The Locavore Express
How the SMART Train can change food distribution for the better
By Leighton John
Our food system, like our democracy, is corrupted by money. It siphons off subsidies without regard for the greater good, the same way it siphons off water without regard for public health or aquatic life. Those subsidies do not ensure that everyone is fed, but for the profit of "farmers"—which is to say people who do not farm but who own gigantic farms, or the shareholders thereof.
The problem is that our local food producers have to compete with these "farmers," and if you produce food in a way that is healthy for the food and the land, your commodities will be more expensive and you will be at a disadvantage in the marketplace.
The SMART train represents the perfect vehicle to create for ourselves an unabashedly isolationist, protectionist local food system. We are creating the train through a special district serving Marin and Sonoma—why not couple it with cars that could serve as rolling farm stands for Marin and Sonoma food producers? The commuter trains could pick up the cars at depots in the morning to distribute to all or some of the communities that will be served by the SMART train.
Rail is by far the most efficient way to move goods on land. Farm cars for the SMART train would simply be a way to get the local food to people in the most efficient way possible.
The very fact that we have this spectacularly engineered railroad right-of-way in our midst speaks to this efficiency. It harks back to the times before we could blithely strap a little petroleum rocket pack to an apple, say, and send it halfway around the world. Next time you handle produce in a warehouse store and you see on the sticker that the apples are from Chile and the oranges from Australia, try and picture the size of the carbon balloon attached to that little piece of fruit merely to transport it.
Regionally, farm cars in our train stations would neatly bookend the other end of the ferry line from San Francisco's Ferry Building. Their presence would underscore the fact that, hey, this is where all that great food—crab, oysters, meats, cheeses, milk and butter and cream, ice cream, fruits and vegetables—comes from. Planners have described Santa Rosa's proposed rail and transit center as a Ferry Building of the wine country. How lively and vital and astonishing would it be to step off the train there or in Petaluma to shop and see carloads of local produce leaving the station, farmers arriving, youth stevedores moving goods on handcars. Let's use our imaginations!
There is anxiety among those who worry about the politics of food and how it is distributed that poor minority communities do not have access to healthy food. Down here in Marin, we are not especially diverse, but our transit centers sure are. Farm cars in our transit centers each day would mean that the woman at Third and Heatherton who cleans your house and cares for your children would get first pick of produce that is so healthy, fresh, local and sustainable that it would excite Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to the point that they would have to take turns fanning one another with her funny hat. Social justice never tasted so good. Thank you for using public transportation!
Do not be discouraged by that vocal minority that grumbles about the cost of the train. When we collectively spend several hundred million dollars per project to add a lane of freeway here or to straighten out a viaduct or reconfigure an interchange or add a sound wall there—work that is going on all over the region and state all the time—no one makes a peep. We can afford it.
Keep in mind that the generation that we call the greatest one in our short history conceived and built the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression. We will need some of that generation's energy and resolve when the Pearl Harbor of climate change comes down and we mobilize for the mother of all heroic struggles. We can refurbish a few score miles of train track. It'll be good practice.
Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [email protected]
Send a letter to the editor about this story.