Thursday, June 17, 2010

Eat Well. Do Good.

Ally enjoying her turkey sandwich, and that's my modified Monte Cristo sandwich with blackberry preserves above.

The Eating Well has been open for the last two weeks or so, and the food is amazingly good! Even Ally, my 6-year-old likes it, and for her, picky eating is like an art form. Here is a brief version of the long history of this cafe:

In 2007, Harmony Health Family Resource Center got a grant from the California Endowment to develop three "social enterprises"--businesses that will earn income to help sustain Harmony Health FRC's programs. At that time, we did a lot of research to figure out what kinds of businesses the community needed and wanted and which could be viable revenue sources. We held focus groups, ran informal surveys, had community discussions, talked to business and community leaders, etc. We seriously explored the idea of developing a "business incubator" and other ideas, but we ultimately settled on the idea of a cafe as our core social business, since it promised to advance a number of our goals. A cafe, we felt, could promote: 1. Healthy eating, since many of our clients have ready access to junk food and convenience store fare, but not much else (and many have the health problems--like obesity--to show for it). 2. Positive community interaction and engagement, since we envision an open, lively eatery, with wi-fi access (to help attract students, faculty, military personnel, etc.), a shaded outdoor eating area and container garden, and space for community meetings and gatherings during the evening hours. 3. Local food (and walkability)--the cafe's storefront is in a strip mall it shares with Harmony Health Family Resource Center, Harmony Health Clinic, Harmony Health Birthing Center, and a laundromat, so customers/clients/staff at these establishments can now eat at The Eating Well, instead of driving across town for a burger. Also, the cafe is trying to source most of its produce from local growers, and will attempt to encourage Air Force personnel and the Yuba College community (both of which are relatively nearby) to dine closer to home as well. The cafe has ample parking, but the more people who simply stroll over to eat or hang out, the better.

Erica (center) is one of the original teen moms who was trained at the Eating Well, and she did so well in the class, she became a trainer herself, and is now a manager of The Eating Well.

The original business plan that was developed for the cafe did not serve its purpose, but the Yuba Sutter Small Business Development Center very generously helped us to rewrite and implement the plan. Then, the Executive Director of Harmony Health (who, by the way, is Rachel Farrell, the real force of nature behind Harmony Health FRC--and all the other Harmony enterprises, both for profit and nonprofit--and who is running for the Yuba County Board of Supervisors, District 1. More about her in later posts, I hope.) wrote and got an amazing grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (over $200K, though this is not entirely apparent in the linked document) to use the cafe as a training center for at-risk youth (particularly teen moms), and to develop an on site childcare co-op at the cafe (so the teen mom staff would be able to care for their children while still working, and so customers of the cafe/clinic/laundromat/birthing center could have a place for their children). So before opening to the public, the cafe was a training site for youth, where after 6-weeks of classes, they received their ServSafe certificates. The students would serve lunch to live customers (mainly clinic staff) on Thursdays.

As that training program is winding down, Mike Mahler has stepped up to become the chef/manager of The Eating Well, and to shepherd it from a training site to a full-service, experimental, nonprofit, healthy-eating, environment-defending, economy-revitalizing, community-building, local-food-promoting, eatery. Mike used to own Mahler's in Marysville, which is now The Brick, an iconic coffeehouse and meeting place for the movers and shakers of Yuba County. He had to give up that business for personal reasons, but he is taking on The Eating Well project with gusto and putting in lots of his own money and time. I wanted to include a picture of him, but he moves too fast for my cell phone camera to capture a suitable image!

So once we have olive oil to sell, we hope to use the cafe as one of the vending outlets. The bottles of oil should make nice decoration for the cafe, and we hope to include other locally produced retail food products, like honey, preserves, etc. I'm still not really authorized to say so, but the construction company that is proposing to donate the olives to us is Teichert Construction, and they have 20,000 acres of agricultural land that they manage. They told us that last year alone they had to waste 700 tons of produce from their agricultural holdings (they hold land for mining, but when it is not being mined, they grow crops on it, or in any case don't remove crops already growing there, which is why they have an olive orchard in the Yuba Goldfields). And we are talking about having them donate some of these other crops--peaches, rice, etc.--to Harmony Health FRC so we can reduce our food prices at the cafe, and also create other retail food products (e.g., dried fruit; tapenade; etc.). Teichert is a union shop, they are involved in regional efforts to reduce sprawl, and they are interested in exploring biomass as an energy source for Yuba County, so I am proud of Harmony Health FRC's burgeoning relationship with them. I hope to have our partnership officially approved within the next few weeks.

So if you find yourself on or near North Beale Road, come on into The Eating Well (1908 N. Beale, Suite B, 530-742-5908 for phone takeout/catering orders). Eat well. Do Good.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

3D Capitalism?

