WerstWorld Post #2

Update on the past few months:


Six months ago, I wrote about missing fruit. I wrote about my connection to the story of my food carrying weight for me. I wrote about being excited to share the food projects I was starting to work on. I still feel that way. I can’t convey properly how much fruit represents in possibility and abundance and sunshine and those quiet moments of summer when you eat a perfect stone fruit bursting with juice. That’s all still real. With almost a year under my belt in Minnesota, what also seems real is the magnitude of difficulty it takes to address equity, compensation and availability in our food system. Minnesota is one of the most progressive agricultural states - and I’m still saying this. If you’ll humor me, let me visualize to you how I feel:

It’s May 21st, and we’re going on day four or five of cool days full of rain. Last week, I finished The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earth Worms. Maybe it’s because of the book, but as I bike or run on the trails and roads right now - I see nothing but worms. Everywhere. Even when it’s dark out, and I can’t pick out which lines shimmering in the slick asphalt are sticks, leaf stems, or worms. And as I go through trying to avoid them all or wishing I could stop and move them to safety somewhere, I couldn’t help but think of this being eerily similar to all the various ways I feel overwhelmed by the work the needs to be done in our society to enable a just and fair food system. (How’s that for a view into how my brain works?) The worms are everywhere. And the work is everywhere too.

 

Similarly, when I think about our food system, I think about the individuals in need of affordable healthy food. And I think of the farm workers exploited and endangered with limited opportunities to organize or advocate for themselves. And, I think of the small food processors who aren’t interested or can’t afford to purchase sustainably grown food or aren’t able to use it for processing due to lack of processing facilities willing to take raw farm products. Each of these thoughts has my heart, and the overlapping stories within them pop up around me so frequently, I find myself more overwhelmed than when I ride through the worms. Which cause to pick up? Which food injustice fight to fight?

 

I could spend a whole night picking up worms and moving them to safe soil, but I would end up exhausted and stopping my momentum towards my destination. Similarly, these past few months have encouraged me to look for balance of priorities in order to maintain momentum for what I can control or contribute towards. It’s been a challenge particularly because much of my work with small business processors sees primarily non-local, conventionally sourced ingredients come into our kitchen each day (I’ll write more about this soon). I find myself part of a project that aims to uplift minority and small business owners, which can lead to a more equitable business economy, but sees little cross over of what I loved in my job in Chicago: support of local sustainable farmers.

 

When I worked in farmers markets, I would strongly state their purpose in overhauling our food system. Farmers Markets are a way to encourage exploration of where food comes from and allow consumer feedback directly to farmers and processors in a meaningful way. Each week, I saw the impact of one person’s exposure and revelation at knowing more about the food they purchased. At their best, these markets also address food insecurity when placed in areas short on fresh food retailers or when they offer double value programs aimed to make local produce and other eligible items affordable for those with limited food budgets. Now separated from this experience, and discussing the system with friends who aren’t part of my work, I question my role and impact. I see issues I care about going unnoticed by non-food friends in a world of Instagram feeds with kittens, unicorns, bikes or vistas of mountains. Finding a way to break through is yet another nightcrawler scootching it’s way alongside my bike tires and breaking my heart.

 

Without demand for a more equitable and fair food system and the willingness of consumers to pay, I feel like the work done on the ground level at Farmers Markets or cooking classes is just a drop in a bucket. For the past few months, the balance I’ve been trying to find is not only one of choosing battles, but how to quell the inner frustration of caring so deeply about the impacts of food on animals, the earth, and (most importantly) the people who touch our food. My latest food project is one of inner conflict - of finding peace despite this feeling like nothing is really making an impact in a way that will incite systemic change. It’s a balance I’m still perfecting. Just like dodging worms (or maybe it was a stick?)

WerstWorld Post #1

For years, I’ve had friends asking me to write about a very large, overarching aspect of my life: my need to preserve food grown locally as a means to support my local farmers and in turn, fair worker and environmentally responsible practices. And for years, I’ve countered that any simple Google search will show a huge number of other people doing exactly that (so many mason jars).  I've started this website to compile my current efforts with the knowledge I gained while in Chicago. Food begets memories and my food has become a common reminder that I’m living with a little bit of my head and heart in two cities (Chicago - my former home and Minnesota - my current one). 

When I eat a frozen blueberry now, in October, I still remember crying over them back in August when I had to find the time to freeze them despite feeling weighed down by a really sad first visit back to Chicago, family trauma, and news that the job I moved away for was probably ending. But, I taste and recall visiting a blueberry farmer in Michigan in spring 2014 and learning the berries from each shrub are established before fall the prior year. And I think of the 61st Street Farmers Market I managed in Woodlawn and feeding almost-bad berries to the chickens with youth from Blackstone Bikes last summer. I think of Chicago and the food community I miss. In other words, food body slams your emotions, and it’s not just the berries that do it.

Since moving to Minnesota in June, almost every piece of produce I touch reminds me of the Michigan, Wisconsin, or Illinois farmers that I knew before I moved. Recently, it was when I frantically realized I needed tomatoes before they vanished from the local farmers market. The farmer I got them from forced me to take a 25-lb box of tomato seconds because “they’ll just go bad anyway” - making me recall the time in 2013 when I hauled 80-lbs of tomatoes home on my bike.

I had a foul language laden freak out in June when I found out that peaches and stone fruit aren’t available in Minnesota at most direct from farmer venues. The local Co-Ops carry commodity organic produce from California or Mexico, even when local farmers are growing them and often these same items are rotting in the fields because they can’t find a buyer. (The rationale here being a barrier of existing logistics and lack of consumer awareness that they can’t have everything they want 100% of the time, so the stores would rather purchase from suppliers they know will have the product).

But, then there are celebrations that solidify my decision to move too. Like finding out rhubarb is basically an all you can eat buffet in Minnesota, from spring to late fall (guess what y’all are getting for Christmas). Or how small farmers are supported through like-minded associations that foster culturally significant practices and foods. And the deep validation and celebration of finding projects to join that are exciting and would never have found me if I hadn’t already been here working alongside proactive organizations in an area where regulations aren’t created out of fear of the unknown.

There are some amazing food projects starting out and I’m really happy to be part of them and share them on this site. If you had told me last November that within a year I would be back in Minnesota and writing about food as a metaphor for navigating relocation and professional/personal whirlwind, I would be sending you a large chunk of money right about now to make good on a bet that you were wrong. 

Last year’s Kim Werst would have also argued to anyone who would listen that maintaining transparency and a connection to where one’s food comes from, along with making it accessible financially could be a reality, given that a person took the time to prioritize and budget accordingly. That’s still true. However, I want this post to end with an acknowledgment of the privilege my recent background held in that belief and set the tone for this site as a resource and sharing platform and not a tool for convincing others to feel how I do. This move, away from my weekly exposure to farmers I knew and loved and into a world as a consumer only, has reiterated to me the great deal of time and money it takes to stick to my convictions.  With the cooler temperatures moving in, and a solid 15% of my preservation plan left to complete, I like the idea of starting at this time of year. So here we are.

Stay tuned and go hug your local farmer for me. They grow your future food memories with love and at this time of year, they’re real tired.