Archive for the 'community' Category

Would They Hide You?

Sharon April 23rd, 2009

My friend, Kathy Harrison, said something that really struck me while we were talking the other day, and I asked her to write about it, so I could share it properly with all of you. As the financial situation gets more dire, as we face more and more people suffering from state budget cuts, the loss of their pensions, the crashing of major industries, what we do have left matters more.  Kathy quotes a story told by Warren Buffet, and then muses on her own experience,

A woman by the name of Belle Eisenberg, who recently passed away, lost her entire family in Auschwitz. She was the only one to make it out. She told Mr. Buffet that every time she met someone she asked herself whether this was the type of person who would hide her from the Nazis. He said that if you had a dozen people in your life who would hide you and you them then you lived a pretty successful life. Mr. Buffet said that he knew billionaires whose own children would not hide them….

Some weeks we are on the recieving end of the favors. We have eaten countless meals prepared by others when I was ill. We have planted adopted seedlings and worn hand-me-down clothing. Our children have been minded by friends as have our animals and our plants. We have been picked up from airports and driven lent cars. Our life is a series of good deeds done by people who probably found it inconvenient but did it anyway.

This economic mess is a terrible thing for many families but when I look for the silver lining to a grim cloud it comes from the world getting smaller. Small makes it easier to hold hands with each other.

This, of course, is a very high standard of relationships – and yet, it is also, I think, a useful way of thinking about the depths of our relationships.  Ask yourself who you would risk your life for, who you would take in in very difficult times, who you would speak up for, who you would make sacrifices for.  Odds are good that some of those people are the ones who would do it for you.  The stakes of community really are not that low, and community should never be last on our planning list.

I’ve recently been thinking about relationships as well – last fall, my youngest sister and brother in law came to visit.  Now I adore my wonderful brother in law, but while my sister and I are quite close, and talk regularly, I sometimes feel like Billy and I go long stretches without connecting, and miss him - he works long hours, and so she and I chat on the phone or she comes out to visit without him, and often, when we do see him, it is at large family gatherings, rather than intimately.  This was a rare occasion when my husband and I got to spend some real time with Billy, which was wonderful. 

Our dining room roof leaks quite badly, and because we are in an extended conflict with the company that supposedly fixed the roof, but didn’t, we’ve been advised we can’t actually fix it ourselves without losing leverage in our ongoing process of resolution.  On the autumn weekend they visited, we had torrential, icy rain that night, and, not unexpectedly, our dining room roof was leaking horribly.  We’d just gotten the kids to bed, and were sitting around drinking beer and talking, when Billy turned to me, and asked whether we’d like him to go up on the roof and replace the tarp that was now failing to keep out the leaks.

And I was struck by this – how many people in your life will go up on the roof on a cold night in the pouring rain simply because they want to help?  It isn’t quite as dramatic as asking “would these people hide me from the Nazis” but it isn’t too far off, either – in both cases, the question is this – is the relationship deep enough to endure difficulty, cost, strain – and is the faith in the relationship sufficient to endure periods where reciprocity may not be possible? 

Now people have these relationships for different reasons.  Even though Billy and I don’t spend a ton of time together, I’m family, and both of us have a strong commitment to family.  Our friendship is real, but not deep enough to explain this – but the ties of marriage and blood are.  But I have other relatives who would never think to do the same.  Family can be the origin, but it isn’t always.

I have friends who I know would go up on the roof, would hide me from the Nazis, based on relationships we’ve had for years, people I would trust with my life, and who are as important to me as my family.  I sometimes struggle with the choice to live so far away from my parents and sisters – but the thing that keeps me here is that we’ve managed to build communities and relationships that are just as strong as the familial ones in many ways.  I feel very lucky and blessed to have such friends.

And there are a few people who would do these things not because they love me, or because I love them, but because it is the right thing to do.   There are those people who hid others from the Nazis not based on intense personal relationships, but because they felt it was right – people who show up to help out the neighbors even if they don’t personally like them, or know them very well, who are there with a helping hand.  Sometimes those people become your friends, your intimate circle.  And sometimes they never do – sometimes all you will ever be to one another are members of the same community, but that’s enough.

I hope, of course, that none of us ever need to be hidden.  But it is a fair likelihood that all of us will need help from someone at some point.  It is a fair likelihood that all of us will haev the opportunity to extend help to one another.  And every time we do this, we create something.  It isn’t always the same thing – not every relationship extends as deeply as the ones Harrison talks about.  Some things will go as far as the roof, but not as far as hiding you, or vice versa.  Some people will be able to offer different things. 

But it is worth thinking of these moments of exigency when we truly rely on one another when we inventory what we have in our lives.  I often talk about acquiring or making things that we might need – but this, I think, is the one thing we all most need to make – those ties, deeper than ordinary ones, on which we can trust and wholly rely.


