Our globalized food system is already feeling the impacts of climate change. Today’s episode shows how decentralizing that food system can help us both be more resilient to extreme weather, and lessen industrial agriculture’s harmful effects. Featuring interviews with urban farmers at Braddock Farms.
Visit growpittsburgh.org to learn more about Braddock Farms and Grow Pittsburgh’s work to teach people how to grow food and promote the benefits gardens bring to our neighborhoods.
Watch the companion We Are Nature video series here.
Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson and Michael Pisano. Field Reporting by Di-ay Battad. Editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Mark Mangini and Amos Levy.
Michael Pisano (00:12):
Welcome to We Are Nature, a podcast about natural histories and livable futures presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano. And today I'm joined by field reporter... Is that what we're calling you?
Deeai Batodd (00:25):
I have no idea.
Michael Pisano (00:27):
And today I'm joined by my good friend, Deeai Batodd. Hi, Deeai.
Deeai Batodd (00:31):
Michael Pisano (00:32):
How are you today?
Deeai Batodd (00:36):
I am fine today. I am fine.
Michael Pisano (00:37):
Today's episode is about food and how food and climate are related. Deeai, you helped report on a couple of stories about urban farming. Today's is all about Braddock. We'll get to that in a second. First, I was hoping that you'd describe your own urban gardening setup.
Deeai Batodd (00:55):
Yeah, so I live in a row house and it is on the corner of a street and kind of an alley. And so I don't have a yard. I just have kind of this patio area. The patio area gets about four hours of sunlight.
Michael Pisano (01:14):
That's not a lot of sun from a traditional gardening perspective.
Deeai Batodd (01:17):
It is not. Absolutely not. But the wall that is facing the alley is south facing, so that gets pretty warm and it has all of the sunlight.
Michael Pisano (01:29):
Deeai Batodd (01:29):
All of it. And so in the patio, I took a bunch of milk crates because I was thinking about square foot gardening and milk crates are approximately a square foot each. And then I lined them with old fabric and T-shirts and things like that. I used to get a lot of T-shirts at work and I don't need all of those. Some of them have holes, I-
Michael Pisano (01:54):
You've only got one torso.
Deeai Batodd (01:56):
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I mean, basically I only need one T-shirt forever.
Michael Pisano (02:02):
As long as it's a good one, yeah.
Deeai Batodd (02:03):
It's a good one.
Michael Pisano (02:03):
What would be on that one T-shirt?
Deeai Batodd (02:05):
I think it would just be a plain one color shirt, like a [inaudible 00:02:10].
Michael Pisano (02:09):
Yeah. I mean, that's my answer too. And it makes me feel like we're in our 30s. That's just where we're at. That's fine. Nothing to be ashamed of. They're one plain colored shirt. Excellent. So anyway, you've got milk crates.
Deeai Batodd (02:21):
Milk crates, lined with shirts. I also put soil in it mixed with some compost, mixed with some other things. I like to use neem meal because aphids... It's really good at being disliked by a lot of pests.
Michael Pisano (02:42):
And it's edible. People take neem oil supplements and stuff, right?
Deeai Batodd (02:46):
Michael Pisano (02:47):
Which I don't personally advocate for. I don't know enough about it, but it's not toxic to you, so it's really great for, I think, not only insects, but also fungal pathogens, right?
Deeai Batodd (03:00):
It's not toxic.
Yes. Yeah, absolutely.
Michael Pisano (03:01):
I mean, how did you get started growing your own food?
Deeai Batodd (03:04):
That's a good question. I like plants. I have a lot of house plants. So I got started because I like plants and I like cool, weird plants and I wanted to grow those, except that I wanted to also eat them.
Michael Pisano (03:23):
Sure. It's one of the best things to do with plants, frankly. I apologize to all our plant listeners, but I love to eat plants.
Deeai Batodd (03:28):
Yeah, plants are great.
Michael Pisano (03:29):
What kind of stuff have you grown in Garfield?
Deeai Batodd (03:32):
I've grown all different kinds of tomatoes. I have grown a couple different kinds of cucumbers, peppers, paprika peppers, habanero, jalapeno, those long green ones.
Michael Pisano (03:47):
Deeai Batodd (03:48):
I don't know. They're long and green?
Michael Pisano (03:49):
Deeai Batodd (03:51):
They're not spicy.
Michael Pisano (03:53):
Okay. Oh, okay.
Deeai Batodd (03:53):
You find them-
Michael Pisano (03:54):
Like Friars or banana peppers?
