I’ve felt led to post on this topic before, and Zen Gardner just gave me an additional nudge in that direction, so here goes:
Last night, as David and I drove to his parents’ house, we talked about all the projects I’ve initiated or joined around town, as well as my own personal garden and all the metaphorical seeds I scatter online. “You know,” I said, “it’s all a grand experiment, just like Life. I don’t know that any of this is going to work. Maybe some of it will, maybe none of it will, but at least I’ll know that I’ve done everything in my power to make a difference.”
On Friday, I spent two hours with the director of our town’s main soup kitchen/food pantry. He shared this frustration and asked my input: “We’ve done really well with ‘give a man a fish,’ but we do a terrible job of ‘teaching a man to fish.’ How can we move from a handout culture to one that empowers our recipients so they don’t need to come back for continued handouts? We have some people who’ve been coming here for five years! That tells me we’re missing an important piece.”
We discussed the disempowering nature of the entitlement culture and both agreed that we need stronger safety nets and a different paradigm in place when the government stops or severely curtails the handouts upon which such a huge portion of our society depend. I explained that this very concern had motivated me to nag our Transition Movement into creating what morphed into November 2013′s “Share the Bounty Week,” which featured the documentary, “A Place at the Table” and provided space and structure for organizations, churches, volunteers, gardeners and government officials to network with each other and brainstorm ways to increase access to local, healthy foods.
The screenings of “A Place at the Table” helped to springboard discussion about close relationships among obesity, poverty, and ill health. Over the years, costs of organic, nutrient-dense, whole foods have increased, while costs of processed, often toxic and health-robbing junk food have dropped. “A Place at the Table” draws attention to the ripple effects of this situation on education, job performance, health crises, self-respect, and community resilience. During “Share the Bounty Week,” we tried to keep a positive spin on what I actually consider a pressing emergency of extreme food insecurity in the US. Most people assume only “poor” people are food insecure, but those numbers alone are staggering — 50 million on food stamps; millions more on subsidized school lunches; beyond capacity (and exponentially growing) demand on food banks and soup kitchens.
When you consider that most American communities receive 90% of their food from an average of 2,000 miles away, this situation expands to include just about everyone. Given the delicate balance and multiple systems required for our current food system, as well as vulnerabilities inherent in such a complex system of delivery and distribution, any major weather event, EMP, infrastructure attack, or governmental travel restrictions could potentially empty grocery shelves in a matter of days. Add to this vulnerability the increased patenting of seeds, which criminalizes seed saving as copyright infringement, and also centralizes control of food into the hands of a few (overtly evil) corporations. None of these concerns even addresses the systematic poisoning of our waters, the food chain, and warmer areas of traditionally grown winter crops — through radiation, Corexit, oil and chemical “spills,” etc.
Supporting local farmers and a strong local food shed seem of increasing importance in today’s challenging world, and Goshen has responded with a growing local food movement. We have a vibrant farmers market, and a local food culture in many downtown restaurants. Master Gardeners give lectures many times per year, and a low income housing and neighborhood organization works hard to find grants for community gardens. Three of us recently initiated a “gardening club” to encourage front yard gardens, provide information for new gardeners, and also to link would-be gardeners with shady yards to non-gardeners with sunny yards. We’ve helped community gardens to network with each other, sharing resources and information, and we plan to organize early Spring seed exchanges to go along with the perennial plant cuttings exchange that happens each year.
When we first moved here, I felt called to reach out to the Hispanic community, many of whom are illegal residents living in extreme poverty and afraid to fly too high above the radar. I contacted numerous prominent members of the Hispanic and Latino community to see how we might encourage people from these communities to join in some of our Transition Goshen and food security events. A real disconnect existed between the people most in need of additional food security and the people brainstorming how to bring it to this community.
Again and again, I heard, “There’s a language barrier. People feel self-conscious and unable to communicate.” As a result, many of us have begun various types of Spanish lessons, and I arranged translators for some of the “Share the Bounty Week” events. The editor of our Latino newspaper has also offered to translate any articles I write about gardening and to include these in the paper. Several days per week now — my brain revolts at daily — I spend half an hour bouncing on the rebounder and taking the Pimsleur Approach Spanish course. Others are using the Rosetta Stone or taking classes at the college. Though work and not directly related to food security, we all view this language learning as an important way to strengthen our community and food security. When the SHTF, communication and community will become even more important.
