Sunday, November 23, 2008

Barbara Fisher and the Benefits of Community Gardening

We have, for the time being, witnessed a merciful decline in the cost of food since last spring, when a confluence of factors triggered worldwide price increases. Yet as New Yorker financial analyst James Surowiecki writes, "the recent price drop doesn’t provide any long-term respite from the threat of food shortages or future price spikes...we’re still having a hard time insuring that people simply get enough to eat, and we seem to be more vulnerable to supply shocks than ever." For those who can afford it, paying more for food can be a good thing, particularly in the case of the U.S. Journalist and writer Michael Pollan notes in last year's essay "Unhappy Meals" that "Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation." Still, unstable food prices mean that more people have less to eat.

While there aren't any easy solutions to avoiding another food crisis, it's instructive that Pollan has been a strong advocate for domestic food policy reform, while also urging his readers to make personal changes in their eating habits. This combination of thinking structurally and individually is what I enjoyed about a recent post from Barbara Fisher's blog Tigers and Strawberries. Fisher is a leader of the local food movement, and in answering the question of what to say about food and farming with "one minute of [President-elect] Obama's undivided attention," she responds thusly:

"I would suggest that federal support for urban community gardens and farms could help the urban poor produce some of their own fresh food, and perhaps a program of tax credits for suburban and small town families who turn some or all of their yards to food production would encourage the middle class to not only produce some of their own food as well. Educational programs to help non-gardeners learn the skills needed to grow food, such as the current County Extension Agencies could be expanded so that there was more community outreach and involvement, as well as tying the Extension offices to public school Edible Schoolyard programs across the country.

"Americans really want to roll up our sleeves and do something to help make our country great again, and these sorts of self-help programs will get people moving in a positive direction again, as well as providing good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all. "

That first sentence--federal funding and tax credits for producing food locally--is particularly striking. Obviously, neither proposal would ameliorate the type of problems that Surowiecki identifies within the global food market. But with proper planning, they would allow citizens, regardless of economic status, to participate in the growing of their own food. As Fisher points out, such policies would have environmental and educational benefits; they also would provide a healthy source of food without the use of industrial farming's less desirable growing methods, such as heavy fertilizer and pesticide use.

While it's unlikely that we will see federally subsidized community gardens anytime soon, local governments can certainly promote local food habits without having to spend a lot. Terre Haute, Indiana offers a good example. Thanks to the efforts of many people (including my father Pat Martin, a city planner), Terre Haute opened its Community Garden to the public in April. The garden has several other sponsors in addition to the city (with Indiana State University being the primary sponsor); it asks members to donate a "portion of their produce" to a local food bank; forbids the use of pesticides, herbicides, inseticides, and fungicides; and, for this year's growing season, offered education programs and workshops related to gardening. Perhaps the only drawback is that the garden includes seventy-one plots, which limits potential participants.

So Barbara Fisher's idea is practical and more than feasible to implement, even if it will take a lot of approaches to, in her words, insure "good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all."

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