Bourgeois Happy Feeling

Heard that song by The Submarines in the latest iPhone commercial yet?  I absolutely love it, but a song that could very well have been the soundtrack to the Story of Stuff being used to promote something as consumption-rific as an iPhone is more than a little ironic.  But so is alot of our sustainability stuff these days.

Take my “local food” for example.  I grew 1500#’s of potatoes under the auspices of The Movement and Being the Change and 85% of them ended up being consumed in a members only country club restaurant.  Of course that is not a bad thing – my spuds offset 1200#’s of imported industrial spuds, but it still feels wrong that I sold to them because few in my home town were interested in or able to pay what I felt were fair prices -the going rate at the Madison Farmers market- for my crops.  But for me, sustainability takes into consideration not only the environmental and economic aspects of an idea, but also the social ones.  If my enviro foods are only economically viable for the rich, it sits rather bad with me that this forces the poor to buy the “potatoes” sold at the supermarkets for $.19  a pound while I sit aside with my Bourgeois Happy Feeling of Being the Change.

This all came crashing starkly into my reality today when we stopped in to adopt a few families for Chirstmas, which also shares space with a local Christmas Neighbors chapter and the local Food Pantry.  While she filled out some paper work, I swung into the Food Pantry.  I gave about 100#’s to the Pantry last year, and frankly they seemed a little flumuxoed by a local person bringing in non spoiled produce – the majority of their offerings are expired boxed grocery store goods.  It almost felt like I was a burden to them by giving them perishable products.  Nothing like a recession to change things though. 

Their needs, like all Food Pantries, are up to the point that they are now serving 1000 people.  This is in a town of 12,000.   I think in “potato” terms so I asked how many they go through – they limit it to about a pound per person per month.  That is 2 potatoes per month.  We come close to that a day in our house – and that is consuming high nutrition heirloom varieties, not Idaho Trash.  That hit home.  

I asked what they had trouble getting last year, and he answered immediately -carrots.  Carrots?!  I then resovled to support the food pantries in a much bigger way than I had ever intended -not as an after thought like last year, but as a planned coordinated effort by myself and my network of other local organic growers.  Much of the organic growers I see plant what I consider Bourgeois plants -Fennel, Broccoli Raab, Mesclum mixes, scallions, etc.  Why?  Because we have to make a buck in our labor intensive enterprises and the Rich Can Pay.  Next year I will still sell 1500#’s to the members only club, but I promise here and now that much more than 100#’s of spuds will go the growing ranks of the undernourished in Jefferson County Wisconsin – home to some of the most fertile farmland in the world.  WTH is wrong with our economic/ag system?  

It is very easy for me to get lost in the High Ideals of Sustainability – in saving the world for my kids- and lose sight of that 10% of my neighbors can’t put food on the table on a regular basis.  I made a killing on potatoes this year -essentially paying off the Grillo in one season.  I need to give more back next year.  For the near term, ecological businesses will likely cater primarily to the well off, as mine does.  Only those well above median incomes can afford to pay $2/lb for potatoes and $125 for a rain barrel, but I need to ensure that I am a better social citizen and turn more of the money back into the community. 

Plant a Row – or several- for the hungry next year.     


9 Responses

  1. Good for you. I’ve had a similar dilemma recently and came to a similar conclusion: selling to the well-off lets me give more to the less well-off. Just gotta keep an eye on it so it doesn’t become selling out.

  2. I live in the city and will be trying container gardening for the second time ever, instead of being able to give produce to my local food bank I’ve committed to buying two quality canned or boxed goods each week. It won’t add too much to my weekly bill and will further help those desperately in need. I would encourage everyone to do the same.

  3. Garden for the greater good. I think you have hit on the truest expression of what sustainable society looks like. Sustainable is not just going green, its changing from a me society to a we society.

