How To Grow:
Interview With Hyperlocavore
Liz McLellan

by v3rsus (March 2011)

v3rsus: You run the website hyperlocavore.com. What is it about?

Liz: We match people up who want to grow more food locally. There is a huge amount of land available to grow food, but we don't really see it. If you have a yard and would like to find a growing partner to help with the work of growing food we can help you find that person. We can also help you to organize your friends and family into a growing team for a shared food growing system of yards, or to form a food growing team for your church, synagogue, mosque or school we can help with that. If you are stuck in an apartment in the city and want to find someone who needs help in their big veggie plot in town, that's what we're here for. On the site I also try to feature lots of videos about food, the food system, the political issues around food, how-to videos for gardening, homesteading and other inspirational stuff focused on localizing food and making our communities sustainable for the long term. My aim is to make wholesome real food more accessible to more people cheaply. We have too many folks that would like to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables but find it hard to afford them or have access to them.

v3rsus: Why Hyperlocavore?

Liz: When I was looking for something to call the site I was hearing a lot about hyperlocal news sites. Many in the journalism scene were talking about how the focus of multinational news corporations like Time Warner was drawing all resources out of local reporting. There was a gap for reporters to fill then in reporting local and hyperlocal news. In that context hyperlocal meant what's happening in your neighborhood with your schools, sports leagues, crime stats and all the sort of things we want to know about where we live but were ignored by the mainstream and consolidated national corporate media. At the same time the word locavore was coming into use by the rest of the world so for my purpose it seemed to work. I kind of regret it now as it's a little nerdy and people have trouble saying it. It's working out ok, in fact the term seems to be making its way into the local food discussion.

v3rsus: What did you do before you started Hyperlocavore?

Liz: I was a very early adopter of tech in the late 80s, as a kid, and after I graduated with an English degree from UC Berkeley in the depths of recession in the early 90s, technical work was all I could get hired for. I started out in art school and tech was not what I saw for myself when I was younger, partially because I am old enough to have lived in a world without the internet, but it was the marketable set of skills that I had when I left school. I was very much right in there with all the discussions, for instance on The Well, looking at what the net meant, what it's potentials were, and that it would need an interface. So I became focused on user interface design, because it combined my technical skills with my design interests. Like a lot of folks I saw all the amazing potential and wanted to work in that realm. I sort of fell sideways into the work I've been doing since then. I worked at a place called The High Tech Center for Adults with Disabilities for four years after college and then the web blew up and it's been a really fast ride since, working at non-profits and as a freelancer. I had been moving towards a focus on sustainability since the 1990s. I lived in New Mexico for a while and considered moving to an intentional community. I wasn't sure where I wanted to be and in 1999 I ended up in New York City instead. Living there allowed me to give up my car which was a relief after years of horrible commutes in the Bay Area. I found a job with a non-profit organization focused on sustainability. When I took the job in web development and online strategy, it was literally my dream job. I would be immersed in technology working to promote sustainability and I wore about 5 hats there. In 2008 I had been laid off. The organization was in a financial crisis after an extended founder's crisis. I had been in New York City for ten years, and I loved it but I am a westerner really. I was contemplating coming back west. The wider financial crisis was deeply affecting my mother who had moved to very rural Oregon, and my father who was moving to Oregon was not well. A few months later my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So I came back west right away and spent time between here where my mother lives and Portland where my Dad was trying to get well. It was a really horrible time and Dad eventually passed on after an extended trial of horrible treatments - really awful for him. After that I just didn't want to go back to city life, I was kind of wrecked emotionally to be honest. Mom has a few acres here and is turning 70 this year. We decided to join forces so we could hang on to the land.

v3rsus: Where do you see the benefits in being a Hyperlocavore?

