How organized neighborhoods and small towns are ensuring their future food supply
On the cusp of our culture’s permanent oil crisis, is your diet Peak Oil-proof?
Published in Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living, Spring 2006 (Issue #130)
As evidence accumulates foretelling the imminent shock of “petrocollapse,” one central concern of communities – including organized neighborhoods and small towns – should be the safety and continuity of their food supply. All but the most self-sustaining communities should start planning now to minimize the impact of diminishing oil supplies on their food security, because, to an astonishing extent, the system of industrial agribusiness that produces the vast majority of available food is addicted to constant streams of cheap fossil fuels.
Community Food Security
“We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing and our friends working nearby,” says Bill Mollison, a founder of the eco-gardening revolution called permaculture. In recent decades, as community leaders and activists have come to realize the inequality, dependence on non-renewable resources, and toxicity to the environment inherent in industrial agribusiness, many have reached the same conclusion, and a burgeoning movement for community food security has emerged. The Community Food Security Coalition, a North American organization with over 325 member groups, defines community food security as “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” While some nightmarish post-peak oil scenarios foresee dog-eat-dog competition over scarce food resources where only the strongest survive, community food security envisions local cooperation, self-empowerment, and advance planning as the ideal ways to ensure healthy, consistent nourishment for everyone.
The leap from reliance on industrial food growing, processing and delivery to engagement with community food security will inevitably demand tremendous lifestyle changes from many people accustomed to drive-thru fast food and salad greens trucked thousands of miles to their nearest Walmart (now the top US food retailer). But, fortunately, those who choose to attempt the leap will not have far to jump and can anticipate a relatively soft landing in the Earth’s fertile soil (with help, to be sure, from liberal applications of homemade compost). In most bioregions and population centers, numerous groups are already putting the goals of community food security into practice. As awareness of peak oil proliferates, many are preparing preemptively for their post-oil future. Their efforts can be both models to replicate and endeavors to join. They include farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, permaculture groups, food justice movements, and relocalization initiatives. In an oil-deprived future, ventures such as these will be the keys to community health and survival. In an oil-deprived future, ventures such as these will be the keys to community health and survival.
One of the simplest ways for communities to liberate their food supply from oil dependence is to create and support local farmers markets. By minimizing transport distances of produce and eliminating intermediaries between grower and consumer, farmers markets drastically reduce levels of fossil fuel use. Through the face-to-face communication they enable, farmers markets not only foster community interaction but also allow buyers to learn what energy-efficient methods of crop cultivation various farmers employ – and to direct their support to those using the best practices.
Purchasing food at farmers markets, whether in small amounts or in bulk, also keeps cash within the local economy, protects the livelihood of farmers and therefore preserves open spaces and combats sprawl, and gives communities a reliable source of fresh, nutritious, frequently organic and hand-picked food. Many farmers markets sell more than just fruits and vegetables, and include meats, wines, cheeses, flowers, herbs, baked goods, clothing and hand-crafted items. Most are located conveniently at the heart of populated areas and near public transportation.
The number of farmers markets in the US has increased dramatically in recent decades, rising from 300 in the mid-1970s to 1,750 in 1993 and over 3,400 today. Yet they still represent less than 0.5 percent of total food sales. One reason for this is the irregular hours, days and seasons they are open. Another may be that their produce tends to be higher-priced than that of the mass-produced, federal-subsidized brands sold in stores. As the escalating price of fossil fuels pushes up the cost of conventional foods and makes small-scale, locally harvested produce more financially competitive, this discrepancy should gradually diminish and ultimately reverse.
Nevertheless, most farmers markets do already enjoy great popularity and nurture an excellent atmosphere in which one can meet local food-savvy citizens, share knowledge about peak oil and other issues, and discuss new approaches to improve community food security. And bargains are not uncommon! To find farmers markets and other CFS resources throughout the US, www.localharvest.org provides a free directory. Local independent tabloids are also good sources of information.
Community Supported Agriculture
Another form of economic interdependency between farmers and community members that further intensifies their relationship of mutual support and commitment is community supported agriculture (CSA). As a non-capitalist kind of cooperative trade, community supported agriculture is a prototype of what some community organizers have defined as “solidarity economics.” Through community supported agriculture, members pay the farmer an annual fee to cover the farm’s production costs. In exchange, they receive a weekly share of the harvest during the growing season. This arrangement guarantees the farmer financial support and enables many small- to moderate-scale organic family farms to remain in business.
