From Local Farms to Urban Tables

I’m Margot, a third-year studying Environmental Sciences and Economics in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. I’m incredibly grateful to have received the Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant, with which I will to travel to seven countries around the world this summer, studying local food systems and urban food security. Along with my sincere love of food and travel, my experiences growing up in Los Angeles and New York shaped my desire to study food systems within cities. This past year, I both worked and touristed in numerous countries in Europe and Southeast Asia, and my engagement with numerous magnificent and incredibly different food cultures in each countries also served as great inspiration to create and refine my proposed research topic. Despite my extensive prior travel experiences, I have never before traveled for thirteen weeks by myself in a circle (or a zig-zaggy circle…) around the world. I hope you enjoy reading my this travel/research blog (the first blog I’ve ever written that hasn’t been mandated by my mom!) as I hopefully make it on-time to the sixteen flights, overcome language barriers in Airbnbs and interviews, and of course, eat a lot of good, local food. I also hope this blog does justice to all of the incredible places I’m going and people I’ll encounter along the way.

Circumnavigated

Well, a lot has happened since my last blog post. I’m not sure where exactly to start, but notably, I am not currently in Argentina, per my original plan. I instead completed my circumnavigation (and flew straight from Australia to the U.S.) last week. Also notable are the physical risks posed by local food systems, particularly when local food production involves non-“professional” farmers in spaces like community gardens.

Following an interview at Jane Street Community Garden in Brisbane, Australia two weeks ago, I hung around for a bit to chat with a garden member working on his plot. We both got called over to help lift a heavy bathtub, which was functioning as a plant-bed, onto a wooden frame a few feet off the ground. Long story short, my hand got crushed between the sharp-edged bathtub full of rocks, soil, and plants, and the wooden frame. My metatarsal (thumb bone) got shifted out of place, two bone fragments fell off my thumb, and my wrist was fractured in two places.

The gorgeous garden that did me in

After one surgery, two nights in the hospital, many nice dinner splurges, an unplanned road trip down the East coast of Australia, and about a billion zippers opened and closed with my teeth later, I’m now back in Chicago. Technically, the hand surgeon cleared me to travel on to Argentina, but then the hand therapist convinced me that opening and closing my suitcase would be really hard with one hand (true). Were anything to happen in or en route to Argentina—say, I accidentally hit my hand really hard against the plane window when waking up from a nap (happened on the way back to Chicago)—I would likely experience unnecessary stress and extra complications in getting appropriate medical care when and where I needed.

I have so much to be thankful for: I had 11 weeks of incredible trip around the world where I got to pursue the most fun and simultaneously interesting and meaningful research project. I cannot speak more highly of my experience conducting interviews with people involved in local food systems and cities around the world. While my research paper is still TB…started…and I don’t have any groundbreaking or concise, well-worded conclusions yet, it was simply so incredible to see how certain trends, successes, and challenges regarding local food manifested in and different ways within such different yet eerily similar contexts throughout the world.

At this particular moment, I have two things that I’m most bummed about: one, I’m currently queasy because I just took my cast off to wash my hand (the position my thumb is stuck in really grosses me out), and two, despite that conducting my research was the most fulfilling part of my summer, I am currently not motivated to work on my research report. To a practical extent, the combination of dictating into my computer and typing slowly with one hand, which is how I’m writing this blog post, sucks. But then on the other hand ( 🙁 ), the extra complications surrounding writing a report on something I was so incredibly excited about all summer is taking a bit of a mental toll on me.

But more things to be thankful for: I was injured in an English-speaking country, surrounded by people who were kind and caring and called an ambulance for me. I was sent to one of the best hospitals in Brisbane with one of the best hand surgeons in Queensland. If you see me in the next few weeks, I might be cranky because of all of the time I’ve spent on the phone with doctor’s offices and my insurance company, but that’s so insignificant given that those frustrations have nothing to do with my (good) health. Granted, despite that this is only a hand injury—not my leg, not something more serious—I’m currently quite challenged to figure out how to stay healthy and happy when I can’t do the physical activities that are normally so important to my personal well-being. I’ve increased my walking stamina significantly within the past few days, but I’m still finding certain limits, like when I tried to cut a potato with my left hand this morning and realized that for my own safety, I needed to step away from the sharp knife…

The paramedic & I did not get along, but he was still very supportive of my blog (photo creds to him)

Thankful for the U.S.’s short ambulance wait times

I plan to revisit the few Brisbane blogs that I began working on before the bathtub incident very soon; I’m ready for my feelings about my injury to stop lessening my excitement about my research. Additionally, I will be posting pictures of my x-rays once I retrieve my portable disc player from my basement. Or if you happen to be in Chicago and want to stop by, the Australians don’t store X-rays digitally apparently, so I have new decorations for my room.

Wallaby doctor > human doctor

Finally, thank you to everybody who supported me throughout all of my trip-related endeavors and happenings, from helping with my research proposal last fall to comforting me on the phone with doctors this August. Specifically, thank you to my parents, my sister, my boyfriend, Peter Civetta, Tara Mittleburg, Carol Narup, and the rest of the Circumnavigators who made this trip possible. And more blogs soon.

 

Community Gardens – In Brisbane & Budapest

I hugged a koala

I suppose it can’t be surprising that a lot of my blog posts begin weeks before I finish them. (Although secret: there is this nifty function on the admin side of this website that allows me to set the date I publish my blog posts, so I can make it look like I’m more on top of things than I am.)*

Secret

But indeed, while I’m still wrapping some of my Singapore blogging, I’m now in Brisbane**—where I’ve been so surprised to see laksa on the menus in so many restaurant windows! Despite my current proximity to Asia though, my eating focus here has been to catch up on my vegetable intake, now that I’m a bit more distanced from so many delicious ($2) noodle and rice dishes. I’ve been making good use of my lovely accommodation’s (“a hostel for adults,” as an internet review describes it) cozy kitchen and common space, which has also provided a nice opportunity to reset back to my flexitarian eating habits. My research focus, on the other hand, is back to urban residents who grow their own food, through community gardens and at their homes.

I began feeling under the weather right before I arrived down under (couldn’t resist), but I’ve somehow struggled through my mistakes taking non-drowsy and drowsy Actifed at the wrong times of day and had a busy first few days here. My first two research days, I was shown around to a number of gardens in different Brisbane districts by the Community Development Coordinators from Brisbane’s City Council. This weekend, I met with some passionate home growers who represent the thriving local growing community found at localfoodbrisbane.ning.com. I’ve also ridden on my share of long suburban bus rides to visit other community gardens and farmers markets, where I’ve spoken to local farmers about various other local food networks in Brisbane.

When I haven’t been doing my research, I have really enjoyed using Brisbane’s bike share program to get around. The buses here are 5 dollars—okay, 4 USD—for a 10-minute ride from my hostel to the city center. So, the gorgeous river-side bike paths are the obvious best-choice. Brisbane is indeed a gorgeous city, and it feels way more relaxed than Singapore or Tokyo. Plus, don’t tell my Singaporean acquaintances, but I think Brisbane beats out Singapore for the most sparkly (pristine) city I’ve ever visited, despite that Singapore is often cited as being the cleanest city in the world.

And on Friday, I hugged a koala, so that was great. (I unfortunately did laundry Thursday night though, I might be smelling like Rodney for a few more weeks now…)

 

Rodney is nine year old & I am very happy in this pic

 

Other Margot life updates include that I’ve found a fantastic yoga studio just five minutes from where I’m staying (which had an even more fantastic Groupon deal!). Over the past nine weeks of traveling, the importance of maintaining my physical and mental health has become increasingly apparent.*** Given the broad geographic and research scope of my trip this summer, it’s nearly impossible to maintain any sort of a daily routine for longer than a week. Given my usual satisfaction with keeping busy and scheduled, I’m happy with how I’ve become more and more comfortable spending my in-between interview time aimlessly wandering rather than having any specific goal. (And I refuse to yet think how this will apply back to my life at Northwestern in the fall.) Regardless, setting an hour out of my day to walk around, or yoga, or whatever without my backpack nearby—thus eliminating any possibility of me sitting down to type any fledgling section of a blog post—has been really important to help me maintain some sort of groundedness within a whirlwind summer of travel and constant change. Furthermore, I’d prefer the welcoming, community vibe of yoga over my attempts to time my YouTube yoga sessions to when many other dorm are out of the room.

Back to Budapest – Community Gardens & Their Challenges

When I was in Budapest, I spoke with Zsuzsanna Fáczányi, a doctoral candidate in Corvinus University Budapest’s Faculty of Landscape Architecture. Fáczányi, who studies community gardens in Budapest, helped me make sense of the various leadership structures of different gardens. You can find some more detail on the various community garden management structures here.

But for a brief recap anyway, most of Budapest’s ~30 current community gardens were developed by two nonprofit organizations. One of those organizations, KÉK, is an established nonprofit with many projects aimed to increase Budapest’s sustainability and community development. Two people at this nonprofit manage its community garden program, and they work primarily with private and for-profit enterprises to open their gardens (although in a few instances, they have worked with the local government.) The other nonprofit, VKE, was created and is led by Rosta Gábor. Gábor reaches out to local district governments and communities to spawn interest in creating a community garden, and the district governments then commission VKE receives funding to help create it. Other community gardens in Budapest were founded by grassroots organizations and community members who’ve worked closely with private businesses and local governments to create the gardens.

All gardens I visited in Budapest struggle to maintain their positive community presence and impact overtime. Some gardens have difficulty securing their physical presence (keeping their land), and nearly all of the gardens struggle to uphold their community development goals and activities. Gardens dependent on private organizations for land, like those founded by KÉK and other grassroots organizations, are vulnerable to their land owners’ changing leadership and development plans. Gardens sponsored by local governments, like a few KÉK gardens and the VKE gardens, have secure land tenure, yet they still may not have ensured access to sufficient funding for other garden input costs. Furthermore, all gardens I visited faced the same challenge: maintaining the gardens as lively, social spaces for people to connect and share experiences. None of the gardens I visited had paid employees, and the responsibility to create community activities largely fell upon a few volunteers. When those volunteers were unable to unwilling to keep up with social activity scheduling or general garden communication, the gardens’ positive social functions diminished.

Fáczányi suggested that an ideal form of garden creation would be for community members to join together and then petition the local government to help them create the garden. That would avoid community development challenges that manifest when gardens are created in a “top-down” manner—when gardens are set up and presented to the community as a means to increase community development. If community members have the initiative to join together and petition for a community garden, it might be indicative of that community’s long-term sustainability.

 

Community Gardens in Brisbane

Many of Brisbane’s community gardens were created exactly how Fáczányi proposed. Many Brisbane community gardens emerged from motivated community members’ passion and drive to create their own community, food-producing spaces. Yet, garden leaders still often struggle with the same challenges experienced by their Hungarian counterparts, such as maintaining a cohesive community vibe, applying for and securing proper funding, ensuring adherence to city legislation, and ensuring all members are equally committed to the garden work and the community atmosphere. Most garden leaders/coordinators whom I spoke to in Brisbane do their work on a volunteer basis. Therefore, despite these gardens’ founding stories, in which community members joined together, galvanized neighborhood and political support for the garden, and created gardens based on shared, community principles, each Gardens day-to-day functioning still has a precarious dependence on a few individuals who are able to put it in so many volunteer hours each week.

Certainly, many gardens I visited in Budapest do not struggle with day-to-day management challenges because of the dedicated individuals they have running them. However, these gardens cannot provide a universal example of how to solve these challenges because of these gardens’ key demographics. One Google review of the Yoorola Street Community Garden describes this phenomenon well: “Lots of old people,” wrote internet user with screenname Berlin 1945. Sure, I did see a few families working on their plots at Yoorola Street the Sunday morning I visited, but as the garden commenced their monthly meeting (following the “highly encouraged” weekly volunteer event) everybody under 50 (but me) left.

Beyond the necessary private and/or government funding, any community organization requires extensive, donated time and energy resources by community members, specifically by the garden leaders. Securing garden leaders who are able to consistently put it in those resources is a challenge for local food organizations worldwide. In Brisbane, I encountered two potential solutions to this challenge for community gardens: one, appoint retirees to lead community gardens and two, have an external organization (nonprofit, private, or government) pay garden coordinators. However, neither of these solutions are easily doable or universal by any means. The former does not necessarily maximize community gardens’ potential development to serve broader populations and benefit people who don’t have access time and financial resources. It also may still unfairly strain the garden leaders’ time resources, whether or not they have any other work obligations. And the latter poses the question of how well a paid community organization leader can guide the organization to best serve the needs of the community.

Another Type of Garden — for Refugees

Green P Farms, located literally in the middle of Racing Queensland’s Deagon racecourse Sandgate, Brisbane, depicts the success of the top-down effort to construct a community garden that benefits marginalized populations. Creating a community garden specifically for vulnerable or marginalized community members is a potential way to maximize that garden’s contribution to its members’ food security, food literacy, social engagement, and general livelihoods. So often, however, my research has demonstrated that top-down community building/community organization development can often be misdirected and ineffective.

Michael Crook, Sandgate local, founded the first community garden by the Deagon racecourse in response to a suggestion by another politically active community member, who bought Crook a beer “in a union tent [Crook] didn’t like.” Despite Crook’s disagreement with certain political beliefs of the union tent he sat in, he recognized a community garden’s potential to provide for his community with minimal political or bureaucratic obstructions. Nonetheless, the farm was supported by Brisbane City Council, which provided the initial startup funding.

