Saturday, September 25, 2010

Connecting people and food - Madison has it good

During my conference in Chattanooga, I participated in a mobile workshop - a chance to get out and see the city and discuss issues - called Connecting People and Food. Since I have been interested in food politics for awhile, I thought I'd see what the folks in Chattanooga felt were their local issues.

About a dozen conference goers and a couple of locals piled into a little bus to see a few sites around town.

First, we visited a "food desert," a low-income neighborhood with no grocery store, almost no transit, and a freeway between them and the closest store selling fresh fruits and vegetables. When I asked about the opportunity for community gardens - since the neighborhood had plenty of grass and other open space - our guide said that talks were just starting with the city agencies that run the housing development, but community gardens are not common in the area, so many people were worried about problems like trust, sharing, theft, access, fairness, and even how to get started.

As we continued to our next site, I looked out the window of the bus and noticed few gardens, but plenty of places that could be growing healthy food.

Our next stop was a community center and church in a very poor neighborhood. They were just starting to develop a community gardening project in the yard of the center, but they had another problem. The creek that ran through the neighborhood had long been polluted with industrial toxins, and each time the creek flooded, the soil was contaminated. Here, they had space to grow food, but they could use the soil. So the community center built a few raised beds and brought in fresh, clean soil.

We heard the volunteers talk about how the kids in the neighborhood were learning about gardening, tasting new vegetables they had never even seen - like broccoli - and even fighting over how one head of broccoli was being divided among 30 kids. They each wanted a bigger piece!

The raised beds had some problems - not enough water and mulch in the hot southern sun,tomato plants without any support or trellis, etc., and even the volunteers said they were learning as they went along. I thought about the neat, well-tended beds around Madison, and the publicly-available resources we have here at home to help people have successful gardens.

We next went to an inspiring urban farm, a non-profit organization that runs educational programs, a CSA, and internships for people that want to learn more about growing their own food. It was a beautiful, friendly place, but as I glanced over at the neat rows of produce, I also noticed the color and texture of the soil. No rich sandy-loam like we have in Wisconsin, but yellowish clay. I've had enough earth science and geology to know why the Midwest is has such great soil - credit to the glaciers. Here's I could hardly imagine how the plants derived any nutrition or pushed their roots through the clay. The farmers must have to work very hard to supplement what is beneath their feet.

We also visited the site of a large weekly farmers market, but it wasn't in session. It is popular, but many people can't come on Sunday, or have no transportation to get there. And many people also simply can't afford to buy fresh produce.

As we went from place to place, the participants talked about solutions from our hometowns to connect people with healthy food. There were people on the bus from around the country and interested in food issues for a variety of reasons: health educators, community organizers, people interested in local foods for political or environmental reasons, and some who just liked fresh, tasty food.

It's sometimes hard not to brag about your hometown, and this was certainly the case here. I thought about the abundance of farmers markets we have around town, some in the evening, some weekends, some at lunchtime. There are farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, in rich neighborhoods, on the Capital Square, and in shopping mall parking lots. We have community gardens all over the city as well, and those that want to start a new garden have non-profits and city agencies to hep them. People grow food in their front yards and back yards. Amateur gardeners donate food to pantries for those that can't afford to buy their own. Second Harvest collects produce at the end of the Saturday Dane County Farmers Market (and maybe other places and times as well) to stock food pantries.

Groups like Madison Fruits and Nuts and other local groups help others find places to pick fruit in public places, even receiving help from the city. There is even a map of where you can pick fruit in Madison.

And Madison also benefits from incredible soil right under our feet. You can turn over a shovelful of dirt and plant a seed almost anywhere. Sure, you'll do better with compost, mulch, and other tricks. But we start off way head of so many areas of the country because our soil is some of the best in the world. Add in the amount of knowledge that surrounds us: UW-Extension, the Master Gardener program, neighborhood groups, foodies, and the general aura of food and gardening know-how in Madison, and most people that want to grow food can do so.

Today I went to the market on the Capital  Square and bought late summer veggies to cook up later. Then I wandered through the Food for Thought Festival, chatting with people are food politics, learning about resources on-line or in workshops, picking up leaflets about how to garden and cook. I sat down to listen to an older couple talk about canning and preserving food.

What a difference between Chattanooga and Madison. One seems to just be taking baby steps to connect people and food, and the other is a leader in making sure that everyone has access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.

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