The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents Hunger

Sharon May 28th, 2008

“I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will sooner or later be hunger.” – Wendell Berry

I was struck yesterday by this news report about the problems food pantries are having with new needs and fewer donations.  Although the whole thing is disturbing the most disturbing part to me was this passage:

 ”‘If gas keeps going up, it’s going to be catastrophic in every possible way,’ said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest.

Food banks sometimes have to move food 150 miles to a food pantry, he said.

‘You’re going to get to the point where they are going to have to decide whether it’s cheaper to just give a food pantry a check,’ he said. ‘The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else.’”

This is troubling not just because of its wider truth, but because the problem being articulated was precisely the difficulty in the Great Depression.  There was again, plenty of food to be hand, but most people were too poor to buy it, and producers couldn’t get enough to make it worth bringing to market.  I recently included this in _A Nation of Farmers_ and was chilled by how strong the echoes were.

Oscar Emeringer, testifying before a Congressional subcommittee in 1932 described the paradox of “appalling overconsumption on one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side…” and described wheat in Montana left unharvested because of low prices, thousands of bushels of apples rotting beside the road in Oregon, an Illinois farmer who killed 3,000 of his sheep in a fall, and threw their bodies into a canyon because the cost of shipping the sheep was greater than the cost of sale. In Chicago, men picked for rotting meat scraps through garbage cans.  He goes on to add, 

“The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of industrial population and the industrial populations are being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.  Neither has the money to buy the product of the other, hence we have overproduction and underconsumption at the same time and in the same country.”

But I might just as easily have begun with the pleas of a Chicago school Superintendent, who begged Congress for funding for schools.  11,000  school children had no food at all at home, and were being kept alive by a collection taken up by teachers and parents.  But the teachers had not been paid for 3 months, and their ability to keep their students alive was fading.  As summer approached, William J. Bogan pleaded with the Illinois Governor,
“For God’s sake, help us feed these children during the summer.”

We are not there yet, but this passage of the above article seems an early harbinger:

” In Baton Rouge, La., the public school system has found students hoarding their free and reduced-price lunches so they can bring them home and have something to eat at night.”

The nutritional value of school lunches has already declined due to the rising cost of food.  Now we stand on the cusp of the summer months, in which millions of American schoolchildren who used to be assured of a free breakfast and lunch will now have access only to park lunch programs that can feed a tiny percentage of them. 

The way market forces and economies of scale prevent producers and consumers from connecting in hard times may well be the single best argument for a relocalized agriculture.  The scale of industrial production, in which food is transmitted long distances, advanced purchased on contract and unavailable to million and billions of poor people is destructive all the time – but it is acutely destructive in times of energy shortage and high prices. 

If we can bring food production into the cities and suburbs, getting as many lawns as possible covered with gardens, as many balconies and rooftops covered with containers, if we can bring food production back to the near areas of those regions, there is hope for those who eat and those who grow to come together in ways that are mutually beneficial.  If not, as energy prices rise and food prices move out of reach of more and more people, things, as they say, fall apart.  As they already are for the poor.

Shalom, 

Sharon

33 Responses to “The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents Hunger”

  1. Lisa Z says:

    Excellent point, Sharon. It reminds me to “plant a row for the hungry”. Hopefully a lot of people will share some of their surplus garden produce with the food shelves this summer. I have to check and see if ours even accepts fresh produce! I’ll do that today.

    Thanks, Lisa in MN

  2. Rebecca says:

    My local food bank won’t accept fresh produce, just non-perishables. Its too hard to give away and people don’t want to cook, they say. I wonder how long that will last?

  3. Leila says:

    I live in a mixed neighborhood of poor, working and middle class people, with lots of Asian immigrants. This year I see food gardens in yards that didn’t have them before – mostly Asian immigrants. Before this it was the crunchy granola permaculture types who would plant vegetables where you could see ‘em.

    And some of the gardens really look like first-timer efforts. No soil amendments, the seedlings wilt from improper watering, etc. Practice, practice. I’m glad to see the gardens going in.

  4. Brad K. says:

    Gardens are work. For the elderly and inactive, getting started includes the psychological change of working now for a likely result some weeks or months from now.

