fight slavery, eat locally

Produce from local farms.Maggie and I like to eat.  One of our favorite things is to take fresh produce and turn it into a delicious dinner to share with friends.  When we lived in Glen Ellyn we’d often ride our bikes to the French Market in Wheaton to stock up on summer fruits and veggies.  Now that we live in the city we frequent our Logan Square Farmer’s Market during the summer and the Green City Market year-round.  This is a photo from last fall after visits to the market and an apple orchard.

While books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle have provided us with sensible reasons to eat locally, taste has been our primary motivation.  Local food just tastes better than anything that had to be shipped across the country (or world!) to make it to our table.  No offense Washington, but your apples are positively tasteless after their westward journey compared with our local honeycrisps.  And salad-in-a-bag has nothing on sweet Midwestern winter spinach.

One of the benefits of local eating is the knowledge of where dinner really came from.  We buy corn from the folks who picked it the night before.  The man who sold us our Christmas steaks was the same person who raised and harvested the beef.  As a recent article in Gourmet points out, knowing where our food comes from is more than conversation fodder over dinner.  In “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes”, Barry Estabrook writes about the tomato fields of Immokalee, FL.  A short drive and a world away from affluent Naples, the workers who provide the labor in these fields could easily be considered modern-day slaves.  Of one such laborer Eastbrook writes,

Lucas’s “room” turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

But when Lucas—slightly built and standing less than five and a half feet tall—inquired about the balance, Navarrete threatened to beat him should he ever try to leave. Instead of providing an accounting, Navarrete took Lucas’s paychecks, cashed them, and randomly doled out pocket money, $20 some weeks, other weeks $50. Over the years, Navarrete and members of his extended family deprived Lucas of $55,000.

Not all commercial farmers should be lumped in with such shady characters, but there are enough of these stories to take a lot of the fun out of a trip to the grocery store.

With spring in full swing this might be a good time to consider adding some local food to your grocery list.  Almost every town and city has a seasonal farmers market and some of us are fortunate enough to have shops like the Green Grocer that stock local produce and products.  The Local Harvest website is an excellent national resource for markets, farms, and CSA subscriptions.  From my vantage point, the economic and environmental benefits of eating locally are too many to ignore.  And did I mention how delicious fresh, local food tastes?

growing home: a day at the farm

This summer we have done some produce shopping at Chicago’s Green City Market, a huge outdoor farmer’s market in Lincoln Park.  One of the organizations we’ve become acquainted with at the market (thanks solely to my wife’s inquisitive nature) is Growing Home.  On Saturday we drove out to Growing Home’s farm for their Harvest Fest.

For $20 we got to tour the farm, listen to a talk about sustainable farming, watch a cooking demonstration with fresh produce, pick as much produce as we wanted (tomatoes, basil, and raspberries), and eat some very tasty food from the farm.

The thing that first attracted Maggie to Growing Home was their unique mission.

Growing Home provides job training for homeless and low-income individuals in Chicago through a social enterprise business based on organic agriculture. Our program provides experiential learning opportunities and employment in the horticulture field as well as a unique job readiness curriculum that helps reintroduces participants back into the workforce.

On Saturday we spoke with the employees and participants of this unique program.  From our limited conversations it certainly seems that those involved with Growing Home are very quality people.  If I recall correctly, each week participants spend two days working on the farm.  They also receive other job training skills with the purpose of quickly finding employment elsewhere.  Growing Home basically serves as a stepping stone from homelessness (or other dire circumstances) to stable employment.

Two things stood out to me as we listened to the Growing Home folks talk.  First, what they do is very hard work.  There’s nothing romantic about running an organic, nonprofit farm.  80 hour work weeks are the norm.  The added layer of working with at-risk populations adds to the difficulty of their mission.  Secondly, Growing Home is a beautiful sign of life.  The simultaneous care for people and earth is so attractive and, without being trite, inspiring.

Intrigued?  Check out Growing Home’s website.  You can also sink your teeth into some of their delicious produce at a Chicago farmers market.  Or, consider joining their CSA next year to receive a box of in-season produce each week.

Anyone aware of other organizations like this in Chicago or elsewhere?

One word of warning.  If you ever visit Growing Home’s farm and decide to pick some raspberries, you will have to keep your eyes open for these spiders.  Who knew berry picking could be so exciting?