Jennifer Cockrall-King, Food and the City

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4/11/2012:

Part I: Jennifer Cockrall-King
Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution.

Jennifer Cockrall-King (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) is a freelance journalist and food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, National Post, Canadian Geographic, Maclean’s, and other major publications. She blogs about food and her research trips at foodgirl.ca. You can also join her at facebook.com/FoodandtheCity and twitter.com/jennifer_ck.

TRANSCRIPTION

Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you are listening to It’s All About Food, and guess what, it IS all about food. We hear so much gloom and doom with the economy and energy resources and things are difficult and everybody has less and there are too many people on the planet and so on and so on. We don’t’ talk about that here. What we talk about is all the wonderful things that we can do to make this world a better place and it’s all about food. And today I am really excited because we are going to be talking about some, I don’t want to say simple, but maybe they are kind of simple solutions that can make a difference on this planet and I want to introduce the author Jennifer Cockrall-King who is the author of Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution: Food and the City. I think I said that in reverse, Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. Anyway, the message is important. She is a freelance journalist and food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, National Post, and Canadian Geographic, McQueens and other major publications. She blogs about food and her research trips and www.foodgirl.ca from Edmonton Alberta, Canada. Welcome to It’s All About Food.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I just finished your book and I really enjoyed it. You know, we hear so many things about what’s going wrong and I wish more media outlets, more news, would focus on these things that real people are doing that make a positive difference on the planet.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Good news stories rarely get the attention they deserve but I think there is a lot of enthusiasm about urban agriculture and gardening and food production in cities. So it seems to be getting out there, which is great.

Caryn Hartglass: Well what’s crazy is the fact that plants will grow just about anywhere and you have so many stories of that. You know, I live in New York City and you can see green things popping up from cracks in the concrete. Plants want to grow!

Jennifer Cockrall-King: You cannot let Mother Nature down.

Caryn Hartglass: With a little smarts and a little planning, we can all work together and do good things.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: You know, growing food is not as complicated as we have been led to believe. There is a lot of marketing spin out there that food needs to be very complicated and that it’s best left to the experts, and yes we definitely need farmers and we definitely need specialists in some areas of our food system, but seeds have everything that they need to do their thing. Nature has made it really easy for us to actually become gardeners. We tend to over complicate things and what I like about gardening is that it just strips it down. It’s just easy. It’s about sunshine, water, and seeds.

Caryn Hartglass: I primarily want to talk about all the good news, but before we get to the good news, just a little history because your book opens up with the history of how we got to where we are today and I think it’s important to touch on. One of the problems certain is the population. We wouldn’t be experiencing the problems we are experiencing today if there weren’t seven billion people on the planet.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Right. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Caryn Hartglass: If there were just a million it would be a whole other story but I don’t think that makes things impossible and we just need to be smart about it and one of the things that I thought was interesting in your beginning history was all the things that were said decades ago about the problems we were going to have and how we wouldn’t be able to feed people and here we are decades later and we’re still not at that doom period.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Right. The world has been ending for quite a long time.

Caryn Hartglass: Since the beginning maybe?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Since the beginning of time, exactly. Since recorded history it’s been the end of the world that’s been coming. We certainly can be a lot smarter about using the resources that we have and we’re starting to see the consequences of our diet and eating the wrong types of foods and just the stress that it is putting on the environment and the planet and our own bodies.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. One of the scary things that I find about our food system is that there are very few that really control most of our food supply today.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: That was a major issue for me. Not only do we have a handful of global corporations that control not just our food supply but our pharmaceutical supply and they are all rolled into one company but we have this illusion of abundance of food in cities because we can go to the grocery store and they look very well stocked and they are but grocery stores don’t carry a lot of inventory and they have become very good at just-in-time restocking of the shelves because that is where they are able to make a profit. If there was a problem getting food into the city for whatever reason, any major modern city in North America and Europe has about three days worth of food in it and then the shelves would start go to bare. It’s a real wakeup call that we have allowed just a few distribution chains to become so tightly controlled and if there was a problem we would all be scrambling in about three days.