Deeai Batodd (03:57):
We also have grown banana peppers.
Michael Pisano (03:59):
Deeai Batodd (04:01):
All sorts of things. I'm trying to think if there's anything else. Oh, mini melons.
Michael Pisano (04:07):
Deeai Batodd (04:07):
They get to be like six inches big. You can hold them in your hand. All sorts of lettuces. They're very easy to grow. Different kinds of kale, mustard greens, charred arugula, bok choy and a lot of different herbs, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, sage. Sage is intense.
Michael Pisano (04:33):
Deeai Batodd (04:35):
They just grow and grow and grow and it's just like no stopping it.
Michael Pisano (04:38):
True. It's true. And I've found that it attracts a lot of fun little bees and butterflies.
Deeai Batodd (04:43):
Michael Pisano (04:43):
Same for you?
Deeai Batodd (04:44):
Yeah, absolutely. There's a giant Russian sage plant in the alley and it's around all of the fruiting plants. And the fruiting plants that are next to the sage plant give us more fruits than the ones that aren't.
Michael Pisano (05:04):
Deeai Batodd (05:04):
I think it's because of all of the pollinators that sage attracts.
Michael Pisano (05:08):
I think that's a safe assumption, and a very cool assumption, and a fun segue maybe to one of our main topics for today, which is the main benefits that communities get from local food production. Tell me, how do your neighbors feel about your garden?
Deeai Batodd (05:22):
I water my plants every day when it's hot out. So people pass by it and ask what I'm doing and ask what's growing. I have like 12 paprika plants, which my partner then at the end of the season or throughout the end of the season, he picks the peppers and then turns it into paprika the spice.
Michael Pisano (05:48):
Deeai Batodd (05:48):
Anyway, I've gotten questions about like, "Oh, this is what paprika looks like?"
Michael Pisano (05:52):
Yeah, yeah. It's not just a red dust at the store.
Deeai Batodd (05:56):
Michael Pisano (05:56):
It comes from somewhere.
Deeai Batodd (05:57):
It comes from somewhere. But it's kind of like having a dog that you walk around, where people stop and ask you and say, "Oh, that's really cool." Like people working on things at a neighbor's house, I think it was Verizon, they're working on something, they have ladders, asked me what the peppers were and I said, "Habaneros," because I had those too. They seemed really excited and started telling me about the food that they were eating. And I was like, "I actually don't really spicy food. I just wanted to grow these habaneros. Here, have five."
Michael Pisano (06:37):
Nice, nice. That's awesome.
Deeai Batodd (06:39):
Yeah, so there's this community thing that happens around growing food.
Michael Pisano (06:44):
Yeah. I never have that experience at Giant Eagle. I never stop and talk to anybody about what I'm eating. No, I think that's a really awesome thing to point out. It's by connecting to the world around us we always open up a pathway to connect to other people.
Food has been in the news recently in the sense that it's expensive. There's problems with the supply chain. There's problems from the pandemic and from war and all sorts of global issues. And it's a little bit dark maybe to think about, but I think climate change will similarly be impacting the availability of food for a variety of reasons. And while my relationship with growing food is mostly recreational, if I'm being honest, it does bring me some peace of mind that I have a set of skills. I wonder what you think about when you see that kind of news or when you think ahead about climate change and food. Is this something that you view as a life skill?
Deeai Batodd (07:49):
Absolutely. Starting from before I was born. This topic immediately makes me think of my parents when they were pregnant with me. They were in college. They didn't have that much money. My mom actually dropped out because she got pregnant with me. And I know that they had issues getting enough to eat. And I've been told that when my mom got pregnant with me, my dad planted a garden so that she could at the very least get the nutrients that she needed. I remember my mom saying that she didn't like that, "Oh, the plants were bitter," or something. I don't know. I mean, maybe she was eating some... Kale is bitter.
Michael Pisano (08:41):
It sure is. Yeah.
Deeai Batodd (08:41):
I have no idea what was in the garden. But my dad grew up in an agricultural community where he grew up.
Michael Pisano (08:47):
Deeai Batodd (08:48):
The kids, upon reaching fourth grade, got their own kind of the Filipino version of machetes, bolo knives.
Michael Pisano (08:58):
Deeai Batodd (08:59):
It was these big blades that they carried around for school so that they could learn the whole farming thing.
Michael Pisano (09:03):
Deeai Batodd (09:04):
So he had that knowledge. I don't think he used it. He went to college for math.
Michael Pisano (09:11):
Probably not a lot of knife work there.
