Getting Down to Basics: Food and Community

Food, clothing and shelter. These are the basics we as humans need for survival. Add to this transportation, information access, and cultural stimulation, and you have a bare bones sketch of what most Americans need to thrive. So where do we obtain these necessities? Who produces, transports, and sells these things to us? Can we trade or barter for them, or better yet, do we have the time and expertise to produce them ourselves?

To the careful observer, 2012 is a year of transitions and shifts. Much of what we understood as a given in years prior is now questionable at best, and impossible at worst. Bubbles have burst, funding has dried up, and governments are at stalemate. We are finding that the old ways will not suffice with these new problems. For myself and others, the first steps to establishing the new ways begin with the basics – food, clothing, shelter, transportation, information access, cultural and community bonds.

Access to healthy, affordable, local food is where I have chosen to place the focus of my research and work. In my lifetime many American urban cities have transformed from food oases to food deserts. This is most evident in the failure of many local-owned and sourced grocery stores, as larger corporate-modeled stores like Whole Foods and Costco consolidate neighborhoods into their expanding customer base. These businesses purchase from larger industrial agriculture farms and bypass the smaller local producers. This results in a community that is less connected to its local food bounty, with cyclical nature patterns of surplus and scarcity, as well as less diversity of selection in the produce aisle because so much is purchased in bulk.

Further compounding these problems of access to healthy, local, affordable food are the number of corner stores, restaurants, and school cafeterias serving imported, unhealthy, processed foods stocked by companies like the Sysco Corporation. When these types of foods become the norm rather than the exception, unhealthy habits are formed that contribute to cancers, organ failures, and a health care system with a primary role of treating illness rather than proactively working to prevent it. By transforming our food system, we can also transform our health care system, as the two are very much connected.

With an understanding that at the core of these problems are issues of selection, affordability, and habits, we can begin to identify and construct solutions. We are tasked with building a new food infrastructure, but the good news is that the roots have already been set by our elders. Hippies who opened natural foods co-ops in the 70s and 80s, immigrants who farm in the old ways and sell locally, and activists that have researched modern processed foods have all paved the way for the shift.

The shift entails moving away from big box stores toward local grocers and food sellers who are in weekly contact with their farmers and suppliers. This work occurs in a number of places in the urban city. Transitioning corner stores away from soda and candy and toward raw juice super food smoothies and dried fruits and nuts. Transitioning restaurants away from fried fish and french fries and toward steamed fresh trout and rosemary garlic potatoes. Transitioning the cafeteria away from greasy pizza and fish sticks toward serving food the students themselves grew in an Urban Agriculture class. Transitioning the homeowner away from personal lawns and toward collaborative, collective urban farms. We can begin to grow our own food, and while it may not fully sustain us, it will teach us exactly what we are looking for in the food we purchase from the grocery store. There is an untapped potential in our food system, and as more Americans activate their own ability to effect change, we will begin to realize this potential at an escalating pace.

Careful observation is the first step, allowing the observer to understand the problem as it evolves within his or her frame of reference. The basic necessities, food being one of the primary three, are helpful in getting to the core of how these problems effect something as broad and dense as American civic culture. Food is the universal: we all need it, we all love to eat it, and we all share a personal relationship with food. I urge you to observe the role food, diet, and meals play in your life and to connect these observations with the role food plays in creating community. Eating a meal you grew with members of your community at a potluck is one of the best ways to build bonds and sustain neighborhoods.

There are a multitude of revolutions underway at this very moment, and in my opinion the most inspiring of these revolutions are creating community through shared work, play, and cultural collaboration centered around food. Understanding through observation how larger stores and corporate models curb this collaboration and destroy communities is the first step towards fixing these problems. Beginning to work to build this new food system is a role millions of my generation are just stepping into. Time to get to work!

Nick The Green Man

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