Caryn Hartglass: The other concern is that, not just in the supermarkets, but our stores of emergency grains, we don’t seem to have that either like we used to.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: No. It’s anti-competitive apparently to look after our food security. Because what it does, it allows countries to not have to buy grains and food at the current market price if you have a reserve amount. There was a real push to have countries dismantle their grain reserves and some of their food stock reserves. It’s definitely something we’ve sort of opened ourselves to fragility within many different levels within our food system.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m not a religious person but I learned a biblical story a long time ago about Joseph’s dream and how the famine was going on and he dreamt of seven fat cows and seven lean cows and knew that they would have years of abundance and then years of famine and you need to prepare for that. I guess we never learn through history but hopefully we have a solution right here and it’s all in this book Food and the City. So let’s talk about Urban Agriculture. It’s hot. It’s sexy.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: It is. It’s like agriculture is the new little black dress right now. It’s kind of exciting. I think people have just started to realize the pleasure they can get from growing a bit of food in cities and I also think we let our cities become these fairly wooden, dead places where we weren’t out on the streets anymore and we were driving around in our cars a lot and we weren’t interacting with our landscape in a very healthy way and I think people just decided that if you can plant a garden and soften those sharp lines in the cement of the city, it really improves your quality of life on a block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood scale.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. I’m just looking out my window and I love just to see the seasons go by and you can only see that from the plant life that is outside.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Right and what I love about food gardens on street level is you see kids walking to school or walking with their friends and they are picking up on this seasonality. You don’t really think about the fact that they are absorbing all of this information but if they walk by a community garden every day throughout the summer they will actually learn about the seasonality of foods and they will start to taste some of and try to get some of the peas or raspberries or strawberries and they will learn that you have to wait until they are perfectly ripe.

Caryn Hartglass: Well this was one of the things that I was wondering about when I was reading the book. Now, I’m a vegan and I love my vegetables. There is no question about, that but there is a big part of the population, especially in North America, where they don’t know where their kitchen is, they don’t know how to prepare food and they are not interested in fresh produce.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: They are missing out.

Caryn Hartglass: This is another piece. I am all for urban gardening and I want to see more and more of it and I want to see more life but I am also kind of wondering if other people will jump on the band wagon as it becomes more hip? I hope so.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: I hope so too and I refer to tomatoes and basil as sort of your gateway drug to a better diet, frankly. If you start to grow food, you will eat it. If you grow fava beans, you will search through the internet and recipe books to figure out a recipe to use those fava beans.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh God I love them with garlic and oil.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Yeah. It’s a great way to rebalance your diet because you realize that it is a lot easier to grow vegetables and to harvest them than to be tracking down a chicken for dinner every day or other products that are a lot more complicated.

Caryn Hartglass: So people are finding little nooks and crannies. There is a whole variety of different ways that people are growing food that I read about in your book either in an old parking lot or these vertical farms and old buildings. It’s really quiet fascinating. Where does this fit in with what we are allowed to do and what we are not allowed to do. Do we just get started and do it and see what happens?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: That’s usually the way public policy tends to change. It reacts to what people in the community are doing. Certain cities already have bylaws that allow urban chickens or urban bee keeping or for you to dig up your front lawn and plant vegetables. Some cities have bylaws against it but you just find there are usually a few people who push the envelope and if there is enough public support for, that’s what elected officials do. They govern hopefully according to the will of the people so it takes a while and sometimes it is frustrating but I am actually finding that city councils across Canada and in the US are really picking up on this energy and they are actually trying to facilitate this change. They see it as a huge positive. They are usually worried about garbage budgets and crime patrol among other things. This is actually a positive bright spot in their day when they can facilitate a community garden.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Our schools are so strapped financially and I love to hear when schools start to incorporate community gardens and classes in learning about food.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Children are natural gardeners. They love the tactile nature of gardening and planting food and they are quite patient and quite nurturing. I think that it is just a really good, natural fit. It almost seems crazy that we haven’t been teaching food and gardening in schools up until now.

