Nutrition Justice – Mitigation Strategies

Urban agriculture’s focused efforts on backyard gardening for hyper-local crops, including nutritious fruits and vegetables that are best served fresh can still play a powerful role in the larger food system. However, despite these advances, urban food can not feed everyone. There is not enough land. In fact, the world’s agriculture takes up about 35–40% of all of the Earth’s land, a staggering sum, especially compared to cities and suburbs, which occupy less than 1% of Earth’s land. Put another way: For every acre of cities and suburbs in the world, there are about 60 acres of farms. Thus, it is clear that even the most ambitious urban farming efforts can not replace the rest of the world’s agriculture.

We can ensure local food is good for the environment, especially if it reduces food waste along the supply chain. Also, organic or well-run conventional local farms can produce many benefits to soils, waterways, and wildlife. And, in some places, local grass-fed ranches are trying to sequester carbon in the soil, offsetting at least part of beef’s hefty greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, is implemented well, local food can have many environmental benefits.

People (the well-to-do) love the idea of eating food that is grown nearby, on surrounding farms. It helps increase the sense of authenticity and integrity in our food. Also, the food can often be fresher and tastier. Most people like that the supply chain  is shorter, more transparent, and supports the local economy. However, we need to acknowledge the difficulties of creating this food integrity in low-income communities and insist on designing what is best for low-income residents and communities, not what is popular and desired by their nearby well-to-do urban neighbors.

In addition to urban agriculture, we could invest dollars, technology, and brains to solve other agricultural problems — like developing new methods for drip irrigation, better grazing systems that lock up soil carbon, and ways of recycling on-farm nutrients. We also need innovation and capital to help other parts of the food system, especially in tackling food waste, and getting people to shift their diets towards more sustainable directions.

Therefore, some guidelines for thinking about nutrition justice in the context of local food include growing food (mostly near you), working with the seasons and renewable resources, and shipping in the rest. An interconnected network of good farms — farms that provide nutritious food, with social and environmental benefits to their communities — is the kind of innovation we really need. And while the local food movement is making much of this possible, it is important to keep in mind the strategies for avoid catastrophic food shortages and understand the place of industrial agriculture.

Nutrition Justice – Three Design Methods Applied

Shadowing: For nine hours, I accompanied an African American community leader and urgan gardener in LA, as he held meetings with neighbors, planted in his garden, and held more meetings with sponsors, well-wishers, and potential investors. It was interesting to learn that despite high unemployment rates in his community, he could not find gardeners to train because of a gardening mindset problem. African Americans in his neighborhood equate gardening with slavery, so they want nothing to do with it even if it promises economic opportunity and self-sufficiency. This community leader has the tough task of changing mindsets and subsequently running an educational campaign on the benefits of being a gardener and growing one’s own food.

Foreign Correspondent: I interviewed a local urban gardener and community leader in Lagos, Nigeria to understand their needs and challenges. I anticipated comparing it to the needs of other urban gardeners in the US. The urban gardener confirm that while some irrigation tools were expensive to acquire, they had all they needed to grow food locally – seeds, land, demand from customers and local labor. What they lacked was a technology platform to facilitate connections from gardener to customer at scale. What we take for granted in the West – a simply created Wix website, turns out to still be a challenge in the Global South.

Five Whys: When visiting the community leader of a successful art program in Boston, I asked her five whys in four areas:

  • Why did you decide on an art program instead of STEM?
  • Why did you select this community in Boston?
  • Why did you decide to focus on youth?
  • Why do the youth keep returning?

The take-aways were illuminating: neighborhoods are smaller than we imagine and are defined by the residents, who communicate with and are close – personally and proximity – to certain streets. Locally-drawn lines (think zip codes and subdivisions) do not help to understand what constitutes community closeness.

How Nutrition Justice Becomes Fatal

We already know how the story of the Green Revolution evolves. Norman Ernest Borlaug, the American agronomist and humanitarian, who led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production gave us accessibility of wheat and saved over a billion lives. What we also know if that it has not eradicated hunger and has brought forth a variety of problems including dependence on fertilizers, desertification and soil degradation, monoculture, food waste, and the associated effects of water waste (aquifer depletions and chemically-affected soils). Why not find another way to feed our growing population without harming our environment? How harmful can growing small portions of food in your backyard and sharing the excess with your neighbors? It worked for us during both world wars.

