Industrial Harvest

Crunching the Numbers at Mess Hall by sarah kavage

I’ve been meaning to post more about my time at Mess Hall BEFORE my residency ended, but as things have been more hectic than expected the last couple of weeks, it just hasn’t happened until now.  I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to this anti-institution.  Mess Hall’s structure and spirit reflects much of my own philosophy about art, and the emphasis on non-monetary exchange makes it a perfect place to, you got it, give away flour for free.  For these two weeks, I wanted to focus on conclusions and solutions, and start to wrap up everything I’ve learned:  make some sense of all this movement of flour, money, markets and goodwill; draw some conclusions about all these intersecting systems and maybe, just maybe, start to think about how we might need to change them (with lots of help from people more knowledgeable than I).

This was not an insignificant task, as it meant getting serious about things like math, which I typically avoid.  I wish more of the programming had worked out.  Unfortunately this is the time of year when farmers are the most busy and their priority is harvesting and working around seemingly constant weather issues (like tornadoes, which threw a monkey wrench in the plans of the ASFC).  I hope that the annoyance of all the multiple date changes does not prohibit anyone from staying engaged in this discussion and attending the (dates to be determined) rescheduled sessions.  For those folks who came to the commodity trading 101 session, thanks for your thoughtful participation; a special thanks to guest trader Paul Maggio who created a open, congenial atmosphere in which we could start to pick apart this stuff.

Having a storefront was a blast.  People watching in Rogers Park is fruitful, and about 90 percent of passers-by would pick through the free box and clothes rack (about 1 in 20 would stop in for flour).  One woman came in, thrilled at her free box scores (and wanting to share, as the ladies do, the thrill of a good bargain), and then asked me for a bag, which of course we had.  About every other day when I arrived there would be a bag or two of clothes on the doorstep of Mess Hall, which would be incorporated into the free box and clothes rack.  I also took the liberty of adopting 4 boxes of records that someone brought in, which has made a couple people very happy (including myself) but may be pushing the free store thing too far for such a small space.

All in all, people took 261 pounds of flour.  Which is not bad for about 35 open hours, perhaps.  Most folks that came in did not look like they actually needed free flour, they were just ardent bakers or interested in the project.  But a few did look like having this gift was going to be of real value to them.  Two people came in and left with one of the bulk (50-lb) bags – one guy whose wife bakes for all their friends and neighbors, and a student at Loyola who helps out with Food Not Bombs Rogers Park.

The documentation and “research results” from the project are still at Mess Hall for the time being.  You can also see pictures here.


Tonight! by sarah kavage
September 21, 2010, 8:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Last night I had the pleasure of attending FIS 101 at Oakton Community College, otherwise known as Introduction to Commodities & Futures Trading.  Russ Rsezsutko has taught Intro to Commodities for the last 15 years, and when I met him at the Roots & CultureWe are all Beginners” reception, he told me I could drop in on his class.  Born and raised in Back of the Yards, Russ is classic Chicago, and fully embodies the trader personality – he’s a live wire, pacing around the room while lecturing a mile a minute in one of the best Chicago accents I’ve heard so far.  He’s been a broker for over 3 decades, and the experience shows.  This was the first class, so we went over the history of growing, buying and selling commodities and their evolution from straight cash transactions to forward contracts to futures contracts.  I also learned the difference between speculation and gambling – yep, there is a difference.

All of this made me super excited for tonight’s “Commodities 101” session at Mess Hall, because Russ is one of the speakers.  He’s going to give a whirlwind introduction to futures (if this means he has to talk faster to cover it all in 15 minutes, watch out!) and then we’ll launch into questions.

Russ’s counterpart on the panel is Paul Maggio, a senior VP at Newedge, a large international brokerage firm.  If Russ is “old school”, then Paul is “new school,” although he’s been working in futures for nearly as long as Russ has.  When I met Paul, I was surprised at how calm, soft spoken and downright mellow he was.  It’ll be a study in contrasts and, if the conversations I’ve had with these guys is any indication, a fascinating discussion.

SO, one more time:  Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood (red line Morse stop, then 1/2 block south), 7-9 pm.  Be there!  Afterwards, your assimilation of this knowledge will be tested, should you choose, in the form of a PIT tournament.

St. Columbanus by sarah kavage

Every Wednesday, at around the same time the traders are headed down to LaSalle & Jackson, hungry folks are lining up at St. Columbanus church in West Woodlawn for their weekly food pantry.  Food distribution starts at 10 a.m., and people stand in line for several hours or more to make sure they get a spot in line in order to receive one of the 500 bags of produce and dry goods.  When the food pantry at St. Columbanus started 5 years ago, they served about 50 people a week.  When the economy crashed in 2008, they saw a spike in the number of people seeking help, and reached 500 people in February of 2009.  At this point, 500 people a week is their limit – although they sometimes do serve a few more if they have extra food.  “It’s hard to turn people away,” their director, LaVerne Morris told me.  Although their dedicated volunteer crew shows up at 6 a.m., there’s only so much you can do with volunteers before people burn out.

LaVerne signed up for a bulk donation of 2500 pounds of flour – enough for 5 pounds per food bank client.  She had extra volunteers come in to bag up the flour the night before the distribution, and, wanting to see their operation in action, I offered to come down and pitch in for a few hours.  6 a.m. was a little too early, as I’ve been keeping late nights working, so I showed up at 9 like a real Seattle slacker and LaVerne put me to work on the “assembly line” for the produce bags.

