Help a food community

I live on the West Coast of Canada.  I buy my produce and meat in two on farm shops locally, and at the farmers market during the summer.  While I do buy some things direct from the farmer, like a side of pork occasionally, for the most part, I appreciate the convenience offered by the market and the two farm shops.  Each of the shops sells primarily their own produce, but will sell other products on consignment from other growers.  It’s a win for everyone that way.

Through the blogosphere, I’ve “met” many other farmers, food producers, and local food advocates.  One such is the blogwriter for the Wildramp Market, way the other side of the continent from me, in Huntington, West Virginia.

Why would a small market out in WV be interesting to anyone outside that area?  Because we’re all on common ground.  Local, sustainably produced food, available and accessible to everyone – isn’t that the goal of so many of us in the business of local food?

Wildramp Market is a great model with a ton of potential for duplication.  The market is run by volunteers, and product is supplied by local farmers and food producers – it can and does change from week to week with the seasons.  There’s a lot of heart and soul, time and energy going into that little market, and success is snowballing.

To that end, they’ve entered into a fundraising challenge, hoping to be able to develop some needed infrastructure (like a cooler).  They’re in the last few days of their fundraising effort, and only need about $300 to meet their modest goal.  They’re not asking for millions.  Just a few dollars here and there from people who want local food to be in the shopping baskets of the average consumer.  If, like me, you’re one of those people, check out the link below, and read Wildramp’s story in their own eloquent words.  I donated a few dollars a couple of weeks ago, and have watched the balance of pledges growing steadily every since.  Go check out the link.  Kick in a few bucks.  Help the cause of local food.

Where’s the Beef?

A more or less annual event is taking place this Friday at our church:  The Chili Cook Off.  There’s a trophy of sorts, as well as glory and honour for the winner, and to be a taste tester, you buy a voting form and go around sampling all the different pots of chili.  It’s a delicious event, my husband’s favourite church function of the year.

This year, if you’re submitting a chili, it cannot contain any beef.  Yup, no beef in the chili.  You can make it vegetarian or with chicken, but no beef.

If you’re Canadian and reading this, you’ll be surprised that I was surprised by this announcement.  If you’re from elsewhere, here’s the scoop:  we’ve had a major beef recall over the last 3 or 4 weeks that escalated from a few stores, a few labels and only ground beef the first week to basically all cuts of beef from a particular processing plant in Alberta, bought within the last 6 weeks and sold in almost every grocery chain in Western Canada.

I kind of knew about the recall.  I saw a headline in the paper at work one day, and a colleague mentioned she’d bought some beef that she now couldn’t use.  I’d had a smug moment when I was able to say that I’d only been buying pasture raised, local beef for the last couple of years.  With our freezer full of home grown chicken,  30 pounds of sausage from a neighbour’s pig, a couple of packs of chops that are all that remains from the lamb we bought last year from a local farmer, we really are pretty immune from food scares like the one affecting everyone around us.

So even though I registered the fact that the recall had happened, since it didn’t affect my purchasing decisions or what was in my freezer, I basically moved on and forgot about it.  I don’t go near the meat department of the grocery store, so I didn’t see half empty refrigerator cases which might have reminded me.  I haven’t eaten at a McD’s in about 5 years, so if they have notices posted about the safety or otherwise of their hamburgers, I haven’t been there to spot them.

Consequently, when the organizer of the cook off reminded me in an afterthought kind of comment – oh, don’t forget, don’t use beef in your chili – I was taken aback.  Why? I asked.  It was her turn.  Duh.  There’s a meat recall.  I know, but my beef is from a local cow, processed just a couple of hours from here, it’s fine, I assured her.  She gave me a look over her reading glasses.  Maybe so, she said skeptically, but even if we let you bring it, no one would eat it – it’s just too dangerous.

Dangerous?  Up to now, I hadn’t really taken on board just how big this meat recall had become.  It reminds me of my Navy days when we learned that the reason mine warfare is so successful is because you only have to threaten your enemy by saying you’ve mined an area, you don’t actually have to place a whole lot of mines.  They will still have to proceed very cautiously, sweeping in advance of their shipping to clear the area of potential mines, which they have to do whether you’ve placed 2 mines or 20.

Of course people feel threatened by the food system when recalls like this happen.  We’re trapped behind a mine field we created for ourselves.  When the meat from a couple of hundred cows is mixed together so you can’t tell which one contributed the e coli, that’s a mine.  When you package up that ground beef, and send it out to a dozen national grocery chains, where no one has any idea who bought it or from which outlet – that’s a minefield.  Meat from healthy animals you raised yourself to your own high standards,  or from a farmer you trust, processed with good sanitation and by careful hands, in small batches, or one carcass at a time – that’s no mine field.  That’s a clear channel.

