Will Parrish: The Occupy Mendo Food Project


From WILL PARRISH
Laytonville
TheAVA

On the night and early morning of October 16th  to 17th, the San Francisco Police Department raided the Occupy San Francisco encampment at Justin Herman Plaza, disassembling people’s tents and nabbing basic provisions such as food, water, and utensils.  Five people were arrested.  Footage of the police roughly dragging protesters across the pavement and beating them with batons spread quickly across the internet, sparking widespread outrage among movement supporters.

Those supporters include Anderson Valley residents Lisa and Francois de Melogue, who had been following the Occupy movement since its genesis as a small protest in Zucotti Park in the New York City financial district in August.  “We just thought that was, in a nutshell, bullshit,” says Mr. de Melogue, 47, referring to the SF police raid.  “We decided right there and then that we would start bringing food down to the Occupy San Francisco camp as a show of support.”

The San Francisco protesters reassembled their camp only hours after the police finished the raid.  In a matter of days, the de Melogues had solicited enough donations from farmers, bakeries, and grocery outlets in Fort Bragg, Willits, Mendocino, Covelo, and other areas of Mendocino County to fill their Subaru wagon to the brim with organic produce, peanut butter, cheese, and other edibles.  Though rumors were circulating that the police would arrest anyone attempting to deliver food, the married couple and their 10-month-old son securely made their delivery to the chefs’ tent at the plaza within the SF Embarcadero District, much to the delight of the Occupy protesters on hand.

Later in the day, the de Melogues returned with a car full of large water jugs. A San Francisco municipal bus was parked so as to block the view of a line of police officers a short distance away. “We just pulled up real quick, and got people in the crowd to drag all the water to the tent,” Francois de Melogue says.  “The people at the encampment broke up and started cheering.”

Thus begot the project called The Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative, a decentralized and entirely volunteer-run project that makes weekly food drop-offs both to the Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland camps, with a delivery having now also been made to the Occupy Santa Rosa encampment at Santa Rosa City Hall.

So far, the de Melogues have delivered several hundred pounds of food sourced directly from Mendocino County farms and businesses.  Mr. de Melogue drives a 160-mile loop from Willits to Fort Bragg to Mendocino and back down through Anderson Valley each week picking up the food.  Participating individuals and businesses are invited to drop off their contributions at specific times and locations in each town.

Among the outfits to have donated so far are Agnes Farm, Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino, Covelo Organic, Fort Bragg Bakery, Grateful Gleaners of Anderson Valley, Grateful Gleaners of Willits, Green Uprising Farm of Willits, Irene’s Farm of Laytonville, Mendocino Community Garden, and Mendocino Organics in Covelo.  A number of other local businesses have made donations but asked that their names be withheld from public listing.

Items donated have ranged from fresh produce to cheese to cereal to shelf-stable milk, and even apple cider vinegar for helping protesters scrub away tear gas residue.  After the volume of donations increased in advance of the de Melogues’ second shipment of food to the Bay, they managed to secure use of a pickup truck that accompanies the trusty Subaru in transporting the donated items.  The couple estimates they spend 20-30 hours each week monitoring the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OccupyMendoCounty), organizing pickups, cooking, driving and conducting related tasks.

One of the project’s volunteers is Philo resident Jamie Lee, a former stock broker and hedge fund manager who says he reached an epiphany about the ethically banal nature of his profession several years ago, prompting him to jettison his former job.  He has devoted himself in recent years to preparing his family and the places where he lives for the onset of Peak Oil and the unraveling of the global economic system.

In 2007, Lee and his wife purchased the old Nash Mill Ranch on Nash Mill Rd. in Philo, a former apple and pear farm that had since gone fallow.  Since purchasing the property, the Lees have planted more than 160 such trees in attempt to restore the land to what Lee refers to as its “old school state,” also implementing principles of the increasingly popular agro-ecological philosophy of permaculture in an effort to rebuild the soil.

Lee has been active in promoting food localization throughout Anderson Valley, helping to assemble the Anderson Valley Grateful Gleaners project last year.  “Gleaning” involves collecting excess fruit, nuts, and vegetables from local orchards and individual gardeners that would otherwise go to waste.  His involvement in such projects led him to volunteer for the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative soon after he learned about it from the de Melogues.

