There is No Box: Big Ideas About Urban Agriculture and Local Food Systems

I’ve been pondering a lot the last three weeks, trying to think outside the box, and trying to proceed as if there is no box at all. Two weeks of conferences in a row, one the Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Conference, the second sponsored by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Very different conferences, but a common theme: Food Systems All the Time.

At the UC-sponsored professional conference that I recently attended, I had the opportunity to hear historian James McWilliams speak.   I have read some of McWilliams’s work previously and greatly admire his research and work. (He’s also an incredibly likable and humorous man on a personal level). Like me, McWilliams is an historian attempting to use the past to inform current public policy in the nation’s food system. (I like this. We need more historians informing public policy in general, and particularly vis-à-vis food systems). Our research focuses on different areas; we agree on some things, but disagree on others. I will be reviewing his upcoming book, Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little Brown, June 2009), for this blog.

The title of McWilliams’ talk was “Business, But Not Business as Usual: A Proposal for the Future of Sustainable Agriculture.” It was offered to academic and program staff affiliated with UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Division, some of us working with Extension, others with campuses.  For an organization charged with working with all aspects of the food system, we don’t actually talk about it at the systems level much. This conference was different: McWilliams offered the plenary, and spoke directly to the topic. There were also two other sessions/workshops that discussed these sorts of issues; they were very well attended, and have provoked discussion and conversation that is continuing in post-conference settings. Not just nationally, but in my own institution, forces and issues and needs and agendas are converging in a perfect storm of interest in the food system. Change is inevitable; nearly every institution is going through a period of “creative destruction” due to budget constraints. There are new challenges and opportunities for all of us.

McWilliams’ opened his talk by asserting that fixing the food system is one of the most pressing tasks we face in this country. Agreed. Nearly every problem we face as a nation can be addressed in some way – and in some big ways – by improving the current food system. But McWilliams made a statement with which I heartily disagree: essentially, that the Locavore movement seeks to “banish to the dustbin” other models.

I’ve never termed myself a “Locavore,” although I’m a strong believer in the value of strong local and regional food systems, and actively promote them. I believe that multiple food systems exist – and probably always will – and that most of us participate in several kinds of food systems simultaneously. I don’t seek the destruction of any food system. I seek instead, the room and opportunity to develop alternatives for the places and situations in our country where the predominant, or meta, food system is not working effectively.

McWilliams argued for a kind of pragmatism that I find appealing in a general and theoretical sense…work within the system rather than against it. There’s a certain logic in that…perhaps…sometimes.  Using the success of Forest Ethics as a model, McWilliams argued that those of us advocating for local food systems should be more pragmatic, reconsider working with agribusiness, find common ground, seek real solutions, and be prepared to compromise some, to seek evolution in the food system rather than revolution. McWilliams presents a persuasive model, in a persuasive way. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

But I’ve had other people to persuade me, too, to remind me that real change is needed, and needed now. Will Allen is someone I admire immensely. I heard him speak (again) the week before McWilliams made his presentation at UC. The creator of Growing Power, a MacArthur genius grant recipient, and a national leader in the sustainable food systems movement, Allen provides eloquent testimony about the kinds of changes needed to make the food system more effectively meet the needs of some parts of urban America. In his case, that has involved creating a new kind of food system model. What he has done in Milwaukee within a framework of urban agriculture is simply astounding. There is a lot to be learned from this work. Allen is a big man, physically; he also has big ideas. What I love about his work is that he applies his visionary ideas in ways that are highly impactful on the local level.  I believe his work has the ability to be scaled up, which could have positive implications for other urban areas.

Allen has recently published a manifesto proposing a novel and worthy public policy idea, suggesting the creation of a “public-private enabling institution” called the Centers for Urban Agriculture. Per Allen’s document:

It would incorporate a national training and outreach center, a large working urban farmstead, a research and development center, a policy institute, and a state-of-the-future urban agriculture demonstration center into which all of these elements would be combined in a functioning community food system scaled to the needs of a large city. We proposed that this working institution – not a “think tank” but a “do tank” – be based in Milwaukee, where Growing Power has already created an operating model on just two acres. But ultimately, satellite centers would become established in urban areas across the nation. Each would be the hub of a local or regional farm-to-market community food system that would provide sustainable jobs, job training, food production and food distribution to those most in need of nutritional support and security.

