A pup of mine from several years ago and I used to take long walks on the weekend and talk food justice. The following is a slightly revised re-post of a conversation he and I actually had six years ago about real food and real food justice:
My puppy, Franco, and I take long walks on Saturday and Sunday mornings to chat about the world’s situation and give him a chance to poop and pee. I’ll admit it, I often steered the conversation to food justice issues. And as he’s run through many a lawn and garden, he’s become quite knowledgeable about how our current system’s gotta change.
Today, our conversation began on a much hopeful note than the talk we had a few weeks ago. My hope started as early in our walk I spied a dandelion making its way through a crack in the sidewalk. My mind was drawn to the Facebook post I used to encourage folks to read up on my garden this week. I wrote, “I don’t believe in miracles. I’m not religious. But seeds make me believe in something: There is always a reason for hope.” That sentiment — the seeds filling me with a sense of hope — was the other reason today’s chat with Franco was more positive.
Just before Franco was about to mark that “weed,” I shouted, “Listen, Dude! Leave it alone.” I told him that despite many people thinking that dandelions are weeds and they often grow in the absolute worst of all places, they are an entirely edible plant growing in one of the most inhospitable places. And that, I found, amazing.
Somehow, a dandelion seed got dropped in an area with almost no soil and started to take root. From the looks of it, the root had dug in deep, and the dandelion was having an excellent time being its dandelion-self.
Franco cocked his head to one side, threatened to mark again, but taunted me with the “give me a treat or else” look.
I handed him a treat. He directed his pee elsewhere.
“What up, man?” Franco asked.
“Okay, my friend, this is going to seem like a huge tangent, but that dandelion helps me imagine that our cities could become much more hospitable places for fresh food. More importantly, creating places for food for people who need food.”
“That dandelion got you thinking that? Man, you’re strange!”
I couldn’t disagree but thought I’d explain. “Listen. Our cities are covered in cement. But our lack of investment in infrastructure means that there are cracks in that cement everywhere. And in almost all those cracks you can find something that qualifies as food to something. Dandelions are everywhere, despite human attempts to rid our cityscapes of every vestige of them. And every part of a dandelion qualifies as food for humans. In some stages, we may not like the taste. But it’s food. Its roots can act as a coffee substitute. Its young greens and flowers make for tasty salad-fixings. And, while I don’t drink alcohol, I hear that some people make dandelion wine. Cool, huh?”
“I guess,” Franco barked back. “But dandelions are not going to feed the world, much less become the source of nutrition for poor folks in this city.”
“You’re right, Franco. But dandelions are just the start. Look around you. Look at all the places along our walk where food could be growing.”
“There’s this monoculture called ‘grass,” that grows food for no one and nothing — not humans, not pollinators. I wish homeowners — and public spaces like parks, by the way — would devote at least some of their space to grow some sort of food: flowers, fruits, veggies, something! I believe you told me during our last food chat that you see ‘plenty of lawns with nothing but grass and signs telling you and me to keep off it.’ That’s a lot of waste and disuse if you ask me.”
“Yeah, yeah! You’re repeating a prior conversation and trying to sound just as smart as you hoped you sounded last time. But give me something more. First, Mr. Dahl, these lawns you see belong to homeowners. Sure, they could grow gardens in place of lawns. But what they really do is just used the money they have to buy food and food-like substances. Their money gives them a choice. Unfortunately, many of them chose lawns and grocery stores.”
Franco continued, “Listen, I know you care about poverty — about people with inadequate homes and food and water. How is the hope you see in a dandelion going to help them? Let’s face it. Poor folks often don’t have land they can use for a lawn or a garden. They also lack that spout you have on the side the house we live in that you use to water your raised beds. That seems pretty crucial to me. And, admit it, Dude: You are one of the Haves. The people you obsess about belong to the Have-Nots. America — if it is a democracy — is basically a consumer democracy. You use your money to buy good seeds, build nifty raised beds, and have a home that has land to grow food on and a water spout to water that food.”
With that Franco barked (only somewhat in jest), “You are full of hot air!”
“Now, Franco, that is why I find our walks so useful,” I replied. There are a lot of problems to solve.” With that I kind of unleashed a bit (pun intended). “People give money — do charity — to feed starving kids. They do the same — charity — to feed starving bees. Some people go to fancy restaurants to eat heirloom tomatoes that I grow in my backyard. People like to label themselves ‘foodies’ to show how accomplished they are at having distinguished tastes and knowing a bit about rare foods … again, some of that food I grow in our backyard.”
“Charitable people also give gobs of money to homeless shelters and affordable housing programs. I work for one of those programs. Good people feel really good about the good they are doing. But what if we could get people to also see the injustice in the way things are and the justice we have an opportunity to create?”
“Listen, Franco; I don’t have the food justice answers right now. We need to take more walks and chat more. But I want to know what I can do to get good seeds, good soil, and good water to the people who need it. Wherever there is crumbling infrastructure, or an abandoned lot, or a flat roof, or a boulevard covered in grass, I think someone should at least be thinking about growing something there. And not just growing something now but also putting in the infrastructure to grow for the future.”
“Did you hear that some people are keeping bees on airport land because something useful should happen on that unused space?! That’s the sort of thinking we need to put into turning our urban landscapes into experiments of real-food production for the people who need it.”
Franco looked at me. He looked at the stairs leading up to our house. “Our walk is done, Mr. Dahl. Interesting stuff. But still, you’ve got light-years to go for real food justice answers and answers that work on any level of scale that would make you feel content.”
“Yup,” I said. I promised to do some more thinking before our next long walk next Saturday. “I’m also gonna check with some smart friends of mine. Certainly, we can come up with some tangible ideas.”
Franco tilted his head again. He started barking incessantly.
I handed him a treat. We walked up the steps to our home.