What you don’t know could kill us

By Haley Hamilton

Earlier this month, Ilene Bezahler, the publisher (and, until recently, the longtime editor-in-chief) of Edible Boston, gave a talk titled Eating Well in Boston: Food Policy Issues and Inspiration at Brookline Adult & Community Education.

I like to eat well and I try to cook, but what drew me to Bezahler’s lecture is her point that good food is, like quick commutes and robust local schools, often a privilege.

And that’s not something we talk about very often.

Bezahler launched Edible Boston, the Hub’s branch of the Edibles — publications that focus on sustainable food policies and processes, restaurants and innovators in their title city — in 2006 when, according to her count, there were 65 farmer’s markets in the state of Massachusetts. Today there are 400, and the number of restaurants that boast local ingredients and sustainable practices has skyrocketed as well.

Meanwhile, the number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, which offer a prepaid amount of locally farmed food delivered to your neighborhood for pick-up throughout the year, has increased as well — 95 percent in the last decade, according to Bezahler.

Which means people are paying attention. Or are they?

Farming is, without a doubt, one of the most highly and continuously beleaguered industries in the nation. In Mass, the average annual income for a farmer is $40,000 and, while their occupation may allow for if not necessitate them living in the middle of nowhere and avoiding Boston’s ridiculous rent rates, their salaries aren’t increasing with the demand for ‘local,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘sustainable,’ the holy trinity of food-related buzzwords.

People still think food should be cheap, regardless of where it’s grown, how it was treated, harvested, and transported. We know ‘organic’ is better and ‘local’ is the right thing to do, but we also know that paying $7 for locally grown organic broccoli often isn’t personally sustainable.

According to Bezahler, what those of us occasionally splurging on farmer’s market greens but buying the bulk of our produce as cost-effectively possible don’t know is how much of that cost is something we, the food buyers, have created.

For example, 20 percent of what is grown on farms isn’t picked — and therefore isn’t sold — because it doesn’t fit the aesthetics of what consumers think an apple, a carrot, or a strawberry should look like.

“We are a society that wants perfect looking food,” Bezahler said. “Farmers are picking for consumers and we want perfect looking food.”

And people are used to very particular kinds of perfect looking food. “There are only so many certain cuts of meat on cow,” Bezahler said.

She continued: “If more people could think creatively about food, about what fits their tastes and what makes a ‘good’ something, we could avoid a lot of the major pitfalls farmers face.”

Colleges and universities have been key players in shifting this attitude, Bezahler said. Not in the classroom, but rather in the dining halls.

Schools are demanding higher quality food and they’re contracting outside the box, she said. If, for example, a recipe calls for white fish, they contract a certain number of pounds of white fish — not halibut or cod specifically, but any type of white fish.

“What’s on the boat that day and fits the bill has a home and is sold,” she said. “And that’s great.”

While many of the changes that need to be made are consumer-driven — it’s okay to eat misshapen apples, kids — governmental policies are important as well. “Every single department of the government has some hand in the food pot,” Bezahler said.

Another major problem: there is currently no insurance available for crops on small farms, Bezahler said. If tomato blight, a common crop-decimating fungus, wipes out an entire crop, there is very little that a local family farm can do to protect itself financially. Yet it costs $10,000 a year to file the paperwork and obtain USDA organic certification.

Let that sit for a minute: $10,000 a year.

I know we’re tired. It’s been a long hundred days, and some of us are up to our eyeballs in activism, but if you’re overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, food is a universal political issue, from the lack of produce available in poor neighborhoods, to the reliance on immigrant labor; school lunch programs to recycling and waste costs.

Everybody’s gotta eat.

To that end, here are a handful of local organizations dedicated to making food truly sustainable in Greater Boston:

Dudley Greenhouse
Greater Boston Food Bank
The Food Project
Lovin’ Spoonfuls
Food for Free
Urban Farming Institute of Boston

You can also find a statewide database of food-focused organizations online at the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative’s site.

Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.

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