One of the biggest things I have realized about self-care is that it is a radical act of political activism. I feel this way for many reasons. One of those, not surprisingly, has to do with food. What you eat is a form of self-care. Nutrition is the science of building our bodies from the things we ingest. You cannot get around the fact that, to a great extent, “quality in equals quality out.” I am not saying you should label foods good or bad, clean or otherwise. I am also not a proponent of denying yourself or anyone else snacks, sugar, or any other thing you love and cherish in your culinary landscape. What I am saying is that the body needs a certain level of nutritional balance to perform optimally.
It is important to eat food that has been minimally processed. Eating that kind of food is a form of self-care. It’s hard to do for many reasons, and those tend to fall into two large categories: behaviors that create food preferences can make us desire highly processed foods, and less processed foods tend to be more expensive. I argue that both have a foundation in a series of historical political inequities.
For those of us fortunate enough to have access to whole foods without concern of cost, the struggle is often making sure we actually pick the healthy food more often than not. Yes, eating cake and champagne is a form of self-care, and I will never begrudge anyone that right and joy; but eating that every day is not self-care; it is self-destruction. Yep, you can do it, go for it, no judgment, but in the long game, that is probably not going to serve your body well. I know this because I lived that lifestyle for several decades, and I’m now undoing some of the damage it did to me.
As an act of complete transparency, I fall into this first group. Because of my socio-economic class and race, I can afford to eat the “outside of the grocery store” (where the veggies and meat are, as opposed to the aisles where processed foods are stacked high), but behaviourally I don’t always want to.
Another reason folks often struggle with food as self-care is the cost of unprocessed foods like vegetables and proteins. Eating fruits, vegetables, and proteins like fish and chicken is generally more expensive than many processed foods. When you have less money, it is harder to access cost-efficient whole foods. In this case, self-care in the form of food is driven by economic advantage.
There is also the question of time and ability to prepare less processed foods. It takes time to cook rice and beans from a raw state and an understanding of how to do that. Not everyone has those things, especially when they are balancing multiple jobs and other life duties, like caregiving.
You have a better chance of eating nutritious foods if you can afford them and when you have time to prepare them, which boils down to money.
One thing that continually frustrates me when I tell people I study and write about food is that they immediately want to know what I like to cook and when my cookbook is coming out. For years I struggled to explain to people that food is much more than being snuggled up at home in your kitchen with a platter of food and your family and friends (although that's a rad part).
The food system is a complex series of phases that bring food from the land to your table and away again. The phases are production, distribution, fabrication, consumption, and disposal. The longer the chain and the more levels of processing, the more resources are required, and subsequently, the more it costs to produce your food. Let me give you an illustration…
Food must be produced first; let’s pretend we are discussing a hamburger. That production might be on a local farm, or it might be in a lab in New Zealand. There's a clear difference in the cost of getting that food to you based on where it was first produced... and it might have multiple production levels. If your burger meat came from a local rancher and was butchered and processed near you, fewer people were probably involved, and it probably took fewer trips from the farm/rancher to you.
However, you might want a non-animal burger, what I will lovingly refer to as a lab-grown burger. Your lab-grown meat might come from New Zealand, but then it has to be turned into your packaged burger in Canada and shipped to the distribution center for the Costco you shop at, and then it has to be trucked to the store, and you have to go buy it. That's a lot of miles, and all those miles and all those hands that touched your food cost money. Conversely, you could bike down the street to your local farmer’s market and buy your hamburger from a rancher who is a few miles up the road.
Once you get your tasty burger home (Lab-built or otherwise), you have to cook it; or maybe you are going to a restaurant to eat it, in which case they hire someone to cook it for you and then hire someone else to bring it to your table. More miles, more hands, more dollars! Then comes the fun part... you get to hang out and eat it with your pals. After dinner, the plates get put in a dishwasher to get cleaned, and somehow that burger goes into the trash, either in the kitchen or your bathroom... at which point it is disposed of in a system that costs money to maintain.
Suddenly the $4 burger you bought at Costco, or the $16 burger you ate at your favorite restaurant, has a bunch of associated costs with it; some you pay upfront, but a lot you either pay in deferred costs we as a society pay for in our shared infrastructure.
In 2005 Jonathon Porritt published a book called Capitalism As If the World Matters, in which he outlined five kinds of capital: manufactured, social, human, natural, and financial. The food system is wound up at every turn in these different forms of capital, from our farm equipment to the roads we transport food on (manufactured) to the social networks that support each step of the process (farm communities and their banks; restaurants and their customers), human (the folks who make the whole thing go round), natural (the land we use to grow crops and raise animals), and finally - financial - the hard-earned dollars we fork over to put food on the table.
In the United States, these capitals and phases manifest themselves in our agro-industrial food complex, which heavily depends on one primary piece of legislation: the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that comes up for review every five years, and 2023 is the year, baby!
This offers us a unique opportunity to look at how we prioritize food production in this country because the Farm Bill impacts virtually everything we eat. Take a moment, and let that sink in… I’m not exaggerating; that’s an undeniably true statement. The 2023 Farm Bill will be worth 709 billion dollars, up from 428 billion in the previous 2018 bill. It’s biggly, as they say, and because of that, we have a sweet little opportunity to address some severe social justice and equity issues in the system that makes our food and thus builds our bodies.
The Farm Bill has 12 titles (or sections): commodities, conservation, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous. How that money gets allocated and to whom has a massive impact on all the phases and capitals I talked about above. The Farm Bill is our nation’s declaration of who gets to eat what and how often. It’s important, so I want to spend the coming weeks talking about it. Those conversations will cover childhood nutrition, subsidies, equal access to farming opportunities, ecological conservation, and disaster preparedness and response. Those things directly impact you and your community and how resilient both are now and in the future.
I hope you join me as I get into the weeds of the Farm Bill and how we can make it more socially equitable so that everyone in this country can access healthy, nutritious, decadent, delicious food. Next stop, childhood nutrition, and subsidies!
Social Capital and One Town’s Journey Through Recession
In the early 2000’s thanks to a series of mistakes I ended up living in a small rural town in Kansas called Independence. Having spent most of my life in and around big cities this was a place that took me some time to get used to, much less understand. Indy, as the locals call it, was hot, rural, conservative and strict. As a professional chef, I struggled to carve out a living in a town where most of the food shopping happens at the Super Wal-Mart. The pleasures of the table that I had come to know so intimately were understood differently in Independence. I remember the first weekend I visited there. By Sunday night I was sick from eating nothing, and I mean not one thing, that hadn’t been fried. As I lived on in Indy I came to realize one of the paradoxes of our modern food system: here we were surrounded by acre after acre of farmland, and when I went to the cash register at the store with a head of garlic the checker had to ask me what I was buying so she could look up the price code. It was like dieing of starvation in the middle of the ocean, literally. Many of those fields that surrounded us were planted in in-edible soy and corn varieties destined for cars and cows, not humans. Independence, for all of its agriculture abundance felt like a virtual food desert to me.
