Foodie Underground: Local Food, Local Community

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ColumnWhen a fire hits a local farm, the community rises in support.

Mondays are sacred.

Since I came to Paris in January, they have been reserved as “veggie nights” – the night that we go and pick up our weekly basket of local food: Vegetables grown just outside of the city. It’s part of a system called AMAP, a French consortium of organizations set up to promote independent agriculture and a direct connection between consumers and producers. You buy into the AMAP in your local community or neighborhood and every week your farmer brings the weekly load to the local pick up place and you go to retrieve your goods.

Our farmer’s name is Manu. He is there every Monday, smiling, shaking people’s hands, chatting with every member. He has a welcoming face. Warm, generous–the kind of face that makes you happy to be buying from him.

The vegetables are in abundance, but stick to their season. When the first head of lettuce arrived it was practically cause for celebration. Maybe spring would eventually arrive, too. Rhubarb is just making it’s way into the mix. It’s the little things.

Monday nights are in fact, like Christmas. You know there will be the basics like, carrots and potatoes, but maybe, just maybe, there will be some other surprise vegetable. Something you weren’t waiting for. Something to force you to get creative in the kitchen with.

Two weeks ago on Sunday evening we received an email. There would be no vegetable pick up on Monday night.

Manu had a fire on his property.

As much as not having the prospect of vegetables on Monday night was upsetting, it was nothing compared the feeling we had in the pit of our stomachs imagining a fire on Manu’s farm.

More news followed soon thereafter, a slew of email updates as more information came in. Manu and his family’s house were fine. The building where they stock many of their machines for cleaning and keeping the stock of vegetables wasn’t. Hundreds of kilos of carrots had burned. Damage was in the six figure range.

We were encouraged to trek out to the farm. Lend a hand in any way that we could. So the following Sunday, we hopped on a train north out of Paris. It was grey, rainy and cold. Not idyllic May weather. Depressing in fact.

We walked the country roads from the train station to Manu’s property, making our way to the house that he is in the process of constructing (fortunately, it wasn’t touched by the flames).

It sounded like there was a party going on.

It was a little before two in the afternoon, and in the space that will eventually serve as a main room once the house is finished, 15 or so people were gathered around a long picnic table, boxes of wine at the end, large slabs of Comte and Morbier cheese ready for anyone that wanted, pasta and stew brewing on the stove. It was lunchtime. Everyone was smiling; after a morning of hard work they were finishing off with a hearty meal. Even in the face of destruction, food was bringing people together.

Manu welcomed us with the obligatory French bise. One kiss on each side of the cheek. “Bienvenue ma belle,” he said to me smiling.

Someone quickly cut to the chase.

“How are you doing?”

Manu looked at the table of people eating and us the newly arrived. “I am great!”

“Great” is not the defining word you think of when you imagine someone who has just had part of their property and livelihood burn to the ground.

“You know what? Since the fire last Sunday, we haven’t been alone here one single day. Every day is like this,” he said pointing towards the group around the table. “People just show up to work when they can. It’s like a family. Everything I have gotten out of this experience is worth much more than what I lost,” he paused, “c’est une belle aventure.

It takes a very strong personality to look at a fire as a beautiful adventure.

As it turned out, much of the main work that needed to be done that week had already been completed. The morning crew had prepped the greenhouses and we were to plant eggplants and peppers. I snagged a piece of cheese on my way out.

The greenhouses stretched like long white caterpillars across the ground. While the rain poured in the cold weather outside, working inside we all broke a sweat within minutes.

Our group work methodically, each of us eventually finding a rhythm. Laying out the black plastic tarp to protect against weeds, popping a hole where each plant should go, aligning the irrigation system and coming back to dig with our hands and carefully put each seedling into place.

Manu is not only a local producer, but also an organic one. I asked if the seedlings were purchased or if he had grown them himself. He looked at me as if I was slightly crazy. “Ah non, tout est d’ici.

Of course everything is directly from the farm. Hand grown, hand raised. Thanks to that kind of mentality, as a consumer you know exactly what you’re buying.

In the food movement, we talk a lot about where our food comes from. We even talk a lot about growing our own–the power of getting your hands dirty. But what we often forget the talk about, is the community that comes with eating locally. You can be sure that if a farmer who supplied the local grocery store with carrots had a fire at his property, I wouldn’t have known about, I wouldn’t have gotten on a train to go volunteer my time to help, and I wouldn’t have spent an afternoon talking, laughing and learning.

Local independent agriculture works because of people like Manu and the connections that he is so committed to making. It’s not just because his vegetables are good that people drop everything to help, it’s because by creating a local system he has created an extended family. One that goes beyond the food at hand.

Food nourishes us, but not just physically, emotionally too. That’s why we love markets. That’s why we buy from people we know. Because we get more out of it than just the raw product.

“Support your local farmer” may just sound like a cliché bumper sticker, but it’s more than that. Because supporting your local farmer is supporting and taking part in your local community, a community that can be there as a safety net when you need it.

We took the train back to Paris, our shoes caked in mud and our fingernails dirty from digging all afternoon. One measly afternoon is nothing compared to the work of the farmer, but at the very least it’s a small contribution. A contribution to making not only the food system a better place, but the community around us. Just like Manu and other local, independent farmers around the world do every single day.

You can be sure that when peppers show up on Monday nights, we’ll be throwing a big party in celebration.

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.

Image: Anna Brones

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