Archive for Seed to Plate Series

Seed to Plate: Remaking our food system for a happy ending

Last week’s top grossing film, The Final Destination, brought in over 28 million dollars. If only everyone who bought a ticket to that horror flick could have instead seen Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s documentary that reveals the frightening reality of our broken food system. The moviegoers still would experience a certain level of suspense brought on by ominous music and a high body count. What they wouldn’t get is the sense of relief that comes when the mystery is solved and they exit the theater.

Instead, the message of Food, Inc. sticks. The film gives us a peek behind the curtain of a highly mechanized food system designed to provide an excess of cheap food. Each meal we eat, unless completely homegrown, has resulted from farm worker exploitation, mistreatment of animals, farmers losing their livelihoods under attack from seed giant Monsanto, food safety scares from new strains of E. coli, and a costly, life-threatening obesity epidemic.

There is no silver bullet, no stake through the heart, no secret-agent gadget that will make this bad guy go away. What might happen (though not over the course of 90 minutes) is a gradual shift to a system that ensures community food security.

According to Mary Hendrickson, director of the Food Circles Networking Project of the University of Missouri Extension, “Community food security is about making sure everyone has good food, all the time, from non-emergency sources.”

It sounds simple, but it can’t happen until we create a just food system that keeps environmental and social costs in check while providing fair wages to those who grow, distribute and deliver our food.

“You don’t move overnight from a system where people are hungry and the cheap food that’s available isn’t good food,” says Hendrickson, who points to zoning for community gardens and farmers market vouchers for low-income and senior populations as steps toward a more just food system.

According to the Community Food Security Coalition, Community Food Security (CFS) is a comprehensive solution based on six principals:

1. Low Income Food Needs

Like the anti-hunger movement, CFS is focused on meeting the food needs of low income communities, reducing hunger and improving individual health.

2. Broad Goals

CFS addresses a broad range of problems affecting the food system, community development, and the environment such as increasing poverty and hunger, disappearing farmland and family farms, inner city supermarket redlining (the practice of providing inferior products to residents of certain areas, often based on ethnicity and income), rural community disintegration, rampant suburban sprawl, and air and water pollution from unsustainable food production and distribution patterns.

3. Community focus

A CFS approach seeks to build up a community’s food resources to meet its own needs. These resources may include supermarkets, farmers’ markets, gardens, transportation, community-based food processing ventures, and urban farms to name a few.

4. Self-reliance/empowerment

Community food security projects emphasize the need to build individuals’ abilities to provide for their food needs. Community food security seeks to build upon community and individual assets, rather than focus on their deficiencies. CFS projects seek to engage community residents in all phases of project planning, implementation, and evaluation.

5. Local agriculture

A stable local agricultural base is key to a community responsive food system. Farmers need increased access to markets that pay them a decent wage for their labor, and farmland needs planning protection from suburban development. By building stronger ties between farmers and consumers, consumers gain a greater knowledge and appreciation for their food source.

6. Systems-oriented

CFS projects typically are “inter-disciplinary,” crossing many boundaries and incorporating collaborations with multiple agencies.

In this series, I’ve written about some of the people working to move Kansas City toward community food security. These urban farmers, advocates, educators and community organizers are leading the fight to keep our food system from becoming more of what film reviewer Mark Dujsik called The Final Destination: “A quick, cheap cash-in.”

To find out more about Community Food Security projects and what you can do, visit these links from the Community Food Security Coalition:

Community Food Security Projects:

What One Person Can Do:


Comments (1)

Seed to Plate: Food Deserts in the Heartland

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

Forty-four years ago, if you lived in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, you could accomplish most of your daily business right in your own community.

“It was like another Downtown,” says Nozella Brown, who remembers the grocery and clothing stores, the pharmacy, bank, and barber shops, the Velvet Freeze, the YWCA.

“You can still see signs of little stores that used to be there,” says Brown, who in the late 60s witnessed firsthand the effects of a textbook white flight from her Quindaro neighborhood and her city.

“We moved in and the signs went up. Businesses started leaving, and the money stopped coming in,” says Brown. What’s left is a small liquor store and a funeral home. No other businesses, not even a pawn shop.

But Brown stayed, and is now a county extension agent for the Kansas State Extension. She serves as a nutrition educator to about twenty families in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas. This is a daunting challenge in a food desert.

