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Eating the City and Town: Todmorden and Beyond

by gmoke Wed Sep 5th, 2012 at 06:21:23 PM EST


A few months ago, some people in Cambridge, MA were inspired by the example of Todmorden in the UK between Leeds and Manchester, a town that decided to grow as much of its food as possible within the town limits.  

Since we started meeting, some of us have begun mapping the Cambridge local food system which already exists.  It includes farmers' markets every day of the week from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, the local growing season, and one winter market on Saturday mornings.  There are City Sprouts (http://www.citysprouts.org/) gardens in every one of the 12 public middle schools, 15 community gardens including those at Harvard and Leslie Universities, and at least three restaurants with rooftop or container gardens.  Local organizations include Pick a Pocket Garden (http://pickapocketgarden.org/) which is planting and maintaining public plantings of ornamentals, a yogurt-making coop, and the League of Urban Canners who will harvest and process fruit from neighborhood trees and bushes into preserves, with the owners getting 10% of the product.

The Cambridge Todmorden group may have access to three different sites for public gardens but we haven't turned any soil over yet, although we certainly plan to in the near future.

A few schools, community plots, and restaurants will not grow any appreciable percentage of the food in Cambridge, MA but it is a start.  There is a local food system.  We are learning how to grow it.

Todmorden has a population around 15,000.  Cambridge has a population of about 100,000.  The Todmorden example may not be completely applicable to Cambridge let alone cities of larger scale.  However, Linköping, Sweden, a city of about 104,000 people is considering a vertical farm project to become self-sufficient in food (http://www.good.is/post/a-vertical-greenhouse-could-make-a-swedish-city-self-sufficient/) while Chicago is already building their first vertical farm (http://www.plantchicago.com/) and Berlin is planning the world's largest  rooftop fish and vegetable garden (http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-agriculture/worlds-largest-rooftop-fish-and-vegetable-farm-pla nned-berlin.html).

In the US, Growing Power (http://www.growingpower.org/) in Milwaukee is probably the most successful urban gardening project.  Today, 1% of the food consumed in Milwaukee is grown in the city but Growing Power wants to increase it to 10% within two years.  They plan to build 100 acres of greenhouses for year-round growing and have begun a 20,000 backyard garden program.  You can see their founder, Will Allen, talk about their work on CSPAN's Book TV (http://www.booktv.org/Program/13443/The+Good+Food+Revolution+Growing+Healthy+Food+People+and+Communi ties.aspx)

There's even a feature length documentary on this nation-wide movement entitled  "Edible City":

According to this film, Cuba's urban gardens can produce 16-20 kilos of food production per square meter using organic and ecological methods.

Locally, Cambridge is not alone in discussing these issues.  Boston, MA has been meeting for most of the year to develop a plan for urban farms, and Concord, MA has just finished a community food assessment, "Building Local Food Connections" (http://issuu.com/conwaydesign/docs/concordfood2012).

Here are a couple of upcoming web-based events that will teach you more about local food systems:

Tips, Tools and Telling the Story: Evaluating Community Food Initiatives
September 13, 2012
12-1pm EDT
Webinar:  register at https://cfccanada.webex.com/mw0307l/mywebex/default.do?siteurl=cfccanada
Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) is hosting a webinar on evaluating community food initiatives. The webinar is geared at program managers, funders and other practitioners who are already engaged in evaluation or have a basic understanding of evaluation and are looking to explore evaluation topics in greater depth. Meredith Davis, CFCC's Research and Evaluation Manager, will describe the process that CFCC went through to create its own national evaluation strategy, including successes, challenges and lessons learned along the way. Topics to be explored include: creating a theory of change, building an evaluative culture, developing indicators, developmental evaluation (DE), social return on investment analysis (SROI), evaluating in a respectful and dignified manner, designing effective evaluation tools and common pitfalls of evaluation. The last 15 minutes of the webinar will be set aside for group exploration.


