Community garden organizer Niraj Ray talks about the sustainable and local food movement.

Truly pleasurable eating is enhanced by the knowledge that the agriculture that produced the goods you are enjoying was good to the earth, the producers and eventually you. The increasing momentum of the food sustainability movement has raised many concerns; with critics claiming that “relocalized” food systems can never be as efficient as today’s modern agricultural systems. They claim that the economies of scale, specialization and trade underpinning our current agricultural system produce far more food than a locally sustainable system ever. While these concerns may be legitimate, they stem from confusion in terms. “Local food movement” is an extremely broad and inclusive phrase, evoking everything from sustainable food to some mighty ideas of social justice. It is important to differentiate between local and sustainable food: “local” food is grown close to where it is bought and consumed. Buying locally helps support your local economy, as well as reduce the carbon footprint associated with transporting the food across long distances. “Sustainable” food has a lower impact on the environment by being produced in a socially and ecologically responsible manner. It aims to protect biodiversity, wildlife habitats and protect the health of the community. Sustainability aims to support local farms, but local does not always mean sustainable. Local farms may use chemicals, pesticides or hormones, just as easily as a “non-local” farm, which is why the true key lies in knowing not only where your food comes but how it is grown.

Divine Chocolate is the first fair-trade chocolate company which is owned by its cocoa farmers, giving them a larger voice in the cocoa industry. This ownership and related financial freedom has allowed the co-op to focus on empowering farmers, increasing female participation and embracing environmentally friendly cultivation of cocoa. The resulting cocoa beans are affectionately referred to by the farmers as “papapaa,” which means “best of the best”. This premium cocoa is now sold to chocolate companies around the world. Cocoa trees require very unique environmental conditions to grow- they are limited to hot, rainy, shaded tropical areas within 20o of latitude from the equator. The only possibility for growing cocoa in non-tropical areas would require a greenhouse with intensive inputs, and even then the product would be greatly inferior to the “papapaa.” Instead of trying to create a local cocoa farm, that will inevitably fail from lack of product, we are better off supporting socially and ecologically responsible cocoa farming like that undertaken by Kuapa Kokoo farmers.

Closer to home, we have lots of under-utilized urban areas that can easily be put to work growing different produce. By growing certain crops locally you help tie together the importance of maintaining a healthy local environment on personal and community health. The National Wildlife Federation’s Emerging Leaders Fellowship recently funded a project to install vertical gardens in the J.O. Wilson Elementary School Kitchen Garden in NE, Washington DC. The school falls in one of our capitol’s “food deserts”, and the kitchen garden is the first introduction that many of these kids will have to sustainable, locally grown food. The vertical gardens maximize growing area in limited urban spaces, allowing for a substantial harvest and they are irrigated by rainwater captured in a salvaged 1000-gallon cistern, helping prevent stormwater pollution. Starting this week, J.O. Wilson Elementary will begin hosting one of DC’s 5 inaugural School Garden Markets sponsored by DC Greens, where students will grow, market and sell pesticide-free, local produce and plants from the school garden to community members such as tomatoes, hot peppers, spinach, strawberries, bell peppers, kale and collard greens (all of which are all on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen which highlights the 12 fruits and vegetables grown conventionally that contain the highest levels of pesticides). While the students will not be able to grow any cocoa in the garden, we will be giving out free Divine Chocolate bars with purchases this week, come out and help support the sustainable food movement locally and globally!