Green P Farms has since evolved through multiple iterations with a few different locations, supporting organizations, and auspices. Most recently, the majority of the land area of the farm has been converted into plots for 47 Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Burmese refugees grow their own food. The remaining farm area is managed by volunteers, and the produce is sold at a local market each Friday. Those produces sales provide a weekly income of $200 to $400 and sustain the farm’s general expenses.

Green P Farms is a unique example of a community garden that directly increased its members’—refugees—expendable income and food security. Furthermore, employees at the local Housing Service Centre have noted significant improvements in certain refugees’ mental health since their started their plots at Green P Farm. Indeed, Green P’s refugee members produce significant amounts of food, which may have reduced their grocery budgets so significantly that they can now purchase medicines they previously couldn’t afford. Furthermore, the refugees have gained a valuable community space, which is especially important to their wellbeing given cultural and language barriers they face in other Brisbane community spaces.

Crook, Green P Farm’s founder and manager is very liberal, very political, and very dedicated to Green P Farm’s mission. Nevertheless, he is looking to soon move on to other work. With the funds from the weekly market sales, Green P recently hired a part-time a person to keep in change of the administrative tasks of the garden—specifically, communicating with the garden’s auspice and coordinating with the landowner, Racing Queensland. Yet, further management of the garden will soon be necessary, which includes more hands-on activities and coordinating with the refugee plot owners. Despite these persisting challenges (like those of many community gardens), Green P Farm notably increased the livelihoods of 47 refugees in Brisbane.

Thus far in my blog, I’ve extolled all of the positive impacts of community gardens on people’s mental and physical well-being, plus the broader potential community- and city-wide impacts on civil society, local governance, and food systems infrastructure. At first thought, community gardens may seem like the perfect way to benefit refugee populations, specifically those who might suffer from lack of social and political support and services. Yet this idea could lead down a slippery slope. What are the risks posed when people create a community organization intended to benefit people unlike and/or unfamiliar to themselves? As a community organization, community gardens require the active engagement and dedication of their members. Is it okay if the organization’s ultimate members/beneficiaries aren’t present during the garden’s development? Will their needs and interests be accurately reflected and met?

Recently, multiple community gardens in Budapest have been created specifically for Roma people. Yet these gardens have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in positively impacting their Roma members, which reflects the challenges of creating supposed community-based garden intended to benefit a certain subset of community members who did not instigate the garden’s creation—but whose interest and active involvement is necessary to sustain the garden in the long-run. Fanny Bársoni, community gardens researcher at Corvinus University in Budapest cited two main reasons for these gardens’ failure. First, Roma populations in Budapest have no historical or cultural connection to agriculture. Second, current, struggling Roma gardens have a top-down structure: they were created by individuals who lack insight into the garden beneficiaries’ cultural backgrounds and present needs and interests. The gardens’ resources have been poorly allocated.

In contrast to Roma people’s lack of historical connection to agriculture, Green P Farm has specifically benefited refugees with significant agricultural histories and experience. Indeed, on the first day Green P Farm held a meeting for potential refugee garden participants, almost fifty people (rather than the five or ten expected) showed up. Yet, Green P Farms has still only predominantly served refugees from three countries, Burma, Nepal, and Bhutan. Crook has engaged with other refugees, from many African and Middle Eastern countries, yet they haven’t had much interest in starting their own plots at Green P Farm.

Nonetheless, Crook’s mindful, cautious management of Green P Farm has allowed Bhutanese, Burmese, and Nepalese refugees to manage their plots and farming activities as they see best fit. Each group of refugees has their own informal management structure, and all has gone very well thus far: the plots have been divided fairly, 47 refugee member have happily, consistently shown up each week, and harvests have been bountiful. Crook and the other Green P Farm volunteers created a community organization to serve a group of marginalized people who do not speak the same language, hold the same cultural values, or have the same political experiences as themselves—no easy feat.

___

*This is actually all the more relevant now, since I first wrote that a few weeks ago, but now I’m finishing up this post with my one-hand typing back in Chicago.

**Now, in Chicago.

***This part of my blog is a particular bummer to re-read and copy edit now, but I’m doing my best. At least I have none of the same struggle find good blogging cafes in Chicago, which I experienced in most countries I visited this summer. I’m currently chilling alongside a bunch of hipsters in Ukranian Village with speedy wifi and unlimited coffee refills.

Singapore: local food production –> increased food security

Finally, here’s a post that directly responds to a fundamental research question of mine: how do local farms contribute to a city’s food security?

(In my last two blog posts, I’ve answered a similar question: why are local food organizations and non-production focused farms important to ensure Singapore’s food security? Local food organizations promote consumer agricultural education and awareness, which makes those consumers more inclined to grow their own food and purchase locally grown food. Those activities both further propel the cycle of agricultural education and awareness and help sustain production-focused local farms.)

Pt. 1 – But first–hi, from Penang, Malaysia

I’m writing this blog as I sit for my fifth meal of the day at a street food center in Penang, Malaysia. (It’s noon.) Hopefully I can write for long enough to distract myself until I regain the appetite to try the next item on my list of about fifty foods I’m determined to try in Penang during my one more day here. I first thought it would be fun to share the list of foods I’ve eaten here in the past day, but it’s honestly so long that it’s embarrassing. Here are some pictures of my favorites, though:

[WHEN I HAVE BETTER WIFI, SORRY!]

So yes, I like food a lot. It’s one of the main reasons why I became interested in sustainable production and consumption networks. And while my trip to Malaysia this weekend is just for fun (AKA to eat), Malaysian agriculture is very important to my research in Singapore.

Per the easy-to-Google statistic, Singapore imports over 90% of its food supply. A top priority in Singapore’s food security roadmap is to diversify its imports, and Singapore currently imports food from 170 countries. Yet a disproportional amount of Singapore’s food imports come from Malaysia: Singapore’s Agricultural and Veterinary Authority (AVA) reported in 2017 that 35 percent of Singapore’s chicken, 17 percent of fish, 93 percent of duck, and 76 percent of eggs.* Therefore, the availability and affordability of imported food Malaysia is critical to Singapore’s food security. Furthermore, how food in Malaysia is produced—i.e. often with pesticides and without any dependable system of organic certification—also directly effects Singapore consumers.

Pt. 2 – So, why are production-focused local** farms so important to ensure Singapore’s food security? Why aren’t the other two key strategies of Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap, diversified imports and emergency food stockpiles, enough?

Local food production in Singapore increases the resilience of the country’s food supply in case of sociopolitical, environment, or economic shocks, which could disturb its current trade networks or the quality of its imported food.

Yes, Singapore currently has secure trade relations with almost 200 countries. The Singapore government’s dedication to maintain its diversified imports has recently elevated Singapore to become the second most food secure nation in the world—a particular feat given the country’s low rates of agricultural production. Yet there is always political uncertainty, and increasingly drastic, volatile economic and environmental conditions threaten the dependability of country’s established trade partnerships. Furthermore, geo- and socio-political tensions within the countries that Singapore imports from could also threaten the reliability of food those countries export to Singapore.

High food prices Singaporeans faced during the 2007/2008 global food crisis exemplify how environmental uncertainty, depleted natural resources, and climate change cause market instability, which makes Singapore less food secure. The 2007/2008 crisis was caused by a variety of factors, ranging from droughts to high oil prices. During the crisis, Singapore’s imported food prices increase more than 12 percent.

Indeed, to prepare for environmental, economic, and political disturbances, Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap ensures that there are plentiful rice stockpiles on hand. Singapore currently stockpiles a three-month supply of rice by requiring importers to import a minimum of 50 tons each year and keep a two-month stockpile in government warehouses. Yet rice alone is not enough to ensure Singaporeans health and safety in case Singapore’s food imports are made fewer or more expensive due to whatever exogenous factors.

Singapore’s local production—and potential for increased local production under extreme circumstances—is critical to provide the country with a greater buffer in case of decreased or decreased safety of imported food supplies. Popular (and government) estimates are that Singapore could produce 20% of its food locally, which is a very significant number of available, safe, nutritious calories in case Singapore’s current food security status is threatened.

(I personally imagine that Singapore’s self-sufficiency could be significantly greater than 20% given the government’s current minimal land allocations towards agriculture. One local food leader whom I spoke to emphasized the overplay of Singapore’s land constraints: “The government says Singapore has no land, and that’s bullshit,” my interviewee said. Singapore agriculture currently takes up 3% of the country’s land area, golf courses take up 2%, and the military takes up 20%.)

Through my past two blogs, I’ve emphasized the importance of Singapore consumer demand to support local farms and ensure Singapore’s current 10 percent—and growing—level of self-sufficiency. But why are consumers so crucial to securing the existence of farms in Singapore? Why do consumers have such a great responsibility to buy local and support local farms when “optimizing local food production” is a core component of Singapore’s Food Security Roadmap?

Because of the word “optimize.” Singapore’s current strategies to “optimize” its local food supply does not necessarily mean provide Singaporeans with the most safe, healthy, satisfying food that consumers demand. Per Singapore’s current prevailing agricultural policies, to “optimize” means maximize agricultural productivity of key food items like eggs, fish, and leafy vegetables. Mr. Kawh Boon Wan, Minister for National Development, stated how local farms “must invest in technology and adopt efficient farming methods so that they can grow more with less land and fewer workers” (source: AVA website). The AVA’s main avenue through which it supports local farms is through its Agricultural Productivity Fund. The two current active funding schemes, the Basic Capability Upgrading Scheme and the Productivity Enhancement Scheme, cofund the purchase of equipment that would help increase a farm’s productivity (“such as increase in production, manpower savings, and resource savings”) and “the purchase of automated, advanced and integrated farming systems,” respectively (AVA website). However, the majority of these two programs’ funding support is restricted to help farms grow a small list of crops (with eggs, fish, and leafy vegetables at the top of that list).

Beyond the Agricultural Productivity Fund, other outstanding government policies further threaten the sustainability of existing local farms and inhibit the development of future farms. Singapore’s agricultural land allocation practices and minimum crop yield requirements are particularly unsympathetic to small farms and organic farms (and those that don’t grow eggs, fish, or leafy vegetables.) Singapore’s short term agricultural leases prevent farmers from gaining secure access to farmland for more than twenty years. The short-term leases impede farmers’ ability to make capital-intensive technological advancements that could boost their productivity-even with the help of the Agricultural Productivity Scheme.

To provide context, in 2019, the leases of 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park will expire, Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park will be converted into a military ground, and those 62 farms wilh have to be relocated. While the exact details of the new land each farm will be allocated is still unknown, those 62 farms will be competing for a smaller total agricultural land area. When they bid for the new land, the farms will have to compete with each other in a way they haven’t before, and the government will “prioritize agricultural land for strategic food farms that produce fish, eggs, and leafy greens” (Ong, 2016).

I spoke to Fabian Liao, Sales and Marketing Manager of Quan Fa Organic Farm, which is currently located in Lim Chi Kan Agrotechnology Park. Liao explained how it would be nearly impossibility for Quan Fa to move to a new, smaller piece of land in 2019, maintain current organic production standards, and meet Singapore’s minimum productivity requirement. Quan Fa currently struggles to meet the minimum production requirements (Quan Fa currently produces 6-to-8 tons a month). Since the end of its lease is approaching, it would not be financially beneficial to make any technological investments, like those the Singapore government promotes, to increase its crop yields. In 2019, Quan Fa will likely not move to a new piece of land in Singapore. Instead, Liao is currently investigating the possibilities of moving the farm across international borders—to Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand.

Why does it matter that Quan Fa Organic Farm may be forced to move out of Singapore? The Singapore government has clearly targeted eggs, fish, and leafy greens as three strategic, nutritional food items to provide for Singaporean’s food security in case of crisis. The government has allocated significant financial resources towards the development of high-productivity, high-tech farms in order to best provide for its people’s food security.

Yet Singapore’s agricultural policies, which aim to maximize immediate agricultural productivity, may overlook the long-term environmental sustainability and/or cultural value of Singaporean agriculture. It’s difficult to objectively explain the potential connection between local agriculture providing Singaporeans access to culturally significant types of food and Singaporean’s food security; any country’s agricultural history and local cuisine is inherently intertwined to its people’s cultural connections, wellbeing, and emotions. Despite how important growing indigenous vegetables may be to sustain Singaporean’s livelihood, I have not included “cultural appropriateness” in my five basic food security indicators—amount, accessibility, nutrition, safety, and resilience of a city’s food supply.*** So, I’ll omit that for now.

 

Regardless, Mando Foo of Bollywood Veggies also described straightforward, food security-related benefits of producing indigenous crops. Since indigenous crops are acclimated specifically to Singapore’s environment, they don’t attract pests or weeds, which means they are easier for Bollywood Veggies to produce (although Bollywood Veggies never uses pesticides). Foo also cited the greater nutritional benefits of indigenous vegetables than the crops the Singapore government promotes, like leafy greens. Leafy greens often have lower caloric contents and fewer nutrients than the wide variety of indigenous vegetables Bollywood Veggies grows.

Despite its rich agricultural history, Singapore recently lost the majority of its agricultural land and knowledge. The Singapore government currently runs perverse incentive schemes where they offer to co-fund big technological investments but don’t provide farmers with secure, long-term leases so farmers can profit from those investments. Is it possible that the Singapore government is over prioritizing immediate productivity without taking into account how recently developed technologies and intensive farming methods may not provide the country with long-term security? Has the government ensured that their minimum farming quotas aren’t depleting its rich soil and thus inhibiting future agricultural productivity? Has the government ensured that its high productivity farms are providing the most healthy, safe food for its citizens?

