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.

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.



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.


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:

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


People often ask me how I chose the seven cities I am visiting this summer. My formal answer for research purposes is that my study cities are large, metropolitan areas where local stakeholders have made significant investments into food security and/or local food systems. In less formal circumstances, I state the previous plus explain how I sent literally hundreds of emails to professors, researchers, politicians, business owners, and local food network organizers in cities worldwide last fall. I decided to visit the cities in which I had confirmed key research contacts.


Furthermore, one reason I chose my research topic/love it so much is because sustainable food systems, food security, people eating, etc. are truly universal topics. Which meant that my choice of cities in which I could study these topics and acquire critical insight was essentially limitless. I visited Budapest for three days last summer and thought it was an incredible gorgeous, lively, and interesting city. And, I seem to have found myself in Budapest again![1] I’ve been here for a few days now, and each time I walk out of my Airbnb I can’t help but be impressed by the gorgeous architecture that surrounds me. Or drawn in by the endless restaurants with lovely outdoor seating or abundant green spaces to stroll through.


So, somehow I’ve been managing alright here even though the first two days here were a bit slow in regards to my research—in fact, Monday was the first weekday of my trip thus far that I haven’t conducted any interviews. Yet by visiting markets, happening upon food-related conversations with locals, and of course, eating lots, I’ve still already become immersed in the developing trends of local and sustainable food culture.


Primarily urban intellectuals have initiated the development of neo-liberal local food systems—such as community supported agriculture (CSA) and buying groups—within Budapest in the past decade. While these, and other progressive, forms of local food systems are developing rapidly, they have yet to be significantly ingrained into Hungary’s major food supply chains. In contrast, traditional short food supply chains, like farmers’ markets and market halls, have been continuously prevalent in Hungary’s recent history.[2]

Benedek & Balázs (2016) eloquently sum up the fascinating background and current context of LFS development in Hungary. This paper–and Bálint Balázs’s incredible unprecedented help with my research–was principle in my decision to visit Budapest (along with my love of the city, of course).

“The patterns and processes of LFS development in transition countries are particularly remarkable as they are not necessarily comparable to what is experienced in the US or Western Europe (Jehlička, Kostelecký, & Smith, 2013; Jehlička & Smith, 2011). Retail revolution in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries is considered to have happened extremely fast (Dries, Reardon, & Swinnen, 2004; Swinnen & Maertens, 2007), which resulted in additional difficulties when small-scale farmers attempted to join modern food distribution channels (Bakucs, Fertő, & Szabó, 2012). Moreover, the rate of food self-provisioning is higher (Jehlička & Smith, 2011); it has a double role as a survival strategy and a recreational activity (Alber & Kohler, 2008; Jehlička et al., 2013; Mincyte, 2011). Still, semi-subsistence farming often gets little emphasis in the sustainable development reforms in the European Union (EU) new member states (Mincyte, 2011). This paper focuses on Hungary, where the dominant traditional forms of short food supply (sensu Kneafsey et al., 2013), such as farmers’ markets, market halls and farm shops, are overdependent on public investments for their sustainable operation, while neo-traditional forms (box schemes, webshops, community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes and buying groups) reached a rudimentary success in urban and peri-urban areas (Balázs, 2012; Réthy & Dezsény, 2013).”

Today, Budapest residents buy about five percent of their food from markets, rather than supermarkets. Furthermore, Budapest residents generally prefer to buy their fresh foods, like produce, dairy products, and meat, from markets rather than supermarkets.[3] The popularity of short food supply chains (markets) in Budapest has two major implications for my own research in Budapest:

1. Prominent, normalized local food systems in Budapest (markets) set the background for the current development of more alternative LFS, such as conscious purchasing groups and urban food production.

2. On days when I don’t have any interviews scheduled, I spend my time exploring the city’s many markets, gawking at perfect, primary-colored piles of tomatoes and paprika.

There are three main types of markets in Budapest: market halls, farmers’ markets, and organic markets. The construction of Budapest’s first five historic market halls began at the end of the 19th century prompted by city officials’ goals to have more sanitary, better controlled markets than the unsecured open-air markets that previously dominated the city’s market scene. Over 100 years later, these markets have assumed a key role in supplying local food to Budapest restaurants and households and supplying food and fun to tourists. The halls are filled with retailers’ stands (and a few select stands for producers), who sell everything from fruits and vegetables, to meat and dairy products, to wine and chocolate. The Central Market hall is by far Budapest’s most popular market. While it is touristy by nature (giant and gorgeous), during my own visits there, I’ve been excited to find the swarms of people with sneakers and fanny packs intermixed among Hungarian-speakers making their weekly produce rounds.


Hold Street Market Hall

Farmers markets are another traditional local food network in Hungary. By law, producers in Hungarian cannot travel more than forty kilometers to sell their products at a farmers’ market.[4] That government-defined, specific definition of local food in Hungary has made my universal interview question, “How would you define a local food system in [your city]?” quite monotonous during my interviews here. Nonetheless, over a dozen markets held weekly throughout Budapest make high quality, affordable, local food accessible to many Budapest residents.

Outdoors Section of Hunyadi Market

Organic markets are the last main type of market found in Hungary. While there are no restrictions on the locality of producers, every vendor at organic markets must be certified organic. Due to the high cost of organic certification for small producers, many small producers opt to sell at regular farmers’ markets in Budapest, and rely on their relationships with consumers to promote their environmentally-friendly production methods, instead of receive the organic certification. Meanwhile, however, a growing number of specified organic markets in Budapest demonstrate consumers’ increasing preferences towards sustainable food and an increasingly accommodating environment for producers to dedicate greater resources towards environmentally and socially sustainable production methods.


I’m very excited to meet many key stakeholders involved in Budapest’s local food research and community garden scene over the next two weeks! However, I’m also currently quite satisfied with my capacity to explore local food systems and culture not only through formal interviews, but also in markets, through informal conversations, and um… from the food on my plate. So most importantly of course, I look forward to sharing some more food pictures, soon!



[1] A more research-focused explanation on why I chose to study LFS in Budapest can be found in my next blog post.

[2] Benedek, Z., & Balázs, B. (2016). Current status and future prospect of local food production in Hungary: A spatial analysis. European Planning Studies, 23(4). Retrieved from Taylor & Francis Online database.

[3] Balázs, B. (2017, June , C. (2016, October 19). [Personal interview by the author].

[4] There is an exception to this rule for farmers’ markets In Budapest: producers are permitted to travel more than forty kilometers to sell to Budapest markets, given the city’s great size and purchasing power.


Differenzi Culturali Pt. 2 – Italian Definitions

In contrast to my naivety regarding Italian food policy (as mentioned in my last blog post), before I arrived here, I did do my proper share of reading on Italians’ common definitions of “food security”—which stray from people’s perceptions of food security found in my other study cities. Of course, all of my Italian interviewees could certainly google ‘food security’ and encounter the FAO’s/international organizations’ and governments’ typical “enough, healthy food to live an active lifestyle” criteria. Yet, I am less interested in my research contacts googling abilities and more interested in what food security specifically means to them.



For reference, here is the FAO’s 2001 definition of ‘food security’ (which I employed in defining the term for my own research):


“Food security is situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” – FAO


And, here are a few GAS members’ responses to my questions on how they would define ‘food security’:


“Food security is about the method to produce food—what producers use to grow, where they grow, what they feed their animals…” It’s related to food quality and safety and to the methods [of production] and distribution practices. – Giuseppe


“Food security… yes. I would use a different word, maybe not food security but food quality. Because industrial products… are causing in the long-term, many, many diseases. And nowadays, we are realizing that food maybe it’s not secure food for the people who are only relying on [those] kind of products… Security means that the quality of the food must be at a level where the ingredients—what is inside the food—are not unhealthy. As food—as that total food that you are eating because a component maybe is not unhealthy, but the way industrial food is produced, like some uh… I don’t know, an example… have you read about Nestles? Yeah [laughs]. That is in my opinions, producing unhealthy food—unsecure food. In general terms, not that particular product, but the way the food is produced, and the way [producers] are trying to sell their food. Because the food is full of sugar…and people are appreciating the taste, but it’s not good for their health, in the long term.”


Food security means “to know personally how food is produced.” The concept of food security is related to “how food is produced, treated, and to the whole food production lifestyle. It, for example, includes principles to not use harmful chemicals, consuming food in the right season, and the ‘zero-kilometer principle’.” – Alessandro


Food security in Italy is “more of a cultural thing. Eight out of ten of my friends have a decent, varied diet, so the focus is more to improve the quality rather than the variety [or sufficiency] of the diet.” – Sergio



Generally, my interviewees highlighted the “nutritious” and “safe” components of my food security definition through a perspective novel to my good ‘ole American one.


I never explicitly defined what “nutritious consumption practices” means for my own research. Nonetheless, the most-used nutrition metric I found in my literature review on food security studies food security metrics is dietary diversity, which means meaning people have access to the nutrients they need to be healthy resulting from their access to a wide variety of foods, e.g. not just carbohydrates (check out my post on matooke in Uganda). Furthermore, my conception of “food safety” is based upon articles I’ve read about crops produced near city roads containing high levels of heavy metals and how radiation from the Fukushima accident infiltrated Japan’s food supply; I generally conceive of “safe” food as food that won’t make its consumer noticeably sick due to one or a few instances of consumption.  In contrast, every GAS member whom I asked about GAS, nutrition, and food safety responded in a more abstract, ethically/politically/socially motivated manner and through a longer-term perspective than I initially expected. GAS members specified two keys themes in their answers: industrial vs. non-industrial food and food quality.


One shared value of my GAS members is that “industrial food” is bad.* Beyond industrial producers’ lack of regard for ethical and environmentally-friendly production methods, GAS members expressed their considerable concern regarding how industrial food affects its consumers, for example, because of how…


  • – Sugar/fat/salt is addictive and unhealthy
  • – Pesticides/herbicides/GMOs are unsafe/harmful to humans’ health/unhealthy
  • – And more conceptually, industrial food doesn’t taste good/is not fresh/is transported long distances/is produced through irresponsible production methods/is low quality and therefore is unhealthy



Beyond “food security” and “local food systems,” in Italy, “quality” became my new research buzzword. My interviewees explained some new definitions of ‘high quality’ food for me. To be of high Italian quality standards, per my interviewees, a food must not only taste or look good, but it must check off several of the following standards regarding its production, distribution, and manifestation as a thing that will be consumed and digested by a human being:

  • Agricultural production:
    • – Organic (or produced by organic methods, even if lacking the certification)
    • – Non-GMO
  • Social components of production:
    • – Labor practices – fair wage, fair working hours, no violations of human rights laws, etc.
    • – Doesn’t support the mafia economy
  • Distribution:
    • – Only transported a short distance; adhering to the ‘zero-kilometer principle’
    • – Relationship to producer –if due to environmental/economics restrictions, a product is not produced nearby, then the socially just distribution system accommodates for the geographic distance (e.g. coffee purchased through XX from South American and almonds and baked goods in Sicily purchased from anti-mafia organizations in Sicily)
  • The final realization of food to be consumed:
    • – Freshness
    • – Preparation – it was prepared on a stove/in an oven/by someone’s hands and not a microwave or behind closed doors
    • – Taste



Brunori, Malandrin, and Rossi (2013) sum up well how to Italians, food security means much more than availability and affordability. Rather, food is one of the principal ways for Italians to reassert their identity, which both explains the prominence of GAS in Italy and how in Italy, security cannot be separated from the broader discourse on quality. Brunori, Malandrin, and Rossi found that “food security policies cannot avoid taking into consideration consumers’ expectations and concerns about how food is produced and processed, where it comes from, and its impact on the environment and on society. Along with the recent history of the Italian food system, both ‘quality’ and ‘food security’ meanings have evolved, and a progressive integration of food security into a comprehensive concept of food quality has been built, through discursive coalitions that have reconciled positions initially very different from each other” (p. 20).


I’m sitting in the Rome airport now waiting for my flight to Budapest. And before I leave Italy, I feel obliged to give thanks for all of the GAS members who welcomed me to their homes, their organizations, and their social lives this week. Thank you to those members of SeiGAS, GAS Martezana, GAS Dem, GAS Vittoria, Terra e’ Liberta GAS, GAS Feltre, Gas LoLa and GAS Crescenzago, along with all of the other GAS members who responded to my emails but whom I couldn’t end up meeting with! I was astounded each day by these GAS members’ commitment to ethical, environmental, and community values, and I so highly appreciate my ability to be welcomed into that culture–even if just for an interview, meeting, or a meal!

Dinner (and notes) before GAS LoLa’s monthly meeting

*I had further difficulty when I asked my interviews to define “industrial food.” Generally, I found that they meant food produced or distributed by any national or multinational corporation. They also counted regional corporations greater than a certain size or lacking stringent environmental or social standards as “industrial.”



Differenzi Culturali Pt. 1 – Milan Food Policy

This summer, I am visiting seven different countries. In each country, I am studying a different type of local food system, such as household urban agriculture, community gardens, and community supported agriculture. There are major, obvious differences between these LFS—e.g. one family has a way different potential production capacity in a few square-meter vegetable garden in their backyard than one hundred people farming together at a large, shared agricultural space. Furthermore, key stakeholders of LFS in each city, vary greatly, from individuals, to social organizations, to city governments. Beyond the practical organizational differences between each of my case study LFS, each LFS emerged from communities where people have vastly different values, customs, and cultures.


As an Environmental Sciences major, the number of variables and the lack of controls in each of my study cities makes my brain slightly implode. I chose my study cities due to their investments either in local food systems or food security. I hope much value of my research will emerge from the studying best case practices and challenges in each city and determining how the successes in one LFS might be applied to the challenges in another. Nonetheless, drawing comparisons between and theorizing the application of practices between such different contexts is extremely difficult. Yet, to ensure I am approaching each of my case studies in an appropriate, respectable manner, I cannot do much more than simply approach each of my research activities as mindfully as possible. The past few days in Italy have reaffirmed to me how important this is.


For example, over the past few days, I’ve been asking my interviewees about the impacts of Milan’s food policy on the city and on their personal experiences with local food systems, like GAS. And my interviewees have mostly agreed that it’s impossible to identify the exact impact that the Milanese government has had on food systems and their own lives. Certainly, the food policy has provoked a broader dialogue about sustainable food systems and therefore affected people’s perceptions towards GAS. Yet the popularity of GAS in Milan, along with many Milanese residents’ shared values regarding high quality food, which comes from socially and environmentally ethical and sustainable sources, influenced the initial development and objectives of Milan’s food policy.


The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) emerged from a European Union (European Commission-funded) Program that aimed to promote local food councils in a group of European, Latin American, and African cities, and promote sustainable food systems-related dialogue amongst those cities. As the 2015 Expo in Milan approached, however, Milanese politicians and researchers recognized the potential to expand the project beyond its initial food council-related goals to instead create a framework for creating sustainable food policies in a larger group of cities around the world. The creation of the MUFPP entailed extensive collaboration between mayors from over 30 cities around the world. Despite prevailing criticism on the vagueness of the MUFPP and the skewed objectives of the Expo–i.e. profits for international corporations rather than concrete actions towards achieving the theme’s goals, ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life!’–the MUFPP is an extraordinary demonstration of international diplomacy and the power of cities. Today, 142 cities around the world have signed, and those cities along with other social, political, and cultural institutions, have used it as a framework to establish their own food policies and programs. Yet, most Milanese residents whom I interviewed could not pinpoint exactly how the MUFPP or any facet of Milan food policy specifically influenced their own lives.


The inherent difficulty in distinguishing correlation and causation between food policy, food systems, and food culture in Milan does not surprise me: throughout history, Milanese individuals and social organizations invested incredible amounts of personal and community resources towards developing their ideal food system. However, prior to my research here, I did not consider how the different, fundamental characteristics of Italian policy makes policy analysis and comparison between Milan and my other study cities quite difficult. One researcher involved in the development of Milan’s food policy and the MUFPP described, “Italians don’t usually have a culture of defining in public discussion a specific checklist and creating a specific strategy with a program and then an evaluation or monitoring system, as one finds in a typical policy design approach. We don’t have this tradition because we simply have different cultural and institutional traditions. If you look to the ‘urban food policies’ in the U.S., for example, it’s quite easy to find a very clear definition of the objectives, or the strategies, [of the metrics to evaluate those strategies’ success]. I don’t mean to say Italians don’t have the same tenets of policy–the objectives–but we don’t have any kind of monitoring or evaluation system. Maybe this is something we have to learn…”


My discussions with researchers involved in Milan food policy were crucial in defining how I approached the rest of my interviews, during which I asked about the impact of Milan’s food policy and international food policy initiatives. And while I learned to accept a lack of metrics or tangible reference points in my interviewees’ responses, they generally expressed satisfaction with how the city’s food policy engagements have “created positive noise” and prompted international dialogue about sustainable food systems. Over the course of the week, I’ve become satisfied with this answer.


I will continue to study food and food security policy in other cities I visit this summer, where I’m also interested in the impacts of the policy on the people’s local food movements and vice versa. And where I will continue to look out for specific institutional and policy tendencies, standards, and expectations. Furthermore, in each city I visit, I will make sure to understand people’s perceptions of other key terms in my research topic.


I initially intended on discussion different cultural perceptions of other key terms in my research, yet I think I’ll take a break and make that another post. Feel free to follow along and have some wine and assorted appetizers if you’re so inclined (it’s aperitivo time here). Then if you’re still so inclined, scroll to the next post to learn about some more Italian definitions.

Reassuring myself every day that I am capable of traveling the world by myself! 

Snapshot of Italian blogging (although people seem to catch on quickly that I’m not Italian)

Italian Food and Economic Solidarity

  • I had a wonderful first full day in Milan. Granted, I spent two months here doing an internship last fall. So, arriving at the airport yesterday, knowing which public bus to get on, arriving at my traditional Italian-style Airbnb without trouble, and then meeting my friend to see a late-night philharmonic concert in the plaza next to the Duomo certainly all added to my immediate contentment.…
  • Yet my research today also reaffirmed my pleasure to be here. This afternoon, after an hour and a half interview that was initially scheduled for thirty minutes, it re-set in for me how ridiculous(ly incredible) my research is: I am traveling around the world seeking out people who are passionate about the same subjects I am and then talking to them about those subjects. Sure, my research also entails that I stay fairly neutral about certain opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of local food systems, and so I can’t share in on all of the zeal expressed by my interviewees. Yet at the end of the day, my research this week means talking to Italians about food. Today, I spoke to Italians about food for six hours. It was great.
  • Admittedly, I talk about food a lot when I’m home, as well—in my classes, to my friends, to my friends with headphones in who are trying to do their own homework…. So, I’ll state again how it’s great to be in Italy, “where people never stop talking about food,” said one interviewee. And that’s even despite my disfavor of how protective Italians are of their food culture. When I tell people I’m not a huge fan of Italians’ rigid, unwavering commitment to their historical, rich food traditions, said people (mostly Americans, some Europeans) normally think I’m being ridiculous. However, to explain my point, I often tell my friends about my attempt to cook pasta with cream sauce in my Italian friend’s flat last fall. Soon after the water was boiled, I found myself with with Lorenzo’s phone held up to my ear being forced to listen to his Italian mother emphatically explain how I was cooking the pasta incorrectly. So, my pasta-cooking habits differ from Lorenzo’s mom’s. I think that’s okay. I also think it’s okay to eat while walking, and I like to mix a lot of different ingredients in a bowl for lunch. Yet more generally, I highly respect (and share) Italians’ passion for food (just not pasta. I don’t like pasta that much. Sh…).
  • I’m returning to this blog post a few days later, after interviews with members of seven GAS organizations, Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale, or Solidarity Purchasing Groups. And, after a few days of research here, I have gained an even greater appreciation for Italians’ dedication to their food culture—specifically their utilization of food consumption as an entry point to making positive social and environmental change. By studying GAS organizations, I’ve directly observed the lengths to which Italians are willing to go to uphold ethical principles, which they do through their commitment to eating quality** food.
  • Tonight*** I attended SeGAS’s monthly meeting. SeiGAS is a small-to-mid sized organization, which a few current members founded in response to a lack of GAS in their neighborhood. Most of the original members met each other because their children attended the same school. While over the past five years, members have come and gone, SeiGAS social community is crucial to the organizations’ benefits and proper functioning. In personal interview, numerous GAS members, in SeiGAS and six other GAS, identified the social components as one of their greatest benefits of being part of the GAS. Furthermore, SeiGAS is one of the small proportion of GAS in Milan that do not have a single, designated distribution place where its products are dropped off and distributed. Rather, members pickup their ordered products–which include meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, wine, oil, clothes, and more–from individuals household on designated weekdays. (It is common for other GAS to have a common distribution spot, such as a public space or rented garage , to distribute all products to all members at once each week.) SeiGAS setup further advances the close knit, community feel of the organization.
  • During monthly meetings, SeiGAS members get together to discuss logistics, such as where to supply certain products from, how pickup schedules will work, and the best dates to organize group visits to the local agricultural producers that supply to the GAS. SeiGAS, founded about five years ago, used to hold its meetings in members’ homes until it got too large. Tonight, 17 out of the 23 GAS members gathered in a community association building. They sat around a table in a room lined with bookshelves containing political books written by members of the Italian Resistance Movement during WWII. The first meeting agenda items (of the GAS meeting, not of the Italian Resistance Movement) included discussion on closing a bit early for summer and inviting a new family into the GAS. However, this monthly meeting was also exceptional in that the majority of the time was dedicated to discussing and re-outlining the Gas fundamental values. Since SeiGAS’s founding, many members have come and gone, yet it’s been three or four years since they adjusted their “values chart.” So this evening, the members dedicated the majority of the meeting to democratically reviewing a poster covered with sticky notes. On each sticky note, a certain GAS member had written what they thought the organization did well and what could be improved.
  • I ultimately did not hear the final determinations regarding SeiGAS’s updated values chart because partway through the meeting, I began interviewing organization members outside the meeting room. Regardless, observing this meeting was instrumental to me in understanding the true democratic nature of GAS (in a room with radical political books lining the walls).
  • Monday night, I was astonished to learn how committed SeiGAS members were to their GAS and to the social, ethical, and environmental principles that define their membership in a solidarity purchasing group. Over the course of this week, I’ve observed other GAS meetings and social events and engaged with many members of many GAS. And, I’ve been consistently impressed at each member’s personal commitment to and actions towards creating an economy that aligns with their personal (and shared) belief systems.
  • Before I arrived in Milan, I had some hesitations regarding my research here. (While it’s also true of other cities I will be visiting), Milan is fairly food secure, and those people who participation in GAS are certainly food secure. Therefore, my research on GAS will not provide a direct answer to how local food systems can contribute to the food security of consumers (or “members,” as I’ve been repeatedly corrected when discussion GAS) in those local food systems. Nonetheless, my past few days in Italy have demonstrated to me how my research on GAS in Milan should provide key insight into how individual dedication and social organization can make a significant impact on broader social, economic, political, and environmental issues.
  • One interviewee, a researcher at Associazione Economia e Sostenibilità in Milan, a key player and creator of Milan’s Food Policy and Milan’s Urban Food Policy Pact, and a member of a GAS himself summed up the relationship between GAS and food security well. While his following statement is a bit confusing, I don’t think I could convey the message any better by adjusting his Italian-English translation. If it doesn’t make sense to you, I’m happy to explain in the comments :). And in the meantime, I have to deliver some pasta I made at a social cooperative this morning to my friend!
  • “There is a kind of cultural, political vision at the basis of the GAS movement. I cannot say that the activities of the groups—of a single group of GAS—are mainly oriented to create a different food security framework for the people. It’s not the main issue. Yet, I think that most people at the origin of the GAS movement were really committed to a different kind of development, in which justice and ethical issues are important. So for sure, in the cultural grounds of the GAS movement, there are similar issues. The idea of improving a different development model through your lifestyles and through your food consumption to say okay, food justice is connected to the quality of job, the quality of the environment, which is not necessarily an issue connected to your personal food security, but the idea of a different development model of which food security is an important part. Not only for you and for your group, but for the whole world.”
  • **See my next blog post for what I mean by “quality.”
  • ***We’re jumping back in time now, since I wrote this part on Monday night… We’ll jump back to the future soon!

Views from the Brussels Airport: Looking ahead to Milan and back on Kampala

Well, potentially contrary to my circumnavigator’s spirit, I’ve decided to stay in the airport during my current ten-hour layover in Brussels. I was originally routed to fly from Entebbe to Doha, then Doha to Milan to arrive in Milan seven hours ago. But, due to recent airspace bans for Qatar Airways, my first flight would have been almost three hours longer than it was supposed to be, which would cause me to miss my Doha-Milan connection. I initially hoped to get to Doha and just cross my fingers that my second flight was delayed. However, the Entebbe airport officials would not let me check in to my first flight. I do think that’s reasonable, but I also think it was partially due to the newfound plane passenger limit: because the plane had to carry extra fuel to flight for the extra few hours, there was a new, lower weight restriction which limited the number of passengers the plane could hold.

So, yesterday afternoon, I nervously waited in the corner of the Entebbe airport to be updated about the possibility of rescheduling my flight. I stood, fidgeting in my designated, out-of-the-way waiting position, fearing that if I looked at my phone, I would miss something important. About forty five minutes in, a Singaporean woman in a similar position as me helped put my antsy, annoyed state in perspective. It was as if she had a prepared sermon with calming words of wisdom regarding the crap airport officials deal with each day, how lucky we were to be where we are, and how slight changes to our plan will not affect that. So, I snapped back to reality and thankfulness and focused on accepting the travel flow, whether that would be through Doha or Brussels–as it turned out–to get to Italy.


And so, continuing to go with the flow, I took this extra-long layover as a blessing in disguise. I’m taking this day in a comfy airport lounge to relax and re-WiFi, to organize some of my disjointed notes from Kampala as well as compile all messages with my Milan appointment times–scattered throughout WhatsApp, Gmail, and Facebook Messenger–and compile them into one nice calendar. (Yes, I know the city center is just a short train ride away, but I also spent a wonderful weekend in Brussels last summer, and I just enjoyed a delicious waffle right here in this airport.)


Unlike in Kampala, where I interviewed many researchers and government officials, in Italy, I will interview Milanese residents with a wide variety of professions, yet who all share one thing in common–their involvement in GAS organizations. ‘GAS,’ or Gruppi Acquisto Solidale, are grassroots networks found throughout Italy, which collectively organize direct food purchasing. While regional food provision is embedded within Italy’s agricultural and cultural history, GAS have been crucial in the endurance of local food systems (LFS), and represent a key portion of Italy’s modern LFS amidst increasing internationalization of its food supply chains. Furthermore, while GAS are founded upon the principles of economic and ethical solidarity with food producers, their benefits span into consumers’ own lives, such as by providing consumers with a reliable source of high quality food.


