An article by Ray Keenoy
It is widely understood that what the middle class start up with the rest then follow. So take note of what a small band of well-mannered youngsters are busy with near Oxford; they have got hold of a patch of land, a patch with a sweeping view over ancient farmlands, erected a kind of bender or shelter for their tools and a row of polytunnels for growing things. Up on their hill, in damp Oxfordshire winds, they grow vegetables, chard, kale and strawberries, also salads to put in bags, just like in the supermarket but three days fresher – you either know the significance of that time-lag or you’re one of the crowd who believe baked beans are one of your ‘five-a-days’.
They’ve also got hold of a van, sides illuminated with folksy paintings of vegetables and they take this around Oxford to sell their newly-harvested vegetables at regular stop-off points and at the farmers’ markets. These stop-offs tend to be in the more chi-chi triangulations of a city which splits very clearly between posh and others, those who would nod knowingly if you slipped the word ‘Encaenia’ into a sentence and those who would stare with that tolerant distaste for their betters probably already acquired by the English lower echelons in 1067. But we need to remember that trends start at either end of the social scale and eventually spread like wildfire. The surprise here is, firstly, that people with postgraduate degrees in arts and sciences want to spend their time manuring and retailing the potato, the carrot and the kohl rabi (whatever that is, possibly something munched on at ‘Encaenia’) and secondly, that when their van halts, even though it has no chimes and none of the sweet soft stuff of childhood’s lusts, many enthusiastically assemble and dive into their 1000 per cent whole rye (bought in from Oxford’s best artisan bakery), their complicated greens and pots of white local honey. For they also sell the trimmings and extras to basic food you would expect, but all rigorously local, like the spelt and pizza flour. Make your own pizza from scratch, yes, of course there is an element of fanaticism about their clientele but that is how all vast trends and fashions start; with the enthusiasts, the over-the-topsters, as in the memorable song of the Kinks, England’s greatest Pop critics, ‘Hes a Dedicated Follower of Fashion… and he wears his panties right up tight’.
In today’s England a tremendous amount of time is spent shopping, families invest in cars that often can practically only be parked in front of supermarkets (and perhaps suburban relatives) without paying pounds per hour. And the supermarkets are hubs of investment and marketing ingenuity, pounded with light, offers, branding and bargain or status tension. Engrossing in their way, entertaining even. Compare this to scuffling down the five foot aisle of the ‘Veg Van’ as our pioneers unimaginatively call it. With only one local brand of flour, honey, apple juice or marmalade (but all very good, fresh, pesticide and trickery-free) and a small sea of strictly in-season vegetable items it’s the direct antithesis of what supermarkets do and provide. And yet it works and all the ills that supermarkets encourage – where shall we start? – the notion of driving everywhere in this close-packed country of ours in senseless imitation of American mores, the bullying of farmers by corporate pricing and purchasing, the pressure to spray and not to pay for the damage, the human alienation of buying food produced by total strangers, sold by total strangers and moved around by total strangers – all these ills are negated by a transit van and a few youngsters. In contrast to Mall World and Super Land at the van stops you find the same friendly personnel every week, you might coincide with your neighbours, the atmosphere is chatty, gentle, celebratory, yes a knowing elite is communing with itself and self-congratulating but it is also getting good food for prices that are parallel like for like with what the supers provide at such environmental and spiritual cost.
