What’s local got to do with it?

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As someone who is setting out to learn more about responsible decision-making surrounding food, this week’s readings were a solid introduction to the environmental and social issues linked to food in cities. The authors promoted the notion of self-reliance, a concept I have never heard of before. According to Grewal and Grewal, who propose a strategic plan to implement widespread urban agriculture in the city of Cleveland, local self reliance means that “localities should be able to obtain at least their basic necessities, if not more of their goods, from within their own physical footprints.” (Grewal and Grewal 2). The idea is to increase production innovation in urban centers, so that cities do not rely on the import of food from long distances and reduce the environmental impact of globalization. Utilizing empty plots of land and other spaces also has the potential to create jobs even in a suffering economy. There are numerous grassroots (lol) organizations working on this initiative already, but they can’t make the paradigm shift toward self-reliance happen alone. A theme that emerged is that these well-meaning organizations need to partner with powerful, resourced actors like the government and consumers to work toward the goals of health, equity, local economic development, and preservation of the environment.

My relatively cynical question is, do enough people care? Barring the outside concerns of finding skilled farmers to manage these projects and making an urban farm’s outputs more affordable than shipped, mass-produced alternatives, is buying local really an American value? In my opinion, Americans have a core appreciation for the absolute divide between production and consumption. Cities are places where goods go to be bought; an urban farm is a cultural paradox because the things that grow could be perceived as contaminated by the mechanical, the unpredictable, the crowdedness and impurity.

By contrast, during my time in Cambodia I heard and witnessed the sentiment of self-reliance and food multiple times. In rural areas, personal fish ponds and small fruit tree groves (even one or two in a family’s yard) are ubiquitous. I was surprised to learn that this is also the case in the cities, if you can afford it. People strongly prefer to pick a mango off the branch from their window, rather than buying in the market. I was told that mass-produced fruits and vegetables are never to be trusted because you don’t know where they came from; they could transmit illness, carry unknown chemicals, and a variety of other concerns. I filed these expressions in the folder in my brain called “Quirky Cultural Conceptions” and proceeded to drop mad riel on fruit stands, sampling every mysterious new fruit I saw. All that changed when I bit into a sapodilla and my mouth went numb from the chemicals in its flesh. I’m not sure how common an experience like that is, but it helped me to understand a societal value of self-reliance and mistrust of produce with unknown origins. Another factor that I think marks a crucial difference between the US and Cambodia is dependence on infrastructure. Given Cambodia’s history of population displacement and oppressive governments, it is possible that the simple fact of going to the market and buying food is not taken for granted. Growing bananas in walking distance of one’s home is not just a health concern, but a means of ensuring survival and independence from the way the world may change.

Stateside, we have a long way to go before more than a small cohort of Whole Foods shoppers understand the necessity of finding more responsible solutions—of making produce locally grown and available.

Grewal, Sharanbir S. and Grewal, Parwinder S. Parwinder S. Grewal, “Can Cities Become Self-Reliant in Food?Cities 29 (2012): 1-11

Image taken from http://www.permaculture-media-download.com/2012/04/feeding-soul-at-jones-valley-urban-farm.html

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