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Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution

Jennifer Cockrall-King

(Prometheus; US: Feb 2012)

Jennifer Cockrall-King started writing Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution with two questions in mind. First, “Why the overnight interest in urban food gardens, urban chickens, and urban beekeeping?” Second, “What else was happening in the cities that were taking back control of their food supplies and systems?”


Cockrall-King does a lot more than answer these two questions. She makes patently clear why all Americans—from the junk food addict to the vegan to the meat-craving carnivore to the ramen noodle loving college student—should question where their food comes from and should stop being passive participants in the industrialized food system. 


Welcome to the urban agriculture revolution.
 
Revolutions, Cockrall-King maintains, start for a reason, and she explains several reasons behind this revolution in the first four chapters of the book, beginning with the concept of food security.


Cockrall-King notes that in 1996, the United Nations’ World Food Summit defined the term food security: “When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” She further contends that in 2008 and 2009 “50.2 million Americans were food insecure—that is, they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from on any given day”.


And the disturbing statistics don’t stop there. Food and the City also tells us that three corporations control 90 percent of the world’s grain trade; five corporations produce 90 percent of the US food supply. Which is why, Cockrall-King explains, “When a salmonella contamination scare on two Iowa farms in August 2010 resulted in a nationwide recall of a half billion eggs, dozens of different brand names of eggs were affected. Why? Because five hundred million eggs all originated from one large-scale producer.”  Another issue according to Cockrall-King: large grocery stores only give the illusion of choice; in actuality, North Americans have fewer food choices than their grandparents had.

What’s more, these choices probably travel further. Here’s another disturbing number: 1,518—the generally accepted number of miles, on average, “fresh produce travels from point of production to point of sale”.


Add to this the increased number of industrialized eaters (which includes not only humans, but animals and, because of fuels made from corn and other grain crops, machines) and it’s a little hard not to think back to the food solution proposed in the 1973 film, Soylent Green. Additionally, much like the characters in the film, many people today don’t seem to know much about where their food is coming from or who produces it:


“I’m amazed at how unconcerned we seem to be that checkout clerks, the only real human interaction left for the consumer in the industrial food chain, are being phased out. You don’t see the farmers, the fishermen, the ranchers, or the fruit growers who produce your food. Soon, we will no longer see the people who swipe it past the barcode scanner and process our payment.”


And, according to Cockrall-King, most North Americans seem to be okay with this: “Within in a few generations, we have unquestionably accepted the industrial food system—and the supermarket model serving as its retail outlet”.


No wonder some decided to revolt.


The second part of the book tells the stories of the people who are sparking this food revolution. They are creating community gardens, studying vertical farming, raising chickens in their backyards, and just generally following (or creating) best urban food practices. Cockrall-King travels around the globe, and readers get to tag along on her urban food journey.


In London, she discovers urban wine companies and learns that the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) “is the first Olympic Games organizer to put forward a food vision as part of its organizational plan and bid”.


In Vancouver, Cockrall-King investigates SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farming, whose founders claim “that a SPIN farmer can gross anywhere from $27,000 to $72,000 on just a half-acre… of total land in the city”.  How? SPIN founders focused on making farming accessible by reducing start up costs, and SPIN farmers often grow dozens of crops on a small amount of land and sell these crops to local restaurants, through CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) initiatives, and at farmers’ markets. 


Moving on to Toronto, Cockrall-King visits a secret community garden (secret because “they technically don’t have permission [from the city] to garden”). Then she introduces readers to Hermione, one of Toronto’s “outlaw urban chickens” (it’s not legal to keep chickens in Toronto) with her own designer coop.


In this chapter, Cockrall-King also brings to light a major concern for successful community gardens. Community gardens, in Toronto and elsewhere, often begin in vacant and seemingly worthless lots; however, gardens can make the land valuable again and, strangely enough, that can actually be problematic: “Once a vacant lot gets cleaned up and turned into a fertile space where food starts to grow, it becomes desirable again, and someone will want to develop it. Cities are always looking to increase their tax base.”


In the United States, Cockrall-King makes several stops including one in Chicago to view The Plant, which is in the “early stages of becoming the world’s first, albeit four-story, vertical farm” (this is exactly what it sounds like—crops grow in vertical layers or as Cockrall-King relates: “essentially food-producing skyscrapers”). Vertical farms are also innovative in that they are typically closed loop systems—“where nutrients in food production are recycled from one food–production area (such as freshwater fish tanks) to another (such as salad greens)”. Here again, however, the government doesn’t always seem to want to make the process easy. John Edel, founder of The Plant, had trouble getting a brewing permit and also notes the he faced resistance from the zoning department: “Not for any good reason, because under the same zoning, you can crush cars, smelt iron, and slaughter cattle. But raising organic fish for some reason is bad. Go figure.”


These are just a few of the people involved in the urban food revolution; Cockrall-King tells the stories of many more. Some are wealthy individuals looking to make a difference, and some are barely making ends meet, but regardless of income level or geographical location, all share a passion for growing food and finding new and better ways to combine two seemingly incompatible entities: cities and farming. It’s an inspiring book with a powerful message. The future isn’t necessarily bright, but as Cockrall-King closes “We’re realizing it’s time to close the loop. We need to grow some food, re-localize our diets, and compost our food waste. And by doing these things, we liberate ourselves from that Titanic, the sinking global industrial food system.”

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