The story you are about to read grows from that experience and has one central character: the town. As we’ll see, Independence is a small, isolated rural town that has experienced some hard knocks in the last fifty or so years, and it’s not so different than most rural, historically agricultural communities. Independence is drying up in the heat and the humidity of economic recession. What was once a diverse, thriving, primarily agricultural town is now withering in the face of the scorching globalization of agriculture and manufacturing. The de-localization of agricultural production through comparative advantage has changed how the food system of the community operates because it is that very industry that played such a dramatic role in the history of the community. As that industry has gone away, and nothing has singularly replaced it, Independence has struggled to find meaning and create a cohesive civic spirit that can refuel and sustain the town in the face of critical changes like their flood of 2007 and the national recession of 2009.
One of the symbols of Kansas in many people’s minds is the twister tornado, and I’ve used that as a metaphor for how this narrative is constructed. Beginning with a large overview of the state and then the town I move slowly downward into a very specific example of how a community can change over time as its primary industry goes away and is not replaced, and how that can affect one specific network within the town- in this case, the food network. Even more than that, I’d like to show this through the lens of one family, the Clark/Christensen’s, owners of one of the town’s largest and certainly most celebrated institutions: Uncle Jack’s Restaurant. It is my hope that we can see how communities are formed around what Sarah Evans and Harry Boyte refer to as the geographic “free spaces” (1992) of a town. “[They are] at once a geographic space and a living force that hold people to a thickness of relationships and memory that signal a “fit” and a sense of belonging” (DeLind, 2006).
As our world becomes increasingly global, and networked communities appear to fragment and become increasingly mobile in nature we are witnessing a dramatic and historic shift from the small localized, regional communities of the last two centuries. This is not a swan song for those days, change is inevitable, but it is an attempt to take a quick snapshot of how this process happens as a function of changes in the economic market system. If we can understand how this change occurs, and how communities respond to these changes, we are better equipped to facilitate future events, and manage existing conditions in the best manner possible for those whose lives and histories have been woven in the fabric of these communities.
Driving through Kansas is an experience most people never forget, not because of its incredible majesty, but because of its monotony. Once you are outside of the major urban areas Kansas becomes very monochromatic. With over 46 thousand acres of wheat, corn and soy, and over 6 million head of cattle (USDA, 2008) Kansas can look a lot like one big farm to the uninitiated traveler. Pictorially, Kansas does not elicit thoughts of natural change. On a political scale, Kansas is home to a relatively extreme brand of conservativism. The murder of George Tiller, the doctor who performed third trimester abortions, is only the most recent in a long line of anecdotes that get bandied about when the state is brought up. It does not help that his assassin, a radical Christian, shot him while he was attending church on Sunday. Kansas seems to have a long history of radical persistence.
The state will surprise you though. There is the case of democratic governor Kathleen Sebilius, and the bastions of Lawrence, where political demonstrations are civic elements of historic pride, and Kansas City, where jazz and barbeque can confuse you into thinking you are in Chicago, or New Orleans. The homesteading magazine Mother Earth News is published in Kansas. And one of the most forward thinking agricultural think tanks, the Land Institute, is located there as well. Kansas is not irrefutable, or reducible, and it is not afraid to live with conflict.
Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861 as a free state three months before the Battle of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. The choice to be a “free state” was not simple or straightforward. In 1855 an influx of New England settlers brought their abolitionist beliefs to the state. Neighboring Missouri was firmly pro-slavery. As border-states in the conflict over slavery, Missouri and Kansas fought a pre-emptive war over the rights of African-Americans that would brand the state of Kansas with the moniker: Bleeding Kansas; and would ultimately speed up the rest of the country’s descent into the Civil War. Kansas was founded on a platform of radical change. In Kansas you learn to say: “Really? Okay. Why not? Thank you.”
When I moved to a small town in rural Kansas I heard a white person refer to a black person as a “nigger” for the first time in my life, I learned what a meth addiction was and how it destroys lives, and I felt the oppression of an economy that could not sustain itself as it slowly collapsed on my own life. But I also entered into a place that had the deepest sense of community that I have ever seen or known. What I saw in Kansas was beyond love or allegiance it was, and still is, a fiercely gentle reminder that American community is still alive. Even in the face of impossible odds and cataclysmic crisis, small towns still house an abundance of social capital. In that rural nook I came to understand that:
"When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early nineteenth century, he was struck by how Americans resisted temptation to take advantage of each other and instead looked out for their neighbors. As Tocqueville pointed out, however, American democracy worked not because Americans obeyed some impossibly idealistic rule of selflessness, but rather because we pursued “self-interest rightly understood” (Putnam, 2000, p. 135)."
That is the story I want to tell you now. It is a story about one town and one family in that town, the Clark-Christensen’s, who have lived there, left there and returned there, and how they have changed that town, and how that town has changed them; and in that process social capital has been created, exchanged and strengthened through tight networks that lubricate the corroding effects of change. I met Jen Christensen when I lived in the small town of Independence, Kansas in the early 2000’s. She and her husband, Tim, own a restaurant called Uncle Jack’s. First as a consultant, and then as a friend I came to know them and their restaurant intimately.
This story is about more than a restaurant or its owners though, it is also the story of a local network of people committed to feeding a town and revitalizing a town, and how that network functions and grows in its youngest stages. There is no ending to this story, because it still goes on, this is simply a snapshot of how they, and the town they live in, have created and sustained a network of social capital in the face of incredible odds, change and, crisis.
As you leave Kansas City and drive south down Interstate 169 the fields and ranches are eventually punctuated with a dead armadillo along the road or an oil jack pulling crude in the middle of a field of crops. And if you drive far enough south you will reach Montgomery County, and the border between Kansas and Oklahoma. Somewhere in there, past Thayer and Chanute, you can turn off the interstate going west and head to the town of Independence. The town lies at the lowest point in Kansas on the banks of the Verdigris River (USGS, 2009). At only 804 feet above sea level, the town and its surroundings are given to frequent flooding making the farm lands rich in alluvial soil and verdantly green.