Liz: Well I am a person who loves food. I feel depressed and deprived if I can't cook. I think making our own meals was the glue that held families together and that men who cook are the sexiest thing in the world! I think psychologically the connection to nature is very primal and necessary for human vigor, but we've pushed it out of our lives. This connection to nature has been severed by the industrial food system such that our kids cannot visually identify most vegetables. If it's not processed they don't understand what it is! Jamie Oliver did a great job of showing parents this in his Food Revolution show. It was a real shock, even to me. The kids looked at the vegetables in total confusion because what they eat comes out of the ass end of a machine and has no relationship to nature whatsoever. Because that link is severed we actually have very little daily contact with the environment we naturally evolved to thrive in. It's like those experiments with monkeys, where one set was raised by a monkey toy, a box with some carpet on it, and the other set with their actual monkey mothers. The ones which lived with the carpet box monkey absolutely failed to thrive. They are anxious, sickly and aggressive. Look around you. I see people who were raised so far from all that nourishes them. You can see it: anxious, sickly and aggressive, in pain really. We also have a world where people live, and let their kids live, in front of TVs and computers day in day out, always interacting through a machine. I'm one of those people. At a certain point I just had to make sure that part of my day had nothing to do with a machine of any sort. I'm convinced that every prison, hospital, half way house and school needs a food garden. There is nothing more healing than growing food to feed yourself, and I would very much like to help popularize the idea in communities most in need.

v3rsus: How can healthy nutrition be affordable and what are the most important things to consider?

Liz: Well just on a cost basis 25 bucks worth of seeds gets about $2500 worth of fresh food. Yes you put in time and skills, but yard-sharing cuts down on that. I am with Michael Pollan though on these food discussions: keep it simple. He says: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Low processed, low on the food chain, rice, beans, fruit, grains and nuts, meats and oils as condiments not as a center stage. I am a big believer in food culture and the way it brings us together. All of our best memories usually involve family and friends around a table. I thought it was dead on what Laurie David said recently: "A family meal is a ritual that gives us regular access to each other." So I really hate when people medicalize food. Unless you have a serious health condition which requires a special focus on diet then I think Pollan's rules are sufficient. Eat real food. It's simple. Get a rice cooker and a slow cooker to help with preparation, or a bamboo streamer. The other thing is many farmer's markets now accept food stamps and I just heard of a program starting up which will double the value of food stamps that are spent at farmer's markets. Learning to cook well is important for every man, woman and child. It's like we gave up our center when we stopped cooking for ourselves. It allows you to nourish you and yours more cheaply and creates our sense of home and well being. I think it's everyone's job not just the women of the household though. All the pressure should not be landing on the women when it comes to this. Youtube is completely full of videos on how to cook all sorts of cuisines at home, cheap and fast. What I find most strange about the whole food debate is that it's just silly to me. All of the best chefs really let the simplest ingredients speak for themselves. A vegetable, a little salt and a little oil. That's it. You have New Yorkers going to restaurants laying down beaucoup bucks for very simply prepared meals made of very few ingredients. Then we have those in the debates that like to throw Molotov cocktails, calling people like me "elitist" because I think humans should have access to vegetables and fruit on a regular basis. It's crazy! In what other universe would our First Lady be attacked for suggesting that kids should eat more fruits and vegetables? How in the world did that become a controversy? Well, the corporations who produce highly processed food made it a controversy because they lose when you wise up to the game. Sourcewatch.org is a great place to research any food campaign you see pushing processed junk. Usually there is a giant industrial interest group behind it. That lady walking through the supermarket talking about being pissed off about a soda tax and government is paid for by a coalition of soda makers and commodity crop interests, not actual mothers thinking about feeding their kids in a healthy way.

v3rsus: How can people with limited time and financial resources get involved in yard-sharing?

Liz: Well, the site is free. We've built in features which encourage neighbors to share tools and trade seeds and there are more features on the way that will help you at the neighborhood level to share resources. The premise of the site in general is to lower both the time cost and the supplies cost of growing your own. Having a hand in the garden means less work and having access to a garden means less expenses go to food. It does take a bit of planning and thought but this is how people the world over supplement their food budget. We've just forgotten how. I often feature DIY videos for making things you may need. Sometimes we feature programs which give away seeds. Our goal is to make it common and affordable to all of us to eat well. It's up to each pod or private group on the site to decide how they would like to run their yard-share garden. I don't make those sorts of decisions for people. Each one is different. We have folks on the site who talk about what's working and not for their own groups, and we have many members who are vegans or vegetarians, though that's not a requirement to join or participate. Folks are free to hash their thoughts and feelings out on the site but I am Switzerland in the discussion. We have suggestions and blog posts but it's not up to me to decide what you do in your yard. Personally, as an organizer I just got to the point where too many meetings with large groups was not how I wanted to spend my free time. I didn't want to go to city meetings and argue or fight with developers. With yard-sharing the idea is that you find a few people, a small affinity group, and just get down to it. You don't need permits, you don't need anything but an agreement between yourselves, the details of which are up to you. Some things work best at small scales.

v3rsus: What health issues and dependency issues do you see in our current food economy and our way of eating?

