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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Fair Trade

Farmers markets overflow with the ingredients for healthy living. Fresh fruit, organically grown vegetables and healthy snacks fly from vendors' booths, with nary a drop of corn syrup in sight. It's enough to make Nuz's lefty heart swell with pride.

Yet it hasn't always been an egalitarian proposition. After paper food stamps were replaced with electronic debit cards in 2003, low-income shoppers in Santa Cruz County had a harder time buying fresh-from-the-field comestibles and instead had to make do with shopping at large supermarkets, where the wireless devices that could read the cards were already installed. In spite of the nutritional challenges facing many low-income folks, and the obvious benefits of eating fresh, local and organic food, it seemed like tired vegetables and processed foods trucked in from far away were the only option.

Then local health food advocates found a way around this unintended side effect of the technology upgrade: wood.

For the past four years, food stamp recipients have been able to visit a single station at the farmers market to exchange money stored in their electronic accounts for wood tokens that can be used at any booth in the market.

The program has tripled the number of food stamp recipients visiting the Santa Cruz farmers market, and Watsonville Market manager Nancy Gammons says the program has attracted "hundreds" of new customers to her market every year. Now, thanks to the efforts of District 17 Congressman Sam Farr, money to implement this idea in markets across the nation has made its way into the 2007 Farm Bill.

"Watsonville can serve as a model for the nation on how to match good nutrition policy, which is related to health policy, with good social service policy," says Farr, who congratulated county supervisors for the work on this program during an Aug. 14 visit to their chambers. "The nation needs to see examples. Most people will say it's too expensive, or it won't work. Sometimes they just need a little push, and I think Santa Cruz County is doing a good job of pushing the envelope on social policy."

Officials from the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers helped organize the program with local market managers. Lee Mercer, outreach director for Second Harvest, has received positive feedback on the streamlined process. "A lot of the individual farmers don't want to go through the trouble of registering and getting a card-swiping device," he says. "We help people with the transactions in Watsonville so the farmers market manager doesn't have to deal with it."

Farr argues that the funding in this year's Farm Bill, which will be debated in the Senate next month, will help battle obesity-related maladies such as diabetes and heart disease.

Yet there may be other benefits as well. Nesh Dylan, coordinator for Santa Cruz and Live Oak farmers markets, believes the proliferation of this program will help get around at least one of the thorny ethical dilemmas the organic movement struggles with.

"One critique of the organic movement is that it's not always possible for people of a certain socioeconomic class to participate fully as a consumer of organic goods," he says. "This program allows more accessibility for people of that economic class."

Slick Thuggery

The corporate practices of MediaNews Group, the chain newspaper company that swallowed up the Sentinel, Monterey Herald and San Jose Mercury News over the course of the last year, have come under fire yet again as the company withdrew recognition of a union representing employees at a group of East Bay newspapers on Aug. 13.

MediaNews had already raised media watchers' eyebrows for taking over every Bay Area daily newspaper (except San Francisco's Examiner and Chronicle) from Marin to Monterey. Concerns intensified when it sold off the papers' buildings, including the Sentinel's longtime downtown home and the Tribune Tower in Oakland, and sold many of the presses as well, centrally consolidated printing operations. It next broke promises of stable staff levels at both the Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News, firing numbers of longtime employees.

Now, apparently, it's out to get rid of its last uncontrollable cost—its unionized workforce. The news hit members of the Northern California Media Workers Guild at the end of an 18-paragraph email from MediaNews Group publisher John Armstrong. Representing owner and CEO Dean Singleton, Armstrong announced the launch of the clunkily named Bay Area News Group – East Bay (BANG-EB), a consolidation of the unionized Alameda Newspaper Group with the nonunion Contra Costa Times and Hill group. He promised better times, a reversal of declining profits and stability in a time of shrinking newspaper readership.

And in the last few paragraphs, Armstrong noted that since all the BANG-EB newspapers are now one mega-entity, and unionized employees from the slew of formerly separate newsrooms comprise only 130 of the newly merged total of 300, which is less than half the total, the union can no longer claim to represent the majority. And therefore MediaNews Group "hereby withdraws recognition."

