Smiles From Strangers.

ImageI got up early this morning to walk to the indoor Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square, stopping at the bank along the way.  I was proud that I got up early while it was so cold and I would normally have second thoughts.  I got up early, I drank some tea, I read, I played with my cats, and then I got dressed in a dress and even wore lipstick and a hat.  I walked to the market with my satchel from Willi’s Ski House, withdrew cash, and passed inside the market with my list scribbled on the back of a Starbucks ad.

My motivation this fine morning?  Picking up ingredients from local, organic, animal-friendly vendors to cook another fantastic meal on Monday with Jeff.  He’s been working hard, long hours in the cold.  I feel for him, and I’m also thankful that he chooses to spend so much of his limited free time with me.  He’s always texting me and calling me with positive words, even when he is working or busy, and I want to do him favors while I can (not to mention shamelessly show off my ability to cook anything from scratch).  I rounded up ingredients, bought fair-trade coffee at Dewey’s, and walked home to reorganize my produce into tin foil and the proper crisper drawers. And, yes, this vegetarian even bought grass-fed meat to cook for the meal.

While I was emptying my half-peck of apples into the crisper, I started thinking about all the people I saw today.

First, at the bank, an older, white gentleman came in as I finished at the ATM.  As I walked out, a younger, black man came into the room.  The older man was still fumbling with his wallet and insisted for the younger man to go first.  Not only was it strikingly kind, but I realized that would never have happened between most strangers where I’m from.  I’ve been realizing how much more colorblind people in Cleveland are than in my rural hometown in Pennsylvania.

Second, I thought about the first meat vendor I spoke with who didn’t have pork or ham.  We chatted like old friends and he pointed me directly to another vendor and listed all of the others who sell meat.  I told him I’d keep him in mind if I ever need beef or chicken.

Third, I revisited the Woolf Farm vendors for their apples.  The old gentlemen who sell the pecks are sometimes so brittle that I want to help them load their crates.  Yet, they’re always the first to bend over to pick up anything that is dropped, they always help lift paper bags into sacks, and they always have a friendly, crinkly smile like you buying their apples was the kindest thing you could have possibly done for them.

Fourth, as I walked to the other room of vendors, I took a moment to step back and see how many people had walked (and some driven) from all around town to stuff their eco-friendly bags with organic, fresh, higher-than-the-grocer’s-priced goods.  They were all out here despite the 14F-degree morning.  Many of them had children in tow, all sporting home-knit hats or classy bowlers.  I had this sudden good feeling, like these are the kind of people who are going to keep the world good.  These are the kind who care and who keep caring and who get up, bring their family, help out friends they don’t know…

Fifth, I finally found the vendors I needed for my meat.  I chatted with the father and son about how a vegetarian has no idea which meats she needs, but she (I) will surely make it taste alright anyway.  They pointed me in the right direction based on the recipe I said I was making.  The girl beside me gasped and said that not only did it sound good but – And pardon me for getting in the middle and overhearing, but my what a thing you’re doing to be cooking meat for someone!  That’s really cool! – and I thought, maybe it is?  Not for a second did I dread doing it; it only seems proper to cook an ordinary meal and not subject my guests to my eating habits.  Well, I subject them a bit.  I am after all buying local, organ, grassfed – because that’s the kind I support.

Sixth, I walked into Dewey’s to get my fair-trade coffee.  I was impressed by the numbers of people crowded along the tables, many from the market, all barring against the cold in home-knits and pea coats and smiles, appreciating the local, more expensive things.  It was a well-mixed crowd too.  I even recognized a student who used to come into the library while I was on Welcome Desk shift.  I’ve seen him in there before.  He is such an outlier and cannot blend in at all with society; I’m not sure if he actually has a problem, or if he doesn’t realize that people don’t really care about his magic cards and his ability to rule fairies, the way-too-loud conversation he was holding in the middle of the room one morning at 7am.  But they all know his name.  They all ask him questions to relieve the last person and pass him around, making him feel like he has a home.  I’m not sure what the poor kid does with his life; he has got to be older than I am.  But there he was today, on his laptop in the corner, surrounded by throngs of people who I know would defend him.

Seventh – this is the moment that stuck with me the most and made me recall the others.  It was something so simple.  I was walking out of the coffee shop and pulling out my earbuds when I noticed a small dog tied to the bench, shivering.  No, I’m not a bleeding heart over animals left outside.  We keep our dogs outside all of the time and they much prefer it.  I just felt bad because he looked distraught and lonely.  So, I walked over to him, introduced myself, and kneeled down to pet him.  At first, he cowered, but I reached and scratched and he came closer.  Soon, his little tail was wagging rapidly and his breath was panting out steam.  When he looked warmer, I started to pull away and walk back.  I looked up just in time to notice a man, having held doors for many people, walk briskly past us, look back, observe the moment, and bear an enormous smile that he then proceeded to carry into the Farmer’s Market.

All of those smiles – whether from the face or the heart – were affecting people right, left, and sideways today.  It was good to see some hope left in what has been feeling like such a drab, dreary, dark world.

So thank you, man with the smile, and you’re welcome to the person who caught it next.

