On the power of stories

I was a great reader as a child. But before this starts sounding really brag-y, let me clarify that while I read a lot, I had terrible tastes in reading material. In primary school I devoured The Babysitter’s Club books (including the horrendous spin-offs, the Baby Sitter’s Little Sister series. Ugh.) and the Goosebumps series. In early high school I graduated to the kind of mass-produced fantasy that would dominate my bookshelves for years to come, and that I still love to indulge in.

A side note: Reading copious amounts of fantasy taught me a lot about storytelling tropes, cliches, how to create really poorly-executed narrative arcs, and how to overuse similes. Most of the terrible writing techniques I’ve picked up are probably from reading too much fantasy. Or too much fan fiction. Hard to tell. Either way, reading fantasy is a great way to learn to write well, too. Once you start being able to tell which writers are the great ones, and stick to reading them (hint: often the best fantasy writers are not the best-selling fantasy writers).

Some of these stories I’ve forgotten, but a lot of them have stuck with me. One that I find myself thinking of at some really odd moments is a random young adult fiction book: Fat Chance, by Margaret Clark.

As far as I can remember (and I’ve avoided reading the Wikipedia entry while writing this), Fat Chance is about a teenage girl who is a bit obsessed with her weight. She yo-yo diets, references anorexia and bulimia a lot, but doesn’t appear to have an eating disorder. I still remember this one line that went something like “I’ll never have anorexia or bulimia because I love food and I hate throwing up.” That might give you some idea of the emotional maturity and nuance that the book affords these issues (or not).

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Feeding Yourself in the Zombie Apocalypse: An Oxfam Guide

First published under Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project.

zombie gnome

When the dead rise and start terrorizing the globe, being bitten isn’t the only thing you’ll have to worry about.

Contrary to popular belief, in a zombie apocalypse you’re as likely to die from injury, disease or malnutrition as you are from a zombie bite. Provided you can get out of the cities and escape the ravenous hordes, you will need some basic survival skills to ensure you don’t fall victim to these less dramatic deaths.

As the zombie infection spreads, the first thing to fall apart will be food supplies. Who’s worrying about delivering lettuce when there are walking corpses to fend off? And even though in the early days survivors can pillage abandoned shops for canned soup and baked beans, eventually you’re going to need a sustainable food supply – especially if you want to give this whole ‘staying alive’ thing a go long-term.

But the good news is, it only takes a little information to make sure that when the inevitable happens, you are well prepared.

Over the next few months, Oxfam will be bringing you best practice in zombie apocalypse preparedness – specifically, how to ensure that when those living dead come knocking, they aren’t the only ones with a steady supply of food.

1. Eat local and seasonal

The first step to ensure you’re prepared for long-term zombie survival is to find a direct source of food.

If you’ve already got a vegie patch, great. Provided your property is adequately defendable against zombies (some good how-to guides here and here), you’re all set.

For the rest of us, finding a direct source of food is really about knowing where your food comes from. If you’re a typical urban dweller, you likely pretty clueless about this (‘Woolworths’ is not an adequate answer). One of the great benefits of living in a wealthy, developed nation is the convenience of being able to buy whatever you need, whenever you need it.

But when 30% of the population has succumbed to a deadly virus that turns them into ambulant corpses, things are going to get a little less convenient.

So, where do you start? Well, it’s a good idea to change your shopping habits pre-apocalypse. Farmers markets and community gardens are great places to source food directly from growers. Find a food producer that you can buy from regularly, and get to know them. Firstly, it won’t do you any harm pre-apocalypse – their food is fresh and your money skips the middleman.

But most of all, building these connections now will mean that when it’s time to flee the cities, you’ll know where to go. Offer your labour as payment for fresh produce, or even start your own collective farming community. Either way, establishing a base near fertile land is a smart move. What’s more, rural areas often aren’t as badly hit by zombie plagues than urban areas – less people-meat to attract the infected.*

This direct connection to a food source is a considerable step towards self-sufficiency in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

In our next blog we’ll talk about the global food industry and why it’s imperative we support small-scale food producers if we want to survive the inevitable zombie plague.

Want to know more?

  • Check out this documentary.
  • Why eat local? A video from Local Harvest.
  • A map to help you find co-ops, markets and delivery spots near you.

* Research consists entirely of zombie movies and Cormac McCarthy books.

Buying Local and Organic: The Price Question

A blog I wrote for Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project, in which I profile Alfalfa House, a local community food co-op, and question whether buying organic food will always be prohibitively expensive.

I’ve attempted to buy local and organic food before. But after a few trips down the supermarket’s organic aisle, I’m usually overwhelmed and a little bit poorer.

But is this always the case? Surely it’s possibly to find organic, local produce that will nourish me without starving my wallet?

To find out, I went on the hunt for places in Sydney to buy cheap local, organic food. I soon discovered Alfalfa House in Enmore, a community food co-operative that offers minimally packaged, organic and largely local food.

alfalfa-inside

I sat down with Adam Taylor from Alfalfa House and chatted about their purpose, membership base, and the hotly debated question: is there a way to buy local, organic food that isn’t so expensive?

