The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Food and the City, Chapter 6: Paris - The Roots of Modern Urban Agriculture


The urban gardens of Paris in the 19th century stand out as a model of local, sustainable urban production.  By increasing heat in garden beds with sunlight and composting, city farmers produced high-value, out-of-season crops.  The system was largely dismantled by the end of the century, as cars replaced horses (making manure less available) and land inside the city became more valuable.  But it never completely died out; there remain a few small gardens in operation.  The King's Garden at Versailles is one of the few extant "maraicher-style" gardens that has operated continuously since the 1700s.  It remains productive and now functions as a teaching garden.

Map of the King's Garden at Versailles
After a low point in the 1990s, urban gardening regained popularity in Paris in the 2000s with the help of guerrilla gardening efforts and a green-minded mayor. Besides vegetable gardening, beekeeping is another agricultural endeavor that adapts well to urban environments and has become popular in cities.  For a variety of reasons, city hives tend to produce more honey and are less susceptible to colony collapse disorder than those in rural areas.  London's bees are even more prolific than Parisian hives.  Toronto also boasts productive urban hives.  Each honey's flavor bears unique markers of its provenance.  Urban honeys, sourced from a broader variety of pollens, have more complex flavors than those produced by rural hives which usually feed on single crops.


This chapter begins Cockrall-King's exploration of urban agriculture movements in a number of cities - including Paris, London, Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago, among others - which will be discussed in later chapters.  The Parisian system seems in no small part to have depended on the use of manure, a substance that was an outright nuisance to the city due to the prevalent use of horses.  There is no similar such resource to be utilized in, for instance, present day New Orleans.  Or is there?

Click here to see a larger image
Consider: We all waste food.  Whether it's the ends of carrots, the peels of potatoes, the leftovers we didn't quite get around to eating, or the produce that we had grand plans for at the grocery but didn't manage to cook, we're all guilty of throwing away food that could have been eaten.  In fact, bodies such as the EPA and USDA estimate that between 30 and 40% of all edible food available in the US lands in the garbage - billions of pounds of food that goes to landfills each year and does little but generate greenhouse gases.  The problem is profound enough that EPA and USDA have formally challenged other groups to actively work to reduce food waste.  If we're wasting the calories that could have been available to the >14% of US households that go without enough to eat, the very least we can do is compost it and use it to grow more food.

For those of us who are able to house a compost bin, our home-generated food waste should never go into a landfill.  All produce and most leftovers - all leftovers if you're vegan - can be put in the compost bin, as well as coffee grounds, lawn clippings, paper towels, and other biodegradable waste items.  My husband and I have had our compost bin for about two years and, while we've never made use of the compost within it, we've used the bin to naturally process and greatly reduce what was likely hundreds of pounds of waste that would have otherwise gone to the local landfill.  Upcycyled plastic composting barrels like the one we use are available at Hollygrove Market and Farm.  (So are rain barrels - more on that another time.)

Much wasted food is lost in shipping and at grocery stores, which we as individual consumers have little ability to address.  Little, but not none.  If you're able to make a friend in a produce department and have the ability to compost on a large scale, you might be able to personally take on composting items that would likely end up in a landfill otherwise.  You could petition a grocery or restaurant to begin on-site composting, as is done at the New Orleans Food Co-Op and 3 Potato 4.

Or even better from a food waste standpoint, you could try to keep that food from being wasted in the first place.  Store owners or managers can sometimes be convinced to donate bruised or lightly damaged produce, which is otherwise edible but excluded from the sales floor for cosmetic reasons, to community feeding efforts such as Food Not Bombs.  You could also request - and ask other shoppers to request - that such "sub-prime" produce is offered to consumers at a discounted rate.

Glass recycling area at the
Metairie Target - always overflowing!
More progressive cities such as San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR offer curbside composting pickup, just like trash and recycling are collected elsewhere.  Given that it was a bit of a coup to get basic recycling back in the city after the storm, that that took over five years to accomplish, that they pick up only once a week (and sometimes not even), and that we still don't recycle glass, I am not holding my breath for the City of New Orleans to begin offering compost pickup.  But it's still nice to know that such a thing is possible.  A pickup option is available for area businesses and restaurants for a "small fee" through Nola Green Roots' New Orleans Composting Network.

To be sure, composting is a partial and imperfect answer to food waste - meat and dairy products cannot be composted, for instance.  It's also difficult to impossible for people living in apartments or otherwise have limited access to outdoor spaces.  But partial, imperfect answers still seem better than giving up.  And as far as urban gardening is concerned, compost is an excellent and often free source of a rich, nutrient-filled soil amendment.

Impressively, the USDA "walks the walk" when it comes to the food waste produced in their own cafeteria, as depicted in the hilarious video below.  Enjoy!

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