Community economics: Our food choices are worth chewing on

As the tailgate markets were moving indoors or going fallow, I drove to Blue Ridge Food Ventures recently for the first of four monthly pickups at Winter Sun Farms. Blue Ridge — a “kitchen incubator” for local producers — has been written about extensively, and Winter Sun Farms is just one of many good things coming out of its kitchens.

Partnering with local farms during the growing season, Winter Sun provides its members with monthly shares of frozen vegetables, fruit, fresh greens, honey and eggs. It’s a way to extend community-supported agriculture year-round.

Both the program and our membership are now in their fourth year; I made my way across the parking lot and into the cavernous facility, my 6-month-old in a sling on my chest, my 2-year-old in the stroller and my 4-year-old walking beside me. Wading through a sea of vendors offering samples, we entered the production kitchen, where neatly arranged coolers housed the month’s offerings.

In the middle of the room, a camera crew headed up by a guy I’ll call TV Man, was filming Mary Lou Surgi, Blue Ridge’s executive director, as she delivered passionate, pleasant descriptions of the surrounding bounty.

The moment I walked in I knew I’d been marked: TV Man’s eyes flashed with the promise of cute kids for the story’s b-roll and an easy interview for some sound bites. After introductions and instructions, he strapped a microphone to my shirt, no easy feat considering the size of my daughter’s head.

“So,” he began, “Why do you do this? Is it really worth $125 for four months of frozen food?”

Still in vigilant-dad mode, I stammered, distracted by the need to minimize the losses to eager little hands. I gave a vague, predictable response about the importance of local, adding a snappy bit about how good the food tastes.

“You can tell a difference?” he retorted. “It’s healthier, too, right?” he added, still fishing for sound bites.

After further hesitation, I mumbled: “Uh … yeah. These berries taste like berries, not some sort of goulash I might get at a supermarket.”

Interview over, the cameraman got his shots, the kindly Winter Sun staff guided us through the pickup, and we retreated to our car. I, however, was devastated by my halting, unarticulate responses. The food we eat and the way we use our money are two of the most important choices my family makes on a daily basis. Here was my opportunity to share our story, and I missed by a wide margin.

So with hindsight on my side, I’d like to try that interview again.

“Why do you do this? Is it really worth $125 for four months of frozen food?”

Well, “worth” is such a loaded word, sir, both leading and subjective. If you’re simply asking about the cash cost, my family chooses to make the money we spend on the food we eat a priority, a value that guides our decisions. Like Christmas and our children’s birthdays, we know the Winter Sun membership will come every year, so we save a little bit each month to cover the cost.

I know, TV Man, that not everyone has the financial capacity to make such a choice; that local food can be elitist and dividing (or, at the very least, naive). And if you consider only the money, I understand that argument. But cost is more than the dollar sign assigned to the products to be peddled during the next commercial break.

I’ve walked the land where some of this food is grown. I’ve seen small producers working at the Blue Ridge facility become sustainable businesses. I’m sure some economist somewhere has assigned points to these indirect benefits and could translate everything to a bottom line, but we don’t. We choose to keep the money we work so hard to earn right here in our community, supporting our neighbors who are working just as hard. On top of all that, the food does taste better.

“You can tell a difference? It’s healthier, too, right?”

Yes, I can tell a difference. It tastes of what it is, its essence intact without addition or manipulation. I don’t know, and I don’t much care, if it’s healthier. (You’re leading me again, by the way.) All I know is that I’m not afraid to feed any of this to my children, and I dream of finding a way to get this into the freezers and kitchens of every family in the county. Now if you’ll excuse me, TV Man, I need to get some blackberries distributed before I have a mutiny on my hands. I’ll be back next month, and next year, if you’d like to continue this discussion another time.

— Sam Rule lives in Asheville. To learn more about Winter Sun Farms, visit www.wintersunfarmsnc.com. Blue Ridge Food Ventures is at www.advantagewest.com.

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