Photo courtesy of Daphne Hougard
Recently, I've been playing with a soapbox idea about the misunderstanding behind the meaning of CSA. And for good reason...Just the other day, I saw a poster where a farmer was promoting their CSA program but no where on the poster did it explain what CSA meant or stood for.

Why? Because most people associate CSA with meaning "the delivery of a weekly box of vegetables" where a person pays in advance to share in a farmer's risk and celebration of that season's harvest.

But...CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" which is a lot richer and goes lot deeper than just a  vegetable subscription. I'm not knocking veggie box programs and farmers' markets. They are responsible for the sustainble, food movement in this country but its time to take it to the next level and truly support our local agriculture by providing small-scale farms with a variety of distribution models beyond direct-to-consumer but to wholesale markets like restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals. The whole purpose of the food movement is to get regionally produced, ecologically grown food to more people. To do that we have to make it available. Veggie boxes don't work for everyone and farmers' markets are only one day a week. The answer is not more farmers' markets. Farmer's markets require a lot of a farmer's time and money. And only 5% of people shop at farmers' markets. We need to get good food in more places everyday! By opening up wholesale markets to farmers and ranchers, we start to build a regional food system and we  rely on what's available within 100-150 miles. Small farms can't compete on price and volume in a national food system but they can compete on a regional level. It creates new opportunity for them, more healthy food for us and money circulates locally for stronger, more resilient economies.

...That was meant to be an introduction for an article I wrote about how veggie box programs kick-started the food movement. It just hit newsstands in the recent issue of edible Reno-Tahoe. Read the article, "Behind the Box" by clicking here. When I was writing the article, it got me thinking about this misunderstanding of CSA's. I've developing this theory "behind CSA's" ever since. And I've realized that the essence of "Community Supported Agriculture" is building a regional food system. Similar to what we are doing at the Tahoe Food Hub. The introduction above is really the third development of this theory. The second draft appeared on the food blog Handpicked Nation on January 3rd.

Recently, I was asked to be a guest blogger for Handpicked Nation, an authentic food & farm site. I wandered around in a field of possible stories and settled on one of my hot new topics...the realization that  CSA doesn't stand for a "weekly box of veggies" but rather "community supported agriculture." And what does it mean to help farmers get their food to market before it gets to your fork. Below is an excerpt from the article and for the complete article click here.

“Farm-to-Table” has recently become a buzzy catchphrase. It has done a wonderful job of promoting the harvests of small-scale farms and helping people conceptualize a local food system. But before food can go from farm-to-table, it has to get to market. And that can be a huge step for a lot of small-scale farmers.

Many farmers have great business and marketing skills but all lack time; the time to get their food to market. It takes a lot of energy and money to cultivate and maintain retail relationships, develop and disseminate promotional materials for direct-to-consumer programs, not to mention the travel required to attend farmers’ markets. Infrastructure needs to be established to help small-scale farmers get over this hurdle. And food hubs provide this opportunity. They not only help farmers get over the farm-to-market hurdle but help the sustainable food movement get over the proverbial Big Ag hurdle.

For the complete article go to Handpicked Nation...

What was a Friday lunch with the Director of City Fresh, Nick Swetye, rolled over into a Farm Bill roundtable with Ohio Senator, Sherrod Brown.That's pretty much how it happened...Nick had a 2pm engagement and asked if i would be interested in attending. It took me all of a split second to respond, "Yes!"

Senator Brown was fresh off the plane from Washington D.C. and President Obama's job speech the night before. In preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill, the Senator was here to get a better understanding of the food climate in NE Ohio. He wanted to hear first hand from his constituents what they wanted in a farm bill. Brown's office had gathered a diverse group of area representatives including institutional food buyers, area grocers, farmers' market coordinators, university ag extensions, growing co-ops and food policy coordinators. The Senator opened the conversation with, "I want to make a Farm Bill that works." He went on to explain that it is not just a bill for farms but a bill for "nutrition, health, food, energy and environment."

