It would be hard to imagine nicer folks than the ones who were at the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network‘s Food and Farm Forum at Camp Beckwith last weekend. Though I’ve been a member of ASAN for several years, I’d never been able to go to their annual conference, which, for me as a teacher, comes right after Thanksgiving break and just before exams. But this year, I put it on the calendar, worked my syllabus around going, and am glad I did.
The forum brings members together from an array of backgrounds and roles – established farmers, new and aspiring farmers, sustainability specialists, good food enthusiasts, teachers and students – to talk about issues and prospects related to growing food and eating well in Alabama. Session topics ranged from specific practices, like solar energy or fermented foods, to organizing community gardens and farmers markets, and a plenary session this year centered on the varied environmental and agricultural experiences from Alabama’s Gulf Coast region, which included a man from Africatown. In the ones I attended, I learned about new (to me) foods like kefir, how to decipher PLU codes on produce, the organizing principles for farmers markets, building a food forest, choosing fruit trees to cultivate, and finally about one rural high school’s efforts at school-based growing and getting a salad bar in the lunchroom. And meals, which were served on-site in the camp’s dining hall, featured Alabama-grown produce in “swamp stew” and sweet potato bisque.
In Alabama, we may not all be farmers, but we all eat – some of us more than others! – and what I heard over and over at the Food and Farm Forum was: how we eat affects our health and our environment. One of the panels was led by an Anniston-based doctor, who I also sat with at one of the meals, and he emphasized in our conversation and in that session that most of the problems he sees in sick patients could be helped by changes in diet. Another presenter who has a heritage-foods company near Atlanta said repeatedly, “What you put in your gut . . . affects your head,” to drive home her point that problems ranging from memory loss to Alzheimer’s can be helped with diet. I went down to Fairhope last weekend expecting to hear a lot about composting and avoiding pesticides and such, but one message, which applies to all of us, was more holistic than that: diminishing a reliance on processed foods will improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
I write often enough about the problems that Alabama faces, in our politics and in our culture, but this is one case of a relatively small organization doing good work to alter the fabric of our culture for the better. The Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network brings together people who have solutions to some of our fundamental problem and shares information about how to move in another direction. Given the near-total lack of leadership in most areas of concern and detriment in this state, I’ve come to believe that it is up to us individual citizens to right the ship, even if it is only a handful of people making a handful of changes in our daily lives, then passing that knowledge and wisdom on to a few others.