Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Growing Communities

"We always start the season with seedlings because we want to encourage people to grow their own food. Nothing tastes better than a vegetable that's minutes fresh from the ground."

Steve Otrembiak, one of the regular vendors at the summer Saratoga Farmers Market, shared this story on Sunday, March 23, during a community forum on the social, economic, and environmental benefits of shopping at the farmers market. The story captured for me the spirit of farmers markets and the relationships that build between vendors and customers around them.

The forum was organized by representatives of two local colleges -- Skidmore and Empire State -- and the Friends of the Saratoga Market, an all volunteer organization that a half-dozen farmers market regulars formed in 2011 with a mission of helping the Saratoga Farmers Market continue to prosper. I was one of the initial organizers of the Friends of the Market (FOM) and currently serve as its convener, a role that leaves my over-extended, somewhat disorganized self feeling a bit frazzled at times. Nevertheless, the work that I do with FOM has enriched my life in Saratoga Springs and my work as a faculty member at Empire State College greatly because it puts me in touch with farmers and the art and joy of growing and eating incredible food.

Good food formed a foundation of the forum. It opened with an assortment of foods prepared by Parkside Eatery, a Saratoga Springs business, that were prepared entirely with ingredients from the farmers market. When I say entirely, I mean entirely. Even the dressings were made with yogurts, vinegars, fruits, vegetables, and cheeses from the farmers. Parkside representatives bought the ingredients at the market the day before, arriving at the market around 11 a.m. with a local photojournalist in tow.

Following the food was a panel of farmers and customers that in addition to Otrembiak included cheese maker Liza Porter of Homestead Artisans; Abby Foster, the granddaughter of M&A Farms owner Arnold Grant and an agricultural educator with the Cornell Extension Service; Joyce Elliott of Empire State College; Elizabeth Cohen, a student at Skidmore College; and Carol Maxwell, founder of the Lake Avenue Elementary School's "garden project."

Otrembiak noted that as spring moves toward summer, fresh vegetables and fruits start to replace the seedlings that his farm would initially sell. But the customers buying their produce would still report back on the plants they had purchased at the start of the season, providing periodic progress reports. Sometimes, Otrembiak said, they would bring in a discolored leaf in order to get advice on a potential problem. At other times, they would bring a sample of the plant's harvest. Customers also would bring recipes and occasionally samples of dishes prepared with the plant.

"So the relationship builds up and continues," Otrembiak said.

The analogy of seedling to food seems appropriate for understanding the forum's theme "Growing Community". As relationships form between farmers, gardeners, food enthusiasts and others, a community is built and can be sustained year after year.

Otrembiak's story was just one of many shared at the forum that crystalized the power of farmers markets in my mind. I've lived in Saratoga Springs for approximately four years, and unless I am out of town it is rare that I miss a market. I've long sensed that while shopping at farmers markets is all about buying food, something greater is at stake. Being at the market is about learning the vibe of a community and perhaps also about finding your fit within it. This process of learning and of discovery doesn't come with one visit to the market or through occasional visits. It's a sustained practice that -- like growing your own food -- requires attentiveness, nurturing, patience, and time.

Other panelists also described the market as a venue. A place where friends meet, where ideas are exchanged, and where politics are expressed were some of the expressions that came up.

"I'm not sure I'd want you all to see our vendor meetings sometimes," quipped Homestead Artisan farmer Porter, adding that through differences rather than a bland unity communities grow.

Cohen, the Skidmore student who is examining the impact of farmers markets on local communities as part of a senior capstone project, pointed to structural factors in a broader society that might deter such growth. She noted that farmers markets often are perceived as being expensive and intimidating for lower-income individuals and suggested that such concerns be kept at the forefront as farmers markets gain popularity.

Cohen's words hit home for me, at least partly because I have always lived with a sense of being an outsider: I am a daughter of immigrants. I am a woman of color. I am a newcomer in a community where people have extremely tight family and kinship ties. And I am an adult who moved frequently al over the country for school and for work through my 20s, 30s and 40s. Moving to a small, fairly rural community like Saratoga in 2010 after having lived in Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, Honolulu, and Seattle again produced not only a geographic sense of displacement for me but a cultural dislocation, as well. However, having been a regular farmers market patron in Honolulu and Seattle prompted me to inquire if Saratoga had a farmers market even before I moved here and, upon learning that it did, to visit it as soon as I arrived.

        Reflecting on Cohen's words later, I thought that knowing what it was like to feel out of place might offer a new way of understanding how to promote sustainability through an ethos of inclusivity. A society that stays closed to new people or new ideas cannot last long. But for the newcomer understanding how to come into a new setting might take time. Perhaps this knowledge might be like the selling cycle of the farmers market itself -- that process of plant to product to relationship that Steve Otrembiak evoked so poetically.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Delights of Self-Denial

Lent crept up by surprise on me this year. My winter has been unusually hectic, which has caused one self-imposed deadline after another to be deferred to a later date. On top of that, the unrelentingly frigid temperatures have kept the snow firmly packed to the ground, creating one more reason to put off planning until spring. I also knew Easter was going to be late so I didn't go through my annual ritual of considering what to "give up for Lent" until I changed my calendars from February to March over the weekend and saw that, gasp, Mardi Gras was today and Ash Wednesday -- the beginning of Lent -- was tomorrow.

