where people could give testimony about the situation and make suggestions about what Harvard should do. One of these meetings seemed to me an ideal opportunity to learn more about the issues involved, and so, on an impulse, I went.

The meeting was crowded, and the vast majority of the speakers – all but one, in fact – were pro-divestment. But the most affecting testimony came from a black South African journalist, a Zulu man from Soweto named Obed Kunene, who was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. His statement, describing the day-to-day realities of life for blacks in a South African township, brought the situation alive for me in a way that news reports had not. As Kunene spoke, I was watching the men on the dais, the men of the Harvard Corporation – when I was suddenly struck by a stunning realization:

They didn’t seem to care.

They just sat there, these powerful men, stolid and apparently unaffected, with no flicker of emotion that I could detect. I suppose Kunene’s tales of repression and cruelty weren’t really “news” to them, of course, as they were to me, but still I found their diffidence difficult to comprehend.

And for perhaps the first time, I started to sense the connection between my comfortable and fortunate circumstances and the sufferings of others, however far away. As a scholarship student, after all, I was a beneficiary of those investments – and therefore indirectly complicit in what those investments had made possible.

This was my introduction to the cold, hard face of power – and the beginning of my radicalization.

The divestment movement would have some successes, eventually – and eventually, the apartheid regime would yield, due perhaps not so much to the divestment movement as to an unstoppable force named Mandela, and what Dr. King called “the moral arc of the universe.”

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela – and thank you.

(Some history of the anti-apartheid struggle at Harvard can be found at http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2003/6/4/out-of-africa-on-a-cool/)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: A DEVIL’S RESPONSE TO PAUL HARVEY

MEMO

FROM: Screwdisk, Executive Vice-Demon for Sales, HellCorp North America
TO: Regional Field Agent Scumbucket, Tempter Second Class
RE: “If I Were the Devil,” by Paul Harvey

My dearest nephew –

I received your last message with interest, especially the essay “If I Were the Devil,” by the mortal radio personality Paul Harvey.  Quite intriguing. Apparently, though, the version you forwarded to me was not entirely authentic. Not surprising – the original was penned more that fifty years ago, after all. Mr. Harvey himself wrote a couple of versions. And the humans’ “folk process” seems to have had its way with the text. (If you’d care to study the history of the piece, you can find the “rest of the story” at www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/devil.asp)

Let me first assuage your concerns – this document does not mean there was any “security breach” or “leak.” Mr. Harvey made some astute guesses, true, but any human who knows anything about us could do the same with a bit of thought. (That is one reason we strive so mightily to prevent them from engaging in the practice for any extended length of time.)  You may recall that a mortal author named C.S. Lewis attempted a similar feat, publishing some purported correspondence which he ascribed to our esteemed ancestor Screwtape.

I should love to correct Mr. Lewis, but he does not seem to be here.

But back to Mr. Harvey. Mr. Harvey seems to think we care about the spiritual state of “nations” as such. We deal in individual souls; we don’t worry about how we could “take over the United States.” We may concern ourselves with influencing leaders, we may engender social trends to further our cause, true enough, but work towards damning entire, specific countries en masse? Not necessary. Our Enemy does not confer salvation based on citizenship or political affiliation; our eternal battle is conducted one soul at a time. (Though we do concern ourselves with volume – and speaking of which, we must soon discuss your progress against your monthly quota. But I digress.)

That does not mean that we cannot use certain national characteristics to our advantage, though.  Mr. Harvey thinks we are trying to turn all Americans into atheists. He does not seem to understand – or perhaps does not believe in – the raw historical inertia that faith exerts in his society, It would be quite difficult to turn all Americans completely away from spiritual matters.

But we can take that faith and, in a significant number of individuals, twist it to suit out ends.

Consider those wonderful words, “American exceptionalism.”  One of the best products from our Semantics Branch, I must say.  Rather than try to convince Americans that their blessings have nothing to do with Divine benevolence, we push the opposite. Rather than allow those blessings to engender feelings of gratitude, humility, or responsibility, we instead encourage their pride, hubris, and arrogance. We tell them – and they love to hear this – that since they clearly enjoy such special favor in the Creator’s sight, that they can do just about anything they want – invade, loot, plunder… Let them assume that they are always doing good – and this will make it easier to bring them to commit evil.

Let me see here, so many errors… No, Mr. Harvey, I would not “deify science.” I would much rather undermine rationality at every turn; logic is one of our greatest enemies, and irrational people are ever so much easier to lead astray. And “kill the incentive of the ambitious”? Never! Hell forbid! It is one of our most productive and advantageous avenues into the hearts of men!

Your Mr. Harvey may catch us red-handed in some of our more blatant manifestations, dear nephew, but he misses the finer levels of our machinations. You may remove the knot from your tail.

Affectionately, as ever, your devoted uncle,

Screwdisk