Caryn Hartglass: So what percentage of food do you think we can grow in an urban environment and we still of course need farmers as well?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: You’re never going to grow wheat fields in the middle of cities so if you want your bread, we still depend on farmers. In the Second World War, so in the 1940’s, the victory gardens movement…so when people were really engaged in home food production and canning and being self-sufficient, they estimate that 40% of the fresh vegetables were grown domestically in home gardens. So we can do a lot better than we are now. We think urban agriculture is hot now, but it was really hot in the 1940’s.

Caryn Hartglass: Unfortunately, as you have gone over in the beginning of your book, a lot has changed since the 1940’s and some of it has come out of chemicals and technology from those wars. I was so fascinated reading in the beginning of your book the history because you know I lived through a lot of it, at least the last five decades and you don’t realize what is going on when you’re in the middle of it. I was never really interested in history as a kid but now I am kind of fascinated by it and it’s like “Oh! That’s how we got here!” but it is amazing.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: When I think about even in my life time too, my grandmother used to can peaches and pears and apricots and it was a real treat to go downstairs in her house into the cellar and there was this rainbow selection of these beautiful fruits and we just don’t do that anymore. We shop twice a week and the fridge goes bare every couple of days. We’re just not very much in tune with planning ahead year to year or even week to week.

Caryn Hartglass: I think urban gardening can really solve so many problems and not just food security related issues although that is certainly obviously a big piece. So many people today are not fulfilled. They are depressed and they are not happy with their lives and we live with so much abundance and things are so convenient and so easy. People just eat because they are bored. You quoted Voltaire in the beginning of the book and I remember I performed in the musical “Candide” a few times which is based on his book and my favorite piece, the Leonard Berstein piece, Make Our Garden Grow. It is a beautiful song but the words are so meaningful to me and it is so important to work and to see the accomplishment, the food that grows up to nurture your body for yourself and your family and I think a lot of people are really missing that and it creates an emptiness in them.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Everything is so convenient and there is nothing wrong with convenience, but you are right. We have lost that personal satisfaction of being self-sufficient and about seeing a project through. Just in terms of our healthy, you mentioned depression. We are not getting enough exercise and we are not outside enough and there is a direct link between the types of food we put into our bodies and our mental state because it is all connected. When you can have one solution that solves so many different problems, you just want to run screaming through the streets telling people, “Plant a garden! You can ditch your expensive gym membership and you can probably lose some weight. You can be happier and healthier and maybe get off some of the anti-depressants.” It’s all about building a social scene in your community too. I was talking to somebody last night and we were discussing how we just don’t walk up to a stranger and speak to them. That happens all the time when you are out puttering in your yard and your garden. It’s just an opportunity to engage with somebody in your neighborhood that you don’t know yet and that’s just the ice breaker. All of the sudden you have made that connection and you have a much more safe neighborhood too. If you have people out gardening in the early morning and late at night, criminals don’t really like that.

Caryn Hartglass: I like the way you talked about how drug dealers don’t like flowers in gardens or parks and they will stay away from that.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: It’s drug dealer repellant basically.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s hysterical. It just provides a pretty happy atmosphere and they just don’t feel like that is the place for crime?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Exactly. There is too much activity that is not drug related. There is too much gardening activity.

Caryn Hartglass: Too many eyes on them! You have so many great stories in this book where we read about Paris and London and Los Angeles and Detroit and Chicago. There are lots of very different places and really great stories all along. I think my favorite though, and you saved it for last, is Cuba. I would never wish this on anyone where all of the sudden we are out of food.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: They went through Peak Oil in a very drastic way in the early 90’s and Peak Oil and no oil actually lead to a real food crisis on the island with 11 million people. So it was a very, very serious situation but they got out of it. They avoided mass starvation essentially through urban agriculture and through organic, low-tech but high skill, and heavy use of human labor food production.

Caryn Hartglass: Every culture has good things and bad things. Like last week, I was talking to this woman who was talking about how the French teach their children how to eat and it is so much better than how we raise our kids here in North America because we are so focused I think on empowering kids at two years old to make their own choices that we don’t teach them what the right behavior is. There are good things from every culture and not so good things. Not that I want to live in Cuba, although I hear there are some lovely things about it, but we definitely can learn from what they did. We don’t have to do everything that they are doing.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: They have a very difficult situation there still. Life is not easy in Cuba and they have a lot of challenges that are brought upon them and that they bring upon themselves, but what is nice about Cuba is that they almost have this little cottage industry of bringing people over who are interested in urban agriculture and sustainable technologies. They are also moving quite quickly into solar power, wind power, bio gas, and all sorts of alternative energy sources. They are really making lemonade out of lemons frankly and they have figured out how to create a social situation where farmers are extremely well respected. They are well paid and that is definitely something we could learn from.

