Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Food Rights & Responsibilities

Former site of Rawesome, August 2012.
You needn't study the face of the currently incarcerated 65-year-old James Stewart in the Ventura County jail, as I did recently, to get an accurate picture of the state of the food rights movement here in southern California. It's written all over the facade of what was once the location of the Rawesome private food club at 665 Rose Avenue in Venice:  "No Trespassing" reads a sign presumably posted by one of the more disgruntled property owners.

For me, both images are equally disheartening, darkened by government agenda, ongoing private disputes, questionable choices, apparent betrayal and a formerly outspoken and bright-eyed community now largely absent.

It's a marked difference, at least by my observation, from the events of this time last year. Immediately following Rawesome's most recent raid on August 3rd, 2011, several community members and I were echoing rally cries and waving American flags in protest outside the downtown LA courthouse, where raw milk man James Stewart, farmer Sharon Palmer and Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader Victoria Bloch Coulter were due to appear in court on charges related to selling raw milk. Our numbers were small, but our message (which was picked up by local newscasts) was mighty: "Government officials who think they can come between us and our food rights better think again!"

But now I wonder whether those rally cries were loud enough even to reach our own ears, let alone the government regulators who launched this provocative attack on food rights. How could they have been loud enough, when these images are all that remains of Rawesome, formerly one of southern California's meccas of specialty health foods? And how could they possibly be loud enough now to compete with all the cinematic-dramatic revelations surrounding Aajonus Vonderplanitz and his role in this bizarre tale, the many inflammatory online remarks crucifying Sharon Palmer for alleged misdeeds now proven to have been completely fabricated, and the holier-than-thou judgments against James Stewart for actions that appear to suggest he may be merely mortal, after all?

Like d'Artagnon of The Three Musketeers film (alas, I never read the novel), who journeyed to France for the sole purpose of whole-heartedly joining the Musketeers only to discover they'd just been disbanded, it seems I arrived on the Raw foods scene ready to thrive within a new community, only to watch it crumble to pieces. One might argue that I was mistaken ever to assume it was well organized. And even if that be the case, how long are we willing to accept it as an excuse for inaction?

When I first met each of the Rawesome Three (at different times over the last year or so), I was quick to offer my thanks and support, eager to assure them that I was a big fan of their work - meaning that I appreciated the risks they took to provide me with healthier, fresher alternatives to conventional foods. While I certainly meant every word of those offerings, I realize now in hind-sight that perhaps I took it for granted that they already had more meaningful help and support than they knew what to do with. Any service or kindness I could offer, I thought, surely had already been covered ten-fold by friends, neighbors, community members, volunteers and the like... But I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

Honestly, I marvel sometimes at how quickly and easily I joined the regular company of these brave folks. Though it's true in a sense that I was simply in the right place at the right time, what this fact makes clear to me, ultimately, is that too few are stepping up to lend their support. But it's not for lack of good will, I gather.

Shortly before his most recent arrest, James Stewart had shared with me the details of a dream he'd had not too long ago. In it, he was surrounded by members of the Rawesome community, all standing in solidarity with him at the club during its regular hours. Then came the police and the courts, and it was time for the community members to make good on their declarations of unwavering loyalty. "C'mon, everyone! Let's go!" he said to his team, looking over his shoulder only to discover... Crickets. They had all vanished.

Though the dream serves mostly just to reveal James Stewart's own internal processing, its theme is consistent with the large number of empty seats at some of Rawesome's most recent court dates. Could it be that the former Rawesome community assumes, as I did, that there are others closer to the situation who might be of more help than they would be? Could it be they fear becoming some kind of target themselves? Could it be that they have been distracted by the same slanderous remarks still threatening to destroy the livelihoods of a raw milk man and a farmer? How many more wrongs must occur before we're finally ready to make them right? And what will it take to get us all involved again?

Much can happen in a year, I know. The last twelve months have brought a number of changes in my own life - in relationship, living situation, career, academic pursuits, money, family and health too, of course.

