Food Insurance and Our Future

March 23, 2020

My husband, Chip, and I moved to Vermont in June 2002. We were in our thirties, no kids yet, and in love with this new place we called home. One of our favorite weekend activities in those pre-kid days was to get out on our bikes and ride. For miles. Previously, when we’d lived in Massachusetts we’d participated in many organized rides of 50, 80, even 100 miles. The routes were mapped out and marked for us, and some of the longer rides offered support stations staffed by volunteers handing out bananas, PB&J sandwiches, and bottles of Gatorade.

In Vermont, however, Chip and I were on our own, and we used our weekly rides to explore our new surroundings. Our little town of Jericho is nestled in the western foothills of the Green Mountains 13 miles east of Burlington, and home to about 5,000 people scattered around 35 square miles of farmland and forests. From our front yard we can look down over the Champlain Valley to Burlington, Lake Champlain, and on across to the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

From our front door each weekend that summer of 2002, we set out on our bikes to discover country roads with plenty of hills to climb; pretty much any route we took required a climb back up to Jericho to get home. One of those hills is a 2.4 mile gradual climb up Barber Farm Road that twists and turns through mostly forested land, with a few houses here and there. At the top is a beautiful old farmhouse. It’s not the farm for which the road is named, but it is one of the oldest settled farmsteads in Jericho dating back to the late 1700s.

One Saturday morning, after pedaling our way up the last pitch of Barber Farm Road, we came across a young couple sitting under a pop-up canopy with a card table spread with an abundance of beautiful vegetables. Mark and Christa were around our age and, like us, pre-children, and had recently started to work the land of the farmhouse owned by Christa’s parents, while they both still held down “day jobs.” After that first meeting, I always stuffed $20 and a small grocery bag in the back pocket of my bike jersey so I could stop and pick up some fresh produce while also getting to know our fellow Jericho residents, before riding the last (relatively flat) mile home with my bulging bag of veggies.

In the next few years, Mark and Christa quit their day jobs to focus full time on farming. Gone was the pop-up canopy and card table from the front yard as they moved into the old barn out back that had been restored and rigged up with several refrigerated cases, bins, a freezer, and an honor-system box in which to leave your payment. They named their business Jericho Settler’s Farm and re-purposed the canopy to cover their weekly stall at the newly formed Jericho farmer’s market held every Thursday afternoon from May to Sept. (And still going strong, now in its fifteenth year.) They also expanded their offerings to include whole free-range chickens and eggs.

A trip to their farmstead store now yielded more bounty than I could carry home on my bike, so it became the first stop on my weekly grocery runs into Burlington where I’m a member of City Market Co-op, one of the most successful natural food co-ops in the U.S.  I remember Chip asking one time when I came home with multiple bags of poultry and produce how the prices at the Settler’s Farm and City Market compared with those at traditional, mainstream grocery stores. I answered truthfully, “They’re higher.” This led to his next question, “Why are you paying so much for all this?” My response:  insurance.

I had long been suspicious of what I deemed unsustainable practices of the industrial agricultural machine in our country. Having grown up in south central Ohio, I was no stranger to big farms with acre upon acre of mono-cropped corn fields lining the highways and long country roads. I’d seen documentaries on the inhumane treatment of animals grown for meat on factory farms, and, more important, I was deeply aware of the broad use of chemicals and hormones to grow the vast majority of food found on mainstream supermarket shelves. By this time, our first daughter had been born, and during pregnancy, I’d read Having Faith: An Ecologists Journey to Motherhood, which opened my eyes to the dangers and prevalence of toxic chemicals in our environment that could affect a developing fetus. I’d changed my eating habits during pregnancy, and continued those changes for our whole family toward more organic, locally grown, minimally processed foods.

“But,” Chip argued, “can’t you find organic foods at Hannaford for lower prices than Jericho Settler’s Farm? Why take on the added expense and make the extra trip to their farm stand?”

“Because,” I told him in a moment that now feels prescient 15 years later, “when something goes wrong with the big industrial agriculture machine — even the part that claims to have gone organic — I want Jericho Settler’s Farm to be here growing food for us. It’s food insurance.”

So here I sit on March 23, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus-induced shutdown of schools, businesses, and social gatherings. While I’m watching as grocery distribution systems struggle to keep up with demand, I’m not panicking about food. The image at the top of this blog post (taken on March 21 by my now 16 year old daughter), shows that Jericho Settler’s Farm is open every day with fresh greens, eggs, chicken, lamb, and more. My “investment” in food insurance — augmented many times over by the even greater investment of all those who participate in Jericho Settler’s Farm’s CSA year after year — is paying dividends. Not only does it give me comfort to know that fresh, local produce is available just a mile away from my home, the words “open daily” shore up our local economy by keeping Mark and Christa, and hopefully their employees, working. Keeping as much money flowing to our small local businesses during this time will be immensely important as the long-term economic impacts of this global pandemic start to become evident.

Now…I realize not everyone in the U.S. has access to a local farm stand or CSA, so what else can one do to insure the long-term viability of their own local economy? I bet most of us know at least one small business that would leave a gaping hole in our community if it doesn’t survive the next few months. Are there other ways we can apply the CSA model — call it Community Supported Enterprise — to prepay for some good or services to keep cash flowing to businesses?

I just prepaid for a haircut  (scheduled for March 31 but now postponed to who-knows-when), to keep some cash flowing to my stylist whose business was officially shut down today. Others are ordering take-out or delivery from local restaurants. Local bookstores are offering free shipping on books to encourage purchases through their websites while stores are closed. All of these measures are important and will help a lot, but will they be enough?

The hard truth is that many small businesses will need a lot more help to weather this storm. The federal government appears on the verge of providing some level of financial support to both businesses and individuals, but the devil is still in the details. Will any of it reach small local businesses or will the lion’s share go to large corporations? While we wait and watch what will come out of Washington, D.C., I and others are taking steps to help communities create Community Investment Funds to aggregate capital from citizen-investors to deploy into local businesses — the businesses that we, the community members, know need it most because we live here and see firsthand the impending tragedy of an otherwise successful business falling victim to circumstance.

A Community Investment Fund puts power in the hands of people to take control of their own destiny, and because a Community Investment Fund aims to engage the entire community for its funding, you don’t have to be super wealthy to participate. The Ujima Fund in Boston, for example, offers a minimum investment amount of $50, and structures investments of higher dollar amounts in such a way that they absorb more risk than those at smaller amounts. These funds are designed specifically to collect “pennies from many” in order to add up to meaningful amounts that will have significant impact. By allowing anyone, not just the super wealthy, to participate, this is how, over the long-run, we can create democratic access to prosperity and economic justice — a much needed change from our current money system, and perhaps a silver lining to come out of an otherwise devastating event.

Community Investment Funds will probably not be the magic pill that cures the economic ills that are only just beginning to surface, but they are a strong, important step. One that offers a sense of purpose and positive direction in a time when it’s easy to feel powerless and impotent. So while you’re taking care of yourself and your family, start planning for the time when we can all step out into the sunshine again to link arms with our friends and neighbors and start building a new future together. To learn more about Community Investment Funds, check out my new book, Moving Mountains: The Power of Main Street Americans to Change Our Economy and give me a shout if you want help getting one started in your neck of the woods.