The Stalk Brokers Who Pay Delicious Dividends

Oh, you car-crazy, meat-mad Americans, look what you’ve done now! Everybody else wants to live the way you do, wolfing down Whoppers behind the wheel. So they’re ripping up rainforests to grow more grains for cars and cows, and that’s just accelerating global warming, which is worsening the droughts that are ruining crops from Australia to Zimbabwe.

As Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, told NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday, the current global food crisis wasn’t caused by some sort of temporary setback such as crop failure, but rather “systemic change” due to increased worldwide demand for meat and the fool’s gold rush to produce more biofuels, which Brown cites as the proverbial last straw:

“The grain required to fill a 25 gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year, and what we’re seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility, while the two billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.”

Meanwhile, the subdivisions where so many of us park our precious cars--and our dreams--have proven, like Beanie Babies and Thomas Kinkade paintings, to be a less than stellar investment, leaving millions of Americans looking for a new bubble to float their boat while Wall Street and the rest of the world blanches at the prospect of a global recession.

But though our carnivorous, fossil-fueled lifestyle’s inadvertently worsened a worldwide shortage of grains and other staple crops, it’s also created some terrific investment opportunities! As the UK website everyinvestor recently declared, “Buy Food…It’s The New Gold:”

As we all know, food prices in the shops are rising. Prices of almost all agricultural commodities have soared over the past year as some experts predict major food shortages. Is this the right time to invest?

My unequivocal answer is yes! But not in the conventional, commodity crop sense that everyinvestor meant. Forget about corn and soy shares; buy yourself a share of the harvest from one of your local family farmers instead.

It’s called a CSA--Community Supported Agriculture--and in return for an investment of a few hundred dollars upfront this spring, you’ll be rewarded all summer and fall with fresh-from-the-farm produce picked each week at its prime and packed into a box just for you.

Good as gold? I’d argue that it’s even better; after all, when food’s in short supply, you’re better off with carrots than carats. You can’t make stock out of bullion.

Here in the land of milk ‘n’ honey, milk prices are soaring and the honeybees we need to pollinate our crops are all going AWOL. The Washington Post reports that the cost of milk’s shot up so high that one school district in North Carolina’s gone back to serving its kids Yoo-hoo drinks, “which had been taken off the shelf in favor of healthier options…Sure, officials would rather the kids chugged milk. But each Yoo-hoo sale brings in 36 cents of profit.”

American institutions and individuals alike have been addicted for decades to cheap processed foods, aided and abetted by our own agricultural axis of evil: Agribiz, Big Food, and bottom-of-the-pork-barrel politicians. But with higher food and fuel costs looking likely to be the new normal, we may finally be ready to shed the shackles of this corrosive food chain.

Community Supported Agriculture offers an alternative model of farming that nourishes us, the land, and our local economies. It produces fresh, healthy food, preserves open space, and enables small family farmers to actually make a decent living. In short, it’s the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak food forecast.

Ironically, uber-urban New York City’s at the vanguard of this pastoral phenomenon; we’ve got 60 CSAs right here in NYC and another 120 elsewhere in the state, giving New York the highest number of CSAs in the nation.

You may have only just started to hear the buzz about CSAs, but this grass-fed, grassroots movement’s been growing for more than twenty years now, as one of its pioneers, Columbia University nutrition professor emeritus Joan Gussow, noted at the recent CSA in NYC conference held at Columbia and hosted by Just Food, the powerhouse non-profit that’s done so much to promote the growth of CSAs in New York.

Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of A Suburban Homesteader and a mentor to Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and the rest of us progressive foodie activist types, calculated that currently, a CSA feeds one out of every 727 New Yorkers, prompting Just Food’s executive director, Jacquie Berger, to reply, “Yeah, but we’re aiming for one out of 7.”

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described Berger as “startlingly young-looking” in a piece last fall on the local foods movement, and she is, but as Gussow’s anecdote illustrates, Berger and her colleagues at Just Food are also wildly ambitious--and rightly so, according to Gussow, who’s been living La Vida Local for decades.

You might expect Gussow to be just a bit weary of fighting the good food fight after all these years, but she may in fact be more optimistic than she’s ever been about the prospects for our food culture shifting to a more sustainable model. As she told those of us who gathered for the Just Food CSA in NYC conference:

“…as I think about where we’ve come, it seems clear that nothing is impossible, as long as we know we’re heading in the right direction. For years I have listened to marketers and other people vested in the status quo say that people were unwilling to change their diets, that if we wanted them to eat well, we would have to sneak nutrients into the foods they already ate, fortifying Cokes and snack cakes, making broccoli taste like candy and otherwise violating innocent vegetables.

So who would have imagined that people raised among so many choices, among the ubiquitous markets, bodegas, delis, restaurants, fast food eateries, street carts, and the like—people who can grab and eat anytime, anywhere they are in the city—would choose to hand over money up front just to get bags that contain, at this time of year, boiling greens and leeks and parsnips?...

…what is going on here today supports and celebrates some of the most exciting and heartening and inspiring activities taking place in the nation. In a time when each of us wakes up every morning to new revelations about the coming apart of the world we live in, the kinds of communities you are creating around food are genuine sources of hope.”

And hope, as we all know, is a hot commodity these days. Maybe even hotter than corn and soy. So log on to Local Harvest or the Eat Well Guide and find the CSA nearest you! Your investment will be rewarded with some of the sweetest dividends ever.