Saturday, March 20, 2010

local kitchens and gardens


Block Kitchens for Avoiding Sin

By John Taylor; 2010 March 20, Ala' 19, 166 BE

My mother taught us that waste is a sin. In fact, her generation had lived through the depression, and they were very economical by today's standards. If she was right about the sin of waste, then the reverse must be true: any measure that gets rid of waste in our infrastructure has to be virtuous to the point of saintliness.

Bearing my upbringing in mind, one of the goads that prompted me to think through the idea of hillside housing was a report of a study in Sweden that found shocking levels of food waste by the average household. A great proportion of the fresh vegetables that are purchased rot in the refrigerator, even in well run homes (do not even get me started on poorly run ones, like ours). Another study, using more accurate measures, just discovered that the waste is even worse than I had imagined, and that it is built into the very structure of the capitalist economy.

"There are reports of rich countries throwing out 25-30% of what is bought. Add in what never even makes it to the cupboard or the refrigerator, and the scale of the problem is considerably larger. [the study found that] ... the average American wastes 1,400 kilocalories a day. That amounts to 150 trillion kilocalories a year for the country as a whole -- about 40% of its food supply, up from 28% in 1974. Producing these wasted calories accounts for more than one-quarter of America's consumption of freshwater, and also uses about 300m barrels of oil a year. On top of that, a lot of methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emerges when all this food rots." (A hill of beans; America's food-waste problem is getting worse," The Economist, Nov 28, 2009, p. 94)

The present economy specializes in making food cheap, but the result is that people are tempted to gorge it all down (I am guilty of this: the quickest way of avoiding wasted food is to eat it, resulting in gluttony -- I calculated this morning that I am carrying around more fat than my ten year old son presently weighs, eighty pounds; I tried lifting him and could barely do it), and retailers find it more economical to just throw out food that is not bought at the end of the day. The waste is horrendous.

"Such supply-chain waste can be built into the price, and usually makes economic sense. Throwing away leftovers is often better business than risking running out of stock." (Id.)

Another study found that cooking smells, traditional and enticing as they may be, contain surprising amounts of gases, volatile organic compounds and other toxic materials. There has to be a better way to deliver food, thought I. Why not eliminate the kitchen in the home completely?
Surely, it would be possible to have a large kitchen in every neighbourhood that quickly prepares and efficiently delivers hot meals to houses nearby on demand. Such a community kitchen would be large enough that higher codes and standards would be enforceable. Waste is minimized, food remainders composted, and cooking smells properly contained. As a bonus, it could be run cooperatively, offering both professional employment opportunities as well as a chance for amateurs to participate in exchange for a reduction in their food bill. Such a cooperative block kitchen would offer neighbours a chance to socialize, rather like the building bees that the pioneers held in earlier centuries.

Indeed, the tendency for women to use such gatherings not only to prepare food but also to organize and uphold their rights is probably a major reason why separate kitchens were maintained so strictly by the old patriarchal order. Now corporations have co-opted home cooking with factory supplied meals. Almost two generations of mothers have forgotten how to cook for themselves, and as a result we are suffering an epidemic of obesity, cancer and heart disease.
A similar inter-generational loss of knowledge is happening with farming. Now that less than two percent of the population are farmers, we are in danger of forgetting not only how to prepare food, but to grow it too. Having growing know-how concentrated into so few hands is extremely dangerous; the slightest disaster could wipe out the few growers and threaten our very survival.

Once again, the idea of neighbourhood-level organization seems to be the answer. Just combine the block kitchen with a kitchen garden, or even a small community farm. Even if no land is available, windows can be used to grow leafy vegetables, packed with Omega 3's, which nutritionists tell us is what we all need most for a healthy diet. With cooperative gardening combined with cooperative farming, the greens served by the block kitchen will always be as local and fresh as possible. Having a larger proportion of the population directly involved in urban agriculture will spread the experience around, increasing the stability and security of all.


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