June 30, 2006
Vol. 36, Issue 12
Back Issues
$6M for student aid
What teenagers want
House bill supports South Lawn
The power of food
Charting a new course for Semester at Sea
Leaps and bounds
Joyriders vs. jaywalkers
Declaration of Independence exhibit at library open on July 4
African-American Affairs summer film series
Heritage Repertory Theatre indulges in 'Nunsense'
Fixing the hands of time


The power of food
Food-focused planning builds links between students, faculty and community

By Jane Ford

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Many locally grown and organic foods are available at the Saturday morning City Market in Charlottesville.

Food is the building block for our bodies. In recent years, it’s also come to be considered an important building block for our communities. In fact, food is growing as a field of academic study in planning programs across the country, as planners and others explore the ways that the local production of food is connected to everything from public health, economic development and the environment to basic questions of ethics and the need to bring people together to create community.

One of the leading voices in this burgeoning field is Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the University of Virginia’s department of urban and environmental planning and author of “The Ecology of Place,” “Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities” and “Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age.”

Photo by Dan Addison
Tanya Denckla Cobb and Timothy Beatley with samples of locally grown food.

“The issue started to take off about five years ago at the University of Wisconsin with an assessment of urban agriculture around the country,” Beatley said. “It is seen as an important part of urban planning, research and writing.” Today U.Va. is one of a handful of schools that offers courses related to food as infrastructure. “We’re not the first, but we’re on the cutting edge.”

Beatley joined forces with Tanya Denckla Cobb, senior associate at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation, author of a book on organic gardening and co-founder of the nonprofit community organization Greener Harrisonburg, to design a series of courses that explore food as infrastructure. The first class, offered this spring— “Planning for a Sustainable and Secure Community Food System”—consisted of both graduate and undergraduate students, who conducted an assessment of Charlottesville’s regional food system. The questions the class grappled with included: Is our community food system sustainable? Is it secure? Can we establish more opportunities for fresh, healthy, locally grown food? What are some of the major obstacles to producing, processing and distributing local grown food in the community? Why is food equity important to the community?

Beatley and Cobb convened a Regional Food Security Working Group to assist the class in its assessment, with the goal of fostering relationships that might evolve into a local Food Policy Council that would help shape local policies to assist farmers and citizens in establishing sustainable supplies of fresh, healthy, locally grown food. The working group was made up of interested community members working in all aspects of the food realm — including a farmer and representatives from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, Virginia Cooperative Extension, U.Va. Dining Services, Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and Green Dining.

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Charlottesville City Market is one example of the ways that locally grown food can bring together communities and boost both physical and economic vitality. For more on the role of food in regional planning.

A major component of the success of the project lies in dialogue and partnership building, said Cobb, who guided the class in applying systems thinking and theories of change to the development of a community food system. The Institute for Environmental Negotiation, based at U.Va.’s School of Architecture, is a perfect entity to bring all the interested parties together, she added, suggesting that the creation of a dialogue between local farmers, distributors and buyers to identify common goals and needs may be an appropriate next step.

The class assessment is the first step in a longer-term project that could take root in the community to foster better linkages between local farms and community schools, food stores, restaurants and residents. The class report is available at www.tjpdc.org. A spring 2007 class is planned that would develop a community food plan.

The students found supporters interested in hearing their findings at a May community meeting. At a June 15 meeting community members formed E.A.T. Local: Everyone at the Table and eagerly jumped in to form partnerships to produce a newsletter; directory of available locally-grown food producers, outlets and events; farm-to-school initiatives, a co-op that could include retail space as well as a community kitchen and café; urban Community Supported Agriculture initiatives within neighborhoods; ways to promote regenerative soil technologies; and a compost facility.

Graduate student Sara Thurman has been interested in food issues for some time. She made her decision to attend U.Va. when she heard about plans to incorporate food initiatives in the planning curriculum. As an undergraduate she was involved in a community farm alliance in Kentucky, and helped small family farmers with promotion. She was familiar with the power that creating public awareness can have.
“Organic or sustainable is not just an elite thing, but is increasingly more available and part of everyone’s life,” she said.

In her research about local food distribution she was surprised at the number of Charlottesville restaurants that already used local food and were interested in expanding that practice. The study identified a diversity of food products raised in the region including vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat and dairy, grains, hay and beans — many sustainable or organic. All exist within the 11-county foodshed identified in the study.

The class also identified six Community Supported Agriculture initiatives. CSAs are a growing trend where farmers and consumers form a partnership and members buy shares and receive a portion of the farm proceeds for the season. The Charlottesville CSAs are all oversubscribed, said Beatley. “There is a strong indication that people would go local if they knew how.”

“We lack an agricultural literacy,” said landscape architecture graduate student Mark Phemister. “The defining feature of the era is a move away from intense specialization to understanding how things work together, even on a global scale.” He emphasized the need to look at inhabited landscapes and productive landscapes and their link to civic infrastructure. “The policy makers need to have the larger picture in their heads,” he said. At the same time, “we need to train policy makers to value the microscale.”

For the class, Phemister identified a possible agriculture zone, areas set aside for agriculture use and protected from development, running from Ivy Creek to the Ragged Mountain area. He also envisioned numerous possibilities on a smaller scale. You don’t always need a large plot of land to farm but it requires some real creativity to visualize farming within the city of Charlottesville, Phemister said. “All you need is clean soil.”

He envisions farming space being built into existing neighborhoods — a peach orchid at 10th and Page streets or gardens peppered throughout the Friendship Gardens public housing area are just a few of the possibilities he identified.

Incorporating agriculture in new construction is a trend in numerous European cities, Beatley said. “They are designing it in from the beginning. In new housing areas it’s not just roads and garbage collection they think about but also places to grow food — even in densely populated areas.

“Western Europeans have a cultural sensibility about food. They attach more importance about where their food comes from,” Beatley added.
Graduate student Anne Bedarf, who is also environmental and safety manager for the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, was prompted by the class research to pursue an independent study project to establish a local farm-to-school program.

“People gain from the knowledge of where their food comes from,” Bedarf said.

She discovered that Albemarle County Schools already buy apples locally and is exploring ways to integrate more local purchasing into school lunches, establish edible gardens that would provide lessons in science and the environment and create a curriculum in agriculture in the classroom that would satisfy state standards of learning.

We need to understand where food comes from and how precious it is and its connection to so many of the issues that we are already thinking about, Beatley said. “Food builds social capital. It connects people to place.”


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