The Future of Food in JP

How will JP feed itself if (when) fuel prices double?

I don't have a car anymore, and that's good.  Five years after the infamous summer of 2006, we've accepted that, for the most part, $3 is the floor for gas prices.  But what is the ceiling?  We're ready to storm the palace when we have to pay $4/gallon, but Europe hit $8/gallon this year.  What is JP going to do if- when- we get there?

Last month, I was at a meeting that asked us to imagine just that.  I chose to take a sunnier view (believe it or not).  I envisioned people walking, biking, using public transportation, and getting more of their life done closer to home.  Some of my fellow participants were not as optimistic.  They had reason to presume that an increased price of oil would make it difficult for municipal services to run, including public transportation.  I believe some of them also presumed that employment would be affected by a rise in energy costs, and that would lower our tax base, which would in turn make it difficult for roads- and buses- to be fixed. 

(I'm not sure lower employment is an automatic result of increased energy prices, but it would certainly make it difficult for people to get to work unless their place of employment was within walking distance.  This goes not only for those who drive but also those who take public transportation.  It's already $2/subway ride; if the cost of energy doubled, I can't see how the fares wouldn't rise as well.  Now, if everyone's salaries got a cost of living-bump, that would make a difference... but I don't see that happening.)

There are things we can do to off-set the cost of living: we can get rid of cable (we gave ours up last year), wear used clothing, cook at home (well, if all of our appliances work), use the library instead of Amazon (or the bookstore), take our bottles and cans to the recycling center ourselves (and cash in) and *gasp* give up our internet service.  (By the way, I'm assuming that you've already turned in your gym membership and given up the cleaning service.)  And if things get really, really dire, we can share housing.  But there is something that's going to be difficult to get around no matter how clever we are: food, most of which is shipped to our area and will therefore become that much more expensive if fuel prices rise.  What if we can't afford to ship our food in anymore?

Many of the community gardens along the Southwest Corridor are pretty impressive, and my informal observations are that many of those in JP are more vegetable-based than the ones closer to the South End.  There is also a revival of interest in urban gardening for those with a yard or even a lawn.  And there is a nascent movement towards "hyper local" agriculture, using small plots of land an acre or less to grow vegetables for sale to local communities; City Growers is spearheading this in Boston.   

But is that enough?  Of course we need vegetables and fruits- I think most of us agree that we don't eat enough of those- but can they be "the staff of life" for everyone?  I don't think even the largest community gardens could grow enough wheat to satisfy all of their members.  We can grow corn, as people have for hundreds of years in this area; we can grow potatoes and squash and beans.  We could also grow sweet potatoes.  But do we have enough space to grow enough food for all of the people in our area?  Maybe, but we'd need to engage in the kind of effective planning that, frankly, Boston and JP aren't well-known for.

This vegan is going to reluctantly admit that even a major food crisis will probably not turn everyone into vegans or vegetarians.  I know some JP residents who are starting to experiment with chicken farming (but I won't tell you who, even under pain of death).  Chickens are one thing, but what about cows?  While I may have strong feelings about dairy, I'm reluctant to slap milk out of people's hands, especially if it's a family with young children.  Where would we keep cows here?  Where would we butcher and process meat?  Where would we process milk, for those who don't want to consume "raw milk"?  Where would it be turned into cheese or yogurt?  Or do we say goodbye to those things just as we probably would have to pasta?

Does that sound alarmist?  Yeah, it does, even to me.  Is there a value in worrying about the worst case scenario in food, or shouldn't I- you, your partner, your neighbor- be putting our time and thought towards coming up with alternatives to our dependence on energy?  Yes, we should- but we should have been doing that for the last four decades.  It's something most of us don't care about until it immediately impacts our lives.  I'm all for not having to worry about food any more than I already do, but I was also all for gas not reaching $3/gallon.  