A food desert is a large geographic area with limited access to fresh, healthy foods. Populations in these under-served areas typically suffer high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases. Generally the only food available is of the  junk variety – convenience marts sell chips, soda and malt liquor, and fast food restaurants serve up high-fat, low-nutrient fare. Independent corner stores can’t offer quality fresh meat, produce and dairy foods at affordable prices, and major supermarket chains aren’t in a hurry to locate in low-income neighborhoods where many potential customers are on public assistance.

In a report released last week, the United States Department of Agriculture said “access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households.” According to the study, about 11.5 million low-income people in the United States live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

But for that “small” population, the social, financial, and health impacts are a big problem.

“They aren’t statistics,” says Brown. “If you see them as small percents, you don’t see them as faces and families and children.” says Brown. “We take it for granted because we don’t see it every day. We don’t want to see it, we prefer to think it’s one abnormal case rather than a whole community.”

From a practical standpoint, the degree to which the food desert affect is felt depends on whether or not one owns a car.

Erica Bush attends Brown’s nutrition class once a week at Juniper Gardens Community Center. She lives just over a mile from the nearest supermarket and uses public transit for most of her grocery shopping. But a trip to and from that neighborhood store can take up to an hour by bus if she’s lucky. If she takes along her nine- and two-year old children, if the bus is delayed or breaks down, if the weather is bad, it can take much longer. So even though she knows perishable foods like low-fat dairy, lean meat or frozen fruits and vegetables are her healthiest options, she can’t buy them because she never knows how long it will take to get home.

What’s more, shopping this way wreaks havoc on an already slim grocery budget.

On each trip, Bush buys only what she can carry home, making it impossible to take advantage of bulk pricing or sales on fresh produce. When she can get a ride, she tries to buy everything she can in that one trip, making for a pretty high grocery bill that she may not have planned for.

But Bush makes do. It helps that right in her back yard are Juniper Gardens’ community garden and farmers market. She has even taken over a plot of land and is growing food for the first time this season.

And Brown does what she can. The common myth is that cultural eating habits are bad, but, says Brown, “The traditional African American diet includes more greens and vegetables than a standard American diet. We interviewed kids in schools who said their favorite foods were greens!

“Our families want to know more, they want to do better,” says Brown. “More people want to attend our classes than we have personnel and time.”

Until the bigger problem is addressed, agencies in Kansas City and across the country are finding creative ways to get fresh healthy food to residents of food deserts:

Veggie Mobile, Albany, New York
A project of Capital District Community Gardens, the Veggie Mobile operates three days a week and makes stops at senior centers, public housing projects and densely populated areas of nearby cities.

City Market, Kansas City, Missouri
This year, the City Market began accepting cards issued under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known locally as the Food Stamp Program in Missouri and the Food Assistance Program in Kansas. Eligible items include fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, baked goods, jams and jellies
and honey.  The purchase of vegetable plants and potted herbs is also acceptable.      For information on applying for food stamp benefits, call 1-800-221-5689.

Green Carts, New York, New York
In February 2008, New York City’s health department increased the number of permits for Green Carts by 1000. The new permits are for mobile fruit and vegetable stands in low-income neighborhoods.

Town Farm Project, Peterborough, New Hampshire
The Town Farm Project is hiring local farmers to provide fresh produce, meat, milk or eggs to help feed the hungry. Organizers want to make sure food pantries or community kitchens, which typically rely on non-perishable goods, can provide fresh, local food and help boost local farms.

Farm to Folk, Ames, Iowa
Access is a problem in rural areas, too. Farm to Folk is a CSA that allows customers up to 30 miles away to order food on line for pick up at a nearby church.

Schnuck Markets, Inc., St. Louis, Missouri
A Schnuck’s store will open in downtown St. Louis later this year. It will be the neighborhood’s only full service grocery and pharmacy.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, California, Nevada and Arizona
Tesco PLC has opened 61 small grocery stores in upscale and under served areas.

Fresh Food Financing Initiative, Pennsylvania
Managed by The Food Trust, this initiative leverages public and private funds to create loans for supermarket development across the state. It provides incentive for stores to open and for small corner stores to get coolers.

Healthy Food Retailer Initiative, Hartford, Connecticut
Hartford Food System asked 40 small retailers to commit to shifting a portion of their shelf space from junk food to healthier choices in exchange for promotional assistance.

Comments (1)

Seed to Plate: Refugee women harvest new beginnings

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

Since I began this series in March, two celebrated gardens have made headlines, suggesting that America may be at a tipping point when it comes to reconnecting with real food.

