Archive for February, 2009

The Georgics

This is the first in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s colloquium topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

Nine years of Latin courses – long years of conjugations, translations, and interpretations – did not once shine light upon The Georgics. The poems we read were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The epics were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The common portrayals of Roman meals emphasized the bare breasts of the women and the lounging comfort of the men, dangling grapes over their mouths, pouring another glass of wine. There was a story here and there of a young man leaving his plow for the sword, or the war hero returning to his fields after victory. But these were stories of strength and manhood; of the beauty of bloodshed, and the power of military strength.

We did learn of the prominent gods charged with agriculture, grain, and growth: Ceres (Demeter), and her daughter Proserpina (Persephone). Theirs was the story of the seasons. Their tale told of how Proserpina had been kidnapped by Pluto (Hades) and taken to the Underworld, where she had eaten of his food – the pomegranate seed – and so was forced to return to him for a certain period each year. During this annual time her mother caused plants to die, and would not allow the earth to fruit. Proserpina’s return to her mother each year signaled the return of fertility, the bursting of buds, and the sprouting of seedlings: the beginning of Spring.

This is all a Latin student of today might learn of farming in Ancient Rome. And I’m sure a student of modern agriculture would learn little more of ancient practices. Yet Roman agriculture was perhaps as primitive as Roman architecture. Farming was in ancient times, as it is now, the basis of human existence.

Virgil wrote The Georgics in 29 B.C.E. Reading this poem more or less makes up for nine years of silence on the soil and the seeds, and the gods with their celestial signals for agricultural action. Virgil instructs his readers – in verse, no less – on the correct time and manner for sowing each type of seed, the type of hills over which to guide one’s sheep, and the care with which to keep and honor bees. He offers not only detailed direction but too the myth behind the need to slay a two-year-old calf when one’s bees die off.

As city dwellers of the 21st century plant their urban farms and build their green roofs, as new small farmers crop up throughout the United States, as peoples throughout the world attempt to achieve food sovereignty and end their dependence upon profoundly destructive inputs – as agriculture attempts to embrace the ecological systems by which it functions – the knowledge we need is hardly different than that which Virgil offers. We would do well to learn from books like this one.

The following passage details instructions very much the same as those taught today in New York:

Next I come to the manna, the heavenly gift of honey.

Look kindly on this part too, my friend. I’ll tell of a tiny

Republic that makes a show well worth your admiration –

Great-hearted leaders, a whole nation whose work is planned,

Their morals, groups, defences – I’ll tell you in due order.

For a start you must find your bees a suitable home, a position

Sheltered from wind (for wind will stop them carrying home

Their forage), a close where sheep nor goats come butting in

To jump on the flowers, nor blundering heifer stray to flick

The dew from the meadow and stamp its springing grasses down.

But mind there’s a bubbling spring nearby, a pool moss-bordered,

And a rill ghosting through the grass:

See, too, that a palm or tall oleaster shadow the entrance,

For thus, when the new queens lead out the earliest swarms –

The spring all theirs – and the young bees play, from hive unprisoned,

The bank may be handy to welcome them in out of the heat

And the tree meet them halfway and make them at home in it’s foliage.

(Book Four, Lines 1-27)

Virgil, The Georgics. Trans. C. Day Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 65.

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This is the first in a series of essays related to an ongoing research project. The research is focused upon developing a Farm-To-Institution distribution program in New York State. A more detailed description of this work can be found under Ongoing Research, in the Research section of this site.

During a recent conversation with Christina Grace, of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), my research questions prompted her to mention the common food service providers of hospitals and prisons. In many cases, these institutions are serviced by providers like Aramark, Sodexo, and Chartwells. The usuals. Of course they are, yet it wasn’t something I’d thought about. Christina’s was the first interview Sam and I had done, in our work concerning farm-to-hospital and farm-to-prison distribution.

My first reaction was to want to whip our project clear around and embark again in the opposite direction.

NYU works with Aramark, as do many public and private universities and colleges across the country. In the early stages of our ongoing efforts to change the food sources in our school dining halls, Sam and I and many students, primarily organized by the Real Food Challenge, learned how to read our food service provider’s contracts. We may have primarily looked for the date on which the contracts would end, but many students – particularly those from large schools like NYU – learned how to negotiate, to wade through the bureaucracy, to talk to company representatives about releasing their purchasing data, to discuss whether the company executives might approve sourcing from a small distributor that might feed one ingredient to one college, rather than the entire kitchen to the entire nation. The results were not negligible – NYU now has a pilot local and organic dining hall, fair trade coffee in all seven dining halls, and Aramark may eventually work with the New York farmers markets. But working towards these changes felt mildly like convincing Wal-Mart to sell Organic, or Starbucks to buy Fair Trade. Aramark would certainly strategically adjust, but their heart would never be in it.

Now, in the initial stages of our new project, Sam and I have focused upon learning from alternative Farm-to-Institution distribution programs around the country, with the ultimate goal of writing a proposal (for a policy, or an organization, or a business) that will create a Farm-to-Institution program in New York State, particularly to service hospitals and prisons. I have been excited to think of this as very different from our work with our individual universities – a different constituency, a different structure, a different (more invisible) need, a different sort of potential for change. And so when I heard Aramark, I wasn’t excited. I had wanted to do something more creative than propose the same changes in a different contract.

The other interesting aspect of the conversation with Christina was that although she had a lot to say, she switched her focus early on to her work with public schools. She spoke of the numerous initiatives of the School Food program, of the sliced apples and the carrot coins, the yogurt, and the school gardens. There are certainly scattered projects across the country addressing hospitals, and prisons, and NYSDAM is looking at starting something with hospitals in New York, but there’s nothing on the ground yet. The School Food program, after all, is an ongoing struggle, and it only started in 2002. But it was disappointing to hear that there haven’t been more efforts to serve other institutions.

It took two days for the underlying conversation to rise above my superficial discontent. I’ve never heard much about patients and prisoners getting access to local, organic, fresh, healthy foods in New York. That was part of my motivation for this project. But I hadn’t realized what an integral puzzle piece they were in the food movement; how perfectly, predictably, they are a part of the big picture. New York policy has really only acted upon concern for school children. The 2002 school food legislation demands that, “The State Education Department should collect information from schools and other educational institutions that are interested in purchasing New York farm products and share that information with interested farmers and farm organizations across the State….The schools would then be notified by the State of the availability of the products.”

This bill was and is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it significantly ignores the interconnectedness of all major institutions, considering the vast number of meals they must provide, the few providers they source from, the purchasing power they possess together, and the potential benefit of a policy like that of 2002 for the State Departments of Education, of Health, and of Correctional Services – all together! This sort of demand would no longer clamber up the big bad supply chains, reaching for a chance to make a difference. This sort of demand would be a Giant for those beanstalks. A new distribution system would have to grow to serve it, stronger, and closer to the ground.

The idea that specific institutions can band together to make their demands heard is not a new one. So far, primarily, public schools have come together with public schools, and universities with universities, to demand access to the local products that are available. These focused efforts have not been easy nor yet “successful,” and it may feel as though broadening their focus will only complicate and slow the progress that has already been made. This may be true. But as the force behind a movement that claims a sort of holistic integrity, the community working to create a more sustainable food system cannot neglect the state of our health care system nor ignore the industries that control our prisons. These are the trademarks of an era we have in fact elected to end, but now it is our job to connect ALL the dots.

Department of Agriculture & Markets News. Governor signs bill establishing farm-to-school initiative. Press release (Feb 13, 2002).

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