Selma Cafe, Farming and ‘Sci-Fi’

8 a.m in the morning.

I went to Selma Cafe [it keeps a blog too] again this morning! Hosted at the home of Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, it is a breakfast place where people front surrounding vicinity gather to enjoy a hearty meal. Deeply intertwined with its surrounding community, Selma Cafe allows each of its guests to pay what they think their experiences were worth. There are no cashiers, nor any waiters who will be inspecting the amount that each guest pays. Instead of a menu of prices, tied to the pickle jar containing cash from the previous patrons is a card with a suggested donation instead. Run by a very dedicated team of volunteers [who on earth will wake up for a 6.30am job?!], Selma Cafe has a reasonable name recognition among my circle of friends, albeit not many of them have visited it before.

Suggested donation, instead of a menu of prices.

It was my birthday last night, and casually over dinner I floated the idea that I would really love to visit Selma Cafe again. I’ve iterated before that I believe that it is one of the quaint jewels of Ann Arbor, but unfortunately it’s quite unreachable unless one has a car. It’s literally a forty minutes walk from where I stay and in the depths of winter, the idea of skirting through the slippery sheets of ice in the wee hours is not exactly the most appealing motivator. Having never been to Selma Cafe before, my friends were quite excited about the idea. So it’s set then! Upon renting a car, we set off for breakfast at 6.30 a.m. At the entrance, we bummed into Lisa herself! Surprisingly, she actually remembered that I’ve been there before and that I have written a blog post about this local venture, in which she did drop a comment. And needless to say the dish I ordered was spot on!

Birthday Dinner at Chop House

The very next day at Selma Cafe - all of them are first timers.

Apart from its interesting pricing scheme that I’ve touched on previously, Selma Cafe draws me in for another reason. It’s a mixture of both nostalgia and a cause. My first foray into public policy began with the issue of community sustainable agriculture [CSA] – a cause that Selma Cafe champions. While I’ve moved pretty far from the topics of environmental ethics and sustainability, it’s still an issue that’s very dear to me. The fact that it was actually the policy paper that got me my first internship with the City of Chicago only sweetens the experience. In a rather abridged mode, the narrative of community supported agriculture is this: there was a moment in time when people actually knew where their food came from. This is largely true when the economy was largely agrarian based. To give way to the industrialization age, agricultural industries were systematically pushed to the outskirts of town. With the advent of international trade, more and more of our food supplies were sourced from places so far away that cities no longer see the need to support food-production industries. Why should they? This returns from commercial and industrial related sectors way exceed that of the agricultural sector. It’s comparative advantage written all over the wall.

Those who major in environmental ethics [made popular by Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma], they would claim that we grown distant with our food and in the process paying more homage to the likes of their processed counterparts. In a way that’s true isn’t it? Particularly those who were raised entirely within the confinements of a city life. How many of us have actually harvested our own food? Or could tell with reasonable certainty that our produce come from farm X, harvested probably by farmer Y. It is particularly disheartening when young children think that vegetables come from the supermarket or have little knowledge of the already nicely sliced poultry. To conceptually grasp the idea is hardly akin to living it in actuality. And that is why Gordon Ramsay, Britain’s 3 star Michelin Chef, converted his backyard to raise life stocks so that his children will know that bacon comes from a pig and that Christmas turkeys don’t fall from the sky pre-wraped. It’s the experience I had in Ecuador when I had to wake up at 5.30am to milk the cows for the day’s supply or to plant the very lettuce that I know I will consume weeks later.

Lisa's Kitchen

Community Supported Agriculture [CSA] builds on this idea: a community should source its produce from an area closest to its vicinity, hopefully somewhere in which it can built a long-term relationship with. The general business model is akin to a co-op. A particular community chips in to support the nearest local farm, usually financially. The capital that is raised goes to cover the necessary operating and material costs, with the surplus being invested back in physical capital. In exchange, the community will receive a regular supply of fresh produce directly from the farm. Some of these co-ops even organize events where the community members partake in the farm activities over the weekends. Heck, it’s a nice alternative to a slow stroll in the park! This movement got its biggest boost when it successfully courted the attention of the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Though done in the auspices of healthier eating, the First Lady decided to start a garden in the White House law [see video below].

Picture source: here.

The quest to bring agriculture back to the urban setting isn’t exactly all primitive and local. Some policy makers have toiled with idea of urban farming in the biggest metropolises that we know – yeah: New York City, San Francisco, London etc. Now, if you’re about to burst into laughter or snicker in incredulity, I can assure you that you are not alone. I too, found it a little mind boggling. Who on earth would surrender prime real estate to be converted into farms? Notwithstanding the fact that in order for urban farming to succeed, it would have to be done in a massive scale to justify the opportunity costs. What’s the point of starting a farm in New York that could only feed mouths in the hundreds? When land is a scarce commodity, it doesn’t make any sense! But imagination and technology tease the funniest things from people. What if land wasn’t scarcity? What if you can plant vegetables and raise life stocks in a skyscraper?

Vertical Farming (Source: MSNBC)

Dr Dickson Despommier from Columbia University first mooted the idea of ‘vertical farming‘ back in 1999. The Economist newspaper did an interesting write up on this: Does It Really Stack Up? – just to prove that Dr Dickson isn’t exactly a nut case. Since pictures speak a thousand words, I’ll let illustrations do the talking [see above]. At this stage in time, vertical farming is still sci-fi. But so was going to the moon, the internet and a space station. As in the Economist article, this isn’t technologically unfeasible. We know how to do it. It’s just not worth our money and the need isn’t there yet.

I raised this up because as Malaysians [and most part of the world actually], we often view food from the vantage point of our taste buds. And I plead guilty too – probably the biggest felon in this regard. While it’s easier to see food that way, I think it’s about time society realizes that food is not just a physiological need. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a medium that tells us a lot of the culture that it represents and the people whom it nourishes. I am a strong proponent of the idea that gardening should be introduced/brought back to Malaysian schools, instead of building some god-knows-what decorative ornament. I want shelter homes and soup kitchens to be given municipal-owned derelict allotments to grow its own produce. It sends a message: ‘If you are able to work and if you want food, then help us grow.”

My breakfast for the day. :)

If data is correct [which it is lol], then we’ll see a whole lot more people packed into the limited spaces of our busy cities. And in the midsts of our hustle and bustle, we forget what’s truly important at the end of the day: relationship with the people around us, relationship with the community that we live in and relationship with the things that we consume. And that’s why I’m returning to Selma Cafe.

Once I find a ride. ;P

86 Days to Graduation

PS: Time Magazine has an article on vertical farming too.

PSS: I blogged about Selma Cafe in a previous post – Pay What You Want.

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