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Changing the Way We Eat
Sheep on the White House lawn
November 28, 2008

A food crisis plagues America. Or, so believe Michael Pollan and many activists across the U.S. Some may find it difficult to comprehend how one of the richest countries in the world suffers from food issues, but Michael Pollan lays out what ails America and the case for reform in "Farmer in Chief" an open letter published in THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE.

Pollan argues that over the years, Federal food policy helped create an industrial agricultural system with dire consequences at home and abroad. Food policy influences healthcare costs, domestic security, international relations and immigration. And though food policy wasn't a campaign issue, Pollan believes Americans understand the importance of food and are already pushing for change, noting:

The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food - organic, local, pasture-based, humane - are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that "this is a conservative cause if ever there was one."
Pollan realizes that, though only Washington can clear the way for the reforms he advocates, the energy and ideas driving the movement to change America's food industry are bubbling up in communities across America.

We cannot possibly list all the groups experimenting urban farming, food sustainability, access, reform and education. You can check out some projects on blogs like City Farmer News. Below are just a few organizations working in very different parts of the country towards similar goals: changing America's relationship with food.

Growing Power

In the early 1990s, Will Allen, a former professional basketball player, left the world of marketing to return to his roots as a farmer. That in itself wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, except for the type of farmer he became.

Allen purchased a dilapidated farm on the north side of Milwaukee — the last registered farm in the city — and began recruiting local teens as farmhands. Soon, Allen helped found Growing Power to teach the skills and techniques of urban farming to anyone who was interested. The organization he's helped build now runs urban farms in Milwaukee, Chicago and surrounding areas. They grow food for local communities and restaurants, and train thousands of aspiring urban farmers from the United States and abroad.

Allen's vision is as holistic as his farming methods, placing urban farms at the center of healthy, food-secure communities. In many inner-cities, Allen sees "food deserts," communities without grocery stores or access to fresh produce. Residents in these underserved areas experience all the health and social problems that come from poor nutrition and unhealthy diets. Scientific studies have born out Allen's hunch, finding that a person's proximity to fresh food sources and fast food is a good predictor of their health. If someone lives close to fast food, and far from grocery stores and other sources of fresh produce, as many urban residents do, they are more likely to suffer diet-related ailments. Allen believes urban farms and strong community food systems can provide underserved communities with jobs, healthy food and a strong sense of community. "Food is at the foundation," Allen has said, "But it's really about life."

Will Allen recently won the prestigious "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation — half a million dollars with no strings attached. Allen has said he hopes Growing Power can leverage the award to help the organization achieve its goals, and that he'd like to use the money to build a five-story, off-the-grid farming and education center to spread his message and knowledge.

>Watch a video from a Growing Power training.

Edible Estates

In his BILL MOYERS JOURNAL interview, Michael Pollan explains the many complications that monoculture agriculture creates, especially as it is practiced in the industrial food economy. Monoculture is the practice of focusing on one crop, rather than the more traditional polyculture. Industrial farmers in the United States focus on wheat, rice, cotton, but especially corn and soy. Monocultures require more pesticides and fertilizers than polyculture, because they remove many of the natural ways to protect against pests and revitalize the soil, and that means they rely heavily on fossil fuels.

One other vast monoculture dominates America's landscape, costing $30 billion dollars annually, and producing no food, no raw material — in fact, nothing of utilitarian use at all. Grass. According to estimates from a 2005 NASA study conducted by Cristina Milesi, Americans cultivate at least 50,000 square miles of grass for traditional lawns, golf-courses and parks, making grass the number one crop in America. Grass consumes huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers, and fuel. Milesi estimates our nations lawn lands use as much as 200 gallons of water per person, per day. And a well-watered, well-fertilized lawn uses more carbon than it produces unless the owner recycles the grass clippings.

This is just part of what Fritz Haeg thinks about when he sees miles of front lawns. Haeg, an artist living in Los Angeles, sees many things in lawns: wasted space; lifeless chemical-ridden soil; a sanitized, anti-social barrier between neighbors; but he also sees potential.

Haeg wants Americans to think about their lawns and what else they could be, so he created "Edible Estates." With support from local museums and arts organizations, Haeg works with volunteer families to replace their grass with prototype organic gardens, customized to be highly productive in their community's growing region. The families agree to maintain their living works of art, which are both food sources and challenges to the lawn status quo. To document the project and spread the conversation, Haeg has created numerous materials, including a Web site, a book and a video featuring the Foti family. The Fotis live in Lakewood, California, which was constructed in the 1950s and considered by many to be archetypic post-WWII suburb. Watch the video below.

