Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Local suburbs, local food


I was invited to be on a panel of bloggers at the Darebin Homemade Food & Wine Festival on the weekend, where I was asked, How do seasonal, sustainable and ethical food practices define local suburbs and strengthen local communities? This is my response.


First, to clarify. Seasonal food is local food, food which grows at a particular time of the year in a particular location close to home; and eating locally seems quite clearly to be the most ethical and sustainable way to eat.

Anyway, I've been asked to talk about how our food practices define local suburbs. But I'd like to turn the question on its head, and talk about how local suburbs define our food practices. To do so, I'll talk about two places I have lived.

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Washington, DC. We moved from a quarter acre block to an apartment in a planned development. No property had a garden, let alone a veggie patch; and there were no corner stores. One of the hardest things to become accustomed to was the absolute domination of the supermarkets. There were no greengrocers, no butchers, no delis, no markets, no milk bars and, except for a chain of bagel bakeries, nowhere to get bread.

Of course, with no local shops we learned to do our shopping once a week at the supermarket, like everybody else; and to carry that amount of shopping we needed to use the car, like everybody else. Anyway, a walk in that suburb often meant someone yelled at you as they drove past; being a pedestrian was and still is a highly suspicious activity in many parts of the US.

Driving thus defined the landscape; the county was crisscrossed by highways and freeways. Even more, driving to and shopping at big stores defined how people interacted. We never bumped into anyone at the shops or on the street; we never had casual conversations with people we didn't already know; we never knew anything about the check out chicks who whisked our groceries into brown paper bags and took our money.

Life was pretty anonymous in that suburb, and so was our food. Because we had to buy all our groceries from the supermarket, we bought the same groceries as everybody else. Choices were limited to what the big corporations could buy in bulk; there was no variation store to store or season to season. Fresh Californian strawberries and Dominican bananas were available year round, even when there was snow on the ground outside; and except for these broad regions, it was impossible to discover where most of our food came from.

Then I moved back to Australia, to the northern suburbs of Melbourne – talk about Kraft and camembert!

It's easy to make local, seasonal, sustainable choices here; and it has a great deal to do with the built environment. I don't have to shop at supermarkets; instead, I can go to the local shops. We know our local shopkeepers, so we can ask them questions and tell them what we want. You can't get that level of response in a big supermarket. Even better, by shopping locally and talking with the people who sell our food, we help the local shops survive. It's a positive feedback loop.

Sourcing local food often relies on, and builds, good relationships, which you can't form with a supermarket. We've been involved in a CSA, which is community supported agriculture. This means that a group of people commit to buying the produce from one local farm direct from the farmer, in our case a guy named Rod from Captains Creek. We've bought lots of taties from Jack Taters, who comes down regularly from Gembrook in his white ute with his taties and onions and peaches; you might have heard him driving through the suburbs calling 'fresh new potatoes' through his megaphone. We get Brunswick honey and lip balm from Robert at Bee Sustainable, at the top end of Lygon Street. We occasionally order meat from Maria and Jeff in Gippsland, and chicken from Shane in Tarwin Lower. We buy veggies from CERES, which sells stuff grown at their Coburg market garden, and labels the origin of most of its produce. We were involved in an Urban Orchard project, swapping fruit and herbs with other local residents; less formally, we swap eggs for lemons with our neighbour across the road. And, of course, we drop in on farmer's markets from time to time.

These relationships with the retailers and producers of our food are important. They help us remember that food is always the result of somebody's labour. It makes it easier to make ethical choices when you can put a face to the process and know that your food choices affect this person, or that; this landscape, or that. Even better, these relationships give us all a strong sense of belonging to a particular city and the farms which service it.

Our sense of belonging is also strengthened by how we shop: when we're not ordering directly from the Strzelecki Ranges or Captain's Creek, we shop daily, and on foot. It helps our suburb maintain its character as a great place to walk, with lots of little shops and cafes dotted round the place; and we bump into people we know all the time.

Local eating isn't just about shopping and swapping, though. It's also about growing and gleaning. Unlike my apartment in the US, we have a garden here, and it's planted to permaculture principles. But I wasn't born a gardener. I saw only one veggie patch in the US; and I came home and spent years admiring front gardens thickly planted with chicory and rapa before I summoned up the courage to try growing food myself. I learned to keep hens by living with friends who had chooks; it wasn't something that came naturally to me. And in watching older residents carrying bunches of strange herbs, I discovered edible weeds, and now wander the streets myself finding amaranth, lamb's quarters, fennel tops and other good things to eat. Gardening and gleaning are learned skills, which I picked up by observing friends and neighbours, and asking questions.

So the built environment and existing culture of the northern suburbs encouraged my interest in eating locally; and the more interested I became, the more relationships I formed and the more I fed back into the culture of eating locally. This is the opposite of my experience in the US, where I, and my food, were anonymous.

Instead, my life is now woven into a particular time, a particular place and a particular group of people in a dynamic suburb known for its food, its shopping, its street life, and its sense of neighbourhood. And the best way I know to sustain this all, to feed back into the loop and make this lively and life-giving culture stronger, is to keep on blogging and talking and writing about the ways we eat and drink.

(Photo shows the epitome of local eating, one of our backyard egg producers; keeping chickens was impossible where we lived in the US.)

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