Book Review: Digging the City by Rhona McAdam

Like other titles in the very readable manifesto series published by Rocky Mountain Books, Digging the City is an eye-catching, brain-expanding, well-balanced read. The description of our global, price-driven, nutrient-poor, energy-intensive food industry could be overwhelmingly depressing, but Rhona McAdam carefully outlines steps each of us can take to improve food safety and security. Citing the success of war-era Victory Gardens, current day allotment gardens in England and widespread, organic urban agriculture in Cuba, she makes the case that we all have the right to good food. And we all have a role to play in the supply of good food, whether we grow a pot of fresh herbs on our counter, a container of tomatoes on our deck or we’re ready to build, plan, plant, nurture and harvest a raised bed vegetable garden.

A few short excerpts describing the challenge:

  • Our food systems – our ability to grow and process foods of all kinds – [are] truly under attack from every direction. The really awful fact [is] that there [is] no one enemy: the problems [are] systemic, interlocking and terminal. (p 16)
  • Wherever possible [today] our foot must be grown and produced in ways that maximize its durability, storage and profit-making potential rather than its flavour and nutrition. Feeding ourselves is no more than a biological process that should ideally be executed, start to finish, in less than 30 minutes. (p 21)
  • …we city dwellers have accepted the lie that we haven’t time to feed ourselves. We’ve given up our right to eat good food at a pace leisurely enough to build social bonds, taste what we’re eating and give ourselves time to digest it. (p 21)
  • …the majority of us have no idea what the ecological consequences of our food choices are, either for the people who grow the food now or for future generations who must live on the land we leave them. (p 23)
  • [Between] growing, watering, processing and transporting food, producing one calorie of food costs us anywhere from a 7:1 to a 10:1 ratio in energy consumed. (p 46)

Most the book is dedicated to steps we can take to improve Canada’s food security:

  • Municipalities have a vested interest in promoting locally produced foods in order to create viable local food economies, improve local food safety and work toward an abundant food future. (p 36)
  • We also need to integrate a national food trade to assure a year-round supply of good fresh food. We live in a very large, climatically challenging country that is simply not suited to growing all food types in all regions through all seasons. (p 51)
  • [W]hatever does or doesn’t get done by our governments and leaders, we individual citizens always have choices. (p 144) Making the “right” choice for feeding our future will take time and energy. McAdam describes how school gardens, community gardens and community cooking programs are essential components at the municipal level. Individually, we can incorporate edible gardening into our front-yard landscapes, add vegetable patches to our backyards, eventually replace ornamental trees with fruit / nut trees, plant food (rather than petunias) in some of our containers and even consider extending the Canadian growing season with the use of cold frames (no outside energy source) or greenhouses (connected to an outside energy source). Those living in condos and apartments can try small container gardening and join a community gardening program.

Our youngest son attends a school that has joined forces with the local community association to run a community gardening program. The students are involved in planning and planting some of the garden plots. Community members water, weed and nurture the plots during the six-week summer break. And students return to school in time to help with the harvest (and share the fruits of their labour with community members). I hope we’ll see more programs like this as schools across the country increasingly focus on student comprehensive wellness.

I’ve identified several personal action items as a result of reading this book:

  • Share my renewed enthusiasm for urban gardening with neighbours and friends by passing along leftover seeds / a portion of this year’s harvest. I might even suggest this book to my neighbourhood book club;
  • Resume composting (it’s a long story);
  • Supplement my raised vegetable beds with potato condos, containers and maybe a vertical pallet garden so I can grow more food; and
  • Follow-through on a couple of bee-related “to do” items (put out bee nests/boxes and plant some extra carrots, beets and parsnips that can go to seed in the fall and provide late-season bee food).

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars. This is a quick and informative read. If you like to eat, you owe it to yourself to learn more about why it’s worth giving some thought to food security. And it’s quite likely that McAdam will plant at least a few ideas in your mind – small steps you can take to improve your food choices. You may even be inspired to try growing some (more) food!

RECOMMENDED: For those with an interest in food safety, nutrition, wellness, food security, gardening, how gardening can help build community and/or becoming more self-sufficient.

RMB Manifestos are “meant to be literary, critical and cultural studies that are provocative, passionate and populist in nature. The goal is to encourage debate and help facilitate change whenever and wherever possible.” Currently, the collection includes about a dozen titles, some of which I’ve borrowed from my local branch of the Calgary Public Library. Rocky Mountain Books kindly sent me another half-dozen or so for review (including this one).

If you’d like to read more from Rhona McAdam, you can find her on facebook, her blog, or on Twitter @iambiccafe.

I’d like close by posing this question from page 95. If food isn’t worth making noise about, what is? I’m ready to make some noise! Are you?

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