The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapters 11 and 12

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 11 and 12: Milwaukee and Detroit


Urban farmer Will Allen is so inspiring that he was the recipient of a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.  After attending college on a basketball scholarship and going pro for a short time, Allen returned to his son-of-a-sharecropper roots on a small farm outside of Milwaukee.  As a black man in a white city, he initially faced discrimination as he established himself in the local farmers market circles.  But he persevered, and took on farming full time by the early 1990s.  By chance, he purchased the last farm in the city.

Allen in his natural habitat
Area children quickly became interested in the greenhouse that Allen was bringing back to life in their run-down neighborhood, and he took naturally to teaching them.  He soon partnered with a local nonprofit and incorporated as Growing Power to provide job skill opportunities to teens.  The project thrived.

His work impacts the city broadly: flowers he has planted tend to reduce petty crimes in the areas where they're present.  He is also providing young people with productive, interesting work that can keep them away from drug dealing and other destructive lures.  Additionally, his group collects compostable waste to make soil with, thereby diverting it from Milwaukee landfills.  All that in addition to "helping provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe, and affordable food for people in all communities."

"The last sixty years have been disastrously unkind to Detroit."  It is a city with a large footprint that's faced an ever poorer, ever smaller population in the past few decades.  It had built up around a booming auto industry in the 1940s and 50s, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them as the industry first automated and then pulled out of the area almost entirely.

Urban farming is now seen as an effective way to address food security among its black residents - Detroit's least food secure and lowest income demographic.  Abundant available land makes urban farming logistically easier than in other cities, and in 2010 it boasted 1300 urban food gardens.  Unfortunately, it would need tens of thousands of such gardens to fully address its food insecurity and approximately 33% unemployment rate.

How many of Detroit's ills could be addressed by one enormous farm?  Millionaire and businessman John Hantz aims to find out.  He sees the creation of a large urban farm as both a good use of its hundreds of acres of vacant land, and as a way to make that land valuable again.  The community initially pushed back against a land grab by this rich white man, but ultimately seems to have agreed that using the land is better than the existing vast swaths of blight.

In 2011, Hantz and Hantz Farms' president Mike Score envisioned land uses including Christmas tree stands, you-pick orchards, fancy mushroom patches, and hardwood forest growth.  While it would be an enormous undertaking, and the city government is understandably taking its time in the approval process, "something has to happen to turn Detroit around."


If Will Allen has a New Orleans analogue, I haven't met that person yet - but I'd love to.  Given the rampant crime we experience here, I have to wonder if a little guerrilla (edible) gardening would help take the edge off of things.  People can be driven to all sorts of unpleasant behaviors when they (or their children) are hungry.  A wild idea that occurred to me while reading this chapter: what if, in our housing projects, each block was given a small community garden with a designated plot for each household?  What if people were taught to garden and could
keep or share whatever they grew, as they saw fit?  Yes, it could be resource-intensive, but could also be of enormous benefit on many levels.  If nothing else, children would be better fed.    If only I'd had a chance to speak with Pres Kabacoff a few years back before the Great Rebuilding began.

John Hantz reminds me of good ol' Pres in no small way.  In case you don't know, Pres is the eccentric millionaire behind HRI properties, the company that has razed and is replacing the city's crumbling, derelict brick housing projects such as St. Thomas.  He was also the money behind the New Orleans Healing Center, where his wife (voodoo priestess Sally Ann Glassman) runs Island of Salvation Botanica, a voodoo shop.  NOHC is of course also home to the New Orleans Food Co-Op, Louisiana's only cooperatively-run grocery store.  Razing and rebuilding of the Calliope and Iberville projects remains under way.

Whether the developments that replaced New Orleans' post WWII projects are "better" sits in shades of grey.  They certainly look better to passers by, but there are some obvious problems - most glaringly that the number of available units was drastically reduced (though no one seems to be able to agree on how many units were lost).  Much like in Detroit, though, something had to happen.  The projects were dangerous due both to rampant gang activity and lack of policing, and because the infrastructure was failing.  The city didn't have the resources to do anything at all.  Is something better than nothing, even when the something is far from ideal?  Regardless, in the end what's "best" and what's "right" rarely win over what's funded.

The community does not seem to be quite as on board as Cockrall-King's conversations with Scope led her to believe.  Nevertheless, Hantz Farms is still proceeding, albeit slowly.  As of May 2014 the hardwood forest had begun to be planted by an army of volunteers.  It will be interesting to watch the project slowly yet surely unfold.  I can only hope that its effects will be positive and widespread.

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