Food and culture are my long-term passions. Since food is one of our most basic needs, this helps me create a strong connection with people wherever I go. As a long-time social ecologist and a permaculture practitioner and designer, I would like to share my views about how food can cultivate strong communities.
As a society we have become fearful due to shortages of resources, such as limited fossil fuels, arable land, water, jobs, limited social connection. This realization of the scarcity model is created by the capitalist society, which is based on consumerism rather than connection. It also creates uncertainty, due to crises in a broad range of areas: economic, social and ecological breakdown. Many of us are aware of how the dominant individualistic and competitive lifestyle divides and devastates us. But still we cannot overcome our fear, a fear that migrates over the borders and becomes infectious.
The food justice movement has many dimensions, from soil building to sharing food, to sharing diverse cultural perspectives. I urge us to imagine interdependent neighborhoods wherein people depend on each other instead of corporations. Currently, 93 percent of soybeans and 80 percent of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. Four companies control up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain.1 This system disempowers consumers while isolating them from one another. Let us share food growing techniques, and low-tech methods for processing and preserving food which preserve nutritional value. We can connect with each other based on mutual respect, responsibility, and reciprocity when we share our food knowledge. We can share knowledge and tools, set up our own seed banks and more.
Interdependent neighbors develop strong relationships that fulfill needs and that also manifest the joy of sharing. Many hands make light work. Many people with social, cultural and ecological values working together bring authentic strength and resilience.
I have been setting up a self-reliant family home in a neighborhood in Seattle. Bringing all the skills I have to bear has not been difficult. However, neither myself nor my family are sufficient for everything. I need diverse human interaction around me to share the surplus with others and exchange goods for my other needs. I want to share our Mediterranean outdoor space with our neighbors for potluck dinners. I want to see inter-generational and cross-cultural relationships built with integrity, so that we can learn from each other across perceived boundaries.
We may not be able to feed ourselves one hundred percent from private gardens, street and community gardens, and orchards (which are appearing at every corner in my neighborhood and which I am observing happily). But I believe we can fill about 60 percent of our needs this way. The rest can be provided by farmers’ markets, coops, and local and regional farmers. We can also reduce our carbon footprint in this way.
Neighborhood level community exchange and barter fairs at regular periods can also help develop locally-based economic systems. Everyone can give and take something that creates reciprocity—stories as well as products and skills. For example, I cannot fit all my favorite fruit and nut trees and berries into my little garden, but I can always make sure community exchange possibilities are there. I know how to make elderberry syrup, pickles, and grow edible mushrooms, and I am happy to exchange these for soaps, candles, massage or labor for my garden. The list can be endless. Most importantly, we need to create curiosity and enthusiasm to learn from each other and build trust, in order to deepen our connections.
Cultivating a relationship with one’s locality is important in navigating our current ecological and economic crises. There is a saying in my Turkish culture: “Your neighbor is closer than your brother or sister who is living far.” So often in the context of daily suburban life, a blood relationship becomes secondary to a next-door relationship. Becoming relatively economically self-sufficient at a neighborhood level can also assist in making us ready for catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes, in addition to the ongoing social and economic crises we face. Does this sound like re-indigenizing ourselves? We know that intact cultural communities—whether immigrant populations or groups inhabiting their traditional home places—have survived and are likely to continue to survive better than others in catastrophic times, because they know how to connect and help one another. A strong community structure is already there, with established relationships based on trust and cooperation.
On average, a plate of American food travels 1500 miles to our tables,2 creating an un-crossable chasm between the producers and the consumers of food. Not only with regard to our food miles and ecological “food print,” creating community connections instead of isolation and alienation seems crucial to me. Can you imagine instead interdependent neighborhoods growing 40-60 per cent of their food? To me, this is possible. We are living in a potentially “post carbon city” such as Seattle that allows us to grow food on street sections and have small livestock in the city. A truly post carbon city need not be a long-term dream.
We need broad alliances in order to not overuse our resources, but right now in our food choices as a society we are limited and controlled by corporations. Our future is in collective custodianship. We can develop neighborhood-level shared resources. Social ecology is not only concerned with empowering citizens for true citizenship, it is also concerned with revealing human potential. We have the power to joyfully create a better world together. We humans can be a part of rather than attempting to dominate nature, and we can cease the domination of each other as well. We can reconstruct the web of life. If we create inclusive interdependent neighborhoods with people of every color, we can build food sovereignty, which means democratizing the whole food system from the bottom up.
1. Nelson, Willie. Occupy the Food System. Huffington Post, 17 February 2011
—Emet Degirmenci is an activist, permaculture consultant, researcher in gender and development and co-founder of Turkish Social Ecology group. She was acknowledged as a 2007 Peace Ambassador by the Universal Peace Federation for initiating the Innermost Gardens project for refugee and new migrants in Wellington, New Zealand.
Published in the Social Ecology Broadcast, Volume 1, Spring Issue 2012.