When Gopal introduced himself on Monday morning, I knew I had made the right choice to join my friends at Groundswell International’s Annual Global Forum this year. “Namaste,” he opened with the customary Nepali greeting and a wide-toothed grin that leaped right over his horrendous jet lag. He continued “in my work with small farmers, I have learned that community is the best institute for learning.” What a resounding way to begin the week with a group of people who have taught me the gift of community, human connection and the power that solidarity lends to making the world a better place, locally and globally.
Groundswell International changes people lives. Through a partnership of eight community-based non-profits from around the world, the organization is making strides in its mission “to strengthen rural communities to build healthy food and farming systems from the ground up.” The organization was founded in 2009, at the tail-end of my two-year stint in Ecuador. By then, I had fallen deeply in love with the Andes; I was fond of the people and the food as much as the peaks, as though we had met and danced together before this lifetime.
As a Fulbright scholar I was working with Groundswell’s program partner, EkoRural, and founding members Stephen Sherwood, Ross Borja, and Pedro Oyarzun. We traveled to indigenous farming communities and urban centers to better understand the dynamics of a rapidly growing, grassroots farm-to-city movement – Las Canastas Comunitarias – that was honoring food security as a basic human right. Urban consumers and family farmers had organized themselves to form direct buying relationships that gave low-income families access to fresh, affordable and organic produce while putting fair prices in farmers’ pockets.
EkoRural supported the movement by facilitating exchange visits for farmers to city centers, and for urban families to rural farmsteads. After one visit, a farmer from Tzimbutu in the mountainous outskirts of Riobamba said, “at sixty years old, this is the first time I have ever delivered my products into the hands of someone who will eat them; it is the first time I can look into their eyes.” A mother of four from the sweltering coastal city of Machala reported excitedly, “for the first time we feel like millionaires! It gives us such joy to open our refrigerator and see it filled with food instead of ice cold water.” These are the pearls of inspiration, strung together on a common thread by Groundswell International’s multicultural network. These are the proclamations of change that teach us a simple lesson: we are all human and everyone must eat, and eat well to thrive.
Eating together creates a place for open-ended dialogue, for sharing and co-creating ideas. One morning, Steve Sherwood reminded us that food is both an essential source of energy and a space for bringing people together around social action, reflection, empowerment and change – or if possible, the continuation of good practices already in place. What I love about Groundswell’s extraordinary group of changemakers is that each person has extensive knowledge of or represents the various roles in our complex, local-global food system: eater, farmer, seed-saver, cook, distributor, processor, market organizer…
In open discussions, we can learn that the pathways by which food arrives on Julie’s table in Ghana and Edwin’s table in Honduras are not wholly different; the nuances are expressed in the soil’s moisture, the view of the horizon, and the spices that make native vegetables pop in the diner’s mouth. But ultimately, Julie and Edwin’s plates are assembled with common tools and themes: seeds, family, community, gender, native and local knowledge, livelihoods, education and health. Like a well balanced meal, food connects the many moving parts that make up our world and determine our future.
The conference was held in Asheville, North Carolina where Groundswell and one of its founders, Chris Sacco, are headquartered. Chris intentionally chose Asheville as a place to raise his family, as did Groundswell for a strategic “local anchor with global connection.” This was a phrase Chuck Marsh used to describe Asheville’s multi-faceted and progressive food system. In keeping with integrity, the food systems activities and relationships Groundswell is building in its American home are just as critical as those abroad.
Chuck, affectionately referred to as the “grandfather of permaculture” in North Carolina, is the founder of Living Systems Design and Earthaven Ecovillage. He was invited to join the forum and share his incredible breadth of knowledge about the alternative culture that has surfaced in Asheville. He tributes modern-day Asheville to the first settlers in the early 1700s, who sought freedom from the politics and conventions of the colonialists by fleeing to the “coves and hollers of the oldest mountain range in the world.” Chuck refers to what has happened in Asheville as “alternative nation-building.” Modern-day pioneers have built a city and a community where farmers now stand at the peak of social hierarchy and do-good businesses are the norm. Almost every public school has a garden, and Wall Street is a cobblestone alleyway teeming with local eateries and made-in-Asheville boutiques. Walking out of a coffee shop, I nearly bumped into a bearded farmer hugging an armful of turnips, just barely breaking his hand free to salute a friend passing by with his briefcase. This is everyday Asheville.
To set an exemplary model for Groundswell’s own mission, the core team – Steve Brescia, Chris Sacco and Cristina Hall – worked hard to ensure that at least sixty percent of all forum expenses stayed locally with “mom and pop” shops and producers. (The other forty were unavoidably spent on airline tickets and transportation). Rebecca at Farmer’s Daughter Catering was hired to cook seasonal, inventive and nutritious meals for the week. A whopping ninety percent of the ingredients she used came from within thirty miles of the kitchen, including watermelons, peppers and herbs from her garden. Perhaps even more admirable was her organized trash disposal system. After three ten-hour days in one house, twenty-eight guests produced just one bag of garbage, diverting all other waste to compost or recycling. Incredible!
After hanging around the kitchen long enough, I managed to scribble the recipe for a traditional southern dish Rebecca made for lunch my last day: Sautéed Okra. This simple dish tells the story of Rebecca’s childhood on her family farm, her obvious passion for cooking and gardening, and the role she plays in preserving a beautiful local food system in her own backyard.
Throughout the week, in breakout discussions and presentations, our circle ballooned with new ideas. But it was around the table – over the bison stew, the acorn squash and red wine – that I felt the room swell with recipes that told the stories of a Haitian farmer’s first tomato and the Ghanaian celebration of a healthy baby boy. These are the stories that feed us, teach us and inspire our pitch forks and silverware.
Rebecca taught me that the key to diminishing the “slimy” character of okra is to use the freshest okra you can find, and a very hot pan.
- Okra - 3 pounds stems removed, cut in ½ inch pieces
- Red bell pepper - 1 diced
- Olive oil - 3 tablespoons
- Salt - 2 teaspoons
- Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet or sauté pan until it is very hot.
- Add the pepper and sauté for about 3 minutes.
- Add the okra and sauté for about 5 minutes more, or until the okra is heated through.
- Remove from the heat and sprinkle with salt to taste.