By: Casey L. Bradley, Ph.D.
For years I have listened to numerous professionals discuss food security for the growing population, all while focusing on the problems of the future rather than the problems of today. If today’s problems are discussed they focus on third world countries and food waste, rather than their own communities. For myself, I have even been naïve as my entire career ambition has been around creating sustainable animal agriculture systems through research, education, and service. Before COVID I was busy traveling the USA, Canada and even the world, not having the time or energy to focus on my own community.
But all of that has changed for me. A victim of corporate downsizing left me an opportunity to rebrand myself and think of my own ideas and potential outreach programs for my community. I knew my community had several food banks and that my hometown meat company, Tyson Foods, donates millions of pounds of meat and food each year locally, helping our community.
But nothing prepared me for what I witnessed on a Saturday morning at the Iglesia fe y Poder en Jesus Church in Springdale, AR. I was there volunteering and helping Derek Van Voast run his historic campaign for Springdale City Council. It was a Back-to-School Backpack giveaway that was organized by the church, a few local businesses, and The NWA Food Bank. It was a mixture of emotions for me, from feeling blessed to help support my community in a small way, to fighting back tears when we ran out of backpacks and food. The disappointment and need on the families we could not support were evident. We gave away over 230 backpacks and a van and truck full of chicken, ham, milk, and dry goods. But it was not enough.
My income may have been cut in half since the beginning of COVID, but my family can still pay all its bills and put food on the table, but that is not the case for everyone in my community. Thus, my priorities have changed. I am no longer thinking of 2050 and how we are going to feed the world, but I have refocused to how we can feed the community around us today.
I have had ideas of building community gardens and urban agriculture in the past, but I cannot dream or brainstorm any longer because the need is today. I know it does not take much land to feed a family of 6, as my childhood is self-evident. But what it does take is a community working together to make it possible. Let us take my childhood as an example. My parents had a decent size garden in which we canned and froze several types of vegetables. My mother’s cousins had an apple orchard and we canned enough applesauce to make me not such a fan today. My father worked on a pig farm and we never ran out of pork. But between my father, uncles, and brothers we also had a freezer full of venison and fish. When I was young, a birthday party at McDonald’s was a special thing and I use to love the turkey legs my mother bought on sale as an alternative to our pot roast Sunday dinners.
Today I drive by empty lots or pastures waiting to be sold for millions of dollars as my area is in a massive growth cycle thanks to the success of corporate giants, such as Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson Foods. We have massive factories or warehouse sitting empty due the shift from blue collar to white collar work in our area. COVID may even leave us with empty office buildings and parking lots. Many of us may see the landscape as eye sores, but I see them as untapped potential to change our world and I am not talking thousands of miles away, but right here within a mile radius. Imagine if we planted gardens in those empty lots awaiting the next subdivision. What if we planted apple trees along our roads instead of Bradford Pears? We still get the beautiful blooms in the spring but a harvest of food for our community as well. Those empty warehouses and factories can easily be converted into community canning areas. Let us not rule out livestock farms either, as we have the technology to make them smell better than the current poultry processing facilities in our cities.
I know many of you think I am still naive and dreaming, but I am only dreaming of a better tomorrow than a 2050. If we start now, start small, and dream big there is nothing that will stop us from having the ability to feed the world in 2050. Who is with me? It is time roll up our sleeves and take back our communities and stop pretending the problems are not in our backyards.