It seems to make sense as a solution with benefits that are the opposite of every side effect of the Green Revolution. Growing a small selection of a variety of culinary herbs, fruits and vegetables at home, which can feed your family is the opposite of monoculture, water waste (66% less water than lawn needs), requires no fertilizer to destroy soil and reduce produce quality, and alleviates the pressure of growing large of food to sell. But what if I live in Ohio and want to consume mangoes? What if I live in a landlocked state or country and want to enjoy consuming lobsters? What if cicadas, drought, or other natural disasters threaten our organic raised beds? What if geo-engineering produces so much monoxide that it wipes out our crops? Since we are aware of the risks of currently known agricultural, political, social, and geopolitical concerns of today (and at the time of victory gardens), we will explore the social challenges of an unforeseen catastrophe in the context of geoengineering.

Climate engineering, mostly known as geoengineering, aims to manipulate the global temperature by changing solar radiation or atmospheric carbon concentrations, i.e., by modifying the Earth’s albedo. It is the engineering of our climate to infuse certain gases into the atmosphere to encourage precipitation and several environmental outcomes caused by climate change including combating drought, and floods. The social science behind the effects of geoengineering on agriculture needs more supporting research. Here’s the social challenge: At least two billion people have backyard gardens by 2030 globally, eat hyper-locally, and nutrition justice is achieved. Hunger is reduced to a whooping 2%, people are self-sufficient (food-wise), and food is seen as a basic right. What potential agricultural disasters and socioeconomic costs would result from geoengineering over Africa? On the agricultural front, all food gardens are destroyed due to chemicals in the atmosphere. Given our current penchant for garden to table experiences, most Africans only have two weeks of food stored inside the home. Governments call for halting of the geoengineering activity and ask for food donations from other continents. Since monoculture is long dead, every other continent only has two weeks of food storage. First, theft, unrest, and occur during the first four weeks, then the effects of widespread hunger – wars, intense famines and deaths begin to occur in subsequent months. Could a continent be wiped out due to a short-sighted view of sustainable nutrition justice?

Where did we go wrong? Perhaps industrial agriculture – and wheat and corn – is not as terrible as we assumed. Perhaps the solution to creating sustainable diets for all and achieving nutrition justice involves a mixture of both monoculture and permaculture (producing a natural variety of produce in a given locale) in a sustainable ratio. It is clear that policymakers need to construct a decision-making framework based on their ethical, political, and economic principles on local food production, food storage, and of course, geoengineering. Finally, researchers must provide insight into future global food governance structures, given all of the principles and pathways available for sustainable development in the context of nutrition justice.

Creating Food Oases to Wipe Out Nutrition Injustice

Why create more food oases to make food ubiquitous? Isn’t farming enough? Well, one in five people are food insecure and one in six children do not eat daily meals in the US. Hunger in the US has many faces: children, seniors, veterans, rural and marginalized communities are not immune. Many of the well-fed want to help and the hungry would prefer to help themselves. Also, as humanity is urbanizing rapidly, so too are urban food deserts expanding and/or densifying while experiencing nutrition injustice. For instance, Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, lacks sufficient infrastructure to provide sewage, water, electricity, or housing for residents, yet this dense community in the heart of India’s financial capital has a thriving informal economy with an annual economic output of up to $1 billion. Urban agriculture solutions can bring new life to food deserts and serve as a driving force for community development. Despite the increased presence of grassroots efforts to support our farmers with Farmers’ Markets and Community-Supported Agriculture, and to ensure we eat high quality food by leveraging rooftop and community gardens, and choosing restaurants that locally source their ingredients, these efforts alone are not viable alternative to the inefficiencies of our massive food system and prepare to feed our growing population.

Fortunately, one solution lies in our yards and neighborhoods through the use of edible gardens. In the 1940s through the success of the victory gardens to the success of the recent White House garden to current urban farms and vertical farms all over the East Coast, we empower our communities to take their health and well-being into their own hands when we make food production a local concern. Natalie, is a food insecure teacher who started a garden in the elementary school where she teaches. Her students tend to eat their daily hot meal at school. So she teaches the kids to garden, and they grow a lot of food. Natalie and her students grow so much food that she no longer needs to buy vegetables to feed herself. She also sends the students home with fresh produce. It’s a temporary win-win: Natalie and her students receive fresh fruits and veggies and nutrition injustice is somewhat addressed. How can we relate to food as an abundant resource such that we will feed everyone, including Natalie, and help move humanity forward?

