During my sabbatical back in March, I spent one non-preaching Sunday with my friends Lisa and Sharon planting potatoes at Honey Bee Hills Farm. A couple of years ago, grounded at home due to the pandemic after years of traveling all the time, I finally realized my dream of becoming a CSA member, and Honey Bee Hills invited all their CSA members out to the farm to help plant potatoes. It was fantastic!
CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a model of supporting small, local farmers. Members pay a flat fee up front at the beginning, and then receive produce regularly throughout the season. That way, farmers have large amounts of cash in hand to get their season started, and members are assured a regular delivery of local, seasonal produce. The customer, having paid up front, assumes risk alongside the farmer. If there’s too much rain or not enough, too many pests or too few pollinators, you might not end up getting what you paid for. But that has always been the way of farming, and it’s much more honest and elemental – and delicious – than buying hothouse tomatoes shipped across the country.
These days, farmer’s markets and CSA arrangements have a whiff of classism and virtue signaling about them. Somehow, we humans have managed to brand and stratify the most elemental of human activities. What and how and where we EAT – one of the only universally necessary activities for existing in a human body – has been turned into a branding tactic, a way to symbolize who we are, how much money we have, what kind of people we hang out with, and how much worth we ascribe to ourselves. Even as I *savored* the produce that filled my fridge and stomach every week from Honey Bee Hills, I wondered about the injustice of the fact that I am able to afford the (steep but worth it) up-front cost while hundreds of families struggle to access much of any fresh produce – much less local, organic, delicious kinds like this.
But: I grew up going regularly to the Roanoke City Market, the oldest continuously operating farmer’s market in Virginia. My Grandpa Bobby told a story about being sent down to the market when he was a kid to buy a whole chicken and bring it home on the bus. My grandparents knew the farmers on the market by name, asking after their kids and siblings while they palmed peaches, talking about the possibility of rain while they filled paper sacks with half-runners. Buying your produce from a local farmer wasn’t a status symbol; it was just how you – and everybody else – got the food you needed to feed your family. How did something so simple become so fraught?
I’m not sure how to articulate the hopefulness in this conflicted joy of mine. I have been SO happy and nourished and connected in being a part of this local, organic farm CSA. It changed my diet and the way I deal with waste. It seeded in me a newfound appreciation for the people who grow and tend and harvest the food that nurtures my body and being. And, along with working at a local food pantry, it made me aware of how absolutely ridiculous and inhumane our food systems are.
Farmers Liz and Rich at Honey Bee Hills have been some of the most generous donors to the Parktown Food Hub, where I work. Their local, organic, delicious, fresh produce has fed me and also hundreds of neighbors who struggle to feed their families. The South Durham Farmer’s Market, where I picked up my CSA box every Saturday, participates in both SNAP Double Bucks (doubling the value of public food assistance when folks use it on fresh produce at the market) and a WIC program that makes fresh produce accessible to eligible WIC recipients. There are stopgap measures in place to make good, local food available to everyone. But it isn’t enough. It’s not sufficient. Everyone should be able to have a bag of beautiful, lovingly grown, filling, nurturing vegetables to stock their fridge each week, whether they make $50,000 a year or $5,000.
I suppose part of the hopefulness of this unfairly expensive joy is that my eyes have been opened. I want to continue eating this way AND I want it to be accessible to everyone, too. Farmers Liz and Rich sold the farm this fall and returned to their work as international aid workers, so my fridge is sort of empty and forlorn at the moment. I’m actively searching for ways to eat fresh and local while at the same time supporting processes and practices and policies that allow all my neighbors to do the same. This is Durham, so there are a zillion possibilities: The Tall Grass Food Box supports Black farmers. Feed Durham is a grassroots community cookout that started during COVID and has evolved into a huge, volunteer-led, love-filled operation. I just learned about Transplanting Traditions, which supports refugees in growing and sharing traditional foods, a work of food sovereignty.
And my own South Durham Farmer’s Market is a treasure trove of local food, including mushrooms, honey, even freshly harvested NC OYSTERS. And that in itself – the sheer number of options for eating local food – is hopeful, I suppose. That there are so many folks literally invested in changing the ways we share food, that so many of these people delight in growing things that nourish and surprise and encourage me and all my neighbors, that this fundamental human need to feed ourselves and one another has led to so much innovation and creativity and mouthwatering bliss.
Now I’m hopeful AND hungry.