Maybe the answers to these questions are ‘no, yes, and yes.’ I’ve dedicated most of my research time in Singapore to interviewing key proponents of its local food movement, so I have certainly heard a lot of one side of the story. Given my longstanding personal bias, my marvelous stroll through Bollywood Vegetables’ gorgeous farm grounds, and my moving interviews with small farmers threatened by Singapore’s skewed agricultural policies, I’ve had to take a step back and consider why Singapore’s preference towards high-tech, high productivity farms that grow a few food items is such a problem. Is it?

I will continue to investigate whether Singapore’s agricultural policies may incentivize intensive farming methods that may threaten the future viability of its farmland. However, given the Singapore’s government emphasis—and the global media hype—on urban/rooftop farms in Singapore, I also am uncertain of the trajectory of Singapore’ peri-urban versus urban agricultural developments. Maybe in a few years, urban farms will contribute more food to Singapore than traditional, peri-urban farms.

Yet despite international media attention that Singapore’s advanced urban farms have recently gained—with their innovative rooftop/vertical/aquaponic/hydroponic farming methods—urban farming is still a fledgling industry in Singapore. (I admit, the international media deceived me, too.) Both Darren Ho of Citizen Farm and Darren Tan of Comcrop, two predominant urban farms in Singapore, emphasized the experimental nature of their production methods and early stages of development of their own urban farming enterprises. Furthermore, Singapore currently lacks the appropriate policy, resource pools, and knowledge base to rapidly expand its urban farming industry.

For example, Comcrop currently restricts itself to growing high revenue crops, like basil, mint, and ghost peppers, to maintain its financial profitability. Furthermore, given what Singaporean consumers use these herbs in their cooking Comcrop’s local food currently reaches only a small, exclusive group of Singaporean eaters—mostly high-end, Western-style restaurants. (Yes, Comcrop manages a few social programs, which benefit at-risk youth, people with disabilities, and Singaporean’s who are food insecure, but those aren’t what parts of its business that make it financially viable!)

Additionally, Comcrop’s pioneer rooftop farm status in Singapore has privileged it to work closely with government agencies to ensure it adheres to government legislation. For example, to keep up with building codes, all Comcrop’s farming structure must be removable (so the roof counts as roof and not more building space, in essence.) This unnecessarily complex detail depicts the current lack of infrastructure that the Singapore government provides for the development and expansion rooftop farms in Singapore. Nonetheless, Tan emphasized how Comcrop has worked together with government agencies to help determine what city policies might need adjusting in order to best foster the development of urban farming.

Most people I spoke to in Singapore acknowledged a bit of a conflict between traditional farming and high-tech farming in Singapore. Yet all my interviewees who mentioned this also acknowledged that the best thing to ensure Singapore’s food security would be for Singapore to maintain a combination of traditional and high-tech, urban and peri-urban, soil- and water-based, indigenous and non-indigenous (etc.) crop production.

My own research is limited. I will never be able to decisively determine whether leafy greens or indigenous vegetables, soil-based or hydroponic farms, or investments into diversifying food imports or making local farms more productive is more important to ensure Singapore’s food security. Yet my research on other prominent, international strategies to ensure cities’ food security has provided me with an understanding of the short- and long-term environmental, economic, health-related, and food security benefits of having diversified food sources both locally and internationally.

Land-, resource-, and labor-efficient, and farming methods are critical to maximizing a country’s agricultural production. Yet Singapore’s current incentive schemes to help farmers maximize their agricultural productivity often compromise those farms’ potential to be environmentally sustainable and meet consumers’ quality demands. Furthermore, the current cofounding incentive schemes don’t make sense with Singapore’s farmland allocation procedures and lack of established infrastructure for the development of urban and rooftop farms. Currently, Singaporean consumers’ purchasing activities are critical to securing their access to locally, holistically (/naturally/organically/what you wish) grown varieties of certain crops because the government’s agricultural agenda poses particular challenges for small, local, peri-urban farms.

My preliminary research conclusions dictate that it’s too soon for the Singapore government to put all its eggs in one basket (pun intended). Just as Singapore seeks to diversify its imported food, it should also help diversify its local food production.

Pt. 3 – Organic? & Malaysia again

Finally… remember that time I was in Malaysia and writing about the lack of reliability of Malaysian organic certifications? (I’m in Australia now, whoops.) Malaysian imports comprise a significant portion of Singapore’s food supply. And the country of Malaysia (like the country of Singapore) does not have a government-sponsored, reliable organic certification. When I visited some organic shops in Malaysia, I found that all of the food in the stores was imported from farther away in Asia, from Australia, Europe, or America. This confirmed the lack of reliability of Malaysian “organic” food that many of my Singaporean interviewees described to me. My interviewees explained that the only way they can assure the food they purchase in Singapore is grown without harmful chemicals is if it has internationally-recognized organic certifications (e.g. is certified organic in and imported from the U.S. or Australia) or if is grown by Singaporean farmers they know and trust (e.g. from Quan Fa or Bollywood Veggies). While the existing body of literature on organic versus non-organic food and people’s health is limited, many Singaporean’s I spoke to felt imminently threatened by the pesticides used to grow the food they could access and afford at Singaporean supermarkets.

Therefore, in addition to ensure the resilience of Singapore’s food supply in face of economic, environmental, political or shocks, certain forms of agricultural in Singapore, which currently are holding on by the edge of a thread (conscious consumerism), are key to ensuring the safety of Singapore’s food supply, given the unreliability of prevailing food production practices and ‘organic’ certifications.

*I have not yet been able to find updated statistic yet on the amount of imported cereals and produce, but I am still getting to know Singapore’s trade statistics website!

** For my Singapore case study, I’ve defined ‘local’ as within the country’s boundaries.

***I have considered transitioning my research focus from food security to food sovereignty, of which cultural appropriateness is a very key component, but I ultimately chose not to. Nonetheless, food sovereignty is a really important topic to me, and if you have time, I recommend checking out Wikipedia and/or this great article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150903143079

Pt. 4 – So, um… does this count as my research paper yet? As jumbled as these blog posts are, they are honestly very important in helping me get my thoughts out of my pig-scratch notebook and into some sort of coherent form.

As I clued you in on before, I’m currently in Brisbane. I’m also taking a break from my interviews next week to collect my thoughts/flyers/recordings/chicken scratch notes and do some more coherent writing. And while I’ve written this a few times before, maybe soon, I’ll  write some more ~fun travel story~-centered blogposts. However, I think one of the main reasons why I haven’t so far is because I am so enamored with my research topic and research activities.

My discussions about food systems with people I meet everywhere I go are so often the highlights of my travels, not just my research. Having this research grant is such an incredible excuse (basically) to get passionate people in incredible places doing inspiring things to engage with me on their local food interests/work/discoveries that I’ve just labeled with such positive adjectives. I understand, I’m doing research, and I promise that I’ve spent a lot of long bus rides on my way to farms in “rural” Singapore and to community gardens in the Brisbane suburbs reading up on government publications and academic literature to ensure I understand the less glamorous aspects of local food systems development, too. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m a food systems nerd, and I could talk and write about Singapore’s food security for a few more hours this evening. But I’ll go to sleep to prepare for an early garden visit tomorrow instead.

Pt. 5 – Wi-Fi stinks and pictures soon!

Yes, nine weeks ago I was staying with a host family in Uganda and didn’t have any Wi-Fi, but https://www.kotaku.com.au/2017/01/australias-internet-still-sucks/

How can education and awareness increase food security?

In a continuation of my little how-the-heck-is-what-I’m-studying-related-to-food-security series, through this through this blog post, I seek to answer the following question: How can non-production focused farms (i.e. agritourism-focused or educational farms) increase a city’s food security?

My short answer is the following:

Agritourism & educational farms and other local food organizations teach urban residents about environmental and social issues caused by traditional agricultural production/food systems –>

urban residents become educated on the nuanced benefits and drawbacks of local vs. non-local food  –>

they become more conscious food consumers –>

they support the development of more sustainable, production-focused, local food systems –>

those sustainable, production-focused, local food systems increase their city’s food security.

 

My long answer is the following:

In Singapore, my interviews with leaders of two prominent local farms—Bollywood Veggies and Citizen Farm—have reiterated to me the importance of local food systems in increasing people’s awareness about and education on local food systems, which, in the long run, can better ensuring a city’s food security. Manda Foo, the manager of Bollywood Veggies, explained to me the importance of Bollywood veggies educational activities in terms of the country’s food security, even if Bollywood Veggies is currently only accessible and appealing to a small portion of Singaporeans. Darren Tan, on the other hand, explained the importance of City Farm’s production-focused farming activities in making local farming in Singapore too prominent and relevant an activity to go unnoticed—by all types of Singaporeans.

Ivy Singh founded Bollywood Veggies in 2001 as an alternative retirement option. Bollywood Veggies soon gained renown as an educational farm and more broadly (internationally), as a pioneering social enterprise. Furthermore, with her newfound farmer status and heightened awareness of challenges facing Singapore farmers, Singh instigated monumental changes to Singapore agricultural policy. Since the country’s recent, rapid development, the Singapore government has prioritized industry over agriculture, and the country’s agricultural heritage has largely been lost to housing, economic, and industry developments. To help ensure present-day farmers’ livelihoods, Singh, Bollywood Veggies, and the Kranji Countryside Association (established by Singh) have helped Singapore farmers gain rights to build houses, workers quarters, educational centers, and restaurants on farms, among many other things. Manda Foo, manager of Bollywood Veggies described, “I think we’ve really pushed boundaries in terms of [Singaporeans’] perception of farmers. People often think of farmers as just farmers. Now, in the age of knowledge, farmers have a lot more to offer. They have innovative businesses, they act as service providers, educators, consultants…” Helping Singapore farmers gain access to provide alternative services and receive alternative forms of income helps secure their livelihoods in spite of other challenges and uncertainty (e.g. caused by unfavorable government policy, rising input prices, climate change, etc.) Furthermore, farmers’ initiatives to engage non-farmers in agriculture—whether that’s through offering educational programs or connecting with consumers through direct sales channels—helps sustain the farmers’ businesses and ensure reliable local food production.

Today, Bollywood Veggies’ produce sources its own restaurant and a weekly farmers’ market. Yet Bollywood Veggies’ function, as an agritourism and educational farm, is not something to be taken lightly within Singapore’s agricultural and food security context. Certainly, Bollywood Veggies caters to a select proportion of Singaporeans. Foo described how the establishment of Bollywood Veggies’ farmers’ market in 2010 provided the farm with much more “mass appeal,” but it’s still very difficult to engage with many Singaporeans.  There is no public transportation in the Kranji Countryside, and general patrons/learners at Bollywood Veggies consist of Singaporeans who are educated, interested in learning more about local food production, and have cars.

Regardless, Foo emphasized how important general awareness of agricultural activities in Singapore is to the country’s food security. Bollywood Veggies introduces many students, tourists, and locals Singaporeans to something they’ve never experienced firsthand—agriculture. And providing Singaporeans with an understanding of what a farm does and how it operates is essential to influencing their consumption behavior. Foo described how, at the end of the day, Bollywood Veggies might only sell its produce to middle- and upper-class Singaporeans. However, Singapore’s land constraints only allow it to produce enough food to support 10 to 20 percent of the population anyway. So, Manda asked, why not sell it to the people who understand and support Bollywood Veggies’ mission and who are able to pay the proper price for their food?

No matter Bollywood Veggies’ social/educational mission and serious political agenda, walking through the farm in the Kranji Countryside (as rural Singapore as you’re going to get) felt like walking through a wonderland. It makes sense why Bollywood Veggies is so insistent that Singaporeans (and foreigners) visit the farm, even if it’s inconvenient to get to: strolling around Bollywood Veggies drastically contrasted my explorations of other Singapore neighborhoods, parks, and even community gardens and rooftop farms. I imagine that for Singaporeans, a visit to Bollywood Veggies is likely to make a lasting impact in terms of how they conceive of agriculture and Singapore’s food sourcing practices.

 

 

During my first week here, I’ve conducted interviews with organizers of community gardens, educational farms, and urban farm supply and consulting businesses. All members of these local food systems I’ve encountered have emphasized to me how little the average Singaporean knows about gardening or farming. Here are some things I’ve heard from my interviewees during the past week:

“In Singapore, an understanding of where food comes from is just not there.”

“We don’t have knowledge of where our food comes from.”

“My biggest worry is that people don’t know how to grow anything over here.”

“There’s nothing farming-related in our education system.”

“Surprisingly, not a lot of people know how to garden here. It’s just not even a thing.”

“Everybody has black thumbs in Singapore.”

“The lack of common knowledge here is crazy sometimes—in gardening.”

“At the end of the day, when the supermarket goes dry, we’re screwed.”

Singapore’s general lack of farming and gardening knowledge is why Darren Ho, Head Farmer at Citizen Farm, is insistent on “shoving farming in people’s faces.” Citizen Farm is one Edible Garden City’s main initiatives. (Edible Garden City is a front runner of Singapore’s local food movement, which runs a variety of agriculture/educational/social enterprises.) Citizen Farm was founded to become a sustainable model of urban farming, with an emphasis on agricultural production. Tan described how its founders “wanted to take a critical look into urban farming and the impacts it can generate.” Today, Citizen farms’ impacts include its role almost as a startup incubator for various urban farming products, an employer of people with disabilities and elderly people, and a producer of 20-100 kilograms of crops per day.

