Posts Tagged ‘urban agriculture’

Communicating the benefits of urban agriculture while innovation grows

The area of urban agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. I think the more people start to realize the feasibility, and soon necessity, of producing their own food, the more it will develop and become even more feasible, affordable, and mainstream. So what are some of the innovations we have seen?

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Innovations in urban agriculture

  • Hydroponics is a method of growing fruits and vegetables in water, which conserves the use of vast areas of farmland and allows crops to be grown in desert areas where they otherwise would not be able to. Further, it is able to also conserve and re-use water that is lost during evaporation or field run-off in traditional soil farming. Also, there is no risk for parasites or weeds to infest the controlled systems in which hydroponic plants are grown, therefore making them largely non-GMO and free of pesticides and chemicals. Bonus: you can grow hydroponically basically anywhere–in an apartment or a house. Eve Bratman has a hydroponic garden on her houseboat that she made entirely on her own from used water bottles and empty jugs.
  • Permaculture is still a bit of a flimsy term, in my opinion, only because it can mean so many different things, and isn’t widely known about. But it basically indicates an “ecologically designed system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor.” Permaculture is currently being used in different ways in different places and in all of those places, there is not a unified “permaculture” there are just isolated tactics that build on the idea of a permaculture. For example, think of worm composting, or vermiculture, which is one such tactic which is being carried out in various cities in the country, some even offering workshops and providing free worms and materials to those interested. This provides a sort of mutual symbiosis between two living things–the worms benefits by being fed, humans benefit by receiving rich soil and not filling landfills with compostable garbage. Perhaps a ” perfect permaculture” is the pie-in-the-sky goal we set to achieve, but it is through these mutually symbiotic relationships that we are able to do get closer to that.

    Photo credit: cafedirect

  • Rooftop farming, which can often be combined with hydroponic growing, is typcially used in areas of urban sprawl where soil/ground space is limited, to utilize unused rooftop spaces where sunlight is ample. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn is one case study that has really taken this concept to a whole new level. They also offer various workshops on cooking, gardening and how the farm works. Their farm grows primarily vegetables, and is open from June through November.
  • Sack gardening is a way for people to grow vegetables in small sack containers, usually when the contamination of the soil around them is too high. It is typically done on a smaller, individual scale, in places where food scarcity is a problem, and in both urban and rural locations.
  • Window farming is another way of using hydroponics, but in a specialized manner and primarily in urban settings. It is a way of using water bottles, water, hydroponic seeds (usually herbs and lettuce and greens like that), along with an low energy-intensive air pump which circulates the water, to grow plants in your window. This type of method is barely “farming,” however, if people were properly instructed on how to best go about making their own, it could be worth looking into. Also, if you live in a city and the view of your outdoors is the brick wall of the building next to yours, this could actually prove to be an improvement to your home, from an aesthetic viewpoint. (Not to mention that having plants in your home has been known to have all sorts of health benefits.)
  • Seasonal cooking would basically just mean knowing what is in season and planning your meals around those items. The fortunate reality is that a lot of us have access to local, fresh fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t know what to do with a lot of those fruits and vegetables. It would be great to see more community and cooking classes, mobilizing people to learn how to cook just to start, but also to learn how to use local ingredients. Because if the option is there, there’s no reason not to choose local over imported. Epicurious offers an example of a map that can help to inform people about about what to expect is in peak season from their CSA or farmer’s market and how to therefore meal plan to accommodate those ingredients.

So what’s stopping us?

Locations. Some work better in some communities versus others.

Seasons. Not all of these methods can provide food at all times of the year everywhere, (except for the hydroponic ones.)

Culture/Value systems. People are going to have to shift how they think about and value their food, each other, and future generations. These types of methods require more time, patience, research, and money than traditional ways of getting food–going to a restaurant or the grocery store. Which means people are going to have to change the way they think about food. People might have to forfeit some of the time they spend watching television in the evenings in order to tend to their gardens or make time to cook meals from scratch in their homes. They are going to have to learn to appreciate eating with the seasons, and in fact, eating generally less, in quantity.

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Communicating benefits to consumers

While all of these methods of urban gardening and having a local, low carbon-footprint certainly interest some of us, and they are something we would be willing to use, they aren’t all 100 percent practical. Would these methods be used in conjunction with traditional food shopping? Would they slowly replace traditional methods? Or would they just be something some people adopted while others did not?

