With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m going to post some thoughts about about food politics and policies in Los Angeles. I’ll break it into three angles. First, for taday, the Land of Sunshine, a short history of how we used to grown food in the L.A. region and how we can grow more food here now. Next, Two Cities, focusing on the opportunities for food justice in a staggeringly unequal metropolis. And third, City without Borders, looking at how migration and globalization are changing the future of food in Los Angeles.
A History of human civilization in 90 seconds
But before I get into the main themes, I want to give a history of human civilization in 90 seconds or less, because it sets the stage for food issues here and now. In the big picture, the history of civilization Is food plus politics. Think of the Guns, Germs and Steel kind of determinism of which cultures had access to what crop species and domesticated animals. And a history of humanity and food + politics is often a history of food and cities. Surplus food from agriculture allowing the formation of large settlements and elites. Rulers rising and falling based on their ability to provide bread to city dwellers.
So the lessons I want to bring to my talk are, one, that given this history, it’s very odd that society (present company excepted) doesn’t spend more time thinking about food and cities much – besides restaurant reviews. Either the food system we have is magical or very weird, or both. Two, that the money and power that accumulate in cities allow us to pay other people to grow our food for us in other places. This aerial photo of farm workers in Oxnard seemed appropriate because the tiny white dots of the workers clothes on the green background is a kind of visual symbol for how we usually ignore the people who feed us. I include myself in that, even when I’m working on other food issues.
Lesson three is that almost as soon as cities had grown in ancient times, there were critics who thought that cities were corrupt and who idealized a kind of rustic simplicity. This is relevant today in Los Angeles because there is a nearly straight line that can be drawn from the ideology of the villa that emerged from the estates of the eminent Romans, through the country houses of the English lords, with a detour to the late 19th century vision of garden cities, then on to the classic American suburb. So a skepticism towards urban life has created the interesting hybrid we call suburbs that have undercut cities in some ways while also ironically displacing the farm land they were meant to invoke.
Land of Sunshine
Land of Sunshine was the title of an old magazine about southern California, kind of like Sunset magazine. It helped pitch a vision of life in L.A. as being this Mediterranean idyll where ordinary people could own small farms and a cute little bungalow and – even if you weren’t a farmer – you could have fruit trees weighed down with citrus in the yard. I mention it as a jumping off point for talking about the agricultural legacy of the region. That history may also hold some lessons as to how we can grow more food in contemporary Los Angeles. Which will be the focus of this section: different strategies for expanding urban agriculture.
Fred Allen’s quote that “Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live – if you’re an orange” is one of the classic put downs of L.A. It’s also, intentionally or not, one of the wisest things ever said about the region, because without citrus, we may have developed very differently, at a slower pace. Starting back around 1870-80 there was a confluence of railroads reaching California; of ice being used to refrigerate food so it could be shipped by rail; of oranges as this kind of magical commodity, treats you’d buy back east, individually wrapped in tissue paper; plant breeding in southern California to perfect oranges that could be grown and picked and shipped in bulk; and promotion of the industry and its associated lifestyle – as I mentioned with the magazine, or with orange crate stickers and other idyllic imagery. This all helped inspire a wave of migration out to the region that was even more explosive than the post WW2 boom or the wave of migration for Latin America. The population of LA county more than tripled between 1900-1910, for example.
Back in 1910 there were 8000 farms in LA County and the county was the most economically productive ag county in the state, probably number one in the country as well. There were 1.7 million orange trees, and, I found this amusing, more than 7000 backyard cows, that is cows not on farms that people just kept for milk like someone might have a chicken nowadays.
This isn’t to portray this period as a golden age. There were serpents in the garden.
For one, the dominance of citrus, creation of large farms and coops like sunkist created what has been termed the orange empire, in which big farms growing crops for export was seen as the highest use of the land- rather than people growing food for themselves and to sell locally. The growers were overwhelmingly white and relied partly on a non white work force so there was racist exploitation in how farming was structured. The 1910 census of agriculture for the county shows that non white farmers made up 30 percent of tenant farmers but less than 1 percent of owners, so even the asian, latino, and African Americans who were on their own land didn’t really own it. Labor in citrus was also gendered, with men picking from the trees and women using their ‘delicate’ hands to pack. The orange empire ideology was also problematic because it played into the sense that the land could support infinite expansion of population and economic activity.
Jumping forward almost 100 years, we see that LA County is now the 28th most productive county in the state and our number one crop is ornamental trees and shrubs, not food. But if we look at some of the surrounding counties with more agriculture remaining it’s heartening to note that there are still thousands of small and medium sized farms left in the region.
The challenge for the present, as I mentioned, isn’t to bring back the orange empire or thundering herds of backyard cows. It’s to figure out how people can grow food where they live, by occupying public spaces, by cooperating with their neighbors, and, since we won’t grow all of our food here in the city, by tapping into those surviving local farms through improved local distribution.
Growing food in backyards, on balconies, any space you can find where you live, is a great start. I like referencing Pomona, a city in the east of LA County, that like orange county or walnut etc was named for the glory days of agriculture in the region. She was the Roman goddess of fruits and vines and in Ovid’s Metamorphosis she hid herself in a walled garden to tend to her crops and shun men. Whether or not she was right to disdain dudes, it’s a useful metaphor for the need to move beyond the walls of our backyards in terms of where and how we can grow food.
