The first question I ask myself when an organization approaches me for money or time is, what role does this organization play in our community that is essential? Why do we as a community need them?
Sierra Harvest’s stated mission is to educate, inspire and connect Nevada County families to fresh, local, seasonal food.
Things have changed. In the last 70 or so years, we have become a part of a large-scale, industrialized food system. This system got its start when the first supermarket was opened in Queens in New York City in the 1930s. Its development included learning how to scale up and make a profit on growing, processing and distributing everything we eat. And it has become increasingly driven by fast foods and prepared meals, which we consume way more than we like to admit.
This has brought us more choices and quantities of food, generally at cheaper prices. But in the process, we gave up a few things: local farms and farmers, healthy foods that came out of the fields that morning, sometimes trim, healthy bodies and, often, the enjoyment that comes with the flavors of truly fresh foods.
For better or for worse, our large-scale food system has spoiled us in some ways and cheated us in others. We have gotten used to the low prices, convenient shopping, non-seasonal choices and food inspectors scattered across the system. But we have also lost important control over our own food supply. Fresh food, for example, has been redefined to include produce trucked or flown in from distant places. Much of our “fresh” food has been engineered for shipping and shelf life, gassed to make it appear fresh, colored and waxed. It is relatively fresh compared, for example, to “fresh” frozen foods. But when, I wonder, did “fresh” start to mean “sort of fresh” or “made to look fresh?” And what happens to the nutrients and the biome that we are just starting to learn about when foods sit on trucks and airplanes and in warehouses for a few days (or weeks) before we buy them?
And yet increasingly, we learn that “fresh” means fresh, as in picked today or yesterday. That “organic” means growing without the oil-based pesticides and fertilizers that make large-scale farms possible. That fresh foods are better for us. That our kids will live healthier lives if we teach them early about which foods to eat and where their food comes from and how it is grown. And, that small towns without farms and farmers are different, often over-built, over-paved, less friendly, less real.
So we may have to think more about our food supply and sometimes fight to plant a little corner of the food system in our own backyards and local farms. This is an incredibly difficult task, not only because of the inertia of large systems but because of our own buying and eating habits. If we want to see choices added that address what we are learning about how we should be eating for good health and long life, then we are going to have to make changes close to home.
Last year, I took two of my grandchildren on a field trip to Sierra Harvest’s Food Love Project at the Burton Homestead on Lake Vera Purdon Road, just outside Nevada City. Farmer Katie pulled a salad turnip out of the ground, dusted it off and handed it to Cameron. He took a bite and wandered off and, shortly, came back. “Could I have another?”
I was reminded that it is not so difficult to educate and inspire children about their food. And kids who are educated and inspired turn around and move the adults in their lives. Improvements in our food system won’t happen, though, without local farms and farmers growing food and delivering fresh produce and meats to schools, farmers markets and stores. And we, as a community, will need to encourage local schools to prepare and serve fresh foods to their students.
These are among the pressure points Sierra Harvest addresses with its school lunch, farmer training, home gardening and advocacy programs. For those of us who believe in the value of fresh, local foods as an important part of our diet, Sierra Harvest is likely to be crucial to our healthy lives — and a critical part of our local communities for many years to come.
Phil Turner sits on the Sierra Harvest board. He lives in Nevada City.
Improvements in our food system won’t happen, though, without local farms and farmers growing food and delivering fresh produce and meats to schools, farmer’s markets and stores.