Deeai Batodd (09:14):
No, probably not. But when it came down to it, when my parents really needed the food, he was able to grow it. And so that story isn't necessarily directly climate change related, but because of climate change, access to food is a thing that you have to be concerned about. So I think that it is a life skill. It made sure that I am alive, right?
Michael Pisano (09:45):
Yeah, the nutrients from those bitter greens, they were part of what formed you. That's pretty cool. Thank you for sharing that. I think it's a great lead in to today's interviews, which include chats with two young people who themselves are learning how to grow and cook and share food with their families and communities over at Braddock Farms.
Braddock Farms is located 10 miles south of Pittsburgh in Braddock, Pennsylvania. It's notably the site of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, which was the first steel works Andrew Carnegie set up here and is the last one still operating in the region. We've got a great episode about Braddock's history and the steel industry and air quality featuring House representative Summer Lee. That episode's called Steel City, it's like the third one in the feed, and I highly, highly recommend checking it out.
Though today's interviews were recorded in the literal shadow of the steel works, which is just down the street from Braddock Farms, today we'll be skipping steel to focus on farming and food. Braddock Farms was started by Grow Pittsburgh, an org that supports food growing initiatives to improve the social, economic, environmental, health, and educational realities of people in the Pittsburgh region. So let's get started with an introduction to Braddock Farms, courtesy of Deeai and Farm Manager Nick Lubecki.
Nick Lubecki (11:02):
Deeai Batodd (11:09):
Okay, awesome. Hi.
Nick Lubecki (11:10):
Deeai Batodd (11:12):
Introduce yourself. What's your name and what do you do here?
Nick Lubecki (11:14):
Oh, my name is Nick Lubecki and I am the farm manager of Braddock Farm.
Deeai Batodd (11:18):
Can you tell us about the farm?
Nick Lubecki (11:20):
Yeah, so the farm was started in 2007 and we've doubled in size. In 2012, we moved across the street here. This is an urban farm. It used to be a bunch of buildings. There was lots of bricks and everything to get out the soil, and turned it into a productive vegetable farm. So we grow produce here, mostly for sale here in Braddock. Braddock doesn't have a grocery store so we aim to supply the folks who live here with fresh local vegetables.
Deeai Batodd (11:55):
Nick Lubecki (11:57):
And we have a farm store open a couple days a week right here.
Deeai Batodd (11:59):
Great. Do you know about why this farm was started?
Nick Lubecki (12:04):
Why it was started? Yeah, so it was started... A couple things. One, because there is not a grocery store here in Braddock, and then also to provide some activities for high school aged people as well. So we partner with a local community organization called the Braddock Youth Project, and they come out here and they work four days a week on the farms throughout the summer. So they get hands-on work experience on the farm and then they also work the farm stand. Do all sorts of different tasks, trellising tomatoes, harvesting garlic, weeding, harvesting berries, and that sort of things. So they get to see the farm change at peak season, and then at the end of the year we have a taco party, eat some of the vegetables that they helped grow.
Deeai Batodd (12:54):
So why do you think it's important to engage youth in work like this?
Nick Lubecki (12:58):
Yeah. Yeah, there's so many things. There's so many interesting things that happen on a farm. So there's opportunities for excitement for young people. It can be hard being a kid, I remember that. So finding out something cool, a bug, a vegetable, getting passionate about cooking food, whatever it is, there's so many avenues on a farm to find something for you. There's science, cooking, eating food, and celebrating that. So I think that's all that's really important. And just expanding people's horizons, seeing what else there is in the world. And I think it's really important for people to learn where their food comes from and feel a connection to that as well. It can give you a sense of empowerment if you can learn to grow it. Also, it just gives you an appreciation for the earth and environmental and the importance of protecting the environment and those sorts of things.
Deeai Batodd (14:01):
Absolutely. Where do people go for groceries if there's no grocery store around here?
Nick Lubecki (14:07):
Yeah, so there is a dollar store here in town, so they sell a couple things there, and then there's a grocery store up over the hill. So the terrain here, it's flat here in Braddock and it's rutted. It's in a river valley, so it's a really steep hill up, and there is a grocery store a ways away up that way.
Michael Pisano (14:37):
Despite the fact that the US produces an overabundance of food, something like 4,000 calories per person per day, that food is not equitably distributed, meaning that millions of Americans go hungry or are stuck with food that leads to chronic health problems like diabetes or heart disease. As of 2020, pre-pandemic, 15% of Americans were food insecure. Here in Pittsburgh, one in five people are considered food insecure.
