Saturday, December 6, 2008

Interview with Andy Nichols

Here is a correspondence/ interview I've had with Andy Nichols, a Journalism student at SAIT. I thought I would post the questions and answers.

Ms. Simpson,

Hello my name is Andy Nichols and I am a second year photojournalism student at SAIT. I am working on a feature story for class about the recent rise in Locavores, and people following the "100-mile diet".

Essentially I was wondering if it would be at all possible to interview you (as admin of the Urban Agriculture group on facebook) regarding eating only local foods, the method and practice of urban agriculture and the general mentality of exclusively eating from local sustainable sources.

The interview can be done electronically and the resulting article would not be published in a publication, in case that is a concern. It would be strictly used for class and if it were to ever move toward a publication I would most certainly ask all sources in advance.

Thank you in advance for your assistance and for your time.

---Cheers, Andy Nichols---

Hey Andy,

I would certainly be happy to speak to you about the merits of urban agriculture - though the philosophy of this movement is not necessarily based solely on eating locally and encompasses other ideas regarding self-sufficiency and space issues. I can definitely provide some insight on the Urban Agriculture movement, and do have a strong understanding of issues that go hand-in-hand with eating locally.

I myself am not a locavore, being more of a freegan (I'm an art student, it comes with the turf.) I'm concerned with food economics- food waste, the hegemonies of our eating habits, and why we have become so detached from food production. Again, this goes hand in hand with local food as well as the slow-food movement.

You might also be interested to hear about the 100 mile dinner that's happening at Emily Carr, as well as a personal class project in which I fed 20 people with food from dumpsters and food waste bins.

Rachel Simpson

Hello Rachel,

Thank you again for being willing to help me, I greatly appreciate it. Insight on the Urban Agriculture group would be great, and any info you can give me about the locavore philosophy would help out quite a bit.

Also your personal class project sounds extremely interesting. I have heard of Freegansim but only very little. As a part of the feature we have to write a 500 word secondary article related to the primary subject and I could see covering the ideology as a major possibility. The idea of eating only free foods, when I heard it, intrigued me ( I believe that is how it works, correct?). My sister worked for awhile in the bakery department of a Safeway and would often lament the locked dumpster behind the store that was full of perfectly fine cookies, breads and cakes, as it was store policy to purge the shelves of any and all baking at the end of every day. They locked it to keep away animals, they claimed. And probably to maintain demand, since to be honest a know many people who would happily get their wrapped garlic bread from a dumpster for free rather than a shelf for a price.

Did you dinner go well? Was it a surprise/ experiment to see whether or not people could tell the difference? Where did you get the food? Did you have to prepare it all? I am very interested by that idea.

But I digress. Below are a few questions about urban agriculture and locavorism. Please try to be as expansive as possible, and thank you again.

1. Who are you?

2. What do you do?

3. What is urban agriculture?

4. How and why did you become involved with urban agriculture?

5. What are the major downsides to industrialized, or large scale agriculture?

6. What are the major upsides to urban agriculture?

6. What is Locavorism (at least, what is a general summary)?

7. Is urban agriculture related to the ideology of locavorism?

8. Are you yourself a locavore, and/or could you define Freeganism?

8. Do you know of any health benefits of eating locally (either personally or from people you know)? And do you know the downsides to eating industrialized meat and produce?

9. Why do you believe North American society has become so departed from local eating?

10. Where do you see agriculture and eating habits going in the future?

11. Any extra comments on issues related to local eating and the current state of agriculture in Canada?

Also some info regarding Freegansim would be greatly appreciated. Such as where you get your food, how often, what do you say to people who find the idea "unhealthy", etc. I know this a lot to respond to, and I thank you again in advance for helping me.

I hope to hear from you soon, and if you have any questions feel free to ask me.

---Cheers, Andy---

I should probably first state that Calgary Urban Agriculture is not a group or organization in the standard sense. We have no mission statement, no real hierarchy and we don't meet regularly. We aren't all working on one project or towards a specific goal. It's original purpose was to serve as a forum for people already working with urban agriculture and on projects surrounding food security, and to get more people involved with those groups. You can take a look at to see all the blog posts I have made. When I originally created the fb group last summer, we had an overwhelming response. We hosted a couple meetups at Eau Claire Market and were pleasantly surprised with an (almost-too-big) turnout.

The question about who I am is, I'm afraid, rather anticlimactic. I'm a student studying Industrial Design at Emily Carr University, originally from Calgary. I've been involved in community and volunteer work for a long time and in various ways- from working on the steering committee of a website aimed at helping youth be more active in the community to volunteering for CJSW and The Gauntlet, and a whole bunch of other projects.

