Industrial Harvest


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



The Miller by sarah kavage

Another crucial link in the long chain of transactions that hold this project together has now officially been forged (actually, this happened awhile ago, it’s just taken me awhile to post):  the miller. 

It took awhile to find a miller, and was much more difficult than I’d expected (although, to be honest, nothing in this project has been easy, I’d erroneously assumed that after figuring out Board of Trade delivery logistics, I’d be home free).  Dealing with 1000 bushels of non-organic wheat posed problems to millers both large and small.  The big guys couldn’t keep “my” lot of grain separate from the rest.  Since this project is all about creating an identity for a generic commodity, once it comes out of the grain elevator, it needs to evolve into something more “special” – and I mean, I just can’t go putting my very special commodity grain in with all that other riffraff.  The small mills were typically either exclusively organic and/or too small to handle that quantity of wheat in a reasonable time frame.  And, you guessed it, there just aren’t a lot of small mills out there anymore.  Smaller grain mills used to be common in the country midwest, but most of them have gone out of business.

So finding the folks at Greenfield Mills was a lucky break.  A fifth generation family operated mill on the Indiana / Michigan border, it’s also hydro-powered (generating power for the mill, plus 11 nearby homes).  Small enough clear out a bin to keep my grain separate, big enough to not be exclusively organic, and run by some very kind, understanding and accomodating people.  Dave Rinkel, who I suppose you could call the patriarch of Greenfield Mills, has been walking me through the miling process with plain talk and good humor.  

They’ll be milling two types of Industrial Harvest flour (and as much as I detest terms like “branding”, well, I’d just like to acknowledge that creating this “brand” has been a very satisfying part of this process):  a whole wheat pastry flour, and an all-purpose unbleached white flour.   Here are the labels that will go on the bags of flour.  Bonus points for folks who can identify the origins of the label symbology…

All purpose Industrial Harvest flour label

Industrial Harvest Whole Wheat Pastry Flour Label

This project has been a little bit like starting several businesses at once; I’ve been continually polling the bakers I talk to:  what kind of flour should I make?  Because soft red winter wheat  – the type traded on the Chicago Board of Trade and commonly grown in the lower midwest – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri – is lower in protein, it’s better suited to pastry flour.  Although I’m not opposed to pastry flour, it’s used more for baked goods (cookies, crackers), biscuits and pie crusts – all delicious food items, but it’s not quite as versatile as I’d like – and I really wanted folks to be able to make bread with this flour.  After further discussion with Dave Rinkel, I decided that it would be worth mixing in a bit of hard wheat to bump up the protein content of the soft wheat and get an all-purpose flour.  This will make it better for breads, which need that protein to develop that great chewy texture.  At this point, I get a little bit less uptight about letting other wheat mingle with my special batch; in life, practical considerations create inconsistencies that we must live with, and more than anything else I want this flour to be a useful product for the people that receive it.



Announcements by sarah kavage

posted by Sarah

A few events, partners and commitments to announce:
I’ll be presenting this project as part of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum’s Rethinking Soup program on June 29.  Consider it a project kickoff event, as it will be happening just before I pick up the actual wheat.  I’ve also been talking to the folks at the Hull House about collaborating on other programs and events, too, so stay tuned!

Industrial Harvest will be in a group show at Roots & Culture contemporary art center, curated by Mike Wolf (opening Sat. Aug 7). 

I’ll be working with the folks at the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm to incorporate this project into programs they’ve got going with 2 nearby schools. 

The Greater Chicago Food Depository is going to be accepting a few large donations of flour from the project; they’ll distribute it to their member food banks and soup kitchens, and also use it in their culinary programs.

A huge thanks to the people at these organizations for jumping in early with lots of enthusiasm.  I’ve also been having great (but inconclusive as of yet) conversations with other lots of other people / organizations and will announce them here as they get firmed up (Cathie B, we need to talk specifics!).  If this gives you any ideas for people / organizations that I should be working with, get in touch with me:  sarah “at” industrialharvest “dot” com.  Looking forward to posting more on this soon…



New website by sarah kavage
March 16, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: project updates | Tags: ,

posted by Sarah

All things related to this project are now at a brand new shiny url:  www.industrialharvest.com

This is a work in progress that I hope will become more visually compelling, more interactive and less wordy as time goes on.  Please send any suggestions, corrections and thoughts about what you’d like to see in the digital realm…



Introducing Ben Walker, our Research Fellow by sarah kavage
February 1, 2010, 9:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’m pleased to announce that the Industrial Harvest project now has an official research fellow!  Ben Walker was born in Streator, IL, a couple hours drive southwest of Chicago, and has spent the bulk of his life in the region between these two places.  His earliest jobs were in conventional agriculture, detasseling seed corn for Cargill and baling hay for a local farmer.  Since then, he has worked with a few organic/sustainable/family farming operations, both vegetable and animal, one (at Growing Home) as part of a job training program for urban populations with various barriers to permanent employment.  He’s a beekeeper, a student of traditional Western herbalism, a permaculturist, and an avid maker of fermented foods.  

Ben is interested in helping to frame discussions about food and agriculture that examine the crucial social factors that are often left out of current food systems critiques, and in exploring possibilities for cultural exchange that weave together meaningful personal experience, sharing of skills, and broader popular education.  He’ll be posting on such things and others here, and likely lending a bit of greatly needed intellectual heft to this rag!