Local View: Raise a generation of gardeners…building a secure food supply belongs at the top of our community agenda

Lincoln Journal Star

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Local View: Raise a generation of gardeners


It’s a long-standing habit of mine.

Three or more times a day, you’ll find me eating — stuffing my face until my stomach tells me I’m full.

And, it turns out, I’m not alone. Everybody does it.

We’re either rummaging through our refrigerators and cupboards for something to eat, or spending half of our food budget eating out (be it fine dining, fast food or raiding a vending machine).

Given how much we build our day around eating — breakfast in the morning, lunch at noon, dinner in the evening — it’s astonishing how little attention we pay to where all the food for those meals comes from.

Ask anyone if they know, and the best answer most of us could come up with is "The Store."

This is even true for the majority of the farmers in our state. For all our talk about feeding the world, we’re not growing food for anybody’s table. We’re raising commodity crops — mostly corn and soybeans, and largely for animal feed and ethanol. And I have yet to meet the person, rural or urban, who’s pulled up a chair to a meal of that. Even the livestock we raise in the state is mainly for the market. That pound of hamburger you just bought at the store could have come from anywhere.

No, for food we can actually put in our mouths, Nebraskans, like Americans everywhere, depend on our global food system.

Forty-five years ago, the Department of Defense calculated that the average bite of food on our plate was traveling 1,346 miles to get there. Today, that number is well over 2,000 miles — with almost one-fifth imported from outside the country.

You don’t have to look any further than the drought-stricken California Central Valley (where nearly half of the vegetables and fruits Americans consume come from, including 74 percent of our lettuce) to see how crazy this is. Here we are, in the nation’s agricultural heartland, and our food supply is no more secure than someone who’s living in New York City or the Mojave Desert.

Having access to a locally based food supply in a world of increasing climate disruption is just common sense. As we all eat, we all have a stake in having our food sources as near at hand as possible. Food security isn’t liberal or conservative, rich or poor, or even Big Ag vs. family farm. When it’s mealtime, we check our politics at the door and stick our heads in the trough.

Nobody, though, is already feeling the effects of food insecurity more than our poor and lower-income citizens.

The just-released Lincoln Vital Signs 2015 reports that poverty in our capital city has more than doubled in the past decade. One in five of our community’s children now live in poverty.

Lincoln has a laudable network of institutions serving the hungry.

And yet, where does all the food to serve that ever-growing population come from? From The Store? From California? From Latin America?

Poverty and hunger, rest assured, are only going to strain the security of our already vulnerable food supply.

After half a century of barely giving a moment’s thought to that mouthful of food we’re chewing, Lincoln is about to get its hands back in the dirt. Our days of just being eaters and letting someone else worry about supplying our food are fast drawing to an end.

We’re going to need to start once again prioritizing food production. We’re going to need to grow food in our own yards, establish community gardens on public grounds and church properties, and promote market gardening within the city limits.

And who’s going to do all this work? (Because, don’t kid yourself, growing produce is hard work and the weather extremes of climate change are making it even harder.)

If we’re to create a reliable local food supply, along with all that produce, we’re going to need to raise a new generation of gardeners.

Fortunately, the "learn by doing" nature of gardening makes it accessible to anyone, regardless of education or background. If you can grow a beautiful eggplant or potato, nobody’s going to care if you’ve got a college diploma or a criminal record.

Lincoln Vital Signs 2015 shows why, if Lincoln hopes to prosper, building a secure food supply belongs at the top of our community agenda. And the time to start moving is now, before any more of us have to miss dinner.

Nebraskans for Peace State Coordinator Tim Rinne is a member of the Local Foodshed Working Group.