Food Systems Networks That Work: Accelerating Learning and Increasing Commerce NGFN Interactive Webinar
Sept. 20
3:30p EDT
Webinar at http://ngfn.org/resources/ngfn-cluster-calls/ngfn-cluster-calls#sept-20-2012-food

Learn how joining or fostering a food hub or food system network can improve your regional food economy and the strength of each member organization or business. This webinar will feature conveners of food systems networks at the local, state, regional, and even national level. The networks they've built have boosted triple bottom lines of member businesses and organizations.  


  • Rich Pirog, Senior Associate Director, C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Systems, Michigan State University
  • Marty Gerencer, Principal, Morse Marketing Connections
  • Corry Bregendahl, Assistant Scientist, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University
  • Karen Lehman, Director, Fresh Taste

Previous diaries:
Local Food Network:  Cambridge, MA
Integrated Urban Agricultural Systems
How to Heal the World
Urban Fruit Harvesting
Community Gardens as Permaculture Nurseries
Growing Green in the City
Celebrate Gleaning with the Boston Area Farm Gleaning Project
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/04/21/326097/-Celebrate-Gleaning-with-the-Boston-Area-Farm-Gleani ng-Project
Urban Permaculture:  Chicken Coop Grapevine and Water Footprint
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/04/16/323672/-Urban-Permaculture-Chicken-Coop-Grapevine-and-Water -Footprint
Raspberry Gobble
How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

More edible cities and towns?
. yes 100%
. no 0%
. not yes 0%
. not no 0%
. neither yes nor no 0%
. both yes and no 0%
. don't understand the question? 0%
. none of the above 0%

Votes: 3
Results | Other Polls
brilliant stuff! this is really exciting, seeing todmorden's example mirrored elsewhere, and all these innovative initatives to bring food closer to the feeders.

better blood quality, better mental processing, more peaceful, satisfied people.

thanks gmoke, love your diaries.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Sep 6th, 2012 at 06:21:43 AM EST
I appreciate the kind words.

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Sat Sep 8th, 2012 at 08:28:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
great stuff. I'm just out so will comment further later but this is really great

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Sep 6th, 2012 at 06:24:13 AM EST
Really interesting material.  Thanks.

I do a lot of work in this area, and here's some of the things I think about, and challenge local food projects on, when regarding local food initiatives:

What are the specific reasons for growing/raising food locally?  There may be several, such as increasing local consumption of fruits and vegetables, reducing carbon footprint/fossil energy component of food products and recreational activities with respect to growing an interest in gardening as a hobby, particularly among urban youth.  

But these benefits need to be traded for others, particularly time spent doing agricultural labor instead of other things.  Since avoiding tedious agricultural labor is often one of the traditional benefits of urban living (and by urban I mean labor specialization more than geography of one's homestead), projects which require people to do more such work, if required and not a choice, come with a pretty high cost in terms of lower standards of living.  This means that local food increases living standards largely to the extent that enough people WANT to do agricultural labor but can't otherwise do so because of where/how they live.  There may be obvious limits to those benefits, because there may be relatively few people who actually like gardening that much.

Another thing to consider is that the worst offenders of land abuse and environmental contamination are not really fruits and vegetables because such products use comparatively small amounts of land worldwide compared to grain crop and livestock production, which are two things that local food projects really don't do very well because they need so much more land than fruit and vegetable production and can't be done near high density populations very well.  And grains and livestock products provide much more of people's nutrient intakes than fruits and vegetable do or can, even in a nutritionally ideal diet which would have lower fat and meat consumption.  

The implication is that local food doesn't really save much in the way of land use, so that really can't be added to the list of benefits.  Regardless of how many kilos per meter of production of fruits and vegetables that can be produced locally (which is largely the high water content of fresh produce), you still need to produce almost the same amounts of grains, meats, dairy, and oils on large-scale crop animal operations to meet the food demands of an increasing middle class worldwide.

by santiago on Thu Sep 6th, 2012 at 12:26:00 PM EST
by njh on Sat Sep 8th, 2012 at 04:57:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Growing heritage wheat on allotments and in school gardens and on farms near London, UK

Gene Logsdon is one of the old masters.  Been reading his work since the 1970s.  Thanks for bringing him up here.

