Most of us love the idea of local food systems, but actually building them takes profound commitment, vision, and perseverance. It is in-the-trenches social change work. Issues of ecological stewardship, financial sustainability, public health, and economic accessibility all compete for your attention and pull a project in seemingly irreconcilable directions. Meanwhile, a globalized system of cheap abundant food ups the ante, singing an unyielding siren song of convenience and accessibility to your potential customs. How do you figure out what to prioritize, when it all matters so much? How do you keep moving forward, when you are bound to fall short of achieving all that needs to be done?
I suppose it helps if you have an angel investor or two; one of the 1 percent who has seen the light on sustainability and wants to put his money where his mouth is. But won’t he always want to call the shots in the end? It’s his money, after all…To build truly participatory, locally-rooted food enterprises requires deep engagement, not just deep pockets. In my experience, what’s needed is akin to rebuilding the village after the devastation of a military occupation. Not only must the physical infrastructure be recreated from available materials, but hearts need healing and traumas need to be confronted and worked through. And somehow, amid the wreckage, beautiful and delicious food needs to be made and offered to all who hunger for both food and connection.
Difficult at the least; perhaps we ask for a miracle. But we have to hold the hope that it is possible. One of the things that keeps me going is this beautiful quote from Nelson Mandela: “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distances I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
That Mandela could hold the vision of freedom and justice for decades, against impossible odds, is a lesson in applied hope. If it can be, than we must work to make it so. If apartheid could end, then so can corporate control of our food system. But the first step is not to underestimate the huge task that lies ahead. We are engaged in nothing less than a great human project, ultimately: to figure out how to nourish your community within the context and capacity of a particular ecosystem. What gives me hope is that humans have been doing it for thousands of years, long before this fossil-fuel driven industrial-capitalist bubble. Communities have built local food systems in the midst of desolate deserts, tangled rain forests, and Arctic ice. These village-scale food systems were both sustainable and sustaining. And so we are called to do the same in the wasteland of the industrialized food system, amid the inexorable tangle of corporate profiteering and the uncertainty of climate change. It all starts with an internal shift and a small step: sharing a basketful of eggs laid by backyard chickens; growing a fruit tree on a sunny deck; loading up a granny cart with fresh product at a farmers market; waiting until spring to enjoy asparagus; curing your own salami; fermenting your own sauerkraut. If we all take those small steps, then together we can climb that great hill, and look back, like Nelson Mandela, at the distance we have come, and the journey that lies ahead. Join us!!