Common vernacular says we are “what” we eat. There’s truth in that, but it’s actually how we organize ourselves in the pursuit of food, which all of us require, that can surely set us apart as a community with a unique identity. This isn’t about supporting your local food bank. Instead, it’s about how we’ve permitted our collective identity to be decided for us by a modern food system that is inefficient, dangerous to our health, expensive, and ultimately alienating. How we change that paradigm as a community will largely determine who we are as a people. For if we are citizens blithely transporting ourselves to food stores on the periphery of our city, buying the same products, looking at the endless array of packaging, then ultimately transporting all that packaging to our landfills, we have become automatons – following where we are led.
This seems to be the standard pattern in my city of London, Ontario, but actually it isn’t. Citizens are realizing that how we eat is of equal importance to what we digest. They are figuring out that community gardens are a means of acquiring needed and healthy foodstuffs. Local farmers permit citizens to use land to grow produce for those in need. Londoners are using their influence as consumers to begin supporting local markets that sell local products. And what they are all discovering in the process is that this new food system is actually bringing them together, just as food always has from the beginning.
Consider the town of Tadmorden, England. It had many concerns about the modern food system, just as we do, but they also understood that their community was growing apart, vulnerable to global forces that seemed like a juggernaut. Some citizens got together, traveled through the town, and made plans to turn it into a moveable feast. They used parkways beside streets to plant produce gardens. They even turned the land in front of their police station into part of the local food supply chain. They altered the curriculum of the local high school to include new ideas of food sourcing and school land to make it work.
You can see all this in the video below, but what is so remarkable about it is that local citizens didn’t ask for a study plan, research project, or city funds – they just did it. They didn’t ask for permission; instead, they got local institutions onside and today the village of Tadmorden looks more like a living, breathing orchard than a concrete or asphalt jungle.
This is what citizens do when they grow weary of others telling them how they must order their lives. They live in communities for a reason, visit with neighbours for a reason, and adjust their kids to their environs for a reason. Our communities are ours to grow and develop, or waste and neglect – it’s up to us.
In the last few weeks I have met some remarkable people who are attempting to bring the miracles of places like Tadmorden about in London, Ontario. There is only one problem: the establishment isn’t interested – not really. We are surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world but have somehow permitted cement to become our land of choice. We are asphalting over farmland at the same time as our citizens are breaking up parking lots to make room for community growing plots. It’s all a kind of insanity that reflects poorly on all of us.
Jim Rutten is a new friend of mine. He not only designed a sustainable food security system for a community, he built it and made it work in Cape Breton. Now back on the family farm outside of London, he is attempting to find new ways to bring citizens back into the natural food chain. Hundreds of other engaged citizens are involved in similar efforts around whole food systems. I have met apartment dwellers growing produce on their balconies, and building owners growing gardens on their roofs. I have discovered farmers desirous of bring healthier food into the city and citizens willing to travel to those farms to help with the effort. I have enjoyed breakfast at a local market on Saturday mornings with my daughter only to discover hundreds of families doing the same thing in fresh food markets throughout the city.
London, Ontario has a food charter, a food network, and a fertile food base. But the components remain largely separate from one another. Many have waited for the City to bring it all together, giving it resources and profile. They wait in vain. This isn’t about funding; it’s about food. It’s about healthy produce and meats and their ability to draw communities back together in ways that are not only meaningful but which help us to define a new generation of citizens.
Throughout the city I have found people standing at the ready – already leaps ahead of established leaders in innovating around a local food system. It’s time we just started by supporting these champions. Should we coordinate our efforts of how we eat, we will discover that food is the great gatherer, the great empowerer of any community in transition. Look at the video below and tell me it can’t be done. You can’t. It doesn’t require City Hall or government funding. It only needs us, and our ability to remake ourselves, and our identity, as a community.