9 12 2007

Last month I reported on the dynamic state of organic agriculture in Vermont, and wondered about the state of our local food supply. I have investigated, and the good news is that it’s better than I thought. The bad news is, it’s still got a long way to go—but the good news is, plenty of people are aware of this and are doing all they can to improve the situation.

Back in the eighties, when I went broke trying to grow organic apples here in middle Tennessee, I was involved with TAGA, the Tennessee Alternative Growers Association. We called it “alternative” because we wanted to be an umbrella group for anyone who wanted to produce food for their area rather than for the national/international food distribution system, whether they were growing organically or not. We were a small group, with a lot of people moving through the organization as they tried, and failed, to make a living growing vegetables, herding cows, goats, and /or chickens, or, in my case, breaking into the apple business. There’s an old saw about a farmer who won a million dollars and was asked what he intended to do with it. “Farm ’till the money runs out” was his reply. Been there, done that.

At the time, I was up against a limited market. If I had ever produced enough apples to, on paper, make a profit, I could tell from my sales that I would have a hard time moving them all in middle Tennessee. Back then, it was big news when Sunshine Grocery, Nashville’s premier hippie organic food store, went from a hole in the wall on Division Street to what seemed like amazingly spacious digs on Belmont Ave., but I couldn’t sell them enough apples to stay in business. I was cut out of selling to major chain groceries by their requirement that I carry a million dollars in product liability insurance. Besides, Tennessee-grown organic apples look funny next to waxed fruit. I went to ”food fairs” at various church parking lots, where, over the course of a few years, I went from selling apples by the bushel to selling apples by the pound as people quit canning, and I occasionally sold at what was then an outer circle of Dante’s Inferno, the Nashville Farmers’ Market, where the main question seemed to be how cheaply I could be persuaded to sell my fruit, and the attitude around organics recalled an orchardist friend of mine who put a sign out on his road advertising ”ORGANIC APPLES” and was deluged with people stopping to buy oranges.

But that was the seventies and the eighties, and now it’s another century, and the organic food sector is the only growing part of the grocery business. Here in Nashville, Wild Oats bought out Sunshine Grocery, opened a store six or seven times the size of Sunshine, and did a land office business. Whole Foods swallowed up Wild Oats and traffic to the organic superstore has exceeded their wildest expectations, while across town the Turnip Truck thrives with a more basic selection of foods and a lower-pressure environment, and Plumgood Foods offers delivery for those who haven’t got time to shop. The Nashville Farmers’ Market has been reinvented, and, though some of the old miasma remains, it is a much more inviting place for farmers and retail customers alike. A new publication called ‘‘Local Table” lists about a hundred local producers of vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, meat, and grains. A quarter of them are organic. An outfit called Greener Nashville offers networking among all phases of the sustainability movement, from food to Green politics to green building. At another local level, the City of Nashville sponsors community gardens. Eight are up and running, and two more are in the works. There need to be dozens or maybe hundreds more, in my opinion. .

Meanwhile, the word ”organic” has fallen prey to government regulations. Due to the human tendency to cheat, these rules are pretty fussy. An organic grower is supposed to record every time he enters a field and what he does there. Organic certification costs big enough bucks that between that and the record keeping involved, it is sometimes easier for a small grower with an established customer base to forego certification and work with his trusted customers; unfortunately, this lack of certification works against anyone who is trying to sell to a store or processor who wants to be able to advertise its wares as “certified organic.”

I spent an hour and half talking with local food activists Scott Weiss and Laura Button to refresh my overview of the middle Tennessee food situation. The market for local and organic food has expanded, but it is a long way from mature. In Vermont, we see a statewide organic growers association affiliated with a regional organic association. This regional-state partnership helps its members co-ordinate their production, do bulk fertilizer buys, organize a sellers’ co-op (Deep Root Organics) to deal with large wholesalers, create processing facilities, route usable but unsalable produce to charites, and successfully lobby the state government to create incentives for bringing local, organic food into schools and other governmental institutitons. There is nothing like that in Tennessee. TAGA has been replaced by TOGA, the Tennessee Organic Growers’ Association, which is run by and for the farmers, but they are too busy farming to tackle the wider organizational issues. They haven’t even updated their website since before last spring’s conference! Well, maybe by the time you check it out, they will have…..they’ve been busy, like I said, because….

