dollar store

What does food justice, and a sustainable food system look like?
I don’t know how many times I’ve written about the lack of clear definition of the terms bandied about on the subjects I’ve chosen to write about, “organic” perhaps being public enemy #1. It’s enough to drive a good Frenchman like myself (le mot juste!) out of his cotton-pickin’ mind. But there’s a lot going on here that it’s time to debunk.
What do the most talked about elements of a sustainable food system do for us? By this I mean farmers’ markets, food hubs, and CSAs.   I use all three of these. I think they contribute positively to the quality of food on our table, and the health of our local economy, if only through the application of common sense, not academic research. But these are not the best tools for creating food justice, even though they are often promoted as such.

Food Injustice                                                                                                S.Margot Finn wrote an article with the above headline for the Breakthrough Institute that I find very telling. She says of these places, “such markets might give people double the dollar value for their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they shop at this inconvenient, once-a-week produce vending system where you can’t buy paper towels or toothpaste.”
Let’s not forget, it’s expensive to be poor. It costs a lot of time when you have to work two jobs to make ends meet. It costs a lot of time to travel everywhere on a bus, because as Weird Al Yankovic pointed out, the things are always stopping. Don’t get me started about making a transfer. If you’re fortunate enough to have a car, it’s liable to need constant repair.

According to Truthdig
“In many parts of the U.S., mass transit is vastly inferior to the systems in Europe, Australia or Japan. If the poor aren’t losing time and money waiting for buses that run irregularly—assuming their area even has public transit at all—they are driving older cars in need of costly repairs.”  And this is just the beginning of the discussion. The banking and insurance industries are also called out for penalizing the poor in the above-referenced article.

And now…
In one of the most interesting developments, the city of Tulsa has required that dollar stores in some parts of town be at least one mile apart. Dollar General has gone on record as saying their customers travel no more than five miles to find them. I see why.  It seems unlikely this kind of regulation is helping.
In continuing to read Finn’s article, she goes on to debunk every notion about the correlation between a poor person’s diet and health. They cook more often at home, not less. They eat less fast food, not more. They are less likely to be obese. The kind of food they’re eating isn’t killing them, assuming they can get any food at all.
Her conclusion is, it is all a matter of class. Poor people aren’t doing well because they’re poor. Breaking this cycle takes higher wages, safer workplaces, better access to both mental and physical healthcare–the kinds of things advocates for the poor talk about all the time. A sustainable food system might include all the things the rest of us find helpful, but there’s no such thing as food justice, until we’re willing to do the right thing.

How do small farms survive?

Editor’s note:  In order to enhance the reader experience, links to source material are now found in the headings of each section.

I’ve had to cringe every time I pick up a gallon of milk, lately. My grandparents were dairy farmers, and prices are historically low, right now. I’ve pieced together my grandparents’ story based on history, personal experience, and stories told by family members.

PA barn

A family history

During the Great Depression, my grandfather, Clarence Singer, took a job off the farm driving a truck that collected milk from area farms to be shipped to New York City. Fortunately, the family’s Wayne County, Pennsylvania farm was just the right distance from the important New York City market for the technology of the day. They produced much of what they ate on the farm, but they needed some cash for other things. My grandfather was also in a battle with depression of another type: he took it hard when his infant daughter, Isabelle, died in 1931.

Changing times

Depressed milk prices create razor-thin margins that favor the very largest operations. This is a fact of economic life.
According to a recent article in the Troy Daily News, “many dairy product corporations are switching to ‘one-stop and drop’ operations where milk comes from one large operation instead of several smaller farms filling a milk truck together.” In other words, this is the last nail in the coffin of the marketing strategy that sustained my grandparents.
Jeff Knoop, a Brown Township, Miami County, dairy farmer who plans to get out in 2019, told the paper, “For whatever reason, America says they don’t want factory farms. That’s simply what these guys (consumers, parentheses mine) are doing, they are creating the factory farms, even though the American people say they don’t want that, but that’s where it’s going,” Jeff said. “The smaller dairies like this and small family farms are gone. They are the first ones going out.” Farms like Jeff Knoop’s, which can accomodate no more than 64 milk-producing heifers at one time.




