Taking Back the Food System: Three Practical Steps

From displacing indigenous tribes in Indonesia to uprooting family farms in the U.S., the world’s agriculture giants have given us plenty of reasons to be indignant. Our food supply is literally controlled by a handful of multinational companies–ten corporations produce half the food in an average grocery store, and four companies are responsible for 90 percent of the global grain trade. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of America’s soybean seeds and 90 percent of our corn seeds are patented by Monsanto.

This is a problem because, to put it mildly, corporations like Monsanto and Cargill do not have our best interests at heart (or anywhere else). Under the industrial food system, profits are king, sustainability is a joke, and world hunger is still an unsolved problem.

Of course, it’s easy to talk about how the system is broken. The harder question is, how do we fix it? There’s no simple answer, but here are a few real-life ideas for bringing food back to the grassroots.

1. Grow at home. Big Agribusiness has power because we depend on it for our sustenance. That means the simplest way to break free is to declare gastronomic independence. In other words, grow your own food! How much space to you need? Not as much as you might think. In fact, you can even grow a variety of vegetables on a fire escape. How’s that for thinking outside the picket fence?

Better yet, work with your neighbors to organize a community garden. In both urban and suburban areas, shared gardens revitalize a community by giving people access to fresh, healthy food. The American Community Garden Association has some resources to get you started.

2. Buy local. Let’s face it: No matter how innovative you get with space and schedule, there are limits to what you can produce yourself. Maybe you don’t have the space for melons, or perhaps you’re not ready for backyard chickens. In that case, take your shopping list to your local farmers’ market. With over 5,000 markets nationwide, chances are there’s one near you. (Find one on Local Harvest.) Many markets aren’t limited to vegetables: You can find eggs, cheese, canned goods, and even meat. You might pay a few cents more, but the money goes straight to independent growers, not faceless corporations.

You might also want to look into community shared agriculture (CSA). CSA farms deliver fresh produce every week during the growing season, in return for a subscription fee. Again, Local Harvest is a great place to start looking.

3. Join the guerrilla gardening movement. If your tastes are more radical (pun intended), you might want to check out guerrilla gardening. This is the charmingly subversive tactic of planting flowers and vegetables in disused urban spaces, like empty lots and highway medians–a way of “taking back the land.” The result? Greener cities, more abundant food, and a thought-provoking message. Although often illegal, guerrilla gardening has fascinating potential to renew cities. And, at the very least, it gets people’s attention.

Bonus: Add your voice. How do you think we can improve the food system? What steps can we take to implement our vision? Join the conversation, online and in real life–after all, you are part of the grassroots.

You can share your ideas in the comments below.

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Farmers Markets: Fresh Food Movement Reaches Beyond the Eco-Scene

“Don’t tell me y’all grew these,” the woman said, examining a basket of plump tomatoes, as bright and smooth as any from a supermarket shelf.

Across the table, the woman tending the booth chuckled. “If we had’na grown ’em, they’d throw us outta here.” Even a small-town farmers’ market has rules. One of them is that you can only sell produce you’ve grown yourself.

The chuckling woman goes on to explain how she manages to grow perfect tomatoes, even this late in the season. She and her husband, a slim farmer with a scraggly gray beard, are fond of handing out advice to their customers, right along with the rattlesnake beans and eggplants. In fact, they seem to enjoy talking about vegetables as much as selling them.

Last week, the bearded farmer warned me with particular zeal against weeding watermelons, something he says should never be done. Never. 

He seemed to know his melons, so I bought one from him, along with some eggplants. The eggplants were especially good, some of the best I’ve had. Today, I tell him as much.

“How’d you cook ’em?” he demands. He and his wife listen with genuine interest before sharing their own recipe.

Farther down the line of tables, another farmer is selling jars of bay leaves from his twenty-five-year-old tree. Every year for more than two decades, he tells me, he has carefully pruned his bay tree and collected and dried the leaves. The trees grow real slow, so there’s a bit of history in those jars.

Conversations like these are what you come to expect from a local farmers’ market, but they’re simply impossible in the supermarket system. In the Wal-Mart age, we’ve almost done away with face-to-face, farm-to-table food shopping. While we’ve gained convenience, we’ve lost personality, and I don’t think it’s a fair trade.

I’m not the only one. Nationwide, there are enough local foodies to support over 7,000 farmers’ markets; the number has increased 150 percent since 2000. And they’re not just popular in green strongholds. Even in Alabama, where the recycling rate is appallingly low, farmers’ markets are everywhere. Buying fresh and local is something we all can get behind.

To many greens, local food and sustainability go hand-in-hand. But unlike many aspects of sustainable living, farmers’ markets have not been colonized by politics. People don’t go to make a political statement; they go because they want to buy fresh food from real people they can get to know. That’s part of what makes farmers’ markets successful throughout the country.

The social aspect of farmers’ markets runs deep. Your food dollars stay in the community and help independent growers stay independent. The money goes to the growers themselves, not to faceless corporations. And until you’ve experienced it, you don’t realize the value of actually knowing your farmer.