We all need to be good stewards of our bodies, our communities, and our planet. And clean food ought to be a fundamental right just like the right to clean air. Growing your vegetables or purchasing them from less than a few miles away while sharing with your neighbor or donating what you cannot consume ought to be a civic duty. You will feel empowered by your contribution to your nutrition and to your community as you eat safer and more nutritious produce, save money, be food independent, and reduce your carbon footprint and local hunger. After all, food should be grown right where humans live.

Ecosystem Map

Nutrition Injustice Workshop

The Nutrition Injustice Workshop has three overarching objectives. We aim to:

1. Gain a crisp understanding of Nutrition Injustice

2. Accept the factors that encourage Nutrition Injustice

3. Inspire collective action to end Nutrition Injustice.

We will break the workshop into three days to thoroughly explore each objective. To fully understand nutrition injustice, 33% of our speakers and participants will be individuals, who can speak directly to living in a food desert, a refugee camp, in post-disaster recovery, and in unlikely places with food insecurity and nutrition deficits. The first day of the workshop will include:

1. Two keynotes from leaders in food insecure communities, including the consumption of amateur video content describing what nutrition injustice looks like in a community

2. Listen to a panel of food insecure individuals

3. Conduct a speed-dating activity where everyone gets 5 minutes to hear a personal story and needs of an individual living in a community suffering from nutrition injustice.

Since acceptance tends to involve inward reflection, personal or organizational bias admission, and a survey of data (or facts), the second day of the workshop will focus on accepting the factors that encourage nutrition injustice. We will hear from government, profit and non-profit leaders, who are already working in this space:

1. Local government and non-profit leaders with close relationships in food insecure communities, whose organizations have been successful and unsuccessful in improving access to healthy food

2. Behavioral experts on personal values, checking bias and assumptions, who would run exercises such as Core Values, Mission definition, and “How do I know I am right”?

3. Panels with food insecure community leaders, local government, NGO, and industry leaders on lessons learned (particularly corrected assumptions) from the first two days of the workshop

Lastly, to inspire action, we will include a 33% speaker and participant lineup that includes activists, philanthropists, designers, budding entrepreneurs, and influential leaders. These individuals will have little to no (less than 3 months) real world experience living in food insecure areas. The agenda for the last day would include:

1. Design thinkers on creating designs for  food insecure communities

2. Entrepreneur idea pitch (with feedback received from their future customers)

3. Philanthropists and investor panels on what matters to them and what they will fund

I believe that no one individual or company can solve a complex problem alone. The goal behind the conference is to ensure the solutions are supported, designed, implemented and funded by all the right people – interacting together – in order to enable food security and universal access to healthy food.

Nutrition Injustice + Freedoms + Astrofactories

Unfortunately, as humanity is urbanizing rapidly, so too are urban slums expanding and/or densifying. And they’re substantially all food deserts experiencing nutrition injustice. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, lacks sufficient infrastructure to provide sewage, water, electricity, or housing for residents, yet this dense community in the heart of India’s financial capital has a thriving informal economy with an annual economic output of up to $1 billion. It would be an even stronger driver of development if government leaders treated them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics. Rather than treating slums as a problem to be ignored, corporations could see slums as an opportunity to provide (not exploit) infrastructure and services needed, such as urban agriculture, while seeking government incentives, if needed, to make up margins. The local and global communities could also cease to see slum dwellers as characters worthy of pity. Urban centers, both in India and around the world, offer economic opportunities that rural areas do not. For this reason, some migrants voluntarily move to slums in hopes of learning new skills, setting up businesses, and sending their children to school. Therefore, encoding their dignity into the social consciousness – through social campaigns – can bring new life to deteriorating slums and serve as a driving force for community development.