So far, Lee has made a handful of food deliveries to the de Melogue residence, including from his own farm. He says he will start conducting weekly food pick-up in Boonville on behalf of the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative next week, once an event he is helping to organize regarding the rights of nature vs. the right of corporations.

One of the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative’s functions has been to promote goodwill toward Mendocino County among participants in the wider Occupy movement.  “I don’t ever really drop my name, I just say this is from the people of Mendocino County,” says Francois de Melogue. “Just the sheer happiness on people’s faces when we drop off all this food from our local area is something to behold.”

Mr. de Melogue has a long-standing interest in food and food politics, having worked for 26 years as a chef.  He developed much of his savoir faire as a chef while working for a restaurant in Chicago in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is where he met his wife. In 2003, Food and Wine Magazine rated him as one of the top 10 new chefs in the world.

Ironically, just as he was gaining international notoriety for his work, he experienced a crisis of meaning in his life that prompted him to pursue a course he considers more important and rewarding: working for social justice and in defense of civil liberties.  “It was everything I’d been working toward for 20 years to get to that point in my chef career, and it just lost meaning completely,” he says.  “And I started looking toward movements and things to get involved with.”  He quit his job.  He and Lisa found their way to Anderson Valley soon thereafter.

Lisa de Melogue cites two main factors in her personal life that have helped prompt her to be active in the Occupy movement.  One is the birth of the couple’s son a little less than a year ago.  “I’ve got an 11-month-old son, and I don’t want him to inherit the world in the state it’s in right now,” she says.

The other is that she was fired from a job with a large corporation while she was on maternity leave.  The firing had nothing to do with her job performance, but rather was part of the corporation’s desire to enhance its profit margin. “I believed in the company at the beginning, because it was run by a person who really did treat us all well,” she says. “And when a large corporation came in and took over, it just went quickly downhill and became all about the bottom line.”

Francois de Melogue says he supports the Green Party platform, though he says he and his wife were strong supporters of Barack Obama at the beginning of his presidency.  It was after Obama appointed four Monsanto toadies to the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture that he began to realize Obama is “bought and paid for” by this country’s corporate plutocrats.  He says the couple’s disappointment in the Obama presidency has been a “huge” part of their motivation to dedicate themselves to the Occupy cause.

Although it has been mainly carried out thus far by only a small handful of people, the Occupy Mendocino Food Initiative reflects the strong enthusiasm for small farms and healthy food that has arisen in Mendocino County in recent years.  It indicates one way in which the Occupy Wall St. movement may compel this burgeoning food localization movement to become more overtly political as the crisis that has beset the global capitalist system sharpens in the years to come.

Earlier this year, I published an interview here in the AVA with author, activist, and journalist Raj Patel, author of the New York Times best-selling book Stuffed and Starved, which provides a brilliant and comprehensive description of the injustices built into every aspect of the global food system, all of it from a sharp anti-capitalist perspective.  In my interview with him, Patel was critical of the concept of food localization, noting that it does not go nearly far enough, and that it is often “compatible with a kind of parochialism that doesn’t necessarily care about the labor that has gone into the production of the food, that doesn’t really care about the distribution of land, or about the fact that some people will get to eat the food whereas some people will be denied it.”

Patel suggests instead that people work toward “food sovereignty,” a concept popularized by the international farm peasant movement La Via Campesina.  Food sovereignty involves an emphasis on “politically owning and seizing power over the food system,” he told me. “It’s about bringing democracy to the food system, if you like.  It doesn’t expressly demand that the food be produced locally.  What it does demand is that control over the food system be exercised locally.”  You can read my interview with Patel here.

By linking the Occupy movement’s demands for social and economic justice with the efforts of Mendocino County farms and businesses to create a food system independent from corporate economic imperatives, the Occupy Mendocino Food Initiative has taken an extremely important first step toward promoting a movement for food sovereignty in Mendocino County.

The de Melogues invite anyone who’s interested in being a part of the Occupy Mendocino County Food Initiative to contact them at:

OccupyMendoCounty@gmail.com, or visit their Facebook page here.

They are also asking for financial donations to cover the cost of gas and other expenses.  Those interested in supporting food drop-offs and pick-ups in Boonville can contact Jamie Lee by calling 895-2999 or e-mailing jwlpeace@gmail.com.

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]riseup.net.
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