One of its goals is to make Community Supported Agriculture programs legal in the country.
Think of Greece and, chances are, images of mouthwatering food will come to mind. Greece is famous for its cuisine, from crispy phyllo pastries and oil-infused eggplant to herby salads and honey-drenched sweets. But the way in which these iconic ingredients make their way onto Greek tables is not so idyllic, according to Jenny Gkiougki.
Gkiougki is the head of Agroekopolis, a grassroots organization in Thessaloniki that is working to develop Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs as a way of supporting small-scale local farmers -- people who face tremendous challenges and discrimination under the current food supply chain. Agroekopolis won a 2018 Lush Spring Prize for its work toward improving food security and sovereignty, and Gkiougki was at the award ceremony in London this past May to receive the £20,000 prize. That's where I met her and had a conversation about her work.
Greece, as most people know, has been in a state of economic crisis for the past decade; but while the government claims the situation is improving, Gkiougki say it's not the case. "The commons is under threat, as is the ownership of the commons," she told me. "Our airports are privately owned by Germans. Our ports belong to the Chinese, trains to the Italian railway. This is a time when everything is being dismantled." The worst is yet to come, she believes, once austerity measures have been normalized by the passing of time.
As a Greek formerly living in England, Gkiougki saw it as her civic duty to return home and help prepare her own people to survive the rough times she predicts. As the "real privatization and scavenging of the Greek people and their resources" gets underway, they will need to build a new kind of society that allows for self-sufficiency and security.
This is a kind of lifestyle Greeks once had, not long ago. The country is full of mountains and islands, so because of the geography people were forced to live in self-sustaining communities. That changed in the 1980s, Gkiougki explained, when the common agriculture policy came along, and people were driven to individualism, rather than community living. They began competing with neighbors, rather than relying on them. "We need to reclaim that," she said. Agroekopolis strives to do this in a number of ways.
First, it connects Greek agricultural initiatives with the outside world. The organization works closely with the Global CSA Network and has established trading relationships that allow small citrus and olive oil producers in Greece to sell their products through a European CSA network. This makes their business more profitable. Rather than the 25-30 cents per kilogram that a farmer would earn for oranges sold to a middleman, the farmer now makes 1 Euro per kilo. It's a fair price and that money is returned to the local economy to help others.
Second, Agroekopolis arranges for training for farmers through a program called Participatory Guaranteed Assistance. This is an alternative (and cheaper) way to get organic certification based on participation, rather than a pass-fail test. PGA is a program run by food producers, consumers, and agronomists, the purpose of which is to help a farmer improve his or her practices. "This goes back to sustainability, regeneration, the empowerment of people and practices," Gkiougki said.
Third, Agroekopolis is involved in advocacy work. CSA programs are actually illegal in Greece right now, which seems shocking to many of us in the U.S. and Canada. As Gkiougki explained to me, "In Greece we don't have farmers' markets. We have street markets, but a huge percentage of those people selling food are not farmers. They're merchants." During the crisis, there was a new initiative called 'No Intermediaries' that sprang up, much like the farmers' markets that we know. Gkiougki said:
"It was the first time that urbanites got together and organized once-monthly fairs where you get food producers coming from around the country and interacting with consumers directly. As soon as it picked up [in popularity], we had tear gas and arrests. People realized that we need to find ways around this."
As a result, Agroekopolis is working with the state and municipalities to change the laws to allows CSAs in the country. It is also trying to get land to use for farming and to do more research, in the form of participatory videos, into the needs and desires of various groups around the country.
Finally, Agroekopolis works with some of the countless refugees that have flooded into Greece in recent years and tries to get them involved in local communities in ways that relate to food. In Gkiougki's words,
"When you see people coming out of the sea, completely drenched, without anything, human instinct kicks in and says, 'Maybe I don't have enough to eat, but I can share it with you.' Everything we do starts with food. I think that's what really unites all of us, three times a day."
Winning the hefty Spring Prize is an injection of hope for the organization, which is only a year old and has been running out of resources in a country already strapped for cash. The money will be used to pay the salary of a full-time employee and to buy some video-making equipment that will be used to share the stories of Greek farmworkers. In Gkiougki's words,
"These small-scale producers, they are the people that are doing the regenerative work that will help us save humanity on this planet. This is why I do what I do."