I also feel compelled to improve local food security in winter. To that end, we have our own cold frame where I grow specially selected cold-hardy greens and veggies, and some friends of mine hosted a cold frame and winter gardening workshop to encourage others to extend their growing season with old windows, plastic or unheated greenhouses. I’ve been visualizing an enormous indoor urban farm with the Garden Tower Project or equivalent, and passive solar heat or other off-grid heat so that our community can free itself from the excessive need for food imports, especially in the cold Midwest Winters. Some others I know have begun efforts to transform an abandoned greenhouse operation into just such a project. Time will tell, but several of us keep pulling and visualizing in the same direction.
A local organization called Church Community Services developed a “Seed to Feed” program that farms organic produce specifically for donations to local food pantries. One of their leaders asked me for easy, healthy, cheap recipes to include in classes and a food pantry cookbook to encourage their recipients to opt for the healthier offerings. Small steps … but feedback indicated that people don’t choose fresh veggies because they don’t know what to do with them. Asking and really listening to responses helps us all to create and improve effective strategies.
Towards that end, I’m also running what I affectionately call “The Tea Party Outreach Committee,” a one-woman effort to bridge major ideological gaps in Northern Indiana. I’ve encouraged many devoted and self-described “liberals” to learn about Agenda 21 and stop dismissing Right Wing objections to ecological initiatives as “outright nuts.” I continue to hammer home the importance of looking for common ground and learning ways to present common sense Earth preservation topics in respectful ways that recognize values like self-sufficiency, minimal governmental interference and lower taxes. When people insist that we need to start political campaigns to get things done, I encourage them to find ways to do the things themselves. They will happen faster and with far less resistance than trying to ram through legislation. The Faery Rule “Respect, Not Control” works oddly well when dealing with political disputes. Work around; do what needs to be done; don’t taunt or insult your neighbors. You may very soon need them more than you realize now.
Back to my conversation with our soup kitchen/food pantry director: how to “teach a man to fish” instead of “just giving fish.” After listening to his observations, vision, and hopes, we agreed that I will teach some classes in the off hours at the facility. The first? “How to Have Better Luck.” This class will cover personal responsibility, visualization, gratitude and very basic prosperity consciousness, but I will design it to appeal to people for whom such ideas have not even blipped across the radar. When I described my vision, the director laughed and said, “You’ve got your work cut out for you!”
To which I replied, “Hey, at least I won’t get bored. I’d rather take on an enormous challenge than be bored. I enjoy looking at an ‘impossible’ situation and finding the sneaky way through. Titles will be key. We need to appeal to the victim mentality of life just happening to them, but slip in tools to shift their entire worldview. In addition to the challenge, I have practical reasons for taking this on. It’s not a far cry for people to move from feeling entitled to/dependent upon government handouts and food bank handouts to feeling justified to steal the food of better prepared neighbors. I don’t want to live in a society where people feel a need to rob or kill their neighbors just so they can eat. People do horrid and desperate things when they can’t feed their children. We need to address the root causes of that dynamic: food insecurity and the entitlement/dependent culture.”
The second class will likely be called “How to Find and Keep a Job You Like,” and we’ve got local business people and city planners racking our brains to create jobs that encourage self-respect. We certainly have needs in this community! I can easily see how meeting the need for increased food security can also provide local, stable jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs. We also discussed ways to encourage those who feel most down on their luck to volunteer — whether through the promise of a box of food or some other initial incentive. As the director explained, “People who volunteer have a different approach to life. They’re happier and that rubs off on people. When you think you have nothing and you find a way to give something to someone else, it makes you feel better about yourself and your circumstances.” “Yes,” I said, “it shifts the energy from ‘give me, I need’ to ‘I have this to offer; the Universe provides.’”
I’ve shared some hyper local projects here as potential inspiration for others in their own area. Elkhart County got hit so hard by the 2008 crash that people here have — from necessity — innovated many caring and creative ways to help each other. We only moved here in 2012, but I’ve appreciated the “can and will do” attitude of people here as we all respond to current and looming crises. Given the instability of the world economy right now — or even just the world for that matter — individual preparations seems wise, but so does community preparation. I haven’t listed everything here, because we have people involved in areas far outside my interests and expertise. It always comes down to: “Do what you can with what you have, wherever you are.”
As Transition’s “cheerful disclaimer” states, “we truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this:
if we wait for governments, it’ll be too little, too late
if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”
Wise words to underpin this Grand Experiment! As I told David last night, “I don’t know if any of this will work, but if it does? Wow.“