Additionally, the city of Milan holds a leading status its leading status in global food security initiatives: In 2015, Milan hosted the “Global Food Security Challenges”-themed Food Expo and led implementation of the internationally-recognized Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP), which is a consortium of city leaders who work to “develop sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe, and diverse” (Milan Urban Food Policy Pact). So, in addition to GAS Organizers, I will interview some researchers involved in the created of the MUFPP, which interestingly (relevantly…) enough are both involved in GAS organizations, as well…


I’m not in Italy yet though, so in one last effort to Budapest airport effort to be chill and accepting of all I encounter while travelling, I’ve decided to include a not-so-research-related blog post on this research blog. Below are some words from my winning WiFi location in Kampala: an Irish bar at 2 p.m.:


I’ve been in Uganda for about 11 days now (11/99!), and I have learned an incredible amount. In addition to the ridiculous number of pages of notes I have collected on urban agriculture and food security in Kampala, here are some other fun takeaways/words of advice to myself for the next six countries I visit:


  1. 1. Make sure you know what transportation/traffic is like in a city before choosing where to stay. The obligation to get home before dark when you live 90 minutes from the city center is a bummer.
  2. 2. Agree on prices beforehand.
  3. 3. Engage meaningfully with other travelers and locals. Staying with a host family here, I was able to discuss meaningful topics every day and learn a lot from discussing these topics with people who have vastly different perspectives than my own. I hope to continue to seek out people who want to talk about more than the tourist sites and the best beers even when I stay in hostels, and thus am constantly surrounded by “hostel talk,” in other locations.
  4. 4. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of being American. Government officials may be happy to take an hour out of their work day to speak to you at a minute’s notice, but you may not be allowed inside army barracks and therefore unable to visit some very successful beneficiaries’ of the urban agriculture programs those same government officials coordinate.
  5. 5. My skin is capable of turning one shade darker than pale ghost–although the dirt definitely helps accentuate my new tan!
  6. 6. Follow the local food “rules.” If the family members you are staying with don’t snack during the day, do not eat snacks during the day, or you will be screwed by the time dinner arrives and you are not hungry.
  7. 7. Except don’t follow local food customs if they make you drink less water than you should.
  8. 8. Also, be wary of eating too many fried foods.
  9. 9. Accept help from strangers. My first day here, I struggled within the mass of ~1000 parked taxis in the city center to find the correct one to take home. I initially thought it was inappropriate for the grocery store manager to leave his store to help me find the right loading stage, but about fifteen minutes and with help from fifteen more Ugandan men later, he dropped me off in front of the correct taxi. Moral of the story: fifteen knowledgeable locals > one wandering Muzungu in trying to find her way home, and people are so kind and helpful!

Which taxi, again?…

  1. 10. Keep earplugs nearby in case the chickens “cockadoodledoo” too early or the church across the road decides to play music all night again.
  2. 11. Understand that fake wedding band you’re wearing won’t prevent you from being asked out by the guy riding on the motorcycle next to yours.
  3. 12. Suck up the ATM fee, or you’ll find yourself only able to visit places that accept credit cards and thus miss out on some great, local experiences.
  4. 13. I think my mosquito repellant might actually attract insects?…
  5. 14. Google Maps isn’t always right.
  6. 15. “Free WiFi” signs are sometimes a lie.
  7. 16. Just because your blog is located on the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research’s website doesn’t mean you can’t reference your pale skin or unrealized motorcycle dates on it. (@URGOffice, is this okay?)


Sad to say goodbye to my wonderful host family in Kampala!

Lots of Matooke

I explained my trip and research topic to a lot of people before I began traveling. After listening closely to my detailed explanation, about half of my friends took a second, tilted their heads, and then asked me, “Wait… you’re getting a bunch of money to travel around the world eating food?”


The short answer is no. The other short answer is yes…

Lunch in Mukono Market – matooke, greens, rice, chicken soup


Lunch with ~all the things~ – Matooke, cassava, posho, rice, taro, sweet potato, “Irish” (potato), millet bread, beans, goat soup


Another lunch… – matooke, millet bread, sweet potato, Irish, rice, cassava, taro, greens, fish paste

But, to make this a worthy blog post, a long answer….


To begin, I got made fun of today by a random stranger for drinking water as I walked down the street. Yesterday, my research assistant, Ismail, (who happens to be fasting for Ramadan) asked me, “You really like water, don’t you?” When I discussed this with my host sister, her explanation (summarized from a lengthy conversation) was, “We [Ugandans] don’t take water much.” (Sure, these conversations have made me a bit less uneasy about drinking water in front of Ismail all day long—given that he’s fasting for Ramadan, and it’s hot….) However, there is also a lot of tea and liquid-y porridge drank around my host home.


Furthermore, in my quest to figure out what exactly I’ve been eating here— and if there is more to the multiple types of starches usually piled on my plate than carbs—I’ve discovered that matooke is about 75% water. Matooke, perhaps the most common staple dish here, is made from bananas, yet not the bananas I’m used to. Instead of sweet and yellow and full of fiber, matooke are green and starchy and lack a significant amount of any nutrients. I don’t mean to degrade matooke, for it plays an integral role in physically sustaining Ugandans and in fostering their distinct, rich food culture. Wealthy and poor Ugandans alike pile matooke on their plates (and their foreign-born guests’ plates) at lunch and dinner. It serves as an ideal, filling base to eat with soups, sauces (mostly bean or peanut-based), and vegetables. However, my Western culture-fostered carbophobia aside, there is in fact growing concern about the lack of nutrients in Ugandans’ staple starches—matooke, posho, “Irish” (potatoes), sweet potatoes, cassava, rice, and kalo (millet bread).


And that’s how a key link between how the ~seven types of starchy foods on my lunch plate each day appertain to my research on food security: urban farming provides Kampala residents with a variety of nutritious foods that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Furthermore, the rising popularity of urban vegetable farming, and accompanying government and community organization programs, also holds potential to increase awareness of the importance of a balanced diet for all urban Ugandans, no matter their socioeconomic status.


Kampala residents’ frequent consumption of calorie-dense foods starches provides convenient access to the energy necessary to lead their daily lives; however, staple dishes alone, like matooke, posho, and white potatoes, lack the nutrients necessary for people to “maintain healthy and active lives” (from the World Health Organization’s definition of food security). For that reason, the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) has emphasized the importance of urban vegetable production as a means to increase people’s nutritional outcomes through its various urban agriculture program.


Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard many conflicting opinions on the potential for urban agriculture to provide a significant portion of the city’s food supply. Everybody agrees that key crops, like matooke and potatoes, should continue to be produced in rural areas (given practical land and environmental constraints). However, through my interviews, I’ve discovered that government officials’ and researchers’ perceptions of how much food could and should ultimately be produced within the city limits varies greatly.


