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11 Local Food Abundance Suggestions for City Hall

Posted Jul 01 2012 7:31am
I attended what is most likely my final city hall meeting last week.  Someone, well, sort of hijacked the meeting, made broad generalizations about entire groups of people, and pretty much reminded me why I had come to the conclusion a while back that you can spend a lifetime in those meetings accomplishing nothing except hurt feelings and divided community if you're not careful.  And since time is a non-renewable resource, I'd like to spend it where I feel I can make a true, measurable difference.  Hence, digging.  (I stay in touch via online videos of city hall meetings, and other coverage.)  I also made a conscious decision a year or so ago (one morning on the beach) that I have a choice in how I age: Like a broken seashell, I can get sharp and hurtful edges, or, like a stone that is tossed and turned by the ocean, my edges can soften.  I collected both that day, and I carry the stone pictured above everywhere I go as a reminder of the choice I made.  I've noticed that many meetings tend to bring out the seashell in people, not the stone, and I actually sometimes reach into my purse and touch the stone as a reminder.

The interesting part (at least to me)?  I know and like the person who did the hijacking.  I know him from the community garden.  And so instead of labeling him as some kind of loony (as many people do about many others, without giving them credit for their complex, nuanced opinions about a wide range of issues), I contacted him and asked to talk. We did (while removing dead squash leaves) and will continue to do so.  He listens.  I listen.  We learn.  And more than anything, we see how much we have in common (which is a lot). And in that exchange of humanity, I see an incredible benefit of community gardening--tolerance, open-mindedness, and conversation (not rhetoric).  And I am thankful to that man for sharing this experience with me.

