Giving ourselves the means

Welcome to the June edition of Territories, the monthly newsletter from Inhabit.

For this stretch of hot days, we’ve got a reflection for you on the limits of small-scale farming and the challenges of feeding ourselves on our own terms.

This essay first appeared in the Earthbound Farmers Almanac, now available in a lovely print edition. Speaking of, check out the latest episode of Partisan Gardens to hear excerpts and discussions with several of the authors involved.

Are We Really “Feeding Ourselves?”

Written by Gabriel Eisen, cofounder of Atplanta, a sliding scale vegetable garden installer in Atlanta, GA. These reflections are the product of conversations with Atplanta cofounder Azhar Khanmohamed.

Nearly every small farm, community garden, and radical agricultural project claims to be “feeding people.” Such claims are generally taken at face value and celebrated: “Our CSA feeds 50 families,” “Students in our urban agricultural program are learning how to feed themselves,” “Our community garden provides food for the neighborhood.” But there is reason to investigate this language and these claims critically. While it’s technically true that local food initiatives produce some food that some people do eat, I argue that our discourse tends to paint an overly optimistic picture of our ability to be food-autonomous and obscures how reliant we continue to be on big agriculture.

I see two main points of tension here. First and most significantly, small organic agricultural practices focus on producing nutritionally dense, rather than calorically dense, crops. While our bodies of course benefit from the nutrients in fruits and vegetables, most of the energy we need to live comes from staple foods that have high calories per serving. With the exception of crops like Irish and sweet potatoes (and to a lesser extent the production of meat, dairy, and eggs) most local agriculture resources, time, and energy are poured into growing things like greens, roots, and fruiting vegetables. While these foods are healthy and provide us with necessary vitamins and micronutrients (so often absent in the world of fast and processed foods), they leave us reliant on big ag for the bulk of our caloric needs. Wheat, rice, soy, nuts, corn, sugar, and other staples continue to be produced almost exclusively by big corporations. This means that even if we significantly “scale up” our existing local agriculture practices—to the point that every neighborhood has a community farm and every home has a garden plot—we will still not be in a position to meet our food needs.

Second, many (if not most) of our local food initiatives are not productivity-driven. Community gardens, school urban agriculture programs, non-profit farms, and home garden builders (like us) are at least as focused on education, building community, and providing healthy outdoor activity for folx as they are on growing food. In my view, this is how it should be! But it must be acknowledged that such projects produce significantly less food than their local farm peers. And given that the bulk of this food, again, tends to be nutritionally, rather than calorically, dense, I argue that the extent to which such projects can be said to “feed people” is token at best. Participants may get a salad here or some tomatoes there, but they are not cutting down on their grocery bill in any meaningful way.

Ultimately, it is my observation that the present day limitations on our ability to substantively feed ourselves with local food systems go unacknowledged by many players in the local food world. In fact, it sometimes feels we are actively working to build the illusion—through our discourse—that we are meeting more of our food needs locally than is actually true. As Azhar and I help folx without experience setup vegetable gardens here in Atlanta, we notice that people have been sold this strange conspiracy. We have the unfortunate task of explaining that one or two garden beds will be but a small effort in achieving their food sovereignty.

I do not want to disparage the amazing work being done by comrades across the country to reclaim food for ourselves. I have dedicated my own heart and hands to this effort. But I also urge everyone to be frank about the limits of what we have built so far, to not get caught up in the fluffing up of reality for marketing purposes, in the ways that neoliberal capitalism and non-profit industrial complex culture encourage us to do. It does us no favors to have people believing that when capitalism falls tomorrow we will easily be able to fill our stomachs.

I call loudly for us all to do a better job of actually “feeding ourselves” by putting more resources into growing caloric foods. Growing the filling things should no longer be left to the fringes of the gardening world. If global food supplies do collapse, we will not be able to survive on our broccoli and collard greens. We can start with the easy—the dried beans, Irish and sweet potatoes, and fruit trees—and work towards the hard: grains, soy, nuts, meat, and dairy. 

Finally, rather than put so much (dishonest) emphasis on our role in feeding people, we should not forget to celebrate and advertise the fact that our work is about far, far more than growing food and eating it. We do this work to get our hands in the soil, to have the sun on our faces, to be in touch with our ancestors, to use our bodies, to build relationships with people, to be in control of our own lives, to work collectively, to be amazed by plants, and to feel alive. In this world, these things can feel like salvation.

“If our assumption that communication technology brings people together were true, we should be seeing a planetary outbreak of peace, love, and understanding.” Nicholas Carr on the mythology behind Silicon Valley.

“Investors LARP as Promethean saviors, seemingly to secure humanity’s future, while crusading solely for the future of capital.” Kevin Rogan on startup cities.

“With so much evidence withheld, it’s hard to say anything about Covid-19’s origins with certainty.” Zeynep Tufekci on lab-leak theory.

“Do cooperative guilds of species—like guilds of people in societies—exist?” Suzanne Simard on forest intelligence and interspecies mutual aid.

“What do we need now to garden in times that are less predictable?” Watch Carol Deppe on resilient gardening, public domain staple crops, and more.

“We can visualize how plastics entangle sea life, but it is much harder to realize the way plastics ensnare lives lived along so many river valleys.” Rebecca Altman on the infrastructure behind the plastic industry.

“For a brief moment, the roles were completely reversed: their confusion became our sanity, their chaos became our peace.” Idris Robinson on the humanity of the George Floyd Rebellion.

“The heavily armed, camo-clad white far-right ‘patriots’ were often indistinguishable from the militarized forces sent in to quash the revolts.” Natasha Lennard on American fascism and Black liberation.

“The central problem lies in imagining how we can amplify the constitution of free communes easily joinable by others and organically linked to the construction of an insurrectional movement.” Mauvaise Troupe on the post-airport ZAD.

You’re on Path B,