food. people. justice.
The Local Food Paradox
Current subsidies for the production of commodity crops has made food grown outside the immediate community the most competitively priced items available to grocers, restaurants, schools, and soup kitchens. In addition, food grown in the immediate area must often be trucked to processing or inspection warehouses and then shipped back again. The paradox is that despite the huge transportation and preservation costs associated with long-distance food markets, our local small-scale farmers cannot make their prices competitive and stay in business. They are forced to charge higher prices, which has in turn made local food the provenance of the wealthy, categorically excluding people who can barely afford, or cannot always afford, to eat anything at all.
The people most adversely affected by the profit-driven farming system are, unsurprisingly, the poor. Affordable foods for this population are likely to be trucked in from distant places, subject to days, even weeks of freezing or chemical preservation, which reduces the nutritional quality, making a diet low in calories even worse in terms of vitamins and minerals. And because they are unable to afford local food (let alone aware of local produce alternatives), poor people are even further divorced from the food production chain and more dependent on those nutritionally-lacking foods the current system produces.
Because local agriculture can, at this point, only be supported by the relatively affluent, an image of elitism or classism has developed around local food, which turns fresh, healthy food into a cultural status symbol and turns food co-ops or even organic supermarkets into places where poor people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. Those of us involved or interested in the local food movement are often unaware of this unintended consequence of our actions, and we often do not see the poverty in our own communities.
Food (In)security in Larimer County
Fort Collins is a wealthy community, with a median family income of $71,000. However, it hosts 73% of Larimer County’s impoverished population--a population that is still growing. Studies by the USDA have shown that since 2000, Colorado has experienced the third largest increase in food insecurity in the nation. In that same period, Larimer County Food Bank more than tripled the number of people it served, the majority of whom were considered food insecure. People who are food insecure have limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, or are often unable to acquire food in a socially acceptable way. These are the people in our own community who are not sure where their next meal is coming from.
Food is a human right. The Growing Project takes that statement further to insist that good food is a human right. In order to make this affirmation a reality, and to slow and reverse the trends of increasing food insecurity, change must occur, literally, at the ground level. Imagine it: If every household tended a small garden, the availability and affordability of fresh, local produce would no longer be an issue, and would no longer be the domain of the wealthy. The goal of agriculture is first, and last, to sustain human life. By spreading the knowledge of growing and preserving our own food, we can reclaim that goal in this community.
Resistance Through Education and Community
Both poverty and unsustainable farming practices are based in the larger capitalistic economy that marginalizes the poor and local farmers. In addition to its caloric and gastronomic benefits, planting, tending, harvesting, and preserving the fruits of a backyard garden can be a form of resistance against the continual encroachment of profit-driven companies into our homes and our stomachs. It can be a source of pride, a release from the alienation of consumer culture, and an approach to poverty reduction that affords the poor a much higher level of personal dignity. However, not everyone has the knowledge, experience, money, or space to maintain a small garden. As a society, we have moved away from the land and away from the knowledge that previously enabled us to provide for ourselves. The Growing Project seeks to reintegrate and redistribute that knowledge.
A more intimate connection with the land we live on through private and public gardens, will give us something that American culture sorely lacks: A sense of place. Rarely do we remain in one place through our lives anymore; consequently, we have developed few roots and few communities. In turn, our culture respects little that is tangible—our geography, our water, our soils. As a nation of immigrants and slaves, how can we grow this kind of long-term respect and pride? Clearly, it is not something that comes about through the actions of a single individual or even a single generation. Only over the course of time, as a population begins to take pride in its regional identity and to respect the landscape in which it thrives, can it meet the definition of sustainable community culture.
Plants cannot grow without roots, and neither can culture. The roots of a cooperative and place-based community lie at the bottom of the social structure, with the least mobile people, the aged and the poor. It is the knowledge that these people hold that can be used to build a solid base for a local food system and a local economy. We need not import the change we seek: it is already here, in low-income neighborhoods, at the food bank, in seed packets, in the soil, on the street, in the suburbs and in the inner city. It needs only to be watered, nurtured, and cared for. The harvest will come.