"But where did everyone go?" I asked a friend recently.
"To the Co-op," she answered, somewhat cheekily.

 All that remains today of the former raw milk dairy
 at Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula, CA.
And thank god for the Co-op... I agree it is a wonderful establishment, with or without Rawesome. Still, I wonder: How many retreats will we make in this battle before we've no territory left to defend? And what valued resource would disappear next? Looking at photos of the former Rawesome and what remains of the old goat dairy at Healthy Family Farms makes me shudder to think what will happen if we don't work harder to support the farmers, milk men and others who risk so much to make these healthy foods available. What else are we, as a community, willing to give away to the government, while we waste valuable energy and resources continuing to attack each other? How long until California's real-food farms are utterly reduced to wasteland?

There is no going back to offer our sound advice into how Rawesome should be organized. There is no talking Vonderplanitz out of inviting governmental microscopes into what seems a matter of private dispute. There is no rewind-delete option for the slander that still threatens to put Palmer out of business. And there is no dragging my friend, Stewart, against his will, to missed court appearances. That's simply the reality.

Neither can we change reality by denying, ignoring or running from it -- arguably, a lesson for Stewart as well. But regardless of how we like the politics, the players or the odds, THESE are the cards we're holding, and there is no bluffing our way out of this game. Not now. Like it or not, what happens with the Rawesome cases in Los Angeles and Ventura will impact the food rights movement across the nation. Should we fold at this critical hour, then we risk leaving other farmers and good folks and yes, even ourselves, vulnerable to attack.

In the same way that my going off synthetic insulin has allowed me to experience the true state of my diabetic condition, so has the unfolding drama of Rawesome allowed us all a glimpse into the true, and clearly injured, health of the current food rights movement here in southern California. So, too, is it providing us the opportunity to observe the quality of our own substance and commitments, for better or worse... And it is from this more honest place that we can at last begin to heal. We have only to move forward from here.

So will we make the still pending fates of Palmer, Stewart and Bloch our final word on the matter, or is there to be more to our story? Whether in standing with them specifically - or by supporting other local farmers and food producers - can we not at last commit, or recommit, to playing a more active role in the dialogue on food freedom? Do we not at least owe it to ourselves, our families and our communities to take on some responsibility for protecting the rights we so readily claim?

With Palmer and Stewart at Healthy Family Farms,
June 2012.
I am exceedingly grateful to folks like David Gumpert and Liz Reitzig (who recently guest-blogged on Gumpert's site: Part One & Part Two) who gracefully and ever so gently remind us what is ultimately at stake here. As Reitzig indicates in her articles - and I paraphrase - committing your support doesn't have to mean giving up an arm, a leg or a firstborn child. She offers some wonderful ideas in her articles on how to get involved - from growing your own garden, to visiting and thanking your local farmer, to organizing a demonstration for food rights in your area. We can all do something. For those interested in supporting the Rawesome Three, please see the information I've posted below.

After all, at the end of the day, each of those accused ultimately stands alone before either a judge or jury. Why not arm their hearts with all the love, support and encouragement we can muster? They've fed us after all... It's time now to pass the plate.



1. Attend the LA Preliminary Hearing, September 7-14
Los Angeles Superior Court
210 West Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA
(213) 974-5279

2. Help Raise Funds for Legal Fees: 
Please check back periodically for details on an upcoming online auction to benefit Sharon Palmer & James Stewart of the Rawesome Three.

3. Send a Postcard to James Stewart: 
James Stewart #1279100
P.O. Box 6929
Ventura, CA 93006
(NOTE: All postcards must include a return address and adhere to these important guidelines! Also, James's location is subject to change depending on various circumstances; I will post updated information here as necessary.)

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post, Angela. You raise many questions that I, too, have thought of. I also wondered where everyone went. Have they assumed that it all is a lost cause?! Sometimes it is quite scary how quickly everyone tends to give up! Yes, you are quite correct "They've fed us after all...It's time now to pass the plate.".