CSA: Healthy food, Healthy Community

This year I made a decision, at the prompting of a good friend, to take a share in the Bare Foot Garden,  a CAS in Macomb, Illinois.  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  The attraction initially was the time I could spend with friends and having fresh, organic produce which is sometimes difficult to find in the area.  But as the season went on, I realize what I was participating in was something bigger.

After a few weeks, I realized what was motivating me to go out to the garden each week was the magic to watching things grow, thing that were beautiful, delicious and nutritious.  Each week John Curtis takes the time to show us what is ready to harvest and I can see the pride he takes in what he is growing.  Disappointments that come with weather, animals, pest all weigh on him.  His responsibility to us as share holders and friends is what is key to why he has such a loyal following.

The food that I bring home each week took on an unexpected meaning. Thinking that food could have “meaning” was a strange thing.  The food that John grew “for me” held greater important in my mind.  His care and efforts made me want to use the food well.  His responsible approach instilled a sense of responsibility on my part, too.  I explored new recipes, tried new vegetables, and tried not to waste any of this food that was what seemed like a labor of love.

The CAS concept originated in Germany, Switzerland and Japan in the 1960s and founds its way to the United States in 1984.  Today there are over 2,000 gardens operating in the our country.  Barefoot Garden use the typical model of paying for a share per growing season.  John has been able to extend the growing season using hoop houses  ad provides fresh produce from May until the end of December.  After getting accustom to having fresh produce, the winter months seem very uneventful in my kitchen.

In a time of concern about obesity, I wonder if having a closer relationship to those who grows our food and knowing how it is grown could be part of a remedy.  There is no doubt that belonging to a CSA is a time commitment.  Limited time is often the argument for eating pre-packaged or fast foods.  But doesn’t slowing down, cooking and enjoying your food shift the emphasis from being obsessed with food and to creating a positive, relationship with food. This, I think, is a learned habit and I am pleased to see John make the garden so family friendly.  It is not uncommon to see a child at the garden picking and eating sugar snap peas or strawberries.  Learning to enjoy fresh food is an essential practice to learn.




Keeping up with your competition

Having a car again after eight years of public transportation has provided all kinds of new experiences.  Recently, I needed to have the oil changed.  I returned to the shop where the work was done three months ago because that first visit was uneventful: quick, polite service, with competitive price.

My second visit was met with the attendant finding the information about my last visit and asking me if I wanted the same service. I was happy to not have to go over all the options again.  After the oil change was complete the manager informed me of a few maintenance issue for the car I should know about.  They were potential safety issues and he recommend a few other garages in the area that could help with those problems. I was glad to know about these issues and I thought they were sincerely concerned about me and the proper care of my vehicle. This little detail built a connection between me and the shop.

The manager than asked if I’d like to receive an email with these details and the information about the work they just did on my car.  He explained it is nice to have a digital record of the car’s maintenance.  He also explained that they email coupons for discounts on service and reminders for my next scheduled oil change.  I agreed because I thought I could use a reminder!

The next day I received an email with the details of the work the shop did on my car and the notes about the issues they identified and should have looked at by another mechanic.  This was very useful information that I was glad to have.  I was concerned about getting a too many emails promoting their services, but I have not been bothered with useless promotions.This oil change service is part of a national chain and I am sure this electronic system is set up by a corporate office that has the means to develop a system for each shop to use.  Small business owner often do not have access to sophisticated developer to create a system like this, but there is something to be learned from how these chains are operating.

Customers, like myself, are appreciating and learning to expect these services.  All business need to look at what competitors are doing well and think about how these ideas can work for them.  Each owner knows their business better than anyone else and how they want to serve their customers, but the business climate is evolving.  To remain competitive all business need to find ways to reach out to customers and provide useful information and content they want.  Even small business can use the internet to connect with their customers and to make their services and products known to potential customers.

Start simple, but start.  And remain competitive!

Unlikely Inspiration

Don’t we all need inspiration?  My day-to-day activities, responsibilities of family and the demands of work, seem to crowd out the time I need for reflecting and looking for new opportunities.  Even if I do get an insights about relationships, or professional work, I often can’t capture them long enough to form a strategy to implement the new idea.
The answer often comes in unlikely places.

Today, I realized that changing my outlook was the first step.  I had a busy day, full of what I thought were “interruptions.”  One of these helped me realized that these interruptions are exactly my responsibility.

I work in a small museum part-time and there is, like most jobs, more work than time to do it.  A group of 20 mentally handicapped young adults unexpectedly stopped by the museum.  Twenty people in our small museum is a lot and when they loudly expressed their excitement at being in the museum, I jumped in trying to explain the exhibit.  After about ten minutes, one young boy slipped his arm around me and gave me a big hug.  Just as unexpected and welcomed as that hug was, the insight came and I realized that my job is these “interruptions.”

