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To Feed the Future Green City, Invite the Earth to Dinner
Emily Gertz, 15 Feb 05

earthdinner.jpg"You can't understand urban growth if you don't understand the globalization of food," Theresa Marquez said last week at Verdopolis. Marquez is marketing director with the U.S. organic farmer cooperative Organic Valley. As she describes the disconnection between urban and rural and how it contributes to worldwide corporate consolidation of food production and distribution, a guy in the row in front of me is checking the world news on his laptop--Haarez, Der Speigel--then editing some photographs from the Wednesday night fashion show.

Okay, this is fairly cheap as observations go, but does seem like an ironic illustration of the phenomenon Marquez is describing.

There's a lot to like about Organic Valley's operation--joint decision making by over 600 nationwide member farms, commitment to sustainable agriculture, determination to get organic dairy into the mainstream American food marketplace.

In terms of the future green city, I like how it strikes a balance between large scale and localism. Joining the coop gives the farmers financial stability and incentive to stay in agriculture, in the face of tremendous pressure from the corporate food industry, and gets their foods directly to people nearby--saving energy that would be wasted transporting it further away, and cycling local dollars back to local farms.


The national scale of the OV cooperative also gives the farmers a stake in what's happening beyond their own regions, and the power to create greater social impact. It's a good contradiction to the parochialism I've heard lately in the localism movement.

Marquez is an evangelist for more connection to the land, citing a 2004 Roeper survey showing that Americans want "more hands-on work" in their lives. She's eloquent on what she conceptualizes as a problem of marketing and information: "How do we convey that what's complex is actually simple," how food is produced and arrives on our city tables, "while what we think is simple is actually quite complex?"

The systems that make up a city--electricity, water, sewage, transportation--are complex. If anything, they're likely to become more complex in the future green city.

And there are already plenty of projects proving how much the quality of what we eat is improved when the simplicity of the farmer-to-city dweller food connection is revealed: farmer's markets that maintain the vitality of local producers and cuisines, innovative programs that bring farm produce directly to low-income communities that are generally beset with fast-food outlets, while lacking supermarkets.

But my question is: assuming we can't evangelize most urban dwellers--now the majority of people on Earth--to join a community-supported agriculture program or a local food coop, take an active interest in where their food is grown, or even go out of their way to buy organic milk, how are we going to improve the food system anyway?

In WorldChanging terms: Can we make organic milk sexy enough to get onto the cover of Plenty?

Sure, says Marquez. Earth Day's never taken off as a holiday because it doesn't include a meal, so why not turn it into Earth Dinner: a feast where you can say where each and every thing on the table comes from, and share stories and learning about farms and how food is grown.

It's a good idea. But it's not quite an answer to my question.

This Verdopolis panel winds up with some positive words from moderator Stuart Gannes of Stanford's Digital Vision Program. We all want to food to keep us healthy, and to eat well. Maybe organic food, community supported agriculture, and Earth Dinner holiday feasts are ways for politically polarized Americans--the more-rural red and the more-urban blue--to find some common understanding.

Kind of like your family's Thanksgiving dinner.

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I'm all for being more conscious of and connected to our food sources and the networks that bring food to our tables, but I'd ask whether attitudes alone can create change. Here's an example from Kenya, explained to me by my friend Nicodemus Mutemi: His father, a slightly more than subsistance farmer in Mwingi district, can sell the corn he grows, getting 5 shillings for several kilos. But to buy that corn back, in the form of unga, the finely ground flour used to make ugali, the staple food in Kenya, the price is 45 shillings. No global conspiracy creates this mark-up. And no sexy sloganeering -- Earth Dinner instead of Earth Day -- will change this brutal economic reality. Better marketing may make a difference here in the U.S., but it's no substitute for the political and social action needed to create change on the ground. As the old saw has it, 'think globally, act locally.'

Posted by: robert neuwirth on 16 Feb 05

The raw material for food is always worth far far less then food costs to buy at market.

As an example the food in a box of cereal costs less then the ink on the box.

The main cost of food is the person who puts in on the shelve and the person who sells it to you. Shipping food generaly doesnt cost much because most food is shipped via ship in BULK and as a result the cost of transporting it around the globe is less then it cost to pick it in the first place;/

As for your friends father he should get a stone and grind his own cornmeal then sell his extra cornmeal A small wind powered grinder is fairly easy to build and can grind out the little corn he actauly produces. Not to mention if he shucks his own corn and dries it he can store it far more compactly and for far longer. The only corn he should be selling direct is very NICE corn cobs that will fetch good prices for eating as corn on the cob. And concidering hes a near subsistence farmer thats prolly only 1 in 20 cobs he produces anyway which is why hes getting low prices.

Posted by: wintermane on 17 Feb 05

Robert, what I observed a lot at Verdopolis was a kind of merging of the tools of marketing with the mechanisms of social change. The point of the Earth Dinner is to start that process of connecting the dots in people's minds, with a ritual story, as it were, without the baggage of "activism."

Making people aware of an inequity is the foundation of social and political change. I can't speak to what the Earth Dinner in particular will or won't accomplish, but I do think that things like it might be effective in drawing the connections between the American with a bowl of corn on his table, and the Kenyan corn farmer.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 18 Feb 05



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