"In all southeastern Kansas there is no other city whose location possesses so many advantages as does that of Independence. Built at the point where the bluffs come close to the Verdigris, and have a solid foundation in the “Independence limestone,” which outcrops forty feet thick at the river bridge just east of the city, the site selected for the future the metropolis is high and well drained, and sufficiently rolling to render the scenery picturesque, while furnishing the natural drainage. Possessing so many advantages, and lying so near the geographical center of Montgomery County, it was almost inevitable that the city should become the county seat of the new county (Duncan, 1903)."
None of this was lost on the original inhabitants of the land, the Osage Nation; nor was it missed by the white settlers from the east. In 1869 as a result of a “questionable” treaty between George A. Brown and Chief Chetopa of the Osage Nation Independence became a settled town, and eventually the county seat of Montgomery County.
"While the United States government did not conclude a treaty with the Osage Indians for a cession of their lands in this country until July 1870, individual settlers had been making treaties with the red skins for larger or smaller tracts of land for a couple of years previous, and in September 1869, George A. Brown, after a protracted council, concluded and solemnized an agreement for the cession to him, of a tract of land lying between Rock Creek on the south and Elk river on the north, they Verdigris river to the east and Walker and Table Mounds on the west. Probably, at that time Brown had no idea that the whole tract to which he thus acquired an irregular and not exactly legal title would become the sire of the Greater Independence of the future- and there are plenty of people today who do not yet see that this entire territory is bound to be covered by the city and its suburbs during the first half of the twentieth century. The region embraced is an irregular one, about five miles long by as many wide, and embraces very nearly twenty-five miles of land. For this tract, a single acre of which now has a land value of over $25,000, Brown paid the munificent sum of $50 (Duncan, 1903)."
Independence was a steal, or was stolen, depending on whom you ask. It wasn’t long before the settlers discovered the second bounty of the land around the town, oil. Deep crevices of oil and gas run under the crust of the farmland in Montgomery County. Between the 1880’s and the early 1900’s Independence became a magnet for oil and gas production, which consequently drove the development of the town. In many ways, Independence has been a model rural community over the last century and a half, in both good and bad ways. The town is rich in resources: natural, physical, social and cultural.
When I moved from Washington D.C. to Independence in the early 2000’s the town had changed so much from the last century that, had I not seen the Victorian buildings, walked the streets and wandered the halls of the historical society, I would never have know how rich the place had been fifty years earlier. And when I drove into Independence six years later in the summer of 2009, I was awed by how much the town had evaporated in the humidity and heat of the recession, and washed away in the flood of 2007. As I walked around the main downtown corridor and looked at the empty buildings it felt like Independence had become a sieve slowly draining out its capital resources.
A town is a place where a community lives. Much like a family decorates their home with the furniture that supports them and mementos that remind them of their past, a town is the geographic space filled with the physical things that make a social group’s house its home. Grocery stores, churches, restaurants, hardware stores, meeting halls, hotels, zoos, cemeteries and parks are all social spaces where individual community members congregate and form the ties the build a network of relationships. Those relationships and their networks give strength to the community through a shared memory, a sense of values and norms.
“it is through the process of inhabitation, through “dwelling [in a place]… in a practiced way, in a way which relies upon certain regular trusted habits of behavior” (Kemmis, 1990:79) that culture and shared values takes shape. It is also through the process of inhabitation that the raw material of citizenship, of civic virtue, of “we-ness” emerges, and “the second language” – the language of tradition and commitment to community to memory, to cope, to common ground – is acquired” (DeLind, 2001)."
Like a dance between the person and the place, a collective memory forms, and that memory becomes a resource as real as oil, and rich as soil. The geographic space and the communal memories associated with that space form a community’s social capital, the stuff that sustains the community in times of crisis and critical change- the glue that binds when the flood waters rise or the bank account nears zero.
The picture at the beginning of this paper is a snapshot of a busy day in Independence in the late 1800’s. The streets are full of people. The shops are selling goods and providing services. A parade of carriages is streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue, the main retail corridor of the town. It is easy to imagine a multitude of reasons why all those folks were gathered together, but one thing is clear- they are brought together as a community on the streets of the town to take place in the events of the day. The town is at market, and that is an appropriate place to start our story, because the marketplace is where people exchange resources, or what Karl Marx and legions of economists thereafter would refer to as ‘capital.’ Capital is stuff: tangible things like money and goods, but also more cerebral, emotional things like knowledge, faith, and political leverage. So the marketplace becomes a place that is not only of geographic importance to a community, but also of spiritual importance.
In classic Marxist theory, there are five elements central to the creation, accumulation, and exchange of capital.
"First, capital is intimately associated with the production and exchange of commodities; [it] is commodities, through their production and exchange, that generate capital.
Second, capital involves processes rather than simply commodity or value, even though it may be the final result. Capital represents an investment process on the part of the capitalist. [This] entails investment of initial capital, effort and social activities of coordination and persuasion.
Third, as a result of these processes, any resultant capital is an added value.
Fourth, capital is intrinsically a social notion. Capital entails processes of social activity.
Fifth, capital is a process and an end result that lies by definition in the hands of those who control the means of production (Lin, 2001, pp. 7-8)."
It’s easy to imagine those people in that picture of Independence in the 1800’s milling about buying things, making things and exchanging those things for more things. Reduced to its most basic, theoretical foundation this is a nice, neat ledger of transactions. You make something I want, I exchange something you want for it. The price I am willing to pay in exchange is primarily set by how badly I want the thing you have and the value I perceive it possesses. However, the marketplace influences this transaction as well. You might not be the only person willing to trade with me, my other neighbor in the shop to the right might have the same thing and be willing to give it to me for less; thus there is competition in the marketplace: two people with the same thing willing to bargain for a price. The more places we have that we can go to buy things, the greater our chances of bargaining for a lower price. Diversity in the marketplace as opposed to monopoly makes for a more powerful consumer with many choices and lots of control. Anyone who has ever bought anything over the Internet knows the power of a diverse marketplace. A simple web search will result in a list of competing prices. Find the cheapest price, click a couple of times and you win!
"This is the internecine conflict that affects the activity on each side of the market, as competition develops among both suppliers and demanders. In the labor market, workers vie with one another to secure the better paying jobs. In the market for products, employers vie for shares of the public’s purchasing power. The effect in all cases is to force prices of every kind, including wages and rates of profit, to the prevailing social level. The market system thereby becomes its own policing agency against the exactions of greed and the inequities of exploitation. Oddly enough, this self-policing process is also driven by self-interest, even when this involves reducing one’s immediate gain. The supplier who will not lower a price that is out of line will be bypassed in favor of another; a buyer who will not meet the going market price will not be able to purchase what his competitor can (Heilbroner, 1993, p. 100)."