Many people understand the value of fresher, more local produce and getting to know their farmer, yet consumers greet low prices with enthusiasm. People have choices. Too often, they don’t understand the consequences of those choices, but they make them. If you’re in the minority when it comes to choosing, you can choose to be a sore loser, or you can move on, and make the best of it. Conversely, winners shouldn’t gloat. If you like, you can translate all that to: Shut up, internet trolls of all stripes. But perhaps I digress.

To reflect

Dianne Shoemaker, a field specialist and dairy production economics professor with The Ohio State University provided these statistics that accompany the above article, which you may access by clicking on the heading of the previous section: 85 Ohio dairy farms were lost in the last three months of 2018. That left 2045 dairy farms remaining.
Jaclyn Krymowski, an Ohio writer responding on the website AgDaily, provides the statistic that, in my grandparents’ state of Pennsylvania, there were 525,000 dairy cows in 2014, compared to 531,000 in 2018. She goes on to say, in an article entitled No, dairy farming isn’t dying, “To be fair, a part of me hurts very deeply for (small dairy farmers). In the perfect world, I’d love to see (a) 45-cow dairy could hold its own as well as a 4,500-cow one. Expand or stay the same, all farms would stay in business. But that is not the reality of the world we live in.” Farming is, after all, a business that needs to change with the market. However, there are ways for small farms to stay in business.


Direct to consumer marketing

Direct to consumer marketing allows farms to keep more of the money that a consumer pays for the final product. This is crucial to their survival as a business. There are no distributors, or other steps along the way, people who would ask for a portion of that payment in order to keep their own selves in business. For dairy farmers, costs of starting their own processing plant are prohibitive, as Ohio and all adjacent states except Pennsylvania prohibit the sale of most unpasteurized milk. But for farmers whose produce doesn’t present these issues, what does this strategy require? What my grandparents’ farm had in the 1930s, the correct proximity to the market. Also, what small farms in our area have.

10% shift

If you are someone who recognizes the value of small farms around here, consider the 10% Shift promoted by local non-profit coalition Green Umbrella. This is a pledge to spend 10% of your food dollar on local products, and with the growing season not far ahead, now is a perfect time to make this commitment. Find it by clicking on the heading above.

A description of the evolution of a family dairy farm as development encroaches, one that’s interesting and yet typical of the experience, can be found here. The farm is in Cumberland County, Pa.

Researchers do work-up on working dogs

Perhaps you own a herding dog who herds your cat, or a Dogue de Bordeaux who watches over your children like he would fine wine. Many of us have some knowledge of the working instincts of various dogs, because we can observe them in our own homes. Sometimes, a family pet’s only job is to sit nearby and be petted, and that’s a job a dog takes very seriously.


In the world of sustainable agriculture, many old technologies are getting a long look. Cover crops, mixed-use farms, and most importantly, the entire way-of-life at whose core is the philosophy that we are simply stewards of the land are examples. There is one old technology that hasn’t enjoyed this kind of attention lately: the use of dogs to reduce predation on livestock.

This is indeed a very old practice

The Roman Marcus Terentius Varro wrote in 37 BC, “The dog is essential for those who raise animals for wool. It is the guardian of livestock in general but is the natural defender of the sheep and goats. The wolf lurks constantly and we oppose it with the dogs”.

great pyrenees
The Great Pyrenees, one the most important breeds doing this work, was first described in literature in the 15th century, and is known to be related to dogs originating in Italy, Hungary, and Turkey, establishing a clear history of this relationship between humans and dogs across southern Europe, as well as between dogs and livestock. In Turkey, the Anatolian shepherd has a 6,000 year history, but it is most notable for its use in modern conservation efforts for cheetahs in South Africa.

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow!

