Neal Pierce had an excellent piece of the subject of local food and the rise of cities this past Sunday.
We think of hunger – global hunger – as a third world problem yet of the millions who go to bed hungry each night, more and more of them are in cities. The bigger the city, the bigger the number of unfed.
As Pierce points out, over the next 40 years our planet will have to produce as much food as we have ever produced and I, for one, am worried about its quality. I am also reasonably sure that a majority of it will not be local food.
Cities, by their very nature, develop in the same locations and utilize the same type of land which is ideal to grow food crops. As cities grow they expand across the very land which they may need to feed themselves, devouring acre after acre in non-agricultural and resource consuming urban development.
There are those who stress that cities are where brilliant minds are more likely to intersect with others of like bent and innovations can spring forth. So, where are we going to find the innovations for feeding our ever growing urban areas? The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research recently held a “Feeding Cities” conference looking for answers.
Historically, with all of our cities swallowing up so much fertile farm land and creating climate altering “heat islands” in the process, our family farms have been evolving into massive industrial operations which are highly susceptible to floods and droughts. Scientists say that the altering climate will see many more of these floods and droughts. Did this conference have any good answers?
One suggestion was that cities can try to toughen themselves by assembling disaster emergency funds, strengthening their infrastructure and building their resilience. WOW – whose idea was this? When we cannot even maintain our pension funds or our roads, bridges and sewers adequately we need to establish a massive rainy day fund (which will probably be blown on the first event)? Not my idea of a complete solution.
Other conferees stressed the preservation of land for agriculture, either within their borders or in surrounding regions, apparently similar to our Rural Service Area (RSA). Lexington has already done that but the majority of crops being grown in the RSA will not feed our local population, since we don’t eat horses. Some conferees saw this as a food buffer and a flood buffer – two public goods, but our experience may say otherwise. In a free market no one can tell the farm owners to actually grow food for people and not commodity crops or inedible animals.
It was mentioned that fending off powerful business or political forces to preserve agricultural lands may be a tremendously difficult task. From gated communities and golf courses to the starter homes evolving into suburban slums amid a food desert, Lexington needs to think about better access to local food production on what remaining land we have.
In the developing third world nations it is estimated that 40% of the food produced annually is lost due to improper storage or delivery systems. Yet, in America we waste nearly 650 pounds per person a year, more than any other country in the world. The losses by careless farming, inefficient food processing or from retail stores simply discarding foods that are past their sell-by dates probably trail our own personal inability to control what we buy and fail to eat. It hurts me to see what remains from many restaurant meals and I don’t see what is discarded from the kitchens themselves.
Did we always have this waste? Could we feed all of the estimated 9 billion people anticipated by 2050 with more local production and less transportation related product spoilage? There is a joy to greater self-sufficiency and local food production which Lexington is beginning to understand, yet we still fail to create real community gardens in our communities. I get the feeling that community gardens are thought to be only for the poorer sections of town. The HOA where I live will only allow a few tomato or pepper plants in pots and less obvious herbs.
Pierce concludes his article with this:
“To date, city-produced foods account for a tiny share of urban food needs. But one is led to wonder: If city food demand is a top 21st-century concern, perhaps city ingenuity – and spirit – can also help to forge answers.”
For Lexington, those answers are not forthcoming. Nor do they seem to be in other larger communities, since Pierce is still looking for them. That would indicate that we have not achieved a critical mass of intersecting thinkers on this part of Lexington's problem – though there are a handful of pioneers.
That Lexington developed, in part, where crops are known to do well and parts of that development has proven to be a detriment to the whole, just may be a hint toward an answer.
Over the last decade or so, our city has purchased property which was adversely affected or, by its placement, caused that adverse affect on others. Said property has neither been re-purposed for suitable urban use nor been reverted to the other job for which the land is quite well suited – growing food crops.
Do some of these properties fall within an area which can be called a “food desert” or could become one should the nation's transportation costs skyrocket? Could producing healthier food closer to the mouths which need it help? Could production of such food be coordinated under the auspices of a “Local Foods Policy Advisory Group” go a long way in averting urban hunger? Maybe.