Hunger in America has historically been thought of in these terms of food security, which focuses on consistent access to sufficient calories and nutrition. Communities like Braddock that lack fresh groceries have historically been called food deserts, which the USDA defines as a low income tract or a substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store. While food security and food deserts are still useful concepts, they're also being updated to reflect our cultural growth as we grapple with big questions of colonialism and white supremacy and corporate monopoly.
So in place of food security, consider the concept of food sovereignty, which says that humans have a right to healthy and culturally appropriate food, food that's made through ecologically sound methods, and that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food are the ones controlling food production and policy in place of, say, market demands and a corporate food regime.
In place of food deserts, consider the idea of food apartheid. I'll quote the 2020 FeedPGH Report produced by the City of Pittsburgh: In recent years, the term food apartheid has been used in place of food deserts pointing out two facts. First, these are not barren landscapes, but are, in fact, lively active communities. Second, the lack of food options in a neighborhood did not happen naturally or accidentally, but instead as the result of racist policies and economic inequality.
The report goes on to call neighborhoods with challenges to food access "healthy food priority areas", which I kind of like, as a subtle reminder that the solutions are here and they are attainable. One such solution is just to grow more food locally.
Nick Lubecki (16:59):
So being part of that local food movement, I think it can be important. Rather than produce being brought in from across the country and grown with chemicals, just the impact of having more farms like that can change the actual way food is produced in our country and hopefully shrinking that distance with the customers. So it feels like the people buying the food to eat and the people producing it are accountable to each other and we grow food in a way that benefits the community that we're in.
Deeai Batodd (17:40):
These are good answers.
Nick Lubecki (17:41):
Michael Pisano (17:47):
All right, Nick brings up two really important things here. First, food often travels many miles to reach the shelves in American convenience and grocery stores. Over 95% of our fish, shellfish, coffee, cocoa, and spices are from abroad, along with about half of our fresh fruits and fruit juices. The miles they travel has a carbon footprint, sure, and that's important, but also these foods are grown somewhere by someone. Those places and those people are often exploited as big global food corporations seek cheap ingredients and labor.
If we care about human rights and the climate, we can't just export bad practices to be out of sight and out of mind. Also, big agribusiness is harmful to the climate. We got pretty deep into that earlier in the season in the Carbon and Cattle episode. So if you haven't already, give that a listen. The short version is that outdated industrial farming practices emit a lot of greenhouse gases and they make soil less productive for future crops. Industrial monoculture farming makes land less resilient to storms and flooding and fire and it absolutely decimates biodiversity.
Anyway, the other thing that Nick brought up here is about accountability. Local food producers are accountable to your community because it's their community too, and their health is tied up with yours. Over at PepsiCo, which not only makes a gazillion sodas, but also Quaker Oats, Doritos, Naked Juice, Aunt Jemima, Cheetos, Smartfood, Tropicana, and much, much more, the PepsiCo executives calling the shots there don't seem to care much about rates of heart disease or diabetes or microplastics or any of that. They're accountable to shareholders, not customers.
So investing in local food is investing in public health. Conveniently, it's also investing in climate resilience. The pandemic has shown very clearly how fragile a big, globalized, monopoly-driven food system can be. With climate change already disrupting supply chains and workers and successful harvests, shifting our support to buy food from local farmers adds a layer of resilience that insulates communities from hunger.
Coming up, we've got a great example of a city that, when faced with a global supply crisis, invested in their local food system to great benefit. We'll get to that in just a bit. First, another way to be resilient to climate change is just to teach people how to grow food.
Deeai Batodd (20:15):
[inaudible 00:20:16] right.
It's okay. Well, hi, my name is Layla. I am 15 years old and I am a gardener here.
Deeai Batodd (20:24):
Great. And how long have you been here?
I've been here close to almost one year, so not super long.
Deeai Batodd (20:32):
What do you like about working here?
I really like being outdoors and experiencing farming life. Because this is my first time farming and it was just really a fun experience to do. And I also like farming with my friends and stuff.
Deeai Batodd (20:51):
What have you learned since you started farming here?
I learned a lot. I learned a lot about herbs and stuff. And I also learned about different kinds of vegetables and how they help your body. And I've also learned techniques to care for your vegetables, like trellising tomatoes and onions and all that stuff.
Deeai Batodd (21:12):
And why do you think it's important to learn about farming?
I think it's important because we only have so many food resources. So I think if people learn how to farm and grow their own things, number one, they don't have to spend a lot of money on groceries and all that, and, two, it's just good for you, period, to just grow outside of your house.
Deeai Batodd (21:35):
Yeah. Why do you think it's important to grow your own food?
I think it's important to grow your own food because you sometimes just need the experience as well as experience to get for yourself and not having processed foods all the time.
Deeai Batodd (21:51):
Why do you think it's important for younger people to connect to places like this [inaudible 00:21:56]?
I think it's important because people, just to connect with the community, period, and also just getting to know your neighbors around you. But I know some of my friends that do work down here, we all kind of live in the Braddock area, so we all work with each other. And it was just so surprising, because I never knew that I had that many people that I would actually really like in my backyard.
Michael Pisano (22:23):
The pandemic and, I'd argue, the inequities that preceded the pandemic have taken something from us. They've complicated the process of meeting each other, of partnering, of communicating across socioeconomic and cultural and political divides.
It might seem a small thing, but growing food together and sharing food with neighbors is a meaningful way to build community. And ideally, that community includes both human and non-human neighbors. If we don't make those efforts, if we don't meet each other in collaboration, then we will not make it. The climate crisis is as much cultural as it is about emissions and electricity. Here's Farmer Hadassah, who's 17.
Yes, I think gardening is important because it's a skill that, if you're able to, you should learn. You should be able to learn how to grow your own food. It will definitely help you and it's always useful. It's cheaper, in the sense that you don't have to go out to the stores and buy more expensive organic food. Also, it can help out the community, because then more people can get into gardening and they can see the importance of it, especially if the neighborhood that you're living in doesn't really have a lot of fresh food available.
Deeai Batodd (23:40):
Yeah, you just answered like three of my questions.
Deeai Batodd (23:44):
[inaudible 00:23:43]. So what do you like the most about gardening?
I like seeing the results. You plant everything and then watch it grow into... If it's a tomato plant, then see them grow all the way. I like seeing the process too.
Deeai Batodd (24:01):
So do you cook the food that you grow too?
Yes. That really helped. Along with gardening, I could learn how to use certain herbs in the garden as well to make more healthier dishes for my brothers, and everything tastes better because it's fresher.
Deeai Batodd (24:20):
Everything does taste better and it's healthier for you, right?
Deeai Batodd (24:25):
So how does environmental health and the health of people intersect? What are the connections there?
One way we were taught is that a lot of people struggle with health issues, like diabetes, for example, or bad heart conditions. And so if we put it out there that it's very important to use more organic produce, then it can reduce the amount of unhealthy food that we eat. And by going to the gardens and seeing all the healthy food, we can see how important it is to take care of our bodies as well.
Deeai Batodd (25:05):
Why do you think it's important to get younger people, youth, people like you, to be involved in projects like this?
I feel like there's a lot of misconceptions around farming, like if you farm, then you're kind of lame, or, well, the history involving farming, for example. A lot of people may be like, "Oh, I don't want to mess with that," or it's just for a certain group of people to do, or it's just too hard, the end result's not that good. But I think it's very important for the youth to get involved so that they can understand where their food comes from and to learn to not take granted of the food as well.
Deeai Batodd (25:46):
Absolutely. What are some of the things you've learned here?
Oh, I've learned a lot. I've learned how to identify a lot of plants. I've learned, for example, that lemon balm actually helps with a lot of issues from depression to anxiety to, actually, sleeping issues. I also learned that, like I said, there are a lot of local gardens; and everybody kind of shares the same mindset, that this is important; and that I see a lot more people get involved in the community, and I see that they're starting to understand the importance of gardening and taking care of their physical health. Also mental, but I don't really know how much gardening will help with mental health. I mean, I know it's something that for some people it can give them a peace of mind. It's something that they can just focus on, and this is the one thing that they can see grow the right way.
Deeai Batodd (26:45):
Yeah. Well, you can speak for yourself. How do you think it helps your mental health?
It helps me get out the house more. Being cramped in, especially with the pandemic going on, it's one way I feel like I can help the community give back, especially seeing how everybody is having a hard time right now. And some people may not be as fortunate to afford food, for example, so this is one way that we can do that.
Deeai Batodd (27:10):
How's it make you feel to be doing the work that you do here?
It makes me feel excited. Because the first summer I came, I was nervous. I was like, "I don't know what I'm going to do," and I was kind of lazy about going outside. But the more I come back outside and visit the farms and just the programs in general, I see how important it's to take care of the community in a way that I can. And so it makes me more willing to hear ways of how to help the community and help myself and others around me.