    Today the tales of arresting people for stealing bread is a horrible sign of the cruelty of barbaric earlier days. When we start looking at gardens as irreplaceable food supplies, then looting and stealing become capital crimes once again.

    I guess the point is that any useful transition will be painful all around.

    And just think of the sad folk that figure on changing to oxen and horse for transport and field work – without the generations of horse knowledge that was available before the 1920′s.

    Farm prices aren’t all that much different today than when my Father farmed in the late 1950′s and 1960′s. Then you adjust for inflation. Equipment and fuel prices, taxes, clothes, chemical and seed prices, though, have all followed inflation.

    What I haven’t seen yet is a great effort to move workers near to where they work. Think of how much less oil is used if you move 10 families closer to work and school by 10 miles, than in organizing a van pool. Peak Oil might be the death knell of major suburb development projects. Also, fuel prices will affect school consolidations. It will make more sense to keep more buildings open than to bus kids from one side of town, or county, to the other.

  5. Greenpa says:

    All true, and growing food in suburbs and urbs needs to increase greatly.

    There’s one more “but”, though, which I haven’t seen anybody address; partly because it’s not really much of a problem yet. But it will be. Theft.

    When you have dense populations, and hungry people, somebody will steal your carefully grown squash/corn/potatoes in the middle of the night.

    Not at all a reason not to grow things; but a hazard to give SOME thought to at the outset of all that work.

    China has dealt with this for millennia, of course, and still does. Many fields there still have a “watchtower” of bamboo off in a corner, with a roof on it. Typically, a couple kids sleep there every night, when there is a possibility of theft.

    There’s even a specific word for it, which transliterates as “melon-watching”. If you don’t watch your melons- you won’t have any.

    It doesn’t have to take much. A couple of kids and a dog in China can protect a lot of melons. Here- if there’s a risk- a solar-powered, motion activated security light might be all you need.

    We just need to keep “humans” on our list of possible garden pests, along with the raccoons, stray dogs, cutworms, cabbage loopers, and slugs.

  6. Sharon says:

    Agreed, Greenpa. Firewood stealing is already a problem in some towns where friends of mine live. I’ll expect to see garden raids and chicken stealing as well, although it does stretch the imagination to get to the point where most Americans see a chicken and think “dinner” – I know it will happen, but the psychological shift is great.

    Brad, I agree with most of what you say, but I advise caution on the “moving closer to work” front – because a lot of people’s jobs aren’t going to be there soon – and then where do they move next? My own strategy is to increase people’s feet in local and informal economies. That’s not to say that everyone should stay put, but I’m not sure that following the job is anything more than a very short term fix, and a dangerous one at that in a collapsing housing market.

    Rebecca – again, it is the same shift that makes a hungry person look at a chicken and see food, on perhaps a less extreme scale. Amazing what will have to change.

    Leila, that’s good news indeed!

    Sharon

  7. Rosa says:

    I used to cook in a kitchen at the community center that housed the south side’s biggest summer lunch program (north side in Minneapolis is poorer, and has bigger food programs). We were doing Food Not Bombs – picking up almost-trash produce from coops, and cooking it to serve on the street.

    One of the things I learned – and mind you this is back in 1999-2003, when the economy was booming – was that the kids were *starved* for fruit. They’d eat anything, fruits they’d never heard of (fruits *we* had never heard of), kumquats, starfruit, sour rind melon. On days the kids program was indoors while we were cooking, they got all the bruised fruit as fast as I could cook & cut it.

    The problem wasn’t the availability of fruit for free – every grocery store in the city was and still is tossing pounds and pounds of fruit. The one big coop gives stuff to a farm animal rescue organization.

    The problem was the cost of labor to transport, wash, cut and peel. The summer lunch program didn’t have that kind of staffing, for sure, so they fed the kids glop from cans. And yet the neighborhood was full of underemployed people.

  8. Sharon says:

    Rosa, can I quote you on this for the book. I’ve been looking for an articulation of the particular problems of getting fresh food to people, and this would be useful.

