Does Amarillo Texas love local more than any other city?

“People in Amarillo love local food and local businesses.”  “The more local you are, the more Amarillo customers like you.”

At first glance, Amarillo Texas doesn’t seem like a bastion of local food.  Amarillo is the biggest town in the dry and dusty Texas Panhandle. As you approach this High Plains city, ‘bastion of local’ does not seem to fit the treeless, monocultured landscape surrounding Amarillo. Then, as you get to the edge of Amarillo, you come upon a display of ten Cadillacs buried with their noses in the ground and their tails waving to new arrivals.  That’s your first indication that Amarillo has some interesting people. Interstate 40 slices through town to reveal the usual chain stores at most interchanges. But get off the interstate and the you find the truth of the city. We soon learned once again that resilience and sustainability depend on the attitudes and qualities of the people not the ecosystem where they live.

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The first thing we found is that the dominant grocery store chain is local.  It’s called United and has 13 supermarkets in Amarillo with six as big as Walmart.  They try to buy all their produce from local farmers.  The farm providing the food is cited at point of purchase displays.

The dominant convenience store chain is also local and buys local food. The present owner’s father began Toot’n Totum with one store in Amarillo in 1950. Today, with 68 stores, the Amarillo company has as much as 80% of the convenience store market share in Amarillo.  Toot’n Totum has expanded by out-competing and then buying out stores belonging to national chains.  They bought 12 Jiffy Food Stores in 1969, four Circle K’s in 1985, 15 7-Elevens in 1988, 11 Diamond Shamrocks in 1995, 10 Phillips66 stores in 2004 and 10 Express Land stores in 2013.

Toot’n Totum isn’t the only locally-owned convenience store chain in town. Pak-A-Sak coordinates 21 stores from its headquarters in Amarillo.  In 1978 Dale and Joyce McKee opened the first Pak-A-Sak convenience store in nearby Canyon, TX. Now their three sons, with help from the third generation, runs the local chain from Amarillo.

In 2010 Pak-A-Sak followed Toot’n Totum’s lead and bought out stores of a national chain. Pak-A-Sak bought two primarily drive-thru Starbucks locations and turned them into Pak-A-Sak Expresses.

The Starbucks locations were available since a local coffee company is preferred by Amarilloans.  Roasters was opened in 1992 to bring the finest coffee freshly roasted to Amarillo.  They have several locations and also provide coffee for local burrito stores.

Tex-Mex food is another area where Amarillo folk prefer a local company: Sharkey’s—named after longtime chef Sharkey Gonzalez.  Chipotle found out when it floundered in the Amarillo market. Chipotle’s business model (a fast, casual, build-your-own concept instead of full service) is virtually identical to Sharkey’s so they were going head to head for the same customers.  Chipotle’s sales nosedived after being established in 2014. Locals predict Chipotle will soon leave town, citing lower prices and more personal service at Sharkey’s.

Sharkey’s has locations in two other nearby cities.  Chipotle appears to have not learned its lesson in Amarillo since they recently (February 2017) opened a store in Abilene, near the Sharkey’s location. Sharkey’s is also planning a second store in Amarillo.

In the Mexican fast food arena, Amarilloans also prefer the local businesses.  Taco Villa is a local chain with stores throughout west Texas and just across the border in New Mexico.  Taco Bell and Taco Bueno just can’t provide the local connection.

Italian food is another area where Amarillo prefers locally-owned businesses.  Macaroni Joe’s is a locally owned and operated establishment and has been serving its customers since 1999. Macaroni Joe’s focuses on the same dining experience offered by Olive Garden, a national chain.  Olive Garden attracts visitors coming through on I-40 while the locals vastly prefer Macaroni Joe’s.

The owners of Macaroni Joe’s have used their local notoriety to establish stand alone business focusing on barbecue (Joe Daddy’s), tacos (Joe Taco) and catering (Joe’s Catering).

Fine dining is not a crowded sector in Amarillo, but chef Dillan Mena has transformed Midtown Kitchen and, most recently, Ember Steak House to become focused on local food.