When you’re serving 500 people, you’ve got to be or-gan-ized, and LaVerne and her crew had things tight.  One set of volunteers walked around with bags open, collecting the produce that the other set of volunteers dropped into the bags.  I got a plum duty (couldn’t resist that one), working with Jerome over a giant box.  Each bag got 4 plums.  Or maybe 6, if the ones you picked up were small.  Or 8, if Jerome and I happened to each put in a handful.  Or a dozen, if you were feeling like there were so many that you’d never reach the bottom before the bags ran out.  Or 4, if suddenly the plums all disappeared and there were still bags to fill.  Jerome, who has been a St. Columbanus volunteer for 4 years now, was a great ambassador and a friendly guy, telling me that he the feeling that he gets from working at the food pantry is “like nothing else.  It just makes you feel so good, helping people like this.”
The bags contained plums, carrots, potatoes, watermelons, meats and cheeses, and a bunch of other fresh veggies that I didn’t get to see because I had my head down in the plum box.  Clients also got separate boxes of dry goods.
At just after 10 a.m., we were ready and LaVerne began directing the crew to their stations for the distribution.  I was put inside the “glass house,” where the clients register, so that I could hand out the flour.
The lineup for the food bank stretched around the block.  People had brought folding chairs like they were lining up for concert tickets – it’s either that or stand up for 4 hours (or sleep in and risk missing out entirely).  Slowly, the line worked its way through the glass house and back outside to the food distribution area on the other side of the church.  Troy and Dee greeted the clients and directed them from one place to the next.  People were polite and mostly subdued, but not quite downtrodden – more like maintaining in the face of what must be so many challenges.  Some were styled out, some didn’t seem to have a roof over their head.  A few were obviously embarrassed to be in such a situation, others seemed downright used to it.  I wondered which was worse – feeling humiliated, or being so used to getting handouts that it becomes the status quo.  In a conversation with a friend later that day, we talked about how food banks are this huge band-aid for so many of the structural inequities in our society.  Although I would never describe St. Columbanus as anything other than amazing and positive, because the root causes of hunger in our communities never really get addressed in a serious way, food banks become institutions that feed (literally) the dis-empowerment of entire communities.

PS:  a reminder that TUESDAY (tomorrow) NIGHT it’ll be time for COMMODITIES TRADING 101 at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood in Rogers Park, 7-9 pm.  If you want to understand the commodity / Board of Trade system, this is your chance to get the lowdown with two longtime brokers.  Paul Maggio and Russ Rsezsutko have 50 years of experience between the two of them, and will able about how futures trading works, the history of the CBOT, recent changes there, and how what happens on the trading floor impacts eaters, farmers and real food.  We’ll have a PIT tournament afterwards, so get ready to unleash your inner capitalist.  See the rest of the schedule for my remaining week at Mess Hall here

Upcoming Mess Hall Events! by sarah kavage
September 14, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Starting this week, Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in Rogers Park, is handing the reins over to me for two weeks of Industrial Harvest-related programming that YOU, interested reader, should attend.  Since I started this project, people have been asking me about solutions and alternatives to our current commodity / staple crop system.  As we transition into a new season and the concluding half of the Industrial Harvest, I wanted to begin to look at solutions.  All of the events will be very interactive discussions with fascinating panelists and experts, and I’m hoping we can use them to think together about these systems, how they serve us, and what we can do to change and shape them into the future (I’ll also be camping out in MH several days a week, hanging out and giving out flour, so you can also just drop by during these “office hours”).

The schedule of events is listed here and here.  Mess Hall is located at 6932 North Glenwood Avenue, Chicago (Morse stop on the Red Line).  Hope to see you there!

bread and riots by sarah kavage
September 12, 2010, 9:59 pm
Filed under: Commodities trading, project updates, the wheat market

Hey, wow, the last post was dated August 9.  Has it really been that long?  I do apologize…in the mania of leaving Chicago, going back to Seattle, alley weddings, other art installations, trying to catch some of the last summer weather, returning to Chicago, trying to set up a ton of events, and then leaving yet again to visit my folks back in Ohio (from whence this post is dispatched) – well heck, I just got sidetracked.

The food riots in Mozambique last week are a little bit of an old story by now, but the increase in wheat prices caused a 30 percent increase in the price of bread there.  Speculation on the Board of Trade is implicated in the price runup – the article above suggests that investors may have turned to commodities due to low interest rates and a volatile stock market.  The quote in the final sentence of the article  is worth a reprint:  “We are going to have much bigger fluctuations in weather and therefore the food supply than we had in the past, so we are going to have to learn how to cope with fluctuating food prices.”

The government of Mozambique coped by reducing bread prices (which are set by their government, so it’s too bad people had to riot before this happened).  The reductions in the price of bread were paid for by (among other measures) reducing compensation for the chairmen of the boards of public companies (that sentence is a grammatical nightmare, sorry).

In other news closer to home, check out the updated Industrial Harvest events listings for fall.  There’s a lot of great stuff on deck, including two weeks of programming at Mess Hall starting this Wednesday, the 14th.  There’s more that’s being added to the calendar for the weekend of the 18th too, so take another look in a couple of days – we’re working out some last scheduling details.  Hope to see you there!