For the most part, demand is far outstripping supply here in middle Tennessee. There are seventeen CSA farms in the area, and all report being overwhelmed. A CSA, in case you didn’t know, is a farm operation that is supported by pre-season payments from its customers. In return for money up front, these customers receive a guaranteed quantity of produce every week, with the variety dependent on what is in season and how abundant it is.

Laura Button, of Journey to Bliss Raw Foods, tells me she can get more local broccoli than she can handle for a few weeks, and then has to bring it in from California or do without. As a gardener, I know you can grow broccoli through a wider season than that, but it takes careful planning. Nobody in this area is quite enough of a broccoli specialist to meet her needs—yet.

On the other end, there are crops going begging. Jeff Poppen, of Long Hungry Creek Farm, a pioneer organic grower in middle Tennessee, can easily grow more winter squash and kale than he can sell. These former staple foods are out of fashion, but some of what is needed is processing—people may not know what to do with a raw squash, but cook it, mash it up with some local butter and honey and serve it like mashed potatoes or bake it in a pie shell, and I’m willing to bet it will be eaten. Kale and other leafy greens may take a major public education program—but getting more people to eat more of them will reduce the cost of health care and the need for Viagra.

There is a new organization in middle Tennessee that aims to provide overview and co-ordination, although it has not fully stepped into those shoes yet. Founded in August of 2006 by a broad coaliton that starts with the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and runs through the spectrum to Eaton’s Creek Organics and Earth Matters Tennessee, Food Security Partners of Middle Tennessee, according to its website, aims to ”bring people together to create and sustain a secure and healthy food system for their region, from production to consumption. We envision a Middle Tennessee in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.

”For years, many individuals, community organizations, and businesses worked steadily, yet often in isolation, to address the problem of food insecurity in Middle Tennessee. The Food Security Partners connect these dots through networking and professional development opportunities, a focus on catalyzing collaborative projects, a food security awareness campaign, and a yearly summit to cultivate a shared agenda for changing the food system. We have over 100 partners and members who are committed to sharing information and resources to promote a food system that benefits everyone. ”

Wow. I’ve been nervous about the long supply line we’re on and wondering why somebody wasn’t doing something, and I come to find quite a few somebodies are concerned and working on the problem. I wish them success. I’m going to do what I can to make local food sustainability work. It’s going to take a lot of inspiring, educating, and organizing, but having an organizational framework and solid backers is the way to begin. To build on this foundation, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Got some time?

music: adrienne young, plow to the end of the row



9 12 2007

The Democratic front runners have prostituted the language again. “Univeral health care,” according to all three of them, now means subsidizing the insurance companies rather than actually providing health care for everyone. They’ve dropped the phrase “single-payer” from their vocabulary, largely at the behest of the insurance companies that support them. Hillary Clinton, for example, had taken over a million dollars in camaign contributions from the insurance industry back last summer, before the campaign had even heated up.

Ironically, this approach—mandating that people buy private insurance and subsidizing the purchase with government money—is the same program Republican candidate Mitt Romney pushed through in Massachusetts. This has not prevented Romney from attacking these copy-cat Democratic proposals as “European-style socialized medicine.”

We should be so lucky. None of the plans that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are proposing will do anything to curb the profit-driven excesses of America’s unique, Byzantine private insurance/medical complex. They don’t even talk about doing that. They want to feed the vampire, not drive a stake through his heart. They ‘re not going to limit what insurers can charge their government-mandated captive audience. They’re not going to regulate the insurance companies’ ability to restrict choice of doctors, hospitals, and treatments, or rein in their profit-driven tendency to deny claims. The limited expansion of Medicare that some of them propose will become an expensive catch-all for seriously ill people that the private insurance companies don’t want to risk their profits on, and the fat subsidies to private insurance companies that would be generated under the Democrats’ plans would only feed their high overhead and do nothing to bring down the cost of medical care.

