Yesterday I visited the free farm stand for the first time. As Tree’s summer intern, assistant, mentee this was the beginning of what I anticipate to be a long introduction to the power of ‘free’.
As an academic for the past three years studying peace and conflict, I have spent most hours of my day learning and writing about the roots of the problems of our day. So I would have no trouble writing an analytic essay about the free farm stand. But I won’t. I won’t and can’t because the five hours I spent with Tree and the free farm stand on Sunday wasn’t that kind of experience—it touched at something lectures, books, papers, or even blogs can’t.\
The first surprise of the day was that before the food had even arrived a line of community members had already started. Not just any line but a line of people who for the most part knew each other and Tree, and were ready to help us with getting the stand ready. As the tent was raised and the tables were set, the regular volunteers arrived and did everything that needed to be done. No boss, no bossing; just smiles and helping one another. Each volunteer made me feel like I belonged here. Then it began to occur to be that this stand at Parque Niños Unidos was indeed the meaning of community, manifested in the flesh (and earth).
It was so simple yet very revolutionary.
As the produce and bread found its way on to baskets on the tables and was ready to be given away, I looked up from my place behind the five varieties of lettuce and saw the line of human beings had grown to wrap half way around the block. In my mind this stand was no longer just a small operation for a few locals to get some good free food—this was a weekly ritual, a staple bringing together San Franciscans from all backgrounds to participate in the authenticity of giving and receiving food. And about an hour later a shipment of ripe and colorful fruit showed up. It was then, that the discourse of scarcity that seemed to govern the world my life decisions outside of the gates of the park, simply dissolved into nothingness. There was enough food for everyone there. Not to mention healthy food. And, if you can excuse the cliché, the food was for the soul. As I’m sure you already know, soul food can’t be bought or sold, it must be prepared and given.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand well that this stand in itself won’t solve the big problems of our time. But in fairness to the stand it doesn’t claim to. In any event, on my walk back to the 24th Street BART station, I was reminded of the larger context of our local task at had. As I approached Mission, a woman looked me in the eye with sadness on her face and asked me for a couple dollars in order for a meal from McDonalds (which we stood in front of. My experience at the free farm stand just hours ago compelled me to stop and respond differently. I stopped, took a breath, opened my bag, and offered her the strawberries and cherries I took from the stand. To me, this seemed like what I needed to do. Yet she declined, insisting on a dollar hamburger.
No matter how much food we give or how many neighbors come to get some, at the end of the day the success of the stand is not measured inside the park, but on the sidewalk and in front of McDonalds. The task of the stand extends through the intersecting issues of the globalized industrial food system, health, local hunger, and the environment, not in solving but in trying out something different. A social interaction of giving not dominated by finance but by human beings caring for one another.