Everyone had gone around the table giving the Senator their 1-2-3 pitch when he threw a curve ball, "why aren't there more African-Americans at this table?" He was right! Black residents represent the majority in Cleveland and many of its area suburbs. And one of Cleveland's biggest concerns is addressing access to healthy, quality food in the inner city. The picture above captures the moment when Senator Brown (middle, blue shirt) set the stage for farmer, Eric Hooper who was seated to his right (orange shirt). Up till know, the comments carried the usual, but accurate, food rhetoric, i.e. redesign the subsidy program, repurpose urban areas for farming, jobs, etc. Eric immediately gained the room's attention with his straight talk, "hire people within the system to build the system." Mr. Hooper was loaded with all kinds of great ideas like a Peace Corps type initiative that trained urban farm programs. He held the floor for about five minutes leaving a powerful energy floating in the room. He used the word, "tenacity," a few times to drive his point. I liked that! Here is a picture of Eric admiring the community garden outside the facility. You gotta love it...raised, straw-bale beds placed directly on the blacktop. Just another example that you can grow food anywhere. You just need "tenacity!"

The location of the roundtable could not have been more appropriate....the newly acquired home of Communty Greenhouse Partners (CGP). It's the building and grounds of an old church on Cleveland's east side. About three years ago, the Cleveland diocese closed 40 Catholic churches. St. George's Lithuanian Church was one of them. It fell quickly into disrepair. But under new ownership there are huge plans for this 67,000 sq.ft. space including a commercial kitchen on the first floor, food co-op on the second and a community center on the third where the church parish congregated. CGP's ultimate dream is to become Cleveland's first food hub aggregating locally produced food and distributing it out into the community. Ideally, food suppliers would be a myriad of area farms, urban gardens as well as a place for backyard gardens to sell their produce and create a small business for themselves. The master plan (pictured below) shows the main building and surrounding grow areas with greenhouses, orchards and raised-garden beds. The project is the vision of Timothy Smith. Timothy was transformed by one of the very food films, FRESH, that encouraged me to purse a career in sustainable food systems. I'm very impressed with what he has been able to accomplish in just two years. I hope to be as successful. One of his staff members stood up during the meeting with a strong reminder, "Sustainability projects need one-time catalyst money to get off the ground but then they are true to their word and are, as the name implies, sustainable!"

After the meeting adjourned, I asked the Senator's staff how they would glean key items for inclusion in Mr. Brown's Senate speech. I got a wishy-washy, political answer but I'm confident that the Senator had a few, solid take-away items which resonated with everyone's comment...small and mid-scale farms can not compete on price and volume in the traditional food model. But a regional food hub could aggregate local food so it could compete. The last to speak was City Fresh's own, Nick Swetye. He summed it up for the Senator in two simple bullets, 1) create food hubs and 2) generate consumer interest and demand.

I had dinner with some girlfriends this evening on a backyard deck with Lake Tahoe in the distant background. Not a bad spot! Each of us catching the other up on our summer adventures against setting skies. They were eager to hear about what I've been learning on the farm and in my ag courses.

One friend had just returned from an island vacation with her extended family. She agreed with the concept of the food revolution being more of a social movement and liked the idea of creating more food hubs to help organic farmers get their food to like-minded markets and finding ways to preserve farmland and get more people farming. "That is all well and good," she said, "but how do you broach the sustainable food subject with friends and relatives who either don't see or care about the value of our food?"

People want to buy their Wish-Bone salad dressings and Gogurts. They are familiar, cheap and convenient products. It can be a touchy conversation and one you want to go well so you both feel happy with the outcome. I've thought about this conundrum many times thinking how we need a set of communication tools and tips to help convince friends and relatives respectfully but swiftly. We can't be judgmental in our approach because people will turn off but we also need to start seeing light bulbs go off at a faster pace than they are currently in order to increase the groundswell for a healthier tomorrow. Times a tickin! If you've got ideas, send'em my way. Please!