The Party’s Not Over – It is Just Getting Started!

Sharon March 19th, 2009

This week we’re talking about community and connections, and I’d like to suggest that those of you who don’t feel they have a strong local community should consider starting by throwing a party!  The best way to get to know your neighbors is to meet them in a social setting – you don’t have to have a “the zombies are coming, run but have a beer first” theme – that is, you don’t actually have to talk the coming changes at all.  This is mostly for getting to know people.

We’ve done this a number of times, but have fallen down on the job of running them – this summer I’m hoping to do two, one perhaps for my shul and local Jewish community in the hope of getting more people connected to the farm and maybe a rural minyan up and really running regularly, and the other for my neighbors, complete with tomato tastings, corn on the grill, meet the cute baby goats, etc… etc…

 You don’t have to do it alone – you can get other people helping. You don’t have to do it at your house if you can’t – there are often public spaces you can make use of – parks, yards, etc… It can be potluck, show off local food, show off your garden, show off nothing but your willingness to meet people.

You can have a theme – what about a clothing or toy swap? What about a cheap living party?  Garden swap – bring extra seeds and divisions of your plants.  What about a work day sprucing up the neighborhood, helping out an elderly neighbor or building something that will be resource for your whole community?  What about ice skating, caroling, softball?  Or maybe you do want to talk about preparedness issues – about local food issues, about how tough it is to keep the food in budget, about hurricanes or earthquakes or what to do if there’s another ice storm.  Remember, the point is that you are together, but not that everyone believes everything you do. 

Remember, everything goes better with music, food, beer, laughter, kids running around and playing games, adults talking to one another instead of just waving as they drive past.  Make a mix CD (my long emergency mix is probably not party material, but you can have it anyway ;-) ), bring out some food and drink (simple and cheap is fine – iced tea and brownies will do if you don’t have the time/money/energy and start putting up flyers and stuffing mailboxes.  But have the party – the more parties we get started, the better!


Food Security as a Cottage Industry

Sharon January 27th, 2009

It would be great if all of us had the luxury of putting our community’s food security needs at the top of our agendas, simply because we care.  The problem, of course, is the need for us to meet other requirements – to make a living, get food on the table, tend our families, etc…  One of the ways we can find more time for this project is to shift some of our income to local food security work.  So what kind of jobs are there that allow you to improve your local food economy?  How might you make a cottage industry niche for yourself that might simultaneously improve your family’s economic security in tough times, and also help your community maintain a food supply?

Now obviously if you and your partner already work two full time jobs, or you are a single Mom struggling to just get through the day, the last thing you need is a new business.  But for the retired, underemployed, unemployed or for at-home parents who might need a little extra income, this offers the possibility of doing good and also keeping the wolf from the door.

So here are some jobs I can think of (I’m leaving out jobs as growers or raising livestock – I’ll do a post on growing and producing food for income next month during the Garden Design class) - I’m sure the rest of you can come up with others. 

Let me be clear that anyone dealing with food is going to have to decide how they want to operate in relationship to food laws.  Know your local food laws, and know how they are enforced.  The recent Manna Storehouse raid suggests that we need to take care.  I believe that many food safety policies do exist for a reason – but the fact that they so hugely prioritize the well being of rich corporations, who still can’t keep the food supply safe (witness the current peanut contamination and cyclical contaminations that show up every few months), that we’d be better off allowing more small scale food production.  I personally don’t have a lot of problem circumventing the laws, or campaigning to overturn them, but I do want people to understand the risks.

 1. Bulk food/local food sales.  My friend Joy now operates a storefront that sells bulk foods, local dairy, cheese and eggs, and also makes homemade baked goods and sells sandwiches.  Her place operates as a convenience store/sandwich shop and bulk goods store.  That might be a little much of a project for beginners, but her example is timely because before she operated her storefront, she did bulk food sales out of her house, ordering bulk foods, repackaging them in smaller quantities for sale and recruiting customers.  Her prices are a bit higher than my local coop, but I want her and her family to succeed.   This is a great cottage industry for someone – or even for a couple of people at home.

 2. Home baker – now food sanitation laws can make any kind of food production at home difficult – most states require certified kitchens, with equipment most of us don’t have.  Some of us may have access to certified kitchens somewhere – we may be able to use them for a small fee or even barter for their use during times when they aren’t open, and then sell home-produced food.  If you are going to work outside the law, the place where there are the fewest risks is in baking – it is genuinely challenging to poison people with bread.  In addition, Amish communities routinely sell home baked goods outside the law, and are mostly ignored, setting a precedent that might be useful.  So if you are going to try and set up as a food producer outside of a certified kitchen, I suggest baked goods.  In fact, I’ve done this – when our CSA was in operation, we used to include Challah in our deliveries.  At one point, we were baking 50 loaves of bread every Thursday, without legal approval.  We were very clear with our customers – we were neither certified nor we were certified kosher, although we keep a kosher kitchen and take challah when baking.  The bread was a gift, never mentioned in our literature, and not part of their purchase.  We still could have gotten into trouble, but I mention this as a possibility.

