The potato eaters

nationaalarchief.nlThe famous painting of van Gogh. Never knew it had to be taken so literal as painted. Yes, we love our crisps, chips, fries, mash and “stamppot” as part of our voluntary preferences. But a 150 years ago the potato was eaten out of necessity. The 19th century was not exactly a century of abundance in food for the great majority of the Dutch (and European) population. Indeed, potatoes and nothing but potatoes was the ‘cuisine’ three times a day, in very poor households with vinegar or mustard, and at the slightly better off with lard.

Different food historians have pointed to the fact that the average man in the middle ages had more access to meat than his 19th century fellow. It shows again that there is no such thing as linear progression to civilisation and welfare. Growing cities, crop failures, animal diseases, rising prices of wheat, in short a century of continuously repeating food crisis. Sounds familiar? Nowadays it is the poor in other parts of the world who pay the price.

Pumpkin harvest and local food

Last Saturday 30 adults and children came to help with the harvest of pumpkins of farmer André in the village of Hemmen, just four kilometers from Wageningen. We harvested around 9 thousand kilo of the approximately 15 thousand kilo on the one hectare field. The invitation to help was the first event organized by a new NGO called “Stichting Hemmens Land” of which I am a board member. This NGO aims to facilitate the cooperation between the organic farmers and organic shop in Hemmen, to engage citizens with local food and farming and to organize educative activities on and around the farms.

pompoen oogstMainly families from nearby towns and villages in the Betuwe came to help with the harvest and for the children it was great fun to stand in and fill the box in front of the tractor. The people who came were happy with the possibility to engage actively with local food and the work of the organic farmers. Some were customers of the organic box scheme, others read the announcement in the newspaper and were just drawn by the activity itself. Citizen engagement with local food is a topic of increased interest in the academic literature. Engagement with local food can strengthen regional food systems and local community and can contribute to human and environmental health. However, as has been noted, in our consumption oriented economy, ‘local’ easily becomes a new ‘brand’, a way to distinguish and create space; market space. Or ‘local’ becomes an experience, part of the cultural economy in which “harvest festivals provide an enactment of leisure activities and the urban lifestyle” (Tellstrom et al 2005: 354).

None of the Hemmen villagers came to help with the harvest or came even to look what was going on. The organic farmers and shopkeepers are newcomers, all of whom established over the last six years. Part of the reason for setting up the NGO and a real challenge is also to try to connect and integrate into the village. Local is important as a non-monetary value and at the same time it is an economic factor for entrepreneurs who are seeking multiple ways to make a sustainable living. But as Laura B. DeLind rightly argues “without an emotional, a spiritual and a physical glue to create loyalty, not to a product, but to layered sets of embodied relationships, local will have no holding power.” (2006: 126)

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