What do factory food and transportation have in common?

Browsing the Grist this morning on this sunny DC snow day I saw this interesting article on raising gas taxes.  Although it seems at first glance to be only tangentially related to food policy, there are some thought-provoking parallels that can be drawn between the two.  Ben Adler’s argument can be boiled down to this:  entrenched and deep-pocketed interests have created an enormous and not very cost-effective infrastructure that mandates government subsidization in order to work- in this case, transportation infrastructure.  The system could be improved to the benefit of everyone involved (i.e., by subsidizing mass transportation instead of gas subsidies), but the vested interests are powerful and large-scale change seems unlikely.  There are a few tendrils of positive change creeping in- an increase in bike lanes in cities, the declining number of Millenials interested in drivers licenses and car ownership- but overall it seems as though the dysfunctional system in place today is unlikely to change.

Dysfunctional is a strong word, but I believe it’s justified.  Commutes in New York and DC are the longest in the country, but the difference in DC- and something that has struck me since moving there- is the extent to which DC is a city defined by suburban sprawl and the vehicular traffic that goes along with it.  The roads around here are impassably choked up between 8-10 and 4-6; forget about doing anything between those times if you don’t want to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  People work in DC but live in any of the dozens of suburban bedroom communities ringing the city in a pattern made possible by cheap gas prices and highway subsidies.  The Washington Post article I linked to above point out that many Virginia and Maryland commuters often don’t use public transportation, relying instead on clogged highways.  So why is that?

It’s a vicious cycle– there are little to no viable public transportation options, so people favor gas subsidies over public transportation subsidies, leading to little to know viable transportation options… so on and so forth.  I’m not trying to demonize cars- they’re a fantastic resource when used in moderation.  But Americans aren’t using them in moderation.  It’s a thorny problem, because we’ve built our society to a car-centric scale rather than a person-centric scale.  For many people, it’s simply not feasible to not have a car (or a two-car household).

Sounds a bit like the food industry, don’t you think?  Except instead of subsidizing gasoline, we’re subsidizing unhealthy food choices in a myriad of ways.  There’s a similarly enormous system that appears unyielding and unchangeable; like transportation, there are only a few, scattered bright spots of innovation in the face of a monolithic and largely identical background (after all, highways and supermarkets very seldomly vary in appearance from state to state or even country to country).  Most importantly, it’s difficult to find alternatives to the existing, inefficient infrastructure.  

So what’s the solution?  When it comes to food I’ve always believed rather firmly that the path to change lies not in restricting peoples behavior, but in creating viable alternative options.  For food and transportation issues alike, that involves shifting government funding– and thus consumer spending- away from subsidizing existing infrastructure and towards laying the groundwork for better, more efficient, and more accessible alternatives.  Whether those options involve bike lanes, more bus lines, streetcars in DC, or new-farmer incubation programs, it seems to me that the road to improvement lies in weaning expensive and cumbersome infrastructures off of government money.  But what do you think?


community gardens part 4: the smart economic choice

Working hard at the Intervale Center!

Working hard at the Intervale!

In terms of environmental efforts, community gardens foster a local food system that’s beneficial for both the wallets and the environment of their communities.  Gardens are an environmentally sound mode of food production:  large amounts of food can be grown in small areas, and the food doesn’t need to travel as far.  In addition to reducing fossil fuel usage (it takes a lot less gas to transport a tomato down the street than to transport a tomato from Florida), it also has a much lesser environmental impact than large, industrial-style monoculture farms.  Instead of depleting the soil year after year by planting the same crop, community gardens are diversified and can be shifted and rotated to the needs of the neighborhood—one is unlikely to see a community garden planted fencerow to fencerow with “Roundup Ready Corn” for twenty years straight.

Local food production also encourages local small business: large grocery chains find it hard to integrate produce from local farms, meaning that small businesses are given a better chance of success because their products are unique.  A grocery store like Price Chopper (or even Whole Foods) is going to be much less adaptable to changing seasons and small producers; their supply chain necessarily demands large-scale and centralized production.  Community gardens provide an incubator stage for small producers—people interested in growing their own food can learn from seasoned veterans in a relatively low-stress environment before striking out on their own.  Access to agricultural knowledge is crucial to building a more sustainable food system, and community gardens provide a space for that knowledge to be transferred and gained.