The first researchers I spoke to at the National Agricultural Resource Organization’s (NARO) Kawanda branch primarily conduct research to improve agricultural farming and processing techniques in agricultural (rural) areas. When I asked them about food security in Kampala, they all agreed that urban residents’ food security is dependent upon agricultural productivity in rural areas—which directly reflects their research objectives. This group of researchers was quite dubious about the potential for Kampala’s urban agriculture to provide a significant portion of food to the city.


However, since the food security of Kampala residents depends upon the agricultural productivity of rural areas, I was surprised to learn that the Department of Disaster Preparedness, housed under the Office of the Prime Minister, has neither conducted any studies about urban food security nor engaged in any programs to specifically ensure urban residents’ food security. (For example, as a last-case scenario, the Department distributes food directly to food-stressed residents in rural regions, yet it has never distributed food to Kampala City.) Furthermore, one official at the Office of the Prime Minister had never even heard about the KCCA’s urban agriculture programs, despite that those programs’ goals align exactly with one directive of the Office of the Prime Minister: to increase Ugandans’ food security.


In contrast, an urban agricultural technician from the NARO Mukono branch believes that in the next five or so years, urban agriculture could supply up to half of the city’s food supply. NARO Mukono’s urban agriculture program aims to provide urban farmers with the best training and technologies they need to produce vegetables within small spaces; the program is founded upon Kampala’s land constraints, yet its directors believe it can overcome these constraints to provide a substantial portion of food—especially vegetables—to Kampala.


Furthermore, two KCCA officials I spoke to, who oversee the KCCA’s urban agriculture programs for two Kampala Divisions, emphasized the significance of urban agriculture in contributing to the city’s vegetable supply and poultry/egg supply. These programs, which provide urban agricultural training and free supplies to selected vulnerable individuals in different divisions throughout the city, also educate Kampala residents about ideal nutritional practices.


No matter whether over 90 percent of food in Kampala continues to be sourced from rural areas, urban agriculture’s distinct qualities can enhance urban residents’ food security amidst environmental and economic disturbances. Despite land constraints, urban vegetable production can add a significant, reliable, and accessible portion of otherwise lacking nutrients to urban residents’ daily diets. Furthermore, the KCCA’s and other community based programs education on nutrition, which accompanies their urban agriculture programs, can further increase urban residents’ food security. Finally, in the case of decreased agricultural productivity, such as that caused by environmental change, or decreased food supplies available to Kampala, such as that caused by peacetime in South Sudan, urban agriculture may provide a more reliable supply of food to urban residents.


And another lunch?? But this one was from a buffet restaurant next to the Office of the Prime Minister, and it was very exciting – in addition to the usual items plus some extra salad items, I got to pile all the greens I wanted on my own plate….

An Intro to Kampala – Urban Agriculture & Traffic

In my everyday life, I know I take a lot for granted: in addition to the big things, like my health, my family, friends, etc., I also don’t think twice about indoor bathrooms and drinkable tap water. Honestly, I’m grateful for my past ability to travel so much that small differences like those are quite easy to adjust to. However, in Kampala, the most difficult thing for me to get used to is the traffic. I’ve never been so incredibly appreciative of the L train in Chicago. Or stoplights…


I’m staying with a wonderful, caring host family, where I have a plethora of family members looking out for me and providing me with touches of home—like leftover birthday cake this morning (a tradition in my own family, of course!). However, I must admit I was slightly naïve in not figuring out where exactly they live before I arrived. This morning, I woke up at six, maybe slightly offended my host sister by skipping the bucket (shower) she offered to fill up for me, ate my breakfast as quickly as possible (a more difficult task than expected since the peanut butter here is a bit more…sticky…than I’m used to), and sped walked past the schoolchildren on my way to the common form of public transportation here, a matutu, or “taxi.”


It’s now 7:48, and my taxi is inching towards the Old Car Park in the city center. I suppose the Old Car Park is the Grand Central-equivalent in Kampala (just substitute trains with taxis). Or maybe it’s more like Penn Station… Regardless, it’s where thousands of taxis congregate in the city center. The giant parking lot is filled with signs denoting different loading “stages,” which state in what direction the taxis lined up behind it are heading. The next taxi to leave gets a more specific sign placed on top of it until it is appropriately filled and heads out. Each taxi has fourteen seats and thus, legally fits fourteen people. Not so legally, it fits way more…


In regards to my research on food systems here, however, I’ve found that “informal” is a more respectful and appropriate term to use than “illegal”—specifically when referring to unlicensed street vendors and markets. So, I’d rather say that taxi I came to town in this morning was just… very informal.


Also in regards to my research on food systems, just within my first few days here, I’ve learned an incredible amount. Before I arrived in Kampala, I read a lot about the significance of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) to the city’s food supply—that is, the large proportion of food it supplied to the city. Then, in my first two days here, many qualified researchers and scientists informed me that 95 percent of the city’s food supply comes from beyond the city’s urban and peri-urban areas.[1] When I first heard this, I was a bit taken aback—I thought a large research pivot was at bay. However, over the past few days, I’ve learned more and more about the significance of UPA to the city’s food supply and food security, beyond the simply the amount of food it provides.


In case you didn’t check out that handy dandy table I included in my last blog post, my definition of food security includes four key criteria:

  1. Physical availability of food
  2. Economic and physical access to food
  3. Nutrition of consumption practices (and access to a variety of nutritious food)
  4. Availability/access to safe food
  5. Stability of the other four dimensions


UPA may currently comprise only five percent of Kampala’s food supply, yet it certainly increases people’s economic and physical access to a diverse variety of healthy foods, given that the most popular UPA products are vegetables and poultry. Certain government programs also promote UPA to increase specific, vulnerable urban communities’ food security. Other government programs train urban and peri-urban farmers how to maximize UPA production in very limited spaces. Complementary private and government-sponsored research to Kampala’s UPA developments also increase the reliability of urban and peri-urban farmers’ yields despite climate uncertainty, severe weather events, and land development pressures.


Despite my misconceptions regarding how much food UPA sources to Kampala, the city still serves as a baseline for my research: unlike in my other study cities, most of Kampala’s food supply is sourced domestically. Every person whom I ask about the food system here invariably begins describing to me the distinct agricultural regions throughout the country. Each region has a certain food it produces, which is determined by people’s preferences and the natural environment (but mostly the natural environment). In fact, one researcher at the Kampala Capital City Authority’s agricultural research center, Kyanja, said that’s how he would define a “local food system” in Uganda: by the crops/livestock a certain region produces.


Once crops are harvested in regions throughout Uganda, they are typically brought by distributors to be sold at key markets around the city, like Owino, Nakasero, and Kalerwe Markets. Crops that require processing, like grains and corn, are also brought to the city to be processed, and livestock are brought to the city to be slaughtered. After processing, these food products are distributed to markets within Kampala and back out to the regions from which they came. There are many possible distribution routes for all food products once they arrive at the key city markets: they can be sold to individuals, restaurants, hotels, or other secondary market distributors, and then the chain continues… Yet despite the seeming complexity of these city food chains, the very common farmer-distributor-market seller-household/restaurant/hotel food supply chain is still extremely streamlined compared relative to how food gets distributed to supermarkets in the US, for example.