These plans are not European socialism. They are corporate welfare, another example of what happens when government is run for the benefit of big business, aka “fascism.” And it’s the Democrats that are proposing it. Magic! Presto chango! They will invoke the warm feeling of “healthcare for all” and thereby funnel billions into their corporate sponsors’ pockets! More of your blood goes to the vampires! Wow! What a trick!

Of course, the Republicans aren’t even that faux-compassionate. Their proposed solution is limited to tax breaks to help people buy health insurance, and if you don’t pay enough taxes for that to make a difference to you, tough beans, you don’t deserve to live. If that makes you want to vote for a Democrat, ”’cause they’re a little better, anyway,” please be informed: you have been hypnotized!

Let’s look at what these proposals really mean. The typical cost of full health insurance for a family of four in the US is $12,000 a year, which is about the gross take-home pay of somebody who makes minimum wage. Median family income in the US is about $43,000 a year, which is not really that much more than minimum wage, because if, as is usually the case, both partners work, that means the average is about $21,000 per person, which works out to about ten bucks an hour—like I said, not that much more than minimum wage, and clearly not enough to afford 12k a year for health coverage.

Under the typical Democratic candidate plan, how much would a median-income family be expected to pay for health insurance? We have two models to work from. One is Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts program, which, he boasts, brought the per person cost of health insurance down from $350 a month to $180 a month. So, for a family of four, that would be an insurance bill cut from $1400 a month—above the national average I just quoted—to $720 a month, about 20% of their pre-tax income. Still not very affordable.

Or we can go from the claim that the average Democratic proposal will pay $2400 per year per person, which is estimated to be half the typical cost of insurance by some reckonings. It’s also about what countries such as France, Canada, and England pay for health care per person per year. (That’s a 2001 link…I had a more recent reference, but lost it…sorry!) Here, it’s less than half what people pay. Well, we all know how poverty-stricken and uncivilized they are in Canada and Europe. Backwaters of medical technology, y’know? But, I digress….So, if the subsidy pays a family about ten thousand dollars a year, does that leave them two, four, or ten thousand dollars to make up out of their own pockets for government-mandated private insurance? You must pay the corporations money or be penalized!? Yow, I’m still digressing….on the lower end, an additional payment of $160-$320 dollars a month might be affordable, except that the reality of most families’ budgets is that they are already going into debt just to survive, and don’t have room for another $160 dollar a month payment.

And, speaking of going into debt, these dim Dems are living in la-la land to think that the government is going to have money to give the insurance companies. When Cheney and Bush started the Iraq war, and the Democrats bought it, they started a fire that was guaranteed to burn up any possibility of increased spending on social needs in this country. I think the Junta did that on purpose, but I’m sorry, Hillary, there ain’t no $110 billion to spend on that. We’ve about maxxed out our Chinese and Saudi credit cards on that war you voted for, dontcha know?

Well, if we can’t afford to spend any more money on healthcare, then how in the world can we afford universal single-payer healthcare?

We can afford universal single-payer healthcare because we’re already paying too much for healthcare. If we cut out the corpulent corporate middlemen, there’s plenty of money already in the system to take care of everybody. According to Physicians for a National Health Program, ”private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork consume one-third (31 percent) of every health care dollar. Streamlining payment through a single nonprofit payer would save more than $350 billion per year, enough to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage for all Americans.” Health insurance would be covered by prorated taxes instead of flat-rate insurance premiums, and everyone except the extremely wealthy would end up paying less for health coverage.

Single-payer health coverage is part of the Green Party platform, but the only Democratic candidate who endorses it is Dennis Kucinich—and the party bosses are trying to figure out how to take his seat away from him. Most Americans support single payer healthcare, but our current major political parties are too in thrall to their corporate masters to listen to the people they claim to represent. Time to ring some changes.

music: Rumors of the Big Wave, Echo of a Scream


11 08 2007

The August 2nd election was one of the happier ones I’ve participated in lately, if only because I adjusted my expectations. I really liked David Briley, but it was becoming obvious that he wasn’t going to win, so I voted for my second choice, Karl Dean, because I didn’t want to see a runoff election between Bob Clement and Buck Dozier. Well, Karl Dean ended up the front runner, at least in this round. It’s not often that my guys win, these days.

