Food and Drink 

Lessons from World Urban Forum III

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Ironically, one of the most provocative displays at last week’s World Urban Forum III in Vancouver was located next to one of the most maligned icons of the event – the lonesome Long Bar.

Admittedly, the Long Bar was a pretty forlorn attempt – at least a poorly sited one – at recreating the World’s Longest Bar, the much-vaunted symbol of the idea exchange that marked the Jericho Beach Habitat Forum-cum-love-in of 1976 that I can’t help but think has been idealized in the mind’s eye in direct proportion to the thickness of the memory lens it is seen through, say at a ratio of 30:1.

Still, if anybody bothered to wander into the farthest corner of the great Exhibition Hall at this year’s event, they were invariably disappointed by the very short Long Bar. You certainly couldn’t have hashed out any of Spaceship Earth’s problems there because there weren’t any fellow spacemen to talk to, except the remotely preoccupied barkeep.

But across the aisle a contest hosted by the Canadian International Development Agency featured some photos worth mulling over. They portrayed people around the world coping – coping with inadequate food and water supplies, coping with garbage as their number one natural resource, coping with war and slums.

Most of the images featured innovative food production. A man in a Palestinian refugee camp was growing some lovely cherry tomatoes in a roof garden. Another man, Senegalese, stood poker-straight with pride beside lush rows of lettuce grown in raised beds on another roof a continent and a lifetime away. In Cambodia, a woman had lined a collection of old baskets with plastic, filled them with soil and planted a garden that would rival some in the Pemberton Valley. In Thailand, wastewater was commandeered to grow an urban veggie garden.

Used oil drums, beat-up tires, even those malignant plastic bags I was lamenting a few weeks back were all called into service in the name of growing food and a better life in sprawling cities, one small plant at a time.

UN-HABITAT’s compelling and highly readable book, State of the World’s Cities 2006/7, calls hunger the "invisible crisis" in cities.

A 2005 UN report noted that there were 815 million hungry people in our world in 2002, most of those in rural areas, and most of those in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. That number is around 1 billion today.

According to the report, although hunger is most often associated with low agricultural output, drought and famine in rural areas, it is not always related to food production or availability. Rather, in the world’s increasingly urbanized areas, other factors such as low income, inadequate access to basic services, and poor living conditions play bigger roles. In cities, how much and how well you eat usually boils down to disposable income and food prices.

A further complication: in the roiling slums where one out of six people on Spaceship Earth now live, the food basket in the average household is mainly made up of items low in calories and vitamins. So even if your belly feels full, you’re still likely to be malnourished.

Even in countries that produce enough food to feed everyone, a lot of people go to bed hungry in urban areas. As well, the urban poor can be worse off during famines and droughts than villagers and farmers – whom we usually think are hardest hit – because international aid agencies usually focus their efforts on rural areas. And when a famine or drought occurs, the prices of food produced within that country can soar, putting them out of reach of the urban poor.

The next time you feel you’re living hand-to-mouth, keep this in mind: in hard times, poor urban families might have to spend as much as 70-80 per cent of their disposable income on food.

So those photos of roof gardens and basket-grown veggies and their growers put a real face to one of the most direct ways of relieving hunger and getting nutritious food to urban dwellers, poor or otherwise. Variously called urban agriculture or "kitchen gardens", it’s a growing and sometimes very successful strategy.

Some examples: Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Havana, Cuba has become famous for its organic garden plots that produce one of the highest volumes of food per square metre in the world. In Lome, Togo, urban market gardeners earned 10 times the monthly minimum wage. In the late 1990s, the milk produced each year in the heart of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was estimated at more than US$10 million. In Rosario, Argentina more than 800 kitchen gardens have been set up since 2001, feeding more than 40,000 people and generating all sorts of economic spin-offs, such as marketing and produce sales.

Closer to home, Vancouver Councillor Peter Ladner has gotten Vancouver to plant 2010 community gardens by 2010.

The problems are vast, but the solutions exist to stock a sustainable pantry on Spaceship Earth.

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