    Sharon

  9. Shaunta says:

    My little town is so isolated. We’re surrounded by 250 miles of desert and mountains. In any direction there is a city (Las Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake City, Twin Falls) 250 miles away, but nothing else in between but very, very tiny farming communities (less than 500 people, sometimes less than 100, and only one or two of these on each route.)

    I worry a lot that eventually the food distributors will decide it isn’t worth the gas to bring food to us up here.

    I still think that it’s better here than in Las Vegas, because it is at least possible to grow and raise some of your own food here despite a very, very short growing season.

    We’re getting a farmers market here from August through October, which is very exciting. I plan on participating and being a great consumer as well as I buy food I can’t or don’t grow and preserve it for the winter (especially fruits like apples and plums.)

    I constantly struggle with the decision to stay in Nevada or try to move to a more post-peak friendly place. Family is what keeps us here.

  10. Wendy says:

    Today, Willard Scott, on the Today Show, encouraged people to plant a “Victory Garden.” I thought that was way cool :) .

  11. Chile says:

    How is this for bizarre? Our food bank gives away bread and produce donated by stores to the people picking up at their main location as well as to anyone from the public who spends at least $1 in their value store at the same location. Yesterday, I got several loaves of bread – which can be easily frozen – and an entire case of English cucumbers. That’s a BUSHEL. They are not great for pickling.

    Now just this past weekend, there was an article in the local newspaper about how the food bank here is starting to feel stretched and anticipates shortages. Why, oh why, were they giving away more fresh food than individuals, or even families, can use? I

    ‘m now looking at trying several ways to preserve some of these but I also need to give away at least half the box. And soon. How many of the people picking up will just let most of them rot? After all, it’s hard to live on cucumbers alone (although agua fresca is good…)

    Anybody want a cucumber?

  12. Rosa says:

    Sure, Sharon.

    Though if you quote it, change “cook” up there to wash, which was what I meant. We weren’t cooking kumquats.

  13. I’ve noticed a few people starting newbie gardens but they seem to follow a basic prinicpal. Lets plan lots of 1 thing. Seems everybody plants tomatos and maybe some beans but few people plant a mixed garden that actually represents how they eat.

    Then again maybe it does, a tomato is a garnish for a salad, sandwitch or burger but since so few people even cook from scratch these days they have no idea what to do with a patch of spinach parsnips and you can be assured most people will end up throwing out 2/3 of their tomato crop because they don’t know how to make sauce, soup, bruchetta, and certainly don’t consider canning their bounty. The lack of information is almost funny a “Vetran Gardener” told me a couple a years ago when I kept a plot at a community garden. “you should really rip those onions out, they don’t look right”, he was very concerned my leeks were not forming a bulb and were 2 feet tall.

    I guess the garden is the first step but people need to form support groups to aid in gardening information, bulk seed purchases, how to cook and preserve something.

    Avoid the food banks and just help your neighbours, you can tell which ones need the help, pick a sick or elderly person, an obvioulsy distressed family and take the time to show them what to do with your produce. Hell the elderly person may know a new recipe or gardening trick you don’t.

    This way you get to help someone you can actually monitor, if they are able you can encourage and teach them to plant their own next season and if they are not able you might just gain access to an extra plot for next year. An important factor in thwarting the eventual theft problem is creating that sense of community where people look out for each other While still needed, the anonymous food bank charity may keep the body going but does little for the soul of the community

  14. Re: melon-watching. Many of the childhood stories I hear from my father’s side of the family, from the generation fifteen years older than I, have to do with being a tiny kid posted in the orchard to watch the apricots/plums/bananas/almonds or other high-value, easily pilfered crop. (in Lebanon, mid 20th century). Tykes as young as four were sent off with their buddies on this business – unaccompanied by anybody older, not even an eight-year-old. 8-year-olds were busy tending the cattle in the pastures.

    Why pay for pre-school?

    Social ties were so strong that a grown-up would not steal from an orchard if observed by a child who would report him to the elders. However for marauding Bedouin or gypsies, you would need a grown-up. My grandfather fired a warning shot, once, at a gypsy who wouldn’t leave some crops alone.

  15. Even in small town Ontario Canada, my grandfather put rock salt loads into his shotgun every spring for the inevitable garden robbers, of course today the police would arrest him rather than the theives.