The Sac Bee, by way of the New York Times, reports on the social networking abilities of soldiers at Beale Air Force Base (home of the U2 spy plane pictured above). Lots of interesting things in this article, but for me the personal connection is to the enlisted soldiers who put in twelve-hour shifts guzzling energy drinks to keep alert. I teach classes at Beale AFB (which is how I came to know about the feral olive groves there), and it is enlisted "airmen" like these who guzzle energy drinks to stay awake during my lectures after they've put in twelve-hour shifts on the Flight Line or spotting IED's on satellite feeds. Teaching sociology to active-duty military personnel is intense: First, military men and women always call professors "Sir", and sign their emails, "Very Respectfully"--which can feel good until you realize that these formalities can have multiple layers of meaning in a very hierarchical institution... And getting into heady discussions with airmen about ideas like "authority" and "freedom" "nationalism" "solidarity" and other key sociological concepts can be profound, especially when you consider that any moment, these folks can be deployed to "the shit", or sent to places like The Gulf (of Mexico) for humanitarian emergencies like hurricanes and oil spills. Sociology is a little less abstract to students like these.

And Beale AFB sits at the end of North Beale Road, which is the major thoroughfare that runs through Linda and on which also sit Yuba College and Harmony Health Family Resource Center. At the opposite end of North Beale Road is Wal*Mart. The several mile stretch of North Beale between the Base and the Superstore is what some in the world of community development would call a "Corridor of Shit"--lots of vacant lots and empty storefronts, punctuated by check-cashing outlets, liquor stores, junk brokers, dollar stores, etc. "Corridor of Shit" is surely an elitist phrase, but that does not make it untrue, and it is more than ironic that The Men and Women who Defend this Great Country have to drive through a corridor of shit to get to and from their 12-hour shifts on the Base. Is it too much then to say that the effort to revitalize Linda is a patriotic act? Anyway I am still dreaming that one day we will be involving the Base in our nonprofit olive venture, and I have to believe that airmen and their families would get more enjoyment from producing tasty, healthy, olive oil, then from putting their lives on the line for oil in the Gulf (either of Persia or Mexico).

And I certainly stand with those in the olive oil industry who say, "No More Reliance On Foreign Oil!", which brings me to my next item:

The Sac Bee also recently reported on a major development in the US olive oil industry--the establishment of scientific (i.e., enforceable) standards for terms like "virgin" and "extra virgin" olive oil. In my last post I alluded to the previous lack of standards, and these new standards are intended precisely to "level the playing field" so domestic olive oil producers can compete more fairly and truthfully with the imports. No mention is made in the article of establishing standards to verify terms like "domestic" and "locally grown", or of standards to regulate table olives, but it seems like things are moving in a good direction. Other developments that could help the US olive industry include the fiscal crisis in the European Union (state subsidies to olive producers could be reduced) and the pioneering work of UC Davis in developing "Super High Density" olive orchards. These are orchards where the trees are planted very close together, and kept quite short, so that a big harvesting machine can roll right over the tops of the trees and cleanly (and cheaply) pick the fruit (see the pic above). But why is the Sac Bee relying on the Associated Press to report on the California olive industry (or the New York Times to report on Beale AFB, for that matter)? Oh yeah, blogs have killed print journalism...

When I am not teaching classes at Beale, I teach them on the Yuba College campus, where my students are an amazingly diverse group, with very interesting connections to agriculture. We have white students who are descended from the "Okies" who founded Olivehurst, and who John Steinbeck did research on before writing Grapes of Wrath. Latino students who are often the children or grandchildren of migrant farmworkers. We have Hmong students whose families fled military conflict in Southeast Asia and and now work in the fields of Yuba and Sutter Counties, while often maintaining remarkable vegetable gardens at their homes with crops unfamiliar to many Americans. We have Sikh students, many of whom were raised by families that own peach orchards and/or Dried Plum (don't say "prunes"!) operations.

So, when I told my students I wanted to teach a class on Community Entrepreneurship and involve students in harvesting and processing olives, they said, "Oh, so you are sending us back to the fields"? But while it is true that many of our students come to Yuba College precisely to get away from lives of agricultural drudgery and pursue new knowledge and opportunities, I truly believe that "community entrepreneurship" offers something new and alternative to students like these.

I will be exploring the concept of community entrepreneurship further in coming posts, but for now, an idea came to me last night that I am sure I got from somewhere else (need to track down my source), but is thought-provoking to me: "Three Dimensional Capitalism". That is, we can think of "capital" as having three dimensions: Economic, Social, and Cultural. In other words, there are three main kinds of capital--financial capital (i.e., wealth or property), social capital (connections between people) and cultural capital (knowledge and information, or "meaning"). A truly successful enterprise, it seems to me, is one that is able to both invest and generate *all three* types of capital. For example, BP seems to be a one-dimensional company that pursues financial capital at the expense of the other two (i.e., its "social capital"--the company's connections to people like consumers and workers--and its "cultural capital", the meaning of the enterprise and what it values and stands for). A company like Apple, on the other hand, seems to be a bit more three-dimensional (e.g., they like to be "insanely cool", not just insanely rich). And how is BP doing right now?(CEO Tony Howard says he wants his life back) How is Apple doing? (Its stock recently passed Microsoft's if I am not mistaken) And if I can extend the metaphor, I might say that capitalism's first stage (roughly 1492 to 1929) was one-dimensional, when nations and firms pursued financial wealth ruthlessly and exploitatively (while destroying social relationships and meaning). Capitalism's second stage (roughly 1930-2001) was two-dimensional, when the creation of the Welfare state made social connections (i.e., firms' relationships to their workers and their customers in mass markets) more central to capitalism (but which also meant a disposable consumer culture in the developed world that depended on massive poverty, "cultural imperialism", and environmental destruction in the developing or undeveloped world). So maybe now we are entering the era of three dimensional capitalism, when firms must also care about the meaning, for all of global humanity, of what they do; When customers also care about the meaning and sustainability of what they consume; and when workers can and do expect that their work (and their compensation) will be meaningful and sustainable.

