Want Food Security? Start Seeing Staples.

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Food is pretty much always on my mind: the proverbial what, where, when, how, and why we eat; who eats (and who doesn’t); and all of the questions of environment, ethics, and health that are bound up in it. I’m reminded of something Siobhan Phillips wrote in a Hudson Review piece I blogged about a few months ago: “What dishes one consumes or refuses, what food products one buys or boycotts, constitute an expression of style, statement of politics, reflection of values, index of environmentalism, pledge of allegiance, and measure of health. . . . Wonder when this got so complicated.”

Well here’s another (complicated-but-compelling) thing to consider: staple crops. Writing for Permaculture Activist, Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger recall relishing the food security that a burgeoning local foods movement–with its farmers’ market produce, meat, and dairy–seemed to offer in 2007. “Then we talked,” they write. “Brandon asked the question: ‘Where do we go to get our beans, grains, and oils?’ The answer: grocers and buying clubs who source from across the continent or around the world.

“That led to another question, which we couldn’t readily answer: ‘Where’s the food security when these foods, coming from far away, represent more than 70% of our diet–the bulk of what we eat?’ “

Ajamian and Jaeger acquired a modest federal grant and in their home region of southeastern Ohio planted small test plots of “high-nutrition staple seed crops” such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, adzuki beans, and dent corn. Response from local bakeries and restaurants was immediate. As they went, they discovered that growing staples is relatively easy; harvesting and processing them into dry beans, milled flour, or pressed oils, and then transporting and storing those foods is the complicated part, requiring investment in infrastructure and equipment.

In 2008 they formed the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (APFC), dedicated to building a replicable system for regional staple foods. Recently they opened a processing facility called the Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. As spring hatches here in the Midwest, I know they’ve give me a lot to chew on. (I’ve already turned to Utne‘s sister publication Mother Earth News to learn more about the mechanics of growing grains, beans, and rice.)

Ajamian and Jaeger’s article for Permaculture Activist isn’t online, but here’s a short video of these two very interesting people discussing their project with the Athens Foundation, one of their many backers. There’s also an interview with them on the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s website, and you can also check out the APFC group on Facebook.

Sources: The Hudson Review, Permaculture Activist, Mother Earth News

Image by llsimon53, licensed under Creative Commons.

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