Sunday, December 18, 2011

Choosing us over them

My back and forth with the produce folks at our shiny new food coop. It starts with the excerpt that the produce team wrote on their website recently:

Hey, so here's the jams with the produce department. Our goal is to make the department all Organic, local and affordable. I'm sure you can imagine there are some challenges to that. First thing is, how do we define "affordable" and affordable to who? Then there are issues with distribution and access to Organic produce. As of now, we can only get Organic produce delivered to us once a week and as far as getting Organic local produce, well that's a whole 'nother issue.

Me and my Produce Team have been looking for farms to buy from for almost 2 months and though we've found some great ones, there just aren't that many in the Gulf South. Alot of farmers I've spoken with tell me that it's hard for them to buy what they need to become an Organic farm (like organic fertilizers, pest controls and such). On top of that, there are the fees and paperwork that come along with getting Organic certification.

So we're having to decide whether to buy Organic produce that's grown all over the US, shipped to North Carolina and then to us, or to buy local produce that may be grown using harmful chemicals. Tricky.

Then there's the affordability issue. We have to choose between Organic - which costs more - and local or conventional produce that's definitely grown using harmful chemicals, coated in petroleum based waxes and may be from a farm or company that exploits its workers but is less expensive than Organic. What would you choose; what's more affordable big picture; what's our responsibility as a co-op to our community? I honestly want your feedback because these are huge issues that will impact us all on many levels here at the NOFC.

>>My first response to the above posting:

I just read the article by the produce manager about produce and the issues with local organic, which I find appalling in its ignorance of local food issues. I am a founding member of this food coop and have worked for a decade with the local farmers and now work with communities across the nation on establishing healthy local communities through vibrant public markets. I have spent hours upon hours connecting NOLA FC members to farmers and other food activists who have explained the food system over and over again to new coop organizers. The article was a painful reminder of how some activists can talk about the values of the new world they want, but cannot take the time to understand how it will work or to understand the barriers that exist in leaving the old one. I almost don't know where to begin with my disappointment in the lack of empathy about farming issues that are present here and what organic means, good and bad. This is exactly what I feared would happen to this all so shiny store- all hat and no cattle-organic or otherwise.

Her response to me:

>> Hi Dar, I don't believe we've met yet and I hope that next time you're here in the
coop you'll introduce yourself to me and maybe we can chat about this a little bit. Face to face communication is so much better for me. I have a hard time getting my tone across in written word. I just wanted you to know that I'm hearing your concerns and assure you that the message in my note in the e-letter was not about creating a new world and leaving the old one. I think I have some awareness of the many issues with the food system, but you are right in the fact that I'm ignorant to the specific issue here in New Orleans having only been here a couple months. And that was actually the message i was trying to send in my article. I want to learn from folks here and share what I've learned in my 11 years working in natural foods retail, on farms and with farmers/farmworkers.
So please come on in anytime and say hi and join us in January when we have our produce discussion.Hope to meet you soon,

Me again:

we have not met and as much as I want to continue to give my time to the Food Coop to meet another generation of participants, I hope instead you spend your time to meet and sit and listen and travel to farmers and fishers and activists on the ground to see how this region is unique and requires some dedication and patience to understand.
When a 7 day a week grocery store gets support from its low income neighbors to open, it needs to be very sure what it is offering and that it can actually meet those promises. Healthy and affordable have been the chief words used by the NOFC with local a close third, and yet, it seems the research to make those a reality was simply not carried forward to the present day. In such a rush to open a shiny new store, it seems to me from your email and from my two shopping trips to the store that the first principle is being followed closely, but the second two are less
important. The work to build a food system is painstaking and often painful and as we know, any choice one makes requires giving something else up.
In this case, choosing to support and build a local food economy to get support from your neighbors means giving up is the talk that breezily says in an email to its shoppers "though we've found some great ones, there just aren't that many in the Gulf South"
If the written word is not your best way to communicate, then I suggest you hand those updates off to someone else pretty soon. Language like that will alienate the great farmers that I know are in the Gulf South and are waiting to see if the NOFC is worth investing their hard work in. And that you help all of us involved in growing part-time great farmers and fishers into full-time ones and work alongside us to help all of them recover the dignity and respect that they are owed.
I do wish you well. I hope you can take the time to do what others have done over the last 20 years - learn about and then help to remove the barriers to a fully functioning alternative food economy.


and another attempt by me to be clear:

I know that last email came across with some arrogance and coldness (which will not surprise those who know me) and although my anger is still quite alive, I do want to help you understand.
But my feeling is (from my own many years in community organizing, retail design and management) that the energy already emanating from the NOFC is one of hurry hurry and impatience over the barriers that prevent the store from doing all that it WANTS to to.

But just because you want something to be, doesn't make it so. And the lack of empathy and education in that email told me that you have already CHOSEN corporate organic over sustainable local as the defining trait, even though any quick research in the region would have told you that organic here has some history and yes some promise and that local isn't found on a website for stores to easily do their buying.
and wherever you are from (and I don't necessarily mean that as a finger pointing, because I also came here from somewhere else back then too) wherever you are from may have a very different regional food system, where the organic and local are not that different and farms can be found in areas that you can easily drive to from your urban city and the farming extension agents are progressive etc.and farmers selling to stores is a well trod path that makes them a living and maybe even some of these farmers are in the urban area.

That may be the case there. I get that. But when you seem to bring that with you without edit and when you talk about local when you are really talking about corporate organic, it troubles and angers me and others.

And some of my anger comes from the fact that those barriers have been there and were communicated to those involved in planning. That is expressly why a new large storefront seem foolhardy to some of us and why we wanted to build long term buying clubs and small pop up storefronts to begin. And if some go ahead and build a full-sized storefront, then that means adding barriers to the NOFC's success to achieve the values of local and sustainable; you are adding barriers, not the farmers who you will keep puzzling over and telling the members that we just can't find them, not understanding that maybe your own scale and process is what is keeping the full-time ones away and the part-time ones from selling at all at a wholesale price.

and so, thanks for inviting me to your store to talk about produce, but there is not a person in this city that can properly do that for you at a meeting. There is not a shortcut to adding the NOFC to the EARLY work that has been done in the region on growing regional food. It will require some patience and sensitivity and that at this point in NOFC history is all I and others are looking for.

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