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Sat Sep 8th, 2012 at 08:27:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Take a look at Allan Savory's work with Holistic Management

There may be ways to grow more herd animals and improve soils at the same time that could also be applicable to suburban and possibly some urban situations, especially if the pattern of city/country fingers is re-established.

Time spent on tending gardens and farms may be reduced through good design and the application of permacultural techniques.  There is also the example of Masanobu Fukuoka.  I water my community garden plot only when I am transplanting and still harvest more than I can eat.  I gather dead leaves in the Fall for deep mulching and this significantly reduces the need for weeding.

Glad you are thinking through some of these issues.  They have to be considered.  One real impetus for gardening is as part of educating our children and introducing them to real food, in some case, for the very first time.  That has great value whether or not the produce is eaten.

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Sat Sep 8th, 2012 at 08:35:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you're definitely right, in that forcing people to do agricultural labor against their will is something that will never turn out well.

And, as you say, increased urban food production is not substituting for industrial meat and grain production - though chickens can be kept anywhere, and sheep or goats could be employed for landscaping and brush removal.

The way I see it, though, there are several more intangible benefits to the program.  One, being involved in agriculture, or at least seeing its practice, has an important pedagogical function.  Two, if this does nothing else but increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, that's still a success, as those are rather lacking from the diets of many Americans.  Three, done properly, agricultural activities can have a variety of urban-waste-reduction effects that are entirely incidental to food production, but nonetheless valuable.

by Zwackus on Sun Sep 9th, 2012 at 04:52:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And grains and livestock products provide much more of people's nutrient intakes than fruits and vegetable do or can, even in a nutritionally ideal diet which would have lower fat and meat consumption.  

i'm not sure this is true, as grains supply mainly carbs, and many of those could be supplied by more starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squashes, and considering the amount of people becoming aware of their gluten intolerance, this might be a good idea on many levels.

we are used to cheap grains due to the fossil fuels that have driven our ag policies, but just as the present first-world diet rich in animal protein is causing all manner of medical issues and tastes are turning back to a higher fibre mix of legumes, nuts and seeds for protein, it is equally inadvisable for the despoliation it leaves the land and watersheds for long periods of time after such misuse.

growing beans and veggies, coupled with low scale animal husbandry can restore land to the health it enjoyed for centuries before Liebig and his faustian brews, and the move towards giant feedlots, with their attendant auras of ill health for both man and beast.

the present model of first world nutrition is unsustainable without huge changes, to save water and wildlife habitats, and slow down the grim scythe of extinction we humans are wielding so blithely to make giant amounts of pseudo-food, 40% of which gets trashed into methane loaded landfill.

the more people in the BRIC countries latch on to the tragedy modern agriculture makes of the land, the faster the changes will come, as the price of food will rise as fossil fuels rise in price, and more look to cuba as model of what can be done when political will is there.

your point about the low status and consequent poor attraction factor for young people to get their hands dirty is well taken, but look at what happens when they realise there aren't enough white collar jobs any more, and the blue collar ones are bailing to china at electronic speed.

these ideas in this diary don't conjure visions of squalid, unrelenting, grimy toil so much as airy new models that can integrate into more locations hitherto unthought of.

no one considers repopulating the great plains with homesteads and small ranches, as long as it rains enough they will continue to remain breadbaskets amenable to the last vestiges of the brontosauran models of agriculture, maybe new soils will be ploughed for grains further north to compensate, but more likely more and more people will realise the wasteful nature of high animal protein diets and take their beans and grains direct from the land instead of routing them through petomanic bovines first!

