By: Lauren Hodges
There’s something wonderful about pulling a fully-grown carrot from the ground in which you planted a tiny seed months earlier. Maybe it’s the pride you take in having fostered the creation of something that can nourish you, your family or your neighbors. Or, maybe it’s the comfort you can take in not worrying about mysterious pesticides, genetically-modified seeds, or poor working conditions on farms. It could also just be the satisfaction of saving money on groceries, or the knowledge that this carrot will taste better than the ones you buy in bulk at the supermarket. Whatever that something is, people are beginning to rediscover the joys of small-scale, community-based agriculture. Urban farms and community gardens, as well as private personal gardens, are popping up in cities all over the world, filling plates with fresh, sustainably-grown produce harvested locally.
But a majority of items in the average American’s refrigerator travel a much longer distance from farm to plate. Their route is built and carried out by industrial processes that have turned farms into factories and pushed the human faces of agriculture beneath the shadows – or completely out of the picture. And these are just fruits and vegetables – according to a study published in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition, about 61% of Americans’ food and beverage purchases can be classified as “highly processed,” meaning their initial plant or animal source is “unrecognizable” in the final product (think sodas, cookies, and refined breads). So basically, we eat a lot of unnatural junk. And the people who make that unnatural junk are getting very, very rich – after all, just a handful of companies control nearly all of the branded food in the U.S.
And as far as produce goes, many of those who actually harvest it face unacceptably low wages and rough working conditions (and that’s just produce grown in the States). At the same time, the federal government spent $177.6 billion on commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2012. Although they are intended to serve as financial “safety nets” for farmers, these subsidies are disproportionately awarded to a small group of large-scale farms that grow crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans, which are key ingredients in processed food and livestock feed, but not necessarily healthy meals. And although shouting about GMO giant Monsanto seems redundant by now, the chemical and biotech company is undeniably making serious profits from the crop varieties it has patented – including about 80% of corn and 95% of soybeans grown in the U.S., according to company documents obtained by the Associated Press.
And that’s just food production. Food access is another story. Here in the U.S., supermarket chains often refuse to build in low-income areas, causing around 18 million people to live in food deserts. Overseas, U.S. exports made cheap by subsidies are flooding domestic markets, putting small farmers out of business.
This is the state of our current food system. It’s a massive-scale, depersonalized machine, created by business and supported by policy. It doesn’t care much for the people who can’t afford to buy in, or even the people who keep it running through their labor in the fields. It is not bothered by the negative effects it is having on both human health and the health of the planet. But it is working pretty well for a handful of individuals and companies. And even those who don’t like the system usually can’t help but participate in it, in some way or another.
The flaws in this system, though, are becoming more apparent than ever. The Slow Food movement has swept both the U.S. and the world, inspiring people to rethink the ways in which we grow and consume food. As a result, small-scale community agriculture is experiencing a renaissance that has allowed folks from all over to get their hands dirty and experience firsthand the rewards of growing food. Because planting, nurturing, harvesting, eating, and sharing your own food is such a radical departure from the norm, some scholars and activists have called growing one’s own food an act of rebellion. From niche organic gardening bloggers to well-known author Barbara Kingsolver to high-end chef Dan Barber to UT professor and food activist Raj Patel, a variety of voices are presenting small-scale agriculture as a way to resist the corporatization of food and create a system that is not only healthier, but also more inclusive, vibrant, and just.
It’s a massive-scale, depersonalized machine, created by business and supported by policy.
Resistance means more than just a hearty fuck-you to the powers that be, though. An act of resistance is spatial, visible, and intentional. In other words, it demands and uses space to make a visible, purposeful point – think about a sit-in protest, for example. Resistance also involves actively interacting with the social structures created by these dominant powers, often in order to subvert them. It is clear that those who choose to grow their own food rather than consume products of industrial agriculture are making a visible, intentional statement (that can have spatial dimensions as well), but are these folks engaging in resistance or just making an alternative lifestyle choice? Stephanie Hamborsky, co-director of the UT Microfarm, believes that small-scale agriculture can indeed be a form of resistance – but it’s a little more complicated than that.
