By Owen Segerstrom
“As the problems of the world grow increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” —Bill Mollison
Nothing like a global pandemic to remind us of the frailties of the modern food system. As Congress scrambles to issue helicopter money (a phrase that was meant to be a joke), small businesses close, and record numbers of Americans file for unemployment, the lack of grown-ups in Washington D.C. is laid bare for the world to see. The fog of funny money figures and Orwellian discourse on the need for fiscal stimulus obscures real human needs like food, water, and shelter.
Yet again, during a time of crisis, the only certainty on which the national narrative can coalesce is that we need to back up the Brinks truck–a quaint notion in its own right, as it is all digital now–to Wall Street. This unspeakable stain on our national conscience reminds us of a fundamental distinction: the difference between money and wealth. While politicians ensure that hedge fund sociopaths do not have to endure this crisis without cheap liquidity to put up their noses, true leadership perseveres in South Central Los Angeles.
Long before we became acquainted with COVID-19, Ron Finley (aka the Gangster Gardener) warned us that we were living through an epidemic. “The drive thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys,” he related in a 2013 TedTalk, and though gun violence grabs more evening news leads and ALL CAPS above-the-fold headlines, the food system is unquestionably responsible for more death and suffering. Finley’s edible beatification of destitute urban lots, which initially led to a warrant for his arrest, now serves as a template for the creative reconstruction of people and places dislocated by the ravages of crony capitalism. Preaching what he calls his gospel, Finley implores us to return to the ultimate wellspring of wealth: the soil.
On top of its frightening intrinsic attributes, the coronavirus has shined a spotlight on our comprehensive failure to care for ourselves. We cannot “social distance” without massive economic impacts, but that should not equate to destitution. Every community, urban or rural, needs a platform of self-sufficiency that sustains its members whether the money game is moving up, down, sideways or in circles (viewer discretion advised).
The Local Food Experience emerged from a desire to increase our level of commitment to our community’s foodshed. While this choice undoubtedly reflects the amount of privilege we enjoy–one close associate suggested it was a “vanity project”–it also anchors us to the most important movement of our time: a resurrection of place-based, self-sustaining communities in touch with the land base that they inhabit. Our family is profoundly grateful for the beauty and natural bounty of our home in Surprise Valley, but we never want to numb our empathy to those in less advantageous circumstances, particularly in times of uncertainty and lost income. For leadership on the way forward, may we seek inspiration not in the halls of Congress or the black-magic money conjuring rituals at the Federal Reserve, but between a tomato trellis and a mammoth sunflower in a vacant lot, as mother nature slowly, lovingly alchemizes the detritus of human myopia. Whether COVID-19 looms large in our consciousness for two more weeks, two more months, or longer, let’s all turn off the news and build a garden.