Every step of the tomato’s way

Andrew Martin in the New York Times notices a new study that adds a few wrinkles to the locavores’ “local is better” equation with food. As with any simple equation that attempts to summarize an endlessly complex system, it has nuances.

Gail Feenstra, a food system analyst at the [University of California at] Davis campus, says her group hopes the research will help consumers decide if buying local is better than buying organic food that has traveled hundreds of miles. “Maybe you can buy organic within a certain geographic range, and outside of that the trade-offs won’t work anymore,” Ms. Feenstra said.

At some point, the ethical maze can make you dizzy. But there was one line of inquiry from the California researchers that hit particularly close to home: the carbon impact of shoppers themselves.

Some people walk or take the subway to buy their groceries and then compost what they don’t use. But, let’s face it, most of us drive and toss the leftovers into the garbage disposal or the garbage can. In doing so, we may be contributing nearly a quarter of the greenhouse gases associated with our food, research has shown.

Here’s why: Instead of going to the grocery store once a week and stocking up, many consumers are driving for groceries several times a week, if not every day, to all sorts of different stores.

(BTW, UC Davis makes olive oil from street trees on campus. How cool is that?)

Pick up and go [updated]

[I’ll be traveling for the latter half of December, perhaps without benefit of computer or phone! The horrors!]

A few assorted things from the past few weeks of being away:

* “If I lived 17.5 miles from work, I wouldn’t bike to work, either — I’d move. Remember, location and locomotion are two halves of an equation where neither is constant.” [posted at updated metrorider link]

Todd Litman calculates that every nonmotorized (active) trip displaces about seven vehicle miles traveled — not because active trips are seven miles long, but because they’re associated with smarter patterns of development.

“Not every walking or cycling trip causes seven miles of reduced driving. The lower vehicle mileage in cities with relatively high nonmotorized mode split reflects various land use and transport system factors, such as density, mix, street design, parking supply, and pricing which affect the relative attractiveness of motorized and nonmotorized travel. But programs that increase nonmotorized travel tend to create such communities, which is to say that smart growth supports nonmotorized travel and nonmotorized travel supports smart growth.”

* The Pacific Northwest spends more on oil and gas — 100% of which is imported — than on public K-12 education in 2006 or hospital care, and more than 3.5 times total spending on prescription drugs. [Sightline Institute] All that goes “up in smoke,” as they say. Interestingly, Idaho is separated on that counter — an interesting point of comparison, since as many people live within 10 miles of my house than in all of Idaho.

* An interesting “List of Privilege Lists” — ways of “unpacking the invisible knapsack” that accompany those of us with unspoken social privileges, whether racial, sexual, class, religious, gendered, or ability.

* Jay Mouawad in the Times notices that the oil producers fear the geo-green agenda:

“What we are worried about is for industrialized countries to use climate policy as a pretext to discriminate against oil,” [said Mohammad al-Sabban, a senior Saudi government adviser on climate change].

Over in the UK, $100/bbl oil has led gasoline across the magic 1.00 line: one pound per litre. That translates to about $9.50 a gallon, so really, quit whining about gas prices in America already.

* While in Toronto, I picked up a brochure distributed by Alphabet City — not the Chicago Humanities Festival, not an academic symposium, but rather something in between — outlining a program of events around local food in the Toronto area. (Ongoing online discussion hosted by the Walrus.) It opened up first to a manifesto (er, open letter) that posits food distribution as another problem of internalized profits and socialized costs, principally because “healthier, tastier” food is not necessarily more profitable. Indeed, it’s often less so. As such, it calls for market intervention and political action:

Ontario’s working landscapes, farms, rural communities, and cities are linked in a web of complex exchanges. But our food policies to date have usually ignored that web, dividing rather than connecting. If we are going to build a healthy and sustainable village, we have to make the connections… [W]e believe that food is connected to every major problem being raised in the current provincial election campaign—rising medical costs, poverty and hunger, declining farm incomes, the paving-over of farmland, wildlife protection, urban sprawl, youth unemployment, and communities at risk.

These problems will only be solved when we connect the dots.

