Local Food Scene (II)

I spent a couple of hours yesterday doing what my father used to call “pearl diving”. Not much at the bottom of that bowl of soapy water but dirty dishes, though. I volunteered to help with the “Friday Mornings@Selma” event that Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe host in their home weekly. As the recent article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle explained, they have regularized their legal position by linking with Slow Food Huron Valley, a 501(c)(3) organization, so can collect donations for the breakfasts they serve to an eager multitude (recent weeks have seen as many as 120 people at their table through the morning).

I’ve sat at that table a couple of times in the past.  It is the place to be for meeting people involved in the local food movement. Matt Grocoff, whose main expertise is in green energy for the home, was next to me last time I attended. He has gained some celebrity because of his backyard chickens (he taught a workshop on backyard chickens as part of the Transition Ann Arbor Reskilling Workshop).  Kim Bayer,  Slow Food officer and food blogger is a regular (she is now doing a podcast).  Local food bloggers “rule” at Selma, actually – volunteering as well as eating.  Bayer was recently a guest chef and Shana of Gastronomical Three often coordinates volunteers.  This week, Jen of A2eatwrite was on the waffle detail.  Her Local Love Fridays is now a feature of AnnArbor.com.  And the matriarch of local food bloggers – “Mom” of “Mother’s Kitchen” tries never to miss a Friday Mornings@Selma on her way to work.  Mom or “MK” is now organizing a canned good production project for Selma.  This week I met Jane Pacheco, the director of Chelsea Community Kitchen (a collective effort to have a commercial kitchen where local growers and cooks can make products that can be sold legally).  There are others, from neighbors to UM students to organizers of the Homegrown Festival.  It is always a lively conversation, and always there is much to be learned.

The kitchen is where most people are seated, with a large overflow table in the dining room.  But lots of people sit around the massive wood-topped kitchen island (nearly the size of a small room), while volunteers are working frantically at its other end to send breakfasts out.  There is little formal coordination of volunteers; people can sign up on the website, or calls for help go out by email when a need hasn’t been filled.  Thus, my encounter with the soapy water.   Somehow, it works, like a ballet with people bobbing and weaving as they pass each other on their tasks.   (Chefs, sometimes from well-known restaurants, also volunteer their time and there is usually a “special” or two.)

To some extent, Selma is a good metaphor for the whole local food movement, which is, especially from the outside, chaotic and disorganized.  It has been a matter of a few dedicated people presenting an opportunity to take part in the vision of clean, healthful food prepared by hand – and persuading others to join them.  The movement has bubbled up from the community, rather than coming from institutions.  It mirrors and shares in some of the values of “Transition“, which is also a local movement with national and international referents.  Competence (learning how to grow and prepare food) and values (making choices to focus on local and “sustainably raised” food) are important in both. Other important concepts are community food security (making sure that people in our community have access to fresh healthful food) and localization (building a strong local economy). But to me the important thing is that it is arising spontaneously and locally, through the actions of individuals and self-assembled groups.

The first event I attended at “Selma” was a fundraiser for Chris Bedford, a filmmaker who specializes in food issues.  Now Bedford’s latest film, Coming Home: E.F. Schumacher and the Reinvention of the Local Economy,  is showing on September 3 at the Michigan Theater.

The money raised by McCabe and Gottlieb is going to a “Small Farms – Small Farmers” initiative, primarily to buy hoophouses for new ventures.  These unheated greenhouses can extend Michigan’s growing season nearly to all year, as has been shown by local hoophouse pioneer Shannon Brines.  One of the people I shared my breakfast table with was a young woman who, with her husband, is starting a small organic farm north of Ann Arbor – and building a hoophouse with a grant from Selma’s work.  As I hung up my teatowel and left after noon on Friday, Jeff McCabe was working with a new group of volunteers, who will be working today to “raise” a hoophouse near Detroit – purchased in part by another grant from Selma.

Maybe there were pearls in that soapy water, after all.

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14 Comments on “Local Food Scene (II)”

  1. Wonderful article. I think you’ve captured a lot of what I’ve seen so far in terms of the local food movement. I wish I’d known Jane Pacheco is there – I just reached her later on Friday and have some things I want to check in with her about. OTOH, not sure how long I could have left the various stations.

  2. Jeff McCabe Says:

    Great post Vivienne. It is always fun to see another’s perspective on this mad-house adventure.

    The hoop build yesterday at Greg Willerer’s “Brother Nature Produce” on Rosa Parks in Detroit went very well with great weather and dozens of volunteers. A couple of snags, including a stiff breeze all day, led to us not pulling the main poly sheet on the hoop yet, leaving yet another great volunteering opportunity for folks!! A small crew will go in next Saturday around noon to button up a few items, hoping to be joined by a larger group at 5 pm that will button up the main poly sheet before going to Motor City Brewery for pizza and suds. All this before we start up the machine again the following Saturday to build the second hoop for Tomm and Trilbey.

    I hope you can join us for more merry-making and that your post reaches a few more of our fellow citizens seeking to make a difference in the co-creation of our food system.

