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.

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

To Market by sarah kavage

Yesterday was the first flour giveaway at a farmers’ market.  I have been working on setting up a few farmers’ market appearances around town, and this one is a brand new market on the UIC campus organized by the Hull House Museum.

Having several friends that are seasoned flea-market vendors, I dig the market vibe.  It can be an endurance test in the same way that waiting tables is – you either seem to be standing around twiddling your thumbs, or totally “in the weeds” – and there’s a cameraderie among market vendors that comes from going through all of it together, the same way there is with a good restaurant staff.  I’ve spent many an hour hanging out at friends’ booths, which usually means helping with setup / breakdown, watching booths during bathroom breaks, running food and water, kvetching about the customers and maintaining a running commentary on street style and dogs as the parade of humanity goes by.  So, given that I’ve also been schooled on proper market presentation, here’s the market signage…

We didn’t even get a chance to take a picture of the whole setup.  It was complete madness, in a good way of course.  The kind folks at the Hull House had arranged for a volunteer to help me.  I didn’t even know I needed help but was so, so glad to have it!  Cristina, a grad student in urban planning who is studying food systems, helped me set up, I walked her through the drill of the flour distribution and accounting “system” and we were swamped with “customers” shortly thereafter.  A line of people kept us hopping – Cristina did the accounting and label preparation, and I scooped flour into bags.  I started having flashbacks from my restaurant days and kept having to remind myself to relax.  People did not seem to mind standing around for 5 minutes, and if they did, well – whatever, it’s free.

Most of the folks that came by were from the UIC community – many of them had read about the project already, but for those who didn’t Cristina and I got lots of practice explaining the project.  There were a couple repeat customers from the Hull House talk, some visitors from New Orleans, an economist, most of the other market vendors, and the UIC food safety officer, who seemed curious but completely unphased by what I was doing (as it should be, but a relief nonetheless).  Someone pointed out to my surprise and delight that the vintage scale reads “not legal for trade”!  It took about 2 hours for the “lunch rush” to die down and we were able to visit the other market booths for some lunch of our own.  One of  the vendors told me that he thought we’d helped bring him some business – awesome!

By 3:00 the sun had taken its toll.  We had no tent or shade, and I could feel the sunburn / heatstroke coming on.  So we packed up (another nice thing about giving stuff away is that I’m not losing any money by going home early) and got out just in time.  Hopefully those that came later in the afternoon were not too disappointed.  I’ll surely be back to Hull House again and will also be making appearances at other markets around town.

Upon returning home, I was thrilled to find out the “official” ledgers had arrived!  These gorgeous ledgers have been gathering dust at home for at least several years, and when I realized they’d be the perfect thing to use for accounting purposes, I had Rob ship them out.  Much better than an old crappy notebook.  Get ready for a barrage of statistics.
FYI, these are actually Czech ledgers (you think they still make things as nice as this in the US??).  They appear to be made to track blood transfusions…

Shifting gears now as I go up to Wisconsin for the opening weekend of the “Women in Grains” show in Reedsburg…

Inspiration for Documentation by sarah kavage
July 11, 2010, 10:08 pm
Filed under: project updates, where the flour went | Tags: , , , , , ,

Today I received an email with documentation of what one of the flour recipients did with the flour and she gave me permission to share it with you all.  It’s a lovely story very much in the spirit of what I am trying to achieve with these flour giveaways, and sharing it articulates my goals better than I would ever be able to do on my own.  This is not to put undue pressure on the flour recipients, but I do hope that others find it inspiring.  A huge thanks to Erin for sharing!

Attached is photographic documentation of what I did with those four cups of flour on 4th of July weekend.

One of my favorite breads to make is Challah because it tastes so good and because of the mind/dough/body connection this bread inspires.  Challah means “dough offering” in Hebrew and, like any good offering, it never fails to bring my friends and family together in surprising and delicious ways.  The three strands of this braided bread stand for truth, peace, and justice.  Challah lets us hold these things in our hands and in our mouths, and it reminds us of all the ways in which human beings nourish each other.

Fourth of July weekend is a big celebration of national and personal independence.  This 4th of July, the people I love came together over challah and grilled vegetables to celebrate all the ways in which we are dependent.   We wanted to take the time to honor how much we mean to each other and how much we have needed each other.  And how much we hate to say good-bye.

Because this 4th of July was also a good-bye party.

After the January earthquake that devastated so much of Haiti, my Haitian friends came to live with me and my roommate in Chicago. The nearly-six months that have followed could not have happened without the miraculous support of so many people.  My Haitian friends (Michelaine and her children ages 12, 8, and 2) were given free food, toys, winter clothes, medical attention, English classes, and day care.  The alderman helped us find the family an apartment, the French immersion school accepted the kids for free in the middle of the year, and hundreds of friends, family members, and complete strangers donated their time and resources.  We raised $10,000.

