Book Review: “Food and the City” by Jennifer Cockrall-King

Image Food and the City, by Jennifer Cockrall-King, may actually be the perfect introductory book for those new to the ideas and movement of urban agriculture.  Cockrall-King is a Canadian freelance journalist, food writer, and foodie.  Her work has appeared in major publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times, and she was co-founder and editor of The Edible Prairie Journal.  She is currently most well known for her book, and it’s no wonder why.  Food and the City is not only informative, but also incredibly inspiring and entertaining.

Cockrall-King starts off by explaining (in just the right amount of depth) the history of how the modern grocery store was born from industrialization and the unequal distribution of power.  She educates the reader about the reality behind the food we eat: overwhelming numbers of “food miles”, pesticides, genetic modification, loss of biodiversity, and so on – all in the name of profit.  As she warns against the nearing of peak oil, peak water, peak land, and even peak micronutrients, Cockrall-King effectively convinces the reader of why our current food system is a huge bomb just waiting to explode.

She then takes us along with her on her world tour, which includes Paris, London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Cuba.  Much of the book reads like a blog of an energetic foodie on an adventure to learn all she can about urban agriculture.  When describing her experiences around the globe, she uses very descriptive and colorful writing, voices her own thoughts from the trip, and includes details such as smells, tastes, and sights of the different fruits and vegetables that she sees to give the reader a sense of the huge variety of plants that exist beyond our knowledge.  She gives color to each individual that she meets by noting even the subtlest characteristics, allowing the reader to empathize and realize that farming is dynamic: each person is vastly different from the next and has their own unique way of doing things.  She also includes photographs from her tour to supplement the experiences that she narrates.  As a result of this writing style, the reader feels like they are right there next to her the entire time.  Her purpose for this may be to immerse the reader deep into the world of urban agriculture so that by the end of the book, they see life through a new perspective and feel as if they have just returned from a long and fruitful journey to a universe where growing your own food is normal and makes complete sense.

Instead of blandly listing the different types of projects and gardening models that are sprouting up around the world, she carefully crafts all of her information into interesting stories.  She places the story of the individual within the larger happenings of the city or country, and shows how things that happen on the national level greatly affect the individual, and vice versa.  One important idea that I got from this book is that everything is connected; there is a reason for why things are the way they are in the cities that we live in, and our lives are shaped by the systems that our governments have put in place.  However, when those systems don’t work, we also have the power to change them.  Cuba is a strong example of how big change comes from the community coming together and having each individual put in their effort to get their country out of a rut.

This book is different from many others in the food/agriculture genre because it is especially positive and motivating.  Cockrall-King introduces programs that have completely altered  communities for the better.   These success stories act as powerful arguments for implementing urban agriculture because they are concrete evidence that local food systems bring much more benefit to the community than commercial food systems do.  They show that when you bring farms into the city and you get the entire community involved, society becomes more wholesome, more alive, more sustainable, and these things cause a positive feedback.  On the other hand, our current industrialized food system causes a negative feedback: poor nutrition, negative environmental impacts, mental and physical health problems, disconnection from nature and food, increased crime rates, and everyone is in bad shape, except for the CEOs of the corporations that control the food monopolies.

A major theme that Cockrall-King stresses is that urban agriculture is not a new idea.  Up until the last century, growing your own food was a part of everyday life, and the fact that we’ve drifted from that rhythm is partially to blame for many of our modern-day problems.  One thing that I especially like about this book is its versatility.  Cockrall-King showcases people from diverse backgrounds, as well as various urban agriculture models that have come about as a result of different needs.  By doing so, urban growing becomes a universal idea that anyone can take part in.  In addition, everyone that reads this book can relate in some way, or find strategies that they can implement into their own lives.

Last but not least, Cockrall-King begins each chapter with a powerful quote that essentially states the chapter’s main lesson.  My favorite is the quote leading into the concluding chapter: “You don’t have to go back to the land, you’re already there,” said Ron Berezan of the Urban Farmer in a personal interview.  To me, that quote perfectly captures the author’s ending message to the reader: that in the midst of the complexity and chaos in the world, the solution to the problem can be found in the soil under your very feet.

ISBN-10: 1616144580
Published 2012 by Prometheus Books

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