Amarilloans’ preference for local food is also seen in specific products. Tascosa Hot Sauce has been in the area since 1957 and made in a small building near downtown Amarillo.   It’s a family business makes about 280 gallons of hot sauce a day.    That’s about 1,800 jars a day.  One of the unique things about the product is it’s made by hand. It originated in a small, family owned tortilla factory, Tascosa Tortilla Company. Tascosa Hot Sauce began commercial wholesale distribution in the mid-90’s and has been Tascosa-ing’ taste buds all over the country ever since. They’ve shipped the product to over 26 states and internationally.

The source of local food for these business are a handful of producers who stress greenhouse production combined with some outdoor growing.  Ronnie Kimbrell is a pioneer and leader among these growers.  He established and managed the Amarillo Farmer’s Market until 2016.  How and why he did it all is a topic for another essay, but his story is as fascinating as the overall Amarillo dedication to locally-owned businesses.

The Resilience Project came to Amarillo because our quantitative index of sustainability and resilience showed the Amarillo area to rank among the highest in the South.  Our in depth study of the city supports the principle that resilient cities support locally-owned and operated businesses.  These businesses must be self-organized by the residents of the community.

Similarly, communities which bounce back from floods are the ones where locals organize themselves to deal with disasters.  Self-organized systems are the hallmark of resilience to any disturbance.  In food systems, that means locally owned processing and marketing will dominate.  They sure do in Amarillo.

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Personal resilience, ecology and faith

Enjoying a perfect Spring day like today seems impossible to some.  They have too many worries to just enjoy the day. We are all going to face adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats.  Some of us will adapt and transform ourselves to cope with the difficulty.  Some of us will succumb and grow unhealthy. This resilience and lack of resilience is being studied intensively by psychologists. Understanding will progress even further if psychologists will embrace the ecological foundation of resilience.  Then, since personal resilience is the foundation of family and community resilience, we’ll all benefit.

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Here’s what psychology research has found: good health is the quality which stands out most in resilient people.  But that is just an effect not a cause. Resilient people are healthier because they adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.  What makes a person resilient? The research is fascinating. People who are resilient are cheerful, assertive, persistent, resourceful, and know they can cause change.  One research team identified eight factors which you can improve to increase your resilience.

  1. Optimism: focus on your strengths
  2. Can do attitude: focus on action
  3. Emotional awareness: become a good communicator
  4. Self-control: control response to circumstances
  5. Social support: increase network of friends and family
  6. Sense of humor: laugh at life’s frustrations
  7. Self-belief: increase confidence and self-esteem
  8. Ability to solve problems: become more adaptable and flexible.

Another set of researchers have noticed the importance of a sense of meaningfulness, faith and personal goals.  Unfortunately, some psychologists do their best to eliminate faith and religion from their work.

Including the clear effects of faith on resilience has enabled one research effort to summarize individual resilience as due to four components:

  1. Confidence: Having feelings of competence, effectiveness in coping with stressful situations and strong self-esteem.
  2. Social Support: Building good relationships with others and seeking support, rather that trying to cope solely on your own.
  3. Adaptability: flexibility and adapting to changing situation which are beyond your control. Cope well with change and recover quickly from its impact.
  4. Purposefulness: Having a clear sense of purpose, clear values, drive and direction.

At the family level, a stable home environment and supportive relationships are linked to resilience.  When these are not present, supportive relationships outside the family (e.g., those with teachers, counselors, coaches, and neighbors) are associated with resilience. Community characteristics that influence resilience capacity development in individuals include early intervention programs, safe neighborhoods, access to recreational facilities and health services, and religious and spiritual organizations.

What is most fascinating is that some people are resilient even when they have little support from family or community.  How do they do it? Such responses are called emergent phenomena. They are novel events which appear from subsystems where they don’t exist.

Emergent phenomena are present throughout biology and physics. For example, water is an emergent phenomena, not predictable from the hydrogen and oxygen from which it is organized.

Emergence is called self-organization in the ecology literature. To understand self-organization, first you have to get rid of a simple, linear cause-effect view of the world. The effect of one particular stressor cannot be predicted. People respond radically differently to the same stressor. So there is no way you can just sum up the various stressors and determine how much stress will overcome an individual’s resilience.