Local farmers markets, community and school gardens, food co-ops, urban gardens, food access centres—all of these emerging possibilities support healthier, tastier food for all villagers. As this happens, everyone benefits and communities become stronger and more inclusive.

Town and country

goat coat Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

I took a tour of Prairie Crossing last weekend [a few more photos]; here’s a photo of livestock with some houses behind. (I wasn’t aware that some people kept livestock alongside the co-op horse barn.) Not that interesting unless you know that the farmland is permanently protected, I suppose.

Some interesting figures: one homeowner estimated that his front "lawn" might have 100+ species. Compared to the site’s previous incarnation as a cornfield, the development has created an interesting human habitat (~1,000 residents, school, a few shops) while increasing biodiversity tenfold (example: 110 bird species on site vs. "10-15" before) and reducing water runoff 50-80%. Lake Aldo Leopold, a.k.a. “stormwater detention basin A,” is among the cleanest lakes in Illinois, with water clarity of 20-30 ft. The Sand Hill organic vegetable/flower/fruit farm grosses $18,000 per acre from sales via CSA and farmers markets, vs. $1,700 per acre in even the current overheated market for corn.

City food policy advances

DPD has posted Chicago: Eat Local, Live Healthy, a food policy document that outlines solid reasons why local food growing and processing are big economic opportunities for the city and region — and some broad (if vague) steps towards both increasing the size of the local food market and tapping into its potential.

(Interestingly, they acknowledge Environment, MOSE, Public Health, and Aging on the credits page as well.)

Page 4 has an interesting map, showing that both West Town and Logan Square have more than 45,000 residents per supermarket — shocking, since only 10,000 residents are needed to keep one afloat. Page 13 also confirms my suspicions: even though northern Illinois and eastern Iowa have some of the richest farmland known to mankind, high-value vegetable production in the Midwest is really focused on meeting demand from Madison and the Twin Cities (and on exporting asparagus from Michigan’s western shore). Yes, that’s right: more high-value produce is grown for the Madison market, population 0.5 million, than for the Chicago market, population 9 million.

Another interesting map (available from Chicago magazine but created at UIC UTC) shows that yes, thin is in: BMI by ZIP code (as reported to the DMV) is pretty well correlated with education. The north side is skinnier.

Among the implementation tools that the report cites is a “farm forager,” a market-maker who connects farmers to markets. The job is described over at GCM’s page:

For this purpose, GCM and MOSE are funding a “farm forager” to assess, find and support sustainable farmers, increasing the fresh locally-produced foods coming into the city… This innovative partnership presented the first annual 2006 Farmer Workshop in February for 175 attending farmers to help them be more successful in the Chicago marketplace… will build the infrastructure that’s needed to increase the diversity and amount of locally produced food coming into the city of Chicago and the region.

Farmers’ markets are a wonderful thing, but sometimes good old-fashioned division of labor can be even better. Re-creating the human infrastructure of the supply chain leading directly from farm to table will take time, effort, and “new” business models.


* I feel sick. Why? Earlier today, I was hit (no damage, at midday, in the middle of the Loop) by a driver who was clearly in the wrong — double parked, no signals, suddenly backing up without looking (through an illegally black-tinted rear window) — and suddenly found myself with four cagers all simultaneously screaming obscenity-laced insults at me. (None asked if I was all right.) One person on the sidewalk, a woman smoking, seemed to care, and told me to take down details for the cops. Of course, the cops arrived 22 minutes later, moments after the driver finished his business and pulled away, and there being no blood, there was no way to press charges.

Yet when there is blood, as with architect Steven O’Rourke (evidently a friend of a friend) — his body dragged for one mile through the streets of Jefferson Park, knocked out of his shoes just steps from the home where his wife and three small children were sound asleep — it’s too late. Your best witness is dead.

Not one week later, a child riding in the middle of Critical Mass was violently struck by a car fleeing the scene of a crash; his bike was dragged under the car for six blocks. Not just any kid, either, but a regular, an eager boy whom I’d seen graduate from trail-a-bike to his own two wheels, whom I’d fed cookies to. He’s shaken and bruised, but the gall!

