Communities Supporting Agriculture Supporting Communities

I’m going to explain an idea I’ve had for a long time, and maybe it’s a crackpot notion, but I don’t think so. It involves how Southerners eat nowadays and the results of those habits. The people of the Deep South are some of unhealthiest people in the nation, and that has a lot to do with higher rates of poverty and lower rates of education, which often lead to inadequate medical care and the regular consumption of cheap processed foods, like fast food and fried food. Well, suppose we change all that and start eating what we grow down here . . .

In a December 2010 article on Forbes.com titled “America’s Healthiest and Unhealthiest States,” the subtitle is explicit: “States in New England perform best, while the South still falls behind.” According to the Full Data listing, here is how the Deep Southern states ranked nationally in 2009 and 2010, respectively: Mississippi was dead last (50th) both years; Louisiana dropped from 47th to 49th; Alabama improved from 48th to 45th; South Carolina also improved from 46th to 41st; and Georgia ranked highest among Deep Southern states by moving from 43rd to 36th. (Of all Southern States, only Virginia cracked the top half of the list, coming in at 21st and 22nd.) On that same data sheet, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana also made the bottom ten in both diabetes and obesity, with South Carolina was only in the bottom ten for diabetes.

An article on Health.com, “10 States That Consume Too Much Fast Food” (which I found linked through a December 2011 article on CNN.com), explains the following about Alabama, where I live:

Fast-food restaurants account for just 44% of Alabama eateries (that’s the fifth-lowest rate in the U.S.), but residents still manage to spend close to 60% of their annual dining-out budget on quick-and-easy meals. In a state where more than two-thirds of people are overweight, 80% of adults don’t eat enough fruits and veggies, and rates of heart disease and diabetes are sky high, that’s not good news. 

And then this about Mississippi (which had come in dead last again in 2011):

Residents spend a whopping 62% of their dining-out budget on fast food—the highest rate in the country. It may not be a coincidence that Mississippi also boasts the highest percentage of overweight (70%) and obese (33%) adults.

Anyone who attempts to assert that those facts aren’t a problem is ignoring the importance of one of the most basic needs for human life: food. So, suppose we in the Deep South make a conscious decision to stop buying all that processed food loaded with chemical preservatives and salt, which often hide the desperately low-quality ingredients, and suppose we stop going to McDonald’s, Hardee’s and Chick-Fil-A so much. According to the above cited article, people in Alabama and Mississippi spend almost two-thirds of their dining-out budget on fast food— and it is killing us! What would we eat and how would we spend that money going about it?

Down at my Uncle Bobby and Aunt Jean’s

Then consider this: what if we in the Deep South would enable our farmers to stop selling their produce to distributorships that stock the chain grocery stores and the Wal-Marts all over the nation by doing a better job of supporting them down here, as individuals and as restaurant owners, mostly through a network of cooperatives, farmers markets and community supported agriculture operations (CSAs)? What if we put that fresh food on our own tables, instead of putting it on trucks? Imagine how we could change our lives, the economy of our region, and the state of our health if we started eating what we grow and raise down here, instead of sending out all that good food and trucking in processed food. Of course, it would require a change in our region’s whole way of shopping and eating: eliminating chain grocery stores and chain restaurants from our way of life in favor of farmers markets, CSAs and local restaurants that sell and serve healthier, fresher, better-tasting food.

Kentucky poet, writer and well-known back-to-the-land advocate Wendell Berry focuses on this issue in an essay titled “The Pleasures of Eating,” collected in The Art of the Commonplace. He writes:

The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. (322)

And he doesn’t stop there:

The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of the creature that ever lived. (323)

Berry has a point about all the unnatural things that food processors do the things we eat. Have you seen any of those videos that shows the chicken purée that is poured into moulds to become chicken nuggets? Or do you remember “pink slime,” that noxious-looking substance that fast-food places had been using as filler in their meat, until it was shown to the public? People in the Deep South devour that stuff!

We need to save our own lives by taking a sharp turn into a selfish attitude about our abundant agricultural wealth!

Maybe I’m uninformed or ignorant or behind the times, but I find some current progressive ideas almost laughable in their seeming naivete about how life once was in the Deep South. Long before the “green” movement or the “slow food” movement, what are now “green” and “slow food” were the way of life, the status quo, in the supposedly backwards Deep South! Most people of the pre-World War II Deep South lived by subsistence farming, which required conserving energy, utilizing organic fertilizers, composting, bartering, and working together within their local communities. And what is funny: they were considered ignorant hicks by the rest of the nation! Put aside Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road for a minute, put aside Walker Evans’ photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and put aside the national preoccupation with the South’s racism, and think about how the people of the Deep South lived from the 1800s through the 1950s. They were “green” when the rest of the nation was insisting that processed, industrialized lifestyles were the way people ought to live.

Yet that all changed for the Deep South. The late historian Jack Temple Kirby’s 1987 book, Rural Worlds Lost, The American South 1920 – 1960 describes very well how modernization changed the region. He makes this sardonic assertion early in his fourth chapter, “Folks, Communities and Economies in Flux”:

When country people leave self-sufficient or nearly self-sufficient farms to live in cities or work for cash from off-farm work or they raise on cash-producing crops, we say they are modern. Their territories have become “developed.” By this measure and others, the South was modern and developed by about 1960. (117)

What was called “modernization” destroyed self-sufficiency (and community) for most people in the Deep South. Finding facts to understand or verify the decline of the dominant subsistence-farming life in the Deep South is like shooting fish in a barrel. Small farms gave way to corporate operations with huge holdings and huge yields, and we have the modern food production system.