Adaptability, connectivity and self-organization. You are a lot like all living systems.  Your health and resilience depend on your adaptability, connectivity and ability to self-organize. Complex systems theory is a useful framework for conceptualizing resilience because it embodies the basic tenets of adaptability (e.g., responding to environmental shocks or stress); connectivity across a range of scales (i.e., between individuals within communities and from one community to another) and self-organization. This model challenges the normative thinking that every observed effect has an observable cause and that the whole can be understood by studying just its parts.

Self-organization is the phenomenon which both underlies resilience and makes it easier to understand.   Self-organization exists in both living and non-living systems and at all scales.  Self-organization means working through the stressors disrupting your life.  Don’t keep them at a distance.  Embrace them so you can understand them and let your body, mind and spirit transform you.

To do so, you have to have confidence that you can do it.  Where does that come from?  From faith.  You realize that all of nature responds to your positive, optimistic certainty that you will overcome adversity. Your faith is propagated throughout your world, transforms it and makes you, your family and your community more resilient.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifeSee how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how Nature clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will it not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, but seek first faith and truth and all you need will be given to you.
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For more on psychological resilience, see:

Climate and other trauma in Africa and Washington

Even Africans living in isolated village know that the climate is changing.  Yet so many rich and powerful people in the US deny climate change.  How can they be so blind?  Maybe they are blind just because they are so rich. So rich that they live isolated in climate controlled buildings like Trump Tower. How would they know about a changing climate. The climate in the buildings where they stay is the same the year round.  Maybe they need to live without electricity and grow their own food, as they do in Kasisi village.

DSCN7892To get to Kasisi village in Malawi, you first go to Chickwawa.  Though it’s pronounced a lot like Chihuahua, I never saw any dogs in the village.  Plenty of goats and cattle, a few hogs and lots of children, but no dogs.

In Chikhwawa, take the first paved road going North and go to the end of the paved road.  There you’ll see a sign pointing to the Majete Wildlife Reserve.  Take my advice and head toward the reserve.  We didn’t when we first arrived and had to traverse several stream beds and miles of rutted road before we reached the village.  The road to the reserve actually has bridges across the streams and rivers.  After about 7 kilometers you’ll see the sign for Kasisi.

The sign points toward the Chief’s residence and the catholic church, but doesn’t mention the Mtadeya Cooperative. That’s the group I’ve come to work with.  They need help in business planning.  Part of any good business plan is SWOT Analysis.  This covers the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to the business.

Chief among the Threats noted by this cooperative is climate change or “kusindha kwa nyengo” in the local Chichewa language.

They experienced the worst drought in years last year. Maize, their staple crop, didn’t produce much of anything.  Malawians survived only because donors from the US and Europe provided enough for them to eat.  Many Europeans and Americans love to help Malawi.  It’s a peaceful country with warm-hearted people.  And it’s among the poorest in Africa.  So hundreds of charities have flocked to the country.

You’ll see signs everywhere in the capitol, Lilongwe, pointing to the offices of Western agencies providing food, technical assistance, health care and other relief.  On the roads heading out of town, the fanciest vehicles all are decorated with the insignia of aid agencies.  Signs along the roads point to innumerable aid projects.

My least favorite on this trip was the “Gender-sensitive, community-based disaster mitigation project”. These are the buzzwords that relief agencies have to address if they are to attract funding nowadays.  Any project which puts the current buzz words in its title is likely focused more on the fads of donors than the needs of people—much less on the underlying causes of poverty.

Climate change is also a fashionable buzzword which leads people astray from root causes. Climate change is just one of many disturbances that afflict systems all over the world.  Resilience is the ability to withstand, adapt and evolve in the face of disturbance.  That’s not to say climate change isn’t real.  What isn’t real is the hype associated with any buzzword, trend or fad.

Climate change is no different from innumerable disturbances that all human and ecological systems must cope with. Resilient systems cope with them in the same way they always have: through conservative innovation, being connected but self-organized, accumulating physical assets and complementary diversity.

These are the tried and true qualities of resilient systems—those which have survived much worse disturbances than our current climate change or even the Trump election.