Friday, March 30, 2012

How much is that lettuce worth to you?

I purchased this "mircosalad" at the farmers market
in Union Square, Manhattan.
It's made up of shoots from a variety of vegetables.

Buying organic at your grocery store doesn’t ensure that any of the extra money you’re paying for your produce is going to make it all the way back to the farm workers who pick the food. Whether they pick organic or not, theirs is a grueling thankless job with little reward beyond bare bones survival.

When driving through the vast fields of vegetables in Homestead, Florida, on my way to the Everglades or the Keys for a winter vacation, I always wonder: Why can’t we pay for the true value of our lettuce and our tomatoes? I would rather pay $5 for a head of lettuce so the man out in the field could make enough money to live in a house and feed his family.

In a county of bounty, such as ours, where people in mega stores like Costco and Walmart fill up enormous shopping carts with food, we lose perspective. We are so blinded by our largess that we cannot comprehend the real worth and beauty and deliciousness and nutritional value and importance of a crisp head of crunchy romaine. The only reason I can is because I’ve seen the bent-over pickers and I eat at least one salad a day. Lettuces and greens of all types form the base layer of a majority of my meals.

Very little of what we pay for our romaine gets back to the farm. More than 80 percent of the price of our produce goes to distribution and marketing.

Migrant workers get none of the labor protections our government affords most of us workers. There’s no such thing as sexual harassment training or videos on the ergonomic way to pick tons of bunches of grapes and trim them back so only the good ones remain.

Pickers work long hours under blazing sun. They suffer many job-related health problems, from sunstroke to crippling repetitive motion injuries to loss of use of limbs and fingers. They have no negotiating powers when it comes to the routine and deliberate shortfalls in their paychecks due to the way farmers convert their wages from piecework to hourly to comply with government requirements.

If you read Tracie McMillan’s new book, “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table,” then you will have a little better understanding of where our food comes from and why it is important to treasure every single head of lettuce. Someone somewhere picked it and trimmed it just for you. By the time it gets placed a Walmart supercenter shelf, that romaine may have been chopped to a fraction of its length and crisped and peeled back more than once by store produce workers who are paid only slightly better than the field workers.

Today I had an errand that took me to the edge of the big farmers market in Union Square, New York City. I walked through the vast array of wonderful foods, marveling at my good fortune. I saw farm workers selling the produce they grew. There were beautiful displays of spinach, root veggies including carrots, beets, potatoes and parsnips, kale, and fun microsalads made from shoots of all sorts of vegetables.

The workers brought the food to us in a truck. They probably set off at the crack of dawn in order to get set up in time for the morning rush of shoppers. I paid $5 for a small tub of microsalad that had been decorated with a few yellow pansies. This treasure I will bring with me to my friend’s house for dinner tomorrow night.

The microsalad is special. I took it from the hands of the farmer who produced it. It is beautiful to look at and it will be both delicious and nutritional. My friend will love it, too. This purchase was fortuitous on my part, but for once, my food purchase felt exactly right. I was paying for the true value of my fresh food.

Here is a link to my review of “The American Way of Eating.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

For Rod. For Lynn’s family. For Lynn’s loved ones. And for Lynn.

Eulogy for Lynn Harnett

Brief recollections

Lynn at Boundary Pond,
on the NH/Canada border.


We had driven 25 miles on logging roads in northern New Hampshire looking for a clue to the trailhead that led to Little Hellgate Falls. The trail was extremely remote. You had to bushwhack to get to it. And we didn’t quite know where to go.

We parked the car at the designated mile marker. Was this even the right road? Lynn was excited. A good day in the woods for Lynn was a hilly run in the morning and two hikes during the day, gin and tonics on the deck overlooking First Connecticut Lake at 5, followed at 7 by a dinner made largely from vegetables Lynn harvested from her garden. Even up on the Canadian border, with a dull chopping knife and only salt and pepper to season the food,

Lynn knew how to find and create a quality experience. She was an ideal partner for any adventure life posed. Lucky were we who shared even one day in this adventure with Lynn.

Our quest for the falls was our second hike of the day. It was late afternoon and Little Hellgate Falls was in there somewhere. So was dusk. In the woods dusk is dark. And dusk awakens the wildlife.