this will move towards liberating 6/7ths of that food for direct human use, with huge consequences for the price of bread, now known to be the match that sets societies alight with hunger-fuelled fury, and already plaything of wall st.

imagining our way of eating is sustainably exportable to the rest of the world is one of the crumbling illusions we are going to have to get our heads around, like the banks are not our friends, (except for the Jeromes!), and politicians are lying traitors to the countries' electorates they purport to democratically serve.

how we get our life force from the earth's yield is the micro mirror of how we get electricity and fuel from our environment, and right now we are like babies flailing around in our own muck on both levels and in between.

it's just a question of when not if, but radical change is inevitable, and thanks to initiatives such as this diary and comments illustrate, there is good reason for hope as when our backs are against the wall, we humans can be extraordinarily adaptive survivors...

 we're going to need to really pull our collective finger out for the next 20 years to achieve that goal, and growing local will be a big part of this revolution of creativity and recovery of long forgotten wisdom, not only for economic reasons, but for numan (new-human!) and social ones, unquantifiable monetarily, but none the less real for that.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:50:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Those are all good points to consider regarding the future of food in an increasingly urban world, but think about this for a moment:

your point about the low status and consequent poor attraction factor for young people to get their hands dirty is well taken, but look at what happens when they realise there aren't enough white collar jobs any more, and the blue collar ones are bailing to china at electronic speed.

This already occurs in much of the world. People, not just the young and educated, migrate from rural areas to urban slums without any prospect for a well paying or comfortable white collar job at all. There are a variety of reasons for such migration, economic as well as social, but the attraction of city life -- of specialized, trade-able labor and the anonymity and possibilities of even slum urban settings -- continues to draw people out of the more limited farm life possibilities of farming.  

In places such as the US, on the other hand, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to find workers for agricultural jobs and rural manufacturing jobs, even while high unemployment plagues the urban areas.

There is, however, a class of farmers in advanced industrial countries who thrives in a completely sustainable and self-sufficient way and they have done so for centuries -- the Amish.  How they manage to do so is instructive.  

The Amish forgo, for religious reasons, the benefits of urban, capitalist economies.  By not needing electricity, telecommunications, heating and AC, high-tech health care, and other material manifestations of membership in the urban bourgeoisie that we are all subject to, the Amish are able to keep the costs of living low enough to prosper without getting the high productivity from their land that other farmers need to realize in order to survive.  

But if you want a cell phone and other cool things that city life brings us, you have to make a deal with the devil that requires increasing yields and income in order to keep up demands of membership in the urban economy. You have to grow your farm size to reap more income per unit of labor or else you won't be able to keep affording the benefits of technological growth.  

This contradiction has yet to be resolved.  Although there have been many good ideas such as the ones you suggest for many decades now, for some reason it hasn't taken off yet, and only people like the Amish who forgo technological benefits altogether have proven to able to sustainably live for several generations in largely self sufficient communities practicing small scale farming.  In Marxian terms, the small-scale bourgeoisie farmer has not been demonstrated to be a reproducible relationship yet on the scale needed to make a difference, and there are probably economic factors and great social forces that are preventing it.

by santiago on Thu Sep 13th, 2012 at 12:51:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I know of at least two young, college-educated people, children of friends, who have decided to become farmers or get involved in agriculture.  In Massachusetts, where I live, the number of farmers has actually grown over the last few decades as new market gardens and specialty growers have gotten into the fields.  Not sure how much of a trend this is but it is happening here and not only for the middle-class.  The Food Project in Boston's inner city has been very successful within the minority community.  

Everybody eats.  Growing food doesn't have to be back-breaking labor, especially with such techniques as permaculture or Masanobu Fukuoka's one straw farming.

