By Heidi Blanke, PhD

Onalaska eighth grade students plant asparagus crowns in square foot gardens at the middle school, installed as an eighth grade class project and later cared for by sixth graders.
Onalaska eighth grade students plant asparagus crowns in square foot gardens at the middle school, installed as an eighth grade class project and later cared for by sixth graders.

Photo: Jodie Visker

One hundred years ago, over half of Americans lived in areas where they depended on locally grown foods. Gardens, before the age of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified seeds, were meant to sustain a household and its neighbors.

A growing population and a move away from rural areas changed that local focus. Today, in the typical supermarket, food travels an average of 1,400 miles to reach the consumer. Diets are dependent on cheap, minimally nutritious foods, with two-thirds of adults falling far below the advised level of daily produce intake. We depend on watchdog organizations to protect the definition of organic foods. Without a change in direction, the United States faces a shortage of nutritious foods, especially affecting those at or below poverty level.

There can be a rosier future, thanks to increased environmental and economic awareness, with Hillview among those leading the charge in the La Crosse area. The organization anticipates a healthier region, with enough local produce to sustain a good part of the population. A move like this, away from processed foods, could combat the epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes facing the American population.

In the La Crosse area, community collaborations drive the movement toward sustainable foods through community gardening, school gardens, farmers markets, and institutions, businesses, and restaurants that support local growers. The economic benefit of growing and providing local foods helps keep the area vibrant. Vicki Miller, Hillview president, points out that a growing consumer demand for fresh, local and organic food in its turn creates new markets for urban food production. With growing momentum in the last decade, individuals, organizations, communities and governments have participated in a variety of creative efforts to develop the capacity to raise food in and around communities. Many of these efforts specifically address the needs of urban residents who are living in poverty and consequently are at grave risk for food insecurity—threatened with hunger, poor nutrition and frequent anxiety about not having enough to eat.

As more people become aware of the importance of eating from sustainable sources, those foods will become more affordable and mainstream. This approach is transformative, from the health of an individual to the health of the air, water, and land surrounding us.

Hillview looks forward to the day when everyone in our community has access to healthy food sources, with local growers fully appreciated. The goal is reachable, thanks to the many community members, organizations and businesses that also share Hillview’s mission. Urban agriculture is not some passing fad but a way to ensure that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren understand where their food comes from and how it impacts the world at large.

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