Last week, I brought home some collard greens, kale, swiss chard, cabbage, eggplant, and jalapeño peppers. My stomach was empty and I couldn’t wait to sauté the vegetables in a pan with some coconut oil, salt, and pepper. As I started cutting the head of cabbage, I found a little green inchworm nestled between the layers of leaves. This was a serendipitous discovery for both of us – the inchworm avoided a deadly encounter with my knife and I began to think about the significance of eating food from an urban farm.
The food industry perpetuates itself due to two basic assumptions regarding the production and consumption of food. These assumptions are that ordinary people will not produce their own quality food, and that people will not be informed about the conditions in which this food is produced. In this situation, food becomes a commodity and labor is exploited in order to reduce the cost of production. Community-based urban agriculture subverts both of these assumptions. When we work on a community farm, we see that it is possible to grow our own food. We become slightly less dependent on the industrial food system and regain some control. After working on a farm, we also realize that all food has an origin and that people worked hard to harvest the food found in our stores. We want to know how our food was grown, how it got to where it is now, and how people are treated throughout this process.
So why was my inchworm friend important? Well, it got me thinking about the fact that we rarely find any evidence of farming when we buy food from a supermarket. With pesticides, long-distance travel, and the demand for immaculate fruits and vegetables, it is almost impossible to find a living insect in a supermarket cabbage. As the food industry separates our shopping experience from the realities of agriculture, it is easy to forget that food production relies on a careful collaboration between people and the natural environment. When I found the inchworm, I immediately remembered that this cabbage came from the urban farm and that my ability to enjoy this cabbage is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of New York’s environment. Also, it made me think about “disgust”; why would we associate an inchworm with filth, yet believe plastic packaging and processed foods are “clean”? More directly, who benefits from these visceral reactions and how do these beliefs contribute to a specific food economy? Urban farming is a perfect tool for challenging the existing food system and building environmental justice movements.
This summer, I met a woman who is doing incredible food justice work in her community. Tanya Fields, a mother and activist in the Bronx, founded The BLK ProjeK to address the food and health injustices that affect women of color. With the BLK ProjeK, Fields started the only CSA in Hunts Point/Longwood. Members of this community not only have access to nutritious and culturally relevant produce, but they also manage the CSA. Here, communities are actually taking control of their own food production, instead of letting food industries taking control of them. The BLK ProjeK has also created the Libertad Urban Farm to “take back the land,” educate about sustainability, and facilitate leadership opportunities for women in the community. For Fields, urban farming is not just about growing nutritious food in a “food desert”; it is also about radically changing the distributions of power in our food system. We can build a system where those who pick our vegetables also have the power to manage their own farms. We must advocate for a system in which food that grows from our shared earth can be free from commodification and privatization. Let’s make sure that we can all find an inchworm in our cabbage.