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Kerry Trueman Headshot

Workin' On The Food Chain Gang

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For a free country, we've got an awfully tyrannical food chain. Our current system of food production is really founded on a contempt for life; it pummels the planet and exploits migrant farm workers, defying the laws of both nature and man. If we truly are what we eat, I guess that makes us a nation of nature-hating misanthropes.

We've shoehorned corn into every corner of Iowa, and shoveled it into every cow--or so it seemed to me as I watched the screening of King Corn that Eating Liberally co-hosted this week at the Tank with our friends from the Green Edge Collaborative. We've taken the already fertile soil of our heartland and jacked it up on steroids, to grow a bazillion bushels of a variety of corn you can't even eat till it's been processed into some sort of by-product.

We coax an astonishing amount of corn from each monocropped acre by saturating this precious topsoil with fertilizers and herbicides, and then we convert this nutritionally bankrupt bounty into high fructose corn syrup, or feed for cows whose digestive systems literally can't stomach it (hello, E. coli), or the eco-disaster we call corn-based ethanol.

As King Corn's food court jesters Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis discovered in their pilgrimage to our feedcorn fiefdom, this ultra-efficient method of growing corn has created ever larger farms run by fewer and fewer farmers, draining the soul of our rural communities even as it depletes the soil (and drives our diabetes epidemic, and fuels global warming, and makes cheap spaghetti sauces sickeningly sweet, and--oh, nevermind.)

And this is the model of agriculture that Wall Street, K Street, and Main Street all celebrate as a shining example of good ol' American know-how that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Feedcorn is on the march!

We were fortunate to have Ian Cheney on hand at our screening to do a Q & A, and the questions were pretty much the same ones people peppered Michael Pollan with at an Omnivore's Dilemma reading I attended in April of 2006 (Pollan, an advisor to the King Corn crew, appears in the film expounding on the evils of industrial agriculture against the backdrop of his own abundant veggie garden, including a suitably monstrous patch of dinosaur kale!)

What folks want to know, after reading Pollan's books or seeing a film like King Corn, is "What can we do about this awful food system?"

The knee-jerk response is, of course, to endorse community supported agriculture and farmers' markets, but Cheney noted that we run the risk of creating an alternative food chain that serves only those fortunate enough to live in the more affluent communities where farmers' markets and upscale stores like Whole Foods thrive.

Living at the Ethicurean epicenter of NYC, it's easy for me to opt out of our crappy food chain; I can walk to Union Square and shop at the Greenmarket four days a week all year round, and whatever I can't find there I can get at the Whole Foods and Trader Joe's that are a stone's throw from the Greenmarket. There are several mom-and-pop health food stores in our neck of the woods, too.

So it's easy for me to follow Pollan's advice to stay out of the supermarkets. But a few miles north of us, in East Harlem, they've hardly got any supermarkets left to stay out of. As the New York Times reported last Monday:
A continuing decline in the number of neighborhood supermarkets has made it harder for millions of New Yorkers to find fresh and affordable food within walking distance of their homes, according to a recent city study. The dearth of nearby supermarkets is most severe in minority and poor neighborhoods already beset by obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

To us farmers' market fanatics, the very notion of a New York supermarket as a source for fresh, healthy food seems laughable; the typical supermarket is a food desert to us, with aisle after aisle of mysterious food-like substances encased in plastic and no grass-fed anything. But when your only sources for food are bodegas and fast food joints, a supermarket that actually sells fresh--though far-traveled--fruits and vegetables is a step up.

No wonder more and more city dwellers are becoming urban farmers, as another New York Times article noted yesterday; communities decried as food deserts are creating their own oases by reclaiming unused lots where they grow fruits and vegetables for themselves and even sell the surplus to others.

The Times article heralds the revival of urban agriculture that's taking root all around the country, with the help of organizations like Milwaukee's Growing Power, and NYC's own GreenThumb and Just Foods, two groups who've done so much to support our community gardeners and local farmers. I had the pleasure of hearing Growing Power's founder, Will Allen, speak at the Food & Society conference in Arizona last week and came away convinced that Growing Power's one-acre farm represents the future of urban agriculture.

As the Times notes, this "one-acre farm crammed with plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats...grossed over $220,000 last year from the sale of lettuces, winter greens, sprouts and fish to local restaurants and consumers."

Allen's model demonstrates that city dwellers do have the capacity to produce at least some of their own food in an eco-friendly, socially responsible manner. And as more and more folks become aware of the rampant abuse that's a hallmark of industrial agriculture, from cruelly confined chickens to Florida's enslaved migrant farm workers, people are seeking alternative food chains untarnished by institutionalized exploitation and environmental degradation.

For a really comprehensive and inspiring look at the enormous potential of this movement to provide less privileged folks with an abundance of fresh, affordable produce while building community, preserving open space and creating an environmentally beneficial habitat, check out "Vitalizing the Vacant" from Thoughts On The Table blogger Annie Myers, who never ceases to astonish me with her clear, beautiful prose and even clearer observations.

Annie's one of a dozen or so twenty-somethings I've met who blow me away with their commitment to changing our world; I was too cynical and alienated when I was that age to do much more than mouth off about our decaying culture. I'm doing that still, while folks like Annie and the Real Food Challenge students and "Greenhorns" filmmaker Severine Von Tscharner Fleming are running around remaking the world the way they want it to be. Considering how badly we've messed things up, it's the least we can do to cheer them on.

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