Throughout those 6 months, the baby began to talk (in English, French AND Creole), the 8-year old made many new friends, and the 12-year old discovered that she likes to dance.   Michelaine made us diri ak pwa, my roommate gave up her bedroom, and I learned how to ask for help.  We tromped through snow.  We skyped family in Haiti.  We cried and laughed and played silly games.  We fed each other.

This 4th of July, as we stuffed challah rolls into our mouths, we celebrated all those things while we fed each other one last time in Chicago.  On July 5th, Michelaine and her kids flew back to Haiti.

We miss them terribly.

The bread we made with this flour was one of the many ways we learned to nourish each other.  We are very grateful for the time, the community, the stories, and the food that we have shared.

-Erin Edwards

Challah rolls and bread before they went into the oven

4th of July picnic with the challah (and other delicious foods!) in our garden.  Pictured:  Michelaine, Anaïka, my dad (Wayne), my mom (Susan), Taïsha, my partner (Liz), Yamiley.

Warehoused by sarah kavage

The flour is here!  With the heat and humidity, the mill tends to get gummed up.  The flour gets a little bit sticky and they have to keep stopping the machinery and cleaning things out.  So things have taken a little bit longer than expected.  But the milling was finally completed last night and the truck was on its way bright and early this morning.  The destination:  a refrigerated warehouse in the West Loop (not only do I not have enough room to store 20 tons of flour in my apartment, whole wheat flour will quickly go rancid if it’s not refrigerated).  Even though the driver left before 8 AM, he still didn’t pull up at the receiving dock of Fulton Market Cold Storage until after noon, well past the “scheduled” delivery time of 11 AM (traffic in this town is no joke).  Which gave me time to sit in the main office and participate in most of a conference call for the day job.

In the warehouse, things move pretty fast – forklifts and pallets and big stacks of meat and oil and apple juice concentrate.  One must be careful to avoid being the cause of an industrial catastrophe.  I managed to stay out of the way and take a few shots of the unloading process here.

Oh, and I left with 20 lbs. of all-purpose flour to take home.  It fell off the truck, if you know what I mean…

Giving, Taking, Lots of Baking by sarah kavage

It’s been in the back of my head for awhile, this nagging doubt:  “What if no one wants flour?”

I mean, do people really bake anymore?  Some of my friends do, and I’ve certainly met plenty of dedicated bakers in the last few months, but really, I was somewhat apprehensive and feeling like baking might be a little bit of a lost art.  But I’ve been surprised and delighted at the response at the last couple of events!  After last week’s Hull House talk, almost 30 folks lined up for a few cups of flour to take home and use.  People were taking flour for friends, neighbors, relatives – the highlight being one woman who picked up some flour for herself, her son and her 90-year old father, who still bakes a few times a week.

The very next morning, I got the first report-back from one of the recipients, who said: “”I used 2 cups of your flour to make 12 large buttermilk biscuits this morning, and I brought them over to my neighbor’s. They were delicious!”

And then today, I took a train / bike jaunt out to North Chicago / Waukegan to give a little lunchtime talk to the youth and staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm

And again, was not really sure what to expect.  These are kids, and I know when I was a kid I pretty much sat around and ate junk food and waited for Mom to call me to the table.  But after an hour of helping in the garden in the heat of the day, it was pretty clear that these kids were different.  I did not hear one complaint, with the exception of the little voice in my own head that kept repeating “hot…tired…hungry…”

We stopped for lunch, I gave my little talk and thought I’d be pretty much able to relax, except then the whole crew started lining up to take home flour!  I was totally impressed and again, delighted that they accepted this somewhat strange gift with such enthusiasm.  Between the youth and the staff, they took at least as much flour as folks did at the Hull House talk.

For those who have protested the lack of pictures, I am waiting on pictures that other folks took of these events, and will post them as soon as I get ’em, unless I’m making awful faces or something.  In the meantime, please enjoy this recipe for whole-wheat-pizza that I wrote up for the Green Youth youth.  Also good on a stovetop or grill.

A Field Trip to the Fields by sarah kavage

This past week, I spent a couple of days out in Indiana visiting my miller, grain broker, and the elevator that sold me the grain.  Mock me if you will, coastal snobs, but there is nothing like the midwest countryside in June.  It’s humble and breathtaking at the same time, and they’ve got some especially pretty country up there in Northeast Indiana.