What I do is study Industrial Design, which seems rather contradictory considering the fact that I'm fairly anti-materialism and not a huge fan of the corporationalist turn our democratic/capitalist structure has taken. The reasons for the program I'm in have to do with learning about restructuring our systems of consumption and coming up with alternatives to the marketed lifestyles we find ourselves participating in. I'm also interested in integrating micro-housing and urban agriculture to make a high standard of living more accessible to a wider range of people. That's the nutshell statement anyway.

Urban agriculture is the practice of growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other plant resources in urban centres. This can be small scale- like a backyard garden, it can be "revolutionary" like Guerrilla Gardening, it can be rooftop gardens, school gardens, window ledge pots or planter boxes. It can be large or small scale. An excellent example of a city that has harnessed the power of collective Urban Agriculture is Havana, Cuba. I'm not an expert, but I did attend an excellent talk given by Marella Falat at a conference recently. It was quite impressive to see the progress the Cubans have made in such a short period of time.
Here, just read up:)

The real extent of my involvement in Urban Agriculture has been to get others involved in urban agriculture. Besides volunteering at the UBC Farm a few times, I've been most devoted to getting some push behind the movement in Calgary. I worry about my hometown. The state of food security is disconcerting, the small-town values that people used to talk about seem to be disappearing. Neither of these things bother me as much as what I see in light of my research on the building of sustainable cities. The question is, when the oil boom is over, what reason will people have to stay in Calgary? As a car-oriented city, costs of living are high. Housing costs are high. Public transportation is not a priority, things are not built on a human scale and so on and so forth. I feel that Urban Agriculture has the potential to bring people together on a community scale and allows them to work for the security of their future together. It's a very powerful thing, working to meet basic human needs as a community.

Large scale industrialized agriculture certainly has its downsides- largely that it can be done in a non-sustainable way (when I say sustainable, I mean that it can't keep going on as it is forever) and that businesses like the well-known Monsanto are working to undermine farmers' self-sufficiency. But frankly, I think it's more important to focus on the benefits of empowering action that individuals can take to be more self-sufficient.

The upsides of urban agriculture are pretty numerous. Primarily, the integration of urban agriculture into our lifestyles (like, say, the victory gardens of WWII to use a common example) will lead to greater food security. This frees us from dependence on outside food sources, leaving us less vulnerable to global food or economic crises and attacks on our sovereignty. (When I say attacks on our sovereignty, I mean disadvantageous trade agreements, for example.) In addition to self-sufficiency as a society, there are also the advantages to self-sufficiency on an individual level. Ability to provide our own basic needs makes individuals less vulnerable to economic crisis, providing a safety net- just in case.

There are also numerous benefits to having access to fresh vegetables and fruits whose origins you have control over. There are the benefits of a healthier diet, as well as less ingestion of pesticides (as long as you choose the organic route and take proper precautions against contaminated soil.) Gardening also encourages individuals to get outside, be more active, get more exercise and engage more in their physical surroundings. Community gardening encourages active engagement and cooperation with neighbors, strengthening bonds with those who live in your immediate area through mutually beneficial activity.

In addition to these immediate improvements to quality of life, I also believe that urban agriculture has the potential to reshape the priorities of societies. As we live today, we are detached from our systems of production, from our communities and from our physical needs. These series of detachments appear to have major impact on our personal health, both mental and physical. A steep rise in stress and obesity disorders specific to western society are two excellent examples of the downsides to our sedentary nature. Disengagement from the role corporations play in putting food on the table is also an issue that needs to be addressed, but is so deeply a part of cultural hegemonic values that it is nearly invisible. Urban agriculture creates more engaged, active individuals whose desire to participate could address all these problems and more.

Which all leads nicely into Locavorism!
Locavorism is, to put it simply, eating locally. The hundred mile diet is a good example of this.

Reasons to eat locally include:
-cutting down on carbon emissions by buying food that hasn't been shipped from somewhere far away, or been shipped for processing
-better awareness of where your food is coming from, and what it has gone through to get to you
-this often means making the choice to go organic, or simply to avoid food contamination scares that come with big-factory processing
-supporting local economies, and having less of what you pay go into the pockets of middlemen
-supporting family farms, who often (not always, but often) have better practices than factory farms
-making producers accountable for how they behave, how they treat food, and what impact they have on communities

Urban agriculture, by definition, is locavoristic. You produce the food that you eat, locally. In some cases, food produced locally is sold to nearby towns- this benefits local economies, and is far better than the transport for processing and distribution often exercised by factory farms.

(I just want to note that, despite my criticism, I don't think large farms and farm businesses should be eliminated. They play an important role in our food systems. I do however think that diversity in our food systems is more balanced, stable and secure both on a basic food security level and on an economic level.)

