Archive for ‘employment’

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

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January 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Local: Worktrading for a food revolution

Back in 2006, Michael Pollan wrote a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a movement was born. Everyone wanted to eat local and organic food, and those who could afford it, did. In the past few years, farmers’ markets have taken off, kids started to dream about being farmers when they grew up, and a certain segment of the populace bought “Eat Local” tote bags and started shelling out $5 for a bunch of carrots.

On the backs of that movement rode the do-it-yourself locavores, the victory gardeners, the Michelle Obama crowd of herb pots and backyard chickens. Meanwhile, the trust fund kids started taking unpaid positions on farms on their summer breaks, reveling in fresh air, barn dances, and home made sauerkraut. Then most of them graduated, realized that there’s still no money in farming despite our nationwide romanticism for the lifestyle, and found jobs as fry cooks.

I’ll admit to being privileged enough to have spent time in both groups. Then I graduated, and after working a few seasonal jobs, was thankful to find regular work as an institutional cook. I’m very glad I have a job, but being part-time excludes me from the $5 carrot group these days. I’ve always rented and move too often to have a very productive garden. Luckily, I landed on a viable scheme to eat well without paying for it, and get my farming kicks in, too. Since, in the past three years, both the tote-baggers and college grads are finding the locavore dream more and more difficult to carry out, it may be a scheme to consider.

This Thursday found me, like most Thursdays do, squeezing the goats out at NettleEdge Farm. Since last spring, I’ve been coming to this sprawling homestead about once a week to do a few hours of work in exchange for goat milk, eggs, veggies, seeds and whatever else comes out of the earth or animals.

The farm is kept by Rachel and Keith Debuse, their son Keagan, and resident garlic expert George with help from a few others. Located just north of town in that nether region between suburb and country – an estate home on one lot, a Christmas tree farm on the next – the place is chaotic but comfortable. Decades of accumulated farm equipment, inherited from Keith’s family, rusts in nests of blackberry vines. Compost heaps dot the farmyard, protected from the destructive claws of chickens with makeshift fences held together with baling twine. Goats destroy everything, so their sheds are practically coming apart at the seams despite constant repair.

In other words, it’s a paradise, greener and quieter than the busy street I live on. Dogs and poultry run free. Nobody cares where you throw your apple core or park your wheelbarrow. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the family’s army-feeding garden and trees laden with pears, figs, plums and nuts from summer through fall.

My Thursday morning routine at NettlEdge is simple and rejuvenating – clean up after the goats, feed ‘em, milk ‘em, scratch ‘em behind the ears, find more food for them to eat. In the summer, it’s sweet-smelling grass that we cut by hand from the field, or blackberry vines, a goat delicacy. In the winter, it’s chopped up squash, garlic tops, cabbage greens, and hay, all grown on site. (In addition to goat food, the farm produces an excellent garlic crop, which they sell at the Kiva market in Eugene.)

What’s in it for me? I can never decide if the sanity or the sustenance is more valuable. I frequently bike the six miles to the farm along the Willamette River, my head full of worries and confusion on the way there, singing a song and plotting an elaborate lunch for myself on the way back. Although the goat-caretaking routine is easy on the surface, every day I learn something new about their diet and personalities under the watchful eye of Rachel, the unequivocal Goat Mistress.

Of course, there are more tangible forms of payment involved, and it’s a good thing, too. Even though I’m always glad when I get there, it would be hard a lot of days for me to drag myself out of bed and out into the rain without that literal carrot dangling in front of my nose. Instead of a taxed-to-death pay check, I participate in a form of bartering known as a worktrade – trading work for farm product.

At first, Rachel and I were fairly exacting when we measured out my time for her goods. Raw, fresh, organic goat milk goes for about $15/gallon in these parts. It was mine for an hour and half’s work. Another half hour, a carton of eggs. Etcetera. After we got to know each other, however, the employer/employee dynamic slowly shifted toward that between trusted friends, and the things we offer each other have become more elemental than work and food.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to come up with this scheme. Bartering (the exchange of a good or service for another good or service) predates currency; it probably even predates language and culture. A few hundred years ago, taxes were paid in sheaves of wheat; a hundred years ago, doctors and accountants would accept a few chickens or a share of a pig in exchange for their services. Those people were probably smarter than us. Every time a tangible good or service is converted to cash, some of its intrinsic value is lost, pocketed by the trader. Cash traded for goods also drops a bit of that value. Sure, cash is more convenient. But convenience is a luxury that fewer people can afford these days.

