The lazy days of summer bring on the urge to lounge in the warm shade of a tree, and, perhaps if you're lucky enough, to read alongside the trickle of a creek or the lapping waters of a lake.
Writing this column has prompted me to think about agriculture, food and rural-urban connections. So it makes sense that my summer reading is on these issues as well.
This column has also made me wonder about the "food movement," and just how true and meaningful it is. In the course of researching agriculture issues, I have come across new movements, new ways of growing food, and social and community connections made through engaging in agriculture. Writing this column also had me searching for groups that can coalesce around agriculture and food -- and made me wonder if the growing interest in organic food, locally grown food, and even celebrity chefs is really enough to ensure that we maintain a solid agriculture base in this country. Will all this new interest in "clean" food actually empower the Canadian family farm?
So this summer, I am taking some time to read -- feed my soul, if you like.
And one of the books that has been on my list, and well worth spending some time with is Michael Ableman's Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope in the Urban Frontier.
This book is definitely an out-of-the-box way of thinking about agriculture and farming -- who gains, who loses, and how growing food can grow urban community.
Street Farm is the story of Sole Food Street Farms and how the creation of an urban farm eventually developed into a network of four farms located in Vancouver's East Hastings district, the poorest postal code in Canada. It is the story of how the idea of an urban farm created a link between empty parking lots and vacant land, food, poverty, addiction, and urban squalor. It is an inspirational story about how people who have been written off by many in our society can contribute to their lives -- and even help mend their lives -- through food production.
Ableman tells of the brainstorming that initiated the idea: how a few people set about using vacant urban parking lots to generate a farm that would eventually supply local restaurateurs with high-quality, organic products, and in so doing, bring meaning to people whose lives had become disconnected and dysfunctional.
Street Farm is about the ups and downs of trying to grow quality food and build community in a harsh urban environment. The story is nothing short of incredible and testament to what is possible when you think outside the box.
Ableman analyzes the challenges of farming, links community to food production, questions land ownership, and identifies food production as a strategy that can mitigate addiction, poverty and mental illness. He shows that when people are valued, encouraged, and given purpose, they can be empowered to improve their lives.
Along the way, we are given insight into agriculture and food issues, connections to a local market, the celebrity chef trend, and more.
For example, notes Ableman:
"[I] sometimes wonder what role high-priced fine-dining restaurants play in our society. I have seen how well-known chefs and the influential clientele they serve can elevate the public dialogue about food and farming. I have seen the attention that the media give to those whose artistry turns good ingredients into high art. But I also wonder whether these temples of food worship are just there to keep rich folks happy or whether they can actually be a force for change in the world."
Lots to think about in that paragraph. And there are other gems as well:
"I look forward to the day when people expand their thinking beyond gluten-free, vegan, omnivore, locavore, pescatarian, and vegetarian and inquire instead -- or additionally -- about whether the farmer and family are well paid, the land has been well cared for, and the cook was in a happy mood when he or she prepared the meal."
Throughout the book, Ableman shares with us the tragic yet heart-warming stories of many of the people who have been employed with Sole Food Farmers, conveying the challenges, the successes, and, yes, the disappointments:
"Jordan and his father have taught me so much -- about generosity, about taking care of one another, about forgiveness. Their lives are proof that, just like the plants that we grow, humans are resilient, and will thrive when given proper nourishment, a sense of community, some respect, and something meaningful to do."
Ableman urges us to move beyond our immediate wants and needs when it come to thinking about food and farming.
He challenges us to think through our role in food production, observing that, "[t]he responsibility of our food and how it comes to us, the responsibility of how we use and steward our land, should not belong solely to the 2 per cent of the population we call farmers. That responsibility belongs to all of us."
The story of Sole Food Street Farms is moving. It's one that we need to learn from and re-tell…often.
Happy summer reading!
Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.