I had the great pleasure this week of chatting about food, the universe and everything with Mitchell Davis on his Heritage Radio show Taste Matters. It was wonderful chatting with Mitchell, as ever, and great to be back at Heritage Radio; for those who don’t know it, it’s well worth checking out: a local NYC food-based radio network which broadcasts out of a converted container at the back of the fabled Roberta’s Pizzeria in Bushwick. Great programmes with regular presenters such as Mitchell and legendary beer purveyor Jimmy Carbone, with all the latest buzz about what’s going on in the food world here in NYC. Which is a lot. You can listen to my chat with Mitchell here:
My sincere apologies, as ever, for the echoing silence on the blog front…. I have averaged one post every nine months for the past two years, ’nuff said. I really must do better! In any case, I have been inspired to start again because I just spent a great couple of days at the James Beard Foundation Conference in NYC on the Paradox of Appetite. Many inspiring speakers, including Raj Patel, Marion Nestle, Phil Jones, Karen Washington. Many highlights, including:
Claude Fischler on the cultural context of appetite, comparing two descriptions of food culture from the 1930s and 50s: an American describing French, eating habits, and vice versa. The outcome? The Frenchman found the American habit of dining in long rows standing up at a counter utterly puzzling, ‘just as in a stable’, while the American found the French rigidity of always eating the same food at the same time equally perplexing; a lack of variety and adventure that ‘non-Frenchmen associate rather with a zoo’. Conclusion: people who don’t eat as we do, eat like animals.
More anon – but if you want to watch more now, the whole lot is available online here: “>JBF Conference.
Back in June 2012, I went to Rio+20 at the invitation of the Nordic Council of Ministers to host a debate on New Nordic Food and its potential to create healthier food cultures and sustainable rural economies. The event was inspired by my Danish chef friend Trine Hahnemann, and it sought parallels between Nordic and Brazilian food cultures: very different on the surface, yet driven by similar concerns: to live in harmony with nature and the seasons; to support biodiversity by finding foods from as many sources as possible; to strengthen traditional foods and methods of production, and to maintain a healthy balance between mankind’s needs and those of nature.
The debate highlighted the importance of understanding global food issues in a cultural context. Nordic nations are highly industrialised and the most equitable on earth; in Brazil, food is still linked to development issues and poverty. Then there is the food itself: while northern countries celebrate rye, fish and berries, Brazilian rainforests provide the greatest food diversity on earth; a diversity which is itself at risk from the globalised food economy of which Nordic countries are an inevitable part.
Trine Hahnemann, who also cooked a delicious Brasilo-Nordic feast later, put forward her case for sustainable eating: an 80:20 split between plants and animals, and a 60:40 ratio of locally produced to imported food.
Brazilian chef Teresa Corçao spoke about manioc, a hugely versatile traditional staple of North East Brazil, which has been neglected but is now making a comeback, partly due to her own ‘Instituto Maniva’, which seeks to rediscover and celebrate this most willing and satisfying of foods. For Teresa, ‘cooking is a political act’, and chefs have a powerful role to play, as they are replacing mothers as cooks to the people. Her ‘manioc house’ has a crazy network of people, she says, full of stories and emotion, many to do with poverty; but it is also a place where people can find a new, shared tool for social and environmental change. You can find out more about this sitopian project here: Instituto Maniva
Supplying a very different perspective was Palle Christiansen, Greenland’s Minister for Nordic Cooperation. While agreeing that local cuisines are inextricably bound up with identity, Christiansen pointed out that Greenland has only one harvest a year, and cannot manage a ‘60-40′ split between locally produced and traded food; nor would it be feasible to attempt an 80-20 split of plant to animal-derived food, since for many Greenlanders, whale and seal meat were the mainstay of the diet. ‘We have the freshest prawns in the world’ said Christiansen, but went on to say that locally-caught Humpback Whale, a mainstay of the Innuit diet, was increasingly polluted. While recognising the emotional issues attached to the eating of whale-meat and the need to keep international debate going, Christiansen urged that it was important to remember, when speaking of sustainable diets, that any prescriptions must adapt to local conditions. Local doctors are recommending that the Innuit kept eating whale and seal for their nutritional value; as Christiansen put it: ‘our daily bread is meat’.
Renato Maluf, former president of the Brazilian National Council on Food Safety and Nutrition, agreed that biodiversity is about people, as well as food. In Brazil there is also a fear of poisoned food, he said, which is why there is increasing interest in an agro-ecological approach. Brazil is not exempt from the global trend in obesity, either; indeed it is as important as hunger as an issue in the country. Maluf emphasised the importance of government intervention, saying government food procurement in Brazil had helped pay a higher price to farmers who promoted biodiversity.
