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"Today’s industrial food systems are unsustainable and harmful to communities all over the world. This insightful book delves deeply into the problems and solutions that will come to define food in the years ahead."
-CHEF MICHAEL SMITH, Author and Food Network (Canada) host
"It seems that all the slick, trendy publications, sites, and bloggers have recently discovered the idea of urban agriculture. As Cockrall-King points out, this is not a new movement at all. Quietly, many communities have encouraged growing food in the city as a way both to produce delicious, unprocessed food and to help foster an environmental awareness and ethos. This book is full of great examples and resources for city dwellers. After reading it you’ll want to round up your neighbors and start planting!"
-JOHN ASH, James Beard Award–winning author and chef
"At a time when most of us strive to reconnect with the source of our food, Cockrall-King delves straight to the root of our food systems, bringing to light the potential of small-scale urban agriculture to feed the masses. She makes a global issue seem manageable by citing actions of self-sufficiency—from community gardens to backyard bees, our collective steps toward sustainability are transforming our relationship with the food on our plates."
-JULIE VAN ROSENDAA, Cookbook author, TV host, and blogger at www.dinnerwithjulie.com
"Cockrall-King makes a compelling and inspiring case that small-scale, urban farming may be the key to fixing our broken industrialized food system."
-BARRY ESTABROOK, Author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
Pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap. —Business motto of Jack Cohen, who in 1919 founded Tesco, currently the United Kingdom's largest supermarket chain
No matter how philosophically "locavore" (trying to source only locally grown and raised food), or how pro-farmers' markets I am, I still find myself pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles of a supermarket a couple times a week.
I'm remarkably typical, as it turns out. According to the Food Marketing Institute, an Arlington, Virginia–based grocery retail association representing three-quarters of all retail grocery sales in the United States, the average supermarket shopper makes 1.7 trips to the supermarket per week.
First of all, supermarkets are undeniably convenient. They are generally open seven days a week, and some chains and locations stay open twenty-four hours a day. I know what's available even before I get there, and most of the food is cheap. That said, if I'm willing to splurge a bit, I can also get strawberries in January. No wonder this is how the majority of us get our groceries.
The Rise of the Supermarket
For such a monopolistic hold on our food dollars, you'd think that supermarkets had been around since the dawn of time. It's difficult for us to conceive of how it could be otherwise, so it's shocking to think that they've been around for barely four generations. Academic, food-justice activist, and writer Raj Patel points out in his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, "[S]upermarkets are patented inventions, and like all innovations, they responded to a specific need at the time and place of their conception."
At the turn of the twentieth century, the industrialized nations—and the United States in particular—got very good at producing things, including food. With tractors, combines, and other mechanized farming equipment rather than plow-horses and human labor as the limiting factor of their workday, farmers could clear, plant, and harvest a much larger area, working bigger farms than ever before. They specialized to maximize the usefulness of their equipment and turned from being producers of a wide variety of crops and livestock on a farm (mixed farming) to specializing in as little as one single grain, pulse, or oilseed (monocrop farms). Readily available chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical treatments to the soil enabled single-crop plantings, which otherwise would exhaust the soil within a few harvests, just as antibiotics allowed concentrated feedlots that would otherwise render livestock sick and unsuitable for slaughter and sale. Farms essentially became factories that specialized in the efficient production of a narrow range of products—but in large quantities at a low unit price.
And just as industrial processes enabled industrial agriculture, industrial agriculture produced industrial food, even more so when food manufacturers began to rely on a narrow selection of raw ingredients that could be endlessly recombined into packaged and prepared items with a long shelf life.
Food production became so efficient at the end of the industrial food chain that scarcity quickly became overproduction. As with other retail goods, it was noticed that dropping the price encouraged people to buy up the surplus, even when it wasn't really needed. ( Just like when commodity crops overproduce, the emphasis turns not to reducing production but to increasing consumption.)
Yet to really increase consumption, food retailers needed to invent the modern self-service grocery store, which capitalized on both the new concept of a self-service model paired with new, cheap, industrially produced food to set the wheels in motion for the weapons of mass consumption that we North Americans have become.
Though it seems almost ridiculous to contemplate, acquiring groceries in the past meant that you'd give a shopkeeper a list of items and quantities you wished to purchase. (It's important to keep in mind that the general store was mainly a dry-goods store with a few other items like bananas, citrus, and maybe raisins available. Fresh produce was bought at a farmers' market–style central market. And fresh meat came from the butcher shops or from butchers' stalls at the city market.) The shopkeeper would then assemble your grocery order for you and hand it across the counter once you had paid. Or, the tally was added to your store account if you were in good standing, credit-wise, with the shop owner. Most items were fetched from back rooms. A shopkeeper or clerk might suggest you try a new product that just came in, but impulse buying was not the norm. Getting groceries in those days also meant a number of stops at different specialty stores.
