Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Urban Food Thoughts

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.


Rona Roberts said...

Hi, Streetsweeper. It's good to see this post and know you are thinking about how food self-sufficiency and adequacy in Lexington. A lot of small efforts are underway in the region, working toward these goals, though they lack integration, so far. Every Monday at 11:45 AM at Alfalfa restaurant, an open group meets to talk about local food, on the premise that sharing information will boost every person and group's work. It's the Local Food Percolator, and you are always invited, along with any other people who share this interest. Typically, the people present work at places like Good Foods, Seedleaf, Cooperative Extension, Faith Feeds, CLUCK (urban chicken keepers), Well-fed Meals, UK College of AG, and so on. In addition, LFUCG is working toward hiring a local food coordinator, using outside funds, at least for the first year. About $20,000 remain to be raised before that position can be created and filled. An advisory committee has been created and has met several times to define the position and goals. (I'm not on that committee, so I don't know all the details.) Good Foods Coop, in particular, is completing a visioning process that inquires into its role in developing a sustainable local food system. Results expected in late April. Happy to see more interest in local food matters in the Bluegrass.

Lex Streetsweeper said...

Rona, I do understand that there are many small efforts being pursued at this time. It is the lack of integration which I find so disturbing as well as the general thoughts that food shortages will not happen here in Lexington. I can remember when food shipments arrived by rail and went to the individual stores by local truck. Those days are gone but we should have a plan in place to revive it should the cost of fuel rise to unbearable levels. This is an area where I see no discussions of at all.

Local food production is one thing, but as practiced it is nowhere near local food sustainability. We should move in that direction.

We will at least keep the dialogue going.

EvelyninTraining said...

Integration, collaboration and local food self-sufficiency and sustainability did come up in the recent Good Foods Coop Board Scenario Planning retreat. What are your thoughts, Lex Streetsweeper, on keeping the dialogue going and growing?

Lex Streetsweeper said...

By being Co-op members, the shares are held in Mrs Sweeper's name, we were notified but found it problematic to attend and have heard nothing of what was discussed. I find that many of the scenarios that most consider, to be on a less catastrophic scale than mine. It is as if there could be a window of opportunity to construct (or reconstruct) some fairly complex long-term, production and delivery system while the short-term situation may sap all funds and stockpiles. I would very much like to read about the results of the retreat discussions and how they may mesh with the factions listed on Rona's comment.

It is clear some of you have thought me unaware of the percolator group, yet I would say that to most of Lexington it is a well kept secret. Perhaps comments from a spokesman or two could be made in area publications, either in support of or objections to, local food related stories. Raise the awareness of local foods in popular restaurants or point out the lack of local suppliers access to corporate chain outlets. I am not afraid to avoid local places who are not proud enough to use local suppliers and those same local suppliers cannot expand without local commitment. I am on record as wanting all Kentucky Proud products the be solely grown and processed in Kentucky.

Aaron German said...

I'm not sure exactly what is meant by "integration", but I think what hampers the small efforts at growing food in the city is not so much a lack of integration, as a lack of money to fund the work that is needed to get food to grow. Perhaps these small groups needs to be integrated into the city budget. I suspect that a tiny amount of money to fund some local farmers would produce some very good results.

danny said...

I'll go one-step further than Aaron--I don't think the city really cares about food issues. (Though, yes, there are individuals who care deeply about the topic.) Our city leaders tend to approach local sustainable food as more of an aesthetic thing that global creatives desire than a food justice or food necessity or global warming/crop failure thing. I know from personal experience that I've offered several public-based ideas to city council (and had them circulated publicly in my paper, North of Center) but have been either completely ignored (including by the percolator group) or told directly by council members that they are not interested in supporting the ideas or goals.

I think a lot of the lack of integration stems from lack of leadership, a city that has focused on public-private ventures or solely private ventures to solve most things. Private food-based businesses are important (and well-represented here in Lexington in comparison to public ventures), but they funnel to those who can afford to start up a business--or in the case of the Co-Op, money gets poured into a kick-butt box store location before it can think about moving out into neighborhoods in other meaningful ways. (For several years, I remember bugging a friend of mine who works there why the Co-Op wasn't moving into any small-scale shops that litter our city's urban and suburban areas to allow people to not have to drive to Southland for fresh food. His response, filtered from discussions he heard, was that the numbers didn't add up yet.)

In terms of public money: Look at where our disposable money is currently going: $5 million to begin Rupp Arena renovations. I always think, wow--what could Seedleaf do with $2 million over 4 years--who could they hire on, what markets and grow-spaces could they expand to? Then I think, what other kind of ag growing and small-scale start-ups could be had for $3 million in start-up funds? It doesn't look like we'll find out, though. "Outside funds" will be used to pay for a food "integrator" (what about paying food producers?)--a job title that sounds kind of like the one that is being created through CitizenLex (innovation coaches) and other recent city job titles. I think of it as trickle down government, and speaking as a non-member of the percolator group and non-business/food owner, the trickling practically operates as a disincentive to continue engaging with my city on issues such as this.

Sorry for the long comments--I view local food as a flash point for several issues I see with the city's way of doing business as usual.