Food that tastes like freedom

Summer people line up under a leaf canopy on the green. An al fresco supper awaits them. Sunflowers hold down 40 fluttering tablecloths and a hula-hoop woman cavorts with a red-headed boy in face paint.

Laughter is heard over an insatiable appetite for heirloom tomatoes and pedigree peaches.

It is high summer, the kombucha is being poured and everyone is happy in the city of Greenfield. Last year over 1,000 souls were served at Free Harvest Supper, an annual event, where food left over from the harvest is shared with one and all, rich and poor.

It all started years ago when someone whispered something to someone else at a Saturday morning peace vigil. That somebody was Juanita Nelson. She was spending Saturday as usual, marching around in front of the green. Juanita and others carried hand-made signs that read “End Violence Now!” and “Guns into Plowshares.” Cars and pickup trucks drove by and honked, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not.

It was high summer in August. The Farmers Market was in progress.
Farmers with leftover produce were giving it away in the final half hour of the market. During a lunch break and while eating a tomato, raw and warm from the sun, Juanita got an idea. She looked at her friends and said in a whispery drawl, “There are so many farms around here, why don’t we just collect all extra harvest and feed everybody?” Juanita’s voice on the radio is how I first got involved as a volunteer for Free Harvest Supper. It was about seven years ago. A DJ from WMUA asked about her politics.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “What does sharing food have to do with the anti-war movement?”

Juanita replied, “If you know who grows your food, if you depend on each other for food, you’re not going to fight with them, are you?”

Juanita Nelson knows something about violence. She met Wally Nelson when he was in jail and on a hunger strike. Juanita was on assignment for a local paper to interview the man who participated in the first wave of Freedom Riders protesting segregated transportation in the south. Juanita’s first act of civil disobedience was to eat lunch in the whites’ only section of a Washington, D.C., restaurant which got her arrested and kicked out of college.

She and Wally were perfect for one another. They moved to Woolman Hill in Deerfield in the 1970s and lived simply growing all their own food. With a community of like-minded souls, they put up what they grew for winter consumption.

That community resulted in the formation of the Greenfield Farmers Market, the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters and the Valley Community Land Trust. Wally lived to be 93 and Juanita, now in her 80s, lives in Greenfield, inspiring Winter Fare (the first winter market) and Free Harvest Supper.

Juanita and Wally were onto something with their garden. The hegemony of processed food with its addictive cycle of salt, sugar and fat has put the nation into a diabetic coma. Eating is an act of intimacy second only to sex. Surely you want to know where your partner has been. Should food be any different?

We have the advantage in the Pioneer Valley of good soil and farmers who give their lives to the work. Grow your own, buy local and learn to cook. Not only is real food better for you, it tastes like freedom.

Mary A. Nelen is a writer and photographer who lives in Easthampton.