But I didn’t have anything to worry about on the Buck Dozier front, because Howard Gentry surged on ahead and came within just a few hundred votes of taking Clement out of the race entirely. Gentry is an easy-going, soft spoken guy, in my experience (which consists of talking to him a few times about diet and nutrition in the health food store where I used to work), but I bet he got a little steamed about that. When you lose an election by that small a margin, you can go back and think about all the little things you could have done that would have gotten you over the top. Almost taking out Bob Clement is small consolation for involuntary retirement from public life. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Mr. Gentry.

The vice-mayoral race between Carolyn Baldwin Tucker and Diane Neighbors raised an interesting question: what’s more important, being populist or being progressive? I had been prepared to slam Ms. Tucker for being a fundamentalist homophobe when someone writing to fellow bloggers Sean Braisted and S-town Mike raised the point that, while Diane Neighbors is a “progressive,” she has also been known to ignore her constituents’ wishes and work to accommodate developers, while Ms. Tucker is known for responding to the needs of the people of Nashville. It didn’t change my vote, but I did choose to hold my fire.

The fundamentalist question decided another vote for me. When Ken Jakes praised Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, saying


I decided that, although I had no clear idea where Lonnell Matthews Jr. stood on these questions, I’d rather vote for him. He says on his Myspace page that two of his favorite musicians are Bob Marley and “The Beattles,” and so I don’t guess he’s too Christian for an old spiritual hedonist like me, even if he can’t spell the name of one of his favorite bands.

The District One Council race, like the mayoral race and four of the council-at-large seats, will be going into a runoff, because the election split three ways without any candidate getting a majority. Ken Jakes got the most votes, 1500, with Lonnell and “Bug” Mason neck and neck at just over a thousand, somewhat to my surprise. Mr. Mason’s parents run one of the largest churches in the area, and I’m guessing that had something to do with his strong showing–but Lonnell beat him by just two dozen votes. Again, this election shows the power that just a few voters can wield.

In another local council race, former Green Party Senate candidate Chris Lugo came in dead last, with only 69 votes, but said that when he got involved in the candidate forums, he realized there was a lot of consensus about the issues among the candidates, and felt that he didn’t need to push his candidacy in order to see his issues advanced. Dude, that’s great, but if you want to be a serious politician you got to have more ego than that! Gee, maybe Chris is being an example of that “new paradigm” everybody keeps talking about….

The at-large metro council race has also been thrown into a runoff, with the top eight candidates who didn’t get the 10% of the vote necessary to secure a seat vying for the four remaining seats. Many of those in the runoff are former district reps who want to stay on, which increases my previously stated suspicion that a lot of people voted in their sleep. Tim Garrett, a slightly-liberal guy for whom I would not vote, was the only candidate elected this time around. He has been a metro council member and a state legislator–at the same time, no less–I guess he just likes to do the government thing. But his take on homelessness–“Left unchecked, this problem will discourage residents and tourists from spending time in our city’s vibrant commercial districts. I will work to increase the presence of police on the street to protect the interests of everyone who lives, works and plays in our historic city center.”–shows either a failure to understand the issue or else a facile pandering to the fears of mainstream voters, either one of which turns me off.

Fortunately, two of my candidates made it to the runoff–Megan Barry and Jerry Maynard. The one who didn’t, Jon Davidson, was hampered by medical problems and the Nashville Scene’s laxness in contacting him for a statement in their issue on the Metro at-large races. They left a phone message for him Tuesday afternoon for a story whose deadline was Tuesday afternoon, and so by the time he got back to them, it was too late. Yo, Scene! Try a little harder, hey? My man Jon woulda done better than that with a little help from your readers! But noooo…… call him at the last minute! What kind of journalism is that?

