With just a few small steps, we can start transforming the suburbs from agricultural wastelands to local food-producing communities.
Suburbia is to food what cable television is to entertainment. Just as people moan about having 800 TV channels and nothing good to watch, the suburbs have spawned hundreds of food options, yet very few of them are fresh, local or healthy. This is strange when you consider that the original theory behind suburban development was that they’d offer the best of city and country living combined. Apparently, very few suburban planners got the memo. Rather than having delicious, country-style foods located within walking or biking distance, most suburban residents have to drive 10 minutes just to get to a McRib sandwich.
We have been very efficient at turning farms into subdivisions and Subways over the past 70 years. The challenge of the next 70 years lies in turning the suburbs back to farms. Of course they won’t be the quaint “cow and a barn” farms of our great-grandparents, but with a little planning, the suburbs can become food-producing landscapes again—and in exciting new ways.
This summer my family and I are embarking on an adventure to do just that. We’ve always grown a garden to feed ourselves, but this year we’re taking it a step further, growing a new suburban farm that my youngest sons, ages 12 and 14, will manage. They plan to start small by selling salad greens to neighbors—delivered by red wagon and bicycle—then scale up to a driveway farm stand when the zucchini and tomatoes start coming fast and furiously.
My sons are lucky because our Maine town recently passed legislation that allows people to sell their homegrown produce to their neighbors. Other towns in our state have gone even further, passing “local food sovereignty” legislation that supersedes state and federal laws and allows for the production and sale of a broader range of home-produced foods. I’m sure these laws will be challenged someday if someone gets sick from eating quiche made from eggs from backyard hens. But hopefully the courts will realize that industrial eggs have spawned many salmonella outbreaks throughout the years—which spread faster among pent-up chicken populations and affect many more people than a neighborhood coop ever could—yet we’ve never outlawed selling eggs produced in factory farms.
With nearly half of America’s 313 million citizens living in the suburbs, we’re going to need to break a lot of new suburban ground to begin to meet even a small part of our food needs from local-food sources. But even more importantly, we’ll need to break with and replace our outdated perceptions of what the suburbs are and should be. I am confident that we can and will because, frankly, we must. Suburbia’s sprawl has been eating up prime farmland and our agricultural heritage for decades. Now it’s time to bite back.
For most teenagers, summer means freedom, but freedom isn’t that interesting when you can’t afford to do or buy anything fun in your free time. So summer also means it’s time to get a job. Most kids our age mow lawns or wash dishes, but we opted for another route: We decided to start a farm stand. This venture was proposed by our parents last year. At first, we felt it was unrealistic, but then we realized that, if the choice was between gardening and washing dirty dishes, our preference was pretty obvious. There were quite a few things to keep in mind when starting out. First, we needed to decide what we were going to sell. We wanted things that were cost-efficient and easy to produce. We decided on salad greens, plants and herbs. We didn’t really need much money to start up the business—about $90 for seeds and supplies—and made back $97 in our first two sales weekends. Our challenge now is reaching new customers, which we’re trying to do with street signs. We plan to spend some of our earnings and save the rest. The first thing on our wish list is a better Frisbee to pass the time when the tide of customers slows.
—Maxim and Sebastian Doiron
You may wonder whether opening a home farm stand is legal. In the Doirons’ town of Portland, Maine, residential zoning ordinances were recently revised to include this provision: “The sale of products produced on the property in excess of what is consumed by the occupants of the property is permitted.” Ordinances vary by location. If you are considering opening a produce stand, check with your municipality first.
• Plant a home kitchen garden if you haven’t already. One of the surest ways of having easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables is to grow them yourself. There is still time to plant a late crop for fall harvesting. See “Maximize the Fall Harvest” to learn how.
• Find some like-minded people in your community and organize them into a locally sourced potluck group. It’s fun to get together each month to inspire and be inspired by each other’s cooking.
• Forget 1990s block parties—organize a neighborhood country fair instead! Plan sack and egg-on-spoon races for kids, and offer prizes for the best locally sourced pies and homegrown veggies.
• If your town or city does not allow sales of home-produced foods, petition your local government to consider updating the code. The Institute for Food and Development Policy, or Food First, is a think tank that carries out advocacy and education on community food development. Visit them at Food First.