By Rajashree Ghosh
WALTHAM, MA–Summer brings fresh produce in many shapes and hues to our plates. Those juicy, somewhat awkwardly shaped heirloom tomatoes bring such joy and comfort to the menu. And greens like kohlrabi, pea tendrils, kale and the more common spinach and lettuce brought fresh from the farms so much so they smell of the wet sand! At local farmer’s markets, people get talking about tried and tested recipes and a lot of exchanges on “how to” consume a lesser known vegetable.
Should there be a stir fry with the products or a cook out? And there are conversations on the contributions to the earth and lowering carbon footprint by supporting local economies and making organic food part of one’s lives at least for the season if not for the whole year.
And one wonders if being “nature” aware needs to be seasonal and that we are more conscious of what we eat is based on where it was made, what goes into it and where it was produced. In the north east finding smooth, luscious tomatoes year round or summer squash in the peak winter months is fortunate. But is it?
Where are those veggies being raised, how far do they travel and what chemicals are used to preserve their color and state? We don’t know very much as consumers. And then again throughout the year what does one eat if one is a vegetarian if not vegetables? The same goes for meat eaters – are all products from farm raised animals? And what does “farm raised” mean anyway? There can be additives to chicken feed and cattle feed to boost growth even in farms.
In a piece written by Debbie Weingarten, often times farm to table restaurants claim that they create menus from locally sourced foods – at least on paper. In reality there may not be enough number of local farmers to meet the restaurant’s needs and so they seek recourse to another market place that can pass as local. USDA reports to the Congress (2015) that ‘while the growth in farmers’ markets signals increased consumer interest, for some local food farmers, marketing food in multiple locations can increase marketing and transportation costs, reducing overall net farm income.’
There is so much information that we don’t have as consumers but we do want to believe that we are doing right by the earth. And then the question arises as to whether this promotes an insular way of thinking and doing where promoting the “local” predominates our lives. Can we be that isolated in an increasingly connected world?
As we attempt to steer away from industrial food and large scale groceries, we expect that our local farmer’s markets will satisfy our experience with global cuisines and products. Who does not like the limes from Mexico? The sales of lemons and limes to North America skyrocketed after the signing of the NAFTA agreement about 20 years ago and over 90% of limes imported by the US come from Mexico. Any crop failure in Veracruz and Michoacan or drug cartels taking over farms and US feels the shortage and increase in prices. Now that peace has been restored to the region the citrus fruit is a back on our dinner tables.
At the same time how fair are we being by not thinking of the source – the farmers who bear the brunt of our enthusiasm for organic produce? For some reason we speak of the plight of farmers more in the context of India. Every monsoon, we assess what we have in plenty and where we have shortage.
And recently, the “dal” or lentil shortage has stirred up fervent debates on replacements. Dals are an important component of South Asian cuisine and consumers are unwilling to explore substitutes. The government supported the increase in prices of the lentils in order to encourage farmers to produce more and also provided stringent measures to dissuade hoarders. However, we are still faced with increasing prices, shortage of lentils at the markets. The government of India is looking to import lentils from Mozambique and Myanmar. Reports state that at this point farmers who are dependent on the rainfed crops for abundant produce seem to be at the losing end of things. With the government importing lentils at a much higher price, they feel that they are being deprived of earnings. And rightly so.
The economic realities of the farmers are far removed from us as consumers. And while the rush to farmer’s markets is a welcome trend, we need to be more aware of seasonality of produce, work and health. Who has not been shocked by the number of farmers in India committing suicide because of consecutive crop failures and their being steeped in debt? The suicide rate among Indian farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 census. Forty-one farmers commit suicide every day, leaving behind scores of orphans and widows. But the numbers are bleak in the US as well. Newsweek reported that in the U.S. the rate of farmer suicides is just under two times that of the general population.
Maybe the right questions can be framed around supporting a farmer’s overall needs and well-being. We know so little about financial struggles of farmers here in this country. We know about community supported agriculture but we also need to know about lowering costs for farmers and most of all providing behavioral health services at nominal rates so they are accessible. And summer is a great time to start influencing public opinion as each local market opens up a plethora of opportunities to learn about the lived experiences of farmers who are responding to our enthusiasm for fresh, local produce.
(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.)