?  LaDonna Redmond, regular columnist for Austin Weekly News is also one of the pioneers in the urban agriculture movement with her husband Tracey. We asked Redmond to report on last Saturday’s Urban Agriculture Symposium at the Garfield Park Conservatory, sponsored by the UIc Extension Program.

Over the past several years, I have been involved in growing food. What started out as a personal interest has evolved into an area of activism. I often say that I am a food activist. I believe that food is a basic human right and that all people deserve the right to good quality food. In fact, I believe that food carries value beyond its nutritive value. Food can and does transmit cultural value as well.

The early focus of my activism was on organic food. As I have learned, quality food does not mean organic. In fact, organic food production is not necessarily good for the environment. I have seen organic grapes from South Africa and wondered how much gas did it take to transport grapes 18 hours to the River Forest’s Whole Foods Market. I don’t know if they tasted better than grapes from California. Lately, I wonder who grew those grapes and were they fairly compensated for their labor?

Organic grapes grown in California would be more realistic and expected. Most of the produce that we eat comes from California. Yet grapes grown in Illinois would be much better whether they were organic or not. Now some people may not agree with that. Some people are into organic foods at all costs, and that is the issue?”the cost of organic food.

Some would say organic food is expensive; others would say that the cost of organic food reflects the real cost of food. I don’t know what the real cost of food is, but I am not sure if there is any real value in supporting airline tickets for grapes.

“Locally grown food” is now the buzz phrase that organic once enjoyed. At farmers’ markets, folks actually want to know where the food is grown. Sometimes the food can be as close as our backyard.

The beauty of the local food systems approach is that everyone can contribute. Changing vacant lots into beautiful gardens has long been the pastime of many residents of the Austin community but a new breed of gardeners is emerging. In Chicago, urban agriculture has taken its place alongside the community gardening tradition in efforts to improve not only the look of the community but what the community eats.

Last Saturday, the University of Illinois-Chicago Extension Program hosted a forum on urban agriculture entitled: “Impacts of Urban Agriculture.” According to conference organizer, Rhonda Hardy, the conference was designed to “to provide urban farm enterprises, organizations, community leaders and educators a chance to explore and learn about current information supporting the urban agriculture movement in the Chicago area.”

The forum was held at the Garfield Park Conservatory, featuring Michael W. Hamm, chair of Sustainable Agriculture, Michigan State University, as the keynote speaker. At MSU, Dr. Hamm works with communities across the state of Michigan to develop and build local food systems that create access to a healthy diet for residents.

Dr. Hamm’s presentation focused on the potential to provide food grown locally to Cook County residents. “Cook County residents consume over 6 billion pounds of food per year” said Hamm. “Urban agriculture can supply some of it.” Dr. Hamm acknowledges that urban agriculture has limited production capacity. In Cook County, communities would need a total of 2.2 million pounds in produce alone. It is safe to assume that most food production in Illinois will remain in southern Illinois.

However, the greater potential for urban agriculture is the opportunity for local residents to “think about food and its value. Urban agriculture can create awareness,” he said.

Indeed, Urban Ag can create awareness on many different levels. Urban agriculture connects potential entrepreneurial opportunities with converting vacant lots and improving overall community health. This intersection creates a different context by which to examine not just the food that we eat but who grows the food, where and under what conditions. For most of us, this is a different relationship with food. Most of us are accustomed to going to the drive-thru and getting the number of our choice. Others go to the supermarket and buy whatever is on sale or on the shelf. In this activity, we take more than a few things for granted. The main point is that we have assumed that the food, all of the food, will always be there for the asking.

Food’s connection with culture
Urban agriculture asks us to look at food and how it is connected to culture. This is clearer around the holiday season when there is great emphasis on the food and how it is prepared. Food holds the history of a people. It is in the celebration of food through its preparation that we share each other’s cultures and history.

The historical legacy of food production and African Americans is complicated. Much of the traditional foods that our ancestors ate were survival foods from slavery. The elder Africans made do with what was available. Whether it was the pig’s tail, pig feet or coarsely ground corn meal, there was a meal.

Related to the food is the experience of slavery. The slaves’ free labor built the early agricultural systems in the United States. The forced labor of Africans is at the core of the gap in wealth accumulation between African Americans and other ethnic groups in the U.S. The instrument of oppression was the land. Even after slavery, Africans could not enjoy the same rights to land as other immigrants who came to this country.

In order for urban agriculture to be successful, it has to operate within this cultural paradigm. Advocates of urban agriculture must acknowledge the legacy that the labor of African Americans created, and this may be a way to reintroduce land stewardship as an opportunity for community revitalization.

The legacy of slavery is something that we have to come to accept in a way that leaves us empowered as a community. This is only one way to embrace the opportunity that urban agriculture gives our communities. If we are to survive, we must steward the land in our communities as if our lives depend on it.