Two recent events here in Nicaragua have made me realize that the “local” and “direct connection to the source” movements in the states around food have only just begun to scratch the surface.  The fact is that a huge percentage of our food is processed, even what we think of as “natural” or “unprocessed” foods such as nuts and grains need to be shelled, cleaned, sorted, roasted, etc.  Who benefits or controls those processes, and the social and environmental ramifications of them, is just as important as the original source: the farmer.

In the states, a recent rise in the awareness and involvement in farming has had ramifications from CSA becoming a widely accepted and understood farming model to individual coffee farmers faces on the bags we buy.   The next step for this know-the-source-of-your-food is to bring to light and work on the remaining steps in the chain that remain invisible.

Sesame seed processing is just one "invisible" step among hundreds of specific industries that process foods we consider unprocessed.

Two days ago a group of students from Oberlin came to León and I arranged a tour of a sesame processing plant owned by a cooperative of 11 agricultural cooperatives from around the country.  The sesame is exported from the plant in one of three states: sorted and cleaned (with no leaf or plant bits or rocks, etc.), peeled or de-husked and sorted, or in drums of raw sesame oil.  ALL sesame that we encounter, whether in tahini, hamburger buns, oil, or as ingredients in cosmetics, goes through this process.  The difference is that here the farmers, with representatives they elect and hire, own and manage this plant.

The processing plant is huge.  It’s a factory.  Overwhelmingly large and complicated machinary requires us to climb two flights of metal staircases to understand it’s complex process of heating, washing, and peeling sesame.  The sorting room is sterile, and anyone who enters puts on lab coats, hair nets, and disinfects their hands.

It’s understandable the the students came away awed, and also worried that the small farmers of Nicaragua were sucked into a big bad industrial food processing business instead of focussing on the crops that feed their families.  At first I was frustrated that they hadn’t understood the power of the farmers owning this part of the sesame chain.  I felt I we had failed by not emphasizing enough that the farmers ARE growing their beans and corn as well as the sesame they send to the plant.  But then I realized that it’s not the lack of information as much as a mentality that the students, myself, and many other very enlightened consumers in the states unconsciously submit themselves to.  “The farmers are good.  The industry is bad”.

What helped me see this is another conversation we are having with a coffee roaster in North America.  The roaster agreed to pay a premium on the coffee that will be used to organize women in the coffee chain, symbolically recognizing their unpaid work in the house and fields and the benefit that their work has on the quality and quantity of coffee produced.  Practically, the project supports the women in organizing themselves into cooperatives and groups and finances economic activities such as baking or small shops that the women are already struggling to fit into their busy lives.

Over 60 women attended and were excited about the opportunity for them to join the cooperative movement and have access to savings accounts and loans.

The problem: including the women who are employed at the coffee processing plant, and not keeping the project exclusively focussed on the women coffee farmers or wives of farmers.  Why?  Because it’s less marketable in the states.  The roaster is worried that because the women have a paid job at the processing plant, even though it is a job that only lasts four months of the year and most of them have no steady income those other 8 months, he won’t be able to sell the project as empowering women in coffee.  My view of it: he’s scared of the images of women in a giant warehouse, of thousands of sacks of coffee, and of big sorting machines.  He wants the image of the lone woman farmer surrounded by plants to show his consumers, because that’s as far as the ‘direct connection’ socially responsible food consumer movement has come.  That’s what is acceptable, trendy, marketable.

If consumers who shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods out of a desire to buy socially and environmentally responsible products want to make truly educated decisions, they need to accept the level at which ALL of our food is processed, and include the steps in the chain between that picturesque farmer and the bag on the shelf.  Sesame and coffee IS processed, so why not support the farmers in creating some competition to the US companies that buy foreign soil to build their own processing and exporting plants.  Given the frequency of small farms highlighted in the media in the last decade, we are on our way to highlighting and valuing the primary production of our food.  Now it is time to continue that work while also reclaiming the image of the food industry as having the same empowering potential as properly acknowledging and paying small farmers for their work.

This coffee processing plant doesn't look any different from its neighboring plants in Matagalpa. The difference is, like the sesame plant, it's actually owned by the coffee farmers organized into cooperatives.