Individuals do better when there are lots of choices and it would appear that the folks in that picture of Independence had lots of choices when it came to buying things. In its days of prosperity Independence was home to over 20 restaurants, 40 retail grocers, 4 hardware stores, and 12 meeting halls (Polk’s Independence Directory, 1935); lots of choices meant lots of people.
So how did it come to be that in 2009 when I walked down the same street in that photograph I was confronted with storefront after empty storefront?
In 2009 Independence has 12 restaurants, and of those eight of them are fast food chains or bars serving limited menus. There are two hardware stores now, two full-service grocery stores, and there are only six businesses that employ over 200 people (Independence Chamber of Commerce, 2009). And one of those restaurants, hardware stores, full-service grocery stores, and employers is located in one city block, at the Wal-Mart.
From a transactional capitalist perspective it would be easy to point the finger at declining diversity in the marketplace at the Wal-Mart, or the Walgreens. The “Wal” effect is an often talked about issue in Independence. When I was there most people I spoke to cursed the big-box store that moved into Independence in 1999, despite local uproar, an economic impact survey that warned of the effects of the store, and rigorous coverage in the local paper (Independence Reporter, 1999). The Wal-Mart (and later the Walgreens) not only drove big chains like K-Mart and Dillions out of business, but a bevy of downtown retailers including several pharmacies as well. As a resident I remember feelings of extreme anger towards “Wally-World”, but I still shopped there. What was the choice?
When I came back in 2009 I went to the grocery store to buy some food for the house. Instead of driving out to Wal-Mart I opted for the locally owned Marvin’s in the downtown. In comparison to the Wal-Mart, the store was small, had few choices, was not as clean, had incredibly poor, slow service, and was more expensive. When I went to check out the credit card reader at the register didn’t work and no one knew how to fix it, or seemed to care about fixing it. I didn’t go back to Marvin’s.
As Wal-Mart offered lower prices and drove away competition the town was stuck in a paradox of capitalism: lower prices are good so I’ll shop there and give them all of my business, but then the diversity of the market will dry up because the competition will go away. Wal-Mart’s undercutting price strategy worked in Independence like it has in countless small rural towns; and as all those local stores and businesses went away, so did the people and the healthcare and many of the other businesses that serviced all those people on that street in that picture above. In fulfilling their mission “to help people save money so they can live better” (Wal-Mart, 2009), Wal-Mart has produced a series of unintended effects in the community; these consequences of the market are called “externalities” by economists, and they are a problem of unchecked capitalism.
"The market does have two central and often ignored shortcomings: it does not supply public goods adequately, and it ignores the negative consequences of profit seeking. These failures undermine and may even literally destroy communal bonds and social responsibility (Couto, 1999, p. 148)."
When one store takes over the majority of sales in a town it is more than a monopoly, it is an oligarchy: a small group of individuals control what is available, when, and at what price. Diversity goes away, and so do the people.
So, Wal-Mart is to blame for this new Independence? If we apply our rather simplistic market theory to the problem, it would appear that we have an answer to the question: what happened to all the people, all the stuff, all the trading? I don’t think it’s that simple though. Many of the stores in Independence that have done battle with the Wal’s have offered excellent service, unique products, and competitive pricing. What’s more, they have done so in a location that is accessible, comfortable, unique, and locally owned and operated. So where did everybody go, and why?
Our story so far has looked at the stuff of capital, but all that stuff didn’t just get there by itself, someone thought of it, made it and then exchanged it for something else. The key ingredient in any market besides the things being sold, are the people doing the trading. When Karl Marx originally wrote about capitalism and markets he spent a lot of his time talking about those who engaged in the production, distribution and consumption of capital: the capitalists and their labor-force. We are all laborers of some kind, we produce things: shoes, books, food, furniture, services, ideas. In a modern economy we exchange those things and the time it took to produce them for money, or perhaps directly for other things through barter. This is a process of production and consumption, and it happens within a larger social context.
"In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only to be co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place (Marx in Tucker, 1978)."
It is difficult for one person to make all of the things they need to survive in life. Communities of people can achieve more through what Marx referred to as “Division of Labor”, or specialization. If you specialize in building houses I can specialize in raising food, and we can accomplish more then if each of us had to do everything required to live individually. Inherent in this idea is the essence of diversity. Each of us performs a different function within the group, and the group then does better as a whole. Taken in that context, the picture of Independence above makes a lot of sense, and lends more support to the idea of a complex, diverse social system.
In the hey-days of the 1930’s Independence had a population of 12,782, and Montgomery County had a population of 51,411; that was the peak population point for the region. By 1960 the population had dipped to 45,000 in the county and 11,222 in the county seat, and 2000 Montgomery County had a population of just over 36,000 and Independence recorded a population total of 9,846 (US Census, 1930-2000). Clearly, the county and its county seat were contracting, and this is consistent with rural-urban migration patterns in the rest of the state over the same period of time (US Census, 1930-2000). So where did they all go?
People were leaving the country and going to the city. The labor force of a community is built on its population. As that population declines, so does the number of hands, heads, and hearts that can contribute to the production, distribution, and consumption of capital. No people means no stuff, and that leads to no community, or at least one that is drastically reduced in its ability to offer diverse goods and services.
What’s more, the shift in population in Montgomery County was coupled with a downward shift in income. In 1959 the median household income in Montgomery County was just over six thousand dollars, with the state median coming in just under seven thousand dollars (US Census, 1959). In 1989 that number had risen to just under eleven thousand dollars in the county, but the state median number rose to over thirteen thousand dollars. By the year 2007 the median household income in Montgomery County was $34,098, however, the median for the state was $46,669, and the rest of the country was at $50,000 (Census, 2008). The folks that have remained in Montgomery County, while their friends and neighbors moved to the city, are earning comparatively less, which means they have less to spend. This points to a more insidious trend: those with higher incomes are going away leaving behind those in a lower socio-economic bracket. The average number of families below the poverty line in 2007 was over twelve percent, while the national average was under ten. The out-migration has a foundation in socio-economic class.