 

Ho’s strategy for increasing Singaporean’s awareness about agricultural production and the benefits of local food differs from Bollywood Veggies due to the farm’s location and production methods. Unlike Bollywood Veggies, Citizen Farm uses a variety of high-tech growing methods, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical gardens, to maximize its agricultural productivity within a small farm area. Yet Citizen Farm’s experimental production techniques by no means inhibit the farm’s ability to provide consumers with a direct relationship with their farmer, knowledge of how their food is grown (e.g. without pesticides), and an understanding of easy it is for anybody to grow their own food—what Ho believes are three key benefits of local food production.

Furthermore, like Foo, Ho sees education and awareness as a key step towards increasing Singapore’s food security. He believes that direct consumer support is critical to the sustainability, continued innovation, and significant agricultural productivity of Citizen Farm. Furthermore, production and agritourism/education-focused Singapore farms are both critical to educating Singaporeans about the importance of local food.

Foo pinpointed Bollywood Veggies’ key contribution to Singapore’s food security as its providing “awareness, education, and brand-building” to Singaporean consumers and other farms. Singapore’s local food movement is in its early stages, and Foo has found that many people want to support local food organizations but don’t know how to. Foo deemed Bollywood Veggies “the motherhood of all farms,” given its leadership role in making Singapore consumers and the government more receptive of and appreciative towards traditional forms of local agriculture. Bollywood Veggies stands apart from many other new, local farms/social enterprises in Singapore because it circulates the benefits of more traditional agricultural methods rather than high-tech urban farms. Beyond its organic production methods, Bollywood Veggies also is dedicated to growing and educating consumers on the significance of growing indigenous crops: they are more nutritious, better climate-adapted, and require less pesticides than other popular leafy vegetables.

Bollywood Veggies’ positive messages about locally grown food benefits farms and farmers throughout Singapore. After people visit Bollywood Veggies, they begin to look out for local produce in supermarkets. They now know it exists. Foo believes Bollywood Veggies’ greatest contributions to Singapore’s food security is how it drives demand.

Despite Citizen Farm and Bollywood Veggies’ differences, Ho and Foo both agree upon the importance of consumer awareness and education to support Singapore farms and therefore increase Singapore’s food security.

I just hit ‘command + f’ on my keyboard, and I found that ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ appear over thirty times on this page. I’m a bit concerned about that because at this point on my research trip, those words don’t mean much to me—they are universal buzzwords. ‘Awareness and education’ is a nice, general three words that will allow me to glaze over important topics at hand, if I’m not careful.

Two months ago, my skeptical self may have thought differently, but since then, I have observed how and now, I truly believe that people’s knowledge about where their food comes from is very important in ensuring a city’s food security.

Despite my inclination to write in Econ-speak, consumers are not just consumers, they are people. They are community members, family members, friends, activists, politicians, business owners, and so much more. This summer has made me so much for optimistic about the ideals and potential successes of conscious consumerism. And to have more conscious consumers in cities around the world, consumers in those cities need to be educated about what they are purchasing, where it comes from, and what the greater implications of their purchases are. Only then can they make decisions with the information to choose what is best for themselves, the farmers, and the natural environment.

 

 

 

 

Can small-scale local food production really increase a city’s food security?

Throughout this summer, I’ve struggled with the following question:

How can local food production spaces (e.g. urban/peri-urban farms, community farms/gardens*, and people’s home gardens) that don’t produce significant amounts of food (for individual households or through other retail channels) increase a city’s food security? Can they?

Through this blog post, I’ll focus on how/why/if community farms and people’s home gardens can increase a city’s food security. (In my next blog post, I’ll focus on how/why/if non-production focused farms can increase a city’s food security.)

In a prior blog post, I touched upon one critical experience I had in Budapest, which made me question a major component of my summer research–studying community gardens. A key leader in the development of many Budapest community gardens blatantly stated to me during his interview–my first interview in Budapest–that community gardens are not part of the city’s “food system.” (So what was I doing studying community gardens if my research is focused on local food systems?)

Now, I’ll copy and paste some of my own pre-determined research definitions to justify how all sorts of organizations, businesses, and individual activities I’m studying this summer are central to answering my research question…

  • Food system: “an interconnected web of activities, resources, and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption and disposal of food. The organization of food systems reflects and responds to social, cultural, political, economic, health and environmental conditions and can be identified at multiple scales, from a household kitchen to a city, county, state or nation” (Grubinger et al. 2010).
  • Food supply chain: “A series of food-related activities including production, processing, packaging, transport, distribution, consumption, and disposal (DiDominica, 2014).
  • Local food system (LFS): Local food systems are complex socio-ecological systems encompass food production, processing, and sales within a defined geographical area (Balász 2012). However, given the vastly different characteristics of the cities in question, the exact radius around each city center within which agricultural production is considered “local” will vary greatly. Often, LFS can be best defined by what they are not, or characterized in contrast to complex, long food supply chains that span within and across countries. They are also often “oriented towards a sustainability that is multidimensional: economic, environmental, and social” (Corrado 2014).

But back to what I’ve done in the cities I’ve visited this summer. As their name hints at, most community gardens in Budapest are founded upon the ideals of community development rather than food production. My research on urban, citizen farming in Tokyo—which largely takes place on business-run, citizen farms on commercial rooftops—reiterated to me how non-farmers’ farming activities in cities produce a relatively small amount of food at a relatively high personal cost. Before that, in Kampala, I was repeatedly reminded—often in a condensing tone—how urban agriculture comprises less than 5 percent of the city’s food supply.

Nonetheless, up to this point, I’ve recognized many reasons why urban residents growing even a small amount of food can help ensure their food security, in both the short- and long-term. Growing one’s own food in a city can provide urban residents with highly nutritious foods that they might otherwise not have access to (Kampala). It can be a key avenue through which parents teach their children about the importance of taste, freshness, health, and safety of the foods they choose to eat (Budapest and Tokyo). Urban farmers may also gain greater regard and respect for “professional” farmers with sustainable production practices, such as local, organic farmers (Tokyo). Those urban residents then might be more willing to pay a premium to support those sustainable farmers (e.g. buy local, organic food), which helps build and ensure a sustainable, secure food system that provides enough affordable, accessible, healthy, and safe food to urban residents. More generally, farming can be very therapeutic and a key means through which urban residents maintain their health and happiness: by connecting with the land and with other people.

Ultimately, however, community gardens alone are not sufficient to ensure a city’s food security in the face of drastic political, economic, environmental, or health disasters.

I discussed this matter with Darren Tan, of Singapore’s pioneering rooftop farm Comcrop. Comcrop is one of Singapore’s few, active, successful rooftop farms. It was the first rooftop farm to receive its official farming license, and its employees have worked closely with multiple government bodies to shift Singapore’s farming policies to be more conducive to the creation of other rooftop farms.

 

In regard to community farms’/gardens’ potential to ensure a city’s food security, Tan described to me quite eloquently what I’ve been trying to type up for the past few weeks now. So, I’ll let his words shine here rather than my own confuddled brain thoughts I can’t seem to articulate as well as he did.

Tan explained to me that, of course, as a farm, Comcrop’s most basic goal is to produce food. He described how first, Comcrop seeks to provide nutritious food for its adjacent community members and second, Comcrop aims to be a place where people come together. In fact, that second goal of Comcrop’s is rooted in its beginnings as a community farm. I asked Darren why Comcrop transitioned from a community farm to a commercial farm, and he explained the following:

“It was clear that as a community farm, we were never going to be able to provide for the community—based on donations, based on goodwill, based on a few people coming in to help every day. It was not a sustainable means of food production. And ultimately [transitioning to become a commercial farm] tied in with our ultimate goal, which is to produce food. I that the logical transition was to become a commercial farm. And of course, we still tried to embody all the values that we had as a community farm.”

Darren continued, “It’s nice to say that you want to get everybody to grow their own food. But coming from a farmer’s perspective… firstly, that’s not going to go down well with all people. Secondly, I know the time they will spend trying to grow their own food could be better spent with a few people really trying to grow intensively. So, I’m not against growing food for yourself. But I don’t think that how society is going to evolve into one where everybody grows their own food. As space becomes a luxury, then it’s going to be quite difficult for the different farms [the commercial farms] to increase their productivity to cater to Singaporeans.”

As an urban farmer in Singapore, Darren has experienced and responded directly to challenges caused by Singapore’s limited, conventional agricultural land, the government’s intransigent agricultural policies, and the country’s high rate of imports. While Darren’s perspective may influenced by Singapore’s extreme context, it’s one that I share very closely. As a researcher, I have tried my best to remain neutral on the subjects I ask my interviews about. Yet honestly, because of that, it was especially refreshing to hear what Darren described as Comcrop’s greatest challenge.

“I think our greatest challenge is awareness,” he said. “So, there is some movement about growing your own food. There will be of course awareness about the need for sustainability, but the nuances of those are usually not explored in detail. So, for example, when you say a local farm, there are many small groups saying that they are local farms. But then when you look at it, what are they producing, what are they producing for, how much are they producing? And I mean, does it make economic sense—are they able to sustain themselves in the long run? I mean, those are questions which people don’t often ask. I won’t disagree that just being aware of local farms is good. But I think as the understand of the need for these things evolve, we should also start thinking about what constitutes the farms that we want to support. I don’t believe anyone ever sets up to not be productive, but the way they go about it could be quite different. So I think it’s quite important that people don’t just say, ‘For health reasons, I should buy organic.’ Or say, ‘I should just support local because I’m patriotic.’ It’s not just that. It’s something bigger. I mean, a lot of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, is because of our needs as a country… also as responsible people, and those are things I think it’s good to see. Really, it’s nice to say that you want to get everyone to grow your own food, but coming from a farmer’s perspective, I know that firstly, that’s not going to go down well with all people…”

As I begin to write my final report, I’ve struggled to figure out how to best analyze people’s opinions in a proper researcher-like manner. It’s been hard for me to determine where my opinions fit, where what I think are opinions are actually valid, objective statements, and if I can just transcribe all my interviews and publish them like that?…

Back to my initial question:

How can community gardens and people’s home gardens, which don’t produce significant amounts of food, increase a city’s food security? Can they?

And a recap/answer in the form of a table:

Community farms/people growing their own food can… Who does this affect? What aspect of food security does this increase? Where did I learn/observe this
Increase people’s health through providing access to specific, otherwise inaccessible/unaffordable nutrients (e.g. protein from chickens and eggs, vitamins found in vegetables) People who cannot afford to purchase meat and vegetables nutrients Accessibility/affordability (2), Nutrition (3) Kampala
Increase people’s health/safety through providing access to fruits and vegetables produced without pesticides People who cannot afford food with dependable organic certifications/that consumers are sure is free of harmful pesticide residues Food safety (4)?

This one is debatable

Singapore, Japan
Teach children about the importance of healthy good; get children to like eating healthy food Children; children who don’t like vegetables Nutrition (3) Budapest, Tokyo, Singapore
Reduce people’s grocery budgets or allow people to spend more on more healthy food People who (successfully) grow crops that are expensive in supermarkets, e.g. tomatoes; people who have the time/knowledge/financial resources to successfully grow these high value crops Affordability (2), Nutrition (3) Tokyo, Singapore
Make people more aware of/concerned about/interested in local food and therefore willing to pay the big bucks for or otherwise contribute to the development local/organic/fair-trade/etc. food Future generations/all people who will benefit from the existence of that local/organic/fair-trade/etc. food in the future Yes, this may seem like an indirect means to increase a city’s food security, but if a well-developed local food system does increase people’s food security (see table rows above), then increased consumer support of local food systems should generally increase all aspects of a city’s food security Kampala, Budapest, Tokyo, Singapore

And since this is my blog, not my research report, here’s my opinion:

Community farms are cool. It is difficult for them to stay financially and politically viable if there are no paid employees and/or they are not recognized by the government. “Community” farms where people have to pay ~$1000 membership fees per year are less cool (AKA less accessible), yet they are more likely to survive.

It’s also cool when people have kitchen/balcony/backyard farms. Home gardens can provide most of the same benefits that community gardening can, but it can also have similar drawbacks. For example, people often put more time/energy/financial resources into their gardens then they get out of them. Sometimes, that’s alright, because gardening provides individuals, households, and communities with far more benefits than the agricultural yields. Yet community and home gardening can also both have cost barriers to entry and knowledge barriers to successful farming.

Beyond providing certain, vulnerable communities with direct access to specific nutrients or organic food they may otherwise not have access to, I think the greatest potential for community and home gardens to increase a city’s food security is by how they can increase consumers’ agricultural education and awareness of relevant social, environmental, and political issues. Ultimately, however, consumers’ awareness is only the beginning of a chain of steps that must occur to help foster the growth of local food systems that can increase a city’s food security. Beyond community or home gardens, city governments, businesses, and social organizations must provide residents with the appropriate knowledge base and resources so consumers can use their dollars, time, and voices to promote the development of financially viable, agriculturally productive, environmentally friendly, and socially just local food systems.

Here’s what I’m hinting at:

Non-farmer, urban residents join a community garden or begin farming at home –>

they learn how to farm, they become interested in where their other food comes from –>

they gain awareness about environmental and social issues caused by traditional agricultural production/food systems –>

they become educated on the nuanced benefits and drawbacks of local vs. non-local food  –>

they become more conscious food consumers –>

they foster the development of more sustainable, production-focused, local food systems –>

they increase their city’s food security.

