Thursday, December 26, 2013

Winter Movie Series at The 99

Four documentaries about money exploring our monetary system from varying ideological perspectives will be presented through the month of January at The 99 Gallery and Center in Newport. "Money as Debt II" is the second in the widely popular animated series by Canadian artist Paul Grignon. Grignon's homey narrative explains the complex system of money creation through debt and shows how what is essentially a Ponzi scheme can not be sustainable for our planet. "The Money Masters", shown in two parts, is a review of the rise of powerful banking interests in Europe and America. Though some may find the narrative a bit overly didactic, this film definitely provides some eye-opening historical insights. "Fiat Empire" covers the origin and operation of the Federal Reserve, America's central bank, which is currently celebrating its hundredth anniversary. Coming from a politically conservative point of view, the film is critical of both big government and big corporations. Finally, "The Money Fix" offers an ecological and spiritual approach to the problem of money, and asks us to contemplate a system which operates as sustainably as nature itself.
The series will begin Thursday January 2 at 6 PM and continue each Thursday at 6 PM through January at The 99 Gallery and Center, located behind 316 Main Street across from the Family Dollar in downtown Newport. All films are free.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Of Bedbugs and Baked Ham

   First of all, I don't know if any of this is true. Maybe I'm just misreading everything. But this is what I suspect.
   The guest at the center didn't stay long, had a cup of coffee and a cookie and sat on the sofa  reading the daily papers. It was wet and cold outside, in the midst of an ice storm and the guest's apartment I knew to be cramped and dark. The center on the other hand is bright and light and tidy. He left as another visitor arrived and as I swabbed the floor to remove wet footprints. That's when I saw it, a small brown insect with a large oval abdomen. I grabbed a piece of toilet paper and scooped him up. Then I saw the next one, and the next, all of them on the end of the sofa where the previous guest had sat. I ran for the vacuum cleaner, turned over the cushion and found another. Bugs in winter? maybe something that had fallen out of the birch branch decor, hatching in the slightly warmer temperature. I gave the sofa a thorough once-over with the vacuum. No more bugs,
   That night I spent the evening googling bugs. Not what I had planned but the ice storm precluded Solstice festivities. Lice? Not quite. Bedbugs? I had never seen a bedbug but, really that's what it looked like.
   The next morning I closed the center and cleaned like crazy. I found one more of the little brown critters under the sofa cushion.
   The next day, my guest arrived again. I explained the situation. Had he not complained to me of itching and bites? All gone he said. Would he please sit on the loveseat, not the sofa? (easier to see bugs). Sure, no problem. Another cup of coffee, another perusal of the daily papers. He stood up. There it was, a little brown bug crawling on his jeans. He nabbed it, we bagged it. A discussion ensued of the need to take the clothes to the laundromat and wash them and dry them in a hot dryer. There was a confusing admission of a matress now destroyed (it was full of them) an apartment already bombed. Yet there one was, crawling up his pantsleg.
   Could I give him some money for the laundromat? How about some bags for the laundry? Of course I said. I had only a $20 bill. I gave it to him.

   Now, it was actually about an hour and a half later when I went to the grocery store and found my visitor arriving in a neighbor's car. He could have gone to the laundromat, though he was dressed exactly as he was earlier. Oddly, his neighbor came up to me and apologized profusely for being angry with me when picking up the previous resident of the same apartment (these low rent, undesirable quarters are cycled amongst the neediest of the city's residents), an event which had occurred months earlier.
  I then spied my friend with a large ham and some trimmings for a nice dinner. He was apparently in cahoots with the neighbor, who was aiding and abetting this dinner procurement.
  Now I know that this center guest, who lives on food stamps, never has enough money for food at the end of the month. Never especially enough for meat, the holy grail of those who are hungry.
  I began to wonder if the $20 dollar bill had figured in these dinner plans. No laundry, probably, but a cheery dinner with the neighbor and his wife, a whole ham, a full belly.
   Merry Christmas. And maybe another plan to deal with the bedbugs. If you're hungry, doesn't eating take precedence over cleanliness? I had to confess, in the world of survival, that it does.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Poverty Sucks