In 1914, brothers Albert and Hugh Gerrard had an entrepreneurial idea to combat the steep rise in grocery prices due to the First World War. They came up with the concept of cutting overhead by letting customers choose their own groceries themselves, right off the shelves. To help people find the items they were looking for on their own—a radical new idea that was sure to cause no end of confusion—the Gerrards decided to assist customers by stocking the food items alphabetically. They called their California-based stores the Alpha Beta.
Another grocer, Clarence Saunders, had a similar idea, but he thought it through a bit more. In 1916, Saunders opened his first self-service King Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee. This new Piggly Wiggly retail model had customers entering the grocery floor via turnstiles and carrying a shopping basket as they were set on a course that snaked up and down each aisle, with a single direction of traffic flow, until the customer reached the checkout and was released back out through an exit turnstile just past the checkout register.
(While we are allowed to roam more freely in today's supermarket, the basic mazelike design is still how most grocery stores are designed, with the added retail trick of placing staple items at the far reaches of the store, forcing us to cover as much geography and to pass as many higher-profit products as possible. Except for a few items such as cars, cosmetics, and perfume, the self-service retail model dominates most consumer goods shopping experiences.)
Saunders, not the Gerrards, was the first to file his idea at the patent office. In 1917, he received US Patent 1,242,872 for his concept for the "Self-Serving Store." In less than a decade, 1,200 Piggly Wiggly stores opened across the United States. By 1932, there were 2,660 stores.
Saunders also came up with the idea for the self-service checkout to fully automate the grocery experience in 1937. Only a few Keedoozle—an awkward combination of "key does all"—food stores were built, and it was clear that the automated vending technology just wasn't where it needed to be. The self-serve checkout, as anyone who shops at a supermarket now knows, is finally a reality in the retail landscape, fifty years after Saunders's failed prototype stores. I'm amazed at how unconcerned we seem to be that checkout clerks, the only real human interaction left for the consumer in the industrial food chain, are being phased out. You don't see the farmers, the fishermen, the ranchers, or the fruit growers who produce your food. Soon, we will no longer see people who swipe it past the barcode scanner and process our payment. (For now, I remain defiant and queue up with the rest of the holdouts at the last few human-operated supermarket checkouts.)
Within a few generations, we have unquestioningly accepted the industrial food system—and the supermarket model serving as its retail outlet—that is concerned merely with lowering the unit costs of the food in question. To say that this is the dominant model is stating the obvious, given the fact that the industrial food system now provides us with 99 percent of the food we eat in North America. In return for our loyalty to this model, we get 38,718 different food items to choose from in an average grocery store. There are seventeen thousand new hopefuls—new food products—launched into this grocery landscape every year. And talk about cheap! We Americans devote less of our income to purchasing food than any other nation, around 9 percent on average, which is less than what we spend for our transportation needs.
So what's the downside?
The Illusion Of Choice
Within the grocery store, we have the illusion of choice. Forty thousand items sounds like a lot of choice, but it's nothing compared to nature's inventory. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in the twentieth century, 75 percent of the biological diversity of our foods has been lost as a result of industrialized agriculture. Other sources claim that we've lost up to 90 percent of our global food biodiversity. The variety of food plants such as the different types of carrots, beans, or lettuces being grown; the genetic diversity of aquatic food stocks; the variety in breeds of our livestock animals; and the total biological diversity of the food that we draw on has been drastically reduced in our lifetime. Rather than having fewer food choices available than we do now, our grandparents actually had more.
Why? Diversity is the enemy of mechanization, so industrial agriculture values consistency, uniformity, and durability for long-distance transport, a quality like taste doesn't enter into the matter. Imagine what we have lost in the flavor pantheon that existed just a few generations ago. And since then, we've lost a full 97 percent of the varieties of our fruits and vegetables, thanks to the unnatural selection of the industrial food system. We're losing about 2 percent of the genetic diversity of the world's crops per year. We'd better get to learn to like a smaller and smaller selection of foods. Only 150 different food-plant species are grown on a large commercial agricultural scale in the world. Despite the fact that farmers have domesticated over five thousand plant species, the industrial food chain uses a mere 3 percent of them.
For example, there are hundreds of varieties of apples in North America. They come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. They all have slightly different coloring, textures, and flavors. Some store well; others don't. Some are best for baking; others are best for drying. Some make great apple juice; others make excellent cider. Some ripen on the trees in June; others must hang until October. Now that is choice.
Sadly, we don't get these choices at the grocery store. Last time I looked there were Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Spartans, Fujis, and maybe Pink Lady® apples, if we were lucky. All are meant for eating raw, and they are all chosen for their ability to be picked while bullet-hard to ship without bruising and to store for months. There's nothing there for me if I want to make my own apple juice or bake a really good pie.