It’s hard to really know the answer. What I foresee is something quite similar to how companies like, say, Apple, market their products to consumers: first, the innovators get on board. Eve Bratman, my professor with the compost bin and on-the-boat garden, is one such innovator in the field of urban agriculture. Next, there are the early adopters, then the early majority (also called the “pragmatists”),  then the late majority (“the conservatives”), and lastly the laggards. How you move along more quickly is by conveying the importance–the “gotta-have-it” factor–of the technologies.

This reality and challenge is something that excites me, as a student and soon-to-be graduate in the field of communications. I feel like a lot of what is missing in the environmental movement is strategic communication about how and why people should change their behaviors. I think there is a place for communicators to get that message out to the public and I see that as being a huge catalyst for change in the future of the “sustainable movement”.

The way I imagine these sorts of methods becoming more widely accepted is through slow implementation motivated by strategic communication, just like all new technology works. Pilot programs embraced and tested out by the innovators and early adopters will not only provide evidence for the feasibility of certain tactics, but will allow for what doesn’t work to shine through and motivate alterations that can be modeled after later on. This will also allow programs to evolve at a pace that doesn’t freak out the “treehugger-phobics” as I like to call them (the kind of people who, when you “threaten to take away their right to buy bottled water” get all bent out of shape and start spouting off allegations of “fascism”)!

It’s important to communicate knowing that there are going to be those opposing voices when it comes to getting people to change their lifestyles. Which is why I feel when it comes to revolutionizing our food system, especially with tactics that require people to change on a personal level, you have to prove to consumers the benefits, and that change doesn’t have to be just easy, it’s rewarding.

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Food Access Solutions: Urban Ag, Local Food, Community Development

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you are seeing something that is actually happening. Sometimes it’s hard to know if our own interests, backgrounds, experiences and lessons are shaping what is going on around us to the point where we are, in a sense, creating our own reality—or if our reality is largely the same as what is actually taking place—that is, if our reality is the same as other people’s realities.

I will eventually make more clear what I mean by this. I hope.

Panel Event: Food Access Solutions

On Friday, I spent a good part of my day at a panel-focused event titled, “Food Access Solutions: Urban Agriculture, Local Food & Community Development.” It was held in a large auditorium in a great new building in Southeast D.C., and there were about fifty of us there to see and hear experts in the field shed some light on the issue of healthy food access and sustainable community development.

Throughout the past eight months or so, I have been surrounded by this food debate. Meanwhile, the food debate has been raging, unbeknownst to me, for decades. Though I feel like this year it has hit critical mass. Meanwhile, it has taken me all this time to put the pieces together and realize that everything that’s going on isn’t really about food. The food issue is merely a symptom of a wider issue of a shift in our cultural values. Namely, that people are craving human connection, are dying for a sense of community, whether or not they realize it. Not to be dramatic, but regardless of where we live or what social class we belong to, we have become slaves (the concept of “food freedom” was discussed at length) to a commercialized, industrialized, profit-driven society that doesn’t cultivate mutual respect or promote equity, and ultimately devalues the natural resources we depend on. Consumerism has replaced consumer-power, as Robert Egger said during the panel. This causes us to devalue our neighbors, friends and family, who depend on those resources along with us. And what the current food revolution is about is fixing this broken value system, through tactics that help to chip away at the symptoms of it, with the hope that eventually the problem itself will begin to reverse.

FYI, here is who was there:

There is a lot worth mentioning and talking about from the panel, but in the interest of keeping this somewhat brief, here are just a few questions that I think elicited the most interesting responses, along with my commentary.

Who do you think is missing from this conversation and this panel today?

Ahh. I appreciated this opening question. Some answers included: city planners, very young people (kindergartners, elementary and middle school students), grocery stores/retailers. I also think that we need government officials (from FDA, USDA) included in the debate, as well as politicians, as these are the people that are helping to shape the policy which determines how our food system functions.

What are some possible solutions?

I was really surprised to find that the majority of the discussion focused on local community efforts that can be made, rather than wide-scale policy changing. I think the general feeling was that a bottom-up approach, rather than a trickle-down approach, may be what we need to rely on, at least to start, in order to motivate changes. In a way, this makes some sense, because if you can mobilize people in pockets all around the country, or world, you can really have an impact–but if you spend your money and efforts targeting a government who ultimately is only serving its financial interests and the interests of the people, nothing can change. You have to change the interests of the people first, and then, if there is a legitimate government, it should follow suit and work to align with those interests. Some ideas that the panelists included:

  • Using music, games, activities at farmers markets to draw more people to them, as well as offering the markets more often and at different times.
  • Urban agriculture methods. So think city/community gardens. AU has one, window farming, roof farming, hydroponics, etc. (I have a o going up soon about these methods in more details, so stay tuned.)
  • Food producers need to reach out more to the existing small corner markets and stores and get their fresh produce there.
  • Making more farmers markets available to under-served communities.
  • Programs like Farm to School, which involve more people, young people especially, in the act of growing their own food from an early age, so they appreciate it more.
  • Making food a more inherent part of our culture, something that we pride ourself on, enjoy the taste of, and would rather spend time with than other consumer endeavors.
  • Shifting the power from large corporations back into the communities, because if you bring a local food economy somewhere, you will build up their economy in general, produce more jobs, and make the community better able to weather the storm when crises occur.

