Fri 13 Mar 2009
First off, consider this an official challenge to my collegues to come up with a longer post title.
Second, is it just me, or are people spending WAY too much time talking about Michelle Obama’s arms?
Third, let’s look at what this is actually about: Michelle making it a priority of her agenda to change the way we think about health food. Not a scolding, top-down imperative from the health saints to the McIgnoramuses but rather an embrace of communities’ efforts to produce food or collaborate with producers of food that has the three magic characteristics: nutrition, freshness, locality. I know there are plenty of goofballs ready to leap on Ms. Obama for her supposed elitism, but on this front it’s anything but. Why exactly should healthy food be considered a “luxury,” some plaything of the upper classes? If the answer is “its cost,” then isn’t there something dramatically wrong with the stocks and flows of food production in the country?
If the answer is “arugula is a pinko anti-american homosexual aphrodesiac,” then I really can’t help you.
But say that generally the assumption is that because unhealthy, mass produced, heavily altered food is cheap in the system we have going for us, it’s some great egalitarian blessing. McDonalds’ business is booming these days – unsurprisingly. But the presentation of healthy food as a treat for the rich hurts both the farmers living market to market and the not-so-rich who frequently assume that nutrition is expendable in a recession. To some extent it’s a civil rights issue. Van Jones (on whom i’m crushing a bit as well, given his rad new appointment) refers to the “unbearable whiteness of greening,” which is a glib way of saying that too often the swanky veneer of trendy environmentalism can be a turnoff to those who in fact would benefit the most from it. Not that it’s a racial thing – low income communities of all demographics tend to pick up the tab when it comes to pollution and the cut corners of food processing. It might seem tautological to note that malnutrition, asthma rates, and cancer rates are sky-high in correlation (not causation) with poverty levels – but it shouldn’t be. Industrial by-products do not, strictly speaking, need to be unceremoniously strewn among people who don’t have the legal resources to keep them away. And nutritious food is not, strictly speaking, expensive to produce.
About a week ago there was a momentary reprieve from our general laziness, during which we were just about ready to construct the Hanging Gardens of Brooklyn in our apartment – but what sparked the sudden motivation was precisely the forum we attended on urban agriculture. Now, that meeting was as “Stuff White People Like” as any I’ve ever been to, and unfortunately the relevance of community gardening for addressing the severe malnutrition of many inner-city areas was never broached.
I mention this forum again because it reminded me that there are entrepreneurial opportunities available for people who have the means and the wherewithal to set up small-scale agricultural projects, especially when working together in groups. BUT, and this is a big but – there has yet to be money available to support these kinds of projects where they are needed most. Precisely where the means and the free time for start-ups are in short supply.
Michelle’s new crusade: community gardens?
So enter Michelle. First spouses always have an agenda, and meaningfully so – it’s an opportunity to give a spotlight to an issue without incurring the usual political clusterfuck over priorities. Hillary had her health care; Laura had her literacy. Michelle hasn’t quite hit her stride, and has made a number of promises – but with her recent speed-dating of government departments, a few themes are emerging. Working parents, education reform, and now the dark horse – agriculture?
During her visit in mid-February to the Department of Agriculure, the first lady praised the plan to plant produce gardens at the Department itself (am I the only one for whom this is kind of a no-brainer? A bit late on the uptake, guys.), and expressed the hope that they would serve as a prototype for community gardens all over the country. Dovetailing with her musings on the need for nutritious food in soup kitchens, the first lady’s appreciation for a more down-to-earth USDA may well be the beginning of a bit of government attention to the struggles of urban agriculturists to get their operations off the ground.
And maybe, just maybe: if she digs a little deeper into the benefits of community agriculture, MAYBE we’ll start to see subsidies becoming available for local food producers, especially in urban areas where they’re so scarce currently. Or facilitation for partnerships between schools, shelters, and farmers. Or stimulus for entrepreneurs who are willing to train inner-city kids simultaneously in business and agriculture.
Which is where it comes back to…(dum dum dum) Green Collar Jobs! Stay tuned: here at LtAG we’ve got our green jobs radar turned all the way up, all the time.
Who wrote this one? Me: Cook, hiker, mushroom hunter, snowball fighter, lover of good coffee and cheap wine, enjoyer of the taste of tap water, wannabe Sicilian goatherd, comrade of big hairy spiders. You: widespread sustainable agriculture, bioregional community structures, innovative green-collar workforce policy, pesto sauce made by an Italian grandmother. Come over for dinner sometime. --- “A gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is just stupid, and an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is just sad.” -Carlo Petrini, Founder, Slow Food Read more from this author