Participation, more than any word in the English dictionary, has the potential to release a current of more food secure places in the United States. Authors like Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, have chronicled the decaying of participation in this country since the 1960s – it’s pervasive. You can see it in many arenas, from those that are civic to religious to recreational (like Bowling). People either don’t have the time to participate or they don’t think they have the time. But with a packet of seeds or an open burner AND a little encouragement, anyone can participate.
Pockets of isolation in our own lives and in our culture is warranted. Everyone needs a little personal space – we do live in a capitalistic, individualistic, “American Dreaming” society after all. Those are the contentious mantras everyone must grip, and at least make faint offerings to, because they’re freaking systemic. But they’re just premises to work from, not to accept as law.
A parallel might be drawn from the common visage of a struggling mother of three, living in a food desert with little time or access to transit, nor the prerequisite skills or resources required to grow their own food. We’re not going to address situations like this — or the many roots of disengagement for that matter — with catch phrases. I’m sorry – we’re just not.
National initiatives have their place in addressing the severity of the issues we share as a society, and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and Fruits and Veggies Matter initiatives are valiant efforts to focus the discussion. But the simple knowledge of a program with the moniker My Plate is enough to make one sick with frustration. Maybe it’s Pollanian to say, but it sure is wild to think that people need to be supported for their efforts to take ownership of what they’re putting into their mouths.
How impactful are PSAs like this?
To put it bluntly and to respond to this advertisement for “Any Organization” USA, we need more people to get off their asses, turn off the TV and do something more appropriate. That’s been the driving force behind the 1,000 New Gardens community group — to support a more participatory and inclusive form of local agriculture (backyard gardening) and to get beyond the Serve Me (More Vegetables) paradigm.
So what do we do? How do we address community food security? And how can a campaign in every locality that enforces the need of people to participate in something – maybe just one thing that’s meaningful to them – that involves their community’s food system … how could that change the tide?
Maybe it’s not gardens … maybe it’s something else …
The prominent food justice spokesman, Mark Winne, pulled out his trumpet to play a worthwhile note having written that:
The importance of community participation is reinforced by the growing body of literature on social capital – how social networks contribute to a community’s health and well-being (Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam).
In the field of community food security, research on the relationship between food security and social capital by Dr. Katie Martin found correlations between low-income households’ ability to secure sufficient food and their connection to neighbors, friends, and helping services (Food Security and Community: Putting the Pieces Together, Katie S. Martin, Hartford Food System, May 2001). The study, which took place in Hartford, Connecticut, had (several) major findings:
- Low-income families were more likely to be food secure if their social capital, i.e. connections to local social networks, was high
- A high percentage of food insecure families do not participate in food programs (45% did not receive food stamps, 67% did not use food pantries, and 37% who were eligible for the WIC Program did not participate in it)
Gardens, as biological networks of plants, insects, microorganisms, and animals (if manure is used as a soil amendment), also serve to harness social networks in amazingly simple, yet powerful ways. I’ve seen such things. In September of 2011, 1kng installed a new vegetable patch in the middle of the street in King Arthur’s Court (a trailer park just West of the city of Bozeman).
And like the stolon of a shimmering strawberry plant, this garden and one of the best new gardeners in the world sent out “runners” down the street, starting with women on either side of their house … and down the block.
By the end of October, we had installed five spaces (some small, some as big as 200 square feet) that would nourish people with more than daikons or pods of peas.
One clear thesis I’ve gripped lately is that food traditions as well as other community traditions of engagement have eroded in past decades. But there’s another thesis that’s developed in partnership with experiences like the one described above … of cascading new gardens … it’s that food traditions can be rebuilt just as quickly. If, that is, they’re encouraged through appropriate means – in this case it was a bunch of college yahoo’s coming out to garden. But gardening is just ONE tool. Personally, it’s been less a tool, a fascination, or a weekly recreation, but a gateway drug into community-based food and farming issues.
But there are many other — seemingly quaint — ways to get to bring about a more participatory food culture. Some people will have enough money to afford participation in a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. For others, volunteering with or eating at The Mobile Farms Stand propelled by the Friends of Local Food group will be just the ticket. The Bozone Ozone (greenhouse) Bus, another.
The point is, something exists for you. Get out there and develop the skills needed to spur one more aligned with what you treasure. Then we’ll actually have a food system.