In 1930’s Montgomery County had 2,522 farms on 355,700 acres of land. Of those a full thirty percent were considered “general” farms, those engaged in multiple uses: the raising of livestock, growing of crop and production of agricultural products. Only 8 percent of farms were listed as “cash-grain,” meaning that they raised only one type of crop for profit (US Ag Census, 1932). The landscape is dramatically different today. There are only 101,329 acres of land in crop, and now only 596 farms occupy that space. What’s more wheat, corn, and soy make up 45 percent of all the crops grown in the county. Overall, the farming population of the county has decreased from a statewide average of almost 40 percent in 1925 to only six percent in 2007, only 90 people report farming as their source of income (US Census, 1930 - 2000). That’s not only sad, it speaks to a shift in the labor force that tears at the foundation of the community. Farms are relatively resilient entrepreneurial enterprises passed down through generations, and in Montgomery County they have always comprised a healthy part of the economy. When those multiple farm families go away a substantial part of the community has evaporated, and so have all the businesses and services tailored to meet the needs of an agricultural community. Coupled with declining job opportunities in town we are faced with a shift in the socio-economic status of the town’s population, this time away from agriculture. When no other specific industry picks up the lost capital production, distribution and consumption of the agricultural center, jobs shift away from the more highly paid, self-directed, skilled wages to lower wage, less skilled opportunities, or no opportunities. Those who are left at the bottom of the ladder have few other choices for employment, and Wal-Mart quickly becomes one of the town’s largest employers while the more skilled residents compete for the few remaining highly paid jobs, or move away to new, more fertile locations. The end result of the reduction of the agricultural sector is a complimentary reduction in the overall elasticity of the town: capital goes away, so does all the stuff, and all the people. And that out-migration has its foundation in issues of socio-economic class.
The problem at the core of these questions has more to it than simple physical transactions on the main street of a small town, or in the fields of the farms that surround it, and it does not solely lie in economics, although all of those are part of it. When the workforce declines so do the things that service those people. When that decline is coupled with an overall decline in the income of the community there is less to spend resulting in less exchange of capital, meaning that there is a need for fewer people to produce goods and services. What begins is a vicious cycle of declining capital and a declining population, a kind of chicken or egg scenario only this time with money and people.
If we’ve begun to understand the questions and some of the answers to the mystery of the disappearing town, what might an answer be? Potentially, the answer has to do with a much larger part of the town; a part that extends into the churches, restaurants, bars, parks, schools, homes and all the shared spaces where the members of the community come together and build shared memories. The answer has to do with a different kind of capital, the social kind.
The Networks of Community
Physical capital lives someplace. All that stuff we buy, use, eat, worry about and love has to have a few places to live. It is born in places of production, it comes of age in stores and warehouses, and it lives out its days in our homes, on our bodies, or with us in one way or another. There is a geographic element to the marketplace and all of the stuff and people in it. And in that space we meet up, work, talk, play, argue, shop, pray, eat, make love, argue more, and build a life that is greater than the things we have in it. In the process of all that getting and spending, we move through a series of networks: our own and those of others. Networks find us jobs, partners, friends, mentors, and like the marketplace, the more networks we have the more people, places, and things we can access. Diverse networks make for lots of choices. Strong social networks also supply things that a transactional marketplace can’t: help without immediate cost.
"Life at home, in the boardroom, or on the shop floor is both more rewarding and productive when suppliers, colleagues, and clients alike are able to combine their particular skills and resources in a spirit of trust, cooperation, and commitment to common objectives. The vast majority of people, moreover, live, work, vote, pray and recreate as members of various but distinct social groups that share one’s very identity, values, and priorities. Membership in these communities provides (or, importantly, prevents) access to key professional networks, political insiders, and cultural elites; it is also the context in which one gives and receives care, friendship, encouragement, and moral support (Woolcock, 1998)"
In a social system, capital is not simple stuff, it’s the ability to access the resources and people needed to accumulate “stuff,” like a job, or a relationship, or an education. “Social capital consists of resources embedded in social relations and social structure, which can be mobilized when an actor wishes to increase the likelihood of success in a purposive action (Lin, 2001, p. 24).” In other words: it’s not what you know, but who you know, and how you know them. The resources (or stuff) of social capital are things like power, wealth, reputation; and the more network connections you have the greater your chances of accessing those things. This comes in handy when you need something, be it money or love. The more folks you know, the farther you go. But not all network connections are created equal.
Our most densely connected networks, those that we are “bonded” to, are the ones we can most easily access and use the most; they represent the most embedded, homogeneous networks (Putnam, 2000, p. 22; Lin, 2001, p. 47). These are the places we go intuitively when we need something, and they are based on long histories of reciprocal activities. The longer we give and take from these networks the more reliable and dense they become. In Independence these kinds of networks are evident everywhere.
My best friend, Jen Christensen (nee Clark), is a living testament to a strongly bonded network. Jen is the third generation of Clark’s to grow up in Independence. And although she left Independence as a young-adult, she ultimately returned with her husband, Tim Christensen, who she met in Aspen, Colorado. After farming in the country the couple and their daughter eventually moved back to town and opened a restaurant, Uncle Jack’s, named after Jen’s uncle, Jack Clark.
Any time that Jen and I are out together in town, even when we walk through the cemetery, people know her and she knows them. She knows what they have done socially for most of their lives and she knows many of the little things that aren’t so publicly well known. Jen is a living example of a well-networked individual in the social fabric of her town. Connections to people forged by her grandparents, and parents, on into her own life are “tights ties” (Lin, 2001), access points to resources. She epitomizes the following:
"Social capital contains resources (e.g. wealth, power, and reputation, as well as social networks) of other individual actors to whom an individual actor can gain access through direct or indirect social ties. They are ties embedded in the ties of one’s networks (Lin, 2001, p. 43)."
An example of this ability to access resources through relationships of reciprocity within tightly bound networks is evident in the story Jen told me about buying her most recent car. She went to the Ford dealership and talked to one of the salesmen, whom she had gone to school with. After negotiating a deal on a used Toyota that was dirty but solid, she took the car across the street to another childhood friend in the service department of the Toyota dealership, where they cleaned and detailed her car for free because they didn’t want to have her, a business owner and strongly visible member of the community, seen driving a dirty Toyota around town (Menck, 2009). She exercised her social capital to get an incredibly cheap price on a car, and then went further into her network to get the car cleaned into an almost new state. Trivial perhaps, but an example of how individuals access social networks to get things done that they could not do as well, or as easily, by themselves.
Sometimes though, the things we need or want are outside of our network’s range. We may not even realize this, but when crisis strikes it becomes abundantly clear that we need help from outside because our homogeneous, tightly bound networks simply don’t have access to the resources we need. When our own bonded networks can’t supply us, we need to “bridge” into outside, heterogeneous networks (Woolcock, 1998; Lin, 2001). Where bonded networks are inward looking and dense, bridged networks are external and less stringent. By their very definition these networks have access to different resources and therefore are less intuitive, less like our very internal selves. We are less tightly tied to these networks and therefore access to the resources located here are more tertiary. We can’t get things with the same guarantee that we can in our bonded networks, or with the same speed.
