Making San Diego an Edible City

Author: Richard Louv
Union Tribune . (Source)

Nancy Hughes envisions San Diego as America's first edible city. Those of us with no palate for stucco may find that hard to swallow. But there it is, the incredible edible city.

Under Mayor Dick Murphy, Hughes is chairwoman of San Diego's Community Forest Advisory Board. As winds shift at City Hall, her attention has turned toward her budding nonprofit group, San Diego Urban Farms. Its goals are to set aside tracts of land inside city limits for organic urban farming and to create a regional agriculture policy that would emphasize locally grown food for local consumption.

Such a policy, she believes, would save energy, create jobs and produce more healthful, better-tasting food.

The average foodstuff, she argues, now travels over 1,500 miles from farm to table. "Why are San Diegans eating tomatoes from Florida when we are blessed with a year-round growing season?" she asks.

Good question. Still, Hughes' dream of an edible city sounds a lot like the marginalized community gardens movement of decades past - until you consider the booming organic food industry and add another ingredient: the percolating Slow Food movement.

This movement was launched in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, an Italian who took one look at a new McDonald's restaurant being built at St. Peter's Square in Rome and decided the way to fight fast food was with better taste. He created the first Slow Food campaign in northern Italy, to protect "the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life."

Since then, Slow Food conviviums (from the Latin word for feast or entertainment) have sprouted around the world. The organization now boasts 83,000 members worldwide (nearly 5,000 in California). These folks do more than pay dues. Last year, Slow Food held a gathering in Europe that attracted 4,888 farmers from 128 nations.

Scott A. Murray of Vista was a U.S. delegate to that gathering. Murray, who owns a small, highly specialized organic farm (producing 26 types of lettuce in the winter, along with a variety of herbs) helps lead Slow Food San Diego, with 320 members.

"The Slow Food movement is made up of people dedicated to reawaking the enjoyment of food, buying higher quality, fresher food closer to home instead of trucked across the country, slowing down the preparation of our meals and enjoying our food more," he says.

San Diego may well be primed to take advantage of the growing hunger for authentic, locally grown food. This may come as a surprise to those of us who hang out in the frozen food department, but our county is the nation's seventh most agricultural county, if measured by the number of its farms - many of which are just a few acres.

"In this county, we export 95 percent of the food we produce in the county, and we import 95 percent of what we consume," Marray says. "That doesn't make sense."

But something's happening out there. In the two decades that Murray has been involved in local agriculture, the number of farmers markets (where people can buy fresh, locally grown produce) in the county has grown from a single market to 28.

Immigration is one reason - for example, Vietnamese farmers growing specialty foods for Vietnamese communities. But the main stimulant is the hunger for slow pleasure in a too-fast world. "People are rediscovering the pleasure of eating a peach ripened on the tree instead of one that was shipped hard," says Murray.

Increasingly, he focuses on education. For example, Slow Food San Diego is currently raising money to help bring organic farming and agriculture education to Escondido's 240-acre San Pasqual Academy, a residential education campus for foster teens.

Meanwhile, back at the edible city, the potential for the growth of urban agriculture may be greater than it seems.

A report by Rutgers University and members of the Community Food Security Coalition's North American Initiative on Urban Agriculture charts the national trend: Across the country, "significant amounts of food" are cultivated by entrepreneurial producers, community gardeners, backyard gardeners, food banks - in vacant lots, parks, greenhouses, roof tops, balconies, window sills, ponds, rivers and estuaries.

A third of the 2 million farms in the United States alone are located within metropolitan areas and produce 35 percent of U.S. vegetables, fruit, livestock, poultry, and fish.

"The potential to expand urban production is enormous," according to the report. Add one more ingredient: growing concern about community food security: "Times of war and conflict render tenuous our dependence on distant food sources, especially in this post-9/11 world," according to the report.

But enough with fear already. Pleasure's more the point - that and a connected community. That's how Murray and Hughes see the issue. Now all we need is a Slow City movement.

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