Grist 50 Catalyst

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Farming and community organizing constitutes the grassroots work that people walk past, take for granted, or trample on. There’s plenty of good, earth-moving work that goes unrecognized. Each year Grist shines a light on 50 people engaged in positive change, in fixing. Thus, I’m grateful and honored to be included among the 2018 Grist 50with special thanks to author Samin Nosrat for recognizing my efforts. Here’s what she wrote about me:

I want the future of American agriculture to look like Mai Nguyen. She has a science background, but she understands the cultural importance of food. She’s tough and focused, even after losing 15 of her 28 acres in the California wildfires.

Mai’s a one-woman solution to major diversity problems in U.S. farming. Our fields are vast, monolithic rows of corn and soy — crops like these make up about 75 percent of U.S. agriculture. She raises heritage plants like Syrian wheat and Vietnamese eggplant, preserving the diversity of flavors in food.

She improves people diversity, too. Our farmers are mostly white dudes. There are plenty of reasons why: the high cost of land, casual racism and sexism within rural America, immigrant parents who want something better than manual labor for their daughters.

In 2017, she organized farmers and testified at the California legislature to help pass a new law that ensures farmers of color will have a say in Golden State agriculture policy. And she’s quick to give talks to and field questions from other farm-curious women of color.

Here’s how she puts her heirloom crops in context for family members who were refugees from Vietnam: “We came from a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Cultural practices are dying. Seeds can bring some semblance of home.”

Bread Winners

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Food comes from an ecosystem that’s invisible from the perspective of the bowl. We don’t see much of the interplay, growth, and decay that provides our nourishment. Congruently, the constellation of people who make it possible for us to enjoy bread and each others’ company may not be visible. The Bread Winners talk was a time to bring out the faces, the voices, and joy behind our food — the stories of womyn.
Left to Right: Jules Exum, Leyna Lightman, Nan Kohler, Kate Pepper, Me!, Roxanna Jullapat

For my part, I wanted to honor those who came before, those who gave us the most basic element for life: seed. The effort to save seed has been largely undertaken by womyn. Be it a gendered task or not, our anthropological record shows that womyn across time and cultures saved seed. We have them to thank for our biodiversity, adaptability, survival, and lives.

Ten minutes is hardly enough time to honor the ten thousand years of seed saving work. I tried my best.

In the context of wheat, I spoke of Sally Fox who grew out Sonora for ten years and gifted farmers with that heirloom wheat of the Americas. Of course, I paid respect to Monica Spiller who birthed this heritage, whole grain revival. They are part of a bigger story.

I spoke of the seeds that nourished my family and of womyn who escaped war, persecution,

Photo credi: Sonya Sharp
Photo credi: Sonya Sharp

oppression by boat and brought me their seeds. They thought to carry seeds for soil they may never set foot on and for a future they might not have been part of.

I recounted this past fall, when my newly leased land for seed saving burned in the fires. I read the passage that my partner shared with me as I hand-separated seed from chaff and wondered about whether to find new land.

“For all the blacks that get crucified or hung from iron hooks through their ribs, escapes from Surinam’s four hundred coastal plantations never stop…

Before escaping, the female slaves steal grains of rice, corn, and wheat, seeds of bean and squash. Their enormous hairdos act as granaries. When they reach the refuges in the jungle, the women shake their heads and thus fertilize the free land.” — Eduardo Galeano Faces and Masks

The answer is yes, I must find land for seed.

Seeds feed us. They are part of the commons, and we must fight to keep them in the commons. We must resist the privatization of our commons by corporations and breeders who take what’s free and slap on a fee (mostly men). Taking away seeds — our food, our staple — is criminal. It is an offense to humanity.

This means we need to give back the seed. We need to value and compensate people who know how to steward and sustain seeds. We need to provide land for seed and practicing the diverse cultivation and management methods. Summary: free seed, pay farmers, provide land.

Misguided Food Waste

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The problem of food waste is misattributed as an issue of consumer ignorance, over-spending, or negligence. The individual is blamed, distracting the from the corporate and government investment in food waste. The systemic production of food waste became clear to me as a I sat starving and soaked in rancid animal fat, staring at a heap of edible, discarded food.

I dumpster dived for my daily meal for a couple years, especially during the Great Recession when it was difficult to make ends meet even with a college degree and three jobs. But, I knew exactly when Andronico’s and Elephant Pharmacy brought out their green waste. I rode up on my bike with panniers and plastic bags three times a week around 10 pm, hopped the fence, then loaded up on fruit and vegetables. I’d find apples, oranges, and perfectly ripe plantains and avocados. That’s right, no need to wait! Standing on over 300 lbs of food, I could be picky and check if the apples were mealy, oranges pithy, and fennel fragrant. Then, I’d bike to the bakeries and get their day-old bread that muffin-topped multiple dumpsters. I visited those once a month because each time would fill a freezer and friends’ freezers.

The treasure hunt was enjoyable, but more so was the socializing. I occasionally met other regular dumpster divers, came to know their food preferences, and saved special finds for them. One man was a bus driver for the university. His wife had cancer, so all his money went to her care. “She loves bright flowers, but they’re so expensive. They have nice flowers at this store,” he told me as we sifted through food for flora. I saved flowers for him and his wife every week from then on.

Others were people who wanted to redirect food back to people. They were part of the national, grassroots network called Food Not Bombs, which encourages distributing food instead of violence through war or incarceration. We dumpstered and solicited donations at farmers markets to gather enough food to prepare hot meals for anyone who wanted one.