For more on the debate, see here:
Nowhere is the gathering pace of the Food Movement clearer than in New York City, whence I have just returned from a trip to speak at a conference called, appropriately enough, How Food Systems Shape Cities. Within hours of arriving, I had been asked to help shift soil and plants to create two separate urban farms: one on a rooftop above a soon-to-be-opened restaurant in Lower Manhattan, the other for an inspirational project called SNAP Gardens, which diverts food stamps towards plants and seeds, so that instead of relying on a stream of handouts, recipients are able to achieve some form of food independence:
SNAP Gardens is the brainchild of Daniel Bowman Simon, an extraordinary and intense young man in his early 30s, whose vision and persistence were in large part responsible for persuading Michele Obama to create her famous White House allotment. In an initiative called The WhoFarm (White House Organic Farm Project) he set off with his friend Casey Gustowarow to drive a bus with an organic garden on top around the country for months, collecting signatures to ‘respectfully request that our 44th President oversee the planting of an organic farm on the grounds of The White House’. As the world now knows, that request was respectfully honoured on March 20, 2009, just 70 days after the Obamas took office.
It was on that 11,000 farming road trip that a woman told Daniel that Food Stamps (which now feed 46 million Americans at a cost of $72 billion in 2010 and growing) could be used to buy plants and seeds. To ordinary mortals already engaged in a major campaign, such a snippet of information might have gone unnoticed, but to Daniel, it lit the touch-paper for the project which now dominates his life.
Daniel is by no means the only youthful crusader working to change the food system for the better in NYC. Pioneering rooftop farmer Ben Flanner, whose Brooklyn Grange Farm was the first in the city to achieve planning permission from commercial to agricultural use, is now something of a rooftop farming celebrity guru, constantly in demand to pass on his knowledge and skills to a new generation eager to follow in his footsteps. He oversaw, for example, the aforementioned rooftop restaurant farm installed last week in Lower Manhattan.
Flanner has just opened a second farm in Brooklyn, and, thanks to his impetus, the City is in the process of changing its planning laws to make permission for such farms easier to obtain.
For twenty-somethings Tyler Caruso and Erik Facteau, an environmental planner and consultant biologist respectively, the booming rooftop farming scene in NYC has more to offer than the government yet recognizes. They point out that while green roofs currently get a tax credit of $4.50 per square meter for their water retention properties and heat-island reducing effect, urban farms are not recognised in the same way, despite the fact that they perform precisely the same functions, and arguably more besides. With their project Seeing Green, Caruso and Facteau are working with farmers like Ben Flanner to measure some of the beneficial outputs of the work they do, hoping to show what the true value of urban farming is; although, as they themselves point out, many of its greatest benefits remain unmeasurable.
To write about every exciting food-related project in NYC right now would be impossible; new projects are springing up faster than I can type. But the urban green roof story would not be complete without mentioning Paul Mankiewicz, plant scientist extraordinaire and founder-director of the Gaia Institute, whose mission it is to explore how human communities and natural systems can coexist to mutual benefit.
Paul has created an ultra-lightweight, but highly fertile, ‘Gaia Soil’ suitable for rooftop growing, capable of transforming the typical hot-baked asphalt NYC roofscape familiar from Edward Hopper paintings into the sort of verdant, vibrant wilderness glimpsed in this recent photo from Red Hook taken by our dear mutual friend Claire Hartten. Paul has inspired many of the current crop of youthful NYC food crusaders, among them Daniel Bowman Simon, who worked with him for two years before leaving to pursue his own projects. Food and nature, people and life: they all come down to networks, and when you encounter the energy in ones like this, it’s impossible not to feel optimistic about the future.
I am delighted to announce that Hungry City is now available in Arabic. The packages above arrived today from Cairo, with their impressive array of stamps. I look forward to hearing what Arabic-speaking readers think of it!
Toronto, as I mentioned in my previous post, is something of a hotspot for students of food urbanism. Of many inspiring projects I visited or heard about on my recent trip there, FoodShare stands out. Founded as a food bank in 1985 by then Mayor of Toronto, Art Eggleton, FoodShare has grown into Canada’s largest community food security organization, reaching over 145,000 children and adults a month. An extraordinary amalgam of people and projects, ideas and initiatives for which the mot de jour description food hub is entirely inadequate, it comprises, inter alia, a ‘Good Food Box’ non-profit community box scheme, collective kitchen and community garden, FoodLink Hotline, educational programmes by the dozen, and a powerful advocacy role in community and city politics.