Liz: Well the entire system is completely dependent on cheap oil. There are huge problems with industrial meat, as there are huge problems with industrial fruit and vegetables. It's not sustainable to live in New York on a raw diet of tropical crops flown in daily. Whatever we think about catastrophic climate change, we know that oil is not going to stay cheap. The industrial food system is dependent on cheap oil for transportation, fertilization and pesticides. The debates about organic and sustainable versus oil dependent industrial agriculture are over when you realize there simply will not be the cheap oil to continue the current system. When I can afford it and it makes sense I might choose organic over another product, but even organic food can still be highly petroleum dependent. Often times those big organic brands are just a subsection of some other huge vertically integrated corporation. I don't like supporting that because they suck life and money out of communities. All agriculture in the future will be sustainable, because cheap oil will simply stop being a reality. So I tend not to spend a lot of time arguing with folks about it. They either will grasp that or they will go hungry in the long run. I do always ask the good people, and most are good people, involved in the industrial systems whether or not they have a kitchen garden for their families. The answer is always "yes", and they know why. Because real food saves you money and tastes a hell of a lot better than highly processed industrial output. For me the main issue is: Who is growing it and how far has it traveled? I try to make that answer "me" and "four feet" much of the time. But it's not a finger wagging thing. It's because I can grow my own. I want to make that pleasure possible for more people. I really come at this whole thing from a much more hedonistic perspective than from a Sister Liz takes the moral high ground perspective. I like fresh food better. It tastes better. It smells better. I can support my friend down the road by buying eggs from her instead of some massive corporation. I can go to the berry farm and pick my own on a sunny day with my IPod on. I can help support a farming family. These things are pleasurable to me. Shopping for things in boxes in giant box stores makes me sad. The way I am doing things is also cheaper for me, and that matters. The main thing though is the industrial food system seems cheap but it is not: we pay with our health, our children's health and mental capacity, our planet's well being and the ability of our great grand kids to enjoy the world we have enjoyed. The real costs are buried in the way corporations externalize these impacts to our communities in pollution, habitat destruction, adulteration with fillers and massive commodity crop subsidies for petroleum dependent commodity crops. There's nothing cheap about cheap food. A lot of us simply don't understand that we are paying really high costs one way or another. I see mom and pop stores serving their communities for 40 years shutting down. I see people traveling huge distances for jobs that will not be there in the long run. I see people becoming completely alienated from nature and their own ability to sustain themselves. I see families shredded by crazy hours and children's test scores and IQs lowered because they are malnourished and at the same time heavy because they only have access to empty calories. These are all the effects of multinational corporation's domination of the political landscape. We are not at the center of running our own lives anymore and that's a problem. I do think localizing our food economies makes sense because it creates income, brings sustainable jobs into our communities and the wealth generated re-circulates locally rather than being sucked out into the pockets of the jet set. Entire bio-regions can be revived economically if we all decide to finance and support a localized food system. I don't suggest this as a black and white rule. Coffee and chocolate are things I run on and they cannot be grown in Eastern Oregon, but a lot can. I know what a garden can do for a family and so it's a beautiful thing I want everyone to have access to. Gardeners live longer, healthier, happier lives. We know this. They have access to cheap healthy food, they move their bodies until they can't anymore because the gardens fill them with energy and joy. It just shouldn't be a pleasure only available to a few.

v3rsus: What do you think about consumer culture and the tendency to value everything economically?