  I'm not poor, but a couple of unpleasant events while spending the weekend in Burlington have reminded me that life is unpredictable and if you don't have a little cushion of money, small events can really be a pain. I'm driving my daughter's car because my car has a little undiagnosable intermittent hesitating problem. It's in the shop. My daughter's not using her 1998 Hyundai Sonata while in her first year of college. So I drove the heavily worked-on Sonata to Burlington yesterday (Saturday) and quickly realized it sounded like the muffler was ready to fall off. So I located a muffler repair place and made an appointment for early Monday morning. It snowed heavily Saturday night and when I started the car Sunday morning, the windshield wipers wouldn't work. Not frozen, they just didn't work. It was still snowing. I made it barely downtown to the parking garage where they don't charge on Sunday and parked it, planning to stay put until it stopped snowing. I found Henry's Diner and decided to drown my stress in a pancake breakfast and then spend the day doing some Christmas shopping. I was hoping the snow would stop before I had to pick up my daughter at her job in the mall and drive her back to her dorm, where I planned to stay overnight.
   Now all of this might seem not too much of a problem, but just think about how it would have been  with no money to spare. The muffler will be expensive and even more with the windshield wiper repair. But no repair, no way to get home to work Monday night. How to pay for it? With no money to spare it would probably go on credit. With my job as a nurse, I'll be able to pay for it. The terrific pancake breakfast? Almost $20 with tip. A couple of cups of coffee, while I passed the day on Church Street, another $5. Shopping I never would have been able to afford without a decent job, so I probably would have just sat all day. But of course I could amuse myself with reading the New York Times on my Kindle. Which I probably wouldn't own if I was poor, and of course i wouldn't be able to afford the $20 a month subscription. Most low income people I know are just trying to keep food on the table and the house heated.
   In an earlier blog post, a friend of mine on a very low income posted about how much harder everything is if you're poor. Life's little trials and tribulations become grating unpleasantness. Anxiety mounts up. It's not enough to just give people enough income to keep them from starving to death. People need a decent income, one with enough wiggle room to survive emergencies, maybe even save for a better future.
  In times of emergency, my ex-husband used to say "I guess we'll just have to throw money at it" (Maybe that's an old Vermont expression.) That's great if you have money to throw. If you don't even little emergencies become insurmountable problems. Poverty sucks.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Welcome Walmart!

Dear Walmart:
I understand that a new store will be opening in the next 3 or 4 years in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont on Derby Road.  I don’t remember there being any hearing on this proposal.  I am not sure you even care what the community thinks or wants.  It seems this development was secured in a private deal with the Governor - a done deal.  So we will adjust.  And to make sure you are welcome here, I have a few suggestions for you when planning the new store in this location.

1.    Pay a living wage - not as high here as in other areas, but definitely higher than minimum wage.
2.    Offer employees some benefits that would not cost you much but would mean a lot here:
    •    free lunch/dinner for anyone working more than 4 hours per day (can be made from dated store foods that cannot be safely given to a food shelf).  Save on disposal costs. 
    •    free lunch hour educational courses in such things as customer service; GED; computer skills; management training; food preparation and preservation; tax preparation; simple home repair.....
    •    free on-site day-care for employees (absolutely essential)
    •    employee rewards and recognition system
    •    as one of the largest single employer in the area (after the corrections facility, hospital and regional high school), you can offer facilities and support to employee social and recreational activities such as league softball, after-work bus to ski evenings, children’s activities, an indoor exercise/fitness area. 
3.    Donate dated foods to local food shelves (not spoiled foods, nor too dated foods)
4.    Provide car-pool information and clearing house - consider supplementing local bus public bus service with a commuter/shopper bus.
5.    Provide free prescription drug delivery, at least to the elderly.

Mary Brenner

In order to become a good neighbor and truly be part of the community, support local farmers and small businesses by purchasing and offering local produce and local farm products.  There will be savings on transportation costs and a bonus in good will.  Consider cooperative advertising and offering management consulting services to local businesses.

Can Vermont be a Model for Small, Local and Self-sufficient Farming: Reactions to "The Vermont Movie: Part 5"

Above: Part of a single day's harvest from one garden in the Fresh Start Community Farm network in Newport, Vermont.

