Monday, August 18, 2008

Rewrite! Toastmaster speech, numero dos, version 2.0

With help from my saint-husband...

“Are tomatoes safe to eat yet?” “Which peppers can we eat?” “Is the spinach still okay?”

These are not unreasonable questions to ask in the wake of our more recent food dilemmas, but they offer us no answers as to why these bacterial episodes keep disrupting our lives. And that’s the key: the questions shouldn’t be when or which, but why. And not an ordinary why, but a probing, brass-tacks, root-of-the-issue why.

The mainstream media has reported on these events ad nauseam. But for all the minutiae they bombard us with, they never get around to addressing the big picture. And the big picture is this: Our food system is broken. That’s why our tomatoes and peppers and spinach are poisoned. Industrial agriculture is, plain and simple, not the way we should be growing vegetables. It’s a waste of fuel, a waste of water; and it’s destroying our soil and draining our aquifers dry.

But thankfully, there are solutions to this conundrum – three, in fact. And I would like to outline those for you tonight. They are: home gardening, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture.

The first solution, home gardening, is a major part of the overall fix. Of course, it can't take the place of all crops, especially calorie crops like grains (which are not typically grown in California anyway). But consider the wide variety of produce in your grocery store- tomatoes, lettuces, leafy greens, beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet corn, cabbage, and herbs- all of which can be grown on a surprisingly small plot of land.

Think about it: in the space of the average American lawn, you can easily lay in three seasons' worth of vegetables and have plenty left over to preserve or pickle for winter. You can take this further if you like- If you set up a beehive in the corner of the yard to pollinate your own crops, you can also harvest your own honey- another very heavy product to transport-- and, bonus-- it’s been recently discovered that keeping home hives just might help with our ongoing global bee crisis.

And by growing some of your own food, you also get a lot of exercise, you get to turn off the TV, and maybe you can have a conversation with the family or your neighbors. And you get to eat the best food that money can't buy.

There are other options for local and seasonal food, too, if you don’t have a yard or you can’t garden, which brings me to the second solution: farmer’s markets.

True fact: vegetables are 90% water. Water is heavy. Heavy stuff is expensive to move. We’re spending $5.00 per gallon plus now on diesel for refrigerated tractor-trailers to send little bags of water an average of 1400 miles across the US so folks can have tasteless, mealy tomatoes or bland strawberries year ‘round. But there’s more: these vegetables are mainly grown in California, with Colorado River water. Southern California is actually a semi-arid desert, not a food-growing oasis. Growing industrial quantities of vegetables in California is only made possible by stealing vast amounts of water from the Colorado River system. By the time the Colorado reaches its delta, there isn’t any water left. And it’s all for the sake of having out-of-season, tasteless vegetables, year round- and these are vegetables selected by growers for their abilities to withstand shipping. As you might have noticed, they are definitely not selected for their taste.

But mercifully, there are Farmer’s Markets cropping up all over Detroit metro, and many sell food grown right in the city. Other fresh, seasonal offerings come from small specialty farms in rural Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. Contrast this with long-distance industrial agriculture, which not only comes from far away, but make many stops en route to your plate. Each stop along the way is an opportunity for contamination. The food is then sent to many thousands of local distribution sites all across the US, and then on to stores. That’s why multiple states have to issue recalls, and the recalls are so confusing. Local food from regional farmers to the farmer’s market makes far fewer stops- as few as just one- and if there does happen to be a rare contamination, and it is very rare indeed, it stays quite local and is much easier to trace.

The third solution is community supported agriculture, or CSAs for short. CSAs are the new wave in the local food movement, and operate very simply: they grow many different vegetable crops, and as the weeks in the growing season progress, CSA members pick up a box of whatever crop has come up that week. Some of these little farms also sell their own bread, meat, milk, and eggs, too. And CSAs usually practice organic farming, so you don't have to worry about pesticides and chemicals on your food. The food is always local and seasonal; you get to know your very own local farmer, and get to know other families that support your farmer. Most CSAs will even let you to work in the field, to lower your membership price.

