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On Tour: What’s ‘Organic’ About Organic? visits Vineland, NJ

17 Oct

As I rolled by the agrarian landscape of Southern New Jersey, I was delighted to see signs for a rodeo. I was super close to the metropolises of Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York; yet here were fields being cultivated, farm stands selling pumpkins, and cowboys gathering their lassos.

I had to keep driving though, in order to meet my host at Cumberland County College. When we met for dinner, Greg Hambleton told me he had attempted to organize an “organic day” on campus with activities like bobbing organic apples and selling organic apple pies as a fundraiser for the theater department to coincide with my screening, but unfortunately he confronted a major challenge that the industrial food system poses—any adaptation to the status quo menu or modification to the mechanized system of distribution they have created is avoided. Indeed, the company that holds the foodservice contract for the college told him it would be impossible for them to order the organic apples he was requesting. While his story was painfully illustrative of the shortcomings of the industrial system, we ended up enjoying a nice meal anyway and I was heartened to hear about his efforts.

At the end of the screening, as we talked about local food systems, one audience member talked about his appreciation for the relationships that develop when supporting local businesses. He told a story about his local hardware store owner who offers real advice on projects and has become a trusted source to help pick out the most affordable equipment. I told him that relationships with local farmers are similarly fruitful; when you buy direct from farmers, they tell you which herbs to use with which vegetables, how to properly cook pasture-raised meats, and introduce you to interesting new foods. Indeed, a more functional local food system might result in a local farmer having a college market for his/her produce, and maybe even organic/ecologically grown apples!

Of course, I mentioned that “local” isn’t the “end all be all” concept to think about when attempting to eat with an ecological conscience, though. I mean, chemicals bought and used locally that lead to local groundwater contamination and local cancers/health issues aren’t really what people want to support. Thus, the environmental elements of the equation need to be discussed with local farmers.

I find, though, that it’s best to simply engage in a conversation with local farmers about their farms. What the challenges do they face with regard to pests and diseases? How do they deal with them? Avoid putting them on the defensive, simply by expressing your interest in the way your food is grown and showing your empathy toward their process. You can let them know that you care about the ecological consequences of food production and that you value organic methods.

We also talked about the challenges that low-income folks face in seeking healthy food. I talked about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and how affordable it can be.  In NYC, my roommate and I ended up paying $15/person/week for an abundant share of fresh, local, organic food. We could have never eaten that cheaply shopping at grocery stores in the city. In addition, CSAs often have work shares and payment plans available to accommodate different household budgets.

Finally, I mentioned my pet peeve phrase: “vote with your dollar.” This notion bothers me on several levels. The idea that our rights and responsibilities as citizens are degraded to a fundamentally consumer behavior—shopping—is insulting to our democracy. However, I understand the sentiment behind the phrase; the choices we make in the marketplace do have an impact one way or another.

In my opinion, though, the concept of becoming a “food citizen” is important. This way, we consider the nourishment that we ingest not just as products that we buy, but as part of a whole system that has a place for our responsibility in it.

A food citizen thinks not just about what’s going into his or her own body; a food citizen thinks about who grew it, how it was grown, what type of seed propagated it, what types of exchanges were made along the supply chain—were they fair and equitable? It’s my hope that people who view What’s Organic About Organic? will begin to ask themselves these types of questions more often. If we can all become better “food citizens,” then maybe we have a fighting chance to change the system.

 Post by Shelley Rogers, OSIP Touring Filmmaker. Look for more from Shelley in December, when she wraps up her tour in the US Virgin Islands.

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