Most people will agree that pesticides are bad and chickens should have room to roam but they still buy chemically drenched veggies and factory farm eggs. Why is that? For one, they don't see the direct connection to the food they are eating. It's not like they are picking the eggs up at a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) and see the conditions in which their food was raised. But the bigger reason is...Price! We are a price driven society. And even though food is one of life's three basic building blocks along with water and air, we want food to be cheap. But we will pay high prices for other consumer goods like fashion, electronics and toys. If we measured status by what we ate and not how we looked, the tables would be turned. We need to view ourselves not as consumers but as eaters (just learned this concept in the book I'm reading entitled, Farmer Jane).

Bottom line, food needs to be a priority. We make our children a priority. The food we feed them and where it comes from should be a priority. Once upon a time, we use to spend 25% of our salaries on food now it is less than 10%. If we reprioritized our buying habits, we would spend less on dressing our lives and more on nourishing our families. And if worried about price, then we should find ways to not waste so much. 40% of the food produced in the US gets thrown away either before it reaches the market, at the market or in our homes. If we shopped more consciously, we would throw less food away in our homes leaving more money to buy food grown sustainably.

I was sitting on the back stoop at friend's BBQ the other night typewritering through an ear of corn. I commented on how much I love corn-on-the-cob. Others nodded in agreement mumbling words of happiness through kernel laced grins.

Then it occurred to me...We don't mind respecting the seasonality of sweet corn anticipating it's summer on a stick flavor in July & August; so why do we expect to see tomatoes in January or Asparagus in October? We don't expect to see a ears of corn piled high in December.

The irony is...corn is one of the world's largest commodity crops and is available all year-long in the processed form yet we dance and sing at its arrival each summer like a long lost friend. Granted, corn for eating and corn for high fructose corn syrup are different varieties, but the principle is the same...we know how to respect seasonality so why can't we do this across the board for all fruits and vegetables?

Want a few more fun facts...sweet corn has more sugar than starch and must be eaten rather soon after harvest before all that sugar turns to starch. Corn for processed food is made from a tasteless field variety like "Yellow Dent Corn" which has more starch than sugar and must be processed in order to be edible..

It was like Christmas morning when I opened my Roots of  Change list serve today. Just yesterday, I was commenting on the shortcomings of a tax on junk food to subsidize healthy food. Today, I learned about the NEW California Fresh Works Fund which is a public-private partnership that will loan $200 million to increase access to healthy food in under served communities in California and is endorsed by nutrition crusader, Michelle Obama.

The program's goal is simple..overcome food deserts - places where there are no grocery stores but only fast food and convenience stores. The fund will finance healthy food stores and eateries to set up shop in critical food access areas. Food Sovereignty efforts like this mend a broken food system and restore a basic human right to quality food. Businesses interested in applying must adhere to a set of guidelines which prohibit no junk food aisles and require a disproportion of healthy food. Better diets will lead to lower cases of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It is the ultimate health care bill...preventive care. The added bonus...the project will create, or secure, over 6000 jobs! See, we can have economic stimulus and eat healthy too! Win-win!

The program, however, doesn't talk about where the food will come from. Again, the word "healthy" is used very loosely. Replacing junk food with pesticide ridden fruits and vegetables can still cause health issues and can still hurt the earth just as much as junk food...the same chemical inputs are used on a mass scale. Yes, whole foods are better than processed foods but if grown conventionally it is not sustainable.

We can't rebuild Rome in a day so let's start with programs like Fresh Works and use it as a conversation starter for changing the whole food system. Let's use the "works" model to create even more green jobs by helping people become organic farmers who supply the food to these once food deserts. Now we're cookin'!

When creating a sustainable food system, what we are really proposing is an alternative food system. Applying a sustainability model to the current conventional model is like shoving a square peg into a round hole. Moving food through a national supermarket structure is contradictory to sustainability. It marginalizes seasonality and nutrition and doesn't make local economies more resilient. Before we can transition, we need to create a alternative model to which we can transition....a paradigm shift!

