Walkabout: Decent food from local farmers should not be a luxury

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I am careful about the food I buy, sourcing it to find the most healthful sustenance and to support local farmers. This seems to me of basic importance. But to many people, this kind of planning is a luxury when food needs are urgent and the cheapest food is processed.

The lesson in frugal buying hit home most sharply on a recent shopping run for the neighborhood food pantry. I shopped for long shelf life: powdered mashed potatoes and stuffing; bags of dried beans, rice, black-eyed peas; canned vegetables. I was looking for buy-one-get-ones, cans that were 10 for $10. I was looking for generic and off brands.

Like people who shop with poverty in their side-view mirror, I was thinking "bang for the buck." The point was to get as much food to the pantry as I could afford to contribute. But the venture raised my own reality to a disturbing clarity.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I realized that the food in two bags for myself had cost almost as much as the food for hungry neighbors in 10. It struck me that I could live on an awfully lot less. It would mean cans of vegetables laden with sodium, meat stamped with today's date and Ramen noodles. No salmon, that's for sure. Nothing organic. No blueberries, almonds or asparagus.

It's a sobering truth: Being poor isn't just having less to spend. It's having fewer options to be discerning about your health and the impact of your choices.

Options are growing for people whose interests some see as precious but who themselves think should be guaranteed standards for all -- chemical-free produce and hormone-free animals raised humanely. Unfortunately, huge farms that do not adhere to this standard are the ones getting government subsidies.

The Penn's Corner Farm Alliance is owned by 32 small farms, located within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, that do adhere to this standard. They deliver produce for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and an online farm stand. I signed up for the online service last week and got this email: "Welcome to the Penn's Corner Farm Stand Buying Club, and thanks for choosing to support your local Southwestern PA Farmers!"

The prospect of stopping on the way home to get my order at the Children's Museum -- one of five delivery stations -- is exciting. I did it for the first time yesterday afternoon and will continue to support Penn's Corner because these are farmers who care about making direct links to consumers and whose self-interest is to nurture their discernment.

"These are small family farms who care deeply about their land and animals," said Karlin Lamberto, the manager of community-supported agriculture.

I think of CSAs as being like cable TV. You buy in and get stuff you don't want for about $25 a week. More than 300 people pay up front to support this CSA. The online farm stand will offer whatever's available, as CSAs do, but you can order specifically what you want from the list. I went over the list and found the prices relatively competitive with supermarkets and grocers in places like the Strip.

"In December, there's not a lot of lettuce," said Lydia Vanderhill, the online farm stand coordinator. "But we just started working with a new hydroponic farm.

"The farm stand is a great way for people to get their foot into buying locally and realize how many great products local farmers have to offer," she said. "It is great for the farmers because they can sell without having to go to a farmers market. A lot of our growers are certified naturally grown or organic."

The online farm stand locations are in Squirrel Hill, the North Side, Mt. Lebanon, Lawrenceville and, for the first time this year, the Penn's Corner's warehouse in Larimer, at Hamilton and East Liberty Boulevard. (For details about CSAs and the online farm stand, visit pennscorner.com.)

Growing your own food is an option both if you're poor and if you're picky. I grow most of my produce in the summer and fall and rely on farmers markets for the rest. Both Citiparks and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank situate them throughout the region, but the produce is not cheap. These farmers need to make a living and are not the ones getting subsidies.

It should not be a luxury to have options and to be picky about the food you buy.

Something is very wrong with the system when you can buy 10 cans of food that was grown, shipped, processed, shipped, packaged, shipped, unpacked, inventoried, advertised, stocked, rung up and bagged in plastic for less than a small farmer can grow it safely and healthfully 10 miles from your table.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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