Debbie Field, pictured with a checklist at the top of this post, is the organisation’s dynamic and much-lauded director. She describes its remit thus:
‘FoodShare Toronto is a non-profit community organization whose vision is Good Healthy Food for All. We take a multifaceted, innovative, and long-term approach to hunger and food issues. At FoodShare we work on food issues “from field to table” – meaning that we focus on the entire system that puts food on our tables: from the growing, processing and distribution of food to its purchasing, cooking and consumption. We operate innovative grassroots projects that promote healthy eating, teach food preparation and cultivation, develop community capacity and create non-market-based forms of food distribution. Public education on food security issues is a big part of our mandate: we create and distribute resources, organize training workshops and facilitate networks and coalitions. We believe that food is vital to the health of individuals and communities, and that access to good, healthy food is a basic human right’.
You can’t say fairer than that. What I love about FoodShare is the breadth of its vision. I know of many innovative projects dealing with hunger, food waste, growing schemes, community health and educational programmes, and many more inspirational groups and individuals working tirelessly to influence food policy, but to find all these things in one place is rare indeed. It’s a model that can inspire us all.
To find out more about FoodShare, click here
I was delighted recently to be invited to speak at ‘Together at the Table’, the Toronto Food Policy Council’s 20th anniversary celebration. For anyone interested in food and cities, Toronto is something of a lodestar, since its much-emulated Food Policy Council (FPC), a community organisation embedded in the city’s Board of Health with the remit to advise the city on food policy matters, was the first of its kind.
The event, held in the city’s magnificent St. Lawrence Hall, was both inspirational and educational. A succession of speakers told of the FPC’s early formation (inspired by a visit to Tim Lang and the London Food Commission), of how its unique position had allowed it to transcend the boundaries between community activism and local government, how a single issue (the fight against bovine growth hormone) had raised matters of national and global importance, and how, above all, food can connect ideas and people.
I have rarely heard a more inspiring and insightful series of speakers, or learned more in a single day about the transformative power of food. I could – and indeed shall – write more about it, but for now, I can heartily recommend the many ground-breaking reports by founder-members and former co-ordinators including Rod MacRae, Brewster Kneen and Wayne Roberts, available on the FPC’s website:
I have recently become a mentor of This is Rubbish, a great community interest company working to reduce food waste in the UK. On Saturday 5th November, they are organising an day-long conference in collaboration with the Centre for Alternative Technology called Forum and Feast, which will take place at Machnylleth in Wales. You can find out more about it, and TiR, here:
I have just been to Singapore to speak at the Making Future Cities symposium, an initiative of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability (SEC). The programme, which is just getting underway, has nine different research strands, each of which is looking at the future of cities from a different perspective, and a food strand is due to start next year.
Singapore is jaw-dropping – the sort of place that permanently shifts the landscape of your mind. With a population of 5 million and a land area just one third the size of Greater London, it is understandably obsessed with food security; a problem at which the government is prepared to throw more or less unlimited amounts of cash, which luckily flows in faster than it flows out, thanks to Singapore having the largest container port in the world and the fourth largest banking centre.
The result, as Rem Koolhaas discussed in his famous essay in SMLXL, is that the island of Singapore has been radically reshaped since independence. The land area has been increased by 20 percent, by piling offshore and shaving the tops off hills to create infill material; sand from Indonesia is now used instead. In order to conserve water, all the island’s rivers have been dammed up so that none now reaches the sea, and plans are afoot to spend $4.5 billion hollowing out the island’s centre (made of granite) to create a vast underwater cistern. Most of the pre-independence building fabric has been demolished to make way for ‘HDBs’, blocks of flats built by the government Housing Development Board, in which 87 percent of the population now lives.
With a year-round climate of around 30ºC heat and 80% humidity, Singapore feels a bit like a giant inside-out Turkish Bath with spicy food. Of course most of the latter is imported – 95 percent of it – but the cuisine is famously delicious, an intense fusion of some of the yummiest cuisines in the world, much of it served in outdoor ‘Hawker Centres’, or open food courts, where one can choose from a dazzling array of small, family run kitchens:
The craziness of Singapore can be viewed at leisure from the roof of Sky Park, a new 57-storey luxury development on the edge of the city’s marina. From an improbably vegetated ship-like deck full of bamboo and palm trees, one can gaze across an equally improbable infinity pool at a panorama of the city (the image at the top), or, in the other direction, across a vista of newly created parkland to a sea peppered with anchored supertankers waiting to enter port:
The sight reminded me of a favourite image of London’s ‘Legal Quays’ in 1802, then itself the largest sea-port in the world, for access to which ships then had to queue for up to two months:
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
To find out more about Making Future Cities, click here
As I mentioned in my previous post, I was fascinated to discover that the sitopian origins of Sydney and Melbourne bear a striking resemblance to ancient city-founding rituals, such as the Etruscan one you can see me discussing here, during my keynote address at the Melbourne State of Design Festival. If you like, you can watch my whole lecture here: