Friday, 12 September 2014

Back to School!

This week marked the first time I was back on campus in more than a decade.  Amidst all of the fresh-faced, stylish young folks with text books in one hand, the other hand texting friends, I felt a bit our of place...when I last spent a full day on campus, there was no texting, it was the early 2000's, and I was expanding my mind with full days of courses and a lunch break in the old student's union, with its Subway, its greasy Chinese food takeout counter, its taco booth.  Come to think of it, it was mostly junk food, but there was no Tim Hortons or Burger King. Subway seemed out of place.   By today's campus standards, it was quaint. I usually brought a bag lunch with me anyway.

Queen's has a mall-style food court, with an array of cheap, nutrition-deficient food vendors dressed up as upscale ethnic eateries, along with the usual international faves.  And coming back to why I was on campus - I am not taking courses, I am a vendor in the farmers market.  We were set up along a busy stretch of sidewalk outside of the student library and near the food court building.   I sat at my table for the 7-hour stretch, under the canopy, my wares spread out.  We had our dim sum advertised, and people did stop and ask for some, but when we told them we were not allowed to sell it hot, presumably because it may infringe on the business of the existing food vendors, and it would have to be given to them fresh out of the refrigerated cooler, they frowned and said "oh."  Then they smiled politely and said, "okay, I was hoping to eat it hot."  Then they walked away a bit self-consciously.

As farmers we are constantly up against little rules that add up and become a patch of choking weeds. Health units enforce supply management rules (the health inspector will fine a farmer for selling chicken eggs, but not for selling duck or goose eggs, for example, even though there is no reason that chicken eggs are less safe than any other egg.  They are, however, a supply-managed commodity.)  Prepared foods must be kept below 4 degrees or above 60, even if they are foods that are best enjoyed at room temperature, foods that will not perish in the four hour strech of a farmers' market. There is no room for judgment, and no room for a steamed bun sitting at 5 degrees.

A farmer may prepare foods in his kitchen if the items are sold at a farmers' market, but may not sell these items at the farmgate, even though the farmers' market is defined as an extension of the farmgate.  Items sold from the farm itself must be prepared in a commercial kitchen.  This means the farmer drives twenty minutes, hauling all of his or her ingredients, to a kitchen at a community hall or a church, cooks, packs up, hauls it home, and sells his or her farmfresh food.  These facilites generally require liability insurance on the part of the farmer, which can be around $100/month, cutting out any chance of profit.

As I sat on campus, I did some studying.  I read a bit of "The Meat Racket," a new book on the American meat industry, which has changed dramatically over the years into a handful of companies, which are vertically integrated and which control nearly every aspect of their production.  The only aspect they do not take on is farming.  They contract the raising of their animals to farms so that the farms can take on the massive capital investment required to run a factory farm, and then the farmer takes the loss on a bad batch of chickens.

This is a time when an education in food issues is more accessible than ever.  There are countless books, from The Omnivore's Dilemma, to the Hundred Mile Diet, to Locavore (and books like the Locavore's Dilemma, which offer an opposing, more upbeat view of the industrial food system), to Organics Inc...and films like King Corn and Food Inc. and the Botany of Desire.  There is much to be learned and discussed around the issues of food production and consumption, which are, after all, ever-pertinent issues.


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