[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]
You have an extensive background in urban agriculture spend a great deal of time and energy going around town introducing communities to growing. Additionally, it seems your practice has led you to do extensive networking with a really wide range of groups/projects that touch on urban eco-logical work in one way or another. Can you say a bit about that range of work you are encountering throughout the city and how broad it really is? Do people seem to be connecting their efforts?
From what I see, the connecting is happening more and more. Incipient local food councils, conceptual artists, eco-minded ministers, affordable housing organizers, urban agriculture practitioners, many are crossing paths and thought processes for the first time and finding inspiration. I think individuals and families quickly come up against the dif-ficulties of making these kinds of lifestyle changes in an overall resource use, production and consumption system that resists them, and they either lose motivation or reach out to share the effort with others. When it comes to food, the spectrum of change—infrastructure and activities—can include joining to make community gardens and urban orchards, beehives, greenhouses, root cellars, community kitchens—then supporting farmers markets or community supported agriculture and buying cooperatively. The next level of organization up from there is forming a neighborhood food council to look at the local food system as a whole, and how to change it for the better. Food councils usually start from a concern about emergen-cy food supplies, or access to healthy and affordable produce, or what kids are eating in schools, and grow to encompass a lot of food, nutrition, environmental, and community issues and projects. They seem to be fertile ground for local participatory planning and decision making. Bringing people together around food is a natural and obvious way to make connections and build community, which can instigate a lot of other changes and mutual efforts.
What would you say are some common challenges or pitfalls that urban agriculture projects and organizations have to encounter?
There are umpteen great ideas and activities to do around food, gardening, nutrition, and no end of examples of them around the country when you start looking. Some of them reach a kind of “star status” and instant re-cognition by the media, funders, powers that be, to the degree that those few are always pointed to as if they are enough. It’s very easy to get invested in individual charismatic efforts and then risk losing momentum in “tokenizing” these examples instead of moving ahead with sweeping systems change. They can provide models but can’t suffice—we need networks and collaborations amongst ourselves to hold the big picture while staying connected to tangible projects. Also, having so many choices for cool programming, projects, classes and workshops, “wow” events and activities, can lead to exhaustion and/or paralysis without enough basic structure to hang them on. Structure often feels too abstract and just isn’t as “juicy” for most folks to want to work on, but it’s vital to sustaining bigger scale, long-term change.
Similarly, the word “policy” makes many people’s eyes glaze over—mine included—but the point of it is basic frameworks and knowing how things work together or don’t, and restructuring them to promote what we want. This doesn’t have to be overly conceptual and can lead to exciting insights and inventiveness, and stay very participatory. They can dislodge the tacit assumption that policy comes from on high or beyond the control and grasp of local folks to shape “the way things work.” An important piece of this goes beyond policy as words but is very tangible: infrastructure—what do we need in place to support the changes we want? Neighborhood-scale food distribution warehouses, urban intensive food production and greenhouses, organics composting and graywater systems, community kitchens and root cellars, tool lending libraries, all are examples of infrastructure change to undergird lifestyle change. And the community nature of this brings us back to groups of people organized together around values, stewardship, reverence for the planet and caring for each other, learning to share resources and labor.
If you could imagine an alternative food system (for Chicago or for your community), how would it operate and how would it be different from the current food system?
Some is suggested above, but I think it starts with production, access to and support for local producers and extending the capacity to grow during more of the year in our climate. The current nature of agricultural subsidies and transportation costs means food from far away, grown without good care for land, groundwater, and ecosystem health or for the rights, health, and livelihoods of farm laborers and family farmers. Nevertheless, the system appears “cheap” to the consumer looking for affordable food. The costs are externalized on other people and communities, except for the price to our health of eating pesticide residues and eventually encountering one way or another the other environmental damage that has been wrought. So I’d say a responsible and sustainable local food system should one way or another make local products “preferred” and reject products grown and produced else-where in ways that we wouldn’t tolerate around our own homes and families. Where possible to make food in the city itself, put in place infrastructure and education to facilitate that happening, at the home and neighborhood level, and then also small enterprises throughout the city. Connect each community with local farms in the near urban ring, dedicating land for that purpose within reach of dense populations. Develop communities around sources of significant amounts of food, and diversify the kinds of outlets for food so everyone has walkable and affordable access to a variety of healthy, high quality nourishment. Instead of large, chain grocery stores, emphasize community-based enterprises that purchase locally, and recreate new versions of traditional models like public markets and bazaars where vendors come together. Make these the hub for demonstrating and learning about ecological lifestyles, and sell “green” products besides food, as well as area artisans’ work.