Dear Shopper: I am well aware that much of what you read these days about the good reasons for shopping at farmers’ markets has to do with the goodness of the products that are available whether they are plucked from the earth or the oven, but today I just want to remind you about what you don’t get when you shop at a farmers’ market. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then we should be in love with what we are missing at the market.
We have all been reminded, however belatedly since the first cases of salmonella were reported in May, that commercial egg houses that look a lot more like itty-biddy cages to me are prime venues for the development of salmonella and other bacteria. And what they feed to the chickens to minimize that risk is not anything you and I want to be eating either.
I have written before about the hormones fed to cattle and the arsenic in chicken feed that is polluting the water supplies in areas that support large commercial chicken breeders — all in the name of producing more meat faster than the normal growth rate would allow. And we all know now how the prevalence of antibiotics in our food and water systems is creating growth and development abnormalities in our own children. We know these things; we know they are given to the animals because the conditions under which we permit them to be raised is abominable. And yet it persists.
Those of us who shop at markets — and in Fairfax County it is barely 1 percent of our population — are making choices that involve some inconvenience and cost. Obviously we were inspired by something we learned along the way to those choices. What worked for us? Though we may be a small number, we are diverse, and I have a feeling that we have been influenced by a variety of concerns through a variety of conduits. I would like to see more leadership on this issue at the local level, but around here it is hard to find.
The question remains: Are we like sheep? What can we do — those of us who have seen the dark side of our food supply — to inform others? I am personally a big fan of Jamie Oliver and what he is trying to do in this country by focusing on school lunches. It’s a good strategy at its core, but we really need his help at the grass roots; we need him to come into our communities and equip us with the tools to spread his word for him and to take action at the local level.
I have written before about the bill that was introduced in Richmond last year that would have provided incentives to school systems all over the state to buy more local produce and other products for made-from-scratch lunches. One gentleman on the committee that considered the bill cautioned that buying local would cost too much in times of shrinking tax bases and budget-cutting, and no one challenged him; not one person on that committee knew that this is not a fact in evidence or that many school systems across the country and in Virginia are proving every day that it does not have to cost more to feed our children healthy meals at school. So the bill died in committee because no one knew the facts.
We know the facts or we would not be shopping at farmers’ markets; we need to figure out how to share them with others and how to educate our future leaders, if not the present ones, about these facts. Smart Markets is working on planning a policy forum to develop some initiatives to present to our local and state officials. I hope to see a tremendous response when we announce the forum. It seems that it is up to us, you and me, to spread the word. If we don’t, who will? And if we don’t we will affirm my greatest fear: that this is an elitist enterprise that will never have an impact on food policy in this country.
You would think that 500 million recalled eggs would create more than just a rant in a newsletter — don’t bet the farm on it. Or better yet, put your mouth where your money is and help spread the word. Bring a friend to a market, sign the citizen’s petition in support of raw-milk sales, speak up at a PTA meeting about the lunches served in your school or, even better, organize a protest. Remember those? If they could once end a war, they can certainly begin a food revolution in this country. Keep me posted on your epiphanies and your activities. We are here to help.
See you (and your friends and neighbors) at the market!