Now, I have no reason -- no religious reason -- whatsoever to observe Lent. I was not brought up in a Christian tradition and even if I am somewhat of a follower of Jesus, I am neither a Bible reader nor a believer in doing anything absolutely by the book. But Lent has had an unusual hold on me, ever since I learned that people "give up" things -- meat, chocolate, soft drinks, etc -- for the six week period leading up to Easter. It always seemed like an interesting practice in self-sacrifice. And as a woman who has long been conscious of her physical appearance, her figure, and weight, it always seemed -- truth be told -- Lent like a good way to burn some calories and shed some pounds since so often the things being given up were food.

I began observing Lent more formally around 2006 when I was both newly married and had newly joined a Presbyterian Church. I was intrigued by sermons about service to Jesus, which my skeptical, academic mind was rapidly reinterpreting as service in the name of fighting racial injustices, gender and religious oppressions, and economic disparities in the United States and throughout the world. Observing Lent seemed like it could be a symbolic step toward social justice through a sustained practice of self-denial of a personal indulgence for a brief, six-week period each year. And, of course, if the personal indulgence were caloric in nature, there might be the added benefit of a loss of a few pounds.

For Lents past, I have given up (or more appropriately tried to give up since my resolutions always failed) drinking wine, eating red meat, and such high calorie items as cheese and chocolate.  I have pretty much stopped going to church, and I am more of a critic of the normativity that Christianity imposes on people's lives than an advocate these days. Still, however, I have continued to try and practice Lent and last year I found success. I gave up playing computer games. The success was a revelation for a couple of reasons: First, it made me aware that my past failures were due to the fact that there was no real lesson attached to a brief sacrifice of "vices" unless the sacrifice was made permanent. And second, it made me aware of what was both beneficial and detrimental of a vice worth sacrificing, even if it was for just a temporary stint.

My computer game habit was two decades deep. It began with the arrival of personal computers, which were pre-installed, of course, with a range of addictive games: Spider Solitaire, to name one among many. It deepened with the advent of vast use of the Internet, which of course made access to a range of "free games" easier than ever. With the games came reasons to escape, to shut down the mind, to not think. This I continue to believe is beneficial for those of us who work at jobs that require juggling multiple "thinking tasks" all the time. The brain quickly goes into overload and shuts down. The games offer a rest, and a way to come back.

But the games also offer a reason for the brain to simply check out altogether. As a result, what I began to see during my six-week fast from games were all the stressors going on in my life that were causing me to play games in the first place. Because I was resolute last year (and because I was learning so much about myself), I refused to give myself permission to fail at the self-sacrifice. I did return to games after Easter had passed, and I would like to believe at least that when I play them now I do so in a way that is much more mindful of how I am negotiating my habit against my responsibilities. I no longer yearn to eliminate games from my life. I simply want to enjoy them without getting obsessive.

Which brings me to this year's Lent: Because it snuck up on me, I was puzzled as to what to give up. So I turned to Facebook and asked friends for suggestions. Many were amused by my seemingly warped need to give up something for Lent. Others offered a range of suggestions: meat or red meat, negative thoughts, sex, reading, and even Facebook itself. Others proposed adding a positive to life. One friend from my Muncie childhood years suggested I meditate on it, which I did, and another friend from those same years sent me a church devotional on twenty sacrifices one might consider for Lent. After some reflection on what it meant to self-sacrifice, why I felt it was meaningful as a learning experience, and how self-sacrifice might enable me to live more fully with the world without getting into the religious strings attached to it, I settled on a self-sacrifice that might be closer to self-care. I would give up my dry skin, a problem that plagues me particularly terribly in the winter when I feel like I'm too busy, too cold, or too broke to take the time and the few extra pennies to drink some more water, sip a hydrating tea, or rub in some lotion, lip balm, or even olive oil into my skin to take care of myself. It seemed like a good way to find out why busy-ness, cold feelings, and scarcity consciousness might get in the way of such a simple daily cosmetic step.

With such a resolution in mind and a bottle of skin lotion sitting in my rather cold bathroom, I began the ritual tonight. I took a hot shower, and then proceeded to nurture my skin with lotion. It added all of about 90 seconds to my schedule and even if I was momentarily chilled, the massaging motions of my fingers rubbing my skin did warm me up. So perhaps this will be an exercise in self-sacrificing worth keeping, even after the six weeks are up.

(Image credit: http://www.openbible.info/blog/2009/02/top-100-things-twitterers-are-giving-up-for-lent/)