Caryn Hartglass: Could we underline that because you said in your book that farmers were paid more than doctors and lawyers in Cuba? That’s crazy! That’s great!

Jennifer Cockrall-King: There is not nearly the economic disparity that we have in North America where we have certain segments of the population that get paid a lot more and teachers and other very important people like farmers are kind of low on the totem pole of pay. So they have their priorities in that sense kind of better aligned than we do and it doesn’t take a lot to give farmers more respect. It doesn’t cost us any more. We tend not to treat our farmers with a lot of respect and I think that that goes a long way towards making us feel better about paying our farmers more as well. Most farming families in North America rely on off-farm income.

Caryn Hartglass: We really need to change things in this country and I hope that it doesn’t require us to go hungry before we make those changes. We need to get back to the small farmer and they need to be supported with government assistance to grow the right kinds of food organically and I don’t like the idea that corporations are growing these mass fields of mono-crops and not even a lot of people involved per acre in those situations. A lot of things are automated and more people can get back to work taking care of the earth. It’s so obvious to me, why isn’t it as obvious to everyone else?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: It’s having a huge effect. We could talk about colony collapse disorder in bees. This is a huge problem in North America and Europe because of mono-crop fields and heavy chemical use where they dose the crops with pesticides and insecticides. Lo and behold, bees will actually die because they are also insects. When we have one in three mouths depending on bees pollenating our food we have to really think carefully about some of these choices that we make that give us lots of cheap food. It might not be Peak Oil. It might not be something else or we may fall into food crisis because we’ve killed the bees.

Caryn Hartglass: Everything is connected.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: We’re back to the doomsday scenario.

Caryn Hartglass: there we go! But that’s not going to happen because we are going to get all of these hot urban farmers coming in and saving the day and we are all a part of that and we all need to make our gardens grow. So do you have a garden?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: I do! I do! I’m not an expert gardener and certainly when I was writing the book I was working very hard and my garden never looked worse so I was a bit of a hypocrite. I am looking forward to this growing season because I’ll finally get some time to spend time in the garden. I like to grow things that push the limits of what I should be able to grow in my climate!

Caryn Hartglass: You’re in Canada. I was really interested to hear about some of the things people are growing up there. So what pushes the limits in your neighborhood?

Jennifer Cockrall-King: One of the things as you move further North, you get extremely long days. We get 16-17 hours of sunlight in a day in July and August so we have a long growing season in that sense because the plants can really grow a lot longer than in Southern latitudes. We can get ripe tomatoes in the garden to artichokes…I had some pinot grigio grapes growing and they even survived the winters. Now, I would never get grapes because there was always a late frost that would get the flowers but I had grape leaves and I made Dolmades all summer long. It was fabulous. It’s quite incredible and I visited a community garden up in Yellow Knife which is near the Arctic Circle quite frankly and they get 24 hours of sunlight in the summertime. The gardens up there are so incredible. It is so astonishing to see what true Northern farmers can grow. They have everything from quinoa, to kale, to brussel sprouts to beautiful turnips and lots of root crops and beautiful leafy greens.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s really inspiring. I’m glad to hear they can grow quinoa because I heard that was a very difficult plant to grow on our side of the equator.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Yes. I think it likes extreme latitudes and I think it has to do with elevation more than anything but where there’s a will there’s a way and I think that’s why we have always escaped these little doomsday scenarios because we are self-destructive to a point but then we smarten up.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food. Thank you for your book Food in the City. It is very inspirational and I really enjoyed reading it.

Jennifer Cockrall-King: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Take care. Bye Bye. I’m Caryn Hartglass and you have been listening to It’s All About Food. We are going to take a quick break and be back in a moment.

Transcribed by Erin Clark, 1/29/2013

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