In addition to sustaining the enterprise and reducing the personal risk of farmers by distributing the cost of any failed harvest throughout the community, community supported agriculture creates “agriculture-supported communities” where members receive a wide variety of foods harvested at their height of ripeness, flavor and vitamin and mineral content. Some CSA farms deliver bundles of food to the homes of members; others drop them off at a median location or require members to pick them up at the farm. Many aim to enhance community participation in the farm by hosting special seasonal events, letting members harvest or select their produce at the farm, and encouraging them to volunteer time to assist farm work. Some also return community solidarity by donating surplus food to low-income families, food banks, or soup kitchens. An international directory of CSA farms is available at www.csacenter.org.
During the decades following peak oil, community supported agriculture could evolve to serve additional functions. Community members might save seeds from their yield to plant at home and form seed-sharing networks, organize food security skill trainings, develop collective systems to pool their compost and protect local water security, and unite to confront broader challenges that impact local food security like climate change, invasion of non-native species, political upheaval or over-exploitation of natural resources. The CSA model could even extend beyond food to other areas of local economies. For example, the Post-Carbon Institute – a peak oil think tank – envisions Community Supported Manufacturing and Community Supported Energy, or “Local Energy Farms,” that would provide modest amounts of reliable, renewable energy for local use. As well as satisfying wider community needs, these could contribute the tools and energy base that local agriculture requires.
Farmers markets and CSA both cut oil dependence by dramatically narrowing the divide between producers and consumers of food, yet they still uphold a degree of seperation. Weaving food growing into the seams of community life – connecting everyone directly with its rhythms, in effect – can further deepen food security. Permaculture, a contraction of “permanent agriculture,” is a holistic philosophy of ecological design and set of ethics that seeks to sustainably integrate food production systems into human habitat. Founded in the late 1970s in part as a creative reaction to the energy constraints and oil crisis of that era, permaculture (PC) strives for harmonious interplay of human dwellings, microclimate, fruit- and nut-bearing trees, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water in stable, productive communities.
By mimicing patterns found in nature, PC aims to heighten the efficiency of human labor, eliminate waste, maximize biodiversity, and use biological processes as energy sources instead of fossil fuels. As a design philosophy, it is versatile enough to be applied to any ecosystem or built environment, and has been crystallized for all to read in the written wisdom of practitioners worldwide like Australian permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison’s voluminous “design manuals.” Permaculture can offer particularly dynamic solutions to peak oil by responding to it, not as a terrifying threat, but enthusiastically as a perfect and unprecedented opportunity to transform ecologically barren, car-centered concrete jungles and suburban wastelands dependent on food imports into truly livable communities replete with restored green spaces featuring neighborhood gardens, food forests, and other “edible landscapes.”
“We have trouble visualizing decline as positive, but this simply reflects the dominance of our prior culture of growth,” writes fellow permaculture co-founder David Holmgren in his new book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. With brilliantly pragmatic insight, he analyzes how communities can embrace “energy descent” through permaculture with “whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline which are as natural and creative as those of growth.” From an evolutionary outlook, he argues, the steep ride down energy descent can precipitate spiritual and cultural ascent: “When an adolescent sense of immortality and values of speed, novelty and endless growth define a whole civilisation, we are close to its demise and the birth of a new cultural paradigm.” 
One wave of this new paradigm is emerging through Permaculture Guilds, or professional associations of permaculture enthusiasts, in dozens of US cities. Some of these Guilds are restricted to individuals who have earned a “Permaculture Design Certificate” by completing a standard 72 hour training program; others also welcome amateur participants. All are engaged in various forms of permaculture education and activism. In Oregon, Portland ‘s Guild hosts free monthly educational meetings, creates public permaculture demonstration sites, and forms partnerships with other organizations like City Repair (see “City Repair and the Opportunity of Peak Oil, p. 42) to promote local sustainability. Eugene is also home to an active Guild, as well as a “Permatopia” group that meets to discuss implications of peak oil. In Oakland, the Urban Permaculture Guild has started a scholarship fund to enable low-income activists to receive subsidized permaculture training. And in the greater Baltimore area, another Guild offers internships and workshops, provides a free online introductory course, and sponsors four demonstration sites including one at Heathcote, an intentional community and land trust in rural southeastern Pennsylvania .
To the extent that such Guilds have become possible only through the achievement of a critical mass of PC-educated individuals in each location where one exists, they represent the diffusion and maturity of PC as a movement. After peak oil, their importance will increase as repositories of living knowledge about fossil fuel-free food security. However, in order to reach PC’s fullest potential, more Guilds must shed their elitism as clubs mostly open only to those who can afford to attend Certificate-granting PC design courses, and develop new ways to reach, teach, and help empower cash-poor individuals and communities who are most afflicted by food insecurity.
