Too many people today are disconnected from their food and, in turn, from the earth and their communities. Hardly any Americans know where their food comes from, how it is produced, or how it looks while it is growing. And when we do see food growing, we rarely call it “food”. While few people pass up a chance to eat free pizza at community events, they will walk past a fallen apple or walnut without picking it up. This fall, my friends and I began to forage for and collect food in Ames. It completely changed my interaction with the environment. We found apple, Asian pear, and walnut trees and could barely keep up with their production. I learned how to make apple sauce, handed out pears to my friends and smashed walnuts to collect the meat. Whenever I walked around Ames, I would scan the landscape for food; I no longer looked at trees the same way. I was amazed at how much food was being produced and began to imagine what Ames would look like and how it would function if we started to replace empty parking lots and flat green lawns with edible plants and trees.
Although many families in Iowa have some connection to food through their farm backgrounds, only five percent of Iowans continue to take part in agriculture. This is mainly a result of urbanization (the flight of people from rural areas to cities), government policies (which have created cheap gasoline and give transportation subsidies), and technological improvements (mainly in food storage for long distance transport). The high rate of urbanization and lack of people who are connected to agriculture destroy links between people and the land, a process which makes them apathetic toward environmental degradation and social inequalities that result from the industrial food system.
Not only are few Iowans farmers, but little of the food we eat is in Iowa comes from in-state. Our food travels thousands of miles (typically between 1,500 and 2,400miles) from places like California and South America. That conventional food transport uses 7.5 times the fuel and, 8.5 times the carbon dioxide and it travels nearly 3 times as far as a local farmer’s trucks. This is shocking, seeing that Iowa has over a hundred farmer’s markets and is mainly comprised of farmland (88% of Iowa land is in farm production).
To foster connections between people and the land, some ISU students have recently become involved in garden projects abroad. Last summer the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods at ISU sponsored a trip to Uganda for students interested in beginning a school garden project. There the university students created an agriculture curriculum for the older children at the school, integrating lessons about plant biology with hands-on education.
“The greatest things to see were that, when the students started having fun working in the garden and started enjoying the garden’s benefits, it wasn’t just a chore anymore. Also, we once took a tour of some students’ home gardens and were thrilled to see that students were taking what they had learned at school, …and were planting their own plots at home.” said Lee Beck, an ISU student involved in the project, “Upon returning [to Iowa from Uganda], I realized what an impact the experience had on me. I had never looked at horticulture this way, and because horticulture is my major, it definitely had an effect on my career path.”
The Community Garden Coalition’s Digging Deeper program, a part of the Des Moines Parks and Recreation department is taking action to turn school lawns and community spaces here in Iowa into edible landscapes. Fruit tree orchards and vegetable gardens are planted in low-income urban areas translating to food security in communities where few grocery stores are located. This is a welcome change for families that otherwise might have to walk down to the corner cigarette shop or catch a bus to go to a grocery store miles away for food. When orchards and gardens are planted in their communities, families not only have access to food, but fresh, nutritious foods that they may have never tried before like asparagus, rhubarb, and persimmons. Most recently, the program created edible landscape designs and began planting on the King and Edmunds school lawns and four other community spaces. In each case, the community members will care for the gardens, and in turn the gardens will provide nutrition and foster community-building.
For those of us here in Ames, there are plenty of actions that we can take to rejuvenate a local food system. Go to farmers’ markets and buy local foods at grocery stores, or buy a share in a farm through Community Supported Agriculture programs. Go to local vineyards, dairies, and herbal gardens, and support restaurants that buy local food. Buying locally is important to our community and the earth’s health; it grows the economy and creates food security. Farmers who are providing to nearby communities are likely to be more responsible to the earth and the community. Local foods are less processed, are healthier for our bodies, and they increase biodiversity (which corn and soybean fields can not claim). Each dollar that is spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. As Frances Moore Lappe wrote, “The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth.” So go ahead, pick up that fallen apple and renew your connection with the earth.