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Thu Sep 13th, 2012 at 05:32:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This already occurs in much of the world. People, not just the young and educated, migrate from rural areas to urban slums without any prospect for a well paying or comfortable white collar job at all. There are a variety of reasons for such migration, economic as well as social, but the attraction of city life -- of specialized, trade-able labor and the anonymity and possibilities of even slum urban settings -- continues to draw people out of the more limited farm life possibilities of farming.

i think this is where the internet comes in, as half the desire to move to the city is also a desire to move from the country, where more often than not life is too threadbare to have quality, or variety.

many organic techniques, from mulching to permaculture, composting to green manuring, are still unknown in great swathes of the third world, where they're most needed!

as the web expands more country people will feel connected to variety, exposed to different sources of culture, information and entertainment, and gradually we can blur the two into one, where to live in the boonies is no longer to be condemned to live a parochial life, and city people won't have to work all their lives to buy a patch of green to retire on and smell the roses.

in this way, the intellectual climate for the curious, independent of geolocation will be upgraded, and the differences become erased.

country folk feel like rubes, out of touch, and would rather gamble on the city to provide novelty and change, whereas the cities are choking on influxes of people for which the infrastructure is inefficient and insufficient, with favelas and similar shantytowns/slums being the all-too-familiar outcome, breeding grounds for disease and crime.

100 years ago 95% of workers were agricultural, now we have cheap, horrible food and mass unemployment, gangs of restless, disenchanted yoof, rebels without a clue, bored, sozzled-and-soured oiks puzzled over their place in the great scheme of things, waiting for a spot of bovver to punctuate the urban monotony of walking streets looking through windows at what they'll never have unless they take a short cut.

riots in the pre-making... if we can't find anything to do for and with this disaffected wave, this will end ugly. farm work -sans chem- is healthy and promotes healthy, strong bodies, all that's missing is the brainfood cities have historically concentrated and refined, but never really given out back, though meanwhile their food supply has been there for them.

i think we need to reverse that somehow, so city folks don't have to sacrifice clean air and water to have the benefits of urbanity, and rural people can easily attain the possibilities of higher education and exposure to the millions of global phenomena that can widen a world and deepen its horizons.

great points about the amish... is it such a jump to imagine them with solar powered ipads, can we accessorise their sturdy framework with the toys we enjoy interacting with and learning from without killing the essence of it?

best of both worlds? digital campesinos?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Sep 13th, 2012 at 08:32:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Amish may not have solar powered iPads, yet, but they do have solar-powered buggy lights for when they're out on the roads at night.

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Sun Sep 16th, 2012 at 10:01:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yay, good news. who'd a thunk it?

i wonder if they'd be open to your 'solar is civil defence' progam?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Sep 17th, 2012 at 12:49:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Very interesting, and thanks. In Austin, TX, we had back yard AND front yard gardens, as there was more room and sun in the front yard. We tried to make it artistic so no-one would fuss, but we lived in an older, unrestricted part of town anyway, so couldn't be made NOT to grow veggies in the front yard. People loved it and there were plenty of people stopping by and getting tips (and seeds) and planting their own gardens, anywhere on their property that had the best light.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Sun Sep 9th, 2012 at 06:33:21 AM EST
This is very encouraging. Thanks for writing it up.

I've been hanging out with organic farmers for the last couple of decades, was part of a Swedish circle, so-called, study group that looked at local food production in a Massachusetts county in the early-mid '90s.

In North Carolina now, land of deep-fried and grits. When I moved here about six years ago, really hard to find organic local food, and nearest co-op is an hour's drive.

Now, there are farmers' markets in the city four days out of seven, plus a big year-round one on the weekends. I've been so heartened to see these things growing, and taking hold, and now drawing crowds.