  3. Thanks for the post Vivienne! I do want to clarify that although it may appear that there is “little formal coordination of volunteers”, in reality volunteer coordination takes up so much time and energy that we have one person who has stepped up and taken charge. We are very, very fortunate to have Susie Baity-Stearns at the helm of the volunteer armada! Susie, who around our house is called Kitchen Angel, has turned volunteer coordination into a real art. Susie is on a well deserved vacation for a few weeks, and Garin Fons and Matt Burton, core volunteers from the beginning of Selma Cafe, have worked really hard and effectively to keep things going smoothly while Susie is away. Mostly, I want to make sure that folks understand that even though FM @SELMA is held in our home, there is no possible way we could support and host this event without the hardworking and dedicated volunteers who show up each and every week to make it happen. We want to encourage anyone who is interested to consider joining us for the many volunteer opportunities available, including the hoop house builds over the next few weeks.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks, Jeff and Lisa – yes, I meant little “apparent” formal coordination of volunteers – not a hierarchal structure, heavily scripted job descriptions, etc. Certainly as a volunteer walking in, it feels very casual. But that is my point – that while it has that feel and appearance, people step forward to get the work done, and it has made a powerful engine to produce results. It’s good to know that you are getting a dedicated organizer to help with this end of things.

  4. Luis Vazquez Says:

    I believe in in local foods, and was on the Market Commission for a number of years. Perhaps you have seen the recent item in the Observer about my upcoming protest to get better baked goods rules instituted at the market. It is really distressing to think that the only way to get changes made at the market is to create a real stink. Please contact me to discuss further.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Mr. Vazquez, I’m familiar with the issue from many discussions on Arbor Update. I’ll look for the Observer article. I agree that anything sold at the Farmers’ Market should be of local origin and I believe that the rules are that sellers produce it themselves. But to me this is an issue for Market management and not something that I am inclined to take action on personally. Best of luck to you in making your case.

      • Luis Vazquez Says:

        Ms Armentrout, I certainly am not asking for your personal involvement in the issue I am trying to raise, however, when you write about local foods issues on your blog and other websites, and since you made a run for political office in the City of Ann Arbor – which also has a hand in managing our Farmers Market – I thought you might be interested in speaking with me personally so that I could “make my case”.

        Thanks for your agreement with the notion (and Market Operating Rule) that vendors at the market must grow or make what they sell, but I am surprised that you would defer entirely to the Farmer’s Market management to deal with the issue of certain vendors cheating by buying pre-made, frozen baked goods, slapping a Kapnic’s Orchard label on them, and selling them at our market. This is deceptive business practice, so far aided and abetted by a market management that is unwilling to do the right thing and make changes to the rules, and enforce the ones on the books. You trust them?

        How is this not a “local foods” issue? How else are the people of Ann Arbor to know to avoid purchasing faked goods from cheating vendors? Ask your fellow writer Vickie Elmer at the Observer about this too, she at least has given these issues alot of thought, and some press coverage. Ask Scott Newell, owner of Big City Small World Bakery about how he could not compete with Kapnick’s baked goods, and why he dropped out of the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

  5. Kim Says:

    Hi Vivienne – what a great, thoughtful post and summary of some of the excellent work going among people who care about this beautiful place. Fantastic seeing you up to your elbows for the “pearl-diving” at SELMA. 😉

    It’s true that the SELMA phenomena is really emblematic both of what people are hungry for and what we as a community can accomplish when we decide to come together.

    I keep thinking about what a dairy farmer turned County Commissioner told me about this work to reclaim the places we love – “Get involved, run for office, know your neighbors. If you don’t, you can be sure that no one else will.”

  6. MK Says:

    Wow! A matriarch! Thank you for the props! Finally glad to put a face to your name, Vivienne. Hope to see you bright and early on a Friday morning again soon.

  7. varmentrout Says:

    Anyone calling herself Mom who hosts at least two email food groups and has encouraged countless others to become a food blogger qualifies as matriarch! I’m glad to have met you too.

  8. chefbrian1 Says:

    Great Post. I just write an article about how a general lack of will to wash dishes has brought on the down fall of home cooked food in American. Glad to see that there are still a few of us out there who are not afraid to get our hands wet for a good cause. Thanks for providing some good local resources. The HomeGrown Festival looks fun.


  9. Dan Ezekiel Says:

    Thanks for this entertaining article. I am hoping to go to breakfast at SELMA for the first time this Friday.

    I had the opportunity to help out with (and photograph) a hoop house raising near Ann Arbor last Saturday. I was greatly impressed with Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb’s leadership of the proceedings and especially with the enthusiasm of the volunteers. At one point, I counted 31 people working on the hoop house at the same time. Since people were coming and going all day, I’m sure far more than that contributed their time and apparently boundless energy.

    This event reminded me of the atmosphere of the early all-volunteer days of Recycle Ann Arbor, back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when I was the age of most of the hoop house volunteers now. An inspiring, feel-good afternoon in the late-summer beautiful Washtenaw countryside.

  10. varmentrout Says:

    Yes, it is refreshing to see a real surge of community will to make things like this happen. I’d like to know where the photos will be available – perhaps on the Repasts website?

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