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The White House Lawn
In his interview with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, Michael Pollan speaks of the importance of cooking, pointing out that "whether you're cooking or not is one of the best predictors for a healthy diet. It's more important than the class predictor. People with more money generally have healthier diets. But affluent people who don't cook are not as healthy in their eating as poor people who still cook."

Alice Waters has long argued that a new relationship with food should begin in the kitchen. An influential chef and sustainable food advocate, Waters newest cookbook, THE ART OF SIMPLE FOOD, is a road map to her ideal lifestyle — sustainable, fresh, healthy food. Like Allen and Haeg, she sees food as central, but from her own angle; she's dubbed hers a "delicious revolution."

And though her restaurant, Chez Panisse, is world famous, her advocacy reaches beyond fine dining. She founded The Edible Schoolyard to provide urban school children with access to an organic garden and teach them the connection between kitchen and gardening skills, what the organization refers to as "ecoliteracy." In early 2008, Waters received the Harvard Medical School's "Global Environmental Citizen Award" for her work on behalf of sustainable food. Below you can watch a video of her accepting the award.

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And, also like Haeg, Waters has set her sites on lawns. Or, rather, one very large and influential lawn — at the White House. Waters wants to see an organic garden, grown on White House grounds, feed our presidents and their families. It's an idea that dates back to the Victory Gardens of WWII, when Eleanor Roosevelt planted a garden to help the war effort. Twenty million Americans followed suit, and at their height, Victory Gardens supplied 40% of America's domestic food supply. Waters wants future presidents to lead the way to greater ecoliteracy. She's inspired a new generation of advocates like Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow.

Simon and Gustowarow were so captivated by the idea of a farm at the White House that they started a cross country trip to raise awareness. Traveling in a converted school bus, dubbed the "White House Organic Farm Mobile", or WhoFarmMobile, they are gathering signatures for a petition they'll present to Barack Obama when he takes office as the President.

Published November 28, 2008.

Guest photos by Robin Holland

References and Reading:
"Inner-City Farms"
By Lisa McLaughlin, TIME MAGAZINE, July 24, 2008.

"Where Industry Once Hummed, Urban Garden Finds Success "
By John Hurdle, NEW YORK TIMES, May 20, 2008.

"The New Coop de Ville"
By Jessica Bennett, NEWSWEEK, November 17, 2008 "Greenspan Admits Some Mistakes Amid Grilling by House Lawmakers "
By Brian Blackstone, WALL STREET JOURNAL, October 23, 2008.

"Food for Thought: Renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause."
By John Schwenkler, THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE, June 30, 2008.

Will Allen and Growing Power

Video from Growing Power training in Milwaukee.

Official Growing Power Web site.

"An Urban Farmer is Rewarded for His Dream"
By Barbara Miner, THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 25, 2008.

"A crisis of confidence"
By Joseph Stiglitz, THE GUARDIAN, October 22, 2008.

Fritz Haeg and Edible Estates

Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates Web site.

"Looking for Lawns"
By Rebecca Lindsey, NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY, November 8, 2005.

"The Incredible, Edible Front Lawn"
By M.J. Stephey, TIME MAGAZINE, June 26, 2008.

Freedom Gardens
An online gardening community.

Alice Waters, Edible Schoolyards and The White House Organic Farm


The Edible Schoolyard
"The Edible Schoolyard, in collaboration with Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, in Berkeley, California provides urban public school students with a one-acre organic garden and a kitchen classroom. Using food systems as a unifying concept, students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare nutritious seasonal produce. Experiences in the kitchen and garden foster a better understanding of how the natural world sustains us, and promote the environmental and social well being of our school community."

Chez Panisse
Web site for Alice Waters' influential restaurant.

"Alice Waters"
by Joel Stein, TIME MAGAZINE.

"Lunch With Alice Waters, Food Revolutionary "
By Kim Severson, THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 19, 2007.

"Go ask Alice"
By Farhad Manjoo, SALON.COM, October 26, 2007.

Published November 28, 2008

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers sits down with Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, to discuss what direction the U.S. should pursue in the often-overlooked question of food policy. Pollan is author of IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER'S MANIFESTO.

Discover innovative schemes aiming to change the way our nation eats. View Will Allen, of Growing Power, a pioneer in the urban farming movement in action. Find out about what Alice Waters, international-known chef and sustainable farm advocate, is hoping to see on the White House Lawn. And take a virtual visit to one of artist Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates.

Find out simple ways that you can change the world one meal at a time.

Why are America's food banks suffering shortages? Find out what you can do to help.

Is it a farm bill or a food bill? What's behind the debate over American farm policy.

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