“The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
You know that I love my food. All you have to do is look at my ever-present love handles to see that I haven’t missed too many meals. I’ve evolved over the years, from my days in the Marine Corps chow hall, to a beer-soaked decade as an amateur frat boy (no college required), to my years turning out high quality airport meals for the jet-set and finally to the tens of thousands of pizzas that I shipped out to the hungry folks of Columbus, Ohio. I’ve eaten my fair share of dollar menu burgers and fried foods, washed down with flavored high fructose corn syrup, and finished off with copious amounts of alcohol. Through it all I somehow maintained a conscience. About nine months ago, right before my last birthday, I had an awakening like Buddha under the Bodhi tree. I did a 180 and flipped my life upside down. I escaped the restaurant business and started canvassing for Working America, spearheading one of the greatest grassroots movements in the history of Ohio. At the same time, where I was once an omnivore who was chained to my car, I became a vegetarian who was saddled to my bike. As if I was playing poker, I pushed the chips to the center of the table and went “all-in” for the environment.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve said all-in. Back in the 90’s I spent a year or so on the streets canvassing for environmental justice. I was a true believer. If you looked at me you might be fearful that I was an eco-terrorist. In order to get the maximum impact at the door, I went through a subtle transformation from friend to activist to businessman. It was my jobs to not only get you to recognize the problem, but I also had to transform you into an activist and support the organization. It’s a skill that served me well over the years.
A few years after my flirtation with the environmental side of activism I got activated again for a different cause. I don’t remember what it was that set me off, but I became deeply involved in the movement to dethrone George W. Bush from the White House. It was 2004. I worked tirelessly for the better part of a year to get John Kerry elected, only to be left at the alter on election night. Even though I was devastated, not so much by Kerry’s loss, he was far from the ideal candidate, but by Bush’s win. I traveled to DC to make my last statement, took a healthy dose of pepper spray from my trouble (with roughly 50,000 new found friends), and returned to Ohio chastened and demoralized. A six-year slumber ensued. Which brings us back to 2011.
You see it in the news all of the time, “Refugees Flee Famine in Somalia,” “North Korean Famine Looms,” and “Thirty-six Million Die Of Hunger and Malnutrition Every Year.” The Sahara Desert is expanding southward at a rate of thirty miles per year. Fossil fuels are beginning to run out, requiring ever more dangerous techniques to bring them out of the ground. Water shortages are reported in nearly every country of the world. At the same time the residents of America and of other “developed” countries are seeing an epidemic of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. With my track record I’m lucky to be unscathed. But I’m lucky to have my eyes open. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the world food crisis, the water crisis and the energy crisis are all interrelated. Humanity has created this confluence (some would say that lack of humanity). He has manufactured it. And it will take humanity to set it right before it’s too late.
So what to do about it? Surely one man can’t make a difference against all of these forces that are bearing down on the human race. I submit that he can. If I do the best that I can, and I motivate my friends to do the same, and they in turn motivate their friends, and so on, we can indeed change the world. But we need to take that first step, and the one after that, staying on the path even when it seems too hard.
So what is that first step, Brother Terry? Well, it seems like a good first step is localization. If we all agreed to turn our resources inwardly, to reduce our own carbon footprint, then we will not only be on the way to energy solvency, but we also fortify our own communities. We would support our own local markets and artisans and they would in turn nurture more and more of their kind. The second benefit of localization is that it creates a economic ecosystem that spawns development and redevelopment. We see that happening in neighborhoods like Weinland Park and Franklinton right now, so why not Linden and King-Lincoln? And that in turn would check our suburban sprawl. If inner-city Columbus were vibrant and alive it would be more appealing to be a city-dweller. I love living in the city, but not everybody will take that leap of faith. Besides, the last thing we need is more houses in the ‘burbs. Better to rebuild the houses and neighborhoods that already exist. That way we can concentrate our resources in a confined area and create safer and more beautiful neighborhoods inside the city. And it all comes together as an increased demand for cheap high-quality food.
The second benefit of urban renewal is freeing up land and resources for the urban garden and the small family farm. This country has gone far down the road of mechanized farming to the detriment of the small family-held farm and our waistlines. Factory farms growing fruits, vegetables and livestock are taking the humanity out of it. They try to manipulate the way our food was designed by nature in order to make it bigger, faster and more commensurate. With some of these foods that means gene-manipulation and hormones. And then they ship it halfway around the world and sell it for half the price of the local product. And that’s just the fresh products. The packaged goods are even worse.
Mega-corporations, often the same ones that grow the food, have become masters in loading the recipe with the things that our bodies crave, sodium, sugar, MSG, high-fructose corn syrup. They make them cheap, quick to prepare, even available at the drive-thru window. Everything but healthy. The result is the onslaught of diseases, destruction of our biodiversity, drain on our resources and our strain our health care system. The reason why these products are so cheap is that the greater amount of them are subsidized by the government, the companies are multinational to the point where that are not beholden to any sovereign government. This monopolization of resources comes at the expense of the little guy. Localization is the only answer to battle this. If more land were available near the city then more fresh food would be available for its inhabitants. As the availability rises the costs go down. And if the farmers work cooperatively their costs go down as well.
Another factor in the equation is the production and removal of waste. The very nature of time and distance necessitates that the mega-corporation resort to excessive packaging, fuel usage and marketing materials. Twenty percent of fossil fuels used in this country go toward the production and shipping of foods to market. Here in Columbus, the self-proclaimed test market of fast food restaurants, the percentage of trash that gets recycled in less than fifteen percent. Neither one of these numbers are sustainable. We need to get better. The way to do that is through localization. It takes less (sometime zero) packaging for a local crop to get to market. Similarly, I’d rather have my food arrive in a box truck instead of a ship, plane or semi truck. Common sense dictates the real cost of food is far higher than it reads on the dollar menu.
Economic realities are going to force a lot of people to wake up and start living more sustainably. Here in central Ohio we live in a recycling desert. We have evolved into a throwaway society. We have to have the newest car, computer, couch and house on the street. Our closets are filled with last year’s (or last decade’s) clothes that we never wear. Our landfills are filling up with our unwanted stuff. The biodegradable stuff that we throw in there can rot in there for as long as thirty years The same stuff can be composted and returned to the soil in six months or less. We throw away 2.5 million plastic water bottles per hour, 25% of which are tap water and ninety percent of which never get recycled. I can go on forever with these facts, but you get the point.
These are heady times that we live in. The local restaurant, the community market and the thrift shop are going to be more in vogue than ever. A support system for these businesses is going to tantamount to their survival. But that’s the easy part. Local support for local business is a no-brainer. It’s up to each of us to make it so. Reduce, Recycle, Compost and Repurpose. Save yourself, save your community and save the planet. Peace.