The garden is the gateway. It’s a metaphor for life. Everything happens in the garden. — Ron Finley
A recurring theme at this year’s South by SouthWest Eco 2013 in Austin, Texas was the future of food.
Our food supply is both ecologically unsustainable and inhumane. 36 million tons of food waste ends up in landfills annually while people worldwide and in our neighborhoods go hungry. We don’t pay the full cost of our food — not just the time and labor of agriculture, but the expense of transporting that food into urban centers using our dwindling supplies of polluting petrochemicals. As we run out of oil, there are fears that our food prices will increase & the system will collapse. Meanwhile, the poor and minorities of our cities are already suffering not just from the difficulty of affording food but simply finding it. Food deserts are neighborhoods where there is no local grocery store or supermarket, forcing many residents to subsist on unhealthy, fast food and corner store convenience foods.
In this multi-part series, I want to lay out a handful of interesting new ideas and technologies which I saw at the conference that give some hope for the future, though of course these solutions bring new challenges as well.
At his keynote speech, urban food activist Ron Finley took it one step further: “They’re not food deserts but food prisons.” He accused society of sanctioned genocide against its most vulnerable.
Even before he started speaking, Finley set himself apart from others at the conference — his first act was to set out a bucket labeled ‘TIPS.’ It was a reminder to the audience that while some of them were scrambling for attention to their mobile app or looking for funding for some new way of recycling waste into consumer products, Finley is counting dollars and cents and turning it seeds and supplies to grow food for and with kids in Los Angeles.
Finley’s connection to this story began in 2010 when he decided to plant food outside his door on the curb side strip of grass. By law, Finley is required to tend that grass but it is city property. He planted anyway and, when a neighbor complained, he decided to fight the city rather than back down. That success story — and the TED Talk he gave earlier this year — have garnered international attention. As he talked, he showed slides of lush, plant-filled reclaimed urban spaces.
Finley sees “food prisons” as part of an attack on the poor. Whether it stems from malice or systemic breakdown and corruption, once set in motion it is difficult to reverse. Children grow up malnourished, without enough healthy, fresh food to sustain growing brains. They are brought into failing schools, with not enough teachers and facing massive cuts. It’s impossible to expect the youth of today to master the 21st century tools of success on an empty stomach, he argued, and they simply become another statistic in the school to prison pipeline. If we have any hope of creating the science visionaries we need tomorrow, we need kids with access to healthy, abundant food today.
“If kids grow kale then kids eat kale,” Ron Finley has said on numerous occasions. Finley’s vision is one of reclaiming back yards and all those public spaces — the medians full of ugly, drought-parched grass or sparsely tended, anemic flower planters — and replacing them with vegetable gardens. It’s an idea that’s lurked on the periphery of the guerilla gardening movement for a long time, but is now getting mainstream attention thanks to people like him. Imagine walking down your sidewalk and being surrounded by fresh food that you were free to take home for dinner or eat on the spot. Imagine cities full of sustainable, community-supported “food forests.”
Finley calls himself an “urban anthropologist,” experimenting with food culture on the streets. His is a revival of the art of gardening — making working with the earth a part of people’s lives again. To create this vision, we need to change not just laws about public spaces but cultural ideas about what public spaces look like — we must recreate the idea of a “commons” that produces food for common people. We need to make sure the knowledge and the resources end up in the hands of people with time to dig in the dirt, so that even people who don’t have the time can enjoy the abundant fruits of their work.
Finley imagines reclaiming all the “empty lots” — not just spaces, but people whose lives are lost to poverty or gang violence.
We need to take our food system back into our own hands. … We can change the world and we can do it with food. –Ron Finley
This vision of a better food future allows urban populations to supplement their diets with fresh produce, and perhaps goes a long way toward a spiritual healing of our food system. But it can’t replace the scale of modern petrochemical-based industrial agriculture.
Another piece of the puzzle may be to reclaim our urban rooftops for computer-controlled farms, which I’ll look at in the next part of this story.
Photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.