In some cities, permacultural groups are building local food security by doing just that. In Los Angeles, TreePeople distributes plum, peach, apricot, fig and nectarine trees to community groups, schools and churches in underserved low-income neighborhoods, and teaches horticultural skills to community residents. Austin’s consensus-run non-profit Rhizome Collective has transformed a fire-damaged industrial-zone warehouse into a thriving center of community organizing with lush gardens and aquaculture wetlands that include edible water plants. They are starting a neighborhood composting operation, won an EPA grant to restore a 10-acre brownfield through fungi-based bioremediation into an environmental education park, and provide kitchen space to Austin’s local “Food Not Bombs” chapter, one of hundreds worldwide, which salvages edible vegetarian food “waste” (from markets, restaurants and dumpsters) to cook and share with homeless people and other community folks. In Houston, Urban Harvest grants free classes and low-cost seeds to community gardeners, hosts a model fruit and vegetable garden for hands-on training, runs a twice-weekly Farmers Market, assists schools with the design and construction of new gardens while educating students to tend them, and sponsors a local Permaculture Guild. Such projects expose as false the myth that urban communities cannot take charge of their own food security.
By doing so, they also act as partners or leaders in new movements for food justice, which sprouted in the 1990s to reshape notions of food security by confronting dynamics of racism and economic marginalization that frequently exacerbate urban food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger. Inside America’s poorest neighborhoods of color, fast food joints and corner stores specializing in junk food and liquor tend to be the only “food” options. Redlining – the practice of refusing to serve certain geographical areas due to the race or income of the area’s residents – leaves entire communities without supermarkets and high-quality restaurants. Zoning laws, lack of community control over property and land, polluted soil, and poor water supply restrict urban agriculture. When neighborhoods successfully unite to establish gardens in abandoned lots, redevelopment often bulldozes them. As a result of these forces blocking access to healthful eating, poor and working-class people of color suffer disproportionately from heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and some types of cancer. Poor rural communities and the migrant workers who labor on industrial farms face many similar obstacles.
“The cheap-food machine we’ve created,” explains organic farmer and environmental journalist Tom Philpott, “fueled by our cheap-oil policy and underwritten by billions each year in commodity-agriculture subsidies, means that poor people can get almost limitless calories. Nourishment, however, is not part of the game.”  Food justice movements give new meaning to the phrase “food fight” by aiming to challenge and rectify the root causes of such illness-inducing inequity. 
New York City activists have mobilized a particularly lively food justice movement. In the South Bronx, the More Gardens! Coalition fights to preserve and expand community gardens in the shadow of high-rise public housing complexes. In Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Green Guerillas has helped thousands of people realize their dreams of turning vacant rubble-strewn lots into vibrant community gardens and advocated for their protection from developers. Meanwhile, b-healthy! educates low-income NYC youth and workers about healthy cooking, nutrition, and affordable alternatives to low-quality school lunches, commercially processed junk food and fattening fast food. Their CHOP (Creating Healthy Organic Power) Project is an intensive training program that teaches youth basic cooking techniques and organizing strategies to connect their personal health with the social and economic well-being of their communities. And since 1995, Just Food – one of the movement’s founding organizations – has worked to link economic, social and environmental justice by strengthening local food systems, with a focus on community-supported agriculture and farmers markets. Their City Farms Project has been the catalyst of 33 CSA farms, in all five bouroughs, and four farmers markets. In 2004, some of these farms produced over 30,000 pounds of food. 
Yet as oil depletion approaches, NYC and many other cities face an uphill battle for food security. 2 million people in NYC today are at risk of going hungry. As many as one in five –- and a quarter of the city’s children, double the national rate –- need help from food pantries and kitchens. For impoverished and oppressed communities already grappling with chronic food insecurity, the impact of peak oil may appear to bring little change. But because they can least stomach additional reduction of affordable and nutritious food supply, they could be hardest hit. Much analysis of peak oil’s probable effects –- led by the landmark film The End of Suburbia –- has focused on the crisis expected to jolt relatively wealthy suburban areas. Greater attention must also be paid to urban communities and to the food justice issues certain to erupt if industrial agribusiness falters or fails.
The common thread running throughout all of these models of CFS is “relocalization,” or the revitalization of local water, food and energy security through grassroots community-based movements. And while we can all be inspired and galvanized by learning what activists and growers elsewhere are doing to prepare for their energy-constrained future, the ideal way to determine what might work best for one’s own community, in a unique bioregion, might be simply to gather (perhaps over a potlach of locally harvested food?) with friends and neighbors, brainstorm and discuss the challenges, and develop local plans of action.