Michael Pisano (28:14):
At the start of the 1990s, Cuba was in a tough spot. Decades of trade embargoes from the US had made the island reliant on the Soviet Union for gas, fertilizer, pesticides, and other essential imports for growing food, specifically an industrial scale. So when the USSR fell and those imports ceased, Cuba was faced with a food shortage crisis. Fortunately, Cuban scientists and officials had been preparing for this kind of scenario for almost 20 years. They'd been testing ways to produce food on the island without reliance on imported petrochemical inputs. The result of these experiments was the organoponicos, which began rolling out in the City of Havana in 1991.
Organoponicos used raised bed gardening, no synthetic fertilizer or chemical pesticides, and lots and lots of compost to grow high densities of vegetables in small urban plots. The state provided a lot of initial materials, education, and extension services for things like soil testing and biological pest management, but organoponicos spread quickly through grassroots community support, knowledge sharing, and worker collectives.
In 1998, seven years after that first urban farm, Havana was producing 180,000 tons of food per year. By 2008, that had skyrocketed to 3.4 million tons of food. That meant that 90% of Havana's produce was being grown within the city on more than 87,000 acres of land cumulatively. In later years, Havana's organoponicos were producing up to 100% of all the fresh vegetables for a city of more than 2 million people.
Access to healthy, fresh food has resulted in better human health for the people of Havana. This is amplified by the fact that Havana banned chemical pesticides and fertilizers within the city, which means less pollution, and by the fact that local food availability has reduced the amount of car travel in the city. The emphasis on urban farming has reduced energy and fossil fuel use. It's created jobs. It's improved water and waste management practices, including a huge composting infrastructure that provides all of the necessary nutrients for growing future crops. That kind of closed loop system in which food waste and garden trimmings are turned into next year's harvest removes reliance on harmful synthetic fertilizer and reduces the considerable methane emissions from food and organic waste rotting in landfills.
Havana has also been celebrated by urban agriculture experts for protecting and encouraging biodiversity in their food. Traditional crops like arrowroot and yam had become more rare while Cuba's agriculture relied on industrial farming inputs and practices from the Soviet Union. Now, preservation of these endemic plants not only means preservation of Cuban culture, but also makes the food system and ecosystem of Cuba more resilient to the variables of climate change.
This emphasis on local plants is kind of a big deal to me. When we take pride in local food, and here I mean not only food grown locally but also native food species, we connect to the history of relating to our landscape. Big agribusiness neglects the endemic because big agribusiness's infrastructure has been designed around specific cash crops, like corn, soy, rice, and wheat.
But local plants are special. They're special because of culture, because of our interest and history and legacy and learning from the past and conserving it. In addition, growing native plants supports other native life from bacteria and fungi to pollinators, to birds, to fish, to bigger animals, all the way up to us. We need diverse food for human health and the planet needs diverse life for ecological health. These things are inextricably connected.
Growing food is an important way to connect human life to non-human life. It's a reminder that we are nature and importantly that food is nature too. So what does this have to do with Braddock? As Nick mentioned, the land Braddock Farms grows food on was not so long ago a row of vacant buildings.
At its peak, around 1920, Braddock had a population of 20,000 people living in a town that's less than a square mile big. Today, its population is less than 2,000 people. That means there's lots of vacant land in Braddock. It's the same all across the Rust Belt and all across America. There is unused space in need of some TLC. According to a NASA study from 2005, Americans also have over 60,000 square miles of turf grass. That's about the size of Texas, and it makes grass the most commonly grown irrigated crop in the country. We're going to talk about that at length in a future episode.
The point here is that we have space in America to make decentralized local agriculture flourish. These local farms don't all have to look the same way. They can embrace the wonderful diversity of ways that people know how to grow food, in forests or with aquaculture or with vertical farms. This diversity of land use will help restore habitat for humans and non-humans.
This diversity of diet will make humans healthier. Local farms means local foods that people actually want. Local farms mean more local green space with opportunities for people to learn and grow and become connected with each other, with the non-human world, and with community.
A lot of this can be done with grassroots support, neighbors sharing seeds and knowledge and surplus from their gardens. And in America there are already plenty of NGOs, like Grow Pittsburgh, that help this process along. A little bit of additional government support could also go a long way, for example, winding down the subsidies that prop up industrial agriculture and redirecting that to support communities building out their local food systems.
You might be saying, "Sounds great. How can I help?" I hope you are. Together, we can assert that healthy, diverse food is a human right, and we can make that assertion through action. It's the best way to assert. We can convert our grass lawns from manicured monoculture to productive polyculture. We can do that in our own yards, but, even better, we can do it in collaboration with our neighbors. We can help people who already are transforming public and vacant land into oases for food and bugs and birds and human sanity.
The landscapes that we manage can support biodiversity, which in turn makes us healthier and more resilient. As consumers, we can spend less at the grocery store and more on locally produced food, especially places like Braddock Farms that educate and sustain people in learning about food, culture, history, and community. As citizens, we can push our politicians to embrace policy that moves away from the outdated and fragile monoculture and monopoly-driven food system. We can vote for people who agree that a healthy diet and a healthy planet are more important than corporate profits.
We can cast off the cultural norms and arbitrary traditions and marketing ploys to embrace better ways of being human. In exchange, we'll have fresher food, healthier lives, and happier communities.
Deeai Batodd (35:53):
What are some of the strengths of this community?
Oh, strengths of the community? The ability and the determination to all come together and for a lot of great minds to come up with plans to help improve the community. And one way I see right now they're doing is by the gardens or free stores or free fridges. And I feel like if we really put our minds to it, then we can also come up with a way for this community to contribute less to climate change. Although I don't really know how much just one community can do, but I feel like just the effort is good.
Deeai Batodd (36:43):
Yeah. What do you know about climate change?
Climate change? I know that it's very real, and that if we do not take the proper measures in order to reduce the amount of electricity and the amount of gas that we emit, then the earth is going to be in trouble very quickly. I mean, the earth is already in trouble, but if we don't pick a plan and stick to it, then we're going to be in trouble.
Deeai Batodd (37:12):
Yeah, I think you got that right. How do you think projects like this can help contribute to limiting climate change?
If we have a local garden, then it's easier for people to just come here and buy produce instead of traveling very far and emitting a lot of carbon in the air.
Deeai Batodd (37:31):
Yes. How will climate change impact how we pursue happiness?
Oh. I feel like, as I said earlier, if we don't care about the earth, which is our home, then we're going to be miserable. Because it'd be a lot harder, and... Sorry, I haven't been talking about climate change in a while.
Deeai Batodd (38:00):
No, you're good.
Deeai Batodd (38:02):
When you think about climate change, what do you think about? This is very open-ended.
I think about the water, like the ocean level's rising. I think about it getting a lot hotter and influencing the air. If there's already a lot of pollution in the air and then you have a bad environment where it's just all this gas going up in the air, it makes it harder for people to breathe too. So that would affect our happiness because we would also be physically affected.
Deeai Batodd (38:39):
What is something that gives you hope for the future?
This garden, for example, gives me a lot of hope that as it continues to grow more people can get involved into the program and we can teach more people about the importance of gardening, farming, and the importance of really making sure to take care of your physical health as well, because that's very important. And by this program, I think that a lot more people will come by.
Deeai Batodd (39:09):
Do you have anything to say for people who are maybe feeling a little hopeless about the future because of climate change?
There are a lot of people out there that do know about climate change and are trying to come up with ways for us to reduce the effects of climate change. And I think that a simple Google search, watching some videos, that will also help. Just like in science class, we're learning how to reduce our carbon footprints. So something like that, just the small stuff, helps as well.
I think that as long as you make sure you do your part, then naturally, of course, you can spread the information to other people and then they can... I mean, some people are not as willing to, but hopefully they'll want to do the same thing too if you persuade them like, "Hey, we're all going to die if we don't do that."
Deeai Batodd (40:05):
I like that.
I think that if we want to learn how to make sure we can reduce climate change, or what's the importance of gardening, then we should be willing to not only just look it up, because it's one thing to say, "Okay, I know all the facts," but to be more willing to get into it. I know I may be too hot, because it was really hot those summers, but you got to also put in the effort.
Michael Pisano (40:45):
Here's Farmer Layla, who's 15.
Deeai Batodd (40:52):
Why is it important to listen to younger people about climate change?
I think they should listen because we young people, we have seen what climate change can do. And I think older people like to doubt younger people's minds just because we are young, but we do know a lot of things, and a lot of useful things, and I think we could teach a thing or two to older people about climate change. So I really do think they should listen.
Deeai Batodd (41:20):
What's something that gives you hope for the future in regards to climate change?
Gardens like this give me a lot of hope that we will change and that people will start to see that it's real, it's happening, and we're still trying to do things, and we're still trying to work.
Deeai Batodd (41:39):
Why do gardens like this give you hope for the future?
They kind of give me hope because just the environment as well as people working outdoors and actually getting outdoors and doing things. So it just gives me a lot of hope that other people can start to follow and things can change.
Deeai Batodd (41:58):
Do you have a message for people who are feeling kind of depressed and hopeless about climate change?
Have a little bit of hope. I know it's hard, but we'll make it through this together. We're trying to engage people to understand that things are happening, and it's a very slow process, but we're almost there. Be hopeful.
Deeai Batodd (42:23):
Amazing. Anything else you'd like to say? Anything you'd like to say about this program or do you want to convince people to [inaudible 00:42:32]?
Go outside. Go outside and appreciate nature for what it is, because it's really nice and beautiful and great, and don't stay on your phone all day. Just go outside, look at the sky, look at the trees, look at the leaves. It's great. Just try it.
Deeai Batodd (42:46):
Michael Pisano (42:55):
As we wrap things up for the day, I just want to make something really clear. I do not think we should outlaw grocery stores or shoot all the Doritos and Velveeta into the sun. At this point in American society, people rely on supermarkets. People need low cost foods that won't expire. I still need a pantry full of dry pasta and canned beans and a backup jar of chili crisp in order to feel safe. And we still need ways to move food over great distances, especially for aid, for situations like this past year's monsoon flooding in Pakistan, or drought in East Africa, or hurricanes in Puerto Rico. But if we want to prevent an escalation of these disasters, if we want to offer actual long-term relief to the people affected by floods and fires, then we have to change our ways to curb climate change. It makes a difference to the climate and to human resilience to decentralize the food system as much as possible.
Food access is a lot like climate change. It's a complex problem encompassing questions of science, culture, history, and ethics. With both food access and climate change, I suggest that we invest in intersectional solutions. By that, I mean invest in solutions that simultaneously improve our quality of life and address the factors driving climate change.
Climate change, adaptation, and mitigation are often painted as restrictive, as taking something away, as a sacrifice. Unless you're an oil baron or a coal-fired power plant or a Congaree corn syrup factory, this simply does not have to be the case. Supporting a decentralized local food system means healthier diets and healthier local economies. It means that our access to food is resilient to global supply chain disruptions. And it also means less demand for food produced via industrial methods that require huge fossil fuel energy inputs and create climate harming pollution and emissions.
Diversifying the way we use land to include greater biodiversity means, again, healthier diets. It means healthier minds that benefit from life in a greener landscape. It means reconnecting to where food comes from and connecting to each other. It also means more habitat for non-human life that run our ecosystems and keep them resilient against collapse as the climate changes.
By ensuring that all people have access to healthy, hopefully locally produced food, we can reconnect to ourselves, our human and non-human neighbors, and our land. Those connections are all essential to build as part of the fight against climate change. If we're healthy and we're together, we're more resilient and we're empowered to make the changes that we need to move forward.
Special thanks to Layla, Hadassah, and Nick for chatting about Braddock Farms. If you're interested in learning how to grow food, cook food, work together with other gardeners, or you're just looking to pick up some farm fresh produce, check out Grow Pittsburgh at GrowPittsburgh.org. And if you're in Pittsburgh, we have plenty of excellent local food projects to support with your time or money or both. If you're interested in helping with food access and addressing food waste, volunteer with 412 Food Rescue, or your local food bank, or see if you can contribute to a local food or seed pantry at your local community center. If you're interested in an excellent meal that supports resilience in our local food system and supports the local economy, we've got so many farmers markets, just Google it.
Thank you to Deeai Batodd for their reporting on today's episode and for being a great pal for almost 20 years. We'll hear from them again later in the season. Thank yous are, of course, also in order for Taiji Nelson, Sloan MacRae, Bonnie McGill, and Nicole Heller at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The music in today's episode was made by two of my most talented friends, Mark Mangini and Amos Levy. They also made the music for We Are Nature's companion video series, which is linked to in the show notes. Until next time, here's just a little snack to keep you tided over and thinking about good food.
In a garden, food arises from partnership. If I don't pick rocks and pull weeds, I'm not fulfilling my end of the bargain. I can do these things with my handy opposable thumb and capacity to use tools to shovel manure, but I can no more create a tomato or embroider at trellis in beans than I can turn lead into gold. That is the plant's responsibility and their gift, animating the inanimate. Now, there's a gift.
"People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, 'Plant a garden.' It's good for the health of the earth and it's good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate. Once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself. Something essential happens in a vegetable garden. It's a place where if you can't say 'I love you' out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans."
That was Robin Wall Kimmerer from her beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. I've been and hope to remain your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.