Food, especially good food, is expensive. It’s expensive because a whole lot of time and energy go into producing it. Right now in this country, unemployment hovers around 9% of the population (nationally, it’s 8%).  In other words, 9% of the population, and probably more, has an excess of energy and time. Granted, a good chunk of those people, for one reason or another, don’t have the capacity to convert that time and energy into work, but if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do. I’m also guessing that most of the farmers in your area are starving for time and energy. You can put it together from here.

There are plenty of reasons to worktrade, and the more I do it, the more I find. First off, thanks to the connective power of the internet, good arrangements are easier to locate. I found Rachael and her goats by posting an ad on craigslist one day, lonesome for the goats I left behind at my first farming job. I posted my request to worktrade for milk in the “barter” section, and a friend of Rachel’s spotted it and emailed me. After interviewing each other, we went to work, and we haven’t looked back.

After spending some time trading this way, I began to see the act of the barter unfolding constantly around me – needs and wants implicitly stated and filled. The goats, in exchange for food, shelter and backscratches, give us milk, meat and manure, which is traded in on the field for vegetables, which in turn shared amongst the human and non-human herds on the premises. Plants need the opportunity to propagate themselves; we want their seeds, fruits, leaves and roots. When I first began worktrading, replacing cash with other items of value felt strange to me. Now it’s the social construction of money that seems unnatural.

Bartering is the only economic exchange that enables both parties involved to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s not always practical, but when it is, it’s possible to trade one good for another and for both of you to walk away better for the exchange. When cash is involved, intrinsic value is lost. The value of money itself is completely reliant on your ability to get a good deal on something else. Standard retail markup is 60%.

So for the individual with a wealth of time and talent but few “job” opportunities, what options exist to begin converting that energy into sustenance?

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a loose organization of farmers and farm workers around the world. WWOOFers receive housing and/or food at farms in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. Farms are listed online, but you must first pay a membership fee to see what sites are available in your area. It’s usually used by people traveling through, not locals in search of an ongoing worktrade relationship.

I worked under a similar program in British Columbia the summer after graduating college. At Collins Farm, I worked for food, housing, and education – a crash-course in organic farming and making a small family farm survive. Here in Eugene, I’ve worktraded for workshops, rent, and art, doing everything from painting walls to writing. A local organization called Emerald Valley Time Exchange helps people connect to others for trading services (you mow my lawn, I’ll walk your dog). I’ve never used it, but it sounds like a good resource.

It’s not just here in progressivesville that worktrading is accepted practice. The site BarterQuest allows you to trade your skills for items, or items for items, or skills for skills. I couldn’t find any farmers on there, and most people seem to do things remotely (across the US), but it could be a good model for a more local resource. I just joined BarterQuest, and will post if anything exciting happens.

Recently, I brought my friend Cynthia with me on a Thursday morning. A “recovering” vegan, she tried her first sip of real milk and swooned. We spent the trip back to town brainstorming ways to help her find a similar worktrade arrangement. Like me, she works part time, and she isn’t already part of the farming community. She doesn’t have farming experience, but is willing to learn.

What resources exist for people like Cynthia? Unfortunately, there’s no one stop shop, and maybe there should be. An online resource that connects farmers to people willing to commit themselves to a steady worktrade, for free, could do a lot to empower disadvantaged people in our community and relieve the food insecurity that faces a third of the population here (according to Food for Lane County). Farmers would benefit from having one or two committed laborers who are invested in the land for reasons beyond dollar bills or this year’s trend in summer jobs.

A wider adoption of farming worktrades could be an effective way to buck agrobusiness and make real food part of our lives again. Working for food does have its limitations, for individuals and for businesses, but long before the word “locavore” was invented, everyone was one. In times of economic instability, barter was trusted over the going currency. What do we have to lose?

Had a great experience WWOOFing or worktrading for food or anything else? Want to launch a foodtrade site? Let me know via the comments section or email. Thanks!

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December 29, 2010

>Oh, SNAP: Do food stamps make you fat?

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I have a confession to make. For the last six months, I have been using food stamps. It’s easy, and I like it. I get $200 added to a little blue card every month, which I use like a debit card at any convenience store, supermarket, health food store, Asian market, or even farmer’s market within the state of Oregon that I please. Basically, I eat for free, so long as I don’t want to go to a restaurant or the hot food bar at the grocery store.  

This might not seem like much of a confession. After all, about 20% of Oregon residents receive food benefits, and along with unemployment checks and the occasional visit to the food bank, it’s how a lot of Americans are scraping by these days. I took an Americorps job in June, and under this government-funded program, participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the title that has replaced the phrase “food stamps” in government-speak) is all but expected. With my initial paperwork, I was given a letter addressed to the local branch of the Department of Human Services, which administers food benefits. To paraphrase, it said “Tuula works for Americorps now. We don’t actually pay her a living wage. Sign her up for food stamps, stat.” Everyone I worked with got the same form, and one-by-one, we trudged down to the DHS office, answered a couple of basic questions about our living expenses, and were handed the magical blue cards.