  4. Count me in, I have experienced the same kind of experience as you have.

    While I was still living in France, I was part of a charity giving food to the hunger (that’s change the way you think, just a couple hours a month give you another point of view of your world). When I moved to the US I gave a couple pound of heirloom Tomatoes to the local food pantry (they were wondering what I was doing). This year with all the rain and then our move, I haven’t been able to take care of our community garden plot after we moved. The people in charge of it have harvested all the carrots, beets, onions and green beens and the blueberries. The people at the Saint Vincent de Paul food pantry sent me a note telling me thank you for all of the goods. This year e will move again but my wife agreed on the fact that I will grow a new garden nothing big but big enought to bring some food to the food pantry, the farmer who rent the plot agreed to harvest it and bring it there, I am already planning the garden (2500 sq)

    Count me in for potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and green beans

  5. I’m going to do something similar, but on a much, much smaller scale.

    I decided to grow potatoes in buckets next year. I put an ad on craigslist asking for free 5-gallon buckets, or the buckets that kitty litter is sold in. One man wrote to me offering buckets, and it became clear to me that he was disabled and not well off. He’s given me these buckets a few time, and each time I pick them up, I’ve given him some stuff from my garden, which he was thrilled with.

    Next time he has buckets for me to pick up, I’m going to ask if he has a balcony. (He lives in an apartment building for the elderly and disabled.) If so, I’m going to take him some buckets with seed potatoes in the spring, so he can grow his own. It makes me so mad that so many people have so little food security in this country with some of the best agricultural soils in the world.

    Good message in this post!


  6. amen, hallelujah, etc.

  7. I love the Plant a Row idea; I am looking at expanding my gardening space to about three times what it was last year; I don’t know if my food bank allows perishables though. I do know they don’t allow home canned goods which is a shame — as long as I get the jars back I could do a lot of donating!

    I’m doing something similar with my potatoes as Kate — I will bury the buckets part way into the ground for protection from the heat but I ordered seed potatoes that will be delivered soon; I am so excited about growing my own and hoping for a bumper crop! I haven’t had home grown since I was a kid.

    I have had those ethical dilemma thoughts about selling to the rich also; and I also came to the same conclusion. I think it ultimately comes from the way we finance agriculture and how we view it in this country. If it was viewed as essential work, as nursing or doctoring, it would be valued more, and people would prioritize food more. Until the feds quit funding megafarming corporations I don’t think it will change; until people get poor enough that they also make the attempt to grow their own they won’t understand how essential farming is either.

  8. Such thoughts as yours, Rob, and of other commentators cause my brain to hurt.

    On the one hand, the Robin Hood notion of growing/selling to the rich to subsidise charity for the poor seems a grand idea – almost naughty!

    On the other, the idea that we (it includes me) feel some guilt because we are producing food that is only saleable to the people who can afford our prices saddens me. Not just because the so called rich get the ‘good stuff’, but because of the irony that it appears that it is only the rich who can afford those goods that are more closely priced in terms of their true production cost (ie, the price includes the externalities that more industrialised agriculture does not). A further irony, of course, is that there is a strong chance that those who can afford such things have gained their wealth from not counting the true cost of the goods whose production, distribution and consumption has led to them possessing the wealth that they use to purchase your spuds.

    As always, you provide much Food for thought.

  9. Thanks again everyone for the comments. Bryan – I had not thought of it as Robin Hood (not really stealing am I?) but I do think we need some decent folk heroes these days. Joel Salatin comes to mind, as does Will Allen from Growing Power closer to home.

    The power to create a surplus of food without using chemicals should not be considered extraordinary – but these days it is a significant enough feat to stop conversation cold a the lunch table at work (you grew HOW MANY potatoes?!). And my Father is always fond of saying that “with great power comes great responsibility”.

    Our Ag system is all messed up and people in rural counties surrounded by millions of acres of fertile ground are going hungry while the rich get richer. America’s poor are the only ones that can simultaneously be undernourished and yet obese. Not sure we can start a revolution, but I am sure that all of us can use our powers for good.


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