But in that case what’s the gimmick? The trick that makes this possible? We know that supermarket goods are produced and handled by folk on minimum wage or (abroad) even less. That the road system that allows them to ferry up their food miles from grower to assembly point to distribution centre to superstore is paid for out of our general taxation, on roads that are generally toll-free and with no penalty for all that deadly burnt diesel pumped into the lungs of children and adults alike. That with their oligopoly over food sales they can get low bully-prices. How do these smiley Oxford idealists compete? Their gimmick is, call it participation, ‘food democracy’ or that word that so quickly turns to slime in politicians’ mouths ‘community’. Many of the Van’s patrons are members of this green vegetable cult, with a membership card, a 10% off everything sold, a newsletter via email, get-togethers and so on and also, they form a polyvalent ad hoc community if you like who also, here’s the trick again, volunteer, giving a Saturday of jolly collective labour (no Stalin banner necessary) to help turn the compost, erect another polytunnel (it’s a hi-tech form of lo-tech agriculture sometimes) or rake up the Oxford tilth to sowing readiness. (Always up on that hill, a hill and a view that makes you think of Noah on Ararat, Christ in his Temptation or most appropriate of all perhaps, that proto Food Democrat, Gerrard Winstanley of the Diggers, making food without benefit of middlemen and profiteers on St. George’s Hill in Surrey and later in nearby Iver, Berkshire in 1649-50).
Farming, food production, if we look in our heads we find the image of a chap with headphones sitting in the glassed-in cab of a giant machine traversing a huge field, spewing out grain or bales, aviators spreading pesticide ‘dust’, of long lines of women in hair-caps gutting chickens or fish, of the chickens or fish themselves in factory boxes or tanks. Agri-business and food factories inputting along production lines, a truly gigantesque, a monster enterprise. And this way of doing things has its consequences – where shall we start? With the fact that I was 35 the first time I saw a hen followed by her chicks, nature’s most convincing display of the motherhood principle, that utter and fundamental thing at the core of human experience and shared with mammals and even birds…
With the ongoing reduction of fertility in chemically-adjusted soils all over the planet , the unsustainable use of ex-rainforests which store up goodness over centuries then provide 2 or 3 cash crops (I wrote crash crops first, more accurate, after the oil palms or soya the soil more or less dies) all in the ambit of rising populations. Populations that want to eat…
Yes we know, don’t bore us again with the tale of Big Capital and its power to transform or better ‘cash in’ ancient landscapes and ways of doing things. Nobody beats Tesco or Walmart or Starbucks, they try and fail. So don’t bore us – but wait, if people, instead of being seduced and made happy by lovely pictures of food on the walls or boxes of supermarkets, by the glossy pesticided skins of exotic fruits and veg were instead seduced by crops pulled the same day with all the freshness, flavour and tenderness that means (ask a Frenchman or a gardener if you don’t know what I’m talking about) then the huge income stream provided by the masses that take a car to a supermarket for ‘the weekly shop’ for stale food would disappear, and, as the big boys are generally leveraged to the hilt and also in deadly competition they could phizz overnight, go the way of music halls, clay pipes or the British Empire: PAST THE SELL-BY DATE.
Now you can say I am building a giant story from a little van. Jack and his beanstalk, a fairy tale. But put your ear to the ground and you’ll hear there are other chapters to this story.
Again in Oxford, quite modest houses built in the 30’s such as the one I live in have long gardens, mini-allotments in effect and produce growing was a widespread habit and necessity in quite recent times. And for those without gardens there was a widespread council allotments provision so the idea of hands-on citizen food is not so strange. In Italy, a country where many are nearer to rural roots, alongside a plethora of supermarkets but not as much frozen food and almost no ‘chilled meals’ (people still know how to cook) there are street markets with mainly local or Italian produce, Farmers’ Markets like the ones here too with jam and sausage makers as well as the local produce and also producers’ markets organised by small farmer confederations. All an excellent, fresher, less pesticided and additive-full alternative to the supers. And of course to shop like that is to celebrate and enjoy the Renaissance, Medieval or Eighteenth Century glory of Italian urban space, strade and contrade, piazze and viale… Tesco or Asda sheds: no contest.
Italy is of course also a home of Slow Food with small towns like Anghiari in Tuscany now declaring themselves (but not necessarily their inhabitants) ‘slow’. Yes it’s a merry bandwagon. And what is ‘Lambeth Incredible Edible’ (‘a collection of people and organisations who work together to make sure that healthy, sustainable, locally produced food is available to everyone living in Lambeth, regardless of income’). Lambeth being somewhat an opposite of Oxford and this a municipality supported project whereas the Van-ites have had to battle through a different kind of slowness, of council bureaucracy, to get legal stop-off points).