I’m lucky to live where I have local alternatives to big industry meat.  I’m lucky to be able to afford to pay for those choices, though I should add that by doing so, I’m making other choices about what I won’t be spending money on.  I keep using the word luck, but it’s really about choices.  Some of us have more than others, true, but everyone should exercise their right to choose as much as they can.  The almighty dollar is what drives the big ag food machine.  How people choose to spend their food dollars is what determines what goes on the grocery store shelves.  If enough people refused to buy a certain product or food, the store would soon decide to use the shelf space for something else that people will buy.  I realize the big flaw in this is the issue of scale – it’s just not practical to suggest that a city of 500,000 can all find a local farmer to buy their side of beef or pork from, even if they wanted to, or could afford it.  But I stand by my argument.  The way food is processed has to change, and the only way that will happen is if the money stops flowing toward the model currently in use, and people start agitating for something else.

I sold out of chicken this summer, oversold in fact –  customers got two that were meant for family consumption.  My neighbour sold out of pork.  Our products are not cheap in comparison to the grocery store price. So why do we sell out?  Because there are plenty of people out there who understand the value of what they’re paying for.  I buy pasture raised beef for my family from a local farm.  It’s not cheap, but to paraphrase the L’Oreal commercial – we’re worth it.  And the bottom line? My family can have chili made with beef, without any fear.  That’s our choice.

Want to know more about the big beef recall?  Here’s a link to the government page:

Summer Barbeque “Wet” Coast Style

Monday was the start of our summer barbeque season.  Invitations went out last week, and while the forecast didn’t promise sun,  it didn’t mention rain either.  By Monday, that had changed – rain was a given, possibly high winds and even a chance of lightning.   We were undaunted, spurred on by the fact that the party would be standing room only in our smallish home if we crowded all our guests inside.  Fortunately, seasoned campers that we are, a solution was at hand. 

These apple trees are about 100 years old, hollow to the core.  Those are my teenagers up the ladders.  Their Dad is supervising, from solid ground you notice, having sent the expendable troops into danger.  However, all was well, and we were ready when guest began arriving.  For the first couple of hours, the worst that happened was the occasional sprinkle of rain.

Before the meal, the appetizers were a huge bowl of Okanagan cherries (the kids commandeered it), and 2 dozen devilled eggs – Random Photographer does a mean batch of these (and had the sense to save 4 for family later).  We provided locally grown grass fed beef burgers, locally made weiners for hot dogs, homegrown lettuce, local hothouse tomatoes.  Guests provided:  a salmon one of them caught that morning off the west coast of the Island (that was soooo good), another family brought sausages made from their own pigs, and another brought a marvelous chicken noodle salad, made with one of our chickens.  Dessert was a homemade, homegrown rhubarb crisp, local strawberries and ice cream and a homemade chocolate cake.  I think you could say we ate well.

Not long after everyone finished eating, the rain started to get serious.  The kids went inside – the 6 boys to watch a movie (the new Muppet Movie, which I’d borrowed from the library – I can guarantee there are laugh out loud moments, because I heard them from outside).  the four eldest girls (who are the reason the rest of us are friends – the girls all started in kindergarten together and are entering grade 12 in the fall) disappeared to talk the way teen girls do, and the middle group, more girls – pulled out a bunch of board games and spread themselves out in the living room.  Which meant that all the adults had room to relax under the tarp outside, tea and coffee in hand.

For our barbeques, especially larger ones like this (we had 28 guests – 15 kids, 13 adults), we ask people to bring their own dishes, as we don’t have enough to go around.  Having learned last year that some people interpret this as paper plates and plastic cutlery, I added in the invite that my garbage was full (actually true), and they would need a plan to take any paper plates home again.  I think the two families who did bring paper stuff were a bit surprised that I meant it.  Now they know.  It just makes so much sense – they can wash them and pack them in my kitchen, and it saves a bunch of garbage.  I also don’t provide paper napkins – I have a stack of cheap cloth ones (and these are not hard to make, either).

There has been a fire ban in place here since May 1st (with this never ending damp weather?), and this has been consistent over the last few years, so my husband bought a gas campfire a few years ago.  It runs off the propane bottle for the bbq, and is very efficient.  I would far rather have a regular campfire, which would also be more resource wise, but this is still pretty good.  The dog has to be held the whole time, since she has no idea that her tail is part of her until she sweeps it through the flames.  Speaking from experience.

Did I mention that in my optimism for this event, I planned a water fight (bring your own water gun)?  The boys went at it with great enthusiasm – in the rain.  This is the youngest member of our group (age 7) warming up after.   It was a great evening.  Good food, good friends, a campfire.  The lightning never materialized, there was barely any clean up, and the best part is:  there are leftovers!  Even in the rain, it’s a good way to start the summer.