Urban Farming Doc Inspiring, But Glosses Over Deeper Challenges of the Sustainable Food Movement

Film Review: Growing Cities

Urban Farming has certainly hit it big. It has a Macarthur Genius (Will Allen), a proponent in the white house (Michelle Obama), and, now, a suite of films promoting its virtues. As an urban farmer, and one who’s been interviewed for some of these films (full disclosure, including the subject of this review), I should be excited. And I am! Like so many others, I got into urban farming because I saw in it a political act to confront many social, ecological, and economic crises at once. Starting with local communities where people are — the city — we could challenge the dominant industrial food system and construct a viable alternative.

Ohio urban farmPhoto courtesy MMW Horticulture GroupThe Ohio City Farm is one of the country’s largest contiguous urban farm at nearly 6 acres. Growing Cities is well-intentioned, but it largely ignores the issues of race, capitalism, and political antagonism.

To see these hopes and values that got me into urban farming being spread across the country is promising. Growing Cities, one of the most recent documentaries to focus on the resurgence of urban farming in the United States, does a great job of exhibiting, explaining, and extolling this promise.

The film starts with a quote from Abraham Lincoln that — were you to not know who said it — you might attribute to a revolutionary. The quote claims that no community with the skills of growing food can be subjected to oppression. This is the underlying belief that motivated me, like so many others, to pursue urban farming as a political act. Yet, outside the appeal of this idea, the question remains: was Lincoln actually right?

Growing Cities presents clearly the motivations of urban farmers, the environmental and social stakes involved in changing the dominant food system, and the ways in which urban farming might truly form a solution. In making their film for a wide American audience, director Dan Sussman and company chose to focus on the positives of urban farming, occasionally glossing over some of the deeper challenges, complexities, and contradictions of the movement. This is understandable: as any documentary filmmaker knows, something must be left on the cutting room floor, and an hour and half is never much time to cover the full complexity of any real human issue.

For someone new to urban farming, the film offers plenty of new ideas to chew on and inspiration to act on; it is meant to draw newbies in, and I’m sure it will do just that. But for veteran urban farmers like myself, long committed to urban farming, the film only scratches the surface of the issue.

There are three issues that I felt were missing, which relate to the veracity of the Lincoln quote. Can urban farming create a ‘sustainable food system’ and ‘strengthen communities’ (two of the claims repeated in Growing Cities) if it doesn’t address the racial character of inequality in the food system and our society at large, the counter-sustainability tendencies of capitalist economies, or the reticence of those who currently profit from the existing food system to allow decentralized, community-based alternatives to flourish?

These issues (race, capitalism, and political antagonism) are largely ignored in the film, though to the filmmakers’ credit, they make sure to include advice to would-be urban farmers from privileged backgrounds (namely, young white middle class do-gooders) that they should seek to support poorer communities of color in their own work rather than patronizingly decide what those communities need. The film’s final message that Americans should “grow where you are” and participate in this movement by starting in their own communities is one that is essential to any advocate seeking to expand the ranks of urban farmers. The movement doesn’t need self-righteous, outsider idealists: it needs relationship-based community builders.

The one question the filmmakers do ask skeptically of urban farming is whether it is “here to stay,” or is just a response to historically bad economic conditions, a pattern the filmmakers notice when surveying the past 100 years of urban farming cycles, related to world wars and economic downturns. This is an important question, and indicates the way that urban farming has in the past both tangibly helped communities facing tough times, at the same time that it has failed to undermine the ultimately unsustainable status quo of industrialism, race and class based inequality, and profit-driven urban development.

In the end, we have to accept that different forms of media are needed to create change in the food system. People need to start somewhere, and most people in the USA are probably in need of the kind of “urban farming primer” offered by Growing Cities.

Just as it is naïve to expect rooftop tomatoes to solve the food system’s problems, it is naïve to expect most Americans to jump right into a critique of capitalism, or to make the connection between racism and federal farm policy. I just hope that Dan (or someone) follows up the valuable contribution of Growing Cities with films that challenge us not to seek overly-simple solutions to complex and multi-layered problems. The food movement needs documentaries that illuminate how food system dysfunction is unavoidably political, and introduce audiences to the kinds of sophisticated and long-term political organizing needed to combat that dysfunction.

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