In my first week here, I’ve spoken to a number of researchers, government officials, and program coordinators involved in urban agriculture in Kampala, at the following organizations:


**Please note that the following sections ended up being way longer than I initially intended, so … TL;DR


National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Kawanda Branch –


  • I interviewed soil scientists who aim to increase climate-smart farming throughout Uganda, and thus contribute to the country’s food security amidst environmental change and uncertainty by conducting research through direct engagement with farmers in urban and peri-urban areas.
  • These researchers also explained to me how the food systems within Uganda is like a spider web with Kampala as the agricultural processing and distribution center: food comes in from specialized rural agricultural regions to Kampala and then redistributed back out. Therefore, food is widely available in Kampala, even if it is not physically and economically accessible to all residents.

Model growing of hybrid matooke crop at NARO Kawanda

Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Community Involvement & Gender Department, Kampala Division –


  • The KCCA’s Department of Agribusiness runs a program that targets vulnerable communities throughout Kampala, and provides them with comprehensive financial, technical, and advisory support for them to start their own urban agriculture enterprises.
  • Two key challenges to the program include land development pressure (given that many program beneficiaries do not own the land they farm on) and accessibility of authorized, efficient food distribution channels for the beneficiaries to sell their food to. To overcome that second challenge, the KCCA encourages the development of neighborhood farmers’ cooperatives, since urban farmers joined together can gain access to formal markets that individual, small-scale, urban farmers can’t. However, these cooperatives have not yet been realized.


KCCA Kyanja Agricultural Resource Center –


  • The goal of KCCA’s Kyanja Agricultural Resource Center is to train urban farmers how to best grow crops in small spaces, to ultimately increase urban farmers’ productivity and secure their income.
  • Kyanja provides a sort of marketplace for urban farmers from all over the city to buy high quality agricultural products and inputs, and it also provides a wide arrange of extension services. It trains all sorts of urban farmers (no matter their income) on best practices related to poultry, piggery, aquaponics (to raise catfish), mushroom growing, and vegetable growing.
  • Kyanja hopes to soon provide farmers with increased access to proper food distribution networks, which may occur at the center and in poultry distribution centers, which program coordinators hope to develop in each district.
  • When I was touring Kyanja, the Director of Communications at the KCCA bought two chickens and 44 catfish, and he put them in his trunk for the car ride home (the catfish in two plastic bags).

(Coincidentally) toured Kyanja with the Director of Communications of the KCCA and other officials from the Office of the Prime Minister

NARO, Mukono Branch –


  • NARO Mukono’s urban agriculture program aims to teach UPA farmers how to maximize the productivity of vegetable growing on small plots of agricultural land to provide the farmers with future food, income, and employment. They do so through community-based training and providing more comprehensive support to select urban farmers.
  • Since the project’s inception, the NARO Mukono team, along with its community based organization partners and support from local agricultural and political leaders, has trained 5,000 farmers and provided 20,000 farmers with free urban farming materials.
  • To combat the same, previously discussed, issues with lack of available, formal markets for urban farmers, the NARO Mukono urban agriculture team dedicates a large portion of their time to assisting farmers in finding potential markets for their products, such as formal food markets or direct buyers at places like universities and restaurants.

Sign says “Food Towers: Evaluating performance of small gardening technologies for urban farming” at NARO Mukono




And if you are still reading, I wish you sincere congratulations. But also, please feel free to ditch at any time. I will not be offended. It’s past 10 pm here, so it’s certainly my own bedtime, and perhaps it’s yours too…


And here’s the full version—woohoo:


National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) – Kawanda


I was privileged to have my first interview in Kampala with a team of soil scientists at NARO’s Kawanda branch. NARO’s mission is “to enhance the contribution of agricultural research to sustainable agricultural productivity, sustained competitiveness, economic growth, food security, and poverty eradication.” The researchers I spoke with specifically aim to increase climate-smart farming in Uganda. In recent years, they have made great strides to their research away from the lab and instead towards meaningful engagement and interventions with farmers on the farmers’ own land.


Indeed, most of NARO Kawanda’s research is focused in agricultural areas—and NARO researchers do not consider urban and peri-urban Kampala an agricultural area. Regardless, the soil scientist team has recently conducted some interventions with urban farmers on a variety of projects, such as sack farming, hydroponics, and mushroom growing.


Since my interview with the soil scientists at NARO was my first interview here, the researchers provided me with some general conceptions of the city and its UPA. They explained to me how Kampala’s city boundary was originally delineated as reaching 3 km from the city center, yet it is continuously expanding. They would now describe the city as reaching 15 km from the center.


Furthermore, while the researchers emphasized how urban expansion is one of the biggest threats to Kampala’s food system, they also emphasized to me how UPA is still not that important to Kampala’s general food supply… They explained how most of Kampala’s food comes from “deep rural” areas, which are more than 100 km away from the city. (However, they laughed and told me that if I drove just 30 km away from the city, I would think I was in a very rural area. That was soon confirmed.)


Other key insight these researchers (and my research assistant, Ismail) provided me with during our general discussion was about how Uganda’s food networks function more generally—“like a spider web” (i.e., from rural agricultural regions to Kampala and back to other rural regions)! Therefore, food is generally very available in Kampala—and that checks #1 on my list of food security components. Furthermore, food in Kampala is generally more economically and physically accessible than food in nearby towns, given how Kampala is the country’s agricultural distribution center. Nonetheless, food insecurity in Kampala is still a prevalent issue, and that’s where UPA often comes in—it provides a direct supply of food and additional income to urban residents in need.


While NARO’s soil scientists’ research was mostly unrelated to UPA, the ultimate goals of their department—to ensure Ugandans with consistent access to sufficient, nutritious food amidst impending environmental change and uncertainty—is quite relevant to my own research. Furthermore, my visit to NARO only began to demonstrate to me the very large quantity of government and private resources in Uganda that are dedicated to increasing and maintaining agricultural productivity throughout the country, both in urban and rural areas.


(Next week, I will meet with the women in charge of the Biosciences Department at NARO Kawanda, who will provide me with more specific insight into how researcher hope to increase the nutritional value of food supplies within


Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Community Involvement & Gender Department, Kampala Division –


I met with Mugisha Abdu, the Director of Agribusiness and National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) Coordinator for Kampala Central Division,[2] whose position falls under the KCCA’s Community Involvement and Gender Program. The KCCA’s vision is to make Kampala a vibrant, attractive, and sustainable city. According to Mr. Abdu, its key values include land care, innovation, production and markets, and food security, and its mandate is to increase food availability, nutrition, and income security to Kampala residents. The KCCA determines what are appropriate programs to do so by first conducting interventions, through which city officials meet with political, religious, and other community leaders on a neighborhood basis. They inquire as to what exactly people need and develop their community develop programs based on communities’ specific needs.


