Urban food gardening might seem well-established by now, but it remains an awkward and complex idea here in Warsaw. One can trace many attitudes to another socio-spacial divide between urban and rural, attitudes that quickly emerge in discussions about urban agriculture. I’ve encountered the same opinions and worries about growing food in cities so often, I pretty much know exactly what people are going to say. The status quo is as follows. Growing food in cities is: 1) unhealthy, 2) pointless, and 3) embarrassing. I’d like to address each of these issues.
Growing food in cities is unhealthy. The majority of people I’ve met are convinced that food grown in cities will be poisoned by pollution. Someone even said, though not to my face, that I will die if I eat the food from my raised garden beds. Some people are worried about heavy metals in the soil, but most seem to be concerned with pollution from cars and airplanes.
I understand their concern. That’s why we do soil tests, why we spend so much time building raised beds, making compost, growing cover crops, adding organic matter, even buying manure and dirt. Air pollution problems strike me as very exaggerated. Probably because I moved to Warsaw from Los Angeles, which has the most polluted air in America. I lived in Chicago, where every other vacant lot was a former factory or gas station, and New York City, where there weren’t even many vacant lots left.
Warsaw has only two million people in the entire metropolitan area. Twenty-five percent of the city is parks, forests, and green space. Plants grow out of every crack, and many of them indicate a high level of soil fertility. Not so long ago most of Warsaw wasn’t even a city. As recently as 1950 the spot I’m living on right now, less than two miles from the center of town, was farmland and orchards. There are parts of town that were still cabbage fields in 2003. There are even places, such as some of the “działki”, where nothing was ever built. From my point of view, Warsaw is pristine. (Though it’s true that some parts of the city center are full of rubble from the war, when a shocking 85 percent of the city was destroyed.)
I talk to people about how one can heal the soil with compost and green manures, build raised beds, import clean soil, test the soil, build away from roads, wash the food before you eat it, and most importantly— a nice bit of insight from Nance Klehm—to simply accept, as a city dweller, a little bit of pollution with your food just as you accept it into your body with each breath you take. I talk about how food grown commercially uses a lot of pesticides, that the country isn’t as clean as they think. A friend of mine and I are even planning to go through research at the agricultural university in order to compile all the soil tests that they reputedly have done.
Growing food in cities is pointless. One reason I started growing food and even making bread in Los Angeles was because food was so expensive. I remember being at a bakery with my mom, who bought me a loaf of bread. It was great bread, but it cost ten dollars. Ten dollars? That convinced me to learn how to make bread.
When I told my gardening neighbor here I was growing vegetables he scoffed, “What for? I can buy a carrot for a couple of grosze (pennies).” He’s right. Food is cheap. With the exception of Macedonia, Poland has the cheapest food prices in the EU. So there is little cost incentive to grow food. Organic food, however, is still hard to find and expensive. It’s also hard to find variety (kale, greens) and though imports from far away lands get more numerous every year, the prices are as prohibitive as the taste.
There is also not much of a problem with access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. There aren’t any “food deserts” as far as I know. One can find fruit and vegetable stands all over the place. Ironically, the problem with access to healthy food seems greatest in the countryside. I spent a week in a small village in Eastern Poland and had to forage in the woods to get something green to eat. In the local store, there was only sausage, beer, vodka, bread, junk food, and a couple of rotting apples and carrots.
There is even pretty good knowledge about how food grows. Unlike the UK and USA, you won’t find many kids in Poland who think carrots grow on trees or who’ve never seen a tomato. I’m told that half the residents of Warsaw moved here from the country—the last thing they want or need to know about is how to grow a cabbage.
Most people here believe that the food is still good, and in comparison to the US, they have a point. Fresh produce tastes a lot better here. It’s still for the most part local (in the summer anyway) and seasonal. If you really ask around, you’ll find there are still some farmers who use organic techniques, even if they don’t have the certification. Industrial agriculture came slowly to Poland because farmers resisted collectivization, and with it industrialization. Even today, Poland has more small farms than anywhere in Europe. But this blind faith in the wholesomeness of the food means that people are often in denial or ignorant about how agriculture has changed, how rapidly it is changing, and that it will worsen if they don’t mobilize. There is little knowledge about the heavy use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and monocultures, especially by small farmers, and the disastrous effects they have on the health of the soil and food. Many people have no idea that there are CAFOs in Poland or that the nasty meat producer Smithfield Foods Inc. owns or controls many of their beloved Polish meat brands.
