California Dreamin’: From Fertile Earth to Suburban Turf

Posted: March 28th, 2010 | Author:

I am traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway with my two daughters on their Spring Break. We are driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara on California Highway No. 1 which passes through some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the United States. If you have ever eaten a strawberry back East in January, chances are you have tasted the fruit of Central Coast soil.

As we drove, a turbulent Santa Ana wind gusted over the fields, kicking up dust. The strong wind gave us a whiff of what each field was growing. When we passed an onion field, we all grimaced. Accompanied by this odd sensory assault, we all felt close to the land, even as we sped by in our car. After some time, we had to drive north, moving away from the coastal plain in order to connect with the 101 Freeway in Camarillo.

It was with great surprise that our vista changed to include two highrise towers rearing up on the horizon above the fertile floor of this rich agricultural plateau.  All along the 101 Freeway in Camarillo, massive hardscape stretches outward to accommodate the spread of the Camarillo Outlet Mall and the bright stuccoed condo developments that spring up alongside. The parking lots abut the massive growing fields in an almost surreal way.

Seeing the landscape in evolution from rural to suburban reminded me that my native Brooklyn was once mostly farms and fields until about 1850. Similar to the Central Coast of California, New York’s Long Island contains some of the flattest and most fertile land in the United States formed by glacial till deposited on top of well-drained sand. Not all places have such good soil or such magnificent growing potential.

In Camarillo, we can still see the transformation of land from planting rows to subdivisions. In Brooklyn, the land transformation is so complete that the soil is almost hidden and, more likely than not, poisoned by longtime deposits left by dense human habitation.

To witness the abrupt change in land use in Camarillo was startling. The imminent process of altering fertile soil into pavement for parking seemed, quite viscerally, totally wrong. Obscene, even. The deep contrast of incompatible land uses marks a historic clash of priorities in our American Society that runs deep and roils at these crossroads.

For the last two hundred years, Americans have treated all land — like so many other natural resources — as fungible, interchangeable. Developers have sought to sell lots, homes and commercial strips close to urban centers. Under the lure of development, the value of agrarian land is almost never valued enough to compete with its use for development. Farmers sell their fields to subdividers.  Arable land disappears in waves.

In the march of market pressures, we all lose our share of public wealth when fertile farm land is developed for hardscaped sprawl. Most people would agree that cutting down the rainforests –lungs of the world — should be slowed or stopped. Yet we hesitate when we witness similarly important natural resources eliminated right in front of our eyes.

Camarillo provides a stark view of the transformation of fertile earth to suburban turf when we see the process partly accomplished in a moment of transition.

Where will our strawberries grow when the shopping mall and the condominiums spread from the 101 Freeway all the way south to the Pacific? I hope that the public raises their voices now to stop further development in places like Camarillo, so that we never have to find out the answer to the question.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | No Comments »

Biophilia: The Caretaker’s Love of Growing Things

Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Author:

As I walked home from work this past week, I saw a man in crisp, business attire stop before a magnolia tree. He gazed deeply at its branches and then raised his hand slowly to touch, even caress, the fuzzy tumescent buds. He paused to admire the tree and I to contemplate his action.

The man did not appear to be a stereotypical treehugger, though that would be no sin. Rather, he appeared to be moved spontaneously, ceasing his scurry homeward to wonder at the manifestation of nature stirring beneath the hardscaped concrete surfaces of our City. He seemed transfixed momentarily, viewing the enchanted scheme that Dylan Thomas named “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

What I glimpsed in this moment was a sample of humankind’s innate and collective spiritual love for growing things, suppressed by our culture of hard facts and slick surface materialism.

It is so easy to forget that human beings are wired to be caretakers of the earth and the things it makes. We long for the purpose that comes from being needed to maintain our share of a cosmic balance. Yet this yearning is diverted into other empty endeavors and spiritual dead-ends. We concoct elaborate justice systems dedicated to pouring out excuses for our failing to uphold our end of the bargain with nature. To what end? We hustle to buy more things we don’t need that foul our function and that disconnect us from fulfillment.

Certainly, a vision of humans as the custodians of growing things can be seen as hubris. Anyone who has been trapped in a tornado does not think himself a caretaker of the wind. We are certainly more like leaves on the breeze, even insofar as we steer some course in our descent.

Maybe I have seen too many Hiyao Miyazaki films. But now even the dystopian director James Cameron seems to have been moved to make a multi-million dollar blockbuster film, Avatar, grappling with humans’ need to connect deeply with the workings of the natural world. Caring for nature seems to provide us with answers to so many questions about our lives.

In closing, I think the beauty of the anonymous man’s gentle gesture toward the magnolia bud was embodied in his reaching for an engagement so often missed. The private moment I witnessed reminds me to seek ways to take care of growing things or risk drying out a powerful and beneficent force within me — within all of us.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | 1 Comment »

Food Print NYC: Tracing Impacts of Regulation on Food Systems

Posted: March 3rd, 2010 | Author:

On Saturday, February 27, 2010, I attended the first Foodprint NYC, “a series of international conversations about food and the city,” organized by Nicola Twilley and Sarah Rich.  The event was held in a large commercial space, Studio X, and the attendees (including me) were spilling into the corridors.

The afternoon of discussion was divided into four different panels: Zoning Diet, Culinary Cartography, Edible Archaelogy and Feast, Famine and Other Scenarios.  Each panel included a great diversity of perspectives and disciplines, including designers, scientists, advocates, and business operators.

