Industrial Harvest


Talking commodities at the G20 by sarah kavage

At France’s insistence, agriculture ministers of the G20 met this week for the first time ever to discuss ways to curb increasingly volatile (and ever-higher) food prices.

France was pushing pretty hard for curbing speculative activity in food commodities markets – Sarkozy and his agricultural minister were talking tough going into the negotiations, stating that France would not be backing down in these negotiations, even at the expense of getting to a deal.  As much as I admire France for taking this on, they must really relish their world role as surrender monkeys, because no matter how well intentioned the resulting “action plan”, well, it’s weak and watered down and no match for any food price crisis.   The high points of the agreement are an attempt at greater market transparency and a pilot program establishing emergency humanitarian grain reserves.  Other than some weak statements of consensus, that’s about it.  Any restrictions on / further regulation of speculation will be deferred to the G20 finance ministers, who the agriculture ministers “strongly encourage” to take action.  Pardon my cynicism for believing that the finance ministers will take that recommendation straight to the round file.

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And back to our regularly scheduled program… by sarah kavage

Over the past weeks / months, this blogspace has been largely populated by emails and a few letters from people that have done all these good deeds with the flour they’ve received from this project – bringing people together to enjoy a good meal, feeding others that are tired from work / studying, need of some inspiration, or just plain hungry.  As great as these stories are, one could look at this blog and forget the impetus behind the Industrial Harvest project, and that’s not my intent at all.

If you need a reminder as to what this project is all about, all you need to do is look at the news.  Food prices have continued to go up – right now, the price of food is higher than it’s ever been, even higher than the food price crisis in 2008.  All that unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?  It may be good for democracy, but it was largely fueled by anger at skyrocketing food prices, which in developing nations are more closely linked to commodities.  In the Middle East and North Africa, wheat is the commodity of choice – Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.  Algeria (the #4 global wheat importer) also saw food riots recently, along with  Jordan.  As a friend explained to me, wheat is a relatively small market (dwarfed by corn and soy) and therefore more vulnerable to price swings, and these places are highly reliant on that particular staple crop as a source of nourishment.  Big problem – regardless of the regime that’s in place.

There’s no shortage of debate as to what’s making food prices go up.  Some argue that it’s basic supply and demand:  Global population is increasing and urbanizing – and as people in developing nations gain wealth, they consume more meat and more food and more land previously used for farming (as we in the “developed” world consume boatloads of everything, like we always have).  So it is now more difficult to carry over a surplus of staples from year to year, and any uncertain weather or political event event that lowers expected yields will cause prices to spike.

Oh yeah, and those uncertain weather events?  Things like floods, cyclones, droughts, wildfires, late freezes?  There are more and more of those these days, thanks to global climate change, and they certainly impact the global food supply.  Paul Krugman and Joseph Romm at Climate Progress have articulated this argument nicely.  I can’t imagine it yields a lot of satisfaction for the climate scientists, who have been predicting these sorts of things for years, to be vindicated now.

And then there’s the price of fuel, which tracks closely with the price of food – industrially grown commodities require a large amount of energy to grow and transport.  The Peak Oil crowd points out that as oil supplies decline, the prices of both food and fuel will go up even further.  To make things worse, in our desperation for an oil substitute, we are dedicating a significant amount of food crops to producing biofuel.

Other folks point to the devaluation of the US dollar and Bernanke’s policy of “quantitative easing” as the root of the problem.  Ironically, a cheaper US dollar in relation to other currencies drives up the demand for (and subsequently the price of) commodities.

Lastly, there’s the argument that the growth in commodity speculation has played a role – the financialization and deregulation of the  commodities markets (along with the bust in the tech and mortgage derivative markets) have led to an explosion of commodity hedge funds, pension funds, index funds, derivatives, swaps, and on and on.  All that nasty stuff that got us into trouble with the credit and housing crisis is now impacting the food system.

So are Wall Streeters disrupting the food supply in their desire to make a buck?  Well, yes – I think they probably are, and yes, it’s part of the point of this whole Industrial Harvest thing.  Frederick Kaufman’s excellent article for Harpers’ in July was what personally convinced me once and for all, but Kaufman is not the only one sounding the alarm.  Some EU countries – primarily France – have recently spoken up in favor of stronger regulation of commodity markets.  France, as the leader of the G20 this year, is poised to push this issue.  The UN Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) is right there with them.  And all of a sudden, in the midst of all the hubbub around Egypt, a few mainstream news outlets seem to be starting to pick up the story as well.  Better late than never, guys (see here, here and here).