Some folks who have been around a bit longer than I might be amused that the idea of buying food from an individual is suddenly new and progressive. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people visited the barber, the dentist, the grocer… Then came fast-food culture–an example of progress taking a wrong turn.

In recent years, the trend has been toward convenience, at the cost of quality and personality. But if we want to build sustainable communities–not just companies with social responsibility statements–we need to shake the drive-through mentality. We need to take a good, long look at our food priorities.

Why choose food out of so many pressing issues? Food has one thing that solar panels and Priuses do not: a universal connection. In other words, everybody has to eat, and most of us would rather eat something good. As a result, many people with no interest in being green are turning back to real, fresh food. It’s this group, as much as the granola types, that has made farmers’ markets popular.

In short, food brings families and communities together. Because of that, it is powerful.

Image credit: Natalie Maynor

Urban Roots: Rebuilding Detroit with Community Farming

Poster by Shepard Fairey

The Motor City may once have been a model of the American industrial dream, a booming example of progress in the age of big business. However, the auto industry exodus and massive population collapse that followed have left the much of the city literally in ruins.

As the people of Detroit moved out, so did many businesses. One result is that hundreds of thousands of Detroiters now live in a “food desert,” an area where healthy, quality food is extremely difficult to find. The population, often low-income, is forced to rely on fast food. In the wealthiest country on earth, equal access to nutritious food is a serious problem.

Produced by Leila Conners and Mathew Schmid and directed by Mark MacInnis, Urban Roots tells the story of Detroiters working to revive their city and change the food desert into an oasis. Their solution? Urban farming. Their goal? To “turn Motown into Growtown.”

The film is narrated by the farmers and community members themselves, who range from reformed convicts to bearded tree huggers, with a strong base of everyday urbanites in between. The American Dream has failed them, and many are disillusioned with industrialism. “I don’t think we need to Wal-Martize anything in this city ever again,” one organizer says.

Urban Roots is not about disillusionment, though. It’s about a varied group of people taking their situation into their own hands and developing Detroit’s vast plots of neglected land into a network of farms. The plan, according to one farmer, is to “create a model where people can make a living on an acre of land, either as a collective or as individuals.” Another grower explains, “We’re not waiting on anybody to give us a grant or to give us funds. This is something that we see a need for and we’re making it happen.”

Here lies the interesting paradox of community farming in Detroit. We see the progressive idea of workers reclaiming land, sharing the means of production, resisting big capitalism. There is even a subversive nature in the farms, as many operate under the radar, outside of development laws. On the other hand, we see disadvantaged people helping themselves, not asking for for government handouts or charity–a concept that has been labeled “conservative.”

In fact, free enterprise is at the heart of the urban farming model. For example, Earthworks Urban Farm grows and distributes 100,000 seedlings throughout the city. The aim is to encourage low-income or unemployed Detroiters to produce and sell their own food, working to become more self-sufficient.

In the end, the urban farming movement shown in Urban Roots is not a political statement but a proactive response to a problem. If successful, the concept of small-scale, decentralized farming could be applied to communities in similar situations. Kathryn Underwood, an urban planner interviewed in the film, says that “Detroit has an opportunity to redefine urbanism and to redefine what happens to a post-industrial city.”

One question remains: Does the urban farming system work? This is actually difficult to answer, partly because several different models are being used in Detroit. One farm, for instance, operates as a non-profit, allowing passersby to pick as many vegetables as they like, for free. Another hires neighborhood workers and sells its produce at markets and to restaurants. Along the way, it introduces city kids to the wonders of nature.

When it comes to farming in cities like Detroit, I think we need a new definition of “success.” Success in the corporate world, including the ag industry, means maximizing size and profits. But that model didn’t work for Detroit.

The new (or not so new) thinking demonstrated by the farmers in Urban Roots is not to feed a whole city in one stroke, but to grow food, jobs and lifestyles one community at at time. And at the core of the movement is something big business tends to ignore–the human element.

Urban Roots documents the practice of urban farming and does an good job of it. But what leaves you inspired as you eject the disc is the impression of how much true grassroots efforts can accomplish when rebuilding a collapsed community.

In films as well as businesses, it seems the human element makes the difference.

[Images courtesy of Urban Roots Film.]

Easy green tips #2

Image from eHow.

Image from eHow.

Organic Gardening

So, you’ve started composting, right?  Right?  Okay, in a month or so, when you have a heap of soft, fertile, compost, what are you going to do with it?  The simplest and most obvious use of compost is gardening.

Organic gardening is easy whether you live on a ranch or in an apartment.  You just need some space, regular sunlight, a few pots, and some soil to grow tomatoes, peppers, and beans.  Once you get started, you will find the process of growing vegetables very rewarding.

As more negative findings on pesticides come out yearly, and prices of organic produce at the supermarket continue to be restrictive, gardening is a cost-effective way to eat healthy, chemical-free food.

If you cannot grow enough variety in your space, try to buy produce from organic farmers.  To find a local farmers’ market or farm near you, go to Local Harvest.  eHow also offers a helpful article on starting an organic garden.  Last but not least, Nature’s News has a great post on the benefits of shopping at a farmers’ market.