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!

the city's heart

A quote I read from Jane Jacobs' iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities got me thinking recently:
When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighbourhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by chance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.
The "heart" whose passing Jacobs mourns seems to be no other than that of the community - that arena in which a mélange of minds, ideas, backgrounds and talents unite to build on and reinforce one another. Where human beings shed the burden of individualism in order to contribute to the building of something that transcends merely the sum of their separate parts.

Today's discourse on the value of the 'community' is often housed within a wider discourse on community development and local economy; yet there appears to be a universal struggle to get to the heart of what the term really means. How relevant is community life in today's urban-centred working world, with its constant flux of moving house and migration, its faster trains and all-you-can-eat internet? Are the communities of today online networks, are they those fading memories of 1950's sports clubs and church groups, are they defined by common interests, or along geographical lines like neighbourhoods?

We think the time is ripe to reconsider the purposes of the community, and to trace an outline of the potential destiny of the communities of today and tomorrow. This is not the first time we have posted about the community, but this time around, we'd like to think about the role of the community in individual and social transformation. And so, our main question:
When so many forces are pulling us the other way, why make the effort to learn about the ways and methods of community building?

Some initial thoughts....

What if our true identity, as a community, is spiritual, consisting of members working together to enable each individual to embark upon a process of learning to become protagonists of their own spiritual and material development?

What if we conceive of unity as both the instrument and the goal of creating this kind of community?

What if a commitment to this 'unity' implies a collective process of inquiry, of walking together - consulting, acting and reflecting on the process of community building?

The Baha'i writings state:
Let us take the inhabitants of a city....if they establish the strongest bonds of unity among themselves, how far they will progress, even in a brief period....
Please share your thoughts!