The whole aim of this piece is to point to the two opposed directions our affairs are taking regarding food, first the direction of the relatively unmonetarised (certainly not with big capital and the heavy lifting of global corporations, think independent bakeries or the £25 a cake-maker pays for a pitch at a farmer’s market) volunteers and local labour creating and distributing food. It doesn’t wash across the finance pages but volunteer glue sticks together many important social artefacts; Wimbledon Tennis, political parties, parent and community associations, even the act of generally being helpful to strangers and neighbours, of behaving socially, the stuff, as Richard Sennett or Jane Jacobs pointed out, that makes cities habitable… It’s always been the way but the pursuit of narrow, monetarised counted profit can not only obstruct this but replace its space of action.
In Oxford’s inner (i.e. older) suburbs, when you have too many apples or whatever you put them in a box in the street for your neighbours (or anybody passing). Where is the gain in that? What an unfair blow to Sainsbury’s! Or the state exchequer because, however difficult it may be in practice to comprehensively tax Tesco or Boots, the apples going into and taken out of that box are innocent of all possibility of ‘revenueable transactions’ as HMRC puts it. Tragic.
But of course gift-giving is about reciprocity over time. Someone who only takes is universally frowned on, to take is to store up the pleasure of giving on an other occasion. So even being involved in any way in the unmonetarised exchange economy, by giving your neighbour a spare cabbage for instance creates and sustains social bonds, good ones. As aware citizens we should strive to encourage and develop this whole side of life. If one’s actions are all money driven then we are trapped in impersonal, atomised and unfeeling relationships.
This is frighteningly basic stuff, social ethics 11plus, but frighteningly important and challenged all the time by impersonal commerce. So let’s focus on food and how it can be democratised, de-corporatised. Because that is the other direction we can follow, the construction of great shopping malls like the Westfield Centres, businesses that don’t, by the way, even permit non-corporates to participate, to lease space in their giant caverns of commerce. Only corporations and corporation employees are present, no small business no veg vans. And nothing that doesn’t make a cash register click and hum. A souless plastic world, speaking only PR and marketingese, an empty eyed frigid world, a palimpset of bleakness, a haven of cook-chill foods in its dozen restaurants serving what Will Self accurately called ‘near-food’, that looks like food but lost it soul somewhere between the plane from Mombasa and the prep-shed off the M25 where it was freshly boxed up.
So, viva the veg van, a (r)evolution at the end of your fork…!
If you’ve followed and been at all persuaded so far, my argument may have made you feel slightly uncomfortable, given that almost everybody in this land now buys most of their food from supermarkets and quite possibly drives to them too so I now provide a parachute out; the VegVan’s (officially ‘Cultivate Oxford’) beat is Oxford, Oxford is not a town like every other, and is of course the home of lost causes to boot. This Children’s Crusade, which is not entirely run by experienced business types as you can imagine, has already hit barriers of financial under-achievement with some looming capital expenditures (overnight food storage etc) and at the time of writing seems to be in the process of persuading itself that vegetable box delivery via ‘a sophisticated internet platform’ is the direction to take. I suspect this will absorb much of their energies and they will move from being a unique enterprise in Oxford to one with at least two major (and national) competitors. Eventually there will be no more happy queues behind St Barnabas church in Jericho or outside the Rusty Bicycle pub in ‘Magdalene Village’, as the local green ghetto is styled, no more pot lucking with whatever the seasons, some random wind or burst of sun has brought to ripeness and fruition with all its smells and its texture beneath the fingers; the true shopping. Instead you’ll have to tick a picture on a website, back to impersonality and virtualised food.