It is going to take BIG picture, outside-of-the-box thinking like that of Larry Yee and Jim Cochran. They share a vision for a new food future taking a "whole systems" approach which will relocalize our food system. At the core are several mid-sized, organic farms each producing a variety of different crops versus large, industrial-sized mono-crops. The engine which drives the model brings these diverse products to a regional hub where it is aggregated for local, not national, distribution to area markets. "Local" is the operative word. And in being local, players both producing and marketing work together and in cooperation. They are partners in community and representatives from this community serve as a governing body to steer the system. Other key elements include, a land trust which preserves farmland and helps local food producers acquire their land and a community bank which provides financial services and invests in area enterprise. It is dramatic shift from where we are now but it's the change we need. Larry and Jim are realistic and have set an attainable first goal of providing locally sourced food to 10% of the US food market by 2020 starting out in five pilot cities and eventually having cooperation between neighboring regional hubs as more develop. Plans are still in their infancy stages but a dream team of strategists and doers have been assembled. The ball is in motion. Look for it in an area near you...The Food Commons.

I want to hand a blue ribbon to all the programs and initiatives I've been learning about this past week but my  favorite so far is where we visited today, ALBA! The ALBA growing and education center is in the fertile valley of Salinas, CA. Bottom line, we need more of these centers all over the country, the world in fact! ALBA stands for "Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association."

Here's the skinny...ALBA not only trains people how to farm organically but helps them get started by leasing them subsidized land from their 110 acre property. The biggest risk in starting to farm is taking that financial leap of faith. Even if you can afford to buy land, you have a huge learning curve in developing best practices. ALBA's collaborative approach provides continued field education for all its graduates. At ALBA, you start with 6-months (150 hours) of training then lease .5 acre at 20% its market value. After five years, you are paying 100% of the market value but may have increased your capacity to 5 or 7 acres. It is an "incubator" for small farms. The model is brilliant! But that's not all...ALBA also has a distribution component, ALBA Organics, to help their farmers get their food to market since marketing can be the toughest hurdle of all - you may be a good farmer but not a very good sales person. ALBA Organics is the engine which funds the entire project first paying their growers for their harvest and returning profits back into the program.

Many of the graduates who lease land from ALBA opt out of ALBA Organics. With the help of ALBA staff, they develop their own economically, viable businesses with CSA's and farmer's markets...like Pablo Perez of J & P Organics . We had the fortune of meeting Pablo in the fields and hearing his story...Pablo had started out working in a chemically, dependent nursery years ago later leasing .5 acre and then 7 acres where he grew flowers conventionally. When his irrigation pump broke, the landowners refused to help fix it. $70K in lost income later and Pablo had also lost his lease and was back working in a nursery. His American dream crumbled. A couple years later, Pablo's son, Juan, was on field trip to ALBA and saw an opportunity for his family. He encouraged his dad to take the bi-lingual course offered at ALBA. Together five years ago, they formed J & P Organics. Juan handles the marketing and Pablo farms their now 5 acre plot which supports 500 CSA shareholders. It's enough to bring a tear to your eye. But not to Pablo. He is all smiles and full of stories. Including this story, or is it a parable...

A man asked Pablo, "Why are your strawberries $1 more than that guy's strawberries over there?" Pablo replied, "Because mine are organic and I don't use chemical fertilizers and pesticides." "I don't care about that," the man responded and proceeded to buy the cheaper, poison laced strawberries. A few days later, than man came back to ask Pablo why the strawberries he bought were dry and tasteless. Pablo explained, "because the chemicals take out all the nutrients and flavor." And with that, Pablo cut one of his strawberries open and handed it to the man. It was juicy and exploding with taste. The man never bought a conventionally grown strawberry again. The End!

