A block of brownstone row houses in West Philadelphia became my place in the world – a place where I aspired to start a business, raise a family, and help build a strong and joyful community. Making a commitment to this place and taking responsibility for its well-being was the first step I took toward helping to build a sustainable local economy in my region. After opening the White Dog Cafe on the first floor of my house in 1983, I soon began buying from local farmers. Fresh local food not only became a hallmark of my business, but also the way I learned about broader economic issues for my region and beyond.
A farmer who supplied my restaurant once told me that successful farming is the balance of masculine and feminine energy – of efficiency and nurturing. Too much efficiency and not enough nurturing means a well run farm, but poor quality products. While too much nurturing may produce great tomatoes, but end in a failed business. I applied this concept to the larger economy and saw that our industrial food system is all about efficiency with little or no nurturing. How much can we squeeze out of the soil, the animals, the workers with as little as possible in return? How little space can we give that egg-laying hen? How little light and air? How little food and water? All to get the cheapest egg possible. No nurturing there.
It’s just as bad for pigs. In windowless factory farms mother pigs are kept in crates so small that they cannot turn around, lie down or take a single step for most of their lives. When I first learned of these conditions in 1999, I was horrified to think that the pork we were serving in my restaurant must come from these animal factories, as most all pork in our country does. I went into the kitchen and announced, “Take all the pork off the menu – the bacon, the ham, the pork chops. We cannot be part of this cruel and unhealthy system.” In our search for a humane source, our supplier of free-range chickens and eggs told us of a neighbor who raised pigs on pasture. We began buying two whole pigs a week, and our chef created recipes to use all the parts of the meat.
Next I learned of the plight of the cow in the industrial system and we found local sources for grass fed beef and dairy. Finally, I looked at my menu and said, “We’ve finally done it – we have a humane menu. All of our animal products are raised with plenty of nurturing by small family farmers. We’re the only restaurant in Philadelphia that can make this claim. This is our market niche. Our competitive advantage.”
Then my transformational moment came. “Judy,” I said to myself, “If you really care about those pigs, if you care about the small farmers driven out of business by the factory farms, if you care about the rivers being polluted with the concentration of manure of thousands of pigs in one factory, if you care about the customers eating unhealthy meat full of anti-biotics and hormones, then instead of keeping this as your competitive advantage …….. you will …… yes, you will share your sources with your competitors. “
I realized then that there is no such thing as one sustainable business; we can only be part of a sustainable system. No matter how many good practices we may have within our business, its not enough. To have the economy we want, we must work outside of our own companies in cooperation with others to build a sustainable regional food system. First I started a non-profit, supported with 20% of my business profits and turned over a room in my home for the office. Our first project was distributing a list of our farm suppliers to the other restaurants in town. Then I loaned $30,000 to the farmer supplying pork to the White Dog so that he could buy a refrigerated truck to deliver to more restaurants. In time, the network of farmers supplying the White Dog grew to become a network of local farms and businesses supplying our region.
Through my travels as part of White Dog Cafe’s international sister restaurant project, I gained a global perspective and came to see how communities around the world were losing local self-reliance and becoming dependent on multi-national corporations to deliver food and other basic needs. I realized that a sustainable global economy – socially, environmentally and financially sustainable – must be comprised of a network of sustainable local economies. Rather than a global economy monopolized by long distance shipping routes, I envisioned an intricate global network of small-to-small fair trade relationships connecting local economies that are self-reliant in basic needs. Communities can then trade for what is not available locally in exchange for their excess production as well as local products unique to their region – be it a special wine or cheese, fashion, artwork or entrepreneurial innovation.
This vision lead me in 2001 to cofound BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a growing network of over 50,000 entrepreneurs, community leaders and local economy funders throughout the United States and Canada working in communities that are self-organizing to build resilient local economies. BALLE connects local leaders across North America, spreads solutions and drives capital to build local economies that serve the needs of all people while regenerating local ecosystems and fostering joyful community life.
And all this began with my compassion for pigs. My decision to share my supply sources and lose that competitive edge did not come easily. I was afraid. I was afraid our sales would go down. Our profits go down. In the end, I did not make my decision to share, because I figured out in my head that it was the right thing to do. I made the decision because I loved the pigs. I felt it in my heart. It was my love for animals, for nature, for my community, for healthy food and family farms that was greater than my fear.
Our industrial economy, with little connection to place – with so much efficiency and little nurturing – has greatly diminished the vibrancy of our Earth community, the web of life that supports us all. When we understand that all life is interconnected, spiritually and environmentally, we can feel our connection to the suffering pigs, to the struggling small farmers, to the polluted waterways and dying fish.
There is urgency in the work ahead, a race against time to stop climate change and environmental decline before the vibrant community of life on Earth is damaged beyond repair. By building a world where every community has food, energy and water security we are laying the foundation for world peace. The localist movement has seen what works in our communities and we are scaling up. We are pursuing small scale on a large scale.
But strategies and tactics are of secondary importance. The transformation of our economy from one that is life-destroying to one that is life-supporting begins in the heart of the entrepreneur, and the investor and consumer as well. When we love our places and take responsibility for them, when we open our hearts and lead with love, we can build a new economy that is compassionate, just and sustainable. If we succeed in leaving a viable future for our children and the children of all species, it will be because humankind has evolved to take our place in the community of life – not as exploiters, but as lovers.
Judy Wicks will be speaking at Voices of Hope in a Time of Crisis on November 8 in New York City. She is founder of White Dog Café and an international leader and speaker in the local living economies movement. She is also co-founder of the nationwide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and founder of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia and Fair Food. She is the author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business. www.bealocalist.org/Judy-Wicks
Image courtesy of CCRA