Saturday, April 25, 2009

Heirloom Variety Vegetables, The Economic Crisis, and Renewal of Local Food Culture

There aren’t many things which are much more enjoyable than sharing the “local flair” of any given region with visitors. Food in particular has an uncanny ability to bring people together through different traditions. Everybody eats, and rituals surrounding food are a way of welcoming people into a new community (even today when people might not realize that this is the case). We’ve recently been distancing ourselves from traditional local food systems and rituals, which likely negatively impacts our ability to meaningfully connect with others by exploring different food traditions. Standardization of food and food culture also highlights outliers, and I can’t help but wonder if this lack of variety and exposure to a variety of food traditions makes us more likely to frame having food traditions outside the mainstream as difference (in the sociological sense of the word).

Fortunately, the economic crisis and rising food prices have prompted people to search for other ways of feeding themselves beyond the standard supermarket fare. Enter the reemergence of gardening and local food culture. A good way of gauging this resurgence is through demand for seeds, particularly heirloom and other rare varieties. Seed Savers Exchange, a major provider of heirloom variety seeds, sold more seeds in the first third of 2008 than in all of 2007(1). When individuals in the community decide to grow their own food, experienced gardeners are usually more than happy to help spread the wealth, and this strengthens community ties, cultivates local culture, and helps to preserve local knowledge and community memory. We save money, strengthen meaningful social ties, and reinvigorate local food culture all at the same time.

The growing emergence of community gardens and development of local knowledge-sharing networks is an exciting development toward achieving some of the goals of food sovereignty efforts, whereby individuals and communities have substantive control over the food system. My only misgiving is that the majority of the popular press frames gardening primarily as a money-saving tool to get people through the recession rather than emphasizing some of the less tangible benefits. Hopefully, during this time infrastructure will build up and people will derive enough pleasure from the experience of growing their own food to continue the movement toward community gardening, strengthening local gardening networks and knowledge, and extricating themselves from the current food system. In Coming Into the Foodshed, Jack Kloppenburg describes the process of “self-protection, secession, and succession,” whereby the dominant food system and market structure is fundamentally altered by individuals slowly leaving it and eventually defining a new system. Currently, community gardens and CSAs are in the secession stage, and, if the efforts continue to gain momentum, local community gardens might become a primary source of food. That prospect is rather exciting.

1. As food prices rise, more people grow their own

2. Community garden takes root

3. Recession gardens' trim grocery bills, teach lessons

4. Kloppenburg, Jack. et al."Coming Into the Foodshed." Agriculture and Human Values 13:3 (Summer): 33-42, 1996.

5. It's not just vegetables, either: A chicken coup: Group seeks to protect rare breeds

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