Growing food in cities is embarrassing. The strange logic goes something like this: People who grow food are from the country. People from the country are poor. Thus, people who grow food must be poor. It’s shameful to be poor. Thus growing food is shameful. This is how an American city slicker like me can impersonate a Polish “peasant” just because I have dirty fingernails or carry a shovel. That is until I speak Polish. Then I suddenly become a Ukrainian or Russian peasant, because that’s about all a white person with broken Polish in Warsaw can be.
Another reason why growing food is embarrassing is that it is perceived as old-fashioned. It’s something your parents or grandparents did. In order to understand this, it’s important to understand that for the last twenty-five years Poland has been trying to make up for a half century of what it perceives as lost progress—social, economic, cultural. Many try to distance themselves from its fuddy-duddy past, which means things like conserving resources, riding bikes, growing food, knitting, and sewing.
In the United States fewer and fewer young people are learning how to drive, car ownership is dropping, malls stand empty and abandoned, but here there are more and more cars (doubled in the last 25 years), more and more malls, and more and more consumption. There is already more pollution, obesity, diabetes, and garbage. This tragedy is repeated in many other parts of the world that are in an even earlier stage of the stupid game called Must-Catch-Up.
Growing food in cities somehow manages to ignite all of these worries about health, and value, and shame, but it seems to me to reveal a more fundamental division between the city and country. People don’t want to mix their country with their rock-and-roll. They want farmers (peasants) to be farmers (peasants) and intellectuals (artists) to be intellectuals (artists). If artists grow food or farmers get PhDs, they get discombobulated.
The city is modern; the city is now. The country is antiquated; it is “then.” But the country is also clean and good—happy cows and their keepers in a pre-industrial past. The rural is viewed both as hopelessly nostalgic and as hopelessly backward.
Nobody wants the analogy to be City: Country as Europe: Poland. The appearance of backwardness (poor, rural) becomes the sign that Poland is not European enough. It’s goes like this. You live in a place where your idea of modernity is based on the past success of your rich cousins, and you work hard for twenty-five years to do what they did, to get what they have—to get the roads, and cars, the malls and conveniences, and you finally arrive. “Look!” You show your rich cousins how far you’ve come. But they just look back at you dispassionately and say, “Oh, didn’t you know? Now we’re doing bike paths, green buildings, and recycling.” You can’t win the game of Must-Catch-Up.
I was recently in a meeting with a new group who want to promote urban food gardening in Warsaw. They were talking about the mission and vision of the group and someone said, “to be like Berlin!” People cheered, but it depressed me. Why is the desire to imitate the West still so strong? How can you imitate a place that has completely different social conditions, experiences, and perceptions about space, food and civil society? The imitative impulse gets annoying, but isn’t the trendy arrogance of the West equally annoying? People privilege their own cultures—it’s like a disease you can’t cure yourself of.
Growing food in Warsaw won’t be done for the same reasons it’s done in Berlin or Los Angeles or Todmordon. Maybe here it’s more Space and imaging new ways in which it can be used. It’s about access to and knowledge about local organic food, about learning to accept the country in the city, raising awareness about the realities of industrial agriculture, or just trying new foods. It’s about the social benefits of growing food together and simply appreciating that Warsaw can be a healthy place too, that it has an ecology of its own and we’re part of it.
When Americans leave America they’re called Expats. Once an American always an American: you can never be an immigrant somewhere else. Yet somehow that’s what I’ve become. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. I get tired of trying to understand. I’m dependent on others to help me do very simple things. I find solace in the company of other immigrants, none of them American. I never really feel comfortable. (Though I’ve never really felt comfortable anywhere.)
Through Pixxe’s projects, I’m able to gather evidence empirically in order to understand this new environment. By consuming it and letting it consume me, I’m coming to recognize myself in it and it in me.