I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot outside the building, trying to adjust my frame of mind enough to allow myself to go in. Like a lot of people in this country, especially those with immigrant families who lived out some version of the American Dream, I considered accepting any form of federal welfare to be right down there with begging on the street corner. As I sat watching the rain dripping down my windshield, contemplating the course of my life, I started feeling very sorry for myself. Don’t I have a college degree? I wondered. How did I get here? What have I done wrong? Then I remembered: I wanted this. I wanted to do the low-paying, environmental, non-profit, social-service work. It makes me feel good. Besides, the economy is falling apart. I’m lucky to have a job of any kind, and it’s not like I’ll be a welfare bum forever. I pulled my jacket hood over my head, grabbed my letter, and went out into the rain.

That was six months ago. My Americorps term of service up, but I’m still on SNAP as I job search and try to avoid moving in with my parents. As difficult as it was to take the dink to my pride, I’m glad I did it. Not only did having my food bill taken care of allow me to save money while earning less than minimum wage from Americorps (another valuable experience), it also gave me some insights into the economics and geography of how we eat.

Because the SNAP card works exactly like a debit card would, it took me a while to notice any changes in my food buying habits. In fact, using EBT is quite discrete – at the store, they ring up your groceries, you swipe your card, selecting “EBT” instead of “debit/credit”, enter your PIN, take your receipt (which gives you the balance left for that month) and you’re on your way. As someone with a lot of initial guilt and shame surrounding the use of food stamps, I was grateful for this hassle-free process. I didn’t stand out.

That was the grocery store. The farmers market was a different story. After I found out that I could use my EBT card at the Lane County Farmers Market (for some reason, they don’t really advertise this feature), I took the next beautiful Saturday afternoon to stroll downtown with my grocery bag and pick out some fresh, organic veggies. I met my friend Tara, a fellow Americorps member, there. First, we had to visit a little booth, crammed between tables overflowing with produce, where a woman ran $10 off the balance of our cards (they do it in $5 increments) and gave us each ten wooden tokens that she said could be exchanged dollar-for-dollar at any of the farmer’s stands. Unfortunately, she told us, we couldn’t receive change in cash, so if we bought something for 50 cents, we would have to hand over a whole token. We started elbowing our way through the market throngs, and I found some carrots and a basket of strawberries, handed over five tokens, and didn’t get hassled. Tara, on the other hand, just wanted strawberries, and went to a different farmer for them. When she tried to pay, though, the woman behind the table frowned.
“Can you pay with something else?” she asked. “We get charged a fee to exchange those.” In the busy scuffle of the market, Tara didn’t feel like putting up a fight and holding up the line, so we dug through our pockets to produce some change. The woman didn’t seem much happier about the pile of nickles, dimes and quarters she provided, but what did she expect? As Tara pointed out on the walk home, if we had the option to pay some other way, we wouldn’t be on food stamps.

The more I thought about it, the more it irritated me. The whole point of SNAP is to reduce some of the inequity in our food system and give low-income people such as ourselves the option to eat fresh and nutritious food. If farmer’s markets charge their vendors a fee to accept their version of EBT, and farmers are reluctant to sell to individuals using the system, the whole point of the program is lost. I stuck the other five tokens in my purse, where they are still, because the next time I went to the farmers market I forgot to bring them. Clearly, this system needs some work.

But I didn’t shop much at the farmers market this summer anyway. I tried to keep from using my own cash for food and keep my monthly grocery bill within the allotted $200, which was easy as long as I didn’t spring for such items as $3.50 baskets of local strawberries (or meat, which I don’t normally eat anyway). I still bought mostly organic, but local foods were out of my price range. I also found myself cooking a lot more. I couldn’t justify the expense of eating out when I had free food at home, and I also knew that if I spent my food benefits on frozen pizzas and prepared deli items, my account would be empty a lot sooner than if I bought the raw ingredients. Without kids to take care of and clean up after, or a second job to pay a mortgage or whatever, I had the time for this (although, living alone, I got pretty tired spending every evening at home in front of the stove). Of course, if I did have other responsibilities in my life, the quality of what I was eating wouldn’t be nearly as good as it was. Also, I would need more than $200 per person, especially if there were meat-eaters in the family.

So if you’re busy, and you don’t earn much money, participating in the SNAP program makes a lot of sense. Only problem is, most people are much more likely to use food stamps to buy fattening, unhealthy foods that are cheap and easy to prepare. The result? People on SNAP are much more likely to be overweight or obese than those who aren’t, according to some scientists.