But still, the question remains: Do local food organizations with high agricultural yields (i.e. production-focused urban and peri-urban farms) increase a city’s food security?

For the sake of ending this blog post, I’ll save that one for later.

 

____

  • *I will use the terms ‘farm’ and ‘garden’ interchangeably throughout this post. Where I write ‘garden,’ I mean a garden where the majority of the crops are edible.

Daichi wo Mamuro

After racing in a giant circle across the Bangkok airport, accomplishing none of my wifi dependent tasks I hoped to do before my second (this) flight, I’ve finally just sat down at the same seat I got out of about half an hour. To clarify, my airport lap was not accidental: it was necessary to re-board my Singapore-bound flight for its Bangkok-Singapore leg. The flight was delayed for a few hours in the Narita airport this morning, which effectively turned my expected two-hour layover into a two-minute layover. During those two minutes, I managed to buy overpriced airport dried mango in attempts to combat the overpriced water onboard Scoot Airlines and lack of functioning water fountain in the airport. (The credit card limit at the store next to my gate was $10, so I had to buy mango + water to get the water before boarding.) At least Scoot airlines will never get my $4 for a bottle of water….

 

Today, however, began on a much more pleasant note. I began the day with an early morning run through some rice paddies about 20 minutes away from Narita Airport (adjacent to the airport hostel I stayed at last night). While I’ve seen many rice paddies in Japan in the past two weeks, I couldn’t help giving some extra thought so how these Narita paddies contrasted the few miniature (adorable) rice paddies I’ve seen on multiple rooftops in Tokyo . And how much more similar these expansive paddies were to the ones I’ve biked through in Milan’s South Agricultural Park about a month ago, now. As I’ve just surpassed the halfway mark of this summer’s trip, the similarities and interesting comparisons between my research in each city are cropping up everywhere (pun intended). I’m finding it more and more difficult to not interrupt my interviewees to tell them about a similar story in Budapest or how well they’d get along with some of my Milanese research contacts.

City Farm Odaiba’s rooftop rice paddy (and me)

Escalator the Odaiba City Farm (7th floor of a mall on a man-made island full of malls, next to the bowling alley)

 

So, while I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it consistently astounds and excites me how many similar stories of social, political, and environmental movements to develop local food systems (LFS) have occurred in parallel across the world. This summer, I’ve spoken to politicians, researchers, activists, business owners, and consumers who all recognize and seek to propagate the importance of urban residents connecting/reconnecting with their food sources. That connection/reconnection to one’s food sources can manifest in many different ways: e.g. through establishing direct consumer-producer relations, by growing one’s own food, or even by simply noticing domestic and regional labels in the produce aisle of a supermarket. Yet no matter what form of LFS I’ve been studying this summer, I’ve been continuously reassured that understanding where one’s food comes from is for some reason imperative in securing an economically viable, socially just, and environmentally friendly food system.

However, as inclined and motivated as my research contacts around the world are to advance LFS development, not all people share the desire and/or economic privilege to support LFS’s growth. Of course, that fact is a key motivator of my research: this summer, I hope to gain insight into how LFS can be more accessible to and beneficial for people of all socioeconomic classes. Paradoxically, however, the current exclusivity of many LFS—whether caused by cost or cultural barriers to entrance—often contributes to the decline of certain, established LFS.

Certain resounding paradoxes of how to develop accessible LFS  were revealed to me during an interview yesterday with Mr. Hiroshi Toyoshima, from ‘PR and Social Movement Section’ of Daichi wo Mamoru Kai. Daichi wo Mamoru Kai, or Daichi, is one of Japan’s oldest, most well-established, and largest online organic food delivery systems. When I encountered Daichi’s stand at the farmers’ market last week, I had little idea how relevant the company’s development is to my research on post-WWII Japanese LFS development.

Daichi emerged from the same backdrop of food safety crises that spurred the development of Teikei, Japan’s system of direct producer-consumer distribution, and other consumer cooperatives in the early 1970s. However, Daichi’s origin can be traced more specifically to the failure of the ‘Student Movement’ in the late 1960s. The Japanese Student Movement, which opposed topics ranging from the Anpo treaty to the Vietnam War, failed to gain significant regard and response from the Japanese government.

Mr. Fujimoto, Daichi’s founder, was a prominent student activist, and he was quite disappointed when the Student Movement fizzled out. So, even as Mr. Fujimoto joined his student counterparts in finding work elsewhere, he sought to find an alternative way to make positive social change. At his new job at a publishing company, Mr. Fujimoto learned about what he found to be a peculiar phenomenon: how Japanese farmers used many chemicals to make “the perfect” fruits and vegetables to sell to the market but at the same time produced organic varieties of the same crops to consume themselves. Mr. Fujimoto also recognized the country’s rising fears about food safety, and he sought utilize his newfound knowledge to help make the country’s food supply safer.

Daichi was first established as a pro-organic NGO. The organization’s initial goals were two-fold: one, to get more farmers to produce using organic methods and two, to find customers for those farmers. Two years after its establishment, Daichi’s leaders realized the expansive resources needed to conduct their proposed work. They quit their jobs, and in 1977, transitioned Daichi from an NGO to a for-profit enterprise.

At this point, many Teikei members criticized Daichi for advocating organic food sales over the anti-capitalist ideals of “mutual assistance,” which are outlined in the Teikei Principles. During the 1970s, Daichi also tried marketing its organic food to agricultural cooperatives, yet the cooperatives rejected Daichi’s market structure for their established, barter-like systems. (These same agricultural cooperatives started purchasing organic food from similar market sources 5-to-10 years later.)

 

Despite criticism by other pro-local and pro-organic Japanese food distribution schemes, Daichi’s goal has always been to increase the sustainability of organic farming in Japan. Since the company’s inception, Mr. Fujimoto has recognized the importance of providing a fair, secure income to organic farmers to ensure that those farmers can continue to produce organic crops in the upcoming years.

 

Through the late 1980s, Daichi did this by providing an established group buying structure through which consumers could gain easy access to environmentally and socially sustainable food sources. In the late 80s, Daichi made its business more accessible and simple for consumers by transitioning to an individual ordering system.

Images of Daichi’s catalogue

While Daichi doesn’t require its producers to be certified organic, they must adhere to Daichi’s own rigorous production standards, which incorporate many organic principles. Furthermore, a key part of Daichi’s business activities are its social activities, which have ranged from organizing anti-GMO protests to hosting educational farm trips for school groups.

 

Today, Daichi operates primarily through its website. It connects its 300,000 customers to 2,500 producers, and the company maintains close relationships with each of those producers. Despite Daichi’s successes, however, the company has struggled to maintain its long-term sustainability. It has had difficulty attracting new customers, and the majority of its current customer base are in the 40s or older. Mr. Toyoshima attributes Daichi’s inability to attract young consumers to young people’s “inability to read sentences very carefully.” He cites young people’s busy lives, economic constraints, and familiarity with small screens and catchy advertisements as why they don’t choose to order food from Daichi instead of other online retailers, which tend to be less expensive and sell a only a small percentage of organic food.

 

Perhaps some of Daichi’s troubles will be answered this fall, when it merges with Oisix, another online food retailer. Unlike Daichi, Oisix currently maintains a younger consumer base. Oisix doesn’t have as rigorous of quality standards as Daichi, and the food items it sells are generally less expensive than their Daichi counterparts. However, Mr. Toyoshima described to me Daichi’s and Oisix’s current combined efforts, through which Daichi has started selling some of its products through Oisix’s online platform, and many customers are beginning to choose the higher quality, more expensive (Daichi) products over the Oisix ones.

 

Mr. Toyoshima has high hopes for the upcoming Daichi-Oisix merger, yet Daichi still faces much uncertainty ahead. Mr. Toyoshima is particularly anxious about the Daichi’s transition from a private to public company: he fears that the new shareholders will inhibit Daichi’s engagement in CSR activities and restrict the company to more mainstream market activities. Sure, it’s been ten years since Daichi’s last anti-GMO protest, yet the upcoming merger may make it harder to Daichi to prioritize any sort of oscial activities.

 

 

Finally, the paradox I mentioned about 850 words ago (sorry, these posts are long, I know):

 

Based on Mr. Fujimata’s and Daichi’s principles, the best way to secure a sustainable local food system—one based on the principles of organic farming—is to ensure organic farmers’ income and livelihoods to ensure they will continue to produce organic products. To continue ensuring organic farmers’ incomes, Daichi must increase its consumer base. To do that, Daichi tries to make more Japanese people interested in buying organic products: It does this through educational activities as well as providing an easy outlet (online shop) for customers to purchase organic products. However, past a certain threshold, Daichi cannot recruit anymore consumers who are really dedicated to purchasing organic food over less expensive food. Daichi then has to resort to cost-cutting techniques to attract new, cost-conscious customers. To make costs lower, however, Daichi has to sacrifice some of its quality standards or profit margin to farmers, both which reduces the company’s contributions to Japan’s food security.

 

~ Paradox 1 ~

More Daichi customers –> increased Japanese food security

But Daichi’s only potential customers left are those who value immediate cost-savings over organic principles

To recruit those customers, Daichi has to lower its organic standards and potentially risk decreasing its company’s contributions to increasing Japanese food security

 

After two weeks in Japan, I’ve experienced another significant revelation in terms of my personal opinions of food security. Before I began this trip, I was highly skeptical of whether local food systems can (I highly recommend the book The Locavore’s Dilemma) ensure a country’s food security any better—or even to the same extent—that secured, diversified international food trade networks can. Yet, throughout the course of my research here, I’ve encountered substantial anxiety from a wide range of interviewees about the rising prices of imported foods. Sure, Japan’s imported food supply may be secure to the extent that the country does not face any impending trade barriers due to global conflict. In fact, my first week in Tokyo, Japan and the EU began the new Free Trade Agreement. Furthermore, Japanese government officials currently seek to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (even without the U.S.).

 

Yet strolling down the produces aisles of Japanese supermarkets, I understand why my interviewees are concerned. Yes, the $100, gorgeous packages of gift-wrapped, flawless fruits are something particular to Japanese people’s values of perfection. Yet the prices of more practical commodities, such as butter, sugar, wheat, and meat, are also increasing significantly. These price increases, which can be attributed to rising global fuel prices, increased demand from neighboring countries, like China, and climate-caused lower crop yields internationally, due pose a significant threat to Tokyo’s food security.

 

And, another paradox: when the economy is not doing well, Japan’s food security declines. Furthermore, increasing Japanese, domestic agricultural production can increase Japan’s food security, especially during rough economic times, by making the country less dependent on imported food with volatile prices. However, as Daichi has experienced, it is very costly to increase Japanese domestic production, and so that might not be possible during economic downturns—when food insecurity is the biggest issue.

 

~ Paradox 2 ~

Bad economy –> Japanese can’t afford high prices of imported food; food security declines

Increased Japanese, domestic agricultural production –> less expensive food in Japanese markets; food security increases

Bad economy –> too difficult/costly to increase Japanese domestic agricultural production

 

And with all that, I’m heading out of Japan tomorrow. I’ll arrive in Singapore tomorrow night, where I’m excited to learn from local food proponents in a country that imports over 90 percent of its food supply… yet that is known as the second most food secure nation in the world.

Tokyo: Taiyo Marche & Teikei

Sunday morning, I woke up early to meet Dr. Masashi Tachiwaka at a farmers’ market. Taiyo Marche, or ‘Market of the Sun’ is regarded as Tokyo’s largest farmers’ market. It hosts about 100 producers of fresh foods, prepared foods, crafts, and other goods every other weekend. Dr. Tachiwaka, a sociologist from Nagoya University who specializes in agriculture and food studies, chose to visit the market together despite that he’d never been before. (If there are any budding food systems researchers out there, I would highly recommend visiting a farmers’ market with a researcher who focuses on food systems studies.)

Taiyo Marche – Market of the Suns

Dr. Tachiwaka and I entered the market together, passed by the large variety of international-themed food trucks, and headed to the information stand. We learned together that the four-year-old market was created and is managed by Mitsui, which per Wikipedia “is one of the largest sogo shosha in Japan… Its business area covers energy, machinery, chemicals, food, textile, logistics, finance, and more.”

I wasn’t able to determine the exact cost structure of the market—i.e. whether/how much Mitsui pays to rent the public park space or how much vendors pay to rent their own spaces. However, Dr. Tachiwaka deduced that Mitsui must make a significant profit from the market. The market takes place in Kachidoki, a residential neighborhood on a man-made island near Tokyo’s center. The existence of the market makes the neighborhood more lively, increasin its popularity and thus, its rent prices (of the homes and developments that Mitsui owns).

 

I must confess that I’m an avid visitor of farmers’ markets, and thus, the Taiyo Marche looked quite familiar at first. Indeed, there were a bit more jewelry stand than I might normally expect, the stand of imported wine made me laugh, and I was surprised by how almost every individual fruit and vegetable was wrapped in plastic—just like in all Japanese super markets.[*] Yet beyond these few differences, I strolled the aisles accepting samples like a pro, enjoyeing the brightly colored produce around me, and generally thought I had an idea of this market’s basic form and function.