But Jon was pretty happy about the results–he doubled the number of votes he received when he ran for the state legislature. In a press release, he said,”I believe that we will wind up with a better council as a whole after the runoff. I am firmly convinced that my controversial attempts to connect local government actions with the Iraq war and global warming forced some people to think, and if that isn’t a green victory I don’t know what is.”

Jon, to me a Green victory is when we take office. It’s not enough just to make people think. Come the the candidates’ school at the end of the month and pick up some pointers!

So, the runoff election will be September 11. Why do I think there’s something ominous about that date? Oh, don’t be superstitious! Just because the US overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile and SOMEBODY flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that date, doesn’t mean the US economy, which is starting to seriously crumble under the weight of the subprime bust, will be in total ruins by then. But hey, that’s another story…..

music: Kate Wolf, “The Hobo



11 08 2007

It sounds crazy: with home prices rising beyond reason and value, banks start giving variable interest loans to millions of people who previously wouldn’t have been eligible for a home loan, due to low income. Was it “faith-based lending”? Then many of these people start defaulting on their loans, caught between the collapse of the US middle class due to outsourcing, soaring house payments due to the variable interest loans they took on, and the suddenly falling value of their homes . Some of the banks are mortgage specialists who go bankrupt because too few of their loans are being paid back. When they go bankrupt, the homes in question, which have been repossessed and are unsaleable for a variety of reasons, become the property of the bankrupt mortgage company’s receivers. Thus, millions of empty private homes in the US are now owned by multinational corporations…but what are they gonna do with ’em? And what good does it do them? Especially since the housing price bubble has burst and home prices are sinking back towards sanity, which is nowhere near the amount of money owed on them?

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” they say, and all those (mostly)boarded-up houses, in cities and towns all across America, are now lemons in the hands of multinational corporations that don’t give a rat’s ass about local communities. They are going to get squeezed, and the rest of us along with them. Where it is still possible, we will see the kind of urban displacement that the Supreme Court allowed in the New London eminent domain case. Those still living in neighborhoods with a high foreclosure rate may be pushed out so that upscale redevelopment can take place.

There’s another layer to this—these loans were put together into large groups–”bundled,” the Wall Streeters call it—and then sold by the banks to other companies, who, despite the obviously shaky nature of a financial instrument that depends on payments from a class of people who are being systematically put out of work, looked primarily at the fact that the classic Wall St. stock rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard and Poor, gave them good ratings. Due diligence, it seems to me, was not exercised.

In spite of what is a financial downturn for so many of us, Bush is right that the economy is strong. The economy is strong because money is flowing from the middle class into the bank accounts of the upper class at a faster and faster rate. The sale of these so-called “subprime loans” is just another example of this. America is becoming more and more of a two-tiered society, with government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy.

The case of the subprime bubble raises interesting legal questions, because there are laws against making loans that you know are likely to default. First, were the companies that made these loans acting in bad faith? Did they know that the people to whom they were loaning money were likely to default on their loans? Did they misrepresent the nature of the variable rates on these mortgages? What prudent person would make a loan he was reasonably sure would end up in default? Who would borrow money if they understood that, after a couple of years, their payments were likely to double? Smells like Enron spirit to me!

Sure, Congress should investigate, but, as with so many other things, it looks like the Democratic party will be shirking its constitutional responsibility. John Conyers has complained that there is too much Republican wrongdoing to investigate it all, so he has apparently stepped back from his earlier resolve to impeach the junta and is just trying to hold his breath until they leave. I don’t know what Nancy Pelosi did to make him fall in line, but I bet it was some kind of blackmail…on a black male….hmm…..if there’s a country left after this political, economic, and climactic freefall ends, I hope it’s a country with a nice, strong, Green Party…because the Republicrats and the Demicans are gaming America into a third-rate banana republic and blaming each other for it. When you start digging into the history of this real estate/loan bubble, it’s definitely a bipartisan creation. It’s embarassing to watch. It would be funny if it wasn’t about my life and the lives of everybody I know.

music: The House Band, “Pharaoh” (by Richard Thompson)

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