Toward that end, the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI) has established their “most important initiative,” the Relocalization Network. Since January 2005, this Network has grown from 5 groups, or “outposts,” in local communities to over 50 in 8 different countries. They are, in essence, community-based extensions of PCI, operating autonomously while receiving guidance and electronic infrastructure from the Institute. They work cooperatively in their community with local government, business, NGOs, and educational institutions to put theory about living with less hydrocarbons into practice while sharing knowledge and experiences with the global network of people working on relocalization. To learn more or join, visit www.relocalize.net.
One noteworthy example is the Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL). In a semi-rural municipality of Mendocino County in Northern California, WELL started in late 2004 following a series of viewings of The End of Suburbia and hours of public dialogue concerning “what to do.” It now comprises about 80 community members who regularly attend meetings and is governed by a Steering Committee of 12 people operating on an 80% consensus rule.
A seminal accomplishment by WELL was their City government’s unanimous adoption of a “Joint Statement towards a Sustainable, Healthy Willits,” affirming that the solutions to “issues such as climate change and fossil fuel depletion” are in “returning to small, local community enterprises.” In turn, WELL is forming partnerships with local farmers, investors, and renewable energy developers, and has researched and published “community inventories” of key resources including water, food, energy and medicine. A new “biointensive” garden, which aims to grow a complete diet and maintain or improve soil fertility by composting crop residue, is planned. Media attention to WELL’s efforts has been prolific. 
As WELL takes the lead to prepare their community for petrocollapse, others around the world look to learn from the trail they’ve blazed – and WELL relishes the opportunity to instruct. In their “Food Security Report for Willits,” before plunging into detailed calculations of local food needs and prospects, WELL presents some of the complex, multi-faceted questions that every community must ask itself:
What varieties of crops are best suited to this area, where are the seeds, how can seeds be selected and stored? How can abundance in one season be used in another by drying, canning and storing? Who will make and repair tools, water pumps, fencing, hoses? What is the most effective and least environmentally damaging means of food production within a diverse landscape? How can local markets be created so farmers have a means of exchange that supports the productivity of the farm? What renewable energy sources are needed to ensure the continued operation of farms? How can we produce a diversity of food for adequate nutrition, diet preferences, and farm ecosystem health?
Each community, in the pursuit of answers to inform their course of action and through the process of realizing them, must embark on an independent path to food security. The recipe of relocalization will have different and authentic ingredients for each who try it. A capacity for creative experimentation and improvisation will be crucial. For some, stranded on land too degraded, waterless, overpopulated, or otherwise inhospitable without the artificial crutch of fossil fuels, the journey may be impossible. But for most, the oil crash is a challenge that should be surmountable, and can help drive a rediscovery of local self-sufficiency and community solidarity which is long overdue. So without further ado: What first steps must your community take to make your diet Peak Oil-proof?
 Hartwig de Haen. “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2004. See following studies: Richard Heinberg. “Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply.” Museletter. July 3, 2005; Danielle Murray. “Oil and Food: A Rising Security Challenge.” Earth Policy Institute. May 9, 2005 ; Norman Church. “Why Our Food Is So Dependent On Oil.” PowerSwitch UK. April 2, 2005 ; Richard Manning. “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq.” Harper’s Magazine. Feb. 1, 2004 ; Dale Allen Pfeiffer. “Eating Fossil Fuels.” From the Wilderness. Oct. 3, 2003.  Stan Cox. “Hunger for Natural Gas.” Alternet. October 12, 2005; and Dale Allen Pfeifer. “Natural Gas Crisis.” From the Wilderness. June 23, 2003.  Ethan Miller. “Solidarity Economics: Strategies for Building New Economies from the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out.” Earth and Sky Exchange. February 2004. www.earthskyexchange.org  See also: Adam Fenderson. “Peak Oil and Permaculture: David Holmgren on Energy Descent.” Interview by Global Public Media. July 7, 2004; www.permacultureactivist.net; and www.permatopia.com  Philpott, Tom. “Food and Class.” Grist Magazine. October 12, 2005  Anuradha Mittal. “Food Fight!” Keynote Speech at the San Francisco Food Professional Society. October 22, 2004.  Mark Winston Griffith. “The ‘Food Justice’ Movement: Trying to Break the Food Chains.” Gotham Gazette . December 2003; Anna Lappé. “Delicious Revolution.” Dragonfly Media. October 2003.  Gail Robinson. “New York ‘s Grocery Gap.” Gotham Gazette . November 21, 2005.  e.g. Katie Elizabeth Renz. “Diet for a Peak Oil America: Weaning the food system from fossil fuels one community at a time.” HopeDance Magazine. November 15, 2005.