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July, 2006


Organic Food And You
By Jeanette Pontacq

The Farmers' Market in Point Reyes Station started up for the year at the end of June. Saturdays from 9:00 am to 1 pm on Highway One, in front of Toby's Feedbarn. Chris Giacomini, the proprietor of Toby's, has once again provided an elegant, charming and appropriate venue for local, organic produce. Sponsorship by Marin Organic adds to the sophisticated ambiance, as does music and special events. Even with that, less than 10% of Tomales Bay locals show up as customers over the season. What does that say about how WE value local availability of naturally-grown food? What does it say about how WE (the present population at the head of Tomales Bay) understand food sustainability?
While all involved in keeping the market going over the last years should take well-deserved bows, let's open up a realistic conversation on what ORGANICS/2006 stands for. First, flash back a number of years to the time when the federal government (in the guise of the Department of Agriculture in the Clinton era) was attempting to reduce and rewrite the definition of organic food to please Big Ag. Big Ag is very, very big business in the US, with lots of bucks to throw around, so you can imagine the pressure on grassroots Organics at the time.

Here in Marin, people like Peter Martinelli, the Strauss family, and other farmers and activists spoke up, acted out, and raised public awareness to the danger to safe food in what the government (in the pay of Big Ag) was trying to do. The end result was that, at the time, we beat back (by a massive letter-writing campaign) the attempt by Big Ag to change the rules to make it easier for them to sideline and control the growing Organic marketplace.

Focusing on today, however, Big Ag has made a successful end run on the rules and entered the Organic marketplace big time, for big bucks and big impacts. Much of Organics now for sale in supermarkets is now processed, not at all sustainable or locally grown. Much of what Whole Foods (sometimes called Whole Paycheck), with their yuppie gorgeousness of produce and products, charges an arm and a leg for, is shipped in, not at all locally grown or sustainable. And it is not just Whole Foods; it is the whole panoply of "organic stores."

Ever wonder why Whole Foods has not set up a similarly gorgeous display of foods in east Oakland? Because the bottom line of any financial enterprise is the most important ingredient in their survivability. They market to the Marin demographic, not to the East Oakland demographic. Organics has become a class issue.

THAT'S THE PROBLEM. Organics to many of us here in West Marin was always based on three basic standards: 1) organically grown, 2) locally produced and 3) sustainable. The hope was that it would be available to all economic levels as well. Only #1 is now marginally taken into consideration by Big Ag as they reap Big Bucks on the Organic concept and out-maneuver local growers trying for market share in chain marketplaces to everyone. Frankly, at this point, the ONLY way to support all three standards above is to buy at the local farmers' markets (or join a CSA), which don't usually exist in lower-income areas. Organics has become something only the anointed and enlightened with money seem to be able to afford these days.

Until grassroots Organics can work out a method of opening up the possibility of selling to lower-income areas, not to just the elites and yuppies, it would have failed. Know your local farmers and support them! Because Big Ag is on the march to eat them up and spit them out. And know that the charm, calm and style of our local, seasonal markets is an anomaly, not a rule in an increasingly commercialized and expensive Organic marketplace.

Other Organic Issues:
Obviously, a product listed as "organic" is more expensive than a product listed as "conventionally grown." This difference is the exact opposite of how it should be. Food grown the old way, according to Nature, should be less expensive than the food produced with large inputs of expensive chemicals and shipped far distances

WHAT do the extra bucks spent on Organic foods offer in exchange for the hit to the family budget of working people? Too often, not too much. Using chickens and eggs as an example, it turns out that just because these items are listed as "Organic" does not mean the chickens are raised humanely or even locally. Define "humanely!" Organic just means no non-organic inputs were used in their feed. The end result is a price mark-up on a chicken to $12.00 instead of $6.00. Plus some desperate chickens, who don't get out of their little cages to peck except at photo-op days: Chicken Auschwitz.

This concept can be extended to many other Organic products being offered both by Big Ag and Somewhat Smaller Ag. Only when you can see the chicken pecking freely in the field, beak intact, can you be sure that the chicken was humanely grown (kudos to local Sun Farms). The Farmers' Market here in Point Reyes Station is a great place. Use it or lose it, folks. But let's not kid ourselves that it represents reality except here. But then with all the changes going on with high-end development and general upscaling, gosh, perhaps we should try to define "reality" in West Marin these days.


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