Opinion: A global reason to eat locally

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Source: Worldwatch Institute

The following op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.

Eating organic and local produce from the Trout Lake, West End, Main Street and Kitsilano farmers' markets and others around Vancouver is becoming the norm, rather than just a trend among wealthy foodies.

Over the past 15 years, the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. and Canada has tripled, and consumers are more concerned about where and how their food is raised.

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, local foods are looked down on by rich and poor shoppers alike. In Senegal many consumers and cooks consider local rice to be inferior and instead buy imported European brands that can cost four times as much.

And outside Kampala, Uganda, young people consider agricultural work a punishment -- something they'll be forced to do if they can't find a job in the city or go to university.

In the United States and Canada and all over Africa, decreased consumption of locally produced foods has led to a weakened local economy, rising poverty levels and health problems.

But our eating isn't the problem. At the heart of these issues is a loss of knowledge about agricultural practices and indigenous varieties that create local agricultural, as well as cultural, biodiversity. While what we eat is important, what may be even more essential over the long term is understanding how to plant, grow, cook, and eat food.

In Mukono District, Edward Mukiibi, 23, Slow Food Mukono convivium leader, and Roger Serunjogi, 22, built Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) with this premise in mind. The project began in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, generate environmental awareness and preserve food traditions and culture for Mukono students by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools.

By teaching kids early about growing, preparing and eating indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit, they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions and increase food security. Over the past few years, DISC has received global attention for its work and now is partly funded by Slow Food International.

By focusing on school gardens, Mukiibi and Serunjogi are not only helping to feed children, but also to revitalize an interest in -- and cultivation of -- African indigenous vegetables.

The schools don't use hybrid seeds, but rely on what is locally available. Students and teachers at DISC project schools are taught how to save seed from local varieties of amaranth, sumiwiki, maize, African eggplant and other local crops, to grow in school gardens. DISC is establishing a seed bank, according to Mukiibi, 'to preserve the world's best vegetables.'

Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as a last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities and preserve biodiversity.

Similarly, in Dakar, Senegal, members of the Slow Food Lek Magnef Senegal convivium designed the Mangeons Local education program to bring the focus back to local agriculture and food traditions. Together with local cooks from the Slow Food Terra Madre network, and support from Slow Food International, they have delivered the program to two schools in central Dakar with students aged 10 to 12.

Classroom lessons are focused on local breeds and varieties, culinary traditions, and the food communities in the region and are followed by practical cooking sessions and the preparation of traditional recipes. An annual community festival is held at each school to increase awareness among the families and broader public.

The effort to feed the world by an industrial approach to food production and consumption has proven inadequate in terms of health, environmental, economic and cultural consequences. Our disconnection with the pleasure and responsibility of food is having a negative impact on environment, economy, culture and health.

Consumers in Vancouver should care about preserving food traditions in Africa because they are faced with the same dilemmas at home. Because can learn from one another to improve the situation and because many North American agricultural and trade policies, not to mention cultural influences, have a huge negative impact on less-developed nations' food systems.

There are parents in every country who want their kids to eat good food at school, and gardens on school grounds are growing everywhere. Nearly everyone we speak with agrees that it is increasingly difficult to slow down and share a meal with friends and families, and that we are forgetting our cultural and culinary heritage.

Look to organizations such as Slow Food, DISC and Mangeons Local, which are engaging the next generation of farmers, reigniting our appetite for local food and reminding us to celebrate growing, cooking and eating.

Shayna Bailey is director of international development for Slow Food International. Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher with Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., writing from Africa at www.NourishingthePlanet.org.

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