All agriculture is spatial by nature, but the success and symbolism of small-scale agriculture is especially contingent upon physical space. A garden on a former industrial site has a different meaning than a garden located in a private backyard, for example. To Hamborsky, space is the primary factor in determining whether or not growing one’s own food constitutes an act of resistance. She believes that engaging in agriculture in a food desert or other highly urbanized area can qualify as resistance. “In these environments, where fresh, local food has become a luxury, food growing can oppose the status quo and reject the diet offered by supermarkets, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants,” she says.
She adds that the space in which agriculture occurs can create a sense of rebellion in other ways too, such as when community agriculture is pitted against re-zoning or development pressures at the city level. But in Hamborsky’s eyes, “the alternative food movement is often dominated by whiteness and elitism” – and for that reason, there is nothing particularly rebellious about it. The desire for alternative food ways may be changing individual diets and even the way that large food companies do business,but until the movement actually challenges the status quo (i.e., white upper-class hegemony) it seems like more of a trend than a rebellion.
Community agriculture does have the power to help build movements of resistance among marginalized groups, though. Hamborsky notes that when the physical space of a garden or small farm is visible to community members, people will stop by and ask questions, engaging with and enjoying the beauty of the space. She says making a garden available to the community promotes community cohesion.” “Growing and sharing food builds community in a uniquely powerful and simple way,” she says.
It’s this sense of community that has the power to enact social change beyond our plates. When the community at large is engaged by a visible growing space – including people of color or lower-income folks who may feel excluded by the kale-and-Whole Foods-dominated image of alternative foodways – an act of resistance can take place.
Intentionality also seems inherent in community agriculture. After all, fruits and vegetables don’t just appear – in most cases they require careful cultivating over a significant period of time. For this reason, all community gardening is an act of resistance in the sense that it is an intentional decision to participate in an alternative to the dominant system. However, intentionality reaches beyond the decision to plant a seed. Hamborsky notes that when growing spaces are simply dropped into food deserts by well-meaning but disconnected forces, they can fail – or worse, aid gentrification in inner-city neighborhoods. If a community garden or farm is to be a tool for social justice, and therefore a form of resistance, there must be meaningful intentions behind its establishment. Hamborsky believes that small-scale agriculture can absolutely promote social justice, as it increases a community’s autonomy, food security, and health while emphasizing “democratic participation” and cooperative management.
She’s also full of ideas on how to mindfully use community gardens for social justice. The key, Hamborsky emphasizes, is to support communities building and managing their growing spaces autonomously – without the presence of “interventionist, missionary-type projects led by privileged white folks and/or community outsiders.” Local governments and community organizations can provide this support by setting aside land and volunteering time and knowledge, but leaving control of the space to the people. Hamborsky cites the Black nationalist movement’s support of independent community agriculture as an essential tool for Black liberation as an example of how community agriculture can be both an act of resistance and a promoter of social justice. In short, when growing food involves the intention of truly changing the system (and the social structures that have helped build it), rather than just personally avoiding it, the act of growing one’s own food can indeed be a form of resistance.
If we take the definition of resistance as a checklist – spatial, visible, intentional, interacts with existing power structures – than it’s easy to agree with those thinkers who liken growing food outside of the mainstream to rebellion. Even Hamborsky doesn’t disagree that small-scale, community-based agriculture can be a form of resistance. But does an act really resist power structures if it simply continues to reinforce them in different ways? Industrialized, large-scale agriculture was created by and continues to benefit the white, the wealthy and the corporate while others receive the bulk of the harm caused by this system. When community agriculture exists as a sphere dominated by the same type of people, it may improve participants’ health and environmental outcomes, but it will not challenge the hegemony behind the mainstream food system. But it can; if a conscious effort is made to make community growing spaces accessible to those it has too often ignored, community agriculture can both rebel against a deeply flawed food system and be a force for social change – something a true act of resistance has the capacity to do.
But it can; if a conscious effort is made to make community growing spaces accessible to those it has too often ignored, community agriculture can both rebel against a deeply flawed food system and be a force for social change – something a true act of resistance has the capacity to do.