Photo: Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA's Farm Incubator Program Manager, giving us a tour of ALBA's farmland and Pablo Perez of J & P Organics telling stories.

I can remember my Mom using this saying, “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Pertains to how high corn should be if planted at the right time. I guess in some ways I’m knee high with where I am at on my food journey. But I’m still a long way till harvest. One thing I am though is detoxified. I dig greens and eat lots but I’ve had a salad at least once, if not twice, a day for the past month. It’s lead to less wheat and even dairy in my diet which is huge for me. I feel great! "Fasting" has never been for me. I know they work but not eating as a way to cleanse your body scares me. But by just eating a little cleaner, I feel like I got rid of all kinds of nasty toxins in my body. Now that I’ve been off the farm a couple days, I’m seeing some of my old carbo-loading ways starting to creep back in. I can see the hurdle for many people...as soon as the good food is not as accessible, you take what's available and convenient. It demonstrates that we have to make conscious choices and asserted efforts to get happy food for our families. We make sure we leave 10-minutes early to stop and get coffee; we make sure we aren't late to a doctors appointment. We also need to make sure we take the time to seek out food stores and restaurants that support our body and our community.

Idea for the day…Reflecting back upon my time on the farm, I feel very fortunate that I could volunteer full-time like I did. Working day after day allows you to become immersed noticing the little changes and connecting with the staff on a deeper level. It definitely enriched my experience. I would love for more people to have this same opportunity. Not just for their own self-development but so more farmers would have access to more volunteers. So here’s my idea…Some employers are starting to offer paid internship positions where employees can volunteer with enviro or social non-profits. What if farms were added to the list?? Employees could apply to their company’s internship program and get 2-4 weeks paid leave to volunteer on a farm. For a local foodshed to become more resilient the whole community needs to get involved. If businesses could subsidize a volunteer program for local farms, we could get more organic food on the table and more healthy, quality food to market.

There are lots of buzz words out there to catch consumers attention making them think they are making the right food choice...all natural, organic, sustainable, healthy, local, cage free, free range, GMO Free, minimally processed, no antibiotics used, grass fed, grass finished, hormone free, etc... There is a great article on HuffPost Green which helps demystify many of these terms. Most are used to green wash a product making you think that you are being eco-conscious. Speaking of green, there's another overused word that has lost much of its true meaning. But for this discussion, we'll keep it too food labeling. Let's take a few...you can have local but it may not be organic, you can have grass fed but it may not be grass finished because most cattle producers have to sell their happy cows to feed lots because there aren't enough USDA approved slaughterhouses. Slapping GMO free or hormone free is a lame attempt to make a product look good. It doesn't say anything about the way in which the vegetable or animal was grown or raised. Were pesticides used? were they humanely treated? etc... My personal favorite is "minimally processed." Not sure if that one helps or hinders. I see that and all kinds of ugly images come to mind. Something tells me those two words are not meant to go together and the marketing team who came up with it should be fired. For the consumer though, it's a clue into how that food was produced. There are of course the easy targets like "all natural" and "healthy." If you fall for those, be warned...Remember the potato chips that admittedly caused gastrointestinal-itis? They called themselves "healthy." That's how easy it to throw otherwise harmless words around. But in my opinion, the most misunderstood terms are cage-free and free-range. Bad news...both are bad. Cage-free just means that instead of stuffing eight chickens into a cage they are left in a concert like mosh pit inside a indoor soccer ring. And free-range just means there needs to be access at some point to the outside in the animals life. In the case of chickens, they don't get access till they are like eight weeks old and even then it is just a small lot attached to the hen house. They don't have a concept for the outside by this point and thus never use it. If I see "pasture raised," I feel a lot better. It at least gives me a glimpse into the animal's life. Meat, dairy and eggs are typically pretty easy to source locally if you do some research. Dig little deeper and make sure you agree with the farm's practices and your golden. We all have our own perception of what "being healthy" means. Bottom line...with every food choice, ask yourself the question, "Where did this food come from?"