Yes, farming in Vermont is changing..... in two different directions at the same time: towards larger, more mechanized, energy intensive farms (100 plus milking cows), and an increasing number of small, sustainable, diversified, organic farms with added value food producers. Will we reach a ‘tipping point’ as some hope when the small farm movement reaches sufficient momentum to become the dominant model? Or will the two models continue to co-exist, mutually supportive or at least not antagonistically? 

If 95 percent of Vermont’s food is imported, does it mean that the model of the large scale industrial farm still has the lion’s share of the agricultural community, and that the industrial farm will still be needed to feed America? 

I want more information. For example of the 5% of locally produced food, what percentage of the population of Vermont are fed partly by local farms? I assume the percentage of each family’s diet includes anywhere from a taste of local farmer’s market fresh produce, to a major portion of locally produced foods. Which foods are locally produced and consumed in which percentage? For example, I assume (due to climate) that 100% of locally consumed bananas are imported. Is the inverse true: 100% of all maple syrup (including artificially flavored corn-sugar imitations) consumed in the state is from Vermont. Likewise is 100% of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Vermont from local producers when in season, or are out-of-state, and out-of-season fruits and vegetables consumed in large percentages EVEN WHEN locally produced foods are available. Do consumers have to have broccoli in Spring and strawberries in September? How does marginal cost differential between organic or locally produced foods and those from out-of-state (of the same product) impact consumption? In other words, if broccoli is available at the farmer’s market, but is more expensive than that in the supermarket, what is the marginal change in demand, difference in consumer behavior? Would it take comparable pricing to achieve greater demand for locally produced foods, and thereby increase the percentage of locally produced foods that are locally consumed? Or is the differential more structural? In other words that the consumption pattern of local versus supermarket depend on distance to farmer’s market; 7 days a week availability vs. weekly availability; out-of-season availability; information on availability or lack of public transportation to local farmer’s markets? Does the convenience store format for selling locally grown produce expand availability and thus consumption? 

Is it merely a matter of public education to promote the nutritional value, healthfulness, low environmental impact, low energy consumption, support for local farmers as sufficient motivation for consumers to change habits? Or is it a structural problem of not having local goods available in low-income areas or in convenient urban centers, to a higher percentage of the population? Is it simply a marketing and distribution problem? 

I read of a study that indicated that it takes 15 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food in the United States. If this is near the truth, can we look at the food we consume in terms of its true cost. Is there any indicators or index that could take into account the cost of energy used on a small diversified, organic and sustainable farm versus the energy for machines used on a large farm, per unit of food. Could we likewise compare farm types in terms of fossil fuel use, natural resources depletion from off-farm inputs of pesticides and fertilizers; energy costs of extraction, transportation of all inputs as well as energy costs of transportation for distribution, including material and energy costs of packaging. Could such an index be developed of the contributions to the environment from two types of farms in terms of water conservation or use, erosion and flooding control, genetic variability, chemical concentration and soil health. And lastly the health safety and financial status of workers may be an important unit of comparison between the two types of farming. 

If total information were available to consumers would it change behavior? I am not so sanguine, given that nutritional labeling has not stemmed the consumption of high fructose, chemically laden, high fat and dubious food values that are still a major part of the American diet. The weight of the federal guidelines, labeling, food pyramid, nutritional education campaigns cannot stand up to the million dollar advertising onslaught of the agriculture industry. 

And there are still many well-educated intelligent people who shrug and say that they are not convinced of the superiority of organic produce. There are still many conscientious people who have such busy lifestyles that canned and packaged food-like products fill a need to remain ignorant of the source of their foods in order to rush on to the rest of their lives, not seeing the foundation of living that food is. Any millions of home-bound, transportation handicapped individuals and those living in urban food deserts who do not really have choices. To these people, the mirage of choice is in the brightly colored multitude of ‘brands’ and packages, not the true choices of healthy food from healthy local sources. 

So what would it take to make healthy farming and healthy foods the predominant model for consumption and production? It will take advertising, marketing, relationships, access, cooperative distribution, access to ‘supermarkets’ and other more conventional outlets, education (such as farm to school programs), institutional support, government support, labeling, symbols, ..... money. So what are the actual strategies, town by town? What community partners (such as farm to table restaurants) are available? What strategies to outreach to local consumers? This is where the leadership is needed and consumers can have a major impact. This is where non-farmers can work to improve the landscape and economy for all. 

Mary Brenner