 3. Other cooking – basically, I think the “ratio of things likely to get you in serious trouble” runs this way baking is the lowest because illness from bread is unlikely.  Homemade meals or “lunch bags”, delivered to neighbors or brought to a workplace are probably next lowest risk, particularly if you can simply have them pay you for “grocery shopping” enough to cover.  I personally would not mess with selling dairy or home canned goods – just in case something goes wrong, but then again, I live in a state with draconian dairy laws.  Find out what your local laws are and work with them – or know what you are risking working around them.  If you have access to a certified kitchen, or can get some institution to certify a kitchen for the collective good, by all means explore these routes.  We are going to need more people cooking – and this is a reasonable source of income. 

4. Teaching food storage, preservation and food security.  There are a couple of ways you could do this.  One is through your local community college extension courses, another is privately.  You might run classes out of your home or you might offer private lessons if the market will bear it – you go to their house and help them with their first canning attempts.  You will probably need a fair bit of experience and some practice or credentials – my suggestion would be to teach the classes for free a few times through a local coop or health food store, as a volunteer, and then use that to leverage yourself into being able to charge.  This will depend on the market and local interest – but it is worth a shot.

5. Canning on shares – if you can find a certified kitchen, what about preserving other people’s food for them?  They could pay you, or they could give you a portion of the preserved food as part of the deal – which, if it was canned in a certified kitchen, you could then sell.

6. Produce sales – you talk to local gardeners who grow enough extra to want a little cash, but not enough to be worth setting up a stand.  Find 5-10 of these and ta da – you pay them for their extra strawberries and sweet corn and you sell it, either from an actual produce stand at the farmer’s market or through a stand at your house, and you keep the markup.  You can do eggs this way too, and even local crafts, soap, etc…

 7. Food access expansion.  When Eric and I were caring for his grandparents, his grandmother wanted very much to buy local, fresh food.  The difficulty was that at first, she was nervous about driving to unfamiliar areas, and later, unable to drive herself.  It was easy enough for us to pick up extra produce when we went to our local farmstand.  And gradually we noticed that other seniors in our rural area had the same problem – they missed the fresh raspberries and really “chickeny” chicken of their youth, but trips to the farmer’s market were hard – they were often tired or relied on other people to take them shopping.  Extra stops and out of the way areas were simply too overwhelming.  So, for a time, we’d stop by and pick up extra produce for them too.  Now this was a not-for profit thing, but the seeds of a business are there – either shopping on comission for those too busy or unable to get out, or transporting people to farmer’s markets or farmstands in order to increase demand for local food.

8. Set up pantries.  I suspect there are some people out there concerned with food storage who have more time than money – they want to build food storage, but don’t have time to clean out space, set up a pantry and stock it.  So you be the “provident pantry” dude.  You volunteer to come over, clear out the shelves, place and pick up the bulk order and put it into buckets.  You might also offer menus and suggestions for using food storage.  I should note that I generally shy away from strategies that mostly involve serving the affluent, but in this case, I actually think food security is one of those things that serves everyone – everyone in the community is better off when people have enough to eat. 

9. Teach cooking classes - teaching people to cook bulk staple foods and to adapt their diets to food storage and local eating is important work.  If you haven’t taught before, do it as a volunteer a few times.  Consider seeing if you can get local grant money from any organization to cover your time, so that you can offer classes for free for those who may need them but can’t afford to pay – many towns have budgets that might locate a few hundred dollars to pay you to help low income folks be able to make better use of low cost foods.  These classes can be taught anywhere, though – through churches, out of your home, to teenage homeschoolers and even through workplaces.

10. Combine items, but don’t ”cook” them – there are plenty of grey areas here that might allow you to sell home produced foods, but without getting into the legal mess of selling cooked items.  You can mix teas, spice mixes,  beans for soup mix, make flour mixes for gluten free or specialty baking, make herbal tinctures (don’t do this unless you know what you are doing and are familiar with the laws about making health claims for herbal medicines), and otherwise take other people’s products and mix them without doing anything that can get you in trouble. 

Ok, other suggestions?  The reality is that with almost 70,000 jobs gone in just one day yesterday, a lot of us are going to need ways to do good work and make a living.


Strategies for Community Food Security: The Local Foods Coop

Sharon January 15th, 2009

So a while back on a list I read, there was a discussion about who should lead a national movement to sustainability that addressed our current set of crises.  This is a big question, and a big job.  My personal vote for our Gandhi was Bob Waldrop, and no, I wasn’t kidding.  If you don’t know him and his work, you should check him out at He’s one of the few people on the planet I think who could actually move mountains. Among his many other accomplishments he’s run for mayor of Oklahoma City (I’d vote for him for anything – the man is a national treasure) and he was the founder of the US’s first local foods coop  Here’s a great sample of some of his wonderful and compelling writing: or you can read the interview he kindly gave us at hen and harvest: (You can also play  “duelling best beards in the Peak Oil Movement” option if you want to check out our interview with the great Albert Bates: ;-).)