Open Q&A

During the question and answer session, many stood to offer their accolades to the speakers. One young woman, around my age, who works at the Earth Day Network, stood to ask how she, as a middle-class white girl with a passion for the causes of community development and fighting hunger and providing healthy food to those in need—can do without just playing that role of the rich, white girl swooping in to “save” the struggling black community. Malik talked about how we need to stop looking at the issue as one where we are “saving” people, but instead, empowering them. He also said that there are countless nonprofit organizations that start up and go into these communities to help them, but instead of then employing the actual citizens of these communities, the organization leaders hire their other white friends. If we expect to empower people, we must include them in the processes that seek to empower, instead of keeping them on the outside, working minimum wage jobs. But he also mentioned that members of the black community have to “step up,” as he put it, and become active in that sort of work in order to allow themselves to be empowered.

I asked a pretty specific question. I wanted to hear more about how to incorporate the large family farm operations in this discussion, and what role those large commodity crop growers could play toward making healthier food more accessible while reducing the impact that their food has on the world from a greenhouse gas perspective (industrial livestock raising, nutrient soil depletion from not rotating crops, the fuel used to create fertilizers, the fuel used to transport food). I hate to say I didn’t really get an answer to that question–so then I asked how Michael, the farmer on the panel, managed to transform the corn/tobacco operation that once existed into his livestock/vegetable farm which exists today. His answer was, “very slowly.” He also said he relied on a lot of community support for it to happen. I’m not sure if that meant financial support or just support of them buying his food. It wasn’t really enough of an answer for me. So we chatted for a bit after and I got his contact information.

After, I was talking with a girl there who had interned at National Family Farm Coalition. I told her how I was interested in learning more about how to find that balance between being able to grow more fruits and vegetables in places where nature allows them to grow, without pitting large farmers against small farmers. In a sense, how to take away the whole “if you can afford small farm food, that’s great–but if you can’t, there’s factory farming which can provide you cheaper, less nutritious food.” I wanted to know what he had done, in order to use his as a case study for other projects. But his situation was not entirely the same as many large-scale farms across the country. Anyhow, the girl, who was about my age, said something worth noting, which amounted to basically, “If everyone always waited around for someone else to provide a model for how to do something, nothing would ever get done.”

Our Collective Reality

Here is where I am coming from in this discussion. I am a privileged, white girl from a middle-class family who has received an amazing education from a private institution; who has never been forced to miss a meal in her life; who never had to stow away food handed out in elementary or middle school during state-wide exam days or after school activities so I could bring it home to feed my family for dinner; who knows what self-induced starvation feels like, but has never once opened the refrigerator or the pantry only to find that there is not one thing to eat; who knows what healthy food is and what it isn’t and never once has had a problem getting somewhere that offers that food and being able to afford it.

I walked away from this panel finally feeling justified in my thinking of this whole movement as a big deal. It’s not a trend; it will go down in history books. We have to all do what we can to make sure that this is a turning point for the better instead of the worse.

I also walked away from this panel and counted the number of people who would be considered obese as I walked toward the metro station. I sat down on a seat on the train facing one such person, a young black mother and her, I assume, toddler son. He was adorable in his vintage-looking Mickey Mouse t-shirt and Nike sneakers. She was feeding him snacks from a couple plastic baggies, one of which appeared to be filled with sugar cookies and the other with Fruit Loops cereal. And after watching them for a few minutes, watching him eating and giggling and playing, completely ordinary interactions—I felt completely overwhelmed with the strangest combination of despair and hope.

I live a completely different life than the people who are being affected most negatively by our food system. I’m sure I live a completely different life than the mother and her son on the metro, and though our immediate, personal realities are quite different, when it comes down to it, we face the same threats, and our collective reality, as humans, remains the same. This should be what unites us in the struggle.

Tambra Stevenson, a panelist from the DC Food Justice Coalition, reminded us of Harriet Tubman’s famous quote, which I feels ties this entry up nicely: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”