Nonprofits like the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont provide a stepping stone between community gardens and small farmers by providing space for ‘incubator farms.’  There are community gardens throughout the area, but for those who are interested in turning their hobby into an occupation the Intervale Center lowers the barrier for entry by offering business planning, larger plots, and communal farm equipment.  Through their incubator program, over 40 small farms have started throughout the Champlain Valley, providing a not-insignificant amount of produce for the area.[1]  These programs go hand in hand with community garden programs, and prove that the establishment of community gardens is a solid step towards the establishment of a sustainable, local food system.

community gardens pt. 3: political empowerment


NYCCGC press conference, 2010

NYCCGC press conference, 2010

In terms of empowerment, gardens gave a voice to people that otherwise felt left out of the political process and gave residents the power to improve their neighborhoods.  In the 1970s, a number of vacant lots appeared in New York City as the city went bankrupt and investors (and white people) left for greener pastures.  The streets of many neighborhoods became seedy and unsafe, and the residents felt that they couldn’t depend upon the corrupt police force.  The establishment of gardens—again at first by counterculture groups like the Green Gorillas, but gradually percolating into the rest of the population—provided a rally point for many communities to improve their areas.  Spaces that would otherwise fall prey to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ became spaces for community engagement, discourse, and productivity.

The gardens replaced needle-strewn empty lots with productive spaces where people, especially women, felt safe spending time (Schmelzkopf, 273).  Residents of Losaida, an area now more commonly called Alphabet City, speak of replacing desolate parking lots with “places full of color, camaraderie, and safety” (ibid., 273).  The streets became safer and the neighborhoods more attractive to investors as gardens popped up on every corner.  Perversely, this became a problem in the 1990s as the land in the very neighborhoods that the gardens had helped to revitalize became too attractive to investors to stay as gardens.  However, this introduced many previously apolitical gardeners to grassroots activism.

Gardeners in New York found their political voice, participating collectively in the political process when Mayor Giuliani tried to auction off garden plots in the 1990s.  The nonprofits and gardeners that had lobbied for and worked the lands brilliantly managed their campaign in a fight with City Hall that saw a number (although not all) of the gardens preserved (Smith and Kurtz, 208).  A number of the gardeners were people of color who otherwise tended to feel marginalized by the state and local government, but through their work in the gardens were able to make a difference in the politics of the city while preserving the mainstays of their communities.

Community gardens pt. 2: integrating newcomers

Community gardens that have been established in low-income and at-risk populations have provided a source of not only food but of community building, political empowerment, and business acumen.  Community gardens for immigrant populations have been successfully established in Toronto, which has the highest proportion of immigrants of any city in the world (Baker, 307).  Gardens have provided for them social and recreational spaces, cheap good food, community education, and an opportunity for supplemental income.

It’s clear that community gardens have been enormous advantages for low-income communities, and establishing them across economic classes and social groups (for example, establishing school gardens) will only reap more benefits for everyone involved.  School gardens have been shown to have a positive effect not only on children’s quality of food in schools, but on nutrition education, compassion for living things, academic achievement, and psychosocial adjustment as compared to control schools where no gardens were planted or maintained (Murphy, 6).

By increasing the number of community gardens, a community regardless of its tax bracket can become more economically self-sufficient and reduce its dependence on large grocery chains (and, by extension, fossil fuels).  Nationwide food scares will have less of an impact on communities that don’t need to rely on an international food chain for their dinner; monthly produce scares will be a thing of the past.  Moreover, taking advantage of the knowledge base of marginalized populations who know how to farm sustainably (not only the immigrant populations cited in Toronto, but the rapidly dying out population of farmers born in North America) will create jobs that maximize peoples’ individual skills and potentials for the benefit of their communities.

Moreover, the jobs will be better paying than comparable conventional jobs in agriculture:  in terms of building a more localized food infrastructure, local farmers create more jobs than traditional markets—1.3 jobs/farmer versus 0.9 jobs/farmer—and their crops generate higher sales per acre–$590/acre for local food versus $304 for an industrial farm (Hamerschlag, Local Food and the Farm Bill).  Local food markets provide a critical outlet for new small businesses—beginning farmers account for 48% of local West Coast food producers.