When Jen and Tim went to refinance mortgages at a new bank, the process took longer than they expected, not because there was any problem with their credit or their business, but because it was a new bank and a new network. The bank didn’t know them and they didn’t know the bank. Moving into a new network required a courtship period, a dance between new partners where each side had to slowly feel their way through what could be expected from the other. There was no shared history of reciprocity so access to resources was slower and more difficult than it would have been in a close, densely bound network.
Each of us moves through these two types of networks constantly throughout our days and lives. Tightly bound, or loosely bridged, these “are not ‘either-or’ categories into which social networks can be neatly divided, but ‘more or less’ dimensions along which we can compare different forms of social capital” (Putnam, 2000, p. 23). Individual actors change their relationship to their networks throughout the life cycle. In Putnam’s classic evaluation of social networks in American society (2000), he closely outlines the statistical fluctuations in network associations in the United States over roughly a one hundred year period. One of his conclusions is that network associations change with the life cycle in predictable ways. We are more closely aligned with certain networks at different points in our lives, based on our needs and the resources we have to offer up to the networks themselves depending on the particular time of life. We need both bonded and bridged networks to effectively move through change. Strong communities possess lots of networks for us to enter into both as a resource provider and consumer with this very shift in role-reciprocity serving as gas in the engine of the network. Today I have resources for you and tomorrow you or someone else in the network might have them for me, or know someone who does.
If all of this sounds a bit like a communal love-fest of karmic adoration and civic virtue, it isn’t. Tightly bound social networks can be so insular they restrict individual members’ ability to bridge into other social groups, or restrict outsiders from entering the network. “Defensive localism “ (Winter, 2002) chokes out diversity by creating a binary thinking “making ‘local’ a proxy for “good” and ‘global’ a proxy for “bad” [that] may overstate the value of proximity, which remains unspecified, and obscure[s] more equivocal social and environmental outcomes (Hinrich, 2002).” This, in turn, limits the resilience that comes from being able to move between networks to access outside resources, especially in times of crisis or critical change.
"The high degree of density and closure characterizing the social relations undergirding the relatively simple, small-scale, informal exchange in village markets, for example, could in fact impose considerable constraints on successful members of these communities as they attempted to make the transition to membership in larger, more extensive, and sophisticated exchange networks coordinated by formal institutions and the rule of the law. Both forms of exchange might still be embedded in social relations, but the transition from coordinating exchange in the former to the latter was highly problematic, since it entailed gaining knowledge of how to participate in, construct, and maintain new institutional forms. Similarly, social mechanisms needed to be in place to protect the social ties among powerful institutional actors – especially those transcending the public and private realm- from becoming vehicles for corruption, nepotism, or exploitation (Woolcock, 1998, p. 163)."
And that brings us back to Wal-Mart.
Independence is a place on a map, five square miles of land in the southeast corner of Kansas. Within that rather small area live about 9,000 people, and multiple networks (US Census, 2007). Independence is an interesting place to look at networks due to its relative isolation, the nearest city, Tulsa, Oklahoma, is 77 miles away; which makes Independence somewhat insular. Even in a modern transit economy it is harder to get things here than it is in other places. If you don’t like what is available in the grocery department at the Wal-Mart, you are going to drive a stretch down the road until you come to another store, or wait a few days until the delivery truck drops it at your door. When I lived in Independence I remember the strategically planned trips to grocery stores in big cities whenever someone needed to be dropped at an airport, or shuttled to an event. I bought a six-foot long freezer chest to stock up on food I couldn’t get in town.
The grocery is only part of our examination though, because it is only part of the network under consideration, the food network. The main characters of this story (other than the town itself), Jen and Tim, are owners of a restaurant and because of that they play an important role in food and eating in the town. When I first met Jen I remember asking her how she could stand to go shopping in the local grocery- every time I saw her she was being stopped by some local looking in her basket, asking her what she was making for dinner, or looking for a recommendation or advice about food. For better or worse, Jen and Tim are the culinary queen and king of the town, epitomized in their election to the coveted role of “Queen and King Doo-Dah” in the annual Independence Doo Dah Parade.
The Geographic Self
In the twenty plus years I’ve been in the food-service industry I have come to have a pretty personal understanding of the role restaurants play in food networks. As a chef you can only serve what your customers will eat. Even in the most cutting edge restaurants there is a limit to how far you can push an individual’s palate. Our food choices are closely tied to our social and cultural norms. We understand what is acceptable and good to eat because, as Claude Levi-Strauss famously said: “it is good to think” as well (Levi-Strauss,1963, p. 128). Take a look at the menu of a town restaurant and you will have an instant look into the community.
If you are in Independence there are a few places you might go to get this glimpse of what the town is about, and Uncle Jack’s is one of the most prominent. Located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street, Jack’s (as it’s known in the town) takes up an imposing corner of the main downtown corridor. In front of the building is a bronze statue of a young boy, Timmy, throwing a toy plane in the air.
The Cessna Corporation donated that statue, and it rests outside Jack’s because that is where they take their clients when they come into town to buy a personal airplane. Uncle Jack’s is the “nice” restaurant in town, the place you go on a first date. In fact, that is how I came to know Jack’s- on a first date with the man I would end up moving to Independence for. I remember before he arrived that evening I sat at the bar and listened to the group of men seated there, obviously businessmen from the town. They talked about the things men at bars in town do: gossip, business, politics, women, sports. It’s almost ten years later, and those same men still sit at that bar almost every day starting at about four in the afternoon. Tim, the real one- not the statue out front, has their preferred beverages stocked behind the bar. Even though no one else drinks Coors Light, and it’s not offered on the menu, there is always a six-pack of it for one of the regulars.
The food at Jack’s has gone through an evolution. Tim and Jen are what we’ve come to call “foodies,” they love everything about food and wine. Tim grew up on a farm in Iowa, and Jen has spent her adult life in and around food. From the farm to the table, they relish the production and consumption of food as a way of life. So when they started the restaurant it was supposed to have been all from scratch: fine dining with a capital ‘F’. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are” intoned Brillat-Savin; we are what we eat, but also where we eat, and that changed Jack’s pretty quickly. I learned about introducing new items to the Jack’s menu when I worked there as a consulting chef. Even classically produced macaroni and cheese (pasta with a mornay sauce) did not go over well because it was white, not yellow. The menu now is a set of well-prepared, good, solid items. Steaks, pastas, salads- nothing too cutting edge, mostly things you could reproduce in your kitchen at home if you were so inclined, and in fact, that is where most of the dishes come from – Jen and Tim’s kitchen and garden.
