By David Tulis
Our exploration of local economy has turned a bright eye toward the work of Gaining Ground, the Chattanooga nonprofit that has been in progress for three years and has received a good deal of media coverage.
I bring up Gaining Ground with the sense of needing to defend it from implications that arise from the analysis of Thrive 1055 and Agenda 21 presented a few days ago by Don Casey. You read my lecture notes, yes? Mr. Casey nestles the local food movement in the larger globalist program. The United Nations and environmental lobbyists envision the day when cars are made extinct, and everyone walks to work and interstate transportation systems shut down in disuse as Americans discover a no-carbon zero population growth nirvana.
Out from Mr. Casey’s analysis stabs an indictment, by implication, of Benwood Foundation and its local program, headed by Jeff Pfitzer. No local journalist has drawn any connections between Benwood and the heady “sustainable development” program out of Brussels and Manhattan. So for now I take what I have learned about Gaining Ground at face value, with an understanding that Mr. Pfitzer and his staff have an authentic localist and genuine local food perspective.
American food is cheap; but is it healthy?
Gaining Ground seeks to promote the growing and consumption of local food, a program of genuine value to Christendom and to public health in Chattanooga. Local food is at the front of the concept of local economy, and offers some of local economy’s most life-giving examples.
Mr. Pfitzer’s job is to solve two problems. How to increase production of local food? How to make it profitable? “These are small farms small businesses and every one of them has to focus on doing things in a way that they can sustain themselves, not as a farming enterprise, but also as a business that keeps their bills paid and food on their tables.”
How does the marketplace need help from a nonprofit group?
“The economy exists on a unlevel playing field,” he says. “We are living in an era when we have the apparent lowest cost of food in the history of the world and anywhere else in the world. It is primarily by virtue of, we’ll say, industrial efficiencies that are helped and accelerated by the regulatory and price support environments that make competition very difficult for these small independent farmers.” The low cost of food is only an apparent benefit. The U.S. has the highest costs in health care, and there is a correlation between “low cost and in many cases the nutrient-deficient food available through the industrial food supply” and health costs that would be reduced by greater use of “nutrient-rich health-promoting food that is primarily available from these local farms,” Mr. Pfitzer says.
Rise of chemicals in farming
How has industrial farming won the day? How dangerous it? “A big question. It’s something that’s happened over course of the last half of the 20th century. It’s a product of industrial revolution as well as chemical industries. Chemical productions largely stemmed out of warfare in the world wars in the development of many of the chemical agencies that were used to take human life. [They] also had the ability also to take the life of insects.”
American soil has been worn out by the industrial farming model. “We’re no longer growing food in rich, living soil as we were doing a century ago in this country when the farmer’s primary thought was, ‘How do I keep my soil vital and alive so it can produce a healthful nutrient-rich bounty of food?’ Today, industrial farming pretty much reduces that to very simple chemical compositions like PKN like you see in your fertilizer stores, and how do we get the plant to grow? How do we get the color? But more importantly, how do we engineer those seeds and plant stocks so they can survive long trips on trucks? So they can be picked before they’re ripe, they can be stored in warehouses, they can last a long time on grocery store shelves? And I think a real focus is appearance, not so much on nutrient content.”
The industrial food system is extremely technologically efficient, Mr. Pfitzer says. But therein lies a danger. The industrial processing of food where corn and soybeans are broken down and reconstituted and fill the center aisles of grocery stores that “can have a shelf life of generations.” The food industry plays “a shell game” with the public and the USDA, using material stripped out of real food and put into packaged products. They may have vitamins injected and some micronutrients. “But the food itself is not the living nutrient-rich food that comes out of living soil. The complexities of really healthful food cannot be broken down into those micronutrients of how much vitamin A or how much vitamin D. Oftentimes it’s the interaction of various elements. Now I am not a chemist or scientist. But I do know we have highly simplified and highly adulterated our traditional source of nutrition and bounty that was grown from the soil in this country.”
Prices are low because of the industrial ag machine — and couponing. Marketing fads are reflected on packaging — low fat, beta carotene content, fructose free, and so on — but have little long-lasting benefit, he suggests. Health epidemics can be linked to industrial farming and mechanized food production focusing low cost. There is a poor economic climate today that hurts the small farmer, Mr. Pfitzer says. Gaining Ground, on the Web at Growchattanooga.org, intends to help these people gain market share.
Gaining ground is not against other sources of food, he says, “but we’re here FOR the farmers. We’re here for a healthier community. We’re here for a community that is aware of the importance of what they eat, and why it’s important to them.” People vote with their checkbook, he says; we should “also vote with our fork.” What you eat affects you, and affects the city, economically, socially culturally.
“We really advocate for transparency in the relationship so we can have really a kind of informed consumerism and a more informed community.”
Local food breaks down ideological, political differences
“Local food is not about left or right, it’s not about liberal or conservative, it’s not about the wealthy or the poor, it’s not about Democrat or GOP, it’s not old or young. Food is something just like like air and water. It’s something we depend on to live, and it’s something we think traditionally have all centered our lives around, as part of celebrating the seasons, and the available of good healthy tasteful food. It really does transcend our differences.”
A statist who loves the USDA and wants a government approval stamp on everything — he can appreciate local food. So can libertarian who doesn’t like government surveillance, snooping, federal debt, free markets suffering under regulation. That man can unite with the other man on the question of local food. “Absolutely,” Mrs. Pfetzer agrees. Political ideology of his supporters runs the spectrum, Mr. Pfitzer says, “but we all work together for a common purpose nonetheless.”
As Mr. Pfitzer puts it: “It really is a big tent into which everyone is and feels welcome. The reasons for supporting local food transcend the left and the right, Democratic or Republican, old and young, rich poor, socialist or libertarians. I would daresay we have people who would fit all those descriptions in the local food movement. Because health food is something that is important to every last one of us. and local economy is something that benefits every last one of us.”
Tent gives shade over the farmers’ market
Farmer’s markets are part of community. Mr. Pfitzer says they are not places you rush into and seek to rush out of. Time, we seem to agree, almost comes to a stop when you go to a farmers’ market. “Local food is good food,” Mr. Pfitzer says. “I want to spread the word and I want everyone to join in.”
What should we do to take advantage of opportunities in local food?
1. Go to a local farmers’ market. A new one is opening in Ooltewah. “They are literally all around us,” Mr. Pfitzer says.
2. Support the growing availability in local grocery stories. Whole Foods in Chattanooga supports local farmers, and Nutrition World carries some fresh products.
I ask about the certification of farmers within 100 miles. Farmers within that distance obtain a label in the name of transparency, “to know where your food comes from and to know how it’s raised.” That’s part of what I like to call “relational economics.”