The Dirt in Your Food May Actually Save Your Life

In a city where skyscrapers and massive buildings outnumber arable land, community gardens are hard to come by. Those that are fortunate to plant a few crops in their backyards rarely do so, leaving millions of residents scoping for processed food at their local supermarkets. Some products contain chemicals that the average consumer has little knowledge of and they may do more harm than good.

At least, that’s what the New York Times seems to point out.

Op-ed contributor Jeff D. Leach convincingly argues that not enough attention is being paid to the dirt used to grow our food. Contrary to popular perception, Leach says that the dirt’s microbial organisms that we think are damaging to our health can, in fact, help our immune systems. “Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us,” he writes. According to a recent study, reintroducing some of the organisms found in our mud and water can help prevent our immune systems from overreacting and contributing to certain chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Leach suggests that our tendency to eat processed food has stopped our immune systems from properly evolving. As diseases become more complex, he asserts that we must allow our bodies to naturally adjust to the ecological changes that take place.

“The destruction of our inner ecosystem surely deserves more attention as global populations run gut-first into the buzz saw of globalization and its microbial scrubbing diet,” Leach notes. “But more important, we should seriously consider making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine, or making its core principles compulsory in secondary education. Currently they are not.”

As controversial (or, rather, as compelling) as his piece may be, Leach has been lauded by some for finally revealing the truth. Karen Washington, a resident of the Bronx and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, said that much more needs to be done in order to encourage consumers to eat healthy.

“A lot of the health-related illnesses that we have that are associated to the food that we eat, it’s not sustainable,” she said. “We’re spending billions and billions of dollars on these health problems that can be remedied by the food we eat. We’re putting too much money on treatment and not enough emphasis and money on prevention.”

One way to prevent such problems, Washington said, is to promote the idea of community gardens. “If I have a community garden and urban farm, you’re teaching people a method of healthy eating,” she explained. Washington has been growing food for over 25 years, but she admitted that she initially had no idea what to do. It wasn’t until she moved to the Bronx that she decided to plant a couple seeds in her backyard.  She soon became heavily interesting in growing food, transforming a vacant lot across the street into a community garden. In the 1990s, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to auction off several community gardens, she joined other activists in a stand to protect them.

“I’ve been helping people with gardening,” she said. “I’ve traveled across the country, really being an activist for food justice and social justice and really trying to stem the evils of hunger and poverty in this country and around the world.”

Washington, like many advocates of urban farming, believes that education is key to living a healthier lifestyle.

“I think we can all be conscientious consumers, and that starts by reading [food] labels,” she said. “I tell people if you look at a package and you can’t pronounce it, there’s something wrong. That shouldn’t be going into your system.”

Photos courtesy of Ari Moore and RDPixelShop

FARM:shop Initiative Brings Farming To A New Level

By: Allana Mortell

Considering the diverse amount of radical products sold in retail stores all over the world, I suppose it shouldn't be too alarming to know that the world's first urban farming hub is taking place in a local shop near London's East End. FARM:shop is more than a farm - it is a workspace, events venue, cafe and grocery store. While customers can nosh on sourdough sandwiches in the cafe, employees are simultaneously growing mushrooms in the basement, chicken coops on the roof and watching over fish tanks filled with tilapia. Though specific "exhibitions" change with season, the three tenants of FARM:shop remain sound :

  1. To excite and inspire city dwellers to grow their own food, fabric and medicine and to make an income doing this
  2. To create direct links between farms in the countryside with communities in the cities
  3. To grow food commercially via a network of FARM's across cities and retail this food at FARM's shop.

The shop didn't open its doors until March of 2011 but the idea behind FARM:shop has been brewing for over two years. Engineer and co-founder Paul Smyth says, "I think places like FARM:shop can reconnect people with their food ... we've had this separation of countryside and city living, so the connection has been severe between what you eat and how its grown."

In a radical new manner, FARM:shop is doing just what Smyth has envisioned in terms of approaching ecological and sustainable agriculture. "If you're growing food directly where its eaten, there's less refrigeration, less energy use through transport and distribution. FARM:shop could be scaled up and replicated in cities around the world to help reduce the enormous carbon emissions linked to food production."

With the fruit blooming in a polytunnel greenhouse and herbs and lettuce leaves growing from hydroponic troughs inside the shelving units of the store, the method behind such farming is certainly deep-seeded in a need for economical and agricultural change. "We've experienced a great amount of goodwill and enthusiasm about the project. People just want to come off the street, learn how to raise a fish; look after a chicken; grow some food - that means, you get a more people-powered agriculture," Smyth adds.

The hands-on mentality of this new venture is certainly working towards the owners of FARM:shop's advantage, considering a small profit has been made between employees and customers. Though the inside of FARM:shop looks like a laboratory, it can't be too surprising considering what's going on behind the closed doors. One of the biggest issues FARM:shop is hoping to tackle is in regards to the amount of toxic carbon emission in the air. Based on a 2008 Greenspace report, the food industry is responsible for creating 30% of the world's total annual carbon emissions.For the UK alone, food travels 30 billion kilometers a year, which adds 19 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Florence Egal, the chairman of the Food for Cities network urges the importance of FARM:shop in a similar recognition that it won't and can't solve everything right away, "No-one is saying you're going to feed nine billion people like this, but agriculture reform is an incremental process requiring many solutions. Growing perishable, fresh produce near to where it is consumed seems like one very sensible step."

Though the idea may be new in fashion, the results are a success thus far. No agriculture issue can be solved overnight, but in order for things to move forward sometimes it's those radical ideas, like FARM:shop that can make all the difference.