Community gardens accomplish a range of goals:  in terms of community building, they facilitate integration of low-income and new immigrant communities into the broader community in addition to strengthening the broader community itself.  Gardens have the potential to be a supplementary source of income for those low-income populations:  Nowtopia cites an example of low-income gardeners who produced $22.8 million worth of produce on a $3.5 million budget  (Carlsson, 93).  This is a cost effective method of community improvement and development that harnesses natural processes for human benefit at little cost to sponsoring organizations and governments.

For many new immigrants, community garden plots enabled women to have an independent source of income that wasn’t dependent upon them leaving their children at home.  Women who had traditionally tended gardens in their home countries were given the opportunity to supplement their household income in a way that was culturally acceptable to them and their families in addition to connecting them with the broader North American community.

They didn’t need to find babysitters for younger children, as they would with a traditional job, but could rather pass on knowledge to their children and maximize household resources—younger children could weed or play in the safety of the gardens, while older children could be productive helpers.  The gardens help them acclimate to North America, easing culture shock as they are able to grow familiar produce that would be otherwise difficult to find.

Senior citizen gardens in Toronto provided elderly immigrants with a sense of ‘food citizenship’—a sense of belonging in Canada through their connection with the land.  Older immigrants who struggled not only with the language but with adapting to a new country so late in life found a community of like-minded individuals.  Moreover, they were able to use skills that they had developed in their home countries to better their lives in Canada by either enjoying familiar meals with hard-to-find produce or selling their goods for a profit.

Community gardens are beneficial for everyone- but their positive impact on immigrant communities is especially valuable.

Community Gardening: a concrete step towards a better food system


Beautiful community garden in Idaho!

America as it exists now devotes massive swaths of the South and Midwest for production of both food and commodity crops, but localized community gardens would provide for a more stable, economically viable food system.  Rather than massive egg-producing factories (not hen-houses!) in North Carolina or corn farms in Iowa feeding the entire nation, a localized and regional method of food production would make more sense from an economic as well as a community standpoint.   By focusing on construction of community gardens, society can make great strides towards being more successful and sustainable.  By using a selection of readings as a springboard for exploration into the benefits of community gardening, the benefits that gardens bring to their neighborhoods become clear.

Much like the triad of nonprofits, gardeners, and governments that work together in tandem to reap the best benefits from community gardens, these readings play off of each other’s strengths and address each other’s weaknesses.  Nowtopia provides an outline of how community gardens are working in America today as a jumping off point, while The Transition Companion lays out how to create and propagate them to help create the sustainable metropolises seen in Register’s Ecocities.

Nowtopia demonstrates the success that community gardens have had in the United States throughout the 20th century and how they exist today.  In World War I, the establishment of intensive ‘victory gardens’ produced $520 million worth of food within two seasons, while in World War II, those same victory gardens provided 40% of America’s vegetable supply (Nowtopia, 83).   However, they began to decline in the post-war years, and in the 1970s funding for them was cut drastically.  Simultaneously, however, hippies and other counterculture activists were planting community gardens on vacant lots and popularizing a ‘back to the land’ movement’; the community gardens we see today are the heirs of victory gardens but the product of the hard work of counter-culture gardeners.

Today, community gardens are part of a movement that seeks to fight against corporatization of the food system.  Despite a lack of government funding, they have proved themselves to be exceptionally productive and sustainable endeavors.  However, by broadening the scope of the movement—making it about more than just counter-culture (although obviously its counter-culture roots remain an integral part of the movement), community gardens can become an everyday part of life for a broad scope of society.  The Detroit Agriculture Network puts it well when they emphasize that their community gardens aren’t just about food:  “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time” (Nowtopia, 91).

By establishing even half as many community gardens as there once were victory gardens, the government can maximize food subsidy dollars both in terms of nutrition and in terms of production.  The American food system is fundamentally skewed by our current subsidy system:  unhealthy choices are the cheaper ones, as massive amounts of taxpayer dollars are funneled into the pockets of agribusiness and food processing corporations (Hamerschlag, “Subsidy Buffet”).