“She loved the fields and the branches loaded with ripe apples, not the woods and rivers. She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. She would not allow them to suffer from being parched, watering, in trickling streams, the twining tendrils of thirsty root. This was her love, and her passion, and she had no longing for desire. Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard, and denied an entrance, and shunned men.” – Ovid, Metamorphosis, bk IV
Edible landscaping is one way to expand beyond the garden plot. There is a movement in socal and elsewhere to replace lawns with gardens. Rooftop food gardens are another strategy that connects urban agriculture with the green buildings movement. While buildings in L.A. don’t always have strong roofs since they weren’t designed for heavy snow loads unlike northern cities, there are ways to create light structures and containers to grow food in and on. In Vancouver there have been some requirements that new, large scale developments include garden space- in the same way that large office buildings in L.A. can be required to include public art.
Taking a step beyond plants, urban chickens for eggs are becoming increasingly popular. This picture from an old restaurant marquee, isn’t the kind of chicken I mean.
This one is. Luckily, in los angeles, that agricultural heritage I mentioned means that backyard chickens weren’t outlawed as they were in some cities.
If you are dedicated to transforming your living space to grow as much food as possible, there’s an inspiring example in Pasadena, where the Dervaes family harvest approximately 5000 lbs of produce, thousands of chicken and duck eggs, and honey as well from the 8700 square foot lot of their house. Of course, urban homesteading is their mission in life, but it does show what can be possible with intense organic production on a small site.
By the way, growing food can be possible where you live even if you’re renting rather than a homeowner. A little later in the talk I’ll focus on affordable housing developments as potential hubs for more equity in food access.
Moving even farther outside the garden walls to the potential for community agriculture, let’s start with the surreptitious, with guerilla gardening. This is as much about changing perceptions of public space as it is reclaiming underutilized ground. Guerilla gardeners identify a piece of land, often public space like median strips although they can also strike vacant private lots. Then people plant and maintain food and/or flowers without seeking permission. Laguerillagardening.org shows some examples.
Public domain fruit
There is also what I call a ‘public domain fruit’ movement in Los Angeles, fitting due to the power of the orange in shaping our region. These programs seek to legally expand everyone’s ability to enjoy fruit right off the tree. One form it takes is distributing and planting new fruit trees. The urban forestry non-profit Tree People has focused on donating fruit trees to institutions serving low income areas. The art/food project Fallen Fruit maps the location of existing fruit trees located in public or with branches overhanging public sidewalks.
The real epitome of urban agriculture that can build community are, or course, community gardens that allow residents who may not have yards or who enjoy the social aspects of gardening to have plots of land and to share responsibilities for managing gardens.
South central farm
Some community gardens are large and established enough to count as urban farms. The South Central farm, with 14 acres under cultivation and a rich history, was such a place. The farm was established in a location what was site of one of the formative environmental justice struggles in south L.A. It was a source of food and community gatherings for a largely immigrant group of gardeners/ farmers. The owner of the land, after a complicated set of legal and financial struggles with the farmers and the city, evicted the gardeners and bulldozed the farm. That’s not the end of the story. I’ll say more about the fates of the farmers and development schemes of the owner later on.
I call this next strategy sky farming because so far it is a pie in the sky sort of idea. It’s also referred to as vertical farming because the point is to create vertical farms – multi-story greenhouse skyscrapers. While the idea has a kind of retro-future, Jetsons, science fiction feel to it there are models for sky farms in NYC and Toronto with calculations of agricultural production equivalent to 10,000 acre farms. So it’s a possibility worth keeping in mind.
Local food distribution and infrastructure
Even if there were more community gardens and urban farms (or even sky farms) in Los Angeles, we would still need to look beyond the borders of the city to get food. It’s critical to start rebuilding local food distribution networks and the regional food processing industry that has largely disappeared with the rise of national and global agribusiness. My colleagues Vanessa Azjfen and Moira Beery have spent the last two years investigating logistical models for distributing more locally grown food to institutions like schools and hospitals in southern California.
They recommend three models for rebuilding these local food connections. One is a ‘local food line,’ a set of produce items that institutions tend to need and that can be procured from local farms. By identifying local sources for all of these items and branding the set or package, a local food line could be sourced and offered by a variety of brokers who tend to sell to medium and large sized clients. Another model for local food distribution is the farmers market hub. Some specialty food brokers, restaurants, etc already source food at farmers markets. The farmers market manager could help facilitate more of these connections so that institutional clients or food brokers wouldn’t have to contact numerous individual farmers every time they need items. The third model that could work well in the region is a farmers collaborative approach. In this model, farmers join together in an arrangement to provide a variety of food items and also possibly jointly operate a delivery truck or storage facility to allow them to sell a greater volume of food.
Policies to support urban agriculture
In most of these areas of local agriculture, from backyard gardens to enhanced local food distribution, there is activity and experimentation happening in and around Los Angeles. But the possibilities for local food production are limited by the lack of policy support and in some cases, by policies that run counter to goals of increased urban ag.
At the most basic level, Los Angeles doesn’t have a local food vision – a policy statement that acknowledges a goal of supporting local food production and distribution. The city also lacks a structure or staff person dedicated to food. We’re also operating in the dark on the land availability side because there isn’t an inventory of public land or vacant lots that could be used for gardens.
In addition to these general policy needs, it would be useful to create support and/or incentives for the variety of local agriculture strategies I’ve mentioned. Maybe new buildings over a certain size should be required to provide space for a garden, or gardeners who take over vacant lots that have stood empty for a certain amount of time should get protection from eviction. At the very least, obstacles should be removed. For example, municipal or home owner association rules requiring grass lawns should be overruled so that everyone can try edible landscaping if they wish to.
To encourage the next generation of farmers, there should be support for minority and immigrant gardeners and a renewal of garden based education in the schools. If public agencies would commit to procuring more food from local farmers, that would help boost a local food distribution system. Transportation and economic development agencies should also explore how they can support a local food environment.
>> next time- two cities
>> thanks to kayt fitzmorris for research assistance