Stand of imported wine

 

Soon, however, Dr. Tachiwaka began describing to me how different this market is compared to the majority of Japanese farmers’ markets, and I let my farmers’ market expert hubris go. Dr. Tachiwaka explained how most farmers’ markets in Japan are owned by agricultural cooperatives. They take place in permanent locations, where producers drop off their goods in the morning and pick up whatever is left at the end of the day. Taiyo Marche, along with about ten other Tokyo farmers’ markets, where consumers sell their own goods at stands, is still a largely new concept in Japan. It’s a part of what I’d personally categorize as a new wave of local food systems development.

The first wave of LFS development, then, began in the 1960s, following a few drastic incidents where Japanese industrial activities harmed people’s health. While the Kamioka Mine had released significant quantities of cadmium since the beginning of the 20th century, wartime activities caused the quantity of pollution to significantly increase. The river water, contaminated with cadmium and other heavy metals, was used to irrigate Toyama Prefecture’s rice fields and caused a mass appearance of Itai-Itai disease, or cadmium poisoning. In 1961—almost 50 years after the first case of the disease—the Mitsui Mining and Smelting’s Kamioka Mining Station was finally pinpointed as the source of the cadmium and other heavy metal pollution and the cause of the disease.[†]

 

In 1956, Chisso Corporation released its industrial wastewater, which contained untreated organic mercury, along the Minimata River. Chisso Co.’s pollution caused Minimata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Not only did Japanese people suffer directly from Minimata disease, but the government’s and Chisso Co.’s unsatisfactory responses to the disease prompted growing discontent with and distrust in industry behavior and government policy, which accompanied rising concerns about food safety. In 1965, Showa Denka Co.’s pollution of the Aganogawa River, which caused a second wave of the Minimata Disease, amplified these concerns.

 

Researchers and conscious consumers with whom I’ve discussed topics of food safety in Japan have rattled off lists of how Japanese industry and industrial agriculture (not to mention non-Japanese agriculture) have harmed Japanese people’s health for over the last half-century: e.g. factory smoke in Yokkaichi City and Kawasaki City have caused unprecedented rates of asthma, food additives used in the 1960s contaminated breast milk and caused infant deaths, fake “organic” and “no chemical” labels have deceived consumers about the safety of their food, pesticides continuously harm humans’ health, and Fukushima contaminated food supplies….

 

After WWII, Japan underwent massive economic and industrial growth. By 1970, the GNP was rising by 10 percent a year. The Japan Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA) was established in response to how “hasty industrialization brought about environment contamination and destruction” (Japan Organic Agriculture Association, 1993, p. 1).[‡] The JOAA, established in 1971, is an independent, non-profit organization comprised mostly of producers and consumers who seek to expand organic agriculture in Japan. It is funded exclusively by membership fees and thus remains independent of any government or corporate affiliations. At the time of its founding, the JOAA recognized a number of serious problems with “modern agriculture” in Japan: a declining number of farmers, increasing age of farmers, and decline of the amount of farmland; soil degradation due to large-scale successive monoculture and loss of humus; a rise in plant diseases and pests caused by a loss of a natural ecological balance; agriculture-caused chemical contamination of human bodies, agricultural produce, soil, and water; and a declining food self-sufficiency rate and am increasing quantity of imported livestock feed.

 

To combat these problems, the JOAA established the “teikei” system, a direct distribution system between producers and consumers. Yet JOAA literature emphasizes how describing Teikei as just a way of selling or distributing farm produce to consumers does not do Teikei justice. Teikei “is not in a true sense of the meaning a transaction of merchandise. Rather, it is an amicable interactive relationship between people. The underlying philosophy is not that of competition but of coexistence and symbiosis based on mutual support, the spirt of cooperation… Teikei is a holistic system…a comprehensive cultural activity that gives self-reliance to farmers and a new life culture to consumers. ” (JOAA, p. 5-6, 2010.) Furthermore, Ichiraku Tero, a preeminent philosopher and the creator of the Ten Principles of Teikei also preached self-reliance and mutual support based on independence and autonomy of the individual. Today, Teikei is still best defined by its ten founding principles:

One important clarification is the difference between the significance of ‘organic’ in JOAA’s name and in Japanese food policy/broader food discourse. The JOAA’s principles of organic, and how they manifest in Teikei, span far beyond the. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestsry, and Fishery’s “Specified JAS [Organic] Standard.” In fact, JOAA has taken a public stance against to the JAS standard. JOAA members disagree with the JAS’s vague delineations of what makes something organic, such as production “with a reduced amount of chemicals” and “products with a small amount of chemicals.” JOAA members also perceive that and disagree with how the government’s certification program is greatly influenced by the demand of profit-seeking organizations (JOAA, p. 6, 1993).

In contrast to the inadequate government organic standards, a report published by the JOAA in 2010 describes Teikei as “a new relationship that can save humanity and nature and is a quiet revolution to build an everlasting stable society in place of the capitalist economy” (Michio, p. 7, 2010). The report describes how “through this humble but strong movement, we have developed the sustainability of food, making it possible to secure a livelihood for both producers and consumers. Teikei has become the driving force for organic agriculture based on rural nature and culture” (JOAA Committee for Organic Agriculture Production, p. 5, 2010). Yet, while Teikei might have increased the sustainability of food production practices in Japan, is the movement sustainable itself?

Dr. Hiroko Kubota, a consumer movement researcher in the Faculty of Economics at Kokugakuin University is skeptical whether Teikei will persist alongside the aging of its original members, shift in Japanese consumer preferences, and urban residents’ increasingly busy urban lifestyles. Dr. Kubota, a member of three Teikei groups herself, has observed Teikei membership and the number of Teikei groups significantly decline in the past decade. Despite that young Japanese people didn’t personally experience the numerous food safety crises that motivated the founding of Taikei and caused many initial members to join Teikei, Dr. Kubota described how younger Japanese generations still are quite concerned about food safety. However, Dr. Kubota clearly stated, “young people don’t want to join a movement”—whether they’re too busy with work, their smartphones, or whatever— “so we have to create another kind of system to support small farmers.” Rather than expand their extra time resources to participation in a participant-led Teikei group, young people in Tokyo are increasingly turning to other markets to buy organic and local food, such as farm shops, farmers’ markets, and online food delivery services.

 

And so, back to the Taiyo Marche farmers’ market. As we wandered through the farmers’ market aisles, Dr. Tachiwaka pointed out to me one “organic” stand. We stopped to talk to the producers, and as I learned a bit more, I was surprised to find that this stand wasn’t in fact run by any single organic farmer or even any organic agricultural cooperative. Rather, it was run by Daichi, one of the largest web-based agricultural delivery services in Japan.

Daichi stand

I’m meeting with a member of Daichi’s Corporate Social Responsibility Department next week, so I’ll hold off on too much detail about the company for now. However, some that I’ve learned through some preliminary emails (and of course, Google Translating the company’s webpage)… Daichi wo Mamoru kai, or Daichi, delivers (organic) produce, dry goods, meats, eggs, fish/seafood, dairy, among other items all over Japan. The company was established in 1977, following its prior establishment as a pro-organic NGO a few years earlier. Today, the company’s mission is to promote domestic agricultural industries, and the company’s leaders are highly motivated by Japan’s low food self-sufficiency rate. Daichi’s customers are primarily well-educated, well-off financially, and in their 40s or over. However Daichi will soon merge with Oisix, a similar company with a younger consumer base. Both of these companies currently answer Japanese market demand for reliable, high-quality, organic, domestic food products, which urban residents can obtain without the need to devote excessive time resources to obtain—although they may end up spending a bit more money.

Before we left the Daichi stand at the farmers’ market, one of the workers gave me a packet of kale—three long kale leaves in a plastic bag. He said something about the holes on the kale caused by a caterpillar. While I wasn’t sure if the caterpillar holes meant why he didn’t care about giving up the kale—whether he wasn’t allowed to sell it or if people just weren’t likely to buy that bag of kale—I graciously accepted my ~27th fresh food item given to me since I’ve been in Tokyo.

See some kale in the top right corner

Another stand I was pleasantly surprised by at the farmers’ market was run by the producer located closest to the market—just on a nearby rooftop! The farmers’ market stand serves a dual purpose for the community farm: It’s an outlet for the farm to sell excess vegetables, and it’s also a way for the community farm owner to advertise his farm. The owner of the rooftop farm, Mr. Umehara, was motivated to create the farm for environmental reasons: to help mitigate the heat island effect. Yet today, he thinks the greatest benefit are how many people are involved and benefit from the community farm. There are currently ten families who work on the farm. They each farm their own plots and share the harvest. One family also owns a restaurant, and they incorporate the crops they produce on the farm into their dishes at the restaurant. The plot rental fee is not insignificant, yet it is less than that of other rooftop, community or allotment farms in Tokyo–likely given that Mr. Umehara’s friend owns the building, so he does not have to pay rent.

Community farm’s farmers’ market stand

Flyer on the community farm

(Poor) Google image translation of the flyer for the community farm

Given the apparent prosperity of Tokyo and the surrounding regions I’ve visited, it’s difficult to fathom Japan’s high poverty rate. A 2015 survey by Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found that 1 in every 7 children were from families living on less than half of the national median household disposable income. Like the local food systems I have studied in other countries, prominent local food systems I’m studying in Tokyo can be exclusionary due to potential consumers required financial and  time resources. The intense time resources required to participate in Teikei have caused younger generations to prefer to purchase organic, local food from online delivery services instead of self-organized producer-consumer networks. And while organic online shops might sell at higher prices than  the produce found in supermarkets, the time young people save by not visiting the supermarket makes the price increase of online shopping relatively insignificant. Furthermore, other online delivery services, like Seiyu and Co-op, actually sell domestic (organic and not organic) food at lower prices than supermarkets. The rising popularity of online food shopping is likely to have great implications for the further development of local food systems in Japan, and in their accessibility to difference socioeconomic groups of people.

Meanwhile, the cost of renting plots at urban farms in Tokyo remains prohibitively expensive for the majority of Tokyo residents. While this is not the case in other cities and regions throughout Japan, I wonder what the cost-barriers of agrileisure means for Tokyo residents’ physical engagement in food production. Can kitchen and terrace gardens provide people with the same fulfilling connection to food production that shared farming spaces can? What are the different benefits and challenges of individually-developed, private (micro?…) local food systems versus community-based local food systems?

Finally, if you’ve made it to the end of this blog post, thanks for following my 17 different tangents of thought! I’m currently in practice to tie together one research trip to 7 countries studying ~15 different types of local food systems into one final report. And in the meantime, I still have about 25 types of food to try in Tokyo.

 

Sources:

Japan Organic Agriculture Association. (1993). ‘TEIKEI’ system of Japanese Organic Agriculture Movement: Country Report for the First IFOAM Asian Conference.

Japan Organic Agriculture Association, Committee for Organic Agriculture Promotion (2010, Oct). Teikei Networks for Forests, Homelands and the Seas – All Connected Through Humus: River Basin Region Self Sufficiency and Teikei will Drive Organic Agriculture.

 

[*] This is a key hint to Japanese citizens’ concerns about food safety, and more on that later!

[†] Yes, this is the same Mistui company that created the farmers’ market I visited today.

Kashiwa

This morning started off with an assurance that I’ll be making friends quickly in Tokyo: my (accidentally) extra loud alarm went off at 7 a.m. in my first many-bed hostel room of the trip! Despite that I just arrived in Tokyo 12 hours earlier, however, and the fact that I jumped ahead 7 hours from Europe to Asia, I quickly headed off to a tour of Kashiwa, which I scheduled months ago.

 

Tokyo is the one city in which I didn’t totally narrow my research focus before arriving. So far, my itinerary includes agricultural tours of a few cities that border Tokyo’s metropolitan area, some meetings with agricultural researchers, a coordinator of Japan’s Organic Agriculture Association, individuals involved in Tokyo’s Slow Food organizations, and plans to snoop around some train station rooftop urban farms. I was originally attracted to conducting a segment of my research in Tokyo due to Japan’s low rate of self-sufficiency (~40%), which contrasts rising trends of ‘agrileisure.’ Today’s visit to Kashiwa quickly and powerfully illustrated to me the contradiction and potential, unrealized synergy between Japan’s decreasing popularity of “professional” farming and increasing trends of agrileisure. And, as it keeps happening, I again collected enough material in one day to fill up ten pages of an eventual research paper. I suppose some of the research focus narrowing can happen later….

 

The term ‘agrileisure’ is an emerging conceptual framework that connects recreation, tourism, and leisure to agricultural context. Two obvious examples of agrileisure are hobby farming and working in a community garden. In Tokyo, there is an increasing trend of city dwellers renting plots of land in the city or nearby rural areas to grow their own produce. There are growing numbers of urban plots, such as those located on train stations and in office buildings, to accommodate this. However, while agrileisure may contribute to a select few city dwellers’ personal well-being, it remains an exclusive activity for people with the time and financial resources. Furthermore, those people that engage in farming for pleasure or household production may be clued into niche social trends and have an exceptional awareness of the complex challenges and consequences of Japan’s declining agricultural sector and high import rate.

 

Kashiwa, which I visited today, has just over 400,000 inhabitants (in contrast to Tokyo’s 13 million). It’s located in Chiba Prefecture, right on the border of Tokyo. Kashiwa is largely a commuter town, yet food processing industries comprise an important part of its economy. Furthermore, while pale in comparison to Kashiwa’s agricultural predominance during Japan’s Edo period, there is a significant base of residual commercial and hobby farming activities. Given Kashiwa’s suburb status, agricultural history, and greater land availability, the cost barrier to agrileisure is lower than that in Tokyo. Nonetheless, the hobby farmers whom I met in Kashiwa today still conveyed certain motivations for, challenges of, and more general trends of agrileisure that exist in Tokyo and throughout Japan.

