Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moral panic


Ostracizing people who don’t fit the public mold thing is nothing new. Though as a whole we get better and better about accepting our differences, history repeatedly reminds us that a slippery slope can make a panicking public turn exclusion into something totally horrendous.

At a recent gallery talk at Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, artist Alisa Read talked about the inspiration behind her current installation. Read’s Victim or Target series is part of the gallery’s Mythology exhibit and she drew her story from the infamous trials of the Pendle witches in England.

According to gallery materials Read is a “contemporary artist whose present work focuses on the dominance of male hierarchies in religious, political and social culture and its connection with the persecution and sacrifice of women in 17th century England.”


For Victim or Target Read scortched sheets of cotton cloth and draped them to form ghostly figures, representing eight of the executed women. Because no photograhs of the women were available, Read incorporated images of her own face into each piece.

The women were forced to walk 51 miles between Barrowford and Lancaster, England to reach the destination where they were tried, hung and burned at the gallows. As part of her project Read actually carried her figures along the same path, now known as the Lancashire Witches Walk, which was opened to the public in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the trials. Read gave gallery’s audience a look at the book she created as a symbol of the 91 days the women spent in prison as well.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, over 400 men and women were accused of witchcraft and executed in England. The group Read focused on lived in the rural cotton-manufacturing Pendle Hill region of Lancashire. What makes this particular trial unique is the thoroughness of documentation that exists thanks to proceedings recorded by clerk Thomas Potts.  


Cultural changes and religious superstitions contributed to the social climate that led to the executions. When King James I took the English throne in the early 1600s he brought with him an intense interest in Protestant theology. His book Daemonologie encouraged followers to denounce witchcraft and its followers.  In 1612 every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was instructed to report people who refused to attend the English Church and take communion, known as recusants. The King James Bible actually has passages encouraging violence against witches:
  • Exodus 22:18 - Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
  • Leviticus 20:27 - A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood [shall be] upon them.

Read talked about other factors that contributed to moral panic and persecution. Doctors, usually male, were not fond of witches' roles in the emergence of herbal medicine and midwifery in rural communities. Most victims were poor and mundane women who were simply trying to help their isolated communities, but were turned into scapegoats for what was wrong with society.

Americans are familiar with our own society’s role in the witch trials in Salem, Massachussets. In G. Adams book The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America she described the narrative as a “vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.”

Witches have been pardoned by government in Sweden and the U.S. but England still has not done so for the women who inspired Read’s project.  



Read is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Huddersfield and focuses on the religious persecution of women in 17th Century England. She explained to her audience her current research on Pagan altars and her upcoming trip to Salem Massachussets to study the region’s witch trials.

Read’s research brought her to meet practicing witches who she described as normal people, one about 35 years old and living as an average member of the community in a normal home with children. Read’s objective with Victim or Target is to give a face to the persecuted and she encouraged us to imagine witches outside of popular “Disneyfied” evil characters with black hats and broomsticks.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Power of the public plate


Did you know school lunch system was developed as a measure of national security? The standards were signed into law after military recruits, who had spent their early years in the Great Depression, were identified as malnourished and unfit for military service. Generals pressured Congress to enact the National School Lunch Act in 1946 as a way to ensure well-fed children developed into effective troops.  

That was just one of the neat facts I learned at Our Food System: From Producer to Consumer: What You Need to Know – What You Can Do at SUNY Orange in Newburgh. The lecture’s presenter Kathy Lawrence, Co-founder and Senior Director of School Food Focus, talked about the state of U.S. food systems, how policy got us here, and how we can change. The presentation was a partnership with the Newburgh Urban Farming Fair, an annual agricultural event coming up later this month in Newburgh. The fair’s coordinator Virginia Kasinki, who is also the Outreach Manager for the city’s Downing Park Urban Farm, opened the talk with a summary of the fair’s beginnings, produce donation program and a short history of the park’s nearby farm whose seasonal pubic events start this season.  

For over 20 years Lawrence has worked in policy and projects in sustainable agriculture and food justice. She opened the talk with questions for the audience about their knowledge and connection to food, from backyard garden harvests to feeding systems in institutions. Her work at School Food Focus, a national collaborate that connects school districts and food businesses, helps schools develop an effective supply chain that results in healthy meals for students. The organization’s mission stems from the all-too-documented connection between student success and poor diet, disrupted eating patterns, and limited access to healthy food.

One key event brought about the idea of connecting school districts to strengthen their bargaining power. A district was receiving containers of yogurt from Dannon that were too large for their elementary students and food was going to waste. The school approached the manufacturer about reducing the package size, but didn’t get the response they hoped for. School districts have such a low price point per meal per student, making it essential that they be exact with their demands. School Food Focus connects districts and successes include creating an ingredient guide to enable schools to identify harmful ingredients and creates new lines of items. The organization was instrumental in pressuring large chicken producers like Tyson and Perdue to eliminate antibiotics. Chicken is number one protein served across the country.



Lawrence helped the audience divide the food system into three categories:
  • Conventional - Large scale, concentration of power profit, benefits flow to private sector, costs accrue to public sector, contributes to a loss of farmland and farmers and farming, negative environmental health effects, decreases in biodiversity
  • Alternative - Smaller scale, direct to consumer, farmer’s markets, contribute to gains in farmland and farming
  • Ag of the Middle - Midsized, have the capacity to serve volume to key institutions like schools. These don’t typically offer CSAs, farmers markets or pick your own. They might sell truckloads of apples wholesale
The current shape of our food system is not an accident and it’s not the natural path of progress. Lawrence talked about how policy got us here and how her organization is using it as a lever for change, with the goal to make the default choice be the easiest and healthiest choice. Lawrence talked about the roots, current state, and future of the Farm Bill which connects what’s on our plates to producers, and the Child Nutrition Act which serves 30.4 million children in our schools.

School Food Focus’ core beliefs are that we’re all connected and collaboration is essential. Lawrence stressed the importance of making your voice heard and how clear, informed, organized citizen action gets things done. She talked about the importance to letting lawmakers know when we want change. Even though issues needing change appear to be all over the news and social media, that doesn’t mean lawmakers are in the loop. Lawrence talked about not giving lawmakers the opportunity to say “we are not hearing from you people.” Even five or six phone calls about a particular issue can make them pay attention.   

What can we do? Everyone knows about “making your dollar count” but we shouldn’t stop there. Don’t know where to begin? Lawrence says that’s not uncommon. We can contribute to public comment periods, sign up for alerts that outline who, what, and where about your message. Making activism a group activity can be fun and empowering.

A citizen push for legislation, rules, and protections can snowball. Just Food’s network of fresh food training and resources for the New York City community began with just a handful of volunteers, and the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) developed as a response to public input.

Today we find plenty of bad news about government and food systems and policy, but there’s a lot of good happening. Change starts on a personal level and Lawrence encouraged the audience to find their passion. Kids can’t wait for healthy food.

School Food Focus: www.schoolfoodfocus.org