By Andrew Pasquale, staff writer
Cities around the world are growing—and so are their citizens’ waistlines. Eighty one percent of America’s population is concentrated in cities, and from 2000 to 2010, urban population growth of 12 percent outstripped the national average of 9.7 percent. Feeding such a large and rapidly growing population can become a problem, especially when many of the people live in poverty and may not have access to a vehicle or public transportation to get to a store.
Obesity, in both urban and rural areas, has been increasing at an alarming rate. In 1990, no more than 15 percent of any state’s population was considered obese. Now, the numbers have increased in every state to over 20 percent. Obesity is a complex problem that cannot be explained by physical factors, such as food access, alone.
The Spring Sustainability Series at the Athena Cinema, aired the documentary film, Growing Cities, on Feb. 4. The film focused on what it will take to change the culture surrounding food. This means getting people to think about the nutritional quality of their food as well as where it comes from. The film discusses food deserts and their prevalence in America. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) identifies a “food desert” as a low-income area with at least 500 people and/or 33 percent of the population living more than one mile for urban areas or ten miles for rural areas from a grocery store with fresh produce. This nightmare is a daily reality for 29.7 million Americans, and with urban population on the rise, this problem will only be getting worse.
This is where filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette come in. When they looked around their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, they found vast stretches of corn and soy, most of which would be processed into animal feed and junk food. Susman and Monbouquette did some research and conducted an informal survey of the people of Omaha which revealed that an unfortunately high number of people would choose steak for their last meal. Although it is good that they did not say potato chips, chocolate bars and soda, it is clear that Omaha has a culture of unhealthy eating. What makes this survey so unsettling is that not one person listed a fruit or vegetable. If the problem of food deserts is to be fixed, access is only the first step. A shift in how people perceive, purchase and prepare their food must follow.
Armed with their farming and videography experience and the hope that they could make an impact in their own community, Susman and Monbouquette set out to find people working to revitalize urban food deserts.
Gardening in America has risen and fallen in popularity over the years with the perception of its economic usefulness and the persuasion of political propaganda during wartime. War Gardens during WWI and Victory Gardens during WWII were portrayed as ways for civilians to contribute to the war effort by relieving some of the strain on the food production and transportation systems.
At the end of WWII, when the American public was no longer being told that they had to cut back on their consumption, they moved to the suburbs and gardening quickly fell by the wayside. For at least one group of gardeners in the Fenway Garden Society in Boston, Victory gardening has never gone out of style as they have a Victory Garden that has been in production continuously since WWII.
Detroit, one of Susman and Monbouquette’s stops, has a population that peaked at 1.86 million in 1950 and has been on the decline ever since with a 2012 figure below 700,000. With a rapidly shrinking number of people available to pay taxes, but the same amount of land and buildings to attempt to maintain, the city is in rapid economic decline and has since gone into and come out of bankruptcy. Given the financial hardships, it is no surprise that there are large numbers of people in Detroit with little to no access to fresh food.
Food justice is the idea that everyone has the right to have access to food that is healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate. To explain what culturally appropriate food is, Malik Yakini, a founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) told the story of well meaning, well-to-do outsiders going into impoverished communities and telling residents what they need to grow and how they need to grow it.
Yakini spoke wearily but not angrily of this seemingly unintentional oppression, and characterized the white newcomers’ approach in impoverished black and Latino neighborhoods as “paternalistic.” For Yakini and other members of DBCFSN, the organization is a forum for people of color in Detroit to reclaim their ability to grow what they want, and how they want it.
Many other urban farms were featured, from rooftop gardens in New York City to aquaponics systems that forego soil and use fish waste to fertilize crops in Chicago and Milwaukee. In Chicago, homeless people and ex-convicts are taught job skills, as it is often difficult for people in these groups to get a fair chance on the job market. In a similar vein, a teacher in New Orleans is getting kids to learn the ins and outs of running a farm, from growing the food and selling it to restaurants to filling out the zoning forms to expand the operation.
At the end of the showing on Feb. 4, the audience discussed and reflected on the film with a panel of Ohio University students, recent graduates and faculty members. Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology at OU, Art Trese, mentioned some problems with Will Allen’s Milwaukee aquaponics system, Growing Power.
One of Trese’s main concerns with Allen’s system is that his winter crop, which consists largely of sprouts and baby greens, must be grown from seeds that were produced on a seed farm. As this seed farm is not part of the Growing Power operation, this represents a large portion of the business that is dependent on something external to itself. Those sprouts and baby greens are then sold for high prices around $16 per pound.
Another problem that Trese raised was that the pellet feed that goes to the fish must be manufactured by some energy-intensive process off-site. A more sustainable alternative would be to raise aquatic plants and insects on the farm. The message of Trese’s critique was that while Growing Power as a whole may be doing good things for the local community, people should still think critically about the value of each step in a farming operation instead of blindly accepting the end product.
If you step off campus and not too far outside the city limits, you can see poverty in Athens County. Athens is the poorest county in Ohio, and with that poverty comes plenty of food insecurity. With 31.7 percent of Athens’ residents below the poverty line and so many of them living outside the city center, away from a grocery store, affordable fresh food may be hard to come by. In an effort to work toward a solution, the Athens Farmers Market accepts a number of food assistance programs like food stamps. However, the residents still must find transportation to the market.
Growing Cities is the story of urban farmers doing their best to grow what they can where they are with what they have. They realize that the world will not be changed overnight, but that does not stop them from working toward a brighter future. While their goal of healthy, local food economies for all will come in time, they never fail to appreciate the present. Farming in a backyard or a vacant lot is probably not what most people would consider ideal, and for that reason it takes a lot of dedication and love to get up and do it every day. If there is a takeaway from this movie, it is that the story of the urban farmer is one of love for his or her community and dedication to make it better for everyone.
The Spring Sustainability Series at Athena Cinema will run through the end of April. All screenings are free to the public.
Andrew is a recent graduate of Ohio University’s Environmental and Plant Biology Department who makes his own deodorant and chocolate. You can usually find him out in Waterloo or in Porter Hall helping with ecophysiology research. On the weekends, he works at The Village Bakery…
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