They get precious little media coverage -- the occasional Oh gee whiz! feature -- but people are finding out about edible food, and seeking it out, and supporting local growers. It does give one hope, after all.

by Mnemosyne on Mon Sep 10th, 2012 at 08:00:42 PM EST
Beppe Grillo's Blog

"A conviction I've had for some time now about Latin America is getting stronger. The prime enemy to be conquered in the battle for social justice is not the banks, the multinationals, the corrupt governments or organised crime. The prime enemy is fatalism. "These are just great ideas that cannot be put into action", "Italy is certainly not Ecuador", "a system cannot be changed in such a short time; perhaps our offspring will succeed". But who says that?
In the great article by Sergio Di Cori Modigliani published on the blog, he talks about Correa and the Ecuadorian government's decision to cancel an immoral debt. Correa, anyway is not even perfect; he did not come down to Ecuador like an asteroid, nor did he materialise like a divine miracle. Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia and Ortega in Nicaragua, were elected thanks to the unstinting work of hundreds of social movements that chose to say "that's enough!" to injustice. Even in these countries the chorus of the resigned ones started off, "economic solidarity is a utopia", "the United States will never relinquish their grip", "food sovereignty is just an illusion".
The current experience of South America shows the opposite is true, it shows that a people that is organized, united and well informed, has immense power even against ruthless enemies. The CLOC-Via Campesina is one of the biggest farm-worker organisations in the continent and it coordinates 84 organisations in 16 different countries and it has the power to promote alternatives and to create new social paradigms. Today it's headquarters are in Quito. Just as Assange chose Ecuador, this too is not by chance. In the last 10 years, it has developed ideas and it has applied pressure on national governments to get them to adopt their ideas as part of their action programmes. Ecuador has welcomed Via Campesina's food sovereignty project and Bolivia has approved changes to the Constitution that improve social equity. In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner has nationalised the Treasury Petroleum Fields (YPF) and, right in the nationalisation phase, Nicaragua has brought education and healthcare into the public sector.
How come they can do it and we can't? Perhaps because we have the mafia? Because there's too much good living here? Because Europe doesn't ask us to do it? Not at all! It'll be that I'm 33 years old, but I cannot accept the idea that we cannot carve out our future.
Social movements like Via Campesina provide the evidence that civil society is truly able to put forward solutions and that the crisis, whether its the food crisis in South America, or the financial and economic crisis (and in the future a food crisis) in Europe, can be an opportunity to rethink a whole way of living. Unfortunately the crisis is not just an opportunity for populations to call for change, it is also an opportunity for those who have wielded power up to now and who are trying to find all possible ways to hold on to it. In Latin America the tragedies have still not finished. The very same multinationals that for decades have impoverished the land and the people, today are giving themselves a green tint and are trying to offer false ecological solutions.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:58:37 PM EST
Some of my notes from the book In Utopia:

(164) [Carlo] Petrini, founder of Slow Food:  "We seek to enjoy food not only at the sensory level, but also at full appreciation and knowledge of it.  Knowing the producer, knowing the mode of production, knowing that the mode of production does not destroy the environment, allows you to take greater pleasure in whatever you consume.  Intellectual, sensory, and political knowledge of food.  A person who seeks to enjoy something through sensory perception alone is not a person of good taste."

(165)  Slogan of Slow Food:  A gastronome who isn't an environmentalist is an idiot.  And an environmentalist who isn't a gastronome is a very sad man.

"The individual production mode has broken the connection between humanity and nature.  Marx and Engels offered a vision opposed to capitalism.  They thought capitalism would arrive at a point where the proletariat would break their bonds of servitude, gain control.  But it never happened because capitalism changed, evolved.  It became global.  Instead of the proletariat breaking their chains, the workers assisted the system in destroying nature,  Humanity is no longer a confrontation of classes.  For the first time in history, we face together the dilemma of our existence.  We're at the brink of extinction - and that's the difference."

(165-166)  "Food guarantees our survival.  The relationship between humans and food has always been the relationship of central importance.  All cultures, all religions recognize food as one of the sacral elements, the central staple item.  We waste a great deal of energy today creating very mediocre food.  A higher quality product may actually require less energy in its production...."

Solar IS Civil Defense

by gmoke on Thu Sep 13th, 2012 at 05:28:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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