Food choices are personal expressions of our cultural backgrounds, personalities, and tastes, but they also speak to our environmental ethics and sense of place. When we eat food that was grown close to home, we make choices about our personal impact on the environment, our commitment to supporting our local economy, and our connection to the landscape we inhabit.
Over the last century, urban sprawl has claimed some of our county's best farmland, covering productive fields and fertile soils with asphalt, concrete, and vast pesticide soaked lawns. Many neighborhoods, business parks, and entire cities sit on land that was once used to grow crops from oranges and plums to corn and wheat. Although partially covered now by development, this land does not have to be taken entirely out of agricultural production. If we are creative, it can be put to better use.
The land that we now use solely for ornamental purposes could be re-directed to produce food once again--while maintaining an aesthetic appeal that is appropriate for residential, commercial, and educational environments. Many food producing plants can be grown alongside ornamental ones to create pleasing environments that are both beautiful and productive.
Urban food production is possible on many scales, from small window boxes producing fresh herbs, to large multi-faceted residential and commercial landscapes redesigned to maximize food production as well as comfort, beauty, and recreation.
There are many reasons to grow food in our cities and suburbs. Many excellent books have now been published on the topic of local food production, and their pages fill entire book shelves. The list below is a summary of my understanding of this recent literature, with the addition of my own perspectives and thoughts on this topic.
Flavor: Freshly harvested, locally produced food is delicious--as those who frequent farmers' markets have known for a long time. Nothing is fresher than food that comes out of your own garden, picked just before a meal is prepared. In comparison, foods that are shipped long distances need to be "shelf-stable" and are often selected for their durability in shipping, rather than their flavor. Shipping also takes time--so produce that is shipped from afar is generally not as fresh as produce that is harvested locally and eaten almost immediately.
Sense of Place: Throughout history, most food was produced and consumed in the same geographic region, shaping the food culture in each place and ensuring that it was unique. Each place had its own distinct set of flavors that was closely tied to the seasonal rhythms of planting and harvest, the immediate microclimates, and the bounty of the surrounding landscapes. While it is not generally desirable to take seasonality to an extreme and go back to past eras of winter food shortages in places with short growing seasons, there is much to be gained from reclaiming as much of the place-based food culture each urban region has to offer.
Ecology: Eating seasonal crops from our own gardens and local farms helps us to be aware of the natural cycles that surround us and reconnects us with the ecological systems that sustain us. Organic food production in urban areas helps to expand much-needed habitat for local pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.
Resource Use: Much of the food that is served in the
United States, flies to our table from thousands of miles away--needlessly consuming valuable fossil fuels and other resources along the way. Locally produced foods require far smaller quantities of fossil fuels to reach their final destinations than food transported across long distances. They also generally use less packaging material to ensure their safety during travel, and need fewer additives to improve shelf life or enhance their durability during transport. Food produced in our urban environments for our own use, needs almost no transportation, disposable packaging, or chemical additives.
Water Systems: Our thirsty, ornamental landscapes consume vast amounts of water and produce little more than grass clippings and green views. Many edible plants are quite attractive, and can enrich our urban landscapes while putting the same irrigation water to a higher purpose, creating useful edible products without altering the other objectives of our highly-prized, leafy, outdoor social spaces.
Economy & Local Self-Reliance: Purchasing food from local producers ensures that some of the money from each community stays within that community. It also helps to diversify the range of jobs that are available locally, helping to strengthen the resilience of each community.
For more information:
The following excellent books go into much more depth about the value of local food production and consumption. I enjoyed reading them and highly recommend them.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver
Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook, by Jennifer Bartley
Golden Gate Gardening: The complete guide to year-round food gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California, by Pam Peirce