In this land of plenty, most of us rarely think about where our food comes from or wonder if we will always have enough. But the fragility of our food system was highlighted last fall in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina isolated thousands of residents from fresh food and water. The aftermath demonstrated that local agencies in the area were better able to help residents than large bureaucracies. Food and water donated from area food shelves, churches, and agencies was able to reach people long before donations from outside the region arrived.
Among other issues, the Katrina disaster woke us up to the inadequacies of our food system. Many of the more insidious problems, such as the poor nutritional value of food or low quality of produce available, don't make the news.
Fortunately, many communities across the country are thinking of ways to make fresh, local produce available in areas where it often is not. In the process they're finding residents become empowered to grow, preserve, and prepare their own food. This movement also creates entrepreneurial businesses such as market gardens and community supported agriculture (CSA) that give local people a chance to make a living growing and selling food. During National Garden Month we're asking everyone to start supporting growers and purveyors of locally grown food.
Community food security is more than just having a grocery store in the neighborhood. It means that residents of a region feel they have adequate access to a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system. Other social benefits of a secure local food system include better health, job creation, and community self-reliance and collaboration. To some, access to fresh, wholesome food at a reasonable price should be considered a basic human right.
There are many faces of food security. The most visible are community gardens, community farms, farmer's markets, and farm-to-school programs.
Community Gardens, Farms, and CSAs
Often a community gardener's operation will expand to such as size that it evolves into a market garden or farm. Another variation of the community farm is the Community Supported Agricultural operation, or CSA.
Usually a CSA allows people to buy "shares" in the farm in advance of the growing season. For each share, individuals receive a regular supply of fresh, seasonal produce throughout the growing season. CSAs started in Europe, and the first in the United States was launched in 1985. Today there were more than 1,000 CSA farms across the United States and Canada.
The growing concern over diet-related children's health problems has encouraged many communities to introduce fresh local food to school cafeterias. Usually, concerned parents and teachers and local nonprofit organizations are the driving force behind farm-to-school partnerships. Such programs insure farmers a steady market for their goods, and supply kids with more nutritious lunches and hands-on, tangible learning opportunities.
Farmer's markets have a rich history in the United States and are enjoying a strong revival. With the increase in number of small market gardens, farm operations, and specialty food producers, farmer's markets cut out the middleman, making the transaction more profitable for purveyors and more economical for consumers. By bringing farmers and consumers face to face, it also creates a stronger sense of community.
The number of farmer's markets in the United States increased 111 percent from 1994 to 2004. According to the 2004 National Farmers Market Directory, there are over 3,700 farmer's markets operating in the United States.
While these numbers are impressive, it's the actual programs that are most inspiring. One example is the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn, New York. This 2.75-acre farm sits on an asphalt lot owned by NYC Parks Department in a poor section of Brooklyn. When the last supermarket in the neighborhood closed in 2001, a local nonprofit set up a twice-weekly farmer's market and started the Red Hook Community Farm to grow produce in the neighborhood.
Relying on the work of teenage youth from the neighborhood, the Red Hook Community Farm built 15-inch deep raised beds on top of the asphalt. They now grow more than 40 crops, including specialty items for the local Latino community such as papalo (an herb used in Mexican cooking). The farm harvests enough food to support two farmer's markets, a neighborhood CSA, and local restaurants throughout the growing season. They even have hoop houses that allow them to grow greens through the winter. The farm provides the community with a source of fresh, healthful food and gives area teens the opportunity to build important life skills.
You don't have to start a community farm or CSA to help provide food security to your community. During National Garden Month, we encourage everyone to take some simple steps to support your local food system: buy and eat locally grown food, shop at the farmer's market, support restaurants serving locally grown food, and donate some of your own produce to a food shelf.
For more information about food security and what you can do, contact some of our National Garden Month partners such as the Community Food Security Coalition at (www.foodsecurity.org) and Les Dames d'Escoffier (www.ldei.org/homeFrameset.asp).
To help support a civic agricultural program, go to NGA's Adopt A Garden Program website at (www.garden.org/asg).