The museum board is currently creating a long range plan and education program was an area we identified as needing more attention.  This experience helped me to step outside the box and see that the role of the museum to educating people begins when they walk through the door and that what we provide is greatly appreciated.  My focus had been scheduling groups, and planning programs.  This unexpected hug let me see something new. I am glad I capture that inspiration and embraced it.

Looking forward: start building an online presence

I recently began helping small businesses in the Midwest town I live build an online presence to compliment their day-to-day operations.  Expecting to jump right into conversations about clients, sales goals, and new products, I instead found many businesses where not convinced they needed to be found online.

The most common comment I heard was that their customers don’t use the internet or email to get information.  At first I found this hard to imagine but soon learned people in my home town use newspapers, posters in store windows, and a free two-paged daily “briefing” distributed to local restaurants and businesses to get information over the internet.  In trying to understand why the internet is not a first choice for getting information, I realized that the cost and quality of the service is an important factor. There are two providers available in the area and due to the high cost for a faster speed service most users choose a slow service which makes the internet experience “limited.”  Another factor in the choice people make in how they get information is habit.  People don’t readily add new ways to get information unless they believe they are missing something.  I often hear, “why use the internet when I get all the information I need from what I already use.”

I am always looking for examples to illustrate how getting information is changing and will change even in a small town.  The statistics provided by the major online services about the activity on their site in the hours after the death of Michael Jackson was newsworthy but also shows how people are using these services to get information.

•    Google searches reported a “meteoric” spike in the hours following the news of Jackson’s illness.  Google’s official blog explains the “We’re Sorry” page was displayed for the first 25 minutes in response to any searches about Jackson thinking there was an automated attack.

•    Twitter volume of tweets per second doubled, with over 5,000 related tweets per minute.

•    Facebook reported status updates were three times the average during the hour after the news emerged.

•    Beyond social media, newspaper’s Web sites also had a marked increase in visits.  The Los Angeles Times reported their Web site had nearly 2.3 million hits in the hour the story broke. Yahoo’s news site set an all-time record in unique visitors with 16.4 million people, surpassing the previous record of 15.1 million visitors on election day.

People of all ages with all types of interests are learning how to find information that interest them online.  And once they begin using the internet to find what they need, there will be no turning back.  People often begin using the internet to look for information outside their immediate physical location -like experiencing the presidential inauguration.  These types of internet experiences gives users a taste for other types of online experiences and can lead to expanded types of search for information such as product information, movie recommendations,  store hours, or directions.

Strategically, I advise business owners to think of growing their online presence while their customers expand their use of the internet.  Content development is one of the biggest challenges for a business building an online componet to their business.  Getting it just right is trying a little of this and a little of that, while monitoring the response.  The argument that “my customers don’t use the internet” ignores the fact illustrated by recent events that they will and when they do, a sucessful business will be ready with great content and information.

Five ways to keep a community vibrant

Living in any place, a big city or a small town, there are numerous possibility to exchange ideas, provide goods and services, or build relationships.  I recently moved from Brooklyn, New York to Macomb, Illinois, from a community of seven million to one of 20,000.  In Brooklyn I lived in a neighborhood called Park Slope, where there were businesses that would struggle, and eventually close their doors.  There seemed to be another replacing it in a few weeks.  My choice of patronizing a business or cultural institution did not appear to have an impact on the business develop in the area.  I did not consider my choice to patronize a business or not could keep my neighborhood vibrant.

Moving to a smaller community I missed the variety of choices for goods and services I had enjoyed in Brooklyn: having sushi for dinner,  finding a variety of brands in clothing or food, and just about any service you could imagine.  I began to speak with business owners in Macomb , asking if they would be interested in expanding their product offerings or services.  These conversations were, at first, frustrating, but they soon became informative.  I learned about the various struggles these local businesses face.  And understanding the issues of their business practices brought me to the realization that I could, in some small ways, help.  Here are a few ideas that came from those conversations with local business and cultural institutions:

(I define “local” as a business owned and managed by people who live in the community)

1. Give them your business: This is the most obvious but it is often hard to practice.  Prices might be a bit higher, parking might be more difficult, or the location not convenient.  The trade off is that these dollars will go back into the community.

2. Build a relationship with the owners.  Talk to them, give them feedback.  I enjoy going into a business where I know someone.  I was able to do this in Brooklyn as well as in Macomb and there is nothing like getting a hello by name when you walk in the door of business.

3. If you have a relationship you are more likely to influence.  Owners that value your business will often value your feedback.

4. Tell your friends about the businesses that you use and why.  Small business typically do not have time or resources to market their products or services.  Many people make choices based on a recommendation and this is a very effective marketing tool that local businesses benefit from.

5. Get involved.  Giving your time or professional experience could be the difference between a cultural institution or community initiative being successful.  An enthusiastic group of volunteers can draw more help, donations, grants and create a wonderful community environment.  It is a great way to meet people with similar interests and concerns.

Please add your ideas of how to keep a community vibrant.