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is one of nine Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited breeding centers for the conservation of cheetahs. For cheetahs in the wild, conservation often means a relationship of mutual respect with human neighbors.

It’s not hard to admire a big cat who also can easily outrun Usain Bolt: they are majestic animals by any definition, and regular participants in the Zoo’s Cheetah Encounter show, where people in the local area can see them close-up. But, if you’re a farmer in South Africa whose livestock are being pulled down by cheetahs, the relationship quickly changes to one of complete enmity.


In order to preserve that relationship of mutual respect, the Zoo supports Cheetah Outreach, which places Anatolian shepherd dogs with these farmers. According to their website, “Because a majority of cheetahs in southern Africa live outside protected areas on farmland, it is essential for the survival of the species to find non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from predators in order to reduce conflict between farmers and cheetahs.” This is exactly the dogs’ job. They are watchdogs–though not over homes, but rather over important property–livestock. They don’t herd the sheep or goats; many farms have other dogs for that job.

Which way did he go?

One of the interesting left turns of my life at work has been getting to know a working dog. His name was Kane, and he lived on the J. Seward Johnson estate known as Jasna Polana, in Princeton, NJ. Kane and I spent weekend mornings flushing geese in the warmer seasons of the year, and in winter he spent that time quietly lying at the feet of a security guard as he monitored the estate’s CCTV.

Working dogs take their greatest pleasure in the work that they do. Their need for companionship or encouragement doesn’t take precedence over the work, though they’ll take what they can get.

Old practice, new research

In West Texas, sheep and goats routinely range over a thousand acres of pasture, and ranchers often don’t have daily contact with their livestock, in contrast to how these animals are kept in other parts of the world. Because of these key differences, not much is known about the use of dogs to deter predators here. However, at least ten percent of lambs and kids are lost to predators each year.


Dr Reid Redden, a researcher at Texas A & M University, led a study which paired young dogs with ranchers who were first-time dog handlers, and he gathered some significant data. In spite of the inexperience of both man and canine, and in spite of varying problems that affected approximately half of the dogs, the loss of lambs and kids was reduced 25% over the six participating ranches. GPS collar data indicated that the dogs’ average travel was 2.5 miles daily over an average range of 600 acres. If effort and energy spent account for anything, these were some of the hardest-working dogs on the planet. They have earned any praise or attention they get.

New National Historic Landmarks hold clues to more recent Cincinnati history


The Eldean Covered Bridge in Troy, Ohio, one of only about a dozen surviving long truss covered bridges.

Last month, the National Park Service announced the designation of 24 new National Historic Landmarks. The new Landmarks represented a wide diversity of historic and sociological significance, and included the Medgar and Myrlie Evers House in Jackson, Mississippi; the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Chapel (McDonnell Hall) in San Jose, California; the Pauli Murray Family Home in Durham, North Carolina; the Eldean Bridge in Miami County, Ohio; the West Union Bridge in Parke County, Indiana; and the May 4, 1970, Kent State Shootings Site. I encourage my readers to follow the  above link to learn about each each of these as the significance to local or national history for each one is clear; however, today I’d like to focus on another such recently-designated Landmark: the Greenhills Historic District.


Greenhills, Greenbelt, and the Resettlement Administration

The federal government’s Resettlement Administration (RA) constructed the original buildings in Greenhills as one of three, or perhaps four greenbelt cities; the others are Greenbelt, Maryland, Greendale, Wisconsin, and sometimes included is Roosevelt, New Jersey, which the RA approved, but had little to do with its eventual completion. Never popular, or properly funded by Congress, the RA lasted only from 1935 -37.

The mission of the Rettlement Administration was to create decent living quarters for those who suffered most during the Great Depression. This included migratory workers, farmers displaced by the catastrophic drought known as the Dust Bowl, and certain urban populations, such as Jewish garment workers. The greenbelt towns were conceived as self-sufficient cooperative communities, admired by professional planners and reviled by political opponents as socialist. They got the name “greenbelt”, because the plan laid out for them included a surrounding green belt of undeveloped land. Ironically, this is perhaps the beginning of the uneasy relationship between agriculture and suburbia.


