Dr. Wayne Roberts has spent a great deal of time considering how cities, food and people intersect. Canadian Food Policy analyst, Former Director of the Toronto Food Policy Council and author of two books, Food for City Building and The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, Wayne sat down with us to talk about urban agriculture, education and how we might feed the world’s expanding population.
Dr Wayne Roberts is best-known for managing the renowned Toronto Food Policy Council. Since retiring in 2010, he has served on the boards of several well-respected food non-profits and has written two books – The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food, and a low-cost e-book, Food for City Building.
Douglas Gayeton: What are the most effective examples of urban agriculture you’ve seen?
Dr. Wayne Roberts: I’ve been impressed and inspired by urban agriculture projects around the world. Here’s a short list of my favorites, all of which are described at some length in my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.
In Sri Lanka, women living in shanty towns earn money and gain personal independence by growing medicinal herbs in their tiny yards, which are sold to the municipal health department for use as free medicines given to the public. In Cuba, some urban residents make a living growing organic food in city parks and selling the food in a variety of farmers markets; that’s where most of the vegetables and fruit eaten in the city come from. In the Netherlands, many urban ag projects are called “care farms” because they earn one income stream from selling food, and another by caring for people or Nature. For example, one greenhouse in Amsterdam hires homeless people fighting addiction, and receives financial support from the city because of the therapeutic value of addicts working in a supportive and warm environment to grow food. In Milwaukee, Will Allen calls his greenhouse-centered urban ag project Growing Power because he sees food as growing the power of individuals and of a disenfranchised Afro-American neighborhood. His brilliantly designed greenhouse couples turns waste into high-quality compost, the growing medium for affordable, delicious and nutritious greens – the cost of which is partly covered from fees for keeping waste out of the garbage stream. In Toronto, my home town, FoodShare uses urban ag methods to integrate school meals and food literacy by using under-used space – in one case, a huge school rooftop – where students can grow their own food.
As you can see, urban agriculture comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s crucial that urban ag policy enable people to make the widest use possible of the potential that food production offers us.
Douglas Gayeton: Is food education a central tenet of urban agriculture?
Dr. Wayne Roberts: It’s a bit of a trick question to ask if education is central to urban agriculture. It’s equally a trick question to ask if providing veggies for people on low income is central, or if controlling diabetes and heart disease is central to urban ag, or if having quiet time in a natural setting is central, or if having quality time outdoors with friends is central, or if growing foods that you grew up with in another country is central.
It’s a bit of a trick question because it falls into the trap of thinking anything to do with food or food policy has once central purpose. The argument I put forward in my e-book, Food for City Building, which is based on my work as leader of the very successful Toronto Food Policy Council, is that “the single most important thing to know about food is that there is no single most important thing.”
Almost all food policies worth their salt – or should I say worth their salt reduction? – serve multiple purposes, the value of which depends on the person who’s directly involved. Which one is central to any particular person at any particular time will vary because the whole crux of food policy is that food is multifunctional.
But I won’t just dodge your question about education. Urban agriculture promotes experiential learning about many things – most obviously things that are related to food literacy, but, equally important, to a person’s general life skills and general competence and confidence.
If I was forced to say the most important thing the experience of urban agriculture teaches, I would say empowerment — empowerment through personal and community growth, and empowerment that’s balanced by humility about how much we humans have to learn and how little we control through tools and manipulation alone.
That’s why people get high on urban ag and on food actions generally; it’s a form of empowerment that’s very grounding (literally) and centering.
There aren’t many activities – there certainly aren’t enough in our society – that give a hands-on lesson in awesome empowerment, empowerment that balances self-respect with grace and awe, based on respect for all the forces that make food and health possible.
The really nice thing about having multiple food goals is that food goals aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the more the merrier. You can enjoy the personal high of food production and also enjoy the taste of eating fresh food. It’s the non-exclusive nature of food that leads Vandana Shiva to say that “the food movement is a movement of ands, not buts.”
That’s why we don’t want to get caught in the trap of saying food has only one main thing going for it.
Douglas Gayeton: If urban agriculture can’t make a big dent in feeding people, what’s the point?
Dr. Wayne Roberts: To be honest, I see food as the icing on the cake of urban agriculture. A green roof – just to give one example – more than pays for itself by holding onto rainfall and keeping it out of the sewers, which is a huge savings for the city. The food is a bonus, on top of a whole suite of positives — keeping water out of the sewers, producing oxygen in a smoggy city by having more plants to pump out oxygen, providing a safe and comfortable place where neighbors can meet and strengthen their ability to act as a community, providing a safe harbor for pollinators at a time when they’re stressed in a countryside choking with pesticides, and on and on. The same goes for almost all forms of urban agriculture.
Urban ag can pay its way just by making use of all the so-called waste that cities pay billions to haul away to landfills. In fact, I believe shifting so-called food waste – about half the food that’s produced around the world is wasted – from a waste removal to a resource management perspective is a major function of urban ag. Cities should use the money they now waste hauling garbage away to pay urban farmers to grow food.
When we start paying people to grow food in cities, we will get production up. I believe a reasonable start-up objective for a city action plan is to produce a third of everyone’s five servings a day of fresh fruits and vegetables within city borders. Another third should be grown in the area surrounding the city, and the final third can be brought from further afield. There are so many ways that first big step will benefit a city government and budget, a smart city will invest a major portion of the current budgeted which is dedicated to waste removal to food production.