This is the fourth in a series of "Who, what, when, where, why and how." The quick answer to when we need to worry about our food was yesterday. Thus, if we are trying to catch up to food supply concerns we should have developed forty years ago, we might want to consider a quantum leap forward to get ahead of the curve. In other words, instead of trying to educate the public, trying to secure a clean food supply by consumer pressure, or setting up buying clubs and co-ops, we might want to consider going right to the source. This is the soil itself. A line from an old Grateful Dead song, "Mountains of the Moon" (Aoxomoxoa, 1969) is relevant here, "The earth will see you all through this time."
I started questioning my eating habits and the food supply in general over forty years ago in 1970. At the time, I was running a head shop and selling underground newspapers. I was also leafletting and selling books and buttons for the first Earth Day. I had been involved in the antiwar movement for two years, since I got out of high school, and I clearly understood the ramifications of Kent State. In May, 1970, it became obvious Nixon and his thugs were more than willing to kill anyone who opposed them rather than bow to pressure to end the War in Vietnam. Even white suburban college kids were not immune. During that summer of 1970, it became obvious that going to a demonstration or working on alternatives to the mainstream death culture didn't go far enough. Marching against the war and then retiring to a McDonald's for some fries and a coke afterwards seemed foolish and hypocritical. Articles in the underground newspapers I was reading weekly gave me new information about the link between the power structure of empire and the food system. It was all part of the same sickness. So I decided to make a change.
I saw a nutritionist and she gave me the usual mainstream view that I needed a gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day. That meant I needed 72 grams per day. I started doing some research and found varying interpretations of what I actually needed in terms of protein. One research article even suggested us Americans consume too much protein. This was something I could see all around me. At the time, it was common to have meat three times a day, much more frequently than the rest of the world. I decided not to worry about protein. I still ate some milk products, so I was probably getting enough protein. The real key, however, was when I started eating whole grains. This was made easier by a group of people who had started People's Pantry in Minneapolis (where I was living). These folks bought grains and dried fruits and nuts and beans in bulk and sold them by the pound at a slight markup (10% I believe). You just went there with your pennies and nickels and some paper bags and got brown rice for 12 cents a pound. Other items were just as cheap. This was NOT some organized effort. It was just a few "dirty hippies" doing the right thing.
At this time I also joined the Eco-op, which focused on organic produce. This was a basic buying club that required coordination and some capital but relied on volunteer labor for distribution. I was happy to help sort out the orders each week and we got an awful lot of good food that way. Later on, in 1971, my roommate and I (and lots of other people!) worked on setting up the first food co-op in Minneapolis, North Country Co-op. This integrated the cost plus 10% bulk food concept into a storefront. The co-op also served as a gateway for folks to learn how to eat properly, as well as a gathering place for integrating the separate strains of the Movement (yes, I do mean the Movement - even though Steve Martin did a very funny skit about it on SNL some years later). As one of my friends said at the time, "See that guy over there digging rice out of the bin? If it wasn't for the co-op, he'd probably be dead of an overdose by now."
Over the years, being a vegetarian and eating whole foods became integral to my health and well-being. It kept me sane and increased my awareness of how the political becomes the personal becomes the professional. I moved to the country in 1971 and went on the road in 1973, eventually becoming a migrant worker. I dropped vegetarianism in 1981 after 11 years because I was tired of turning down free meals and it didn't seem so bad to have the occasional meat dish. However, forty years later, I still eat little meat. It is mostly for flavoring. The real gain is the intersection of the soil and what I put into my mouth. This started with becoming a vegetarian in 1970. Even though I grew up on a farm, I didn't really put things together until 1970. Cataclysmic changes, oppression and recession, expansion on the road and contraction in the time of Reagan - all had their part to play.
So what's the point? One of the criticisms of the food co-ops from the early 1970's was that we were working backwards. Instead of starting with retail, then a warehouses, then co-op farms, then a trucking collective, we should have started with farmers, like the Finnish co-ops from the 1930's used as a model at the time. This was a valid criticism, even though us "dirty hippies" didn't have much to work with and had to start wherever we could. Stuck in the city with pennies and nickels in our pockets from selling underground newspapers or candles and beads on the street, we could fit in the interstices of the mainstream culture. The counterculture had creativity and human capital, but little money capital. The best way to do it was they way we did it. However, we cannot forget the lessons of the past.
Now we have some capital and some land. We have the ability to organize and utilize vacant lots and backyards of our neighbors (our neighbors don’t hate us anymore, for one thing). We can do things from the ground up. As we grow food, we are creating new wealth and new capital. The primary economy is where capital is created. [Sidebar: The secondary economy is trading goods and services for money. Zero-sum economics is a valid concept in the secondary economy, as well as in the tertiary economy - using money to make money.] Farming/gardening creates food from the soil. The other ways to create capital, like logging and mining and oil drilling, are not sustainable and are running out. Growing food can be sustainable, although mainstream industrial agriculture certainly isn't.
Since we are in a worldwide downturn that will probably continue to descend into global recession and then global depression, it is our responsibility to come up with solutions. One thing we can do is make the quantum leap forward. We don't have to relearn the lessons of the last forty years. We can go right to the soil. The time to worry about your food was yesterday. The time to grow your own food is now.