How City Food can Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide

It’s a given that better food habits can help cure what ails individual bodies that are overweight or undernourished, but what if better food habits on the part of city governments can just as effectively help cure what ails the body politic.

Our current urban-rural divide needs to be addressed if we want to truly move towards sustainable food growing practices.

It’s a tall order, but I’m inspired to try it because of this month’s election results in my neck of the woods, Ontario. Though north of the U.S. border, Ontario is not far geographically or culturally from many northern and U.S. states; indeed, my home town of Toronto is closer to more cities and people in the US than any city in the US. Just as you can count on Canucks to occupy Bay Street shortly after Yanks occupy Wall Street, you can also count on the farm and countryside voters in both countries to lean in a different direction from many people in cities, especially around social, environmental and food-related issues.

Until that city-countryside divide is bridged, prospects for the high and enthusiastic levels of support needed to work on more sustainable food  practices are dim.

I’m enlisting city food enthusiasts to start building bridges now. I like bashing people I don’t agree with as much as the next person and learned a lot from Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, a smack at corny tirades against modern complexities. But raised on the public health mantra of “physician, heal thyself,” I think we have to ask What’s the Matter with Cities. “Active listening” is a skill we can all benefit from.

It’s important to rediscover and remember the real political heritage of farmers and rural communities across North America. Perhaps one place to start is with the Free Soil movement of the 1840s and ‘50s, the fertile movement – beautifully presented in Eric Foner’sFree Soil, Free Labor, Free Men—in which Abraham Lincoln was raised, and where he learned to resist slavery and champion low-cost access to farm land. A generation later came the Populist movement, which at its peak included the likes of farm leader Tom Watson of Georgia, who first campaigned to bring white and African-American farmers to work together for a better deal for all farmers – despite his tragic political undoing, brilliantly dissected by C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. Kansas was the heartland of both generations of farm revolt – the metaphors of which are expressed in fantasy form in the Wizard of Oz, an expose of the smoke and mirrors that lay behind the money power, as it was called.

Up in Canada, largely inspired by farm organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, farmers championed women suffrage, progressive taxation, universities dedicated to public service, co-ops and free and public medicine. Saskatchewan, which in 1944 became the first socialist regional government in North America, was mostly an area of wheat farmers.

It’s my view that such “populist” traditions hostile to “special privilege” are second nature in North American farm communities, where most worked long and hard for low pay. The tradition not only dealt with issues close to farmers, but also supported quality public education, land grant colleges and universities, public-owned or regulated utilities.

In Canada, farmers also supported unions to win old age pensions and free, public-financed medical care, first introduced in rural Saskatchewan. Such programs were designed to provide equitable support for farmers, workers, small businesses, and the white collar middle class — all of whom benefitted from high-quality public services.

Far from being a natural given, the opposite kinds of political and social views now commonplace in rural politics were more carefully cultivated than most crops.

Both governments and corporations moved to undermine the norm of farm populism by redefining farming as a business rather than a vocation tied to the soil and local community. Government farm support programs were redesigned to support specific groups of commodities, rather than food producers as a whole. Farm organizations were reconstituted to give primacy to specific crops, thereby linking farm advocacy to narrow group interests.

Canada was slower to move in this direction, so we can still see the earlier style of farm organization once common across the continent. The Wheat Board, about to be dismantled by federal Conservatives, works on the co-op principle of pooling harvests and guaranteeing high quality so respected buyers appreciate the quality of pooled wheat and no farmer is pressured to sell below the cost of production. The same goes for “supply management” of milk, eggs and poultry, which prevents farmers from competing with one another to accept cutthroat prices offered by corporate processors.

To recover the heritage of progressive farm and rural politics and revitalize urban views of public policy, cities can take the lead in building on this tradition of public programs carefully designed to benefit what might be called “the 99 per cent.”

Public utilities don’t begin and end with energy. Public food terminals, such as we have in Ontario and were once common in the US, provide a place where small and medium farmers can sell to large wholesalers, and thereby prevent super-sized retailers from controlling the supply chain to enforce low prices, usually at the expense of low nutritional and environmental quality. Ontario’s food terminal is central to the region’s food security, among other things ensuring that small family grocers access high quality fresh food at wholesale prices. This access to quality food for small entrepreneurs is a major reason why Canada has so few “food deserts” and why Ontario has very low food prices.

Cities can be major players establishing such food utilities, as well as more intimate farmers markets and farmers’ auctions that can use free public spaces.

Food policy councils, such as the one I worked for in Toronto, are tools for bridging the urban-rural divide. The Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) always had at least two farm members, and ensured that the Toronto Food Strategy, called Cultivating Food Connections, included two farm leaders. The TFPC also partnered with regional farmers to organize the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Committee, which, among other projects, helps farmers take full advantage of sales opportunities in the nearby city, with its huge hunger for multicultural or world crops. It’s one of the few such collaborations among city and rural planners, city and town economic developers, public health representatives and farm leaders on the continent.

Cities can also lead the way for local and ecological food purchasing. Markham, Ontario has already set that bar quite high with its requirements for local, sustainable and/or fair trade food at major city facilities.

As such purchasing programs extend to city hospitals and schools – creating jobs and opportunities for environmental improvements in transportation, packaging and waste removal (resource recycling) as well as food production – cities can reverse the “race to the bottom” in farm prices and provide a living demonstration of the principle that city and countryside people work best when they work together.

We can eat away at many of today’s political divides.

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