Needless to say, this did not sit well with disrecognized workers, and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Hall, also the Guild's union leader, fired back a letter to MediaNews' corporate counsel promising to "fight this in all appropriate venues." One of those venues is the National Labor Relations Board, where Hall and fellow reps immediately filed complaints over MediaNews' combining union and nonunion workers into one group by corporate fiat, and, separately, challenging the merger of so many papers together overall.

"We are absolutely committed," Hall told the Berkeley Daily Planet, "not to allow Dean Singleton to create a nonunion environment in the East Bay newspaper industry."

Of War and Wallets

About 75 antiwar activists came out to the Santa Cruz County Courthouse last Thursday to draw attention to the connections between California's budget crisis and the costs of the Iraq War. Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Ryan Coonerty and Cynthia Mathews attended the event, organized by to help raise the issue of the war's impact on local services.

Standing in front of a giant check for $1.11 billion (the amount the 17th Congressional District has spent on the Iraq war) made out to "Iraq's Unwinnable Civil War c/o Rep. Sam Farr," speakers presented the trade-offs Americans are making in order to fund the war in Iraq.

Felton activist and District 27 candidate Barbara Sprenger pointed out that, among other things, the $17 billion California spent this year on the war could have paid for the health care of every child in the state. She added, "We have 4,000 kids still uninsured in Santa Cruz County." regional council organizer Deirdre Des Jardins spoke on how the $452 billion already spent in Iraq is money that could be better spent in local communities to improve the lives of American families. "At some point, robbing Peter to pay Paul stops working," Jardins noted during her speech on the county building steps.

Cruz to Cuba

It wouldn't be too hard for a travel agent to sell the Cuba vacation. It's a gorgeous little island, closer to the U.S. mainland than Hawaii, with sprawling beaches, rich historic architecture and a friendly populace. The island's main export is doctors, so there would be no need to worry about dying from some exotic tropical disease. Even the U.S. military detention center there is world-class, if in violation of international law.

Alas, to the chagrin of aspiring American globetrotters, Washington's 40-year-old trade embargo continues uninterrupted and with it a travel ban. Among the intrepid spirits who have found a way around the travel lockdown by traveling through Mexico are the members of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group. Recently eight members from Santa Cruz joined up with 120 other subversive adventurers from across the country traveling south of the border with the Pastors for Peace caravan.

Their mission was twofold: to challenge the logic of the trade ban, and more importantly, to find out what exactly the feds are protecting us from.

"I didn't know anything about Cuba," says Chea Berra, who brought her teenage daughters Hayley and Carla along with her this year. "What little I knew was about Fidel, the oppressive nature of his government. All the things I learned had been very negative."

Once Berra arrived on the island, her negative perceptions were shattered. She saw a top-notch health-care system and a people who place community and family higher on their priority list than individual advancement. The group even visited a graduation for eight U.S. citizens who had completed medical school requirements at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana with full scholarships.

"They were able to rise away from an oppressive control that was all focused towards channeling resources towards the elite," she says, referring to the pre-revolution rule of General Fulgencio Batista. "It gives them a sense of power. It was a very powerful experience, seeing that sense of well-being." Rob Hoffman, a student of politics at San Jose State University, won a letter-writing contest sponsored by the local chapter of Tres Americas, to cinch his ticket. While he admits the medical supplies "smuggled" into the country against the U.S. embargo were "just a drop in the bucket," he does believe the trip carries symbolic weight.

"It's a statement of our goodwill towards them," he says. "If the government would let us, we would willingly trade with them, and most people in the U.S. probably would as well."

Instead the embargo causes inflated prices for basic consumer goods, says Hoffman.

While the caravan was meant to send a message to Washington, all of the Santa Cruz "caravanistas" Nuz spoke with felt that they personally learned a lot from the trip and that Cuban society has much to offer the U.S. in the way of strengthening community bonds.

"The culture shock coming back is amazing," says Berra. "It's depressing to be back because I see so much disillusionment and loss of hope here."

While Berra was disappointed upon her return, another of the caravanistas, Autumn Vogel, brought back a feeling of hope for the "You" generation.

"I hope to see more of those kinds of values implemented here in our community," she says. "That kind of value system strengthens the community."

The CARAVANISTAS will be giving more details on their trip, getting the word out about existing legislation to drop the ban, and showing the film 'Salud' on Friday, Aug. 24, at 6:30pm at the Vets Hall, 846 Front St, Santa Cruz. Free.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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