Early Twentieth Century Suburbia, Early Twentieth Century Agriculture

The end of the nineteenth century saw many cities suffering from image problems, perhaps more so than today. Newly-arrived foreigners and poor sanitation were facts of life that led to a perception of cities as centers of crime and disease, and densely-packed man-made edifices as an “unnatural” environment for humanity. The early part of the twentieth century saw observable numbers of people choosing to live in surrounding communities. However, urban areas were still concentrated enough to provide important markets for agricultural products, and farm produce prices rose 87% from 1900-1910. Farmers continued to do well until 1918, when the end of WWI and an influenza pandemic slowed economic growth, signaling the end of the Golden Age of Agriculture. Still, farmers with access to large urban markets, like my grandparents, found ways to make a living, even with the onslaught of the Great Depression.

New Deal progams, like those administered by the Resettlement Agency, gave way to post-WWII veterans’ programs that encouraged suburban home-buying. The automobile allowed these suburban developments to “leap-frog” into farmland. It wasn’t necessary for them to be close to one another, any old jalopy could get you where you wanted to go. Unfortunately, development began to destroy the very nature that suburbanites craved.

Enter Levittown, Long Island, the Mecca of mid-century development, and listen to these voices:

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings…The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields…” –– Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”, 1962.

This was the ideal, the desire of the heart. A description of the reality follows.

“… suburbanization itself involved environmental destruction. Consider just what it took to build the 17,000 (homes) that made up a huge development like Levittown, NY… Levittown’s builders razed much of what was left of the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Alleghenies, the Hempstead Plains. Houses and lawns replaced natural topsoil, plant life, and vegetation … Moreover, to provide wood for the houses, the Levitts bought a timber company in Northern California. Levittown’s construction thereby had a significant hand in the stepped up destruction of old-growth redwood forests on the far side of the Continent.” — Christopher Sellers, “Nature Transformed: the Environment in American History”, 2010.

OK. So clearly there are big sociological issues here. But I write about food and agriculture, so let’s get back to it.

The historical perspective here seems to be telling us that farmers need a certain amount of population to create demand for what they supply. Really simple economics, right? And people are going to live where and how they want today’s American society, and many will tell us that’s a good thing. Perhaps there is an uneasy relationship between agriculture and suburbia, but it still can be a mutually beneficial one.

Let’s do some history from my own point of view: when we moved to Cincinnati in 2001, my wife and I could find no plausible explanation for the lack of availability of fresh, local food. Farms were abundant; farm stands were absent. Farmers grew field corn and soybeans and sold them to big processors like Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill. None seemed interested in sweet corn and green beans sold to consumers. But times were good, and the Cincinnati suburbs were expanding rapidly.

Farms that grow cash crops like field corn and soybeans need to be fairly large to be profitable. By contrast, farms surrounded by suburban development tend to be smaller. Two factors are at play here: large established farms may be too expensive to maintain in a more urban environment, and these are often sold to be developed, in whole or in part. Established family farms over time get smaller as they are divvied up to younger generations. These smaller farms can be very successful at direct marketing, in part due to their proximity to the local population.


Editor’s note:  All images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Cincinnati’s growth has slowed since the beginning of this century, but it was named the #6 on WalletHub’s 2016’s Best and Worst Foodie Cities, indicating just how far that 2001 trend has turned around. The website used several interesting parameters to determine their ratings. Some were obvious, like the cost of groceries, beer, and wine, the availability of healthy options, farmers markets, and CSAs. Then they become more creative, such as the ratio of full-service to fast-food restaurants. Lastly, some categories in which Cincinnati excelled by ranking in the top 5: craft breweries and wineries, specialty food stores, and most ice cream shops, per capita. (In fact, Flannelnerd pities the fool who thinks he can open an ice cream parlor in this town!) Without suburban growth, Cincinnati would be ranked in the bottom 50 of the 150 cities, along with Toledo, Akron, and Fort Wayne, not in the top 10. Take advantage of all it has to offer.

