Rachel Schattman

Food Production and the Return to Stewardship


Richard Heinberg writes, “With a lifelong division of labor, many members of society became cut off from basic subsistence activities and processes…This subtly fosters attitudes of conformity and subordination while undermining feelings of personal confidence and competence.”1 This phenomenon is especially obvious in a city such as Savannah, Georgia, where for the past year I have been continuing my exploration of food politics through the Living Roots Community Garden. This garden was abandoned and revived with the support of a small committed group of neighborhood residents. In contrast to this ideal, I am reminded of the disconnection between food production and consumption that is more typical of a modern urban environment. 


Though the greater part of my experience in activism up to this point has been centered on visual art, and though I still believe there is a strong role for the varied disciplines within visual arts in activist culture, I find myself more concerned of late about the environmental and social challenges local and global communities face today. More and more, I find myself interested in the beautiful potential that exists for members of industrialized societies to reprioritize social and environmental capital through venues of food production and consumption. The current situation is such that smaller and smaller numbers of people have a direct connection with the process of growing the food that sustains them, or even of being acquainted with the person who grows it for them. This disconnect has only been made possible by the heavily subsidized, petroleum dependant transportation systems that have developed in countries such as the United States over the last century.


The negative effects of removing the producer from the consumer are many. Foremost, in my opinion, is the loss of social capital, (defined here as a community’s degree of civic engagement.) The environmental concerns around production and distribution of food include the destruction of soil health and other ecosystems by large industrial farms, lack of freshness and hence nutrition from food which has traveled long distances, and an overall dependence of the whole processes, from beginning to end, on oil (to name a few.) Through building public awareness around these issues, it is possible to replant the passionate stewardship that once existed in our culture, but which has the last half a century has withered from neglect.


It is exciting to observe the counter-movements to industrialized agriculture that are manifesting in the United States, as this awareness is raised and as communities are empowered to make alternate choices about where they get their food and how that food is produced.


In August and September 2006, the state of Vermont, a campaign to raise awareness about eating locally-produced food was supported by grocery stores, restaurants and farms. An encouraging number of people rose to this challenge by either eating nothing but locally produced, seasonal or traditionally preserved food items for one day, one weekend or two weeks. As a result of this campaign, a greater understanding of food production was created. Topics of conversation that autumn were fueled by public forums, not only through the workshops given around the Local Food Challenge, but also in the Northeastern Organic Farming Association’s biannual conference. At both of these venues, conversations ranged from the use of petrol chemicals in food transportation to economic benefits of spending money locally and many issues in between. The collaboration between businesses, schools, and individuals served as an example of what can happen when a shared set of priorities (that of local food production and consumption which benefits a local economy and the health of individuals) are places about that of individual gain.


There are many people involved in the projects I have summarized who have divergent goals. By creating a dialogue in intimate communities first these people were able to reprioritize their goals. For many, the realization that the external health and environmental costs associated with buying less expensive food from large supermarket chains would cost them most in the long run made it possible to rationalize spending a little more time and energy to seek out locally and sustainably grown organic food. When this practice of coming together to decide what is best for the community becomes second nature, perhaps this process can extend out to a greater community, and then a greater one, until we are taking on the greatest dilemmas with confidence and clarity. Such a process will not be smooth or painless, but it is necessary to regard the microcosm before tackling the problems of the macrocosm.


For now I am trying to align my lifestyle with my values, and this purpose keeps me active and working. I am interested in building networks of people interested what share similar goals. I am currently involved in my most intimate community, but I am growing a great deal, and through this learning am invigorated by the challenge of a greater context.


I am currently readying for a six month apprenticeship at Does’ Leap Organic Goat Dairy in Franklin County, Vermont, which I see as my next step towards relearning my own “subsistence activities and processes.”  As self-development is an unending process, my parallel passion is creating resources that help others regain their “feelings of personal confidence and competence” in the most efficient, effective ways possible. 


I believe that a close connection between a community and their source of food has great potential to increase social capital with all of the benefits this implies.  Whether through community-organized farmer’s markets, co-op owned distribution centers or other forms of small scale local business initiatives, bringing social investment back into food production is a necessity. My greatest hope is to see a collective reprioritizing of environmental and social sustainability in our communities, coupled with the energy, efficiency and strength to make those priorities manifest.


1 Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (British Columbia, New Society Publishing, 2003) 28.