On March 20, First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School broke ground on an organic garden on the White House lawn. The message to America? That fresh, whole fruits and vegetables should be a priority, and, with some of the food going to Miriam’s Kitchen which serves Washington’s homeless, that everyone deserves to eat good food.

Meanwhile, right in our own back yard, gardeners and volunteers at Powell Gardens diligently worked to bring artist’s renderings of the Heartland Harvest Garden to life.

On May 27, I felt privileged to get an early tour. Spanning 12 acres, the $9.2 million installation is the country’s largest edible landscape. It is beautiful and inspiring, and it opens to the public this coming Sunday, June 14.

Yes, we are catching on.

But in 2004, fifteen refugee women from countries that in many ways are far behind us, were way ahead of us.

They came from cultures that have farmed for centuries, from Somalia, Burundi and Liberia to the same spot of earth in Kansas City, Kansas. They came because their home countries were intolerant, even hostile, toward people of their race, religion or tribe. They risked their lives to leave, they might have died if they had stayed.

They had little.

They knew little about this country. Our language, currency and customs were completely new. For some, running water or electricity in a home were miracles they had never witnessed. And because the women spoke different languages, they weren’t able even to share their ordeals with each other.

But once their husbands had jobs and their children were enrolled in school, once their social security cards and other official paperwork was in place (they are permanent residents of the US and can apply for citizenship if they choose), they grew a garden.

And as the women knelt together in the soil, worked it with their hands, some with children on their backs, some wrapped in the cloth of their own cultures, they knew exactly what they were doing.

Sure, farming is not the same in America as it is in Laos, Burma or Nepal, but the posture, the process, the painstaking care it takes to grow food, was familiar enough.

And while they planted collard greens on a tiny plot, another seed was taking root.

The garden was the start of New Roots for Refugees, an agriculture training program created by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture to help women build on their farming experience to regain their identity and create a livelihood here in the United States.

The farmers receive full support in their first year in the program — a quarter-acre plot, tools, seeds, water, market fees, transportation and more. Each year, they absorb more responsibility for their own businesses with the hope that eventually they will be able to operate on their own.

The women also get the basics they need to navigate the day to day workings of their new country and their new occupation by attending workshops where they can practice speaking English and using US currency, where they can learn about business and farming.

This year’s farmers are from the Republic of Burundi, the Union of Myanmar (Karen and Chin Burmese), Somalia and Sudan. Along with the income and education, farming gives these women a sense of purpose and a reason to get out into their new communities. Here are some ways you can support the refugees’ businesses and help them feel at home in Kansas City.

Buy their vegetables:
Starting in July, the women will sell at these markets:
Farmers Community Market at Brookside (63rd and Wornall), Saturdays, 8 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Downtown Overland Park Farmers Market (on Marty between 79th and 80th Streets),  Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. – Sellout (usually around 1-2 p.m.)

Kansas City Kansas Green Market at Juniper Gardens (in the parking lot of Third Street Church of God, at the corner of North 3rd Street and Richmond Avenue), Mondays, 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Join the CSA:
Promise to buy a bag of locally grown vegetables every week through the summer, and you’ll provide some consistent income for the growers. Three slots are still open for pick up at Brookside Market and the cost is $15 per week. Contact Rachel Bonar 913-621-1504 or

Spend some time on the farm
You can volunteer to weed, water or harvest, or you can help out with many ongoing projects at the farm, such as sorting and labeling seeds, painting, spreading mulch.

Contribute supplies
Right now the farmers need more harvest tubs. They currently use 10 gallon Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs from Target, and want more of the same for stackability. (Alternately, Target gift cards allow the growers to get the exact bins they need without you having to remember.)

Additional supplies needed are shovels, hoes, hand spades, sprinklers, spray nozzles, tomato stakes or cages, utility wagons, plastic buckets, wooden crates, baskets, and brightly colored table cloths.

Contribute cash
If you prefer to make a monetary donation, checks can be made out to Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas with a memo for New Roots for Refugees, and mailed to:
Development Office
Catholic Charities
9720 West 87th Street
Overland Park, Kansas 66212

For More Information or to volunteer, contact:
Rachel Bonar

Comments (3)

Seed to Plate: A real food antidote for a childhood crisis

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

When a whole society catches an illness, symptoms abound throughout. Right now our society suffers from a serious delusion about what food really is, and one harmful symptom of that – obesity – is affecting children to the extreme.