Pull the camera back a bit.  My city, which is only three years old, is doing the zoning rewrite of the municipal code it adopted from the county when the city launched in December, 2008.  This code will put into law the "30,000-foot-high" vision of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (for which I served on the steering committee) and the "10,000-foot-high" details of the numerous character-area master plans which resulted from that comprehensive plan.  Both my county (DeKalb, GA) and the nearby City of Atlanta are doing zoning code rewrites right now as well, and groups active in local food abundance are advocating for the removal of barriers in line with proven best practices from elsewhere tailored to the specific characteristics of each municipality.  The problem?  As far as I know, no one else is advocating for revisions to my local zoning code to remove barriers that enable increase local food abundance, as clearly stated in the comprehensive plan.
Here is why this matters (as least to me). A collection of seemingly unrelated situations points toward a way for our city to make a significant positive impact in the abundance and vitality of the city, its businesses, its institutions, and its citizens:
* Our city's citizens' reliance predominantly on supermarkets for our food means we have a mere 3-day supply of food in case of emergency due to national supermarkets' just-in-time logistics efficiency. Most cities currently grow and produce about 5% of their food locally, which is not enough. * Obesity and its related diseases have swept our nation, and escalating food prices strain everyone's budgets.  Consumers have increasingly been responding by voting with their dollars for easily-accessible and affordable healthy choices (or growing their own), and keeping those dollars circulating locally (not just for food but for food-growing and processing supplies) boosts the local economy (many of those dollars currently leave our city).  * Increasing divisiveness in our society as neighbors don't know each other means people with different viewpoints have trouble working together toward mutually-beneficial solutions.  * Plus, an aging population faces the potential for greater isolation and disconnect with community, and the eventual passing of this generation means the loss of critical knowledge that has already skipped 2-3 generations. 
* What's more, critical skills for life and basic environmental literacy is lagging dramatically in our younger generations.
Smart cities realize they can have a measurable effect on local food security, citizen health, the local economy, community connectivity, and knowledge transfer by merely removing barriers to participation for businesses and citizens in the local food abundance efforts that have proven to be effective across the nation. 
My local community is actively involved in this effort.  The City of Dunwoody has the largest community garden in metro-Atlanta.  All but two of its public schools have school gardens. It has an established farmers market.  Local-food-based businesses (such as Farm Burger, which was just announced) are increasingly choosing the city as their place of choice to do business.  In short, we are poised to more fully integrate local food abundance, business growth, and citizen resiliency into the fabric of our city and the everyday practices of its businesses and citizens by simply removing barriers to participation through our zoning code rewrite.
And so, do I get involved?  I was raised in a way that makes me averse to being around high-tension, unkind, antagonistic situations, and I have chosen to live my life with as little of that as possible.  I will not participate in negativity, or in blanket generalizations about anyone, including myself (if you think I fall neatly into a specific "group," you don't know me). I have accepted that I have just about done all I can do locally, and I have already moved on in many ways.
However, no one else is doing it. 
And so, I have chosen to submit a list of suggestions by next Friday.  I am not going to city hall to advocate for them. I am not fighting for these points, or trying to talk anyone into them, although I did send the list to anyone whom I thought might be interested to get their feedback.  I am merely laying them on the table.  The community will care, or it won't.  And I will dig where I can, close to home or not, in the ways in which I am allowed to do so*.  
I have sent this list to the man with whom I'm friends at the community garden, the man who didn't know before last Friday that I was involved with something called "sustainability," which is apparently one of those red-flag words now. (I was raised to take care of things and not waste.  That's my whole "government conspiracy" background.  I think my European immigrant grandmothers would be proud of me--in fact, I think I'm starting to look like the shadow of them, don't you?) I asked him if these are reasonable things to allow so that people can provide for their families, healthy food can be easily accessed by all, private property can be respected (keep government out of yards) and businesses that grow food (think rooftop commercial greenhouse in a commercial zone, for instance) can one day do business here.  I added that perhaps not all of this would fly in our city (jeez, don't mention chickens around here after the last brouhaha, even though my Open Records Request showed 4x the citizen support for allowing them over those who were against them, and the city council decision was a close 4-3), but I thought it was worth at least actively accepting or rejecting the inter-related elements as a community.  My garden friend and I are going to talk about it soon, I will submit a list of suggestions (including some additional ones that have already been sent to me), and that will be that.
I am writing this post as a follow-up to the many others I've written about how growing food eventually lands you at City Hall in the hopes that it may be helpful to others across the country or around the world who are facing a similar crossroads where you live.  I just finished reading the truly excellent book, Food and the City, by Jennifer Cockrall-King, that takes you across North America and Cuba with up-to-date overviews of what's happening on the ground and at City Halls, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in these topics.  Also, this document about cities nationwide and local zoning is worth a read (although I hear it's already being updated).
I also loved another book I read this week, which includes stories, photos, recipes, planting plans, and more.  But I hesitate to mention it because it's somehow a loaded political statement to say I like this lady's garden. 
For those who think I'm "ill-informed" about politics, I have chosen to vote three times a day with my fork (okay, more like five--I snack a lot) for a vibrant local economy, better health, improved personal resiliency, enhanced education for my children, and increased connections in my community close to home and around the world.  And for me, that's enough. 
Here's my draft of 11 Local Food Abundance Suggestions for my city's zoning code rewrite.  Are these things unreasonable as we imagine the growing economic and other impacts of local food? 1. Include a definition of urban agriculture. Here is the working definition for DeKalb County's rewrite right now:
Definition-Urban Garden: A lot, or any portion thereof, managed and maintained by a person or group of persons, for growing and harvesting, farming, community gardening, community supported agriculture, or any other use, which contributes to the production of agricultural, floricultural, or horticultural products for beautification, education, recreation, community or personal use, consumption, sale, or donation. An Urban Garden may be a principal or accessory use on lots including, but not limited to, those owned by individuals, nonprofit organizations, and public or private institutions like universities, colleges, school districts, hospitals, and faith communities. If an Urban Garden is greater than five (5) acres and/or on-site gross sales exceed $10,000 annual revenue, a Special Land Use Permit (SLUP)  may be required.
2. Allow urban farms in all zones (with no on-site commercial sales in residential zones). DeKalb is recommending a requirement for permits for urban farms over 5 acres (see attached document for details on this).
3. Include "urban farm structures" as allowable: hoop houses, greenhouses, etc.  They are not always 'accessory structures.'  (Think repurposed lot where there is not a main structure.) and allow them to have alternative energy sources such as solar.
4. Allow increased roof heights to take into account rooftop garden structures.
5. Allow rain harvesting and grey water use for irrigation.
6. Allow edible landscaping in rights-of-way; raised beds allowed in rights-of-way with permit (Seattle does this)
7. Allow small-scale, urban-appropriate animal husbandry with appropriate restrictions: perhaps 4-8 chickens/ducks, 2 miniature goats (these are no larger than medium-sized dogs, they don't bark but they do give milk that can be used to make cheese, and they supposedly don't smell at all), 2 bee hives would be more appropriate for Dunwoody than what DeKalb is talking about
8. Allow farmers markets (specifically defined to mean locally-grown) in all commercial zones
9. Explicitly allow residential vegetable gardens (the current code is silent on this as a land use) and edible landscaping
10. Allow food trucks in commercial zones (farmers and businesses are increasingly distributing locally-grown food via food trucks)
11. Allow distribution of pre-paid community-supported agriculture weekly farm boxes at places of worship and other institutions, and commercial locations.
* There are things I have accepted in my life, and the fact that I will most likely never have backyard chickens is one of them.  My kids are getting older, and I intend to travel for work once my younger one leaves the nest, so I'm not looking for more ways to have additional daily garden chores, but I believe others should have the right to decide what they do in their backyards as long as nuisance and other ordinances are adhered to.
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