The food coop is, I think, one of the best tools available to us for community food security – and for just plain getting better stuff to eat.  The magic of it is that you don’t have to believe in any particular worldview to think that bringing great local farm food to consumers is worthwhile.  Food coops are a gift to all of us even if nothing bad ever happens and we manage to start running the planet on hot air or snow or something (I’ll happily volunteer some of my snow for the greater good ;-) ). 

There was a time when coops popped up all over, but perhaps because of the growth of whole foods and farmer’s markets, the coop model hasn’t been as popular – but it needs to be brought back.  It connects people with local resources, and as solid, stable markets are created, it encourages other people to join in the project of growing food, preserving food and otherwise fostering local economies and everything else that’s good.    There are more and more local food coops built on Bob’s model – here are links to find them:  So far they are almost all in the west – I think we folks in the East had better get our acts together and create one!

And not only did Bob pull together this amazing local food system (with help, this a good bit of work and not a solo project), but he’s given instructions on how to start one in your community.  There is even software available for tracking orders and putting things together here:  So you really have no excuse for not starting one in your town or region, do you?

Remember, this is potentially not just a way to bring in food, but a way to get more people involved in the local economy – Bob doesn’t just make the show run, he sells his own bulghur and hot sauce through the coop.  You could do that too! 


Getting to Know Your Community Food Security Resources

Sharon January 13th, 2009

We’re never going to be able to do it alone.  That is, none of us can hold back hunger in our towns or cities by ourselves.  None of us can ever store enough food to feed everyone – heck, most of us with reasonably wide circles of friends and relations probably can’t even store enough for them.  The only option is that we put food security on the radar at every level, from the personal to the neigborhood, to municipal, state and federal.  But that, of course, is a big project, and not one that will happen overnight.  So where do we get started in working on food security?  We talked last week about bringing the subject up with friends, family and neighbors.  This week, I want to focus on bringing it up at the community/city level and what kind of existing institutions might aid you, might already be doing this work, or might be hijacked errr… encouraged to help bring community level food security to the table.

Quite honestly, the very first step is to get to know your community and its institutions.  If you are already very involved, this won’t be a big deal.  But, if, for example, you are new in town, or have been too busy to get engaged, now is the time to see what’s out there.  In a tiny rural area like mine you may be able to find the entire community organization structure by going to one town meeting, whereas in a large city, you may have dozens or even hundreds of organizations and programs to work with. 

Some of the organizations you might want to look for/look into are:

- Food pantries and Soup Kitchens (these people are on the front lines of dealing with hunger in the community and may have some suggestions about what’s needed).

- Food Coops or buying clubs (if you don’t have any of these in town, this might be a good place to start with bulk purchasing)

- Poverty Relief Progams (these may have existing rubrics you can work with, grants available, or you might be able to talk to them about potential ideas)

- Zoning and Land Use Committees (if your area limits front yard gardens or chickens, they are the folks to talk to – and they may have control over empty lots and public space that could be transformed to community or food pantry gardens, edible orchards, etc…)

- Schools – they often have land that could go to school gardens, would welcome participation in food production, and offer an important access point to getting agricultural and food education into the general populace.

- Emergency Planning Programs – your town or city probably has to have some kind of strategy for dealing with a crisis or emergency – you can bring up issues of food and water here.  This is the beginning point for getting that water pump or putting a reserve of basic foods aside for an emergency.

- Gardening clubs and cooking clubs – these are people already dealing with the issue of food production, and can often be encouraged to take up new issues.

- Churches, mosques, temples and civil social clubs like Lions, etc… – These organizations usually have charitable programs and an interest in working with the community – they can start local food storage programs, make use of open greenspace and expand existing programs.

- Town water management groups – these are the people that will ensure you have safe water that comes out of the tap.  They are a great resource to tap.

 I think one of the most important things about this is that you remember two things.  First, don’t assume too much.  It is easy to assume that the garden club is all old ladies and their lilacs - maybe it is,  old ladies can kick ass sometimes, and a lot of them lived through tougher times than we have.  Don’t assume no one in your town’s organization cares about hungry folks – they may just be overwhelmed. 

 Second, remember that the reality of working in a community is that when you identify a problem, the next sentence will be “great, why don’t you….”  That is, be prepared to get to work on whatever project you care most about.  If you can’t do it yourself, come with help in mind, or talk to other people.

Ok, more on exactly what we can bring to our community meetings, and what we might shoot for.