Canning is hot and sticky (sometimes salty) work. Your fingers go pruny, you get sugar rushes (if you’re making jam) and salt dehydration (if you’re canning savory). Like everything that’s hot, sticky, exhausting, and a little risky, it’s way more fun with friends. Canning has historically been a community venture, with folks pitching in when the fruit and vegetables are abundant. But times have changed, Americans have been taught to be afraid of their own canned foods, “botulsim”, “contamination”, “microorganisms” are the words that come to mind when you mention home canning to most people instead of evoking the joyous sticky deliciousness of homemade jam.
I first started canning tomatoes, and noticed that every thing I made with them tasted better than the canned tomatoes I bought in the store. Next up were pickled peppers packed in olive oil, then I got heavily into apricot jam, then refrigerator pickles made from beets, cauliflower, or carrots. In my work, I face the constant struggle of figuring out how to produce better food for a cost that is within shouting distance of the cost of industrial mass-produced food. This spring I was working on a project that got me thinking more about this challenge, and I considered simply scaling up the same tools that I use to make sustainable locally-produced food affordable in my own life. First up: canning. How do you make organic local handmade jam affordable? Make it yourself. Yes We Can Food grew out of this thought process – figuring out how to make good food in large quantities affordable. And, along the way (and not incidentally), share the fun and exhilaration of doing it yourself.
Here’s the overview: 80 people pitch in to buy fruit, jars, and all the incidentals you need to make your product. 60 of those people pay approximately 85% of the cost of the inputs, and 20 of those people pay the remaining 15% but also contribute 4 hours of their labor to actually process and pack the product. The process is facilitated by the company I direct, Live Culture Co, which also provided umbrella liability insurance, storage, and a few other key contributions for the project. Yes We Can Food is run at break-even – we did not build profit into the model – with the goal of making the products as affordable as possible. The end result is $3 a jar jam (8 oz.), $3 a jar pickles (16 oz), and $3 a jar tomatoes (32 oz). So far, we have produced 700 jars of apricot halves in syrup and apricot jam and 700 jars of bread and butter and whole dill pickles. Next up, close to 900 jars of tomatoes and fresh tomato sauce scheduled for production on September 19. The canning sessions are truly work sessions – not canning lessons. Participants learn how to get their hands dirty and are given an overview of everything that’s happening, but are really contributing their labor to produce the product.
I hope that Yes We Can Food will provide a model and inspiration for others to develop and lead innovative programs to provide the know-how and infrastructure to make simple local canned foods more affordable and accessible. At the end of the project, Live Culture Co will share an overview of the recipes, cost model, and promotion strategy to facilitate the replication of this model. Next year, we will develop a new version of Yes We Can Food, probably in collaboration with a set group of local farms working to process any overflow of excess they have in order to make the products even more affordable.
To round out the Yes We Can 2009 season, we’re hosting a canning competition and home-canned foods exchange at this year’s Eat Real Festival as well as leading a canning program to jar up jam from locally-sourced fruit for one of San Francisco’s soup kitchens this fall. Stay tuned on our Facebook page for more info, and feel free to get in touch with questions, ideas, and thoughts.