When it comes to food, comments from the 2012 presidential campaign trail sound downright scary. Republican candidates imply they want to emasculate all federal programs directed at food safety. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting a $5-million research program at the Department of Agriculture, the Microbiological Data Program, which tests fruits and vegetables for disease, without first finding a new place in the system to put it, perhaps the Food and Drug Administration. Once cut, it will be so hard to reinstate.
And to hear the candidates talk about deportation and immigration is depressing. Many immigrants are taking jobs in the world of food that no one else wants, like planting and picking our fruit and vegetables, or washing them. But that doesn’t matter to those who want to create a homogeneous America.
Some of the candidates recommend self deportation for reducing immigration populations. This program is based on making life for immigrants as unbearable as possible to force them to leave. Police sweeps of neighborhoods in places like Arizona result in mass arrests, creating fear in all immigrants, legal as well as illegal, and are causing a civil rights emergency.
Rebirth of a neighborhood
That said, I have seen two food films this year, both documentaries, that in some way draw attention to other ways of dealing with immigration and food safety. “City Farmers” was produced and directed by Meryl Joseph. First released in 1998, it recently streamed on the Internet for 48 straight hours. It is a journey of hope down the most corrupted New York City streets where inner-city residents have transformed rubble and rat-infested abandoned land into burgeoning vegetable and flower gardens, according to the movie’s promotional materials. And while there are more than 500 community gardens all over New York City, one of my favorites is on West 89th and 90th streets between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues.
There are more than 20,000 city farmers volunteering their time and labor. This has been going on since 1978, with the support of Green Thumb, an organization that provides programming and materials for community gardens in New York City.
More than 750 abandoned city-owned lots have been transformed into green oases. And as they tend their rows, these farmers remember their earlier lives in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy and elsewhere. They are immigrants sharing their knowledge and experience with city folks who have known nothing but hard concrete under their feet.
The gardens are shared sources of pride in these communities where there was none before. These neighborhood gardens are growing fruits and vegetables as well as respect from the wilder, younger generations, with school kids getting involved and sharing the plots. In these tough neighborhoods, from the oldest to the youngest and in-between, wherever there is a community garden there are miracles happening proving that everyone needs contact with nature. Some of the folks involved in these gardens have never before seen where the food they eat grows.
For immigrants, having a plot in a community garden is a way of entering into the community and growing foods that will feed one’s family along with the neighbors.
Food entrepreneurs on wheels
The other film is Mary Mazzio’s “The Apple Pushers,” narrated by Ed Norton. It chronicles the story of five immigrant micro-entrepreneurs addressing America’s obesity crisis by selling fruits and vegetables in green carts across the under-served (better known as food deserts) of New York City. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund provided money for the film as well as efforts to expand the number of “green carts” in New York City.
It’s an inspiring story that could ideally inform an immigrant looking for a creative, sustainable, entrepreneurial way to make a living while bringing fruits and vegetables to the very neighborhoods where they are needed most, often their own neighborhoods. This will not solve the entire problem of immigration, but it’s one of many viable possibilities.
All of this said, not every immigrant can either afford or is desirous of owning a push cart. And not all of those who get a cart will make it. But the ones who do are going to prosper.
Seeking real solutions
Deportation is not the only solution to immigration reform. And cutting money that would otherwise help to identify unsafe foods that will otherwise slip into the food system seems almost ridiculous. It would be like saying that consumers knowing their farmers will solve everything. Let’s not forget the outbreak last year of listeria in cantaloupe, as well as the alfalfa, tomatoes, lettuce, eggs and meat that sickened so many people. We need a diligent way to constantly monitor food safety. Knowing your farmer helps and knowing where the food on a green cart comes from also helps.
All over the United States, small farmers are taking to rooftops, back yards, and green carts. Let’s help these folks out by shopping at our corner green cart or nearby farmers market. And write to your congressperson to press the Department of Agriculture to formalize the new rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act, which are meant to bolster food safety and hold producers accountable. These measures were supposed to be issued in January.
Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.
Photos, from top:
An urban farmer’s hands from the film “City Farmers.”
A promotional image from “City Farmers.”
Credits: Meryl Joseph