By Susan Young
Washington Independent Review of Books • Feb. 23, 2012
We’re all just “nine meals away from anarchy.” So concludes a British report on the state of food security in the United Kingdom. The situation is the same in the United States, where our food infrastructure — the vast and increasingly monopolized system that brings food from farm to plate — operates on such a tight schedule that any serious interruption would leave grocery store shelves bare within three days.
Food security is the subject of two recent releases: The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, by Tracie McMillan, and Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, by Jennifer Cockrall-King. The term “food insecurity” usually brings to mind people whose low income leaves them wondering where their next meal might come from. McMillan’s book takes us into their lives. It turns out that the very people whose hands move our food through the system — farm workers, grocery stockers and the kitchen staff at your local chain outlet — are among those most vulnerable to hunger, or at least to poor diets. Cockrall-King maintains that we are all vulnerable, to the extent we rely on grocery stores and their just-in-time food distribution system, which is engineered to take advantage of every efficiency, given the tight profit margins of the grocery industry.
There has been an avalanche of books — and films and TV shows — in the past decade on the subject of our food, its origins and its relative health merits. Many have focused on meat and the ethical, environmental and health implications of meat production and consumption. These two books turn the spotlight on produce.
The central question of McMillan’s book is: “What would it take for us all to eat well?” She sets out to answer this question by living the life of a field worker in California, a produce trainee at a Wal-Mart in suburban Detroit and a line worker in the kitchen of an Applebee’s in Brooklyn. She lives on her wages from each of these jobs, and wrestles with the limits of her income at every meal.
Living as the rare white woman among the Latino (mostly undocumented) or African-American migrant workers, she is humbled when her naïveté and poor planning leave her reliant on the kindness of her co-workers for job leads and, often, meals. The harsh working conditions and abysmal wages come as little surprise, given how easy it is to replace undocumented workers with other workers or machines. What is shocking is McMillan’s discovery that increasing their wages by 40 percent would increase the average American family’s food bill by a mere $16 per year.
McMillan’s life as a newly minted Wal-Mart employee is also not shocking, unless you avoid all news sources. Wal-Mart is the largest grocer in both the United States and the world, with its own extensive food-transport and warehousing system. “Today, Wal-Mart’s market power is so great that it can essentially tell its suppliers how to make their products and what price will be paid for them,” she explains. As a major employer — often among the largest — in the towns it inhabits, Wal-Mart can also dictate terms of employment, defeat efforts to unionize and operate under the expectation that employees will come and go in revolving-door fashion.
At Applebee’s, McMillan continues her journey through the food industry, this time working in the kitchen and learning that nearly everything she touches comes in on a truck from huge nationwide food service companies like Sysco — often frozen, prepackaged and ready for assembly. “Just before I send plates out, I squeeze the potato, rice and vegetable sides out of the plastic bags they’re heated in — the plastic … typically degrades in the heat and flakes out onto the food, and I wipe what I can off the plate — and push it down the line.”
While McMillan’s peek behind the curtain is fascinating, her book is more about the people handling the food, and those in their modest-income communities, than about the food itself. It paints a vivid picture in answer to her central question: What would it take for us all to eat well? For starters, money and time, both of which are in short supply among those at the lower rungs of the income ladder.
Cockrall-King’s Food and the City takes a different and more global look at McMillan’s question. She spends the first four chapters illustrating the enormous scope of the problem in depressing detail. The increasingly monopolized, industrialized systems of food production and transportation leave us all with “food insecurity”; in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or fuel crisis, the supplies of food in cities would likely dwindle within days.
Cockrall-King argues that we must shorten the food chain from earth to table. After the dismal picture painted in the early chapters, she walks us through an inspiring illustration of urban-griculture projects, from bee-keeping in Paris to a vineyard in London to “aquaponic” and vertical gardens in Milwaukee and Chicago.
Moving well beyond backyard gardens, Food and the City shows us what is possible in all sorts of settings. We learn that Paris, with its many parks, mild climate and designation as a pesticide-free zone, is a bee-friendly city, and that rooftop apiaries thrive there. In fact, bees seem to do better in cities, with greater biodiversity, than they do in rural areas, where vast fields of single crops, often doused with pesticides, have become inhospitable for pollinators.
And it’s not just bees that seem to thrive in cities. Many fruits and vegetables do surprisingly well in urban settings, which are typically several degrees warmer than the surrounding rural areas because concrete and asphalt absorb and retain heat. This “heat-island effect” can even extend growing seasons. Cities also have ready access to irrigation (in municipal water systems), labor and customers, all of which greatly reduce dependence on transportation systems.
But the urban-agriculture movement aims for more than just changing our whole food system; it also has the potential to change social systems, the author contends. Urban gardens empower city dwellers by giving them control over the most basic human need — for sustenance. But Cockrall-King also shows us how they bring communities together, providing a gathering space, an oasis of calm in even the most crime-ravaged neighborhoods. Consider the astonishing fact that drug dealers tend to abandon city blocks once flowers are planted in the medians. Or that communities are starting YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) programs to match gardeners lacking land with homeowners lacking time or knowledge, with both sharing in the bounty.
Moving beyond community-building to profit-making, Cockrall-King introduces readers to the Vancouver-based creator of SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming, whose website shows how you, too, can gross as much as $72,000 on one half-acre of city land. We also learn about larger-scale entrepreneurs in Chicago and Detroit who are turning vast swaths of abandoned industrial buildings into vertical gardens (grow-light-fed plants on one floor, tilapia tanks on the next) and, perhaps, the world’s largest private urban farm.
As The American Way of Eating makes clear, many of us are not well served by the current food system in the United States. Many cities have become “food deserts,” with few grocery stores easily accessible, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Our industrial-farming methods degrade the land, and our practice of shipping foods over thousands of miles from field to fridge pollute the environment. But there is another way, described so vividly in Food in the City. As urban farmer Ray Berezan puts it: “You don’t have to go back to the land; you’re already there.”
Susan Young is a yoga teacher and health writer. She lives with her family in Montgomery Village, Md.