Despite improvements in diversity of thought, and the celebration of individualism in our era, there still exists the unfortunate “danger of a single story”. Some examples include: male engineers stereotyped as being ‘on the spectrum’, while female engineers are anything but feminine; Every man on Wall Street is a Type-A alpha male, and all Wall Street women ‘wear the pants’; All housewives are certainly not intellectual, while all men want to work outside the home and become the breadwinner; Immigrants are poor, lazy and ‘the other’ while “we” are not. To free us to live out the purest version of who we are, we need a culture of radical acceptance. Corporations could set examples through their advertising such as the marketing of a vending machine, which responds to multiple languages, encourages the celebration of different nationalities within a community. The government could incentivize judges, law enforcement, and corporations through reduced tax incentives to obtain high acceptance scores from the communities they serve and employees they employ. All forms of media ought to refrain from characterizing groups of people or perpetuating stereotypes to avoid FCC penalties, although I am unsure of how this metric can be objectively measured.

Lastly, as the cost of satellite launches decline, the next generation of satellites may need to be manufactured on-orbit to reduce the cost of and thereby, a critical barrier to entry in space exploration. This will require the development of manufacturing factories for space and the refinement of our current robotic assembly platforms. The government would need to enact a law to refrain from 4- to 8-year visions for our space agency, in order to prevent a change in vision and subsequently, the redirection of resources, with every new political administration. A comprehensive 12-year plan supported by taxpayers through a referendum vote and supported by the government would also normalize aerospace contractor costs. The transparency and consistency of the space program would certainly eliminate the ill-suited contractors interested in hedging bets, while rallying the nation (and the world) – through social media, of course – behind an inspiring vision to lead humanity to the next frontier.

We made it to 2059 and…

Do we want hunger to exist at all or in more than 2% of the population? The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — particularly, doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. On a national level, Feeding America reports that one in eight people struggle with hunger and need $22B more per year to meet their food needs. These people are seniors, children, minorities, and rural dwellers. According to the Organic Trade Association, $65B is spent on organic produce yearly across the US, yet 74% of customers are concerned about the price of organic produce. These concerns have caused a greater need for locally produced fresh food and purportedly, 40M US households grew something edible at home in 2016 (National Garden Industry Survey). On a local level, one in four botany and horticultural graduates are unemployed while 34% of busy homeowners, need edible gardening help (Garden Research). It is important to note that 125M US households spend $75B on lawn care maintenance.

To address these challenges, we must deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. While individuals and organizations with the skills and motivation to lead systemic change are best prepared for such an increasingly complex and uncertain future, no company can solve it alone. Lisa Drier posits that we need to create networks of organizations to act together to reach common goals. To make any real headway on solving problems of this size, coalitions (online and offline) have to be both big and effective. And motivating dozens or even hundreds of organizations to work together — and making sure their work makes a difference — is extremely difficult when no one is clearly in charge (Drier). Terraformers is a startup that helps people eat more nutritious food at low cost through productive and networked backyard gardening, one community at a time. Perhaps with time and wild success, it may become our intention to take charge.

Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult food insecurity challenge. When we reduce food waste, rethink our diets and biofuel choices, help people to shift their diets towards more sustainable directions, and grow more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations, we will have a well-fed human race and a healthier planet. Global environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, rightly states that “an interconnected network of good farms —real farms that provide nutritious food, with social and environmental benefits to their communities” — will feed everyone including the World Food Programme’s estimated 66 million hungry children. Ultimately, a world where no one is hungry and self-sufficiency is reintroduced into communities will move humanity forward and is a future worth creating.

That time a puzzled engineer wanted to solve hunger

After my fourth spacecraft had launched, I felt guilty. My next mission was to create technology to visit Mars yet hunger was still a problem on a degrading Earth. Why didn’t we solve hunger instead? Was I being ungrateful or rightfully puzzled? I understand it is a privilege to contribute directly to the space program. And spacecraft number four was on a mission to measure precipitation, which eventually predicted hurricanes and saved lives. I do not know if that is enough of a contribution to humanity. I know I felt compelled to start a food security organization to obliterate hunger.

I began asking new questions I need help answering. Let’s assume zero hunger – on any planet – is achieved in fifty years: what are the tools to get there? Which ones should we work on now? What if we have all the tools we need? If we grow our own vegetables, will grocery stores stop offering mass-produced spinach? Is the power of collective action an effective strategy for food security? What if we lived in a world where Americans, North Koreans and Venezuelans all had access to clean food? Who benefits? What if food was not an avenue for oppression? If we asked ten different people with ten different philosophies what a perfect world looks like: doesn’t it include greenery and nutritious food to exercise our molars and satisfy our stomachs? Lastly, am I asking the right questions and focused on the right problem? After all, I have always been well-fed.