Thinking more about grocery transactions recently has also helped me notice where various food outlets are placed. I usually shop at small natural-foods stores, which are concentrated around the center of town where housing and businesses cater to those in the upper income levels. Head toward the outskirts of the city, and you won’t find those cozy shops stuffed with bulk foods, fresh veggies and organic cheese. In fact, even the large grocery chains start dropping off, and for every Albertson’s or Safeway you’ll find three or four Dari-Marts, 7-11s, or Circle-Ks, all variations on the convenience store theme. I notice them because the changeable-letter signs often advertise “We take EBT”. For what, though? Doritos, candy, soft drinks, maybe some milk, eggs or boxed mac-and-cheese. So if you live in one of those neighborhoods, and maybe you don’t have a car, or the ability to bus into town to visit another store, what are your options?

I’m not the first person to notice this phenomenon, and much has been said about the problem of “food deserts” in both rural and urban areas. One proposal that keeps coming up is to not allow the purchase of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods under SNAP. As it currently stands, you can buy pretty much any food item in the grocery or convenience store using your food benefits. The federal SNAP website details what does and does not apply as “food” under the program. Among the things that don’t count: Alcohol, personal care items, vitamins, and live animals (No buying a catfish to fatten up in your living room, sorry). Twinkies, Velveeta and Kool-Aid do count, although most people would probably agree that they have few nutritional differences from toothpaste. The problem is, as SNAP argues in a report, that there would simply be too much administration involved in fine-tuning the definition of “food” to exclude “junk food”. And you know that food processors would find ways around the law if they did, fortifying their products until they met the minimum nutritional requirements.

In the interest of balancing out the junk food eligible for purchase under SNAP, the USDA implemented a program in 2007 that allows farmers markets to accept food stamps. Of course, this doesn’t address the underlying issue of the cost of fresh, locally produced food, so, in some states, other organizations have stepped in to offer subsidies to low-income farmers market shoppers. Still, less than 0.01% of all federal SNAP dollars were spent at farmers markets last year.

Another little-known fact about SNAP is you can also use food benefits to buy seeds for your garden. It’s another nice thought, but one that probably hasn’t been very popular. A lot of the low-income kids I met through the Americorps job this summer hadn’t ever eaten a fresh tomato before. If their parents aren’t buying this kind of stuff, the chances are even lower than they’ll want to grow it themselves.

So SNAP isn’t doing much to improve the health of low-income people in this country, but it probably isn’t the root of the problem, either. Regardless of how you pay for it, cheap, processed, and unhealthy food will always be an option, and more so if you live in a low-income neighborhood. It would be senseless to force stores in these areas to carry fresh produce that would probably just rot in the coolers. There’s an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed: the cycle of poverty and poor diet. If people didn’t grow up eating something, they aren’t usually going to start eating it as adults, and since poverty tends to persists through generations, it also defines the dietary habits of a large segment of the population. So you can make good food affordable, but that doesn’t mean it will replace bad food pound for pound. There’s also the issue of convenience. After working a double shift, your average single mother will probably be more willing to microwave a hot pocket than chop a salad.

Can we ever take fresh, local fruit and vegetables out of the domain of the well-off and align American food values along the lines of apples, not apple pie? Sure. I forgot to mention the steady, free source of local and organic vegetables that I relied on through my summer and fall of being on SNAP: the farm where I worked. When growing food is part of what you do for a living, you’re guaranteed nothing but to eat fairly decently. In fact, for most of human history, people made their living as farmers, and poor folks like me lived off potatoes, greens, fresh eggs, and fruit from the trees. We grew it ourselves. The rich gorged on lard, sugar and beef, got fat, and died of heart disease. Now the tables have turned. Over 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, and I would bet that most of them are currently on or have been on food stamps.

What we need is re-education, and the beginnings of it already exist. The best example I can think of is Farm to School, which takes kids on field trips out of the classroom to farms and also brings fresh food to them in the cafeteria. There’s also the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, similar to SNAP except with much stricter rules about what can be purchased, and it’s only available to mothers with children under five. It also has a fairly decent website with nutrition information and cooking tips, although it gets a bit patronizing (“Did you know that fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories?” No waaay…)

As for me, I look forward to one day having the financial freedom to put my toothpaste, beer and bananas on the same piece of plastic. Maybe the fact that I have successfully used food stamps without packing on a layer of winter fat says something, but I think the average person on SNAP has a lot more hurdles to jump than I on the way to healthy living. Let’s fix our food system first, the one that pushed high-calorie diets on low-income people, and maybe we can all eat a bit fresher.

Find a farmer’s market that accepts SNAP or WIC here.