Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Food and the current economy

A shift from fancy pantries to local food

October 10, 2008

So what do financial meltdowns have to do with food and why do you need another amateur assessment of the fallout? The answers to those questions are “everything” and “you don’t.” But because I have been writing about the questionable premise behind economic systems themselves (or at least their role as the holy grail), it makes sense that I would want to weigh in. Somehow the current stock-market debacle has made these long days canning tomatoes easier to bear.

There are lots of ways to interpret the causes behind our current financial correction. Is it born of a lack of oversight and federal regulations? Is it about overheated markets making the cyclical and necessary adjustments? Is it a comeuppance for investor greed in the housing market?

We should be preserving more than food.

I do not need to tell you what the consequences of distancing ourselves from tangible goods or what seeing the soil as nothing more than industry’s playground is doing. Most of you have already read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In fact, the interest of students taking my classes has shifted from fancy pantries to local ones with an ever-increasing interest in sustainable and self-reliant life systems.

What they are really talking about is returning to the wisdom of the soil in our appreciation of its real needs and not virtual ones. What we are all getting, by virtue of the financial meltdown or otherwise, is that we can no longer ignore what the real health of our economy and world is based upon. It is time, I believe, to replace the replacements with the sweat of our own brows.

And every morning when I go outside to sow, tend, or reap the harvest, I do not consider the interest I can make or credit I will extend my garden. Certainly, market principles have made their way to the good earth, but not in my back yard. There, I can release the soil from the odious requirement of bottom lines and profit. There I can stand as an equal to the soil and humbly extend my effort without promise or certainty of a return. There I will extend trust, respect, and hard work without a single note of repayment to foster the spirit of my commitment.

And when the good earth does deliver, it is in the form of food for my family, which is as tangible as it gets. Certainly these days, having a reliable and healthy food source that does not deplete the soil is pretty darn valuable.

Funny how, and when, things become valuable again.

So how shall we think about our economy these days? I suppose, when faced with eating shoes for dinner, we might get it, but now? I’m not so sure. The market has had its way in turning homespun logic on its head. Still, I’m sadly convinced we are all waiting for its return without really evaluating its failure. Oh, we are angry at the fat cats, but I say the finger we’re pointing needs to point back at ourselves. Really, it’s not all that complicated. We just came to love the stand-ins for wealth and health more then the real thing. Sad but true.

Good news: There is a way out of it. It might mean, however, that you give up shoe shopping and try getting your hands dirty. Believe me, it was hard at first, but somehow today (and for a long time ahead of us) the alternatives are a whole lot less appealing.

Postscript: Having drunk the Kool-Aid ourselves, my husband and I have decided to close out the brokerage account, pay off the mortgage, pay cash for everything, barter when possible, weatherize the house, put in a few more vegetable beds, and save even harder then before. The point? Conservation and stewardship is the new wealth-maker. Now that’s what I call a true correction.

Editor’s note: Want more Harriet? This blog post is an abbreviated version of a piece she has simultaneously posted over on the Preserve site.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by awong on Oct 12, 2008 at 1:56 PM PDT

Hi Harriet,

You might have already seen this, but I thought you’d be interested to see that the MacArthur genius grants are getting in on the movement - an award to urban farming in Milwaukie, Wisconsin.

I so admire you and Sarah and all the others who are attempting to change lives and systems.

2. by cafemama on Oct 13, 2008 at 2:55 AM PDT

I’m listening, Harriet. I hadn’t thought until I read your piece about the connection between Christian ethics and our current economy; though I’ve been angered many times over the way the poorest in our society work the hardest and are made to pay the most (overdraft fees, payday loan interest, 12% interest rates on homes and cars, etc.) it hasn’t occurred to me that this is, in essence, the absolute opposite of what our founding fathers would have embraced. of course, what is there in today’s economy that anyone honest would embrace? precious little.

much of what you’ve written is a better-analyzed version of what I’ve already been thinking; I’m proud of you for paying off your mortgage with your retirement fund! of course I’m far from being able to do that, but what I will do is forgo college savings accounts for now and spend all my spare cash on paying off debt, a wood stove, and fruit and nut trees.

3. by Fasenfest on Oct 13, 2008 at 7:22 AM PDT

Thanks all. And I will check out the award you speak off.

Yes, Christian ethic. Well, I think it is an ethic all religions hold only we/they forgot. And 12% is peanuts compared to the 32% or higher credit cards can go.

For the record, I did not take out my 401 K. We did take out money in a brokerage account. And I realize that we are distinctly privilege to even have any money anywhere to take out. So many people are overextended with no savings at all. There is a chapter in my book “In Search of the Seamless” entitled “Making Book on Stupid” that you might like to read. It talks about the way we have sold a dream that has been unavailable to most Americans for a long, long time. The dream did exist in form and function during the 50’s and early 60’s when the contract between industry and everyday Americans was real but has since been transformed into a contract for the few. Of course my position is that Industry had a huge hand in breaking down our modes of self reliance which was not a good thing but at least they shared the wealth for a while.

I’ve thought about the wood stove but am weatherizing the house to keep all the heat that goes in it, in it.

And college savings? I’ve been reading what the world will need it urban farmers and lots of them. I’m not sending the boys to school to learn it - just hoping to teach them some stuff right here in the backyard. And I’ve been thinking for a long time that leaving my kids a home that is paid off and a garden that has good soil with supporting systems (compost, birds, bees, microbes) intact will be the smartest thing there is. If they don’t need it - oh well. If they do it will be here.

4. by awong on Oct 13, 2008 at 11:00 AM PDT

this looks like it’ll be interesting.

5. by Fasenfest on Oct 13, 2008 at 12:47 PM PDT

I viewed these videos and read the article by Michael Pollan. Yep, we’re on to it. Now the question will be how much time it will take us to not only grow our own food but put it up for the year. Or more interestingly, how much we will give up of our leisure and discretionary spending to do so. We are talking about making huge cultural shifts and to be honest, it is easier in concept then actuality. But that is not to say it cannot be done. It will take a lot of honest self evaluation. And as the stock market works to convince us that things are back on course we must try to remember that no matter the appearance and professed fixes wall street extols in the coming weeks and months, the soil will only regain its health and wealth by our hard work - day in and day out. But this is a good thing. It puts the real solutions in our hands.

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