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Del Monte—Move Over
by Lauren Goldfarb
Early in August, I accompanied a reporter to Northampton, Massachusetts to do a story on a community canning center. The Center consists of a one room extension of the Northampton Hall of records, a huge canning kit with accessories and three staff members. We decided to film the story line around the process of canning itself.
Community canning can ultimately be a big help to local farmers who are gradually being supplanted by agribusiness. During the summer, many people buy directly from the farmers at roadside stands or at farmers markets. But there is only so much that one can purchase and eat at a time before it goes bad. With community canning, consumers can buy all the farmers’ surplus and can it for the winter.
You might question the value of this for the consumer. By buying from the farmer directly one pays about 50 percent under the retail price. The cost of vegetables canned at the center is also about 50 percent less than the same amount in cans from the supermarket. If you save your jars, you can save up to 70 percent. And if you grow your own vegetables and use your own jars, savings run over 90 percent, the only cost being for equipment use.
This issue can also be viewed from the aspect of health and flavor. One of the best kept secrets in this country is the harmful and sometimes carcinogenic effect that commercially grown and processed food can have on us. Hormones, antibiotics and other drugs are constantly being fed to animals to increase quantity at the expense of quality, taste and nutrition. Agribusiness destroys the land by forcing it to produce more than it should by use of chemical fertilizers, made of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash (NPK). NPK destroys the bacterial organisms which are needed to keep the soil healthy and produce good crops. The Nulls, in their book Poisons in Your Body, describe how this can affect your food. Read about one of your favorite salad, sandwich and spaghetti sauce ingredients, the tomato:
Once fragrant, flame-red orbs bursting with juice, tomatoes in recent years have become wholly tasteless blobules that can be practically bounced off the wall without being bruised. Fertilizers and hybrid strains combine to produce tomatoes that have superior handling and keeping qualities. But what about the loss of vitamin C and flavor? No longer thinking of patches and pounds, farmers were faced with new problems when production covered acres and amounted to tons. Harvesting machines would damage normal, tasty tomatoes, so a pulpy, thick skinned hybrid that could withstand rough handling was created. Since agribusinesses have created a demand for tomatoes the year round, the growing season has been unnaturally extended. Grown during the winter in southern and western states, tomatoes can no longer be left to ripen on the vine if they are able to survive being shipped thousands of miles to the north. As soon as NPK forces them into existence, tomatoes are picked green and ripened artificially. During the long voyage in refrigerated trucks and trains, tomatoes are kept in temperature-and-humidity-controlled environments that effectively stop their growth. Just before they are sent to your local market, tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene gas, which turns them red. The consumer is forced to purchase a nutritionally worthless, unripe, cosmetically treated product — or do without tomatoes.
In a new book The Changing American Diet, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the authors review the bad state of our diet and encourage us to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, potatoes, whole grains and beans. What they don’t tell us is how to make sure our fruits and vegetables are really fresh.
Spreading the Word
In every way, then — in terms of health, taste, cost and helping local farmers — community canning is an excellent practice. Unfortunately, it is not that widespread. There are only 165 centers in the U.S. At the Northampton center, the only one in Massachusetts, only 4,000 jars were canned in 1977. The reason for the dearth of activity has to do with lack of publicity for canning, lack of prominence of the center in the community and the fact that the center was set up for reasons other than those mentioned above. (Most centers are funded by Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) grants as an impetus to temporary employment.)
WBZ (a television station in Boston) did a three-part series on the Northampton center. By the end of the week during which it aired, we were inundated with calls from viewers asking us directions to the canning center. Some callers were interested in setting one up in the Boston area and wanted to know who to contact. Dorchester, an inner city neighborhood in Boston, holds weekly farmers markets in the summer. Farmers drive three hours from upstate because they always manage to sell everything. Residents love the savings. Therefore, a canning center need not be restricted to the countryside.
WBZ also received a call from the State Food and Agricultural Department. Commissioner Fred Winthrop has been encouraging direct marketing through farmers’ markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own farms. He hopes to increase consumer demand for Massachusetts-grown products and ultimately spur agricultural production in the state. At a recent conference of the Northeastern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Mass. Lt. Gov. Tom O’Neill stated that “agriculture in the Northeast has for far too long taken a back seat to industrial development.” With such people in powerful positions, there is hope that there will be some drastic changes in agriculture which will affect more than the GNP. Commissioner Winthrop came to WBZ to view the tapes. He is now talking about initiating accredited programs in community canning where students of the UMass Agriculture School and regional technical and vocational schools would staff the centers.
Another interested viewer was Mass. Congresswoman Margaret Heckler of the House Agriculture Committee, a group which, except for Heckler and a couple of others, is composed of staunch agribusiness defenders. Heckler has been influential in proposing legislation which authorizes grants totalling $1.5 million to help state agencies expand farmer-to-consumer direct marketing programs. Right now, in the U.S. there are more than 8,000 roadside stands, 3,000 pick-your-own farms and 500 permanent farmers’ markets, according to the Agriculture Committee’s research. In addition to saving consumers over 50 percent, these programs boost farmers’ incomes 16 percent above wholesale.
The Congresswoman met up with (reporter) Jack Borden and me when we did a follow-up story at the Dorchester market. She endorsed the promotion of community canning centers on the air and later sent a letter to the station requesting that Jack Borden come to Washington and present the tapes to the entire Congress. We also showed the tape to the Northeast director of The Hunger Project, a group which feels that ‘the end of world hunger is an idea whose time has come’ and hopes to end it within twenty years. The Northeast division, which includes the Boston and the Wesleyan chapters, is eager to promote the community centers in any way they can.
Any one interested in consumer rights, good nutrition and community organizing is sure to find work on the establishment of a community canning center a valuable and fulfilling experience.
Lauren Goldfarb is a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown. Connecticut. She participated in the making of a series for WBZ-TV in Boston about community canning. A longer version of this article was originally published in the student newspaper at Wesleyan, Hermes.