Last weekend, a few close friends of mine who care about where their food comes from, and appreciate those who produce the food they enjoy, voiced their curiosity as to whether the whole “local food thing” was just another diet fad.
These friends, Bekah and Raphi, are a couple in their twenties living in Berkeley, working in music and magazines. And it’s not as though I hadn’t heard the same type of curiosity before, but I sort of let my heart sink below my pelvis, sitting there in their conversation. There are many occasions when I must explain how I feel about sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and how wonderful and important I feel it is to support them. But I realized I’d rarely had to explain my total confidence and trust that I will be able to (not to mention, must) devote the rest of my life to work that is based upon these convictions.
Another occasion came, however, early this week, when a man whom I very much admire, who is acting to support local farmers in the most creative and permanent of ways, responded to my enthusiasm for his work with the eyes of a starving poet, suddenly inspired. “Are there other people your age, who are actually considering regional food systems, as a field in which to work? A goal upon which to focus their lives?”
Well, the fact is: Yes. There are many of us. For now, we are committed teenage gardeners, tireless volunteers, students doing related research, young farmers with the valuable gift of land of our own, and small business entrepreneurs. We are learning how to mend the broken web of our current food system, a web upon whose strength we believe our future depends. I learn something every day, maybe every hour, that assures me we are neither misleading ourselves, nor misdirecting our future. My reasoning follows, and is based (finally!) not in the East, nor the West, but across the country, and around the world.
Of course, I must start where I (most recently) started. This January in Berkeley, the first page in my little notebook had a list written, of several Bay Area organizations involved in urban agriculture. I outlined several of these organizations in the essay New Yorkana, and their directors and offices were the first names and addresses I learned in California. Little by little, one name linked to another. A friend in Cartography class recommended I meet Nathan, a Ph.D Candidate in Geography, who’s doing a project similar to Diggable Cities in Portland, and who told me to contact Alethea, a close friend of another classmate and landscape architect, Nadine. Alethea’s thesis work was for People’s Grocery, but she is now working with Sibella at SAGE (formerly of CUESA). Sibella put me in contact with Eric (at Food First), who informed me of the HOPE collaborative. My City Planning professor, Fred, put me in touch with Heather, whose thesis was an Oakland Food System Assessment. Everyone knows Severine, who in ten minutes’ time, while biking me to her office from the Cheeseboard, rattled off a list of contacts that included David Ralston of CEDA, Raquel Pinderhughes of the Ecology Center, and Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers. Severine is making a film about young farmers (you may have seen her quoted in the recent NYTimes Fashion Article), and attending her fundraiser/dinner party meant meeting dozens of youthful growers, working land no more than an afternoon’s drive away from San Francisco. Through a brief internship at BALLE, I had learned of and joined the COMFOOD listserve, and as I began research on urban agriculture for my courses here, Severine reminded me to post a query on COMFOOD. Enter the rest of the country. Suddenly I came in touch with such a number of urban agriculture projects that listing them now might remind you of Michael Pollan’s list of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread ingredients. I filled in multiple excel sheets (god help your pen-and-paper author: she uses the computer too often now) with lists of inspiring projects and names and contacts, all within a day.
But of course, the devil has still to be advocated. For it’s not entirely surprising that there are local food enthusiasts across the country, and even supporters of urban agriculture in particular. Working towards a regional food system has its perks (good food, to be specific), and it’s become a popular and trendy effort to support. Many “urban agriculture” projects are just plots in which optimistic, political vegetarians plant their hopes and dreams. And many of the people I’ve met and spoken to could still wind up in obscure non-profits, going nowhere and constantly fundraising for a goal that has gone out of style.
Idealist organizations and activists, however, aren’t all that’s out there. Communities like Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illiniois; demonstration farms like Somerton Tanks in Philadelphia; and urban food production and distribution like that coordinated by 47th Ave Farm in Portland: entire cities are focusing their development upon human and environmental health, and thus farms, CSAs, gardening education programs, and foods produced by their residents. The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007. Centers of research like Public Health Law and Policy are publishing guides like How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans that include “Nutrition” elements, outlining the need to assess “Access to Healthy Foods,” “Number of Fast Food Restaurants and Offsite Liquor Retailers,” “Local Agricultural Resources,” and “Food Distribution” (as related to local produce). The planning policy goals include “Providing safe, convenient access to healthy foods for all residents,” by identifying sites for farmers’ markets, linking efforts to preserve local farmland with the development of diverse markets for local produce, and encouraging farmers’ markets to accept credit and food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.
This sort of planning is just one field into which the “local food thing” has been incorporated. It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t just excitement, or hype, or marketing, for a trend that will fade out in a few years. It is realistic, practical preparation for the future we recognize is not just not our children’s, but our own.
The permanence of the movement to support local systems – and it will always be a movement, it will never stop moving – is apparent too in the variety of forms in
which it has taken root. College kids often consider eating locally grown and organic foods as a socially responsible diet, something they’ve learned through reading Michael Pollan’s book. But our grandparents are reminded of the age of Victory Gardens during WWI, when the gardening of 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally. Many families in the South already have gardens and mini farms incorporated into their housing lots and city neighborhoods, and consider growing their own food an element of their heritage, part of a tradition of cultivation. Many Native American communities have worked for decades to preserve their culinary traditions through growing food for themselves. And immigrant communities across the nation attempt to preserve the home-country flavors of their cooking by growing the foods that they know mustn’t be genetically-modified or processed or shipped overseas.
All of that is in the US. And whether we are growing our own food or supporting our regional small farmers, ours are all merely preliminary steps towards the sort of food sovereignty movements underway in South America, Central America, Africa, and India. The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has supporters worldwide, much like Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement stretching across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The Fairtrade Certified cooperatives in the Americas and Africa present only a sampling of the small farmers who have come together to ensure just compensation for their work. In 2007, in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali, the Forum for Food Sovereignty brought together nearly 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers and environmental and urban movements. All these came together to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty.
So, yes: there are people my age (and older) who are considering regional food systems as a field in which to work, and who regard eating locally to be slightly more than a diet fad. We are no longer – we never were, really – just idealist students, determined activists, gardeners waiting to be forced off vacant land, and small farmers soon to go out of business. We have a future to look forward to. And we have developed a movement that will not go static. The strength of our local webs will recede no longer, but will grow, till little webs string ‘round the world.
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