 

I started my day today by meeting the owner of one of the largest farms in Kashiwa. Mr. Someya’s farm has come a long way since he switched from farmer to bus driver back to farmer in his early twenties and his parents gave him 1.5 hectares of land in 1976. Today, Mr. Someya owns 150 hectares of farmland, employs 300 workers, and sells his rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans throughout Kashiwa City. He sells his rice directly to local elementary schools, restaurants, and a popular chain, Italian family-style restaurant; his potatoes to a potato chip company; his soybeans to stores that sell tofu in Kashiwa city and other markets; and his wheat to the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (also known as JA-Zenchu). Mr. Someya believes strongly in the sales and consumption of local food due for health-related, environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural reasons.

 

When I asked him about the importance of local food, Mr. Someya began by describing how his, and other local farmers’, crops are safer and healthier than imported food or unsourced food in supermarkets because he uses fewer harmful pesticides in production. There is widespread concern in Japan about how chemicals used in farming pose harm to people’s health, yet Mr. Someya feels a personal obligation to help maintains the wellbeing of his community members in Kashiwa. Throughout our conversation, Mr. Someya emphasized how much he cares about people, both consumers and farmers. Indeed, much of Mr. Someya’s life work has gone towards supporting local farmers in Kashiwa.

Mr. Someya Giving a Tour of his Fields

While Mr. Someya has observed many challenges for farmers in Japan in the past half century, one of his main criticisms is how JA-Zenchu fails to support small farmers. Rather, through a somehow still cheery, bright presence, Mr. Someya explained to me today how Japan’s agricultural union fails to reduce risk for farmers and instead runs like a business, prioritizing profits over supporting farmers. For example, the union only pays farmers for crops the union collected from them after the union a third party buys those crops from the union. The union also rents and sells farm materials, like machines and fertilizer, at a high cost, which is in addition to the union’s membership fee.

 

Mr. Someya also explained a few other reasons why current conditions for Japanese farmers look bleak. After World War II, the government lowered the permitted percentage of Japanese land that could be used to farm rice. In the 1950s and 60s, many farmers opted to take the government payout and stop farming completely. Furthermore, in the past 50 years, the Japanese government has focused on industry rather than farming, which has increased farmers’ risk, lowered farmers’ potential profit margins, and decreased citizens’ appreciation for farmers. Mr. Someya has been deeply affected by the Japanese government’s and citizens’ disrespect for and criticism towards agriculture. Strong anti-farming sentiments extend throughout Japan and have even been provoked in Kashiwa by a famous television commentators who gave a speech there to disparage agriculture in the face of Japan’s rising industrial economy. Furthermore, Mr. Someya’s children used to be ashamed of their father’s job.

Mr. Someya’s Rice Paddies

In the past thirty years, however, Mr. Someya has taken concrete steps to galvanize respect for farmers in Kashiwa. Most recently, he’s collaborated with local elementary schools to teach children where their food comes from. Through school visits and invitations to his paddy fields, Mr. Someya has experienced success in changing many children’s opinions towards farmers. But perhaps his greatest success is that his children have now decided to succeed him in managing his farm when he retires.

 

Mr. Someya’s passion for farming, concern about Japan’s low self-sufficiency rate, and compassion for Japanese citizens has prompted him to do what he can to encourage more young people to start farming. Thirty years ago, in the face of Japan’s unfavorable agricultural policies, Mr. Someya established the Kashiwa farmers’ market. Through today, the Kashiwa farmers’ market has increased the financial opportunities and decreased the social stigma for young people to pursue a career in agriculture.

 

Recently, other new food networks popping up through Kashiwa have further secured small farmers’ market entry points (that are independent of the controversial way the union sells farmers’ crops). Later during my day in Kashiwa, I visited one brand new farm shop, located in a modest window right next to the city’s main station. The owner of the farm shop opened his store this June with the main goal of supporting young farmers in Kashiwa. While the shop is still in a “trial run” period, he hopes it will ultimately serve as an outlet the help ensure Kashiwa farmers have a secure, consistent income. And certainly, the shop’s central location in the center of an urban shopping center should help that. One other unconventional place local farmers’ have recently been able to sell their crops locally in is a section of a larger grocery stores that essentially functions as a farmers’ markets.

 

My meeting with Mr. Someya was a surprisingly intense, genuine, and exceptionally informative way to start out my first day in Japan! Furthermore, Mr. Someya’s distict, distinguished perspective created a stunning contrast between my visit with him and my next visit of the day: to the Matsumara’s home.

 

As I entered the Matsumara’s traditional Japanese-style home, I was immediately overwhelmed with the second warm welcome of the day, along with the fresh fruits and vegetables (in addition to tea and sweets) that kept being piled on the table in front of me throughout my discussion with Mr. Matsumara, his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s husband.

An ideal interview set-up

 

Ginger and tomatoes fresh from the greenhouses

Mr. Matsumara led a successful career growing flowers for three decades, and he is now approaching retirement. While flower growing may not be the most tradition form of farming within Kashiwa, his daughter’s “retirement” from farming five years ago depicts the lack of opportunity for young people in the agricultural industry in Japan. After 16 years of helping with her father’s work, Ms. Matsumara and her husband switched to a career in real estate. Today, Ms. Matsumara hates to leave her father working alone, yet she purposefully does not help her father in his many greenhouses because she doesn’t want to give him false hope that she will return to a farming career or for him to plant more crops than he can handle on his own. “I have to draw the line somewhere,” she said.

Note that he is fewer than five feet tall, so those are very tall plants

Mr. Matsumara and his tomato plants

 

Beyond flower growing, another key part of the Matsumara’s lifestyle and diet is all the food they grow for their own consumption. Right now, the Matsumara’s grow zucchini, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, ginger, and tomatoes (so many tomatoes).

 

Despite that Ms. Matsumara doesn’t actively engage in farming, she is deeply engaged with local food culture. In fact, one key reason why she stopped farming is due to her distaste for how industrial farming works in Japan and other countries. For example, the Matsumara’s can only buy F1 seeds sold by large agricultural companies, due to those companies’ patents. Furthermore, the corresponding plants’ growth is limited without the use of pesticides and fertilizer sold by the same companies that sell the seeds. While the ~40 of the Matsumara’s tomatoes I ate yesterday were delicious, even they were grown with these seeds that comes from the world’s complicated, problematic system of industrial agriculture. Ms. Matsumara is also very concerned about the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture, the chemicals used to keep foods safe as they are transported internationally, and the ‘organic’ and other labels on foods in supermarkets. For that reason, Ms. Matsumara does not buy any produce that comes from outside Japan. Correspondingly, she is concerned about Japan’s low rate of self-sufficiency, although given all of the household farming operations she knows about in Kashiwa and beyond, she’s a bit skeptical of the low, ‘<40%’ statistic.

The Matsumara’s kept piling fresh food into my arms!

The Matsumara family recognizes their privilege in being able to have access to so much fresh, wonderful food that they produce themselves. They have the financial resources to own enough land to house six large greenhouses. Furthermore, Mr. Matsumara has the time, physical ability, and technical experience to do all the farming, although his daughter worries about this in the upcoming years.

 

After visiting the Matsumara family, I got to see another form of hobby farming in Kashiwa—the Kashiwa ‘Citizens’ farm.’ Kashiwa’s ‘Citizens’ farm is relatively comparable to all the community gardens I recently visited in Budapest, where anybody can apply for a space to rent out land and farm whatever they please on that land. However, unlike the gardens I visited in Budapest, the management and ownership of Kashiwa’s Citizen Farm seems to be problem-free, likely to the Farm’s lack of a community mission, like the community gardens in Hungary. Furthermore, members of Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden must pay a considerably higher rental fee than garden members in Budapest, about 100 dollars a year instead of 1-10 dollars a year, and must provide their own tools and equipment. Regardless, community garden farmers worldwide must have the same surplus of free hours in a week to take care of their garden plots.

Kashiwa’s Citizen Farm

Compared to the community gardens I plan on visiting soon in Tokyo, however, Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden’s membership fee is a bargain. Renting a plot on Japan’s Sorado Farm Ebisu, a community garden which is located on the roof of the Ebisu train station, for example, costs over 150,000 yen a year for a 6 square-meter plots, which is over 15 times the price of a larger plot at Kashiwa’s Citizen Garden. I am curious to learn more about Tokyo’s Sorado Farms since I’m particularly interested in the contrast between Japanese youths’ declining interest in farming in peri-urban and rural areas versus growing trends or humatsu nogyo, or weekend farming, or how young people and families in cities are increasingly renting plots of land within and on the fringes of Tokyo to farm for fun.

 

Japan’s decreasing number of farmers, aging of the current farmer population, and decrease of land cultivated in significantly contrasts growing social movements of young people in cities wanting to grow their own food, better understand the local food system, and gain a physical connection to the natural environment. Can living just a few kilometers outside of Tokyo really make a difference in how much desire young people have to grow their own food? Are trends of ‘weekend farming’ enough to change any significant part of Tokyo’s food system? Furthermore, whether or not Japan’s low self-sufficiency rate poses a threat to its food security, does it reduce its citizens’ welfare in other ways?

 

There is clearly impending change in Tokyo’s food system—or at the least, its young people’s engagement in food production or understanding of where their food comes from. Today, Mr. Someya provided a nice pearl of wisdom. He said, to make change, there must be three types of people: young people, outsiders, and “crazy [passionate]” people. Young people must be there because they are the future. Outsiders must be there because they have an alternative perspective and understand the situation objectively. “Crazy” people must be there because only passion can drive people to invest the extensive resources necessary to make the change happen. And, Mr. Someya said, “I am the crazy person.”

 

Thank you so much to my guide and translator, Matsudi and Eri!!

 

Székesfehérvár

During the past five weeks I’ve now been traveling, Blanche DuBois’ line “I’ve always been dependent on the kindness of strangers” has frequently popped into my head. While I am (hopefully) quite far from any mental hospital in Louisiana, I see some similarity between Blanche’s lack of touch with reality and my own ~loosened~ connection with the normalcy and routine of my thousands-of-mile-away life at Northwestern. Furthermore, I have been presented with incredible experience after experience in my travels, all due to the kindness, compassion, and passion of people I’ve never met before!

 

I happened upon one of these especially incredible experiences on my last designated research day in Hungary. But first, a secret: I scheduled most of my research meetings in Milan and Budapest by sending messages to email addresses on websites I found through Google searches and Facebook ‘Pages’ message inboxes. In Budapest, I connected with many community garden organizers through a list of community gardens on the website of Rosta Gabór’s NGO, Városi Kertek Egysület (VKE). Despite that I scheduled a meeting with Rosta a few days later, the link to that list of community gardens was in fact sent to me by a member of a Grundkert, one grassroots Budapest community garden. And I got in touch with Anna by messaging Grunkert’s Facebook Page and getting referred to her by the garden’s main coordinator, who doesn’t speak English.

 

Anyhow, what I didn’t realize when sending out ~50 messages to all the emails on the VKE website’s list of community gardens in Hungary a few weeks ago is that not all the gardens on the list are in Budapest. At first, I was bummed to turn down a few invitations to community gardens in cities that weren’t feasible for me to travel to during my time in Budapest. So, I was especially excited when I received a message from Irén, the Vice President of the Community Garden Association in Székesfehérvár. Irén welcomed me to visit two community gardens in Székesfehérvár, which is just an easy train ride from Budapest.[*]

 

I didn’t end up taking that train, however, since one of Irén’s daughters offered to drive me instead. Furthermore, rather than take the car ride by highway, Hajni offered to drive me and my friend visiting from Chicago along the scenic route, through the farms and sunflower fields of Northeast Hungary. As a wine expert, Hajni’s route also included a tour of the Etyek vineyards along the way. Something that would not have been nearly possible with public transportation. And notably, Etyek is fewer than 30 kilometers outside Budapest, so it satisfies my Budapest definition of “local food”!

 

One continuous excitement for me on this trip is how people’s interest in locally-grown food rarely ends after the crops’ growing stages. Rather, people like Irén are also passionate about cooking and eating local food, which serves (no pun intended) for wonderful experiences (mostly meals) beyond my interviews and community garden visits. In Irén’s first message back to me, she not only invited me to visit Székesfehérvár’s community gardens, but she also invited me to her home for lunch.

 

After an early departure from Budapest, we arrived in Székesfehérvár a bit after noon, just a few minutes late for the traditional, Hungarian lunch Irén prepared for us. We were welcomed into her home to meet the rest of the family members, and I was stunned by the beautiful plants placed throughout the home. Hajni had described to us the story of her mother’s three greenhouses during the car ride, but what I hadn’t previously considered the idea of one’s home acting as a greenhouse as well. Mostly just during the winter months, I was told!

 

Despite all the delicious food I’ve eaten in Hungary, it was such a treat to eat a home-cooked meal. It was an even more special treat to eat the most local-possible food in Irén’s home—she picked the majority of the vegetables in our meal from her garden that morning. Furthermore, a traditional Hungarian meal would not be complete without beverages, which in this case, included home-made cherry juice, pálinka, and wine. (Wine- and pálinka-making credits go to Irén’s husband.) And of course, dessert.