Liz: Well we all value things differently. I grew up fairly privileged in the suburbs of San Francisco. I am not about to start lecturing others on their consumption. I've been fairly comfortable for most of my life and at times have been flush even. I will say that when I was flush though and had access to pretty much what I wanted the amount of joy I experienced was not anything like the joy I feel now tasting real food I grew myself. Maybe to me luxury was always a matter of what I could enjoy eating. As for valuing everything economically, I think it's very important to be able to speak to people who really do value everything economically. It's precisely because we have taken so many things for granted and not actually addressed their real value that they are ignored. I know this ticks people off, but the bean counters valued the rain forest at zero until we quantified the value it produces in providing oxygen, filtration and carbon capture. It's a matter of speaking multiple languages to me. Fluency is important. The people I really listen to and cherish in these discussions are the people willing to cross boundaries. The biologists who understand economics, the foodie who understands material sciences, the community organizer who understands entrepreneurship and the value of self-determination in the creation of identity. I think in so many ways which are critical, the old lines which divide us do not serve us in creating thriving communities. I don't trust people any longer whose battle lines are drawn in strong Sharpie lines. The world is far too complex. So you might ask: well you seem so anti-Corporate, what about that line? I think a corporation is a form. It can be filled great intention and great mission focus or it can be an explosive force with no pilot. So for instance, recently we had two examples: Facebook and Twitter and the Egyptian Revolution, and Amazon and Paypal and the attack on Wikileaks. In one instance, the corporations were undeniably a factor in creating a great outcome and in another they were a weapon of assault to defend the powers that were threatened. You can have a corporation with a completely sustainable business model that provides jobs, rehabilitates the planet, returns clean water and provides a profit for the community or shareholders, but that sustainable operation can be sold to an unsustainable multinational. So really until the whole world understands that sustainability is not an empty concept but a real limit we will either respect or not, we are in big, big trouble. The big picture to me has to involve the ability for humans to respond in as many ways as possible to the crisis, as it continues. Top down solutions, be they state or multinationals, won't do it. People, communities, companies, cities all have to be able to respond flexibly at their scale, to innovate, to iterate, to forcefully limit where necessary. That said, any solution or set of solutions which does not factor in high energy costs, both in dollar and environmental degradation, is bound to fail large scale or small scale. I don't trust centralized or authoritarian solutions. They are however inevitable if decentralized innovations fail to become a reality.

v3rsus: What do you think about new media and how it is changing the way we communicate with each other?

Liz: I've been online since before it had pictures and I have seen the process happen over and over again. First the non-technical people dismiss an innovation like social media and then ten years later they are knee-deep in it. People wring their hands about online dating now. One in five married couples met online. I think it's a tool like anything else. Yard-sharing could have started with a bulletin board at the supermarket back in the day, but now we have our own social network. It just makes it that much easier to share with and find multiple micro-communities. For me personally Hyperlocavore would not have happened without Twitter. I started tweeting about it and immediately found a crew of very supportive people who really got what I wanted to do. They nurtured and encouraged me in a way that my friends and family could not, because we were all united by a very particular way of thinking. I think social media can help anyone find their own personal posse. I also used Kickstarter to crowdsource some funds to get the project going. We will take its efficacy for granted in the long run. Back in the day some folks couldn't imagine why a phone would be useful when they had the post office.

v3rsus: Do you feel like you've given up anything when you became Hyperlocavore?

Liz: I don't feel that I've given anything up, except for now city life, as I've never wanted the corporate life. I want most of all to be useful doing things that are truly helpful to people and be able to do work which I find creative and challenging, work which does not make me feel like I am paddling eight hours a day in the wrong direction, and then be "an activist" trying to repair the damage in my off hours. That's not an easy thing to find. I sometimes miss the bright lights and all of the amazing friends in the places I've lived, and being a foodie, I really miss eating out! That has meant I've been cooking a lot and trying to learn how to make the things I lived on in New York, mostly Vietnamese and Indian food. In general, I've become super domestic. I've always loved to cook but did not really have a good sized kitchen in New York City. I also spend a lot of time working to make my life more sustainable and less oil dependent. I feel like I have sort of returned to the kind of person I was when I was younger, I've always been a pretty introverted person, which is different from shy. I have a lot of projects that have meaning to me and can always find something to work on. I spend a lot of time outdoors working to make this little place sustainable, go hiking or biking. It's a great little town with a lot of wonderful creative fun people. So the arc of my working life has been the desire to find this spot, to have my life make sense to me and to do work I care about. It's never been about big money or titles. I think what drove me was that I was used to eating and having shelter, and I wanted to be able to take care of myself.

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v3rsus 2011