“I like applesauce. I’m a big fruit fan when it’s not fruit,” said a young boy on NBC Nightly News last month, explaining why he is a big fan of Boomerang Backpacks. The school-based program provides weekend food for kids who might otherwise go hungry. In an Indiana town, a high school teacher partnered with his students and local businesses to fill backpacks with Toaster Tarts and Fruit Flips, apple sauce and granola bars. The boy sings the praises of the program while sitting on the porch with his parents. All three are overweight, maybe obese.

With their laser-focus on the economy, NBC missed an important point: we have moved so far from our agrarian origins that it can be difficult to identify packaged food as something that once grew in the ground.

Yes, many in our country go hungry, but many more are overfed and undernourished. According to author and nutrition expert Marion Nestle, our food system produces about 3900 calories per person per day. That’s two to three times what our bodies actually need, and most of it is manufactured food. In 2006, a food marketing study by Prevention Institute found that nearly two-thirds of highly advertised children’s food products with images or references to fruit on the package actually contained little or no fruit and high amounts of sugar.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2008 report finding an estimated 23 million children are either overweight or obese. The health implications are serious. Along with obesity comes diseases historically associated with adulthood: coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes (formerly adult onset, the name was changed to be inclusive of children), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers, liver and gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and gynecological problems. Obesity also carries emotional and psychological implications including low-self esteem, social isolation and depression. Obesity can compound whatever prejudices low income or minority children may already face, because it’s more prevalent in those populations.

To make matters worse, many inner city neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores, let alone farmer’s markets, within their boundaries, making it difficult to get fresh, affordable food. Even with public transportation, the time it takes to get to the store and home again can be prohibitive, forcing people to rely on corner convenience stores and fast food restaurants that are cheap and within close proximity.

“You can’t think about community without thinking about how you get your food,” says Gretchen Kunkel, president of KC Healthy Kids. Her organization is working to unify area efforts to fight childhood obesity with an all-encompassing approach. The Greater Kansas City Healthy Food Policy Coalition includes health care professionals, farmers, educators, public officials, parents and representatives from nonprofit agencies who are dedicated to creating a regional food policy that addresses not just health issues, but hunger, access, fairness, sustainability and local food production in our region.

It’s proven that healthy kids learn better, and this generation of children will need to be well-educated, competent problem-solvers in order to continue to respond to the economic and environmental crises currently facing our nation and our world. We have not gotten them off to a good start. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and behavior disorders are standing in their way. This is the story I want NBC to tell.

I would also like NBC to tell the stories that go beyond ineffective quick fixes for systemic problems. Here in Kansas City, for instance, at least two area communities are kicking off initiatives that provide healthy fresh food, but also help kids understand where food comes from, how it serves their bodies, and why they need to take responsibility for growing some of their own food.

In the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, 51 percent of elementary school students are overweight or obese. This week, through a partnership between the Rosedale Development Association, the Rosedale Ministerial Alliance, KC Healthy Kids and the University of Kansas Medical Center-Internal Medicine Foundation, the community launched the Rosedale Healthy Kids Initiative. This faith-based advocacy effort to reduce childhood obesity will provide community gardens, improved access to healthy foods, and after-school activities that incorporate healthy eating and active living.

On the other side of the state line, Kansas City’s Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council (INC) fights crime, gangs and drugs, litter and illegal dumping in order to create a safer, more livable community. Yet the importance of healthy food is not lost. The neighborhood’s youth are putting in an organic garden and documenting the effort on video. They will also help INC determine what kinds of fruit trees to plant on the lot come October. The trees are provided by funding from Nature Hills Nursery of Omaha, Nebraska, through local environmental agency Bridging The Gap.

“It’s another exciting opportunity for [our youth] to understand how important it is to eat well,” says Yolanda Young, INC’s youth and family outreach specialist.

Here are some things you can do to support efforts to help Kansas City’s kids be healthier:

> Join me and almost 300 others who support the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition. This newly formed coalition is committed to promoting a sustainable regional food system for everyone within the nine-county Kansas City area which takes into account the many issues associated with our food supply. For more information, go to

> Start a community garden. Just around the corner from an amazing gardening store is a large triangular median filled with weeds. It would serve the neighborhood better if it were growing vegetables instead. If you have garden dreams for a vacant lot or forgotten corner of your neighborhood, join Kansas City Community Gardens. Details at

> Start a schoolyard garden. Kansas City Community Gardens provides support for food gardens in schools and employs a full-time garden expert to help schools create and care for their gardens. Details at

> Ask for input from kids. Whether deciding what’s for dinner to how the new schoolyard will be designed, they can be great problem solvers.