Mr. Abdu has been running the Kampala Central Division’s urban agriculture enterprise since 2012. The program targets vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, such as single women, unemployed youths, elderly people, and people with HIV/AIDS, and aims to increase their food security. KCCA provides select program beneficiaries with comprehensive support for them develop their own urban agricultural enterprise: vegetable farming,[3] mushroom growing, poultry farming, dairy farming, or creating value-added food products. The beneficiaries receive advisory, monetary, and technical support throughout the development and upkeep of their individual enterprises. Ultimately, individuals may either consumer or sell their agricultural products, which increases their direct access to food and provides them with a source of additional income.


The KCCA’s agricultural enterprise program has accomplished much over the past five years. The Central Division alone has sponsored 500 beneficiaries, and Mr. Abdu has personally observed many instance in which people’s ownership of these enterprises significantly improved their livelihoods. However, one increasingly pressing challenge to the program’s sustainability and expansion is land development pressure within Kampala.


The program aims to provide people with the knowledge, skills, and equipment they need to run a successful agricultural enterprise within a very limited space (e.g. somebody’s backyard or the space between people’s homes and the road). However, given the program’s target beneficiaries—individuals’ vulnerable to food insecurity—the beneficiaries often do not own the land they develop their enterprises on. Therefore, it is common that even program participants’ one-square meter vegetable plots are threatened by the land owners’ future development. Mr. Abdu described numerous cases in which his team went to check on their beneficiaries (ongoing monitoring and support is one key stage of project implementation), and the bountiful chicken coops or vegetable plots they had observed just one week before were gone—and often, the beneficiaries were too.


Another challenge to small-scale urban agriculture within Kampala is for urban farmers to gain access to efficient, legal channels to sell their food products through. The small-scale agricultural enterprises that the KCCA sponsors most often do not produce enough food products or provide enough income for the urban farmers to sell to licensed city markets. Many urban farmers overcome this barrier by selling their products through informal means, such as outside the gates of city markets, through small stands on the sides of roads, or at informal markets. The KCCA hopes to mitigate unlicensed product sales by supporting the development of agricultural cooperatives. These cooperatives, through which community residents involved in the same form of agribusiness can connect, would increase the day-to-day support and assistance urban farmers receive. They would also provide small-scale urban farmers the means to sell their products at the major markets within town: while one farmer may not have enough chickens to sell at a large market, all the poultry farmers in a neighborhood certainly would.



KCCA Kyanja Agricultural Resource Center –


The goal of KCCA’s Kyanja Agricultural Resource Center, founded in 2013, is to train urban farmers how to best grow crops in small spaces, to ultimately increase urban farmers’ productivity and secure their income. The center is located on the outskirts of Central Kampala, and it has five main projects: poultry, piggery, aquaponics (to raise catfish), mushroom growing, and vegetable growing. While Kyanja functions largely as a business—it sells each of its agricultural products to urban farmers throughout the city—Kyanja’s mission is rooted in enhancing urban farmers’ livelihoods. Each Wednesday and Sunday, the center is open to the public for trainings on a variety of urban agricultural techniques—e.g. food towers, sack gardens, green houses, aquaponics—and best practices regarding each the types of product it produces itself.


However, Kyanja’s work and mission extends far beyond its own site. Kato Godfrey, Head of Crop Science at Kyanja, described how the resource center also provides a variety of extension services to all types of urban farmers (of all incomes) throughout the city. Its team provides personal consultation and monitoring of people’s individual urban farming operations. It also donates supplies to individuals that have demonstrated sufficient resources (capital and land, though the minimum capital requirements are only about 30 USD) and interest in/commitment to their urban farming activities.


Mr. Godfrey identifies the greatest barrier for urban farming in Kampala as lack of space. He often meets people who want to begin urban agriculture projects but simply don’t have the few square meters they need to make it worth their while. Nonetheless, he is confidence that the KCCA is well-suited to respond to Kampala residents’ needs and provide them with the other forms of training (e.g. how to bake or make crafts) to continue increasing the city’s food security.


On my second visit to Kyanja, during the Saturday open tour hours, I was very privileged to run into two government officials who were touring the center themselves. Throughout the tour, they verbalized their great appreciation for Kyanja’s “illustrious goals” and good work. They also discussed possibilities of future developments to ensure satisfaction for those who visit the center, such as a waiting area and a café.


One future development their discussed that I see as a key step in the KCCA’s continued support of small-scale urban agriculture is the development of cold rooms in each city district. District-wide slaughterhouses/distribution centers could overcome current challenges farmers experience in finding proper distribution channels for their agricultural products. Furthermore, Mr. Godfrey hopes to supplement these future cold rooms with development of a formalized system at Kyanja. He hopes farmers will soon be able to all types of agricultural products (not just poultry) directly to the center, and the center could sell them to other buyers. These guaranteed, formalized food networks would increase farmers food security and livelihoods by providing them with reliable access to buyers.



NARO – Mukono


The goal of NARO Mukono’s urban agriculture program is to teach UPA farmers how to maximize the productivity of small plots of agricultural land to provide the farmers with future food, income, and employment. They do so through community-based training and providing more comprehensive support (i.e. supplying materials and continued advisory services) to select urban farmers. NARO focuses primarily on backyard gardening techniques, such as buckets, sacks, food towers, and hanging gardens. The program’s agricultural technician explained why the program focuses on vegetable production: vegetables can be very productive even when grown in small spaces, vegetables grow quickly, vegetable farming’s required inputs are low cost, and vegetables are healthy.


Since the project’s inception, the NARO Mukono team, along with its community based organization partners and support from local agricultural and political leaders, has trained 5,000 farmers and provided 20,000 farmers with free materials.


To combat the same, previously discussed, issues with lack of available, formal markets for urban farmers, the NARO Mukono center itself assists farmers in finding potential markets for their products. Monica, the program’s agricultural technician, described how she could spend all day on the phone assisting farmers with sales. Despite the time-consuming nature of this part of her job, she has been successful in helping urban farmers connect with formal food markets and in cultivating relationships between urban farmers and other buyers, like universities and restaurants.


Monica’s dreams that NARO Mukono will one day train and assist 500,000 urban farmers. She believes also believes it would be very reasonable to source all of Kampala’s vegetables locally, and that that would both increase urban residents’ income and health.


[1] I’ve recently encountered a variety of statistics regarding where Kampala’s food is sourced, yet I still have not come across enough information to cross-check the numbers. Regardless, I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of the ‘95 percent’ statistic. For example, one International Development Research Centre (IRDC) sited that 70 percent of poultry found in Kampala is sourced from UPA.

[2] Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is administered by the Kampala Capital City Authority. While there is a “Lord Mayor” of the whole city, the KCCA is also divided into five divisions, each which has its own mayor.

[3] Here and in the following sections, “vegetables” refers to crops like tomatoes, onions, leafy greens, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, etc.