This, anyway, is one answer I can give to my students who worry that I am simply "sending them back to the fields". Harvesting fruit is certainly drudgery when it is done for one-dimensional reasons by one-dimensional workers working for one-dimensional companies. But what if harvesting olives does three things--generates money (economic capital), stimulates robust new social connections and relationships for workers and consumers (social capital), and leads to new knowledge and meanings (cultural capital), such as Linda/Olivehurst's "rebranding" from a "corridor of shit" to a center of high-quality, hand-picked olives? Then maybe the Grapes of Wrath can be transformed into the Olives of Destiny! Or something... Gotta go vote.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Nonprofits

So The Eating Well did not open to the public this week as I had announced it would. Various reasons for that, but this is not the first, and will certainly not be the last time that the cafe's plans have changed. Guess that's how things go in the world of small, nonprofit, experimental social enterprises (or any enterprise?). But The Eating Well did continue its training program this week, and a subcommittee of the Harmony Health FRC Board of Directors had lunch there yesterday. That's my "Raging Bull" panini in the pic above, with Southwestern Salad and fresh fruit. Delicious! I would say that the cafe will open next week, but maybe its better if I don't (but it should!).

This pic, which I posted previously, shows an olive tree in the orchard that has regenerated itself. This is just one of the many amazing things that olive trees can do. But while olive trees may be self-regenerating, olive orchards are not. That's why Ramon has been out there this week irrigating the trees and weeding the ground around them. To become truly productive, Ramon says we will need eventually to prune the orchard pretty heavily, but for now, we (he) will focus on giving the trees the proper irrigation they've been deprived of for so long. Because olive trees are "alternate bearing" (i.e., they tend to produce fruit every other year), and because this year's looks to be a big crop, Ramon figures we can prune aggressively next year, to prepare for an even better harvest the following season. Ramon says he has never been the lead of an olive operation before--i.e., the one making executive decisions like when to prune, when to fertilize, when to harvest, etc.--so he, too, is excited about this adventure.

"Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry...

The Sacramento Bee reports today that Yuba County's $405 million levee improvement project has received notice from FEMA that the levees meet the 100-year flood safety threshold. This is a major milestone, and should be a big step toward revitalization of the county. These levees should be especially beneficial to the communities of Linda and Olivehurst, which is where many of the clients of Harmony Health FRC and the students of Yuba College, live. The article reports that these are not just big levees, but smart ones. Sounds a little funny, but in fact, "setback levees"--of which this project now has the largest in California--actually are smarter than other levees because they are set back from the river, letting it take a wider and more natural course, and also providing wildlife habitat. So the launch of Harmony Health FRC's social enterprises, The Eating Well and the olive venture (we'll need a name for it, eventually), coincides with Yuba County's first step into a flood-safe era. Seems like another positive portent to me!

"Them good 'ol boys was drinkin'...imported adulterated olive oil?!

This is a jar of olives from my refrigerator. Don't know if you can see the fine print, but these garlic stuffed olives are marketed as a local product from Stephens Farmhouse in Yuba City. Indeed, I bought them in a special "Local Produce" section of an independent grocery store in Marysville. But while I can't prove it, I strongly suspect that these olives were actually grown in Spain, or possibly Italy, not in California, and definitely not in the Yuba-Sutter area. The label on the jar says the olives were "especially made" for Stephens Farmhouse, but where and by whom is not discussed... One of the most surprising things I've learned about the olive industry so far is that, although California produces virtually all the olive oil and table olives made in the U.S., the U.S. accounts for a very small share of the world olive market. The vast majority olive oil consumed in California is not produced in California. And if The New Yorker is to be believed, much of the "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" that we import has labels that may be about as truthful as the one in the pic above. So why aren't more people in the U.S. consuming actual olives and actual olive oil from California (or just *actual* olive oil)? There are various and complicated reasons for this, including the fact that most European olive and olive oil producers are heavily subsidized by their governments, and the fact that many Americans still attach mystique to terms like "imported" and "real Italian". But then, many Americans think The Olive Garden is a great place to eat, so I guess The Eating Well and the olive venture (and the local food movement in general) really have our work laid out for us...