Federal and state governments could support peoples’ health and local economies by making community supported agriculture (CSA) shares an option for EBT and WIC participants.  Community supported agriculture shares involve an individual paying a farm a certain amount of money for a weekly ‘share,’ or box of vegetables grown on the farm or in the garden.  In this way, the farmer is guaranteed income at the beginning of the season when it’s most needed, and the consumer is guaranteed a large quantity of inexpensive produce.  This system would work excellently in community gardens, enabling gardeners to purchase needed resources and guaranteeing them a steady market while ensuring a flow of inexpensive, healthy food towards low income groups.

By creating locally-based food systems reliant on human labor and urban cultivation, there will be less reliance on unhealthy food in ‘food deserts’ such as inner cities and rural areas.  Residents will be enabled to either grow food in the gardens for cheap or benefit from low-cost community supported agriculture programs.

The Transition Companion, a guide to creating more sustainable communities from a grassroots perspective, provides a concrete guide for how to go about establishing these gardens on a larger scale, complete with examples of previous communities who have established them.  It proposes an alternate model of consumption based on a district-region-nation model, wherein goods and services are divided up by whether they should be produced on a local level (like crops and waste recycling) or on a larger scale (like electricity, building materials, and machinery) (The Transition Companion, 50).  It lays out concrete steps towards achieving Register’s “ecocity” model and discusses the successes and failures of previous projects, making future projects more feasible.  Building upon the foundations laid by modern urban community garden efforts seen in Nowtopia, it aims to give readers the tools to turn community gardening and other sustainable building efforts into a concrete movement with tangible goals for broad swaths of society.

Finally, Ecocities is the end goal—sustainable cities where human potential is maximized while deleterious effects on the environment are minimized.  Register argues that cities need to be rebuilt along ecological purposes.  Community gardens are the perfect first step towards ecologically focused cities:  they promote land stewardship, productive use of compact space, and a sustainable food system.  He argues that buildings need to be conceived not only as standalone structures, but as part of greater communities (Register, 33), which community gardens will help to foster.  By bringing residents of a particular area together, gardens create the dialogue necessary to communicate needs with developers and local government in order to ensure communally-focused building projects.

Register advocates redesigning cities and suburbs to maximize population density, and establishing neighborhood gardens are a solid step towards ensuring that people have a stake in their community and are willing to change it for the better.   Residents of a particular neighborhood or town aren’t going to be willing to make drastic changes overnight (or at all) if they don’t feel connected to a community that will benefit; it’s human nature to want to take care of one’s own.  Community gardens help ensure that ‘one’s own’ includes one’s neighbors—and thus they are an integral part not only of growing food, but of growing community.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns.” EWG .Agriculture. Environmental Working Group, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Murphy, J. Michael. “The Edible Schoolyard: Improving Behaviour and Academic Results.” .Scribd. Botanical Garden UC, Center for Ecoliteracy, Apr. 2003. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Smith, Christopher M., and Hilda E. Kurtz. “Community Gardens And Politics Of Scale In New York City.” Geographical Review 93.2 (2003): 193-212.

Schmelzkopf, Karen. “Urban community gardens as contested space.” Geographical Review (1995): 364-381.

Baker, Lauren E. “Tending Cultural Landscapes And Food Citizenship In Toronto’s Community Gardens.” Geographical Review 94.3 (2004): 305-325.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Companion. N.p.: Chelsea Green, 2011. Print.

Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today. Oakland, CA: AK, 2008. Print.

Register, Richard. Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola, BC: New Society, 2006. Print.

So why processed food?

I’m just starting to read Marion Nestle’s Food Politics after months of reading her blog- I know, I know, I should have read Food Politics ages ago.  It’s quite an eye opener- she has a knack for explaining things clearly and concisely.

One thing I’ve found particularly interesting is her explanation of processed foods’ dominance in food marketing.  Not only does processing allow companies to stand out in a sea of overabundance, but food processing means that the products are value-added:  you’re not buying raw greenbeans and uncooked rice, you’re buying a microwaveable meal that’s ready in a matter of seconds instead of minutes.  Greenbeans and rice are pretty much similar no matter where you’re getting them- but if you’re buying Lean Cuisine Greenbeans and Rice(tm), you’re buying a product, not a commodity.  You’re paying for the convenience, and the food industry is profiting from that.

So the question is- is that a bad thing?