Allen is not only proposing a new kind of model for urban food systems…it seems to me that he is proposing a (largely) new location for Extension work and new kind of Extension model.   Allen’s proposal seems to combine elements of working both within and outside of the system. Especially because I’m familiar with his work, I find it compelling and thought-provoking. It is clear to me that our current land grant system – in a national sense – has not put enough muscle into urban agricultural and local food systems efforts.  We have made many notable contributions, to be certain, but our institutional resources have not flowed into this area in the large way that would be needed to effect national change. There are many reasons for this: years of declining funding; the relative dearth of funded research opportunities in this area, at least until recently; political pressures; lack of mandate; lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of our work in agriculture and human areas; a failure to fully anticipate the converging crises and challenges facing us; and perhaps even a lack of awareness of how large, mainstream and dynamic the interest in sustainable foods systems has become.

I’d suggest that everyone reading this blog read Will Allen’s proposal and James McWilliams’ soon-to-be-released book. Their work represents stark differences in opinion on options for local food systems. Point and counter-point.

A final note: As we participated in this UC conference, which was focused on creating implementation strategies for a Strategic Vision plan UC Cooperative Extension and its related components have developed relating to our work for the next 15 years, we were initially told to “think out of the box.”

Then a better framing statement was offered…”There is no box.”

McWilliams’ ideas actually retain the box – or framework – of the existing national and largely industrialized food system. Allen’s work assumes no box.

9 thoughts on “There is No Box: Big Ideas About Urban Agriculture and Local Food Systems

  1. The greatest problem with agribusiness is that it’s operational model is one that is highly dependent upon carbon-based energy sources. Because of scale issues, it pushes aside the work and by-products of humans and animals in favor of machines and stored carbon energy. Politics aside, it has a finite favorable lifetime and we need to move to a model that has a more favorable long-term future.

  2. Hi, Paul. Great comment. I’d say we need to move to multiple models. Thanks for reading the post!

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  4. I’m involved in an urban farm project in San Jose, called Veggielution, and it is poised to grow in so many interesting ways, You’ve given me yet another direction to think about.

    Check it out at http://www.veggielution.org

    Time to get acquainted with the local extension office!

  5. Hi, Diana: I’ve heard about your program, and it’s simply wonderful. I heard about it from Craig Kolodge, who used to work with Extension in Santa Clara County, and who still does great work in your area. Give a shout out to azbaameur@ucdavis.edu who does small farms, among other things. Fe Moncloa does great work with youth and nutrition programs, and there is a good Master Gardener program there, too. Tell Aziz and Fe that I referred you. THINK BIG!
    And holler at me if you want to chat…keep me posted! Viva la revolucion!

  6. Perhaps McWilliams is simply a brilliant marketer – who has ever spoken against the locavore movement? It’s provocative…not that I agree with it.

  7. Hi Rose,
    I worked a lot with the Native Plant Society in Atlanta. There I learned that Piedmont Park was working with Trees Atlanta to include vegetable gardening, native flora and fauna education in the park’s Master Plan. The envirommental stewardship model must also be included. I don’t understand how that threatens agribusiness. Even if every restaurant, every institution with a cafeteria and 3 out of 5 homeowners grew their own vegetables, they would never fulfill their needs. They’ll still have to buy from agribusiness. The large groups will just have to grow the hard stuff and leave the easy basil to me.Whether it’s tomatoes or marigolds or wax myrtles. Thanks for presenting both sides. I’ll be very interested to read McWilliams’ work. Now in San Antonio, I have to learn what I can grow here, and what I must buy from big business.

  8. It isn’t necessarily the models but the way they are used and sometimes corrupted.

    The problem with big ag is not their size but their business practices. When profit is the only concern it’s not a good thing -the same would be true for a small, local producer.

  9. Great piece. I think what’s lost in many of the sustainable ag discussions is the free-market mentality of America.

    There is huge demand for these products but no reliable infrastructure to distribute them (like food purveyors, wholesalers and supermarkets).

    To me, this is the single reason local and sustainable food stays fringe – and it probably will for some time to come. This whole movement is predicated on the idea of farmers acting like superheros.

    You cant expect farmers to grow, market, transport and handle billing for all their food – and you cant expect most consumers to join CSAs and find the time to hunt around for local food dropoffs and farmers markets for their everyday needs.

    Simply the system and youll get the food revolution you are looking for.