Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Out in the Open Market

I literally woke up my good friend Kelsey for the weekly Farmers’ Market at University Center this past Saturday. I’ve been a few times in the past, but would nervously walk by the open stations not knowing what to buy, how to test the foods for their readiness and ripeness, or how comparable the prices were to Trader Joe’s or Albertson’s only a few steps away. However, I was determined this time. The weather could not have been any better. The warm sun and clear air only excited me more. Copacetic – I was in a copacetic mood.

Aside from the dainty children, homely atmosphere, and gleeful music, I was in food heaven. I didn’t realize breakfast was in store for me at the farmers’ market. Every other food station had samples of the freshest fruit around – oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, blood oranges, and apples. It wasn’t until today that I finally paid attention to the banners behind the tents – the farm name, where the food was coming from, and how they were grown.

Unlike any food-gathering trips before, my mind was active and critically thinking -

“Should I get these certified organic strawberries from Dinuba or the conventionally-grown ones grown closer in El Segundo?”

“How about this lettuce from Fresno? Wait…it’s not organic. But it’s so much cheaper than the organic ones from Santa Clara.”

“That turkey sausage looks tempting.. Ahh no, I’m on a vegetarian diet now…”

For the first time, I felt empowered as a consumer. Sure, I’ve paid for things by myself for myself. However, I was integrating various factors into purchasing power that I felt entitled to. In buying goods, I had to weigh the benefits to my personal health, physical costs as a marginal college student, and what my dollar meant to the farmer on the other side of the cash register.

While one may perceive Orange County to be an urban metropolis, it is host to eight farmers’ markets during the length of the week. According to the Orange County Farm Bureau, “California certified farmers' markets are the real thing - places where genuine farmers sell fruits, nuts and vegetables directly to the public. Every farmer who sells at a certified market is inspected by the county agricultural commissioner to make sure he/she actually grows the commodity being sold.” (http://orange.cfbf.com/cfm.htm) Even so, it was a bit arduous and disheartening to find a lack of Orange County farms. Most of them out in the market were from San Diego County, Riverside County, and central California.

Rick Le Feuvre, Orange County Agricultural Commissioner, “has the responsibility for enforcing State-mandated agricultural and pesticide regulations and certification of commercial weighing and measuring devices throughout the County.” (http://www.ocagcomm.com/default.asp) He, alongside the commission, ensures the weights and measurements of food, prevents exotic and invasive plants and weeds, protects residents from pesticide hazards, and protects wildlife by diminishing weeds. All food sold at the farmers’ markets in Orange County are inspected to protect human health and checked to make sure they follow state-mandated agricultural policies.

I was introduced to the concept of a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, through “Garden of Eden”. It is a “program for San Diego and other southern California regions” formed by a cooperative of various organic farms in the state. Each week, gardens provide a specialized box of seasonal fruits and vegetables from the farms they network with. Patrons pay a weekly, monthly, or yearly fee, and pick up their box at the respective farmers’ market.

To me, there are social, economic, and vastly environmental implications to this phenomenon. A CSA stimulates local agricultural economies by sustaining local farms and improving entrepreneurial innovation in agroecology. It limits the amount of travel it takes from farm to table, therefore ameliorating food freshness. To that point, farmers can focus primarily on their passions – growing the freshest and most organic food as possible – without having to worry about administrative costs like energy to transport their food.

47th Avenue CSA:

Tim Lang, a professor of Food Policy at City University in London, termed the phrase “food miles”, noting that there are “hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations” (2006). ‘locale / global (food miles)’, Slow Food (Bra, Cuneo Italy), 19, May 2006, p.94-97.

A 2005 Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs report by Paul Watkiss and AEA Technology Environment called “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development", found that "the direct environmental, social and economic costs of food transport are over £9 billion each year, and are dominated by congestion." This global account is a little over $18 billion in US dollars, respectively.

Even with a CSA, one has to wonder, “isn’t there a larger picture to consider?” Regardless of “how close” a local farm may be, there is still the question of personal behavior that can have great demands on the environment to sustain itself. Unless there is personal accountability for people to walk, bike, or utilize clean public transportation to get their food, more developed societies like the one I live in may still turn to personal automobiles that run on non-renewable energies. I wonder what people are thinking when they get local, organic, and sustainable food like through a CSA program), but in unsustainable ways (i.e. driving a diesel-engine vehicle). Isn’t this a contradiction? A paradox, perhaps? How can someone consider themselves living in sustainable manners when there are parts to their lifestyle that doesn’t lead in that direction? In order for this contradiction to subside, individuals may need to consider alterations in lifestyle. In this particular example, it may mean living closer to a local farm, farmers’ market (distribution center), or being part of a community garden.

As noted in a New York Times Opinion piece back in August 2007, local food procurement may not be the most "environmentally-friendly" option. Writer James McWilliams finds that there is scientific research from New Zealand and Britain looking at the true environmental hazards of growing the same products but in different areas, and specifically, at the pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. These studies looked not only at food miles, but also calculated water and fertilizer use, farming methods, and means of transportation. In some cases, there was much less greenhouse gas emissions from transporting food from across the globe than getting it from a local source. McWilliams stresses the analysis of demographics, farming methods, and alternatives to food transportation.

Paul and Jackie, the individuals heading the “Garden of Eden”, remembered my name at the farmers’ market! I had introduced myself a few weeks back. I was absolutely enamored, and I may consider getting a box with a few housemates soon. Good thing I live on campus.

My bag ended up with the following:
A bag of blood oranges from Dinuba, CA.
One Haas avocado from El Segundo.
One quart of orange-pomegranate juice from north San Diego.
Three packs of strawberries from Memet, CA.

Good eats,

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