Not just for dinner

Do you have a recipe that was passed down from your grandmother? China from your great-great aunt, the only one of her generation who ever had any money? Or are you curious enough about your heritage that you have researched your entire family tree, such as is done on the popular TV shows Who Do You Think You Are?, and Finding Your Roots? All this comes in the wake of a dust-up over a family recipe last week in my birthplace of Philadelphia.


Mexican workers march for rights in San Jose, CA, in 2006.  Photo credit:  Wikipedia

The story of the disagreement begins in the heart of South Philadelphia, the land where gwumpkies once met Sunday dinner with Nonna, about four blocks from the Tasker-Morris stop on the Broad Street subway, and also within walking distance of the legendary cheesesteak joints Pat’s and Geno’s. Arguably, this is the most diverse community in Philadelphia today. The place that stands here is South Philly Barbacoa.

Speaking of birthplaces, Cristina Martinez, whose family recipe is central to the menu at South Philly Barbacoa, is proudly from Capulhuac, Mexico, known as the birthplace of barbacoa. In this case, Chef Cristina’s barbacoa is made from lamb, marinated, pit roasted for 10 to 12 hours, and served on weekends from early morning until … well, until it’s gone.

Mission Taqueria is a recently opened restaurant in Center City Philadelphia. Any agreement between that restaurant, and the crew at South Philly Barbacoa, ends there. Cristina Martinez has published an opinion in the Huffington Post, which says that this new place has stolen the recipe, and then altered it with tzatziki sauce, without regard to what she calls “heart, flavor, work, spices, integrity.” To her, a taco is a simple, but very important meal enjoyed at the end of a hard day’s work, something that is too hard to come by for undocumented immigrants.

Cristina herself is undocumented. With the notoriety that came with being named to Bon Appetit’s 10 Best New Restaurants list, she chose to speak out, and organize the undocumented community. In order to gain legal status, she would have to voluntarily leave the country, then face a ban on returning that could last up to ten years. Like many, she’s built a life in this country: her husband Ben Miller is her partner in the restaurant. However, no one should miss the fact that South Philly Barbacoa is on the Bon Appetit list for delicious food, and the care that is taken in preparing it.

Recently, the restaurant urged its followers on Facebook: “Have courage! Take a stand for what you believe in!” Check and double-check.

Farmers (market) in many ways


I’ve decided to celebrate National Farmers Market Week, (Aug. 7-13) not just by thinking of all the local markets I’ve had the opportunity to visit, to meet the vendors, and to help tell their stories. Instead, I’ll examine the different ways in which farmers take their products to market.

Recently, the New York Times published an article about aggregators and distributors more clearly defined as food hubs calling themselves CSAs. The upshot of the Times article was that, like many terms heard where farmers are directly marketing to consumers, the term Community Supported Agriculture is unregulated (except in California, no surprise), and there is no clear definition. To be fair though, and for the purposes of this article, as well as the information you’ll read on these pages in general, let’s look more closely at these terms.

The National Food Hub Collaboration defines a food hub as follows: “A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”  Locally, the entity that most closely meets this definition is Green BEAN Delivery.

Contrast this with the definition of a CSA from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”

Clearly, the heart of a CSA is a farm, and farms come with farmers. According to the Times, a company called Farmigo that was delivering boxes of produce in New York, New Jersey, northern California, and Seattle, abruptly shut down that operation in the middle of the 2016 growing season, to return to its core business: the food distribution platform software that the company’s founder, Benzi Ronen, says will eventually and completely replace the supermarket. The Times article calls this delivery service a CSA. I’m reminded of the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the Big Bad Wolf blows down Bugs’ house, and shoving Bugs aside, rummages through the rubble, disappointed. “No pigs here,” says the wolf. Well, no farmers, either.