One of Alfalfa House’s core ideas is that, rather than freedom of choice, they offer freedom from choice. If you’re like me and hate having to choose one muesli brand from 30 options, you’ll click with this. Rather than give you everything you could possibly imagine and ask you to choose, these guys sell items that are hand-picked from food producers that the team know and trust. Not a single purchasing decision is made in this shop without considering the ethics, sustainability and even nutrition of the items.

alfalfa-grains

Alfalfa House also source most of their products directly from the producers: they are on the phone with farmers three times a week and regularly visit their partners in the Sydney region. I’ve been invited to go along to one in Dural in a few weeks (stay tuned for some pictures). This connection with the food’s source is a big part of their appeal, and reflects the developed world’s growing concern with sustainability in the food industry.

“People who are members here and shop here appreciate that we can look farmers in the eye,” Adam says. “We can say, ‘we’re willing to pay a higher rate because we want your business to live and grow. We’re investing in your livelihood.'”

This leads us to the sticky question of organic prices. Having had a look around the shop, it’s clear that at Alfalfa House you would pay more for fruit and vegetables than you would at a supermarket like Coles or Woolworths. I see $3.85 a kg for carrots, but to be fair they are the most spectacularly orange carrots I’ve ever seen (photo below, bottom right).

alfalfa-fresh

However, that’s not factoring in member or volunteer discounts – and this is where Alfalfa House gets very interesting. Members get 10% off every time they shop, and for volunteering in the shop as little as 2 hours per week, that increases to 25% off.

This seems to be Alfalfa’s response to claims that buying local and organic produce is prohibitively expensive. Could innovative pricing structures like these be the answer to making it easier to shop organic?

And yet, while recognizing the need to price stock reasonably, Alfalfa House fundamentally does not exist to compete on price.

“We can’t compete with the big chains,” Adam says. “And we don’t want to. I don’t want to sell milk for $1 a litre. It’s unethical, it’s not right; it doesn’t fit anything we want to do.”

Indeed, Adam urges that the whole conversation around buying local, organic food and supporting small-scale food producers needs to change. For Alfalfa House, the price tags on their products are not about getting the cheapest price for the consumer, but about the fair price.

Perhaps if this were the case for more food sellers in Australia, the ‘fair price’ would no longer be more expensive than all the other options. In the meantime, solutions like Alfalfa House’s membership and volunteer discounts might make it easier for people like me – and perhaps you – to shop local, organic and ethical.

Want to know more?

  • Alfalfa House website.
  • Why eat local? A video from Local Harvest.
  • Get fresh produce delivered from farmers here and here.
  • A map to help you find co-ops, markets and delivery spots near you.

Land Grabs: What’s the Big Deal?

First published on the Oxfam Australia and 3 Things Project websites.

sold-opera

Here’s a paradox for you: 870 million or 1 in 8 people are going hungry on our planet. But in the past decade, Oxfam research suggests global land deals have covered enough land to feed one billion people.

So if there is – theoretically – enough land to feed the world’s hungry, where are we going wrong?

It’s a complex question, with a complex answer. But there is one cause that has the global community very worried: the global rush to acquire land and the impact this has on poor countries.

In developing countries, an area of land equivalent to 10 MCGs is sold off every minute to foreign investors. But this land is often not bought or sold for the sake of feeding local communities – on the contrary, many foreign investors are appropriating valuable land to harvest crops for their own nation’s food supplies or for the production of biofuels.

So where is this land coming from?

The notion that there is an abundance of unused land just waiting to be developed is a myth. Much of the agricultural land sold in these deals is already being utilised by local communities. This can be devastating: in areas where monetary income is low, access to this land is vital for food security. In Kenya’s Tana Delta region, women supplement their diet and income by growing small plots of fruits and vegetables, and selling the surplus. Loss of this supplementary income could force these women to either import food or rely on food aid: the first option is unaffordable, the second is unsustainable.

But doesn’t more large-scale farming mean more food for the poor?

Unfortunately this is not always the case. In some cases, this land is left idle as speculators wait for its value to increase.  In others, investors intend to export everything they produce on the land. Local communities that did have access to land for subsistence farming or small-scale production are not only denied the land itself, but also denied its produce.

The other product investors are after is biofuel. The evidence we have available suggests that many of the global land deals in the last decade have been focused on growing crops that can be converted to fuel: crops like soy, sugarcane and palm oil. In these deals, it’s generally poor people who are increasingly marginalised for the sake of foreign profit.

So what can be done?

The World Bank is an important player in land acquisitions. It funds land deals, advises government on land policies, and sets global standards for investments. Oxfam is campaigning for the World Bank to recognise the impact of land grabs and working to protect the livelihoods of these communities.  After months of campaigning by Oxfam, the Bank has recently acknowledged it has a part to play in tackling land grabs. The Bank’s Spring meetings are on this week, starting on 20 April. Oxfam and its supporters worldwide will be watching the Bank carefully to make sure it is taking action to address land grabbing.

The power of agricultural investments can’t be overstated. Managed poorly, they can destroy livelihoods. But if the Bank can implement strong safeguards to protect local communities and ensure they participate in decisions about their land, improve transparency and accountability about land acquisitions, and encourage others to follow suit, we might see a shift.

We might see more powerful agricultural investments working towards alleviating poverty, rather than propagating it.

Join Oxfam’s campaign by sharing and tweeting our most recent action: a film clip on land grabs inspired by Coldplay and created by our supporters.

For more information on land grabs, read ‘Our Land, Our Lives: Time Out on the Global Land Rush.’