As large metropolitan areas, each of my study cities share certain key characteristics, such as having a high concentration of human and financial capital, advanced food supply chain infrastructures, social movements towards shorter food supply chains, and barriers to the development of those shorter food supply chains, which may be amplified by lack of political, corporate, or public support. There are some notable differences within these broad topics, for example, how the intensity of land development pressure within a city obstructs/interacts with urban farming developments. (Budapest has over 2800 hectares or > 3% unused space within the metropolitan area, which sets it apart from cities with extremely limited landscape and high rates of development, like Kampala and Singapore.) Nonetheless, my primary study cities this summer, each which has over a million inhabitant, are distinguished economic and cultural hubs, which may both prompt and inhibit local food system development and regeneration.

 

Székesfehérvár, a historically royal town of 100,000 people, doesn’t experience the exact same challenges regarding local food systems development that Budapest does. As Hungary’s 7th largest city, it’s not nearly as much in the spotlight as Budapest regarding economic, land, and community development initiatives. Regardless, I thought visiting community gardens in Székesfehérvár would provide an ideal opportunity to better understand the incentives for creating and challenges and successes of community gardens that apply to larger and smaller urban areas.

 

Székesfehérvár’s two community gardens were founded four years ago by the city’s Community Garden Association in close concordance with the Local Council. In Budapest, I studied gardens created and led by NGOs, Local Councils representatives, and grassroots organizations (local community members). Across this range of management systems, I repeatedly learned about how challenging it is for garden leaders to maintain a functioning community garden, whose functions include providing a lively social environment, a community support system, and the proper resources to enable high-quality urban farming.

The established management infrastructure of Székesfehérvár’s community gardens helps ensure that the city’s two community gardens maintain a dynamic, functional presence within the broader community of Székesfehérvár’s Community Garden Association, local schools, and adjacent neighborhoods. During my visit, I met with leaders of the Community Garden Association, garden supervisors, and the Local Council representative. Both gardens rely on the consistent dedication of these three different stakeholders to sustain the garden’s successes. Nonetheless, that isn’t to say being in a small city necessarily puts Székesfehérvár’s garden leaders at an advantage in how easy it is to dedicate their personal resources towards the gardens’ upkeep. For example, the supervisor at Palotavárosi Közösségi Kert told one thrilling story of her struggle while standing in the rain at one of the garden’s social events, soon after she’d moved into town. To her surprise, the garden members called upon herself—and herself only—to hold an umbrella over the pork fat frying on the fire beneath her. The umbrella eventually got caught in a gust of wind and was returned by a neighbor to the garden the next day, but by that time, the garden supervisor had already saved the day at the rainy garden party.

 

I’m currently grappling a bit as I analyze the various stories of challenges and success of community gardens that I visited in Budapest. I’ve observed one key, repeated challenge of how to maintain gardens’ community networks and lively social environments amidst people’s individualistic mindsets and habits and lack of free time and energy resources. NGO employees, local government representatives, and motivated community members have all earnestly described to me how many garden members simply show up to plant their own crops for their own benefit and do not partake in any community events. Many unpaid (and some paid) garden coordinators have also emphasized how much consistent effort is require to organize the social events and communication networks that a community garden needs to keep the ‘community’ in its title.

 

From my research in Budapest, I was inspired to learn how much power and potential individuals have in community and food systems development. I met one individual who lobbied seven Budapest districts governments to create community gardens, one intern who visited each of an NGO’s five community gardens once a week, many garden coordinators who organize robust garden social calendars, and so many other passionate individuals who work over hours or for free to maintain their gardens—what amounts to a small yet significant component of Budapest’s growing civil society and community development.

 

And fun surprise link here: http://www.kertbarik.hu/index.php/244-amerikai-vendegek-2

[*] I actually received two separate emails from each of Irén’s daughters—slightly differently translated versions of a warm welcome message to Székesfehérvár.

Budapest Community Gardens: an overview

Before coming to Budapest, I chose to study the city’s growing network of community gardens to help answer my question of how local food systems—in this case, community gardens—can help contribute to food security. Given the broad range of individuals, local governments, NGOs involved in the creation and management of community gardens across the city, I specifically sought to better understand how different stakeholders can work together to create a resilient local food system. Then, during my first interview in Budapest, with an individual who personally founded seven of the current 26 community gardens in the city, I was explicitly told that community gardens are not part of the “food system” in Budapest. Disregarding later counterarguments to that statement I heard from other interviewees, my research on community gardens in Budapest provided key insight into the persisting challenge of how to sustain a community-based local food systems and the benefits and challenges of different forms of start-up leadership, financial support, and continuous management.

During my time in Budapest, I visited community gardens that were created and are managed by four different local stakeholders:

1)    Kortárs Építészeti Központ / Contemporary Agricultural Centre (KÉK) – KÉK defines itself as “an independent architectural cultural centre operated by young Hungarian architects, artists and civilians,” yet its work as a well-resourced, established NGO extends to many different sectors and projects within Budapest. It’s urban gardening program, established in 2012 has been developed with collaboration with five local governments, real estate companies, and other private companies, such as Telecom and the IBIS Aero hotel. There are currently two key KÉK employees plus one intern in charge of managing day-to-day activities plus ensuring continued funding and external support for of each of KÉK’s current five gardens. KÉK’s goal with its urban garden program is to be an important community space for its members as well as provide a learning experience for the broader Budapest community: KÉK hopes that based on its community gardens’ network, “methods, tools, desirable behaviours related to the sharing or circular economy can be disseminated.” They hope that the educational activities of these gardens will “contribute to the development of innovative, sustainable and inclusive economical and social environments on local level.” KÉK’s garden members pay a symbolic annual fee, and the gardens rely on KÉK’s continued access to external grants to remain financially viable. Furthermore, given KÉK’s dependence on outside sources for funding and land-use, some of their gardens may not be sustainable in the long run–two have already closed and one more is set to close this year. Yet KÉK still views the gardens no longer in operation as successes due to how they contributed to KÉK’s and other community stakeholders’ knowledge bases about how best to create a functional community garden and shared social space within Budapest.

Kerthatár Közösségi Kert

http://kek.org.hu/en/projekt/kertek/

 

2)    Városi Kertek Egyesület (VKE) – Rósta Gabor, founder of VKE, was first inspired to develop community gardens in Budapest from his own research on WWII U.S. Victory Gardens, which provided greater self-sufficiency to urban and suburban community members at home during World War II. While today, Gabor still views the gardens as a functional space for members to grow high quality food, he believes the gardens provide “mostly fun, mostly well-being. They contribute to people’s quality of life” more than food security. Gabor’s association, VKE, assists in the development of community gardens by guiding collaboration with local governments and district communities. VKE actively seeks out potential new garden locations and engages the municipal government and local community members. The local government then commissions VKE to construct the physical gardens and instigate community development; strengthening community relations is VKE’s current primary goal. Gabor is currently challenged to figure out how to make the transition easier after the first 1.5 years of a garden, when a garden’s leadership changes from that of VKE to the garden members themselves. Nonetheless, one of VKE’s gardens’ strengths is that they are embedded into the city’s infrastructure–they are “overlegal” in Gabor’s words–and thus experience minimal risk of displacement or discontinuation.

Első Kis-Pesti Kert

http://www.varosikertek.hu/

 

3)    Grundkert – A Grund, a grassroots community organization, established its first garden in Budapest’s 8th District in 2012. In the past five years, Grundkert has moved location twice (its current garden is called ‘Grundk3rt,’ correspondingly), and many of its members have changed; yet it’s still supported by its land-granting sponsor, FUTURA, and provides an active community space for its members to garden and socialize. Grundk3rt’s successes are notable given its location in the most dense, poorest district in Budapest. Furthermore, the community-organized garden upholds a very democratic structure and its leaders respond directly to its members needs. However, the garden coordinators do hold the large responsibility of organizing all garden events. Furthermore, the garden lacks a certain sense of cohesiveness; when I asked two garden members about Grundk3rt’s goal, they stated that they had recently had a meeting to discuss that, but they forgot what the conclusion was. Nonetheless, they both emphasized how the garden has enhanced its members livelihoods by providing them with a space to connect with nature, engage meaningfully with other community members, and expand their cultural awareness.

Grundk3rt

http://agrund.hu/

 

4)    District XI Municipal Council – Kelenkert, a garden in Budapest’s eleventh district, represents another way community gardens in Budapest are created—through direct collaboration between a local district council and the community. Yet despite Kelenkert’s community-based founding, the local counselor, Ludányi Attila, was integral to garnering community and government support for the project. In 2014, Attila noticed his district’s desire for more community activities and share social spaces. So, Attila created a community group, which brainstormed how they could develop a shared social space to foster the district’s community building. When the community group came up with the idea to start a community garden, the local council supported the idea, gave them the land, and gave them some money to cover initial startup costs. All yearly garden costs are covered by the membership fee, which is 2500 HUF (or about 10 USD) per year. Attila described that the garden’s two greatest challenges are maintaining a socially cohesive community along with meeting the garden’s budget. Right now, the garden’s community activities are contingent upon the volunteer efforts of one or two individual members. Furthermore, while the budget is tight, Attila has not considered raising the rent price for the members because the current price is “what [they] need”—in order to promote the garden as a welcoming, community space.

 

To sum of some key points of the rest of my research on community gardens here, a table….

Gardens I Visited Organization Best-Case Practices Challenges
Structure Goals Gardens
  Kortárs Építészeti Központ / Contemporary Agricultural Centre

(KÉK)

   
Leonardo Kert, reGarden – újraKert, Kerthatár Közösségi Kert, Kisdiófa utcai Kert KÉK is “an independent architectural cultural centre operated by young Hungarian architects, artists and civilians” (KÉK website). The KÉK foundation runs many different programs

 

The KÉK Community Garden Foundation receives funding from independent grants along with direct funding and support from various private organizations, schools, and local authorities that own the land its gardens are on

 

“Via [our] gardens, we aim to introduce practices for innovative urban exploration which contribute to the liveable, sustainable urban environment, urban climate-adaptation; to the dissemination of eco-consciousness; to the toolkit of environmental education and to the understanding of notions related to the urban life such as “heat island” and “reducing ecological footprint”; to community development; to the strengthening of supportive relationships, and to the reduce of those isolation and alienation processes, which are typical in urban environments; to the establishment of an inclusive society” (KÉK pamphlet).

 

To gain and disemminate a knowledge-base of how to open and run a community garden in Budapest, so motivated individuals and organizations can do so on their own.

KÉK has started nine gardens, two of which have permanently closed, and other one which is set to close this year.

 

The gardens sponsored by private companies are independent of any political conflict. They are also potentially sustainable amidst a rapidly growing business environment in which CSR is important to many businesses’ missions and profitability. Current gardens are perpetually reliant on KÉK staff’s active management and interventions with how each garden functions

 

Many gardens have already closed, while KÉK doesn’t see this as inherently negative given their gardens’ stated use as a learning experience (which can occur without the gardens being permanent). The gardens’ ability to remain open is contingent upon the landowners’—many of which are private companies—continued desire to use the land for the garden

Városi Kertek Egyesület

(VKE)

Első Kispesti Kert, Aranykatica Kert NGO created and managed by Rósta Gabor; receives funding from local governments; Gabór aims for his gardens to “give people a purpose—to make people feel proud, like they can accomplish things in an age of individualism and [excessive technology use and the internet].” Gabór also seeks to provide a learning and community space with the greatest emphasis on community development. Notably, Gabór’s garden goals have changed overtime: he was inspired to create his first gardens by American Victory Gardens during WWII, and he hoped they would provide a substantial, additional high-quality food supply to its members.  today. Yet today, his greater concern is creating a space that ultimately increases people’s wellbeing due to their increased connection with a supportive, lively community (Gabór, personal communication)

 

Has started six gardens and has two more planned Each of VKE’s gardens is “overlegal” (Gabor) due to their direct sponsorshop, funding, and land allocation granted by the local authority; the gardens are instegrated within the city’s official infrastrutuce and thus experience minimal risk of displacement or discontinuation (destruction) Even though Gabor officially leaves his position as garden manager after 1.5 years, his Ngo, VKE, is required for all administrative purposes, and thus the gardens remain over reliant on him
Grundkert
Grundk3rt Grassroots organization made up of local community members; three garden coordinators “Good question…” a former coordinator (and current regular member) of Grundkert said when I asked her what Grundkert’s goals as a garden were. She and another garden member remembered having one meeting to discuss this exact topic, yet they couldn’t remember what they came up with. Generally, these two garden members emphasized the garden coordinators’ attempts to make the garden a lively social space and its function as a refuge for its members in the summer heat. Grundkert has moved location twice, so this is its third garden location Community-organized, and therefore responds to the community’s needs Lacks a sustainable management system; relies on volunteers’ intensive time and energy resources

 

Gets water illegally

 

 

District XI, Civil Council
Kelenkert Budapest’s Municipal Councils are associated with the relevant district’s local authority; the local council representation is in charge of Kelenkert and was essential to its founding “First goal is to provide a community” (Ludanyi Attila, Municipal Council Representative); the surrounding flats have a lot of older, single women, so the garden provides a social community and activity for community members. The garden also provides an ideal learning space for young parents to teach their children about food production and ultimately show them “a better future” There are a few other gardens within Budapest’s District XI, yet none run by the same local representative While the Municipal Council Representative played a key role in establishing the garden, he focused on organizing the community first, which provided a stronger community base and connection during the process of and after the garden’s creation Difficult to maintain a cohesive Community.

 

Difficult to remain within the current budget (but thinks that currently, “the price is right” for the rent)