So perhaps after all it was just a dream, a dream that put on flesh for a while like Winstanley and his inspired and ecstatic band on St. George’s Hill or like in William Morris’ book News from Nowhere, a ripely eco vision of the future written in 1890. After all, that hill where Winstanley and the Diggers, spurred by the old motto ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the gentleman?’ planted their guerilla food garden is now covered with stockbrokers’ houses and golf courses, while the William Morris who really changed the face (if not the wallpaper) of England was the Oxford-raised car-maker of that ilk, not the visionary anarcho-socialist one with the straying wife. Nuffield-Morris’ England of car-dependent folk, low air quality and streets too dangerous for children is the one we live in after all.
Nevertheless, the food issue is a green issue that reflcts the problem at the heart of many green issues, frequently picked up by the political mainstream then quietly left behind a bush later in the day. They make problematic politics because they are about denial, taking away. Instead of the quiet hum of the ride of your 4×4 you’re invited to stand at the bus stop with the young and economically disenfranchised or brave the weather and the mad traffic of our cities on a bike. No thanks! So say the many (as long as they can afford the rising costs of fuel, parking and maintenance). Cycling that commute would bring great health benefits, physical and mental and contribute to a cleaner, safer city. Results though that are long-term, not the immediate gratification of showing-off a shiny new vehicle or the enjoyment of the pleasing aesthetic of its dashboard digitals. Improving air quality is also rather long-term for most people.
By contrast, the veg van’s delivery is quick, the bonhomie of the (short) queue of others in the know, then the pleasing smells and textures of fresh but unrefrigerated produce, smells redolent of the golden age of childhood when tastes had most intensity. And then, after the short trip home (and the van stops in different neighbourhoods and even workplaces to facilitate this) you can tuck in straight away, to super fresh salad or unfiltered Oxfordshire honey or carrots picked two hours before you eat them. Prices (discounted if you join their foody collective by paying a sub or giving some volunteer time on field or van every month) are reasonable, reflecting the lack of advertising, packaging, shareholders, long distance transport and expensive premises. Also we are dealing with food that is far finer than the ‘finest’ offered in supermarkets which can never deliver an authentically fresh product, given their centralised distribution systems, those genial systems that now account for 40% of all lorries on British roads.
Today is the moment, with new supermarkets both large and small size being built absolutely everywhere by the big three, that we find ourselves in a weird confrontation between the gigantic and the micro in how our food is brought to us, Tom Thumb versus King Kong. Little van or market stall or even the odd surviving retail shop in small towns or off the main high streets versus giant corporations like Tesco and Walmart-Asda and Sainsburys. A gigantism not only in distribution but in food production itself. As I write (in July-August 2013), less than a month ago the UK media excitedly announced the production of the world’s first beefburger created from lab-grown cells rather than a living animal. Very good news apparently for feeding the world. We can imagine it will be huge corporations who will take this idea forward, growing great chunks of ‘meat’ in dedicated factoies, selling the result no doubt with bucolic imagery. Exactly this was predicted in what could then have been described as science fiction satire, written by Leftists kicked out of Hollywood, The Space Merchants (1952) by Pohl and Kornbluth who envisage a world of warring corporations of gigantic scale (‘Indiastries’ for example combines all the economic efforts of the entire subcontinent) including one that, over much of the territory of Costa Rica, has grown a giant mass of chicken muscle called ‘Chicken Little’ fed by huge nutrient tubes, to supply a higly populated world with protein of a sort.
There would in any case be other ways of supplying cheap protein than ‘Little Heifer’ but they might not allow the kind of large-scale patentable brandable product that corporations prefer.
If you think Chicken Little and all food coming from the big 3 is the right direction then fine, keep up with the weekly ‘out of town supermarket’ shop, don’t make the extra effort to get fresh food from garden, market or other local independently-owned source. If though you would like to see the day when the British don’t have to apologise for both the food and the weather then lend your weight, energy and buying power to the little guys, the volunteers, the visionaries… We can take our food back from the likes of Kraft (anonymous fat labelled cheese) and Kellogs (stale grain flakes laced with salt and sugar). All change for the better begins as a vision of change and becomes real when you and I and him and her next door get taken up by it…