Monday, February 23, 2009
The Corners of Our Fields
Last night Malena and I watched the second half of Masterpiece Theater's excellent production of Dickens', "Oliver Twist" and, because of some ideas that have been floating around in my head quite a bit of late, it really did strike home. Watching it reminded me of a line from the book, not featured in the film,"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread". The story is, of course, set in motion by Oliver's attempt to get enough to eat after suffering from hunger for months and I have been thinking quite a bit about hunger recently.
As a child, when I was first exposed to the somewhat silly (and overly cheerful) musical of Oliver, while I enjoyed the antics of the Dodger and Fagin's boys, the point that their thievery, which seemed, somehow, excusable, was the result of poverty and hunger, was completely lost on me. Like many Americans, true HUNGER is something that I have been fortunate enough to have never known personally, and to have witnessed, first hand, only once or twice. Although I have had a fair amount of contact with poverty through several non-profits I have worked with, I have not really seen very much hunger. Over the course of my lifetime, as flawed as many of our social safety nets have been, it seems that exceptionally low food prices and food shelves have kept the most dire cases of hunger very low. Certainly, millions of people have gone to bed hungry countless times, but hunger, within the United States, has been dispersed enough that most of us do not come into contact with it on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, it appears that hunger, and the circumstances that lead to it, are on the rise.
Recently I was having a conversation with an acquaintance of mine, who works at a food shelf, and she was telling me that while they have seen an marked increase in the number of families coming in for help, donations are down. A recent New York Times article also bears this out; According to the article, studies indicate that food shelf usage is up as much as 30% as more and more families, formerly members of the "middle-class", fall victim the many effects of our current economic crisis. The timing couldn't be worse considering that, many of the foundations and individuals who have contributed to the shelves are, themselves, feeling the pinch. To make matters worse, the 3 year drought, which has plagued the Central Valley of CA, is also beginning to have an affect on our country's food supply.
For a variety of reasons, the majority of the fruits and vegetables grown within the United States are grown in the Central Valley. With water supplies in the region at historic lows, the Federal Government is looking at severely limiting the amount of water that will be available to Central Valley farmers this summer. Without water the farmers cannot raise many of their crops. Last year 100, 000 acres were left unplanted and it looks as though up to 800,000 acres will be fallowed this year. This will likely lead to higher food costs and shorter supplies and it has already contributed to an alarming unemployment rate in the areas affected, putting even more low income people in need; up to 80,000 agricultural jobs have already been lost according to another article in the Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/us/22mendota.html?_r=1&hp). This problem is yet another reason why our current, overly centralized, industrial ag model, while it has provided us with cheap food in the past, leaves us remarkably prone to disaster under a variety of changing conditions.
As a farmer I feel an especially acute relationship to the idea of hunger; it is my job to try and feed people and, in most years, I am witness to the abundance that our earth can provide. I also know that the yield is really not all mine to take; it is my responsibilty to make sure that some of the bounty is shared with those in need. Over the years we donated extra produce to foodshelves and from time to time, "underwritten" shares for low income families. Last summer, Steve Share, who, with his wife Rona, hosts our drop-off site in Linden Hills, made sure that all of the extra boxes that members forgot to pick up, often 2-3 boxes/week, went to the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis. This year, with the need for food donations growing, we are going to try and expand our donations and use our CSA as a way to get more fresh food into the hands and, more importantly, the stomachs, of those in need. Our members from Synogogue Adath Jeshrun have purchased shares, at a discount, to donate to ICA foodshelf and I am working on setting up a system so that our members can do the same both with ICA and with the Harriet Tubman center. If you are intersted in helping with this, please do contact me at email@example.com. We who have will be judged by how we treat those without.