Five weeks ago, my partner and I began a food stamp challenge with an unconventional twist: We use our food stamps to only buy organic food. I came up with this notion in part because I’m annoyed by the common perception that organic food is somehow “elitist.” Most recently, this meme was perpetuated by New York Times contributor Roger Cohen. (If you really want to know what I think of his line of thought, see here.)
The notion that only well-heeled Whole Foods shoppers care about organic food is misguided. As I’ve written about food justice organizations and urban farming projects over the past few years, I’ve met plenty of low-income people who go out of their way to find food that hasn’t been doused in pesticides. (What’s really elitist is the assumption that they wouldn’t want healthy food, too.) Read more
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen says that organic food is elitist, and assumes that the only people who demand healthy, pesticide-free food are well-off Whole Foods shoppers. Well, I don’t know how else to put it: he’s wrong.
All across the country—in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, Milwaukee, and New York, just to name a few—residents of low-income neighborhoods have rallied to get healthy food into their communities. There are hundreds of nonprofits dedicated to building organic gardens in peoples’ backyards, teaching inner-city kids how to cook nutritious meals, or boosting fresh produce in corner stores.
In Oregon, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO), has been a pioneer of food justice. For over 15 years, the association’s Interfaith Food & Farms Partnership (IFFP) has helped churches, synagogues, Muslim community centers, and Hindu temples source healthy, organic food from local farms. Read more
After Novella Carpenter’s critically acclaimed memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer came out, she and friend Willow Rosenthal, the founder of West Oakland gardening nonprofit City Slicker Farms, started talking about compiling a manual on urban gardening. “We always got these random emails like, ‘My chickens aren’t laying anymore!’” says Carpenter. So she and Rosenthal joked that they should write a book so they could reply: “Buy the book!”
Three years later, they can. Their new book, The Essential Urban Farmer, is a 500-page nuts-and-bolts guide to farming in the city–complete with sample garden designs, detailed illustrations, and photos of rabbit genitalia. Rosenthal, who is also a Waldorf School teacher and runs a small CSA in Berkeley, wrote the first two sections of the book: “Designing Your Urban Farm” and “Raising City Vegetables and Fruits.” Carpenter wrote the section called “Raising City Animals.” With advice on how to fix a chicken’s prolapsed “vent,” and a detailed how-to on eviscerating a chicken, it’s not for the squeamish. But then, neither is raising livestock.
I talked to Carpenter and Rosenthal recently about the guide, and got some tips about how to create a thriving urban farm. Read more
When he was seven years old, Malik Yakini, inspired by his grandfather, planted his own backyard garden in Detroit, seeding it with carrots and other vegetables. Should it come as any surprise that today, Yakini has made urban farming his vocation? The Executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), which he co-founded in 2006, he is also chair of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which advocates for a sustainable, localized food system and a food-secure Detroit.
It’s well known that Detroit has been hard hit by the economic crisis—its unemployment rate is a staggering 28 percent—but it also has one of the most well-developed urban agriculture scenes in the country. Over the past decade, resourceful Detroiters and organizations such as DBCFSN have been converting the city’s vacant lots and fallow land into lush farms and community gardens. According to the Greening of Detroit, there are now over 1,351 gardens in the city.
I spoke to Yakini, one of the leaders of Detroit’s vibrant food justice movement, about the problem with the term “food desert,” how Detroit vegans survive the winter, and what the DBCFSN is doing to change the food landscape in Detroit. “We’re really making an effort to reach beyond the foodies—to get to the common folk who are not really involved in food system reform,” says Yakini. Read more
When Josh Viertel took the helm at Slow Food USA in 2008, the organization had a reputation—at least in this country—as a club for foodies. Under Viertel’s leadership, though, the organization has dispelled this image with an increasing focus on food justice issues such as improving the abysmal quality of cafeteria food and fighting “ag-gag” bills that would’ve made it illegal to take photos or videos of farms. Last month, Slow Food organized its members to “take back the happy meal” by showing that it’s possible to cook a nutritious meal for less than $5 a person. Over 30,000 people came together at over 5,500 events to participate in Slow Food’s $5 challenge.
When I spoke to Viertel a few weeks ago, he had just returned from a board meeting in Portland, Oregon, and was full of praise for both Andy Ricker’s Thai restaurant Pok-Pok and Portland’s energetic food justice scene. As I talked to him, I came to the happy realization that Slow Food is a flourishing network of people from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels—from advocates of Native American fishing methods to radical kimchee makers in Indianapolis. All these members are coming together to overthrow the industrial food system and buy and make food that is good, clean, and fair. Read more
The surprise darling of the Community Food Security Coalition conference last May was a little-known city councilman from Cleveland. He spoke fervently about his city, a city of flourishing community gardens, backyard bee hives, and chicken coops, a city where all farmers’ markets accept food stamps, where schools get discounts for sourcing local food, and where both trans-fats and smoking on playgrounds are banned. His name? Joe Cimperman.
A 4th term Democratic city councilman whose parents hail from Slovenia, Cimperman is a vocal advocate of community gardens, which create community and self-sufficiency. He told of coming together with community leaders, public health officials, doctors, and foundations to pass the Healthy Cleveland Initiative — a series of audacious policy goals that will improve the health of Clevelanders for years to come. (That is, if Ohio’s Republican-majority legislature doesn’t pre-emptively squash them.) He ended with this rallying cry: “Why are we in food policy? Because we want our friends to live longer!”
What are Cleveland’s secrets for becoming a food justice utopia? I recently interviewed Cimperman to find out. Read more