The same goes for tomatoes. Of the hundreds of types and shapes that exist, we're allowed only the ones that are tough enough to endure the industrial food chain. If you want to taste a tomato picked only when it was ripe, you are out of luck at the supermarket. And the choice of these apples and tomatoes is alarmingly consistent throughout the calendar year. This uniformity of choice is what is known as global summertime: when grocery supply lines reach all the way around the globe, it's always summer somewhere. The produce selection in January is pretty damn similar to the produce selection in June, yet it shouldn't be. Broccoli actually is a seasonal product. Peppers are too. So are strawberries, apples, and tomatoes. You'd just never know it from the inside of a grocery store.
Moreover, the choices that we are presented with on the shelves or in the cooler aren't often true choices. We can choose between brands of eggs, but when a salmonella contamination scare on two Iowa farms in August 2010 resulted in a nationwide recall of a half billion eggs, dozens of different brand names of eggs were affected. Why? Because five hundred million eggs all originated from one large-scale producer. Sure, they were sold under different brand names, but they all came from the same huge corporate farm. If that's not sobering enough, consider that there are a mere five corporations behind 90 percent of the US food supply.
And outside the supermarket, the illusion continues. We can choose between major chains, but in the end, we have very little choice of how we get our food other than via a supermarket. Choosing between Costco and Walmart is simply the choice between Coke® and Pepsi®. It's essentially the same stuff on the inside.
Nine Meals From Anarchy
A topic discussed in food-security circles—those groups of people who track food reserves that exist in a city or a country at any given time—that gets surprisingly little coverage in the general discussions about food is the estimate that cities nowadays have a mere three days' worth of food at any given time to feed their populations.
In 2000, farmers and transport truck drivers in the United Kingdom staged a protest over government fuel duties that they felt were crippling them, along with the rising cost of gasoline and diesel. Their strategic protests and blockades managed to severely disrupt the nation's fuel supplies, shutting down motorized transportation. There were also so-called rolling blockades on major highways to disrupt transportation in and out of cities. The major grocery chains, Sainsbury's, Tesco, and Safeway, noticed panic buying, and without reliable deliveries to restock their shelves, they started rationing their food supplies by the third day.
The British government took notice of how quickly a city like London could run out of food. It created an agency called the Countryside Agency to study the United Kingdom's food security. In 2007, Lord Cameron of Dillington, the head of the Countryside Agency, concluded in rather dramatic fashion that Britain was indeed extremely vulnerable to a food shock caused by any disruption of the normal flow of supply lines. Major cities in the United Kingdom, the report concluded, were at any given time "nine meals from anarchy."
That the big supermarkets knew to start rationing what supplies they had left on the third day was not by coincidence. Though they likely don't refer to it as "nine meals from anarchy," they do operate what is known as the three-day rule.
The supermarket retail business is highly competitive. Supermarkets depend on volume to turn a profit, because they average less than 1 percent net profit after tax in a year, according to the Food Marketing Institute's published 2010 figures. More to the point, they depend on tightly controlling their costs so as not to lose any of that profit. Holding a lot of inventory, in a grocery retailer's mind, is costly. Milk, bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables—pretty much any perishable inventory, so much of which is thrown out as it wilts, rots, passes its sell-by date, or goes moldy—is the worst kind of inventory for a grocery store. It's the loss leader that gets you in the store, but it's also why these products are tucked in the back of the store, forcing you to walk past the other nonperishable, more expensive, processed items.
To carry as little inventory as possible, grocery chains have created very sophisticated just-in-time "value chain logistics" systems. They manage inventory so well that they only need a three-day supply of food in their distribution system at any given time.
It's worth pointing out that these tightly controlled supply lines that replenish our grocery stores are fine—until they're not. When so much of our food comes from so far away, what happens when there is a disruption in fuel supplies, a natural disaster blocking access to a city, or a terrorist attack shutting down borders and internal transport? Three days of food is not enough inventory.
Excerpted from FOOD AND THE CITY by JENNIFER COCKRALL-KING Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Cockrall-King. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Chapter 1 The Facade of the Modern Grocery Store 23
Chapter 2 Industrial Food 33
Chapter 3 Industrial Eaters 47
Chapter 4 A World in Food Crisis 59
Chapter 5 The New Food Movement and the Rise of Urban Agriculture 73
Chapter 6 Paris: The Roots of Modern Urban Agriculture 81
Chapter 7 London: Capital Growth 107
Chapter 8 Southern California and Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Farms 139
Chapter 9 Vancouver: Canada's Left Coast 159
Chapter 10 Toronto: Cabbagetown 2.0 199
Chapter 11 Milwaukee: Growing a Social Revolution 227
Chapter 12 Detroit: Praying for an Economic Revolution 241
Chapter 13 Chicago: The Vertical Farm 263
Chapter 14 Cuba: Urban Agriculture on a National Scale 283
Chapter 15 Conclusion: Greening and Eating Our Cities 307
Resources for Urban Agriculturalists 323