> Tap into the local food system. Kansas City’s thriving local food movement offers farmers markets, community supported agriculture, you-pick orchards and berry patches, and farm field trips. For a directory, visit

Comments (1)

Seed to Plate: Urban farms provide more than produce

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

At seventeen, I couldn’t wait to move to the city. At twenty-one I dreamed of wearing suits and working in a high rise. Over time I realized what a unique experience it was to grow up on a farm, even more so because the farm has been in our family for almost a hundred years now. I’ve become so comfortable talking about it I may even brag a little. My husband and I have hopes of eventually moving back to the country, but it’s not possible right now. Thankfully, I’ve discovered some places within the city limits that give me the feeling of home.

Last week I visited the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (KCCUA) for the first time. Just five minutes away from the Metcalf/I-35/I-635 interchange, I transplanted lettuce, folded row covers, and tried to resist climbing on the straw bales. A few days later, I sat down with Katherine Kelly, KCCUA’s executive director and farmer, to talk about how she created a land-based lifestyle within an opportunity-based metropolis.

HWG: Where did you grow up?

KK: Outside of Wichita. My parents weren’t farmers but I worked on our neighbor’s farm herding cattle, driving tractors, driving grain to market. Like you, I thought “Life is every place else but on this stupid farm.” I always took the toughest jobs though. When we were hauling hay, the farmer’s son drove the tractor and I’d be the one bucking bales. I actually loved it in a lot of ways, I just didn’t know it at the time.

HWG: What happened when you left?

KK: I went to Carleton College in Minnesota, and all of a sudden, herding cattle and riding horses was like a story I had made up. It had no context, no reality. I moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I started backyard gardening and worked in non-profits, in community arts, community organizing. In the late 80s I moved to Boston where I started hearing about the local food movement. I very deliberately took a job on a farm that was run by a woman because I remembered how much farming is a man’s domain and wanted a place where some of the gender limits I saw as a girl on a farm would be less likely. After that I worked on a couple of other farms and when I wanted my own place, I realized I couldn’t afford to buy land in Boston, so I moved back to the midwest.

HWG: To be in the country?

KK: I thought I wanted to be out in the country. I lived for a while with my sister near Tonganoxie thinking maybe I would farm there. Then I realized I hated being in the country. Every phone call was long distance, the grocery store was terrible, had terrible produce. I never learned to do all my shopping at once — I was used to being able to walk to the grocery store after the subway. I wanted to do both — to live and to farm in the city. That way I could have the art movies, I could have the community, I could be engaged in political ways. So I moved back into town and started looking for land in town. I found the land on Gibbs Road, owned by a non-profit, Associated Youth Services, and worked out a partnership where I farmed the field and rented space in the greenhouse in exchange for some labor and some cash.  As I farmed in town, I began to see some of what was different about farming in town from the farming I’d grown up with out in the country. I saw it was easy for people to get to my farm to volunteer. I could get crew members because there are people in the city who want to work on farms. It was easier, because of geographic proximity, to build relationships with people, to build a support network, to educate people and to be engaged in a much more normal, everyday kind of way.

HWG: What do urban farms mean for urban communities?

KK: They encourage people to engage with the outside world a little bit more. Now there’s an excuse to go out for a walk to see whether Sherry’s tomatoes have ripened up. When farmers grow, sell and give away vegetables and transplants, their garden is established as a place of generosity and abundance. Urban kids can make a connection with a farmer who looks like them, talks like them, grew up in their neighborhood. It’s easy for a school to bring a class over because they load them on the bus, they’re here in 15 minutes. After that, a trip out to the country becomes a little more familiar and possible. Here at our farm, we’re drawing together like-minded people, and people who come from a different perspective but somehow arrive here. When these people work side by side, sometimes they’ll be quiet, sometimes they’ll talk about all kinds of different things. Either way, that side-by-side labor is probably one of the most authentic ways to build relationships and community that I think there is.

HWG: How does the economic crisis look to an urban farmer?

