The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapters 13 and 14

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, Chapters 13 and 14: Chicago and Cuba


In 2010 the world was abuzz with the idea of "vertical farms" - skyscrapers with agricultural work happening on every floor.  No one had succeeding in actually building such a thing yet, however.  John Edel's "The Plant" in Chicago may be getting close though.

Chicago, once a Mid-Western meatpacking hub, is now instead home to many abandoned buildings (full of left-behind equipment and valuable stainless steel) that would cost too much for the city to tear down.  Once such four story structure was as of 2010 poised to become the world's first actualized vertical farm.  As envisioned at the time of publishing, The Plant would house floors for crops and aquaponics as well as rental space for foo-based startups in a shared food-grade commercial kitchen, complete with a wood-fired oven.

Various projects within the space are meant to act in symbiosis: the bakery providing heat to the rest of the building, kombucha fermentation intensifying plant growth by contributing carbon dioxide, and so on.  If successful, The Plant could serve as a model for a new agricultural era.

Cuba serves as an intriguing case study of what can happen when a country that has depended on international trading of industrial food suddenly becomes isolated.  Though the US ceased exporting food to Cuba in 1962, Cuba maintained an active sugar trade with the USSR.  This of course ended when the USSR fell in 1991, leaving cuba with nowhere to sell its main expert and no one from whom to buy food or fuel.  Producing only 1/3 of the food it needed, rations began and livestock starved in the fields.

A state-approved private farmer in Cuba
The country quickly turned to traditional farming methods such as companion planting, crop rotation, seed sharing, and use of animals in field work.  So that food would not have to travel far (because without fuel, transportation stops), numerous small farms - dozens in each city - were established to sell directly to their communities.  Havana, for instance, boasts two hundred such farms feeding its two million residents.

In the face of potentially civilization-ending crisis, "Cuba has emerged as a global leader in establishing ecologically sound, extremely productive, locally managed food systems driven by nutritional needs, not by profits for multinationals."

Lest one imagine that Cuba is an urban farming utopia, it's important to note that austerity measures remain strict.  By American standards, Cubans live in unbearable poverty, spending most or all money on necessities with little to none left for niceties.  The small farms run as cooperatives, and must meet a quota for the state's needs before selling any produce for profit.

Chef Tito Nunez, El Romero, Las Terrazas
Cuba does support a lucrative tourist market, and even boasts a vegan restaurant (!) called El Romero in a preservation area called Las Terrazas.  This despite the fact that most Cuban restaurants can't produce a vegetable-based meal.  Says chef Tito Nunez, "Cubans want to eat only meat, refined grains, and rum," likely due to years of scarcity of such items.  Nunez is trying to change that culture.

As of the author's conversations in 2010, Cuban residents hoped for a cessation of the US embargo.  While they feared some of the changes it could bring, they also insisted that a return to industrial food and industrialized eating "would not be tolerated."


The Plant is certainly an interesting project.  As of January 2015 it looks like they're slowly but surely making the dream a reality.  South Korea may (or may not) have beaten them to the punch at being the world's first.  Regardless, the idea is one that has not been given up.  This only makes sense, as people are increasingly living in cities and showing great reticence in "returning to the land."  I would love to see some of those imagined towering glass-and-greens structures come to life, just because they look cool, but in the end what works is what will win.

The section on Cuba was particularly fascinating given the extremely recent shift in US policy toward Cuba.  I now have an even stronger desire to visit, and soon, before industrial food creeps back in and mucks up all the hard work they've put into creating an actual sustainable food system.  No, it's not perfect, but I do think we have much to learn from what they've been able to accomplish.  I would love to believe that they'll hold onto their practices - perhaps it's possible.  I will be watching intently over the next few weeks and months as our newly reopened relationship with Cuba develops.

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