1.27.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapter 9

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 9: Vancouver - Canada's Left Coast

Summary:

Vancouver is endeavoring to be the "greenest city in the world," and it has already made great strides in that direction.  The city is overrun with community gardens, and a full 50% of households with yards grow some of their own food.  They're even attempting to create edible landscapes in city facilities.  All this growing is partially enabled by a year-round growing season akin to that of Portland, OR.

Michael Levinston of City Farmer explains that urban agriculture is "part trend, part necessity," and points out that it will never support staple crops like wheat and rice.  He also raises concerns that as cities become ever more dense, individuals' green spaces grow consistently smaller.  But still he sees hope.  "The variables have changed, so maybe the food system will change."

Vancouver  is the most culturally diverse city in Canada, and some community gardens have made extra effort to ensure that all feel invited to partake.  A rooftop garden at a downtown hospital was established by the YMCA in 2010 to engage the community and create "intercultural exchange."  To create a welcoming environment for non-Canadian-born Vancouver residents, 40% of the garden plots were reserved for this demographic - reflecting the neighborhood.  Guides were printed in multiple languages, and gardeners were required to attend a sensitivity training.  After the YMCA's contract expired, the gardeners became the Downtown Intercultural Gardeners Society.

Like most cities, Vancouver has low income neighborhoods that are plagued with societal ills.  "Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is not for the skittish."  The neighborhood, despite poverty and its accompanying woes, is home to the SOLEFood Farm.  The farm is locked from the outside, but idyllic inside.  It was not intended as a public space.  Rather, it was built on the run-down parking lot of an old hotel as a job-creating green initiative by a community group called United We Can.  The goal of the farm is specifically not to provide food for the neighborhood (though 10% of its product does serve that purpose).  Instead, it is meant to provide its residents with "real-life skills training" to ultimately help them get and keep jobs.  The vegetables grown are sold to upscale restaurants and markets, and the revenue keeps the farm afloat - including two full time and three part time staff at the time of publishing.  Regardless, the presence of the healthy green space benefits the whole community.  (Note: SOLEFood is now "North America's largest urban orchard" and has four locations.  Very impressive!)

A proposal for Vancouver's New City Market
Local Foods First is another group that aims to turn Vancouver away from industrial food and back to local growing and sourcing.  To work toward that goal, it has proposed a New City Market that would provide space for the storing, processing, and selling of locally produced crops.  Organization and consolidating buying and selling power is crucial to the group's ultimate goals.  Says founder Herb Barbolet, "[i]t's the controls in the system that make some people rich and poor people even poorer.  Until that is confronted, we can't confront any of it."

In an intensification of urban gardening practices commonly used, SPIN (small plot intensive) farming has taken root in and near Vancouver, and can actually be profitable if it's approached like a full- or double-time job.  It will only supply small markets, not national or international ones, but can provide most desired crops.  Some hope that it will be an attractive model for entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Discussion:

This is a LONG chapter, but one that assuages much of the anger I felt reading Chapter 9.  The author does in fact know that some people grow vegetables not just because it's hip but because they need to.

In comparing Vancouver's efforts to those in New Orleans, I am inspired and also envious of the New City Market plan that would create a local food hub.  It seems that we had an opportunity to at least create a space where locally grown goods could be sold on a regular schedule and in an accessible way in the soon-to-be-opened St. Roch Market, across St. Claude Avenue from the much debated Healing Center.  And yes, there will be one such stall.  The others, though, will serve craft cocktails and "Korean Cajun fusion" food.

It seems that the vendors have been selected to serve, exclusively, the (young, white, significantly more affluent) newcomers to the neighborhood rather than its large longtime (working class black) residents.  I find this frustrating, and I'm not the only one.  The space's proprietors (pictured) have stated that each vendor had to submit a menu with "affordable" items, claiming they "know what the demographics of [the] area are."  They say words like "community."  Similar promises were made by the healing center, and are largely unfulfilled.  I hope it will be great for everyone, but I'm not exactly holding my breath.

SOLE Food is even more inspiring, and makes me wonder how hard Hollygrove and Sankofa have worked to engage the communities in which they are placed.  Hollygrove, for instance, offers a free "box" (CSA share) to everyone who works a two hour volunteer shift.  That's great, and those who work shifts inside the market and at the register are gaining valuable work skills.  However, nine times out of ten (that I've seen) there's a white college student behind the counter rather than someone from the neighborhood.  (For those not local, Hollygrove has always been an extremely low income, almost exclusively black neighborhood, and is known for its violence and gang activity.)  I could easily be making unfair assumptions about this; it's something that I have a strong interest in looking further into.  Sankofa, at least, was founded and is run by locals.

Vancouver does seem to be eons beyond most cities in its literal green endeavors; comparatively, New Orleans' efforts look like baby steps.  But it's always folly to compare rates of progress, isn't it?  Each place - just like each person - has its own challenges and progresses at the speed that it is able.  That said, I long for the day when local growing and sourcing of food here in Nola is commonplace, and we rarely seek out grocery store produce.

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