KK: Sometimes you get pushed in the direction you’re supposed to go. I think in some ways it’s good that food has gotten more expensive. It means that people think about it, value it a little bit more. It’s pushing more people to become home gardeners. I think part of our problem is that the last few generations have been taught that food is supposed to be really cheap and we spend our important money on music systems and television systems and stuff like that. So the economy is pushing us to reexamine how we spend out money. We’ve also had a lot of conversations with people who’ve gotten laid off and say “I should go farm.” Most of them won’t, but some of them are taking it as, “Okay, I don’t have a full time job, I’m probably not going to have a full time job for a while, and I’ve always wanted to do this, so this is going to be my opportunity.” We’ve had more volunteers because they’re not finding work — at least it’s something positive to do during a difficult time.

HWG: What about the environment?

KK: Our farms are little ecosystems inside the city. There’s more wildlife at this farm than when I started and it’s because we’ve created little niches where creatures can live and eat and exist. We have more birds, we have more insects, which is good and bad, we have more rodents, good and bad. For an organic farmer, diversity is a plus. If you have a lot of life and different life forms, it’s going to create a healthier system. I think that’s true for urban communities — the more diversity and the more life forms, the healthier it’s going to be.

HWG: Michael Pollan writes about the need to rebuild our food culture. What does that mean to you?

KK: I think our food culture has become a consumer culture. Somebody else prepares it and packages it, then we buy it and we may add a little bit of tomato sauce to the pasta, and call it our own, but it’s not actually ours. Corporations figure out how to market it so it seems like it should be part of our culture, but it’s not at all. Regaining our food culture means learning how to cook, actually cook, with real ingredients that you did something to — not just opened up a can and poured it out and added some hamburger. It means taking the time, creating space in your life, as much as you can, to do it. It means having your kids help you either pick out food at the farmers market or grow it in your garden, and it means reestablishing the connection that food is about nurturing and caring and hard work. It’s not easy to come home and make a meal, but it’s part of life and all these life lessons are embedded in it. When you buy something from the grocery store that’s wrapped in plastic and you put it in the microwave, there’s no care in that, there’s no nurture, there’s no love attached to it.

HWG: What’s your dream for Kansas City?

KK: In the early days of KCCUA I said to someone, “You know what? There should be a farm in every neighborhood.” And I got really terrified but that’s exactly right. You should not be able to drive to work without passing at least one farm. Your kids should not be able to go to school without seeing vegetables growing. I would like to see fruit trees around the city so that kids get to climb into the neighbor’s fruit tree and steal fruit. Sitting up there and kicking their heels against the air — that should be part of every kid’s experience because it makes the apple a valuable thing. We would eat healthier, we would be outside more. I talked to this older lady once who said when she was a girl, every house on the block had a home garden. That was just normal, but we act like it’s not possible. It is possible. In fact it’s actually relatively doable because we have so much open land in Kansas City and people are ready for good fresh local food.

KCCUA promotes small-scale, community based, entrepreneurial farming in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

The KC Urban Farms and Gardens Tour (June 18-27) is a celebration of the benefits of urban agriculture and the people who are making it happen.

Leave a Comment

Seed to plate: Care where your food comes from

By Heather Gibbons

“You can’t grow a pizza!” said my three year old daughter at dinner one night. She thought that in the movie WALL-E, the captain of the Axiom had made a mistake when, excited by the prospect of returning to a blighted Earth, he said, “You kids are gonna grow all kinds of plants! Vegetable plants, pizza plants!” Since my daughter helps in the garden and in the kitchen, a quick review of how we make a pizza helped her understand that the captain meant the kids would grow wheat, tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for making pizza.

That conversation reminded me of one I wanted to have a few years ago with the young grocery checker who scanned my organic sandwich cookies and looked at me, perplexed. “How do you get organic Oreos,” she asked. I mumbled something about flour and sugar as I grabbed my bags and headed to the car, but I wish I had taken the time to talk more with her about where our food comes from.

There really is a generation of people who believe carrots come from the produce aisle instead of the ground. Thankfully, that’s changing. Unfortunately, it’s taken food scares, increased food allergies, concern over pesticides, and near environmental catastrophe to wake us out of our blissful ignorance.

We can no longer afford to take for granted where our food comes from or how many stops it makes along the way.

The term “food system” is a modern necessity. Until the 1950s, people didn’t need a name for how they got their food. They had gardens, livestock, neighbors. Producing their own food and sharing it was a way of life, not just a way to eat.

