Posts Tagged ‘food sovereignty’

A number of high school kids and I planted a pear tree in the Kresge Organic Garden last weekend, during our visit to Santa Cruz. The tree will grow fruit, in a number of years. And we who planted were welcomed to come and eat the pears upon our return, whenever that might be. Of course, the gardeners said, the fruit would be ours to pick and eat! Though there was no database to track our participation, nor any document detailing our due recognition.

Last week, I invited my new roommates to join a few friends of mine, who had come to our apartment for a potluck dinner. As my frittata was pulled from the oven, bulging with spinach and goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes…they hesitated to sit at the table we’d already piled with breads and cheeses and plates of roasted squash. “How much would we owe you?” they asked. The phrase echoed somewhere hollow in my ribs, and has done so since in my dreams, to be honest. I said “Nothing!” and that it was just a dinner, to be shared. If they really felt guilty about it, they could cook dinner for me sometime (!). I tried to put my rationale into words: As far as I’m concerned, we all save money by using it for each other. And the money spent…is spent well. But the two girls with whom I now live sheepishly made their own dinners, and retreated to their rooms to eat. The idea was too foreign. They do not “share” food in the house. Each of us has our own quarter of the fridge, and our own cabinet. And the concept of shaking this system with a shared meal seemed simply too complicated. We wouldn’t be able to mark it up on the “money owed” whiteboard, along with the rent and utilities.

This Wednesday, I was invited over to an apartment for dinner with some kids I have only just met. We made pizzas together. By the dozen. Margarita classic, bitter greens with lemon and ricotta, sautéed mushrooms with pancetta, potatoes sliced thin with garlic and spinach. When Bekah and I arrived, there was a plate of foods to eat right away – sliced salami and cheeses, sautéed beets, and fresh bread. There was more than we could finish before leaving, three hours later, five hours after the eclipse had begun. The party had gathered to watch the eclipse. And my senses gathered to relish the evening. We typed stories on Ryan’s typewriter, washed the pizza down with wine, exchanged numbers, and breathed in the cool air from the window while our bodies baked in the oven’s company. We talked about cheese for the most part, for that is how we met. And let it be known: the Cowgirl Creamery Staff and the Saxelby Cheesemongers’ Apprentice have made friends. The night filled that hollow space in my ribs, quieting the echoing question, reminding me what it meant to know that nothing was owed.


Back in the Kresge Garden, in Santa Cruz, we recognized that we were sharing in the making of something that would give back to us, no monetary values assigned. When we cook and eat with other people, we take part in a something quite removed from the price of the ingredients.

My friends and I get a lot of our food through our jobs at restaurants, our friends at farms and bakeries, our plots in gardens, or on the (well-stocked) streets where we know to look. We couldn’t ever afford it, really (though we’re working on bringing down those prices), so we find a way to distribute and exchange among each other. Until now, I hadn’t recognized what comes of lifting food away from the monetary value it might otherwise be assigned, and making it something to be shared, freely. It’s hard to describe… You forget where your pockets are. And use your hands more. Some part of your soul is more full. Life is better. It feels wonderful, to share what one has, and to have others share with you.

There are a lot of points to be made here, but I’ll stick with the simplest one, for clarity’s sake: If you haven’t made dinner with your friends in a while (or ever), I encourage you to get to it. Don’t ask them to pay you back. (Ask them to bring wine.) Find a garden to grow the food if you don’t have the money to buy it. I promise, whatever you spend, you’ll be paid back many times over.

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It took a crisis in Cuba for urban agriculture to take over.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off nearly all agricultural imports to Cuba, including pesticides, fertilizers, farming equipment, and food.  Not only did organic farming increase, by necessity, but Cubans began cultivating a significant percentage of their food in urban areas.  The government encouraged them to do so.  And in 1998, the city farms in Havana alone produced an estimated 541,000 tons of food for local consumption.  These included 8,000 officially recognized production units cultivated by over 30,000 people.  The population of Havana is 2.2 million.  Today, some neighborhoods in the city produce 30 percent of their own subsistence needs.[1] 


A significant growth in urban agriculture in the US is worth considering for several reasons.  For one thing, such cultivation would be small-scale, and thus would encourage local consumption (the most local, from one’s own garden).  But urban food production would also contribute to community food security, would rescue biodiversity, provide local jobs, create a complete cycle of nutrients and waste, aesthetically improve urban spaces, and increase the freshness and variety of the ingredients in the urban diet.  Increasing a community’s food security would ultimately mean creating a strong, regionally based food system that wouldn’t rely upon imports, or foods that could be prevented from reaching people in times of war or crisis.  Plant biodiversity would thrive as people learned to grow the specific varieties of foods native to their land, varieties that are everywhere disappearing as cities expand and farms consolidate.  Such biodiversity would mean too a greater variety of foods and nutrients, which would contribute immensely to the health of those who ate them.  The complete recycling of nutrients and waste within single households would have an immense, positive environmental impact on food-producing communities.  And, urban spaces could be so much more beautiful!

The next question then is how we in the US might cause a bit of an agricultural revolution in our country akin to that which the end of trade with the Soviet Union caused in Cuba. 

pict5585.jpgWorking at Added Value’s Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn has been a personal (tiny) contribution of mine to the growth of urban agriculture in New York.  The hundreds of community gardens throughout the five boroughs are consistently inspirational.  Just Food trains community members to start up “City Farms” throughout the New York area.  And the people working them, and eating the produce they’ve grown themselves, understand the value and joy of providing even a small portion of their own daily sustenance. 

As for California, I’m gradually acquainting myself with the various organizations at work to increase food production in the Bay Area.  Spiral Gardens runs a Community Farm in South Berkeley, producing food for volunteers as well as low-income seniors in a nearby housing complex.  City Slicker Farms helps low-income West Oakland residents build and maintain backyard vegetable gardens.  Beyond supporting and operating four productive gardens in North and West Oakland, People’s Grocery is collaborating with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center (SAGE) to increase food cultivation in their recently opened 15-acre Agriculture Park in Sunol, which will grow fresh produce for West Oakland residents.  SAGE has developed an “Agricultural Parks Toolkit” as a “comprehensive guide for public and private landowners who want to establish agriculture as a valued urban-edge amenity.”  UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development has been working with SAGE to develop a policy framework for “New Ruralism,” a concept meant to strengthen the emerging synergy between the new urbanism/smart growth movement and the sustainable agriculture/regional food systems movement.  The Alemany Farm cultivates food on four and a half productive acres, right in the city of San Francisco. 

pict5591.jpgFor a personal take on these efforts…your author here is still a student.  So for the moment, three UC Berkeley courses are contributing to the urban ag vision.  Land Use Controls” is supplying an understanding of the complex laws and organization behind zoning, subdividing, property taxation, and the influences of infrastructure on land use.  Cartographic Representation” is providing skills with which to artistically, persuasively map out what could really happen on urban territory.  And “Urban Forestry” is lending a little more hands-on knowledge about what urban growth actually requires.  Meanwhile, I’ll be eating foods every day that are all grown quite nearby.  Altogether, that’s a personal start.

And this is personal stuff, urbanites.  It’s your property, your garden, your hands in the dirt.  You yourself might never grow enough to supply even an entire meal, but you can contribute to a change in the food system, one that would immensely benefit your community and it’s local health, economy, and security.  Call me crazy, but I believe those are the areas that currently concern our population the most.


Also, my friend Adam Brock recently wrote a (more detailed, less Annie-style-sentimental) four-part series entitled “Why Cityfarming?”  Check it out.


[1] Murphy, Catherine.  Development Report No.12: Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis.  1999. 

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