The Hypocrisy in Cleveland’s Local Food System

I have been closely involved in the local food system in Cleveland for the last three or more years and I can’t help but continuously noticing the hypocrisy in it.  I’ve brought some of these topics up before at Brews + Prose local food panels in Ohio City and been backed up by the experts, so I don’t feel at all out of place for calling it “hypocrisy”.  I’ll just break down some of my observations to give you an idea of what I’m seeing:

1. LOCAL FOOD AS A LUXURY:
This is my favorite point at panel discussions.  I’ve written several locavore restaurant reviews on my Cleveland blog and always conclude the same thing: Local food is presented as a privilege, not as a way of life.  Why is it that I can visit these “local” ingredient restaurants and spend exorbitant amounts of money on tiny, decorated dishes of vegetables?  Why do fancy chefs have to run these “locavore” joints?  Why is the trend in Cleveland to make eating local a showy, classy, exclusive trend for those with money?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The one explanation I got was simple: perhaps the demand is much higher than the resources due to population density.  So isn’t the next logical step to educate the public and make serious strides in adding green spaces and gardens to Cleveland?  Some co-workers just this week commented on Cleveland’s lack of attractive parks within the downtown area.  If these concepts weren’t so foreign, maybe people wouldn’t be so in awe by them and remember that local eating is not a newfangled trend but rather a way of life – the only way there should be!

2. WASTEFULNESS:
I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland as an intern where we grew organic food to deliver to our clients within the city.  Sometimes these deliveries were whole plants, but it was usually produce.  We grew ridiculous quantities of squash and cabbage as the weather started to cool – so much, in fact, that we started giving it away —— and NO ONE WOULD TAKE IT.   Does that make any sense???

3. ENERGY CONSUMPTION:
On the same farm, we also used greenhouses to start nearly every plant and to grow a lot of our basil and winter our plants.  We were looking at getting a solar panel array to supply the operation.  It was a lot of energy to grow local food.  I thought about this again at the North Union Farmer’s Market at Shaker Square.  My mom and I were walking around looking at produce and she asked me what they could possibly sell in quantity during the winter months.  She’s accustomed to canning and not fighting the Pennsylvania snow once the first frost threatens our orchard.  She made the point that a lot of the farmers at the market would probably use green houses to grow crops for profit.  I started to think about these two situations – my farm and the farmers at the market – and began questioning how this was a better solution.  How is asking all of this produce to be grown in a green house outside of the city then driven to the public in personal cars any better than just bringing a large shipment to an urban store?  It’s not like you can buy all of your needs at a farmer’s market like you can buy your food, clothes, and supplies at one Wal-Mart.  It’s like how it’s more energy efficient and green for England to import its tomatoes from Spain than to grow them in English green houses…

4. PLASTIC BAGS:
If you try to buy something at the market, the vendors don’t even ask but try to shove your produce into a plastic bag.  You have to stop them and tell them you brought a bag.  They sometimes seem surprised…but why?

5. DRIVING:
For all of the cars that are parked around the market each Saturday, I have to wonder how many people actually walk to the Square on market day.  That makes me wonder how many people here don’t take advantage of the market and why they don’t.  Then I start to wonder where the other people must be coming from…and I wonder if they come from the same towns as the farmers who drive here weekly.  I would love to do a statistical analysis on the gas consumption caused by market day for this reason.

6. PROMOTION:
Why eat local?  The idea is it’s better for the environment.  My mom points out it’s also better for the farmers, thinking about the dairy farms in our area that are broke because the milk prices are kept at statewide lows.  However, I investigated what the promoted reasons for attending are.  They consist primarily as “educational experiences” or as ways to get the “freshest” food.  How is it educational?  Because apparently people don’t realize that apples don’t grow in Region 6 Decembers.  It’s been hard for me to realize how little people really know about growing – and cooking – food, especially in urban areas.  Even so, I would be promoting how it benefits the environment and the local farmers…because it does, right?

7. FARM SHARE:
The market at Shaker also promotes a “farm share” program…which I absolutely think is hypocritical.  Can you believe there are people who live within a block of the market who will not leave the house to buy produce on Saturday mornings?  What better things do you have to do on a Saturday morning?  No, instead they sign up for “farm shares” so they can have someone do the shopping for them, then deliver a PLASTIC bag of goods each week to their DOOR.  Imagine all of the driving that must be done for these personal deliveries.  I told my mom this as we walked around the Square and she was absolutely disgusted.  Then she looked up to see a woman teetering on a bike whose baskets were overflowing with produce.  “Look at that lady in the dress – on a bike!”  I thought my mom was going to insult her for wearing a dress, but instead she was making a point.  “Even a classy lady like her, at her age, is real enough to take her bike to the market each week to buy her produce.  Anyone who could live here and get a farm share… it must just be for show.  Those people don’t really care about what they’re doing at all, just what other people think about them doing it.”

That is why I have vowed to do my shopping every week at the market.  I’m going to start buying extra and canning it for the winter.  I only walk to the market, I only buy on Saturdays, I only use my reusable bags, I freeze extra food that isn’t canned or dried, and I keep as many live plants as I can to grow my own food.  I try to pick from the stands that have the most honest practices.  In one case, I bought peaches from a stand of senior citizens because I witnessed them breaking their backs to lift, sort, and sell their produce and I knew that they were hard workers.

Is there any hope for the local food “scene”?  Is it not full of hypocrisy?