On my personal dumpster runs, I’d bike home around midnight and start on several hours of food preparation. Scratches and bruises quickly spread to affect the rest of the fruit or vegetable, so I needed to immediately wash, cut, salt, and ferment my finds. I’d meticulously, surgically remove the necessary damage as not to detract from edible parts. The discards went into the compost I managed for the community garden where I applied this nutriment to the berries, greens, and fresh produce that I’d enjoy in summer.

I didn’t sign up for food stamps because I didn’t want to rely on the government. I internalized the social stigma associated with food stamps, so I ate garbage instead. (Note: I support SNAP/food stamps!) I ate fresh food everyday and never got sick. I perfected lacto-fermentation and finding ways to preserve food for a long time without using artificially generated heat or cold. It seemed a sustainable life.

One night I jumped a fence and slipped in spilled rendered fat spread around the dumpsters. As I sat in stinking, sticky tallow assessing for injuries, I looked up at the towering dumpster overflowing with food. My hustle, resourcefulness, and will to live gave way to an honest look at the situation. Massive amounts of food sat before me as my belly grumbled, as people starved and lived impoverished. How did this come to be?

The first reason that came to mind was the expectation that food looks perfect, and failure to meet the expectation meant expulsion. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that Americans waste 50% of harvested food, about 60 million tons, and a large reason is the cosmetic blemishes. We now see campaigns such as Ugly Produce is Beautiful, Imperfect Producr, and ugly produce boxes to get people to look past the surface. These initiatives are valuable to getting people to reconsider what they expect of food, but why do people have expectations of cosmetic perfection to begin with? And is the lack of scratches and bruises an accurate proxy for food food?

Marketing shows us dyed, elaborately lit, edited versions of food and conflates that image for good food. We constantly see food through a filter. Processed food, fast food, and a cultural pressure and norm to eat at the newest hot spot rid us of the need to know how to assess food. We no longer need our parents, family, community elders, and farmers who help us understand how to pick a green bean and cook it, too. We rely less on each other or even ourselves, and more so on Yelp reviews, Instagram likes, and professionals for our most basic need.

We rely on professionals all the way up the food chain, and at the top are the corporations that own everything right down to the seeds we rely on to make any food. They patent seeds from the commons and restrict how they can be saved and shared such that farmers, thus all of us, are beholden to them for our food.

They put out high yielding crops that create abundance of one type, and not the essential abundance of diversity, and creates the first major source of food waste. In the case of wheat, breeders created short stalk varieties so that the plant diverts energy from the stalk to producing a larger wheat berry. As I mentioned in my previous post, the nutritive parts are eliminated (‘waste’) and the endosperm is kept for flour that’s made into many different processed foods. With the flavor removed, who can tell the difference from one plant to the next, so why would it matter what seed it came from?

Note the shorter stalks. They would typically be used to return carbon to the soil. There isn’t enough nutrient cycling, plus the crops aren’t necessarily disease resistant or adaptable to different conditions, farmers depend on pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals provided by the very same seed companies or their subsidiaries. This results in the second kind of food waste: waste from the production of food.

The applications of petrochemical fertilizers lead to nitrogen run-off into waterways that cause algal blooms, choke fish, potable water contamination. Pesticides and herbicides accumulate in water, soil, air, and unborn children. This land use is applied to hundreds of thousands of acres, laying to waste once ecologically rich landscapes. The ripping of earth to imbue it with toxins also releases carbon emissions that cause atmospheric waste.

The waste from over-production and growing practices is government sanctioned and implemented by profiteering corporations. Government funded research and breeding efforts engineered high-yielding crops to solve issues of world hunger that were in reality results of colonialism and creating infrastructure to move food away from zones of production and to zones of consumption (of the wealthy nations, and wealthy people within those countries).

We see this lack of infrastructure needed to thoroughly distribute food and resources on the municipal scale, too. I see people talk about food waste as an issue of food scraps ending up in landfills. I heard from Dannon-Wave that Dan Barber is developing a pepper that has less stem and inner matter that is discarded by chefs. The argument is that it’s food waste that goes to landfill. That helps restaurants reduce their waste hauling expenses. The problem isn’t that it’s going to a landfill, the problem is that there isn’t a compost system to bring it back to the farm.

So, when the dialogue focuses on food scraps or people over-purchasing and neglecting to eat all their food as the reasons for food waste, it is only looking at the consumer end of the problem. Thus, the solutions presented, such as the less ‘wasteful’ pepper or eating more parts of the plant, only look at that part of the food chain.

The other piece I hear is that we need to take food waste and give it to poor people. Let’s remember that the over-abundance of food comes from a chemically-laden process that is carried with the food. Distributing that food means we are spreading food that is waste from the moment it started growing. That food will only worsen people’s conditions by contributing to endocrine disruption, diabetes and obesity in the case of processed foods, and carcinogen bioaccumulation.

Addressing the problem requires looking at the whole system, who’s responsible, and what interventions can be made that affect the entire structure. Production and consumption need to be linked. Food waste is desperately needed compost in this time of depleting top soil. Farmers rely on petrochemical fertilizers when they should be recouperating food that can be returned to the soil where it came from.

What we can do is direct public and private investment into the infrastructure that returns food to farms, seeds to farmers, and accountability to society. This shift will enable farmers to feed you quality food. Maybe it’ll have a cut or blemish, but it will be delicious.