The Great Migration: Where I've been

Thursday, June 30, 2011

I am in Love

I am in love. Her name is Nelly and she owns the fruter­­ía, or fruit and veg shop as my Irish roommate says, a couple of blocks from my house. Seeing Nelly is the best part of my day. Her frutería is bursting with the most beautiful, and often to me, exotic fresh foods. Mangoes, spinach, cherries, yucca, beans, fresh herbs like chamomile and laurel, avocado, ginger, and a variety of potatoes and greens. It is gorgeous and mouth watering and I am absolutely in love.

Every time I go to visit Nelly, after her four-year-old grandson counts to eight in English for me, I pick out something new to try. An odd hard green squash-type situation, or little purple lumps that seem to be halfway between potatoes and beans, or fuzzy misshapen things that are supposedly related to peppers. I pick something up and bring it to the cash register. “What’s this and what do I do with it?” Nelly smiles, shakes her head at the silly gringa, and launches into a detailed explanation that usually includes copious amounts of meat. I haven’t had the heart to tell her I’m vegetarian, so I just nod and smile and mentally remove the offending ingredients.

What is most beautiful about Nelly and her colorful frutería is that almost everything comes from Colombia. Nelly’s frutería is not a bougie farmer’s market or a specialty store. “Local” is just a given at your local neighborhood shop. Why buy tomatoes from Mexico when Colombia produces a beautiful crop? A logic that has been lost in many places—not least of all, California.

Not that Colombia is any shining example of food security. Organic, small-scale, agroecological, sustainably grown—these words are lost on Nelly and most produce producers and venders. The food sovereignty movement is disturbingly weak here. But it still brings a twinkle to my eye and puts a song in my heart every time I buy ten pounds of delicious Colombian produce for about $7.00. Especially when Nelly throws in some free peaches or grapes, just to show she cares.

Options for the food conscious are few and far between in Bogota. Colombia has one of the worst examples of corporate land concentrations in South America and a once net food exporter is now a net food importer. This means that instead of growing its own food, Colombia must sell cash crops like coffee and cacao, or natural resources like oil, in order to make enough money to buy food to feed their residents. This is exactly a country that is NOT food secure—that cannot feed itself.

Hope, however, burns eternal. I chatted with a man named Alejandro last week who is looking to start an organic and sustainably grown food store. He was interested to know how such things work in my country. It was a fascinating conversation, but I don’t know how helpful I was. Truthfully, the situations in our countries are so different, it is hard to compare—even the very words we used were up for discussion. I was using the word campesino to mean small farmer, such as those I met WWOOFing. But probably a more accurate translation, as my roommate pointed out, is peasant. The connotation of the word peasant in the United States, however, is completely different than the connotation of the word campesino. Or is it? I tried to explain to Alejandro about Lorraine in Arizona from my WWOOFing trip. She is poor, and self-identifies as such. And if you look at her finances, they will corroborate the story—her phone and electricity is constant in threat of being shut off, she needs outside work to support the farm, but availability is scarce, things of that nature. But if a campesino from Colombia looked at Lorraine’s life, with running water, electricity, two bathrooms, 40 some-odd acres, her own cars, and a well-developed infrastructure for distributing her goods, he or she would most certainly beg to differ. That doesn’t mean that food security is more or less important or dire in either country, or that Lorraine “isn’t really poor.” It just means that these populations face different obstacles in the same struggle.

Alejandro isn’t the only one with his mind in the garden and a penchant for food justice. An urban agriculture program is starting to gain momentum. A friend of a friend, Juan Carlos, works in government food security projects. Juan Carlos’ friend, Juan Carlos (I know, right?) works in green roofs. My roommate Thomas is working for a food sovereignty campaign with an environmental NGO. We are going to a Via Campesina Youth Conference this weekend. ( There is awareness. There is action. There just needs to be more.

Even those with the best intentions and the greenest hearts are complicit. As Thomas and I spoke to Alejandro, we sat in one of the many Oma’s sprinkled around Bogota—if not the Starbucks of Colombia (that would be Juan Valdez, still nationally owned but which Starbucks has its eye on), at least the local rendition of Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. We each got our coffees from god knows where and our pastries made from god knows what, and talked about what a gosh darn problem this food system is. I was reading a book on international food sovereignty, or lack thereof, called Food Rebellions! by Raj Patel and Eric Holt-Gimenez, as I would munch on crackers made from the exact same corn and flour that I was reading was causing such rampant inequality and hunger in the world. Bogota’s street corners are populated by the displaced poor—former small-scale farmers chased from the country and their farms by World Bank development policies that promised large-scale, corporate, industrial, petroleum-based agriculture, with a side of genetic modification, was the only way to feed the poor. Now these once self-sufficient if simple-living farmers are begging for change to buy bread and soda made from wheat, soy, and corn from those exact same large-scale farms. Food is full of irony.

The irony continues with my next project—a three month urban agriculture and food justice program in Berkeley called Urban Adamah ( Berkeley—the heart of the food movement in the States, where urban farms abound and organic is as trendy Rayband. (That may be an outdated reference by now…I’m so hip.) Why is THIS the place that I go to work on issues of food justice? I will be working on an urban farm to grow food for local residents in need—while my fellows and I will be buying our food from farmer’s markets and grocery stores. I will no doubt splurge on a cup of Colombian coffee or two, as well. And it will most likely be better than ¾ of the coffee I drink here. As with many coffee growing countries, the best is left for export and locals only get the leftovers. Ironic indeed.

So that’s where I am—in love with my food vender, far more passionate about plants than about children, and coming back to Berkeley at the beginning of September. At least for now.


Erin said...

Wonderful as always. I'm excited to have your brain back in Berkeley (and I want to read that book, so bring that, too, please). Also, I was reading about another book that I think we should read: it addresses all the struggles we/you/everyone faces in the grocery store: what to buy, where's it from, how was it raised, who were the workers, but what about cost and deliciousness? My brain hurts sometimes.

Erin said...

Wait, one quick question: where does Nelly fit into the whole coffee and cacao issue? Does she own her own farm in addition to the shop? Or does she buy from local farmers who've managed to keep their small farms going?

Nina T said...

*Ray-ban, my dear Hayley. You are mildly hip, but boldly brilliant.