  16. tasterspoon says:

    On the theft point: my town’s city council recently voted *down* a proposed community garden in because of prospective neighbors who came out against it – one of their arguments was that it would attract vagrants looking to pick peppers in the night. Too much emphasis on this risk might be premature if it leads to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as happened here.

    There was a recent, eye-opening NYT article on food waste in America. I included the link but my comment wouldn’t post so I’ll try again. It mentioned how grocery stores regularly throw out all those prepared foods we see (the entire deli case, for instance) for fear of lawsuits. I feel naive for never having thought about that. Their calculation of risk is understandable though, and economically rational. And even if there is that Good Samaritan law, the three bean salad still has to get transported to the soup kitchen. I guess it makes sense to set up the soup kitchen at the back door of the supermarket…would that ever fly?

  17. tasterspoon says:

    Um. The link won’t post, but it comes right up if you google “One Country’s Table Scraps, Another Country’s Meal”

  18. Chile says:

    Actually, the food bank here does help the community. They have a garden and a farm. Members of the community volunteer and help tend the gardens, growing vegetables. Volunteers sell the produce at two farmer’s market stands, and these accept food stamps as payment. The food bank also promotes food independence with a program that provides free compost, seeds, and gardening advice for those in need. They even buy produce directly from my CSA’s farmer to sell at their farmer’s market stands. This is helping develop community and giving low income people a chance to get high quality, naturally and locally-grown produce at an affordable price!

  19. Segwyne says:

    I live in a low-income housing project in a good city. Earlier this year, I asked the property manager if I could put in a garden and she offered to have maintenance come and rototill however much of my yard as I wanted and even a portion of the community field. She supported my efforts to start a community garden in the field, but out of 29 families here, I was the only one interested in having a garden. I was so sad. Maintenance was supposed to some this morning, but I am still waiting. I have seedlings that I bought at the farmer’s market that I can’t wait to put in the ground. This is my very first garden, and I have three tomato plants, three strawberry plants, four broccoli, four cauliflower, and 6 lettuce. I also have seeds I can plant once I have some place to put them, but my window sill is very full right now.

    As far as theft goes, I do expect to lose some. The kids want to grow pumpkins, so I warned them that the pumpkins might get stolen. They understand and still want to plant them. I also plan on planting some root crops. Matt Mayer mentioned that root crops would be less likely to be stolen simply because it would require more effort to steal potatoes than tomatoes. I know I have a lot to learn, but better now than three years from now.

  20. Greenpa says:

    Tasterspoon- “one of their arguments was that it would attract vagrants looking to pick peppers in the night.”

    That’s so sad! And crazy. And, doggone it, just wrong. Wasn’t what I was thinking about when I commented on theft, but this kind of community attitude certainly DOES exist sometimes, and will cause problems.

    Probably the best thing we can do is have an arsenal of good stories to counter it.

    Segwyne- “The kids want to grow pumpkins, so I warned them that the pumpkins might get stolen. They understand and still want to plant them.”

    Absolutely!! You’ve got good kids there. :-)

    There you go, Tasterspoon; story #1.

  21. Sharon says:

    How wonderful, Segwyne! I suspect you’ll see more interest, once the project is up and running, too.

    Sharon

  22. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Chile – Would you mind letting me know what city and which food bank you are speaking of? That’s an idea I’d like to offer the local food bank here. Getting a bit more information from your food bank would be helpful.

    Thanks!

    Kerri in AK

  23. Shane says:

    To green assassin brigade…I think you are absolutely right about the best charity being via relationships. Food pantries do some good, but actually getting to know people and giving them a chance to give something back to you in the future is far more powerful and empowering to everyone involved. You have to really know someone to care for them, whether you are on the giving or recieving end of the relationship.

    Shane

  24. [...] Comment on The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents …Actually, the food bank here does help the community. They have a garden and a farm. Members of the community volunteer and help tend the gardens, growing vegetables. Volunteers sell the produce at two farmer’s market stands, … [...]

