It’s Called Produce

Reader Contribution by Eugene Cooke

Can a consumer culture lead us toward health and abundance? In all major United States cities there are areas that look like emerging ‘third world’ neighborhoods. Abandoned homes, where land is overgrown and houses are falling apart, closed businesses, deteriorating schools and jobless, homeless residents. This situation is created by a complex combination of factors and it most often leads to crime and violence. How does the consumer driven local food movement touch those of us living and serving in these places under police terrorism and economic apartheid? As an urban farmer for over a decade, from California to Georgia, I have been present at countless conferences and meetings promoting local organic food access.  What does food access look like in an area that is subject to police curfew or martial law?

Right now in our nation’s cities we continue to experience state violence perpetrated on people of color and urban residents who are economically imprisoned within a social status based on deliberate under investment. Many of these areas are within the same zip code as neighborhoods slated for ‘urban renewal’. Is there a connection between the instigated uprisings and looming re-development plans?

I have witnessed community gardens and farmers markets used as tools to begin the process of changing a community. The outcome of this transformation often depends on who are the stakeholders directing the change and where is the source of the support for the garden, mini farm or farmer’s market. What we see in Atlanta is that gardens and markets initiated and controlled by community members in the neglected communities in Southwest Atlanta receive very little support from funders and advocacy groups. While gardens and markets in the very same neighborhoods are funded, staffed and promoted when they are installed by outside foundations and management groups. In both cases local food is being grown and marketed to ‘underserved’ communities of color. But in the case of resident lead efforts there is little support and no protection when faced with eviction or ‘redevelopment’.

Nationwide there are far more consumers than producers in the local food movement. Many consume more than fresh grown produce. The foundations and advocacy nonprofits often represent consumers of communities, consumers of funding and ultimately they consume the attention and potential of the people to achieve self reliance. My focus is in production. Increasing production in these areas that are targeted by mandates from foundations to increase food access primarily with methods that offer economically stressed residents yet another option to shop. My team and I work with residents to train them to grow the best food with agro-ecological methods for themselves and possibly begin to sell our produce on the other side of town to restaurants and chefs that pride themselves on serving the best local food. Perhaps this is why our model of a ‘grower lead’ collective is ignored by funders and resisted by well paid executive directors of consumer driven local food organizations. Still, we welcome the opportunity to share our views and experiences on a national scope in the network of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

We are committed to a local food revival. We value food sovereignty above food security. Food security is typically the organized distribution of packaged, processed and canned foods through food banks to systematically poor people in areas where there is simultaneously tremendous potential for local production. Our residents and volunteers are drowning in fast food swamps and suffocating from police warfare. For our communities food access is crucial at this moment when suburban commuters are circling, waiting to descend and colonize closer to their downtown jobs. This same access will be even more critical if and when the next police murder of unarmed citizen sets off a pre-calculated uprising that is used to justify martial law. During these explosions do the trucks continue to drive in and stock the supermarket shelves? When stores are looted and burned down are their owners still compelled to rebuild and continue to serve the abused, angry residents fresh local produce? While Whole Foods proudly publicizes their feeding of the national guard in Baltimore who will feed the innocent families caught in the political power play? Is this an orchestrated land grab?

These questions motivate us to encourage all residents and groups interested in creating urban local food systems to look closely at land issues. If we are not in a position to purchase land in our neighborhoods, than a good first step toward food sovereignty is to partner with faith based institutions that own land around churches and mosques. Create the urban gardens and mini farms on these properties in cooperation with the membership. This strategy offers stability as you learn the skill of growing and develop a plan for buying land in the future. As growers increase production we naturally become a powerful voice in the food justice conversation. It is the producers that influence and educate the consumers. As our produce is served across town and across our dinner table our opinions gain potency and our movement toward food abundance gains momentum.

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