Regardless of background, each panelist emphasized that everyone must organize to influence food politics in order to bring about change on your plate.  In each discussion, participants repeatedly drew attention to the curious and significant impact created by government policy and regulation upon the food system.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of NYC Coalition Against Hunger, spoke about NYC as the only place in the country where applicants for Food Stamps must be fingerprinted.  ”At a time when there are record numbers of people going hungry, does it really make sense to add more hurdles to accessing food security?”

Founder and Director of the Street Vendor Project, Sean Basinski, pointed to the maze of regulations that apply to vendors. He described how the government announced the creation of the Green Carts program, intending to promote the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods without wide access to markets.  Fearing competition, operators of bodegas and supermarkets lobbied against the Green Carts program, successfully limiting the number of licenses to only 1000 and imposing strict regulations. Addressing the limitations imposed by the NYC Department of Health on Green Carts, Basinski asked:

“Is it really necessary to have a stainless steel cart to sell fruits and vegetables when a plain folding table would protect the public just as much from supposed contamination? How much protection is given to the public when this same cart is inspected every two years in a Health Department approved facility in Maspeth, Queens? Should it really be necessary to have a license to sell fresh food where anyone can detect any contamination with their own eyes?”

As a result of the regulation, Basinski said the Green Cart program has not had wide ranging impact.  Lobbying and special interests strike again.

Bodegas as a special interest? Jonathan Bogarín, a teaching artist from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, told the story of the foods carried in the bodegas themselves, recorded in a film he made with local youth entitled: Bodega Down Bronx. Bogarín observed that bodegas were far from villains in the food system.  Bodegas have tight profit margins, facing high rents and high risk. For many neighborhoods, bodegas provide the only source of food available around the clock in a culturally appropriate form. Almost always, bodegas are business operated for and by immigrants.

Stanley Fleishman, President and CEO of Jetro Cash and Carry, who sells wholesale to the foodservice industry, described how bodega owners struggle to provide fresh food to their customers, often strapping goods to the roofs of their cars for the return trip to the store.

On a different note, Fleishman has endeavored to increase the amount of local and regional foods that he stocks. “Regional food is not cost competitive.  Until the price of regional food becomes competitive with food produced in Chile and California, businesses are not going to be able to afford regional products. Government can intervene on behalf of its local farmers and help them reduce costs.”

Fleishman also stated that the government should achieve its health aims with more taxation and  less regulation.  ”Taxation changes individual behavior.  Regulation just makes it harder to do business. If the government can reduce smoking through a huge tax, why not tax the hell out of fried foods, bottled water or other unhealthy, environmentally damaging products?”

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Mailman School of Public Health, studied the incidencence and impact of alcohol street advertising in Harlem.  She found that 25% of all street ads were related to alcohol. Significantly, almost half of these ads were within 500 feet of schools, churches and playgrounds. Kwate compared the incidence of problem drinking in the areas near the ads to other areas without ads.

Not surprisingly, she found a 13% increase in problem drinking that appeared to be linked to the ads. “The ads are placed in areas where advertisers can rely on a lack of political will to oppose them.” Contrary to the example of the street vendors above, government regulation of these alcohol ads would seem to help protect public health by curtailing problem drinking.

And speaking of alcohol, David Haskell, co-founder of Kings County Distillery, a new producers of spirits in Williamsburg, Brooklyn spoke up about the absurdity of the regulations affecting his business:

“The laws that regulate alcohol distillation are concerned with things that seem only remotely related to public health and food safety. Is there a lock on my door? Am I within X number of feet from a school or church? How many proof is my beverage, so it can be taxed accordingly. However, nowhere along the line is anyone checking to make sure that what I am making is not poisonous. I guess it is assumed that selling poison to the public is the food business as usual.”

All of these case studies reveal the power of government policy and regulation to make a positive or negative impact on the quality of the food system.  Expecting the government to take action on these issues is not the whole answer.  On the contrary, all of the panelists at Foodprint NYC suggested that ordinary people — consumers and businesses alike — should band together to request the government agencies and legislatures review all of its diverse regulations of the food system in order create the conditions necessary for a healthier and more sustainable world.

Nevin Cohen from the Food Systems Network NYC, reported that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has invited him and other advisors from the community to help her develop the details of her ambitious FoodWorks initiative.  If we all make our voices heard, perhaps FoodWorks can reflect the collective wisdom of the all the diverse and impressive perspectives assembled for Food Print NYC.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | Tags: Bodega Down Bronx, , Center for Urban Pedagogy, , , Food Print, , , , , , , Jonathan Bogarin, Kings County Distillery, , Nevin Cohen, , , , , , , Stanley Fleishman, , Studio X | No Comments »

People’s Garden at City Hall

Posted: March 1st, 2010 | Author:

The organizers who brought you The White House Organic Farm have their sites set on creating a USDA People’s Garden NYC located at City Hall Park.

The Bloomberg mayoralty has been supportive of various green initiatives: more bike lanes, PlaNYC, etc.  Planting a People’s Garden seems like a natural outgrowth of the environmentally attuned policies and gestures of the administration.

Sign the Petition to support the installation of People’s Garden NYC at City Hall.

Here is a short video of NYC high school students reacting to the idea of a People’s Garden in City Hall:

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