  25. Sharon says:

    One project we did for several years, have since let lapse, and which I really should start up again (someone we knew took it over, but then they let it lapse as well) was a senior shopping project. Because of the distances to stores and farmer’s markets out in our rural area, most very elderly people here who no longer drive shop 1x per week, with a family member, and they can’t really control where they go, or make multiple stops. So it is nearly impossible to buy local, even if they can afford it. When we started shopping for Eric’s grandmother, we would go to the local farmstands and pick up produce and fresh milk for her and for a half dozen other elders in our neighborhood. They were thrilled with the quality of the food, and also with the prices – because with that number of people, plus us, we could buy bulk and save.

    This is one of those things that I think has a great deal of possibility for those who are low income but who would like to get access to better, cheaper fresh food. Unfortunately, all of the seniors we were working with have died or moved in with family, but I’m sure we could find other people. We also used to deliver produce to them, but most would only accept so much free stuff – they didn’t want charity.

    I should start this up again.

    Sharon

  26. Joe Djemal says:

    Hi everybody,

    I live in Manchester in the UK I’ve been involved with permaculture for over 20 years. We have quite a strong tradition of growing food in council provided allotments here I have two allotments one with a pond with carp and aquatic plants using perennials and permaculture techniques and in the other I’m growing in containers using a modified Jeavons system. I’ve noticed that a lot more people are taking growing food a lot more seriously this year. There are no empty plots left and unlike last year everybody is well advanced with growing. The media here have been doing a lot of programmes about growing food in cities and about wild foods. Surprisingly a lot of people round here (A poor mixed working class area) seem to be pretty aware of what’s happening and there’s still a lot of knowledge around about growing food. We still have some daft problems like cockerels, pigeons and bees being expressly banned (You’re allowed 6 hens and some rabbits) and you’re not allowed to plant fruit trees on council land although most people get round that by growing them in containers.

    The law here is that if 6 or more people request land to grow food on the local council has to provide it and there was a program on channel 4 last night showing people how to apply and start a community garden. They’re even going to keep pigs on that one but our horticultural society would never allow that here. I have a feeling that here a lot of people could well adapt although there are a whole lot more that won’t. It’s going to be really messy.

    Sharon, I love your writing, been reading it a couple of years now.

    Joe

  27. Alan says:

    I would like to call folks’ attention to a wonderful organization here in Portland: Growing Gardens.

    Here is a brief list of their programs from their website (http://www.growing-gardens.org/). They are strongly oriented toward low-income people.

    Home Gardens

    Home garden installation, seeds, plant starts, classes and a mentor for a three year enrollment per gardener.

    Partner Gardens

    Garden installation, seeds, plant starts, classes, mentors for a three year enrollment in partnership with other nonprofits, apartment complexes, schools, shelters and others.

    Youth Grow

    After-school garden clubs, summer garden camps, in school garden programs, teen service learning, parent/child workshops and garden educator training.

    Learn & Grow

    Education workshops for beginning gardeners.

    They have a video- Digging at the Root of Hunger which can be viewed from their site.

  28. [...] Comment on The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents …How is this for bizarre? Our food bank gives away bread and produce donated by stores to the people picking up at their main location as well as to anyone from the public who spends at least $1 in their value store at the same location. … [...]

  29. jared boyd says:

    There is so much momentum for this stuff right now. We just launched a grass roots community organization in Clintonville, OH (columbus) called Justice Gardens. We’re partnering with local food banks and farmers markets to get the good food from local gardens into the hands of people who need it. Justice Gardens is a grass roots urban movement using the story and model of the Victory Garden campaign to promote a sustainable agricultural movement that will supply the underserved population of our cities with fresh fruits and vegetables. I really do believe that if we continue to talk about this stuff that we can change the food culture in this country.

  30. I am part of a Permaculture Guild in Santa Barbara attempting to address this problem. We are in the process of working with a local charity, Alpha Resource Center to put in a one acre food forest to help feed the population of developmentally disabled adults they worked with. We intend in the future to lobby our food bank to turn part of their parking lot and their landscaped areas into food producing areas.

  31. [...] Comment on The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents …Re: melon-watching. Many of the childhood stories I hear from my father’s side of the family, from the generation fifteen years older than I, have to do with being a tiny kid posted in the orchard to watch the … [...]

  32. Awesome philosophy. I love it. Thanks for posting

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