Thursday, August 12, 2010

Food for Thought

Today I was reading a journal article by Ingrid Burkett of the International Association for Community Development. The article discusses the idea of re-localisation, and particularly the recent interest in local food:
Yes it could be said that local food systems potentially contribute to ecologically sustainable development because they can reduce the food miles of our could also be said that local food systems play an important role in building strong and vibrant local economies...however, many of the 'organic' and 'slow food' events that are occurring around the world reach out to the 'gourmet' food market with relatively little attention paid to questions regarding how poverty, access and inequality are addressed by local food production.
I think the last point that Burkett makes i
s an important one, as it tries to get to the heart of the real purpose of local food production.

A very simple example of 'local food' production I read recently can be found here. It tells the story of Alexandra Reau, a fourteen year-old girl from Michigan, who has converted her family's backyard into a small farm. She grows fruit and vegetables and sells them to regular customers in her neighourhood, who claim to value both the quality of her produce, and the fact that this initiative comes from a local youth. The story is testament to how much a fourteen year-old can accomplish when he or she makes efforts towards a noble goal.

Reau's farm contributes to her own development (she tells us that farming requires a lot of patience!) and in some sense to the local economy, both commendable ends in themselves. But what would change if this project were linked to a larger goal of community building? Or, more simply, was conceived of as providing a service to one's community? How would this change the concept of local food?

Burkett believes that "a renewed longing for community" is the real "starting point" and "social push" behind local food movements.
If we are to re-localise our communities, our motivations could be based on building strong relationships with our neighbours, engaging with the local cultures/s, improving our health and the health of those with whom we live, generating friendships across diversity or even just eating healthier, tastier food.
These "strong relationships" could be build
on trust, love and a mutual striving for individual and collective progress, and would naturally lend themselves to an exchange of material goods and services for the wellbeing of all.

I use the term 'naturally' because of a fundamental belief that each one of us has been created to bear fruits (metaphorically, at least), to develop our various talents and capacities for the benefit of others and ourselves. And where else would this service be expressed but in the spiritual and material wellbeing of one's community, the latter implying the need for a vibrant local economy to facilitate this exchange of services.

Understanding the link between communities and service, of which local food is just one example, helps us better conceptualise one purpose of the practice known as 'community development'.

Burkett does warn against romanticising the local food movement as a move back to past 'traditional' ways. The OECD has echoed this warning in its publication Community Capacity Building: Creating a Better Future Together, in the context of community capacity building:
Community capacity building and/or economic development should not be an attempt to recreate the communities or businesses of the 1950s. The world - its people and its economy - has simply changed too much...we should guard against the assumption that the past, or an alternative vision of the future, are the only or the most appropriate visions for the futures of communities is clear that the concept of community is changing. Nevertheless the geographic, indeed local element, cannot be overlooked.
Another trap to avoid falling into is believing that the greatest power an individual possesses is his or her buying power, so that the act of choosing to buy local becomes an end in itself. Human beings are not mere consumers, even though modern urban cities have been designed to promote the values of a consumer society. Brenda and Robert Vale explain this in the book Designing High Density Cities:

Most recent planning theory has ignored the vital relationships between food, energy, water and land because of access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. This has meant that food can be grown at a long distance from settlements and transported to them...
A capitalist society would best operate with everyone living at high densities so that the maximum number of people would need to buy everything they required, having little opportunity to provide basic services, such as growing food themselves. A high-density city is necessarily a consumer city.
Burkett describes how the concept of local food does more than change our buying habits but "challenges us to move from being consumers and passive recipients in these systems to being active participants, citizens and co-producers of the systems."

I love this idea of moving from consumers to actors, and would love to hear some more practical examples about community farms and gardens within the framework of community building. In particular, reflections on the role of the community as a "starting point". If anybody is involved in this area, please share - we're keen to learn more about it!


  1. One of the recently-trained animators in our cluster works for Groundwork Lawrence in Massachusetts. Part of that work includes assisting with a community garden in Lawrence, MA. Two summers ago, when the garden was first installed, this Flickr photoset for the Union and Mechanic Community Garden was created.

    It is challenging to know how these kinds of community development projects align with our evolving conceptual framework, unless we are on the ground participating in them. Building off the idea that the generation of knowledge is at the core of community, the use of a charrette (public design process) in planning the garden sounds like an attempt to create a space for reflection - part of the generation of knowledge. But in this case, as in the core activities, such development activities must be sustained by human resources indigenous to the neighborhood.

    At some point, our relationship to these activities can potentially become individualistic, if we fall out of a deliberate process of generating and applying knowledge alongside co-workers. (And if we stop viewing our co-workers as complete participants in the development of community.) Regular visits to accompany participants in a project, along with periodic gatherings, may contribute to the necessary vibrant community life.

  2. Really liked this post and your writing which is careful and developed with rich ideas. Community aggregates around food, energy and water and we will define our future around the way we manage the emerging scarcity of all three.
    For great work in developing community gardens have a look at what is happening through the farmers markets in New YorkCity and the work being done by New York State in linking the city with locally grown food.