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How some city dwellers are rebelling against the tyranny of the grocery store

By David Silverberg

If you live in a large Canadian city, you live in a food desert. Sure, your super supermarket overflows with an oasis of meals-in-a-box but in reality, fresh food has completely deserted you. Today’s modern city cook doesn’t live in a world where plump tomatoes and crisp cucumber can be easily picked within a couple miles.

That’s where urban agriculture comes in. At first, it was a simple seed sown in the minds of the evergreening club. It budded into a strategy to find a sustainable balance between cities and natural environment. Urban agriculture has now grown to become as much a rebellion against mass-market food as zines have evolved into a counterculture press flying the finger at the mainstream media. It’s all about demanding more freedom of choice, and a return to simpler times. Politicians are starting to notice why their constituents demand more community gardens, more rooftop planting and more money devoted to greening the downtown core.

Growing the food you eat seems almost naively idealistic, especially in harsh Canadian climates. But no one said you have to remain strictly vegetarian and endure bitter winters of numbing cold. Rather, urban agriculture enthusiasts and city farmers pick and choose what fruits and veggies to grow nearby, instead of going all straight-edge about this form of D.I.Y. food action.

A bit of history is necessary first; our ancestors are grumbling in their graves at how far we’ve come from their farming tradition. Consider the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders, as the world’s first community garden where locals gathered to eat, discuss and mingle. The Inca tribe of Machu Picchu raised food in small plots of land irrigated with the city’s wastewater. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. In medieval Europe, one-third of city space was devoted to cultivating food.

The design of modern cities became a blueprint for the destruction of farming in urban areas. Planners paved over acreage, pushing growers into rural areas where they still remain. “We have a natural disconnect from our food because we’re urbanites and there are no gardens around us,” says Michael Levenston, co-founder of City Farmer, a Vancouver-based organization devoted to promoting urban agriculture. He notes how high-density cities cultivate stress in families looking to find some nature in a very unnatural lifestyle, and city gardening is the best option to help people physically and physiologically.

“Food is essential for us, so it only makes sense we should know where it comes from,” Levenston says matter-of-factly. But where to start? He recommends growing sprigs of parsley and handfuls of oregano at first, something small that can be put in a pot on a balcony. Progressing further means securing a swath of land to grow vegetables, fruits and even grains if the space allows.

There’s no need to go extreme, but it never hurts to learn from the pros. They’re called locavores, and they only eat food grown locally. The shining example of this method is Vancouver couple Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who lived an entire year on food obtained within a 100-mile radius of their home. They made “sandwiches” with slices of roasted turnip as bread slices. They ate lots of potatoes. Unwilling to give in to the lure of the supermarket, the couple found a local wheat grower and eventually milled the grain themselves. They were soon enjoying pancakes, bread and an overall feeling of satisfaction for withholding when so many give in.

Rebelling against processed food takes courage but it also takes the right environment. Vancouverites enjoy a setting more suitable than most cities for their D.I.Y. food mission—more than 600 community gardens pepper Vancouver, and an Ipsos-Reid poll found between 40 and 44 per cent of Vancouver and Toronto residents produce at least some of their own vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts or herbs. Montreal has planted more than 75 gardens with 6,600 plots (although recently 45 plots were shut down due to contamination).

All these numbers would indicate Canada is undergoing a change of heart about food and its origins. Levenston says we’re halfway there. “Twenty years ago, everyone wanted to be as modernist as possible but now people are seeing the logic behind city farming,” he says. “But I want to see urban agriculture as part of the municipal planning process so cities will permanently save land for growing food.”

His utopia of a checkerboard city design, with farm plots shouldering cityscape, may not manifest in his lifetime but the policy of growing your own food makes too much sense to ignore. For one, urban agriculture improves the beauty and image of neighbourhoods, making them more attractive to both residents and tourists. Secondly, a community garden fosters involvement between individuals who may have never even spoken to each other before, allowing friendships to flourish under the shadow of swooping apple trees and berry bushes. Also important is the connection that sparks between consumer and grower, since a farmer’s market scenario enables the foodie to ask the farmer about his products. Try asking the Loblaws produce guy about the organic carrots and watch his eyes glaze over.

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