Davide Negri’s pad in Milano city reflects this guy’s many passions. Devilishly sharp sushi knives cut through tomatoes like a blood thirsty revenger. Proud bottles of vino stand like trophies of battles won. Cuban cigars hide within Pandora’s little wooden boxes. And let us not forget the boom box speakers from which unearthly rhythms melodically flicker and fill the air. The musical artist, Lynx purrs, “You know that you were born for more than what machines provide.” So I sit, and ponder.
Italy is the leading country in Europe for producer of organic foods. Yet many people are still very skeptical of the label Organic. And with good reason. When tested, foods labeled as organic have been found to contain chemical contaminants (1). While the levels are much lower than commercial crops that directly spray, one would think, if you’re paying twice the price for organic produce, that the label should follow through with what it promises to provide. But there is no way to control what travels on wind or water. So if we humans would get real honest with ourselves we’d realize that we are all inextricably interconnected. Wise Chief Seattle once proclaimed. “Whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves”.
We’re all in this together and the only way out of this mess is through. But in the mean while, what is the mother to do, who refuses to feed toxins to her child. What is any one of us to do for that matter? The answer lies in building new models of interconnection. A powerful example takes place in Japan. Beginning in the 1960s’ and gathering strength in the 1970s’ a group of women became concerned about the quality of milk they were purchasing for their children. Instead of continuing to buy milk from the supermarkets they decided to contact small, local, farmers and source their milk directly. What began only as milk, grew into other food items until they were organizing central collection points. At these points farmers, who they had approved, would gather and drop off their goods. The women volunteers then created a box system, where the products were evenly distributed, and each family involved was given a box to take home. What once was 10 families working together, now, in Seikatsu co-ops, has become three hundred and thirty thousand households, all proactively choosing the food they eat (2). In this way, they’ve managed to completely side step the supermarkets, thereby keeping prices of food much cheaper while simultaneously raising the quality.
In Milano, similar events are taking place. Chefs like Davide play an important role in the support of sustainable local agriculture. They are the transformers, the ones that make our food into a cultural art. As Terre Madre organization points out, “Cooks reinforce food communities, through dialogue and collaboration with producers, and fight against the abandonment of cultural tradition and standardization of food. And it is in their restaurants that this philosophy reaches consumers” (3).Davide was kind enough to bring us to a local farmer, located just 15 minutes outside of Milan. That’s one very special thing about Milan- you can drive a short distance and find yourself on a quiet country road surrounded in agricultural fields. For the past 50 years a farmer has been growing food for his neighbors and the surrounding city. Davide proclaims, “One cannot find fresher, healthier vegetables in all of Milan.” Locals from the neighborhood come once a week and purchase a box filled with produce. Boxes cost only 3 euros each and the vegetables are picked fresh that very morning. I’d much rather be spending my day like this, than under fluorescent lights waiting in a long check out line. What’s more, it’s refreshing to meet the farmer, see the land where food is grown, and you just can’t beat the price.
Urban agriculture is food production at the site of high populations. It’s about growing food where food is needed and organizing ourselves to eliminate waste. Less dependency on transportation of goods means cheeper prices for the buyer. We need to see many, many, many more small agro-ecological farmers who could grow food directly for their communities, whether they be urban cities or rural towns. We don’t need to wait for government support. Every person with a back yard or roof top can contribute in their own way, growing on a small scale for themselves and those nearby. Lets not allow food labels such as Organic to hold us back. In the U.S. farmers pay upto $10,000 a year for organic certification. How can a small farmer afford this!? Instead lets get to know the people who grow our food and develop relationships of trust and direct financial transaction. And lets share our skills and resources. Davide explains that in Italy, young people know how to use the internet and have creative new ideas while older farmers have land and experience growing in traditional ways. Generations can work together, uniting forces.
And let’s start using online organizational tools in new ways. Transitionnetwork.org, (Transition Town Network) emerging out of the UK, has now spread worldwide with locally based websites for each town or city. Find out- where is the closest network to you? Let’s build new websites specifically for food collaboration with our neighbors, including everyone from small producers, to backyard and rooftop gardeners. Let’s unite aging farmers with the newer tech savvy generation and through diversity find our strength. Ultimately, we need connections that empower people financially by providing one individual with the means to make a living, and the other with a more affordable option than what they would pay to a company.
In Milan, there’s a thriving movement of support for local sustainable systems. Preservation of land surrounding it’s frothing hub brings great potential for local organic farming, capable of feeding the cities population. Rooftop and home gardeners can also play a huge role. Support for ‘slow foods’ and ‘0 kilometer foods’ is well under way with cooks, farmers, and consumers all involved. Chef’s like Davide help keep traditional food cultures alive while proving that fresh produce is simply superior. We’re seeing a different model, offering opportunities to interact with our world in new ways. Through newly built connections with each other we can escape the plague of the robotic consumer and step back into being human in a lively world.