Absolutely. Because I feel like there’s so much cultural and economic momentum behind the status quo. Take something like cooking skills—it is something that you learn generationally. I don’t want to hark back to some golden age—I mean, Julia Child grew up with servants—and so it isn’t like everyone used to cook and now they don’t. There has always been a class thing around food. But cooking is something that we learn most commonly from our parents, and it is something that can be lost in a single generation. And that skill has been widely lost and regenerating it is no easy task. The culture of convenience is so widespread and ingrained that it will be super hard to change. And so yeah, I do get discouraged. But what kind of knocks me out of that is the fact that in our intellectual culture there is a tendency to look for big solutions. When you look at the food situation like that, it seems impossible. But when you think about it in terms of small solutions, plural, you start to get hope. There are people working on this on the ground. The solution is right in front of us. I think the little projects I often write about, as they gain momentum—and as they sometimes lose momentum and flop—can become a model for policies that can be effective.
For example, someone like Will Allen who started Growing Power in Milwaukee. This guy’s been at it for twenty-five years, and he’s trained a whole lot of people how to grow food in small places—and he’s reintroducing the culture of fresh food, of home cooking, into places where the economy has cratered, and the food culture cratered with it. It’s not a fluke at this point. One of the knocks against Will Allen that I think is so ridiculous is that he’s not creating a viable food economy because his operation has relied on foundation money. My response to that is that our entire food system is propped up by subsidies of some kind, and the infamous crop subsidies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are de facto subsidies like letting feedlots pollute without having to pay for it. But my original point about him is that we should look at him as a model, look at the stuff that has really worked and then figure out how we can put public policy behind this. That’s where I think you could start to get some traction.
The model of taking unused urban land and doing intensive agriculture. By that I mean, the Will Allen style, or what’s called French Intensive. In the nineteenth century in France, and really all of Europe, there was a land crunch and their agricultural productivity was declining. In the cities, and even in the countryside, they had little space and people figured out a way to grow a lot of food in a really small space that wasn’t resource-intensive. You build up compost so you have really fertile soil, and you plant really close together so your crops create a canopy that crowds out weeds, and because your soil is so fertile you can get away with planting things so close together. Think of a modern American city. An incredible amount of fertility, in the form of food, is extracted from the soil somewhere and brought into the city, and people eat it and it goes into the sewage system and that creates this pollution problem that is dealt with at great expense. And then you’ve got all this food waste that generally goes into landfills. Will Allen’s insight is to capture the waste stream and turn it back into soil fertility to feed these intensive beds. That could happen in any city. And there could be a city employee, a director of fertility, and there could be the city agriculture director.
Create incentives for this kind of thing, through policy, the way we currently incentivize our industrial food system.
Right. You could take what he’s doing in Milwaukee and formalize it. This is what gives me both hope and frustration. We’ve got these models but we don’t form policy based on them. Cities have a water policy and an electricity policy. They need a food policy. That’s how we start to overcome some of this inertia.
How did you come to see this class connection in the food story?