Of course, it’s unrealistic to pretend that what’s going on with food prices is based on any single factor.  Nor can I be 100% sure what’s going on.  But, if someone asked me, I would sum up my view of the situation as increased demand and a host of other factors (climate events, biofuels, monetary policy, etc.) magnified by a pretty large and unstable speculative system, which is in turn driven by a few huge, powerful, vertically integrated corporations.  This is all exacerbated by the fact that with markets it doesn’t matter what’s actually happening – it just matters what people think is happening – and what people think people think is happening (and so on).   The fact that this house of cards could be brought down by any of, oh, 5 or 10 or 100 different and / or random events (or all of them, or some of them) is not only discomfiting.  It also makes it easy for any single party to point the finger at the others, effectively diffusing responsibility, perpetuating ignorance and causing those who should care to throw up their hands in inaction and confusion.



What Happened to the flour, part 7: bagels by sarah kavage

Having never made bagels, I’m impressed with this young woman.  I have pretty strong opinions about bagels and still daydream fondly about the Bagel Hole in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a tiny storefront bagel deli responsible for what I believe to be the best bagels of all time.

From: H
To: sarah
Date: Sat, October 2, 2010 8:23:09 AM
Subject: Flour and Bagels
Dear Sarah Kavage,
I am a junior in high-school at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago.
On Tuesday of this past week, I met Tara Lane (at the Hull House soup kitchen) and received a very cool bag of flour.
Before this attempt, I had never made bagels before. I figured the flour should be the main ingredient in the baked good of choice, so bagels seemed to be the ideal new endeavor.
I was so happy when they came out of the oven looking lovely (although not perfect- they had character) and
tasting delicious!
Your project is incredible! If there is any way I could get involved as a high-schooler, please let me know!
Thank you so much for your flour,
and changing the way we relate to food,
H
(P.S. In my AP Lang class at Payton, we are working in conjunction with the Pulitzer center to produce a
documentary on a local issue. My group will be focusing on food insecurity in Chicago. As we develop our
ideas, would it be okay to contact you for new ideas or information?)

bagels!

bagels!

H’s bagels look like a bagel should – shiny crust on the outside, golden brown, not too big or fluffy.  Some sesame seeds on top would be the bomb.  Yum!



Care for Real by sarah kavage
Been a few weeks, eh?  Beware – once you get back to the northwest time just starts slipping away again.  This post has been slow going. I’ve been consumed by trying to re-enter into Seattle life.  Work.  Friends, cat, husband.  So many birthdays (including mine).  A freezing cold apartment.  All compounded by the considerable motivational wallop that a northwest winter always brings.  I’ve been persisting, though and slowly, slowly working my way through a few last reports of my time in Chicago. 

So without further ado:  the final flour donation in Chicago was to Care For Real, a food pantry in Edgewater.  Edgewater was home base during my stay in Chicago, and it was good to me.  Well-treed, not too gentrified with a wide variety of buildings and residents (many of them immigrants or refugees), Edgewater is tucked away by the lake on Chicago’s far north side.  True, it’s less convenient to get to most other places in the city, but it’s also a refuge from the rest of the city.  I described it to husband Rob as “the Brooklyn of Chicago” and when he came to visit he agreed.

I wanted to give back to my home away from home, and it seemed appropriate that the donation to Care For Real was the last one.  I was introduced to Care For Real and its director Tom Robb by Ernie Constantino, who works for 48th ward Alder(wo)man Mary Ann Smith (for readers who are not from Chicago, the 48th ward includes Edgewater; an Alderman is similar to a city councilperson).  The pantry is run out of a tiny storefront in the 6000 block of North Broadway.  Care For Real, like all the food banks and pantries I have talked to, is bursting at the seams trying to serve the ever-growing numbers of clients in need.  When I asked Tom how much flour he wanted, he said, laughing, “I might freak out if it’s over 700 pounds.”  When I arrived, I understood his reply.  There was a front room where the clients signed in and picked up food; it contained a packed waiting area of about 20 chairs, a small school desk and several tables overflowing with food donations from the big grocery stores that are practically right across the street.  In back was a couple of offices and a maze of racks, cabinets and refrigerators all crammed into a space maybe 20 by 40 feet, maybe not even that much.  Here is what part of it looks like:

backstage at Care For Real

backstage at Care For Real

Mary Ann Smith also showed up for a little meet & greet and to pose for some photos on her way to another meeting.  Here we are “unloading the van” (which basically means that Nate and a few volunteers did most of the unloading and we all stood around and got in the way of everyone trying to do actual work and took pictures of it).

Unloading at Care For Real:  Sarah, Nate, Mary Ann 

Unloading at Care For Real: Sarah, Nate, Mary Ann

There was just barely room for the flour in the storage racks.  Fred, who volunteers weekly, was both strong and nimble enough to maneuver 14 bags of flour into place on the shelves.  I was a little worried about the lack of refrigerated space for the whole wheat pastry flour, but with the holidays coming up, the staff assured me that it would not sit for long.