Click here to find out more information and to get directions to where the shop is located.

Photo: Tim Crook

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Calling All Foragers: Seattle to Plant Downtown Public Garden

For many urban dwellers, green space is a luxury that sometimes merits special weekend plans.  Seattle, WA, on the other hand, is about to plant the necessary seeds for agricultural expansion...into the downtown core!  As Kristofor Husted reported for NPR, a taste of the rural lifestyle, or even just a memory of a childhood suburban backyard, will be made available for those in need of a break from the concrete jungle.

Pending the success of a two-acre trial, the Washington state government has recently approved a plan to develop a seven-acre plot, located in the working-class Beacon Hill neighborhood, into a public garden.  The field, which will be named the Beacon Food Forest, will be stocked with perennially-growing fruit, such as apples, pears, plums, grapes, blueberries, and raspberries. This output will, at first, be free for community picking, in order to promote the benefits of permaculture.

To address the potential consequences of zealous and freeloading over-pickers, garden planners hope to have enough yield to mitigate this problem. After all, any education about permaculture should trumpet "take what you need," and not hoarding, as an objective. Eventually, small plots from the public garden will be leased to individuals, for a $10 annual fee.

In today's society, as food activists seek to prevent the proliferation of "food deserts" that have no neighborhood access to fresh and nutritious food, Seattle's figurative oasis is a positive development.  Community gardens will not only demonstrate seasonal crops, but also contribute to healthier lifestyles, while countering this particular example of economic inequity that arises in some cities. If nothing else, this is a way to ensure that Seattle produce may be as local as possible, while allowing for a common denominator--the soil itself--to unite the city.

Photo: RDPixelShop

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Bryant Terry Has A New Urban Organic Series

The amazing chef, cookbook author, and food activist, Bryant Terry is collaborating with One Economy Corporation to explore ways Americans can live healthy lives by harvesting and eating local foods. Terry visits iconic cities to showcase their methods of urban farming. The series investigates fascinating characters and their unique approaches to urban farming.

It is very difficult to be self-sufficient in a low-income urban location, so it's inspiring that Terry is the host of a show that will focus on how to grow food in an urban setting where grocery stores and local farming is scarce. The series will feature cutting-edge chefs, urban farmers, and social innovators who are bringing urban agriculture to the low-income neighborhoods that need them most.

North Oakland is the first city that Terry visits in this three part web-series and the episode centers around aquaponics. Aquaponics is the combination of recirculation aquaculture and hydroponics. In aquaponics, you grow plants and fish together in one integrated system. Meaning- fish waste is a form of nutrients used to feed the plants. This method is exhibited as one of the most cutting edge solutions for growing foods in urban areas.

Urban restaurants that want to use local produce have a difficult time starting their own gardens when there is only concrete around. Since soil isn't required for aquaponics, it can be set up in urban areas supplying food to local markets, in arid regions with poor soil, in developing countries, in rural communities or anywhere else that fresh food is needed.

Billed as "a healthy lifestyle series for Urban Dwellers," the series is slated to have a six-week run on One Economy's Public Internet Channel, with new episodes premiering every other week. One Economy Executive Producer Mohammed Bilal says, "The Urban Organic web series is really about giving low-income families the information they need to become more self-sufficient and to make healthy eating choices."

Sounds like Bryant Terry has knocked it out of the park again with another important message that he's sending out to the community.

Changing Detroit's Urban Landscape, One Lot At A Time

By: Michele Wolfson

Edith Floyd is making Detroit urban farms, empty lot by empty lot. From vacant to verdant, Growing Joy Community Garden is binding together neighborhoods through community gardens. The equation is simple- more vacant lots in a neighborhood equals less stability in that neighborhood. The solution? Community gardens. That's where Detroit, with a staggering 27% vacancy rate, has succeeded.

Edith has been living in Detroit for almost four decades and says that her neighborhood is "surrounded by graveyards on three sides and then the other barrier is the railroad track; we are surrounded by railroad tracks, and sometimes those trains stay for like 30 minutes, so you are trapped; ain't no way out. " When she first arrived to this neighborhood she says it was beautiful and thriving with grocery stores in the center of the neighborhood. But then the city came in and bought up these businesses in order to expand the size of the airport and now she says, "They came in and ruined our neighborhood, and said they ran out of money and left us over here like that. I'm still here and I'm gonna stay here, 'cause I don't want to go somewhere and start all over again." This practice is called blotting and Detroit is one of the cities that is falling on hard times and is facing the staggering problem of abandoned properties.

The gardens act as a way to utilize abundant space and transform it into something positive. People have found jobs and built relationships through Growing Joy Community Gardens. The social capital that ascends from this project is another perk. Other cities that are confronted with the same struggles are coming to projects like this one and asking for advice.

The lots each have different crops. Edith has a strawberry lot, a collard green lot, a kale lot, an okra lot, an eggplant lot, a green bean lot, a garlic lot, a tomato lot, cucumber lot and even grows squash, cabbage, broccoli, watermelon and cantaloupe. She is now growing potatoes, mustard greens, and turnip greens.

She says that each year she is making more of a profit, but Edith isn't in it for the money. She loves seeing things grow from seed and she loves the way it helping the effort to revitalize her community.

Strengthening the community isn't the only benefit of Detroit's gardens. They also have the potential to feed the city's population that is most in need. A portion of the crops is donated to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.  Detroit is a food desert and as a result, people are often purchasing food in "fringe locations," like convenience stores and gas stations, where quality is often lacking and prices are astronomically high. Edith is on a mission to buy more land and create more produce to change the tides of the food industry in Detroit.

Photo: dailyinvention 

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