If I could, with ease, choose to become a pure locavore, I probably would. It's cheaper, fresher, more accountable produce that would be good for my conscience. The reality however is that it's very difficult to know where your food comes from. Packaging requirements allow food that is packaged in Canada to say "Canada" on the label, even if the food itself has come from say South America. Good ways to eat more locally include buying from farmers markets when they're open, and of course, engaging in Urban Agriculture.

Freeganism is the practice of eating for free. Historically, it's based in gleaning, the practice of allowing less fortunate people (or anyone really) to gather leftover produce from fields after harvesting has taken place. I've actually been seeing some articles about farms in the states returning to this practice, which is thrilling. Waste not want not:)

As it applies in an urban setting- freeganism means scavenging in dumpsters, getting food from businesses that throw things out at the end of the day, and sometimes getting friends who are employees to collect food that would otherwise be discarded. Businesses like Safeway and IGA throw away a disgraceful amount of food daily, which they destroy and put in locked dumpsters. They do this, they say, to protect themselves legally- but it is likely also to protect themselves financially. While there is nothing wrong with a business protecting itself and its stockholders, this practice of creating an enormous discarded surplus clearly represents a major flaw in food distribution systems, and is utterly horrifying in the face of struggling food banks and poverty in our cities. Smaller, local businesses are more accountable in the sense that they can often be convinced to donate the food they discard to food banks and shelters. Larger companies like Safeway chalk it up to company policy, and are therefore harder to penetrate. This is not to say that they are evil- I have heard of these companies changing their minds in some places. It all comes down to communities being aware, and taking action to hold these businesses accountable for their impact.

Health benefits of eating locally are related to better awareness and accountability in your food systems. Smaller farms and businesses have a smaller customer base, so they are more likely to take good care of those customers. They are also more likely to be community members themselves, so they have a stake in how their business impacts the people and environment around them. This makes them far less likely to engage in destructive practices- like farming that destroys the soil, pesticides and chemicals, poor waste disposal, destruction of communities, local resources.. the list goes on and on.

9. Why do you believe North American society has become so departed from local eating?

That's a pretty enormous question. There are quite a few factors that have directly contributed to our new-found distance from our food production systems, convenience likely being the most important. It is becoming less and less convenient to eat locally. Large corporations, like Safeway, buy food from wherever they can access it least expensively. In many cases, this means that it's cheaper to ship it across the country. This can be done in very exploitative ways, with a high impact on energy resources. In recent times, there has also been a move towards factory farms, which are more economically efficient if you have the capital to start one. The downsides of these farms (as I mentioned) is that they often have enormous environmental impact, questionable treatment of animals and they undermine smaller operations. These smaller operations tend to return more money to the local economy, "spreading the wealth around" better than larger companies, where more of the money travels up the pyramid.

I don't want to describe this as a black and white issue- it's far from it. Corporations are not evil, they just exist to make money. Small business is not saintly. Again, I think it's important for us to rely on many different businesses for our food, in order to support everyone in our society in a balanced manner. That said- buying local and organic whenever you can puts pressure on those companies, be they large or small, that are not adhering to standards of food production that, ideally, would be universal.

For a very basic view on the dangers of factory farming, check out The Meatrix:

10. Where do you see agriculture and eating habits going in the future?

It seems as though people are becoming more aware of food issues lately, as they go hand in hand with the economic downturn and the push for more sustainable living. I believe that community supported agriculture and urban agriculture will gain a great deal of momentum in the coming years, as food shortages make their way into Canada and the United States. In Calgary and Vancouver, I have been seeing more attention and interest in growing food and finding local produce. Times of scarcity can push people apart or pull them together. My internal optimist is ever hopeful that these coming years will help us change our ways for the better.

About my class project:

Did you dinner go well?
Yes, it went surprisingly well. Everyone at the table WAS told ahead of time where the food they were eating had come from. 17 out of 20 people ate.

Was it a surprise/ experiment to see whether or not people could tell the difference?
Not really- it was more of a statement about food standards, waste, and our connection to where our food comes from. It was about urban gleaning.

Where did you get the food?
There were various sources. Organic dumpsters heading for compost and businesses that give away things they intend to throw out were some of the places. I also told a couple major companies that I needed some waste food for a sculpture project, and was able to access their room full of waste bins, "as long as it's not going to be eaten." Yes, that was rascal-like behavior, but I wanted to know more about how much food we waste, and what gets done with it.

Did you have to prepare it all?
Yes. I cooked it all in my tiny apartment kitchen, with the help of my partner Zack. It took a long time.

It was a fully vegetarian meal. The full cost came to less than 5 dollars, for things like cooking oil, eggs and spices. We made salads, an eggplant and tomato dish, potatoes, and a few others that have since slipped my mind. We drank water and sat around a fancy set table, with reusable dishes and cups. It was served formally by a few of my friends dressed as waiters.

I would be interested in performing the piece again in different places. If you, or someone you know is interested, feel free to drop me a line.

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