Tampa's City Council sows the seeds of local agriculture

Michael Pollan is known for illuminating the darker side of food. In Omnivore's Dilemma, he detailed the impact corn refiners and corporate agriculture have on what we put into our mouths, with a shout-out to more pastoral ways of farming and eating. In Defense of Food was more of the same, with a chilling examination of how our national reliance on scientists and nutritionists has broken our psychic connection with our food sources. For that service he's been both lauded and criticized, often by the same people, for pointing out our errors without offering a practical way for America to regain dietary footing.

Maybe that's changing. A few weeks ago, Pollan wrote an open letter to the next president of the United States about the oft-ignored importance of government food policy. It was a call to arms, not merely to deal with the rampant food shortages and high prices of the past year or so, but also to reform the very foundation of our food policy. Interested in improving health care, the environment and our energy independence? Better look to food, he said.

And Pollan didn't just sit back and point fingers dripping with disturbing facts and anecdotes; this time he had a prescription for our agricultural woes. First and foremost was reducing farming's reliance on cheap energy by managing farmland instead of molding it to our whims. Second was de-centralizing food production — shortening the distance from farm to fridge — something that his first premise would require. Third, and easily the most difficult of Pollan's fundamental changes to the way Americans eat, was creating an American food culture. Preferably one that doesn't rely on the golden arches.

What are the chances that our next president will be willing — or able — to push any of Pollan's reforms into place? Slim. Maybe none. But that doesn't mean that his words aren't having an impact on a smaller scale.

Two weeks ago, Tampa City Councilmember Mary Mulhern held a special discussion meeting on community-supported agriculture to address some of Pollan's very issues. Fellow members John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena were there, along with Tampa's Green Officer Thom Snelling, Rick Martinez of Sweetwater Organic, Andrea Hildebran of Green Florida and about 20 concerned citizens.

The question is: What can a city do to fix food?

Baby steps. "Part of the reason I called this meeting was that several departments in the city government are working on this issue," said Mulhern. "I wanted to make sure there was communication."

Mulhern also saw an opportunity in Tampa's Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs), where there are a large number of vacant lots that might be turned into community gardens. Because of state and city money pegged for CRAs, there may even be funding to get them off (and into) the ground. Her first target will be East Tampa, where a few tracts of greenery bordered by two highways might beautify the area while providing residents with access to cheap and organic food. If they're willing to get their hands dirty.

Hildebran's Green Florida got a similar garden going earlier this year in St. Pete. Currently, their Bartlett Park Community Garden has 24 plots, with more to come. But she sees a more practical side to the Tampa City Council's involvement. "There has to be support from the city in order to make this possible," she said. "Building codes don't often take into account the need for gardens."

That's Mulhern's view, too. Although she's spearheading the CRA garden idea, it's clear she doesn't want the council to be a caretaker. Maybe an ad hoc committee can organize, or maybe the mayor's office could provide support, and the Council can help by making it easier to get zoning changes or even alter the city code to encourage local agriculture. "I'm just at the stage where I'm determining how to facilitate it," Mulhern said. "It's not going to be me, or even the City Council, but we'll help."

By all accounts, the answer lies with locals who are willing to put in the time and effort to both bring a project into reality and keep the plots going. According to Martinez, fading interest has been the downfall of many local gardens.

The meeting also put other ideas on the table, from specialized humus pods that will allow plants to grow in even the worst soils to encouraging organic vegetable and fruit growers to infiltrate the old-guard local garden clubs usually associated with catty old ladies more interested in pretty landscaping.

For Mulhern, the meeting highlighted the fundamental problem: Lots of people are interested in fostering local agriculture, and many are doing it on their own, but rarely do they interact. In that regard, the gathering was a success, something to focus attention and bring together the disparate proponents of local foods in both the citizenry and the city government.

Beyond that, and even beyond the potential of CRA gardens, many proponents of community agriculture will take heart that the meeting even took place. After years of focus on residential and commercial development, and a bureaucracy geared away from farming, it's nice to know there's someone on your side. "If the city is willing to work with communities," said Hildebran, "this can happen."

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