Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
by LaVon Griffieon

It seems to me that coffee shops and cafes in small towns need to be considered institutions of greater learning. Lots of information passes through the door, between those booths and stools, and eventually hits the streets.

When I was in Europe last year, I learned that the European Union uses rural development funds to subsidize small town cafes. Their leaders believe that the information sharing and sense of community that takes place in coffee shops and cafes is so important in promoting locally led initiatives that they deserve funding. I can think of many topics worthy of discussion.

Topic #1 - Are we taking the time to teach our kids what they need to know? Iím a 4-H leader.
I try very hard to provide my 4-H group, which is becoming more suburban than rural in membership, with activities that will help them develop skills to think outside the box.

Last month I invited a "Buy Local" program coordinator to talk about the evils of big box stores and the importance of supporting local independent merchants and businesses in our town. She spoke about main street. I noticed, even on my own kidsí faces, the wrinkled noses and confused looks. These kids had no idea where Main Street in our town was located. They sincerely thought it was the partially vacated strip mall that has recently lost businesses. These businesses have located farther out on the edge of town near our four new super stores.

The 4-Hers couldnít name independent merchants in their hometown. They had no experience of parking the car on a street and walking from shop to shop. Their only shopping experiences have been faceless and nameless, and located near an ocean of parking spaces. I suddenly realized that we are raising a generation of future leaders who havenít experienced a very sustainable model for community, or been taught to appreciate why that model is important. These kids will never experience community in a local coffee shop, theyíll be at Starbucks where the interaction from table to table is minimal.

Topic #2 - Could coffee shop talk in America could be utilized to provide us all with a better quality of life? My daughter is a Saturday breakfast and lunch waitress at a small town cafť. Her teenage observations are wonderful. The patrons are seated in very close quarters, so a topic of conversation is everyoneís topic of conversation. While most of the crowd can articulate whatís wrong with the world, few challenge themselves to take personal responsibility to contemplate and discuss solutions to those problems. My daughter claims, "Thereís lots of whining, but no plan."

Topic #3 - What can we do to stem the decline in the civic participation in America, and our ability to conduct civil discourse? A group that meets for coffee every morning has the perfect opportunity to discuss the issues of the day. The old adage "one person can make a difference" is seldom exhibited in todayís world.

Donít be a coffee cup warrior that talks about problems. Find out what the facts are and determine a response. You arenít powerless to change things. Voting in an election and never again contacting your elected officials doesnít get your voice heard. Complaints reign when these officials "mess up", but do we bother to find out what the actual determining circumstances were? Contacting an elected official to tell them they are doing things right is also a rare happening.

So if you are a regular at the local cafť, I urge you to try to do your part for Americaís future. See if you can integrate a fact or two into the coffee crowd. Turn it into a trivia game. Iíll give you some examples on where to start. What is the difference between a state representative, a state senator and a congressmen? What are the names of your elected officials? If you have a question about (you insert the problem), which institution do you contact for the answer? Once you have covered the basics, start working on local problems that need solving.

One person can still make a difference. Armed with logical arguments that can be substantiated with facts, one coffee shop could probably change the world. I feel rural people, especially, need to be able to stand up for a way of life that is being threatened. Please take the initiative to do more than complain about it over a cup of coffee. Educate yourself on the facts, be ready to list your sources of information and assemble a small army of like thinking individuals who all have their own story to tell, but agree on the same goal. Check your emotions at the door and contact the official who can help you with your problem. An invitation to the local cafť where everyone can wake up and smell the coffee would be appropriate.

Editorís Note: LaVon Griffieon lives on a farm near Ankeny, Iowa, and is co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa. LaVon is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national fellowship program designed to educate consumers, opinion leaders and policymakers on the challenges associated with sustaining family farms and food systems that are environmentally sound, health promoting and locally owned and controlled. The fellowship is funded through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.