Farmers are competing with these other services by acting as aggregators, as well. Locally, Rice Family Harvest, and Our Harvest, are farms that are delivering their own produce, and delivering other foodstuffs that they buy in, or simply distribute for other farmers.
Green BEAN Delivery started out as a food hub, doing distribution. They have added processing their own private-label products, and bought a couple of farms, one of them in Mason. In my opinion, farming is not their primary business. Not everyone will agree. Once again, in the space where farmers directly market to consumers, many terms are not clearly defined.

While it’s helpful to understand these things, there is good news. Defining these terms is not important. A recent University of California study indicates that buying local really does help the local economy. The study looked at producers engaged in direct marketing, and those who were not. It was acknowledged that direct marketers used other channels to do business. On average, they generated 44 % of revenue through direct marketing.
The study concluded that direct marketers purchased 89% of inputs (broadly, labor and materials) in the local marketplace, while the others purchased 45%. The total economic output factor was 1.86 for direct marketers, 1.42 for the others.

There are many ways for farmers to bring their produce to market. The local farmers market is primary for many, but by no means all.

Future of agriculture may be found in extremes



The Chef’s Garden, in Huron, Ohio, is perhaps the most extreme example of agriculture you’ll encounter. Here, tiny vegetables, like cucamelons and miniature purple eggplants, are grown for discerning chefs in fine restaurants throughout the country. Shipped virtually anywhere in a day, these veggies carry a hefty price tag, in carbon emissions and currency, as well. However, several lessons are found here about the future of agriculture.

“We will need to produce more food in the first half of this century than we did in the previous 100 centuries combined,” says Tony Kajewski, an engineering manager at John Deere and president of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. He spoke to TechNewsWorld in 2013. That is an overarching agricultural concern. It transcends debates about GMOs, pesticides, and all manner of farming methods. Nine billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050, according to the U.N.

One way The Chef’s Garden produces its exquisite crops is through controlled environments. Hoop houses help them produce for chefs year-round. Even the seed that goes into the ground at this farm is tested and sorted for best germination. That is information that’s compiled before a single vegetable is planted, to gain efficiency and reduce waste.

Controlled Environment Agriculture can be seen as the future of local. Growing can happen in areas of demand, so shipping long distances isn’t necessary. CEA makes it possible to grow in extreme climates, and urban habitats. It also is efficient, producing in smaller spaces, and with less waste. This doesn’t only mean greenhouses, it also means indoor operations under lights. Here, growing can happen 24/7 for quick harvest. Plant beds are often stacked, leading to efficient use of space.


Controlled Environment Agriculture often means growing indoors, under lights.

Cosmetic imperfections are one source of food waste. This sort of waste is often caused by pest damage. Inside, pests are non-existent. So, too, the use of pesticides. Money and headaches (perhaps literally) saved. Pesticide-free produce is often worth more to consumers, and, since poor market prices can also lead to food waste, that’s insurance against such problems. So, too, is local produce often worth a premium to consumers.

Mechanized harvesting can leave perfectly good produce in the field, but in a controlled environment, everything can be harvested by hand, since there’s not as much ground to cover. No produce is damaged or missed during the harvesting process.

The Chef’s Garden was born of an ordinary, and too common, tragedy: in 1983 the then-conventional vegetable farm went bankrupt and the Jones family lost all but a few acres of land. Growing highly specialized produce for chefs meant they could bring in the kind of cash they needed to sustain a business with the remaining land. A web page on CEA at Cornell University also says that it can bring diversification and expansion to family farms, allowing growing families to support adult children who want to stay in agriculture.

The Jones family also jealously guards the health of the soil. Only one-third of the farm is under cultivation at any given time; the rest is under cover crops. Cover crops are planted to reduce soil erosion, add nutrients and organic matter to soil, and conserve water during times when a particular field is resting from production. It is often said that the exportation of technology to agricultural systems in developing countries doesn’t mean GMO seed, it really means common-sense know-how like the use of cover crops. It means employing best practices to locally available resources like different crops, water, and soils, thereby allowing small, local farmers to do their part in feeding a growing world.