First stop was Greenfield Mills, located in Howe, Indiana – about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Chicago.  For four generations, Greenfield Mills has been owned and operated by a single family, the Rinkels.  They manufacture New Rinkel flour with “green power” technology that has been around for, oh, 75 years or so – water from a mill pond and a dam on the Fawn River powers the generator.  Mills of this size used to be common – there used to be 10 mills on the Fawn River alone, and over 260 in Indiana.  Now there are only about 260 small mills in the entire country.  The Rinkels (Dave, Mary, Amanda and James) were wonderful and accomodating and let me poke around the mill and take pictures to my heart’s content, the results of which can be seen here.  My Industrial Harvest brand flour looked pretty great to my untrained eye, but it pleased me to no end when I later sat down with someone who knows about such things and she said “this is just what I hoped it would look like!”

Next stop:  Mitchel Enterprises, of Bluffton IN.  Leon arranged the purchase of the wheat.  He gently corrected me when I called him a broker – in the business, a broker is a middleman who does not touch the actual stuff.  Leon is more appropriately known as a “jobber,” a different breed of middleman (another term none of these folks like, but what seems to be a necessary element in this business) that buys and sells the actual grain and by-products of grain.   This, in commodity speak, is known as the “cash” market, although if I had to carry around enough actual cash to pay for all this stuff I would have needed a briefcase (there have been multiple instances of sticker shock on this trip, first at the Rinkels’ and then at Leon’s).  Leon and his nephew Jan buy, sell and transport grain and grain by-products – they deal a lot with waste products that accumulate during the industrial food production process.  Often these can be used as feed or bedding for animals (here’s where I am torn between a distaste for industrial meat production and a respect for resourcefulness).

And finally, at the end of a very long, hot day in the car, I made it to the elevator where the wheat I bought came from:  Lehman Feed Mill in Berne, Indiana.  Jeff Lehman, the owner, looked no less hot and worn out than I did but still took a break from his running about to talk to me about their business, and let me wander around in the 90 degree heat as long as I liked (which was not very long) to take pictures (seen here).  He and Leon both do some hedging on the Board of Trade, especially to cover large transactions, but preferred to stay in the cash market whenever possible.  Jeff told me that trading has been more volatile overnight the last few years, so he will often place trades before the close of business or on Fridays, especially during the harvest when he’s shelling out a lot of cash as farmers bring in their crops.  Jeff says he tries get farmers to focus on quality rather than yields, but that can be tough.  The higher quality grain is kept separate so that it can go to customers like me, who will pay a premium for it.  Occasionally, a larger elevator will buy Lehman’s high quality grain to blend, so that their lower quality grain will meet a deliverable standard (be prepared to read more, much more about grain quality in upcoming posts).

To sum up:  Three family businesses, two very large checks, and two straight days of talking, taking pictures and asking questions.  All of which were expected, but then there were also some surprise adventures that happened on this field trip.  During a dip in a local lake I was entertained by the arrival of three buggyloads of beer-drinking, hip hop listening Amish teenagers obviously on rumspringa. Way tanner and in better shape than the other group of redneck “English” teens at the lake, they entered the bathroom in traditional garb, and came out looking like California surfers.  The next day, before heading back to Chicago I stopped at a diner for dinner.  As I ate, the buzz began about a big storm heading out our way.  By the time I’d finished, all the other customers had run out to hole up in their basements.  The restaurant staff and I gathered about the Weather Channel and gawked; the restaurant owner closed down the kitchen early and sent most everyone home and I waited out the storm with the owner, a waitress, a busboy and three cups of coffee.  Folks were calling with weather updates, at least two of which included tornado sightings.  We were on the edge of our seats – did you know the cooler is the safest place to be in case of a tornado hitting a restaurant?

Finally, at around 11 pm it appeared to be safe to travel on, so I rode the caffeine high all the way back to Chicago.  And just when I thought I was home free, I somehow got turned around the wrong way getting on to Lake Shore Drive and got pulled over doing an illegal u-turn right in front of a cop car.  Frazzled, I explained to the cop that I’d had to wait out the storm, wasn’t really from Chicago, got kind of lost, tired, etc. etc. – and at that point, the cop says, “what’s that in your backseat? ”  (did I mention that I’d filled the trunk and backseat of the rental car with 700 pounds of wheat and flour? It’s great for gas mileage.)  Anyway, so I reply:  “It’s wheat.”
“What for?”
“It’s kind of a research project.”  (at this point, any mention of art seemed unnecessary information).
And with that, the cop turned around and went back to his car with my drivers’ license.  After about 10 minutes of me literally and figuratively sweating it out he came back with his partner.  Partner (female):  “Can I look in your backseat?”  To which I consented:  “It’s 50 pound bags of wheat.  Do you want me to open them up?”  They poked and prodded at them for a few seconds, and then the (male) cop says in an authoritative tone “It’s wheat.”  I get a mercifully short lecture, no ticket, and am told to be careful getting home.