Candle to Candle

Hudson River at sunset. Courtesy of AC Bernard Photography.

Even in New York City, in amongst 8 million people, amongst infinite ideas and energies swirling all around, it is possible to feel isolated. It is possible to feel the fundamental loneliness inside our own brains, alone with just our thoughts. I can feel it in side street stillness, when I suddenly realize there are no cars or people there, just occasional birdsongs or wind gusts. There is just the sound of my feet on the pavement and the rhythm of my breath — my chest moving up and down, up and down and my thoughts pausing as if at a red light. Or sometimes my feet make no sound and I feel light, and float, soaking in the silence. I can feel it even on a busy avenue as negative space, where I am part of nothing but shaped and formed by the mass of people that moves alongside me, the mass of buildings that rises above me; I am the not-businessman commuting to work, the not-tourist snapping photos, the not-hurried pedestrian rushing because fast is the only option for walking speed.

But it is also possible to feel a sort of connectedness and meaningful interdependence that can hardly be felt on such a large scale anywhere else. Tuesday was a day of connections, a day of winter holding hands with spring, of A to L trains and 2 to F trains and people connecting with people on every sidewalk, people stacked on one another in every apartment building. A day of connections at the “NYC and the Future of Urban Agriculture” panel discussion at the office of Food Network NYC, where it seemed that the world of New York City urban agriculture was in attendance. They came from all over New York, from all over the concept of urban agriculture, coming at this enormous topic from many different directions (and remember, the truth is large enough, expansive enough, for people to reach it from many different sides and perspectives).

The three panelists — Kubi Ackerman, Project Manager, The Urban Design Lab at Columbia University; Ian Marvy, Co-founder and Executive Director, Added Value Farm; and Karen Washington, President of the New York Community Garden Coalition — discussed ways to help urban agriculture reach its potential.

Connections. Ackerman shared his research (see the report here), which mapped each neighborhood’s capacity to sustain urban agriculture and the ecological benefits it would provide to the neighborhood. He talked of the many varied ways urban farming can benefit an urban community: by increasing food security, increasing access to healthy food, soaking up rainwater to deal with sewage overflow, combating the heat island effect, providing jobs. It is not just about food; it is about the systemic effect, the connections between growing food and cultivating a healthy community. And New York City has plenty of open land on which this can take place: his research team identified 324 acres of underutilized open space suitable for farming. With only 50 acres in cultivation right now, that would be a huge jump in the city’s production and in the other positive effects of urban agriculture.

Connections. Marvy discussed the mission of Added Value, which uses the cultivation of city land in Red Hook, Brooklyn to provide what he calls a “catalytic effect,” establishing connections between food and all its outgrowths: education for young people, rural-urban links, nutritious food for underserved communities, a low capital investment (plus high human investment) with an enormously high human return.

Connections. Washington reminded the audience to think not just about farms but also about farm workers. This was an important reinforcement of the notion that food justice is defined by connections: the links in the chain between the seed planted in the ground and the food eaten on the plate. There are many links in the chain; without any particular link being as strong as possible, the chain comes undone, the system collapses. Food justice means standing up for the rights of workers in the fields picking tomatoes (the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is at the leading edge of this fight). It means increasing access to healthy food in urban communities. It means giving the consumer the right to know what’s being put into his or her body (check out Just Label It, which advocates for the labeling of genetically modified foods). Food justice is defined by striving for fairness and equity along the many links; it is defined by the chain in its totality, not simply by any one link.

Connections. Between people, between trains, between ideas and energies. Connections in food justice, a web that expands ever wider until it encompasses the whole world: the active bodies that move and work, and the potential natural and spiritual energies that have yet to be cultivated. Let’s seek out the connections, let’s pass the flame from candle to candle until we are all alight.

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