Last night I gave a talk with Sandor Katz of “Wild Fermentation”. The focus was on the underground food scene in America. At the end of the talk someone brought up the point that something we weren’t discussing is what a huge political issue underground food is. How political change is the only way that we are going to make any real progress. I responded that I’m sure there are people out there who are interested in getting involved in the political process, endlessly talking to legislators about their cause and arguing, but that it wasn’t an interest of mine (now that I write that out, maybe I sounded like a bit of a jerk…but its true). It got me thinking. What are the goals of The Underground Market? On the surface the goal is to allow producers to get a leg up on their road to becoming a legit business. The roadblocks put in place by our current regulatory climate don’t allow for the creativity and spontaneity that are needed for a real robust artisan food scene to exist. It just costs too much to get everything in place to try anything new. I think that’s a shame. People should be able to easily follow their passion without being forced to abide by laws that were put in place for industrial-scale producers. That’s why the market exists, but what is the goal? Is the goal to help out just the producers that are able to participate in our market? What about people in other areas that don’t have access to an organization like The Underground Market? Luckily markets have been popping up all over the country, so there are more and more opportunities, but in the end, not everyone will have that access.
The problems the market addresses is not local or specific, but global and systemic. The problem is the belief that food made outside of a government certified space is inherently less safe. I personally don’t believe that’s true. Ive seen home kitchens where I would eat off the floor, restaurant kitchens that you couldn’t pay me to eat from, and everything in between. What makes food safe aren’t stainless steel countertops and 3 compartment sinks, but the care and attention of the person producing the food. An industrial scale production loses this care by necessity, and therefore needs to be held to different standard that an artisan producer.
So what do we do? The obvious answer is that we change the laws. We’ve seen it happening in some places. 12 states now have cottage food laws that allow for the sale of “non-hazardous” foods. Jams, high acidity pickles etc. No home butchered or cured meats. A few towns in Maine have taken it a step further and voted to totally circumvent the state and federal food safety laws, although I recently read that the USDA has stated the towns don’t have the authority (. So what’s the goal? Is the goal to get California to follow Maine, and do away with regulations for small producers? Do we push for a cottage food law (that is really just a half measure, and doesn't address the root problem)? Do we go along as we are, just waiting for the day that someone decides to shut us down and fine us? I'm not sure.
I don’t like the feeling that I am spending all my effort in the production of something with a tenuous future. I don’t like the idea that any beaurocrat that I offend has the power to take away my livelihood, but I also don’t like the idea of endless political discussions with government. The reason I live my life the way I do is because I have no interest in spending my time talking in circles. I would rather be creating something, but if that creation has no future, what is the value? For me the value is opening peoples eyes to their own ability to live their lives the way they want to. Showing them that they have the skills to succeed at what they love to do. That’s enough for me, but if we really want to change things, maybe it wont be enough for long.