Ok, so here’s the rundown-- We’re transporting little bags of endangered river water from a region of the country that cannot afford to give up water, with fuel we can't pay for anymore. Like the great ecology and farming writer Wendell Berry said, though I’m paraphrasing- we took a system that wasn’t broken, and broke it.

But I promise you-- home-cooked, in-season food, made with simple, super-fresh ingredients, is the answer to our shared food dilemma. And besides, learning to cook with whatever happens to be in season is easy and fun, and gives you a whole new appreciation for the natural cycles of seasonal food: the 2 months of spring lettuce, and the 2 weeks of blueberries and cherries, and the 6 weeks of tomatoes. So give it a shot. Start small. Try it next year with just one tomato plant and a single pot of basil. You’ll probably get hooked. And you’ll never again have to worry if the tomatoes or spinach or peppers are safe to eat.


PJ said...

Before I finish reading this I want to make sure I understand its purpose. You are a member of Toast Master's and this is a public speaking project? I know what TM is but not with this kind of writing. Please tell me if that makes a difference in the structure of the piece.

ilex said...

It's for public speaking, yes. I'll be delivering this speech to my club tonight. Nervously.

The assignment for the second speech is organization, which I have a very hard time with (in all areas of my brain/ life). There are always too many things I want to say, especially if it's a subject I'm passionate about.

I should have given a speech about something more simple, like pickling. Though I'm passionate about pickling, too...

agreenfire said...

Very nice. I think you covered a broad topic in a way that is easy to understand. Your ideas flow nicely.

Will you be posting a recording of the speech after you deliver it? I'd love to hear it.

d. moll, said...

Well, how did your speech go??????? Looks pretty good as is.......

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

I like how you start this piece by essentially saying that we often ask the wrong questions. It is so true, and I believe that this is why these things continue to happen, if we were asking the right questions, we could then start taking appropriate actions to mitigate and avoid some of these things from happening in the future.

This is a really great piece Ilex, and you offer wonderful, sound, and dare I say the rare bit of SANE advice.

My partner and I are making due the best we can, we have a plot at a community garden, grow what we can in containers on our porch, and are attempting an indoor winter garden. We also have a CSA share - this is our first year, and I can't imagine not doing it again next year. The produce is spectacular, top notch, and is very, VERY affordable. We support organic farming practices, and reduce our food miles.

What we can't get out of our gardens and CSA, we get from the farmer's market. Since I have my own jalapeno and tomato plants, while the store were pulling these items from their shelves, I was indulging and not putting myself at risk.

I love that you make note of the resource intensiveness and lack of quality of many of our fruits, veggies, and even meat and dairy, and how a homogenized food system is ripe for disaster and disease.

Good luck with your speech and thank you for posting it.

ilex said...

Greenfire, I'm conidering asking my husband to tape me, but cameras make me crazy-nervous...

Madam D, I deliver it tonight. I'm sort of a wreck. Maybe there will be a tape...

Jennifer, thanks SO much for your thoughtful words. What you're doing in your household sounds terrific, and it's exactly what we all should be doing.

--It will be interesting to see how the content is received in my group. The membership of my TM group is comprized of a bunch of middle-aged and elderly Freemasons, and a small handful of triatheletes (it's a very interesting split, and always entertaining). But there's nary a gardener or food activist in the bunch. To all the activist folks in the blogosphere, thinking about food this way is logical, reasonable and responsible; outside of this world, it usually sounds extreme and unnecessary. We shall see.

PJ said...

I agree, Ilex, this version flows quite nicely. This is a very timely topic and you raise some important points that a lot of people probably won't have considered. Then you mesh them with current issues to present an interesting point of view. I know I feel like I learned something. Also, I've heard your voice-over on the slide show about urban farming so I know that you're well-spoken and that you have a very good "public speaking" quality to your voice and I think that is a distinct advantage. I think you will do very well. Please let us know how you feel afterwards.

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