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Orion Kriegman June 30, 2011 at 08:53 PM
HI Deb, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on thefuture of food. It is important for us to prepare as the world grows more chaotic. JP New Economy Transition just launched a Food Working Group: http://jptransition.org/food-working-group/ I encourage anyone who wants to lend a hand to visit the site.
william July 03, 2011 at 11:32 AM
I'm from way out of town and have been studying JP for a couple of months, thinking about moving there (for you all, 'here'). I'm discovering Deb's column after reading endless stories about the Whole Foods mess (full disclosure: if Whole Foods does in fact come to JP, it would be an added attraction for me, and yes I'm a white, middle-aged guy with progressive and even radical opinions that don't map easily onto the usual left-right political continuum). I just read the Gentrification story by Deb, and all the comments, and then I read this one. I find Deb's point of view extremely appealing, on all counts. Here is the irony: were we to move to JP, it would contribute to all the gentrification that Deb is complaining about. What is the right thing to do? (I suspect there are a lot of people like me, lurking online, trying to find a decent community to live in.) It is not only the mix of people in JP, including the hardscrabble homeschooler moms like Deb, that make JP so wonderfully attractive, but the fact that you all argue in such a civilized manner. Anyway, just a thought. Thanks, Deb, for the great writing.
Deb Nam-Krane July 03, 2011 at 12:18 PM
Thanks Orion. I'm going to be my darnedest to be there.
Deb Nam-Krane July 03, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Dax, I was talking to people on social media about HBS' revival of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology's analysis that vegan was better than local: http://blogs.hbr.org/winston/2011/06/local-food-or-less-meat-data-t.html There's still back and forth about this, but I think it's missing the larger point. If fuel becomes really expensive, the size of the footprint isn't going to matter because we're all going to be so worried about the cost. But for the record, I'll stress that I don't want to see anything we do to increase local food security push people out of their homes.
Deb Nam-Krane July 03, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Thanks, William, for the kind words :-) As long as there is room for people to move in, welcome! (And I can't think of a time there has never been a vacancy in JP in the almost 16 years that I've been here.) I do not object to having higher income residents of JP; I object to creating an environment that caters only to those people. And while I am annoyed by the myth of JP, I think most of the new residents who move in don't want that either. I think many of us are imagining a place where people have choices.
Maura July 03, 2011 at 01:04 PM
Cicilized? William, what are you smoking? Or do you enjoy walking around with your tongue in your cheek?
william July 03, 2011 at 01:38 PM
Granted, the "community meeting" was on the edge. But where I come from, the shakedowners usually employ much harsher methods, the police take no prisoners, and decisions are made in smoke-filled back rooms. So I guess it's all a matter of perspective.
Bill July 03, 2011 at 07:37 PM
Ah, a seer of truth behind the smoke-screens. Yes, some of the ad-hoc and hoc-ad hoo-haw behind the Whole Foods situation appears to have been thinly-veiled extortion attempts. Demanding that a major corporation start funds for specific groups and obey the whims of self-proclaimed committees, please... In what universe is a grocery store chain required to succumb to self-proclaimed factions that have no legal standing whatsoever? Not this one, obviously. Move to JP? Hmm, that's a tough call. True, it's kind of green and airy, but the smug level is way off the charts. Seems there are small clusters of rational folks still around, but they tend to be located between Self-Satisfied Street and Arrogant Affluence Avenue. I'd suggest Roslindale, far more character and charm for lower prices.
Bill July 03, 2011 at 08:01 PM
William, another seeker of truth behind the smoke-screen and smiley faces! Yeah, it's quite true that some aspects behind the Whole Foods hoo-hah amounted to thinly-veiled extortion attempts by small factions. A major corporation MUST contribute to a fund for this group and obey the whims of that group, please... For real, in what universe does a grocery chain have to cave-in to the wills of self-appointed crusaders with no legal standing? Not this one, obviously. Move to JP, hmm... That's a tough call, partner. It's green and airy, but the smug level is off the charts. There are some rational down-to-earth folks still left, but they tend to be located between Arrogance Avenue, Entitlement Road and PC Square. Roslindale still has plenty of genuine charm and character, and the prices are lower.
Wagner Ríos July 03, 2011 at 08:53 PM
"Arrogance Avenue, Entitlement Road and PC Square," excellently put! I live on a gravel road.
Em July 05, 2011 at 04:39 PM
I don't think you should not move somewhere because you're worried about contributing to the gentrification. I've rented in JP for almost 10 years and I finally bought a condo... I don't feel that it makes me a horrible person. I also don't feel that it makes me smug or self-righteous. Not everyone falls into those few categories exploited in the comments of the JPPatch (apparently, you're either young, white, rich, and smug or poor and Spanish-speaking). Most people I know don't fit into those two groups. There's a lot more going on than who's for/against Whole Foods. I'd like to think our neighborhood is better than that.


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