Restaurants are the most publicly visual part of a food network. Food networks start in the field, move through channels of distribution, end up on the grocery store shelves, at our homes, or in our restaurants, and eventually in our bellies. Like it or not, the community of Independence, Kansas understands its food as part of a larger system of providers: Jack’s is one of those, and so is Wal-Mart. Where we get our food as well as where we eat our food represents a sort of social capital.
Pierre Bourdieu defined this type of social capital as the habitus. The habitus is not one thing, but a series of things and ways we define who we are within our social system. Capital, in this sense, is represented by the things we choose to have around us in our space. Books, computers, cars, clothes, education, jobs, friends, food- all of these things coalesce to define who we are within the context of our social system.
"If a group’s whole life-style can be read off from the style it adopts in furnishing or clothing, this is not only because these properties are the objectification of the economic and cultural necessity which determined their selection, but also because the social relations objectified in familiar objects, in their luxury or poverty, their ‘distinction’ or ‘vulgarity’, their ‘beauty’ or ‘ugliness’, impress themselves through bodily experiences which may be as profoundly unconscious as the quiet caress of beige carpets or the thin clamminess of tattered, garish linoleum, the harsh smell of bleach or perfumes as imperceptible as a negative scent. Every interior expresses, in its own language, the present and even the past state of its occupants, bespeaking the elegant self-assurance of inherited wealth, the flashy arrogance of the nouveaux riches, the discreet shabbiness of the poor and the gilded shabbiness of ‘poor relations’ striving to live beyond their means; one thinks of the child in D.H. Lawrence’s story “the Rocking-Horse Winner” who hear throughout the house and even in his bedroom, full of expensive toys, an incessant whispering: ‘There must be more money.” Experiences of this sort would be the material of a social psychoanalysis which set out to grasp the logic whereby the social relations objectified in things and also, of course, in people are insensibly internalized, taking their place in a lasting relation to the world and to others, which manifests itself, for example, in the thresholds of tolerance of the natural and social world, of noise, overcrowding, physical or verbal violence- and of which the mode of appropriation of cultural goods in one dimension (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 77)."
Acquiring capital in the context of a social system is an indicator of position within the system. When I asked Jen if I could come look at Jack’s as part of a social food system she replied, “you can, but Jack’s is only home to some of the people. Some people come here, some go to the Rexall, some go to John’s” (Menck, 2009). What she was implying is that different people feel comfortable in different restaurants. Different niches of people are drawn to different places, in part because those places are comfortable to them. That comfort comes from understanding what a place is “about.” The food, interior, service, and location of a restaurant are understood by the individual as part of their normative structure- they reflect the habitus of who the person is within the social group. As I sit writing this, I am in a café in the town I live in. There are four cafes within a three-block radius of me but every day I come to this particular café, sit in one particular spot, and write. I like the other places, I even worked at one of them, but this café is where I feel most comfortable. I like the furniture, the coffee, the food, the people who work here, the people who come here, and the way they treat my dog. The café fits my habitus, and it says something about me when I tell people that I spend my mornings writing at Fiddleheads, not the Java House, not Starbucks, not the Roastery.
"Individuals do not move about in social space in a random way, partly because they are subject to the forces which structure this space, and partly because they resist the forces of the field with their specific inertia, that is, their properties, which may exist in embodied form, as dispositions, or in objectified form, in goods, qualifications, etc. (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 110)."
Uncle Jack’s is a successful restaurant because it represents part of the habitus of many people in the town of Independence. One customer clearly implied this when he said: “this is like my living room, only without the hassles of my family, this is where I feel truly at home” (Menck, 2009).
There is something even more insidious in the reduction of diversity in a small town then. As places evaporate in the economic drought, so do choices for the individual’s habitus. Different people like different things and places. If you take away those places people lose the social space that makes up one part of their social identity, their habitus. So when Wal-Mart is the only place to go shopping, it takes away a very real choice for many people, and that reduces individuals abilities to define themselves as they see fit, or desirable. It also reduces an individual’s ability to redefine him or herself as they change. If you have no other options, you cannot change. This decreases the desirability of a place. In a conversation I had with Jen about her daughter’s desire to move back to Independence she clearly stated that she wasn’t in support of the idea. “Why would she want to do it? What is there here?” (Menck, 2009) Jen was voicing the reality of declining diversity in a rural town: no stuff means no choice when it come to constructing a life-identity in capital- physical, human, cultural and social.
Mediating Structures, Re-Claiming Spaces
Tim Christensen likes duct-tape. He’s fixed things with it, built things with it, and even entered into an artistic space with it. Any time there is ever any kind of crisis we always call for Duct-Tape Man, he can fix it! And so far in my story things are feeling a little bleak for Independence. Certainly there is room for healthy concern about what is happening there. When I was in town in 2009 Montgomery County passed the ten-percent mark for unemployment – the second highest in the state, the William Inge Theater Festival had its budget cut by over fifty-percent, and population growth has been in decline for decades (Independence Reporter, 2009). If we are to believe Robert Putnam’s statistical prophecy in Bowling Alone (2000) Independence is showing all the signs of having crossed the critical point at which a social system loses so much capital it cannot revive itself. Where is Duct-Tape Man when we need him?
Maybe duct-tape isn’t the answer here, but there is a sort of social adhesive that does exist in Independence, and when I was there I saw a fair amount of it. Mediating structures are a sort of community glue that “provide[s] building blocks of horizontal and vertical networks that social capital binds together into a foundation for democratic practice” (Couto, 1999, p. 52). These are the things of civil society, the groups we belong to: the sports clubs, the churches; and in the food system in Independence I found a small but dedicated group of people working in mediating structures within the food network.
In a world of global food systems, localized agriculture seems a quaint thing of the past. Especially in Independence, where a local farmer may farm upwards of 2,000 acres of a single crop alone, the small family farm seems to be lost with those folks in that picture from the 1800s. But it’s not.
"Civic agriculture is a locally organized system of agriculture and food production characterized by networks of producers who are bound together by place. Civic agriculture embodies a commitment to developing and strengthening an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable system of agriculture and food production that relies on local resources and serves local markets and consumers (Lyson, 2004, p. 63)."
Restaurants are part of a larger food system, and Jack’s in no exception. There is a paradox in restaurant food production: products that are served may come from outside of the local area, but the customers don’t. You can’t outsource yourself when you are a restaurant- you produce for your community and those who come into it. So, when restaurants buy products from other places the money that came through the front door goes out the back door to some other town, state, or country. Civic agriculture is an attempt to relocalize part of the food system into local networks. This is done through a series of mediating structures, such as farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA), and in Independence they have both.