All we had to do was find the trailhead. The whole hike was only five miles. Lynn was a runner. We could do this easily in an hour or two. We’d read that the falls got its name — Hellgate — because many a logger lost his life down there breaking up log jams. How intriguing. Lynn strode off ahead of me. No time to waste.

We were up to our shoulders in tall grasses. If there was a moose standing next to you, you wouldn’t know it. Lynn pushed on, unencumbered by anxiety or doubt. She was fearless, strong, curious, smart — the attributes of an adventurer unleashed.

These wild woods were as much Lynn’s element as the stack of books she’d piled on her nightstand back at the cabin. She’d plowthrough those books with the same resolve she plowed through the entanglement of brush.

Ahead of us, far in the distance, was a mountain. I knew Hellgate Falls was not in this direction. We were heading for Maine. Lynn flew ahead, straight into no man’s land. There was no trail. There was no sign that any human had ever trod here. A thrilling thought. Neither of us knew then that the trailhead was a mile back. We’d passed it, hidden by the brush and grasses.

Little Hellgate Falls trail was not the objective for Lynn. Though we eventually found the trailhead, it wouldn’t have mattered. Lynn was at thepeak of her game with a late afternoon bushwhack into the vast and unexplored unknown.

Lynn climbing up to the Fourth Connecticut Lake,
the source of the Connecticut River.


After dinner and perhaps some reading, Lynn would bring a drink and a cigarette out to the deck. She’d settle herself into a comfortable position and listen to the loons out on the lake. And eventually the animals would resume their noisy activities in the woods all around the cabin.

But what Lynn really loved, what engrossed her for hours at a time, was to look up into a sky so full of stars there didn’t seem to be any space left for plain black sky. As midnight approached and the dew thickened and the temperature dropped, Lynn stayed on, looking up, watching the stars shoot in all directions, big and little, bold and bright.

I’d head off to bed, too chilled, too sleepy to maintain the watch with Lynn. But when I’d get up for a glass of water or to use the bathroom, I’d look out and there was Lynn, gazing upward, fully engaged.


Just a few weeks ago, Lynn said that she had been waking up very early in the morning. At 4 am she would get something, maybe it was Ensure or maybe it was a fruit popsicle, I couldn’t quite hear what. By then, her voice was a whisper.

She said she was would sit with the silence and spend long, quiet time thinking in detail about her life. “I’m really enjoying this a lot,” she said. She felt it was a privilege to have this opportunity to reflect.

On a subsequent call, she said she’d begun to write a short memoir, or maybe, she said, you could call it an extended obit. Maybe 10 or 11 pages, she said. The next time we spoke, the project was of such interest, Lynn-the-writer said, that she’d decided to work on a complete memoir — if time allowed.

Lynn’s life defined the word “compassion,” as we all know. She understood us, perhaps at times better than we understood ourselves, and she knew what to do and say to give us truthful comfort and peace. She was not, however, self-sacrificing. She was grounded. Whatever she said and did flowed up from a core of self-knowledge and assurance that evoked our awe and respect.

In the last days of her life I suspect it began to occur to her, as she took inventory there in the growing light of early morning, that she had never deviated from her high standards. Book reviews, gardening, writing, cooking, reading drafts of our work and giving feedback, running and hiking, her honesty and authenticity — she had done everything exceptionally well and all of us shared in the bounty of Lynn.

With Lynn, you can say that hyperbole is an impossibility. No one here would disagree.

As Rod knows, because he kindly stood and held the phone for Lynn, the last words Lynn and I spoke to each other were: “I love you, good friend. Exceptional friend.” Rod said she was smiling. I think Lynn smiled because, at the end, she had taken the time to draw her life of unparalleled quality and compassion around her. She could warm and comfort herself with the success of her efforts.

Lynn died too young. And she suffered too much. But she said, “I’ve lived a good life and I’m ready for this. I am not afraid.”

This was not a story she told me to make me feel better. This is what she learned about herself at Little Hellgate Falls and that she later confirmed, with magnificent grace, in that clearing she discovered at 4 am on Marathon Key.

We cannot say thank you enough, Lynn, for the good times, good food, fine insights and deep thoughts you shared. With you, we all had a taste of the very best that life offers. What you have worked so hard to give us will not be undone by death. You will live on in the thousand ways you have touched us.