If this hasn’t made sense yet, consider this: why do you think that “Southern food” consists of the dishes that it does? Were Southerners trucking in exotic ingredients, like squash, okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and peas on gas-guzzling eighteen-wheelers? No, those vegetables came out of the ground where people lived, so that’s what they ate. In looking at historical studies of sharecropping, one of the most offensive directives that some landowners made of their tenants was forcing them to plant cotton all the way up to the house, without leaving the tenants room for a garden plot. That garden produced what they ate to stay alive so they could keep raising cotton! Heck, even when I grew up in the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, the sunny corner of our backyard contained small garden where we grew tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and green beans, and if my mother and grandmother were going to cook big, they went to the Montgomery Curb Market to get fresh local vegetables, no question. Compare that to today when, according that Health.com article, four-out-of-five Alabamians don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables!

So is it even possible to change back to this kind of eating? I say yes. (But just the eating part— who would want to change back to sharecropping and mill towns, bare feet and hookworms, outhouses and one-room schools?) On the website localharvest.com, dozens of CSAs appear in the listings for the Deep Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The site lists seven CSAs near Montgomery, Alabama where I live, and Montgomery has three well-stocked farmers markets.

Using my own hometown as an example again, Montgomery is also the site of the Hampstead Institute, which is now run by Edwin Marty, founder of Birmingham’s Jones Valley Teaching Farm (formerly Jones Valley Urban Farm); both endeavors serve a variety of functions in educating people about how to make better food choices and eat better. Edwin told me not too long ago that Hampstead’s long-term goal is to have every fourth-grader  in the state to visit Hampstead’s teaching farm on a field trip at the same time they’re in town to visit the Capitol and the Archives. He and I both agree that, if you show people that they don’t have to eat crap, a lot of people will choose not to.

Though it isn’t easy, it is possible. If you don’t believe it, you can also take a look at the new documentary by filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace, Eating Alabama. In a noble experiment, a few years ago Grace and his wife set out only to eat food that had come from inside of Alabama. I found out about the project when I interviewed Grace in early 2010 when I was doing research on the state of Alabama for a fellowship from the Surdna Foundation. His recently released documentary shows some of the difficulties and rewards of changing our lifestyles in a way that requires that convenience no longer be the greatest priority.

In early 2010, I also interviewed David Snow and Margaret Ann Toohey, whose Snows Bend Farm is a CSA near Tuscaloosa. One of the things that they talked about, which stood out and which I still think about, is that CSAs are important because many of us may want locally grown, fresh produce but not everyone can up and start a farm. They reminded me that land, equipment and seed all cost a lot of money that most people don’t have, and most people’s jobs would not allow them to invest the time and work that would be required to grow all of their own food. Farming takes a lot of hard work, they reminded me, and to grow enough food to feed a family isn’t feasible while also holding a forty-hour-a-week job in a modern cash economy. That’s where CSAs are such a great option; it’s possible to buy a share of a harvest, which funds the farmers’ work up front and provides fresh seasonal produce for the customer on the back end.

Returning to Wendell Berry’s “The Pleasures of Eating,” to end the essay he provides some guidelines on how to eat better if you live in a city or other location where growing your own food just isn’t feasible. Rule #3 begins: “Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home.” And Rule #4: “Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.” Simply put, don’t go to national chain places, but instead, as the Alabama Farmers Market Authority would tell us, “Buy Local.”

One of my New Year’s resolutions for the past two years has been to do a better job of buying local produce at farmers markets, and I’ll admit that I haven’t done such a good job. I will also admit that my children, who are ages 7 and 4 now, love fast food as much as any kid in America, and it takes real resolve from my wife and I to stay away from that stuff. I want not only to eat better food myself, but also to raise them with the kinds of habits that will carry them through “Fast Food Nation” with fewer bad habits. My wife and I once chipped in for part of a share from nearby Red Root Farm, and though we loved having it, our laziness got the best of us and we let it go . . . Shame on us! 

This way of eating is also a way of life rich in benefits that many advocates would proclaim we are denying ourselves; going back to Wendell Berry, in another essay from The Art of the Commonplace, “People, Land and Community,” he writes:

Without community, the good work of a single farmer or a single family will not mean much or last long. For good farming to last, it must occur in a good farming community— that is, a neighborhood of people who know each other, who understand their mutual dependences, and who place a proper value on good farming. (189)

After all, where do Southerners gather when it is time for community? Around the table for a meal. Whether visiting with family after church, celebrating a holiday (like Thanksgiving today), getting married, or mourning the loss of a loved one, Southerners wouldn’t dream of doing those things without food. The first thing that any Southern woman is going to ask when she hears about an occasion is “What can I bring?”

Just imagine the improvements to the health of the people of the Deep South if we cut out all that damned fast food, processed crap from chain restaurants, boxed and frozen dinners in the grocery store, and other greasy fried foods. We in the Deep South could change our lives, our communities and our economy by returning a way of life that our forebears once enjoyed without question. However, I do have to admit my own weakness for one terribly unhealthy food that I don’t ever intend to give up: really good, freshly cooked fried chicken; it’d break my heart to give it up totally, so I won’t do it— but I also know that I can’t live on it. (Even though I wish I could.) But I would tell anyone, do a little research on fast food and processed food and it’ll help you stay away from it when you see what it’s all about.

Now, get off the computer! It’s Thanksgiving! Go spend time with your family.

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