Down on the Farm
Back in the old days of farming, before Earl Butz, Nixon‘s Secretary of Agriculture, intoned : “Get big or get out” (Pollan, 2006); before modern industrial practices were applied to farming; and before ‘comparative advantage’ forced farmers to grow acre after acre of the same crop to the highest possible yield at the lowest possible price; before all of that there was an idea of a farm as a self-sustaining eco-system. On this kind of farm there are lots of different kinds of crops, animals and habitats. Together these diverse species form a mutually beneficial loop. Cows eat grass and poop, the poop becomes fertilizer for the vegetables, which grow and feed the farmer, who feeds the chickens, who peck away the insects so the grass can grow. That is a gross oversimplification of the process, but it is essentially a closed loop of sustainable production with the sun serving as the primary power source. Modern agriculture has dismantled that system and created what Wendell Berry has referred to as a series of complicated problems from one very elegant solution (1977). Gone are the many species. Now fertilizers and pesticides are locked in a mutually exclusive relationship as they lord over one crop on acre after acre of land, keeping those plants alive in an unholy and unsustainable cycle that robs the land of nutrients and, as we’ve seen, drives to extinction the diverse and large families and communities that used to inhabit those farms and agricultural spaces. There are some interesting similarities between a small, biologically diverse, complex farm and the social networks we’ve looked at in town. Communities, like eco-systems, need diversity to thrive. Sustainability depends on multiple players engaged in multiple functions. Take away the diversity, attempt to oversimplify the process, and you break the loop and destroy the network.
The Mitchell Family Farm is a forth generation family farm in neighboring Cherryvale. Three generations of Mitchell’s live on and farm the property that has been in the family since 1955. The farm is relatively small by Kansas standards at 120 acres, 5 of which are planted in edible crop, with the animals “having the run of all but 10 acres of the farm” (Mitchell, 2009). There farm is different from other Kansas farms in another way, it is bio-diverse because they have chosen to embrace the older ways of farming. Their farm has chickens, goats, horses, cows, bees, vegetables and flowers. There’s a stand of bamboo too, but that is an experiment really. The entire family farms; when I was there Grandma Imogene was weeding, Mother Deanna was taking care of animals, Son Josh was farming vegetables, and Daughter Jena was out practicing natural hoof care, bringing horses back to shoeless hooves. For someone who lives in town this appears to be back breaking work for comparatively little monetary return. In fact, it is difficult to make a living on a small family farm. The Mitchell’s are no exception to this rule, Father Steve works a full time job “off farm,” as well as working on the farm in his off hours. The American agricultural system of subsidies is not tailored to work with small-scale farmers. In fact, when I was there HR2749, a bill requiring costly regulation for small sized farms came up in congress (Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, 2009). It is very difficult to make a small farm work.
But not impossible. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a way for farmers to make a living and serve the community. CSA’s are mediating structures of a sort. “Members” pay a set amount to the farmer at the beginning of the season. Once crops come in members receive an allotment of the bounty. By paying up front the farmer has the working capital to operate the farm and live, and the members take a share of the risk of farming. It is entirely possible that there will be no or few crops- that’s the risk you take. There is ownership in a CSA, at varying levels. A “working share” costs less but requires labor on the farm, a “standard share” means you pay and pick up your produce every week over the course of the season.
The Mitchell’s have operated their farm as a CSA for four years. Every year they have almost doubled their membership (Menck, 2009). In addition to the farm itself, the family has a blog online, sends out newsletters, and serves as a central repository of information about all things agricultural. When I was there Deanna sold Jen goat’s milk from the farm to make cheese. She also loaned her two books on cheese making, some rennet and served as a mentor of sorts when the cheese didn’t set (Menck, 2009). On our visits to the farm I saw many people come and go: picking up products, stopping to talk, coming for tours, visiting animals, bringing animals for care, all of the things that happen in a mediating structure. The CSA is a way that the community meets outside of the Wal-Mart, it is a node in the food network of the town providing products and services, but also creating social bonds by simply existing. It’s not duct-tape, but it just might be stronger than duct-tape, and it sure tastes better.
Going to Market
One restaurant and one farm- is that enough? It may not be, but it’s not all. In May of 2009 Independence christened its new downtown farmer’s market, just off of Pennsylvania Ave, just around the corner from where that picture was taken in the 1800s. Every Saturday morning in the spring, summer and fall Independence now has the choice to come to market downtown with local farmers and artisans. This market came about as a part of a revitalization plan for the downtown corridor. It’s no surprise that my friend Jen sits on the board of the new market, but so do some other people in town who are less obviously connected to the food network. These people want to see this succeed because intuitively there is an understanding of the importance of a last stand against the big box store around the corner. The mediating structure is a bulwark against the “Wal” effect. It is small; only half-dozen purveyors on the day I attended, but that is more than four years ago when I once had a booth at the impromptu farmer’s market down the street. I was lucky to sell to four people on those days. This was more than that, and it was organized by strong leaders of the community, like Judith Lowdon, president of the Independence Main Street Coalition.
When I was a college student in Madison, Wisconsin, I went to my first farmer’s market, the largest in the country. It was huge, extending around the state capital and off into the tangential streets. A trip to market was exhausting. That market started in 1972, and had time to grow. The first restaurant I every worked in was also in Madison. The Oven’s of Brittany was the brainchild of Joanna Guthrie who also trained and inspired Odessa Piper, the female chef and restaurateur who started L’Etoile in 1976 (L’Etoile, 2009). L’Etoile was the first Midwestern restaurant to actively commit to purchasing locally whenever possible. Listening to Odessa speak about that time is to hear the difficulties of any chef, but with an added tone of desperation: the concerns if and when product would come, and how much might arrive, the fear of making enough money to survive on a concept no one understood- a habitus with no inhabitants.
L’Etoile did survive, and prosper just like Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkley had a decade before. Madison made a network out of its food system, not from one or two people, but because the town networked itself around food. Not everyone joined, not everyone cared, but enough people did, and that made the whole community stronger, and it influenced an entire generation of food-people, one of which was me; I left Madison and became a professional chef in another food network, Vermont.
What I see in Independence is a town on the brink, and a group of people committed to not let it go over the edge. It is the same civic spirit surrounding food that I experienced in Madison. One night, I sat with Jen on her mom’s porch and over drinks I said what I thought we all had agreed on: Independence was dead. She was quick to respond: “Not yet, you’d be surprised what this little town can do.”
Really? Okay. Why not? Thank you.