IDSP Update: Salinas

By Anita Joshi; MPA student and IDSP16 fellow

Eating Locally, Thinking Globally

The month of January has been full of surprises of all types. I have been working with the organic farmers in Salinas to try and build more sustainability into the local food systems that most of us often take for granted. The farmers of course, being on the front lines, are fighting the battle from dawn till dusk. I call it a battle because that’s my impression of it at times, given how the many internal and external variables in small-holder farming function. Since I’ve started working with the farmers and produce distributers, I’ve learned that our food systems have become more complicated and less transparent over the past few generations. My grandparents were consumers in a totally different system than what it is now.

I started working with these farmers after they had gone through the farm worker-to-farmer program at the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association. My idea was to develop a plan to help connect people that produce food with the people that consume the food. This was an alternative to the corporate tyranny that most farmers have to deal with because our food system has evolved to prioritize convenience for the consumer instead of social justice within the system. So I started working to create a produce co-op and identify ways to help connect the farmers to new market opportunities. My vision was that this would benefit everyone, from improving farmers’ access to markets to giving consumers access to the freshest, vine-ripened (as opposed to shelf-ripened) produce. One farmer, Mr. Gallardo, originally from Oaxaca, grew strawberries whose intense flavors reminded me of the old Skittles commercial; “Taste the rainbow!” (because I’m pretty sure rainbows taste like the sweetest organic produce known to man.) With this level of quality, one would imagine the price would be sky-high. The reality was at the season’s peak they sold for barely $1 per pound. Not nearly enough to even pay the workers or pay for the land, water, and other inputs.

After many conversations and “A-ha!” moments, I learned that one can never underestimate how strong of a pull convenience has for consumers. This is understandable; who doesn’t like convenience? But it seemed to me that even consumers who wanted out of this system didn’t have a lot of choices, or even the awareness of- or connections with- the local food producers. Yet, this was the modern food chain, and I was trying to dismantle it one organic tomato at a time. The corporate super markets have held on to the status quo with a clenched fist. Even when the system makes no sense to anyone.

A couple months after I first became acquainted with the farmers, I realized the upshot of all that I had been doing and trying to figure out. I had had a frustrating past few weeks with my consumer networks falling apart and realizing no amount of social media posting would change corporate hegemony, I vented to myself: “People! You’re rejecting the sweetest Salinas Valley Sun-riped rainbow heirlooms?! Why don’t you all just go to SaveMart and buy cardboard-flavored tomatoes!” Then one day, while walking downtown, someone I know on the street yells “Hey Anita! You got any organic tomatoes yet?” Surprised, I inwardly jump a little jump-for-joy at the sound of someone asking me about organic produce. “Soon!” I say. “I hear February or March, when the rain lets up maybe.” And I relish in the notion of someone seriously thinking locally and seasonally, instead of only thinking about Trader Joes. Maybe the beginning of a ripple effect. Or not. It was just one person. But that’s where it all starts.

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