Soon, I won’t be able to count the number of people I know — or have known — struck by hit-and-run drivers with mere single digits. This fact, and the utterly nonchalant attitude that countless drivers and the authorities have towards this most soulless, evil-hearted cowardice, fills me with toxic rage.

* A text ad on that O’Rourke story directs readers to the Campaign for Global Road Safety, which points out that worldwide, road deaths kill more people than malaria and diabetes, and as many as either of two lung diseases (tuberculosis and lung cancers) — and that every minute, a child is killed or maimed on the world’s roads. Worldwide, most of these deaths are of pedestrians. This is beginning to get attention from the UN, with a General Assembly session on road safety set for this fall.

* How to end our long national nightmare. [Wonkette]

* At a recent event, new alderman Brendan O’Reilly mentioned one idea worth grabbing from NYC: camera enforcement of Gridlock Sam’s “Don’t Block the Box” directive. Between these, the Natarus sound cameras, and various anti-terrorist cameras, downtown could have a pretty thick network of cameras — pretty useful for also ticketing double-parkers, or for London style cordon pricing.

* Recently viewed and highly recommended: the Criterion Collection release of Tati’s Play Time. No plot whatsoever, but the views of oppressively modernist, traffic-choked “Tativille” alternating with his gentle physical humor made for an enjoyable (if long winded) viewing.

* Speaking of oppressive modernism, I was amused to see that an “urban quarter” (named Quartier sur le Fleuve, but that name currently generates no Google hits) at the northeast corner of Montréal’s Île-des-Soeurs was submitted for the LEED-ND Pilot. The place really looked like a Tati nightmare. [PDF from earlier planning process]

* Québec also passed a “carbon tax” last month, amounting to 0.8c per liter. Curiously, part of Illinois’ gas tax is really an “environmental impact fee” (415 ILCS 125/310). I’d be curious to see what kind of interesting local projects could be funded under a CMAQ-like regional grant program to cut carbon emissions: car sharing, bike sharing, hybrid cabs, beater car trade-ins, electric peak load conservation, whatever.

* “Airplane security seems to forever be looking backwards.” So, billions of dollars in America’s most valuable workers’ time is wasted stuffing “Freedom baggies” and pulling off shoes, all to CYA over yesterday’s threats. [Schneier on Security]

* Pithy comment by Carrington Ward on the Obama-arugula flub:

It’s an interesting point about the price of arugula. One of the problems Iowa farmers face is a dependence on monocrop agriculture — corn, corn, corn.

It is a flipside of the problem that many urban neighborhoods face: bodies sculpted by corn syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup.

We’d be better off as a nation if Iowa farmers were paying attention to the price of Arugula (or apples) in Chicago.

* Portland has a Courtyard Housing Design Competition underway. I’ll be curious to see how they reconcile this type (among my favorites, as you probably already know) with parking. The jury is pretty solid; my sense is that they’ll tend towards the traditional, though.


My pal Maureen made a bunch of worm composting bins for us city-dwelling environmentalists. I recently expanded mine into full-fledged Worm Flats, adding a second layer for super-simple worm management. (The worms migrate up to the second “floor,” leaving behind the now-easily emptied lower “floor.”) It’s worked flawlessly so far. Just watch the short video to join in the fun:

Farm to table (in Wicker Park)

Nicholas Day wrote recently in the Chicago Reader about the new certified-organic pizzeria opening soon four blocks south of me. One interesting bit:

bq. These days, any local organic product is precious. According to Slama, Illinois residents bought $500 million worth of organic food last year, 95 percent of it grown out of state. And still, he says, “there were tens of millions of dollars in demand that weren’t met.” In hopes of increasing production, Sustain helped write the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act, which was introduced in the state legislature last month. It calls for the governor to appoint a task force that would develop policy recommendations for a local organic food system, and to earmark $5 million to support those recommendations.

With proper coordination, a project to increase local organic-food growing capacity to capture even a small share of the state’s organic-food market could yield millions of dollars in revenue for farmers and “farmland preservation projects”:http://www.thelandconnection.org/files/saving.html.