Fred, stocking with a smile

Fred, stocking with a smile



Fraternite Notre Dame by sarah kavage

On Monday, I went to visit the Sisters at Fraternite Notre Dame, a convent in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s far west side.   FND was one of the first flour recipients – back in early July, they took a ton of all-purpose flour to use for their food pantry and kitchen.  Not only do they run a soup kitchen, they fund the soup kitchen by selling French pastries – tarts, croissants – at farmers’ markets around Chicago (The pastries turn up in the soup kitchen too).  I’d been wanting to see their operation all summer and finally, during my last week in Chicago, we were able to arrange a visit.

Having worked with nuns in the past, I am never quite sure what to think of them.  Put mildly, they’re a throwback to another time, and these nuns, not only nuns but French, seem especially out of place.  I hold pretty negative opinions about the Catholic church, but did want to acknowledge the strong commitment to service that these women have.  And all of this made me even more curious to check out what went on in their kitchen.

I arrived as the nuns were in the middle of serving up their daily lunch for the homeless and poor in the neighborhood.  Austin is a neighborhood with a long history – originally a (generally) working class white neighborhood that experienced a long, and especially infamous, transition into one that was (and still is) largely black.  I just began reading Amanda Seligman’s book Block by Block, which chronicles the history of racial transformation in Austin.  The author’s thesis is that systemic disinvestment in the neighborhood, lack of political influence, and neglect of the building stock go back long before the racial changes and white flight began.  The nuns (French, from a breakaway sect of the Catholic church) moved into this melieu about 10 years ago and see about 200 people a day come through their doors for lunch.  When I asked if they ever had to turn anyone away, Sister Marie replied “how can you say yes to one and no to another?”

In the kitchen at Fraternite Notre Dame

In the kitchen at Fraternite Notre Dame

FND, like most of the other agencies I’ve talked to and visited, have seen the number of people in their soup kitchen line grow and grow over the last few years.  The nuns start their day early in the morning with mass, then cooking in the soup kitchen, then serving and cleaning up (people line up for lunch starting at 10 am; lunch starts at 11 and goes till 1).  Once that’s done, they begin making pastries.  Sometimes they work till midnight, sometimes even later if there’s a market the next day,  because the pastries need to be fresh.  They  go through about 400 pounds of flour a week.

pastries to go

pastries to go

As part of my visit, Sister Marie brought me to an upstairs dining room where there was a table set with some juice and a platter of a dozen or so small pastries in white paper nests.  For me.  I was a little dumb-founded – charmed by the decidedly European-style over the top hospitality and the beautiful treats, foggy with a killer head cold, and feeling a little dash of guilt brought on by knowing that in the dining room just below me, people were eating what might be their only meal of the day.  It was a little uncomfortable to be treated like such an important visitor, but I do like pastries.  I did happen to be hungry.  And I didn’t want to be rude, so I wolfed down several  as I told the Sister more about the story of the flour and where it was all coming from and tried to emphasize that I’m not rich or anything.  Then the rest of the pastries were packed up in a little white box, and another white box appeared – this one with a whole, perfect berry tart – and was placed into my arms.  The nuns showed me politely to the door, and there I was, all sugared-up, back on the streets of Austin.



Adaptation by sarah kavage

Back in August, I met N.,who came to the reception at Roots & Culture hoping to take some flour back to Jamaica to give away on an upcoming trip.  She thought it would be a provocative commentary in that island nation, as the recent increases in food prices had had severe impacts on the people there.  N. told me that the government just passes along price increases to the consumers, even though it has the power to do otherwise.  Like many Caribbean nations, Jamaica could easily be self-sufficient in terms of food, as it’s blessed with a year-round growing season and many native sources of nutrients.  But instead, it’s been sold down the river by corporations/governments focused on growing commodities (such as sugar cane) for export, undermining its food security – particularly in tough economic times like these.

So, together with the patient and flexible Mike Wolf, we arranged for N. to pick up a 50-lb bag from the Roots & Culture show and take it with her on the plane.  I hadn’t heard from her much since, but I caught up with her when she came to the commodities trading session at Mess Hall.  She broke the bad news to me:  “It didn’t make it.  I’ve got the day off on Thursday.  I’ll come by and tell you the whole story.”  Read what happened to her, in her own words, here – it’s a great lesson in creative adaptability under pressure.

Speaking of adaptability, check out the newly updated list of upcoming Industrial Harvest events.  Both Mess Hall sessions have now been rescheduled for Oct. 10 (this coming Sunday, 11 am – 1 pm) and Oct. 24 (another Sunday, 3 – 5 pm).  Join us!



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