When farmer Bret Farhmier explains the food system, he puts it in the simplest of terms: “seed to plate,” but it takes some mental work to consider every aspect of our current complex system. Off the top of my head, I can name fifteen steps or contributors, each which has it’s own list of people and processes: seed companies, farm equipment makers, fertilizer companies, water supplies and irrigation, pest controls, harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing and advertising, selling (to a grocery store), buying (as a consumer), cooking, and eating.

It’s true that the system feeds lots of people on the cheap, but at a dire cost — it has distanced us from the origins of what we eat, making us less concerned about how it’s grown, what it’s made of, and how it got here.

At my daughter’s Montessori school, three rules guide every action: 1. Take care of your environment; 2. Take care of yourself;  and 3. Take care of your friends. In the classroom it means washing your hands, putting away games or composting food waste, and covering your cough.

Here’s what it means in localized or regionalized, sustainable food system:

Taking care of the environment: Farmers who use sustainable methods enrich the soil, choose crops that will thrive without help from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers that eventually end up in the water supply. They typically grow a wide variety of foods, saving heirloom varieties or heritage breeds from extinction.

Taking care of yourself: Local, sustainably grown foods are the freshest and most nutritious foods you can get. Your exposure to chemicals is reduced, and if there were a salmonella or e-coli outbreak, it could be quickly contained.

Taking care of your friends: The local food system bolsters communities by strengthening social bonds. When you buy locally grown foods, you are making connections with people who you might not meet in an ordinary day. You are also providing income to support the farmers’ livelihoods.

It’s also a much more direct path from seed to plate than the industrial quagmire. Imagine actually being on a first name basis with the person who grew your pizza, or even inviting them to help you eat it. This would never happen with Oreos, organic or not.

Here are some things you can do, read and see to get back in touch with where your food comes from:

Choose foods that come from the Earth, not a lab.

Can you imagine your breakfast growing in the sunshine, nourished by the soil? If you ate a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, milk, and maple syrup, you’ll have an easier time of it than if you ate a strawberry flavored Pop Tart. That’s because “natural” strawberry flavoring is made from about 40 ingredients (no strawberries), and artificial flavoring, also used in Pop Tarts, is made from about 50 ingredients. Watch the movie King Corn, to see how two guys make high fructose corn syrup in their kitchen.

Eat your values.

Yesterday I had to choose between organic bananas and fair trade, non-organic bananas. Fair trade may mean a little extra money for third world farmers, but critics argue it makes them dependent on Western shoppers; organic doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical free,” but workers on conventional banana farms can have a high rate of testicular cancer. I wasn’t sure which was the better moral choice, but I think at least having an awareness is a good start. When I need hard facts, I read What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, which sheds light on the politics behind the labels, plus marketing ploys and health claims.

Pay for good food.

The next time you see kiwi at four for a dollar, consider how far that kiwi had to travel from New Zealand, and how many workers helped grow it and get it to you. Yes, there are economies of scale, but in general, the prices we pay for our food are artificially low. When we’re willing to pay real prices for fresh food, we’re contributing to a more stable, more sustainable food system. Watch Sierra Club’s animated movie, The True Cost of Food to learn about the hidden costs of food:

Buy local.

You can make a big difference by replacing just one or two of your regular grocery items with local alternatives. Many metro grocery stores carry products from Shatto Milk Company and eggs from Campo Lindo Farms. Good Natured Family Farms is a cooperative that supplies Hen House Market with goods sold under the Buy Fresh, Buy Local brand. Or you can choose from a number of Community Supported Agriculture programs where “eaters” pay up front for a season’s worth of locally grown, sustainable raised fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and honey. And of course, farmers markets make food buying fun for everyone in the family.

At the Eat Local! Exhibition of Farmers, you can buy food and seedlings, sign up for a CSA, and pick up a directory of local growers. The expo is scheduled for two dates at two locations: March 28 at the Shawnee Civic Center in Shawnee, Kansas, 9 a.m to 2 p.m. and April 4th at the Roger T. Sermon Community Center in Independence, Missouri, 9:15 to 2 p.m.(

Grow something.

If you’re new to gardening, start with a few herbs in a sunny patch. If you already grow herbs, try cherry tomatoes (you’re half way to a pizza!). When you grow things, you’re much more aware of just what it takes to put food on the table. The weather is important for reasons beyond your picnic plans, and you’ll have a great conversation starter the next time you meet a farmer. Kansas City Community Gardens offers support for gardeners, and for inspiration (and lots of good information), you can read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

Comments (4)