Monday, November 28, 2011
“Urban agriculture is an oxymoron. People that believe in that are just fooling themselves.” This was the response of a man who was presenting to my Peace Corps program group during a training session recently. He had asked for us each to say our name, where we were from, and if we had any experience with agriculture. Given my experience with Revision International’s program Re:farm Denver, I said that I have some experience in urban agriculture. The man, we’ll call him Bob, was a Ph.D. biologist who specialized in high-output greenhouse vegetable production. He had been brought to Moldova by an amazing program that brings experts in different agricultural fields from the States to consult and help Moldovan farmers for usually around 15 days.
Although his session was extremely informative and it was obvious he had an abundance of knowledge about how to get the most production out of any given greenhouse setting, I couldn’t help but ponder his somewhat upsetting comment about urban agriculture. Indeed his sentiments are nothing new. I’ve seen the same thoughts tracking across the faces of most farmers whom I’ve told about the work we do with Re:farm Denver in the city; they simply think we’re not doing real work. Their looks say that if we’re serious about feeding the world, we’d go lease 1000 acres, get a John Deere tractor, sprayer, and combine to plant, inundate, and harvest a single commodity crop which would then more than likely make its way into the stomachs of animals who weren’t meant to eat that kind of food anyway before the fat on their bones makes it to our mouths. The only exception to this has been my father-in-law, a South Dakotan farmer who has shown a genuine interest in my work with food in the city.
Don’t misunderstand me, large-scale farms (perhaps not as large as today’s farms though), technical equipment like tractors, ploughs, combines, etc, do indeed need to play an important role in the future or our food. Yet, with the global population creeping (read: racing) away from the rural lifestyle and toward the urban and suburban cityscapes, we must engage those settings with the question of how to feed themselves. Oil is dwindling worldwide; fossil-fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, are growing ever-more expensive; and the transportation to fly, ship, and drive food from the farm to the table is today longer and therefore requires more inputs than ever before in history. All this put together means that using the spaces which are available to us in the urban setting to grow what we can is more than simply not an oxymoron, it is a vital component of creating a future for our children when oil runs out.
It is also important to remember that we (most people in ‘developed’ nations) are forgetting both what real food is, and how to grow it. With grocery stores packed with tens of thousands of combinations of the compounds thought up by food scientists, and an increasingly urban population, we’ve firmly lost touch with where our food comes from. Unlike here in Moldova, where every family has a garden as well as a small plot of land on which they grow corn, grapes, sunflowers (for the seeds and the oil), having a garden in the States is largely considered a luxury or a hobby. Less than 2% of our population are farmers, and that number is still shrinking as my generation grows up and wants to leave the small towns for the big cities. Programs like Re:farm Denver are reteaching people about food. Reshowing people what it means to eat healthy. Reminding people that growing food is always cheaper than buying it.
All the families Revision works with for establishing household gardens are living at or below the Federal poverty line. They also live in food deserts, areas of the city where there is no grocery store. Where the only option for food is the junk food at the cornerstore. These families can’t afford to eat healthy thanks to our current national food system and policies (a topic for another blog), so they have higher rates of Type II diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. I have seen the difference a backyard garden can make in these families’ lives. When a family of four living on a household income of less than fifteen thousand dollars a year saves $40 per week by having a household garden, that is real. When kids are involved in growing their own food and now are excited to eat the vegetables they have helped grow, that is real.
So, urban agriculture can’t be an oxymoron. Cities can, do, and need to continue growing as much food as they possibly can within their own city limits. A very viable path for low-income families toward a healthier lifestyle is through relearning how to garden, which not only connects them with the Earth which sustains us, but also, inevitably, with their neighbors as they search for venues to share their surplus harvests.
Join the movement. Grow some of your own food next year and volunteer or donate to an organization like Revision which helps low-income neighborhoods do the same.