In spaces like this, we thrive: the need for farmers, not food cartels.

"Four companies took in an estimated two-thirds of all grocery sales in 2019."

In spaces like this, we thrive: the need for farmers, not food cartels.
Supper Club, Sequatchie Cove Farm, Marion County, Tenn.

"Four companies took in an estimated two-thirds of all grocery sales in 2019."

"Building community around the dining table is my primary mission."

At a farmers' market, the most splendidly transformative and radically countercultural thing happens.

We buy food from a local farmer.

Yep. That's it. Just a simple transaction – $15, say, for broccoli, sausage, honey and shiitakes that go into our bag, onto our kitchen counter, into our stomach. Within the modern food landscape, this simple act – buying food from men and women whose hands you can shake – has become revolutionary, an act of resistance, an act of astoundingly wholesome commerce that places us only one degree removed from our food.

Everywhere else? Food is often grown in faraway lands and labs, by hands that are out of sight, often underpaid, with ingredients we can't pronounce, using methods we don't understand.

Maybe the impact of this hits you square in the chest: buying food from local farmers is one of the most important acts we can do, so rare and precious, especially in a larger American food landscape often summed up in one word.

"Oligarchy," writes Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic.

Schlosser – the author of Fast Food Nation – describes in this month's "Do We Really Want a Food Cartel?" the way four companies dominate our food system.

"Four companies now control about 52 percent of the American market for rice, about 61 percent of the market for fresh bread, and about 79 percent of the market for pasta," he writes, citing a 2021 study by Food & Water Watch.

Schlosser calls it a "food cartel."

Food & Water Watch calls them the "grocery cartels."

"Just four companies took in an estimated two-thirds of all grocery sales in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit. Walmart alone gobbles up $1 out of every $3 spent at grocery retailers," its 2021 report states.

The big four? Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Costco. (If the current merger between Kroger and Albertsons is successful, four becomes three.)

"Three companies now provide the breeding stock for about 47 percent of the world's hogs. Two companies provide the breeding stock for about 94 percent of the world's egg-laying hens," Schlosser writes. "The same two companies, EW Group and Hendrix Genetics, provide the breeding stock for 99 percent of the world's turkeys."

By comparison, our regional farmers offer an off-ramp from such top-heavy monopoly into a world of gentle relationships, intimate connection and sustainable health.

Consider the ever-kind Ron Shaffer at Red Clay Farms, who mills grain, grows vegetables and always makes time for handshakes and conversation.

Or the noble diligence of Christia and Richard Crook at the farrow-to-finish Dayspring Pig Mountain Farm, where the animals and land are well-tended and loved.

Or our own Crabtree Farms, the city's farm. Or the towering abundance of Tara and Brad Smith's Fresh Tech Growers. Or the wealth of herbal wisdom from Alysia Leon and Bird Fork Farm. Or Bertus Vandermerwe's bountiful Big Sycamore Farm.

There's no guilt trip here. Yes, we shop big-box stores routinely. Money's tight for us, too. But imagine the shift in perspective, experience and wellbeing if just 1% of the county's population – 3750 people – shopped regional farmers' markets each week, experiencing the difference between cartel food and locally farmed food.

Imagine the shift in money flowing through our regional economy.

Food as a Verb thanks Pruett's Market, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Since 1953, when AC Pruett began selling cabbage out of his truck bed, the Pruett family has been serving Chattanooga's food landscape. Currently, Pruett's Market on Signal Mountain offers a gorgeous grocery store complete with organic and local options balanced with a small-town market atmosphere.

Last weekend, Sarah attended Sequatchie Cove Farm's Supper Club. It was the opposite of cartel culture: intimate, lovely, inviting, homegrown and nurtured.

Each month, the Keener family plans on hosting an on-farm Supper Club. There are a hundred reasons to go: the land itself, the Keeners, the contagious good-hearted feeling of dining together with friends and strangers, the Chattanooga chefs – like Neutral Ground's Kenyatta Ashford – who prepare each month's supper using farm produce and meat.

Sequatchie Cove Farm Supper Club, Marion Co, Tenn.

On Saturday, April 20, the fine Keener family at Sequatchie Cove Farm along with renowned chef, Kenyatta Ashford, kicked off the Sequatchie Cove Supper Club:

“This is the kickoff dinner for our new monthly dinner series, the Sequatchie Cove Supper Club," they announced. "Enjoy an evening of food-centered community as we gather to celebrate the freshest seasonal ingredients, directly from our fields to you at our table. Hand selected ingredients from our farm and from nearby growers, producers, millers, distillers, and roasters will be expertly curated into an inspiring menu by the Chef."

Arriving to the farm, we looked up and out at the expanse: the sky was low and gray, kind enough to hold out spring rain while accentuating the lush, green landscape.

Attendees were greeted with sweet, young smiles and a table full of wine, funky, handblown glasses, flowers and, of course, cheese from Sequatchie Cove Creamery.

Sequatchie Cove Farm Supper Club, Marion Co., Tenn.

Friends filled their glasses and found their designated spots at the table, as new friends were introduced, lazy dogs wondered what the ruckus was about and curious cats sought attention. In no hurry, we all took our seats with anticipation and eager stomachs.

I made my way into the kitchen to greet the chef and sneak a glimpse of what was in store for the evening. When I opened the squeaky wooden door, I was overcome with the smell of Korean barbecue chicken and fried rice sizzling on the stove. Chef Kenyatta glanced up, always focused, never phased or distracted by the production of it all.

Chef Kenyatta kindly welcomed us, the dinner began and family style dishes of Asian influence flowed down the table.

"These are the best sweet potatoes I've ever tasted in my life," one friend said.

The food was delicious. The atmosphere was comforting. Everyone was present.

As the sky dimmed and the candles flickered, Kelsey Keener and Kenyatta Ashford spoke the words you want to hear from people who are in this business. They spoke about the land and planet, farmers and chefs, and how it all means something. It is all delicate and intentional. And in spaces like this, it can all come together and thrive.

"I'm in the business of feeding people," Ashford told the crowd that night. "Community is really close to my heart. Building community around the dining table is my primary mission."

"We're farmers. We work seven days a week on the farm, rain or shine," said Keener. He welcomed feedback, promising to continue to build community through farm-to-table meals.

"That's how we're going to turn this into something even more magical and special."

To experience one of these evening for yourself, stay tuned in with Sequatchie Cove Farm Events at

All photography by Sarah Unger (

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (

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Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

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