Are we headed toward a civilization-wide collapse? Maybe. The bees are dying. A sperm whale with a belly full of plastic washed up on a Dutch island. People share maps on the internet showing Fukushima radiation allegedly making its way around the Pacific in terrifying red streaks. The climate’s in a tizzy and, in Canada, our scientists are muzzled against saying anything about it.
If Rome isn’t burning, it sure feels like it sometimes.
Are there any possibilities short of a total reboot? Edmonton’s Jennifer Cockrall-King doesn’t promise that in her book Food and the City, but the picture she paints fills me with hope nonetheless.
The human race quietly reached a significant milestone in 2008: More than half of us live in cities now. Supermarkets and food distribution warehouses carry inventory to feed the local population for three days. If supply lines get disrupted the food will run out pretty damn quickly. We’re nine meals from anarchy.
So what’s the alternative? Grow food in the city. Anywhere and everywhere.
Rooftops. Balconies. Windowsills. Lawns. Vacant lots. Median strips. In derelict buildings.
City grown crops are varied, usually with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
City bees never succumb to colony collapse disorder.
Growing food gets people in tune with what can be grown locally, and when it comes into season. It’s exercise. It’s an intergenerational activity. It connects us to ancestral food traditions.
Fresh produce encourages cooking from scratch. Food you’ve grown yourself tastes better. You remember the care and effort that went into growing it. It’s less likely to be scarfed down while driving or scrolling through Twitter.
In Toronto, at one end of the economic spectrum, the Fairmont Royal York Hotel keeps bees on its rooftop herb garden and sells its own brand of honey. At the other end, the Stop Community Food Centre runs a soup kitchen in which recipients get served local organic produce and beef. Stop also has a program connecting people with unused lawns with those who would like to garden but have no space.
In Milwaukee, former basketball player Will Allen runs Growing Power Inc, a city farm employing at-risk youth. They divert compost from the city’s dumps, which worms turn into fertile soil to grow herbs, salad mixes, beet greens, mustard greens, arugula and sprouts. Fish tanks house perch and tilapia, which create fertilizer for the plants, which in turn clean and filter the water for the fish tanks. Allen is looking into solar energy to provide the facility’s power.
Tim Kitchen volunteers as steward of an orchard in Calgary, in which apple trees grow on public land for anyone to pick. Cockrall-King observed two teenagers taking a break from playing soccer to grab and eat a few (unripe) apples, exclaiming how good they taste before resuming their game. “There was the proof that would convince any naysayer as to the value of a community orchard. If you plant it, they will come. Even teenage boys would enjoy fresh fruit.”
In decaying Detroit, businessman John Hantz wants to buy great swaths of unused land, raze the decrepit abandoned homes, and launch the world’s biggest urban farm. It would clean up the land, provide jobs and bring fresh local in season food to a city that doesn’t have a single supermarket.
These are only a few of the stories in the book. There are also chapters on Los Angeles, Paris, London, Vancouver, Cuba and Chicago. Each is different. Each is inspiring. The book is accessible and well worth reading, whether you have any experience gardening or not.
It’s possible we won’t die in a smouldering heap. Maybe twenty or thirty years hence, it’ll be a rare roof that doesn’t feature crops. Every strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street will have a fruit tree growing out of it, surrounded by kale, radishes, basil, peas and raspberries. Fresh organic pears will be a more common snack than chips. We’ll routinely preserve our own fruit, pickle our own vegetables and press our own juice. People will occasionally marvel at the latent abundance that surrounded us back in the early 2000s, unused and for some bizarre reason, ignored.