What if the Trucks Stop Coming?

At the small farm conference we attended on Wednesday, after the session I mentioned in yesterday’s post I attended a session led by Cindy Conner on Building Local Sustainable Food Systems.  It was a refreshing palate-cleanser.

One of the things she talked about was her experience teaching sustainable agriculture at a community college.  After pointing out that nearly all the food we eat comes from outside our communities, she challenged her students to come up with a plan for how they would feed themselves if all their food had to come from within 100 miles of their homes.  What if the trucks stop coming?, she asked them.

That is a question worth pondering.  These days the food on an American’s plate has traveled on average about 1,500 miles to get there.  Gone are the days when the food eaten by city-dwellers came from the farms in the surrounding area.  These days the food supply is controlled by the industrial food system, with its vast transportation and distribution networks.  Food is cheap and abundant, and the grocery store shelves are filled with just about any kind of food imaginable, at any time of year.

But the food in those stores would only last a few days without restocking.  What would communities do if the trucks stopped coming?

Cindy taught in Richmond.  Within a hundred miles of them, her students had the seafood of the Chesapeake Bay and rich farmland stretching from Maryland to West Virginia to North Carolina.  A locavore could find plenty of good food.  But even in a place like Richmond, there wouldn’t be enough food in the surrounding area to feed everyone for very long.  In places like Las Vegas or Phoenix, of course, the situation would be much worse.

So if the trucks of the food industrial complex stopped coming, would we all starve?

The question should seem ridiculous.  Here in Virginia we have a temperate climate and a long growing season.  There are green spaces everywhere that could easily produce an abundance of food.  There is no reason in the world the population should be dependent upon food trucked in from thousands of miles away.

Our society’s continued disconnection from food is discouraging.  Few people these take any responsibility for growing their own food, or supporting local food sources. Many have no interest in trying to be self-reliant for food to any degree.  Many, if not most, probably believe it’s not even possible for an ordinary human being to produce food.

No society can long expect to survive if it is unable to feed itself.

But there’s a lot to be encouraged about too.  Many folks are starting to take responsibilty for their food production.  Gardens are springing up everywhere–community gardens, church gardens, backyard gardens, rooftop gardens, guerilla gardens.  One of the presentations we attended Wednesday was on the proliferation of such gardens in the Richmond area.  It’s great to see that there are plenty of people out there unwilling to depend entirely on the trucks.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s industrial lifeline was severed.  Because of the U.S. trade embago, Cuba had come to depend upon the Soviets for the stuff necessary for industrial agriculture, such as fuel, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and agricultural equipment.   Suddenly they found themselves without it.

But the Cubans didn’t starve.  Instead they began farming sustainably and organically. They embraced urban gardening.  Today over 90% of Havana’s food, for example, is grown in urban gardens in the city.

There are plenty of good reasons to prefer fresh locally-grown food over the stuff the industrial food system trucks in to the grocery stores.    When folks make the decision these days to take some responsibility for their own food production, and to support local food sources, they’re doing it because they want to, not because they have to. But is it wise to assume that we’ll always have that choice.

Maybe the trucks will never stop coming.

But what if they do?