“I learned from my two year’s experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply off a dish of purslane ( Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. I give the Latin on account of the savouriness of the trivial name.
And pray what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet-corn boiled, with the addition of salt? Even the little variety which I used was a yielding to the demands of appetite, and not of health.
Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries; and I know a good woman who thinks that her son lost his life because he took drinking water only. The reader will perceive that I am treating the subject rather from an economic than a dietetic point of view, and he will not venture to put my abstemiousness to the test unless he has a well stocked-larder.”
~Henry David Thoreau
Farmers markets are ideal gathering places within a community, a custom which goes back to the beginning of humanity. It is a niche where like-minded enthusiasts can gather and accomplish a variety of community goals centered around fresh food, gardening and farming. Farmers markets are becoming more and more popular across the country, especially with sustainable and organic foods (see links). At the Hillcrest Farmers Market, one of the largest in San Diego, many of the patrons are very active in their community and are at the market to connect with the farmers.
Although the idea of going to local farm markets is an ongoing tradition dated to our ancient origins, this part of the modern food revolution is notable because our society has strayed so far from a local-based economy. The local concept goes well beyond the economic model by getting people to the farms, teaching them how to grow food, how to eat it and, in the process, getting their hands into the soil. The result is a healthy respect for the land, the food and how it affects our physical, mental and spiritual health, thus helping people understand a natural definition of quality. When a “local” mindset is incorporated into a daily lifestyle, we connect with the planet, food and people in a way rarely experienced in modern urban society. Like a human version of being “a fish out of water,” we are not in our natural element until we shop, eat and live locally.
With globalization, many of the products and foods which were formerly regional specialties are now in our backyard or at least in a market down the street. Learning about the cultures and traditions connected to these foods allows us to experience them in a similar manner as the original. This is not only aesthetically important, but intertwined on every level with our health. At the Hillcrest Market, there are a number of opportunities to interact with farmers and their land in order to learn and connect. Here are three options in no particular order:
Sage Mountain Farm offers the Inland Empire CSA where one can invest in the land, usually through a weekly fee, and get a share of the organic produce from it. CSA’s are becoming popular across the country and in San Diego, offer a real year round alternative to regular grocery shopping while dealing directly with a farmer.
La Milpa Organica is a 5 acre organic farm near Escondido. Owner Barry Logan is one of the agricultural sages of the Hillcrest Market and he offers student internships to help people learn about organic farming. He also has a CSA and hosts a potluck/open house every third Saturday of the month.
San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project holds classes is a variety of sustainable practices such as grey water systems and building adobe brick ovens. Their main mission is to help people understand and get involved in sustainable food production. Their mission statement says: “San Diego Roots was formed to strengthen the local food movement in the San Diego region and to create a sustainable urban-rural partnership that brings healthy local food to our communities and sustains the working landscapes and people that feed us.”
So, the next time you are at a Farmers Market, don’t just look at the fruits, vegetables and food products—look to the farmers. By working with them and learning what they have to teach, the degree of separation between you and the land is minimized. The food you prepare and consume will have added meaning, leading to better health and overall well-being.
Throughout human history the best foods have been local. Regions, cities, towns and villages would have their own specialties with differences in climate and soil creating subtleties in food, often sought after for the rare experience. The current slow food movement embraced by chefs the world over, also recognizes these subtleties and strives to preserve the culinary heritage of unique indigenous foods. In addition, the new movement toward creating local small farm suppliers for goods originally from other areas is encouraged. With globalization, people take their cultures everywhere and their food can follow them in the form of seeds and nearby craftsmanship. This is not a new story. The ancient Silk Road was the first historically notable and documented large scale exchange of goods with trade between Asia (India and China) and the Greeks and Romans. Sugar reached Europe in small quantities as a food for the elite along with spices and cooking technologies. At the same time in the Americas, corn made its way up from South to North America as well as a robust trade in shells, feathers and other sacred goods, eventually spreading throughout the Americas. The age of exploration, particularly the 15th and 16th centuries, changed local food forever.
Spices, seeds and plants crisscrossed the seas and within a few years chiles were common in India, potatoes in Europe and squash, beans and tomatoes all over. Back in the Americas, olives, pigs, horses and coriander were introduced and often adopted by force. The pace of change often moved quicker than technology could keep up. Empires invested heavily in food. It was the key to economic power. Sugarcane was planted in the West Indies, Corn in Africa and the southern hemisphere was exploited for the abundance of meat. Formerly the food of the rich, these foods became available to everyday people and changed the perceptions of diet and health. The ancient traditions of balancing the diet were based on what was local and indigenous. With the influx of these former luxury goods, popular culture adapted to include and subsequently rationalize the use. Indeed, in preserved forms, these foods frequently prevented famine from poor crops, the scourge of local economies which depended on yearly harvests and kind weather. So we have a double-edged sword. There is no “best of both worlds” in this story. It is a story of adaptation and survival, but with a dark side that is driven by the inevitable greed of economic based decisions, which has also resulted in modifying the health of a good portion of the planet.
The phenomenal advances in scientific understanding hardly offset the fact that we have created an epidemic of obesity, an alarming rise in allergic reactions and a society that is blind to what they eat. Nothing exemplifies this more than the meat industry, which is a systematic mechanism of death to innocent lives as well as a major contributor to the destruction to the environment. It is quite shocking that the concern for global warming and reduction of the carbon footprint have not addressed this significant impact. Decisions that affect the health and well being of people are made for economic reasons, instead of looking at what is best for people. But, this too is not new in our checkered history of toil and struggle. The question is whether a vision of a bigger picture will prevail. Let us step out of the darkness and look at the positive opportunities the food system has provided. More than any other time in human history, any food product one may want is available almost anywhere in the world. This is an amazing achievement, giving the ability to choose eating what is good for us, to create balance and to eat what we desire. The choice is now ours and ours alone.
With the proliferation of local farmers markets, small organic farmers and groceries that buy local, fresh high-quality food is usually right around the corner. The economic cycle has come full circle to help people realize that quantity does not necessarily equal quality. In addition, discovering the rich heritage in our culinary traditions adds depth to our food and meaning to life, creating a win-win scenario for local farms and the health of the people around them. People have also rediscovered gardening and the bounty the earth can provide.
Not since the Victory Gardens of World War II has growing vegetables and herbs been emphasized, or considered as fashionable. Putting fingers in the soil and nurturing plants to bear fruit is one of the great unsung pleasures of life and is local food at its best. I can attest to this and always plant a garden wherever I live or work. It is a simple activity which bonds us to ancestral heritage along with the life-giving energies from the earth, sun and moon. Try it, you will like it!