Off the Chain

Local advocacy group seeks to educate the community on why our food systems fall apart

Lissa Johnson’s love of healthy and non-industrialized foods goes way back.

“I started my life on an organic farm. My parents were always concerned about real food,” she tells SFR. “I’m so excited when we have an apricot season, whether it be at the market; waiting for the chiles to be available. With eating locally, I feel a greater appreciation for those foods.”

Johnson and Nina Rosenberg are two executive board members from Slow Food Santa Fe, the local chapter of an international organization that aims to illuminate concepts around eating healthy. Santa Fe’s chapter is headed by Johnson, Rosenberg and Ellen Lampert, and is one of 60 nationwide. On a broader scope, Slow Food is dedicated to preserving traditional food cultures, promoting biodiversity in our diets and raising awareness on how food gets made. Closer to home, Johnson and Rosenberg have more than a casual relationship with food—they see an expression of soil health, climate change, big agriculture, small farms and strained supply chains.

“Not a lot of people think about this,” Rosenberg explains, “but with the pandemic, we’ve got to ask ourselves: What role do we have?”

“We realized there were so many issues around food, food supply and food issues,” Johnson adds. “We wanted to start with growing foods and talking about healthy soils here in New Mexico, then moving into production and supply chain issues and up to the role of the eater.”

The next steps are in the Food Systems series, a number of video talks produced by Slow Food Santa Fe that cover major aspects of food production in Northern New Mexico and beyond. The upcoming episode, aptly titled “Nobody Cares About Supply Chains ‘Til They Break,” focuses on regional food producers and distributors and how they managed during COVID-19 when so many basic food items were suddenly marked up or sold out. The panel includes Erika Newman and Jennifer Knapp from La Montañita Co-op, Thomas Swendson of New Mexico Harvest, and Michael Venticinque of the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association.

Such concerns go beyond the pandemic, according to Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and the Council for Healthy Food Systems. In a previous talk on meat raising and processing for Slow Food Santa Fe, McGeary noted how the pandemic exploited fault lines that were already there.

In fact, small farms have been declining for decades with the monopolistic growth of Big Ag. Additional challenges like climate change’s impact on small farmers (which SFR explored last year; “Farming Without Rain,” Sept. 16, 2020) and the demand for fast-produced food leave many family farms unable to compete—and makes us far more dependent on fragile systems.

“When these mass slaughterhouses shut down [during the pandemic] because their worker conditions were so terrible, the first thing that happened was a ripple effect,” McGeary said in her talk in May. “It rippled to the small-scale local processors. Most of the small-scale meat processors have a waiting list of one to two years, sometimes registering before the animal is even born. That’s not a very good way to run a system.”

She went on to explain how many of the large-scale Big Ag processors rely heavily on undocumented workers, whose ability to protest conditions are limited. And while New Mexico’s meat processing plants reported lower outbreak numbers than in other states (the largest being around 100 cases in the border town of Santa Teresa), such hiring policies ultimately make it easy for things to spiral out of control. As a result, the cost of meat rose 5% to 10% last year.

Our bank accounts aren’t the only things at stake when prices rise and the public panics. Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, tells SFR that when food supply chains are disrupted, it’s often the most needy who suffer.

“We saw a few disruptions to the supply chain. Mostly, the issue [last year] wasn’t the quantity for us, but the deliveries were postponed or delayed,” Hooper explains. “A lot of the manufacturers had smaller staff because people elected to stay home, so orders couldn’t be processed very fast. The wait ended up being six weeks sometimes.”

In the ensuing economic turmoil, the challenge of feeding the needy intensified, Hooper says, but food resources dwindled in all areas.

“Donations from the grocery stores dried up because the stores didn’t have food to donate, and we paused individual donations over transmissibility questions,” she continues. “Normally the stores donate excess foods to us that we pick up. We saw much fewer donations from the stores as a result because there was nothing available and no one knew when things would be reliably back.”

All the while, livestock were still slaughtered as there was nowhere to take them, and countless gallons of milk were dumped as truck drivers stayed home.

Still, Rosenberg of Slow Food Santa Fe notes individual consumer choices hold the power over these fragile systems. When we’re more educated about where our food comes from, there’s less risk. That’s where the talks come in.

“We want to make it easy to learn about these issues,” Rosenberg says. “As consumers, we’ve only got two levers: deciding where to spend our money, and to vote. This is an opportunity to talk to local producers and distributors about what they’ve experienced and what changes they’ll implement.”

Both Rosenberg and Johnson see individual change as the first step in larger reforms.

“Before we advocate for change, we needed to learn more and inform ourselves,” Johnson explains. “As eaters, it’s an investment where we spend a dollar. That’s investment in a whole chain. It has an impact on so many people’s lives.”

Nobody Cares About Supply Chains ‘Til They Break: Noon, Friday, July 16. Free.


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